Sunday, July 22, 2018

Never Never by Colleen Hoover

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

I love weekends. You know why? They give me the perfect excuse to clean out my Kindle. I think I must have finished about eight books this weekend, and I feel so proud of myself. One of those books finished was NEVER NEVER. I've been on a Tarryn Fisher binge, because I really like her style and you never really know what you're going to get with one of her books. One of the last ones I read, THE OPPORTUNIST, even had an amnesia subplot like this one, so that was amusing but okay. I'm a sucker for a good amnesia plot. They're one of my favorite cracky tropes.

As I said, I like Tarryn Fisher, but I'm more ambivalent about Colleen Hoover. I like some of her darker books like TOO LATE and IT ENDS WITH US, but a lot of the other ones of hers I've read have really made me angry. I didn't see how two such very different authors could mesh together, but Tarryn lightened up her style and Hoover darkened it. I actually thought Hoover was Fisher, because Silas's POV was my favorite and I assumed that was because it was written by my favorite author of the two, but no. Maybe they were trying to imitate each other's styles? Anyway, they did manage to blend, so kudos to them, because I totally wasn't expecting that to happen.

The plot is weird, and kind of reminds me of those other "memory loss thrillers," like Memento, Paycheck, and Before I Go to Sleep, only this is told from a YA/NA perspective. Silas and Charlie both "wake up" in school not knowing who they are, where they are, or why they can't remember anything before their moment of dawning consciousness. When they glimpse one another and see how lost they are, they know that they aren't alone and that they must have a connection. They do. They're boyfriend and girlfriend.

As they form a wary partnership and start digging into the lives that don't even feel like their own, they discover some very disturbing revelations about themselves and their families. Legal trouble, cheating, violence, betrayal - it seems like their relationship wasn't just on the rocks, it was impaled on them, bleeding out treachery. But they also seemed to love each other, too, despite everything else, and it isn't really clear why they would want to cause each other so much pain if there was love. That's just one thing in a long list of things that they can't remember.

The book starts getting really creepy towards the end, with two particularly notable scenes that gave me chills, even if they were a teeny bit cliche. But right when things begin to pick up, the book ends on a wicked cliffhanger that occurs after one of the biggest revelations in the book. If NEVER NEVER feels short, it isn't your imagination; it's under 200 pages, and by the time you finish the book you don't really know anything more about the mystery behind these characters than you did at the beginning. It's incredibly frustrating to become that invested in the story with so little payoff.

NEVER NEVER isn't a bad book but it's definitely not one of my favorites. It's actually my least favorite Tarryn Fisher book I've read so far, although it's fine for a CoHo (I expect better from Fisher). I'm certainly not so wowed by what I read that I feel the urge to race out and purchase the sequel. There are too many other amnesia books that did it better and answered my questions better.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Dirty Red by Tarryn Fisher

I'm usually pretty bad about reading sequels because I'm both easily distracted and a cheapskate, so sometimes years will go by before I'll say to myself, "You know, I really liked X book, maybe it's time I should read the sequel to X book..." but of course, I never do. Or at least, I usually don't. I read the prequel to this book, THE OPPORTUNIST, just a few days ago, and I've already finished DIRTY RED with my eye on THE THIEF. It's that addictive.

While reading, I kept wondering what this series reminded me of, and then it hit me: BIG LITTLE LIES. This Love Me with Lies (see? it even has "lies" in the title) is like a smuttier, trashier version of BIG LITTLE LIES. Maybe if BIG LITTLE lies were written by Jackie Collins instead of Lianne Moriarty.

The first book is written from Olivia's POV, in both "past" and "present," and we see all the scheming and conniving Olivia had to do to not just meet Caleb the first time but to steal him back later. This book is written from the "other woman", Leah's, POV, and as with Olivia, we get to see all the scheming and conniving Leah had to do to steal him again and then try to hold onto him. Not an easy task, because as we saw in THE OPPORTUNIST, Caleb's not all sweetness and light, either.

