Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

I read this book for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2017 Reading Challenge. For more info about what this is, click here.

A few years ago, when the movie had just come out, a woman was talking to me at a bus stop, and we ended up talking about the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. It was a while ago, so I don't remember the exact exchange, only that she asked me if I wasn't just "so excited for the (Fifty Shades of Grey) movie?" When I said no, she asked me first if I'd even read the book, then whether I'd finished it and if so, had I read it properly? At the time of this exchange, I'd only read about fifty pages of the book. But I had read chapter by chapter breakdowns and seen a number of quotes pulled from the book. This seemed like sufficient evidence that this book was Not For Me and for several years I managed to stick with my decision to avoid this fandom. But people kept asking me to review this book for my blog, especially once I started reviewing romance and erotica almost exclusively - or I'd get people telling me my opinions weren't worth two cents until I'd actually read the book, and oh, ouch, my pride.

It began to feel like this book and I were star-crossed, and destined to clash.

For those of you who don't already know the story, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is about a virginal college student named Ana(stasia) who gets involved with a billionaire named Christian Grey. He is charmed by her innocence and submissiveness but warns her away because of his dark desires. Ana is so wowed by his looks and his money that she refuses, and so he tempts her into the sinister BDSM lifestyle, and Ana adores him so much that she endures it, hoping to win him back to the light.

Yes, I'm being a little facetious. In case you couldn't tell. (Insert winky-face emoji here.)

When this book first showed up on Goodreads, I was intrigued by the summary. I like dark romances and this one sounded like a modern Gothic. Sinister billionaires in dark Seattle towers are only a step removed from dukes dwelling in crumbling castles on the English moors. However, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY disappoints in that quarter, as the vast majority of the book is them talking about engaging in a BDSM relationship without actually making it official. Bar a few bondage-light sessions and a bit of spanking and toys, there's nothing particularly racy about the sex in this book. In my opinion. It's also boring. Honestly, how many times can you flash the BDSM contract at us? If I wanted to look at official documents all day, I'd be an accountant. Is this sex or an offer for a time share?

Another issue that many of those better than me have already pointed out is the relationship between Ana and Christian: it isn't healthy, and not only is it not typical of a BDSM relationship (and gets a number of things wrong in potentially harmful ways), it's also not a healthy relationship, period. Many of the things that Christian does look an awful lot like emotional abuse. I get that this is fiction and that people expect to be entertained in fiction so fictional relationships often don't reflect the reality of "normal" healthy relationships because those seem boring by comparison, but when a man is using his anger and frustration as an outlet when he uses belts and whips on his submissive partner, stalking her via GPS and hired help, and micromanaging her eating habits, you can't help but think to yourself, "There's a problem here." He also appears to confuse BDSM dungeons with prostitution, rigorously defends his underage relationship with a married woman as a teenager, and uses things like natural filament rope in his bondage extravaganzas, which could do a lot of physical harm.

Then there's the fact that the writing in this book simply is not very good.

First, like many erotica authors, E.L. James appears to have some verbal tics, or words that she just uses so repetitively that you not only notice but they begin to pull you out of the story. "Cream" is not one of them, thank God, but some others that I noticed off the top of my head are "I peer/peek up," "Holy shit/crap!", "oh my," "I flush," "murmur," and "delicious." Sometimes, especially in the case of "I flush," these will appear two- or three- times to a page. I'm very surprised an editor did not challenge this.

Subconscious/Inner Goddess Greatest Hits:
-: I flush at the waywardness of my subconscious - she's doing her happy dance in a bright red hula skirt at the thought of being his (67).
-: very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba (78).
-: My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves (137).
-: My inner goddess is jumping up and down, clapping her hands like a five-year-old (176).
-: "And...swallowing semen. Well, you get an A in that."
I flush, and my inner goddess smacks her lips together, glowing with pride
-: I examine the list, and my inner goddess bounces up and down like a small child waiting for ice cream (257).
-: My subconscious runs, screaming, and hides behind the couch (259).
-: My inner goddess has a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the outside of her room (326).
-: My inner goddess pouts at me, failing miserably to hide her disappointment (357).
-: My subconscious is furious, Medusa-like in her anger, hair flying, her hands clenched around her face like Edvard Munch's The Scream (360).
-: My inner goddess is doing the dance of the seven veils (362).
-: My inner goddess is standing on the podium awaiting her gold medal (446).
-: My subconscious is frantically fanning herself, and my inner goddess is swaying to some primal carnal rhythm (485).
-: My subconscious has found her Nikes and she's on the starting blocks (502).

Am I the only one who was picturing Ana's inner goddess/subconscious as, like, a smaller cartoonish version of her, like Lizzie McGuire's alter ego?

Weird Sex Descriptions:
-: "Aargh!" I cry as I feel weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity (117).
-: I sit staring at the screen, and part of me, a very moist and integral part of me that I've only become acquainted with very recently, is seriously turned on (186).

Just, WTF: 
-: I eye Christian's toothbrush. It would be like having him in my mouth (76).
-: "No one's ever said no to me before. And it's so - hot" (348).
-: He reaches between my legs and pulls on the blue string - what?! - and gently takes my tampon out and tosses it into the nearby toilet (430).

I would give this a lower rating but I'm rounding up slightly for unintentional hilarity - especially that tampon scene - and for the fact that the companion book from Christian's POV, GREY, was so, so, so much worse. Seriously, if you think Grey is bad in this book, his eponymous retelling of their 'romance' makes him look like Patrick Bateman's bondage-obsessed cousin. Ugh.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Lemonade by Nina Pennacchi

I received an advanced copy of this for review several years ago. Unfortunately, I don't remember what I said about LEMONADE that first time, only that I gave it three stars and was disturbed by the rather brutal rape scene that takes place about 1/3 of the way through the book. And yet, despite only giving it three stars, LEMONADE has haunted me for two years. I kept thinking about Anna and Christopher and their doomed-before-it-even-began romance (if you can bring yourself to call it that). I wondered if perhaps I had been too harsh on the book, because if something can stay with you for that long, it must be good.

LEMONADE was originally published in Italian and then was translated into English. It is written in a very unique way that is difficult to explain - random asides in parenthesis to emphasis certain emotional moments for various characters; some very colorful and strange analogies and metaphors that sometimes fit and sometimes don't but are always unusual; and a charmingly stilted style of writing that is almost anachronistic, but smacks of 80s over-the-top sensationalism.

The heroine, Anna Champion, ends up catching the hero's attention over a misunderstanding with a glass of lemonade. He wounds her pride and she seeks revenge. It is a small, petty revenge, but Christopher is so damaged that his ego cannot stand even that small of an insult, and the next 450 pages consist of the two characters drawing to draw blood, figuratively and literally, any way they can. Some people will not like this because Christopher is such an awful character. He truly is a villain. And yet, it's impossible not to feel sorry for him at times because of everything he went through. Anna is very much the same way. At times I found her to be a very strong character, but she would buckle at random times, too, and sometimes she would be so stupidly petty. They both had issues, and in the end, I feel like the author was suggesting that they deserved one another.

In some ways, LEMONADE reminded me of that Japanese manga/anime, Hana Yori Dango. Christopher is just as cold and impulsive as Tsukasa Doumyoji. I enjoyed the beginning of the book, but after a while, LEMONADE started to feel very repetitive. I still enjoyed it, but I feel I would have enjoyed it more if the pacing had been tighter and it ended about 100 pages earlier. If you're a fan of vintage bodice rippers (and Hana Yori Dango), you should check out LEMONADE. Even if you absolutely hate it, it's highly unlikely that you'd read another book like it published in this day and age.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 19, 2017

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers

I am not religious, so my review of this inspirational romance will be coming from the perspective of a secular reader. Our theme read in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group for the month of May was "christian romance," and REDEEMING LOVE was actually my nomination. Francine Rivers is a name that gets bandied around a lot, not just in the christian fiction groups, but also in the historical romance groups in general. I was curious to see what she was like. As soon as I began reading this book, I literally had two people message me to inform me that this book allegedly takes two forms: the 1991 version and the 1997 version. I apparently have the 1997 version, which was edited to remove swear words and explicit love scenes to make it religion-friendly, which is definitely the case in my version. All sex scenes are very much fade-to-black, or in the case of one scene, ends with the hero and heroine soaring towards heaven - metaphorically, I'd imagine. Unless I somehow picked up a paranromal romance book without actually catching on.

Sarah/Amanda/Mara/Tirzah/Angel is a prostitute who was sold into the profession against her will as a child and then raped. Over the years she has become bitter and cold; it's her only defense against her growing despair at sleeping with men she doesn't like in a prison gilded by the gold dust of the Californian mining town she's settled in. On one of her walks, Michael Hosea sees Angel and hears God tell him that this is the woman he is destined to marry. When he finds out what she is, he throws a mini-hissy before pulling up his britches and delivering Angel the news. She is not amused, and rebuffs him multiple times. When he marries her, she's actually unconscious from a beating.

Much of the book is Angel learning to deal with her guilt and self-hatred. Her bitterness is exceptionally well done, and the pain she feels is warranted. The epilogue of this book is straight out of a bodice ripper, and the more I found out about her backstory - neglect, abuse, rape, assault, incest, probably PTSD - the more I sympathized with her. No matter how frustrated I felt with her as a character, I always felt that her actions were in line with her character. It takes a long time before she's able to trust Michael, and when she does, it happens in stages. She trusts him with her body and her well-being long before she's willing to let him have her heart.

This story is apparently a retelling of a bible story about two people named Gomer and Hosea. I have not read the original story, so I'm not sure how accurate or true the retelling is. I will say that the story manages to stand on its own fairly well and I was engaged for the majority of the book. It was in the last quarter where I feel it begins to fail a bit, as God appears to drive Angel away from Michael because she views Michael as a god instead of Him...and he drives her right back to the man who raped and abused her, which seemed...cruel? Then one of Angel's friends tells her that she has a prayer box to remind her not to be self-sufficient, but to rely on God instead, and that whenever there's something she wants to do something about she just writes a note and puts it in the box...right. I didn't mind the way God's voice was written in this book, however, and I thought it was clever how what I assume was the devil took the voice of Angel's abuser. What better way to turn her away from the path of self-betterment than to take the voice of the man who made her feel as if she were beyond redemption in the first place? I also thought that the way the religion was written in this book is probably suitable for the time period in which it was written (1850-ish), because most people in the 19th century were religious, and it formed the backbone of their social circles in many cases.

Honestly, my two biggest pet peeves were that epilogue and the fact that Paul got an HEA. The epilogue annoyed me because I felt like it wasn't realistic. I get that it was intended to be a miracle, but I really did not like it. I also really did not like Paul. He ill-treats her for 95% of the book, and then at the end of the book she apologizes to him. Ooh, I saw red when that happened. I kept thinking to myself, "If this were a bodice ripper, Paul would be killed in a stampede of cows, or in a cave-in while trying to steal someone else's gold." But this was not a bodice ripper, so Paul accepts Angel's apology, condescends to give one of his own, and gets his stinking HEA (the bastard).

In spite of its flaws, REDEEMING LOVE is a good book, and I think secular readers will be able to enjoy it too (probably more so if they can find copies of that elusive 1991 edition). I'm very glad I finally got around to reading a Francine Rivers book. She is a good writer, with a sense of characterization and pacing, and absolutely beautiful descriptions of nature. Yes, religion is a definite focal point in this book but not to the point where it's utterly preachy, either. 4/10, would read more by this author later. Her Mark of the Lion series looks especially interesting, and I'm hoping I'll be able to get a copy of that on the cheap. I love Ancient Rome.

3 out of 5 stars

The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace

I love wine - love it - but I honestly don't get this fascination with drinking 50+ year old bottles. And I'm saying this as someone who lives in California and drinks good wine all the time. As I sort of alluded to in another book about wine I reviewed, HEDONIST IN THE CELLAR, I think there comes a point where it stops being about the wine and more about the moolah. Perhaps an eighteenth century bottle of wine tastes amazing (I can barely force myself to drink milk that's a week too old, so I am the wrong person to judge). Considering how much those bad boys sell for, it's unlikely I will ever find out. As this book points out, there is a science to the aging process, but a lot of it also seems to be showboating with your money and agreeing with people whom you consider to be generally superior and "in the know" when it comes to wine knowledge. Think "Emperor's New Clothes" except instead of, "Wow, that guy is naked" it's "wow, that guy is naked and drinking fresh-poured Scam Wine."

THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR is a delightful comedy of errors about innocent and perhaps not-so-innocent people (we never really know for sure) who end up getting Scam Wine™ instead of the miraculously well-preserved historical wine they thought originally belonged to Thomas Jefferson. When a well-preserved wine cellar is unearthed in France bearing many popular old wines from the 19th century, everyone is excited and quick to bid. But then the taste of the wines and the look of the bottles is called into question and suddenly, everything comes down like a house of cards and friends become enemies, and trustworthy wines become Scam Wines. Benjamin Wallace crams the whole sordid saga in here, starting with the wine's high octane auction, descriptions of lavish wine-tastings and food-pairings, why people buy old wine (spoiler: bragging rights), what these people are like (spoiler: rich), the quest for the wine's provenance, and then, lastly, a quiet epilogue. 

I honestly had no idea that wine forgeries were such an issue. I guess it makes sense, though. Anything high in demand is usually in short supply, to there's a temptation to artificially manufacture additional copies of these high price items and cash in. It was fascinating to read about how Scam Wine™ is made, and the lengths people go to make them look authentic, some going so far as to stain the labels and pit the glass and then coat them with convincing artificial dust (Scam Dust™). I also enjoyed learning about the history of some of these wines. For example, prior to reading THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR, I did not know about the great French wine blight. For those of you who do not know, an aphid called phylloxera attacked the roots of many French grapes in the late 19th century, causing many of the plants to die. American grapes were apparently immune to the aphids, so the roots of these American grapes were grafted onto the French plants, changing the taste of the grapes - some say for the worse (Scam Grapes™?). So apparently, pre-phylloxera wines are a class of their own and many people seek them out as being more "pure" than modern strains of grape.

It's been a while since I read a good nonfiction book about history and THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR was the perfect return to that type of book. The writing style is great - colorful and vivid, but not veering into sensationalism and remaining relatively impartial at most times. It's like reading a very fun journalistic piece that continues for almost 300 pages, except wine is involved and you get to experience it vicariously. I read the gripping climax with a glass of petit verdot in hand (read: violet notes), and as I was reading, it occurred to me that the oldest wine that I have ever put into my mouth was only about twelve years old, and even that was almost too strong. When I was telling one of my friends about this book and the old wines mentioned inside, and asking rhetorically what they might taste like, she made a hilarious face and said, "I bet it would taste like balsamic vinegar. I would cook with it." I said, "I bet that would legitimately make someone cry."

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sweet Seduction by Maya Banks

Once again, I'm back with the Sweet series. I've already read books one and two, and SWEET SEDUCTION is the third book in the series. I bought the whole series on sale because they had good reviews on Goodreads and instead of chucking them all in a donation bin, I've decided to get my money's worth and review each one of these books. If I can't enjoy them, at least I can make people laugh and save them from making my mistakes. As with the previous two books, this edition has a disclaimer on the back warning that the series is intended for a "mature audience." I'll see your mature audience and raise you an inappropriate joke.

SWEET SURRENDER is about Faith and Gray, and Faith's desire to be completely dominated by a man. Not in a bondage way, but in the 1950s man-of-the-house way. SWEET PERSUASION was about Serena and Damon, and Serena's desire to be a slave. Damon wants someone who will be a slave all the time (not just in the bedroom). Serena comes around to his way of thinking and the two of them are deliriously happy. The third woman in their trio of friends, Julie, constantly whines about being single and her unrequited crush on this guy named Nathan. She talks about how much she wants a threesome and is constantly pestering her friends to get her laid.

I like it when female characters own their sexuality, but it annoys me when their sexuality is their characterization (i.e. they can think of nothing but sex, and have no outside interests). That just doesn't seem healthy to me, and what makes it worse is that she's used like the comic relief in the previous two books, so not even the story line really takes her seriously. When she accuses Nathan of not finding her attractive in book 2 because he doesn't take advantage of her while she's drunk, I actively disliked her, and knew that reading her book - SWEET SEDUCTION - would be a chore.


The book opens with Julie in her massage parlor, getting ready to give Nathan a massage. This has been a source of sexual frustration with Julie for a while, because she gets to touch him but it's work, so she can't really do anything and he's resisted her attempts to seduce him. She doesn't understand why, and whines to her friends that she knows he has an erection because he refuses to turn over and only lets her massage his back and ignores her low-cut tops. Julie has decided to change that:

"You have two choices. You can shut up and not say a damn word until I'm done or I can gag you. In either case, I'm going to have my way" (6).

That's right. She's going to molest him.

"I'm pretty sure what I'm about to do violates the code of ethics of my profession," she said huskily. "But you know what? It'll be worth it."

She yanks his towel off him and gives him a blow-job. Oh, how great, a woman owning her sexuality, you might think. Well, no...because that's...well, sexual assault. You can't just force yourself on people, and taking advantage of a position of trust, like a masseuse, is incredibly wrong. What makes it worse is that it's written in a way that makes me think we're supposed to go, "Yeah, you go, girl!" Like it's wacky hijinks. Julie's friends are even amused when they find out what she's done.

Julie's plan is to show Nathan what he's missing and then cut out to The House, where she's made arrangements with Damon to have a threesome with two men. She wants to be blindfolded, though, so the identity of the men are completely anonymous (I think you can guess where this is going).

Nathan makes arrangements that one of the men be him, and after Julie is initially angry when she finds out later (the other guy is Micah), the two of them end up together. Then Nathan accidentally says "I love you" during sex and Julie flees, crying to her friends, who console her until Nathan bursts the door down and literally slings Julie over his shoulder to carry her away. Where? To happiness, presumably, which seems to involve copious amounts of questionably executed sex.

Weird sex descriptions:
-: Slowly he glided, rasping over her swollen, damp tissues (136). This is a favorite of the author, BTW. Variants of "swollen tissues" and "damp tissues" are used several times throughout the course of the novel, to the point where you might think that the hero has a fetish for used Kleenex. Also, for some reason, she often describes breasts as "plumped" and the hero always "stabs" into the heroine.
-: His d*** was straining upward, wanting her, reaching for her moist haven (161). You should really check out The Oatmeal's flowchart for occasions when it is OK to say "moist."
-: Her girly parts were singing at the idea (202).
-: "If you don't stop, I'm going to go off like a damn fire hose" (263).
-: "I've got a wood the size of a tree trunk..." (273)
-: "I wanna live in your p*ssy," he gritted out (277).

'Cream' Counter:
-: Zero, this time! It's used once, but to describe tasty cheese, which is OK. However the heroine "milks" something of the hero's that isn't a dairy cow, so I'm still going to have to deduct 50 points from Gryffindor. These are the rules.

