Thursday, June 21, 2018

Deliver by Pam Godwin

My biggest beef with the erotica genre is that a lot of the ratings feel very inflated. People seem to mostly be rating based on how hot the sex scenes are while ignoring things like sophistication of the writing style and quality, syntax and grammatical errors, and believability of characterization and scenarios. While I get the rationale behind this, it means that books that are about as highbrow as the scribblings on a latrine wall have the same average ratings, in aggregate, as actual masterpieces do. And that is hardly fair.

For a while, I avoided the erotica genre entirely because of this, but curiosity pulled me in. That, and enabling friends, and the fact that some of the more popular books in this genre would occasionally show up for free in the Kindle store. I've been bingeing on them recently and DELIVER by Pam Godwin is the latest in the line-up, seeing as how it recently showed up for free ninety-nine, which I think we can all agree is the absolute best price for an e-book.

One of the things that makes DELIVER stand out from the other "captive" erotica in this genre is that the kidnapper/Dom is a woman. Liv scouts and kidnaps youths to be trained and broken as sex slaves. She's good at what she does - and why wouldn't she be? Before she became the emotionless tyrant that she is now, she was a slave herself, owned by the man who's now her partner, Van.

The requirements for her newest catch are seriously creepy AF and seem to be written by one of those misogynistic "incels" you keep hearing about in the news. Her buyer wants a heterosexual man who's never slept with a woman, but who has been taught to hate women, and who is also trained to be with a man. Liv's goal is to find a young man who meets these specifications and groom him via methodical debasement, teaching him the sexual arts even as she makes him loathe her.

Her quarry ends up being this college student named Josh, who is literally the epitome of the good old country boy. He's a virgin, he plays football and is about to receive a scholarship, he wants to be a minister and spends all of his free time studying the bible, he works on a farm and lives with his parents. Liv decides that the best way to capture to him is to appeal to his old-fashioned gentlemanly nature and pretends to have a car breakdown, luring him into the apartment that will become his prison. And then the "training" begins... dun, dun, dun.

The beginning of this book is pretty exceptionally well done. Liv's coldness and the sense of doom hanging over poor Josh all feels so inevitable. Godwin also doesn't shy away from the grittiness, which I appreciated. If you're going to write dark content, rule #1 is deliver. Don't try to romanticize it or sugar-coat it, because the book will end up being gross. Don't get me wrong, it's still gross - but gross in a "oh my God, this is horrifying, why are people out there who do this" sort of way, and not "what the hell is this author doing, why is she making this seem like it's totally fine" sort of way.

I was leaning towards a five star review for a while, but I think the last quarter of the book gets a little weird. The author tries too hard to rationalize what Liv does, and I think it's so she could give her a semblance of a happy ending without looking like she was rewarding a total monster. Even so, it felt too neat to me, and the beginning of this book suggested that this was going to be a story that scoffed at "neat" so I felt cheated. I also felt like Josh's reactions were unrealistic, that he warmed to Liv too quickly. I get the idea of turning the other cheek, but this was pretty ridiculous. The music angle was a little too silly for me, too. It felt like the author trying to push her book's soundtrack.

Overall, though, this was a pleasant surprise. Definitely one of the better "dark" eroticas I have read - I have read a lot at this point, and some of them are staggeringly horrifically bad. Godwin has a great style and really knows how to use suspense to her advantage to keep you turning those pages. I'm definitely curious to check out the rest of her books generally, as well as the ones in this series.

P.S. Is anyone else kind of dying now for a prequel about how Van and Liv met? Because I am.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Pas De Deux: A Dance For Two by Lynn Turner

I'm a sucker for books about dance and ballet - especially romance. I think the passion of dance makes it a compelling subject, and that same obsessive drive that fuels the characters' passion for dance pairs so well with passions of a different kind. PAS DE DEUX definitely fills this need. It's about two characters named Zachary and Mina. Zachary is in the process of creating a stage-adaption of Alexandre Dumas's La Dame aux Camélias called "The Lady in Red." When he sees Mina in person for the first time, he knows she'll be perfect for the part. He also knows he must have her.

There is so much to love about this book. The writing has a poetic, dreamy quality that fits with the surreal ballet scenes and the romantic scenes between the two leads. It has diversity, and does so in a beautiful and respectful way. Mina is black, and talks about some of the difficulties that has caused her in her career when it came to getting her foot into the door and finding roles. There's a touching scene when Mina is a guest speaker at a ballet class for low income children, and one of the little girls wants to touch Mina's curly hair to see if she is like her. It made me remember when that little boy wanted to pat President Obama's head; Turner really captures the quiet joy of seeing someone who is like you doing what you want to do and succeeding.

Of course, Zachary also has a deep back story. He is the victim of sexual abuse, and exhibits PTSD in a really realistic way (with some trigger scenes that may be uncomfortable for some readers). After being passed from foster home to foster home, he ends up with a Latinx family and the scene with them was so cute and heartwarming. Mina's relationship with her mother is loving but distant and the overbearing, smothering affection that Zachary's family pours on him provides a stark contrast.

The reason I'm only giving it three stars is that there are portions where the book felt very slow for me. The lovely writing could, on occasion, spin out into pure melodrama, and there are only so many times that I could stand to see Mina cry out, "je t'aime, je t'aime, je t'aime!" or "merde, merde, merde!" during sex scenes (even if said sex scenes were well done). I set the book down and forgot about it for a little while before picking it back up (because I did want to see what happened with Mina and Zachary - I felt invested). Also, there's a weird criminal subplot involving murder and theft that comes out of left field and feels a bit too "soap opera," if you know what I mean.

If you enjoy well written erotica and stories about dance, you should definitely pick up Lynn Turner's PAS DE DEUX. It reminded me of Katherine Locke's SECOND POSITION, although not quite as angsty and with a happier ending. I can see this author becoming very successful in the years to come and look forward to seeing what she comes up with next. (There's a serious dearth of well-written erotica out there, as I'm sure you'll agree.)

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Tender Mercies by Kitty Thomas

Wow, I don't even know what to say about TENDER MERCIES. It is one of the more disturbing "romances," I've read, but I'm almost loath to call it a romance because the relationship it describes is in no way healthy, even if does depict a warped kind of tenderness.

TENDER MERCIES is about a woman named Grace, a submissive who wants to be "owned." She has gone to BDSM clubs and been in a 24/7 relationships involving total power exchange, but now she's tired of playing and wants the real thing. She's been talking to a man online named Lucas who says he can give her what she wants: there's an island called Eleu where slavery is legal, where the most extreme of the kinksters come to indulge in the most utterly depraved acts. He wants her to come there and be his.

After deliberating about it restlessly, Grace gets on a plane to Eleu.

It is a terrible, TERRIBLE mistake.

For a year, Grace is raped, terrorized, and beaten in a number of horrible ways as the dude who she thought would be a loving Master literally scars her and even uses his pet dog service her (eww) while keeping her locked up in his cold, dark basement dungeon, far away from the tropical sun. All of this is perfectly legal on Eleu, so Grace is pretty much trapped to this awful fate. Luckily for her, her evil Master doesn't really want her around and plans on selling her to the first sadistic lunatic he can find. This ends up being a man named Asher, who was rumored to have killed his last slave.

In my review of Celia Aaron's COUNSELLOR, I said that I didn't mind captive romance if the psychology of it was done well. It is a messed up thing to do, deciding that you're going to kidnap someone and take all their rights away. You can't have a normal, healthy relationship that stems from that kind of power imbalance. Kitty Thomas does a really good job with that, in my opinion. Grace's experience with her abusive Master leaves her utterly broken. When she comes to Asher, she's in a vulnerable place and utterly dependent on him and his "tender mercies." Like Lucas, Asher gets off on owning another human and is also a bit of a sadist, but unlike Lucas, he wants a trusting, loving relationship with a "partner" who will do everything he asks and trust that he will keep them safe.

This is a romance about Stockholm Syndrome and it is pretty brilliantly done. I think what makes it more palatable is that it takes place on a made-up island, which makes it an extra step removed from reality. It's about as fanciful as a scenario in a hardcore porno, but also has the complexity of a psychological case study, which makes for an interesting head rush. Even though TENDER MERCIES is a short book and goes by quickly, only the beginning feels rushed. Kitty Thomas manages to squeeze in an incredible amount of character development in a very short time.

If you have a pretty good tolerance when it comes to dark and disturbing stories and want to read a "dark" erotica that won't have you rolling your eyes or setting your Kindle on fire, this is a good choice. I'm really curious about Kitty Thomas's other books, now - especially that vampire one!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lions and Lace by Meagan McKinney

This was an unholy amount of fun. Not only is the hero a sexy, icy, bad-ass fother-mucker with an Irish accent that will make your pants burst into flame, the plot is filled with enough angst and drama to make a shoujo anime burst into hysterical tears. I tore through this in the span of two days, and when I wasn't reading it, I was actively thinking about it, wondering, needing, to know what happened next.

Set in New York during the gilded age, LIONS AND LACE is about the "romance" between two very different people. Trevor Sheridan is basically the 19th century "Wolf of Wall Street," only people call him "The Predator." He grew up destitute and through a series of events that basically personify the Horatio Alger myth, he became as rich as Croesus with a gold-studded chip on his shoulder big enough - and heavy enough - to crush all of New York's high society. Which it does, because despite their wealth, the very fact of their being Irish closes all the doors to them. It's only when the rich snobs go after his sixteen-year-old sister, by pointedly snubbing her debut, that he decides to get revenge with terrifying ruthlessness.

Alana Van Alen is a part of this wealthy set, and while privileged AF, tragedy has tempered some of her aspirations. She's the only member of the society that actually intended to go to Mara Sheridan's debut ball, but her abusive uncle beats her and then locks her in her room so she can't. When Trevor ruins Alana, her uncle, and all of their friends, her uncle binds her and leaves her trussed up like a roast on Trevor's doorstep, leaving her at his mercy. Obviously, Trevor doesn't believe her when she insists that she, unlike everyone else, meant his sister no harm, and he decides to punish her by blackmailing her into marriage. Using her name and her status, he'll be granted the acceptance of the society that previously refused him and his sister, and Alana won't be free of him until Mara is wed.

It's like Meagan McKinney had a crystal ball to see inside my head and pull out all of my favorite tropes. I love angsty, emotional melodrama when it's done well. There was a summer about seven years ago where I binged through the entire Hana Yori Dango series; reading LIONS AND LACE left me with a similar emotional hangover. Enemies-to-lovers, forced marriage, dark and tragic histories, elitist snobs, icy and cruel heroes, cheeky heroines, hate-fueled bedroom romps, groveling hero - oh yes, this was a nonstop party of smutty, glorious trash, and everyone was dressed to the nines. The writing is also excellent and reminded me a lot of Laura Kinsale's, so if you enjoy her work - particularly SHADOWHEART or UNCERTAIN MAGIC - I think you will enjoy Meagan McKinney's style, as well. The secondary and tertiary romances are also super cute and provide some much-needed comic relief amid the agonizingly torturous suffering of the main couple.

I could sit here and yammer at you about how much I loved this book, but it's probably better that you read it yourself instead of me browbeating you into doing it (although I will do so, gladly). My only qualm is that the sequel is far too much money ($6.99 for an ebook?? Noooo, whyyy?) and there are still way too many loose ends left hanging. A certain someone is in desperate need of punishment, and I won't be satisfied until I see them fall. *eyes gleam with blood-lust* Until then, I'll just sit here, nursing this emotional angstover while trying not to fall into Book Slumplandia.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo

DNF @ 15%

Do you like nasty, selfish, intolerant, mean-spirited, self-absorbed piece of shit heroines who don't care about anyone but themselves and take a savage glee in making everyone around them miserable? Then read THE WAY YOU MAKE ME FEEL by Maurene Goo. Otherwise, throw this book in a fire.

It's been ages since I was repulsed by a book so much. The premise sounded amazing. I love food trucks. I love diverse YA. I like mischievous, pranky heroines. But then I met Clara, who decides to throw tampons at the audience for prom election on the pretense of feminism but really to stir the pot, and after she gets into a fight at prom with this black girl named Rose, they end up setting the school on fire. Clara doesn't feel sorry at all, and is only mad that she doesn't get to go on vacay with her equally selfish "influencer" mother, instead working in her dad's Korean-Brazilian food truck with her "enemy," Rose as punishment.

The thing is, Rose actually seems pretty nice. High strung and rule-abiding to a T, but really nice. And when they're working in the food truck, Clara immediately starts a campaign to be as mean to her as possible, in front of the customers, no less. Does she get punished? Not really. I was reading this book with gritted teeth but what made me DNF was when Clara gets mad about Rose calling her out on cross-contaminating the pork and veggie pans, when Rose says that Muslim people can't eat pork at all - ANY pork - and Clara says, "What they don't know won't hurt them. They'll just have to wonder why their food is suddenly more delicious. Hint: pork."


I have no interest in seeing this little shit get a happy ending. She needs sensitivity training and anger management courses. Not a meet-cute. What an absolutely terrible heroine.

P.S. Her dad is adorbs, but not even he was enough to redeem this book.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy

1 out of 5 stars

Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Like many others, I was interested in this memoir because I fell in love with her Star Trek: Voyager character, Kathryn Janeway. It was such an important show for me as a kid because I've always been interested in fantasy and science-fiction, but until fairly recently, all of the main characters were men. I used to write fan-fiction gender-swapping the leads, giving myself a female version of my favorite series that I could aspire to be. Kathryn Janeway was that gender-swapped fanfiction come to life, a female starship captain who balanced tenderness with firm command, and had the respect of her entire crew without having to resort to bullying.

BORN WITH TEETH is a great memoir and really shows the person behind the role. Often, celebrity memoirs tend to be very positive, following a rigid formula: the early childhood, the career awakening, and then their big break. Mulgrew, surprisingly, veers from this formula in her memoir, which is very personal. She shares a number of tragic experiences, such as her sister's terminal disease, her mother's incredibly odd (and possibly mentally ill) behavior, miscarriage, abortion, rape, reconnecting with her biological daughter, struggling to balance work life with family life (and still being found wanting at times, no matter how much effort she poured in), and of course, her romantic relationships with several men, none of them perfect human beings, but some better than others.

There were definitely slower moments in this memoir, and I would have liked more behind-the-scenes tidbits about her work (what was it like working with young Pierce Brosnan back in the day? What were some of the best and worst parts about working on the popular Star Trek franchise? Carrie Fisher's memoir had some very interesting insights in her memoir on the double-standards of Leia's portrayal, as well as some horrible/funny stories about people behaving badly at conventions). Sometimes hearing about her personal relationships was a bit tedious, as they do have a slightly privileged air to them as Mulgrew casually relates her obvious wealth.

Still, she also brings up a lot of interesting points about how difficult it is for women to work in this business, and how men are not held to the same exacting standards (particularly where work-life balance is concerned). She acknowledges the many wonderful people who helped build her up, but she isn't as gracious as some of the other female celebrities whose memoirs I have read; she owns her work, chalking it up to hard work, honesty, and persistence. You can see a lot of Janeway peering through this memoir - that grit, vulnerability, and toughness - and that made this book especially interesting for me, to see how much of herself she brought to her role on Star Trek.

If you're an Orange Is the New Black fan, you might be disappointed, because she doesn't mention her work there at all. The Star Trek chapter is one of the last chapters, and the book ends with her being reunited with the big flame of her life. It's an odd ending, particularly since the book opened so strongly with a very vivid and lyrical description of her unconventional upbringing.

Regardless of its flaws, however, I really did appreciate the honesty of this memoir and the beautiful way it was written. It made me like Kate Mulgrew more than I already did, because she always struck me as a bit of a mystery. I find it inspiring to find out how much actresses do to accomplish their dreams, particularly when they don't apologize for succeeding.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Counsellor by Celia Aaron

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

Remember when FIFTY SHADES OF GREY came out and people were like, "This is weirdly uncomfortable - this feels more like the ownership of another human being than a romance"? Well, Celia Aaron decides to take squick a step further in COUNSELLOR, because hey, wouldn't it be fun if a girl and a millionaire signed a contract where he would actually own her?

Stella's father is going to jail and Sinclair represents the opposing party. He meets with her on the DL and presents her with some papers and then says, "Hey, baby - be my slave for a year and I'll nix all the charges against your pops. But if you refuse, I'll make sure that he gets raped and probably dies in prison LOL. But seriously, sign or bad things will happen to your dad."

Faced with that kind of ultimatum, Stella signs the contract "willingly" while he is literally panting at her ear like a horny pervert insisting that she do so (alarm bells, anyone? no?) and promptly becomes a slave. As it turns out, Sinclair is part of this creepy group of people who have resurrected the slave trade in the South. I'm sure they have a name, but let's just call them the Slave Appreciation Society. Sinclair is in the running to become Sovereign, which is basically President of the Slave Appreciation Society, which means that he gets tithes from their income and also power and prestige. Oh, and that he breaks freaking slaves that he kidnaps. Let's not forget that part.

You become Sovereign by having weird, Hunger Games-like human versions of "dog shows" only instead of fighting for their lives, the audience has an orgy while watching the "contestants" (read: slaves) get forcibly tattooed with branding marks, paraded around naked on a runway while people catcall and grope, and then whipped 25 times (one time for each decade that the Slave Appreciation Society has been in existence). It's a truly bizarre and disturbing scene and I found myself both fascinated and horrified.

I know the slavery thing is going to be a deal-breaker for some, and I feel like even the author kind of had a "oh no!" moment when she realized that writing an erotica novel about romanticized slavery in the modern-day South might be triggering for some because at one point, Sinclair casually says, for no apparent reason, that this new slave trade isn't about color. To be fair, it isn't. All of the slaves at the competition are white (if I remember correctly). That doesn't make what you're doing any better, bro.

I don't mind reading "captive" romances as long as they're done well, but I feel like this one was executed pretty badly. Don't get me wrong - it was breakneck AF, and I sped through it while hating myself for each page read, unable to help myself - but there were some pretty huge problems that made suspension of disbelief fall utterly flat on its face. There are some pretty awful psychological elements that come into play for Stockholm Syndrome, and if you're going to write that book but wuss out at the idea of making the heroine hate the hero, then you really shouldn't write captive romances because as uncomfortable as it is to write a romance where the hero and heroine hate each other (for good reason), I think it's more uncomfortable when this is just glossed over as normal.

Seriously, why are people doing this? Sinclair keeps saying that he has to do it for duty, family, etc. Why? You have dirt on high-powered political people and if you really wanted to get out of it, all it would take was a whisper in the right ear, and all of this would come crashing down like the f'd up Jenga tower that it is. Whining about how you're powerless to stop what you're clearly capable of stopping just makes you a spineless weenie. Also, where are they getting these people, these slaves, from? Stella was blackmailed and one of the women was a prostitute - what about the others?

Also, I thought it was really creepy how quickly Stella started fantasizing about Sinclair. Right after she's kidnapped, she starts touching herself while imagining them doing it in the shower (uh?) and then right after he whips her so badly that they have to medically induce unconsciousness, she and him do it. The beginning was great, because she hated that jerk and with good reason, and I thought, "Oh, cool, a heroine who isn't going to take this BS, and will give the hero something to think about." #Nope. All of that flies out of the window as soon as she scopes out his hot bod and killer jawline.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, encouraging you to buy the next one, but I think I'm going to call it quits with the Slave Appreciation Society for now. Go figure, hey?

1.5 out of 5 stars