It's been a while since I read about a character who was so flawed and repulsive and yet still managed to be interesting. I think the last one was probably one of the women in that 70s potboiler classic, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Leah obviously has some sort of personality disorder - she's clingy, needy, manipulative, and cruel. The things she does to Caleb and then, (spoiler) to her own daughter are just awful. And yet you can't help but feel bad for her, because technically (well, not technically - actually) Olivia is the other woman and Leah is just trying to hold onto what's hers. The problem is that she won Caleb's affection through false pretenses, just as Olivia did, and sees him more as a prize to be won and displayed than as an actual person with thoughts and feelings. In many ways, she and Olivia are cut from the same cloth, and you find that out when more of Leah's backstory is revealed in this book and you discover just how messed up of a person she is, as well as her family.

Like THE OPPORTUNIST, this story is told in "past" and "present." The writing in this book, however, is a real step up from its prequel. The characterization is excellent, and Leah bursts from the pages in a way that Olivia really didn't - maybe because the author tried too hard to make Oliviafeel like a sympathetic character, whereas Leah just gets to completely be her wretched, awful self. I loved it. How often do you get a truly disgusting antiheroine as a protagonist? It's so rare. I devoured this book in a single day, feeling as giddy as a person working their way through a tub of illicit 2AM ice cream. I know that this is trash, but oh what decadent, glorious trash it is. I want more.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Chosen One by T.B. Markinson

DNF @ 19%

I picked this up as a Kindle freebie a while ago. Sometimes in the Kindle freebie store you can find an understated gem that you never would have picked up otherwise. But sometimes, your find is better left in the "Kindle freebie graveyard," my name for my failed experiments with finds picked up from the freebie section.

The premise of this book was really interesting to me: it's F/F NA about a girl with a rich and prestigious political background who ends up falling for a mysterious girl in one of her poli-sci related classes who also happens to be a woman of color. There's also some mystery elements.

What really made this a DNF for me was the writing style. It was very juvenile and unpolished, with some very odd metaphors. I also thought it was really gross how when the two MCs meet, Ainsley is going on and on about how hot and wet she is "down there," even wondering if her dress will have a wet spot when she stands up? Um, ew, gross, please stop, you don't even know this girl.

THE CHOSEN ONE is not my chosen one, and I'm sorry for that, because I was really looking forward to reading a self-published NA romance.

1 out of 5 stars

Rush Me by Allison Parr

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

I've been following this author's works since she was posting on Fictionpress under the name Tessandra, so when I found out that she had published something for real, I went out and bought her debut novel, RUSH ME. I've only previously "re-experienced" an author from online once, and it was not a positive reading experience, so I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up Allison Parr's work. Would I still be charmed the way I had been as a never-been-kissed sixteen-year-old? Or would my jaded twenty-nine-year-old self scoff in the face of squee?

Spoiler: I didn't scoff. I embraced the squee.

I know some people think I hate everything I read, but I'm just very choosy in that I know what I like and what I hate in a book and I rate accordingly. This book... was everything I like. The story sounds a little ridiculous, but this author's stories have always required a certain degree of suspension of disbelief. She wrote a lot of wish fulfillment stories involving super romantic and unattainable heroes, like celebrities or royalty, in the vein of Meg Cabot's earlier works. They were trashy, yes, but with a lightness and a frothiness to them that was also witty and sharp, with a gossipy tone that made you feel like you were having cocktails with your best friend. This book, RUSH ME, is no exception.

Rachael Hamilton is working in New York as an intern for a publishing house and dreading her five-year high school reunion. She's an ordinary girl with a close-knit group of friends, worried parents, and a desire to live on her own and have security and stability, but not at the cost of her passions. One day, when meeting some of her drama friends at a club, she follows the wrong group and ends up gate-crashing a party being held at somebody's apartment. And that somebody is a professional football player. Or rather, a whole group of professional football players: the New York Leopards.

She ends up leaving pretty quickly after that, but not before leaving a certain "impression." And when she's forced to go back for her scarf the next day, head all but hung in shame, it starts the beginning of a long-term association with the Leopards football team, including their heartthrob quarterback, Ryan Carter. I'm a sucker for love-hate relationships, especially ones with lots of arguments and banter, and Ryan and Rachael do not fail to satisfy in this regard. Rachael is exceptionally witty and I loved her back and forths with Ryan. I also liked that when they argued, they also argued about real issues that were important - at least to them, like financial inequality, personal biases and stereotypes, and the use of protection in sex. This book actually has one of the most realistic reactions to unprotected sex that I've encountered in a romance novel, new adult or otherwise, so big ups for that.

There are so many good things to say about this book. I liked that Ryan wasn't a cheater and he wasn't an abusive jerk. When he catches Rachael kissing another man, he doesn't punch said man in the mouth. He talks to her about it first and gets upset, but he doesn't get physical. I liked that Rachael wasn't a virgin and had some sexual exploration of her own before committing to Ryan. I know some people aren't going to like that, but I found it very refreshing considering the legion of virginal heroines who consider the hero the be-all, end-all of sexual interactions. I loved the witty dialogues, the warm and close friendships, the good advice and female talks, the subverting of tropes. I liked that Rachael checked herself when she was slut-shaming another girl and I loved her confrontation with the ex-mean girl of her school and the result of the conversation that they finally ended up having. I loved that people actually talk about their problems in this book with each other. I loved it.

I'm kind of surprised that so many of my friends felt ambivalent about this book, because I really enjoyed it. The pages whizzed by, and I was utterly charmed by both the hero and the heroine. This is easily one of the better contemporary romances I've read, and definitely one of the top ten best new adult books I've read. I can't wait to read the other books in this trilogy and I'm desperately hoping that she has some new projects up her sleeve. Maybe revisiting some old Fictionpress stories?

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

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

I think the last time I saw a contemporary romance getting this much attention, it was Sally Thorne's THE HATING GAME (in fact, initially, I thought this was a sequel to THE HATING GAME, since the colors of the book covers and the art style were so similar). When I read the summary (and looked at the author's name), I realized, of course, that it was a totally different book. But it still sounded like a book that I'd read before...

Last year, I read a book for a romance reading challenge called BEGINNER'S GUIDE: LOVE AND OTHER CHEMICAL REACTIONS. Tell me if this sounds familiar: a brainy, heroine in STEM with Asperger's has trouble dating and feels pressured by family to commit to that monogamous life. She decides to find a boyfriend by quantifying her love life by establishing a baseline that feels comfortable and seeking out an Asian creative type who originally seems like he's her total opposite but ends up being her soulmate and oh, by the way: he has a cool tattoo. Sounds like this book, right? It's also the premise of Six de los Reyes's book, LOVE AND OTHER, which came out two years before this one.

THE KISS QUOTIENT has differences to LOVE AND OTHER, of course. The main character, Stella, is white. Her love interest, Michael, is half-Vietnamese and half-Scandinavian. The characters in LOVE AND OTHER are both #OwnVoices Filipino characters. Stella is a econometrician and Michael is a tailor by day and an escort by night. Kaya, on the other hand, is a geneticist and Nero, her love interest, owns a bubble tea cafe and paints. Kaya and Nero originally agree to go out on blind dates whereas Stella and Michael meet when she seeks him out with an escort app. They aren't the same story and their trajectory are totally different, but they're similar enough that one made me think of the other and I can't help but compare the two while reviewing THE KISS QUOTIENT.

I'm sorry to say that THE KISS QUOTIENT falls short.

My expectations were very high for this book because people were praising it for the Autism rep as well as the Asian rep. People were also saying that the sex scenes were hot, and that it had a very feminist-friendly bent. All of these things sounded very appealing, because as much as I love those trashy romance novels from the days of yore when men behaved like d-bags, sometimes it's nice to read about a male hero who wouldn't make you run - fast - in the other direction. But now that I've read the book, I'm a little bewildered because I noticed so many problems that nobody else was really bringing up.

1. The autism rep was portrayed awkwardly. I feel like I'm getting a little out of my lane here, but Stella's portrayal made me uncomfortable. There's this dinner scene with Michael's family that actually made me wince, and I couldn't help but wonder: did her mother never explain to her the rules of social conduct? Lecturing people about microwaving plastic and how it causes death (and using that as a pretense to refuse to eat the food that's cooked for you) and then probing incessantly into your date's absentee father is so tasteless and is basically rule #1 of "don't's" in social interactions. Another thing she does is read his bills when she's alone in his apartment. That's how she finds out his real name (he gave her a fake one because of his job, and for other personal reasons), as well as the fact that he's financially in debt. Again, pretty sure most kids are told that "snooping is bad." And I've met some autistic people before and even if they can get stuck on a single subject in conversation, they're usually pretty good with rules - especially if the reasons behind them are explained - so this felt very unrealistic and needlessly awkward, as this is something that would definitely come up in parenting, and just felt like it was created to create drama! for Stella. Also, of course their sexual relationship mitigates some of the issues she has because of her autism. #MagicDicklit strikes again. It seems like good sex can cure just about any ailment or symptom, doesn't it? Especially psychological conditions or neurodivergence. How interesting.

2. The relationship is not healthy. Any time a relationship is based in prostitution, I'm a little skeptical. Adult entertainment is a high stress, high risk job, and jealousy is going to be an issue, no matter how openly you communicate. Michael accepts her as a client, despite knowing that he's probably going to get too attached (and he does, spoiler: because obviously). They move from "educational sex lessons" to "educational fake relationship lessons," which basically consist of them going through the motions of a real relationship whilst lying to themselves about how they really feel about one another. Worse still, in the last act, Michael becomes this alpha stereotype, claiming that he's going to beat up this other guy for kissing Stella against her will and then later, when Stella goes out with the Kissing Assaulter on a date(!), he interrupts their date to punch the other guy in the eye while talking about how he's going to make the guy choke on blood or something like that. It's also pretty clear from the get-go that there is a definite economic imbalance between them, as Stella is wealthy and comes from money and Michael is poor and in debt (as she found out from reading his mail). Towards the end of the book, she donates fifteen million dollars to the hospital where his mother is receiving cancer treatments, so they'll treat his mother for "free." This felt so weird to me, because if she wanted to pay for his bills, why not just pay the bills - why sneak about it behind his back in some grand gesture that ends up depleting her entire trust fund account? When he breaks up with her (for her own good, of course), she almost resigns from her well-paying job on the spot to pursue him. Feelings that strong and that reckless aren't healthy - that's more like an addict w/ a fix.

3. The relationship is superficial. We're told over and over again that Stella feels comfortable with Michael in part because he's so attractive, she just can't help herself (he looks like Daniel Henney). Michael also founds Stella wildly attractive, and is absolutely thrilled that she wasn't lying about being thirty when she sent in the app, in fact, she says that she looks barely legal despite being older than him by two years! OH BOY! She's also thin and curvy, with "porn star nipples" that he says "men and babies both dream about" and a body that would make her perfect at pole dancing, not to mention that she's suddenly incredible at sex under his brilliant tutelage and comes like a porn star. We're led to believe that Michael is this great guy for being so considerate about her autism but it feels more like he's liking her despite her autism and making all these concessions for her (because he's actually annoyed with her at times for her behavior, and sends her mixed signals about them that I imagine an actual autistic person would find very confusing). At least in LOVE AND OTHER CHEMICAL REACTIONS, it's clear that Nero loves Kaya for who she is, whereas it kind of feels like Michael just likes Stella because she's good at sex and doesn't know how attractive she is, and brings out his alpha male protective instincts. In some ways, it kind of reminded me of a gender-swapped version of PUDDLE JUMPING, another autistic romance I had many problems with.

4. Philip. He's such a creep. Forcing himself on Stella and hitting on interns and employees at the office? How the hell does he still have a job? Stella totally seems to take his behavior for granted, and apart from the punch in the eye Michael gives him, he doesn't face any sorts of consequences for his behavior. For such a "progressive" romance, it was weird to see one of the villainous characters in this book get away with what would be considered a form of assault by some people.

5. The sex scenes were actually kind of awkward. I didn't really feel their dirty talk. Michael said some pretty odd things and so did Stella, including telling Michael that French kissing reminded her of pilot fish cleaning a larger fish's teeth. The weird porn star remarks and the comment about boobs that babies would love were just the cherries on this bizarre sundae of bad artistic choices.

I don't think this is a bad book, per se, and I would be interested in reading more by this author in the future - especially since it looks like she has yet another #OwnVoices romance with an autistic character coming out (one of Michael's cousins). I think the escort angle made this book awkward, even though the author said in her author's note that she was trying to go for a Pretty Woman vibe, maybe because she wasn't quite sure how to portray some of the complex gender role crises that could arise from a relationship of this type. I did think it was odd, for example, that Michael didn't feel any shame about his escort services but was embarrassed about being a tailor/fashion designer. Things I did like: I loved Michael's family and Stella's mom (hated her dad - and Michael's too; all the dads in this story just seem to suck), and thought the econometrician angle was interesting (I'd never known that was the science responsible for AI-generated recommendation algorithms on commercial websites). I probably would have liked this more if I hadn't read LOVE AND OTHER CHEMICAL REACTIONS first, but it wasn't as bad as puddle jumping, and if people with autism relate to this story and feel like they're seeing themselves in a romantic story for the first time, that can't be too bad of a thing. I wish this author luck with her next effort.

3 out of 5 stars

Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas

I started reading the Throne of Glass series in January 2018, starting with THRONE OF GLASS before working my way through the two immediate sequels: CROWN OF MIDNIGHT and HEIR OF FIRE. After HEIR, I had to take a break, because the book was so long and there were so many more characters, 90% of whom I didn't really care about. Honestly, CROWN OF MIDNIGHT was where I mostly stopped caring because that's when the book stops being a fairy tale retelling and starts being a knockoff Game of Thrones, only with more pining and shopping.


Celery Saltine-thin is probably one of my least favorite characters in the history of ever, and what makes it more ironic is that I've never had a character forced down my throat this hard. Celery does nothing but gloat about how awesome she is, and you might think that the other POVs might offer a hint of respite from this, but no - whether they love her or hate her, they're still obsessed with how much they want to have sex with her/kill her/befriend her. It's like that Lady Sovereign song. EVERYTHING is about Celery.

HEIR OF FIRE is where the series starts to broaden in scope and jam-pack in way more POVs and characters, and QUEEN OF SHADOWS takes that a step further. Everyone gets a narration in this story, no manner how minor the character. I was half-expecting one of those sexy nightgowns that Celery is so fond of wearing to have a POV (and if the nightgown did have a POV, it would probably pour forth glowing adulations about the perfection incarnate that is her hot bod, and how honored and delighted this humble nightgown is to clothe the glorious form that is Celery). We're also introduced to Listeria, Arobynn, Elide, Lorcan, Asterin, and a bunch of other minor characters that I've already forgotten about. I haven't even bothered to come up for nicknames for most of them. Good luck keeping them all separate. I couldn't go more than a couple pages with a new character pushing a slightly-less-new character out of my short-term memory. Eventually, I gave up trying to keep them all straight. I figured a lot of them would probably be killed off, anyway, and I was mostly right.

At this point, I'm mostly in it to satisfy my own morbid curiosity because there's a handful of characters I still care about. Unfortunately, Maas has this habit of either a) killing off the most likable characters, b) destroying the personalities of the most likable characters and turning them into total trash people, or c) utterly ruining the most likable characters and leaving them broken and miserable beings, as if to punish them for NOT being Celery. Everyone is always talking about what a great character Mutton (Manon) is, but in this book I couldn't stand her. She basically sold out her own people to be raped, and there was no salvation for them at all. She was awfully cavalier about it, too, for an allegedly take-no-prisoners character that so many reviewers on my feed are fond of calling "a queen." Yeah, a bad one. And you know what happens to bad queens, right? Kaltain makes an appearance, only to go the way of basically any other powerful and attractive female character in this book who isn't Celery. And then Durian, Onion, and Kale are all built up to be destroyed, only to be reassmbled yet again, and when the book is steeped in more misery than an emo kid's Livejournal circa 2005, it's kind of hard to dredge up much emotion, especially when characterization is already so weak, since everything is told and not shown, and told in the most purple prose imaginable, too.

Then of course there's the main couple, Raisin (Rowan) and Celery (you-know-who). Their Suzy Homemaking portions of the book that mostly involve sexy nightgowns, vows of companionship, lots of pining and mutual admiration, and "no-we-mustn'ts!" are so freaking annoying. I liked Raisin better when he called Celery on her sh*t in the previous book and held her accountable for her arrogance, hypocrisy, and utter b*tchiness. In this book, he swallows the Team Celery handbook and follows her around like a well-trained dog performing demeaning tricks for a steak. Her cousin, Onion (Aedion) who is also in love with her is the exact same way. And after a few testosterone-laden showdowns filled with fancy words and meaningful glances, Onion steps aside for Raisin, while continuing to extol them both - but far be it from Maas to leave anyone in this book single. I already have a feeling who he's going to be paired off with and that person is Listeria. (Sorry, I know that's not a vegetable; but at least it's a bacteria that can be found on vegetables, yeah?)

I got so freaking tired of Celery and her smugness in this book. Literally everything she said or did made me want to slap her. How many times do I have to hear about how great she is? Or how she's too good to share her plans or intel - even with her alleged allies? She is seriously the worst queen ever, always sneering at people who criticize her, and failing epically at any sort of subtlety or stealth. I rolled my eyes when we found out the "truth" about Arobynn because of course he would want to bang her too - why is that a shock? Practically everyone else who's appeared in this book has.

The writing in this book also takes a nose-dive. There's a lot of unnecessary scenes and the book is a lot longer than it needed to be. CROWN OF MIDNIGHT was probably the best book in this series so far because it had action and it was also a lot shorter, and I almost gave that book, as well as HEIR OF FIRE, a three-star rating, because they were such an improvement over the first book, which is basically a dress-eating, candy-eating extravaganza of fail. QUEEN OF SHADOWS is much longer than it needs to be, clocking in at 560+ pages in the EPUB edition that I got from my library and 600+ pages in the paperback. At least 200 pages of this book could have been shaved off or shortened for conciseness. I didn't need all the Raisin and Celery scenes, and all of the Durian Being Tortured scenes were virtually identical. This author also has some very notable word tics, like "midnight," "glorious," "incarnate," and "swagger." Between the lengthy and dull scenes interspersed between the action sequences and the repeated words, it kind of felt like the editor had gone on vacation.

Also, hilariously, while the previous three books were relatively clean (albeit HEIR OF FIRE being way more violent), Maas suddenly discovers swearing, with the word "sh*t" sometimes being used multiple times per page, and numerous sexual references and sexual scenes, in addition to a notable increase in violence and disturbing content (particularly that ending scene with Durian's father, which is probably one of the darkest and most miserable reveals that I've encountered in YA). Some people have said that this is because Celery is older in this book, but only by two years! She was seventeen in this first book - and she's a seventeen-year-old who has been imprisoned and had sex, so there's no reason she shouldn't be swearing more or suddenly discovering sex for the first time, because these are things that she's already been exposed to; they shouldn't be novel. It was really weird. Even though I haven't read the last book for several months and have already forgotten a lot of what happened in it, I found myself side-eying some phrases, and thinking, "This seems very extra."

Now that I've talked about the things I hated, I'm going to discuss the things that I liked. Abraxos is cool. Even though Mutton is trying so hard to come across as Daenerys Targaryen II (while coming across more as a Dragonite owner who doesn't have enough gym badges to make her wayward Pokemon obey) while also enabling the rape, torture, and impregnation of her people and I hate her, her wyvern is cool and kind of adorable. Unfortunately, he doesn't have as many funny scenes in this book and it's mostly just about his owner, who I now despise.

Listeria is also a pretty cool character, even if she does fall a little too neatly into the whore/courtesan with the heart of gold stereotype. I look forward to seeing her more in the second book, although part of me is afraid that Maas is either going to utterly null out her edgier parts or just completely remake her character to force her into a stupid romantic relationship like she did with Durian and Sorscha.

I also liked the plotting and some of the more devious parts of this book. I told someone who commented on one of my status updates that I do honestly feel like there's a good book in here clamoring to get out, but the Mary Sue protagonist holds the story back, and I still think that's true. It's hard to respect a main character when all of the sacrifices fall on the literal backs of her friends.

Speaking of backs, poor Chaol. I still haven't forgiven Maas for what she did to his character in CROWN OF MIDNIGHT, especially since he was the only male character I really shipped with Maas out of the 5+ "experiments" that have been lobbed at her so far. I couldn't believe how stupid the reason was for Celery's flounce and it seemed to cement her impulsive selfishness that she would do what she did without actually taking a moment to TALK to him instead of running like a lil' b*tch. What she did to him in this book was just as bad - making him suffer even more for Celery's sake, after she was rude to him for 3/4 of the book. Yeah, he didn't deserve that. F her.

Apart from that, I actually did like the ending. It was intense.

BTW, I've had a number of people ask me why I read these books if I didn't like them which is kind of a silly question because 1) how can you know you don't like something unless you read it? and 2) you can read a book you don't like and still enjoy it. That's why people enjoy trash cinema, or "Z movies." Sometimes it's fun to take something you don't like or think is ridiculous and make fun of it; that's the whole point behind the cult classic TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000, which basically reviewed pulpy movies from the 1970s and earlier. I enjoy doing similar things with romance novels. I've explained this many times, defending my choices. Some fans of this book, however, are ridiculously entitled and rude enough to the point that they will come onto these reviews and leave passive-aggressive remarks insulting me. I will block you if you do this, so please keep in mind that if you have a comment about my reviewing style, the place to do this is not on my review itself but as I mentioned on HEIR OF FIRE, by calling the "1-800-GIRL-BYE" hotline. It gets a lot of callers, so you might be on hold a while. Perhaps forever. Sorry about that.

Overall, my thoughts about this series have pretty much remained fairly internally consistent. I don't really get the hype and while there are some favorable things about this series, I really can't stand the heroine and it often feels like one of those generic epic fantasies, in the vein of Game of Thrones. I put EMPIRE OF STORMS on hold at the library, so I will probably be reading that soon, and also Chaol's book as well, in preparation for the final book in this series and the end to this experiment. It will be interesting to see how this tangled knot of characters and motivations is resolved, if at all.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Friday, July 20, 2018

Hidden Fires by Sandra Brown

If you're new to following me, one of the things that you should definitely know about me is that I love vintage romance novels. I think they're super fun, partially because they're a snapshot of a different time, when expectations for women (and tolerance for racism and sexism) have become utterly outmoded, and partially because they are cheesy and bad in a way that's hard to find outside of the gamut of self-published and utterly self-indulgent trash-reads.

HIDDEN FIRES is not a good book - in fact, in many ways, it is an objectively bad book - and yet despite loathing parts of it and shaking my head at even more parts of it, I did have fun reading it while internally making fun of it because it is so ridiculous.

Set in the old west (e.g. Texas in what I imagine is the late 1800s), the heroine, Lauren, is a virginal stereotype of propriety wronged: after a corrupt preacher tries to put the moves on her, he manages to gaslight her adoptive family into thinking that she's a harlot. When they try to force a marriage, Lauren flees to the Lockett estate where a man named Ben once extended her an invite to visit. Ben is now dead, and only his wastrel son and icy wife are in residence. In fact, when Lauren first meets the son, Jared, he's on death's door from alcohol poisoning - but he doesn't look so bad that Lauren can't help but admire his hot, heaving bod.

Anyway, both Jared and the wife, Olivia, assume that Lauren is one of Ben's harlots. He actually was matchmaking though, having picked Lauren out for his son, since Lauren isn't his type (read: lusty, buxom, kinky). Jared, however, hates being told what to do, because he is a Real Man, and also because he has major Mommy Issues. Unfortunately, he screws up a railroad deal between his mommers and some real tacky "new money" types, who decide to take the slight personally, and in order to save his reputation, Mommy decides that Jared and Lauren should be married, because she's the perfect foil to Jared, who is a little too good at playing the lusty wastrel with no self-control.

The plot of the railroad deal continues as it's revealed that Jared's mom plans to destroy the Mexican settlement near the river they want to dam up for the railroad in order to prevent dissent, and then there's the "Okie" stereotypes working the land who are probably some of the most repulsively written stereotypes I've seen in a book of white people. Of course they're rapey, incesty redneck hicks, because why wouldn't they be? And in case that isn't enough offense, there's stereotypes aplenty with a dude who's been disfigured by Native Americans (of course) and some questionable portrayals of Mexicans and specifically Mexican women (hint: it's the "exotic and sexual" stereotype), whose sole purpose in the narrative seem to be to showcase Lauren's own white purity.

WTFery continues with several rape/sexual assault attempts, a scene in which Jared attempts to force Lauren to watch a bull being castrated only to cause her to flee and break her horse's leg in the process resulting in approximately 1 dead horse, a scene where Jared and his Mexican buddies start shooting at each other for funsies and Lauren nearly faints because she thinks they're bandits, and a scene in which Lauren after nursing her Mexican servant back to health nearly collapses from exhaustion and Jared takes her to bed, undresses her while she's passed out, thinks, "While I'm here," and helps himself to her bosom while she's unconscious and is rough enough (???) that her body actually stings from washing it the soap the next day. (What the hell was he doing? Also, that's rape, dude.) And while we're talking about sex, I just want to add that the sex scenes in this book are pretty bad, even for an 80s romance novel. We're talking cringe-worthy bad. I have receipts:

[Her nipple] melted against his tongue like a piece of sugar candy, and tasted even sweeter (184).

His ardent lovemaking was followed by a nonchalant, take-it-or-leave-it attitude that challenged every woman's innate feminine instincts. Perversely they loved him for it (205).

She had been a virgin. And it was the first time Jared Lockett had ever been with a virgin. It was a gift he had never expected toreceive and one he didn't feel he deserved, yet she had given herself to him.
Why? After the abuse he had heaped on her, why had she come to him, offering herself? (233)

This is actually a valid question, since the abuse he's referring to is actual abuse. He actually hits her (sort of by accident, but he was shoving her). He constantly emotionally abuses her and makes fun of her. He sexually assaults her and comes close to raping her during at least one point (I think it was two). Oh, and until he finds out that she was a virgin, he still thinks that she slept with his father and he constantly holds that over her head, treating her like she's dirty laundry or worse. Gross.

Emboldened by his impassioned plea, she stroked and caressed until she found the smooth spearhead lubricated with the precious nectar of his desire (270).

In spite of her modest wariness, she felt her muscles surrendering to the diplomacy of his mouth (280).

In answer, she took him in her hand and guided him to the gate of her womanhood. Bathing the pulsating tip with the moistness of her own loins, she led him further into the welcoming folds of her body (356).

Jared is basically the hirsute machismo stereotype of the 80s romance hero mold. If you like Rosemary Rogers, Linda Howard's earlier work, and Diana Palmer, you'll know what you're getting into with this Jared dude. He's super possessive and uncomfortably patriarchal.

Lauren is also a stereotypical virgin without much agency, although she does stick up for the Mexican people and her beloved servant (of course), and she is excellent at nursing people back to health and befriending prickly characters who normally don't like anyone (including Jared). Apart from those two superpowers, she is a foot-stomper, and the author does everything she can to remind us not just how virginal she is, but also how small, and dainty, and helpless, and pretty she is.

You know, just in case the 23432324 other reminders somehow didn't sink in.

You're probably wondering why, with this ranty review, this book isn't getting a 1 star. I've certainly had people come onto some of my other 1-star reviews to express outrage about how I could give X-book a positive review, when they considered it trash, and yet give Y-book, which they considered chock-full of literary merit, a low review. Well, the answer to that is that I rate exclusively on entertainment and joy. If a book makes me happy or engaged, it has done its job, and regardless of the alleged caliber of the writing itself, I will rate it accordingly. HIDDEN FIRES does not get a positive review because I spent the bulk of the book unhappy with the writing, pacing, and characters, but it also does not get a hard 1 because it was unwittingly hilarious at times, and because there were parts of the story where I felt interested (particularly that utter fustercluck of an ending, my God).

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars