Monday, February 18, 2019

Wild Hearts by Fanny DeWitt

WILD HEARTS is one of those crazy bodice-rippers that doesn't know the meaning of politically correct. The heroine, Camilla, lives with her mother and young siblings on their Louisiana plantation. One day, a business partner of their father's drops by and announces smugly that her father is presumed to be dead and unless they can prove that he's alive in six months, all their property goes to him. Although -wink-, he'd be willing not to kick them off their land if Camilla decided to marry his greasy, money-grubbing ass.

Tossing off a quick "hell no" to that, Camilla decides to dress up in drag and journey out to Texas to look for her dad and drag him back home. Her secret is spoiled when a gunslinger-type named Abel accidentally-on-purpose spies on her as she bathes. She wants him to be her guide, but he refuses, and gives her a kiss instead before saying that she should be on her way. Unfortunately, she gets kidnapped by a man named Lopez, cousin to General Santa Ana.

Lopez threatens her with rape, does some nonconsensual petting, mocks her for wanting him, and then waltzes out with a "girl, you wish I'd let you have the D." Then Abel busts in and rescues her, only to discover her sans clothes and feel manly insult that the damsel he just rescued is not a virgin. Since she happens to be on a bed, he decides to take advantage of her, and for some reason she decides that this is awesomesauce. They end up having sex several more times, although of course Abel tells her he doesn't want to get married.

It turns out that Camilla's father is a soldier in the Alamo. (Remember the Alamo?) Convenient, since Abel needs to deliver a message for Bowie, and Camilla knows what he looks like since he's a friend of her father's. They run into a fake impostor Bowie, Abel gets wounded, Camilla gets him drunk by feeding him 3/4 of a bottle of whiskey before heading out to the Alamo herself to deliver the message. She hears fake news that he's dead and is sad, but marries a man old enough to be her father named Ben Archer. Meanwhile, Abel feels betrayed by Camilla, because she reminded him of his late Mexican wife, Carlotta, who was raped and murdered by three cutthroat criminals.

Those same three cutthroat criminals are also at the Alamo, and eventually Abel realizes through the gossip grapevine that he has the chance for both revenge and sexings, all in the same venue. He races over and runs into Lopez, who grants him mercy and will let him get revenge, mostly because Lopez also lusts after Camilla as well. More stuff happens, Santa Anna turns out to be a pedophile, an opium addict, and a coward, and his unsuccessful attempt to flee after the battle of San Jacinto ends up making Texas a state. Camilla and Abel end up with an HEA and the farm is saved, woo-hoo.

Honestly, WILD HEARTS kind of reads like a racier WILD TEXAS FLAME or a much milder SWEET SAVAGE LOVE. Abel McCord definitely comes from the "I chew on cigars and shit scorpions" school of manliness, like he spent his adolescence watching one too many Clint Eastwood movies. The only other review for this book complains about the sexual nature of this book and I do get that. For a bodice-ripper, this had an outrageous amount of sex scenes (most of them aren't this smutty), and a good portion of those were consensual in only the most imaginative sense. I almost got a LOVE'S TENDER FURY vibe from this book, which was written by Jennifer Wilde (pen name for a male romance author), and I definitely wondered if maybe DeWitt was a male romance author, too. The heroine's very strange reaction to rape and the male gaze-focused sex scenes (boobz!!) were a bit eyebrow-raising. Also, not a single mention of the hero's washboard abs. What? I feel cheated!

I got bored of the sex scenes after a while, but the fight scenes and battle scenes were excellent and there was a surprising amount of action packed into this rather short book. I have a couple more of DeWitt's books on my Kindle and I'll definitely be checking those out. If you're into bodice rippers and like authors like Jennifer Wilde or Rosemary Rogers, you'll probably enjoy DeWitt's works, too.

3 out of 5 stars

The Last Stormlord by Glenda Larke

I was describing this book to someone as Game of Thrones, only set in a desert where magicians are responsible for bringing the rains and water is the ultimate currency. But honestly, that doesn't quite do this book justice, as it's much better written than Game of Thrones and doesn't quite wallow in the physical and sexual violence like GoT does - not to say that this isn't a brutal MF of a book; it is.

Set in the Quartern, a desert land in which water-sensitive magicians called "Stormlords" are responsible for bringing water, THE LAST STORMLORD is about a land in the middle of political and environmental upheaval. All that magic has brought about climate change and water is becoming scarce in a land that desperately needs it. The last stormlord is dying without a replacement, and hostile factions who have been oppressed by the stormlords are rallying forces to seize powers in the void and resort back to scavenging.

The two main characters are Terelle and Shale, both teenagers. Terelle is a young woman who was sold into a brothel when she was a child by her cruel stepfather, and now lives in dread of reaching puberty and being auctioned off for her virginity like a prize mare. One day she decides to escape, hoping to become a dancer, and instead discovering that she's capable of much more. Shale, on the other hand, lives in the outskirts of the Quartern, called "the Gibber," in a labor camp where people mine for resin. His father is an abusive alcoholic, but freedom comes when Shale realizes that he has the power to detect and manipulate water. Unfortunately, his powers bring him to the attention of very dangerous people on both sides of the water war who will stop at nothing to capture him alive.

Lately, I've found myself reading more and more fantasy by women because for the most part, male fantasy authors don't really deliver what I want: complex, nuanced world-building with a rich tapestry of culture; strong female protagonists who aren't sexualized and whose agency isn't wrapped up with that of the male hero's; and heroes who don't style themselves after the Chuck Norrises or Tyrion Lannisters of the world, punching holes in trucks or laughing drunkenly in the fate of death. THE LAST STORMLORD is set in an original world that deals with poverty, climate change, colorism, racism, sexism, and so much more.

Oh, and this book is brutal. I've seen dudes scoff at female fantasy, but there isn't a whiff of romance in this book yet. Shale is a strong character but also flawed realistically. Terelle has agency and interesting powers, and doesn't need no man in her life to tell her what to do. Taquar Sardonyx was an excellent villain (and does it help that he's brooding and good-looking? But ofc.) It's also a pretty grim world, with mages who can bleed all the water out of people and leave them dried out husks; flesh-eating beetles called "ziggers" that like to burrow into people's eyes or noses and eat them alive; child prostitution and slavery and evil nomads who live by honor and enjoy torture as punishment.

I also loved the machinations of the royal family. There's definite Cersei/Laisa and Joffrey/Senya parallels, which is maybe why I found them such a pleasure to hate. The Lannisters were always my favorite characters in Game of Thrones just because they were so unabashedly evol. There's a lot of heavy thoughts about power and how sometimes you do harm when doing good, and vice-versa. When I saw that the author lives in Malaysia working on rain forest conservation, the climate change messages made a lot of sense. This is no heavy handed Ferngully - it's very nuanced, and very good.


4 out of 5 stars

Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE is one of those books that was pushed at me by a pretty huge number of people on my friends list. It came out during that mad-dash YA paranormal craze following in the wake of TWILIGHT, which is hilariously appropriate because despite its fans' loud protestations that it is nothing like Twilight, it kind of reads like a cross between Clive Barker's ABARAT and Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT. #SorryNotSorry

For the record, I actually like TWILIGHT. It doesn't pretend to be anything it's not, which is maybe why so many people find it threatening. It's a straightforward love story between an ordinary girl and a vampire. Is it silly? Yes. Problematic? Oh, yes. Do I like it? Yes. I liked it when I read it at eighteen and I even liked it when rereading it again at twenty-nine. I'm a fan of romance and liked that it wasn't mired in pretentious asshattery unlike...

Well, this book.

I almost marked this as 'did not finish' based on the first chapter because of the utterly pretentious writing that says, I'm trying so hard to be poetic, look at me. There was a line referencing "the occasional cheek-chew of bitterness" and a "pout-puckered lip" that begged to be sucked on "languorously" and I was just reading this in disbelief, resisting the urge to punch a teddy bear in the face. This is not good writing. This is purple prose in the extreme, and definitely has vibes of, ~My HeRoInE iS aN aRtIsT yOu GaIz, lOoK aT mY aRtIsTiC pRoSe~.

The author seemed to realize how obnoxious this was, because this teeth-gratingly ornate writing disappears after one or two chapters and everything becomes much more straightforward. Thank God, or I would have slapped this with a one-star so fast. Karou, the heroine, is the Baskin Robbins of being a Mary Sue. She isn't satisfied with just one flavor, no; she needs all 31 flavors of special. She has blue hair (it grows that way!), she can speak tons of languages (so exotic! so sophisticated, so cultured), she's covered in tattoos (wow, I wish my mom would let me get some of those!), and she's an artist (oh, wow, special! unique! creative!). Oh my God, why.

She's not just any artist; she's an artist studying abroad in Prague while living with a family of demons, one of whom uses teeth to create wish tokens. Karou runs favors for him in exchange for wish tokens that she uses for a variety of petty things, like making her hair blue or wishing that the girl her ex cheated on her with would have bushy caterpillar eyebrows. She's been hooking up on and off with this con artist-cum-street performer, but all that changes one day when she sees a mysterious man with dark hair and eyes the color of fire who wants to kill her.

As we all know, murderous intent is the single most important ingredient in the insta-love cocktail, and lo and behold, pretty soon he's graduated to watching her sleep and professing his undying love, and she of course reciprocates that because of his charming abdominal muscles - oops, I mean personality. The personality of his abdominal muscles. I mean, his face. I mean, whoops, it's what's on the inside that counts. Unfortunately, angels hate demons, so his buddies aren't going to be too keen on the fact that he's hooking up with a human who's neck-deep in demon shenanigans.

But, of course, our spumoni-swirl snowflake of a heroine won't stop with just being a special human. No, this being a young adult fantasy romance, she has to be more. And with a flashback that lasts the entire last quarter of the book, replete with a second insta-love relationship, we get to find out the true special nature of our heroine in all her sparkly, winged glory. You know when someone weird sits next to you on the bus and just starts talking to you for no reason and unloading all their drama? (No? Maybe that's just a big city thing, I'm from San Francisco, after all.)

The biggest drawback of this book is that it's branded as being something new and different from all the tired tropes of young adult fiction when it is so not. It's got insta-love by the buckets. The heroine is such a Mary Sue that she's pretty much one of those original character self-inserts in fanfics. The romance doesn't make sense, the hero is ~perfect~ with magical eyes, and there's a huge reliance on amnesia and flashbacks to steep everything in mystery. DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE? More like DAUGHTER OF CLICHES AND TROPES. I got through it and it did have some interesting world-building, but let's not be so quick to turn our noses up in the air and look down on TWILIGHT just yet, darlings. This is YA fantasy-romance, not the second coming of Christ.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Duke and I by Julia Quinn

I think it's been a while since I've seen such an even split among my friends when it comes to how they rated the book. Half my friends loved THE DUKE AND I and the other half apparently hated it. The Bridgertons series is Julia Quinn's most famous historical romance offering so I've been wanting to read it for a while, but I'm not unfamiliar with her work. In my opinion, she's a bit notorious for over-aggressive heroines who come across as petulant and bitchy and Big Misunderstandings that are especially stupid and tends to draw them out for extra dramatic tension in the last act.

The titular duke, Simon Basset, is cast in your typical damaged hero mold of "I slut around because I have daddy issues." In his case, the issues are probably warranted. He didn't speak until he was four years old, and when he did, it was with a stutter. After his dad basically rage-quits on parenting, Simon is left on his own, unloved, except for the tender hand of his nurse. His father basically disowns him, telling his servants and all his friends that he has no son, and refuses to answer any of his correspondence.

Of course, once Simon is able to overcome all of this and become the most desired bachelor in the ton, his father is secretly pleased and ready to take pride in his son because hurray, Simon got over his stutter and that means that he isn't mentally defunct, i.e. "an idiot." Simon is so over his dad, though, and since breeding, honor, and titles are all that matter to his father, he has vowed never to have children so that the Hastings line dies with him, and all the property will cede to his cousins.

Daphne, the heroine, is part of the Bridgerton family, and the daughter of a viscount. They name their children like hurricanes, in alphabetical order, chronologically, so Daphne is the fourth-born child (as well as the oldest daughter). She's also a bit of a wallflower and a spinster-in-the-making, and her mother is determined to make a match. Daphne's brothers are friends with Simon, and they end up meeting at a party when Simon saves her from a creepy friend-zoned suitor who won't take no for an answer. They end up liking each other, although Simon denies his attraction once he's figured out that she's the off-limits sister of his friend. They decide to pretend to have developed a tendre for one another, to keep Simon's unwanted suitors at bay while also making Daphne more desirable. Too bad that he ends up compromising her and Daphne's oldest brother, Anthony, calls him out at dawn.

Knowing that Simon's honor will lead him to not fire, and that Anthony's rage on her behalf will undoubtedly result in a killing shot, Daphne demands that they be married and Simon protests, much to Daphne's hurt (because he'd rather be dead than marry her? ouch). He tells her that he can't have children and that since she's always yapping about wanting a Little Women type family, he doesn't want her to be unhappy. Daphne tells him he's worth it and insists. And it seems like this actually might be a cute little love story...until Daphne rapes her husband in order to forcibly get him to impregnate her. That's right, when Simon is drunk, Daphne mounts him and then hunkers down on him so that he has no choice but to come inside her, and she is so smug and so pleased, thinking that she has "fixed" him and then has the gall to cry and get all teary and sanctimonious when he is angry.

My friends had warned me about this scene going in, but reading it still left a hugely bitter taste in my mouth. Now, I do want to say that as a reader of bodice-rippers, I am no stranger to unconsensual scenes in books. But there is a major difference between acts of rape in which the rapist is depicted as a rapist, and acts of rape in which the rapist is depicted as having the moral high ground. This is part of the reason sexism is so harmful: not just because women are victimized or robbed of agency, but also because people don't ever think that women can be the perpetrators of physical or sexual violence, because they are so "harmless," and so we get bullshit scenes like this.

Daphne can fuck right off.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE is one of those young adult books with a cultish following that is hyped up to the point where the book itself nearly becomes annoying because of all the fan baggage attached to it. Maybe it's the contrarian inside me, but when I'm surrounded by people who are all screaming "LIKE THIS! LIKE THIS!" I wanna be like, "NO! I HATE IT AND I HATE YOU. GOODBYE." It's the same way with books. The more people try to force me to like something, the more I drag my heels and am determined to find my own way.

Unlike 90% of other leading hyped-up YA titles, THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE has a couple things going for it that actually pleasantly surprised me. There's a trend of precious, twee fiction that's written like a series of Tumblr posts in which diversity is used like a checklist and the writing is as painfully and tackily ornate as a Bel-Air McMansion. THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE, on the other hand, has a bisexual hero who is seen with both men and women. He's portrayed as being a bit of a slut, which points from Gryffindor, because stereotypes, much? But on the other hand, he's also a teenage boy wallowing in privilege and wildly swinging a hand basket of emotional hang-ups and issues, so this might actually be semi-reasonable.

Henry, said bisexual hero, is in love with his friend Percy. Percy is half-black and lives with a noble family, although they treat him like a second-class citizen. Lately, though, he isn't even accorded that much "privilege" because he's started to develop seizures, and his family has decided that they are "done" and are going to consign him to an asylum. It takes Henry a while to realize that his friend has his own set of problems, because Henry is so focused on his own - inheriting his father's business, the abuse handed out to him by his father, his forbidden attraction to boys. Going on Tour in Europe is going to be his last hurrah - or would have been, had his father not cottoned on to his attraction for the opposite sex and foisted a hand-wringing guardian upon him and a threat that he'll be disinherited if any whiff of shamed honor or homosexuality makes its way back to his priggish ears.

The way racism is addressed in this book was done pretty well, I thought, and wasn't too heavy-handed. Henry has to tackle his own privilege and confront the way that he really looks at his friend. One of the best moments was when he realizes that equality means not feeling obligated to fight all your friends' battles for them because you think them incapable of doing it themselves, and the fact that society sweeps their agency away from them is one of the intrinsic problems with discrimination. There was definitely a bit of "virtue signalling" with Henry "Look how tolerant I am" Montague, and so when he stopped looking down on Percy or viewing him selfishly, the attraction worked.

The story itself was a bit odd. I liked the beginning a lot more than the middle or the end. It's fun to read about rakes, and this was a good deal more salacious than I was expecting for a YA novel. Henry's drunken, slutty shenanigans were funny. I liked his interactions with Percy as well. At first his sister, Felicity, annoyed me a lot. I tolerated her by the end of the book but she won't be winning any "favorite character" contests for me. Modern day feminist characters don't really work in historical fiction for a myriad of reasons. But everything was mostly fine until the alchemy plot rolled in and there was all that bunk about panaceas and immortality. Suddenly this book went from being Oscar Wilde for kids to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Magical Surgery. I could not believe the ending of this ridiculous book. Pirates, sinking islands, living forever - did I MISS something?

Ultimately, I decided to deduct a star for that mess of a resolution. It really felt like the author had three ideas for a story and decided to cram them all together while crossing her fingers that it'd work. It didn't. I had fun reading THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE, but sticking in all that crazy scientist stuff ended up making the book seem stupid and OTT, turning what could have been one of my top reads of the year into yet another YA novel that preemptively jumped the shark.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Bad with Money: The Imperfect Art of Getting Your Financial Sh*t Together by Gaby Dunn

This isn't the type of book I would normally obtain for myself, but I'm a huge fan of Gaby Dunn and have been ever since her BuzzFeed days, so in a show of support, I downloaded the book from Netgalley and read it without adding it as "currently reading" on Goodreads just in case it wasn't the type of book that I wanted to move forward with.

As others have mentioned, BAD WITH MONEY is equal parts memoir and financial self-help guide. Some people seemed put out by the memoir parts, and I can see how if you were looking for something solidly informational, that could be annoying. Personally, I thought her struggles with loans, over-spending parents, and lack of college resources made her relatable and gave her cred. It was like, "Look, I've struggled and seriously regret some of the mistakes I made that have made my current situation so difficult. Let me tell you how I fucked up so you don't."

I honestly would recommend this to older teens who are just about to start college (or are already in college). My mom told me a lot of this stuff already, but there were still things I didn't know (text messages count as wills in some states?!). Dunn gives some pretty great advice on a wide array of topics ranging from "is your unpaid internship a scam?" to "intro to tax forms 101" to the hidden costs of weddings and babies to "millennials are destroying everything: a baby-boomer story"-type clickbait bullshit opinion pieces.

People love to talk about how millennials are the over-privileged, lazy generation - one that they usually envision as a white, blonde, upper middle-class stereotype decked out in Anthropologie and sucking down on a customized Starbucks drink while using ten unfathomable apps expertly on the Pixel 3. The sad reality is that a lot of millennials can't afford health insurance, spend most of their paychecks on rent, are overqualified for the jobs they perform, weighed down by student loans, and find themselves without property, much less a well-balanced checkbook. They live in a tanked economy that was spoiled by the generation that came before them, and that generation continues to do its damnedest to continue to make their lives hell by mocking them for eating avocado toast.

The fact of the matter is, being a millennial is hard. There's no easy entre into adult life, and as much as we're sneered at for not knowing how to "adult," a lot of this stuff isn't taught in schools, and if you aren't lucky enough to have a parent or guardian figure who's willing to walk you through this kind of stuff, you might be SOL the next time you apply for a credit card or file your W2.

I enjoyed BAD WITH MONEY. The balance of memoir and instruction guide doesn't always quite work, but she says what she has to say with candor and a ready willingness to help.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

On The Come Up by Angie Thomas

I've been looking forward to ON THE COME UP ever since I heard that Angie Thomas was writing a new book. THE HATE U GIVE was one of those life-changing books for me, in that it was a pitch-perfect book that came out at a time when the subject material was relevant and necessary, and delivered an emotionally-charged story about institutionalized racism, as well as the importance of movements like Black Lives Matter that shine a much-needed spotlight on racial injustice.

ON THE COME UP is a similar story in that it also features a girl in Garden Heights who comes from a low-income family and deals with gang violence and gang activity on a day-to-day basis. Bri's mother is a recovering drug addict and her aunt is in the local gang, the Garden Disciples. Her father was a famous up-and-coming rapper who was murdered. People make assumptions about her just because of the color of her skin and where she comes from, and a racially-targeted bag search that ends in violence inspires Bri to write a rap song that ends up going viral.

I really wanted to like this book, but it didn't have the same strength in writing that THE HATE U GIVE had. Starr was a compelling protagonist and it was a really emotional read. ON THE COME UP was emotionally distant, by comparison, and Bri was such an awful heroine. She made one terrible choice after another and treated her friends and family like garbage. I hated the way she talked to her mother, and how she called her mother by her first name with such a lack of respect. I hated the way she treated her friend, and how she made a move on her taken friend who was in a relationship. She also wrote a song with very vivid references to gang activity, which is fine, but then she tried to deny that that wasn't what the song was about when she was called on it. Um, what?

Here's the thing, ON THE COME UP was trying to tackle some weighty issues just like THE HATE U GIVE did. This book was about the hypocrisy of white people when it comes to guns (OK when white people have them, thuggish and scary when black people have them), cultural appropriation (white people listening to and consuming rap but not wanting to think about the deeper issues and sociocultural suffering and struggles endemic to the black community due to oppression and injustice), and, of course, institutionalized racism leading to the disenfranchisement, abuse, and even murders of black people over infractions that white people would get minor consequences for.

The issue with Bri and her school was not resolved in a satisfactory way. They gave her mother a job, sure, but that felt more like they were trying to buy the family's silence and not a moral turnaround. Bri didn't really advance as a character. She ran around doing and saying whatever she wanted and didn't want to take ownership for her actions or the consequences of her actions. At the end of the book, she's basically rewarded for acting like a total shit because of her raps, and the other problematic aspects of her behavior - getting involved in gang wars, siccing her aunt on a rival gang member despite knowing it could end up in murder, failing in school and treating her tests like they're unimportant, ghosting her friends and/or snapping in their faces, and bitching at her mom - are all basically ignored, because oh, she belatedly became part of a movement and then capitalized on it for financial gain and fame, isn't she a good person? Lmao, her friends basically did all the work getting that movement started, and in the beginning she treated them like trash for it. What in the ever-loving heck? Am I supposed to root for this girl? I mean, I get the fear of wanting to get involved against the same authority figures that oppress you and mistreat you, but letting her friends take the fall for her and then jumping on their shit was totally disgusting and I hated her for it. The writing in this book was a real step-down from THE HATE U GIVE, and seemed unpolished and clunky in comparison. Starr was such a great character, and I loved her so much. Bri was a brat, and the best moment in this book was when her mother gives her a real dressing down over her behavior. #TeamJay

Honestly, Jay(da) was the star of this book. I loved Bri's mom. She had so much to deal with, and some of her quotes in this book about racism and police brutality and inequality really reminded me of Starr. I almost wish that this was an adult book about parenting and that Jay(da) had been the heroine, because I was much more interested in hearing about her story than Bri's. Yes, the raps were great and had good flow, and I enjoyed them, but I hated that Bri wrote them because I hated Bri. Jay had to deal with lingering biases over her drug use (including her own daughter), despite being eight years sober. She's in college trying to better her education so she can get a good job, while taking care of two kids and dealing with her deceased husband's younger sister, who's a leader in a gang. The most emotional parts in this book all involved her, especially when she goes to Bri's school to speak up about the racist treatment of her ungrateful shit of a daughter. That packed a punch.

Huge disappointment. I was wondering why more of my friends hadn't reviewed this book already and I'm guessing maybe they either didn't like it and didn't want to say so, or they were leery about reading the follow-up book from a successful debut author without reading advance reviews. Well, I didn't like this book and I'm flummoxed at the people saying that this was better than THUG. It really wasn't. If anything, this reads like a debut novel, because of how unsteady it is on its own two legs.

I'm so bummed that I can't say great things about ON THE COME UP. :/

2 out of 5 stars