Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton



My dad used to tell me not to get near a scared animal; that it couldn't understand what your intentions were and since you couldn't exactly explain to said animal what you were doing, in its overstimulated state it might bite out of fear. That's a lot like what happened in this election. People were afraid: afraid of change, afraid of progression, afraid of foreigners, afraid of the future, afraid of losing their jobs - and so they bit, and they bit down hard, and logic be damned. The entire country suffered because of some scared, angry people who couldn't be bothered to sort out the facts, and relied on pure emotion, and the sheer, misanthropic pleasure of "shaking it up" while voting in this election.

WHAT HAPPENED is appropriately named. The title is a call-and-answer, all rolled into one. It asks "What happened?" while also explaining exactly what happened, in her words. I don't expect this book to change people's minds. If you hate Hillary, you'll probably just hate her more after reading this, because you'll convince yourself that she's a) lying or b) the embodiment of the demon-worshiping caricature you've made her out to be in your mind. If you love Hillary, this book will make you love her more, because she's the thoughtful, articulate, compassionate, intelligent, go-getting, invested candidate you wanted - in spades.

I've almost forgotten what an actual president sounds like, because I've been bombarded with xenophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic, bigoted, juvenile rhetoric for so long.

Before I get into that, though, let me just clear up a few things.

But what about her emails? There was an investigation. She complied fully, and was duly exonerated. For those of you crying about the remaining 33,000 personal emails, and why she wouldn't want to share them, hmm, why don't you think about some of the emails you've sent to doctors, to relatives, to ex-girlfriends. I'm sure you sent some pretty embarrassing things. Things to which you wouldn't want the general public having access. In fact, since Clinton is a notoriously private person, yours are probably worse than hers. Also, Clinton's email server was later proven to be secure, whereas Trump White House officials were tricked by this email prankster into divulging some personal information.

She totally colluded to rig the election, though. Yes, let's talk about collusion and rigging, shall we?

Hillary gave those speeches to Goldman Sachs people. And Trump's filling his cabinet with them.

The news media was constantly forcing her down our throats. Yes, it's annoying when the news media is constantly finding new angles to throw unpopular candidates at you, isn't it? Oh wait...

But her emails, though. YES, LET'S TALK ABOUT EMAILS. LET'S.

I've seen several reviews for this book and many of those reviewers have attempted to be politic and inoffensive about their review, to great success. Well, I'm not going to go that route, and if it costs me a friend or two in the process, that's what my books-that-made-me-lose-friends shelf is for. I was not happy with how this election went, and I find it hilarious that members of the Tangerine Tyrant's fan club are burning their MAGA hats because their fearless leader dared to compromise with the Democratic party about DACA.

In WHAT HAPPENED, Hillary discusses her election and its catastrophic (or triumphant if you're part of that crowd) results. She describes how crushed she felt, seeing what was supposed to be certain victory being taken from her by a man who seemed incredibly unqualified. She had to wear the suit she planned to travel to DC in as president-elect to her concession speech, and her first order of business was ensuring that her staff would get paid and they would all have healthcare. Meanwhile, we have a president who allegedly doesn't pay contractors if they don't do a good job.

Hillary describes the rigors of campaigning, and the close bonds she developed with her staff. She writes about her love for her daughter, who she clearly admires and feels so much pride for, and her close friendship with Huma Abedin, who Hillary refused to fire even when it became clear that her personal scandal might negatively impact her campaign. She writes about her husband, glossing over the scandal that rocked her marriage in the 90s, but she does say that she struggled with the choice to stay or leave and ultimately stayed because she did love him - and then she writes about how moved she was, when before one of her speeches, he said, to everyone, "I married my best friend."

But what really got me was how much she clearly loves the U.S. Her willingness to sit down and listen to everyone - even the people who hate her, protest her, and threaten her - and hear their stories, and try to find a way to make things work really got me. I'm sure her critics will say, in the immortal words of Joe Biden, that that's all a "bunch of malarkey," but I have a pretty good BS detector and it's hard to fake sincerity and passion - at least with the fervor that Ms. Clinton displays here. She seems genuinely saddened to have failed Middle America, and her inability to address their concerns properly. She acknowledges her privilege, and how diligently she has worked to try to understand what it is like, being unable to provide for your children while living paycheck to paycheck. She wanted to bring jobs back to the U.S., was supportive of Black Lives Matter, and wanted to create better relationships between minorities and the police in high-crime areas. She was constantly looking for solutions and successful ways to implement them.

I cried several times while reading this book. Her anger at the roles that racism and sexism played in the election; her frustration at coming so close - twice - and failing each time; her fear for the future, not just for our country but for our allies; and the deep and personal responsibility she feels towards all the people who gave their all to see her get elected and felt that failure right alongside her. In many ways, Hillary reminds me of my own mother, who I love so much. Seeing Hillary fail was like seeing someone I cared deeply about fail. Her failure got me more engaged in politics, so I could learn more and become more informed, and help others become more informed because in our current political climate "fake news" has become synonymous with "news I don't like that I'm going to pretend isn't real because I'm a jerk who likes to live in an alternative facts-ridden landscape."

I've noticed some concern from the Bernie Bros that this book basically blames them for Trump's election. And while I think that it is at least partly your fault if you either a) lived in a swing state and didn't vote, or b) lived in a swing state and voted for a third party to "stick it to the man," Clinton is much more generous and diplomatic about it (which is why she was able to come so close to winning president-elect, and I will never be running for office). She does suggest that third parties played a role in Trump's victory (though she seems to blame Jill Stein for this more than Sanders), but she also acknowledges Bernie's (admittedly tardy) concession and support of her campaign. She also points out why he was so much more popular with reluctant voters: marketability. His statements were full of panache and sounded good in a microphone. I was Hillary from day one, but even I could admit that Bernie sounded good. He just didn't seem to have a solid plan. Hillary did have solid plans, many of them, but it's hard to compress intelligent, thoughtful ideas down to a sound bite. And of course, there's also the fact that Hillary is a woman, whereas Bernie is a man, and our country, which is so advanced in some ways, can be rather outmoded when it comes to the role women play in various leadership roles - particularly those of the political or corporate variety.

Someone asked why so many men hated Hillary under the questions for this book, and this is what I responded with: "I think [men hate Hillary Clinton] because there are a lot of gender biases coded into society. We're taught- implicitly or explicitly, and from a young age- that women are not supposed to be loud, aggressive, brash, dominant, confident, or forceful. Hillary is all these things, for better or for worse, and that threatens the status quo. Anything that threatens the status quo is going to be rallied against by people who have a stake in the system staying the way it is."

If you're interested, Vox did a lengthy interview with Hillary that relates tangentially to this book. I recommend it. She details a lot of her policies and it gives great insight into what she's like.

Lastly, I just want to issue a caveat: this is a review, and not an invitation to a debate. I don't want to debate. I sat through way too many debates already in the last two years, and I've heard all the arguments before. When I was younger, yeah, I loved arguing on the internet, but now I think it's a waste of time. It's not going to change anyone's mind and it's only going to sow discord. You're welcome to write all the anti-Hillary stuff you want in your own review space, but if you post it here, I'll delete your comments, and if you do it again after I delete it, I'll block you.

That said, I heartily encourage anyone with an open mind to read this book. She was brave to open her heart and share her story, when there are so many people who are so eager to tear her down.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel by Bob Batchelor



"Excelsior!"

When I first saw this book on Netgalley, I was super excited because I thought it was going to be a graphic-novel style biography of Stan Lee's life, because some fool had slapped it with the "graphic novels" label. But STAN LEE is not a graphic novel - it is merely a biography about a man who wrote them. Apart from that slight disappointment due to some questionable labeling choices (*cough*), STAN LEE is a pretty fantastic book. I've read several comic book histories, about Wonder Woman and Superman, and they were all good. But they were also all DC. It would be really cool, I thought, to see the Marvel side of things. I've always liked Marvel.

STAN LEE shows how Stan Lee became involved with Marvel, how the Depression made him desperate and hungry (a familiar tale with many comic book authors and illustrators). It shows his contributions to the war effort with colorful cartoony instructional pamphlets for the soldiers. But the best part is his contributions to the Golden Age of Comics, before the Comic Code snafu. I had no idea that he was involved with so many of the Marvel superheroes - X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Thor, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Spider-Man, The Hulk. Basically all of them. It was incredible. I guess there are some controversies over how much of the effort was his versus, say, Jack Kirby's, and I found a pretty great Vulture article called Why Is Stan Lee's Legacy in Question? that does a pretty good job discussing the subject, whereas this book, STAN LEE, kind of glosses over it.

STAN LEE is obviously biased in that it is very much pro-Stan Lee. You don't want to air all the dirt on your childhood heroes. Why would you? But then, Stan Lee is a cool guy. He's got that "cool grandpa" vibe, where he's kind of nerdy, but not really out of touch. A living personification of the grandfather character in Princess Bride who woos his grandson over with a tale of heroics and romance and good triumphing over evil. That was the vibe that I got from STAN LEE. He wooed over America when we were being saturated with superheroes, and helped keep Marvel from going under in the Silver Age of comic books, when they were being stifled by the Comic Code.

This isn't all rose-tinted lenses, though. STAN LEE does touch on some of Lee's failings or mediocre efforts. The ill-fated Stan Lee Media venture was mentioned, and so was the Pamela Anderson-voiced Stripperella cartoon from the early 2000s, which I only vaguely remember as being one of those saucy late-night shows that I wasn't allowed to watch along with Greg the Bunny and The Man Show. And then of course, Batchelor also discusses Stan Lee's settlement with Marvel.

But good times and bad times aside, it's clear that Stan Lee is a creative individual who not only has a highly active imagination and creative eye but an excellent business sense as well. If you're a fan of Marvel or Stan Lee, I highly recommend this book. It's a great addition to the existing comic book histories, and I enjoyed it just as much as the Super Man and Wonder Woman histories, if not more.

P.S. For some reason, there are a ton of Excelsior Cafes in the Tokyo area in Japan. I don't know if they are named so as a nod to Stan Lee or what, but when I was in Akihabara - the gaming/comic district of Tokyo - I made sure to stop by one and drink a toast to Mr. Lee.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!


3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Cinder by Marissa Meyer



My experiences with YA fantasy have consisted largely of crushing disappointments. It's an old story that you're probably familiar with: a new YA fantasy book with a pretty cover gets launched into the bloggersphere. Everyone hypes it up and raves over the cover and the summary. The book comes out. The initial reviews are all raving and overwhelmingly positive - and then I come along to burst your bubble and give it a one star review.

I tried to read CINDER three times, and kept putting it down in the same spot. Another plucky heroine wallowing in strife? Oh God, spare me, I thought. But then CINDER was chosen as our 2017 Scifi-Futuristic theme read in my romance group, and I thought to myself, "Okay, Nenia, the jig is up. You have to read it now. Maybe it won't be so bad."

And...to my surprise, it wasn't.

Don't get me wrong. That beginning is still tedious and awful. The book doesn't really pick up until Cinder is sold out by her wicked (very wicked) stepmother to the New Beijing government to test a cure for the plague that is ransacking the city. Poor Cinder is imprisoned and injected with the virus that's almost certain to kill her...only it doesn't, and that's where it gets interesting.

My favorite aspect of the book was probably the court intrigue. Queen Levana was an interesting villain, and I liked how she showed utilized her power. Hers is an iron hand in a silk glove. You feel the soft touch before you feel the vise grip underneath. Kai was also a good hero, I thought - not so much as a love interest as a leader who wanted to do right by his people, but felt conflicted about it at the same time. As a love interest, yes, he's very much the dreamy prince but the insta-love between him and Cinder was a bit eye-roll worthy. They didn't have any "moments" or chemistry that made me think that they needed to be together at all costs, unlike, say, Nevada and Rogan from the Hidden Legacy series, which I ship harder than the shippiest of shippers at the National Shipping Convention.

I figured out the "twist" around chapter two or three, but I figure that this book is aimed at a younger, far less cynical audience, so maybe that "twist" will surprise him the way it did not surprise me. It was a good twist, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out. I - and you, too, if you decide to read this - will have to wait until book two for that, though, as this book ends on the most wicked and unfair of cliffhangers. Right dead in the middle of a pivotal turning point, really. You're welcome.

Overall, though, CINDER was a pleasant surprise and a welcome change from the slew of disappointing reads that have demarcated my 2017 reading year. I'll be checking out book two soon to see if the series really does get better as everyone says, because if it does - watch out!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 15, 2017

101 Video Games to Play Before You Grow Up: The unofficial must-play video game list for kids by Ben Bertoli



As you may or may not know, I used to be really into video games. I would play for twelve hours at a stretch and stay up all night on during summer break and weekends, playing well into the early hours of the morn. It drove my parents bonkers, but when you're a teenage gamer, you're less interested in what parents think about your nocturnal habits and more interested in how much grinding you have to do to level up to 86 magic.

When I saw this on Netgalley, I was super curious to see which games of interest Bertoli had singled out. Sometimes, the person putting together these sorts of lists has a clear bias for a particular system or genre. I noticed that with a book I received last year about the best arcade games. If I remember correctly, the author admitted himself that he had a penchant for a certain type of arcade game and its various clones.

I'm guessing that Bertoli is about my age - late 20s, early 30s - because many of the games he chose are the games that I grew up with. Crash Bandicoot, Banjo Kazooie, Spyro, Harvest Moon, Excitebike, Pokemon, Paper Mario, Metroid, Galaga, Animal Crossing, Pac-Man, and Tetris are just a few of the games he mentioned that I spent hours playing as a youth. I found that I actually agreed with a lot of his choices, at least for the consoles that I actually used.

Minecraft is on here. That game is still insanely popular with the youngins, so I guess that's a pretty solid choice, however much it's disparaged by my peers. Speaking of build-em-up games, I'm surprised Scribblenauts didn't make the cut! Someone let me play that on their DS and I had such a good time. Similarly, Fantasy Life, Yoshi Story, and Mario 64 are other highly kid-friendly classic titles that are just as addictive as they are colorful. Also, no Sims? (Maybe that's too PG-13.)

Overall, though, I was pretty impressed by the titles Bertoli compiled for this list, and the heaping dose of nostalgia it brought back was pretty good, too.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 11, 2017

All Broke Down by Cora Carmack



I wasn't really impressed by this book, which is a shame because Cora Carmack is one of those authors that a lot of my friends hyped up to me. She was supposed to be better than the typical "new adult formula." To me, though, it just felt like more of the same. If you're a fan of Jen Frederick's Gridiron series, the concept is very much the same and to me, the characters felt just as interchangeable. The only difference is, Frederick dives into the sport a bit more thoroughly and there's more locker room talk.

I will give ALL BROKE DOWN points for trying to be slightly less problematic than its counterparts. Both these characters have troubled backstories but Carmack did make an effort to have them be realistic... something that isn't just out of a soap opera plot, but might actually happen and probably has happened to some of her readers. These shared experiences between the two characters are largely what cause them to bond, which was kind of nice.

I also like how consent is handled in this book on several occasions, with two very different characters. They could not be more different in terms of sexual history - but they are treated exactly the same. In a good way. It is so unequivocal - as it should be. I honestly don't get why "consent" is so controversial with people. Yes means yes - and drugs and/or alcohol immediately invalidate that "yes." Is that so hard to understand? Not in this book. I felt like that was really important, and it almost bumped this book's rating up to a 3 because contemporary romance needs more of that.

The reasons I didn't like this book are more complicated. There's a pretty serious case of insta-love, and the "bad boy"/"good girl" thing is touted a little too heavily, and that's not really a favorite trope of mine outside of historical fiction ("rake"/"bluestocking"? YES, YES, and YES). I didn't really like Silas. He was too angry - and I get why he was angry, but there's a difference between broody and Travis Maddox, and Silas frequently encroached upon Travis Maddox territory. The constant desire to punch people in the face and mark his territory all over the heroine was a little off-putting.

I didn't really like Dylan's character, either. The two characters meet in jail. Silas got in a fight, and Dylan was arrested at a protest. Her protest is the most uncontroversial demonstration ever: a protest against the demolition of a homeless shelter. And people act like that's so EDGY. I nearly died when she said what an activist she was. Girl. Girl, no. I've been to an Occupy protest, an anti-fascist protest, and a Women's March. Politics means passion. You can't just try on activism like it's a fancy hat that makes you look cool. I mean, you can. (It's called a p*ssy hat.) But if you're going to define yourself with "ACTIVISM" then by God, I want to see it, and not just when it's convenient to the plot. She just felt like a placeholder to me, and I just rolled my eyes every time she swooned.

You know whose story I'm really curious about? Stella's. Unfortunately, it hasn't been written, yet.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Twilight: The Graphic Novel, Vol. 1 by Stephenie Meyer



You know what's embarrassing? Going into a thrift store when you're almost thirty years of age and buying Twilight: The Graphic Novel while the teenage male cashier judges you.

WHATEVER, TEENAGE MALE CASHIER. I REGRET NOTHING. AND NOW I HAVE TWILIGHT: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL AND YOU DON'T. SO I WIN.

When this book first came out in 2010, my first thought was, "Are you kidding me?" It looked like a cash grab to capitalize off the movie. Twilight mania was in full swing and you literally could not go anywhere without hearing someone talk about it. I initially liked the books, but the movies and the fans turned me off the series so fast because there was no escape.

NO ESCAPE.

Well, now that I've read the book for myself, I have revised this opinion. Yes, it is a graphic novel of a book that was turned into a movie but... the art is beautiful. Young Kim did such an amazing job. The expressions, the use of color... even the text they used... it's all so gorgeous, and fits the tone of the story far better than the movie ever did. I feel like the scenery and the looks of the characters were much more true to form.

You may be asking yourself, "What's the point?" Well, if you enjoyed TWILIGHT and you're the type of person who would buy one of those Harlequin manga (yes, they exist; yes they are awesome - YOU WOULD BE SO AMAZED HOW WELL ROMANCE TRANSLATES TO MANGA), then you should definitely get this book for your collection. I know it's going to stay in mine. <3

I kind of want to revisit the novel now. It's been sitting on my dresser, waiting...

5 out of 5 stars

Be a Unicorn: and Live Life on the Bright Side by Sarah Ford



This is one of those books where I didn't even read the summary before volunteering to review it; for all I knew, it could have been a biography about Sarah Palin sneaked between two bright pink covers with a unicorn that looked as though it was drawn on MS Paint. Luckily, it was not a biography about Sarah Palin: it is actually a book on positivity involving unicorns & methods on living life to the fullest.

I'm apparently a sucker for badly-drawn unicorns. This is not high art, but the simple, accessible style reminded me of Allie Brosh's work, and damn if I couldn't stop smiling at that ridiculous unicorn as he tried on bikinis, snarfed dark chocolate, and bathed in his own eau du stink (seriously).

This is not really "a book" in the sense that it's something you sit down and read for an extended period of time. This is the type of book you receive as a gift from a well-meaning individual who doesn't know you very well, or that you sneak-read in Barnes and Noble while waiting in line to ring up your other purchases. It's one of those novelty books that belongs on a coffee table, or on your desk at the office. Is it cute? Yes. Fun? Yes. Substantive? No.

Even so, I would definitely recommend this book. It was super cute and just what I needed to pull me out of my Outlander-induced funk (no, I'm still not over the trainwreck that was the last 200 pages of OUTLANDER - Jamie, Jamie, poor Jamie, whyyyy). If you're into positivity, unicorns, or some combination thereof (or if, like me, you're also traumatized by Outlander), you should read this book!

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Click'd by Tamara Ireland Stone



I was honestly surprised to receive an ARC of this because Disney-Hyperion never approves me for anything.

But they did, so I was like, "Bleep yeah! Girl coders!" I took a coding class in high school. It was one of the most difficult classes I've ever taken, but it was also one of the most satisfying. Every time I figured out the code to make a program work, I felt so good. It was the ultimate mental rush, like forcing checkmate in a difficult game of chess; I'd often feel energized after leaving that class, ready to take on anything.

I'm trying to read more books about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) heroines, so combined with my (abbreviated) history in coding and technology, CLICK'D was an easy pick for me. It's about a twelve-year-old girl named Allie competing in an app competition called "Games for Good." Her game, "Click'd" is basically a combination of a Buzzfeed quiz and Myspace (circ. 2007): users answer questions and get matched up with other users, and based on the ways they answer questions, are ranked on a leaderboard within the app.

Allie's game takes off at her school and pretty soon she has over 1,000 users. But there's a security risk embedded within the site, and she decides not to say or do anything about it because she's afraid it might compromise her place in the G4G competition. Pretty soon, though, it's clear that more than just her users' data is at risk, and when she tries to tinker with the code, things go horribly wrong.

I really liked how programming and coding was at the forefront of this story. I also liked the G4G competition, although Allie's game wasn't exactly a humanitarian cause (now the girl who did the app about grooming girls in 3rd world countries to become teachers? can we get her story?). Allie in general kind of cheesed me off over the course of the story. She was incredibly selfish, and the way she treated Nathan towards the end of the book made me really angry. I get why she felt the way she did, and I probably would have jumped to the same conclusion as a preteen, but I was still like, "OH, YOU LITTLE SHEET."

This book was a little young for me (I didn't realize it was middle grade when I applied for it), but it's a great story with a good moral and a subject that's becoming increasingly relevant in the information age. Would not recommend this to fans of older YA, but for younger girls who are interested in math and computers and teachers who want to supply books for them as a resource and/or inspiration? Yes.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2.5 out of 5 stars

Claiming the Courtesan by Anna Campbell



I've been lusting after this book for years because it had so many positive reviews, and people were saying it was like a bodice ripper of olde - and you guys know how much I love bodice rippers. Throw in an obsessive hero and a revenge theme, and I. Am. So. There. When this book had a price drop down to $3.49, I pounced. "Finally!" I thought. "Precious is mine!" I thought.

Post-reading, all I can say is feh.

***WARNING: SPOILERS***

CLAIMING THE COURTESAN is about Lord Kylemore (Crymore) and Verity (Very Dumb). Very Dumb is Crymore's mistress. They had a contract that stipulated that she could leave after a year, and all of his gifts would remain hers after their time was up. Crymore did not take the contract seriously and after a fight with his mom, he's like, "F U, Mom! You think you can boss me around? I'm going to marry my whore! That'll show you!"

But Crymore's mistress is tired of the lifestyle of the "soiled dove" and absconds with her belongings, selling all of her expensive gifts to live a life of anonymity in the countryside. Well, Crymore can't have that, can he? He pursues her, kidnaps her in the middle of the street after attempting to kill her brother (who he thinks is her lover), and then takes her away with him to his remote Scottish estate, where he proceeds to rape her nightly for daring to leave him before he said he was done.

Very Dumb makes a few token efforts at escape, but mostly there's talk of traitorous bodies and then she cuddles with him at night because Crymore has night terrors (daddy issues). I was not impressed. I was even less impressed when while running away from him yet again, he saves her from falling off a cliff and that's when she decides she loves him. I was even less impressed when Crymore decides he loves her too and is like, "Maybe now I can treat her to some consensual sex at last!" I'm like, "*****, that's not up to you! She decides if it's consensual you **********ing piece of ****. ****!!!" What makes this even more ridiculous is that while all this raping is going on, Crymore is beating him up, forcing himself to do it to keep up appearances, whining all the while that he's a nice guy, and how bad he feels that she pushed him to this and blah, blah blah.

Crymore is that super guy you have blocked on Tinder because in his profile he says "I'm a nice guy who's tired of the drama looking for a girl who doesn't play games" but the literal first thing he messages you is "Nice tits - DTF?" with a picture of his peen attached.

Anyway, this being a romance novel, Crymore and Very Dumb end up getting together and having teh sex0rs. But then Very Dumb decides that she can't be with him because it would shame his honor or something like that. So she flees him again - and who does she run into but Mommie Dearest, who beats up her brother (again - poor guy) and then announces gleefully that she's going to disfigure Verity and then have her gangbanged by her servants while she watches. And she's a little too excited by this, if you catch my drift, which makes it extraaaaa creepy. But don't worry, because Crymore is a stalker to the very end, and arrives just in time to put a stop to his mother, but not before saying, "F U, Mom! We're still getting married and you get to choose between Norfolk and the mental asylum!"

The end.

I really liked the beginning but I simply could not stomach the rest. I'm an avid reader of bodice rippers, so it's not the rape aspect that bothered me. It's that it was handled so badly, and with such disrespect to the characters. The author tried to make the rapist into a nice guy, and he didn't even really have to grovel - Very Dumb just decided that she loved him after all, which kind of makes this feel extra super creepy, because you know she probably just came down with Stockholm Syndrome after she was traumatized by all those near-death experiences and abuse. God, even the servants were complicit, saying, basically, "He's a nice guy! Deal with it!" when she told them what he was doing to her and begged them to help her escape. Yeah, no. This was not cool and I'm very disappoint.

Hopefully her other book, UNTOUCHED, is better.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Virgins by Diana Gabaldon



So, after reading book one but before reading book two, I thought it might ease my heart to read a tale about young!Jamie when he was still just a teenager (nineteen, I believe). Freshly escaped from his brutal fate at the flogging post and banned from his homeland of Lallybroch, Jamie and his best pal Ian wander around in France with a group of bawdy, rapacious mercenaries. They end up coming into the acquaintance of a Jewish doctor named Dr. Hasdi who wants them to deliver his daughter, Rebekah, a Torah, and a chest of gold to her fiance in France. But of course, this being a book about Jamie, that doesn't go off as planned.

The title refers to the fact that Jamie and Ian are both virgins, and there's a lot of blushing and dirty jokes in this book as both of them speculate - in the true fashion of boys everywhere - as to What Sex Must Be Like. Considering that several portions of this book take place in whorehouses, there's ample room for speculation. I thought that their discussions with one another were cute, and the dialogue is a lot more light-hearted here than it was in the books, even though some dark stuff does happen in VIRGINS.

I recommend reading this after book one, or you won't have context for some of the backstory. Ian doesn't appear until pretty late into book one, and his character there sets the stage for what he's like here (and vice-versa). Reading VIRGINS was fun, but the whole time I read it there was a cloud over me, because I knew what was going to happen to these characters later, and it made me sad. :(

Still, if you can get your hands on it on the cheap, it's not a bad way to pass the time.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sips of Blood by Mary Ann Mitchell



As of 09/10/17, this book is free on Kindle!

This was a Kindle Clean-Out Club buddy read with my friend Heather. We both like vampire novels and agree that many of the best ones were the super dark vampire stories written pre-TWILIGHT. SIPS OF BLOOD seemed like the perfect read for us, because not only is it a vampire novel from the 90s, it's also a vampire novel from the 90s about the Marquis de Sade.

Taking famous crazy people throughout history and turning them into vampires is not a novel concept. I've read a number of vampire stories about Vlad the Impaler, Elizabeth Báthory, and the Count of St. Germain. Marquis de Sade is another obvious choice, given that his love of hurting people got him his own eponym (i.e. "sadism").

***WARNING: SPOILERS***

SIPS OF BLOOD is a weird, disorganized novel that has the same gritty, grungy feel as another vampire novel I read a while ago called DAUGHTERS OF THE MOON (one of the Elizabeth Báthory stories I referred to earlier). SIPS OF BLOOD is about three vampires: Louis, Marie, and Liliana. Louis is the Marquis de Sade and he is crazy. Marie is his mother-in-law and she is also crazy. Liliana is Louis's niece and she is crazy, but way less crazy than her crazy vampire relatives, and tries to go the "vegetarian" vampire route a la Edward Cullen by feeding off small rodents and the blood of corpses at the morgue where she conveniently works.

There isn't really much of a plot, apart from, "Gee, I'm a vampire, how can I get me some gross vampire sex?" Marie tries to seduce her neighbor's son, Wil (one of the few characters in this book I liked, so obviously bad things happened to him), and most of the book is about her pursuing him in a way that gives new and terrifying meaning to the word "cougar" while her other love interest, a married man named Garrett, mopes on the sidelines and tries to satisfy his desires while being ignored by his mistress. He ends up getting AIDS, and then is tortured and murdered by Louis. Louis decides that he wants to have sex with his house-keeper's seventeen-year-old daughter (did I mention that he looks seventy?) and for some reason, Cecelia is totally game for this... uh... okay. I kept hoping that Liliana and Wil would get together, but she ends up getting raped by two different guys (one of whom is her uncle) and then murdered by being literally torn apart by rogue vampires after getting impaled on a fence.

This was a very strange and unpleasant book. I couldn't put it down because I was filled with a morbid fascination to keep turning the pages and find out what happened to the two characters in this book I actually cared about. People suffered a lot in this book, which isn't surprising considering who this book is about, but the extent of the cruelty still took me off-guard.

Also, there were a lot of typos in here - especially towards the end. "Jealously" was used instead of "jealousy" (or vice-versa), there were a couple misspellings, and at least once, Wil's name changed to "Will" and then back again on a page. Not sure if these were conversion errors from when the book was turned into an e-book or if they were in the original text, but that was extra.

P.S. It took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to figure out that Louis and Donatien were both referring to the same person. Whoops.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon



As of 09/09/17, this book is $1.99 for the Kindle edition!

I read this book for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2017 Reading Challenge. For more info about what this is, click here.

I'm proud to say that I read this book before it became a TV series. I was in college, and checked out the weighty hardcover edition from the stacks on the third floor, along with several Anne Rice books and Sheri S. Teper's BEAUTY. That was about seven years ago, and I found myself thinking about the series again recently because my library recently purchased the entire series in honor of the television show. I wanted to read the others, but couldn't remember anything apart from the fact that Claire was a doctor, something about a witch trial, and the hideous rape/torture scene towards the end that still haunts me all these years later. I'm half-tempted to start a Change.org petition to call for Diana Gabaldon to rewrite OUTLANDER so that a certain someone dies a horrible death. It's even worse in the TV show. I saw a clip, and I don't think I'll be watching that. It's like torture porn. No, thanks.

For the past week I've been reading OUTLANDER, this book has been an emotional blackhole, slowly draining away all my feelings and leaving only despair. It's a very slow start, with Claire and her husband in the Scottish countryside, taking a bit of a break in the terrible aftermath of WWII, which they have both been affected by (especially Claire who, as a nurse, has seen some terrible things). Then, one day, Claire touches a set of standing stones and gets sucked back into 18th century Scotland, just before the battle of Culloden, and ends up encountering a highlander named Jamie Fraser.

***WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW***

Gabaldon tortures her characters with an enthusiasm that you don't really see anymore in romance novels. This is very much like those 1970s bodice rippers, where everything goes to sh*t, and the story is less about love and affection and whimsy than it is about sacrifice and struggles and giving up everything - and I mean everything - to fight tooth and claw for a person who might do terrible things but is your soulmate, for better or for worse. Two similar authors I could name are Rosemary Rogers and George R. R. Martin. Rosemary Rogers has these alpha heroes who might not fit into the modern idea of "perfect man" but are appealing because of their incredible charisma, bravery, and sacrifices that they make of the heroine. The relationships are often fraught with love and hate, and there's almost always some gruesome act of torture in the third act (in two of the books of hers that I've read, these, like OUTLANDER, also involved brutal whippings). And I think the comparison to George R R. Martin should be obvious - even though this is a romance, it's set in a time filled with battles and unrest, so scheming abounds, and ignorance has caused people to rely on superstitions and folklore, as well as a suspicion of foreigners, and especially strange foreign women.


Some of the darker moments are the rape/torture scene towards the end, the story of Jamie's flogging, the scene when Jamie beats Claire with a belt, and of course, the witch trial scene. Interspersed with these moments (they are spaced out, thank God) are lighter scenes. I think my favorite was the wedding scene, when Jamie's all dressed up to the nines and says, all sly, "Your servant, Ma'am." I just about died. Also, when he tells Claire that he's a virgin. That was also super cute. The cute scenes were like salve on the emotional savaging that the other stuff caused. I can definitely understand why some of those darker scenes I mentioned put people off reading this, and I'm surprised that people seem more upset about the belt than the rape. For me, I found that devastating, and felt so, so sorry for Jamie. The beating was not cool, and it was weird that they joked about it later, but it's a sad fact that that was a common way that men interacted with women at the time. That does not make it right, but Jamie was not trying to break Claire when he did it, whereas the rape scene was a deliberate attempt to demean, humiliate, and destroy, which made it so much worse to read about, for me.

I found this article by Vulture called Diana Gabaldon on Why Outlander Isn’t Really a Romance and Writing Her First Episode, and apparently she resisted the romance category because it "will never be reviewed by the New York Times or any other respectable literary venue" and "will cut off the entire male half of my readership," and I am side-eying the hell out of that because (1) So? and (2) SO? Honestly, I'm just about done with all the opinion pieces about What Men Think About X Female Thing. We've been hearing about what men think since thinking first became a public matter, and if *some* men are so terrified of catching cooties from a book jacket that they're willing to forgo an otherwise perfectly good book, well, then, that's their problem, and they can read all the Heinlein and Martin they want. The only thing separating Game of Thrones from a bodice ripper is literally just the packaging and the title. Call it DRAGON'S RAPTURE* and slap on a shirtless Jon Snow cradling a svelte Daenerys Targaryen in a too-tight bodice and ergo, you have a fantasy bodice ripper.

YOU'RE WELCOME.

Regardless of what the author says about her book (she's free to say whatever she wants about it - it is her book), I consider this a romance, through and through, because the focus is on the love story of Jamie and Claire, as they fight to be together against all odds. The setting is beautiful, practically a character on its own, and was extra special to me, because I've been to so many places mentioned here: Culloden battlefield, Inverness, Urquhart Castle. I've also gone horseback riding on the Black Isle and been to Fort George in Ardersier. Scotland is incredibly beautiful and feels wild in a way that the U.S. does not. I had the same impression when I went to Japan, and saw Hakone and Meiji forest. They haven't curbed and domesticated their wilderness and paved over history in the same way that us Americans have; it still feels wild and magical and dangerous there, which adds to the appeal. This was a really great epic romance done in the old style and I recommend it to anyone who likes that sort of thing, particularly if you're a fan of the older romance authors like Rosemary Rogers.

*P.S. Somebody with more talent than I have needs to make a mock-up of that DRAGON'S RAPTURE cover. I could use a laugh after having all my feelings demolished.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood by Koren Zailckais



Recently, I read VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, and where some people seemed to see a trashy, bloated novel about fame-seeking women acting self-destructive for no particular reason, I saw a brilliant character study of ambitious women who could not cope with the cognitive dissonance of achieving their ambition while abiding by convention, and self-medicated their ensuing anxiety with sleeping pills and alcohol. That's kind of how I felt about SMASHED. SMASHED was published at the height of 2000s party culture, when Playboy bunnies were still seen as "cool" and you could get the necklaces at the mall (a lot of the girls in my high school wore them); Jackass the Movie was in theaters; Girls Gone Wild was a pop cultural phenomenon; and every Easter like clockwork, advertisements would run for tickets to the beach boardwalk for SPRING BREAK.

Don't get me wrong - this is definitely a memoir about substance abuse and drinking. Koren chronicles the start of her using from the age of a very young teen, and pushes forward, slowly, into her twenties. We see her at her worst, again and again, because the bar keeps falling. However, the culture she describes then feels so much more different than it is now, and really made me appreciate how much attitudes have changed over the last ten years with regards towards women, rape, sexuality, partying, and alcohol. That isn't to say that society is to blame, necessarily, when it comes to addiction and other problematic behaviors, but I do think that it can be a facilitator when people with a predisposition for such behaviors find themselves reinforced, again and again, by our cultural norms to engage in these behaviors.

I don't think it's appropriate to say that I "enjoyed" Zailckais's story, but it did move me. Her writing is beautiful (I'm a bit amazed by how many people criticized the writing in this book in some of those other reviews - she was in her early twenties when she wrote this book, and she demonstrates a level of self-awareness and reflection that escapes most people in their forties), and features some of the best prose I've ever encountered in a memoir. The subject matter itself is incredibly disturbing, but necessary. She came here to tell her story, and tell it she does, no holds barred. It's a brilliant snapshot of what it was like to grow up in the 90s and 00s, and is also an intimate portrait of alcohol abuse, told in a way that I think will be really accessible to and resonate well with younger individuals.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Sea and Sky by Heather Crews



Disclaimer: Heather is my friend.

I'm a sucker for arranged marriage plots and I've never read a book about mermaids that I really liked, so when Heather offered me a copy of this to beta-read, obviously I was on that like white on rice.

Fantasy romances aren't usually my thing but I really enjoyed this one. The writing is gorgeous and the world-building is done in that charming, old-fashioned way that was so pervasive in the 80s and 90s, like Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series, say, or Diana Wynne Jones's more romantic efforts. I'd compare this to Sarah J. Maas's works, but I really don't like Sarah J. Maas's works, and she can't really write sex scenes besides. Heather, on the other hand, can. And she does it well.

*wink wink nudge nudge*

This book is bound to appeal to fantasy romance aficionados. It's not my go-to genre of choice, but I really enjoyed this book despite that, which says a lot in its favor. The heroine was vulnerable but strong. The hero is good and hot. There's a sweet secondary romance that's perhaps even better than the primary one, and a hot bad guy and a scheming queen mother, you know, just to keep things interesting. If you're a fan of fantasy, I think you'll probably love this.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - if Heather keeps writing books, I'll keep reading them. <3

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 4, 2017

Angel in Scarlet by Jennifer Wilde



ANGEL IN SCARLET went on sale recently for $1.99 and I figured what better occasion than to do a buddy-read with my dear Goodreads friends, Korey and Vellini. Jennifer Wilde is the pen name of a male author, T.E. Huff, and he's rather infamous for his smutty, purple prose and sex-pot heroines. We're talking trashy fiction of the V.C. Andrews caliber. The only book of his I read before this was LOVE'S TENDER FURY, which is very much a traditional bodice ripper with its themes of slavery, rape, and general wtfery that boggle the rational mind.

ANGEL IN SCARLET is not a bodice ripper. There is no rape (although there are some unconsummated attempts at forced-seduction). Our heroine is named Angela, and she's the daughter of a teacher, and has two step-sisters and a step-mother. The step-mother ends up being a villain later on (madam of a whorehouse), but the two step-sisters are actually pretty chill and one of them, Solonge, intrigued me far more than the heroine did.

Angel is an okay heroine as far as heroines go. She has a lot of moxie. She punches people, bashes would-be rapists over the head with their seduction champagne, flips people the finger, kicks bad men in the testicles, and tells anyone she cares to (namely everyone): "SOD OFF!" It's basically her catchphrase. A woman like Angel is obviously too much for one man, and she sleeps with several over the course of the book - something she shares in common with Marietta Danvers from LOVE'S TENDER FURY. Unlike LOVE'S TENDER FURY, however, these relationships are all basically consensual. There's her childhood love, the bastard son of nobility: Hugh. Then there's the temperamental playwright who sees her as his muse, James ("Jamie"). And lastly, there's Lord Meredith (Clinton), Hugh's half-brother: an entitled, spoiled, selfish, womanizing lord. On top of all this, Angel goes from being lower middle class to working in a gambling den, to becoming an artist's "Gibson Girl", to becoming an accomplished actress, to becoming a lady of the nobility herself.

I wanted to like this book and at first I did, because it was refreshing to read a vintage novel where the heroine wasn't a victim: who was actually quite empowered when it came to seizing life by the balls and doing whatever the hell she wanted. Unfortunately, there were several setbacks that made this book incredibly difficult to get into and really dampened my enjoyment of it.

-: The writing is incredibly repetitive. Wilde repeats the same phrases over and over. All gowns are cut "provocatively low" or "dangerously low" to the point that you can almost see one's "bright pink" nipples. Angel's "chestnut waves" are always dangling into her "violet-gray eyes." There are paragraphs and paragraphs of costume pr0n that are basically cut and pasted reprises of prior descriptions. Hint: embroidered waistcoats, lacy jabots, lace spilling from the sleeves. There are also paragraphs and paragraphs of food pr0n, and while I liked these better, they weren't necessary to the plot. I could really feel the 600 pages of this novel - especially towards the middle, where it began to slog. I think about 200 pages of this could have been cut while still preserving the overall novel.

-: The sex scenes are absolutely awful, some of the worst I've read (and I've read countless ones that have the H/h "soaring off into the heights of ecstasy to romp with an orgy of angels*." These were worse. They honestly read like teen-age fan-fiction. Allow me to provide you with some samples:

And he pounced upon me and we wrestled vigorously and it was joyous and he pinioned me and the match continued and it was delightful and he entered me and I writhed and he bucked and I thrashed and he plunged and it was glorious, glorious, sensations shimmering, soaring, and I fought and he retaliated and I gave and he took and he gave and sensations swelled and shattered... (48%)

...onto me he crawled and into me he plunged, filling me fully, strong, straining. I wrapped my legs around him and he reached out, groping, and got one of the cushions and positioned it under my hips and pulled back and plunged and pounded and repeated and I raised and reared and our movements matched and magic and marvelous sensations besieged us both (55%).

...the room in darkness now, now the warm hardness of him entering slowly, slowly, plunging then to fill, holding for a moment and then slowly withdrawing, so slowly, plunging again, flesh filling flesh, his hard and strong as steel and soft as velvet, my own clutching, clinging, my body arching to meet him, to bring him closer still... (68%)

-: I also couldn't quite pinpoint the exact time period because the author uses some very anachronistic language like "yeah" and "bitchy affection." I think it's mid-Georgian because the author makes several references to plays like She Stoops to Conquer and The Vicar of Wakefield, and if it was Victorian, I'm certain the author would have referred to Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw.

Something that confused me, though (regarding the time period) was the way Angel's acting career was treated by others. She rubs elbows with royalty and is generally well-respected by the town, but in Regency England, acting - especially for women - was seen as an ignoble profession that was pretty much regarded as being as base and derided as a prostitute. Public opinion on that didn't really start to shift until the late 19th century, from what I understand.

I did like the ending, which was unexpectedly bittersweet, and Angel was an interesting character, so I'm rounding this up to 1.5 stars. But this is by no means one of Jennifer Wilde's better efforts, and if you're a first-timer hoping to get in on the bodice ripper craze, I'd urge you to pick up LOVE'S TENDER FURY instead.

* Obviously a slight exaggeration

1.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sharing You by Molly McAdams



Books about cheating SOBs used to be deal-breakers for me, but then I started reading some books that actually handled the subject with care and complexity, portraying the characters in a complex light with nuance. One I read recently is a historical fiction novel called BELOVED ENEMY that involves a love triangle between the heroine, the hero, and the other woman, who is basically the hero's common-law wife. Rather than being infuriated, I found myself fascinated by the characters, especially the OW, who I ended up liking more than the heroine by the end.

I had friends who tried to read Molly McAdams's books and ended up hating them because of the cheating (I guess cheating and love triangles are common themes in her books). I told myself, "Well, okay, maybe this isn't for me - but on the other hand, maybe it is. I won't know unless I give it the old college try."

Well, I gave it the old college try... and I'm speechless. Because this book lacked nuance. It lacked subtlety. It lacked depth. This is a book about trash people and their attempts to romanticize their selfish, selfish lust as love.

KC "Kamryn" Cunningham is racehorse royalty. Her trash parents are trying to force her into a marriage with a trash popped-collar sleazebag, and when she catches them all laughing villainously around a table talking about "merging" their racehorse empire, that is the last straw. She flees Kentucky for Oregon where she inexplicably has enough funds to not just rent her own apartment but also buy and run her own bakery, with paid employees. Which... okay.

Her friend, Kinlee, is happily married, and in the tradition of happily married people everywhere, decides that what her BFF desperately needs is a boyfran. But KC turns down every guy she ever meets... until she meets this one total hottie at her friend's party: the very married Brody Saco.

I'd found everything I'd never even known I'd been looking for...in him. I could feel it in the way I felt like I needed to be closer to him than I already was, [...] the way I was physically aching to know everything about him. And yet, I felt like I knew everything there was to know about him, and we still hadn't said a word (29).

She literally bumps into him at a party and immediately decides that they're soulmates.

WITHOUT. SAYING. A. WORD. TO. HIM.

The next 300 pages is just pages and pages of unnecessary trash people drama. KC tells us, over and over, that she can't stand that he's married, that she's going to wait...but oh, she can't wait, she just can't help herself, she's not that kind of girl, she's not like other mistresses, she's a good person...

NO. You a cheater.

"I do not want an AFFAIR. I don't know what something between us could be called, but that word doesn't do what's happening between us justice. But I know that my marriage is over, I know I want you more than I want my next breath, and I know I would be insane to walk out that door and away from you" (57).

Still a cheater.

"I wanted to stay away from him, and I tried to start a relationship with you. But after meeting Brody, it was over for me. There is no one in the world who will ever be able to make me feel what he does just by saying my name. Not a day goes by that I don't hate myself for what we're doing. Not a day goes by that I don't hate myself for breaking up someone's marriage even though everyone already knows it was over" (199).

Cheaaaaaaaateeeeeeeer.

The sleaze doesn't even wear a wedding ring and the first time he calls the heroine is after midnight because it's booty call o' clock in his trash people calendar, I guess. Literally everything that comes out of his mouth sounds like some creepy excuse that the womanizing d-bag in a Lifetime movie would say to his mistress to string her along. "Baby, you know I'll leave her, she means nothing to me, I just can't right now, think about us, think about where we'll be in five years..."

LIES.

You're probably wondering about the other woman. Where does she fit into this? Well, the author decided to put KC on a pedestal by making the wife as crazy and unlikable as possible. She drains Brody's bank accounts to buy useless trash. She threatens to commit suicide. She mocks Brody about their child's death and then blames it on him. She lies to her parents that he's abusing her and planning to kill her. They then get a lawyer to blackmail him into staying with her and try to get him fired from his job. Oh, and it turns out that she's been cheating this whole time, too, but with more than one person instead of her #Soulmate, so she's a slut, but KC is the savior of the hero.

And that is literally how it's framed. Olivia, the wife, got pregnant so he would marry her, used the child for blackmail to get him to leave the Army, and then leveraged said child's death to force him to stay with her, with threats to harm herself thrown in for fun. All of Brody's relatives and friends have been trying to get him to stray from the marriage for years, despite the fact that he's married, and everyone praises KC when they find out that she's sleeping with Brody because his marriage is "killing him." Throughout the book, everyone talks about how "bad" divorce is, including Queen Trash herself, AKA, KC. Which, okay, divorce is not great - but if you're that miserable and you're living in a marriage filled with abuse - you should leave. I know it isn't easy, that sometimes it's incredibly difficult, but it just made me so sick that Brody decided to drag someone else down into that toxic environment with him instead of freaking doing something about it. I thought it was ridiculous how Brody knew that his wife had mental issues, but didn't think about getting her help until it became a convenient excuse for him to leave his wife for KC. Yes, she was "faking" having bipolar disorder... but if someone is pulling those kinds of stunts they probably have other issues. Olivia is a trash person but so is Brody for letting these issues fester & cheating.

Oh, and then the piece of trash totally goes alpha-ape-shit whenever someone flirts with KC, and when he finds out who she reaaaaaally is towards the end, guess who suddenly gets all preachy about fakery and lies? Like he didn't just spend 80% of the book blissfully swimming in his own sea of deception and lies to cheat on his wife. I'M SORRY I CAN'T HEAR YOU OVER THE SOUND OF THE TRASH.

In the foreword and afterword, the author says that this romance is based on a true story (the foreword appears to be written by the couple in question themselves). I'm not sure how many liberties she took with the story - I imagine a lot, hopefully, to protect the identities of those involved - and I'm not going to pass judgement on the author's friends, because, you know - you do you. It's nice that the author stuck by her friends. But these characters, the fictional counterparts, are trash people. I hated Brody. I hated KC. I hated Olivia. I hated KC's family. The only people I liked were Kinlee and Jace and I felt sorry for Aiden, because he seemed like a great guy and it sucks for him that he fell for a trash person. Molly McAdams writes very well, and except for some parts towards the ends where I skimmed, I found myself unable to look away from this train wreck. But man, I hated these characters so, so much and can't quite bring myself to give this book anything higher than a 1*.

1 out of 5 stars

Please Don't Do Coke in the Bathroom: Irreverent Lettering for Every F*cking Occasion by Sami Christianson



Fond of calligraphy? Big fan of swearing? I bet you never thought your hobbies would intersect like this. (Or maybe you did. After all, arts-and-crafts get PG-13 all the time with winners like GO F*CK YOURSELF, I'M COLORING and STITCH 'N BITCH.) All I know is, after taking one look at that title I was sold.

PLEASE DON'T DO COKE IN THE BATHROOM surprised me, though, in the sense that it is actually a guide for fancy fonts...sort of. It starts out with an alphabet of swear words and crude phrases, from A all the way to Z, and every other page has space for you to practice.

The end of the book is a collection of hipstery stylized quotations - you know, the kind you see in boutique dessert shops in Los Angeles, or inked onto painted wooden squares in Etsy stores for like $20, except these say things like "Your cat is kind of an asshole" and "wash your hands (they smell like shit)."

I thought this was fun. I'm not sure how useful it is, or how sincere it is (is it a craft book? a parody? both?), but for the right person, I suppose it would be a fun gift. (You know, that one friend who goes into Forever 21 stores just to bitch about the stuff that's printed on the t-shirts...) All I know is, I picked it up because of the title and I imagine plenty of other people will do the same.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

The Queen's Dollmaker by Christine Trent



When I was in college, I went through this phase of ritualistically devouring fluffy, chick-lit style historical fiction a la Philippa Gregory. It really didn't matter if they were good, bad, or downright awful - I read them all, and I read them with glee.

THE QUEEN'S DOLLMAKER felt like a throwback to that time. Without demeaning this book, THE QUEEN'S DOLLMAKER is a work of fiction that is very much intended with women in mind as the audience. You can tell from the way its packaged - that gorgeous dress, the elaborate cover, the fact that the fellow author blurb that they decided to showcase on the cover says, "Exuberant, sparkling, beguiling!"

The story itself also feels very fluffy. It's about a girl named Claudette who loses her family in a fire and ends up going to England, along with a group of other women. To their collective horror, they are bound as prostitutes. Only a suspicion of sketchy documents and an unwillingness to sign whatever is presented to them saves Claudette, as well as Elizabeth and Beatrice and her young daughter Marguerite, from their fates.

Beatrice and Claudette end up working as servants for this hilariously caricatured social climber named Maude Ashby. It's rough living, but when a doll she's made for Marguerite is spotted by one of the male servants, he comes up with a brilliant money-making scheme to line their pockets with extra cash. It takes off, and soon Claudette is making more and more dolls, flush with coin, and filled with a new sense of self-confidence. It doesn't even matter when the jealousy of the servants reaches a fever pitch and results in her getting fired: Maude Ashby can take her aspirations and shove them!

At one point, Claudette becomes so famous that her talents reaches the ears of Marie Antoinette herself, who requests commissioned dolls for herself and her friends. This is when the book gets a little weird, because when she goes to France, she meets her childhood friend, Jean-Phillipe, and the meeting awakens some awkward feelings in her... which is annoying, because back home she has this great guy named William Greycliffe, who is perfectly willing to marry down because he loves her so much and finds her (admittedly annoying) personality charming. He isn't thrilled when Claudette goes to France, and the wishy-washy love triangle that sort-of-but-not-really ensues feels forced.

Where the book really jumped the shark for me, though, is when Claudette receives a letter - mid French Revolution, mind - from the "queen," requesting her presence in this time of terror, with the escort of Jean-Phillipe. Claudette goes off without a thought... and let's just say that this ends very badly for her. I felt bad about what happened - but at the same time, man, how stupid can you be? French Revolution, aside, why would you ditch your husband yet again to be alone with an impassioned, crazy guy who basically said he would do anything to have you? Not smart.

The last one hundred pages or so achieve bodice-ripper levels of craziness, with deception, imprisonment, rape attempts, people being rended limb from limb by screaming mobs only to have their organs paraded tauntingly before the windows of the nobility, descriptions of the guillotine that are almost excessively colorful, and a general feeling of rage and hysteria as the old is quite forcibly shoved aside to make way for the new. Imagine this - and now, imagine alternating chapters that set scenes of happy domestic bliss in England between Claudette and William. Oh no, someone has put the Princess of Lamballe's head on a pike... but look, somebody's getting married! Robespierre is screaming his way to the guillotine with a gag in his mouth... but oh, that dratted Mrs. Ashby just got hoisted by her own petard, L-O-L. It was very jarring, tone-wise, and had me blinking several times.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this story. I love these saga-like tales that start off with the heroine as a child or adolescent and then follow her adventures over the years until she reaches adulthood. I feel like it really lets the reader get to know the character and feel for the character in a way that some of the more straightforward timelines don't. If you don't mind a bit of craziness with your historical fiction and aren't totally put off by stupid decision-making, you should read this book. It's fun.

4 out of 5 stars

Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: The Dirty Dealers and Defenders of the Indefensible Who Are "Making America Great Again" by John Nichols



I applied for an ARC of this book because of the title alone. To be honest, I didn't even really look at the summary that carefully at first - the title seemed self-explanatory. This would be a book that analyzed but also condemned the people who voted for Trump as the dreaded harbingers of the Trumpocalypse... right? NOPE!

HORSEMEN OF THE TRUMPOCALYPSE is a bit more diplomatic than that. The author of this book does not blame the constituents; he blames the cabinet. One by one, Nichols goes through the ranks - from obviously key players like Mike Pence and Paul Ryan (and DeVos, who is mentioned twice) all the way down to people you may not have heard of like David Friedman (ambassador to Israel), Nikki Haley (US Ambassador to the UN), and Sonny Perdue (Secretary of Agriculture). Nobody is spared. Jared and Ivanka get a chapter, too, and that chapter is named after and makes references to the SNL skit with ScarJo, "Complicit."

The chapter introduces each public official, discusses their background in government (or just their background generally if they did not hold a government position prior to accepting or being elected to their post), their political platforms and ideologies... and then immediately takes them all to task for why the combination of those things makes them woefully unsuitable or inadequate for said position. By the end of the book, you'll think you've just endured a 300+ page political version of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic." It's that f*cking troubling.

HORSEMEN OF THE TRUMPOCALPYSE was a good book. I hesitate to say I "enjoyed it," because many of the chapters - particularly Rick Perry's and Nikki Haley's - left me feeling actively pissed off and/or terrified about the fate of the world and/or cynical about the fate of humanity. I did appreciate it for the knowledge it contained. Even though I consume about a 1-2 hours of news each day, I still learned so much, and clarified some of the things I already knew about but not in detail. Is it light reading, you might be asking? No. This is a very dry book but the author, who is a total snark and sees absolutely no need to turn it down, is constantly injecting these sarcastic asides. I recommend this book if you want to be more informed about the Orange House's cabinet members.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Lawyer's Luck by Piper Huguley



I picked up THE LAWYER'S LUCK because it was a freebie in the Kindle store, and because I'm actively trying to read more romance novels featuring PoCs because when I tallied up my reads from the last year, I found that, with the exception of some Beverly Jenkins and Courtney Milan romances, I was sorely lacking in that regard.

THE LAWYER'S LUCK offers a fresh perspective of what it was like living in the Antebellum South. Lawrence is a mixed race man of Native American, African American, and white ancestry who is studying to be a lawyer. On his way to take his exams, his horse is stolen by a runaway slave named "Realie." He accidentally shoots her in the arm when she takes her by surprise and ends up rupturing an artery. Obviously, he feels terrible about this, and he insists on finding a doctor to patch her up before deciding what to do with her.

Unlike many slave stories written for titillation, Realie's situation isn't particularly bad. She isn't raped, she lives with her entire family, she doesn't have to do backbreaking labor in the fields. But when Lawrence - rather insensitively - points this out to her, Realie tells him that that isn't the point, and it isn't until Lawrence really gets to know her that he understands that slavery isn't just wrong because it inspires cruelty: it's wrong because it's the enslavement of another human being, and a deprivation of those essential human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I enjoyed THE LAWYER'S LUCK. Realie was a strong female character who wasn't afraid to take risks if it meant getting what she wanted. She isn't educated, but she's smart, and that shows in her decision making, and the insights that she has in the narrative. Lawrence is a great hero, too, who's a bit blind when it comes to his privilege (which I thought was also well done), but who wants to do the right thing and is willing to develop and grow, even if it means admitting that he's in the wrong.

I believe it's still free right now (9/2/17), so you should grab it while you can!

3 out of 5 stars

An Unnatural Vice by K.J. Charles



California is having a devastating heatwave statewide right now, so it was nice to pick up this book with its icy looking cover and Gothic, foggy London setting, while trying to ignore the scorching temperatures outside. I *almost* wanted to reach for a scarf. K.J. Charles was that convincing in her narrative. (Maybe her next story will take place on a cruise ship in the Arctic - please.)

Sins of the Cities is K.J. Charles's newest series. I wasn't a huge fan of the last one (AN UNSEEN ATTRACTION) because something about Rowley's and Clem's stories just rubbed me the wrong way. Their characters felt wooden, the romance felt tepid. I ended up giving the book 3 stars, but it was a generous three that was more of a 2 in fancy dress. Still; I've never found fault with Charles's writing, so when this book went up, I immediately applied for an ARC, hoping the series might be redeemed.

AN UNNATURAL VICE is so much better than AN UNSEEN ATTRACTION. I found both characters fascinating. Nathaniel is a moralistic journalist who is the son of an archbishop. He's is planning on exposing Justin, a cold-reading medium, as a fraud for taking advantage of people's grief for financial gain. This hits him especially hard, for personal reasons due to his own tragic history.

But this being a romance novel, the two of them are basically thrown together when they get involved in matters of inheritance involving the Taillefers (Clem's family, from the previous book), and the ever-thorny problem of murder. Justin has information taken from one of his clients that people are willing to kill for. And since he comes to Nathaniel for help, Nathaniel ends up getting sucked in, too.

AN UNNATURAL VICE had everything that UNSEEN ATTRACTION lacked. Both characters had great chemistry (including one of the best hate-sex scenes I've read in a while), that developed along with their characters as the story went on. Justin starts out as a despicable, selfish, enterprising character, but he's also still very nuanced, so even though I didn't like him at times, I never hated him and it was easy to understand why Nathaniel ended up falling for him when he did.

With such a bright star, it's easy to eclipse the other characters and that's sort of what happened to Nathaniel. He's your typical good-guy hero, marred only his tragic past and a bit of a penchant for rough bed sport (although nothing too spicy - 50 Shades of Gay, this is not). I thought the romance and the mystery were well-integrated, and the author had clearly done her research on cold reading and sleights of hand, which I really enjoyed because I wrote a paper on that very subject in college.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Dark Ones by Rachel Van Dyken



I read this book for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2017 Reading Challenge. For more info about what this is, click here.

When I was a teenager, I used to spend all my time on this great site called Quizilla. It's now defunct, but it was basically the early 00s version of Wattpad + personality quizzes. With a few discerning clicks, you could find out which dysfunctional Care Bear you were (Nihilism bear), what weapon you were (sais), what element you were (water), or just forgo all of that and spend your time reading poorly written fanfiction or vampire smut.

One of the popular stories at the time was this serialized PNR, written in the second person in a "choose your own adventure" format, called "Would an Angel, a Demon, or a Vampire Fall for You?" The heroine was YOU, and as you read the story you would "choose" various actions and then the "result" would be a scene with the character that you were "meant" to end up with (i.e. the angel, the demon, or the vampire).

I bring this up, because Rachel Van Dyken's DARK ONES reminded me of this smutty story, except instead of an angel, a demon, and a vampire, it's about an angel, a siren, a werewolf, and a vampire. The heroine is not YOU, but she might as well be for all the personality she has. Like Bella Swan and her ilk, she's basically a place-holder for the reader; she's been told her whole life that she's ugly (and of course she believes it, because blonde hair and light eyes are so hideous), never mind the fact that all these paranormal frat boys are falling over her left and right, even though it's Forbidden. Smells play a key role in the sensory experience of the story. Everyone smells like a Bath and Body Works. Sex is a key plot point, and has the power to Change the World. There are dream sequences. The world is half-assed and not explained. The heroine is a virgin but comes like the hero just Konami Coded the hell out of her vag. It is, literally, just like those smutty, terrible stories I read as a teenager.

Ironically, that ended up being the book's saving grace. As with DEAD SEED, an actual story that I read on Quizilla that was "cleaned up" (no) and republished, I found it hard to be mad at something that had brought me such joy as a sad, angst-ridden little teen, no matter how badly (so, so badly) it was written. Plus, I picked this book up while it was free, so there was zero financial stake.

That said, this is the second book by Dyken that didn't work for me (the first was her new one, CHEATER). I'm thinking that her style might just be totally incompatible with my tastes. Still, it was cool to revisit the past, and I knocked one book off the Kindle, and got to do a great buddy read with some ladies from my Goodreads romance group, so let's not call it a total loss.

Read Sarah's review here, Heather's review here, and Celestine's review here.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann



You might know me as Nenia Campbell, but my full title is Queen of Literary Trash, Protector of Out-of-Print Gems, Khaleesi of Bodice Rippers, Mother of Smut, the Unrepentant, Breaker of Convention, Lady of Take Your Misogyny and F*ck It. So obviously when the Goodreads blurb for this book advertises VALLEY OF THE DOLLS as an "addictively entertaining trash classic," you know I just have to read it.

For several days, the adventures of Neely, Anne, and Jennifer held me in thrall. I figuratively clutched at my pearls. I felt my insides figuratively curdle in disgust. I cringed, I laughed, I teared up. These women sometimes made me want to slap a witch, but they were nuanced and interesting and fascinating. The writing fell somewhere in between Susanna Kaysen's GIRL, INTERRUPTED and Jackie Collins's ROCK STAR.

Which is it, you wonder: social commentary or trash?

Now that I've finished the book, I'm wondering, though, if the people who are calling this book "trash" read the same book as me. It's written in the vein of a lot of other books about superficiality, like Bret Easton Ellis's LESS THAN ZERO (or anything written by Bret Easton Ellis, really), or anything by J.D. Sallinger, but in particular, THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED, or anything by... oh, who the hell else out there plays the siren song for the disaffected and overly ambitious? But those books have received critical acclaim and are praised as literature. This...isn't.

Here's the thing, though - VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is a book about women. Specifically, about women during the Civil Rights Era, at a time when women were suddenly allowed to pursue their own dreams while also being held to the outmoded conventions and expectations of the previous decade. Sure, you can have your career, but only while your looks last, and people are still going to judge you by the men you're roping in and whether or not you've managed to keep them. And all the while, you have men standing on the sidelines, gaslighting you: "Why are you complaining? You've won! Look how successful you are, you dumb broad. We've achieved equality for you ungrateful bitches - now shut up and be grateful." Let me tell you, some of the nastiest comments I've gotten from people on this site were from the angry dudes who were mad at me for writing negative reviews about their beloved man-lits. And let me tell you something else - that those men who bawl the hardest over criticism of said man-lits are often also the first - and the loudest - to condemn and marginalize typically female-dominated genres, like romance novels or women's lit.

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS seems like trash because on the surface it's about several young women who become raging successes but can't deal with Hollywood and New York's respective brands of sleaze and pressure, so they turn to drugs to ease the burden and let them sleep at night. They booze, they pop pills, they sleep around. Everyone's beautiful - at first - and charming - at first. It's a bit like a soap opera. But this is different than the usual brand of "pretty people f*cking"-type books, because if you read between the lines, there's some very cutting social commentary on marriage, on success, on double standards, on beauty, on happiness, on equality - on virtually any subject you can think of. And it's interesting that while books like Bret Easton Ellis are lauded as classics and their odious male antiheroes are, if not beloved than at least regarded with fascination or interest, books starring flawed and odious female characters are far less apt to be forgiven and much more likely to be panned by critics as trashy or morally suspect.

I think one of the crowning examples of this mindset are the Judd Apatow style bro comedies about unattractive slackers who end up inexplicably getting a beautiful woman who finds their man-child mentality quirky and refreshing. It's like an inverse of the manic pixie dream girl trope - except that the woman is still the medium through which the man's narrative journey is developed and carried, even when this trope is turned on its head. The woman is either the prize of his narrative arc, or the vehicle through which he is carried through the arc. There is little to no agency. She has no hopes, no dreams, no ambitions... because that would eclipse the journey of the hero. The women in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS are in full control of the wheel - they might be driving their vehicles off the road or in some cases, crashing them in headon collisions, but they are in full control of their vehicles; they are the ones piloting their own destinies, even if society is limiting the roads. That's what made this book so compelling for me. It's utterly brilliant. And utterly heartbreaking.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Flame of Savannah by Maggie Lyons



I read this book for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2017 Reading Challenge. For more info about what this is, click here.

I love the covers on these vintage romance novels from the 70s and 80s and FLAME OF SAVANNAH was no exception. You can imagine my surprise and delight then when I found the entire series on Amazon, for 99-cents each. I bought all six books because I learned my mistake last year, when Patricia Hagan's books were pulled from Amazon Kindle without warning! I had only bought books 1-3 and was planning on buying the next five volumes after I'd saved up some, and when I came back...they were gone! ...GONE!

I WAS NOT GOING TO MAKE THAT MISTAKE AGAIN.

Perhaps this optimism was unwise, but what can I say, but #FOMO. As it turns out, it may have been a good decision because I really found myself enjoying FLAME OF SAVANNAH quite a bit. Maggie Lyons is actually the penname of author Michael Llewellyn, so I was prepared for some Jennifer Wilde-type high-jinks, and an OTT plot laden with all sorts of crazy sauce adventures starring a promiscuous heroine who's basically sex on legs, as she navigates the carnal, un-PC world of the Antebellum South. I have read enough bodice rippers that it would be foolish to have expected anything less...

But - FLAME OF SAVANNAH is not a bodice ripper. If anything, it's more like one of those Southern Gothic novels from the 70s that Jennifer Blake used to write (except with more sex). The plot revolves around four characters - Cathleen, Melinda, Geoffrey, and Aaron. Cathleen and Melinda are best friends in Savannah, and move about in the upper circles of society on the cusp of their respective debuts. Then the arrival of two very different men shatter their previous plans, threatening both ruin and passion. Aaron is a Jewish architect, much to the horror of Cathleen's parents. And Geoffrey is a member of the English nobility...although he and his bodyguard have a dark secret.

The last half of the novel feels more Gothic than the first. The first half has a GONE WITH THE WIND feel (pre-war) and is charming but bland. The second half is all action, and involves creepy castles with torture dungeons; yellow jack (yellow fever) outbreaks; voodoo; brothels; sex scenes; family secrets; murder attempts; revenge plots; escapes; misunderstandings; inheritances; and death. (I feel like I'm summarizing THE PRINCESS BRIDE, the way that grandfather did in the movie.)

I know a lot of you guys following me swear that bodice rippers/vintage romance novels aren't for you, but I urge you to pick this one up if you're at all interested in reading these types of books. I really loved the female characters in this book - they had great dimension and were flawed and interesting, and the friendship between Cathleen and Melinda was quite sweet. I also loved how the author portrayed the etiquette of the South, especially with "frenemy" type women. The relationships between all the various characters was utterly fascinating.

Plus, that cover.

P.S. I thought it was really interesting that this book included the lyrics to "Lay This Body Down" at one point because I literally just read another book that included those lyrics too called BELOVED ENEMY. I Googled it, and it looks like it was a slave song from the South, so that makes sense. Anyway, I just thought that was interesting. I like it when historical details sync up like that!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars