Sunday, July 31, 2016

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Normally, I'm skeptical when people say, "Spoilers will ruin the book!" 9/10 times, this is simply not true. But in the case of DARK MATTERS, it's definitely true. Spoilers will ruin the book.

I haven't read too many good science fiction thrillers recently, but DARK MATTERS is one that deserves to be put alongside successes like JURASSIC PARK and THE MARTIAN. It's what THE FOLD wanted to be, but didn't have the wherewithal to accomplish. It's Paycheck, but with a better script.

It's amazing.

Jason Dessen is an average guy, living a bit below his means. He's under-employed, but he loves his wife and his kid. Sure, he has regrets, but he's a decent guy, and makes do with what he has.

One day, a man in a geisha mask holds him at gunpoint and after leading him to some kind of abandoned bunker, injects him with drugs and locks him in a room. When Jason wakes up, he's in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by unfamiliar people. They call him by name, but they insist that he's something he's not. And when he gets free...everything has changed.

That's all I'm going to say, because that's all I can say.

Jason is an excellent protagonist. He's loving and ordinary and wants to do the right thing. His emotions get the better of him but never in a terrible way. Much like Mark Watney, you just want the poor guy to catch a break so he can go home. There was never a moment I didn't root for him.

And that was another thing I didn't expect, going in. I wasn't expecting this book to toy with my emotions the way it did. There were moments that were terrifying. I was reading this book in the dark with the lights off, but had to turn them back on because I had this fear that I was no longer alone. There were moments when my heart was in my throat and I couldn't bear to read on. And there were moments that had me crying because the thought of what Jason was experiencing was just so awful.

I wouldn't be surprised if DARK MATTER wins a Goodreads Choice Award when voting starts. It certainly deserves one. And I think it would make an excellent movie, too, for what it's worth.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy!

5 out of 5 stars.

Willing Victim by Cara McKenna

I told myself I wasn't going to buy any more ebooks until I cleared out my Kindle, but then I saw one of my friends' reviews for this book pop up in my feed, and realized it was a whole dollar cheaper than the last time I looked at it, and it was remastered and expanded.

Well, much for any pretense of fragile self-control.

To be fair, WILLING VICTIM has been on my to-read list for a while. I've had half a dozen people recommend it to me, and the summary seemed really good. Plus, I've read another book about rape play, called ASKING FOR IT, and the inevitable comparisons between the two books made me even more curious.

Both books do deal with rape play but the approach is drastically different. ASKING FOR IT is more in keeping with the "dark" erotic romance trend spurred on by the popularity of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Even though it deals with kink and BDSM-like themes in a fairly straightforward way, both characters are tortured and have dark paths, inadvertently contributing to the stereotype that normal, well-adjusted people can't get involved in the kink/BDSM scene.

ASKING FOR IT is also a full-length novel, which means it has times to expand on characterization and relationships in a way that WILLING VICTIM, which is a novella, doesn't.

I liked both books, but I do think that being a longer book gives ASKING FOR IT an advantage that it definitely utilizes to its fullest extent, which is probably why I enjoyed that book more. WILLING VICTIM, on the other hand, has better characters, and given the page time they have, I think the author did a fantastic job breathing life and complexity into them. These characters have their fair share of issues too, but it's more normal, run-of-the-mill stuff that doesn't tie into histories of abuse.

Let's take a moment to appreciate the hero in this book, Michael Flynn. He really is a decent guy. Yes, he's into some edgy stuff in the bedroom, but the author makes it very clear that Flynn would never go beyond what a woman wants, and would always stop if she said stop. I also thought it was really sweet that he watched to make sure that women leaving his apartment got into their cars safely. That is such a considerate thing to do and speaking as a woman, I love it when men do this. Also, those arms and abs. And that accent. I'm sorry, but I can't even right now.

Will definitely have to check out some of this author's other work!

4 out of 5 stars.

Total Trainwreck by Evie Claire

I was psyched when I received ARCs of both Hollywood Hot Mess and Total Trainwreck from Netgalley. HHM was a really great portrait of the toll celebrity life can take on a damaged soul. Carly Klein was tormented by tragedy, and struggling to overcome her addictions to drugs, alcohol, and high risk behaviors. When she met another actor who was just as broken as she was, only slightly better at hiding it, there was drama of the kind you normally only see in manga or telenovelas, and it was just as addicting.

HOLLYWOOD HOT MESS doesn't exactly end on a cliffhanger, but it does end on an unresolved note. Both Carly and Devon have secrets that they haven't told one another, and by the end of the first book they still haven't confided in each other.

TOTAL TRAINWRECK starts out with Carly recovering from a mean hangover after a night of regression following Devon's revelation that he will never leave his common law wife for her. There's a lot of "we can't be together, it will destroy us" nonsense before Devon finally confesses what his big secret is. The sad thing is, he doesn't actually confide in Carly until his evil common law wife, Heather, shows Carly a copy of the tape that she's using to blackmail her husband with.

The drama I liked in book one is still present, and to be fair, TOTAL TRAINWRECK does handle a lot of things really well. But whereas in the first book, I sympathized with both protagonists even if I didn't like them as people, in TOTAL TRAINWRECK I actually really started to hate them. A lot.

First, even though they resume their relationship and do a lot of sneaking around, Devon still insists that he can't be "officially" together with Carly and he never takes her anywhere nice. They just have sex in dark rooms and dark corners. Despite this, he gets incredibly jealous if Carly associates with other guys, and later on, something happens, and Carly has to make a very important life choice which Devon totally tries to commandeer. And I was like, "Um, excuse you. Just who do you think you are? You have no right to try to micromanage such an important decision like that, especially not with guilt trips, you big fat hypocrite!"

Second, I actually felt really bad for Heather, and I was disappointed that the Heather ARC was resolved the way that it was. It was brutal and cruel. She was a terrible person, but I didn't think she deserved what happened to her. And since both Carly and Devon were responsible for what happened to her, that made me like them a lot less as a result.

Third, the quality of the writing goes way down in this book. The sex scenes are awkwardly written, I started noticing more typos (and the first book had none), and there's a portion of the book that involves an Italian priest who speaks Spanish instead of Italian, and when he's giving a command, he says the (Spanish) noun instead of the (Italian) command imperative verb conjugation.

Fourth, there was a strange, borderline-homophobic moment in the book that made me uncomfortable (the heroine freaks out when asked if she's a lesbian). There's also a lot of pro-life stuff that is shoved down the readers' throats towards the end about how babies are always miracles and people who love their spouses don't abort children...I always question why content like this is included in books like these, especially if the heavy subject matter is at odds with the rest of the narrative.

For the most part, this was still a decent book, and the writing quality is mostly okay. But it was a significantly poorer quality effort than its predecessor, HOLLYWOOD HOT MESS, and had some really strange scenes that were bizarre even for Hollyweird. I really had to suspend my disbelief. I was also very frustrated that the child abuse plot line never is fully resolved, despite the fact that the author spends two books building up to Carly's ability to acknowledge and deal with it consciously. After all that, you're just going to skip over the entire confrontation scene? So disappointing.

2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Hollywood Hot Mess by Evie Claire

I'm a fan of Carina Press. Whoever vets potential books has really good taste. I often find titles through them that I really like, that are in genres that aren't normally to my taste (e.g. erotic or new adult). HOLLYWOOD HOT MESS is no exception. These lifestyles of the rich and famous-type stories usually have me rolling my eyes, but I liked the cover, and the summary hinted at a deeper story. Accepting this ARC from Netgalley seemed like a no-brainer.

Carly Klein was a beloved child actor on the show Life On Easy Street. Then something terrible happened to her, and she drowned her memories of the traumatic event in drugs and alcohol. Her self-loathing culminated in a suicide attempt, and now her agent has her on lock down. She's fresh out of rehabilitation and about to do a King Henry VIII-inspired erotic romance with Sexiest Man Alive, Devon Hayes, provided that she doesn't violate her NDA.

Devon Hayes is part of the HeaVon (Heather) power couple. He's fourteen years older than Carly and seems to have all his shit together. Naturally, Carly hates him. And when she makes the mistake of admitting that to a reporter, she fully expects to be fired. Instead, she gets invited to Devon's tropical island getaway.

And things become complicated.

Carly is so broken, and this makes her bitchy, self-centered, and mean. It's rare to see an author who can write a character who is so damaged and unlikable and yet still make you feel sorry for them, but Evie Claire manages to do this not just with Carly but also with Devon. Both of them are trapped in a glass fishbowl, unable to be themselves, and so they lash out against the glass, even though it hurts them, because they're powerless to do anything else. It's really quite heartbreaking.

Carly never tells Devon the truth about why she does the things she does, and Devon doesn't tell Carly his secret, either. Unexpected, but not necessarily unwelcome. I'm far too used to books where both characters spill everything after one night of good sex, so it seemed more in line with their characters that they would be more guarded, even after some impromptu acts of intimacy.

The Hollywood Hot Mess series is the good kind of trashy that you can expect from manga or soap operas. In other hands, I feel like this book could have come off as silly or clumsy, but the writing for HOLLYWOOD HOT MESS was actually really, really stellar, and there's some incredible characterization for the main characters and the supporting characters that will have you wanting to scream or cheer by turns. Thank God I have the second book waiting in the wings...

Also, speaking of lockdown, just who the heck is this author? They're not on Goodreads and there are no links to Twitter, website, or Facebook pages in the back of the book. Is this the pseudonym of someone famous? Tell me who you are, please, so I can trumpet your name from the rooftops!

4 out of 5 stars.

Alpha by Jasinda Wilder

It's been a while since I've actually finished a book I really didn't like. ALPHA had a great summary, and I'd seen so many people singing its praises...surely, there had to be some solid basis for those many glowing four- and five-star reviews, right?

...Well, um, hmm...

Now I'm finished, and I'm not really sure what to say. The premise of this book was really great. You have this impoverished (white) girl with a dead father, a brother in college, and a mother in assisted living. She's just been fired from her temp job, after receiving a quid pro quo offer from her perverted boss. The bills are piling up, she's out of options...and then she receives a check completely out of the blue for $10,000.

What would you do? Would you cash it?

It really is an interesting question. In a slightly different story, I think it could have been fascinating to explore the psychology behind the characters who would a) send out the check in the first place and b) cash it in. I thought I was getting a dark erotica about Stockholm Syndrome featuring an impulsive female protagonist who ends up reaping the consequences from a single moment of weakness.

That would have been an amazing story.

I did not get that story.

The problems of this book start when the sender comes to collect, and our plucky protagonist, Kyrie St. Claire, proves that she is, in every sense of the word, way too stupid to live. She allows a strange man into her apartment, goes with him into a strange car, and only tells her best friend where she's going. She then allows herself to be taken onto a strange plane, and then taken, blindfolded, into a strange home. There's a strange reveal early on where it's revealed that the hero has saved Kyrie from being raped and murdered several times, including getting her out of the clutches of what is essentially a serial killer.

Our hero, V.R., is what you'd get if you combined the Beast and Christian Grey into a blender. He's a strange blend of "you cannot leave, but I'll give you anything you want" and "I want to sex you up in ways that push every single one of your comfort zones." These are conflicting motivations, and cause the character to seem inconsistent. Like, for example, he'll say that he isn't interested in Kyrie just for sex, but everything they do is sexual, and they only ever seem to talk about sexual things or how attractive they find each other, so his talk never matches his walk. Not once. He's stalked Kyrie for years, has files built on her and flashdrives full of pictures (no nudes, he insists - what a gentleman! you might say, although later he says that it's because that they would be too much temptation for him to have around, so not so gentlemanly, after all). He takes care of all her financial matters in exchange for her total submission in all things, and repeatedly says he owns her and her family.

Here's my question, though...what makes this situation different from the employer at the beginning who said that she could only keep her job if she sleeps with him? V.R., unlike that creepy 60-year-old dude with the wrinkly weiner, is hot. Norse God, Greek God, Aleksander Skarsgard - he's compared to all three of those entities multiple times. And what drives the point home even more is that Kyrie herself says that she would have considered sleeping with her boss in the beginning to keep her job if she thought it would be fun and he was actually hot. So really, that horrible moment in the beginning of the story is just put in there to foreshadow and explain the attraction between V.R. and Kyrie later.

I also really didn't like the sex scenes in this book. I don't find the word "boobs" sexy at all, for example. That's the word I typed into calculators in math class when I was eight (8008). The author also overuses several words like "thick" (thick peaks, thick and pink, etc.) and "pebbled", and bizarre phrases like "fat licks" that just sound gross instead of sexy. There's also this scene that was actually kind of stupid, where V.R. decides to stick a bullet vibrator up Kyrie's butt - bullet vibrators are small and not meant to be inserted. They're for stimulation only. So it could have easily gotten stuck up there. That's actually why plug toys are shaped the way they are, just FYI. So they won't get stuck.

Finally, the big reveal of this story. Well, I guess it was shocking. I mean, I wasn't really expecting it. There was so much build-up and secrecy over V.R.'s identity that I kept expecting something earth-shattering. It was pretty much the only reason I continued reading, to be honest. I wanted to find out what persuaded him to stalk her for years, and why he was so obsessed with her. I'm a sucker for a good mystery, what can I say. But when you shed his reveal of the shock factor, it basically comes down to - again - "I thought you were hot."

ALPHA was a huge miss for me. It seems to be popular with the erotica crowd, and I guess if you are looking for a quick, easy read that's more sex than plot, this is the perfect book for you. It was a fast read, I will say that. The pages just flew. But if you're hoping for a complex story that's darker than dark and has actual chemistry and tension between the characters, keep looking, because this book isn't it.

I will not be continuing this series, although I'd be willing to give Wilder another go. Supposedly this series is an exception to her usual lineup, and I think I've got FALLING INTO YOU on my Kindle.

1 out of 5 stars.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Not Over Yet by Amber Belldene

The Under Her Collar series is what some people are calling "inspirational erotica." It's christian-themed fiction about female priests, and about them navigating their relationships and their sex lives while also staying true to their faith.

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, NOT A MISTAKE. Jordan was so calm and level-headed, and I loved the way religion was discussed, as well as the truth that many people often ignore: that beneath their collars, priests are human beings, and therefore not above error. It was a great book about an unwed woman coming to terms with her pregnancy and I adored it.

When the author offered me an advanced copy of her then-unpublished sequel, NOT OVER YET, I leaped at the opportunity. Lily Yee, Jordan's friend, is a woman of color, as well as a priest, and dealing with a whole other set of problems.

NOT OVER YET isn't a pregnancy story; instead, it's a second-chance romance between a priest and a billionaire. Before she got her collar, Lily was the nanny for Eric Roche and his two little adopted daughters. Back then, he was newly divorced and really lonely, and Lily was convenient and attractive, as well as the polar opposite to his cheating, high-strung ex-wife. He eventually proposed and Lily turned him down, and Eric never got over it.

When Lily winds up in dire financial straits and is accused by her church of embezzling funds (by none other than the aforementioned cheating ex-wife!), Eric comes into her life again. Their sexual chemistry is undeniable, but past hurts loom heavily in the past, and forgiveness comes steep. Plus, ex-wife Cynthia is determined to wreck their budding relationship and steal the children - oh noes!

At first I really liked the idea behind the story. Like Jordan, Lily seems level-headed. I could respect her decision of wanting a career over a family, and her resentment of Eric trying to buy her and emotionally manipulate her into taking on a role she didn't want. I liked that she had to deal with issues that people of color really do face, like microaggressions and accusations of "reverse racism." I sympathized with her financial plight and the accusations of embezzlement. I was ready to despise Cynthia as the antagonist of the story, while also ready for her to redeem herself later.

But what always kills a story for me is when I don't like one of the love interests, and sadly that was the case with Eric. He's so manipulative, and his only redeeming value is in his wealth and his sexual acrobatics. I didn't like how he was constantly trying to guilt Lily about leaving him. She wasn't his wife - something he seems to forget. She was his nanny and live-in f*ckbuddy. She wasn't under a contract stipulating that she had to stick around just because the kids liked her and he was hot for her.

Eric continued to be a jerk throughout the story, raising many relationship red flags. Like, at one point he gets angry at Lily for buying a vibrator because he takes it as a sign that the "D" isn't good enough for her (can you say insecurity complex?). He keeps telling her that the girls like her, and that he wanted her to be a wife, so how dare she walk away and hurt him like that (what about what she wants?). He knows she's poor, and yet when Lily tells him that the reason she left was because she didn't feel ready for the role of mother/wife in addition to commuting 20 miles for her priest job, Eric tells her that she could have taken BART. Now, those of you who don't live in California wouldn't know this, but BART fares can range from roughly $2-$14 round-trip depending on where you're going. Daily. That adds up. And that doesn't include parking costs or additional public transportation costs (i.e. taking the bus, etc.).

At the end, though, Lily pulls a stunt that made me dislike her because it seemed so out of character. It was such a terrible way to lead someone on, and I didn't think it was cute or funny at all. I think the author was going for one of those dramatic reveals, like you see in chick lit movies, but this just felt mean-spirited. At that point, I was like, "Well, okay, they're both jerks, so I guess they deserve each other."

Also, some of the "racism" elements were a little weird and made me uncomfortable. Like at one point, someone tells Eric that he's an Asian fetishist because he has these adopted Chinese daughters and now he's trying to get a Chinese wife to match the set. Lily comes to this conclusion herself later, and she and Eric argue about it. There's also this moment that I think was supposed to be touching but came off as super icky, when this parishioner who didn't like Lily changes her mind about Lily being a Chinese elitist because she sees that she's got a "mixed" relationship.

For what it's worth, NOT OVER YET does a pretty good job of covering racism in an inoffensive way (except for that one weird part), but I just couldn't get on board with the male hero. He was awful, and I didn't like him at all. Check yourself before you wreck yourself, dude.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Proof by Seduction by Courtney Milan

If Courtney Milan writes it, I will read it. I love that she writes in periods where women really didn't have much agency and does her best to empower them within that limited framework. She's also a lovely person, too, and we were lucky enough to get an interview with her in the Unapologetic Romance Readers book group (where she hints about upcoming projects and ideas - spoilers!).

I've read books from the Brothers Sinister and the Worth series, and was excited to traverse into the world of the Carharts. I'd hoped to read this book before the interview so I was a bit more prepared for the Q&A session, but I am really bad at blogging deadlines because I'm so focused on real-life deadlines, so that didn't really happen.

