Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware



When I was in middle school, I was addicted to those trashy Point Horror stories for kids. They always had a similar premise: a group of kids get together for a party. Everything's fun and games until someone gets murdered. The kids, rather than being sensible and going to the authorities, take it upon themselves to solve the murder themselves, acting totally surprised when more murders happen. The book ends when the murderer, usually the last person you would expect and therefore the person you totally suspect, finally gets caught, and everybody else lives happily ever after. THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 was just like that, except for adults.

I'm a bit skeptical of these dysfunctional lady thrillers. The popularity of Gillian Flynn, specifically GONE GIRL, has had all these other mystery writers clamoring and going, "Me too! Me too!" The last one I read was GIRL ON THE TRAIN was so disappointing to me (seriously, what the eff?) that I gave up on these mysteries for a while. The only reason I picked this one up was because it was chosen for my book club.

To my surprise, I actually really enjoyed THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10. It has that throwback Agatha Christie feeling to it (or that Point Horror feel to it, if you're cheesy and camp, like me), which I loved. The fact it takes place on a ship instead of an isolated mansion makes it unique and even more claustrophobic-feeling, because you can escape from a mansion somewhat easily - it's hard to escape from a boat that's traversing through freezing-cold water.

The heroine, Lo Blacklock, finds that out firsthand when she witnesses what she thinks is a murder aboard the luxury ship she's supposed to be reporting on for the paper she writes for. The only problem is that the cabin she saw the murder in isn't occupied and nobody has laid eyes on the woman that Lo claims to have seen. She begins to doubt herself - and the fact that she has been drinking and has anxiety and PTSD does not help with her credibility - but then sinister things start happening to Lo, almost like someone is warning her off. The journalist in Lo is fatalistically intrigued. Who was the girl in cabin 10? And why would someone want her dead?

Comparisons to GIRL ON THE TRAIN are inevitable, because they are both about dysfunctional ladies with poor credibility who see something that they oughtn't to have seen and try to raise the alarm without being murdered themselves (somewhat unsuccessfully). Both heroines are also very unlikable and feature in storylines where suspension of disbelief is necessary. The difference is that GIRL ON THE TRAIN wallows in the unlikability of its main character and relies on relationship drama and emotional manipulation to keep the story moving, whereas THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 winks heavily at the audience as it checks off cliche after cliche, and has some genuinely suspenseful moments. My biggest gripe was the abrupt ending, which seemed far too neat. If you, like me, were disillusioned by GIRL ON THE TRAIN, I recommend that you pick this one up.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James


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

A few years ago, when the movie had just come out, a woman was talking to me at a bus stop, and we ended up talking about the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. It was a while ago, so I don't remember the exact exchange, only that she asked me if I wasn't just "so excited for the (Fifty Shades of Grey) movie?" When I said no, she asked me first if I'd even read the book, then whether I'd finished it and if so, had I read it properly? At the time of this exchange, I'd only read about fifty pages of the book. But I had read chapter by chapter breakdowns and seen a number of quotes pulled from the book. This seemed like sufficient evidence that this book was Not For Me and for several years I managed to stick with my decision to avoid this fandom. But people kept asking me to review this book for my blog, especially once I started reviewing romance and erotica almost exclusively - or I'd get people telling me my opinions weren't worth two cents until I'd actually read the book, and oh, ouch, my pride.

It began to feel like this book and I were star-crossed, and destined to clash.

For those of you who don't already know the story, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is about a virginal college student named Ana(stasia) who gets involved with a billionaire named Christian Grey. He is charmed by her innocence and submissiveness but warns her away because of his dark desires. Ana is so wowed by his looks and his money that she refuses, and so he tempts her into the sinister BDSM lifestyle, and Ana adores him so much that she endures it, hoping to win him back to the light.

Yes, I'm being a little facetious. In case you couldn't tell. (Insert winky-face emoji here.)

When this book first showed up on Goodreads, I was intrigued by the summary. I like dark romances and this one sounded like a modern Gothic. Sinister billionaires in dark Seattle towers are only a step removed from dukes dwelling in crumbling castles on the English moors. However, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY disappoints in that quarter, as the vast majority of the book is them talking about engaging in a BDSM relationship without actually making it official. Bar a few bondage-light sessions and a bit of spanking and toys, there's nothing particularly racy about the sex in this book. In my opinion. It's also boring. Honestly, how many times can you flash the BDSM contract at us? If I wanted to look at official documents all day, I'd be an accountant. Is this sex or an offer for a time share?

Another issue that many of those better than me have already pointed out is the relationship between Ana and Christian: it isn't healthy, and not only is it not typical of a BDSM relationship (and gets a number of things wrong in potentially harmful ways), it's also not a healthy relationship, period. Many of the things that Christian does look an awful lot like emotional abuse. I get that this is fiction and that people expect to be entertained in fiction so fictional relationships often don't reflect the reality of "normal" healthy relationships because those seem boring by comparison, but when a man is using his anger and frustration as an outlet when he uses belts and whips on his submissive partner, stalking her via GPS and hired help, and micromanaging her eating habits, you can't help but think to yourself, "There's a problem here." He also appears to confuse BDSM dungeons with prostitution, rigorously defends his underage relationship with a married woman as a teenager, and uses things like natural filament rope in his bondage extravaganzas, which could do a lot of physical harm.

Then there's the fact that the writing in this book simply is not very good.

First, like many erotica authors, E.L. James appears to have some verbal tics, or words that she just uses so repetitively that you not only notice but they begin to pull you out of the story. "Cream" is not one of them, thank God, but some others that I noticed off the top of my head are "I peer/peek up," "Holy shit/crap!", "oh my," "I flush," "murmur," and "delicious." Sometimes, especially in the case of "I flush," these will appear two- or three- times to a page. I'm very surprised an editor did not challenge this.

Subconscious/Inner Goddess Greatest Hits:
-: I flush at the waywardness of my subconscious - she's doing her happy dance in a bright red hula skirt at the thought of being his (67).
-: ...my very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba (78).
-: My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves (137).
-: My inner goddess is jumping up and down, clapping her hands like a five-year-old (176).
-: "And...swallowing semen. Well, you get an A in that."
I flush, and my inner goddess smacks her lips together, glowing with pride
(256).
-: I examine the list, and my inner goddess bounces up and down like a small child waiting for ice cream (257).
-: My subconscious runs, screaming, and hides behind the couch (259).
-: My inner goddess has a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the outside of her room (326).
-: My inner goddess pouts at me, failing miserably to hide her disappointment (357).
-: My subconscious is furious, Medusa-like in her anger, hair flying, her hands clenched around her face like Edvard Munch's The Scream (360).
-: My inner goddess is doing the dance of the seven veils (362).
-: My inner goddess is standing on the podium awaiting her gold medal (446).
-: My subconscious is frantically fanning herself, and my inner goddess is swaying to some primal carnal rhythm (485).
-: My subconscious has found her Nikes and she's on the starting blocks (502).

Am I the only one who was picturing Ana's inner goddess/subconscious as, like, a smaller cartoonish version of her, like Lizzie McGuire's alter ego?



Weird Sex Descriptions:
-: "Aargh!" I cry as I feel weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity (117).
-: I sit staring at the screen, and part of me, a very moist and integral part of me that I've only become acquainted with very recently, is seriously turned on (186).

Just, WTF: 
-: I eye Christian's toothbrush. It would be like having him in my mouth (76).
-: "No one's ever said no to me before. And it's so - hot" (348).
-: He reaches between my legs and pulls on the blue string - what?! - and gently takes my tampon out and tosses it into the nearby toilet (430).

I would give this a lower rating but I'm rounding up slightly for unintentional hilarity - especially that tampon scene - and for the fact that the companion book from Christian's POV, GREY, was so, so, so much worse. Seriously, if you think Grey is bad in this book, his eponymous retelling of their 'romance' makes him look like Patrick Bateman's bondage-obsessed cousin. Ugh.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Lemonade by Nina Pennacchi



I received an advanced copy of this for review several years ago. Unfortunately, I don't remember what I said about LEMONADE that first time, only that I gave it three stars and was disturbed by the rather brutal rape scene that takes place about 1/3 of the way through the book. And yet, despite only giving it three stars, LEMONADE has haunted me for two years. I kept thinking about Anna and Christopher and their doomed-before-it-even-began romance (if you can bring yourself to call it that). I wondered if perhaps I had been too harsh on the book, because if something can stay with you for that long, it must be good.

LEMONADE was originally published in Italian and then was translated into English. It is written in a very unique way that is difficult to explain - random asides in parenthesis to emphasis certain emotional moments for various characters; some very colorful and strange analogies and metaphors that sometimes fit and sometimes don't but are always unusual; and a charmingly stilted style of writing that is almost anachronistic, but smacks of 80s over-the-top sensationalism.

The heroine, Anna Champion, ends up catching the hero's attention over a misunderstanding with a glass of lemonade. He wounds her pride and she seeks revenge. It is a small, petty revenge, but Christopher is so damaged that his ego cannot stand even that small of an insult, and the next 450 pages consist of the two characters drawing to draw blood, figuratively and literally, any way they can. Some people will not like this because Christopher is such an awful character. He truly is a villain. And yet, it's impossible not to feel sorry for him at times because of everything he went through. Anna is very much the same way. At times I found her to be a very strong character, but she would buckle at random times, too, and sometimes she would be so stupidly petty. They both had issues, and in the end, I feel like the author was suggesting that they deserved one another.

In some ways, LEMONADE reminded me of that Japanese manga/anime, Hana Yori Dango. Christopher is just as cold and impulsive as Tsukasa Doumyoji. I enjoyed the beginning of the book, but after a while, LEMONADE started to feel very repetitive. I still enjoyed it, but I feel I would have enjoyed it more if the pacing had been tighter and it ended about 100 pages earlier. If you're a fan of vintage bodice rippers (and Hana Yori Dango), you should check out LEMONADE. Even if you absolutely hate it, it's highly unlikely that you'd read another book like it published in this day and age.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 19, 2017

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers



I am not religious, so my review of this inspirational romance will be coming from the perspective of a secular reader. Our theme read in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group for the month of May was "christian romance," and REDEEMING LOVE was actually my nomination. Francine Rivers is a name that gets bandied around a lot, not just in the christian fiction groups, but also in the historical romance groups in general. I was curious to see what she was like. As soon as I began reading this book, I literally had two people message me to inform me that this book allegedly takes two forms: the 1991 version and the 1997 version. I apparently have the 1997 version, which was edited to remove swear words and explicit love scenes to make it religion-friendly, which is definitely the case in my version. All sex scenes are very much fade-to-black, or in the case of one scene, ends with the hero and heroine soaring towards heaven - metaphorically, I'd imagine. Unless I somehow picked up a paranromal romance book without actually catching on.

Sarah/Amanda/Mara/Tirzah/Angel is a prostitute who was sold into the profession against her will as a child and then raped. Over the years she has become bitter and cold; it's her only defense against her growing despair at sleeping with men she doesn't like in a prison gilded by the gold dust of the Californian mining town she's settled in. On one of her walks, Michael Hosea sees Angel and hears God tell him that this is the woman he is destined to marry. When he finds out what she is, he throws a mini-hissy before pulling up his britches and delivering Angel the news. She is not amused, and rebuffs him multiple times. When he marries her, she's actually unconscious from a beating.

Much of the book is Angel learning to deal with her guilt and self-hatred. Her bitterness is exceptionally well done, and the pain she feels is warranted. The epilogue of this book is straight out of a bodice ripper, and the more I found out about her backstory - neglect, abuse, rape, assault, incest, probably PTSD - the more I sympathized with her. No matter how frustrated I felt with her as a character, I always felt that her actions were in line with her character. It takes a long time before she's able to trust Michael, and when she does, it happens in stages. She trusts him with her body and her well-being long before she's willing to let him have her heart.

This story is apparently a retelling of a bible story about two people named Gomer and Hosea. I have not read the original story, so I'm not sure how accurate or true the retelling is. I will say that the story manages to stand on its own fairly well and I was engaged for the majority of the book. It was in the last quarter where I feel it begins to fail a bit, as God appears to drive Angel away from Michael because she views Michael as a god instead of Him...and he drives her right back to the man who raped and abused her, which seemed...cruel? Then one of Angel's friends tells her that she has a prayer box to remind her not to be self-sufficient, but to rely on God instead, and that whenever there's something she wants to do something about she just writes a note and puts it in the box...right. I didn't mind the way God's voice was written in this book, however, and I thought it was clever how what I assume was the devil took the voice of Angel's abuser. What better way to turn her away from the path of self-betterment than to take the voice of the man who made her feel as if she were beyond redemption in the first place? I also thought that the way the religion was written in this book is probably suitable for the time period in which it was written (1850-ish), because most people in the 19th century were religious, and it formed the backbone of their social circles in many cases.

Honestly, my two biggest pet peeves were that epilogue and the fact that Paul got an HEA. The epilogue annoyed me because I felt like it wasn't realistic. I get that it was intended to be a miracle, but I really did not like it. I also really did not like Paul. He ill-treats her for 95% of the book, and then at the end of the book she apologizes to him. Ooh, I saw red when that happened. I kept thinking to myself, "If this were a bodice ripper, Paul would be killed in a stampede of cows, or in a cave-in while trying to steal someone else's gold." But this was not a bodice ripper, so Paul accepts Angel's apology, condescends to give one of his own, and gets his stinking HEA (the bastard).

In spite of its flaws, REDEEMING LOVE is a good book, and I think secular readers will be able to enjoy it too (probably more so if they can find copies of that elusive 1991 edition). I'm very glad I finally got around to reading a Francine Rivers book. She is a good writer, with a sense of characterization and pacing, and absolutely beautiful descriptions of nature. Yes, religion is a definite focal point in this book but not to the point where it's utterly preachy, either. 4/10, would read more by this author later. Her Mark of the Lion series looks especially interesting, and I'm hoping I'll be able to get a copy of that on the cheap. I love Ancient Rome.

3 out of 5 stars

The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace



I love wine - love it - but I honestly don't get this fascination with drinking 50+ year old bottles. And I'm saying this as someone who lives in California and drinks good wine all the time. As I sort of alluded to in another book about wine I reviewed, HEDONIST IN THE CELLAR, I think there comes a point where it stops being about the wine and more about the moolah. Perhaps an eighteenth century bottle of wine tastes amazing (I can barely force myself to drink milk that's a week too old, so I am the wrong person to judge). Considering how much those bad boys sell for, it's unlikely I will ever find out. As this book points out, there is a science to the aging process, but a lot of it also seems to be showboating with your money and agreeing with people whom you consider to be generally superior and "in the know" when it comes to wine knowledge. Think "Emperor's New Clothes" except instead of, "Wow, that guy is naked" it's "wow, that guy is naked and drinking fresh-poured Scam Wine."

THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR is a delightful comedy of errors about innocent and perhaps not-so-innocent people (we never really know for sure) who end up getting Scam Wine™ instead of the miraculously well-preserved historical wine they thought originally belonged to Thomas Jefferson. When a well-preserved wine cellar is unearthed in France bearing many popular old wines from the 19th century, everyone is excited and quick to bid. But then the taste of the wines and the look of the bottles is called into question and suddenly, everything comes down like a house of cards and friends become enemies, and trustworthy wines become Scam Wines. Benjamin Wallace crams the whole sordid saga in here, starting with the wine's high octane auction, descriptions of lavish wine-tastings and food-pairings, why people buy old wine (spoiler: bragging rights), what these people are like (spoiler: rich), the quest for the wine's provenance, and then, lastly, a quiet epilogue. 

I honestly had no idea that wine forgeries were such an issue. I guess it makes sense, though. Anything high in demand is usually in short supply, to there's a temptation to artificially manufacture additional copies of these high price items and cash in. It was fascinating to read about how Scam Wine™ is made, and the lengths people go to make them look authentic, some going so far as to stain the labels and pit the glass and then coat them with convincing artificial dust (Scam Dust™). I also enjoyed learning about the history of some of these wines. For example, prior to reading THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR, I did not know about the great French wine blight. For those of you who do not know, an aphid called phylloxera attacked the roots of many French grapes in the late 19th century, causing many of the plants to die. American grapes were apparently immune to the aphids, so the roots of these American grapes were grafted onto the French plants, changing the taste of the grapes - some say for the worse (Scam Grapes™?). So apparently, pre-phylloxera wines are a class of their own and many people seek them out as being more "pure" than modern strains of grape.

It's been a while since I read a good nonfiction book about history and THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR was the perfect return to that type of book. The writing style is great - colorful and vivid, but not veering into sensationalism and remaining relatively impartial at most times. It's like reading a very fun journalistic piece that continues for almost 300 pages, except wine is involved and you get to experience it vicariously. I read the gripping climax with a glass of petit verdot in hand (read: violet notes), and as I was reading, it occurred to me that the oldest wine that I have ever put into my mouth was only about twelve years old, and even that was almost too strong. When I was telling one of my friends about this book and the old wines mentioned inside, and asking rhetorically what they might taste like, she made a hilarious face and said, "I bet it would taste like balsamic vinegar. I would cook with it." I said, "I bet that would legitimately make someone cry."

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sweet Seduction by Maya Banks



Once again, I'm back with the Sweet series. I've already read books one and two, and SWEET SEDUCTION is the third book in the series. I bought the whole series on sale because they had good reviews on Goodreads and instead of chucking them all in a donation bin, I've decided to get my money's worth and review each one of these books. If I can't enjoy them, at least I can make people laugh and save them from making my mistakes. As with the previous two books, this edition has a disclaimer on the back warning that the series is intended for a "mature audience." I'll see your mature audience and raise you an inappropriate joke.

SWEET SURRENDER is about Faith and Gray, and Faith's desire to be completely dominated by a man. Not in a bondage way, but in the 1950s man-of-the-house way. SWEET PERSUASION was about Serena and Damon, and Serena's desire to be a slave. Damon wants someone who will be a slave all the time (not just in the bedroom). Serena comes around to his way of thinking and the two of them are deliriously happy. The third woman in their trio of friends, Julie, constantly whines about being single and her unrequited crush on this guy named Nathan. She talks about how much she wants a threesome and is constantly pestering her friends to get her laid.

I like it when female characters own their sexuality, but it annoys me when their sexuality is their characterization (i.e. they can think of nothing but sex, and have no outside interests). That just doesn't seem healthy to me, and what makes it worse is that she's used like the comic relief in the previous two books, so not even the story line really takes her seriously. When she accuses Nathan of not finding her attractive in book 2 because he doesn't take advantage of her while she's drunk, I actively disliked her, and knew that reading her book - SWEET SEDUCTION - would be a chore.

***WARNING: SPOILERS AND MATURE CONTENT***

The book opens with Julie in her massage parlor, getting ready to give Nathan a massage. This has been a source of sexual frustration with Julie for a while, because she gets to touch him but it's work, so she can't really do anything and he's resisted her attempts to seduce him. She doesn't understand why, and whines to her friends that she knows he has an erection because he refuses to turn over and only lets her massage his back and ignores her low-cut tops. Julie has decided to change that:

"You have two choices. You can shut up and not say a damn word until I'm done or I can gag you. In either case, I'm going to have my way" (6).

That's right. She's going to molest him.

"I'm pretty sure what I'm about to do violates the code of ethics of my profession," she said huskily. "But you know what? It'll be worth it."

She yanks his towel off him and gives him a blow-job. Oh, how great, a woman owning her sexuality, you might think. Well, no...because that's...well, sexual assault. You can't just force yourself on people, and taking advantage of a position of trust, like a masseuse, is incredibly wrong. What makes it worse is that it's written in a way that makes me think we're supposed to go, "Yeah, you go, girl!" Like it's wacky hijinks. Julie's friends are even amused when they find out what she's done.

Julie's plan is to show Nathan what he's missing and then cut out to The House, where she's made arrangements with Damon to have a threesome with two men. She wants to be blindfolded, though, so the identity of the men are completely anonymous (I think you can guess where this is going).

Nathan makes arrangements that one of the men be him, and after Julie is initially angry when she finds out later (the other guy is Micah), the two of them end up together. Then Nathan accidentally says "I love you" during sex and Julie flees, crying to her friends, who console her until Nathan bursts the door down and literally slings Julie over his shoulder to carry her away. Where? To happiness, presumably, which seems to involve copious amounts of questionably executed sex.

Weird sex descriptions:
-: Slowly he glided, rasping over her swollen, damp tissues (136). This is a favorite of the author, BTW. Variants of "swollen tissues" and "damp tissues" are used several times throughout the course of the novel, to the point where you might think that the hero has a fetish for used Kleenex. Also, for some reason, she often describes breasts as "plumped" and the hero always "stabs" into the heroine.
-: His d*** was straining upward, wanting her, reaching for her moist haven (161). You should really check out The Oatmeal's flowchart for occasions when it is OK to say "moist."
-: Her girly parts were singing at the idea (202).
-: "If you don't stop, I'm going to go off like a damn fire hose" (263).
-: "I've got a wood the size of a tree trunk..." (273)
-: "I wanna live in your p*ssy," he gritted out (277).

'Cream' Counter:
-: Zero, this time! It's used once, but to describe tasty cheese, which is OK. However the heroine "milks" something of the hero's that isn't a dairy cow, so I'm still going to have to deduct 50 points from Gryffindor. These are the rules.

Sexist lines:
-: "So if she wants another threesome, you're out?"
"Yeah. I'm not coming here again, and I'm hoping to hell she won't either. I don't like the idea of her being passed around like some piece of meat no one gives a fuck about. She's better than that"
(172)
-: "I didn't want strange men fucking you. Damn it, Julie, what the hell were you thinking? You were just setting yourself up to be hurt or raped or God knows what else" (186).
-: It was just as well the impudent heifer learn to have him around, because he didn't plan to go anywhere, despite her repeated attempts to shake him (216).

Oh, and just in case you've forgotten about Faith and Serena, they have numerous cameos in here, too. Faith's story arc can neatly be summed up by a sentence: She'd called the wedding off, had a pregnancy scare and had eloped to Vegas all in twenty-four hours (119). Also, she accuses Gray of cheating on her, only to find out that he was secretly house-hunting to surprise her. Oops. Serena, on the other hand, frets about Damon proposing to her. This was a stupid arc and I was skimming by this point, but from what I gathered, she's afraid that the proposal would lead to guilt down the line because Damon might think she had only accepted his proposal because she is his slave. #OMGdrama

If SWEET PERSUASION was two steps forward, SWEET SEDUCTION was twenty steps back. By the end of the book, I hated both the hero and the heroine. Nathan seemed so innocent and shy and oblivious in the previous books: here, he became a raging alphahole who told women he wanted to strangle them and threatened to drag them out of rooms by their hair. Julie, the butt of the jokes in previous book, starts off the story with what starts as an unconsensual blowjob, and spends the rest of the novel being as unlikable as possible by casting aspersions on her friends' relationships and whining about her sex life.

I see that the next book is Micah's, and I actually like his character, so I'm hoping that he won't do a character flip like Nathan did. I'm a sucker for melancholy heroes with dark pasts and his is a doozy. SWEET POSSESSION and SWEET ADDICTION also look good (rock stars? heck yes!). Supposedly #5 is one of the best after #2. Maybe one of these next three books will be able to break the 1- and 2-star review streak that I've been on with this series. Tune in next time to find out!

1 out of 5 stars

I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn



Allison and Gaby were two of my favorite contributors on Buzzfeed and when they left, I followed them both on Twitter. They have forceful personalities, so when I realized that the characters in this book shared the first letter of their authors' names (Ava to Allison and Gen to Gaby), I figured that this was probably a sly hint at semi-autobiographical elements.

It's difficult to sum up I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU because it's told in the 21st century version of epistolary format: emails and instant messaging. Ava and Gen are both freshmen in college, and are determined to keep in contact and continue their friendship despite going to different schools.

Ava is a high-strung perfectionist who is good at school and wants to please everyone around her. She also suffers from depression and anxiety and has the tendency to self-harm. Being away from home makes her very stressed out, and she's so determined to have the correct college experience that she joins a sorority filled with girls she doesn't really like and starts a relationship with a boy who doesn't respect her as much as he should.

Gen, on the other hand, is the poster child for the socially aware millennial. She is a proud feminist, is open about her sexuality and sleeps with many partners because she wants to, and determined to be an ethical journalist by immediately writing an article about one of the faculty's sexual harassment suits for the school paper. She also experiments with cocaine and sleeps with one of her TAs.

The girls are so different from one another, but their conversations feel authentic and real because they bring up a lot of topics that are relevant in this day and age, such as how bisexual people often feel isolated from the gay community and the straight community, how people with depression often don't get the support they need from their peers because their peers consider them a "downer," how toxic relationships aren't always obvious, and how being an adult sometimes necessitates making childish mistakes. You know, for the learning experience.

I really enjoyed I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU. I was mentally reading the emails in Allison's and Gaby's voices, which made these characters feel even more fleshed out. It wasn't always easy reading, even though it's a short book and goes by quickly. I could relate to Ava's shyness and social anxiety, and her fears that someone not writing back = the relationship apocalypse felt totally real. Gen, on the other hand, could sometimes annoy me because I didn't like the way she was constantly policing her friend. I think it's extremely important to reduce ignorance and transphobic/homophobic constructs that are embedded into our society, but I also don't think that the way to do that is by making your friends feel bad about themselves, either. Later on the book, this is addressed, and the two girls talk about the tendency to project your own feelings of inadequacies onto "safe" targets and how sometimes advice given with good intentions can be hurtful (a lesson for Ava and Gen).

I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU is not for everyone, and I am sure there will be plenty of reviews calling this "SJW bullshit," but controversial and daring subject matter is never received with open arms by all. More importantly, I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU gives a voice to our newest generation in the same way that CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER did, and this time, it's not about young men - it's about young women. (Yay!)

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Awaken Me Darkly by Gena Showalter



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

Given how my previous encounters with Gena Showalter's books went (spoiler: not well), I'm not sure why I decided to buy this one.

...Oh wait, now I remember. It's about an alien huntress.

Assassins and bounty hunters in books make my ears perk up. Aliens make me come running. If you discovered a bodice ripper about alien assassins, I would probably zoom towards you at a speed that would break the sound barrier. Luckily, AWAKEN ME DARKLY, despite the bodice ripper-like title, is not a bodice ripper, so the sound barrier is safe (for now).

Mia Snow is an agent of A.I.R. (Alien Investigation and Removal). She lives in a world where Earth has already made First Contact and many of the aliens we have encountered have chosen to make their homes on Earth. Most are peaceful, but some attempt to harm or kill humans, and those are the aliens that Mia deals with up close and personal (spoiler: *boink*).

When what looks like an alien serial killer happens on the scene, it's Mia (and her team) who are called in to deal with the situation and nip it in the bud before it causes a panic. Her investigations lead her into the depths of a seedy community, straight into the arms of an alien named Kyrin, an Arcadian alien who just so happens to be of the race of aliens that Mia is investigating.

Coincidence? Maybe. (Spoiler: Obviously, it isn't.)

Reading this book brought back memories of the paranormal romances and urban fantasy novels I plowed through in my early years of college. Good, bad, I didn't care - I read them all. One of my favorites at the time before the series went sour was the Anita Blake vampire series, and in a way, AWAKEN ME DARKLY brought back a lot of those rose-tinted memories of books 1-5. There are a lot of similarities between the two books. Mia, like Anita, is a ball-busting heroine who compensates for her femininity with machismo and showboating. Mia, like Anita, is also a hunter of an immortal species and, like Anita, ends up forging a relationship with a member of the species she's hunting, with Kyrin playing Jean-Claude to Mia's Anita in this case. Kyrin, like Jean-Claude, is also fond of long hair, puffy shirts, and leather pants, and has a condescending paternal air to him that makes the heroine alternate dropping trou with death threats and declarations of her own independence, etc. Even the cover, with its vague hits at kink and taboo, would not be out of place in Anita Blake.

I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did, and for about the first third AWAKEN ME DARKLY was engaging and fun, even if Mia could be a b*tch. It's when the mystery that Mia is investigating comes to light that things get weird (spoiler: WTF), and the abrupt ending did not help matters. Also, the hero's kidnapping of the heroine to his pleasure palace was so eye-roll worthy, it's straight out of a 90s futuristic romance. When she's dressed in gauzy silks, with a beautiful bejeweled armband designed to serve as an electric shock collar, draped in the arms of the blonde alien hunk, I kept picturing Fabio romance covers - especially when he braids his hair. Fabio the pirate alien. YAS.

AWAKEN ME DARKLY has the dubious honor of being the least offensively awful Gena Showalter book I have read. THE NYMPH KING was kill-it-before-it-spawns-sequels bad. AWAKEN, on the other hand, is just cheesy. I think I would have liked it more if it were set in space, like a Linnea Sinclair science-fiction romance. This just felt like a PNR with extraterrestrial window dressing.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews



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 not very good at fangirling, but some books make me want to try. BURN FOR ME makes me want to try. It was so good. The heroine, the villainous antihero, the magic system, the world-building...it was all so, so good. Reading this transported me to childhood again, when I could completely immerse myself in fantasy stories and they all felt real -

Except no childhood fantasy story ever had Mad Rogan in it.

(Phwooooar!)

BURN FOR ME is the first in the Hidden Legacy series, which takes place in an alternate universe where a magic serum has given various human beings X-Men-like abilities. Some control the elements, some control minds. Nevada Baylor, a private investigator, has the ability to discern truth. And right now, she's hunting down a powerful pyrokinetic named Adam Pierce who seems to want to set the whole city of Houston up in flames.

Mad Rogan is a powerful tactile who can level large buildings with the same ease that he can peel splinters of a chopstick, layer by layer. (And that's not the only thing he'd like to peel layer by layer *cough*) He's after Adam, too, although when he meets Nevada, he decides that he might just be after her, as well. You know, while he's at it.

The result is a tug-of-war between the various powerful mages, called Primes, with poor Nevada bouncing around between them like a ping-pong ball, as she dodges gunfire, actual fire, mutant turf wars, and the sexual advances of a very attractive, possibly sociopathic telekinetic, all the while trying to prevent the destruction of the entire world.

One of my friends recommended this book when she found out that I love villainous heroes, and Mad Rogan definitely fit the bill in that regard. Goddamn, that man is the type of bad that inspires X-rated fanfiction. He had some amazing lines, and some super steamy scenes with Nevada. Did I maybe skim ahead a bit, looking for said scenes? No, no of course not. That would be sacrilege. (Maybe.) It's so hard to find urban fantasy novels with romance that don't put the world-building in the backseat. In BURN FOR ME, it's front and center, and instead of detracting from the romantic elements, it makes them that much more stronger and compelling.

I want to say more about this book, but to be honest, I wouldn't know where to begin. I could tell you that the secondary characters are just as colorful as the ones in a Stephanie Plum novel, and I could tell you that reading this book gave me those same "this is good fantasy" vibes as I got from His Dark Materials and Harry Potter. I could tell you that Mad Rogan has a place in my exclusive heroes hall of fame, and I could tell you that I am insanely jealous of my friends who seem to have acquired ARCs for not just book 2 (which isn't out yet) but also book 3 (which also isn't out yet). I could tell you all these things, but you should probably just read the book for yourself.

Also, for all you people saying Mad Rogan is yours? Back off, he's mine. I WILL FIGHT YOU.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 12, 2017

Tender Wings of Desire by Harland Sanders



When pictures of this book cover first began surfacing on Twitter, I thought it was some kind of hoax. But, like Peeps-flavored Oreos, TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE was just as real, just as questionable, and just as compelling.

Released just in time for Mother's Day, along with an ad that seems to be channeling Fabio (with bonus lie/lay confusion), TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE is a historical romance novel in which a plucky and spirited heroine falls in love with Colonel Harland Sanders. The cover, which looks like a vintage Harlequin, features smiling Sanders holding a woman in 1950s garb - never mind that this is set in A Historical Era Where Women Wear Gowns™. Who has time to worry about historical inaccuracies? I'm too transfixed by the magically hovering bucket of KFC and the heroine's apparent attempts to tame the Colonel's hair with a chicken drumstick. The roaring ocean waves and Trump Tower-sized castle in the background are just extra.

I began reading this with the expectation that it would be a rip-roaringly ridiculous romp through the wilder side of the romance genre, in the vein of the tongue-in-cheek dinosaur erotica that peaked in popularity a few years ago. But if you, like me, were expecting "I Fucked Colonel Sanders," you're going to be disappointed. This is not Fifty Shades of Gravy; this is Fried and Frigidity.

Plucky Madeline's parents are attempting to force her to marry a duke. Not buying this arrangement with a man she describes as a "vanilla biscuit", Madeline flees to a tavern, gets a job as a barmaid of sorts, and falls into insta-love with the Colonel. She sleeps with him immediately, all safely off-screen, and everything seems like pure bliss until she realizes that he's the American version of the gentry - the same class of people that she was attempting to run away from. Oh, the horror of being wealthy! The novella is under 100 pages, but it's worth noting Colonel Sanders doesn't make an appearance until the 46% mark. Before that, TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE is all about Madeline chafing at convention and expressing a yearning desire for unspecified middle-class adventure. 

I think most people were going into this expecting comedy - if not "I Fucked the Colonel," then with over-the-top descriptions of thighs that looked like creamy mashed potatoes, and foreplay involving coleslaw and gravy - but it is actually a heartbreaking attempt at a sincere romance novel, made more heartbreaking still by the fact that it just isn't very good. Fried chicken isn't mentioned once, and the novel almost seems to "bait" the reader with the promise of puns to come with lines like this:

Madeline could not help but feel surprised, about what she did not exactly know, but once they reached the docks again she turned to him, her heart bursting with the desire to figure out what was burning in her stomach (69%).

The reader might be inclined to ask, with increasing desperation, whether the answer is KFC® Nashville Hot Chicken Tenders. But the novel just smiles slyly and flounces away, spinning lines of pseudo-romantic drivel so insipidly terrible that even Harlequin would deliver to them the cut direct:

Madeline's heart was pounding so heavily in her chest that she did not think she would be able to breathe; perhaps she would die like this. It would be terribly romantic, would it not? To be killed by such a longing (69%).

Oh, dear. How terribly improper.

To my knowledge, KFC is not mentioned once, nor are any of its products, and Harland's role is only alluded to, briefly, as "magnate of a restaurant industry." Since I was reading this for my romance group, I was determined to see this to the end in the hopes of some grand finale, or at least one bad pun about golden thighs, creamy potatoes, or seeing the phrase "finger-lickin' good" in a non-food-related context. I was disappointed on all counts. The story ends as you might expect of a romance novel: with the two of them sailing away to happiness. All that's missing are the white horses and the technicolor sunset, but perhaps they are saving those for the sequel.

From a marketing standpoint, I do applaud KFC's efforts. We as a society have grown mostly numb to advertising, since we're bombarded with it constantly at all hours, so it's genuinely refreshing to see a company that does something novel in a way that isn't "tone deaf." TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE attempts to parody the romance genre without actually deriding it, and considering how often the romance genre is put on blast for a cheap laugh, that's actually rather sweet.

I managed to get this while it was free, but it appears that it's now 99-cents (unless you have Kindle Unlimited), and I'm not sure it's worth it apart from the sheer lark of reading a romance novel published by a fast food company that has absolutely nothing to do with fast food. The concept is clever and original, but the contents don't match the cover at all. I think they should have either gotten a better writer, or just thrown all caution to the wind and taken the "I Fucked Colonel Sanders" route, because right now TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE reads like a joke without a punchline.

1 to 1.5 stars

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Sweet Persuasion by Maya Banks



I recently bought the entire Fresh Produce Budoir Photos™‎ editions of the Sweet series on the cheap, because a) I am trash when it comes to used bookstores, and b) thanks to devious marketers, my brain has learned to make the association that dark cover + inanimate object = lady porn. Don't get me wrong; this nefarious camouflage not only tricks people into thinking that whatever I'm reading must be classy AF, it also makes it easier to sneak these books into lunch breaks or bus rides, but there's something about a risque cover with two people being caught in flagrante delicto that makes romance novels extra fun.

The first book in this series is called SWEET SURRENDER and you can read my review of it here. Finishing SWEET SURRENDER was a big "oh no!" moment for me because I did not think it was a very good book and took issue with many things about it, including what I perceived to be some very troubling and sexist themes and a rather flippant and disparaging view of the BDSM community - and now I'm stuck with the entire series. What a dilemma!

I considered cutting my losses and getting rid of the books, but you guys encouraged me to continue reading the series. Not because it gets better or anything, no you had no sweet words of hope to impart to me; you wanted to see me suffer. Well, whether I read the books or not, I'm out $10. Might as well get my money's worth, right? Right. (Oh, the things we do for love.)

Luckily for me, SWEET PERSUASION - which, like SWEET SURRENDER, is for a "mature audience" per its back cover - was a much better book than SWEET SURRENDER. Many of the things that annoyed me so much about SWEET SURRENDER were absent. Our main character, Serena, is the head of this company called Fantasy, Inc., which as far as I can tell is like a cross between an event planner and an anthropomorphized Groupon - she hooks people up with their "fantasies": if they want to be a chef for a day, she makes it happen; if they want to be princess of a cruise ship, she makes it happen (actual examples, btw). But the one fantasy she can't hook up is her own. Serena secretly wishes that she could be a man's slave, and give him total and complete control over her.

Enter Damon.

***WARNING: SPOILERS AND MATURE CONTENT***

The relationship between Serena and Damon is actually decent, although the build-up of the relationship is better than the consummation of it. Banks just doesn't write very sexy sex in my opinion. She uses some very strange phrases (which I will list shortly) that pull you out of the moment, and she switches back and forth between her names for sex organs and acts, which is jarring (to me, anyway). It helps that both characters are on board, and unlike Gray from the previous book, Damon doesn't humiliate and browbeat Serena into giving in to what he wants. That doesn't mean that SWEET PERSUASION is totally light, though. It's a very edgy erotica that seemed to put a lot of people off with scenes including a public sex auction, flogging, anal play/sex, being whipped with a belt, and countless other examples of public humiliation, in which he does all these things and more to her in front of other men. The Scene that got many people upset just made me raise my eyebrows a little, because I've read so much worse at this point, but I was side-eying a lot of those anal scenes. Banks does actually introduce training before the sex itself through the use of plugs, which I have never seen done in an erotica before (so points to her), but then after that, Damon pretty much seems to stop using lube and just "goes for it" if you know what I mean, which sounds...um...no. Nope. So much nope. Nope.

Unlike SWEET SURRENDER, In SWEET PERSUATION the anti-BDSM vibe is less noticeable. I felt like Gray went out of his way to portray an "Us vs. Them" vibe that felt very mean-spirited and off-putting (also, way to alienate a significant chunk of erotica readers). That was far less present in SWEET PERSUASION, although I still felt like there was an effort to distance these characters from the BDSM community. Why else would Damon, like Gray, make a point of not using safe words?

"I won't use a word that encourages a man to disregard the word no coming from a woman's lips. If you say no, if you're even thinking no, then it ends for me. I won't indulge in silly little no-means-yes games. When that word crosses your lips? It's over. If I ever ask of you something that you won't give unreservedly, then all you need to say is no" (78).

I swear to blog, the male characters in these books love calling women's fantasies "silly little (nouns)." I do like how he respects no's (Gray did not always do this), but I didn't like how he took "no" as a complete and total shut down of the scenario - basically, a "no" seemed to mean that he would end their relationship completely. That's not really a fair choice, that's a "my way, or the high way." Also, there's a reason for safe words - sometimes people engage in play where saying "no" might be part of the scenario (i.e. "rape play") and you still need a safe, consensual way to stop.

As Faith did with Gray, though, Serena takes Damon's mansplanation of sex as gospel truth.

She wasn't even sure how to respond to that because he was absolutely, one hundred percent right. How moronic to ever discount the notion of a woman saying no (78).

Well, yes - but also not necessarily. Is using a safe word so hard?

Speaking of words, here are some...

Weird sex descriptions:
-: My pussy burns as if someone holds a fire to it (36-7).
-: Her shoulders shook, making her breasts bob, which rubbed her nipple rapidly across the fork (151). What the actual fork. Would you call that "fork-play" then? Or getting "forked"?
-: ...she lay there quietly, her body a receptacle for his (158).
-: Huge and swollen within her, he pulsed as his cock split her ass wide and he poured hot liquid inside her (218).
-: There was a multitude of sexual scenarios, from a simple one-on-one couple fucking like bunnies to an outright orgy with no less than eight people joined like LEGOs.
-: ...her orgasm swelled and then burst around her like flowers opening to the sun's rays (247).

'Cream' Counter:
-: Hesitantly, she raised her hands and then looked down at the sticky cream on her breasts and belly (148).
-: She could feel the creamy moisture gather between her legs (233).

Sexist lines:
-: "I'll be amazed if you don't order a girly salad. What is it with women always ordering salads, anyway?" (63)
-: "Nothing happened, Julie. If I had any idea you'd be worried, I would have called you. You were sort of out of it so I put you to bed. Someone spilt beer on your shirt and so I stripped you down. I didn't even look at you, I swear."
"Well why the hell not?" she asked in exasperation. "Am I ugly?"
(172)


I also didn't like how heavily Serena's friends featured in here. You guys know I don't like Faith, and she was in here a lot, constantly blushing and gloating about her fantastic relationship. Julie, on the other hand, is a massage therapist who is trying to abuse her position to seduce one of her clients who she thinks is hot. She wears low cut tops, tries to make these professional massages sexy, and uses the information in his client folder to get in contact with him about personal matters. She's also the one who asked if the reason that this man (Nathan) didn't touch her while she was unconscious was because she was "ugly." I think it's safe to say that Julie is probably my least favorite character so far. I'm not looking forward to her book at all, and unfortunately, I think she might be next...

All, reservations aside, SWEET PERSUASION was, objectively, a vast improvement on the first book. The problem here wasn't the relationship itself - which was pretty okay I thought for a master/slave role play fantasy, especially since the author makes a solid attempt to introduce consent - but how it was written. The sex scenes are so cheesy. Some are sexy, which makes it even more disappointing when you happen across a bad one. I thought the drama in the last book was unnecessary (although no kidnapping attempts, thank God). What they were arguing over didn't feel like a Big Deal for me - if they had actually taken a moment to talk like adults, there wouldn't have been a conflict. But the build-up? Solid A+ for sexual tension. Damon's character wasn't ruined as I feared, and he actually had some genuinely decent lines, like this one:

"I won't allow you to degrade yourself for voicing your desires. They're yours. That makes them important. Valid. There is nothing crazy about them" (69).

If you're still interested in reading this series, I think I'd actually suggest starting from book #2.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Sweet Surrender by Maya Banks



First, can I just say that I love how on the back of my edition it says "mature audience"? Like someone who isn't mature is going to throw up their hands and be all, "Whoops, I'm out." Just like how nobody ever lies on those websites that ask, "Are you really 18?" (Fun fact: once, when I was sixteen, I attempted to access an adult fanfiction site and a dialogue box popped up asking me if I was 18. Being the honest person I am, I clicked "no." I was booted and blocked from the site. Because yay, honesty.) This warning on the cover was just the first sign of the glorious things to come. (Tee-hee, come.)

And while I could totally take advantage of all the opportunities for giggles this book offers oh-so-temptingly, I have turned over a new leaf. I am going to try very hard (tee-hee, hard) to be mature while writing this review, because I no longer have to lie on internet pop-up dialogue boxes. I am a mature audience.

***WARNING: SPOILERS AND MATURE CONTENT***

***Are you over 18? Y/N?*** 

I'd heard that the Sweet series was a more "realistic" portrayal of BDSM than the Grey series, and while that's not necessarily setting the bar super high, the concept of a bunch of loosely connected story lines revolving around a high-class BDSM dungeon/play room/etc. did sound interesting.

SWEET SURRENDER is about Faith, a woman who wants to be dominated and have a man call all the shots. Gray Montgomery gets involved with Faith because the man who killed his cop partner is associated with Faith's degenerate mother. The father of his partner, Mick, thinks that if he manages to get close to Faith, he'll learn more about the man who killed Gray's partner and be able to get revenge since neither of them really believe that the police department is doing their due diligence. Since this is a romance novel, you know that Gray is going to see Faith as more than a means to an end, though. Unless by "end" you mean "that booty.".

SWEET SURRENDER has an okay start, but quickly dive bombs into serious problem territory. I'll be the first to admit that I'm no expert in BDSM, but I have some friends who are into it, and I've also looked things up on Google. And based on my limited knowledge, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I'm fairly sure that this is a very poor reflection of what the BDSM community is like. It's more like an idealization of what the 1950s "Shut-Up-Honey-A-Man-Is-Talking" male was like.

Well, it wouldn't hurt to read up on it. At least then she'd have a better idea of how to find this elusive creature: the dominant male.
God, she made it sound like an endangered species. But in today's world, she supposed they were. A dying breed. Emasculated by a politically correct society
(26).

Was she just another woman all too willing to give up control in the bedroom, live for the fantasy then forget the whole thing the next morning? It wasn't as if he hadn't had his fill of those women.
Oh, they were more than willing to play a role, one that only extended to the bedroom, but when it was over with, they became a completely different woman.
He wasn't into pretend shit. He wasn't some damn puppet to have his strings pulled then be put back on the shelf until it was time to play again
(52).

1. Isn't "fantasy" exactly the point in BDSM? From what I was given to understand, I thought it was about release (and not necessarily just sexual release).
2. What he's talking about is total power exchange, which isn't reflective of what all dominants want.
3. He's kind of an asshole - and a judgmental one, too.

"More women wouldn't mind a man being the proverbial man of the house if he didn't abdicate his responsibility. If he took that responsibility seriously" (82).

"Men love a submissive woman," Damon said simply. "Even when they say they don't" (188).

This isn't even about BDSM, but for Faith, the two ideas are one and the same. Dominant = household provider who makes all the decisions. If that's what people are into, then cool, you know, whatever floats your boat. I'm all about that choice. BUT, I find it incredibly problematic to suggest that female empowerment comes from women having "no choice but to step up to the plate" because "a man isn't willing to accept responsibility" (82). Sometimes women want to step up to the plate because they want to step up to the plate and men have absolutely no involvement in the equation.

At some point, Faith goes to The House, that swanky BDSM club, and gets a tour from Damon, who is actually pretty respectful and sexy AF. (His book is the next one - and since I bought the whole series, I'm hoping that it's better than this one was. You better not ruin Damon, Banks!)

While on her tour, Faith sees two men having sex:

When the first man gently moved his lips over the other man's cock, Faith's pulse began racing. The sight should repulse her. Something told her that it should, but just as quickly she discounted that absurd notion (117).

Um. Why should that repulse her?

While snooping in Faith's house, Gray sees the appointment for Faith's tour in her planner and decides to crash the party. He kicks out the Dom working Faith over and takes over. Afterwards, they talk about it - or Faith tries to. Gray tries to brush her off and then says:

"Don't be crude, Faith. It doesn't suit you" (137).

By this point, I am side-eying Gray - GRAY, GREY, I sense a theme...men named after colors are controlling dicklords - like nobody's business. I really don't find the controlling, stalking, possessive alphahole stereotype attractive. I know some people do, but I don't - usually. Not here, certainly. And Gray isn't just a garden variety alphahole. He's the professor emeritus of Alphahole 101:

"Can we stop with all the touchy-feely shit?" Gray muttered. "You sound like a damn woman" (143).

Frankly, he'd rather suffer a case of blue balls before getting his dick wet in a chick with more dead space than a black hole (24).

When they actually start to negotiate the terms of their relationship, she tells him what she wants (as in, she describes her ideal scenario). Gray gets frustrated and stops. Then he says this:

"You've set the scene just as you imagined. You've scripted the role, my role, and decided how everything plays out. You've got every detail worked out in your mind. You're in complete control. No one else. I'm merely a puppet dangling on a string waiting on you to command me to command you and for you to tell me HOW to command you" (172).

Then he says:

"I don't work that way, Faith....I told you what I wanted. A woman who'd be content to let me call the shots. Nothing about this scenario is me doing anything but allowing you to dictate how it is we get together" (172).

I thought that was the point. The submissive is supposed to call the shots.

She dropped her face into her hands. Oh God, what a moron she was. She hadn't wanted a dominant man. Just the opposite. She'd been trolling for a mindless puppet (173).

Now that he'd laid it out for her, it seemed so clear.
Her idea of a man taking control had been handing him a checklist of activities to perform. She'd have been better off to hire a male prostitute and give him a script
(180).

"If we do this, I will be in complete and utter control. There are no safe words, no playacting, no 'lifestyle' books to read. That's all bullshit. I've never lived by anyone else's rules and certainly not a bunch of rabid lifestylers all spewing what people do or don't do according to their list of guidelines....If that's what you're expecting, then you need to walk now. You can forget about anything you've read or experienced, because what I will demand from you bears no resemblance to what a bunch of role players screwing around with sex games would" (214).

The "guidelines" I imagine he's talking about are called SSC, or safe, sane, and consensual. Basically: a set of guidelines to prevent mental and physical harm, and ensure that everyone has a good time.

This thing that these two are doing is not what BDSM is. This is very close to an emotionally abusive relationship. She tells him her fantasies, he shuts her down, tells her what he wants, mansplains her fantasies to her, makes her feel bad and guilty about herself, and she ends up capitulating. That is not what BDSM is about. Then he essentially tells her he doesn't believe in consent.

That is not what any relationship should be about.

Also, I couldn't help but find it funny that a book capitalizing on the BDSM community would do its damnedest to put down said community at every opportunity.

"I'm not your parent. Have no desire to be placed in that role. We're both adults, and the petulant master/slave game bores me to tears. The little fake disobedient act so the master will punish the naughty little slave - it's ridiculous. If and when I spank you, it'll be because I like seeing my mark on your ass and because you'll enjoy it. Not because you disobeyed me. You're an adult with a mind of your own" (248)

Other random wtf moments:
-: On p. 229, Gray, the Omnipotent Sex Genius, uses soap as lubricant. I suppose he doesn't believe in urinary tract infections any more than he believes in risk-aware sex.
-: This line: He sure as hell wasn't going to bed with a hard-on the size of Texas (240). *swallows down the obvious joke* *barely manages to make it* *does* "Because I'm...so...mature..."
-: This line: "How many blows do you think I should give you before I stuff my dick so far up your pussy that you taste me?" (270) Thanks for the horrific mental image.
-: This line: "Sand up the woo woo would be a tragedy indeed. Especially since I plan to spend a lot of time up that woo woo" (275). What was all that high and mighty talk about being adults, hmm?
-: Like Sylvia Day, this author has a verbal tic. Unlike Sylvia Day, it isn't cream/creamy: it's blush. Which sounds harmless enough until you see the g-d word every other page. I almost wish I had the e-book so I could do a search to see how many times it was used. It had to be 50+ times...

I'll give this book some begrudging points for having aftercare and not using the word "cream" (well, okay, Banks used the word once and then seemed to realize what a poor idea that was and never used it again). I'll have to deduct half a point for the phrase "warm seed," though.

As I said, I purchased the entire series so I'm going to review them all. I'm hoping the other books will be better than this one. SWEET SURRENDER, as far as I could tell, seems like it's less about BDSM and more about an idealized version of a highly sexist dynamic that's founded on emotional browbeating and sexual manipulation. I also didn't think it was very nice that both characters seemed to go out of their way to badmouth members of the BDSM community - especially since this book is supposed to portray and reflect (ostensibly) that community. But some women enjoy reading about sexist alphaholes, even if they'd never date one, so if that's your thing, pull up a seat.

If that isn't your thing, throw the chair (and the table) and run. (┛◉Д◉)┛彡┻━┻

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Act Like It by Lucy Parker



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

Carina's acquisitions team is seriously on point. Somehow they manage to find authors who can strike the perfect balance between trashy plots and smart writing - which, in case you were wondering, happens to be one of my favorite combinations, right up there with burgers and red wine and Jason Momoa and anything.

ACT LIKE IT by Lucy Parker was one of two books of the month in my romance group. (The other was LORD OF SCOUNDRELS by Loretta Chase.) I actually thought that I wouldn't like this book but would love the LORD OF SCOUNDRELS book, so you could color me surprised when the reverse proved true, and I eschewed the tried-and-true formula of douchey hero falls for spinster heroine in retro romance novel for a new adult small-press publication about a hate-to-love relationship in the theater industry.

I know - I'm surprised, too. What in the even.

Elaine Graham looks like Jessica Rabbit, but is actually a down-to-earth individual involved with charity work and who is very close to her family, and still kind of camera shy and star-struck when it comes to her quietly burgeoning fame. By contrast, Richard Troy makes headlines left and right with his marquee-scale name, but none of it is good press and it's beginning to affect his sales and brand. His agent has the brilliant idea of having the two of them pretend to be "involved," arguing that this will not only sell seats but also boost both their images (but namely Troy's). Elaine only reluctantly concedes when she finds out that a large percentage of profits will be donated to her charity.

It's hard not to compare this book to THE HATING GAME because they are both about characters who end up in a relationship with a coworker that they hate. ACT LIKE IT also reminds me of another Carina publication I read about a year ago, called HOLLYWOOD HOT MESS, that explores similar themes of how celebrity status wears and tears on one's personal life and makes relationships - especially sexual relationships - even more complex.

Honestly, I think I liked THE HATING GAME more, because I felt like the character arcs were more complicated and developed because the length of the book allowed for more time. ACT LIKE IT was a relatively short read, so when Troy starts to become a decent human being instead of, say, a spoiled teenage, it feels so much more sudden. There's also more time to prolong that UST. ACT LIKE IT is very back-heavy, with the first half suggesting a gradual romance, but the last half being nonstop drama (sexual assault, family drama, tragic backstories, exploding buildings, etc.). To be honest, it starts to feel like something straight out of a shoujo manga. But ACT LIKE IT wasn't a bad book, and it had some steamy scenes (although not as hot as the ones in THG) and both characters were interesting and likable, and of course, there was some great banter, too. If you're a fan of the enemies-to-lovers theme in romance novels, ACT LIKE IT is a great addition.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase



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

LORD OF SCOUNDRELS has been on my to-read list for five years, so I was delighted when it was selected as the book of the month for the Unapologetic Romance Readers monthly read. One of my favorite romance pairings is the no-nonsense shrew with the duke of slut. I was expecting something along the lines of Anne Stuart's RUTHLESS or Elizabeth Hoyt's DUKE OF SIN. Until about 30% of the book, I got exactly what I bargained for. Jess is a spinster considered by many to be a bluestocking who is firmly on the shelf. Sebastian, Marquess of Dain, is a half-Italian man of unconventional appearance who has been shamed since childhood on account of his large nose and flighty mother who ditched him as a young boy to go live with another man.

Dain is used to purchasing the affections of women with coin, and sees many of them as opportunistic whores (and says as much, projecting many of his mother issues onto the females in his acquaintance). He is also used to controlling others through fear, intimidation, and - of course - money, and has made a name for himself with these horribly improper behaviors. Which is why it's so funny, then, when he finds himself completely blindsided by Jess, who bamboozles him with her sharp tongue and irrefutable logic, as well as her beauty and her inherent goodness.

Then around 34%, she shoots him...to save face, I think, and allow the two of them to wed. I forget why. It was very strange. But anyway, to the shock of the ton, the two of them are married and that's when things fall apart because there's no longer any will they/won't they, no, it becomes a question of when. Within the context of their marriage, the witty banter of the first segment gives way to petty arguments, sulking, and slut-shaming, which is unfortunate because it's made clear from the very beginning that Jess is a force to be reckoned with and I didn't see the need for her to drag other women down. Dain, by contrast, becomes a sulky child who pouts and throws fits when he doesn't get his way. This is a far cry from the imposing, dangerous figure he's presented as from the beginning, and while I appreciated the author's attempts to make him vulnerable, it didn't really pan out. I think she could have conveyed his fragile emotional state without making him such a shit. Some of the things he said about his own son were just totally repulsive.

Also, the sex scenes were not noteworthy. There's the typical jack-in-the-box peen action, where the peen springs out of trousers like a wind-up toy, and talk of feminine curves and sleek curls, but there's also a few retroly bizarro lines like this: He trailed his tongue over one sleek eyebrow (67%). Which is very strange, although not quite as strange as the "arousing" eyelid-licking scene in FOREVER AND THE NIGHT. It's worth noting that both of these books also have a very odd scene about desperately having to go to the bathroom and also desperately needing to talk about it, as at one point, Dain tells Jess that sex will have to wait because he needs to drain the main vein: "I can't wait around to pick you up. My bladder is about to explode" (65%). Thanks for sharing.

I'm very disappointed not to have liked this more, because many of my friends raved about LORD OF SCOUNDRELS and it's on all the romance lists of note and I'd been lusting after this book (and that cover) for years, desperately hoping that it would live up to all the hype. Sadly, it did not. It's yet another 90s romance novel making the awkward transition from bodice ripper to modern historical romance, and it falls into one of those awkward trenches of fail where it has the worst attributes of both. Perhaps you will enjoy this more than me - especially if you love Beauty and the Beast, and find the plot of an intelligent woman being saddled with a sulky, miserable man appealing.

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Surrender to Love by Rosemary Rogers



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

It's difficult to explain my love of bodice rippers to people who don't already enjoy them. The distortion of reality that they reflect is not one that I find desirable at all: They are often brutal, politically incorrect (to the point of being offensive), with spoiled immature heroines and heroes who could just as easily double as villains. Oh, and the writing - the over-the-top, adjective-laden writing, with flowery euphemisms for primary sex characteristics and prose so purple that it makes violets look red.

This is bodice-ripper land. Go big, or go home.

At 700 pages (in my edition), SURRENDER TO LOVE is definitely a big book. It was originally published in 1982 and my reprint by Mira was released in 2003. Often when bodice ripper authors rerelease their older works, they will "clean them up" and remove some of the more un-PC references and rewrite blatant acts of rape into more "acceptable" forced seduction scenes. I was curious to see if Rosemary Rogers, who is fairly well known for her unapologetically OTT plots, would do the same. I haven't read the original version, but if this version is anything to go by, I would guess no.

(If you do know for sure, please tell me. I'm very curious.)

I was reading her author bio on Goodreads and part of what makes SURRENDER TO LOVE so fun is that the beginning part of it seems semi-autobiographical. Rogers, like our heroine Alexa, was raised in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in a rich family, and under constant supervision. The descriptions of Ceylon are amazing, not just of the land but of the climate and the people as well. Rogers's exotic setting is part of what makes this book so fun and is reminiscent of titles like Christine Monson's RANGOON (which is set in Burma/Myanmar) and Lane Harris's THE DEVIL'S LOVE (set in the Caribbean). I enjoyed both of these books, but the setting in SURRENDER feels so much more pervasive, and I'm sure that's because Rogers was actually there, and she knew its beauties as well as its disadvantages, and she had seen a lot of the local politics and tensions firsthand.

Alexa is a fairly likable heroine, as far as bodice ripper heroines go. She's feisty and headstrong and sometimes this can make her annoying, but for the most part she is a decent character and I was always (at least halfheartedly) championing her. Nicholas, the hero, is where the fun is really at, though. He's one of those villainish heroes. One who thinks nothing about dub-con (or non-con), who treats women like garbage and goes around whoring and slut-shaming in equal measures. He cheats, multiple times, on multiple people, supposedly murdered his last wife, and appears to think nothing of threatening the lives of the people around him even if they are people he allegedly cares for.

SURRENDER TO LOVE is more of a psychodrama than a romance in the traditional sense, since the characters spend most of the novel - about 680 pages out of 700, in fact - tormenting one another with physical violence, rape, whoring, manipulation, lies, and revenge. For reasons I won't reveal (come on, guys, you have to read it), Alexa wants revenge on Nicholas's family, and her attraction to him becomes just another weapon in her arsenal as she embarks on her vicious quest.

What had she ever done to injure him? Except - the dark demon side of him answered too promptly - except by marrying a very rich man who was too old to please her and finding her pleasure in playing the whore, bitch that she was. Not for the money - that at least would have been halfway excusable - but to satisfy her degraded appetites (380).

"If you had any realization of all the different kinds of pain and degradation and abuse that can be and are inflicted on some human beings by others in the name of 'pleasure,' I do not think you'd have dared indulge your whining, hypocritical little complaints to me of cruelty and the infliction of pain - unless you meant it as a challenge?" (443)

"You can keep your eyes closed or open - it's all the same to me. And you can take off that ugly purple dress you're wearing, and all your damned petticoats and your corset as well - or if you prefer it, I'll rip the clothes off your body myself! But either way, my mermaid, I'll have you naked the way I first saw you; and I meant to use you, my virgin slut, as I should have done then and later. In every way and every fashion I see fit" (474).

Nicholas - such a charmer.

The best way of describing SURRENDER is saying that it's two parts V.C. Andrews and two parts Bertrice Small. It's like V.C. Andrews in the sense of Alexa's father figures have incestuous feelings for her (one of whom has an almost sexual fixation with his own mother), and there's a wicked matriarch type character who runs the scenes and will stop at nothing to have her way no matter how much manipulation it takes. There's also a narrative style that I can only describe as "breathless" - peppered with numerous italics, so you know how important every word is, and how it's emphasized when the characters talk, and many exclamation points so you know it is a dramatic exclamation! It's like Bertrice Small in the sense that Rogers is very cruel to her characters, and has them be very cruel to each other. Someone is raped in a Turkish prison, and decides to inflict that torment on others. The hero is flogged towards the end of the book, and tortured in front of the heroine (something that Rogers apparently does in another one of her books, SWEET SAVAGE LOVE). There's lots of cheating and sexual abuse. The heroine is ambitious and incredibly good at sex, despite her inexperience. Parts of the book take place in a brothel, with some kinky scenes ensuing. This is all classic Small, but Rogers is a much better writer than Small, which makes it even more amusing.

Are these books for everyone? No. But unlike certain romance novels cycling around the popularsphere, SURRENDER TO LOVE doesn't pretend to literary accomplishment. It strives to entertain, instead - and entertain it did. I think this is actually my favorite bodice ripper that I have ever read to date because of the broadness in scope, and the epic journey the characters take across those neverending pages, from hatred to hate-sex to sex-sex to something that's sort of love but probably isn't because relationships like that aren't healthy at all. If you think you're up to tackling the mess, I definitely recommend this book. It will shock, it will disgust, but dammit, it will entertain!


4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Silk, Swords and Surrender by Jeannie Lin



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

Jeannie Lin has been on my radar for a long time. Not only is she an #ownvoices author of historical romances featuring Chinese characters set in Tang Dynasty China (reason enough to buy her work in my opinion), but she also received an absolutely stellar review from my Goodreads friend Khanh, for her book MY FAIR CONCUBINE (a retelling of My Fair Lady).

When I saw this Harlequin title at the bookstore for 50¢, it was super easy to rationalize the purchase to myself despite my self-imposed book ban (which has been ongoing for about a year now, and clearly not working considering how often I buy books). I wasn't really a fan of her Pingkang Li mystery series, but this was a fantastic way to sample her Tang Dynasty series - or so I thought.

This isn't actually a book in the Tang Dynasty series. It's a collection of short stories set in the Tang Dynasty, some of which are loosely affiliated with the actual main books in the series, but they are not officially part of the series. Also, of the five stories included in this book, four of them have already been published as standalone short stories. Only the first title in this collection, The Touch of Moonlight, is new and previously unreleased. So if you've already read her short stories, take note: this book contains four previously published short stories you may have already read before.

As with all short story collections I review, I'm going to break this book down story by story.

The Touch of Moonlight, 841 CE: ☆☆☆

"Was it possible not to know how much you'd missed someone until you saw them again?" (13)

Definitely the best story in the collection. Lian has been in love with Baozhen since she was young, but she knows that he still sees her as a child and is so used to female affection that the only way to snag his attention is to make him jealous. So she pretends to like his friend, Liu Jinahi, and conspires to have Baozhen "help" her get closer to Jinhai, all the while conspiring to win Baozhen.


The Taming of Mei Lin, 710 CE: ☆☆☆½

"If only I could offer you wealth and privilege. Your feet would never have to touch the ground."
"I don't mind walking...beside you" (101).

This was my second favorite story in the collection, because it has an odd fairytale-like feel to it. According to the author's forward, this story was the impetus for her book, BUTTERFLY SWORDS. After Mei Lin is propositioned by the governor, she turns him down because she thinks he's gross and decrees that she won't marry anyone unless they can defeat her in battle. The governor sends thugs to intimidate her, but none can defeat her - none until one day, a stranger named Shen Leung challenges and defeats her. But he claims he doesn't want to marry her, which results in her humiliation.

This story was strange, but I did like it for the most part. The only weird thing about it that put me off and caused me to lower my rating was the fact that after Mei Lin is beaten and nearly raped, Shen thinks this is a fantastic time to have sex with her. That was a big old nope for me.

Still, I couldn't really get that mad at a story about a girl with a sword.


The Lady's Scandalous Night, 759 CE: ☆☆☆

This was another story that could have been a lot better but fell flat for me. Part of the problem with these stories is that they are so short, the author doesn't have time to flesh out their characters. They often have sex very, very quickly for the silliest of pretenses, and she tries to force some sort of connection by mentioning how the two characters in question used to be close. In this story, River and Chen were going to be married at one point, but now Chen has to kill River's brother. To save them, she seduces Chen while her family and servants escape, fully expecting to take the fall.

Incidentally, this story is apparently linked to THE DRAGON AND THE PEARL.


An Illicit Temptation, 824 BC: ☆☆

I thought this was the lamest story in the collection. Princess An-Ming is an alliance bride being taken to wed the Khitan lord. She has a secret, though: she's actually a bastard serving girl named Dao ("Peach") who is being sent in the real princess, Pearl's, place after she eloped with someone else. Escorting her is a group of Khitan warriors, including one named Kwan-Li.

This story is lame because it relies entirely on insta-love. Kwan-Li kisses Dao after she falls off her horse, for some reason, and then they have sex before she is delivered to the lord. Then Dao tells him the truth of her origins but that she plans on marrying the Khitan lord anyway. Whut.

Still, it was cool to learn a bit about the Khitan people, who I had never heard about before.

Capturing the Silken Thief, 823 BC: ☆☆☆

This is a story, as Jeannie Lin describes it, about a scholar and a song girl. Cheng is an imperial scholar who is about to take his exams. One day he is robbed by a group of bandits who have been paid for by the hero, Jia, a concubine who plays the pipa. She has confused him for someone else with a similar name who possesses a pillowbook by the famous concubine, Xue Lin. Jia wants to steal the book because she's been offered enough for it to purchase her freedom and pay her debts. Cheng ends up helping her for reasons of his own. The two end up attracted to one another....


I'm shocked to hear myself say this, but I think these short stories might have been better without all those sex scenes thrown in there. I could buy their affection for one another because sometimes extraordinary circumstances have a way of bringing us close together, but having these women simply shuck off their futures and their dreams for a night of passion didn't feel very realistic. And it happened in every single story, so that I began to roll my eyes every time they talked of "dampness."

SILK, SWORDS AND SURRENDER isn't a bad collection of short stories, though. The writing is decent, and the stories are interesting. I don't think the new story is good enough that it's worth purchasing this collection for that alone if you've already read the other four short stories, however.

3 out of 5 stars

Tremulous Hinge by Adam Giannelli



I'm not quite sure what to call the spate of poetry flooding in that basically consists of typing diary entries and adding spaces after each "sentence." I've seen it called Tumblr poetry and prose poetry. Regardless of what you want to call it, or whether or not you agree with the nature of its being in vogue, I do not like this style, and for a while it seriously had me questioning whether I even liked modern poetry at all. Well, after reading TREMULOUS HINGE, I can safely say, No, Tumblr poets. It is not me. It is you. I do like poetry.

TREMULOUS HINGE is a prize-winning collection of poems that rely on word-play, vivid visual imagery, and evocative language to convey startlingly poignant ideas. I liked nearly every poem in here except for the ones that looked like word soup (you'll know which ones I mean when I see them). The vocabulary was incredible, the ideas were complex, and the allusions were unusual.

From out of the bare serene, the stars
all striate - and you arch in monochrome,
like a rainbow above
a distant hill in a silent film (27)

-

In your letters too,
ellipses


rise like midges (41)

-

Already hibiscus
stoops by the roadside, dust-dangled.
The fields resound with stridulations of crickets -
the hills torched with mist (85)

If you, like me, are feeling burned out when it comes to poetry, check out TREMULOUS HINGE. It's quite good.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 out of 5 stars