Monday, August 29, 2016

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Even though this is a positive review, it is going to be filled with caveats, because as much as I enjoyed the story I acknowledge that there are problematic elements in it that are bound to upset a significant amount of people - hell, they upset me. On that note, I am also writing this review from the perspective of someone who is able-bodied, so I know that I haven't the hope of fully understanding what it's like to live with paraplegia, which hopefully won't cause this review to be drowned in privilege.

I'm always leery about books like these, books that soar up the best-seller charts to be made into popular movies. I rarely end up liking them, which is why I avoided ME BEFORE YOU for as long as I did. It seemed like an ill-fated match. I'm still smarting from ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES. But then the film came out, and it had a whole bunch of great people in it, and I thought to myself, "Well, if Daenerys Targaryen, Neville Longbottom, and Finnick Odair are in it, it couldn't possibly be bad!"

...and it wasn't.

***Warning: big spoilers***

ME BEFORE YOU is kind of like a cross between FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. You have a twenty-six-year-old girl who acts and dresses like she's still in high school, who has a horrible (horrible!) family, can't hold down a decent job, and has absolutely zero hobbies and interests beyond dressing like she's got a terrible Modcloth addiction. The hero is a multi-millionaire business tycoon who now has paraplegia, and isn't coping very well. In fact, he has terrible depression and can't quite come to terms with the fact that he won't be "himself" again.

Louisa Clark, the heroine, ends up as a caretaker for Will Traynor, the hero, due to a series of events. She loses her coffee shop job, and her family is poor - and since her dad's about to get laid off and her selfish sister wants to go back to school (but not pay for it herself), it's up to Louisa to pay for everything. I think it says something about her character that she whines about not being able to go back to work at another coffee shop and then fixates on whether she'll have to wipe his bottom or not.

Once she gets past his fearsome mother, she finally gets to meet Will, who has turned himself into a brooding portrait of nineteenth-century tragedy. He even screams at her when the first meet, just to mess with her, like he's channeling Mrs. Rochester from JANE EYRE. He never leaves the house, has isolated himself from his friends and family, and has turned into a very bitter and unpleasant person.

But eventually, Lou starts to see the good in Will. She appreciates his wit and his philosophy, and starts trying to find ways to make him happy. Then she overhears a family argument and learns that Will has plans to kill himself at Dignitas. He's given his family a six-month deadline before he puts this awful plan into action, and Louisa realizes that she's essentially been hired on as "suicide watch" without being warned about this at all. Her job isn't to care for him, it's to keep him from trying to kill himself before he's supposed to, and to change his mind for him if she can.

Even though I enjoyed this book, I did have some problems with it, as I mentioned before. They can be summed up thusly:

1. While I honestly believe that the author's attempts were good, this is first and foremost a sob story. Accurate representation kind of takes a backseat here. There are some uncomfortable passages with people saying terrible things and making terrible assumptions about people who use wheelchairs that just aren't true - at least not all of the time, and not for all people (they can go to theme parks, for example, and there are rides that are wheelchair-accessible). Also, I took issue with the fact that people with paraplegia are referred to as "paraplegics" and "quads" - you aren't supposed to refer to people by their disability, because that means that you're defining them by their disability. A huge no-no.

2. Louisa's family was horrible. Her father joked about how fat she was, her sister was a selfish, incredibly insensitive brat, and I hated her mother for threatening to kick Louisa out of the house if she accompanied Will to Dignitas. I didn't really care for Louisa much, either, to be honest. At least not at first. She grew on me a bit towards the end of the story, but for most of the beginning, I thought her sarcasm was mean-spirited and couldn't stand her childishness. It was exhausting, not cute.

3. The way suicide was dealt with in this book felt very thorny. Like I said, I don't understand what it's like to be in Will's position, but I was surprised that he didn't seem to be seeing a therapist, in a support group, or taking antidepressants (at least, not that I remember?). His family allowed him to be isolated, which seems like absolutely the worst possible thing for someone who is having suicidal ideation and has already attempted to kill themselves before. I also didn't like how a number of the characters seemed to think it made total sense for Will to want to die after his accident. I can imagine the grief, and the difficulty adapting, but it was upsetting to see the characters agree that having a disability seemed to make wanting to die a totally acceptable, understandable thing to do.

4. The ending. You probably know how it ends already, but if you don't, I won't spoil it for you. But it did upset me, and thank God I'd read the spoilers before reading the book, because if I hadn't - if it had taken me off guard - I think I might have thrown the book across the room in a fit of rage and given it a much lower rating than I did. I just couldn't understand why what happened had to happen. It felt a lot like spitting into the eye of love. It's so rare when you find a romance where the characters have genuine, actual rapport, and to see what happened happen...was very, very upsetting.

I'm giving this book four stars because the story was well told, and the character development is good. Louisa grows from a selfish brat into a person who is capable of being mature and thinking of others before herself and taking risks. Is it annoying that a man changes her? Yes. But it's often the people we love who cause us to change, because they see the flaws in us, and love us in spite of them but also inspire us to want to better ourselves, too (yet another reason why I hated the ending - what happened did not feel like love). The pacing is good and the dialogue feels natural, and it's got such a gorgeous setting that makes the whole story feel larger-than-life.

ME BEFORE YOU is a problematic book, but I think those problems will inspire good discussions about representation, disability, depression, and love. There are a lot of great articles about ME BEFORE YOU, both in praise and in condemnation of it, and both are worth reading. I do wish the author had made different choices, but at the end of the day, it was a pretty good story, so you might as well jump on the bandwagon and see for yourself what the fuss is about.

4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Widow's Auction by Sabrina Jeffries

This isn't my first Sabrina Jeffries rodeo. That honor belongs to STORMSWEPT, a rerelease penned under her Deborah Martin name. When I was given an advance copy of this to review on Netgalley, I looked forward to the chance of seeing how her style had evolved. STORMSWEPT was written in the 90s, and while the heroine was likable, none of the male leads were at all. I'd hoped THE WIDOW'S AUCTION would be different, but as with the first one I found myself saying, "I liked parts of this book, but..."

THE WIDOW'S AUCTION is about a widow - surprise - named Isobel Lamberton. She's leader of a board of directors, basically, who all make decisions about what happens to her late husband's school. She and this man, Justin Antony, find themselves viciously at odds, so obviously she loathes him.

At the same time, Isobel's friend persuades her that she ought to join a WIDOW'S AUCTION because she "just needs to get laid." Or whatever the 19th century equivalent of that phrase is. So Isobel goes to a fancy gentlemen's club, with a mask and revealing gown, and has men bid on who will get to spend the night with her.

I will give you three guesses to figure out who wins.

THE WIDOW'S AUCTION does have some things in its favor. The heroine points out the irony of men being able to sleep with whomever they like, whereas women's value is only in their innocence. Her backstory was interesting, as well - I liked the Pygmalion reference. I'm a sucker for that (Audrey Hepburn), although I thought that particular trope might have benefited a longer book more (so you could see the transformation from start to end in an epic fashion).

What really kills this book is the length. It spends so much time on the sex that, given the length, it feels like one of those erotic shorts. Except there isn't really enough sex in it to classify for erotica in my opinion, so what you end up with is this bizarrely short story that changes track multiple times, far too quickly that any of the storylines inside were resolved to any satisfaction. I mean, am I to believe that all their disputes and conflicting ideals totally flew out the window after sex? I certainly don't buy that the two of them fell in love after a single night. That's just ridiculous, given their history.

I was not a fan of WIDOW'S AUCTION. I'm not writing this author off, but I think I'll stick with her novels over her novellas. The pacing's just better, there.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

While I enjoy historical fiction, I prefer reading about time periods I know at least something about so reading doesn't turn into information overload, but I know next to nothing about King David, apart from the fact that he defeated Goliath. THE SECRET CHORD is a book about the life of King David, from valorous beginning to tragic end, told by Nathan the Prophet. I'm going to be honest with you here - if my book club hadn't chosen this as the pick of the month, I never would have bothered to finish THE SECRET CHORD. But hey, try new things, right? Maybe it'll work out.

Spoiler alert: it didn't work out. I really had to force myself to stick with this one, and ended up skimming pages towards the end because I just no longer cared about the story. If this hadn't been for book club, I wouldn't have finished - it would have been chucked into the donation bin and deleted from my GR shelves.

But alas. Fate had conspired to burden us with the other's enduring presence.

I put off writing this review because I wanted to think about why THE SECRET CHORD didn't work for me. It's a slow book. The beginning takes a while to gather steam, and the book doesn't reach momentum until about twenty or thirty pages in, only to fall flat at several points in the narrative. Part of the reason was Nathan. I don't really like stories where the "hero" or "heroine" is actually the passive mouthpiece for the voices of others. After a while, that just makes me feel like I'm being talked at. I understand that he is a prophet and a huge part of his life is making these important prophecies that will dictate the lives of others, but oh my gee, it was so boring to read about.

Ironically (considering what I just said in the previous paragraph about mouthpieces), one of the more interesting parts in the book is when Nathan is sent by King David to hear stories about him from lovers, family members and enemies. Why? Because it was interesting to see that darker side to King David. I glanced through the Wiki article before reading this, and King David was a pretty gnarly dude - he was bisexual, committed adultery, slaughtered his enemies, and killed people when it was convenient. Brooks doesn't skimp on the detail, either. Which surprised me and at the same time, didn't, because her other book - YEAR OF WONDERS - is about the plague, and I remember being really grossed out by some of the details in there, too, even though it was a much better story.

THE SECRET CHORD was not badly written, but it wasn't a good story either - at least not for me. The passivity of the hero combined with a very dull storytelling made this book feel ten times longer than it should have been. It's a shame, because the subject matter is quite fascinating and has all the makings of a sensationalist bodice ripper trussed in the garbs of literature - but it would appear that lack of entertainment value is a requisite for literary merit. Boo. Hiss.

P.S. What do you guys do when you dislike your book club's pick? Inquiring minds want to know. ;)

1 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover

There are two camps when it comes to Colleen Hoover's books: Team CoHo and Team WTH (why the hype?). Until very recently, I was solidly Team WTH. I'd read HOPELESS, the book that made Hoover a big-name hit, and was horrified by how bad I found it. I also tried reading one of her more recent works, NOVEMBER 9, and was so disgusted by both characters that I ended up slogging miserably through all 310 pages of it.

You're probably asking yourself, "If you hate her books so much, why read them?" The answer is that I like to give authors multiple chances before giving up on them completely. Some are just lost causes for me: for whatever reason, their plots and writing styles are totally incompatible with my preferences. But Hoover had versatility going with her. Yes, I hated both books that I read, but for different reasons: they were both written very differently, about different subjects, with very different writing styles.

My hope was that, eventually, Hoover would write a book that would work for me.

Ironically, the first book of hers that I ever liked was totally free to read. Hoover published TOO LATE on Wattpad for readers to enjoy without paying a dime. Skeptically, I began reading the book, fully expecting the worst. Instead, I found myself hopping aboard a speeding train filled with drama, abuse, angst, sex, drugs, and violence. Normally, I take what her hardcore fans say with a grain of salt, but this time, they were 100% correct: this book wasn't like anything she had ever written before. It was dark, unpleasant, gritty. The Queen of Fluff had decided to don studs and a mohawk.

When her fans then began saying that IT ENDS WITH US was the same - also dark, also unpleasant, and also completely unlike anything she'd ever written - I decided to trust their opinion, and once more, they were totally correct. It's difficult to explain what IT ENDS WITH US is about without delving into spoilers territory, but abuse is a prominent theme. It was a theme in some of her other books, too, but here, I felt that Hoover really went out of her way to deal with it as realistically and sensitively as possible. If you're interested enough to read the afterward, you'll find out why.

The best comparison I can think of is to imagine that a character in one of Sarah Dessen's books grew up and then decided to narrate the dramatic experiences in her early twenties. Like all other CoHo protagonists, Lily Bloom has unconventional quirks and an irritating name, but it's seriously downplayed. Likewise, the slut-shaming is completely absent. Lily's friendship with Allysa and Lucy is decent and healthy. Her relationships are a bit more complicated for reasons that are difficult to explain, but I wasn't really happy with either love interest, not even the one I was supposed to be.

The negative reviews I looked at complained that this book relies on emotional manipulation to get the point across, and while I didn't take issue with that as much as they did, I totally get what they mean. On a scale of one to Jodi Picoult, this book scores Jodi Picoult. But I was so pleased by the strength of the writing and the satisfying ending that I was able to ignore my qualms. I did have qualms, though, and that's the reason this book is getting three stars from me, as opposed to four or five. I just wasn't invested enough in Lily to feel the feelings that made everyone feel. I did sympathize with her though, and I thought the author's note at the end was really powerful.

This is a solid addition to Colleen Hoover's repertoire. There are now two Colleen Hoover books that I did not hate. I'm slowly stepping out of Team WTF, and finding that, while the grass may not be quite as green on the other side of the camp, there are some very lovely flowers scattered throughout here and there for those who care to enjoy them.

3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Delicious by Sherry Thomas

I am honestly surprised by how few of my friends enjoyed this book, because I thought it was exemplary. Like CHOCOLAT and WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, in DELICIOUS, Thomas captures the sensuality and headiness of food, tying it into both sex and love. Verity, the cook heroine, is such an amazing conjurer of food that her culinary creations have people remembering both their worst and fondest memories with a deepness that often shocks their Victorian sensibilities into speechlessness. She has several secrets though, which seem to have doomed her from finding love.

Except, since this is a romance novel, you know that's totally not true!

I should note that Sherry Thomas is not a new author to me. I've read THE HIDDEN BLADE, which is an even better book than this. (Seriously, read it - I cannot recommend it enough.) When I read a book I really enjoy I'm sometimes reluctant to pursue a second book by that author, out of fear that it will be a let-down. I needn't have worried. The things that appealed to me in HIDDEN were present in DELICIOUS, too: beautiful writing, strong heroines, good characterization, interesting twists...they were all here, much to my delight!

DELICIOUS is also a retelling of the Cinderella fairytale, although this is one of the book's weaker points. This relationship was pushed a bit too hard, and I thought the little quirks of fate that kept Stuart from seeing Verity's face were too convenient. I was more interested in how pride kept the characters from being happy - either because it caused them to chase a dream beyond their reach, hurt the people they loved because of their prejudice, or become utterly enslaved by convention. There are elements of PERSUASION in here, as well, which I think a lot of people will really like.

There's also a secondary romance, but I actually liked it. Normally, secondary romances feel like filler to me, but this one worked. In some ways, they had better chemistry than the main couple. The only thing that was frustrating was that I had hoped that the secondary hero was bisexual. I was so excited, because the only ones I've encountered in mainstream historical fiction (as a love interest) were Courtney Milan's HER EVERY WISH and Elizabeth Hoyt's DUKE OF SIN.

DELICIOUS is a really great historical romance that takes tropes from Cinderella and PERSUASION and blends them with excellent characters and a fairly engaging plot. I'd recommend this to fans of Victorian romance and especially to fans of Sherry Thomas.

4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Last First Kiss by Lia Riley

When I received a copy of this for review, I was interested to see the author trying her hand at older contemporary. I always like to try and give an author a second chance. Her new adult novels didn't work for me, so I was hoping a book with more mature characters would.

The idea of a lifestyle blogger MC was what hooked me in the blurb. Most of us on Goodreads blog, and for me, it's something I'm really passionate about. I was really excited to see it portrayed in a book, especially since it was apparently an integral enough part of the story that it warranted a mention in the blurb!

...Well, no. Annie's blogging is actually a pretty tiny part of the story. And even though she's supposed to be a Big Deal, even gaining top hits in search results for pertinent topics, her blogs really aren't that good or noteworthy. Plus, she's not really a lifestyle blogger, she's a mommy blogger...something the blurb fails to mention. You say lifestyle, and I think home decor, not child-rearing 101.

Despite her blogging presence, Annie is surprisingly naive. I didn't really like her much. She's one of those childlike MCs who falls apart at the slightest conflict, more teenager than adult. There's a subplot where one of her commentors on her blog leaves her "mean" comments that basically sum up to, "you're not all that." And Annie is seriously torn up by this HORRIBLE comment that she isn't all that lamenting that she never meant to become so popular. That is hardly mean- but guess what? It turns out that the commentor is someone who hates her in real life, which is a neat and strange way of explaining away mean comments on the internet. You need a thick skin to blog, and sometimes people can decide to hate you without even knowing doesn't always have to be personal, as in the case here. She's also rife with hormones, practically orgasming every time the hero so much as takes a drink of water.

I also didn't really care for Sawyer, the aforementioned hero. I thought the misunderstanding between them that resulted in their falling out was lame (but I think that about most falling outs - why don't people ever talk?). Sawyer isn't really an alpha jerk, and I found myself wanting to like him, but his character was just so bland. He's a stepford boyfriend, basically - it's like he's reading off a script to tell women exactly what they want to hear "I'll wait for you as long as you need" "your stretchmarks are beautiful" "I think your child is awesome." I'm not ripping on nice guys - I do think it is important to say variants of these things and mean them, because communication and affection in relationship is important, but this was pretty much all that came out of Sawyer's mouth, these perfect boyfriend one-liners delivered with perfect sincerity right before sexually intimate scenes. How convenient.

I also didn't like how Sawyer tried to bully and guilt Annie into staying in Brightwater. I thought that was a really nasty thing to do, especially since everyone who lives there seems to hate her still. Are you seriously going to make the woman you claim to love live in a place where everyone is ready to label her as a traitor to American life just for sitting in a cafe with an espresso? Did they teach you that in your perfect stepford boyfriend classes? Also, the whole Kooky Carson thing was just plain ridiculous. Just because her dad is a photographer, eats quinoa, and listens to 70s music, that makes him a hippie? I am skeptical, Brightwater.

Finally, with regard to the writing style, I feel like the writing was decent at a technical level. There weren't any typos and everything was grammatically correct. But stylistically, this story was ridden with tropes and cliches, so cheesy that I began to wonder if this book was maybe set in Wisconsin, not California. LAST FIRST KISS was a disappointment. I don't think I'll be reading any of the other books in the series.

1 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Lord of Ice by Gaelen Foley

I've read a lot of regency romances, and I'm always excited to find something that isn't directly cast from the Pride and Prejudice mold and LORD OF ICE is that. A guardian/ward romance at heart, it also features several other tropes that I enjoy, and does them well enough that I didn't find them *too* cliche.

Miranda FitzHubert is the bastard daughter of a nobleman who perished in an accident with his actress mistress. After their untimely deaths, she was given to a guardian, a battle-scarred war hero who drank to forget the horrors of what he'd done. When he's murdered (God, this girl is playing a hideous game of musical guardians), she's given to yet another keeper, another veteran, Damien Knight, the PTSD-ridden Earl of Winterley.

His name is appropriate, because he really is as cold as ice. Damien pushes everyone - especially Miranda - away, because he's afraid of what will happen when anyone gets too close to him, especially at night. Miranda's ex-guardian, Jason, was a close friend of his, and after fighting in war, and getting a taste for it, he's repelled by death, and also by himself for causing so much of it, and not feeling as guilty about killing as he should. His night terrors add a further block between him and Miranda, because he lashes out in his sleep.

Plus, she's his ward and that goes against his sense of honor, of course. Which is horribly ironic, because he meets her when she's performing on stage (she runs away from her school in the evening to pursue her dreams of acting), assumes she's game for a quick fling, and comes perilously close to forcing himself on her. This was not the best introduction for the hero and made me dislike him a lot. I liked him more later, after his character was developed more and he repented his actions, but his treatment of women he considered inferior left a lot to be desired. He doesn't cheat, though, although at one point he considers it...but thankfully, he reconsiders at the last minute (sigh).

There were many great scenes in here. The opening of this book was five-star-worthy. So was Miranda's stint in her Dickensian boarding school with the sinister Mr. Reed. There were deadly chases, near escapes, acts of seduction and treachery, and pretty much anything else you could ask for in a regency era soap like this. If I had any complaints, it's that the side characters weren't really explored to their full potential, and were more like wallpaper or backdrops than actual people, just popping in occasionally to drive the plot or keep the scene moving, rather than displaying any agency.

The villain was decent, and appropriately sneaky and horrible, but I felt like he could have been fleshed out more, too - especially towards the end, when we learn something about him that simultaneously seems more sinister...and yet also comes from way out of left field. It's not really a spoiler to say this, since we're introduced to the villain in chapter one, but because we're given the name of our antagonist so early on I felt the author should have worked harder to make us fear him.

Finally, at the end of the book, right where I expected things to wrap up, the author throws in a last-minute conflict - the Napoleonic Wars - and has the characters have a big fight over it right after they're married. This felt like an unnecessary attempt to bulk up the page count, and annoyed me. Had it gone on for any longer than it did, I would have deducted a star rating because it was totally pointless. The situation is eventually resolved and a happily ever is tacked on, but it left a bitter taint to the story it wouldn't otherwise have had, because it makes Miranda look like a bitch and undermines her vows to support him and give him everything he needs for closure.

These are little nitpicky details, though - the irony is that when everything else in a story is good, you can afford to look a little deeper and discuss the things that would make it a perfect (or close to perfect) read, rather than just a tolerable one (as in the case with bad books). LORD OF ICE is very well written, has a rather strong and enterprising female protagonist, and a pretty icy hero who despite his gruff and tortured exterior, desperately wants to be redeemed. In spite of my reservations, I enjoyed LORD OF ICE quite a bit and would definitely read another book by Gaelen Foley.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

We're all in the midst of our own existential dilemmas and hearing someone write quirky little diatribes about their Devil Wears Prada-esque boss or the friend who left poop on their carpet can sometimes make us feel as though we aren't alone.

I WAS TOLD THERE'D BE CAKE isn't that different from the hundreds of other autobiographical essays out there, but Sloane Crosley does have a style that is all her own. Some of her analogies are creative and on-point. Not rip-roaringly hilarious, mind, but clever and unusual and amusing. Sometimes she reminded me of me. Other times she reminded me of the me I wish I was. The me who says that clever punchline when it's needed, and not five minutes later, after I've already walked away.

As pithy as Ms. Crosley is, the problem with collections like these is that there are always going to be some stories that just aren't as good as others, and bring down the collective quality of the book as a result. Apart from a few choice stories that really stood out to me, I found them blurring in my head almost as soon as I had read them, and it was difficult to suss out which story was which.

That's really the keystone of this problem: she just isn't memorable. Her stories lack that extra panache that makes them stand out. Jenny Lawson, with her funny sadness, sad funnyness, and taxidermied raccoons, is what Sloane Crosley dreams of being, but she just isn't quite there yet.

Soon, perhaps. But not now.

Honestly, though? If you're looking for a light, fun read written by a snarky and intelligent lady, I would recommend I WAS TOLD THERE'D BE CAKE. It accompanied me to work and various other appointments, and since the essays are only a few pages long, it made it easy to read them in quick, short bursts without having to stop in the middle of a segment (I hate that!).

3 out of 5 stars.

Destiny's Embrace by Beverly Jenkins

Don't be fooled by the bodice ripper cover & pose. While I adore the genre, and that was what originally made me gravitate towards this book, bodice rippers represent a specific type of romance that many may find unpalatable, and suggestive cover aside, this book is definitely not a bodice ripper at heart!

Mariah Cooper grew up in Philadelphia with her seamstress mother. Her life has been difficult. She's been bullied for being poor and looking different. Since she was a young girl, her mother has abused her verbally and physically, working her like a slave and insulting her looks and making her feel like she's unworthy of love.

Finally, Mariah can't take any more, and with the help of a sympathetic aunt, she finds herself with a rail pass to a place in California called Destiny Ranch, to answer an advertisement in the classifieds looking for a housekeeper.

Logan Yates is the stepson of the fierce and beautiful Alanza Yates. He's a hard-working rancher, but also a hopeless slob (and a bit of a hoarder, if we're being honest). He's also a devil with the ladies and has absolutely zero intention of settling down. Few women have ever told him no, so he's flabbergasted when Mariah comes in like a whirlwind and immediately begins stirring things up. She's not above lashing him with her tongue or kicking him in the knee if he gives her trouble, either.

DESTINY'S EMBRACE isn't exactly an enemies-to-lovers romance, but many of the same themes are there. It's a reformed rake romance, but with a spirited, resourceful, clever heroine that will appeal to fans of Courtney Milan. Sometimes heroines are given interests that are never mentioned again and I loved that Mariah's sewing was made such an important aspect of her life. She was also a very strong female character and had a great sense of humor. That parade of suitors was, hands-down, my favorite part of the book. I guffawed.

As much as I liked Mariah, my favorite character in this book would have to be Alanza. She was so cool. I kind of hope that the author writes a prequel about her and her two husbands, because she was such a strong woman, and I loved her relationship with her three sons, and how that translated to a willingness to accept Mariah as a surrogate daughter as well. She had a lot of love to give, that was obvious. I loved the interactions between the five of them on the ranch.

The California setting was also really great, because I've actually been in Yolo County many times, and I have seen the orchards it described so beautifully. I learned something new about the potential origin of my home state's name, too! Apparently, it is named after a mythical island of kick-ass black Amazons who had battle-trained griffins. If that isn't the OG of origin stories, I don't know what is.

I did have a few nitpicky issues. I thought Mariah gave into Logan too quickly, especially considering what happened to her mother. She had held steadfastly to her principles until that point, and it felt really out of character to me. I also thought that the climax between her mother and Tillerman was a bit abrupt. I was expecting more drama, I guess. Her mother was such a horrible person...maybe I've been reading too many bodice rippers with vindictive revenge schemes, but it felt like Mariah's mother got off way too easily. Also, the sex scenes could be pretty cringeworthy. At one point in the narrative, Mariah's breasts are referred to, unironically, as "the twins." *cringe*

Overall, DESTINY'S EMBRACE was a really great book. I really think fans of Courtney Milan should read Beverly Jenkins. Not only are their writing styles similar, and their heroines both full of spirit, but they both try to provide non-white perspectives in historical romance, which is something the romance genre definitely needs more of. I can't wait to read more of Jenkins' work!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Savage Ecstasy by Janelle Taylor

We buddy read SAVAGE ECSTASY as our first bodice ripper theme read in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group. I've read a number of bodice rippers over the last couple years, and SAVAGE ECSTASY has been near the top of my list for years because it's supposed to be the OG of Native American romances.

SAVAGE ECSTASY opens with a series of very long info dumps introducing us to the tedious bore that is Alisha. She lives at a fort that has captured a Native American. He's been tortured by three men who live at the fort, one of whom has the hots for Alisha. They're enraged when Alisha attempts to intervene, threatening them with a gun to make them leave him alone. But all is for nought, as the men make sinister plans to torture the poor Native American dude even more, and the guy who's Team Alisha makes even more sinister plans to compromise Alisha later so she'll marry him.

Then Gray Eagle has his men raid the fort. Everyone is butchered except for Alisha, a couple women, and the three men who abused Gray Eagle. They're brought to the Oglala/Sioux tribe, and either imprisoned to await torture or turned into sex slaves.

I should note here that it's very, very important to remember how beautiful and innocent Alisha is. It's only mentioned about 1,000,000 times. Every single man in this book wants to have sex with her. About four of them try to rape her at one time or another. Oh, and there are no nice women in this book, apart from St. Alisha. All of them are jealous of Alisha, and attempt to use their womanly wiles to seduce other men into getting their way to seeing her ruined. I can only assume that the endless descriptions of innocence and purity are meant to distinguish Alisha from the Other Women, who, unlike Alisha, don't seem to feel any embarrassment about their bodies.

SAVAGE ECSTASY is pretty typical for an early 80s bodice ripper. There's rape, and the hero, Gray Eagle, tries to pin the rape on the heroine, arguing to himself that the heroine forced him to it by not being willing in the first place. There's also some truly gruesome torture scenes that take place at the camp that surprised me, because it's usually the books published in the 70s that have the torture scenes. By the time the 80s rolled around, that started to get phased out of the books.

The writing isn't very good, sadly. I get that this is a debut effort, but it really shows. The pacing is uneven and exposition is delivered in huge infodumps that tend to go on for pages. Point of view changes randomly and without warning, and whenever a character is expressing their thoughts, the writing switches from third person to first person, which can be distracting. I also noticed that there are a lot of typos in this copy (I have the Kindle edition). Some of them almost looked like conversion errors (random special characters inserted where punctuation should be), but there were some typos and misspelled words, too, which was odd. Did an editor look at this edition?

One thing in this book's favor is that the story is relatively engaging. Despite its flaws, I couldn't put the book down and found myself with a perverse desire to endure and find out what happened next.

Edited 8/22 because I was a dumbass and got the hero's name wrong. #Fail

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne

This book has a 4.0 average rating with the people on my friends list, and if you're friends with me, you know how high a value I place on your opinions. You guys had nothing but good things to say about THE HIGHWAYMAN with your talk of tortured heroes and dark romance. Music to my twisted ears. Plus, Elizabeth Hoyt's DUKE OF SIN is one of the recommended books for HIGHWAY, which I absolutely loved. How could this possibly not work out?

This book is about Farah Leigh Mackenzie and Dorian Blackwell. Farah is an orphan, and a widow. She married her childhood friend in secret, only to see him carried off to certain death for avenging her honor. Dorian Blackwell knew her childhood friend, Dougan, in prison, and claims that he is now dead. He kidnaps her, macks on her in the bathtub, and then - while she's naked - proposes marriage.

*cue eyeroll here*

There were some things about this book that I liked. I liked the idea behind this book. I love stories where the hero and heroine have a dark connection. I also thought that the climax of this book, which took place during that court scene, was incredibly well done and oh-so-dramatic.

I thought Farah was a Mary Sue. She's so kind and pretty and good, and everyone loves her instantly (except for those evil people who hate her, and that's how you know they're evil). She "cures" the hero of all his twauma with her magical virgin vag, which had me rolling my eyes in earnest. I appreciate that she had enough knowledge of the act to make things work, but I didn't understand why she had to be a virgin. Virginal widow tropes are kind of a peeve of mine...

Dorian, I was torn about. In the beginning of the story, he has a lot of promise as an antihero. But the author doesn't commit to his character. She wants him to be dark and terrifying and rapey, but also weak and sympathetic and damaged. I suppose it is possible to combine those two different sets of personality types, but it is not done well here. I also didn't like that the hero takes his pain out on Farah, even committing sexual overtures that border on rape when he's angry. Yeah, no.

Also, the sex didn't work for me in this book. Something about the writing style got on my nerves. It kind of reminded me of the 90s romances, where bodice rippers from the 70s and 80s started to become "gentler." So heroes became less rapey - at least overtly - and sex scenes got very floral and gag-inducingly tender. It was similar here, except Byrne wasn't afraid to drop the f-bomb.

THE HIGHWAYMAN didn't work for me, and I'm not sure if it's just a matter of this book hitting a couple of my pet peeves and not working, or if it was just overhyped and my expectations were just too high. You may love it. I just got a copy of THE HIGHLANDER, also by this author, from Netgalley, so I'm hoping that I'll enjoy the third book in this series more than the first one.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Amazing Toys of Marvin Glass: 1950's to 1974 by Joyce Grant

When I apply for ARCs on Netgalley, I usually go for the romances because that's kind of my thing. But sometimes these rando titles appear, and they're so off-the-wall, I can't help myself - I apply for that sh*t.

THE AMAZING TOYS OF MARVIN GLASS is a collector's guide-cum-art book cataloguing the brainchildren of Marvin Glass, an influential toy designer whose greatest influence spanned from the mid-50s to the early-70s. Some notable toys of his that you may recognize are Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, Operation, Ants in the Pants, and Mystery Date, to name a few.

The pictures in this book are high quality and look glossy. It's an ebook, so I can't really talk about page quality or anything like that, but based on the resolution in my e-copy, I'd guess that this would be really nice in hard cover.

Each picture of each toy has a price range from what the toy would be worth in good condition with the original packaging and what it would be worth mint. Most of them are still fairly affordable, not much more expensive than a new board game would be if you purchased it from the store. I'm a board game fiend, and I was amazed at how fun some of these board games looked. There's one called Billionaire, one about auctions, one that looks like Clue(do) except with witches called Which Witch? Oh, and then there's a haunted mansion one! I think some of these games need re-releases.

At the end of the book, you find out the author is a collector and seller of these toys, herself, and it includes a link to her webpage, I believe she said that she was in business since 1996, which is pretty impressive. But not surprising. I've noticed that a lot of these collector books are written by collectors, and I like that, because their passion really shows in how the book is put together and in the knowledge of the material. I've gotten two other books from Netgalley about collectors, one about knockoff barbies from the 60s-80s and one about Victorian glass domes and esoterica, and both were absolutely wonderful and fun to read.

If you are a fan of toys, grew up in the 50s-70s, like vintage things, or enjoy quirky coffee table books, I think you would enjoy AMAZING TOYS OF MARVIN GLASS. It was a breezy read, and I had a great time flipping through it (figuratively) in between historical romance novels.

4 out of 5 stars!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Lola by Melissa Scrivener Love

All too often, compassion is taken for weakness with female heroines. It's often what causes their downfall, creating snafus that the other characters must work to resolve. Compassion is not Lola's weakness. It's a part of her character, and one she sometimes has to set aside in order to do her work. Because Lola is not the docile gangbanger girlfriend she pretends to be; she's secretly the leader of the Crenshaw Six, and she's damn good.

What really makes LOLA is...Lola. I loved Lola's character - she's tough, and does incredibly brutal things that strike terror into the hearts of men; she's strong and indomitable; she can compartmentalize, stowing her kind nature away to do business with the gangs; and she's clever. I loved her cunning, and the way she pitted cartel against cartel in order to come out on top and survive. You don't often see cunning female protagonists in fiction, but Lola was that, and a very successful example, at that.

Lola gets into hot water when her gang - specifically her younger brother - screws up a heroin drop. But it turns out that the effort was skewed from the get-go. Someone made off with the drugs way too quickly, and when they finally get hold of the cash, it turns out to be colored paper. What ensues is a tangled plot of rivalries and betrayal, and a ticking clock that ultimately results in Lola's death.

As calculating and cunning as she is, she's also fiercely protective of younger women who are sexually abused by older men. Later on in the book, you meet a little girl named Lucy, whose mother sells her to adults for drug money. Lola bonds with Lucy, and their relationship is an oasis of cuteness in the midst of all this violence.

I think fans of Orange Is the New Black will really like LOLA. The politics and drama are balanced well, and Lola is an awesome heroine who is also a person of color. She's one of the strongest, most complicated, interesting heroines I've encountered in a while, and I can't tell you what a breath of fresh air it was to see one who didn't just talk the talk, but also walked the walk.

Would I read another book by this author? Oh, heck yes. Sign me up right now! And thank you so much to the publisher for handing me this copy for review!

4.5 out of 5 stars!