...Until now!

The opening of PROOF OF SEDUCTION is really great. We're introduced to Madame Esmeralda (who I couldn't help picturing as the Disney Esmeralda), gypsy fortune-teller extraordinaire. She's meeting with her favorite client, Ned, cousin to a skeptical marquess who also happens to be a scientist and a bit of a jerk. He challenges Madame Esmeralda's claims by forcing her to prove herself, which results in a battle of wills, a reluctant attraction, and a rather cringe-worthy attempt at matchmaking.

Lord Blakely was an interesting character, and his scientific background and stuffy demeanor kept his nastiness from being as unpleasant as it might otherwise have been. I enjoyed his verbal battles with Madame Esmeralda/Jenny, and thought that their interactions were great at adding tension - both sexual and otherwise - to the story. The way that they struggle for control over Esmeralda's attempts to "prove" herself were hilarious. Nary a loophole wasn't exploited to its fullest comedic extent.

My problem with this book is that it drags. Terribly. The beginning is the best part. After that, it's all downhill. Around page 100 I actually asked myself, "Things seem like they're about to wrap up - how on earth is she going to fill the remaining 147 pages?"

With sex, of course, and many back-and-forth arguments.


The sex scenes are for the most part well-written, but they are repetitive (like the arguments). And there are some rather jarring descriptions, like a woman's ladyparts being described as "her wetness" and other little niggling details like that that pulled me out of the moment and made me go "ew."

Then there's Ned. I wanted to like Ned. And at first, I almost did. I felt sorry for him. He's a boy with a huge pair of shoes to fill, and an older cousin who doesn't take him seriously at all. But he's also a weenie. I get that he was depressed, and that depression doesn't always make you pleasant to be around, which I think the author was going for (to her credit), but his characterization just seemed to vacillate so much, he started feeling more like a cartoon caricature of adolescent weeniness.

PROOF BY SEDUCTION isn't a bad book, and features some great lines. But it isn't Milan's best work. I get the feeling that she enjoys wrapping up stories neatly and quickly which is probably why she writes so many novellas and why they are so good. But that talent doesn't translate well to novels, and this one felt like it was very fluffed up when 100 pages or more could have been easily shaved off. The ending, too, seemed a bit over the top. I mean, really. An elephant?

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Duke to Remember by Kelly Bowen

Many regency romances feature the same plot, with the characters and storylines being virtually interchangeable and utterly forgettable. A DUKE TO REMEMBER, however, really does feature a duke to remember...although in all honesty, it's the heroine, Elise DeVries, who steals the show.

Elise is an agent of Chagarre and Associates. Basically, members of the elite come to her with their problems, which she resolves discreetly - for a price. Elise also works as an actress, and she uses her stage training and her many disguises to solve these cases and gather intelligence. Her latest case is both tragic and bizarre: the sister of a duke presumed dead reveals that her brother is actually alive, and that his cousin, who has seized control of the estate in his absence, has committed their mother to Bedlam and is doing his utmost to see to it that the Duke of Ashland never returns from the dead.

I liked Elise and loved the fact that she was competent at her job. The scenes of her going under disguise and working with her clients were really great, and did a great job capturing her character. Unlike many cross-dressing heroines, the heroine is actually pretty decent at going incognito and it's only by pure happenstance that the object of her search, Noah Ellery, finds out he is a she.

One of the things that dragged down my rating for this book was the insta-love. Right away they're attracted to one another and have sex, which took out any of the sexual tension that makes books like these so fun to read. Even though I know how romances end 99.9% of the time, the will they/won't they trope keeps me turning pages like nobody's business. The tension in this story comes from the fact that Noah is determined to remain in hiding, and he doesn't realize that Elise has been hired to take him back to society to claim the duchy...although even this is resolved quickly. And I must say, props to the author for not having the characters miscommunicate for an infinite amount of pages, dancing around their pile of lies with half-truths and hurt feelings. Elise is straight-up with Noah, which was both refreshing and in line with her characterization.

The romance was just so sudden, that neither of them really had chemistry. So while I felt sorry for Noah and what he had gone through as a child and loved Elise's passion for righting wrongs and kicking ass, I didn't really see them together as a couple, nor did I buy their sudden devotion.

My favorite character in this book was actually a third-tier character who only appears a handful of times. That would be King, who reminded me a lot of one of my favorite book boyfriends, Jerricho Barrons. He's pretty much everything I love in a hero...brooding, dark, mysterious, tortured, sexy, with a generous sprinkling of gamma. When I found out that he wasn't the love interest in this book, I was devastated...although the author teased that he might be one in later installments.

I appreciate Bowen's challenging the stereotypes that are the status quo in regency novels, but the lack of chemistry took what could have been a four- or five-star book for me and downgraded it to a 2.5. I'd definitely read King's story, though. I hope it's dark. ;)

Thanks to the author and the publisher for the review copy!

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Beg for Mercy by Jami Alden

I remember when I first started getting into romances, I asked my friends for recommendations and Louisa recommended a couple romantic suspense authors to me, including BEG FOR MERCY by Jami Alden. The Criminal Minds comparison sold me on the story. I don't know if you've seen Criminal Minds, but that is some scary sh*t.

BEG is about Megan Flynn who is sort of dating/sort of in love with this cop named Cole Williams. When they're getting frisky, he gets a call about a murder, and Megan is shocked to recognize her own address. Without warning, Cole arrests Megan's brother, Sean. The open-shut case means her brother's death sentence, and Megan loses all credibility as everyone thinks she's crazy to insist he's innocent.

While reading this book, I kept thinking about what I would do if I was in this position. I can't even imagine what it would be like to see a family member arrested for something you know in your heart that they didn't do, but be utterly powerless to protect them from the law. It made my heart hurt.

I have to say that I didn't particularly like Megan and Cole much, though. While I could understand where Megan was coming from, I thought she was an idiot. She was always marching into the face of danger, to the point where she could have been hit with obstruction of justice charges. Did that stop her? Nooooo. She was emotionally manipulative, impulsive, and bitchy, and I did not like that at all.

Cole, on the other hand, is your typical alpha male jerk, who's just a few steps away from peeing all over the heroine's shoes to mark his territory. Every time another man so much as looks at Megan, Cole thinks about how much he'd like to punch that man in the face. The macho bro-standing got old fast, and so did his judgmental attitude. At one point he says that Megan looks like she's gotten her clothes from "Sluts R Us." Nice, Cole. Very nice.

The two of them use sex to manipulate one another and get their way, and I thought that was pretty awful, too.There's nothing really romantic about this romantic suspense, please and thank you.

The suspense aspect of this book is really well done and makes up for the crummy characters. The serial killer in this book is super creepy. What's even creepier is that you almost feel sorry for him when you find out what he went through - almost. (He's still a major psycho, though.) I was able to predict (correctly) who the killer was about 25% in because the red herring was way too obvious a choice.

BEG FOR MERCY was a fast-paced read. I'm interested in reading the sequel. From what I read in the teaser at the end of BEG, it looks like it builds upon the previous events and relationships, which I always like in a story, as it makes it way more complex and interesting.

3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Sacked by Jen Frederick

I usually have an idea of what rating I'll give a book by the end of the first chapter. With SACKED, however, I waffled between a two-star and a three-star rating for most of the book, and didn't really come to a solid decision until the very end. This is because SACKED does some things extraordinarily well, and other things...not so well.

SACKED is a romance between a very talented football player and a girl who is a fan of football. Knox Masters knows he's probably going to end up as a first-draft pick, playing for a top NFL team. He's also a virgin, by choice, because he thinks that conserving his energy means that he'll be able to focus on the game more and play better as a result. Ellie Campbell is the sister of one of his teammates. She's been helping her brother cheat (without his knowledge) since eighth grade in order to hide his learning disability. She and Knox hit it off immediately, but she's reluctant to enter a relationship for many Important Reasons.

One of the things I liked about this book was the fact that it had a virgin hero. Usually in books like these, the male character is an overconfident man-whore, who sleeps around and treats women like dirt or objects (I guess dirt technically is an object) until he meets the heroine with the magical goody box who transforms his life completely through the magical powers of virgin!sex. Knox saved himself because he didn't see any point in having empty sex, and instead devoted his time to achieving what was really important to him - his career in football. That's pretty cool.

Another thing I liked about this book was Ellie's relationship with her brother. They cared about each other so much. I loved their interactions. I thought it was heartbreaking how Ellie kept hinting about all the opportunities their school offered for people with learning disabilities, and Jack never took her up on it. His defensiveness was really well done, and I liked how even when they had arguments, they could still forgive one another, and their love was never tested by stupid, pointless drama.

In fact, most of the secondary relationships in this book were really well done. The Warriors' relationship with their coach. Their relationships with one another (loved the guy banter and the football chatter). Ellie's friendship with her roommate. It gave the book a lively, congenial atmosphere that was pleasant and enjoyable.

So, what didn't I like about the book?

Ellie and Knox's relationship is founded on insta-love. Knox decides that she's the one from the very moment he meets her because she likes football and she has the magical ability to tell him apart from his twin, Ty. Believe it or not, this is actually a test Knox subjects all of his potential bed mates to - he introduces them to his identical twin, and then tricks them, to see if they can tell him apart. Smooth.

There's also a lot of explicit sex in this book, to the point where it started getting repetitive and empty. Plus, you get weird turns of phrases like, "long, ropy seed jets" and "I wonder if I can wear her. Whether there's some campus provision that would prevent me from walking around with her attached to my d***." That's not erotic...that's actually kind of creepy.

Knox also has this Edward Cullen vibe, where he pursues the heroine to the point where it seems a lot like stalking, and he doesn't always take "no" for an answer. Towards the end, he becomes even more invasive, which is probably why I didn't like the ending. I don't really like the idea of a guy walking in and taking total control over a girl's life. People who enjoy novels with overbearing heroes who want their women "kept" will probably not mind this as much, but it felt weird to me. Very 1950s.

SACKED is not a bad book by new adult standards. Frederick's writing is clear and fluid, and she captures college life pretty well, in my opinion. I always appreciate when new adult authors take the time to show students struggling with their coursework when it comes to balancing work and play. It was the execution that really killed this book for me. With a few tweaks, I think this is a book I could have loved. I still have the sequel, JOCK BLOCKED, which I plan to read soon, and I'm loving her co-authored series with Elle Kennedy. This book in particular just wasn't right for me.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Nerd in Shining Armor by Vicki Lewis Thompson

You know, for a book that's supposedly about nerds saving the day, this book sure puts us down a lot. And I mean, a lot. In fact, every main character at one point takes part in some nerd-shaming.

Genevieve Terrence, the main character, is an ex-hillbilly currently residing in beautiful Hawaii. Jack Farley, the titular nerd in this story, has been crushing on Genevieve ever since they started working together. Gen hasn't noticed, because she's infatuated with her boss, Nick "It's not sexual harassment if they want it" Brogan.Yes, this is one of those books where the heroine mistakes aggressive sexual behavior for the overtures of a long term relationship. And even though she knows that Nick is only inviting her on the business trip to Maui because he wants a one-stand, she is convinced that she can change him. After all, he looks like Cary Grant. He'd make a great husband. He just had a troubled childhood.

Jack throws a wrench in this would-be "romantic" getaway because he's been invited too, to troubleshoot problems in their sister branch, Aloha Pineapple. He's thrilled, because he knows that when Nick inevitably leaves her a sobbing, weepy wreck, he can be the one to pick up those soggy pieces, and tenderly make love to her until she forgets her woes. Because as everyone knows, niceness is totally a synonym for manipulative opportunist.

Unfortunately for all three characters, the plane never makes it to Maui, and Nick isn't what he seemed. (I mean, beyond not being Genevieve's future husband.) The plane gets wrecked, and Genevieve and Jack are marooned on a tropical island with two energy bars and six condoms.

At first, NERD IN SHINING ARMOR was an okay read. It had some troubling gender stereotypes, but most books written during this time period did. And there's something about the chatty, overly familiar narrative style of chicklit written during this time that really appeals to me. Probably because the first romances I ever read were written in this style, and reading them makes me nostalgic.

But I have limits, and this book crossed them about half a dozen times.

Here are some examples:

We learn that Genevieve lost her virginity when she was thirteen-years-old, because she is a hillbilly, and this is all that hillbillies have to do for entertainment because they don't have video games or TV. Genevieve traded hers away because the boy she was dating promised to take her out to the movies for a month. Spoiler alert: he lied.

Genevieve's hillbilly act got old fast. By the end of the book, she was making so many "you know you're a redneck when..."-type comments, that she could have been an opening act for Jeff Foxworthy.

We have sex scenes that read like this:
When he sucked her nipple into his mouth, he made an mmmm sort of noise, as if he'd just taken a mouthful of pecan pie with whipped cream. He certainly knew how to do this part right - exactly enough pressure to send a signal down below, where the welcome party was being set up. Soon that welcom party would be in full swing, ready to greet the honored guest.

"Welcome party," eh? I guess that would make the condom the balloons?

It almost makes you nostalgic for Bertrice Small's "love grotto."

For a nerd, Jack just isn't very nerdy. His inner dialogue is airheaded and he comes off sounding like a cross between a thirteen-year-old boy and a sixteen-year-old girl. When he's not thinking about sex, he's mentally cataloging everything the heroine is wearing and saying things like "omigod!" We're told that he's a brilliant programmer, but never really see any of that in the book. Instead, we're told that he has a home gym because he's too socially awkward to go to the regular gym (because he needs a hot body to appeal to the heroine), and instead of playing video games, he plays flight simulators (because anything else would be *too nerdy*), which is how he's able to land the plane...

He's also...kind of a jerk. He makes so many judgments about Genevieve, and the fact that he is so desperate to reclaim Nick's sloppy seconds really put me off his character. You'd think he would warn her or something, you know, since he's such a nice guy. Then we have this dubious line:

He wondered if the bathing suit was a signal that they wouldn't have sex anymore. If so, it wasn't a very good signal, because those little scraps of material would come off in no time. He'd always thought that was the idea of a bikini - gift-wrapped sex.

That sounds kind of rapey to me. How easily clothing comes off is not a substitute for vocalized consent. And the purpose of a swimsuit is for swimming, obviously. Otherwise it would be called a sexsuit, Mr. Genius Nerd.

The plot is padded out further with a subplot where Genevieve's mother teams up with Jack and Gen's boss to find the plane and save them, with the help of Gen's younger brother, Lincoln. We also find out that Genevieve and her family have psychic powers for some reason, and the sole purpose of these powers is to provide an explanation for how Annabel and Lincoln "just know" exactly where to find Jack and Genevieve without actually looking very hard.

NERD IN SHINING ARMOR was a disappointment. I was hoping for a story where the heroine embraces the nerdy hero's nerdy quirks, and instead found a book where nerds are put down, and it's only when they're transformed to fit acceptable beauty standards that they're found worthy of being love interests. The idiotic villain, numerous deus ex machinas, and unlikable characters were just nails in the coffin. NERD'S one saving grace is that it is compulsively readable (like watching a plane crash), and saved me from being bored during my lunch hour or while waiting between various appointments. But sadly, that wasn't enough to save its rating.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

As I get older, I find myself being tougher and tougher on YA. I'm not sure if it's because I find it more difficult to relate to the characters, or if the characters are just becoming more bland. In either case, I'm a jaded dame who's hard to please...and who's also a glutton for punishment. It's a dangerous combination.

THE RAVEN BOYS wasn't a book I set out to read. I'd heard of Maggie Stiefvater before, but her work didn't sound like it was for me. Then THE RAVEN BOYS became popular, and I began to see that black and white cover flooding my feed, accompanied by glowing reviews praising the book as magical and original.

Then the book showed up for $1 at my local used bookstore. I couldn't say no to that, you guys. Peer pressure...for $1.

I am such a sucker.

I would like to start by acknowledging the book's obvious strengths. It is very well written. The author has a great vocabulary and she knows how to string words along, like beads on a bracelet, so they look all nice and sparkly and pretty. Sometimes, however, she uses too many beads, and you end up with something way too chunky for convenience. But at least the beads are pretty.

The obvious failing is that this book doesn't know who it wants its audience to be. It's a book about older teenagers written for preteens, and sometimes that shows in the writing, which is so tell-not-show that it's like being beaten over the head with a skateboard (spoiler). I felt like I had Stiefvater holding my hand the whole time I was reading the story, telling me, "Okay, so for this part coming up, I want you to feel scared, okay? And you can tell you're supposed to feel scared because the characters are scared and scary things are happening, so it's okay for you to feel scared, too."

It also really didn't help that I hated Gansey and Blue. Gansey was condescending as all get out, and I got tired of other characters in the book saying that it was because he was rich. There are plenty of rich people who don't go around making others feel stupid about themselves. Being rich may be something that you can't help but condescension is a life choice.

Blue I didn't like because she was such a little twit. The way she treated her mom annoyed me. She was selfish, easily offended, and completely self-absorbed. I suspect I was supposed to think that she was quirky and sarcastic and funny and independent. She's basically the Scrappy Doo of heroines. And everyone knows that Scappy Doo is a major Scrappy Don't.

I kind of guessed that I wasn't going to be a fan when I found out that the outcome of this story hinged on whether or not the sixteen-year-old heroine kissed a boy.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

As a young woman, Grace Marks was arrested for the killing of her master, Mr. Kinnear, and his housekeeper-slash-mistress, Nancy Montgomery. Her "accomplice", Mr. McDermott, is already dead, and Grace is currently awaiting her fate in an asylum. Dr. Simon Jordan is a psychologist who is very interested in Grace because she claims to have no memory of the murder, or the events leading right up to it. Is she mentally ill? Innocent? Or a villain?

ALIAS GRACE is told from several POVs, which is a device I don't really like. Simon's POVs were odd, especially the sequences with his affairs and his dreams. My favorite POV was Grace as she's telling her story to Simon. I loved the parts about her childhood, and her close friendship with Mary Watney. As Grace tells her story, the suspense builds as the reader begins to wonder how this naive girl who overcame so much in her early life ended up getting sucked into cold-blooded murder.

It's no secret that Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors. Her writing is lush and beautiful, and even though it's dense, the story-telling is often just as good as if not better than the story itself. ALIAS GRACE is not my favorite of Atwood's work, but all the elements of why I love this author are present...just perhaps not in the best proportions. ALIAS GRACE suffers in the second act, when the narrative weakens and an odd hypnotism storyline rears its head. The last portion of the story is mostly epistolary, and this seemed designed more to hastily tie up loose ends.

ALIAS GRACE is an interesting book based on a true story, written by one of my favorite authors. It's certainly not a bad book, but it's not one I would want to recommend, and it's certainly not the first book that would come to mind if I were recommending Atwood to a newbie. But if you're interested in Canadian history and love Margaret Atwood, ALIAS is a must-read for you.

3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Business Cat: Money, Power, Treats by Tom Fonder

Andrews McMeel knows that their audience loves cats. There is no other explanation.

Books like these can be hit or miss. I always apply for them because I love cats, but the last one I got, BREAKING CAT NEWS, was only so-so.

That is not the case with BUSINESS CAT.

For those of you who aren't into internet pop culture, Business Cat is a popular meme of a cat with a photoshopped tie. BUSINESS CAT borrows heavily from some of those memes, but also has fresh content with a continuing storyline as BC struggles to improve projections, slash the budget, and become Business Pet of the Year.

I thought BUSINESS CAT was really cute and funny. I'm glad I got a copy from Netgalley!

4 out of 5 stars!

Not A Mistake by Amber Belldene

Why does this book not have infinitely more ratings than it does? The quality of the writing and the characterization are better than many books gracing the best-seller lists right now, and yet NOT A MISTAKE remains obscure.

This book came to my attention because of my friend sraxe's review. I thought the premise of two priests falling in love after an unplanned pregnancy sounded interesting, especially since she said the religion aspect was handled in a really thoughtful way.

Dominic was Jordan's seminary school teacher. Both were attracted to one another, both unsuccessfully tried to fight it. On the night of her graduation, they have sex, which results in an unplanned pregnancy. After some deliberation, Jordan decides that she wants to keep the baby, although she's afraid to tell Dominic because she knows that he will absorb all of the guilt and make it completely his "fault" - which he does.

NOT A MISTAKE is how the romance between them unfolds when Dominic decides that he wants to be involved with both Jordan and his unborn child's life. They have great conversations about compatibility and what makes for a lasting marriage. They also have great conversations about their experiences with relationship mistakes and what makes for unhappy marriages.

Given that this book has a religious context, you could probably imagine that not everyone is too pleased with this couple's doings. There are more great conversations about ethics and responsibility, including a wonderful reason as to why student/teacher priest/parishioner relationships are so problematic, even if they are consensual. I also liked how the author showed the sexism that Jordan often faces as a female priest, and some of the double-standards that occur because of it.

NOT A MISTAKE is a great love story between two priests who used to be student and teacher. Fans of intelligent new adult books will like this, as will fans of priest romances, liberal-minded christian fiction, and student teacher romances. In some ways, this book was highly reminiscent of another student-teacher NA I read, called HOW NOT TO FALL, but I liked the characters in here a little better.

4 out of 5 stars!

Monday, July 18, 2016

It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Phoebe Summerville is like a cross between Elle Woods and Peg Bundy - she's rich, she's tacky, everyone writes her off as a dumb bimbo. However, she's quite a bit more clever and complicated than anyone gives her credit for, including her father, who disliked her so much that he decided to screw with her from beyond the grave: instead of being disinherited as per his original plan, he's giving her his football team, the Chicago Stars, for a year. If the team loses the NFL playoffs, she gets $100,000 and ownership reverts to her icky cousin, Reed. If she wins, she keeps the team. Damned if she does, damned if she doesn't.

Dan Calebow, the coach of the Stars, is highly displeased when he finds out who the new owner is. He's even more displeased when he finds himself inexplicably attracted to her. I know the Goodreads blurb describes him as "a sexist jock taskmaster with a one-track mind", but this doesn't even come close to describing what a piece of work this man is, and what he does to Phoebe.

First, let me say that I loved the premise behind this book. I love books that show that women can be fashionable, girly, ditzy, and smart. Legally Blonde and Clueless are two of my favorite movies, and for a while I thought this book was going to be like that, with Phoebe learning more about management and football while also teaching the players "the bend and snap." Because Phoebe was a great character, and her tacky, over-the-top 90s outfits are all kinds of awesome.

My problem with the book is Dan. Just Dan. And while it seems a bit harsh, I know, to lower the ratings of a book so dramatically just because one of the characters ticked me off, Dan is the love interest and one of the narrators, so he's kind of inescapable. In the first scene from his POV, we're led to believe that he's having sex with a sixteen-year-old high school cheerleader. In actuality, it's his ex-wife, Valerie, who likes to play kinky roleplaying games, but I felt like I was led on way too long into thinking that this hero is actually the type of man to sleep with underage women.

Minus one.

Dan is also kind of creepy. Even as he's having kinky sex with his ex-wife, he's shopping for the next one, and eventually hones in on a preschool teacher named Sharon Anderson. So he's dating this girl while having sex with his ex-wife and having sexual thoughts about Phoebe. The worst part is, Sharon never finds out about any of this. Dan breaks up with her eventually, and tells her it's because she wasn't what he was looking for after all, and that's the end of it. Poor Sharon never finds out.

Minus two.

At one point, Dan and his ex-wife are planning rape play. When Phoebe drops by unexpectedly, Dan mistakes her for his ex-wife and drags her off into the woods while saying all these threatening things. Phoebe, who is a rape victim, freaks out, and Dan doesn't realize anything is wrong until she starts screaming. His excuse is that it's dark. And he doesn't really feel as sorry as he should have.

Minus three.

Towards the end of the book, Dan tells Phoebe that he doesn't feel comfortable dating someone with the power to fire him.

Minus four.

Also, the inclusion of this line:
What good were curvy hips and full breasts if she couldn't let a man caress them, if they would never bring a baby into the world or nuture its new life? (142)

Minus five.

And the inclusion of this line:
Phoebe was a curvy, buxom , good-time girl, custom-designed by God for just this kind of romp (239).

Minus six.

Plus, there were some weird stylistic choices in the narrative style that just felt odd to me. For example:

Her curved hips swayed in a sassy walk that seemed to have a language all its own

Hot cha cha
Hot cha cha
Hot hot
Cha cha cha cha

I have no idea if this is a reference to something or what it's supposed to mean, but the author seems to like it, because she repeats it several times. She has a couple favorite words that are also repeated several times, like "peek-a-boo", "sassy", and "delirious."

This line was kind of weird as well.

Like plantation slaves, the National Football League's Chicago Stars had come to pay homage to the man who owned them (5).

In addition to Dan, I also despised Molly, Phoebe's younger half-sister. She's such a sh*t to her sister, despite everything Phoebe does for her. Molly's not happy at school? Phoebe changes schools for her. Molly's not happy at home? She gets to live with Phoebe. Molly feels drab? Phoebe offers to go clothes shopping with her. How does Molly repay her? By putting her down and making her feel bad about herself every chance she gets, and at one point, telling a stranger (Dan) that Phoebe hits her.

How does Dan react to this? In the end, he pretty much laughs it off. It becomes a joke at the end.

I loved Phoebe's character and I liked how she talked about what good people her horrible father's wives were. She never slut-shames any of her stepmothers and at one point says that they're strong women because they were survivors who did the best they could to live their lives. I also loved her interactions with the players and with Ron, and her locker room speech was really cute. I also liked how when she found out about Dan going out with Sharon, she didn't blame Sharon. She blamed Dan. Isn't that refreshing? Blaming the cheater instead of the cheatee? I thought so.

Phoebe was clever and a schemer, and she wasn't afraid to live her life. Even though she was raped, and suffered blow after blow to her self-esteem, she learned to take advantage of the male gaze, and how to cow male bullies by beating them at their own game. She was a wonderful, complicated, quirky heroine, and it made me so sad to see her paired off with such a terrible, terrible hero.

The dated 90s references were so amusing. Rows of payphones in a locker room? Chokers? LOL.

P.S. Donald Trump makes a random paragraph-long cameo.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

He Will be My Ruin by K.A. Tucker

I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. Flawed, but a definite improvement over this author's earlier work.

Maggie Sparkes is a super rich heiress who works in nonprofit. When she finds out her childhood friend/the daughter of her maid is dead, supposedly by suicide, she jets out to New York. No way Celine killed herself, Maggie cries to anyone (and I mean anyone) who will listen. But fear not! Detective Dip is on the case, and she's bought friends. She immediately starts going through all of her friend's things and finds items that...disturb her.

For the first 60% or so, this book has a definite IF I WERE YOU vibe. Maggie discovers a notebook in which her friend lists all of her sexual adventures before she died. She starts taking up with the man who might have killed her friend. She wears her dead friend's clothes and lives in her apartment. It's very awkward.

Is this a rip-off of IF I WERE YOU? No. They're very different stories. IIWY was erotica with a mystery thrown in. HWBMR is a mystery with some erotica thrown in. The focal point of this story is the mystery, and I was pleased to see that when it came down to brass tacks, the heroine was more interested in getting closure than sleeping with the hot, potentially murderous dudes (eventually).

At the 60% mark, the pacing picks up dramatically. Instead of slogging through tedious descriptions of Maggie attempting to play Nancy Drew/Gossip Girl, we're presented with even more subjects, interesting evidence, and some truly tense scenes as Celine's diary entries reveal clue after damning clue. Also, I loved the descriptions of old antiques and Chinese pottery. I actually didn't know how "new" bone china was, or how it got its name.

I probably would have enjoyed this more except for the fact that Maggie was a bland character, who didn't really have a personality apart from being rich and harboring an obsessive need to pour huge sums of money into finding out how her friend died. Why? An answer for this wasn't really provided, and I was given the impression that they were somewhat estranged.

I also thought that both she and Celine had definite TSTL tendencies. When they should have asked themselves, "Gee, maybe this person is a little too eager to install this camera into my house" or "maybe I shouldn't mix vodka and sleeping pills while in a fragile emotional state" they threw caution to the wind instead, leaving me shaking my head and muttering, "Really, lady? Really?"

HE WILL BE MY RUIN is mystery "light" with some sexual stuff thrown in. Not really my cup of tea, but I enjoyed it despite that, and found myself pleasantly surprised by this book's readability. Honestly, if you liked IF I WERE YOU, you'll probably like this, as the mystery is a lot better and it doesn't have quite as many long sex scenes. I'm not mad at it. Especially with its $1.99 price tag.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Stormswept by Sabrina Jeffries

This is a rerelease of an older title written by Sabrina Jeffries under the psuedonym, Deborah Martin. Usually, authors use pseudonyms when they're writing in a different genre - either to test a fresh, unbiased fanbase or to keep their books organized by genre. I'm not sure what the purpose was here, but it's interesting to think about.

STORMSWEPT is a historical romance novel set in Wales. The heroine, Juliana St. Albans is the daughter of a powerful lord who has just seized the property of a Welsh squire in a gambling debt, causing the man to commit suicide in his shame. Rhys Vaughan is the son of that squire, determined to get revenge on the St. Albans.

One day, Juliana attends a meeting of Welsh radicals in disguise with her Welsh servant, Lettice. Rhys is one of the speakers, and his intelligence and charisma rallies those assembled. He sees Juliana in the audience and is immediately attracted to her, and impulsively kisses her without knowing who she is, although others are quick to enlighten him. After a surge of anger and a brief misunderstanding, he decides he wants her instantly.

Juliana's brother, Darcy, is furious when Juliana and Rhys elope - even more so when he finds out that Lettice, whom he covets despite being married, is in love with and plans to marry another Welshman, Morgan Pennant. With the help of Juliana's brother, Overton, and a host of other people, Darcy gets Rhys and Morgan impressed in the British Navy, where they are whipped and flogged and forced to fight in battles they have no investment in. Darcy then takes on grieving Lettice as his mistress while Juliana, thinking that Rhys meant to betray her and steal back his land, eventually gives up her husband for dead and takes on a new suitor at the behest of her family (i.e. Darcy).

Everything is fine and dandy...until Rhys returns, back from the dead.

My friends loved this book, and their high praises were a huge factor in why I applied for this book on Netgalley. Now that I've read it, I can see why it was so popular with them. Juliana is a great protagonist. She doesn't take any guff, not even from the love interest. It was refreshing to see a heroine who actually stood up for herself, who was intelligent and kind, and who didn't make stupid, selfish decisions (although there was someone in this book who did make stupid, selfish decisions *cough* Rhys and Darcy *cough*). Juliana was a huge factor in my liking this book.

The quality of the writing was also quite good. I loved the writing, except for the sex scenes, which were mildly cringe-worthy. "Honeypot" should never be used in descriptions of intercourse, ever.

No, my beef with this book is actually the hero, Rhys. I hated Rhys. He was such a selfish, arrogant, stubborn jerk. The lust-at-first sight was bad enough, but then he follows her home, sneaks into her window, and pushes her into eloping by compromising her step by step. Then when he finds out she's planning on marrying someone else, he goes apesh*t. The way he treated Juliana was awful. He takes control of her estate and says she can't have it back until she sleeps with him. He accuses her of being a liar at every turn, and doesn't believe a word she says unless someone mansplains it back to him on her behalf. And, oh, yes, he keeps trying to figure out how to have sex with her without forgiving her.

I wouldn't have a problem with a jerk hero if it weren't so blatantly obvious that we're supposed to feel sorry for him, and the hero does remind us what a victim he is, whining and looking hurt (only when no one is around to see, of course), and generally sulking while expressing his fear of abandonment. Well, I'm sorry, but I felt no pity for this piece of work. Juliana sets him straight on this, and I half-wish she'd married Stephen instead of him because it takes the hero thirty pages from the end before he finally - finally - realizes he was wrong. And it literally takes a declaration from Juliana's brother, a big fat, "I DID IT!" in blinking neon lights, before he does this.

Lettice and Juliana and Morgan were awesome, but Rhys and Darcy are free to go to the devil any time.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Dirty Rush by Taylor Bell

I used to joke that I was technically "Greek" because I was in a society (a lot of societies have Greek names, too) - in fact, I was offered membership to two. But I never rushed, and I didn't have any friends who were in sororities. Ever since I saw Legally Blonde, I was fascinated by sororities. They seemed so girly and decadent and shallow, like a sleepover with Kelly Ripa.

In other words, awesome.

DIRTY RUSH is probably not a realistic portrayal of what sororities and fraternities are actually like, any more than 80s movies by John Hughes were accurate portrayals of what high school was actually like. But it does manage to capture the "spirit" of what many of us wish it was like, which is almost as good.

Especially for those of us, like me, who can only participate in these kinds of events vicariously. This is prime entertainment.

There is an 80s movie vibe to DIRTY RUSH. It's larger than life, exaggerated, cliche, raunchy, and completely OTT. Taylor Bell is the smart, pretty girl who refuses to go to rush but ends up joining anyway because of a boy. Her sorority sisters love-bomb her, there's a scavenger hunt that involves collecting bodily fluids from frat boys, one of her sisters has to go to the ER to have anal beads removed from her rectum, and, oh, yes, the whole sorority is almost torn apart in the wake of a sex tape-slash-drug-dealing scandal.

You know, typical college life.

DIRTY RUSH is the trashiest thing I've read in a while. Parts of it made me angry. I didn't like how they referred to the alcohol as "rape juice" or that they used r*t*rd and autistic as insults. But there were surprisingly good parts, too. Like the acceptance of gay fraternity members, some truly loyal sorority sisters who stuck by Taylor no matter what, and Taylor's relationship decision at the end. If it weren't for the stilted dialogue and choppy transition scenes, I think DIRTY RUSH would have been an edgier, soapier version of Diana Peterfreund's Secret Society Girl series.

Yes, I actually liked this book. I know, I'm as surprised as you are.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars.

Last Will and Testament by Dahlia Adler

What were you like at eighteen? I was in my first year of college, and apart from academia, wasn't even close to having my adult game together. Neither is Lizzie Brandt, ex-valedictorian and scholarship student turned party girl. In fact, she's busy sleeping with another girl's boyfriend on the night she finds out that her parents are dead and she's been made her brothers' guardian.

We read OUT ON GOOD BEHAVIOR in the wonderful Unapologetic Romance Reader group for Pride Month. I'd heard wonderful things about Dahlia Adler, so participation was a no-brainer. Sadly, I didn't like the book - at all. Not because of the writing, which was excellent, or the sex scenes, which were well done. No, my dislike of the book was entirely because of the main character, Frankie "Can't Keep It In Her Pants" Bellisario, who is the embodiment of every negative stereotype of pansexuality there is.

I wanted to give this author another shot, though, because I did like her writing style, and managed to snag a copy of LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT when it was on sale to buddy-read with my good friend, Sarah. From the first page, I knew that this was going to be a totally different story. Lizzie is no Frankie. She's not selfish, she's not sex-obsessed, she's not a serial-cheater who leaves a trail of bruised and broken hearts in her wake. She's a young girl who makes foolish decisions because she's scared of the future, but she gets her shit in gear when fate deals her a heaping plate of responsibility.

One of the things I liked best about this book was Lizzie's relationship with her two younger brothers, Tyler and Max. Sometimes younger siblings can feel like comic reliefs or plot devices, but Max and Tyler had their own personalities and desires that sometimes came into conflict with Lizzie's, but despite their arguments, you really got a sense for the love they shared and their desire to be happy together, in spite of their terrible, terrible tragedy.

That was another thing that I thought was handled incredibly well - Lizzie's grief and her sense of loss. I kept tearing up, because it was so easy to project myself into her shoes and ask myself, "What if this happened to me?" Given the fact that her whole support group has just disappeared, it makes sense that she would grow attached to the closest thing she has to a mentor/nuturer in her life, her tutor-slash-TA, the nerdily gorgeous, Canadian-born Connor Lawson.

Connor and Lizzie are cute together, except when they're fighting and then I want to put them both in the corner and have them think about what they're doing. Unlike most NA book arguments however, I felt like Connor and Lizzie actually raised valid points when they fought, and it was interesting to see how the relationship continued despite the obvious conflict of interest and Lizzie's mourning.

Also, props to Sophie for being the craziest b-word that ever inhabited the e-word. She is Queen Cray-Cray, and all should bow down to her for being the crazy piece of work that she is.

Am I going to read the next book? Oh yeah!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars!

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley

THE MADNESS OF LORD IAN MACKENZIE has been on my radar for the better part of a decade. The book is on many lists on Goodreads, ranking at #21 on 100 Historical Romances To Read Before You Die and #25 on Favorite Historical Romance Novels. The fact that it boasted a hero with Asperger's disorder made TMOLIM even more compelling, especially with a price drop that brought the book down to $1.99 on Amazon.

Now that I've read TMOLIM, I'm not sure what to think. There were aspects of the story that I liked a lot, and there were aspects that I think could have been done better.

Things I liked:
+ The relationships between the Mackenzie brothers. It was obvious they all cared about one another, even if they had difficulty expressing that. I also liked how they never felt interchangeable.

+ Ian's Asperger's was handled very well, for the most part. He has trouble looking people in the eyes and grasping humor and metaphors. He enjoys patterns, numbers, and has obsessive interests.

+ Beth was a step up from most romance novel heroines. She doesn't stomp her foot or pout. Even though she's a widow, she's not one of those stereotypical "virgin widows" and she loved her late husband, who was - gasp! - an engaged and attentive lover and not gay/impotent/abusive (as the trope often is).

+ Isabella was an AWESOME character. I'm hoping she stays awesome, seeing as how the next book is her story and sometimes characters I liked in previous books undergo curious personality changes so that they fit the plot of the story, but in this book she was great. Wish she'd had more page time.

Things I didn't like:
- The relationship between Ian and Beth was almost entirely sex- and attraction-based. I didn't really see why they liked each other, apart from each thinking that the other had pretty eyes.

- Beth wasn't an awful character, but she didn't seem fully realized, either. I would have liked to have seen her portrayed with more complexity and compassion.

- At time, Ian's character seemed a bit cliche. He has a near-perfect memory - can recall entire discussions exactly for weeks, can play songs after hearing them once, is amazing at calculating the odds for gambling, etc. I know that there are people who are like this, but the savant trope tends to walk hand-in-hand with most representations of autism or autistic spectrum disorder, so it was a bit disappointing to see TMOLIM succumb to this cliche.

I felt ambivalent about the murder mystery. On the one hand, I never guessed whodunnit. On the other, I found the guilty person(s)'s reasons for committing the murder in the first place circumspect and lame.

TMOLIM wasn't a bad book. I wouldn't say it lived up to the hype, but it still manages to stand out in a genre that tends to be overrun with wallpaper historicals that all end up looking alike after a while. Would I read more by this author? Yes. Absolutely.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Sex Object by Jessica Valenti

SEX OBJECT is an interesting book, partially because of what it contains but also partially because of how I think people are going to react to it. If you skimmed through it, you might say, "Oh, it's just another one of those self-effacing memoirs of a woman relating all of her sexual encounters." But that makes it too easy to dismiss this book - and it shouldn't be dismissed.

I know "microaggressions" is a loaded word with some people, but there really isn't a word out there that's quite as good at describing those little tiny "tells" of subconscious prejudice. SEX OBJECT shows many of the microaggressions women have to deal with on a day to day basis, from whether it's how women get the short end of the stick in most sexual encounters, to date rape, to sexual harassment, to pregnancies from hell.

SEX OBJECT is a collection of essays and as with most essays, they are uneven in quality. I think the most powerful essays are the ones where Valenti writes about her coming of age, and how young women are often the favorite targets of predatory men. I also liked the essays about abusive relationships, and how abusive doesn't always necessitate hitting - many of her ex-boyfriends found creative other ways of being abusive.

The most relatable chapter for me, however, was the last chapter, in which Valenti provides a collection of emails, tweets, and Facebook messages she's received from men who either insult her looks, threaten her with rape, or otherwise objectify or dehumanize her in an attempt to invalidate both her points and her as a person. It made me think of Buzzfeed's video, What it's like to be a woman online. It's a video I often trot out when reading books like these because it underscores what women have to deal with every day if they have an active, feminist presence online.

There are a lot of topics in SEX OBJECT that make for difficult reading: rape, rape threats, gore, sexual harassment, sexual harassment of minors, and all kinds of other infuriating things. But if you can stomach the content, you should read this book: it puts an interesting spin on what the sexual life of a woman can sometimes be reduced to, and why we should all be angry about it.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars!

Monday, July 11, 2016

You by Caroline Kepnes

I love how it says "Praise for You" on the back of the book. Praise for me? Aww, you shouldn't have!

When aspiring author, Guinevere Beck, strides into a secondhand bookstore she has no idea that she's setting the wheels of something utterly terrible in motion. That's because the owner of said bookstore, Joe Goldberg, is a card-carrying psychopath who will do anything - ANYTHING - to get what he wants.

And he's just decided that he wants Beck.

Did you shiver? I know I did. Joe Goldberg is scary AF.

...And yet, at times, creepily relateable.

YOU is a thriller that pokes fun at all the new adult books out there with overly familiar, stalkery love interests. While reading from this book, you really only have one side of the story - Joe's - and he is very, very manipulative. Part of the fun about YOU is reading between the lines, ignoring his narrative and focusing on his gestures and his dialogue, and trying to figure out how Joe appears to others, without his bias.

Also, I love-love-loved the use of social media in this book. Beck is a little too open with her life, she's an over-sharer, and Joe is able to mine the heck out of that, to figure out where she's going, who she's talking to, what her likes and dislikes are. This gets especially creepy towards the middle of the story, although I'm not going to tell you why. You'll just have to find out for yourself.

The literary references and social commentary are also excellent. Joe has some very cutting (and in some cases accurate) remarks about the upper middle class, as well as those who to aspire to be but aren't. He made me laugh, Joe did, and then I felt bad about laughing because this guy is cray.

Then there's Beck and her horrible friends. Beck is so selfish. She's a liar. She's narcissistic, self-indulgent. A social climber. Ignorant and superficial and vain. Maybe a bit of a psychopath herself? I honestly don't know why Joe fell for Beck the way he did, or why he became so obsessed with her. Beck sounds like the type of person you'd complain about to someone else over coffee. Maybe that's the point, though. Obsession isn't necessarily about the person themselves; it's about the pedestal you put them on and the rose-tinted glasses you see them through -

And what happens when those glasses break.

YOU was all anyone who was anyone was reading last year and guess what? It deserves the hype. It's dark and clever and suspenseful and has one of the best unreliable narrators since Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Plus, Stephen King said it was awesome. (Not sure how Joe would feel about that...)

4.5 out of 5 stars!

Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt

I blame Bill Nye for fostering in me a fascination with all things science (something I think he'd gladly take the credit for). Romance novels might be my one true love, but pop science nonfiction is the other woman, my secret mistress, the one I keep coming back to again and again on the sly.

I was trying to talk about why this book is so good, but my friends and family were having none of it. So instead, I'm going to talk to you, my delightful captive audience, and let me just warn you right now that if the thought of reading about people eating other people squicks you out in a major way, you might want to consider hitting the "pause" button and exiting stage left.

Don't say I didn't warn you!

P.S. In case it weren't obvious, seeing as how this book isn't published yet, I received a copy of this to review honestly from the publisher + Netgalley.

CANNIBALISM: A PERFECTLY NATURAL HISTORY is written in the style of Mary Roach. What I mean is that it's a mixed bag of anecdotes, ranging from the scientific to the pop-cultural, with a lot of (interesting) tangents. The author has a wry, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that keeps rearing its head, but sometimes he'll get too caught up in the subject to be funny, and this variance in tone is a bit jarring.

The prologue opens up with some examples of cannibalism that are readily accessible to the public: Hannibal Lecter, and the inspiration behind him: Ed Gein. After a compelling introduction, Schutt launches into cannibalism in the natural world. Birds eating the eggs of other birds. Spiders and praying mantises eating their mates. Tadpoles eating other tadpoles. Sharks eating their fellow baby sharks in utero. Cannibalism is rarer in mammals, but there are examples of it, especially when said animals are overcrowded and over-stressed (think hamsters).

Next, he talks about cannibalism in ancient history, like in cave people and dinosaurs. It's more difficult to prove this, because there are so many variables that you can't control for, and I think these chapters were fascinating because they really show how much detective legwork archaeologists have to pull in order to give us science.

After this, there are a couple chapters about cannibalism in culture. Pop-culture and mythological cannibalism (Hansel and Gretel, TITUS ANDRONICUS, the Chronos myth, etc.), endo and exocannibalism (for example, eating your family to honor their bodies vs. eating your enemies to gain their strength), medicinal cannibalism (eating body parts or drinking blood for medicinal purposes), placenta eating (Buzzfeed did it), and cannibalism in history.

Two historical accounts of cannibalism really stood out to me and that was 1) Queen Isabella issued an edict saying that only New World peoples who were uncivilized and/or cannibals could be enslaved, so Columbus and his men intentionally and wrongfully labeled many island tribes as "cannibals" so they could be enslaved and sold, and 2) George H.W. Bush was the only man in his group to survive being eaten by an isolated, starving group of Japanese men during WWII, in what came to be known as the Chicijima Incident.

The last couple chapters were about prion diseases, which I actually knew a lot about because I read this great medical mystery on the subject a few years ago. It's called THE FAMILY THAT COULDN'T SLEEP and it's about Creutzfeldt-Jakob's disease, scrapie, kuru, and spongiform encephalitis, and how they are all linked (spoiler alert: cannibalism). Schutt interviews some of the scientists who pioneered this research and some who are continuing to develop it, including one woman who believes that these diseases might be caused by a sneaky virus, and that the malignant proteins are just symptoms to an altogether more sinister cause.

If you are interested in science books and have a strong stomach, I heartily recommend that you read CANNIBALISM: A PERFECTLY NATURAL HISTORY. It's a fascinating and balanced look at a taboo subject, and I learned a lot about so many things I am now kind of wishing I hadn't.

Read it. I dare you.

3.5 out of 5 stars!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Beyond Shame by Kit Rocha

The title is scarily appropriate. BEYOND SHAME is one dirty book and has absolutely zero shame about it.

Society has been thrown into upheaval by solar flares that destroyed some of our most integral technology, forcing us to rebuild. As with Hunger Games, this area has carved itself up into various "sectors" with Eden doubling as the Capitol.

Noelle Cunningham has been kicked out of Eden because of her - gasp! - debauchery. She was caught drinking and having sex. How dare she. Members of the biggest, baddest gang, the O'Kanes, see her wandering around like a lost, sexy, sad-eyed lamb and take pity on her - they bring her in to their boss, Dallas.

Dallas is passingly attracted to her, but it's Jasper who wants to save her. He and Noelle eventually end up in a sexual relationship where they sometimes pair up with Dallas and Lex. In the meantime, there's tons of drama. Lex doesn't like that Dallas acts like he's already collared her, and pushes him away with passive-aggressive pettiness. Noelle feels guilty about wanting sex, but is instantly amazing at everything she tries in spite of her inexperience (curse you, Sex Fairies!).

I liked the idea of scavenging renegades fighting against an oppressive, yet oddly materialistic regime in the remains of our tattered world. I would have liked to see this explored in greater depth, because it could have made the story great instead of so-so. Sadly, its only purpose is to serve as a doomy and gloomy backdrop to lots and lots of sex, which tends to fall in the same old stereotypes despite some innovative prop use.

I was looking through the reviews for this book to see what my friends thought, because I can see BEYOND SHAME being controversial. It was. Some of my friends really enjoyed it - and I can see why. The sex, for what it's worth, is well-written and the quality of the writing itself is very good. If you're looking for something purely pornographic that won't make you feel like your IQ points are ticking away by the second, BEYOND SHAME fulfills that purpose like a dream.

However, I think I feel more similarly to Heather. I thought there was too much sex, and would have liked to have seen more focus on the story itself because after a while Noelle's needy sex-addiction and constant desire for validation really began to wore on my nerves. Like Navessa, I also wasn't really a fan of the woman-on-woman sex for the purpose of male titillation or the group sex.

Despite some very edgy content (BDSM + kink), there is a high premium placed on consent in this book, and nobody is raped or forced into sex by the good guys. That was refreshing. I also liked several of the female characters who weren't Lex or Noelle. Rachel and Six were especially awesome. I'm sure they'll be in future books in the series, and hopefully they won't be turned into needy whiners like Noelle.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

American Girls by Alison Umminger

AMERICAN GIRLS was a quirky, interesting read. It's about a girl named Anna who has a massively dysfunctional family. Her mother had a midlife crisis after she came out as a lesbian, only to have yet another inseminated child. Her father is married to a woman half his age. And her sister, Delia, is off in LA somewhere, making a tenuous living as a bit actress.

After a high school prank goes terribly wrong, Anna decides she can't take anymore and it's to LA she flees, to a sister who isn't all that pleased to see her and is busy wrestling with demons of her own.

Anna is a flawed heroine in the best sense of the word - she's self-conscious, awkward, selfish, and yet, she really does try to be a good person. It just takes her a while. She's also morbid as hell, and has a dark sense of humor that made me cackle while also looking around guilty, like maybe I oughtn't to laugh.

I noticed that the UK version is titled MY FAVOURITE MANSON GIRL and this title actually makes sense, because Manson is one of Anna's morbid interests and at one point during her stay in LA, a creepy indie producer actually hires her to do some research about Manson and his gang and give him her thoughts about the girls and the cult and everything. AMERICAN GIRLS, on the other hand, seems a bit vague, and its reference in the story isn't all that crucial, whereas Manson is.

AMERICAN GIRLS actually reminds me of a book I used to love in high school. It was called BLISTER by Susan Richards Shreve, and it was also about a girl making her own way in the world after a traumatic family event. Both books deal with being a poseur, bullying, selfish parents, and travel, set against the backdrop of typical YA coming-of-age themes.

Give it a read. If nothing else, it'll make you laugh inappropriately. Thanks for the free copy, Netgalley!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Too Late by Colleen Hoover

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the first Colleen Hoover book that I've ever actually liked. Every single other one of her books that I've read ended up getting a one-star review from me, but this...this was good. I devoured it the way I devoured the Meiji chocolate mushrooms I bought in San Francisco last week: all at once - with no regret.

Sloan is in an abusive relationship with an influential drug-dealer named Asa Jackson. She's tried to leave him before but he has a hold on her that makes this almost impossible, so she's saving up money on the sly and waiting for her chance to escape.

One day in Spanish class, she meets a guy named Carter who's everything Asa isn't - considerate, patient, kind. She feels an instant attraction for him which she unsuccessfully tries to suppress. It's more than a crush, it's a feeling of rapport.

But it turns out that Carter isn't what he seems; and to make matters worse, he's involved with Asa. So much for her chance of playing it cool and hoping she never lays eyes on him again! As Carter's and Sloan's feelings for one another grow and Asa grows increasingly jealous and insane, tension spikes, leading to what you know is going to be a major shit-storm of a climax.

Obviously, Hoover doesn't disappoint. She's become pretty infamous for her mind-fucking climaxes. TOO LATE is no exception. There were several twists and turns that definitely took me off-guard.

So why did I devour TOO LATE when all of her other books made me want to throw them out the window? The writing was better here. Bar a few typos that I chalked up to a lack of professional editing, her prose was significantly less clunky than it was in earlier works. Also, previous Hoover love interests were kind of slimy and overly familiar, whereas Carter plays it cool and - gasp! - actually respects the heroine's boundaries. There were moments when he was an utter jerk and I wanted to slap some sense into that fool, but for the most part, I liked him. Shocked? I am, too.

But don't think that the males in here are all likable, because the villain - Sloan's rapist, abuser boyfriend, Asa - is sicker than me after I've eaten a bowl of corn chowder (because I'm allergic to corn, you see - ha ha). Oh my God, his POVs made me feel like I was coated in a thick layer of slime. He's sexism personified, clad in designer pants, and everything he said made me want to punch him. Men are biologically driven to cheat. Women are biologically obligated to remain faithful in spite of this. All women are whores unless they're virgins who only sleep with one man for the rest of their lives. He gets sexually aroused by hymens. Oh yes, this guy is a real piece of work. And when he starts talking about marriage, Tim Curry's performance of "Don't Make Me Laugh" from Pebble and the Penguin started playing in my head on repeat because Asa is SO DRAKE, you guys, it isn't funny.

Not sure what else to say about this novella that doesn't veer into spoiler territory. I like this edgier, darker version of Colleen Hoover. It's practically a shoujo manga. And guess what? It's free.

3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Smoke by Dan Vyleta

I saw Smoke in O Magazine as part of their summer reading list. The concept sounded fascinating and I immediately suggested it to my library - they bit, and I got to be the first one to read that sucker! Score for me!

In SMOKE, sinful thoughts and actions are accompanied by bursts of smoke from the body of various colors. The upper class are not supposed to Smoke as much and do their damnedest to control it, whereas the lower class live in a crust of Soot.

Thomas and Charlie are two boys at an English boarding school, where inquisition-like inspections for Smoke and Soot are routinely used to shame pupils and make them feel impure and base. But soon they begin to suspect the system isn't fair: Julius, an evil and sociopathic boy, never seems to Smoke...

Is there, perhaps, a way to cheat?

Like others, I loved the first 1/3 of this book. Seeing the class system portrayed in the hierarchy of an all boys' school was very interesting and kind of reminded me of Lyra's Oxford in Phillip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS, except instead of Dust there was Smoke.

The second 1/3 drags a little, although I liked the mystery and the science of Smoke and the introduction of religious fervor. That was a concept that was also present in HIS DARK MATERIALS, and it was controversial enough that the Church that was an antagonist in the series was eliminated from The Golden Compass movie entirely (also eliminating any possible chance at creating sequels, sadly). This was well done, and I liked that there were extremists on both sides - scientific zealots who blurred the lines between experimentation and cruelty and religious zealots who blurred the lines between transcendence and sociopathy. It was very interesting and well done.

The last 1/3 is where the book jumped the shark. Throughout the book, there are various POV swaps and until the last part of the book I didn't mind them too much because they drove the pacing of the story. Here, they began to feel unnecessary, as a way to bulk up the page count - but it was like halting a rollercoaster, and totally skewed my enjoyment of the suspense and tension. So did the unnecessary addition of a love triangle.

Honestly, part of me wishes that the story had been confined to the boarding school, where the enemies were sinister teachers and psychotic boys. Especially since despite making the story so broad in scope, we never really find out where Smoke came from or how exactly it worked (or if we did - I missed it, but I don't think it was mentioned, at least not clearly). SMOKE actually has many of the same problems as another book I read recently, THE LAND OF THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD. Both had great concepts, but fell flat when it came to controlling pacing and telling the origin story.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.