Sunday, May 20, 2018

Secret of Mirror House by Jennifer Blake

A lot of gothic romance novels have really similar plots, but with THE SECRET OF MIRROR HOUSE, I had an especial case of deja vu, because it felt like a mashup of two other gothic romances that I read and enjoyed a lot more: Dorothy Eden's DARKWATER and Jennifer Blake's other book, DARK MASQUERADE. That's never a good sign.

The plot is pretty basic. Following a tragedy (the death of her mother), Amelia comes to live with her relatives at Mirror House. Once there, she realizes that they're all pretty awful people who don't seem to want her to be there, and shortly after her arrival, ends up becoming victim to a number of odd and sinister tricks, including being run down in the woods and nearly being left to drown in a swampy lake. Dun, dun, dun.

The "secret" in this case is with regard to why Amelia was invited to stay at Mirror House in the first place, and the strange, masked woman who roves the halls at night like a ghost. I wanted to be more involved in this mystery than I was, but sadly, the twist was very similar to the one in DARKWATER, down to a very similar character trope. I was also really bored for most of this book. There just wasn't enough happening and I didn't care about any of the characters. Reba and Sylvestor were creepy creepsters. James was kind of smarmy. Amelia was bland and a little TSTL. Nelville is the typical Broody McMightBeABadman gothic romance hero, except this being set in Louisiana, he drops a ton of sinister aphorisms that make him sound like a Francis Underwoodesque character who wouldn't be out of place on House of Cards.

I think the best thing about this book is the humid, claustrophobic Southern atmosphere and beautiful writing. It's pretty chilly right now, but I could just picture that swampy heat and the sticky sweat pouring down my neck, and you know that's the mark of a talented writer, being able to set the scene like that. I'm working my way through Jennifer Blake's bodice rippers and gothic romances, and so far I like her bodice rippers more, because I think the temptation with a gothic novel is to be slow in order to draw out the mystery, whereas bodice rippers, as the name implies, are all about the action.

I'm curious if there's a difference between her novels published under the Patricia Maxwell name vs. the Jennifer Blake name, because I really enjoyed the last Blake gothic romance I read, but it was originally a Maxwell title (DARK MASQUERADE). We'll see, I guess!

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Dangerous by Minerva Spencer

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

Disclaimer: Minerva is a Goodreads friend of mine. She did not, however, solicit me to read and review her book. I found the title on Netgalley and, recognizing the name, decided to check it out.

The cover of DANGEROUS leaped out at me immediately because of the cheesy, 90s romance-style cover, hearkening back to the days when every other hero was cast in the puffy shirt mode of Fabio, and poor photo shop led to some questionable aesthetic decisions.

Likewise, the premise of this book also seemed like it was going to be a throwback to the Bertrice Small school of writing. The heroine, Euphe(mia) Marlington, was kidnapped by pirates when she was a preteen and sold as a slave to a sultan's harem.

Now an adult in her thirties, she finds that the starchy English society isn't really prepared for her like. Her peers snub her, and creepy older dudes want to have their way with her, but nobody really wants to take her as a wife - and they'd want her even less if they found out about her adult, biracial son who's currently in the middle of a power coup in Africa.

Her father (who also has no idea about the son) decides to take matters into his own hands and throws an elaborate party where Mia is supposed to choose one of the men assembled for a husband. They're basically all the utter dregs of the well-to-do, except for a certain cold-eyed marquess named Adam de Courtney, who allegedly murdered his previous two lives and lives in infamy in his manor.

Neither are what they appear to be, but both feel an instant attraction as soon as they see each other.

Wow, I was really impressed by this book! It's like a modern upgrade to everything I love about bodice rippers - steamy sex scenes, globe-trotting adventures, pirates, seafaring expeditions, naughty harem hijinks - but with a modern, PC-friendly twist. DANGEROUS is very sex-positive, in my opinion, and the hero is the perfect blend of stern alpha with a caring side and icy bad boy.


Her writing style really reminds me a lot of Meredith Duran's, so if you're a fan of the Rules for the Reckless series, this might be a good book to pick up next. The only shortcoming was Mia's sequence of third-act TSTL decisions and some fights that felt pointless, but at least these characters actually talk about their problems instead of dancing around them endlessly like Julia Quinn's characters.

It's very refreshing to read a book where the characters actually enjoy talking to each other.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic That Remains One of Medicine's Greatest Mysteries by Molly Caldwell Crosby

Reading a book about a disease that makes people go to sleep and never wake up again is probably not the best bedtime reading, but when it comes to books, I often make bad choices. In case you couldn't tell from the title, ASLEEP is about the sleeping sickness, also known as encephalitis lethargica, literally Latin for "that thing that makes your brain swell and makes you sleepy." It's a disease that's mostly been swept under the rug and in this book, which sews together the case studies of several people who were afflicted with the disease, Crosby discusses the "mystery" behind enchephalitis lethargica and how it affected the infected.

For the most part, I thought ASLEEP was an interesting book and devoured it fairly quickly. Sometimes these medical history books can be too gruesome for me and yes, what happens to the victims in this book is truly awful (one case was particularly horrific, and I remember reading about that particular incident in one of my psychology textbooks in college as an example of how hospitals should exert more rigorous supervision over patients with a tendency to self-harm).

ASLEEP is a bit of an unsatisfying read though for two reasons. First, it's a mystery without a satisfactory ending. Doctors still aren't quite sure what caused the sleeping sickness, and while there are theories (autoimmune response? multiple diseases acting in tandem?), there is no solution. Contrast that to another medical mystery book I read a while ago about prions, where the book builds up to that one "eureka!" moment where people realize, "hmm, maybe eating brains is a bad idea!"

The second aspect of this book that was a bit of a downer for me was the way that the patients themselves were discussed. This book did not really read the way a psychologist or psychiatrist would talk about patients, and I looked up the author and it appears that she is a journalist with no psychology background that I can see (seems that she has a Master of Arts). I bring this up because one of the things that they teach you in psychology (or any other medical-related science) many, many times is to not fall into the trap of defining people by their disease. People make fun of PC-language but addressing people by the correct labels shows respect, and feeling that you are a respected human being is crucial to healing. Each case study is portrayed as a distinct "before" and "after" with the "before" being held up as the ideal and the "after" being this utterly ruinous thing that destroyed their lives and made them shattered shells of their former selves, etc. and I could almost hear all of my psych professors collectively groaning in my mind. This other review by Talulah on Goodreads goes more into depth on the specifics of the language used to describe the patients.

It felt a bit like tabloid sensationalism.

I realized that something about this book was putting me off and didn't realize what it was until I read the epilogue (which ties back to the prologue) about how the author's own grandmother being afflicted with sleeping sickness was one of the inspirations for her writing about the disease. I thought that was really interesting until I read the end part about how her when her grandmother was dying, she was trying to think about something to remember her by as a person but couldn't get over the empty space the disease had left in her (paraphrasing). Annnd that's how the book ends. On that note.

I did enjoy ASLEEP but the writing could have been less sensationalistic and more delicate in how it handled the cases of the various patients who had the sleeping sickness. I get that this book is older, and people know more about the importance of proper "labels" now, and even Oliver Sacks, who endorsed this book, comes across as comparatively insensitive in his oldest book, THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT, when you compare it to some of his more recent titles. Psychology is a new field and it's changing so fast that by the time some people finally feel competent to talk about it, some of the terms are already out of date. I mean, I still see people who make jokes that schizophrenia means multiple personality (it doesn't) or that you only use 10% of your brain (good luck with that). All it takes to change that is a little research and extra care.

3 out of 5 stars

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

DNF @ 36%

Mastubatory fantasy for the disaffected intellectual who thinks Harry Potter needs less friendship and more Ayn Rand and Bret Easton Ellis. If the idea of reading about a bunch of self-congratulatory little assholes learning magic appeals to you, then by all means, pick up THE MAGICIANS.

I should point out that my qualm itself is less about the characters and more about the stilted writing and the lazy portrayal in which they are framed. I can handle unlikable, morally grey protagonists - just don't bore me.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Dead Heart by Heather Crews


1. a feeling of satisfaction you get when your relentless nagging & begging results in another book in your favorite vampire series

Mandatory disclosure time: I was the beta reader for this book and Heather is a good friend of mine. In fact, I basically nagged and nagged her about writing a Branek story after reading and falling in love with the other book in this series, DREAMS FOR THE DEAD. If you know me, you know that I have two modes: "Not interested" and "F*cking obsessed." For this series, it was the latter. I'm now in the works of hounding Heather for a Jared story, and then maybe a Gus story. I'm relentlessly incorrigible.

DEAD HEART went live today on Amazon, and I bought a copy as soon as I got home so I could read and review it in a somewhat unbiased manner (because when you pay for goods and services rendered, I feel like that automatically makes you much more invested in said goods and services). Heather added a lot of new scenes in this book that I hadn't read before, so it was extra fun for me to see what had been kept, what had been changed, what had been expanded on. The sexy scenes in this book were super hot and disturbing, exactly how vampires should be written. Oh, and Branek is a bisexual vampire who swings both ways, as long as there's blood to be drunk and good times to be had. You'll love him to death...and then when you die, he will do horrible things to your dead body.

It's hard for me to say which book I liked best. DREAMS FOR THE DEAD was really, really good, but I like the protagonist of DEAD HEART better, as he's more in the vein (heh, vein) of the gleefully psychotic heroes I find so interesting in fiction (even if I'd avoid them like the plague in real life). This is the sort of hero that Trisha Baker was trying to come up with, I think, when she wrote CRIMSON KISS with its evil vampire hero, Simon Baldevar, but I like Branek so much better.

P.S. Yes, I am the "Nenia" in the dedication. This is the first time someone has dedicated a book to me, ever, and I was so happy that I immediately considered screen-shotting my Kindle app from my PC so I could print that sh*t out and tack it to my wall right next to my diploma. #priorities

But seriously, if you love heroes that will scare the F out of you & dark stories, you should read this.

5 out of 5 stars

Far from You by Tess Sharpe

I have this terrible habit of buying books and not reading them. I'm a book magpie: the process of acquisition is almost as pleasurable, if not more so, as the act of reading itself. What this means is that I have a whole lot of unread books lying around and I'm constantly buying more instead of reading what I have. I'm trying to change that, though, and what better way than by stuffing books two or three at a time in my bag so they're there?

This is one of those books.

YA is not always my genre of choice, but one type of YA book I keep coming back to again and again is the young adult thriller. I think it's because I'm super nosy and I love the idea of everyone hiding secrets in a claustrophobic environment and then seeing those secrets gradually come to light. And what is more claustrophobic than the fishbowl of high school, where everyone is very interested in what everyone else is doing? And if one of the things that people are doing is murder, then look out world, and put on your Drama Boots™.

I actually just read another YA thriller just before this one, called LITTLE MONSTERS. Both books are somewhat similar in that they serve the dual purpose of exploring the emotionally-fraught relationships between teenage girls amidst the backdrop of a murder. LITTLE MONSTERS is more of a tale of obsession and friendship in the vein of Megan Abbott, however, whereas FAR FROM YOU is more of a romance. Specifically, a doomed LGBT romance where a girl seeks vengeance and the truth when the love of her life is murdered after digging too deep into a half-buried mystery.

Sophie was in two accidents. Both of them took something from her. The first ended up facilitating her addiction to opiates. The second stole away the person she cared about most. After a long, hard road to recovery, Sophie has emerged battered but unbroken, determined to find out what happened to her girlfriend, Mina, and what she knew that was so important that someone was willing to kill for it.

There is so much emotion in this book and I thought the subjects of sexuality and addiction were handled really well. Bisexuality, especially, was described really well in this book. All too often, you encounter books that play into the hands of the usual stereotypes: promiscuity, confusion, etc. But Sophie knows what she wants, and who she wants. And even if she feels attraction to other people - boys and girls - there is only one person that she loves. It was so beautiful. I almost cried at the end of the book, because it was so sad and tragic and poignant. Luckily, I didn't, because I was reading this on the bus, but man, it was close. It's been a while since a book hit me THAT HARD.

If you enjoy YA thrillers with edgy content and good bisexual rep, FAR FROM YOU is a great choice. I really enjoyed it a lot, and between this and LITTLE MONSTERS, I kind of want to go on a YA thriller kick. They're like Pringles, man. You can't stop at just one.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 14, 2018

Truth or Beard by Penny Reid

DNF @ 43%

My romance group, the Unapologetic Romance Readers, picked this as our May group read. Some of us really enjoyed it - but others fell into the camp of, "Excuse me, what is this?"

As far as I can tell, the plot of these books can be summed up as "Men Who Have Beards... and the Women Who Want to Do Them." (The men, that is - not the beards, although given the strangeness of this book, beard sex probably isn't off the table.)

Beau and Duane Winston are two of these Men with Beards. They are identical twins, although with opposite personalities. Beau is the Elizabeth Wakefield of the two: friendly, sociable, intelligent, good ol' boy, whereas Duane is the Jessica Wakefield: moody, sarcastic, mean-spirited, and selfish.

Jessica - I mean the Jessica of this book, Jessica James (not to be confused with the far more awesome Jessica Jones) - has been in love with Beau her whole life. So when one of the twins decides to cop a feel and then more than a feel, she naturally assumes it's Beau and just rolls with it. Little does she know that the twin she nearly does in the shadowed corners is actually Duane (and if that weren't icky enough, he knows that she thinks he's his brother and doesn't tell her).

Honestly, this happens so much in romance novels, and I think it's such a gross, fetishy trope. I can't imagine twins IRL pulling sex pranks on their love interests or pretending to be their twin in order to get some booty. That feels almost rapey to me, because you don't technically have their consent to have sex with you. I didn't like Duane from that moment on, and his treatment of his stripper girlfriend, Tina, and his creepy, Travis Maddoxy assertion that he and Jessica are "suited" just continued to make me like him less, and less, and less.

I also didn't really care for the writing style or the humor in this book. Penny Reid kind of reminds me of L.H. Cosway with her awkward asides and weird, rambling humor about totally random stuff, and I believe Reid and Cosway actually did a collab, so that's probably a match made in heaven. Not my heaven, obviously, but somebody's. Somebody who is not me.

I was going to try to force myself to finish this but I have so little time these days that I may go back to rating and reviewing books I haven't finished. Normally I just chuck them to the side, unread, but I feel like if a book is so bad that pushing yourself to continue actually ruins your day a little, the public should be informed.

P.S. What is up with the biker gang sub-plot? It's like the author herself realized, "Hmm, this book is actually kind of boring. Better add in some pointless action."

P.P.S. Does Jessica have a circumcised penis fetish? She was really into the fact that Duane was circumcised. Like, REALLY into it.

1 out of 5 stars