Review: “Trouble in Mudbug” by Jana DeLeon

troubleinmudbug_janadeleonFinal Rating: oneandahalfcupscropped cups of leopard-print tea which tasted very strongly of fat-shaming and boredom.

I never expected “Trouble in Mudbug” to wow me. It advertises itself as a fun, lighthearted adventure with a mixture of ghosts, psychics and romance that I thought sounded interesting. So I tagged it for reading under my #MandarayReads hashtag, thinking that at the very least it would be short, light, and have a consistent sense of humor to help keep the livetweeting interesting.

Nope.

Despite its cute cover and snazzy synopsis, “Trouble in Mudbug” is an experience which I would describe largely as “tepid”. The characters are especially flat, which is terribly unfortunate since the plot reads like a lost episode of “Scooby Doo”. (There is literally even a “If it wasn’t for you meddling kids” scene at the end when the main bad guy is abruptly revealed. Oh, how I wish I was kidding about this.)

Shamefully, the protagonist Maryse is the blandest of the bunch. Pretty much the only unique thing she has going for her is that she’s a scientist; but instead focusing on this, the story makes her social life the central point of her character. I would much rather have read about the adventures of a brilliant, introverted botanist who is fulfilled by her work and just happens to have an adventure…rather than watching a flat, 2D form get shuffled around from conflict to conflict to constantly keep her toeing the line of being a “Damsel in Distress”.

There’s also a very strange disconnect between how the characters are described, and how the characters actually act. For instance, Helena Henry, the supposed antagonist of the book, is frequently described by Maryse as “a total bitch”. (Yes, the book is rife with casual gendered slurs) But Helena’s actions aren’t actually that bad. At no point did I find myself angry with her, or even disapproving of the choices she had made. Either my moral compass is completely out of whack, or the author made a bad guy who isn’t actually bad. In fact, I usually found myself rooting for Helena, since her decisions were often the only ones which seemed to make sense. She could literally be compassionate and considerate right in front of the other characters, and a few lines later they would go on about what a terrible person she was. Needless to say, this was really bizarre.

In keeping with the trend of terrible characters, we have the male protagonist/love interest, Luc. He is such a lazy use of romantic tropes that he can’t even be arsed to be a proper annoying asshole–instead we must rely on the testimony of others to learn what an awful womanizer he is. Despite the many times his buddies on the phone point out how much he loves chasing skirts, at no point does Luc show any interest in the women around him besides the one he’s interested in: Maryse. A true womanizer would hit on anything with a pulse and visible breasts, but of course Luc can’t be bothered. He’s too busy being amazed at the effect Maryse has on him, an inner monologue which has been recycled so many times in the romance genre that I can’t see the line without gagging a little. Pretty much the worst thing Luc does is put (literal) tracking devices all over Maryse’s life…but my palm really hit my face when it’s revealed that Luc is actually a secret agent, which is quite possibly the most pathetically stereotypical plot twist of all time. But he’s got a tight ass, so it’s k, right?? (Spoiler: No, it isn’t.)

And, of course, rounding out our stable of boring and predictable characters is the shitty Best Friend who is actually super-duper toxic and awful. Sabine is a part-time palm reader and devotee of the occult who supposedly has stuck with Maryse through thick and thin, but in point of fact spends most of the book emotionally blackmailing her and literally blaming Maryse for being a victim of abusive men. Her reasoning? If Maryse got out more often and “came out of her shell”, then she’d pick up on social cues that would allow her to avoid womanizers and jerks. This line of thinking is so fucked up I don’t even want to bother unpacking it, because I’m legit scared of what I might find.

If you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time complaining about the characters, it’s because the plot is so thin, it barely rates discussion. On paper, it sounds awesome: There’s a murder mystery afoot, coupled with someone making attempts on Maryse’s life. But in reality, the plot is a completely tangled mess, and I was so disconnected from the characters by the time drama started to happen that I just couldn’t bring myself to care about what happened.

For instance, there’s the constant background drumbeat of a cancer subplot. Yes, cancer. Maryse’s parents both died to it, she’s searching for a cure for it, (mind you, this is a cure she was alerted to by a Magical Native Woman whom we never see or meet and Maryse is literally trying to research, patent, and profit from without crediting her for it) Sabine is diagnosed with it, and the main bad guy is motivated by his desire to not contact it. But none of their pain felt real to me, and none of their reactions to the disease made sense, which meant the whole thing felt like a bitter disservice to people who have actually had to cope with cancer, either in fighting it personally or losing someone they loved to it.

Another major issue I have with the plot is that it’s only the men who move things along. Even though this book is clearly aimed at women, and all of the major characters in the book are women, their actions are entirely reactive to the bullshit that the minor male characters are constantly pulling. This, of course, forces the characters to make decisions which make absolutely no sense, which in turn makes the plot look even worse. In more basic terms: The entire world and all of the characters exist purely so that Luc can save the day so Maryse falls in love with him. You can see why this doesn’t exactly make for a gripping read. It also traps the characters into a loop from which they can never escape, which means they can never grow…and indeed, they never do.

As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, remember that sense of humor the book says it has? Well, turns out that all of the humor in this book relies almost exclusively on making fun of others, most notably using tactics like fat-shaming, reinforcing modern beauty standards, and ridiculing people’s private lives. Pretty much any time the book was trying to amuse me, I felt either nauseous or annoyed, which I’m fairly certain is the opposite of what the author wanted. There are so many ways to use humor that doesn’t come at the expense of others, that this was the most disappointing thing of all in my mind.

In short, very little about this book is interesting. It spends so much time hopping from trope to trope that there’s very little effort spent on anything else. There was a lot of potential here for an intriguing storyline with dynamic characters…but it just comes across as painfully shallow. And for those who are looking for a light read, like I was: steer clear! This book was such a drag that it took me over three months to finally finish it. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the #MandarayReads hashtag…I wouldn’t have.

I can see what the author wanted to do with this book, but they just didn’t quite get there. As a result, I cannot recommend this book to anyone.

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