Sunday, April 22, 2018

First Love, Wild Love by Madeline Baker

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

Wow, there's a lot going on in this cover. From the Lisa Frank color palette, to the fact that the K in "Baker" looks like an accent mark, to the Escherian contortions of the H and the h that seem to be more and more physically impossible the more you stare at them (what the heck is going on with her neck?), it's classic 80s WTFery.

FIRST LOVE, WILD LOVE by Madeline Baker (not to be confused with FIRST LOVE WILD LOVE by Janelle Taylor) is one of those Native American historical romances that peaked in popularity in the 80s before mostly disappearing from the shelves. With good reason. I feel like Native American cultural appropriation is somewhat more accepted by society for whatever reason (I mean, you can still get "Native American" costumes during Halloween from another of stores and don't even get me started on music festivals), and romance novels featuring Native American heroes are sadly no exception.

From my experience, they tend to resort to either one of two tropes:

The noble and violent "savage" (and yes, these romances often have the word "Savage" in the title, as a "clever" play on words). A famous example of this is SAVAGE ECSTASY by Janelle Taylor (yes the same Janelle Taylor who authored that other FIRST LOVE WILD LOVE book - ooh the plot thickens). Gray Eagle, the hero, is pretty brutal, and kidnaps and rapes the heroine, before torturing a bunch of the white dudes he captures along with her - all in the name of revenge.

There's also the "half-breed" trope (and yes, they are often referred to as half-breeds in the summary and yes, they often have the word "Savage" in their titles as well). Now, to be clear, I want to say that I have no problem at all with interracial marriage or biracial characters. The problem stems from the fact that in these cases, the "half-breed" characters are touted as being somehow superior to the rest of their non-white people because of their whiteness. I touch upon why this is harmful in more detail in my review of E.M. Hull's THE SHEIK, but a NA romance that does this as well is CHEYENNE CAPTIVE, where the half-white hero is, of course, much more civilized. Gross.

FIRST LOVE, WILD LOVE gets bonus points from the get-go for not having the word "Savage" in the title. The hero is also fully Native, and I felt like the author actually made an effort to portray the culture in a respectful way (I don't know enough about the culture to tell you with any authority whether the things in here are offensive or accurate or not). There are no crazy torture scenes or rape plots. Their first time is consensual. The other Native people are suspicious of her at first but don't treat her badly and ultimately welcome her in. There's Native OW drama, but unlike Gray Dove in CHEYENNE CAPTIVE, Soft Wind doesn't try to sell the heroine in this book out to be raped.

The plot is pretty simple. Brianna sees a Native guy on a road gang and thinks he's hot. She ultimately ends up falling for him and helping him escape. The bounce back between living with other Native Americans and living with white settlers, and each of them have moments where they experience culture shock and try to overcome it for the sake of their love. There's occasional cameos of OTT WTFery but all of these WTF acts are committed by outside parties, and not the hero.

I was actually pretty pleasantly surprised by FIRST LOVE, WILD LOVE and would be interested in checking out some of this author's other books. It's only 99-cents now if you want to give it a try yourself.

Also, many thanks to Gaufre, Karlyflower, Korey, and Maraya for participating in this big buddy read with me! Sorry for racing ahead!

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

The Dawning by Hugh B. Cave

We don't often get to revisit the books of our youth - the classics, yes, but the mindless, pulpy trash we read in abundance? That's harder, because those are the tomes that tend to slip through the cracks of time, only to be forgotten in favor of newer, shinier trash.

THE DAWNING was some mindless, pulpy trash I read in middle school, when I was starting my short-lived "horror" phase. Everything was Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, and Dean Koontz. And this guy, apparently. Hugh B. Cave. I found this book while going through some boxes of old books I'd chosen to keep, and when I looked up my pal, Hugh, I found that he apparently used to primarily write books about evil voodoo ritual inspired by his residence in Haiti. This book, THE DAWNING, seems to be a one-off.

THE DAWNING is more science-fiction than horror. Specifically, it is post-apocalyptic. Technology is beginning to fail, the cities are hopelessly polluted. Gun violence runs rampant as people get desperate, scared, and violent, and the streets are terrorized by gangs of teens who are high on a dangerous drug called "Hallelujah."

The violence has increased to the point that a small group of individuals have decided to band together and go out into the wilderness, where the corruption is lesser and they have a greater chance to survive. Going back to their roots, so to speak. They're a pretty motley group, but mostly get along - there's Cricket, the animal lover; Max, the lovable brogrammer; Dan, the doctor; Don, the teacher (not smart, having a Dan AND a Don); Professor Varga (who I kept reading as Professor "Viagra"); and Cuyler, wife-beater, racist, gun nut, outdoorsman, and probable Trump supporter.

As a group they mostly function together... except for Cuyler. Cuyler is a little too fond of his guns and he enjoys killing the animals they come across in the wild. You know, for fun. The rest of the group can see and hear that his wife is subjected to the same brutal treatment that he uses with everything else, but in typical non-confrontational fashion, none of them want to get involved and sow trouble. They decide they may be forced to put up with Cuyler.

- until strange and awful things start happening at their camp.


The funny thing is, I was about thirteen or fourteen when I read this book and I remember thinking about how weird it was, reading about a bunch of "old" people. I had carried my adolescent impressions of the book with me for all these years, thinking that it was about a bunch of older people led by their "wizened" professor/grandfatherly figure. You can imagine my amusement and horror when I realized that all of the main characters are the age I am now, and the "wizened" professor is actually in his early forties - within my dating range, in fact. This, gentle readers, is what "growing old" feels like, in action, and I can't help but be reminded of that surreal shock of the kids in IT, when they return to their town as adults and are shocked to find that time has moved on without them.

THE DAWNING is a pretty good book. I liked the survival elements, and the horror elements, although I feel like it gets a little too mystical towards the end. Still, what can you expect from a pulpy horror novel from a dude who enjoys writing about voodoo?

P.S. I'm one of those people who enjoys reading the ads in the back of the book, and I was amused to see Mary Ann Mitchell's SIPS OF BLOOD in the back, which I've also read.

3 out of 5 stars

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

Paula Hawkins's work falls rather easily into a category that I - yes, patronizingly - call a "best-seller book." These types of books are too "high brow" to be considered a pulpy potboiler (which I love) but too "low brow" to be considered true literary fiction (which I also love). Book clubs love them, which is pretty much the only reason I ever end up reading these types of books. As far as I can tell, "best-seller books" are basically the Kim Kardashians of the book world: famous for being famous and making headlines and, well, not a whole lot else.

I was not super psyched when my IRL book club chose this as our book of the month because I had read THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and found it disappointing, over-hyped, and dull. It was clearly written with Gillian Flynn in mind but someone needs to tell this author that she's no Gillian Flynn, as she - and her readers - clearly haven't gotten the memo, because I am constantly seeing these two touted in the same breath. NOPE. Not even close.

Gillian Flynn writes tightly woven narratives featuring morally gray female protagonists who are compelling because even though they do awful things, they are sympathetic and relatable. As far as I can tell from INTO THE WATER and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, Paula Hawkins writes about irritating, whiny little stereotypes who are all equally unlikable, and it's less about finding the murderer than who shares the greatest percentage of the blame. INTO THE WATER manages to one up its predecessor, though, by featuring an even greater cast of unlikable stereotypes than before. LITERALLY EVERYONE GETS A NARRATIVE POV IN THIS BOOK. The investigator? Check. The aunt? Check. The daughter? Check. The teacher? Check. A random psychic? Check.

Someone please, please get Mariah Carey in here to tell all these people she doesn't know them.

The plot is equally weak. A woman dies in a pond, called, appropriately enough, The Drowning Pool (which would have made a much better title for a thriller, in my opinion, than INTO THE WATER, which sounds like the name of a 1950s musical set at the beach). She is survived by her daughter and her sister, who sort of want to find out why she killed herself, but also not really, because the woman who died was a really awful person. Her daughter and sister are also really awful people, and so, as it turns out, are the rest of the people in this town. Pretty quickly, it turns out that a number of them had good reasons to want the Pond Woman dead, and it might just be murder and not suicide. #Surprise

I feel like this book was going for a Midsomer Murders vibe, but it didn't capture that same compelling atmosphere of a small town in everyone else's business or the complex relationships that form between flawed individuals who are desperately trying to keep up appearances while at the same time making sure all skeletons stay firmly ensconced within their closets. I spent most of the book being incredibly bored as I waded through POV after POV, and when the grand reveal(s) came, it felt totally anticlimactic and poorly handled. If you're going to deal with a serious issue, don't do it for sport, all right? Handle it as it deserves to be handled, and not for sensationalism. That's what tabloids are for.

This book is probably going to turn into another stupid movie that I'm not going to see, because for some reason beyond me people actually think this author's books are suspenseful and good. I'm fine with that: you do you, like what you like, etc. etc. But if you were like me, and found yourself compelled by a book club (or morbid curiosity) to pick this up after reading and being burned by THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and its false comparisons to GONE GIRL, let me save you the trouble - DON'T. Just put this book down and reread GONE GIRL or SHARP OBJECTS instead.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Csardas by Diane Pearson

Usually, I have no trouble at all reviewing books I like but CSARDAS is a different kind of beast. After finishing the book, I felt both a sense of satisfaction (I got through 600 pages of weighty material! I did good!) but also a sense of dread. Sometimes, you pick up a book of such substance that simply reviewing it doesn't quite do the damn thing justice. This is one of those times.

CSARDAS, which according to the book jacket, is pronounced "char-dosh," is a novel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire written just prior to, during, and then immediately after WWII. It chronicles the lives of two families of noble origin, the Ferencs and the Racs-Rassays. The first part of this book is set before WWII, in an idealistic golden age filled with prosperity and affluence. During WWII, there is a sense of fear, desperation, and violence. After the war, when the Communist party forms in the void left by the Nazis, there is a sense of paranoia, hypocrisy, and futility.

The first part of the book was my favorite, because I thought the way Malie and Eva's relationships with their families and their love interests was portrayed was exceptionally well done. None of the characters here are purely good or purely evil, and that morally grey characterization really reminded me of THE BRONZE HORSEMAN, which is set around the same time, only in Russia.

CSARDAS nearly does for Hungary what THE BRONZE HORSEMAN did for Russia, only the last part of the book feels a bit weak in comparison to the first two thirds. It doesn't help that the main characters are either shunted to the side - or SPOILER: killed - meaning that the romance of the third act falls between a character who was previously secondary to the plot, Janos, and Terez. Neither had the depth of character that Eva and Malie did in the beginning, which really disappointed me.

That said, I'm really glad I managed to locate a copy of this out-of-print gem and I really enjoyed learning about WWII from a different angle. I also loved that the handy book jacket (which also included a pronunciation guide for the title), disclosed how long the author spent researching this book - 3 FREAKING YEARS - and the book itself included a detailed bibliography. That was cool.

The only thing better than reading these types of books is reading them with friends. Thank you, Korey, for being my book buddy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Body Electric by Susan Squires

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

While reading this book, I had the song "Silent Running" by Mike & the Mechanics playing in my head on loop because it reminded me of a good 1970s science-fiction movie, like Westworld or Silent Running - one that might be a little dated, but still holds up over time because of how it tackles serious ethical issues about what happens when technology goes too far or falls into the wrong hands.

Looking at the cover for this book, you might think that you're going to get something like ABSOLUTE BOYFRIEND meets DEMON SEED. A lonely woman creating a "sensual" artificial intelligence that she wants to find a human body for? Gee, that doesn't sound creepy at all. I had nightmarish visions of what that story line would entail, let me tell you. Spoiler: The Mummy.

What I got instead was an incredible story with a great romance and pulse-pounding action. It had this fantastic 70s or 80s movie vibe, and I kept thinking to myself, "Damn, it's a shame people are pretentious twits who can't look past a romance cover, because this would make an amazing movie!"

Vic is a brilliant computer hacker working for a huge software company named Visimorph whose creator, McIntire, has a total monopoly on the industry. Vic is in charge of one of their newest products, Neuromancer (yes, named after the William Gibson book), but she's also got a side-project nobody knows about that's hidden inside Neuromancer's code: the first truly autonomous AI, Jodie.

Jodie, who is named after Jodie Foster, feels a near-instant bond with its creator, even if they sometimes butt heads or misinterpret the other's feelings or intentions. It wants to please her, and tries to get her gifts or presents, and feels jealous when it sees others attempting to vie for her affections (but not in a creepy way). After watching Jodie evolve and grow, Vic feels affection for her creation in the manner of all creators, but when she learns that Jodie identifies as male (and not female, as she originally intended), that affection quickly grows muddled and far more complicated - especially when Jodie expresses his desire for a body, so he can live, and breathe, and feel, as he aches to do.

BODY ELECTRIC references many cyberpunk books, like Ray Bradbury's I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC, William Gibson's NEUROMANCER, and even THE CONCEPT OF MIND, in reference to Gilbert Ryle's criticism of mind-body dualism. This is only fitting, though, considering the weightiness of the subject matter. Even though I would call BODY ELECTRIC a romance, it brings many interesting and serious discussions to the table like gender identity and dysphoria (and the pain of having someone misgender you, especially intentionally); what it means to have true AI, and the ethics that come with that; and, of course, sexism, particularly sexism faced by women in a male-dominated industry where their achievements are either overlooked, appropriated, or both.

I couldn't put this book down. It was one of those books I found myself thinking about as I went about my day, looking forward to the moment when I could return to the story. McIntire is a truly terrible villain, and I found myself invested in Jodie and Vic's star-crossed romance, wondering how they could possibly have a happy ending when they had so many people working against them. There are moments when it was almost painful to read, but there was no way in hell I was going to stop.

I can't wait to read this author's other books.

P.S. This makes for the first romance I've read that involved sex on top of bubble wrap.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 15, 2018

My Boyfriend Is a Bear by Pamela Ribon

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

I was going to try to look up some funny memes for this review, but apparently typing "bear" and "sex" into Google search mostly just turns up a lot of gay porn. Go figure.

MY BOYFRIEND IS A BEAR is a graphic novel about a girl named Nora whose boyfriend is a literal bear. Nora has a lame job working as a call center associate for a phishing site. She has a long list of "douchey" ex-boyfriends guilty of crimes such as wearing pukka shells and suspenders (not together - each item was a crime particular to a unique individual), or wanting to issue spank in the bedroom. The fiends! With such cads on her dating history, it's only natural that she'd want to date a bear.

Nora met Bear when she was hiking with one of her nasty ex-boyfriends (who still works with her at the call center). He berated her for reading fashion magazines instead of real literature and Bear saw her burying them in shame. Bear followed her home to return the magazines, and in the vein of human-human relationships, Nora is flattered by this stalkery (predatory?) behavior. One of Nora's friends is 100% on board with Team Bear, but her other friend is like WTF are you doing. And after some thought, I'm afraid I'm on Team WTF Are You Doing, as well.

Bear and Nora's relationship is cute, and maybe if it kept up the whole platonic, anime vibe I could buy it. There's a pretty cute manga called Tuxedo Gin about a boy whose spirit is reincarnated into a penguin after he is killed. But Bear is not a human cursed to live as a bear; Bear is an actual bear. This makes it especially weird when Bear does things like get a job(!), fixes things up around the house(!), or has sex with Nora(!!!!). The sex, thank God, is never on screen but it is hinted at multiple times, and I'd say that it was the elephant in the room, but that's not the case is it? (At least I hope not. What a threesome from hell that would be.)

Fun fact: bears have something called a baculum, which means that they have a literal bone in their boner. I'm not going to say anything else. You can just take a moment to think about that.

P.S. I resent the hipsters touting Jose Saramago in here being portrayed as the bad guys. Jose Saramago is awesome.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Blush Pink Rose by Fawn Bailey

Apparently this is "Isabella Starling" writing as "Fawn Bailey." I have no idea who either of those people are but it was worth putting on the cover in fairly big font, so I figured I should mention it.

I picked up BLUSH PINK ROSE because it was free in the Kindle store and I liked the cover. It also promised to be one of those dark romances, which I either end up enjoying a lot or hating and making fun of ruthlessly (so either way, a win for me).

It's super short, but it's one of those books that manages to feel 10x longer than it actually is because it's so dull. This is not a romance. There isn't even any erotica in here. What you have in this book is a girl named Harlow who is seventeen. She is a ballerina who lies and says she is twenty so she can work as a waitress and reap the benefits of being an adult. Her evil Mommie Dearest guardian is totally complicit in this for questionable reasons.

There is a creepy dude who is stalking Harlow and has been stalking her since she was a preteen. Since she was a preteen, he's been watching her and mentally (and probably physically) jerking off to the thought of how he'll groom her when she's "ripe", i.e. turns eighteen. I don't think he's named in this book but this is the type of "hero" who equates "Domination" with "free reign to be a psychopath." And while I love psychotic heroes, the whole "stalking her since she was a preteen" thing was kind of gross, and he has an oily, Norman Bates vibe that's rather off-putting.

The writing is also not that great. There are a number of typos, some bad enough that they affected comprehension (there was one sentence where I have no idea what the author was actually trying to say). It also just feels like a lackluster effort - I see that it's a prequel to a series, so maybe it was just cranked out as a "tie in" to promote another book or something like that. It feels like it lacks "effort."

I'm not sure I'd go on to read the rest of the books in this series if this is a sample of what the author's work is typically like. Clearly Isabella Starling and Fawn Bailey are not for me.

1.5 out of 5 stars