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i tried out a paid book recommendation service - round 1

  So for a little while I’ve been interested in trying out this paid book recommendation service. Tailored Book Recommendations, or TBR, is a service from Book Riot where you can pay to regularly receive book recommendations. TBR is $18 every 3 months, assuming you sign up for the recommendation-only plan. There are more expensive plans where they actually send you the books along with the recs, but I’m not interested in those at the moment.
  The price works out to roughly $6 per rec; how worth it that price is kinda depends on whether the recs are good, I suppose, and how much value you place on a good recommendation. I personally think there’s a lot of value in having a human on the other end of a recommendation vs an algorithm. You can tell a robot you like something, but not why you like something, which is a big factor in whether or not you’ll like something similar. There’s also the matter of content warnings. I trust a human being to warn me about specific content more that I trust a robot, especially considering a lot of book websites don’t really prioritize providing them. I don’t personally need warnings for trauma reasons, but there is still certain content I prefer to avoid or at least be prepared for ‘cause it can ruin my day. I have a problem with getting fixated on things that bother me so it can very much be an all-day or several day incident.
  I also feel like it’s not really productive to go into a book with content I already know I don’t like, especially if it’s something I might review. Like, if I go into a book that is about sexual assault & handling the fallout, and I say “yeah I didn’t like it because I don’t like reading about sexual assault,” is that fair or helpful critique? I don’t really think so. I think it’s better to focus on books that I think I will (at least on some level) enjoy. I like giving books the best chance possible, because it reduces my chances of wasting my time on a book. I used to throw myself at a lot, and beat myself up when I didn’t want to finish books that sucked, but wouldn’t let myself give up or read anything else until that book was done. This wasn’t a super healthy habit! I’m much more mercenary now with dropping books I don’t like. I read a lot more and I enjoy a lot more of what I read.
  What were we talking about again? Oh yeah, paying for book recommendations.
  Now, I am somewhat expecting the first round to flop. It might take a bit for my assigned book person to figure out what my whole deal is. After I review the first batch they can refine their approach. I plan to try the service for at least a year unless the recs are egregiously bad. I would prefer an option to receive recs every month vs quarterly, as it would help me decide more quickly if I want to stay on with the service (and would also be more fun). There is the drop-in recommendation service where you essentially just buy another round of recs but it’s not automatic the way getting sent your recs normally is.
  All we have to do now is wait for the first batch to arrive.

First Impressions

  My first set of recommendations came in 11 days. They are:
  The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones, because I wanted to read slashers; Direwood by Catherine Yu, because I wanted to read vampires; and The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older, because I wanted to read happier books with queer characters & enjoyed cozy mysteries.
  I’m admittedly a little bit skeptical of what I’ve been given, but not as skeptical as I was originally thinking I’d be. I’m most familiar with the work of Stephen Graham Jones. His Indian Lake series is on basically every “if you like slashers read this” list, along with Grady Hendrix’s Final Girl Support Group, both of which I’ve ruled out for content warning reasons. There was an offhand rec of the Indian Lake series & his new thing coming out, I Was a Teenage Slasher. As a side note, I think there could possibly an argument for increased financial value given the sort of “bonus recs” offered here, but that’s a discussion for later. At present, I’m a little on edge given that I had ruled those other books out, but I think it’s significant that those were not the main recs & instead that spot was given to The Last Final Girl, which I did check and it seems to be in the clear, along with the other 2 books recommended.
  The premise of Direwood sounds alright, I suppose; my main point of contention is that it’s YA. I haven’t read YA in ages and I worry about how it will hold up. I’m just not in the target demographic anymore, y’know? It might be the case where I would have really liked it in high school but reading it here and now is not my vibe.
  I’m a tiny, tiny bit annoyed I got a cozy, since while I did mention I like them I did not ask for any, but I do see why it was on the list considering I did ask for queer characters. To be clear, I would like to read more cozies with queer characters, it’s just that out of all the genres I enjoy, that’s the one where I’m most likely to organically find stuff I’m looking for since I read it so often. But hey, if it’s good I’m not gonna complain too much.

The Books

The Mimicking of Known Successes

  Started with this one because it had a fairly short audiobook readily available from my library. This was perhaps a mistake, not because the narrator or the book itself is bad, but rather there’s some sci-fi worldbuilding here that I just can’t entirely absorb through audio. Like, the details just don’t stick in my brain as well. I had to place a hold on a written copy to skim through & fully organize my thoughts.
  Overall, it was alright. A decent mystery, with a nice romance. Not really something I’d pick up on my own, but enjoyable nonetheless. I liked the characters just fine. I’ll probably read the next one.
  Some of the worldbuilding is… interesting. This is a sort of post-post-apocalyptic world. Earth has been environmentally destroyed, so humans fled to space. They now live on floating colonies above Jupiter. “Classicists” such as main character Pleiti, study Earth & its older ecosystems, in the hope that they can fix the damage done to Earth and someday return there. There’s talk here and there about the problems of old Earth, and how it got so bad. There’s a scene where Mossa, the investigator, remarks that a ticketing system would make tracking the suspect easier and Pleiti is appalled at the idea of making people pay for railcar travel (Mossa is, to be fair, also not keen on the idea of paying). The idea of charging for such an essential service is cruel and unthinkable to Pleiti, but this is also a world where people still pay for food. Perhaps further books in the series will dig into this contradiction more.
  I’ll also say that the most interesting worldbuilding details are weighted more towards the latter half of the book, which is technically not a big deal since the book is so short. But, were the book not so short, and were I not so dedicated to finishing it for the sake of doing a write-up, I might have passed on the book early. I simply don’t find sci-fi as-is terribly compelling, so there has to be a big hook to get me invested. Plus it had a sort of steam-punk vibe towards the beginning, which having finished the book I don’t think fully describes the vibe it’s going for, but it was enough to put me off the book to a certain extent.


  This book was almost fine. Almost. But it had some big issues.
  So Direwood is about a girl named Aja who has a perfect wonderful sister that everyone loves more than her named Fiona, and one day her perfect wonderful sister goes missing. Soon a few other teens go missing too, & Aja finds out why. A vampire approaches her and asks her to leave with him, and Aja decides to go along because she thinks she can find her sister & rescue her. Padraic, the vampire, makes a bargain with Aja that she can leave in seven days. Padraic lives in an abandoned church with another vampire, Kate, who has enslaved two of the missing teens. Fiona & the third missing teen are nowhere to be found, so Aja’s gotta find them and get everyone out before it’s too late.
  So, praise first: the vibes are there. It’s described as a ‘90s gothic, and it pulls that off pretty well. We got:

  • vampires
  • creepy churches
  • flowy white gowns
  • monstrous yet charming mysterious men
  • women who aren’t even really in the story much but whose presence permeates every part of it regardless
  • brides in the attic basement

  The works. So if you are looking for vibes, you might as well give it a go.
  However, the vibes are thrown off by a few things.
  The writing style towards the beginning of the book is... how do I put this? It reminds me of a very specific kind of fanfiction, where you have these character study type deals, and it bounces from point-in-time to point-in-time just going on about a character’s thought processes in a Very Specific Way. It’s hard to describe unless, but if you know you know. Probably. This specific writing style becomes less prominent over the course of the book but never fully dissipates.
  You also have to deal with a lot of talking about Fiona and how special and wonderful she is. It’s understandable, from a story standpoint I get it, but to a calloused only child like myself it all got really annoying really fast. It would have maybe been a bit more tolerable if we had gotten more glimpses in Fiona’s actual inner life, more to enforce that this facade of Fiona that Aja had built up in her head was just that, but this doesn’t really begin to come up until the end, and when it does it still feels like a fairly shallow look.
  As for less frivolous gripes, I don’t feel like it went as deep with its themes as it could have. There’s clearly a solid foundation here for various themes such as suburban racism, maintaining facades of perfection, cycles of abuse, cult deprogramming, et cetera, but none of them feel as fleshed out as they could be or hit as hard as they could. A lot feels kinda surface-level, not really getting enough page time to really be dug into. I don’t think it completely flops, to be clear; there’s still a lot going on here worth exploring, the pool is just ever-so-slightly shallower than I would prefer it to be.
  he ending is also bad. We’re building to this big climax of “okay we’re finally gonna kill the vampires,” along with there being something spooky in the basement. Surprise! It’s Fiona! She was a vampire this whole time, and she was the spooky thing in the basement. She kills the two vampires like it’s nothing then starts working her way through the humans until Aja kills her.
  From a certain standpoint I get it. There is a poetry to Aja coming all this way to save her sister only to have to kill her at the last moment. But it’s so anticlimactic. The existing threats are just completely tossed aside at the last second. It’s also a really bland answer to the spooky basement question.
  I also feel like it takes a lot of the agency away from the characters. Yes, Aja does kill Fiona in the end, but after spending so much of the book feeling like her agency has been overrode by Mary & feeling like she’s not doing enough to help her sister, the main problem (Padraic & Kate) is just dealt with for her. I don’t think killing Fiona makes up for that. Noah, one of the enslaved teens, is also disempowered by the plot twist; after finally getting to a point where he can regain his senses and help, some new shit happens and he just dies. Like, he probably still would have died if things had gone differently, but it would have been much more impactful for his character.
  I think I would have preferred it if Fiona really was just dead, or hell, if she actually had run away entirely separate from the whole vampire thing. It feels like Fiona showing up at the end hurts the book more than it helps. And in this universe, vampires forget basically everything about their human lives, so it’s not like we really get any interpersonal meat there.
  Like, okay, so Aja is convinced that her sister’s life was perfect and she had no reason to want to leave, and that a supernatural force had to have taken her. But Fiona’s life wasn’t perfect, she was suffering too, and she had plenty of reason to want to leave. The supernatural perfection Aja believed in was never real; Fiona was a mundane, human person, and the story would have been so much better if she’d left via mundane means & Aja had to accept that.
  Suffice it to say, my feelings toward this book are much like Aja’s towards Padraic. Initially put off, but slowly won over, until a catastrophic reveal towards the end broke the spell, but I still kinda like it despite everything, but I also don’t and I’m glad it’s over.

The Last Final Girl

  I couldn’t finish this. Not even for content write-up purposes. It has a very experimental writing style that I bounced off of super hard. Essentially, by trying to write something cinematic it was paradoxically harder to picture in my head and harder for me to keep track of what was even happening. Also, the book was just so 2012, from the over-reliance on pop-culture references to the period-typical misogyny.
  I will say, I do admire Stephen on some level. To go from this to one the most critically acclaimed and beloved slasher series of all time is a pretty big deal. May we all be blessed achieve that level of creative glow-up.

How Were The Recs?

  So, regardless of what I actually thought of the books, how do I feel about the recommendations themselves?
  Direwood was probably the best rec. It did have a lot of aspects that would have drawn me in; it ticks a lot of boxes I enjoy, even if the execution was a bit lack-luster.
  I get why I was recced The Last Final Girl. It’s an obvious pick. It’s by the guy who did those other slasher books everyone likes. But I’m not really here for obvious picks? I’m here for things I wouldn’t have easily found on my own. Plus, I think there’s a pretty clear reason why this book never ends up on the same must-read lists as the author’s other books. It is, at the very least, divisive & more prone to be hit-or-miss.
  Despite being the book I enjoyed the most, The Mimicking of Known Successes is probably the shakiest rec? It’s sci-fi, which is generally a hard sell for me, and a cozy, which I do enjoy but wasn’t really looking for recs in. It does have queer characters which I was explicitly looking for, but I was hoping to see that more combined with other things I was looking for rather than separate.
  So that’s round one wrapped up. Overall it worked out much better than I was expecting. I’m cautiously optimistic about round 2, which should reach me sometime in June. I don’t want to get my hopes up too high.