Sexist lines:
-: "So if she wants another threesome, you're out?"
"Yeah. I'm not coming here again, and I'm hoping to hell she won't either. I don't like the idea of her being passed around like some piece of meat no one gives a fuck about. She's better than that"
-: "I didn't want strange men fucking you. Damn it, Julie, what the hell were you thinking? You were just setting yourself up to be hurt or raped or God knows what else" (186).
-: It was just as well the impudent heifer learn to have him around, because he didn't plan to go anywhere, despite her repeated attempts to shake him (216).

Oh, and just in case you've forgotten about Faith and Serena, they have numerous cameos in here, too. Faith's story arc can neatly be summed up by a sentence: She'd called the wedding off, had a pregnancy scare and had eloped to Vegas all in twenty-four hours (119). Also, she accuses Gray of cheating on her, only to find out that he was secretly house-hunting to surprise her. Oops. Serena, on the other hand, frets about Damon proposing to her. This was a stupid arc and I was skimming by this point, but from what I gathered, she's afraid that the proposal would lead to guilt down the line because Damon might think she had only accepted his proposal because she is his slave. #OMGdrama

If SWEET PERSUASION was two steps forward, SWEET SEDUCTION was twenty steps back. By the end of the book, I hated both the hero and the heroine. Nathan seemed so innocent and shy and oblivious in the previous books: here, he became a raging alphahole who told women he wanted to strangle them and threatened to drag them out of rooms by their hair. Julie, the butt of the jokes in previous book, starts off the story with what starts as an unconsensual blowjob, and spends the rest of the novel being as unlikable as possible by casting aspersions on her friends' relationships and whining about her sex life.

I see that the next book is Micah's, and I actually like his character, so I'm hoping that he won't do a character flip like Nathan did. I'm a sucker for melancholy heroes with dark pasts and his is a doozy. SWEET POSSESSION and SWEET ADDICTION also look good (rock stars? heck yes!). Supposedly #5 is one of the best after #2. Maybe one of these next three books will be able to break the 1- and 2-star review streak that I've been on with this series. Tune in next time to find out!

1 out of 5 stars

I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn

Allison and Gaby were two of my favorite contributors on Buzzfeed and when they left, I followed them both on Twitter. They have forceful personalities, so when I realized that the characters in this book shared the first letter of their authors' names (Ava to Allison and Gen to Gaby), I figured that this was probably a sly hint at semi-autobiographical elements.

It's difficult to sum up I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU because it's told in the 21st century version of epistolary format: emails and instant messaging. Ava and Gen are both freshmen in college, and are determined to keep in contact and continue their friendship despite going to different schools.

Ava is a high-strung perfectionist who is good at school and wants to please everyone around her. She also suffers from depression and anxiety and has the tendency to self-harm. Being away from home makes her very stressed out, and she's so determined to have the correct college experience that she joins a sorority filled with girls she doesn't really like and starts a relationship with a boy who doesn't respect her as much as he should.

Gen, on the other hand, is the poster child for the socially aware millennial. She is a proud feminist, is open about her sexuality and sleeps with many partners because she wants to, and determined to be an ethical journalist by immediately writing an article about one of the faculty's sexual harassment suits for the school paper. She also experiments with cocaine and sleeps with one of her TAs.

The girls are so different from one another, but their conversations feel authentic and real because they bring up a lot of topics that are relevant in this day and age, such as how bisexual people often feel isolated from the gay community and the straight community, how people with depression often don't get the support they need from their peers because their peers consider them a "downer," how toxic relationships aren't always obvious, and how being an adult sometimes necessitates making childish mistakes. You know, for the learning experience.

I really enjoyed I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU. I was mentally reading the emails in Allison's and Gaby's voices, which made these characters feel even more fleshed out. It wasn't always easy reading, even though it's a short book and goes by quickly. I could relate to Ava's shyness and social anxiety, and her fears that someone not writing back = the relationship apocalypse felt totally real. Gen, on the other hand, could sometimes annoy me because I didn't like the way she was constantly policing her friend. I think it's extremely important to reduce ignorance and transphobic/homophobic constructs that are embedded into our society, but I also don't think that the way to do that is by making your friends feel bad about themselves, either. Later on the book, this is addressed, and the two girls talk about the tendency to project your own feelings of inadequacies onto "safe" targets and how sometimes advice given with good intentions can be hurtful (a lesson for Ava and Gen).

I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU is not for everyone, and I am sure there will be plenty of reviews calling this "SJW bullshit," but controversial and daring subject matter is never received with open arms by all. More importantly, I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU gives a voice to our newest generation in the same way that CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER did, and this time, it's not about young men - it's about young women. (Yay!)

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Awaken Me Darkly by Gena Showalter

I read this book for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2017 Reading Challenge. For more info about what this is, click here.

Given how my previous encounters with Gena Showalter's books went (spoiler: not well), I'm not sure why I decided to buy this one.

...Oh wait, now I remember. It's about an alien huntress.

Assassins and bounty hunters in books make my ears perk up. Aliens make me come running. If you discovered a bodice ripper about alien assassins, I would probably zoom towards you at a speed that would break the sound barrier. Luckily, AWAKEN ME DARKLY, despite the bodice ripper-like title, is not a bodice ripper, so the sound barrier is safe (for now).

Mia Snow is an agent of A.I.R. (Alien Investigation and Removal). She lives in a world where Earth has already made First Contact and many of the aliens we have encountered have chosen to make their homes on Earth. Most are peaceful, but some attempt to harm or kill humans, and those are the aliens that Mia deals with up close and personal (spoiler: *boink*).

When what looks like an alien serial killer happens on the scene, it's Mia (and her team) who are called in to deal with the situation and nip it in the bud before it causes a panic. Her investigations lead her into the depths of a seedy community, straight into the arms of an alien named Kyrin, an Arcadian alien who just so happens to be of the race of aliens that Mia is investigating.

Coincidence? Maybe. (Spoiler: Obviously, it isn't.)

Reading this book brought back memories of the paranormal romances and urban fantasy novels I plowed through in my early years of college. Good, bad, I didn't care - I read them all. One of my favorites at the time before the series went sour was the Anita Blake vampire series, and in a way, AWAKEN ME DARKLY brought back a lot of those rose-tinted memories of books 1-5. There are a lot of similarities between the two books. Mia, like Anita, is a ball-busting heroine who compensates for her femininity with machismo and showboating. Mia, like Anita, is also a hunter of an immortal species and, like Anita, ends up forging a relationship with a member of the species she's hunting, with Kyrin playing Jean-Claude to Mia's Anita in this case. Kyrin, like Jean-Claude, is also fond of long hair, puffy shirts, and leather pants, and has a condescending paternal air to him that makes the heroine alternate dropping trou with death threats and declarations of her own independence, etc. Even the cover, with its vague hits at kink and taboo, would not be out of place in Anita Blake.

I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did, and for about the first third AWAKEN ME DARKLY was engaging and fun, even if Mia could be a b*tch. It's when the mystery that Mia is investigating comes to light that things get weird (spoiler: WTF), and the abrupt ending did not help matters. Also, the hero's kidnapping of the heroine to his pleasure palace was so eye-roll worthy, it's straight out of a 90s futuristic romance. When she's dressed in gauzy silks, with a beautiful bejeweled armband designed to serve as an electric shock collar, draped in the arms of the blonde alien hunk, I kept picturing Fabio romance covers - especially when he braids his hair. Fabio the pirate alien. YAS.

AWAKEN ME DARKLY has the dubious honor of being the least offensively awful Gena Showalter book I have read. THE NYMPH KING was kill-it-before-it-spawns-sequels bad. AWAKEN, on the other hand, is just cheesy. I think I would have liked it more if it were set in space, like a Linnea Sinclair science-fiction romance. This just felt like a PNR with extraterrestrial window dressing.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars