Sunday, September 16, 2018

Dancergirl by Carol M. Tanzman

Alicia Ruffino is a dancer in New York. Being the daughter of a single working mom comes with baggage, so it's important to have something to define herself as. That's why she's so determined to excel in her dance competition and snag the solo part. Her dancing is well known to her friends, and one day, her friend Charlie gets the idea of filming her from afar under the pseudonym Shyboy. Uploading the video and calling her dancergirl, he creates a narrative in which he, the sensitive loner type, is pining after the ethereal manic pixie dream girl from afar. The video goes viral, and Alicia finds the taste of fame sours on the tongue, especially when it brings her unwanted attention in the form of a stalker.

I really wanted to like this book. I'm a sucker for stalker stories and for stories about dancing, but this book completely fell flat. Alicia is such an unlikable character. I mean, this is a girl who makes light of her mother's profession as a nurse and whose first reaction when she sees her friend crying is, "Hey, let's watch this video of ME online!" - what makes it worse is that it turns out the friend is crying because they have a degenerative disease. Wow, way to be all sensitive and sh*t, Alicia. The story is also pretty lame. I kept reading because I wanted to find out who the stalker is, but man, it takes FOREVER and with little payoff.

I think what made it worse is that I've recently read a much better YA dance story about sex and scandal called THE HIT LIST, and I've read a much better book about a stalker called THE BOOK OF YOU. By comparison, DANCERGIRL felt really tone deaf and read as though it were written by someone who only encountered teenagers through reruns of Degrassi. Very disappointing.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Perfect by V.J. Chambers

I bought this book when it was on sale for 99-cents because I really liked what I've read from this author before (for the most part) and the summary sounded a lot like a modern homage to STEPFORD WIVES, which is one of my favorite horror novels (and I love both movies as well, for different reasons). A reboot with fresh-faced yoga moms sporting glow-ups? It's the obvious conclusion.

Sidney, the heroine of this novel, is twice-divorced, overweight, and a struggling self-published author who has just moved to the bedroom community of Lassister Cove. All of the women there are yoga moms in the extreme and keep raving about this exclusive and intensive spa treatment called "Regimen," available at the Lotus spa and massage center. Everyone who's been through it says it's completely changed their lives - physically and mentally.

But there's a dark twist. Some of the people who participated in the spa treatment have disappeared. And the one person who's been friendly to her, a man named Leo, is most definitely in on it and hiding something from her. He seems to be on her side, and she's more attracted to him than she feels that she should be, but when her adult daughter starts to join the Regimen program, Sidney must play her cards very carefully...especially when her own life may be at risk.

God, this was so suspenseful and good. I blew through it in just a few hours (hence the lack of status updates). It kind of reminds me of a Criminal Minds episode I watched that creeped me out for days afterwards (can't say any more, because spoilers, but if you read this, and you watch criminal minds, I'm pretty sure you'll know exactly what I'm talking about). It was definitely inspired by Stepford Wives too but is different enough that I was never entirely sure what was going to happen, or what sort of twist it might take. I also feel like maybe there's a dash of Anne Stuart in this as well - she's famous in her psychological thrillers for having heroes who also might be the villain.

Honestly, it's a bit of a crime how underrated this author is. She's like Tarryn Fisher in that even while you can tell that her works are self-published, that gives them this edgy, personal charm that you probably wouldn't get in something mass-produced and edited multiple times, watered down in order to be palatable to a PC audience. She's had a couple books I didn't like so much but man, her thrillers are awesome. I can't wait to read the others I have on my Kindle so I can go out and buy some more.

Oh and that ending - that ending was brutal.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Blackmail Marriage by Earithen

Penny Jordan is one of those classic Harlequin authors, like Charlotte Lamb and Sara Craven, that are basically must-reads if you want to get into the retro "HQ Presents" books. When Netgalley suddenly appeared with a bunch of Harlequin Manga adaptations of popular romances, I was delighted to see that one of them was a Penny Jordan adaptation.

The plot of THE BLACKMAIL MARRIAGE is pretty basic. The heroine is the daughter of a prince's financial advisor in a made-up country called "Santander," which is allegedly between France and Italy and also appears to be the name of a popular bank (I Googled it). The prince has a thing for her and they smoosh, but then this evol countess tells her that the prince is just toying with her while he waits for his marriage with her daughter to go through, and she flounces away in tears.

Obviously, it turns out the evol countess with a stake in this whole marriage thing was - gasp - lying, which the heroine finds out when the daughter breaks it off to marry her handsome (and much lower maintenance) brother instead. When she returns the ring, the prince says, "Cool beans, I'll marry you instead." Cue whirlwind marriage arrangement of prince to his commoner bride, rife with scandal and danger in the form of mafiosi and anti-monarchy activists.

One of the key attractions for me with these books is the art, but I did not like the art in this book. It felt very basic and amateurish, kind of like the popular fanmade doujinshi you sometimes see at anime conventions and on Deviantart. It wasn't bad, but it did not have that classic shoujo style that I normally love about these books, whether I love the story itself or not. In this case, the story was also pretty basic as well, so there wasn't really much of anything to keep me engaged in the book.

Oh my God, and the hero and heroine looked like Cardcaptor Sakura characters or Fire Emblem characters or something. I wanted to lol at the prince's flowy cape (this is a modern story) and his delicate ceremonial tiara. And when they go on their engagement cruise, the heroine is wearing an ornament in her hair that looks just like Sailor Moon's magical compact, and a dress that makes her look like a magical girl in want of a scepter. Oh, and then the prince has an identical half-brother who wears an Assassin's Creedesque hooded cowl to go unnoticed lol. Seems legit. Apparently the artist didn't even do all the work herself as in the end of the book, she says in a note, "Quite often, I get the question, "Is that background a photograph?" No, no. My remarkable assistants meticulously add in the shading details with pens and pencils." Okay, well, I wish she'd credited her assistants in this book, then, especially since she goes on to add, in a vaguely self-congratulatory tone, "These backgrounds are drawn better than the people." Well, credit your assistants, then!

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Bettie Page: The Lost Years: An Intimate Look at the Queen of Pinups, Through Her Private Letters & Never-Published Photos by Tori Rodriguez

If you pick this up expecting softcore pornography, you're going to be very disappointed. This is not a collection of Bettie Page's most risque and memorable shots. Instead, it's a quiet biography told in photographs and stills, recounting how she got into modeling, her personal life during the peak of her fame, and then the so-called "lost years" after she dropped out of modeling - and making public appearances - entirely, basically becoming a recluse.

It's interesting to learn so much about Bettie Page because she was one of the keystones of the pin-up craze of the 50s, and I feel that she had as much influence on fashion then as Kim Kardashian does on fashion now, for better or for worse. Obviously, having your looks be the focus of all your worth as a human being would be trying for anyone, but it seemed especially hard for Bettie and her sister, Goldie, who both seemed to struggle with their weight and, as they got older, had many physiological ailments. Bettie also was apparently put into mental health facilities at several points as her mental illness flared up more as she got older.

There isn't a lot to say about this book, really. I liked the letters and photos and it was an interesting inside look at a cult celebrity figure. If you're interested in that sort of thing I think you'd really enjoy this book. I did.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

There's an author named "Jennifer Wilde" who wrote some of the trashiest, longest-winded bodice rippers I've ever encountered, always both lewd and boring, with heroines who go through hell and back and yet are somehow remarkably detached on an emotional level from anything happening to them, whether it's the death of a loved one or brutal rape at the hands of a captor. The stories are sometimes interesting, but virtually all of the voices of all of this author's heroines are interchangeable, because the only thing they lack more than agency is any kind of personality.

Jennifer Wilde is actually a man named T.E. Huff, and Jennifer Wilde is his bodice ripper pen name. He also had a gothic romance pen name, "Edwina Marlow." I've read two of his books recently, ONCE MORE, MIRANDA and ANGEL IN SCARLET, which were rags to riches tales similar to THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT. Also like QUEEN OF THE NIGHT, both of these books were much longer than they needed to be and read as if they were written by someone who had never actually sat down and listened to a women regale the stories of her life before. I know how that sounds, and I'm sure Chee has talked to women, but man, the heroine of this book was bland AF and didn't seem to have any emotions at all. I've seen mirrors that were deeper than Lilliet Berne. And the book is written from her POV, so there is no escaping it.

I bring up Jennifer Wilde because that author is a prime example of a male author who has a good idea for a story starring a female hero, but who doesn't have the chops to back it up. There is no excuse for failing to make Lilliet Berne interesting. She lost her entire family to sickness, then went to work in a circus, then became a prostitute and then the servant to a noblewoman (or maybe vice-versa, I may be mixing up the order), and then she became the captive lover of an evil man, and then she escaped and became an opera singer-slash-courtesan in her own right. With a colorful tapestry like that at the backstory, I should be scarfing this down like it's "all you can eat" Tuesday at the Bodice Ripper Bistro, and the entree of the day is Rosemary Rogers au gratuitous WTFERY. But this book was BORING. I didn't want to believe the people who were saying that this book was boring and slow - I thought to myself, "Well, maybe they don't appreciate a book that takes a while to build up its characters." Some people don't. But this was circuitous, with the heroine constantly telling things to us instead of showing them to us (as unemotionally as possible), and by the time I was 25% to the end I basically started skimming heavily and ignoring 85% of what I was reading. Something about a duel and a final showdown and I think someone gets doused in gasoline. I don't even care.

Apparently this book was many years in the making and it is well-researched and has some well-written passages and descriptions. The problem, I think, is that the author fell so in love with his own writing and grandiose ideas that he forgot all about the heroine. How else to explain why she feels like such an afterthought in her own narration? There are Phantom of the Opera vibes! Faust vibes! Memoirs of a Geisha vibes! HOW WAS THIS BAD? She had this terribad life that she was trying to keep secret for all these years - and then one day, someone presents her with a play that mirrors the secrets of her dark past? WHAT. That sounded amazing. How was this not amazing?? What dark and evil magics were afoot to make this so? I don't always agree with Goodreads At Large, but the critics were definitely right about this one: it was a huge disappointment. I barely finished.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Wyndham Legacy by Catherine Coulter

OMG, it's been forever since I actually sat down and reviewed one of these WTF!vintage novels. Given the choice between Johanna Lindsey and Catherine Coulter, I'd go with Catherine Coulter every time. My only beef with her is that she's apparently been censoring - read: rewriting - some of her older works, and apparently taking out the bodice-rippery elements. I get why she might want to do this, but it's a major bummer for readers like me who enjoy bodice rippers in spite of (or because of) their less savory, un-PC elements. So if you're going to read Catherine Coulter for the full bodice ripper ~experience~, finding a vintage paperback or hardback is probably going to be your best bet.

I picked up my ~original~ old skool copy at a thrift store and it did not disappoint. Josephina Cochrane is a bastard, which she finds out after hearing some of the servants gossiping about her, and being a ballsy sort of wench, she actually confronts her father's wife to figure out what it means, because she knows that since her father's wife hates her, she won't hold back the truth. And take her to Truth City she does, gleefully informing Josephina that bastard means that her mother's a husband-stealing whore.

Josephina is pure composure and has all the chill, which has led to people calling her Duchess - especially her cousin, Marcus, who finds himself creepily attracted to her despite the fact that he is an older teenager and she is scarcely adolescent. Ew. Flash forward years later and Duchess finds out that her father later married her mother (after the bad wife died) to legitimize her birth, only both of them had the misfortune to die without telling her first. She finds out from his lawyer after the fact, although her father has left a curious addendum to his will: he's cut out Marcus, the original heir, and given everything to her - with the proviso that she marry Marcus. If not, she gets 50,000 pounds (still a lot of money) and Marcus gets an allowance that is livable but by no means luxurious.

The plot is a whirlwind of action and drama. There's a secret inheritance hidden Scooby Doo style, according to legend. There's attempted murder and betrayal. Josephina drugs Marcus to trick him into marrying her, because she wants that money. Marcus repays her in kind by taking her by force and then mocking her that he's never going to get her pregnant. Josephina goes to Marcus's mistress and they have a friendly chat that goes in a direction I completely did not anticipate. There's a bitchy cousin who says terrible things under her breath and then lies through her teeth about it. There's servants with heirs who could be extras from a Shakespeare comedy of errors. And oh, probably about half a dozen things that I forgot - oh, yes, when Marcus acts truly dickish, Josephina starts beating him first with a whip and then with a bridle, and he's completely shocked off his ass. I know violence is awful, but usually in books like these, the heroine ends up brutalized, so it was refreshing to see a genuine spitfire who reacted to this misogynistic abuse with anger and outrage.

If you're a fan of WTF!romances and especially WTF!romances with enemies-to-lovers, you should pick up THE WYNDHAM LEGACY. It's a little too slow-paced for my liking, which is why it gets three stars instead of four, but it was dead fun, and I really enjoyed the parts that I did like.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

This book is called THE DARKEST MINDS but it could just as well be called THE X-HUNGERVERGENT GAMES, seeing as how it's a snapshot of everything that was trending in 2012. Set in the ambiguous "near-future," an idiopathic degenerative virus (idiopathic being medical jargon for "fuck if I know") has killed most of the United States' children. The ones who survive get neat, psychic powers. Rather than doing anything useful with these powers - which come in five forms: telekinesis, super-intelligence, fire-starting, electrical manipulation, and mind control/reading - the government says, "Hey, let's create a whole bunch of concentration camps to send the kids to! Only we'll call them rehabilitation camps and we'll tell the parents that we're fixing the kids. BECAUSE, YOU KNOW, THAT WORKED SO WELL BEFORE, HISTORICALLY." So the kids must fight for their lives against this fascist, Nazi-like government. And apparently all of the parents in this book are as dickish as the PSF ("Psi Special Forces"), or the government agents in this book, because nobody protests or marches against this. They're just like, "Yeah, fuck kids! Take mine too!"


Ruby, our heroine, has been stuck in one of these camps since she was ten. She is now sixteen. Oh, and she's a special-specialton who has one of the most rare and dangerous powers of them all; she is an Orange (e.g. psychic). She had the foresight to trick her doctor into thinking she was one of the harmless super-intelligent kids when she saw that all of the Reds, Oranges, and Yellows were being sent away, but that is literally the only smart thing she does in the book. From that point on, it's stupid decision after stupid decision. She's also a coward, and a firm follower of the three Ws: whiny, wimpy, and wussy. Want a heroine who bemoans what a monster she is and stands frozen in fear when forced to make any sorts of tough decisions? LMAO, no? Too bad. Her sole quality, apart from her special and rare powers, is her hotness (which she doesn't even know she has), and which you will be reminded of repeatedly from all male characters, usually in uncomfortable and rapey ways.

The rest of the cast is as by the numbers as the tropes of the plot. There's token ethnic girl with stupid nickname (because taking the time to learn to pronounce someone's ethnic name is so un-American) whose sole job is to look cute. There's token Good Guy Greg love interest who falls into insta-love with the heroine's lack of personality and advocates for her without any sort of basis (oh wait, she's hot). There's sidekick lackey with vaguely sexual nickname whose sole purpose is the laughs. And then there's the Red Herring Villain, the one who might as well have a neon sign that says EVIL, DO NOT TRUST, but everyone trusts him and of course he's much hotter than the Good Guy Greg love interest, because beautiful heroines need at least two love interests and the fans need a villain to write bad fanfiction about that they can later republish into a best-selling contemporary romance about sports or college love or some shit.

What annoyed me the most about this book was the wasted potential. It's readable in a way that DIVERGENT was not and the first couple chapters were decent. What bogs this book down is the tedious main character and the fact that nothing really happens. Honestly, I think that's why the movie bombed. If you shave out all of the introspective whining, this book is mostly Ruby walking or driving around and talking to people. Cut out the middle, and the end of the book literally takes off right where the beginning of the book ended, with no character development. We also don't know much more about their powers. As far as I recall, most of their abilities are not explicitly defined in this book - I had to look at some of the reviews for this book to figure out which did what. (Orange? Yellow? Red? Please tell me someone ironically picked Lorde's Yellow Flicker Beat as a soundtrack to this movie so I can laugh my ass off.) Also, major plotholes virtually everywhere you look. Why is this disease only affecting Americans, and specifically, American children? Why aren't the other countries that the United States has a history of being a douche to seizing the advantage and invading or overpowering the nation? So they put up quarantine blockades. Big freaking whoop. Also, the name of the book itself is pretty stupid because brains light up when they're active, so if anything these kids should have the brightest minds (and speaking of bright minds, what the hell is up with these stupid doctors who get tricked by kids at the drop of a hat and fail to produce any sorts of results with medical testing? Get a CAT scan. Take a blood test. Do an EKG. If kids were dying, you can bet that people would be pouring money into funding to stop the progress of the disease - and I highly doubt society would collectively shrug its shoulders and say, "Yeah, take away our kids to be imprisoned, tortured, and executed," psychic symptoms or no. And do you really expect that a teenager was the only person in the country who saw the potential uses of kids with super powers? REALLY?

I'm honestly not sure why this book is as popular as it is. The writing is not great and the plot is not particularly original. It has an okay premise, but STEELHEART and BURN FOR ME by Brandon Sanderson and Ilona Andrews have very similar concepts, and they did it much better. I guess the color-by-sorting hat premise will appeal to teens, who like defining themselves with neat little labels, but Divergent and Harry Potter beat Alexandra Bracken to that, with much success. HUNGER GAMES has more action and better fight scenes, with a kick-ass heroine to boot, and even though both have Amandla Stenberg stealing scenes like the BAMF she is, Hunger Games accords her so much more dignity than The Darkest Minds (which made me want to cringe just by watching the trailer alone, after seeing the mid-2000s special "eye" effects & the Michael Bay-esque explosions). YA Dystopians are so five years ago, and I'm honestly surprised that the people behind the movie didn't learn their lesson from Allegiant's ironically bleak and dystopic fate at the box office.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars