Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Devil On Horseback by Victoria Holt

Holy #StealthReads, Batman! It's been a while since I sneaked a book past GR's radar, but I've been so tired lately that I've mostly been napping on public transport instead of reading on it. I finally finished my most recent purse book, and that book was THE DEVIL ON HORSEBACK by Victoria Holt (because you know that with a title like that, I couldn't help but buy it).

Victoria Holt is one of those authors I keep coming back to again and again, even though I have a love-hate relationship with her books. When she's on her game, she is on her game; but she also churns out a fair number of misses. For me, THE DEVIL ON HORSEBACK was one of her misses.

Unlike most of her Gothic romances, which are set in Victorian England, THE DEVIL ON HORSEBACK is set in Georgian England with the French Revolution looming close-by.

The heroine, Minella, is the daughter of a school teacher who has lofty aspirations for her daughter. These aspirations come to a bitter end with her untimely death - especially when the nobleman who was angling after Minella is corralled back into his family's clutches, basically leaving her alone and penniless. Minella has a friend named Margot who is the daughter of a Comte, and she ends up pregnant (out of wedlock). Her angry father sends the two of them away (blackmailing Minella into going by saying that the scandal would threaten her school) until Margot gives birth.

Minella continues to live with Margot and her father, much to the perplexity of their rich friends. She starts hearing whispers that make her uneasy - whispers whose truths are confirmed when the Comte asks her to be his mistress! She is attracted to him despite herself, traitorous body, etc. etc., but cannot give in to such wicked urges because propriety! So she tells him no, because he is married and she is not that kind of woman, etc. etc. How convenient then that the Comte's wife dies shortly thereafter, overdosing on her own medicine! How coincidental! Surely the two are not related, right? RIGHT?

Meanwhile, the French Revolution is happening and stones are thrown at glass houses and people are being attacked and executed. It's really more of a backdrop thing than an actual addition to the setting until the very end, and only when it directly impacts one of the two main characters. This plot twist fails to capture the horror of the French Revolution, however, and is resolved bloodlessly and quickly.

I am disappointed by this book. My friend Naksed said that this book reminded her of a watered down DEMON LOVER, and even though I did not like DEMON LOVER, I think that is true. The plot and the writing were so much better in DEMON LOVER, and if it weren't for how spineless the heroine was and how unrealistic her reactions were to the brutish hero's actions, I would have given it a much higher rating. The wicked Comte had a few good lines:

"When we transgress," he went on, "we must pay for our sins. This is the payment I ask." He took my face in his hands and kissed me on the lips - not once but many times (22)


"I assure you I am the tireless hunter. I never give up until I have my prey" (157)

But mostly, he just came across as a creepy older dude who was obsessed with the best friend of his daughter, at the expense of his still-very-much-alive-until-one-point wife. I spent most of this novel feeling very bored, and that is a very terrible way to feel while reading a book.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Boys that Bite by Mari Mancusi

💙 I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Vampire Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. 💙  

It's been so long since I read a "bad" book that I had almost forgotten what the experience was like! Thank goodness BOYS THAT BITE came to remind me, lest I grow soft and foolhardy in my ignorance.

BOYS THAT BITE is about two sisters named...Sunny and Rayne. Sunny is a prep and Rayne is a goth. (This book was written in 2006, when such distinctions were important.) One day, Rayne drags Sunny to a Goth club and Sunny accidentally gets bitten by a vampire named Magnus. It turns out that he was actually supposed to bite Rayne, who has spent years on a special waiting list for the privilege, but because they're twins...oops!

The next two hundred something pages consists of plot devices that can be summed up with statements that start with "OMG" and end with exclamation points:

OMG, now I'm totally going to be a vampire and that sucks because I'll miss prom!

OMG, but the vampire that bit me is kind of hot, though!

OMG, now there's a vampire slayer but she's totes fat you guys, ew yuck! But also LOL!

OMG, but what about that sexy jock that I like! OMG, being a vampire means excreting pheromones that make EVERYONE like me, including dirty old man teachers, ew yuck!

OMG, so it turns out that maybe I can become a human again if I drink from the Holy Grail!

OMG, but that hot vampire though!

OMG, flying on a private jet to England!

OMG, prom with my sexy jock boyfriend!

OMG, that hot vampire guy though!

OMG, my twin sister is a selfish meanie and I hate her so much!

OMG, I'm a vampire!

This is one of those books that was clearly written with the idea that teenagers are vapid creatures who see all other girls as rivals to be jealous of (Rayne), slut-shame (Rayne), or fat-shame (the vampire slayer). Sunny was intolerable as a narrator, and a useless trash person as a human being. It's been a while since I read a character who was so selfish and shallow who I wasn't supposed to hate. The attempts to inject pop-culture and teen-speak into this book also feel really embarrassing and dated. I grabbed this book when it was free for Kindle a few months ago and I kind of wonder if it was rewritten to be more "modern" and "hip"? Because this book was written in 2006, mind, and yet, the book mentions Taylor Swift (and calls her "T-Swizzle"), the Kardashians are mentioned, and at one point, Sunny says she looks like "Jennifer Laurence." None of those things were hugely relevant in 2006. Those are more like 2016 pop culture references. On the other hand, the references and pervasiveness of Goth culture and punk culture and bands like Green Day make this book feel way more like an early 2000s effort. If this book was edited to be more "modern," it failed miserably, because now it comes across as this Frankenstein effort written by an alien who only understands teenagers from what they have seen on reruns of after school specials.

I'm really annoyed because I wanted to like this book. I love vampire stories, and I even love teenage vampire stories like TWILIGHT. This book wanted to be TWILIGHT but it also wanted to be edgy, and ended up sacrificing the love story that made TWILIGHT so epic for annoying teenage drama and ended up sacrificing the edginess for "OMG, I'm so relatable you guys! G to the whizzle! I'm hip and I'm straight-edge and I'm here to shake the scene, tubular-style!"-type shenanigans that kind of made me feel like I was watching a friend's dad try to sound cool at a barbecue. Oh, and that insta-love. That insta-love. It made TWILIGHT look like A Very Long Engagement.

I think I'll be giving the rest of this author's books a miss.

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Sins of Lord Lockwood by Meredith Duran

After reading Maire Claremont's THE DARK LADY, I needed a palate cleanser to wash down the angst. I looked at my virtual to-read pile and selected THE SINS OF LORD LOCKWOOD by Meredith Duran because the title promised sexy times and the cheeky lady on the cover promised saucy adventures. Well, I was right about the sexy times, but wrong about the saucy adventures - this book turned out to be just as dark and angsty as THE DARK LADY, if not more so. I was tricked, gosh darn it! Tricked!

Dastardly tricks aside, however, I really enjoyed reading THE SINS OF LORD LOCKWOOD, in no small part because it revolves around a dark revenge plot that appears inspired by THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. Liam and Anna were engaged to be married. On paper, it was a union of convenience - he is an impoverished earl, and she is a rich countess heiress who wants to keep her freedom and her properties. However, they had an understanding and affection for one another that transcended what they were bringing to the table. Or at least, that's what Anna thought...until he ditches her on their honeymoon.

As it turns out, Liam was held captive and tortured in unspeakably cruel ways for reasons that become clear as the plot unravels. Scarred and stricken with PTSD, he is no longer the naive and untouched rake his wife fell in love with, and he's rather cruel to her in his efforts to push her aside and keep from opening up to her in his feverish attempts to destroy the person who would have destroyed him, if he hadn't been able to fight his way out of hell and return back to England.

Once I realized what kind of story I was reading (note: not a light-hearted frothy wallpaper historical), I quickly got on board. I love me a good tortured hero, and Liam was exceptionally well done. Sometimes I roll my eyes at "tortured heroes" in romance novels, because their misery is entirely manufactured and completely idiotic, i.e. "I'm just too manly to have feelings, dammit! How do I tell her that she's not like other women?" This was not like that at all, and while Big Misunderstandings often have me wanting to jump ship, it actually worked here because Liam was suffering and slow to trust and Anna was stubborn and prideful.

If you're a romance reader, you're probably nodding along impatiently and thinking to yourself, "Yes, that's all well and good, but what about the chemistry? What about the sexy times?" As a romance reader myself, I salute you. Also, you won't be disappointed. The sexy times aren't only steamy, they're a little kinky, as well (and the heroine's WTF IS GOING ON reaction was priceless).

A lot of historical romances coming out these days feel interchangeable but Meredith Duran has a signature style that I really enjoy and is quickly becoming a fast favorite with me. The stories I've read from her pack an emotional wallop and she's not afraid to take the narrative down a few dark alleys to keep things interesting.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles

Wow, I really wasn't a fan of this one at all and that bums me out, because I was fully expecting to love TYLER JOHNSON WAS HERE. Since my feelings about this are so complicated and the subject matter is so delicate, I'm going to list out my thoughts in bullet points. (Bullet points are so much easier!)

Some thoughts:

1. I loved what this book was trying to do, and even if it didn't quite succeed, the publication of books like THE HATE U GIVE and TYLER JOHNSON WAS HERE not only gives the Black Lives Matter movement more exposure, it puts books featuring kids of color into the hands of actual kids of color with stories that they can relate to (whether in a good or bad way). That's nothing to sneeze at, and I can appreciate the value of books like TYLER JOHNSON WAS HERE even if I don't enjoy them.

2. Comparisons to THE HATE U GIVE are going to be inevitable. They are very similar stories: two high school kids of color who feel a lot of pressure to "act white" in order to be successful, who live in a low-income/racially diverse area with lots of criminal/gang activity, whose lives are torn apart by police brutality spurred on by racial discrimination that ends up starting a local movement. I don't think the similarity is a bad thing, because like I said before, Black Lives Matter is a movement representing real victims of police brutality, and those narratives are important. But it's my opinion that THE HATE U GIVE is a much better book, and handles the subject matter better.

3. The characters in here feel very undeveloped. I didn't get much of a sense of who Tyler was, whereas the main character in THUG all but leaped from the pages. I would have liked to have gotten a better sense of his character, because that might have made me like him more. He just felt very bland and passive to me, and I couldn't figure out if that was meant to be intentional or not. His choices, particularly the one at the end involving his future, didn't make sense and seemed to be fueled for the sake of keeping the story moving. All of his friends are very one-note, and his sort-of love interest, when she appears, kind of just feels like the generic manic pixie dreamgirl type.

4. All the white people in this book are assholes. This kind of ties into the third bullet point - all the bad people in this book, like the cops and the mean principal and the well-meaning, but white guilt apologist "I-have-a-diversity-checklist-in-my-back-pocket-and-that-checklist-says-I-must-be-nice-to-you-for-diversity-related-reasons" MIT representative are just hilarious stereotypes of white people being shitty in various shitty ways. That cop, man. What the actual fresh hell was he doing. What a psychopath. I couldn't help but compare the cop scenes in here with the cop scene in THUG, where the cop did what he did because his racism surfaced during a snap decision he made because he was afraid. Here, it was just like the cop decided he was going to be all, "Yaaaaay! Power abuse is fun!" Ditto the principal, with his constant attempts to sabotage poor Tyler. I was just waiting for that dude to start twirling his mustache and tying people to train tracks. Subtle this was not.

I'm glad I was approved for an advance reader copy of this book and I'm sorry I didn't like this more. I see that at least some of my friends on Goodreads really enjoyed this book, so maybe you will, too.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

The Dark Lady by Maire Claremont

💙 I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Victorian Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. 💙

A couple years ago, I won a giveaway of the second book in this series, LADY IN RED, but I never read it because I am a trash person. It's not even that I lost the book: I can literally see it sitting right on my bookshelf across the room at this very moment. You see, I hadn't realized when I signed up for the giveaway that it was the 2nd book in the series, and that freaked me out a little. How could I read book 2 if I hadn't read book 1? What if there were...spoilers?

Fast forward to late last year, when THE DARK LADY finally went on sale for Kindle. I say "finally" because I was literally stalking this book for years, waiting for the price to drop because I'm a cheapskate. If you're thinking to yourself, "That seems excessive, waiting several years for a price drop of a few dollars," welcome to Nenialand, pal - where I can spend $5 on a cup of coffee but have trouble rationalizing the purchase of an ebook for $4.99.

THE DARK LADY is a fun book and really tries to follow in the footsteps of its Gothic predecessors from the 60s and 70s, but with the edgy modern twist of sex, scandal, and drugs. I'm a huge fan of Gothic Romances but they were notoriously tame and scarcely escalated beyond kissing. It's a shame, because some of them - Victoria Holt, in particular - were very sensual about their passions, and you could totally tell that they wanted to write a dirty story but probably didn't feel as though they were allowed. Well, you needn't worry about that in THE DARK LADY. There are several rather steamy scenes at various points in this book, floating atop the murky sea of angst like bits of erotic driftwood. Mostly, though, the focus of the book is on the angst of the two leads: Ian and Eva.

I don't want to say too much about these characters, but Ian is an ex-soldier who served in India and Eva was recently imprisoned in a Bedlam-style madhouse. Both of them carry the burden of dark secrets and the sense of responsibility for things that really weren't their fault. These experiences have warped them considerably, and impact their ability to relate to one another, even though they were close as children. This relationship-focused angle of the book, set amidst the backdrop of filial obligation and responsibility, smacked of yet another one of my favorite Gothic Romance authors: Marilyn Harris. Harris is quite a bit darker and depraved when it comes to fleshing out her characters, though, and even though Ian and Eva are cast in a darker mold than many other contemporary romance heroes and heroines, they still pale in the shadows of that truly glorious madness that is the Eden family, Marilyn Harris's main claim to fame, and one of my favorite yet-to-be-completed-by-me series.

The atmosphere of this book is dark and lovely, with many wonderful passages. Sometimes the writing can be a bit plodding, but I liked it for the most part because it was in keeping with the Gothic style. Like others, I thought the matter of Eva's opium addiction was resolved too cleanly (as soon as it was no longer convenient for the plot, really), but that's par for the course with most issues in Romancelandia, sadly. If it's no longer convenient, it's no longer in the plot. Bye, and don't let the deus ex machina hit you on the way out! The whole thing with Mrs. Palmer also seemed anticlimactic. I wanted to find out about her history and what turned her into such a revenge-getting, torture-happy crazypants-wearing individual. But no. Maybe this is dealt with in later books.

I guess I'll finally be checking out LADY IN RED now!

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Market Street Cinema by Michele Machado

Honestly, it's getting to the point where you only have to wave a trashy book in front of my nose before I tear into that sucker the way the velociraptors did to that cow in Jurassic Park. A new adult book about a girl who doesn't want to go to college and ends up stripping to pay rent and solve all of her self-created problems? Logical brain says, "No, Nenia, don't do it." Stupid brain says, "YAAAS, GURL. READ THAT BOOK - AND WHILE YOU'RE AT IT, PASS ME THAT MOSCOW MULE."

I applied for MARKET STREET CINEMA because the title is based off a real place in San Francisco. I've walked by it (hard to miss the bright colored building with the racy pictures of pretty ladies). I don't believe it's standing any longer; it went the way of many unsavory SF "historical" sites: torn down to make way for Big Business.  Still, the prospect of reading about places I've actually been was irresistible and 90% of why I bought this book.

Lita is eighteen years old and starting her first year of college that her parents are paying for. However, being used to coasting in high school, she decides she isn't cut out for the rigors of the academic life and drops out - a fact her none-too-pleased parents discover when the notification from her college comes in the mail (*tries to imagine how her own parents would have reacted to such wtfery*). Her dad is especially angry and kicks her out of the house, so Lita works at a lingerie store while planning her next move. One day, a woman comes into the shop who tells Lita that she works at a dance club in SF and that the dancers there would be thrilled to see a catalogue where they could buy new costumes for their acts. One things leads to another, and pretty soon Lita is dancing and stripping at Market Street Cinema herself, because, obviously.

My expectations for this book were pretty low since I don't have a whole lot of faith in the new adult genre - I've been burned too many times. MARKET STREET CINEMA came as a pretty nice surprise. The writing quality is decent and there's no half-assed romance thrown into the mix for "drama." The entire story is just Lita trying to make it on her own in the ridiculously expensive Bay Area, trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, and her developing friendship with Liberty. I feel like this book also took a pretty realistic view of stripping for money: the competition between the girls and the caginess of their responses when confiding how much they really made, the men who come in and pay well, the creeps who come in and bend the rules, and the fact that while some women enjoy it, others see it as a kind of trap with an expiration date all felt grittily accurate. I mean, from what I would guess. I don't know any strippers. Maybe real strippers would react to this book the way real army people reacted to The Hurt Locker.

I think my favorite aspects of this book were the observations on the city and the Bay Area at large. It's set in the 90s, so it's a little dated (GOOD LUCK buying an apartment in San Ramon on a stripper's paycheck now, my friend), but many of the observations made me laugh. Yes, it's as expensive as Christ to live here. Yes, BART commuting is an eternal frustration. Yes, NOBODY but the tourists call San Francisco "Frisco" and you will be judged if you do (FRISCO IS A CITY IN TEXAS, FOOL). I did side-eye Liberty having a really nice apartment in the Haight with what she made on her stripper paycheck, though, because that area has always been desirable and expensive, and the price for a studio apartment there now would run you over 3k/mo. By contrast, apartments in the Tenderloin (which is a lot closer to Market St., and probably where a stripper would live, since I can't imagine wanting to walk far, alone, at night, in the pre-cell phone era) are about 1.7k/mo.

My least favorite aspect of this novel was the ending. It felt like a shitty way to get Lita on the "right" path. I don't want to give spoilers in this review, but it really bummed me out. I think I understand why the author did it, and it does offer some pretty valid criticism on how sex workers are viewed and treated in our society, but man - talk about cold.

Sex work seems to be a common theme in this author's novels. I see that she has another book called MAY AT THE PEACOCK RANCH, which I suspect is based off the BunnyRanch in Carson City, Nevada (it's a legal brothel - prostitution is legal and regulated in certain parts of Nevada). I'm interested in checking that book out eventually, because I read a book about the BunnyRanch a few years ago while researching the sex industry for a novel that never actually came to fruition. It's a fascinating topic and one that's often stigmatized by society, so I'm interested in seeing her take.

If you enjoy gritty books about unsavory topics, you should check out MARKET STREET CINEMA. It paints a rather interesting portrait of the San Francisco that the tourists don't often see, and the subject matter is handled mostly inoffensively and with some degree of finesse.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Mister Tender's Girl by Carter Wilson

When Alice was a little girl, two of her friends stabbed her and left her for dead because they believed that the character from Alice's father's famous comic books, Mr. Tender, would grant them their hearts' desires if they used Alice as a sacrifice. Now a young woman, Alice finds herself a victim to her father's comic books once more, as figures from her past start resurfacing in mysterious and sinister ways. Somebody is watching her - and they want something from her. Something dangerous.

There was a great story buried inside this merely good story. I loved the premise. Mr. Tender kind of reminds me of the creepy owner of Christmasland from Joe Hill's NOS4A2, or the proprietor of Stephen King's eponymous NEEDFUL THINGS. The murder that nearly killed Alice and scarred her for life was obviously inspired as well by the Slenderman myths, and the murders that periodically surface that were inspired by those myths. There's also a dash of MISERY in here, as well, lightly seasoned with some of Gillian Flynn's "damaged-girl-returns-home-to-confront-her-demons" existential crisis turned domestic horror vibes, as well, and even some of Marisha Pessl's NIGHT FILM in the sense that explores what happens when art and obsession go dark and twisted.

MISTER TENDER'S GIRL is definitely an ode to the horror drama and for most of the story (I'd say about 60%), it succeeds admirably. I only got 4 hours of sleep last night because I didn't want to put the book down: it sucks you into its bleak and chilling atmosphere, and doesn't let you go. It's like literary quicksand. The last 30% is where the book suffers because, in my opinion, it jumps the shark. Things just become too ridiculous, and it becomes like this crazy version of the Gong Show, where every one wants to out-psycho everyone else, and I'm just sitting here, like, "Wtf r u doin? Stahp."

I'll give it 3 stars because it was well-written and I think the author has the makings of a truly memorable story under his belt. This one just wasn't it, sadly. Still, it's fun and worth a gander.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars