Sunday, February 26, 2017

Storm Born by Richelle Mead

When I was a teenager and did not know the difference between good fiction and bad fiction, I used to sit and read stories on this site called Quizilla - which, funnily enough, mostly had bad fiction. There, I read a lot of anime fanfiction and original fiction paranormal romance stories usually involving vampires or demons. One of the common themes? The heroine was nearly always a virgin and whoever won the sexual race/lottery and got to have sex with her first usually unlocked some sort of magical sex-triggered super power that would help them rule the world. So obviously, the heroines in these stories got kidnapped and/or threatened with rape a lot, because this is what immortals do: scope out Craigslist ads that say: "Me: human girl with magical hoo-ha. You: evil demonic overlord who wants to get some. Let's drag this psychodrama out for 80k words or so, or until the author grows up and gets bored."

Why do I bring this up?

STORM BORN was literally that bad fic from my childhood retold. Eugenie Markham is a Ghostbuster of the Otherworld, which is cool - but it turns out she's also the daughter of a really powerful immortal and there's a prophecy that states that if someone has sex with her and gets her pregnant, their heir will rule the world. What does this mean? For the majority of the book, nearly every single male character the heroine encounters tries to rape her. Every. Single. One.

There's also two heroes (identifiable by the fact that they do not rape the heroine - thank God). I don't like love triangles and this one is pretty bad. There's Kiyo, a half-Japanese, half-Latino kitsune, who's this boring nice guy who likes to be dominant in the bedroom (sort of) and then there's Dorian, a faerie king, who's this boring player guy who likes to be dominant in the bedroom (sort of). Also, he has a rope fetish. I didn't really like either of them. They were bland, although Dorian was the better of the two. This made me so upset because the heroes in Vampire Academy were so broody and attractive, so I know she can write good heroes. They just weren't present here.

This is actually my second time reading STORM BORN. I read it for the first time when I was in college and really liked it - I gave it 3.5 stars rounded up to 4. Now, after reading it again, I'm kind of wondering what my 21-year-old self was thinking. STORM BORN is incredibly problematic and not just because of the rape plot. She has a roommate who pretends to be Native American to score with babes (ugh), and everyone calls him "Indian" (UGH) and it's portrayed as soooo quirky you guys, ha ha, cultural appropriation is so funny (UGH!!!). At one point, after she and Dorian have rope bondage sex, she tells him that she feels uncomfortable because bondage is basically rape. Um, no it isn't? Also, NO IT ISN'T? I thought that was an incredibly shitty thing to say, especially since she was the one who asked for the rope in the first place. He corrects her, and explains, but still ew.

Don't even get me started on the whole Jasmine plotline either. That was gross.

I tried to think about how I wanted to rate this book because some of the sex scenes were okay, and there was a lot of creativity that went into building this world. Mead doesn't just stick to the usual cannon of werewolves and vampires - she did her research and came up with some characters you normally don't see in paranormal fiction. But there was also a lot of stuff that was just really cringe-worthy or badly-done in this book and I couldn't in good conscience give it anything higher than a 2*. It was fun reading a story that could have been straight out of my teen years - but they're the teen years for a reason. You grow up, move on, and find something better.

UNFORTUNATELY, someone (i.e. me) bought all four books in this series because they were bundled together for $2.99 (it was a really good deal, okay), so I guess I'll see you on the other side.

2 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 24, 2017

Dreams for the Dead by Heather Crews

Disclaimer: Heather is my friend.

I bought this book recently because it was one of the few books of Heather's I don't already own. Let me preface this review by saying that I have very specific ideas of how vampire books ought to be written, and that I tend to subscribe to the pre-2000s view of vampires books: that is, back when vampire romance could also double as horror; has a moody, Gothic atmosphere; and tended to be as dark as blood, with some deep philosophical themes.

Dawn Larkin is an ordinary college student who's out at a bar with her friend Leila one night, meeting Leila's new fling. She ends up being a witness to her friend's kidnapping that same night and is later taken by the same people. She thinks they're a bunch of sexually depraved psychopaths, which is only half-true: they're a family of vampires who keep people as their "toys."

The vampire who kidnaps Dawn is named Tristan, and he kind of has a young Jim Morrison vibe going on. Dawn is attracted to him, while also repulsed and afraid of him, too, and eventually it turns into a romance - but a weird romance. A very weird romance. Like if you took TWILIGHT, made Edward a genuinely bad man, made made James an even worse man, and turned Carlisle and all the vampire siblings into gleeful killing machines, you would have an approximation of what DREAMS OF THE DEAD would be like. Plus, kinky vampire sex, which definitely was not in TWILIGHT.

For about 50-60% of the book, it was pretty much perfect. I was sure it was going to be a 5-star book. Toward the end, some things happened that I didn't really like, but that was just me being annoyed that the story didn't end exactly how I wanted it to. I can't really go into what, exactly, annoyed me, because spoilers, but you can chalk it up to a personal preference or ask me in the comments, and I'll be happy to tell you. Mostly, I loved this book. The Las Vegas setting is so colorful and adds a lot of atmosphere to the book. Tristan and Dawn's trainwreck of a relationship is so fascinating to watch. The supporting characters are equally interesting, although I wanted to learn more about Jared and Augusta and (especially) Branek. He needs his own book, okay, I'm serious now.

Also, I was into this book enough that I came up with a mini soundtrack of my own for it:

"Dreaming in the Daylight" by Harlin James and Duffy Sylvander

"Chokehold" by Adam Lambert

"A Broken Toy" by John Moukarzel

I've read five of her stories now and this is probably Heather's best, in my opinion. It's the most developed and interesting, with some truly flawed characters. Honestly, though? As long as she keeps writing vampires, I'll keep coming back again and again, because she's amazing at it. The world needs more doomy and gloomy vampire novels.

 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 20, 2017

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

While reading Joe Abercrombie's HALF A KING, I was struck by the most peculiar sense of deja vu. Something about the story felt so familiar to me - which is weird, because I'd never picked up anything by this author before in my life!

As I continued reading, eventually it hit me. HALF A KING is like a fantasy version of Robert Louis Stevenson's works. Just think about it for a second, hear me out. You have your teenage boy protagonist who ends up losing everything he has because of a tragedy. The people who are close to him betray him. He ends up kidnapped/in poverty, and is forced to make the best of his circumstances, while endearing himself to others because of his cleverness or kindness, later ending up better off than he was before. Add to that a generous dash of adventure and a bit of Viking-inspired mythology in a land of ice and snow, and you have a pretty compelling setting and story line.

We ended up reading this book in another reading group I'm apart of, and when I was explaining the book to people, I told them to imagine a Game of Thrones-like book for younger readers, only with Tyrion Lanister as the main character. Yarvi, the protagonist, really is a lot like Tyrion. He's disfigured (one of his hands is deformed), and therefore will never be as useful in combat as someone who is not. His father hates him/is embarrassed by him because of this birth defect, and treats him like poo because of it. The rest of his family sneers at him. When his father and brother both die before his time, Yarvi becomes king. An event he isn't really prepared for, since he was in training to become a minister, not a royal. He takes the crown, gets married, and boom - BETRAYAL!

The rest of the story follows Yarvi as he escapes death, is sold by slavers, and then, later on, is forced to brave the elements...all in the name of revenge. There's always a lot going on, and even though the book isn't super long, it features a pretty large supporting cast. At times, it could almost be exhausting, trying to keep up with all the new developments! I was like, "Oh my God, book. Wait for me..." And the book was like, "Nah, keep up, wimp. We're almost there. Just a little further."

Even though I really enjoyed HALF A KING, I do think the pacing was a little off. Towards the end, the book slowed down noticeably. Then it picked up, and there were some twists that surprised me. Like, I literally did NOT see them coming, and I always see them coming. So that was kind of cool. But the beginning of the book was nonstop action, so it was annoying to have to slog through a very long journey. I hate journey sequences. I also thought that Yarvi felt a little wooden at times. Sometimes he felt like a robot with his constant swearing of revenge.

If you're into the idea GOT: #TeamTyrion edition, though, pick this book up. It really does deliver in that regard, and I must say that I enjoyed reading about a character who actually was clever and didn't just have the narrator tell us he was.

Also, the female characters in this book are unanimously bad-ass whether a villainess or a heroine, so that was nice, as well.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

I consider myself an unofficial expert on celebrity memoirs. I haven't read all of them (although I would like to - even the stupid ones, because I am incredibly nosy and devour celebrity gossip the way other people devour Dorritos or fake news), but I've read a fair amount, and they usually follow a typical narrative arc. In BORN A CRIME, Trevor Noah takes that arc, flattens it out, and beats you over the head with it.

I love Trevor Noah. I love what he brings to The Daily Show. I think he's incredibly funny, intellectual, erudite, and charming. I also think he's cute, but that's neither here nor there. I actually first learned about him through his (in)famous video with "she who shall not be named" (no, not Voldemort's sister - but close). I was really impressed by how he went about the interview. That could have been really ugly - but it wasn't; it was a somewhat civil discourse between two opposing views, about why the political beliefs of a certain demographic can be incredibly problematic.

When I found out that this Trevor Noah person, this cool political cucumber, had a memoir out, I immediately put myself on hold for it at the library. Unfortunately, so did about a billion other people. It took two freaking months for me to finally get my hands on BORN A CRIME. Normally, when I wait that long, I start to lose interest and by the time I get the book I sometimes forget why I even bothered to put it on hold in the first place. Not so, here.

Trevor Noah's memoir is not like other memoirs because he doesn't talk about his "famous" life at all. BORN A CRIME is about Trevor Noah's childhood growing up in South Africa while it was still under apartheid. He talks about slavery, segregation, racism, poverty, domestic violence and abuse, and all manner of other troubling topics, but he does it in a way that, while not exactly unpleasant, never becomes so graphic or unpleasant that I had to put the book down and take a deep breath. At times, he even manages to make the terrible situation he's describing funny, which is truly a testament to his amazing sense of humor.

There's a lot more I can say, but most of it would just be recaps from the memoir and more praise about Trevor himself. I really, really loved this book. It kind of reminds me of another memoir I read about a biracial man, THE COLOR OF WATER by James McBride, but I feel like BORN A CRIME is going to be a lot more accessible because a) he's a pop-cultural icon, b) Noah's book is broader in scope in terms of topics discussed, and c) he's a millennial so his language will resonate with a lot of people, especially the young bloggers, who are reading and reviewing this book.

Read this book. It was totally worth waiting for two months for.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Banner of the Damned by Sherwood Smith

I'm really annoyed at this book. Not because it was terrible, or even because it was bad - no, I'm angry because it could have been AMAZING and instead it was merely okay. Part of that lies with the incredibly misleading summary, which would have you believe that this is a fantasy romance story, possibly with elements of F/F. Instead, what romance there is in here is severely underplayed, with the focus being on politics and court intrigue. Don't get me wrong; I love court intrigue, I thrive on court intrigue, but that summary set me up for something else entirely.

Our narrator, Emras, is only mentioned once in the summary on Goodreads, which would have you think that she's a secondary character and not, you know, the voice driving the narrative. And what an utterly dull voice it is...honestly, it's to this story's credit that BANNER OF THE DAMNED could be as engaging as it was with dull-as-dishwater Emras telling the story.

Emras is a scribe. She's arrogant, sanctimonious, and hypocritical. These things sort of end up almost being her downfall by the end of the book, which actually says some pretty cool things about how power corrupts even when you attempt to use it for good, although it doesn't really come to bite her in the butt as much as it should. After going to scribe school, she's appointed to Princess Lasva to be her royal scribe. Lasva is a Colendi princess. Colend is a fantasy land that borrows heavily from both Japanese and French culture. This shouldn't work, but it does, and what follows is an amazingly detailed description of all the little cuts and secret languages they use to communicate in the very height of courtly fashion. I'm sure this will bore some people to tears, but I found it fascinating.

Lasva is in love with a man named Kaidas...I think he's the son of a baron. Lesser nobility, in any case. They carry on a romance that titillates the court with how secretive it is, and fills the duchess, Carola, with burning, vindictive envy. When Lasva is forced to end her relationship with Kaidas and marry a foreign prince by her Queen sister, you can bet that Carola swoops in to steal her man only to realize that being married doesn't necessitate love. Lasva finds this out too with her husband-to-be, Ivandred. His court, Marloven Hesea, is as sparse and crude as Colend is opulent and courtly. In a territory of unrest, he and his people thrive on strength and honor and war, and even have a secret school that's entirely devoted to making boys into young men, and young men into soldiers.

Lasva, Kaidas, Carola, and Ivandred were my favorite characters. I rooted for Lasva and Kaidas to be together, and my heart broke for them when they were forced to marry elsewhere for political reasons. It took me a while to get over it, and while I never rooted for Kaidas and Carola, I gradually began to ship Ivandred and Lasva. I'm such a sucker for strong men with fragile hearts, and Ivandred has such a tragic backstory. Also, am I the only one who desperately wants an M/M prequel about Invandred and Dandrid's relationship with they were young men? Yes? Yes? I thought not.

While in Marloven, Lasva quickly realizes that the land that's become her new home is fraught with terrible danger. War, fracturing alliances, and dark, dark magic. She also realizes that the men around her are too proud to lose face and sacrifice honor, so she embarks upon a brilliant campaign of sowing fragile seeds of peace through the women with Emras at her side, hoping all the while that her husband and his enemies won't trample them to oblivion or be found out by magical spies.

In one of my status updates, I said that this is pretty much Game of Thrones for women and I stand by that. This world is a world that has evolved beyond rape. War is fought fiercely and brutally but without gratuitous torture and sexual and physical violence. The world is just as developed and the characters are just as flawed and complex, but they're a lot more likable and human-like, even the bad ones. Let's be honest, a lot of the "people" in the Game of Throne series are just monsters in human skin. BANNER OF THE DAMNED has politics, intrigue, war, magic, love, and romance, but it manages to balance all these things and show how the characters change and develop because of these various things, for better or for worse. Also, it does something that Game of Thrones doesn't: it touches upon the many different kinds of love and sexualities. For example, in Marloven Hesea, they have a history of gender fluidity and it shows in the flexibility of the pronouns in their ballads. Colend has several different names for "love" depending on who you're attracted to (those who like men, those who like women, those who like both), or not. Emras, the narrator, is asexual, and the author is careful to point out that while Emars can still feel love and affection - and does - it is only the physical expression, in the sexual sense, that puts her off, although she can still enjoy touch.

The problem is, as I said, that Emras just isn't a very interesting character. I was fascinated with all the side characters orbiting around her like satellites and couldn't figure out how she could be so dull. Even when she's learning magic spells, I could scarcely be bothered to care. She just didn't seem to have much personality and I couldn't quite figure out if that's because her will had been utterly bent towards adhering to the rules of being a scribe (although Birdy and Tiflis went to the same school and had the same training, and they didn't have this boredom issue), or if it's just that the author is stronger at writing in the third person than the first person, and therefore comes across as impersonal as habit because when writing third person you have to be removed to let the characters tell their stories. Regardless of the reason, Emras was this wonderful story's downfall, and I'm pissed at her for it, because the writing and world-building and characterization (of anyone but Emras) are utterly brilliant.

Also, Ivandred: you poor, sad Marloven cinnamon roll. You didn't deserve what happened to you. :(

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins

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

As a nod to black history month, my romance group decided it would be fun to read a historical romance novel featuring two characters of black ancestry. We chose this book. I was really excited about this pick, because I've quickly grown to love Beverly Jenkins's work. Her writing style is reminiscent of Lisa Kleypas and Courtney Milan. Her headstrong heroines and swoony males, remind me of Kleypas, as well as how much attention she pays to the side characters, even having them walk in and out of later books. She reminds me of Courtney Milan in how she focuses her efforts on empowered women and people of color, which is so important because of how those narratives are often pushed aside.

FORBIDDEN is about a black woman named Eddy Carmichael. Both her parents are dead and she's estranged from her prostitute sister. After being robbed, she decides to head out to San Francisco while depending on the kindness of strangers to get there because her sister won't give her a dime. Of course, she gets robbed again, and then left for dead in the middle of the desert by a con artist just as soon as he discovers she won't trade him her body.

Rhine Fontaine, the hero, is the one who finds her and helps nurse her back to health. Rhine, the dreamboat on the cover, is a wealthy business owner and an active player in Nevada's Republican political scene. He's also the son of a slave, and has been "passing" for White for all these years because of the many opportunities it offers him that he wouldn't have access to otherwise. Rhine never questioned that decision until he meets Eddy and finds her much more appealing than his fiancee, a white society woman who is absolutely determined to wrap him around her finger.

I was actually picturing the hero and heroine in my head as Tiana and Naveen from The Princess and the Frog. Eddy is an excellent cook (oh my God, the food descriptions in this book) and wants to one day have her own business or at the very least be totally self-reliant. Rhine, on the other hand, is a smooth-talking ladies' man who knows he is good looking and entirely too used to getting his way because of it. I wasn't completely sold on the romance between them at first because when Rhine meets Eddy, he's already engaged to another woman and makes advances towards her anyway. She turns him down and in the end, he decides to break things off with Natalie, his fiance, not just to be with Eddy (although mostly) but also because he realizes that she isn't a nice person.

Funny, how it often takes another woman to make dudes realize that in fiction...

I've only read two books by Jenkins, the other was DESTINY'S EMBRACE, but I'm already noticing some common themes. Jenkins seems to favor the "virgin and the rake" trope: both heroes in these books were man-whores, and both heroines were virgins. The heroine is both these books is so beautiful that she literally (especially in the case of DESTINY'S) has to fight off a line of suitors. Jenkins is also a fan of history, so a significant portion of the book usually focuses on some aspect of that - well outside the degree necessary for simply setting the scene. DESTINY'S EMBRACE talks a lot about the history of California, especially in Yolo County. FORBIDDEN discusses Republican and Democratic politics in the U.S. before they switched platforms, as well as racism.

I'll admit that the ending made me raise my eyebrows a bit because it felt so dramatic. But given what I knew about Natalie's pride and her desire for others to see her as superior, I guess it felt like what happened could have happened. Maybe. I also felt like Rhine's "big reveal" was rather anticlimactic. A lot of people owed him money and probably resented his power. Given what I know about bigotry and cognitive dissonance, I'm sure that far more people would have been quick to attempt petty revenge once he told everyone the truth about his heritage. That said, it sure was satisfying to see Rhine anticipate their every move and put them all in their place. Take that, bigots!

FORBIDDEN was a quick, fun read. It had some problems, sure, but I loved the characters and it has some pretty steamy scenes between the hero and the heroine that were much better written than the ones in DESTINY'S EMBRACE. Plus, I haven't been feeling well lately so it was nice to read something light. The research Jenkins did for this book was obvious, as was the care she put into developing the secondary characters and making them all feel three-dimensional. Reading this reminded me that I still have THROUGH THE STORM to read, which is about Rhine's younger sister, Sable. Maybe I'll pick that one up next. There may be a Rhine cameo in it for me. ;)

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Black Key by Amy Ewing

I've been sitting here for several moments trying to figure out how to begin this review. The Lone City is such a weird YA trilogy: it's dark, and yet not dark enough; it makes genuine attempts to be gritty, but is bogged down by cliche and tepid romance; it appears to be a fantasy novel, yet the world-building is so terrible that it could just as easily be a drastically different version of our world. In short, The Lone City is the perfect storm of things that I don't generally like in YA, and especially NOT in YA fantasy, and by all rights, I should have figuratively thrown this book out the window (figuratively, because I read it on my laptop, woo).

And yet, by some miracle, The Lone City was...okay.

THE JEWEL was confusing and shallow, but was dark enough that I thought there might be something to the world-building. It raised more questions than it answered, however, so my expectations for book two went up. THE WHITE ROSE answered some of my questions, but raised a whole host of new ones and took the world-building in the complete opposite direction of what I thought the author was setting it up for. Suddenly, I wasn't looking at a dystopian future, but a bizarre alternate universe fantasy world, apparently.


Book three, THE BLACK KEY, was fair game. I decided that I just wasn't going to have any expectations; this time, I was just going to sit back and try to enjoy this crazy, crazy little ride.


Violet used to be a surrogate - an empty vessel for the rich upper class to impregnate and then kill when they were done with her. Except, all surrogates have magical powers. And it turns out that these magical powers are far more potent than anyone bothered to tell them, and are linked to the land. Because, as it turns out, the royal class are invaders in this world; the surrogates are the original inhabitants - "the Paladins" - who were enslaved and then exploited by the invaders.

At the end of the last book, it's revealed that Violet's preteen sister has been impregnated by Violet's ex-owner, so she and the other Paladins devise a plan to not only take The Jewel by force and free all the surrogates, but also to rescue Violet's sister. Violet's love interest, Ash, goes on to stage the rebellion while Violet poses as a lady-in-waiting inside her old house for reconnaissance. The clock for their grand coup is ticking down. All they need are the last few pieces of the puzzle.

The world-building was never fully resolved (or if it was, I missed it). We know that the royals are exploitative pieces of sh*t, but the middle classes weren't really explained. It's sort of implied that Paladin powers can skip a generation, which is why Violet's mom didn't have any, so I guess we're just supposed to assume that everyone who isn't royalty is a "native" inhabitant who was then subjugated by outsiders. We also never really found out where the invaders came from, why they can't get pregnant, and why the hell they have cars. (I'm still hung up on that getaway car from THE WHITE ROSE. It makes me think that, like THE SELECTION, this world might be a futuristic version of our world, but again, since the world-building was so badly done, I can't be sure.)

I felt the pregnancy thing with Hazel was a cop-out, but mostly I was relieved that a preteen hadn't actually been impregnated against her will because that would have been awful. I decided I hated Violet again in this book, because all she does is a) whine, b) blow cover, and c) make stupid and selfish decisions. When she's going undercover under the name "Imogen" she actually falls for it when someone tries to trick her by saying, "Violet?" Add to that the fact that she can't stop smirking at people and glaring at Carnelian (her "rival" for Ash), and it's amazing she wasn't discovered from page one of this ridiculous plan. But going back to cop-outs, in the conclusion of this book there are two glaring ones that I literally could not believe.

Cop-out #1: This whole plan has been building up to getting revenge against the people who exploited them. Violet has it in for The Duchess, who killed one of her friends, almost got her love interest killed, and then kidnapped her younger sister. At the end of the book, she has the opportunity to use her powers to kill The Duchess - in fact, The Duchess even challenges her to do it - and Violet actually says, "I could, but I'm not gonna." (Maybe not in those exact words, but it was close.)

I'm sorry, but WHAT?

Cop-out #2: Violet went undercover to save her sister. She knows that her sister was kidnapped because of her. She's constantly talking about how much she loves her sister. But when she thinks she might have to choose between her sister - who she's known and allegedly loved for years - and this boy she just met but has decided she loves for some reason, Violet literally freezes in place and does nothing, while thinking (again, not in these exact words, but close), "I can't make this choice!"

B*tch, I don't see a Kellogg's label on your forehead, so you cannot POSSIBLY be cereal.

But don't worry, Violet doesn't have to make any hard choices at the end, because Raven - who has undergone much more terrible things at the hands of the royal class - kills The Duchess and saves both Ash and Hazel, so Violet doesn't have to decide between her sister and her insta-love. I couldn't help but feel like the author wanted to keep Violet a "nice" person, and thought that Violet wouldn't be able to be "nice" anymore if she had a murder under her belt, however deserved. There was a lot of cognitive dissonance and back-tracking, with Violet deciding things like, "Oh hey, Carnelian isn't a bad person after all, even though she tried to steal my boyfriend (whom I technically stole from her...) because she totally saved my boyfriend for me so I wouldn't have to lift a finger! Wow, what a great gal!" It led to some serious character inconsistencies, and I lost whatever respect for her character that I reluctantly gained over the last two books. I've decided she's a spoiled twit.

The Lone City is a strange trilogy. I can't say it's one of the best I've read, but it was engaging enough that I couldn't put it down and never really felt bored. Some readers might be annoyed by Violet's selfishness and confused by the world-building, but it's different enough that they'll probably be grudgingly fascinated by it, like I was. If The Lone City is anything, it's definitely unique.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn

The Kitty Norville series got old, fast, but I still think Carrie Vaughn is a great writer. She's written some fantastic shorts that you can read for free on and her non-Kitty Norville books, which are mostly standalones, are unique and daring and mostly enjoyable. You can imagine my excitement then when I found out that Vaughn had decided to break the mold yet again and publish what looked like young adult space opera.

Space. Opera.

Speaking as someone who was reared on a steady diet of Star Wars and Star Trek, there are no two words in the literary universe that will have me running in your direction faster. Well, okay, that's not entirely true: "free bodice-rippers" would also have me getting pretty speedy in your direction, but I'm not sure whether the hyphen counts as cheating or not.

MARTIANS ABROAD isn't about actual aliens, but a bunch of teenagers who were reared on a Martian Colony and are now being sent to Earth to attend a prestigious academy. Our narrator is a teenage girl named Polly Newton, who is going with her "twin" brother Charles, and a handful of other Martians. Polly makes a huge stink about going, and throughout the book her refrain can basically be summed up as "Earth sucks, Mars is better."

And she wonders why she's not making any friends...

The Galileo Academy is like elite boarding school meets military school. They're closely supervised at all times by the tyrannical Ms. Stanton, have pretty much no free time, and it's clear from the get-go that many of the students and faculty are biased against Colonists...for some unspecified reason. Polly, on the other hand, is small and thin because of Mars's lower gravity, and she has trouble getting accustomed to the weird Earth food, can't eat certain things because of her gut bacteria, and isn't quite acclimated to the heavy gravity, thus finding herself constantly out of breath.

I appreciated the thought that clearly went into what it would be like living on a planet other than the one you were born on (gut bacteria and gravity were nice touches), but the story itself was boring. Polly is an incredibly immature heroine who acts more like a preteen than a teenager, and apart from her flaunting the rules and getting into fights with everyone from her brother, to the parents of other students, to the principal herself, there's pretty much no action until the very end. As a reader, I really didn't think that ending was worth the payoff. It felt like a pretty big cop-out.

How was it a cop-out? Let me put it like this - when I was in elementary school, there was this book I used to really love in a popular series you probably read, too. It was about a camp where the other students were curiously hostile, the faculty were either aloof or overtly threatening for no apparent reason, and horrible things kept happening causing the other campers to just disappear. At the end of the book, the author M. Night Shyamalan'd the heck out of me: it turns out that the camp was just a "test" to see if the kid, who is actually an alien, is ready to journey to planet Earth.

The twist in this book wasn't nearly as exciting.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Winner's Kiss by Marie Rutkoski

It's been a while since I committed myself to finishing one of those accursed YA trilogies, but with The Winner's series, I just couldn't help myself. Book one, THE WINNER'S CURSE, was an excellent book mired in intense political intrigue and a forbidden love story rooted in hatred and class differences. Book two, THE WINNER'S CRIME, was even darker, exploring the terrible costs of war in surprisingly brutal terms for YA. There was more emotional angst than I normally like in my books, but it was (mostly) warranted and didn't bother me as much as it would have in another book. THE WINNER'S KISS, the final book in the series, brings the story arc to a close with complex strategy, high-risk battle tactics, all overshadowed by doomed love.

You can read my reviews of the first two books here and here, since I won't be discussing them too much. THE WINNER'S KISS is a relatively long book and there's a lot to go over.

Book two ends with Kestrel betraying her people, and in the beginning of this book she's already in the midst of reaping the consequences for her treason. It's pretty brutal, and by the end of the book she still hasn't quite recovered from the effects of her punishment. Arin, meanwhile, is still wallowing in his feels and exploring his tentative new alliance with the Dacran people and their scarred prince. He has no idea what has happened to Kestrel; as far as he knows, she's betrayed him, too.

I said in a status update that book one was intense, book two was tragic, and book three just punches you unrelentingly in your feels while laughing at you and calling you a crybaby. As unbearable as the angst and the whining was in book two, it's a lot easier to stomach than the sheer psychological and physical tortures that Rutkoski subjects her characters to in this book. There were passages that would have had me gripping the covers with white knuckles had I been reading a hard copy, and I skimmed over those passages a little more quickly than I should have just to ensure that everything was going to be all right. I was never 100% sure - until the very end of the book, I couldn't be certain that Rutkoski wasn't going to pull a George R. R. Martin.

The political intrigue alone makes this book worth reading. I hypothesized in my review of book two that the author's living room is probably piled high with nonfiction, and judging from her afterword, where she gives thanks to some of the authors whose works she used for research/inspiration, this is probably true. That weighty research really shows in how battles are fought, prisoners are treated, alliances are formed broken, and coups are staged in all of the books, but THE WINNER'S KISS especially. I also want to say that I am so glad that Risha was not killed, because I grew to love her character over the last two books, and some authors have the unhappy habit of killing off people of color in fantasy novels (and fiction in general) to further the development of the main characters.

This was a really great series. It only just ended last year, so I feel lucky that I was able to read all the books right away without having to wait for the new book. There's so much going on in these novels that I'm sure it's very easy to forget the minor details that make the world-building in these books. Richelle Mead's Age of X series was like that for me. I loved the world-building, but since I was receiving them as advanced reader copies, I'd have to wait quite a while between books. They were so detail-heavy that I eventually gave up, because the wait was impacting my ability to appreciate the series. If you're going to start these books, I suggest that you get all three at once, so when you get hooked you can just binge all three without any wait time in between.

I can't wait to see what this author comes up next. Hopefully more fantasy - or maybe space opera. Regardless, she's earned a spot on my "I need it NOW!" list of auto-buy authors.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

RoseBlood by A.G. Howard

ROSEBLOOD is about three of my favorite things: The Phantom of the Opera, the Comte de Saint-Germain, and vampires. All three together? Oh, heck yes. Set in a gloomy boarding school/converted opera house in the middle of France, I was certain that this neo-Gothic, ROSEBLOOD, would be able to do one of my favorite classics justice in a new and interesting way.

I was wrong.

It kills me to say this, because the writing in ROSEBLOOD is so beautiful that it actually almost convinced me that ROSEBLOOD was a better book than it actually was. A.G. Howard can write. However, her characters and story-telling choices are odd. Like, campy 80s horror movie odd. There were so many moments in here that had me blinking, and going, "Did that really happen?" Towards the end of the story, it happened more and more.


First, let me get something out of the way that really bothered me. I hate this new YA trend of taking the "ugly" characters in classic stories and making them beautiful. Sarah J. Maas did this in A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES, taking the "beast" and making him a gorgeous fairy prince cursed to wear a mask. A.G. Howard does this in ROSEBLOOD, with the "phantom" love interest being not the tortured, disfigured genius, but the tortured, disfigured genius's adopted (but gorgeous) son, Thorn. Coincidentally enough, Thorn also wears a mask, just like Tam Lin, only for fun. When you do this, it takes all the original meaning out of the story. Part of what made Beauty and the Beast such a powerful story was that the beast was a horrible man when he was attractive and human; it took being ugly and monstrous to make him realize how lonely and awful it is to be despised when your exterior matches your interior, and it took a love that was based on more than looks (well, you can argue about that, since, you know, "Beauty" and the Beast) to redeem him. Likewise, part of what makes Phantom of the Opera such a tragic story is that Erik's genius and artistry goes unappreciated because of his lack of looks; what draws him to Christine isn't just her ethereal beauty and innate talent, but also because he sees her as his soulmate; the beautiful foil to his hideous appearance.


Anyway, to the plot of the story. Our heroine is named "Rune." She has a tragic history. She doesn't want to go to this special school because she has a special ability: she is compelled to sing at certain moments, and always does it beautifully. Naturally, she is "compelled" to do this while the resident Queen Bee is auditioning, before pretending to pass out. Her mother sticks around for a while but is about to go on honeymoon with Rune's new stepfather, so like Bella Swan's mom, or Mindy from Animaniacs, she goes, "Okay, I love you, bye-bye," and swans off, leaving Rune to her own devices.  Luckily, Rune makes a whole bunch of friends, immediately, who are so fascinated by her lack of personality and her special secrets that they see absolutely zero problems about sneaking into her room and snooping into her belongings. This happens several times.

Rune meets a boy named Thorn who appears around the Opera House. He always wears a half-mask, but is super attracted to the half of the face that she can see. He tells her that they're "twin souls." No, literally, they are two halves of the same soul: incarnations of the Christine from the Phantom of the Opera myth. Only, Thorn can't sing because when he was young, he was kidnapped by sex traffickers, and his voice scared them so much that they poured lye down his throat. So instead of singing, Thorn plays the violin, and when he plays, Rune no longer feels sick after she sings.

This is because Rune, Thorn, and the Phantom (Erik), are all PSYCHIC VAMPIRES who use their magical abilities to draw out people's life force.

Psychic. Vampires.

Erik even owns a themed club in Paris. A rave club, where he picks off victims when he's so inclined. This is one of many moments, when I was just shocked and could only mumble, "Phantom...of the Rave? Phantom...rave...huh? Rave...phantom...rave..."


I'm sorry, I can't let that go. Erik doesn't belong anywhere near a rave. I refuse to believe that his artistic integrity would allow him to tolerate dub-step.

If you're wondering where Rune fits into all this, it ties back to the Phantom. Apparently, he and Christine got together at one point and had a baby (YESSSSSS). The baby was stillborn, but Erik has been keeping it alive in a Frankenstein-style incubator for all these years, waiting for Christine's reincarnation so he could kidnap that person, cut out their vocal chords, and implant them in the baby...because this will bring the baby to life again for some reason. All his attempts to get to Rune have been to activate her power, have Thorn seduce her, and then basically cut out her throat.




I've seen and read several Phantom of the Opera adaptions, and this was one of the worst because it was so weird. It reminded me, actually, of that bad Italian remake, Il fantasma dell'opera (1998), which features Julian Sands looking less like the Phantom of the Opera and more like a reject from Interview of the Vampire since a) he's not disfigured (and is actually pretty hot), and b) the movie is less about him pursuing Christina for his sensually artistic purposes and more about sex (if I recall correctly, it actually features an orgy scene) and countless violent murder sprees. Not that ROSEBLOOD was gratuitously violent or needlessly sexual - it wasn't; it's similar because, like Il fantasma dell'opera, it was so over the top that in its attempt to differentiate itself from the work it was paying homage to, it pretty much lost sight of the original's purpose and become something totally and completely different. For better or for worse.

P.S. I'm disappointed to say that the Saint-Germaine connection basically goes nowhere, which is a shame, because he was a fascinating guy. For another story about Saint-Germaine and vampires that's actually pretty good, I suggest you check out Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint-Germaine series.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Glass Houses by Rachel Caine

Reading GLASS HOUSES is a lot like watching a horror movie. The main character is an idiot, and all plot development in the story line requires that you suspend your disbelief about said idiocy. What makes it hard, though, is that Claire Danvers is branded as a "genius." She's sixteen - "sixteen and a half," she'll be quick to tell you - and yet, got accepted to Harvard, MIT, Yale, and all these other great schools, but her parents don't want her to be far from the house (dafuq), so they send her to a school that's a cross between a party school and a community college (I repeat, dafuq), in the middle of Morganville, Texas. "You can transfer, later," is the argument.

Claire immediately cheeses off one the "popular" girls, named Monica, who is basically a cross between Joffrey from Game of Thrones and Regina from Mean Girls. She's one of those "mean girls" who hangs out with a clique of her own (Claire calls them the Monickettes, which is just one example of her brilliance). She's also a studied psychopath who thinks it's perfectly okay to beat people up, attack them with beakers of acid, and then later set them on fire. You're probably wondering where the adults are in this book, because that's what I was wondering, but Claire (stupidly) lies to her parents and her friends about her safety, over and over, and a code of non-interference is built into the rules of Morganville, which is run by vampires, so no adults are ever going to look out for her safety.

How convenient.

Claire ends up staying with these "cool" "alternative" kids in a place called The Glass House, which is amusing for two reasons: 1) The Glass House (2001) is the name of a so-bad-it's-good horror thriller and 2) it is incredibly dated with what passes for cool. Not only is the "it's so lame to be smart" thing outdated, but Claire's new reject friends are a Goth, a musician, and a punk-ish tough guy. It's so early 2000s that it almost physically hurts, you guys. Her new friends tell her about how the town is run (by vampires) and this is arguably the most interesting aspect of the story, because I thought Caine did vampire politics in a relatively interesting way. The vampires own the city, and the cops. Important humans have Protection in the form of bracelets (basically: do not bite) and can carry over to family members, but like health insurance, expire when the wearer turns 18 (yet another reason this story is dated - thanks, Obamacare!). The best way to avoid being bitten is to stay off their radar, play by the rules, be home before curfew, and oh, yeah, don't invite them in.

That's actually another thing I liked about GLASS HOUSES: Caine uses traditional vampire lore. Garlic and crosses repel vampires. They can't be out in the sunlight unless they're very old or very powerful. They can't cross your threshold unless they've been invited in. They kill to feed. Make no mistake, these are the evil kinds of vampires that your mom grew up with, and honestly, my personal favorite kind. The world building was something I had absolutely zero problems with, and I kept thinking to myself what a shame it was that the main character was so freaking stupid.

I just couldn't get on board with Claire. Her friends were okay, but their dialogue was very wooden and they didn't have much in the way of personality, either. Even though it's written in the third person, there's a lot of annoying asides that are supposed to be Claire's "voice" and it's very annoying - more so, because never once does she display that "intelligence" that got her accepted into all those good universities. What's wrong with writing a female character who's intelligent and cunning? Why does she have to be a vapid, spineless victim who does nothing but remind people that she's almost seventeen, cry, get herself almost murdered by at least three different people, and cry some more? And she's so dumb. This is a character who could be around the corner from the guy with a chainsaw, and be all, "How delightful. A swarm full of friendly, happy bees have come to bring me honey! :D"

I'm a little afraid to pick up the next book, but I bought books 1 & 2 bundled so now I feel obligated. Rachel Caine, I thought you could do no wrong. Your Weather Wardens series is awesome. :(

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

The Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski

THE WINNER'S CURSE was a great book, with a great plot, and great characters. It was a non-stop thrill-ride of political intrigue, doomed love, and international espionage, all written with far more finesse and flair than you normally find in a YA fantasy novel. Costume fantasy seems to be the new fad in that department, where the "fantasy" aspect of a book serves no purpose other than to be a pretty backdrop for a romance (I am calling you out, COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES).

On the other hand, if ever there was a book that suffered from "second book syndrome" it is THE WINNER'S CRIME. After helping to grant the Herrani their independence, Kestrel is now a caged bird in the Valorian court, engaged to the son of and under the thumb of the vindictive emperor whose vengeance is slow but always cuts straight to the heart, and who sees nothing wrong with torture or harming the loved ones of those who he wishes ill.

The Herrani's independence, meanwhile, is under threat, as are the eastern plains of Dorcan. Arin, the governor of Herran, has his hands full trying to manage his people while also meeting the impossible demands of the Valorians. Despite all this, he also still can't forget his feelings for Kestrel, which fall somewhere on the continuum between love and hate since they're always coming in conflict.

The court intrigue I loved in the first book is still here, which is why this book gets such a high rating. Rutkoski is excellent at drawing out suspense, and creating effortlessly complex political drama that feels realistic (and probably mirrors actual historical events - I'm sure her home bookshelf is crammed with historical nonfiction). What annoyed me the most about THE WINNER'S CRIME is the complete 180 in personality both these main characters undergo. Arin starts doubting everything Kestrel every did for him, ever, and seems to conveniently forget any sort of fondness he had for her, while Kestrel becomes a complete victim and drags her feet about while whining about no one likes her. And nobody does like her in this book: an alternate title for WINNER'S CRIME could just as easily be "Everybody Hates Kestrel." I got really, really tired of all the wangst.

All qualms aside, though, The Winner's trilogy is a good series (so far, anyway). It's darker than most YA geared towards women dares to be, and is smart and surprisingly fierce. Speaking as someone who is a little burned out on "girls wearing pretty dresses engage in a forbidden fantasy affair"-type novels, WINNER'S was a welcome reprieve.  If you're a fan of POISON STUDY by Maria V. Snyder, or THE BONE SEASON by Samantha Shannon, you'll probably enjoy THE WINNER'S CURSE.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars.

Final Girls by Mira Grant

I haven't read a lot of Mira Grant's work, but what I have read, I've really liked. Grant writes good, compelling female heroines, and fuses science fiction and horror with an ease that I haven't really seen anyone master since Michael Crichton - and FINAL GIRLS is something out of a Michael Crichton nightmare.

Dr. Jennifer Webb is the inventor of some controversial technology that "treats" clients by having them undergo and resolve psychic conflict in the form of fully immersive virtual reality horror scenarios paired with psychotropic drugs, all to manipulate the emotional centers of the brain. Esther Hoffman is a pop science reporter for a magazine called Science Digest. She's been sent to the VR clinic by her boss to experience the scenario firsthand and see if the claims of its healing magic have any merit. She's understandably skeptical, because she's been burned by regression therapy before.

Esther agrees to go through the scenario, along with another patient - for SCIENCE - and immediately it's clear that...things are not right. Because when have things ever gone right in books or movies when done for SCIENCE? Science is always the villain in fiction.

FINAL GIRLS explores the relationship between mind and body in a way that's straight out of The Matrix: that fear response is an electrochemical reaction to outside stimuli. It actually struck me as really interesting, because the "conditioning" done here kind of reminded me of the "conditioning" that's done in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Both use traumatic events to manipulate emotional response and cognitive associations in order to change behavior. I was actually discussing this in a book club, recently, because my point was that superficial conditioning like this doesn't really work that well because of all the layers of thought processing that exist in the brain: behavior and emotional response are easier to change than core concepts making up identity and personality.I felt like we see that with Esther, who, at one point, understands that her altered reality isn't quite right, even though she gives into it (partially because of the drugs, because, you know, drugs).

I'm not 100% sure I buy this concept. I studied psychology in school, and the premise of this "therapy" felt a lot like that "day-care sex-abuse hysteria" phenomenon that happened in the 80s and 90s, when repressed memories entered the mainstream vocabulary and suddenly everyone was claiming that their schools participated in Satan-worshiping and orgies. Webb's "therapy" felt like it was more about brain-washing and creating false memories than it was about repairing old ones. I wondered if perhaps that was the point. Grant drops several hints that suggest this book could go either way, which is brilliant, if that was truly her intention. I love it when things go all meta on me.

FINAL GIRLS is a horror novel for the 21st century that will have you thinking twice the next time you say to yourself, "I wish my video games were real." Still not convinced it's such a bad idea? I have two words for you, my friend: Silent Hill. Convincingly creepy as it was, I do wish FINAL GIRLS was longer. Reading it was like reading one of those shorts. Interesting and frustrating all at once. There was an interesting concept here, and I would have liked to see it explored at length instead of being presented in this abbreviated form.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Dead Seekers by Barb Hendee

THE DEAD SEEKERS was just the book I needed to get me through this flu - it's light, escapist fantasy with creative world-building, but simplistic enough that I didn't need to expend too much brain power on what was going on.

DEAD SEEKERS is set in a world that appears to be based off Eastern Europe. Mari is a member of the Mondyalitko (seems to be based off the Romany), but has been on her own since an otherworldly being murdered her parents. She assumes the being was a member of the undead, and since Tris Vishal is the one man around capable of controlling them, she assumes it was his doing. That's why she's determined to kill the man known as The Dead's Man.

When Mari meets Tris, however, he isn't what she expected. Far from the shadowy man of villainy she imagined him as, Tris is closer to being a Ghostbuster and travels around from village to village, offering his services to banish ghosts for a nominal fee.

THE DEAD SEEKERS kind of has a weird format, because Mari and Tris solve several "cases" that are interconnected but are also distinct: there's the ghost of a girl who appears to have starved to death in a matter of hours; the ghost of a man who is determined to have vengeance; and the shadowy specter who murdered Mari's parents, and has ties to Tris, as well. It kind of reminds me of the "arc" storylines that anime shows like Jigoku Shoujo, Vampire Princess Miyu, and Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni have, where you have like question and answer arcs that provide answers to some questions even as they raise more questions that will be answered later on.

I didn't really like Mari's character much. She falls into a character template I really don't like: the impulsive, over-aggressive female character. She's so determined to prove that she's capable that she (stupidly) runs headlong into overt danger. Tris's character was more interesting. I liked the origin of his abilities, and thought his tragic backstory was well done. His mentor, Heil, was also an interesting character, and I was sad that we didn't get to see more of him in this book.

What kept me from rating THE DEAD SEEKERS higher is that a lot of the dialogue felt very wooden. There was enough action that I was never bored, and I liked the idea of a world where ghosts freely roam the earth, but at the same time, I felt like it would have been so much better with characters who were better "fleshed out" (pun slightly intentional).

THE DEAD SEEKERS is also slow to start, but in my opinion worth the wait.

I'm actually more interested in her first "Noble Dead" series, specifically the first, DHAMPIR. Are each of her Noble Dead sagas focused on a different type of "dead" creature? If so, that's an incredibly cool idea, and I want in. I'm not sure I'd shell out $8 since I don't really have a feel for her style yet, but if that book goes on sale in the Kindle Store then heck yes, count me in.

I'm always happy to find new fantasy novels written by female authors, and The Dead Seekers series (so far) is a creative and interesting one that manages to stand out in a thoroughly turned-over genre. I'd be willing to give this author another try, and see if she becomes an auto-buy for me. ;)

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Airbnb Story: HowThree Ordinary Guys Disrupted an Industry, Made Billions . . . and Created Plenty of Controversy by Leigh Gallagher

I love stories about these plucky little start-ups that make it big - it's like a modern-day version of the Horatio Alger myth or the Cinderella fairy tale. In the age of information, everyone's out to create the next big website or app, trying to find that niche that everyone has miraculously ignored and yet desperately needs.

AirBnb is one of those businesses that started out in someone's apartment and ended up becoming a booming global enterprise. THE AIRBNB STORY chronicles the company's origins, its growth, its struggles, its successes, and its potential for growth.

I didn't actually know what AirBnb was, until I watched Adam Conover's "Adam Ruins Everything" video about AirBnb (and much of what he says can be found in the chapter on AirBnb's struggles). We've all heard the horror stories about tenants from hell, but we've also seen the BuzzFeed listicles about the most fantastic listings on the site, many of which are crazy affordable, and amazing hosts who end up forming not just a customer-client relationship but a personal one.

AirBnb is, at heart, like most other large companies: it has positives and negatives, but it found a niche that hadn't really been deeply explored. They went exploring, and ended up creating a multi-billion-dollar company because of it.

The book itself is a little slow to start, with a lengthy prologue, but quickly picks up in pacing. I liked that the author was actually able to sit down with the founders and ask them questions. She had a good narrative "voice" and did a good job explaining how AirBnb entered the pop culture lexicon. If you are interested in start-ups or the corporate culture of tech companies, you will like this book.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars