Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Slow Burn by V.J. Chambers

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance where one of the characters is a murderer ๐ŸŽƒ

Oy, this is disappointing. I really enjoyed Chambers's other two books, KILLING MOON and SKIN AND BLOND. Both were in genres that I'm generally highly skeptical about and the author managed to win me over with dark, tight plotting and stellar characterization. Even though I'm generally leery about assassin romances, I thought for sure that SLOW BURN couldn't be anything but good in V.J. Chambers's hands.

I was wrong.

For the first 1/3 of the book, I thought this would be good. It has the hallmarks of her other book - damaged men and broken women who don't really "fix" each other (in fact, you could argue that they even make one another worse), but their love persists despite or because of everything, resulting in train wreck drama that makes it hard to look away. SLOW BURN actually reads like a prototype of SKIN AND BLOND, which also featured a promiscuous heroine and an asexual (or, I guess, demisexual in this case) hero with serious emotional problems. Unfortunately for this book, SKIN AND BLOND is the better book and I read that one first.

Here's what I think the author was going for: something like Anne Stuart's Ice series, only with a sci-fi bent. Because the heroine, Leigh, nearly died in a car accident (too much cocaine and alcohol). Her father, who works for a super secret organization, stole a serum that not only heals but also results in increased strength and regenerative abilities. He gave it to his daughter, and she lived; but now that super secret organization is after Leigh. She hides in plain sight, going to college, and taking her father's calls once a month or so on a disposable cell phone. Only, one day he doesn't call, and a man named Griffin shows up in her life claiming that he's been inoculated with the same serum and that her father has hired him to protect her.

It's an interesting premise, even if it is a bit cheesy in an 80s action hero way. My problems stem primarily from the execution. Leigh is an idiot. I like how drug addiction and sex addiction are portrayed in this book but oh my god, it was so much better in SKIN AND BLOND, where you could tell the heroine was competent even though her life was slowly being torn apart. Here, Leigh lacks all sense. This is a girl who is told "lie low" and immediately throws a party and starts snorting cocaine. Not just once, but multiple times. I get that addiction isn't convenient and I understand why the author did it, but it was really frustrating to read - I don't like TSTL heroines, and it would have been easier to stomach if there was something to her character other than the fact that she was beautiful and unashamed of her sexuality and used that to "cure" the demisexual hero.

That's another thing I took issue with in this book: sexuality. This was present in SKIN AND BLOND, but to a much lesser extent. The "asexual" hero keeps referring to himself as broken. In this case, it's a result of sexual abuse, but I don't really like asexuality being compared to a disability: in psychologically healthy human beings, it isn't. Since Griffin was a victim of abuse, it's natural that he wouldn't want sexual contact but that's not really asexuality, that's PTSD. The hero in SKIN AND BLOND referred to himself as broken too, but in that book, it was clear that he was a true asexual (but not aromantic) and just felt frustrated at not being able to live up to the sexually active, heteronormative standards set by society, and that his "brokenness" was an expression of that sentiment. Here, it felt muddled and weird. There's also a strange line from the heroine about the movie, Boys Don't Cry, in which she refers to the trans hero of that movie as a "girl dressing up as a boy." Which, again, I'd like to give the author the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that this is her way of showing the heroine's ignorance (she was, very), but it came off as sounding very misinformed.

Lastly, the pacing. The story just felt way too jumbled and uneven. The sci-fi element ended up making this book really cheesy, and not in a good way. There was too much emphasis placed on the sex, and it detracted from the action sequences. The "grand reveals" felt cliche. It really upset me because SKIN AND BLOND, in comparison, was tight and perfectly paced, with great reveals, excellent sexual tension, and a really smart and flawed heroine, who I didn't always like but always secretly rooted for.

One of the things I like best about Chambers is that she allows her heroines to make mistakes. There are too many books out there that demand perfection from their heroines: they must be beautiful, pure, and good, held to completely different standards than the hero, from whom we're far more quick to forgive much greater flaws. Chambers, like Gillian Flynn, has a penchant for flawed heroines who often do the unforgivable while somehow managing to appear human and even relatable. She just needs to tighten her pacing and omit some of the weird, unnecessary asides from her books in the cutting room.

2 to 2.5 stars

Monday, November 13, 2017

Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker

There's a ton of comic book nonfiction coming out this year, and with all the superhero movies pouring through theaters, it's no small wonder. I actually just read and reviewed an ARC of Stan Lee's biography, written by Bob Batchelor, and even though it comes across as pretty fan-boyish, it definitely delves into the infamous Marvel vs. DC wars and touches upon some of the pettiness and poor decision-making that resulted from this. Reed Tucker, however, goes into way more detail, like the Crisis on Infinite Earths vs. Secret Wars launches, and the "Fuck Marvel" incident. Tucker definitely tries his best to remain impartial, and really shows the relationship between Marvel and DC to be something between an older brother/younger brother-type rivalry to something like two arch-nemeses in a comic book for whom the constant battle serves as the answer to that existential question: "what is my purpose?"

DC is unquestionably the bigger brother in this story, since Marvel was created much later. Tucker chronicles their inception and growth and how many artists and creators ping-ponged between Marvel and DC, depending on who was giving out more pay and/or creative control at the time. Tucker takes us through the silver age, the bronze age, the crash in the 80s, and the box office boom of the 21st century with superheroes emerging in a new silver age: that of the silver screen, with blockbuster hits like The Avengers and Wonder Woman (which isn't mentioned in this book, which is ironic because Tucker was talking about how Dark Knight was the last really good DC movie, with both Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman being major disappointments - Wonder Woman was the next big hit that DC desperately needed).

I really enjoyed this book. I mean, obviously. I don't read a lot of comic books, but I enjoy most of the ones that I can get my hands on and I like watching super hero movies. Like many comic book commenters, Tucker takes cheap shots at Halle Barry's Catwoman and, of course, Batman & Robin - which, okay, I get it, but I actually like that movie and I've probably re-watched it more than Dark Knight OR Dark Knight Rises, which I find too dark and too disturbing. Batman & Robin is pure fun and mirrors the cheesiness of the animated series, which I adored growing up in the 90s (and still watch, to this day, courtesy of a DVD collection). Personally, I think DC's biggest mistake was Superman 64. Apart from disagreements over which was the better - or worse - adaption of the franchise, I loved learning so many new facts and trivia - like how the Men in Black movie was based off an indie black and white comic, or how direct distribution saved comics at a time when sales weren't doing so well, or that Stan Lee - "face" man of Marvel - at one point worked for DC(!).

If you enjoy comic book history and trivia, this will be a good addition to your knowledge banks. It's well-written, gossipy fun, and manages to make you appreciate the things that make comic books so wonderful while also revealing some of the flaws of creators and creations alike... and somehow, that touch of reality actually makes the comic books and writers even more whimsical. I guess it's kind of like Stan Lee's editorials, back when he wrote for Marvel: Tucker makes you feel like you're part of the comic book "Mean Girls" gang, and that taste of the geeky elite is totally worth it.

P.S. Obviously, that means Stan Lee is Regina George.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons by Lynn Peril

Speaking as a third-wave feminist, I will say that it's tough trying to argue your views to people who consider this a "post-sexism" era, and attempt to use that as a rationalization and a defense for some very sexist, misogynistic thinking: basically, "shut up, you've won the right to free speech and equality - now flash your tits or get back to the kitchen." Even if not phrased in such explicit terms, the mindset among these "post-sexism" individuals seems to suggest that feminists have "won" and are now demanding more than their "fair share." I said this in my review of MEN EXPLAIN THINGS TO ME, and I'll say it again now: that third-wave feminism isn't just some over-entitled mindset where women are demanding special treatment - unless you believe that equal treatment is "special" treatment. There is still a wage gap, and that wage gap is particularly bad when it comes to women of color. Women in many states still do not have access to safe abortion, either because of state-imposed limits or because it isn't covered by an insurer. Women are still hyper-sexualized in a way that men are not, in a number of venues ranging from the religious to commercial, and still largely blamed for their own assaults. Yes, things are better than they were 100, 50, 20, or even 10 years ago - but it isn't perfect, and we aren't even close to being done.

But back to the book: I love nonfiction and I love feminism, so picking up PINK THINK was a no-brainer. I'll read any feminist title I can get my hands on, because I love being informed and getting access to the popular and unpopular ideas of the movement. PINK THINK focuses on the indoctrination of girls into womanhood via pop culture and cultural norms, focusing particularly on the 1940s-1970s, when mass-production created a number of affordable products for the growing middle class but before Title IX and the Civil Rights era came into play. The result? Some very questionable products and advice that make you wonder what the hell the last generation was thinking. Obviously, as a feminist and pop culture aficionado, I thought this was bomb.

Peril cites some questionable definitions taken from "experts" that seem horribly dated (81):

Hermaphrodite: "A female bisexual"

Masturbation: "A tyrant that robs its [female] victims of the incentives and radiant energy for worthy accomplishments.... Oftentimes the remedy for this situation consists of a minor surgical operation spoken of as circumcision."

Orgasm (female): "No more essential for conception than a mink coat or a lipstick."

These definitions are so horrible that they're almost comical - until you remember that people actually thought that way, and that some to this day still do. Peril covers a number of other topics, such as toys shaped like house cleaning products so that little girls can be just like mommy; dating advice books for boys that read like some of the pick-up books of today, suggesting to boys that no does not always mean "no" and that they should press ahead as far as they can, sexually, because that means they'll only get further next time; douching with Lysol for feminine freshness (ugh!); and the idea that female sexuality is something undesirable that not only tarnishes a woman's reputation but that should also be suppressed if not being used for procreation and the begetting of offspring as seen in this excerpt from a book by Ann Landers from the 1960s:

Housework, particularly floor-scrubbing is not only good for the female figure, but it's good for the soul. And it will help take the edge off your sex appetite. Cooking, baking and sewing will prepare you for homemaking. Energy siphoned into these constructive channels will leave less energy for erotic fantasies (89).

My goodness, it's like something out of Handmaid's Tale or Stepford Wives, and I don't think it's a coincidence that both those books were written by people who were alive at a time when these products and ideas were in full rotation. And while things are changing, the damage is still there. Go to any toy department often enough and I guarantee you that you'll hear parents telling their boys, "You can't have that, that's for girls!" or "That's a boy toy, girls don't play with that!" to their girls. I've heard moms and dads scolding their children about wanting to play with everything from Weebles, to Lipsmackers, to Hot Wheels. You still see cooking and cleaning toys marketed to girls, and tool kits and action hero toys being marketed to boys - and rumor has it that at one point, a pole-dancing doll circulated the toy dept. of an unmentioned store, until it was (I imagine) very quickly recalled for an innumerable amount of reasons.

There are a lot of illustrations in this book that are great - I especially loved the pictures of vintage products, particularly the full color ones in the middle (there were not nearly enough). Kind of shocked that bodice rippers, the treatment for "hysteric" women (hint: masturbation machines), and certain fashion ads weren't even mentioned, though! But then, there's so many salient examples of sexist advice and products from these time periods that I'm sure the author was forced to pick and choose, at the risk of compiling a 1,000+ page encyclopedia of "Sexism through the ages." I wish there were more pictures of out-of-touch products, although if you read this book and would like to learn more on the topics presented in here, I can recommend three videos to you right off the bat: Vox's How did pink become a girly color?, Buzzfeed's Women Review Sexist Vintage Ads, and anything by Sarah Haskins via her "Target Women" series, for more modern examples.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Must Love Ghosts by Ani Gonzalez

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance novel romance about ghosts ๐ŸŽƒ

I have a love-hate relationship with reading challenges. On the one hand, sometimes I find new gems I never would have thought to pick up otherwise (for example, this year's challenge led me to discover a new favorite author, V.J. Chambers). On the other hand, sometimes they have me scrambling around in the Daily Deals/Free sections of the Kindle Store in a panic, desperately seeking free or cheap books to complete a category I do not like.

MUST LOVE GHOSTS sort of falls into the later category. I went through this very brief period in college where I was reading romances that fell more on the supernatural side of the paranormal romance fence, i.e. psychics, realistic ghost novels, etc. I liked them because they felt more plausible than werewolves, because it's easier to believe in inexplicable occurrences in an old house than it is a hulking GQ model who turns into a furry once a month. (And no, I have nothing against furries or GQ models.) Then I got sick of them and haven't picked up another since...UNTIL NOW.

I picked up MUST LOVE GHOSTS two Halloweens ago because I thought the jack-o-lantern satchel on the cover was cute. The premise was also intriguing. Abby is a girl who lives in a small Virginia town called Banshee Creek that is rife with history. It's a destination location for those interested in the occult and paranormal and many who live there have built their lives around capitalizing on that. Not Abby, though, who's a singer in a folk/country band (although not by choice). This whole time she's been trying to get over the grief of losing her fiance in Afghanistan.

Mike was a friend to both Abby and Cole, the fiance. He's also been in love with her since the day he met her and has tried to hide his feelings out of respect to both his friends. Now that Cole has been dead for two years, though, it's getting harder - especially because he has to deliver an important momento to Abby that he's been holding onto her for years, from Cole. What makes hiding his feelings even more difficult is the possibility that they might not be unrequited.

This was a pretty good story, honestly. It doesn't have a very significant paranormal element. Most of the story focuses on Mike and Abby and their growing attraction to one another, set against the backdrop of this small town vibe. The writing was solid and I don't think I spotted any typos. Both characters felt real in a way that romance characters sometimes don't, by which I mean they are annoying human beings. Mike, especially, got on my nerves with his Debbie Downer routine, and the fact that he was constantly playing Officer Safety, and telling everyone, "that's not safe!" I'm the same way, but he even got on my nerves - and that says something.

MUST LOVE GHOSTS is a fun, light read though. It kind of reminds me of those "cozy mysteries." There isn't a lot of tension and it's mostly written for light entertainment and feeling good. I think this would be a good rainy-day read in a warm, cafe setting. Possibly with a cinnamon flavored pastry.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Captured by Erica Stevens

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance about vampires ๐ŸŽƒ

I'm too tired to do a properly angry review, so while reading this, just picture my face looking like this: ๐Ÿ˜ก

CAPTURED was bad. The characters were incredibly bland. Braith, or whatever his dumb name was, is a generic beautiful vampire who is feared by all without actually giving any reason that he should be regarded in this way. Seriously. What is "evil"? in this world, if Braith is considered on the cutting edge of it? Girl Scouts?

Arianna is a human who is part of the resistance against the vampires. If you think that this means cool fight scenes THINK AGAIN. We meet Arianna post-capture, when she's about to be sold as a blood slave or drained of all her blood. If you think this means emotional tension, THINK AGAIN. She metaphorically bites her nails as she finds out she's being sold to a vampire with cruel eyes and a crooked nose, only to be rescued by Prince Braith.

The ensuing pages are a blathering mess of purple prose, odd word choices, bad writing, and terrible characterization. Arianna is constantly described as special, sometimes in that exact word. She has insta-hate immediately with her female human "rivals," even before she falls into insta-love with Braith. Her eyes are described as "crystalline sapphire" more than once. Her hair has "red streaks" and it's a color the hero has never seen before. She always cries "a single tear" when she's upset. The prince has never had a blood slave before: she is his first. The prince usually goes for curvy women, but now he's discovering for the first time that skinny women are beautiful and so are their angles. I'm not kidding, and yes, there's a scene where she stands in the sunlight and it flatters her sharp angles. Oh, and the kicker is that it turns out Braith was blind - but through mthe magic of Mary Sue Technology (pat. pending), she has restored his sight. Because... magical hoohahs.

I love vampire stories and I love captive romance stories, so this should have been the best of both worlds. Instead, it's the worst, featuring all of the cringiest tropes and starring the Mariest Sue in the Mary Sue universe.I don't think I'll be reading any more books in this series, and probably not anything else by this author, either.

1 out of 5 stars

Skin and Blond by V.J. Chambers

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romantic suspense romance ๐ŸŽƒ

I grabbed a ton of this author's books while they were free, because they were FREE - and also because they looked spooky, and I needed books to fulfill the Halloween romance challenge I am definitely still committed to, even though it is now November. The first book of hers I read was THE KILLING MOON, named after an Echo and the Bunnymen song (YAS), and I enjoyed it way, way more than I thought I would. In fact, I liked it a lot.

When I picked up SKIN AND BLOND, I had raised expectations - but somehow, this book (and the author) exceeded them.

SKIN AND BLOND is about a private investigator named Ivy, who got kicked off the force due to bad behavior (e.g. sleeping around). She has a lengthy history of emotional trauma, as well as a sex addiction, so solving other people's problems seems like it ought to be the last job  she should have. And yet, she's good at what she does. Good enough that people go to her when they think that the cops won't or can't help.

One such case gets passed along to her from her last friend in the world, her ex-boyfriend, and previously fellow cop, Miles. A distraught brother is determined to find his missing sister, who vanished without a trace, taking her bed sheets with her apparently but leaving her phone behind. But the simple missing persons case quickly blows up as drugs and mafia ties enter the mix, and pretty soon a flighty girl's post-college misadventures start to look a whole lot more sinister.

Plenty of authors try to write dark content, but Chambers actually succeeds. SKIN AND BLOND is creepy, in more ways than one, but it also has a great dark emotional sphere. Ivy is torn up about losing her job, her inability to form personal relationships where sex is an act of intimacy instead of oblivion, and her own unpleasant past that involves the death of her parents. Her relationship with Miles tore me up inside because Miles is asexual, but desperately wants a family and love, but even though he's not aromantic, he still is averse to sex and touching. His love for Ivy and her love for him took on the tragedy of a Greek play, and watching them interact made my heart hurt.

And no, that love doesn't magically "cure" their problems or their lack of sexual desire/intimacy.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. It's everything I want in a thriller, and the closest thing I've found to filling that gap left by a dearth of new Gillian Flynn books. If you enjoy psychological thrillers with strong female characters riddled with flaws and personal baggage, you will love this book.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Demon and His Witch by Eve Langlais

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance with a demon ๐ŸŽƒ

I needed a romance novel about a demon for a reading challenge, and this book was free (this is becoming a familiar refrain from me). The summary sounded intriguing but it had one of those horrible cartoony covers (not pictured here), and I always side-eye my acquisitions from the freebie section because while I have unearthed some gems there, there's also a lot of garbage.

At first, I really enjoyed the childish banter and gossipy writing style. It kind of reminded me of Katie MacAlister before her writing got kind of bad, or the middle Stephanie Plum novels when they were formulaic and cheesy but still good.

Ysabel is a witch who was burned at the stake 500 years ago when she got too inconvenient for her lover to have around. She cursed him, his mother, and three other villagers who were responsible for her death with her last dying breath - only she didn't read the fine print of that spell. Now, she's doomed to serve as Lucifer's assistant in the afterlife and he wants her on a special assignment: those 5 humans who killed her have escaped, and she's going to relive the final moments of her death in increasing increments of time every day that they remain at large.

Remy is the half-demon assigned by Lucifer to help him, and he's basically a walking sexual harassment poster. Remember the heroes of the early 2000s, the hyper-sexualized ones who acted like frat boy rejects and thought "no" was just a "yes" in the rough? Remy is cast in that mold, so much so that I actually checked the book's publication date to see if it was a 2002 release, or something like that. But no, this came out in 2012.

Despite his grating personality, I really liked the premise and the chemistry between them was somewhat well done, so I thought I might be able to overlook that element of sleaze. I sat on a three-star rating for this book until the 50% mark, when I realized that the sexist comments were going to keep coming and Remy was going to let his alpha flag fly, saying things like, how he wished he could have her walk around panty-less but oh, then the demons who lived in the sewers might see her crotch when she was walking around and that crotch belonged to him... but oh, then he could just kill all the demons who lived in the sewers in a massive act of genocide so she could be panty-less and remain his alone! Ha ha! A winner is he! And Ysabel, she eats this up, hook, line, and sinker, after some token resistance, because Remy likes women who say "no" because he sees it as a "challenge."


Also, at the end we find out that Lucifer secretly orchestrated this to play matchmaker because he wants to breed more inhabitants of hell. Double ew @ infernal breeding programs.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

How to Love a Monster by Lyssa Dering

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance novel romance about zombies ๐ŸŽƒ

The blurb on Goodreads is super confusing, because I don't remember reading any of the parts about Sera controlling his own brain or the details behind the government mandated experiments. All of that was sort of hinted at, but as far as I can remember it was never stated in such black and white terms.

Sera is a psychic who has, apparently, died. While he was alive, he was friends with a guy named "Wish" who promised him that he was going to create this great mental afterlife that he could frolic in when he died: think heaven, only for psychics, except that it's called, appropriately enough, "Wish City."

When Sera gets to Wish City, he finds out - surprise, surprise - that it's not exactly what Wish promised him. Paradise is downright ugly, with drugs and cheap sex filling the streets. Everything is dark and grungy and completely unlike what Sera expected.

Fiend, like the city, was also dreamed up by Wish, and like the City, he's a creation that managed to get loose from his creator and take on a shape all of his own. Fiend likes to eat brains, and next up on his cerebral prix fixe menu is Sera. Only... he's attracted to Sera physically as well, and decides to toy with his food before eating him - but that doesn't quite go as planned, either.

HOW TO LOVE A MONSTER falls into that hateful three-star review territory for me. There was nothing particularly wrong with the story but it didn't wow me enough where all I wanted to do was gush. It entertained me, and then we parted ways. I did think the world building was very odd, and while original, there were many aspects that confused me and could have used more fleshing out.

While reading, I kept having this sense of deja vu, wondering what this book reminded me of. Then it hit me: those weird dark fantasy movies from the late 90s like eXistenZ (1999) and Dark City (1998). Both of those movies had an incredibly original world with a compelling storyline and scenery, but - for me - also felt kind of confusing and sometimes even nonsensical (and not in a good way).

I bought this while it was 99-cents and for that, I think it was a good deal. If you're a fan of bizarre stories and/or are looking for m-m erotica that doesn't fit the usual mold, you'll like this, I think.

P.S. I realize that Fiend isn't a zombie, but since I don't read zombie novels for the most part, I decided to go ahead and use him for a zombie category on my Halloween romance challenge. He eats brains - I figured that was close enough.

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Passion & Venom by S. Williams

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance novel with a skull on the cover ๐ŸŽƒ

I've read several mafia romances and so far all of them, without exception, have been incredibly stupid.

My expectations when I picked up PASSION & VENOM were low, but I needed a book with a skull on the cover for a Halloween challenge and it was free (and still is free as of 11/4) in the Kindle store, so I figured, "Why not? YOLO."

To my surprise, PASSION & VENOM was actually a decent read. It has the dubious honor of being the only mafia romance I didn't want to throw out the window.

Unfortunately, it is still kind of stupid.

There are two kinds of stupid. There is the kind of stupid that makes you want to throw books out the window, and the kind of stupid that feels incredibly fun and goes best with popcorn. This book is the latter. In fact, it shares many attributes (good and bad) with the books of one of my favorite authors of all time: Bertrice Small. I would call her books stupid, but I love them all the same. The over-the-top situations, bad writing, inexplicable violence, and d-bag heroes are part of the fun.

PASSION & VENOM is about a girl named Gia. On the day of her wedding, her husband is killed, Kill Bill style, and she is kidnapped and kept in squalor under the constant threat of torture. Her only companion is a man without arms - her captors cut his arms off, and this man warns her that they might very well do the same to her - or worse.

Her captor is a man named Draco Molina. One thing about him that I appreciated is that the author shows he is a bad guy without beating us over the head with it. He is not one of those ill-tempered buffoons who shows off his "might" by waving around a gun and yelling and basically acting impulsive. Everything Draco does is cold and calculating. He is scary, and some of the (graphic) scenes in here are downright disturbing, straight out of a 1970s bodice ripper.

There were two things about this book that I really couldn't forgive and ultimately these two things were what dragged down the rating of this book from a 4 star to a 3 star rating.

1. Gia doesn't really have much in the way of personality and falls for her captor way too quickly, given what he'd done. In the beginning, I felt for her. She was kidnapped and wanted to escape. I liked her resourcefulness and hoped to learn more about her as a character. I don't feel like she really developed from that point. She was a highly superficial character who only really had two facets: attempt to escape and fail spectacularly and fight attraction to Draco. He was a bad man. I would have liked to have seen more conflict about that attraction.

2. The writing is, at times, really terrible. The heroine refers to her vagina, repeatedly, as "her sacred place." People "smash their lips together" instead of pressing them together in thought. Some of the sex scenes are cringe-worthy and involve the phrases "I am making his face my b*tch" and "my nectar coating all of him." Blech, no, thank you. Using nectar for sexy times is almost as bad as "cream."

Lastly, I wasn't thrilled that Draco's relationship to her and her family is teased at throughout the entire book, only to end on a cliffhanger. I also thought that the relationship between Gia and Francesca was interesting but it yo-yo'd a lot for the convenience of the plot, and it might have been nice to see more development there (as opposed to the sudden events of the ending).

Overall, thought, PASSION & VENOM was a pleasant surprise. I found it to be a fun, quick read that hit all the same buttons as a 1970s bodice ripper pulling all the triggering stops. I don't recommend this for the faint of heart (so anyone who doesn't appreciate reading about violence, rape, gore), or for people who balk at the idea of trashy books for entertainment value (ya squares!), but if you like dark romances where the villain gets the girl or are fed up with bad mafia romances, like I am, then you should probably give PASSION & VENOM a try.

3 out of 5 stars

Anne of Green Gables: A Graphic Novel by Mariah Marsden

I fell in love with Anne for the first time while watching the BBC mini-series version of the books. Her bosom friendship with Diana, her winning over of the aloof but good-hearted Marilla, her instant simpatico with Matthew, her enemies-to-friends relationship with Gilbert Blythe, and her constant good cheer in the face of never-ending bad luck totally made me fall hard for my fellow socially awkward, compulsive chatter-box.

As with any adaptation, fans are bound to either love or hate ANNE OF GREEN GABLES: A GRAPHIC NOVEL. It makes the rookie mistake of trying to incorporate multiple volumes of the story into one book, so it reads as being very front-heavy in terms of plot, with the end of the book feeling very rushed.

That said, reading this graphic-novel reminded me of my love for the story and made me want to re-read the books. Most of the highlights are here - the hair-dye incident, for example, and the case of the missing brooch - and they are classic. Anne actually reminds me a lot of Pollyanna (the good version, not the cruddy Disney version); I just adore tales of sweet and loving children. They give me faith in youth, while also making me want to be a better person, myself.

If you like Anne, and also like graphic novels, this book is a must. <3

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Sempre by J.M. Darhower

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance novel with blood on the cover ๐ŸŽƒ

Good books make you ask questions - but sometimes, bad books make you ask questions, too. Questions like, "Why is this book so long?" "How did this even get published?" And, most pressingly, "What is it about this book that people actually like?"

I read SEMPRE for our book of the month over at URR, and am only just now finishing it because of how awful it was. It wasn't even spectacularly awful - just dismally so. Everything about this book dragged. Most of those 500 pages? They're all padding. The story, without all that fluff, is pretty simple. Haven is a teenage slave. Carmine's father buys her. He falls in love with his slave, and she falls in love with him, and it's all hearts and cuddles and tender moments - until the mafia steps in and says, "Hell no."

I hate to say it, but I was on the mafia's side in this one. I was like, "Hell no," too. 

Here's my biggest issue. SEMPRE reads like the author wanted to write fanfic of Goodfellas, Godfather, and Sopranos, but she also really wanted to write a disgustingly fluffy book like Stephanie Perkins, but she also wanted to write a really edgy new adult book with SEX, but she also really wanted her hero to be a Nice Guy, but she also really wanted her heroine to be pure and virtuous.

Even though, you know, she grew up in a world of sex trafficking.

So what we have is a PG-13 mafia/human trafficking book where most of the book takes place in high school and there's a few random scenes that seem to be heavily inspired by the three mafia books I mentioned, all written from Carmine's father's POV. Haven is a slave, whose mother is basically a sex slave, but Haven herself is used for cooking and cleaning and that's it. She's innocent about everything, and even asks, in all seriousness, whether there are colleges in California.


I mean, there's sheltered, and then there's how-the-hell-did-you-not-know-that.

Carmine is everything I hate in a hero. He swears a lot and punches people out to show how tough he is, and Darhower desperately tries to make him the good guy by punching out these people on Haven's behalf and having all these forced intimate moments with her. Forced in the technical sense, that is: not the rapey sense. And Haven is so naive that she makes me sick. You can tell that she's just supposed to be so adorable because she nibbles at food, nuzzles at people, peers up at people, and chases fireflies while the adoring Carmine just sits there and smiles in vacant admiration because that's what people do when they watch cat videos, and Haven is basically supposed to be the human equivalent of a cat video - only for some reason, it's not cute when a person does it, just disturbing.

I'm still blown away by how boring and terrible this was, and that it has a 4.2 average rating on Goodreads (did we read different books?). SEMPRE took a dar topic and tried to make it a cute love story. The result is a book that comes across as both tone deaf and ridiculous.

1 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I recently discussed third-wave feminism with someone who was trying to argue that it was an unnecessary and redundant movement. I basically said, "It's not all about Tumblr. This is the last bastion of feminism. Women are still under-represented in STEM, are still hyper-sexualized, are still blamed for their own rapes, are still told that their own bodies legally shouldn't be under their own control, are still treated like they don't have the faintest idea of what they're talking about solely because they are women." I know many critics of feminism like to say that "feminism" itself is a sexist name and should be called equalism. You know what the problem with that is? It nulls out the group that the movement is supposed to be calling attention to and makes it far too easy to say, "Why are you focusing on women's issues? We're supposed to be equal. Let's focus on things that benefit both genders" and shut down crucial dialogues about many unequal  aspects plaguing society.

I bought this book because it went on sale recently and I loved the title, MEN EXPLAIN THINGS TO ME. That's a title that grabs attention and stirs up controversy before you even crack open the cover. Speaking as a woman on the internet, I've had men explain things to me more times than I can count. It's called mansplaining, and while there are different terms for this phenomenon, depending on who is doing it to whom, the most common dynamic I've seen is man reexplaining point to woman. Given the title, I thought this was going to be a humorous series of anecdotes. Basically Mainsplain: The Book. I could not have been more wrong.

The first essay lived up to my expectations, in which the author herself describes an incident in which a (male) acquaintance begins explaining her own book to her, not knowing that she wrote it. From there, however, MEN EXPLAIN THINGS TO ME takes a serious nosedive, discussing the many other ways women are "silenced," particularly with regard to rape and victim-blaming. An important topic, but none that doesn't really relate back to the title or the expectations set by the Goodreads blurb, and one that was handled far better in Jody Raphael's RAPE IS RAPE.

There are some great points made in here, but she also frequently resorts to hyperbole, which does not really help with her arguments. She also meanders from topic to topic, with some of them, like a rant about how awesome Virginia Woolf is, seemingly out of place. I don't like Virginia Woolf, so this essay did not impress me. It's a shame. I was hoping to like it much more than I did.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Do you enjoy books about cheating? Do you like heroines who are so stupid that they literally spend a week starving in their boarding school because they are too stupid to order food from a cafeteria? Do you like heroes whose big romantic confessions literally involve the phrase "I cheated on her every day"?

Then this is the book for YOU!

It's been a while since I read a YA book that I hated so much. I think the last one was Molly McAdams's SHARING YOU, a book about some selfish trash people who decide to carry on an extramarital affair because the wife is such a bitchly, she totes has it coming, you guys. ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS is the PG-13 version of SHARING YOU. Teenage trash people, Etienne and Anna, end up connecting immediately and succumbing to their attraction to one another... despite the fact that he has a girlfriend.

I am so tired of these books that make apologies for cheaters. In a relationship and in love with someone else? End the first relationship first and then move on. Don't string both women along and run to the woman you don't like when you want sex so you can keep the woman you do like pure, and then later confess that you "cheated on your girlfriend every day" in your mind with this new trash person, and try to make it sound romantic. And especially don't try to make it all about you by saying that you're just afraid to be alone. Because you know what that makes you? A trash person.

And don't even get me started about ANNA. Freaking ANNA. She is the biggest trash person on Mount Trashmore. The face that launched a thousand trash ships. Anna - who doesn't know she's beautiful. Anna - who gets sent to a cool school in Paris and immediately starts whining about how much she hates it there. Anna - who is so stupid that she doesn't even attempt to order from her boarding school's cafeteria in English and literally starves unless someone isn't there to order for her. Anna - who doesn't know a word of French,is resentful about learning French, and basically pictures the entire country as a beret-wearing, Amelie-watching population. Anna - who puts a Canadian flag patch on her backpack because she doesn't want people thinking she's American. Anna - who is shocked that French people watch English-speaking movies, too! Anna - who orders a coffee from McDonald's and is shocked that it doesn't taste like French espresso! Anna - who the moment she gets home to precious Atlanta, immediately starts whining about how much she misses France.

Anna - the stupidest person on earth.

As if the cheating weren't enough, this is a codependent relationship written in the style of TWILIGHT. Anna is a pathetic, helpless heroine who needs a boy to save her from scary France. He uses her, too, to cope with his emotional issues - because he doesn't want to be alone - while resolving all the (ahem) physical ones with his girlfriend of one and a half years. The difference is, Edward didn't cheat. Etienne dreams of being Edward. Edward was not a perfect hero by any means, but with him I could see the appeal. With Etienne, I am side-eying all the people saying how cute and fluffy this book is and thinking, "What? This dysfunction?" And say what you like about Bella, especially in New Moon, but at least she didn't cheat with another girl's boyfriend and then start sobbing about how "she didn't mean it! she didn't know what happened!" when caught with her tongue in his mouth. Bella did not cheat, and Bella was not an idiot. She would certainly know who Emile Zola was, and wouldn't call him "Emily Zola"; the greatest female author you've never heard of. Given the choice between this and TWILIGHT, TWILIGHT would win, every time.

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Read This if You Want to Be Instagram Famous by Henry Carroll

I picked this up because of the title, because everyone is always talking about internet celebrity, and I was curious: what is the secret behind this fame? Is there a shortcut? Obviously, I was skeptical because there is no way in hell anyone would divulge all the secrets behind their fame and risk not only getting dethroned but also losing ad revenue to competitors of their own making. Books of this type are usually more similar to Pinterest inspiration boards, paired with vague, common-sense sounding advice that tends to conflict with itself if you look at it too closely ("be unique" - but also "be homogeneous/consistent!"). Um, yeah. To quote Ace Ventura, "Spank you, Helpy Helperton."

I have an instagram. I basically use it the way this book tells you not to use it. I'm over ambitious and over enthusiastic in what I like to share. Sometimes, I'll take book posts. I have a few #ootd posts, when I'm feeling fly (somewhere, a hipster just cringed). I document all my trips abroad, but also take pics of all the cool stuff I see locally in San Francisco, whether it's a tasty salad (yes, I do take pics of my food) or political graffiti or a protest that I'm participating in. I tried to make it author-geared once, and it just didn't work out. I felt annoying, repetitive, and fake. Maybe part of that celebrity is owning your self-hype and making it work, but I just felt like an obnoxious door-to-door salesman pushing my book on people.

To be fair, some of the pictures in here were really cool and even artistic. Some of them were also self-promotional and seemed to embrace the culture of conspicuous consumption that's so prevalent on insta ("look at this expensive makeup I'm using - buy it all, and don't forget to use my product code so I get a cut!") ("I bought the hardcover limited edition of this popular book, and that makes me a more worthy and hardcore fan than you cheapskates who only read it on Kindle"). I guess what I take issue with is when does it stop being an expression of one's individual sense of artistry and authentic expression, and when does it start becoming a corporate entity masquerading as the former?

Just something to think about.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell

I love romance novels - a lot. I'm creator and moderator of a romance group called Unapologetic Romance Readers, a promotional-free group involving critical discussion of popular and not-so-popular romance titles. In a given year, I probably read between 100-200 romance titles alone. I buy them in public and in private, I read them on the bus. I love romance novels, and I don't care who knows. The Smart Bitches obviously feel the same way. I've been following their blog for a while, and they have some of the best reviews of bodice-rippers I've ever seen (some of their Johanna Lindsey and Fern Michaels reviews have moved me to tears... of laughter, that is). When I found out they published a book, I was all over that like white on rice. (As of now, it's a steal at $3.99, so I say grab a copy - at one point, it was $9.99.)

Published in 2009, BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS is already dated because it was published before FIFTY SHADES OF GREY made erotica mainstream (for better or for worse) and before new adult titles because The Next Big Thing (again, for better or for worse). In a way, this makes for an interesting retrospective, because many of these ladies' predictions were true: that erotica would become less taboo, and that LGBT+ romances, and the increasing demand for them, would create a drive for more titles, more scenarios, and more representation (which it did, although there is still room for improvement, particularly with F/F, asexual, and transgender representation).

 BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS resonated with me on multiple levels because most people - especially women - who read romance have had to deal with people who feel the desperate need to take the piss out of their enjoyment. I've had people come up to me, and tell me that they thought romance novels are stupid. One man saw a vintage bodice-ripper in my hands at a thrift store and bragged about how dumb he thought they were, and their only redeeming value was in reselling autographed first editions for big bucks at swap meets. I have people who continually comment on my book reviews and say, "Why are you reading this? This sounds so stupid. I would never read this." Which... good for you, I guess? I'm not sure what these people's goals are in bragging about their disdain of romance. What do they want? A shiny gold star that says, "I made someone else's day slightly sh*ttier while touting my own intellectual superiority?"

There's a lot of jerks on the internet, so this isn't entirely a romance-exclusive thing, but the reason romance readers are so tired of hearing about how dumb romance novels are is because it's the only novel that's written mostly by women, mostly for women, and given the inherent sexism that still plagues many institutions of society (yes, including "Western" society), it seems a little fishy that romance receives criticisms ("the plots are all the same", "there's a lot of rape", "the characters are so bland", "the covers are stupid", "it promotes unhealthy relationship standards") that are supposed to be unique to romance and yet could just as easily be swapped out for criticisms of mystery, science-fiction, action-adventure, and horror novels. The only difference? Those latter genres aren't being exclusively marketed to and written by women. So yeah, it seems just a  little sketch.

What makes romance criticism even more aggravating is that many of the critics are people (often men, but not always) who picked up a bodice-ripper once, in the 70s, or flipped through Twilight "once, to see what all the fuss was about" and are using that as their yardstick to judge all romance ever, thereby contributing to the stereotype that all romances are created equal and are therefore interchangeable. Even in historical fiction there's a lot of variance, and bodice-rippers are in no way representative of the genre as a whole: they have branched out considerably from their clothing-shredding roots since the debut of THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER.

I can see the anti-feminists side-eying this book, and no, even though the bulk of this book is written with the feminist, forward-thinking woman in mind, it's not all "waaaah, someone told me the book I was reading was dumb." BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS offers a heavily satirical look at the books we all love to read best, pointing out the flaws, but tenderly; they manage to poke fun at romance novels while at the same time, making this humor a celebration of the wackiness of the books, as well as an appreciation of what they offer for women, be it escape or even empowerment.

The last part of the book is written "choose your own adventure" style and really serves to highlight how unhealthy and ridiculous some of the tropes in romance novels would be in real life, and yet somehow makes them hilarious and endearing. It's followed by a "mad libs" style game that does the same thing with purple prose. Again, this never feels mean-spirited. Not like those "why are you reading this?" type comments that seem to suggest that only silly women-folk with their simpering, inferior brains would pick up something to read that was so demeaning. No, this is fine parody, and feels more like a heavy wink than a backhanded slap.

I would love to see the Smart Bitches write a follow-up to this book, since romance has changed so much in the eight years since this was published, and I'd love to see their reviews of the POC rep books that are slowly trickling into the market in greater numbers, as well as college romance, mainstream erotica publications, and that mutated black sheep in the romance family... monsterotica, "Tinglers," and dinoporn. I found myself adding so many books to my to-read list while paging through BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS, even some of the more WTF Old Skool titles (I love me some Old Skool titles, the more the covers look like pastel soft-core porn, the better).

There was only one glaring mistake that occurred on page 112 of the Kindle edition, and that was when the authors said that Anne Stuart's MOONRISE had a hero who was a cult reader. She's actually confusing MOONRISE (which has a CIA hero) with RITUAL SINS. I double-checked to make sure, but I'm very familiar with RITUAL SIN's premise, because my friend Heather Crews keeps trying to persuade me to read it because it's right up my dark and twisted Old Skool alley.

If you love romance novels at all, you should read this book. It's an ode to the genre, as well as a parody, and achieves a nice balance between the two. If you're not a fan of romance, you might not enjoy this quite as much because the book is written for an audience that is familiar with most big-name romance authors and romance cliches and romance tropes. You might still have a laugh or two (or three, or four), but I think some of the jokes and references might go over your head.

P.S. These authors really love Laura Kinsale. ;-)

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I read this book for book club. Coincidentally, the only other book I've read by this author, THE HYPNOTIST'S LOVE STORY, was for another book club. Book clubs seem to love this woman - for better or for worse. I can't remember much about THE HYPNOTIST, except I spent most of the book wanting to punch the heroine (a fact I pragmatically shared at that book club meeting). When I picked up BIG LITTLE LIES, I felt a distinct lack of enthusiasm because one look at the summary suggested that the desire to punch more ladies in the uterus might be looming on the horizon.

Now that I've read BIG LITTLE LIES, I'm torn. On the one hand, all the characters in here are awful at one point or another (usually another). Meredith is a well meaning busybody who lives for the drama. Renata, you just know has one of those "Can I speak to the manager?" haircuts. Jane is so helpless and irritating. Celeste is a victim trapped in a delusional spiral due to constant psychological abuse. And Abigail is basically the incarnate of teenage girl from hell, only with misplaced activist ambitions.

And don't even get me started on Perry.

On the other hand, this was a well written drama that really does a great job illustrating the every day problems of women. Men like to mock women for being "school moms" and laugh about how easy it is to do domestic drudgery, but Moriarty highlights the difficulties of the mom life - the petty squabbles and rivalries between other moms, fighting your children's battles (whether they want you to or not), and navigating the oft rocky landscape of married life. Being a mom and a wife is hard, and Moriarty shows that to great effect in this book. Even though I found myself gritting my teeth during the narratives of certain characters, I always understood where they were coming from.

I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. Like WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE, it was saved from being too precious by solid writing and complex characters. The only thing I didn't like was what I called "the peanut gallery": foreshadowing quotes from other moms in this book who weren't important enough to have their own POVs. It felt way too cheesy, and was so frequent that I began to get increasingly more annoyed every time I saw it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 23, 2017

Bomb by Amy Isan

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

I am fundamentally averse to the idea of MC romances because I just don't find the idea of a bunch of leather-bedecked bearded dudes on Harleys attractive - especially not if they refer to said Harleys as "hogs" and throw around F-bombs the way a creepy dude with a front-row seat throws dollar bills at a strip club. I'm honestly confused about how many women find the idea of this attractive. Billionaires, I understand - but bikers... I've never seen a charming biker. Or an attractive biker. Most of the bikers I've seen are dudes in their forties with bushy beards and dirty leather jackets who ruin nice summer days by revving their g-d engines.

No, thanks.

So why did I read this? I lost a bet. Well... no, MC romances are a category on this romance challenge I'm doing, and since everyone else had to suffer through bodice rippers and sheikh romances, it seemed only fair that I encounter my worst nightmare too. Plus, it was free. And only 100 pages. I figured hey, it's short - if I hate it, I only have to hate it for about 1/3 as long as I would a novel.

Cassie hates her job and her boss and her stupid life. I could just picture her in my mind as that over-entitled, lazy, flaky person we all know who thinks they deserve more than they have but doesn't want to work for it. Case(s) in point she's late for work all the time and lies about why, and is super judgy of her roommate because she can't get any.

When she witnesses an accident involving a motorcycle (I can't remember if she was at fault, and I do not care), she crosses paths with Logan, AKA Bomb. And since he's mostly referred to as "Bomb" in this book, it took me a while to figure out that Logan = Bomb. He's not thrilled when he finds out Cassie called the police because his MC gang is into some shady sh*t, so he goes through her purse and takes her driver's license so he knows where she lives now.

When Bomb shows up at her door, waving her license tauntingly, she debates about whether or not to let him in. Literally - this is something she asks herself. And guess what? GUESS WHAT?

She lets him in.

For a short, this doesn't have much sex. The characters don't get together until the very end. Most of it is Cassie whining about her job and obsessing over this guy she doesn't know, and Bomb doing shady MC sh*t and thinking about how much he wants to have sex with this girl he doesn't know. The sex scenes are terrible, and at one point the heroine thinks to herself "I want to taste his soul."

I won't be picking up any of the other books in this series, but at least I've checked MC romance off my list.

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Ice Planet Barbarians by Ruby Dixon

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance about aliens ๐ŸŽƒ

I love my romance reading friends, but sometimes they lead me astray. Take my first foray into the Alexa Riley novels, which read like the manuscripts of a bad porno featuring a hero who wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Criminal Minds in which the cops discover a human breeding farm in his basement. Or, take the (thankfully) short-lived monsterotica trend, in which all the creepies from those pulpy 50s B-movies return in titles like The Blob That F*cked Everything or Swamp Monster Gang Bang.

When I saw ICE PLANET BARBARIANS showing up in my Goodreads feed, I was highly skeptical. It was being read by many of the same people who tried recommending Alexa Riley to me. I had horrific visions of probes, scary alien genitals, and bad dialogue being set to porn music with theramin solos (so, basically Broken Bells without the singing).

When this book showed up - for free - in the Kindle store, I decided why not? Apart from my time, that's as risk free as you can get with an ebook. I downloaded it immediately and forgot about it for several months until my romance group started its yearly Halloween challenge and I found myself looking at the "aliens" category and going, "Hmm..."

ICE PLANET BARBARIANS, despite that cover that seems determined to make you think that you are reading a terrible book, is... not a terrible book. In fact, it's a bit like diet R. Lee Smith - you have a heroine who is kidnapped by alien slave traders who are then forced to dump their cargo on an icy planet that is inhabited by hunky alien warriors. One of them, a chief named Vektal, happens upon Georgie while she's trying to get help or find food. She turns out to be his "resonance" or mate, the one who makes his khui all hot and bothered. Which means the sex is great (obviously - apparently ice planet barbarians are built like sex toys, with the downstairs equipment of a robust dildo, replete with vibrating) but the angst is high, because Georgie kind of wants to just go back home. To Earth.

Unlike R. Lee Smith, the world-building in this book is not so epic or complex. It's still creative, but it lacks that development, because the romance is at the forefront of this story whereas Smith is more about deep relationships that develop over the course of hundreds and hundreds of chapters in the style of the hefty epics from the 70s and 80s. The focus is on Georgie and Vektal's physical relationships, which then later graduates to insta-love. I rolled my eyes at that. This is that paranormal fated-to-be-mated BS, with interstellar packaging. YOU CAN'T FOOL ME, RUBY DIXON.

Despite my numerous reservations, though, I actually liked ICE PLANET BARBARIANS. I love the cheesy title. I thought the world building was cool (although I would have liked more development of the universe, as well as the other alien races, and though that the subplot with the slavers was tied off pretty hastily at the end). Georgie was a decent heroine. Vektal was actually kind of an adorable hero. I thought the secret behind the khui was interesting. I would read more in this series, for sure.

Thanks, Elena, for participating in this impromptu buddy read!

3 out of 5 stars

Happy People Read and Drink Coffee by Agnรจs Martin-Lugand

 ๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance where a graveyard is a major setting in the novel ๐ŸŽƒ

I've seen some blatant false packaging before - I've seen Sarah Huckabee Sanders's press conferences - but this book takes the cake. The title and bright cover with primary hues make you think you're getting some adorable little chick-lit book that's probably set in either New York or Tuscany, about some woman in her early thirties who's "finding" herself.

What you're actually getting is a grim book set in France about a woman named Diane who has lost her husband and daughter in a terrible accident. She's obviously in a period of grief, but that grief appears to be turning to depression - she doesn't wash, doesn't go out, doesn't live, and it's starting to impact her life in a hugely dysfunctional way. The title of the book is actually the name of the literary cafe she ran with her husband before he died, and now it's falling into disrepair just like her.

One day, Diane gets this idea that she's got to go to Ireland. Her husband always wanted to go there, because he liked the cold, so she feels like this trip, in a way, will be an exile that punishes her for her family's death even further, while also bringing her closer to her husband spiritually. I don't like to use the word "crazy" but... man, this woman is pushing it.

So she gets to Ireland, where she rents a place, and her neighbors are some pretty friendly Irish people - except her grumpy neighbor who irrationally dislikes her for no apparent reason. They fight with each other constantly and he says the cruelest things to her, and even makes her so upset that she throws up and cries. And then... suddenly, she and this guy - who happens to be named Edward - has an abrupt personality change, and they decide they like each other, and oh, by the way, how did you catch that crabapple so quickly and how long have you been 37 anyway? A long time? Are you just saying that or are you actually a vampire who transformed to escape from dying of the Spanish flu?

I'm kidding. None of that later stuff happens. Except for the personality change, that is.

I picked this book up on impulse, and when I saw the average Goodreads rating for this book, I was like oh no. The first half of this book is so depressing, and the main character is such a sh*t, that you're torn between feeling sorry for her and kind of wanting to slap her because she's so annoying. That's how I felt about Alessandra Torre's THE GHOSTWRITER, so I think if you enjoyed that book, you might enjoy this one, too, because both are dark stories that feature unlikable main characters. When the romance finally comes along, it's dysfunctional, and the hero reveals himself to be a man who is spinally challenged when it comes to the hilariously OTT b*tchy OW.

I see this book was originally written in French and translated for the benefit of an English speaking audience. Perhaps the book is better in the original language. I always wonder about that, whenever I get a translated book that falls short for some inexplicable reason, or the "writing" in English is just bad. I did enjoy this story, despite everyone being jerks and the somewhat odd story. I think whether or not you will like this book depends on how great your jerk tolerance is.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 19, 2017

How the Duke Was Won by Lenora Bell

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance with a masquerade/costume party ๐ŸŽƒ

This is a Nenia and Sarah BR brought to you by Kindle Clean Out Club Productions. Tired of hoarding ebooks and not reading them? Now, in 200-550 easy steps, you can! No, but seriously, if it weren't for this forum, I'd be way more behind on my to-read list. It is The Best. If your Kindle is also out of control, join our group and make us of this forum! I'm always looking for new partners in crime.

First, a disclaimer. I received a free copy of this book to review a while ago. I don't think it particularly biased me one way or the other, since I'm an assh*le and have no problem rating the books I receive - for free - one star, but just in case it did bias me, now you know. NOW YOU KNOW.

HOW THE DUKE WAS WON is kind of like a Regency era version of The Bachelor. James, Duke of Harland ("His Disgrace"), needs to get married for business. He decides the best way of going about this is inviting four ladies - and their mothers - to his estate for three days to choose which of them would make the best duchess. Which I guess would make this The Duchlerette?

Charlene - a totally accurate 1800s name that does not scream Dolly Parton-esque country music singer at all, no ma'am - is the daughter of a famous courtesan. The creepy dude the two of them are indebted to, Grant, is about to call her in for their debts, and just to prove that he's a total creep, he's tried to brand her with an iron to make her his. Charlene is also afraid for her younger sister Lulu (these names guys, omg) who she is trying to shield from their family's unsavory history.

As it turns out, Charlene is the half-sister of one of the women who's been invited to the Duchlerette, Dorothea. Her mother, a countess, proposes a My Fair Lady-esque transformation, lasting just long enough for Charlene to compromise the duke, thereby landing a proposal and allowing Dorothea to swoop in and claim her regal prize.



Most of my friends didn't like this book, which always has me worried. I can definitely see why HOW THE DUKE WAS WON could rub people the wrong way. It is not on the scale of Lisa Kleypas or Courtney Milan, and the dialogue is rather laughably modern with the characters all behaving in highly unconventional ways with no consequences. If you like historical accuracy, the names of the characters alone should have you tossing this down and fleeing the other way.

For a fluff piece, however, it's quite enjoyable. I liked Charlene as a character, with her penchant for martial arts as taught to her by her Japanese bodyguard, her devotion to her younger sister, and her very compelling reason for agreeing to this scam in the first place (Grant is a creep). James was a good character too. He was an alpha male without being brutish or creepy and I liked him a lot. The sex scenes in here are pretty steamy, too. Not too graphic, but definitely not fade-to-black either.

Overall, I enjoyed Lenora Bell's HOW THE DUKE WAS WON. I'd read more in this series for sure.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Peep and Egg: I'm Not Trick-or-Treating by Laura Gehl

I love Joyce Wan's art. My friend and I were looking over this at the supermarket together and giggling over the adorable illustrations. Peep is the outgoing older one and Egg is the younger little sh*t that acts like a brat. In this book, Peep tries to convince their younger sibling, Egg, to go with them for trick-or-treating, while Egg basically trashes all their ideas and says, "No! I don't want to go! I'm afraid! That sounds boring!"

Honestly, I'd buy these for the art alone. In fact, I want to get a copy of WE BELONG TOGETHER for my desk. The art is so cute.

If I ever have children, I'm going to buy up Wan's entire collection for my kids. Cute art, fun colors, and decent messages in most of the stories. How can you possibly go wrong with that?

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

I'm working my way through an omnibus edition of Maugham's work, and man, he can write. I'm torn between the impulse to swim leisurely through his prose or just gleefully cannonball into it. Unlike some writers of this time, Maugham is not particularly flowery, but he has an interesting way of presenting ideas and constructing sentences that makes you want to read over them several times, just to appreciate their ideas and form.

MOON AND SIXPENCE, which could just as easily be called "Portrait of the Artist as a Douche," is based loosely off the life of the artist, Paul Gauguin. I tried to pronounce his name several times, ineffectively, ranging from gewgaw, to Google, to gaijin. As it turns out, the way it's actually pronounced makes him sound like a creature from a Japanese monster movie (it rhymes with "Rodan"), which is only the first way this book surprised me.

Strickland seems like he has the ideal of the moderately successful life: a wife, children, a good job with steady pay. But he is discontent, and one day, coldly decides to leave his wife and job and go to Paris, living in squalor. Why? So he can paint. The confusion of his family, neighbors, and the narrator himself is palpable. To paint? Not because of madness, or because of another woman - but just... for art? For art's sake, and not for fame?

The narrator follows Strickland, as he wrecks yet another marriage, paints more art, and eventually goes to Tahiti, where he finds the climate agreeable and even obtains one of the locals as a "wife." The whole time he is cruel and scornful, dismissive of others' feelings, wants, or desires, and even his own comfort. Everything must be sacrificed for art. Ultimately, I'd say this is a tragedy, because that vision ends up consuming Strickland; he pours his entire being into his art, and like many artists, it isn't until he's dead that his work becomes first a curiosity and then something far more powerful.

A lot of my friends did not enjoy this book and I can certainly see why. Strickland is a jerk, and so is the narrator. There's a casually dismissive attitude towards the things that people generally consider worthy in a human being: compassion, empathy, loyalty, family, kindness, charity, etc. Art here is portrayed as something wholly selfish, and the message here seems to be that it is somehow okay; that an artist is allowed to be an egotist, because self-absorption is necessary for introspection. I don't like that message, so I can see why some people might write off MOON AND SIXPENCE as too dark and grim and irritating. However, I found myself fascinated by these terrible characters.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I've read Maugham before and really liked his work, so this isn't really surprising. His other book was more of a comedy of manners, though; it was nothing like this. I'm really looking forward to working my way through his repertoire and seeing how his stories vary, while enjoying his beautiful writing and compelling, yet flawed characters.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 16, 2017

Red-Hot Lover by Rieko Hamada

Clara is the sweet girl who plays a villain on a soap opera. Her last boyfriend ditched her publicly because she had no interest in living up to her primadonna stereotype, but luckily the handsome and rich Jared Blackheath was there to pick up the pieces and whisk her away to his love mansion for weeks. She had such a good time that she forgot about her own sister's wedding.

When Clara and Jared get to the wedding, Clara finds that Jared is acting odd - he's tense and angry, and it seems to be directed entirely towards her new brother-in-law. But why?!?!?!

I bought this HQ manga because it was only $0.99. I really like the format of these books, and I think it's a great way to rekindle interest in old romance novels (the original version of this story was published in 1998). They have a fun, old-fashioned feel that makes them charming rather than outdated. Tellingly, no one in these books, not even the rich people, have mobile phones or laptop computers.

The art in here is good. It's not amazing, but it definitely suits the story and doesn't do anything weird... except for Clara's face on the cover. The derpy thing she has going on with the duck face is a little strange. Also, these manga usually open with a full-color panel and for SOME reason, the one in here looks as though it's been colored in with crayon.

As for the story... ehhhh. I've read a lot of "family sekrits" romance novels and this one is pretty stock. I felt bad for Jared, but I was glad he was able to come to some sort of closure in the end (albeit, at terrible cost). There's an incredibly insensitive old lady character in this book who oh-so-casually drops a tragedy bomb after being all, "Oh, I remember you!" ...Guess who's not getting invited to any more dinner parties?

For $0.99 this was decent, though. Manga is usually pretty pricey, and for what I paid, I have to say that this was pretty solid.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Whisper by Naomi Watanabe

Just when you thought that those Harlequin Presents romance novels couldn't get any fluffier, someone got the ingenious idea of turning them into Japanese-style josei manga. God bless that person, I say. Truly a woman (or man) after my own heart.

Genna is a lawyer hoping to make partner. One day, while sitting outside, she hears this sexy-voiced dude in the garden of her law firm sweet-talking a lady under a magnolia tree. She couldn't see them, but her imagination ran away with her and now she can't get that guy's voice out of her mind.

Nick, Genna's friend, is her friend and her boss. She likes him like a brother, but there's something between them that's not quite platonic.

When her firm has a Halloween party, Genna goes in costume and recognizes the man from the garden (wearing a mask). They end up having an affair, but always in the dark, always anonymously. Part of her wonders who it is... but she's not quite ready to shatter the illusion. I'm a sucker for mistaken identity tropes, so obviously when I realized what this was, I was like :D

I really enjoyed this manga. The art style is gorgeous (sometimes the styles can be a bit hit-or-miss). It actually reminds me of some of the manhwa I really liked in college - for whatever reason, Korean-style manga is much more elaborate and ornate, and that's the style Watanabe's work reminds me of.

I also really liked the story. It's hot. There's great chemistry, the dialogue is good, and the case Nick and Genna are working on parallels their own relationship, in a way, which I always like. Meta is the new black, and all that. I honestly would have given this five stars, except Genna punches Nick in the face and bruises his mouth when he does something that she sees as a "betrayal." And honestly, I'm so over that "women impotently expressing outrage via physical violence" shtick. Hitting is not okay, and she literally had no reason to hit him. It was an overreaction in the extreme.

Apart from that, though, WHISPER was a great story, easily the best Harlequin manga I've read so far. I'm really growing to love these. I rolled my eyes a little when I first saw them, thinking they were a silly cash grab, but some of these artists are incredibly talented and really bring the stories to life. Plus - the outfits! And the scenery! It's glorious!

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Portrait of M and N, Volume 1 by Tachibana Higuchi

This is what happens when you buy all your manga secondhand: you end up with really popular books that everyone has read and really weird books that nobody has read. PORTRAIT OF M&N doesn't even have an English summary on Goodreads, and hardly anyone has read it at all compared to the author's far more popular series, Gakuen Alice.

PORTRAIT OF M&N is probably one of the strangest stories that I have ever read. It's about a girl named Mitsuru and a boy named Natsuhiko. Both of them have dark secrets and connect over an incident that reveals both their dark secrets.

Mitsuri was forced to leave her last school due to a scandal. She is a masochist who is sexually aroused by beatings because her mother beat her when she failed as a child, so beatings make her feel "safe" and "valued." When a kid at her old school hurt her by accident, she came onto him and begged him to hurt her more, much to her family's chagrin. The same thing happens here, with Natsuhiko, only instead of freaking out about it, he feels... well, awkward but mostly chill, much to Mitsuri's surprise.

Mitsuri looks like an awkward, nerdy kid, but without his glasses, he's actually supermodel gorgeous. Clark Kent syndrome, I guess. His dark secret is that he's attracted to his own reflection, like Narcissus, and enjoys gazing at himself in a trance-like state. He also had a scandal at his last school. The most beautiful girl in school hit on him, and he agreed to go out with her because she was his "rival", or equal when it came to looks. But when she came to his house and saw all the mirrors, as well as the shrine he had built for himself, she freaked out and told everyone how stuck-up and perverted he was. Now he wears coke-bottle glasses of a strong prescription so he can't see how attractive he is while also hiding his good looks from other people.

The story is basically these two trying to keep other people from guessing at their issues while avoiding the bond they feel for one another out of shared "hardship." Tension arises when one of the other boys finds out Mitsuri's secret and I thought for sure that this kid was going to turn out to be a sadist or something - but no, he has a dark secret all right and it's not what you would expect.

PORTRAIT OF M&N reads exactly how you would imagine a young adult story about sexual fetishes would read like - awkward, watered down, and... weird. There's another short story called "A Girl in a Bird Cage" at the end, which seems like the textbook example of an abusive relationship at first. By the end... well, to me, it still felt like the textbook example of an abusive relationship but I think the twist at the end was supposed to make it seem sweet. Um, no, still weird and uncomfortable.

I'm giving it three stars because I found it morbidly entertaining in the vein of 70s bodice rippers and pulpy horror novel from the 80s.

3 out of 5 stars

Trump Is F*cking Crazy: (This Is Not a Joke) by Keith Olbermann

The title is self-explanatory.

TRUMP IS F*CKING CRAZY is adapted from Keith Olbermann's series, The Resistance, which can be found on YouTube if you're interested. I haven't watched it, but from what I gleaned, it's comedic political reporting in the style of Samantha Bee, intended to criticize the Commander in Tweets: DT.

I despise DT, so obviously one look at this title and I was down. Because, you know, as a liberal-leaning woman, I'm so deep in this echo chamber that all I can hear is the sound of my own "shrill" screaming.

*eye roll*

You do know why we're repeating ourselves, though, don't you? Because nobody's listening. Or else they're pretending not to.

To be honest, I'm not sure which is worse.

I should note that if you are Team DT, you will not enjoy this book. If the news reports don't change your mind ("fake news") and the words of DT himself didn't change your mind ("locker room talk"), then this book is nothing but a single drop of "alternative facts" in the great lakes that compromise your cognitive dissonance. You're welcome to read it anyway, and probably should read it anyway, but I doubt it will make you happy. However, if you come onto this review with the intention of changing my mind or "sharing your opinion," you should know that I'm going to delete your comment and/or block you. I have zero interest in hearing your opinion, because I hear it from the man himself every g-d day, and it disgusts me. He is a despicable human being who is alienating our foreign allies while running this country into the ground and hurting the people in our society who need our help and protection and support the most, and if you support him, knowingly, despite every example to the contrary that says you should absolutely do otherwise, you're despicable, too. I stand by that.

Feel free to unfriend me over this. I no longer take it personally. I have a shelf of book reviews that have caused me to lose right-leaning friends (at this point, I'm not even sure I have any left - ha ha, "left" - but it's possible), and I'm always happy to add to it. I mean, talk about good advertising: "this book is so controversial, people will unfriend you over reading it!" I'd slap that on the front cover.

Back to this book - TRUMP IS F*CKING CRAZY knows its audience and caters to it with ruthless single-mindedness. I saw someone saying that it got repetitive after a while, and I must say that I agree. Up until about 275, I thought this would be a four-star read, but I lost steam around p. 300, and after that, I grimly skimmed the chapters until I reached the end. Olbermann is great at summing up issues and articulated many passing thoughts I had but couldn't fully express, but there's just so much going on with this administration that reliving it - again - left me feeling fatigued.

What alarmed me the most as I read through this book was how much of this I had forgotten. With new scandals happening every day, it's nearly impossible to keep everything in the forefront of one's mind. TRUMP IS F*CKING CRAZY begins during the election season, when Olbermann is certain that this clown is going to lose, and by the end, he's as bitter and jaded and angry and frustrated as all of us on the left, who are watching this demagogic, deceitful administration fan (either intentionally or inadvertently through great ignorance) the flames of hatred among our nation's most xenophobic, bigoted, violent extremists, whether it's condemning the NFL players peacefully protesting racial violence or ignoring Puerto Rico in the aftermath of a terrible national disaster, or initiating a ban that targets people not just on the basis of ethnicity but also on their religion... because one is not enough.

It's depressing, when you think about it too deeply, which is probably why most people don't. In fact, CollegeHumor just put out a video called "Now Is the Time to Do Something" that criticizes all the people sitting idly by, or acting like this is the very first instance in history where acts of injustice or incompetence have been committed on the administrative level. DT is just a symptom, not a cause. It's time for Americans to take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide for themselves what kind of a country they want to be citizens in... and why.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Just Haven't Met You Yet by Cate Woods

As of 10/14/17, this book is $1.99 in the Kindle store!

For the most part, I don't like Sophia Kinsella/Wendy Markham books. Something about her heroines put me off, and for the longest time, I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was. Then one day I realized: all her female heroines lie like they breathe. They lie over unimportant things, lie whenever they're cornered, lie to avoid conflict, lie to avoid solving problems. Lie, lie, lie. They take pathological lying to the next freaking level.

And you know what reaaaaally annoys me about that?

The way it's written, you can tell that we're supposed to find these liars so quirky and adorable and awkward. "Oh no, Ella Pants-on-Fire is afraid her boss is going to find out who released confidential information to the competitors, so she lied and said an angry mime did it. How funny! How awkward! How quaint!"

JUST HAVEN'T MET YOU YET features a heroine, Percy James, who could be fresh out of a Sophia Kinsella/Wendy Markham. She's in her twenties/thirties, with relationship issues and uncertain prospects (typical) and desperately wants to achieve happiness. So how does she do this? Lies on her CV to an interviewer to make herself more interesting. Lies to her boyfriend about where she's going and who she's seeing (she's actually going on her date with her alleged "SoulDate"). Lies to her SoulDate about not just whether she's single, but also that her mother has Malaria.

The plot is interesting and was a huge reason behind why I wanted to read this. Percy receives an invitation from an online dating company that claims to use browsing and consumer data to match people with their SoulDates - all the sites you visit and the ads you click are factored in to determine your personality and interests and, from there, your ideal match.

The problem is that Percy already has a boyfriend - a long-term boyfriend who she's about to move in with and who she's practically engaged with. Her friends caution her against the SoulDate idea (sort of - some are less opposed than others), but Percy eventually decides to do it... only, when she meets who her SoulDate actually is, she's surprised as all get out.

I felt really bad for Percy's boyfriend because he's my type of guy - you know, socially awkward, old-fashioned type. I felt like she treated him really badly. And yes, on the one hand, I get it: you can't stay with someone just to make them happy if you have no feelings at all, but you also can't just drop people like garbage. People have feelings. They aren't disposable. Percy treated romance like this thing she felt she was entitled to, and all her potential love interests in this book were just pieces that would help her to her end goal of having her happiness, and to hell with whatever they wanted.

Also, while I appreciated how one of the characters questioned her sexuality, I found it annoying how badly that was handled, too. I thought one of the other characters raised a fantastic point: you can't just use people as experiments to figure out what your sexuality is - especially if you aren't up front about the fact that you're questioning. Etiquette for LGBT+ couples is exactly the same as it is for straight couples: if one person is expecting a relationship and you're just "experimenting," for God's sake, say so up front so the other person can refuse, while fully informed, if that's not what they want.

This book annoyed me quite a bit. I couldn't put it down - I was oddly fascinated by the repulsive main character's shenanigans - but I didn't really like her as a character, and her constant lying and manipulation really got on my nerves. I think if you like Sophia Kinsella/Wendy Markham, you will like this author, as their styles are similar. Otherwise, though... no.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars