Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt



Did I really finish two whole books on a work night? I'm officially the superhero of reading (and also, on an unrelated note, the superhero of not getting enough sleep tonight).

Man, when Elizabeth Hoyt is on her game, she is on her game. I've had several misses since reading the book that originally turned me onto this author, DUKE OF SIN, but reading THE LEOPARD PRINCE reminded me of why I got into her writing in the first place.

Lady Georgina doesn't need a husband because of her inheritance. She's been content to remain a virginal spinster all these years, doing as she pleases, cheerfully indulging in her eccentricity. All of that changes when she begins to notice her land steward, Harry Pye, in a decidedly un-business-like way.

Harry Pye is the strong, brooding, silent type, but he has a dark past that has to do with one of the local lords and a missing finger on one of his hands. That past begins to resurface when the sheep of local farmers begin to die - clearly poisoned by hemlock - and all of the townspeople begin to suspect that Harry Pye is the one responsible for all the killings.

The only one who believes he's innocent is Georgina. And as the attraction between them intensifies, class differences and the issue of complicity begin to arise. If Harry didn't kill the sheep, who did? How far will they go to frame him? And how far will she go to save him?

I was complaining recently about how Lisa Kleypas throws in half-assed murder subplots into her books. From what I can tell, Hoyt indulges in the same habit...but hers are actually really well done, and suit the tone of her books. The murders in this book match the dark narration style, as well as its serious tone. Class differences are a theme in THE LEOPARD PRINCE, which gets its name from a fairytale of the same name that is slowly told over the course of the story as an allegorical reflection of what is going on between Harry and George. Abuse of power is another theme, one that is seen all too plainly with the discussion of rape, abuse, neglect, and cruelty (although nothing too graphic).

Another thing that made this book for me is an excellent cast of secondary characters. Bennett was great, as was Will (I don't normally like child characters in romance novels, but he was great). All of George's siblings were hilarious, except for Violet, who didn't really win me over, not even at the end (although I no longer hated her by the end). Her servants made me laugh. I also liked how Hoyt took care to give the townspeople personalities. They weren't just a faceless mob. They were people trying to survive, which made their desperation and anger so much more terrifying when they turned on Harry and began baying for his blood.

Also, the sex scenes in this book - are great. There are a lot of them - a surprising amount actually, for a book that isn't being marketed as erotica - but they're all very well written and don't overtake the plot. I'd give this book a steam factor of 10/5. Harry's pretty kinky, actually. I was shocked!

If you're one of the people I "bullied" (read: assertively encouraged) to read DUKE OF SIN, and found yourself disappointed by some of this author's other efforts as I was, pick up THE LEOPARD PRINCE and have your faith in all that is Hoyt redeemed. I need the other books in this series, asap...

4.5 out of 5 stars

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole



The first book I ever read by Alyssa Cole was BE NOT AFRAID. Like AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION, BE NOT AFRAID is a Civil War-era historical romance told from an African American perspective. Unlike EXTRAORDINARY, BE NOT is short & wasn't able to utilize its length well. As much as I appreciated reading a fictional account of history from a perspective we need more of, I ended up being disappointed, although I did say that if the author wrote a full length novel, I would be back.

Well, she did, so here I am!

And I am glad to be back, because AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION was everything I had been hoping to get out of BE NOT AFRAID. EXTRAORDINARY features a strong, female protagonist in the form of Elle Burns, a young African American woman with an eidetic memory who is a spy for the North. The hero, Malcolm McCall, is also a spy. He's Scottish, but is in a better position than most white people at this time to understand what it's like to be used and dehumanized because of the horrible things he experienced during the Jacobite Rebellion.

Their paths cross at the house of an odious Southern family, the Caffreys. Elle is posing as a mute slave. Malcolm is posing as a Confederate soldier, come home to bask in the glory while secretly gathering information and exchanging it with other spies. He falls for Elle pretty much on sight, and his admiration of her only grows as he learns more about the role she's playing in the house and the secret brilliance of her mind. Getting her to trust him is another thing entirely, though.

EXTRAORDINARY UNION is a roller coaster of a read. There is so much action, so much danger, and the main characters are both so likable that you desperately want them to survive and find happiness. Elle is such an amazing heroine, she's so brave and smart. And Malcolm is a dashing hero who is so ahead of his time. I shipped them immediately, and spent the rest of the book gnawing at my fingernails the way hardcore Game of Thrones fans do whenever they start the new season. Cole manages to capture the sheer awfulness of the time period and the inherently racist societal structures that helped perpetuate slavery and racism with the ease that Octavia Butler did in KINDRED (although far less graphically!), while also showing the complex nuances that relationships at this time period could have, whether it's the kindness a slaveholder might bestow upon a slave (and how disturbing it is, that treating someone as a human being might be regarded as a mere courtesy), or the hypocrisy some Union soldiers had, seeing the people whose rights they were allegedly seeking as nothing more than a means to an end. The result? A romance that lays out the facts and makes you think.

I saw that this book was the first in a series, and I am so excited because it's been a while since I found a historical romance series that captured my fancy like this one. Her style is reminiscent of Beverly Jenkins's (and you can imagine the shrill fangirl squeal I emitted when I saw her thank Jenkins in her acknowledgements section), with a dash of Elizabeth Hoyt. Somehow, she manages to combine Jenkins's broad scope with Hoyt's steamy romance.

P.S. Eff you, Susie. You're officially the Joffrey of this book universe.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy! 

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 27, 2017

Secrets of a Reluctant Princess by Casey Griffin



I just finished reading QUEENS OF GEEK, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself jumping from a book about conventions to a book about - gasp - LARPing (or "live action roleplaying"). The premise is a strange, but intriguing one. Adrianna "Andy" Bottom is forced to move from Seattle to Beverly Hills after her father's line of bathroom accessories (think: Buddy Bowls) make it big. Worse: she's forced to be a part of her family's latest money making scheme. A reality TV show called Bathroom Barons.

I can't even say that with a straight face. You should see my smirk.

Everyone wants to be Adrianna's friend because she's rich and basically a minor celebrity, but Adrianna finds herself attracted to the nerdy kid in school named Kevin, who is into comic books and LARPing. But Adrianna's friend, Harper, warns her against this and tells her that befriending Kevin will result in her being ostracized by the entire school. After a catastrophic misunderstanding turns Kevin against her, Adrianna decides that the only way to get close to him is to don a mask and LARP.

This was light and fun, and reads like a knock-off version of a Meg Cabot story, where the temperamental and awkward popular girl realizes that the boy she wanted was the one who was there beside her all along. Also like Meg Cabot, it reads about ten years out of date and as though it were written by someone who really has no idea what geek culture is actually like. Even though I enjoyed SECRETS OF A RELUCTANT PRINCESS, I have a few hangups about it:

**WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW**

1. Lennox later says that the reason he bullied Kevin and his friends was because Corbin, the Bathroom Barons TV producer, bribed him to. But this doesn't make sense because Adrianna later finds out that he's the Mac Attacker who throws food at Kevin and his friends when they LARP in the park and that he was doing that well before Adrianna hopped on the scene from what I remember.

2. Lennox's behavior is basically sexual assault. Unwanted touches, unwanted kisses, lol-your-yes-means-no-type behavior. This is never dealt with in a satisfactory manner. Again, Lennox says that much of this was bribed by Corbin (which would make him complicit in arranging sexual assault against a minor?) and that he only did it because he wanted Harper back. Ooookay. Well, you're still not a nice guy, and I don't think you deserve a happily-ever-after for doing all that BS, thank you.

3. I'm so tired of stories where the girl makes a minor mistake and then has to scale Mt. Everest to get the guy back. It was so, so painfully clear that her slight against Kevin was a misunderstanding and he doesn't forgive her for it until she organizes a LARP competition/fashion show, makes him a fancy new costume, and saves his park from being bulldozed (and at the cost of her father's business). What more do you want? You're no prize, either. Even though Andy and Adrianna were the same person, he didn't really know that, and you could argue that he was stringing both of them along. Jerk.

4. The whole "geeks are major losers who get bullied by the whole school" stereotype is right out of the 90s/early 2000s. It was like that when I was in high school, but it definitely isn't like that now. Geek culture has entered the mainstream, and with anime being turned into movies, Marvel superheroes in theaters, and conventions becoming an adolescent rite of passage, this felt super inaccurate. LARPing is kind of the last bastion of weirdness, which is probably why the author chose it as Kevin's hobby, but I doubt that you would get ridiculed for it to the point of bullying/assault.

5. What the hell is wrong with the adult figures in this book? Why didn't Adrianna's parents fire that utterly corrupt production manager, and why didn't the teachers do something about the bullying??

Apart from those hang-ups, though, SECRETS OF A RELUCTANT PRINCESS was just the light read I needed to get me between some heavier books. I'd read another book by this author.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde



As you may or may not know, I went to my first convention ever last year. Fanime Con in San Jose, CA. Ever since I was young, I've always been really into anime, comic books, and science-fiction-fantasy. Even before it was cool to do so. Going to a con was one of my life goals, but I used to be really shy when I was younger, so I didn't go in my teens or early twenties because the thought of being in a large crowd, alone, was way too scary.

When I posted about going on Goodreads, I got so many kind comments from people who shared their experiences going to cons and offered helpful tips about expediting various things and how to be safe. The positivity and support I got from my internet friends made me even more confident and excited about going.

Fanime Con is one of the smaller cons, so there weren't a lot of celebrities or anything, the way larger cons in San Francisco and Los Angeles have. Christina Vee, the voice actress, was there, and so was a famous cosplay duo whose names I can't remember, but they're big on Instagram and make their costumes themselves. Mostly, though, it was just regular people doing their own thing.


As a geeky woman, I was very excited when I heard about QUEENS OF GEEK. It was announced right around the time that I was going to Fanime, so I was still high on the excitement of going to the geek equivalent of Disneyland (and yes, it's pretty much just as expensive). I was also worried, because I've read a couple books that tried and failed to capture what geek culture is like.

Would QUEENS OF GEEK live up to my expectations?

QUEENS OF GEEK is about three high school seniors. Charlie, a famous YouTuber and indie actress who is openly bisexual and of Chinese descent; Jamie, a Latinx character who's into geek culture and movies; and Taylor, a bookophile who's heavily into a series called Queen of Firestone (think Throne of Glass) and who is neurodivergent (she's on the autistic spectrum). The book is about the three of them going to something called SupaCon and exploring their interests while also discovering more about themselves.

Charlie is easily my favorite character. I loved her personality. She was strong and stood up for herself, and it was easy to see why she had so many followers. Wilde manages to capture the in-your-face authenticity that many YouTube stars are known for, for better or for worse. Her relationship with Alyssa was great, and I loved how many of the stereotypes about bisexuality were brought up and debunked. They were great together and I would happily read a book about them.

Taylor was a different story. I loved what the author was trying to do with her character. I could relate to her book obsession, and I also liked that she was fuller figured and how some of the negative stereotypes about that were addressed (at one point, someone body-shames her for cosplaying a character who is much thinner than she is - something that sadly happens a lot, especially online). I also liked that she was neurodivergent and how her anxiety disorder was portrayed. The problem was, I just didn't like her as a character. Every single chapter, she cries. Every. Single. Chapter.

I actually liked Taylor better through Charlie's eyes because it was obvious that Charlie liked her and considered her a good friend. Maybe that was the point - that we're all unlikable when viewed through our own eyes because we're so preoccupied with our own flaws. Charlie only saw the good in Taylor, and so did Jamie. I really tried to feel the same way, but could never manage anything better than indifference. It's hard to like a character that literally spends all their time crying and whining.

Oh, and let's talk about Reese. Oh. My. God. I'd say that his character was an exaggeration, but sadly he's the embodiment of mansplainers everywhere who think that their 'sexism' is just a natural byproduct of masculinity (nope) and that women are precious, temperamental creatures who need to be saved from their own delusions (nope, nope, nope, nope, noooope). As a blogger, I'm sorry to say that I have encountered people just like Reese. People who felt obligated to explain to me why my views of certain literary classics were incorrect or misinformed, or why my feminist beliefs are redundant or irrelevant. Reese is probably the best character in this book, because he is the worst.

Every time Charlie shut him down, I wanted to dance around and cheer.

Feminism: 1
Reese: -1,000

QUEENS OF GEEK captures conventions pretty well, whether it's the excitement of going to your first convention and meeting your heroes or the dull tedium of waiting in long lines in poorly ventilated rooms. I liked most of the characters in here and appreciated the diversity - especially since the diverse characters were fully fleshed out, and their stories weren't just about exploring their identities, but rather how those identities shaped and affected their various personal journeys.

Not bad, Jen Wilde. Not bad.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas



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

While Lisa Kleypas's Gamblers duology will always be my first love, I'm slowly working my way through her other series. Specifically the Ravenels and the Wallflowers series at the moment (which is maybe an odd choice of series to read concurrently, seeing as how the Wallflowers are prequels to the Ravenels). I recently read DEVIL IN WINTER, which is frequently lauded as Kleypas's best work (have they not read the Gamblers?), and while I didn't really agree with Sebastian St. Vincent's portrayal as a debauching rake, I could definitely see the appeal of his romance with Evie. So far, DEVIL is my favorite book in the Wallflowers series.

You can imagine how palpable my excitement was, then, when I found out that Kleypas was writing a book called DEVIL IN SPRING which was about - gasp - Sebastian and Evie's son, the "cynical rake": Gabriel St. Vincent...


...That was, until I realized who his romantic pairing would be. Pandora, the odiously affected and annoying Ravenel cousin-in-law from COLD-HEARTED RAKE. In fact, I specifically called Cassandra and Pandora out as something that detracted from the rating because they were so immature. At nineteen, they acted more like six with their making up words and playing games.

But DEVIL IN SPRING took place two years later. Maybe the twins would mature.

...NOPE...

It kills me, kills me, to give Lisa Kleypas books low ratings. I've done it before, twice, in the cases of ONLY WITH YOUR LOVE and SOMEWHERE I'LL FIND YOU, which I rated one and two stars respectively. Not because of the writing (Kleypas always writes beautifully - something I adore her for) but because of some very bad characterization. In the case of ONLY WITH YOUR LOVE, it was because of dubious consent on the hero's part that I felt was addressed very badly. In the case of SOMEWHERE I'LL FIND YOU, it was because I thought the hero was emotionally abusive. But both those books are published in the early 90s, when Kleypas was still finding her trademark style.

DEVIL IN SPRING does not have that excuse.

**WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW**

Pandora is an immature, childish heroine who makes up words and fairy tale stories, and at one point, demands to fire her footman because he does not look like Father Christmas. She encounters the hero when she's stuck ass-out in a settee, and when Lord Gabriel decides to rescue her in a moment of ill-placed pity, they are caught and considered compromised, and must be married at once.

Pandora does not want to be married because she wants to start her own business and doesn't want to obey anyone, but both her family and Gabriel manage to convince her to visit Gabriel's family estate with promises that she will not be coerced into marriage. Everybody finds her manic pixie dream girl act utterly charming and Gabriel decides he loves her instantly and casts his mistress off into the dirt.

Will we be seeing her again later? Oh, ho ho. You cheeky, cheeky person.

Pandora discovers that she's great at sex and great and crying and does both these things in abundance while crying how she will obey no one, not even her husband. Smitten Gabriel falls over himself granting concession after concession, but it's never enough. She fights him at every turn, even when they're married 2/3 of the way through the book. What's the last 1/3 about, then?

Lisa Kleypas's other trademark: superfluous murder mysteries. I honestly don't know why she does this, but almost all of her stories that I've read have a very lame murder mystery thrown into the last act. It's always obvious who the guilty person is, and never seems to serve any purpose beyond putting either the hero or heroine in jeopardy to show how much the other person loves them and padding out the plot. The first time, I was like, "Okay, I can deal." But now it's becoming a theme...

Somehow, Pandora manages to get in a jab at her husband for saving her life, accusing him of controlling her. I was already done by that point, but that was the done straw that broke the done camel's back. After that, I was done with being done. I was DONE².

Gabriel, on the other hand, was merely okay. The sex scenes with him were decent and sexy, but not particularly noteworthy. In the beginning of the book, Gabriel frets over being married to a virginal girl because his mistress was the only one capable of satisfying his odd desires. Spoiler alert: Gabriel's apparently into light bondage and you will get one scene where he ties Pandora's hands behind her back with the laces of a corset. After that, it's never mentioned again.

I'm really not sure why he's blurbed as a "cynical rake", unless rake = having a mistress and being into bondage. Honestly, when I picture "rake" I think of someone who actually involves in some pretty questionable behavior, and not some upstanding, golden-haired gent who keeps his few affairs discreet and occasionally engages in a bit of rough sex and cards. His father, Sebastian St. Vincent, wasn't really a rake either, but at least he displayed some morally objectionable behavior.

DEVIL IN SPRING was a disappointing read for me. I enjoyed reading it with the Unapologetic Romance Readers for our March 2017 read, but apart from that, there was little to redeem it. I see that the next book in the series is Dr. Gibson's book and Cassandra's story is probably going to follow that. I'm going to give this series a few more shots to impress me, and then I'm folding.

P.S. Some required rakish reading for those who love real rakes.

RUTHLESS by Anne Stuart

DUKE OF SIN by Elizabeth Hoyt

If you know of other books, with real rakes, let me know. I love collecting them!

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Big Mushy Happy Lump by Sarah Andersen



Oh, Sarah Andersen. I love you the way Californians love avocados.

I've been purposely putting off reading my ARC of this book. Not because I thought it was going to be bad, mind, but because I enjoyed ADULTHOOD IS A MYTH so much that I wanted to savor the anticipation of reading this book because I knew it would be at least another year or more until Andersen published a new one. That can't be too weird, right? Surely I'm not the only person who avoids reading books they're excited about...right?

Like ADULTHOOD IS A MYTH and HYPERBOLE AND A HALF, BIG MUSHY HAPPY LUMP explores many common problems that introverts, millennials, women, and book lovers will be able to relate to.

For example:

Why does puberty suck for women so much more than it does for men?

Why are periods so damn inconvenient, not to mention inconsiderate?

Why is talking to people so hard?

Why do we all love cats so obsessively?

Why do we throw so much money away on books?

Why are we cold all the time, even with a sweater?

Why do we like this thing?

There isn't a lot to say. I liked ADULTHOOD IS A MYTH and I liked BIG MUSHY HAPPY LUMP. My fear was that LUMP might be nothing more than a reprisal of ADULTHOOD and I am happy to say that my fears were misguided. LUMP stands on its own, and it is both endearing and hilarious.

Thanks to the publisher/Netgalley for the review copy!

5 out of 5 stars.

How Did This Happen?: Poems for the Not So Young Anymore by Mary D. Esselman



Women are held to more rigorous standards when it comes to their appearance, and it's a losing battle. We all get older: it's an inevitable by-product of growing up & gaining maturity - so why are women the ones who are punished for it; the ones who are mocked for either not trying or trying too hard; the ones who are criticized, debased, sexualized, and dehumanized?

It occurred to me recently that I hadn't read any poetry since I picked up Edna St. Vincent Millay's THE HARP WEAVER. When I saw this on Netgalley, I rejoiced inwardly because it seemed like such a relatable, tongue-in-cheek concept. A book that mocks the concept of growing older as a woman and light-heartedly pokes fun at double-standards? I could not wait.

Now, having read it, I am of two minds. On the one hand, I feel obligated to point out that this is a collection of poetry and not an original work of new, fresh poetry. The contributors to this effort are diverse and range in style and period, from Amy Poehler to Shakespeare, and do not mesh particularly well - especially not if you went into this book as I did expecting something else.

The tone of this book felt off to me. It is divided into various sections, depicting different attitudes regarding one's descent (or ascent) into old age. Each section has a forward, which is very sarcastic in a pop-culture-laden Cosmopolitan op-ed sort of way. This is at odds with the poems themselves, many of which are serious in tone. Some of my favorites in here - Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Margaret Atwood - are almost morose, and I feel like the tongue-in-cheek intros act at odds with the sober, speculative content of the poetry.

I've said this many times: one of the problems with many anthologies is that it is difficult to find content that manages to stand out without contrasting in a jarring way. There are always going to be some additions that outshine the others, and some that drag down the rest. I understand the difficulty of being an editor for such a collection. The way HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? was curated definitely falls prey to this tendency. The poems are so different in tone that they clash, and there's no rhyme or reason to them, apart from the motif of growing older and feeling sad or insecure or accepting of this.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 24, 2017

Ashes on the Waves by Mary Lindsey



Remember when TWILIGHT was at the height of its popularity, and people began opening up Wikipedia to search for paranormal creatures to have fall in love with some ditzy teenage girl so they could write the Next Big YA Paranormal Romance, too? Yeah. I think we all remember the "girls in prom dresses" period of YA fiction. Those were dark times, my friends. Dark, dark times.

I feel like ASHES ON THE WAVES is definitely influenced by TWILIGHT. The male love interest speaks in an archaic way and seems a bit too naive. He also tries and fails to convince the heroine to stay away from him because he's dangerous, although in this case it's because he might be a demon instead of a vampire. The heroine, by contrast, is a pretty girl without a lot of substance. She moves from a big city to a dreary, isolated small town - except instead of the Olympic Peninsula, it's an island sandwiched between Scotland and Ireland and entrenched in Celtic folklore.

Liam, the hero, is regarded by everyone on Dorcha with suspicion because they think he killed his mom at birth (like, legit killed her, with scratch marks and gushing blood and everything). He's drop-dead gorgeous, has a paralyzed arm, and has absolutely zero knowledge about the world. He's so sheltered and naive that when he gets jealous over a girl, he thinks his anger is a result of a demon possessing him. Everyone on Dorcha wants him dead, and most of them try.

Anna, the heroine, is a rich heiress who lives in the big mansion on the island. She's being exiled because of some racy behavior she displayed in her parents' ritzy circles. She doesn't really have much of a personality. Her two conflicts in this book are 1. fall in love with Liam and 2. act out because her parents don't love her enough. She and Liam even meet when he stops her from jumping off a cliff. Ashes on the Waves? More like Ashes on the New Moon. *tips wineglass*

The paranormal element in this book is interesting, but not utilized very well. Here you have creatures like Na Fir Ghorm, the Cailleach, the Bean Sidhe, and Selkies - and what do they spend their time doing? Making bets on the purity of the love between two teenagers. I am not kidding. We're talking Shipping Wars. Mary Lindsey turned the Fae into a crude facsimile of Tumblr.

Likewise, the Edgar Allan Poe connection is also tenuous. I liked the snippets of poetry at the beginning of each chapter and the book itself is supposed to be a retelling of Annabel Lee, but it feels kind of weird to base a book on a song...especially when you have all the Fae stuff thrown in as well. The author had some creative ideas but she ended up throwing them all together in the hopes that they would fit, and they really didn't. It was not a cohesive effort by any means, in my opinion.

"Just go with it" me enjoyed how easy it was to read this book. "Feminist" me was annoyed by the instant love, the lack of development of the female character, and the fact that a fourteen-year-old is engaged to and then almost raped by a man twice her age, because on this island, due to the shortage of men, it's apparently okay to marry children to adults. Even though this takes place in the twenty-first century. "Amateur critic" me was annoyed by all the other things, like the characterization, the cheesy plot, and that bizarro ending.

Seriously, what was that ending. I looked to see if there was a sequel because I thought I was missing something important, but nope; I guess that's how it ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

#scandal by Sarah Ockler



I have to admit to a certain amount of fascination with stories revolving around high school drama. I was on the fringe of my high school social scene & didn't really get mixed up in any of the "he said, she said..." nonsense, so whenever I read books like these I feel like a scientist discovering a fancy new phenomenon. "What is this?" I ask myself. "What does this mean?"

#SCANDAL is a bizarre YA contemporary that revolves around many different topics. Lucy is the sister of a famous celebrity (although nobody is aware of the connection). She's also hopelessly in love with her best friend Ellie's boyfriend, Cole. Since Ellie gets sick on the night of their school dance, she asks Lucy to essentially babysit her boyfriend for her. Alcohol gets involved. The party gets knocked up a notch. And then somebody decides to take pictures and post them on social media.

There's a Gossip Girl-like angle in the form of Miss Demeanor, a high school gossip Facebook fanpage where a mysterious individual posts gossip about the student body in a snarky, tongue-in-cheek tone. It's a bit savage but mostly harmless - until Lucy's pictures get leaked on her Facebook profile & tagged, and somebody creates a site called "Juicy Lucy." Suddenly, Lucy - the stereotypical geek/hipster/alt-girl - is branded a slut, catcalled in the halls, and ostracized by her friends, all because of a few pictures being pasted on her social media.

The story then branches out as Lucy not only tries to navigate her complex relationships with her new boyfriend, estranged celebrity sister, and newly ex-best-friends, but also figure out who took the compromising pictures of her and set up the petty website and also who the identity of Miss Demeanor really is.

I was disappointed with how the bullying is handled in this book. I didn't feel like the principal took it seriously. I didn't even feel like Lucy took it seriously. People were throwing things at her in class and pasting stuff on her locker and chanting the word "slut" at her in the hallways. And yet, Lucy doesn't really react to any of it in a believable way and neither do the authority figures - in fact, they suggest it's Lucy's fault. I know blaming the victim is a real issue and I would not fault the book for that, except that by the end of the book, we're led to believe that it is, in fact, partly Lucy's fault. Lucy also feels very distant from the bullying and doesn't have a lot of emotional depth as a character.

Despite its many faults, I enjoyed this book. It had a wide array of characters and while they were all a bit too quirky and affected to be truly believable, I enjoyed the banter between them. There was just the right amount of drama to keep things interesting and Ockler is a good enough writer that I kept turning the pages in a secure state of suspension of disbelief. If you're looking for something light for purely entertainment, #SCANDAL is not a bad choice.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chained: A Medieval Historical Romance by Elise Marion



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

CHAINED was an impulse item from the free section of the Kindle store. Part of the allure - apart from it being, you know, free - was the prospect of a historical interracial romance. The perspectives of people of color are sorely lacking in most historical romances (the only authors I can think of offhand who write them with any regularity are Courtney Milan and Beverly Jenkins), so this was a huge selling point for me.

I was therefore annoyed when I began reading the book and realized that it wasn't "A Medieval Historical Romance" as advertised on the title, but a medieval-inspired fantasy.

Those are two very different things.

Putting my annoyance aside, I continued to read the book despite its deceptive packaging, and found to my surprise that CHAINED was actually a pretty decent story. It is set in a world called Alemere. The heroine, Gwen, comes from a country called Dinasdale. Her people are proud of their royal heritage and lean towards archery. The hero, Caden, comes from Daleraia. His people are less refined, ruthless, and brutal. Unlike the Dinasdalians, they have no gods; their sword is law.

Gwen is engaged to a prince from Lerrothe, but her wedding night is unsatisfactory. She doesn't really want to be a princess, anyway. She is a skilled archer: when we meet her in the beginning, she shoots five men in her father's woods for attempting to rape a girl. In her father's absence, she is the word of Dinasdale, so when a band of Daleraians are brought in after a woman in her kingdom is raped and murdered - allegedly by a member of the Daleraian noble family, Gwen has to decide what to do with them. She decides to imprison them but keep them in good condition for ransom. Caden ends up imprisoned in Gwen's own quarters because of his constant attempts to escape.

It doesn't take Gwen and Caden long to realize that both events - the rape and murder and Gwen's own wedding - might be the byproducts of the sinister machinations of someone attempting to sow discord in Alemere, thereby breaking the tentative peace between Dinasdale and Daleraia. It also doesn't take long for them to realize that they have a rather potent attraction to one another, either.

I enjoyed this story. It's reminiscent of GAME OF THRONES in some ways, and the court intrigue is well done. I liked Gwen's character. She is a strong woman with good political sense, who isn't afraid of her sensuality. She killed five men and kneed a would-be rapist in the testicles. She never did anything in the book that made me shake my head and say, "Well, that was stupid!" She was bad-ass.

I was less impressed with Cade's character. There is an OW and Cade does get kind of wishy-washy about her and Gwen, although it's always clear who he prefers more. Plus, he does something very stupid towards the end. When Gwen falls under suspicion he's forced to imprison her and insists on doing it himself so he can explain the reason why to her. He doesn't do this. Instead, he has sex with her, lets her fall asleep, and when she wakes up, basically says, "Congrats! You're going to jail!"

Overall, CHAINED is one of the better finds I've gotten from the "free" section of the Kindle store, which can be a bit of a crapshoot. I would recommend it for people looking for a fun, light fantasy read. The author really needs to change that "Medieval Historical Romance" tagline, though. I can't imagine that I'm the only person who felt cheated when they found themselves reading fantasy...

Also, there is a cliffhanger ending, in case you're curious.

3 out of 5 stars

Temptation by Karen Ann Hopkins



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

I will be the first to admit that I know almost nothing about the Amish. My knowledge is limited to Devil's Playground (2002), which I was forced to watch in high school, and my friends' reviews of Amish romance novels because prior to now, I had never actually picked one up myself. My romance book club is doing this 50-category challenge designed to broaden our reading horizons, however, and one of the categories is "Amish romance." Conveniently enough, I found the first three books in the Amish YA romance "Temptation" series for sale for $3.

I wasn't going into this book with high expectations. Based on the summary, I was expecting something a forbidden romance sketched along the lines of TWILIGHT, only instead of being a vampire, the love interest was Amish. My suspicions were on fleek: Rose and Noah fall in love on sight and the entire novel consists of their being tortured of never being apart of the other's world unless they give up their own forever. Fine, okay. I was cool with that, and hoping to learn about the Amish community and maybe enjoy a fluffy but unrealistic love story shared between two teens.

Instead, I got a pretty unhealthy, almost emotionally abusive relationship between two horribly unlikable characters, with a side order of misogyny, slut-shaming, and bad life choices.

Misogyny

Noah is attracted to Rose but isn't happy with her the way she is. There's always a qualifier: that she's too wild, that she needs to be changed. He expects her to give up her entire way of living to convert to being Amish so he can marry her, when they've known each other for only a few weeks, and he's not afraid to criticize her or put her down in order to rationalize his thoughts.

She shouldn't be alone in a public place like this. It wasn't safe or appropriate with all the men around here (96).

Somehow I'd have to curb her impulses and make her listen to me. But it was for her good - I'd heard all kinds of stories about what happened to women out there among the English (98).
 
Slut shaming

Pretty much every woman in this book is just awful, except for Sarah, Noah's sister. The jealous Amish girl who wants to court Noah calls Rose a "hure." Rose's brother, Sam, calls his father's girlfriend "some ho you picked up at a bar" (163). Rose refers to her father's girlfriend as "Her" and "Dad's plaything" and emotionally blackmails her father about his guilt over the relationship (their mother's dead) to leverage getting a new puppy and sneaking around with her boyfriend. Hypocrisy? Oh, I think so. But it isn't just her father's girlfriend who gets the flak. Rose calls her brother's girlfriends "bimbos" and "Barbies" many, many times. It's really disgusting.

The abusive relationship

Noah makes Rose feel bad about herself in an attempt to sway her to his way of thinking. He implies that she dresses too slutty (not in those exact words - he couches it in good intentions, saying that his family would think better of her if she comports herself well); wears too much makeup; and even says that he wouldn't want her to cut her hair.

"But you would never cut your hair short, would you?" His face was serious again and his voice sounded frustrated for some strange reason (172).

"I think English women are too willing to make battles out of things they don't need to." He was hard-faced again (173).

"You shouldn't put yourself into the kind of situation that could get you into trouble - or cause the others to think poorly of you" (211).

It's also pretty damn clear that he sees her family as the enemy, an obstacle.

Shaking his head, [Rose's brother] said, "It's ridiculous for you to expect Rose to give up her freedom so she can be with you. Dude. It ain't going to work. I'm just warning you."
I didn't like what he said. I suddenly say not only my family as an obstacle to a marriage with Rose but also her family, and especially her older brother. I had underestimated his interest in the matter
(191).

When she fights him about converting to being Amish, he slut-shames her.

"What's the problem, Rose? Is it that you don't want to miss out on driving a car or going to your rock concerts? Or maybe you can't stand the thought of never being able to dance for all the English men again" (259).

Then it gets disturbing. He starts thinking about ways to force her - and her family - to marry her to him.

But as much as I wanted to do it, I couldn't physically force her to submit to me (277).

He considers impregnating her to force a shotgun marriage.

Another idea had briefly penetrated my brain - getting her with child. My folks and her dad would be forced to allow us to marry (277).

By the way? Rose is sixteen.

But Noah thinks the baby idea is a great one, and proposes it to Rose, who gets upset. When she refuses, he has this to say:

"I don't see any other way for us to be together. So if you don't want to try that option, and you don't want to become Amish...then I guess it's over between us" (281).

Rose tries to date someone else after they break up, but isn't attracted to him the way she is to Noah. Likewise, Noah considers courting Ella from his community - the girl who called Rose "hure" - but is repulsed by their kiss and ends up ditching her and their families early.

When he goes to rescue Rose from a party she's miserable at, he gets into a buggy crash with a semi and ends up at the hospital. Rose is so distraught at the thought of losing him forever that she immediately gives in to all his terms, agreeing not just to converting to being Amish but also:

"I'd even go through with the - you know - baby idea you had, if you think it would help" (352).

The book cheerfully ends with Rose getting sent off to live with another Amish family to prepare for her conversion to Amish life.

I really tried to read this with an open mind. I was amenable to "Amish TWILIGHT," even if it ended in marriage. Hell, I wanted to like the book - I'd bought books 1-3 in the series, so it would be pretty miserable for me if I didn't - but I couldn't. It made me angry and frustrated. Rose was such an awful character. Noah was an annoying, manipulative character. The treatment of all the female characters was abhorrent. The Amish weren't portrayed very favorably, either, in my opinion, with Noah's parents being portrayed as hypocrites; the Amish girls as oppressed victims; and the other Amish boys as creeps (two of them express their intentions to sexually assault Rose). The only characters I really sympathized with in this book was Sarah, Noah's sister, and Rose's father, Dr. Cameron. They were the only truly likable characters in here.

Your may very well feel differently, and if that is the case, I respect you for it. However, if the quotes I provided upset you or annoy you, you should probably find a different Amish book to read. I'm still trying to decide whether or not I want to read the second and third books in this series. What do you guys think? Should I continue?

1 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Forever and the Night by Linda Lael Miller



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

Aidan lifted his hand in farewell. "Take care," he said, and then he simply faded away, boots, swastika and all (61%).

Sometimes you read a romance novel, and it's like finding yourself standing in the middle of storm-blown wreckage. "What just happened?" you ask, staring at the upside-down chest of drawers and the lone cow mooing sadly in the middle of a deflated kiddie pool. "Everything was fine and normal before...and now it's not."

I love vampire stories, so when I saw that this rereleased title from the 90s was only $1.99 on Kindle, I messaged fellow vampire-lover Heather and said, "Hey, want to buddy read this with me?" We started a week later, filled with what, in hindsight, seems like an almost reckless amount of optimism and excitement because it immediately became clear that FOREVER THE NIGHT was not going to be a book either one of us was going to enjoy. Heather, the trooper, finished it in two days (you can read her review here). I slunk away to Amazon like a coward to try and return the book for a refund around the 12% mark, only to find out that I'd missed the return deadline by a day. Cursing inwardly, I returned to FOREVER THE NIGHT to consign myself to the miserable fate I'd chosen.

FOREVER AND THE NIGHT is about Neely, a human, and Aidan, a vampire. Neely used to work as a senator's aide until she found out he was a bad dude and had some dealings with drug cartels. Because she knows their secret, many people now want her dead. Aidan is a vampire who hates being a vampire. He was turned against his will by a woman who was infatuated with him at the time and now skulks about, feeding off sexual predators and people who subscribe to the "very basest of pornographic magazines, the kind even the most flagrant liberal would happily consign to the bonfire" (18%). What does that even mean? Also, "flagrant liberal"? Thanks a lot for that...

Aidan meets Neely while she's trick-or-treating with her kid nephew (or brother? I can't remember), and decides he's smitten with her 12% in. Neely decides she is in love with Aidan 16% in. Keep in mind that at this point, they've exchanged the same amount of pleasantries as any other stranger - in fact, I've had more meaningful conversations with random people I've met on trains. Even Bella and Edward would sit these two down and be like, "Okay, guys, why don't you think about this because you're moving a little fast..."

Aidan starts stalking Neely. He sneaks into her room while she's sleeping, and she thinks that he's been summoned there by her attraction to him. He has psychic sex with her in her head. Then he leaves and uses magic to pin her down to her bed, but she has to use the bathroom so badly that her desire to pee overcomes his vampire will and he is Seriously Impressed. Just remember: "No force can stop a woman who needs to go to the bathroom" (32%). #NeverthelessSheUrinated

The middle of the book is basically a giant melodrama hinging on this instant love. Aidan is so anguished, so tortured, so sorrowful, because he doesn't want to be a vampire. Neely is so mournful about Aidan's suffering. She wants him to have sex with her, but he doesn't want to hurt her. He doesn't want her to become a vampire, and yet he wants to be with her forever. If you've read TWILIGHT, this probably sounds really familiar to you (Aidan's even described as a marble statue), although what works for adolescent teenagers doesn't really work for, well, adults.

The highlight of this book is really when Aidan barges in to rescue Neely wearing a Nazi uniform that he just happens to have lying around.

He was wearing the uniform of a Nazi officer, of all things, and he slapped one gloved palm with a riding crop... (59%)

There are so many other things he could have put on. Why a Nazi uniform? Where did he get it? Later on in the book, it says that he stole it, but from whom? And why? Was he one of the degenerate pornography readers from Aidan's "OK to Feed on" list? I have so many questions....

The book's mythos gets even weirder with its mentions of angels and Atlantis. Apparently the first vampire experiments were done in Atlantis(?). This isn't really explained, and that's a shame because I have so many questions about that beginning with the word "why." Vampires can also apparently time-travel & dissolve into vapor, but this isn't really explained either which results in a number of loopholes - especially towards the end. There are also angels, who seem to oppose the vampires, but an angel also turns Aidan back into a human at the end of the book and an angel also saves Aidan from being turned back into a vampire by the evil Lisette at Valerian's request. That's right. A literal deus ex machina. Just like the good ol' days.

Then there's the sex, which is almost unequivocally terrible. Here is a sample.

His tears - tears born of a joy so fierce he feared he could not contain it - fell softly on her cheekbones and sparkled like diamonds in her hair.

Neely arched beneath him, pleading, in stark Anglo-Saxon terms, for what he and he alone could give her (69%).

Oh, and let's not forget this gem.

He...aroused her all over again simply by caressing her eyelids with the tip of his tongue (99%).

I think it's pretty safe to say that I did not enjoy this at all. What a shame that I purchased the sequel...

1 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith



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

Given my hatred of insta-love, picking up a book that literally has the words "Love at First Sight" in the title was probably unwise. How could I resist, though? You were all losing your shit when this book came out, calling it romantic and cute and feel-good. As much as I enjoy darker romances, we all need a bit of fluff in our lives. There's black forest cake, and then there's froyo with mochi sprinkles. I wanted in. I wanted those mochi sprinkles.

Instead, I got circus peanuts.

THE STATISTICAL PROBABILITY OF LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT has several issues that kept me from enjoying the book. First, the concept of love at first sight. Hadley, our heroine, just happens to meet this guy at an airport because she misses her plane and then just happens to find herself seated next to him. Wait, wasn't there another story where that same exact thing happens? Hmm, what was it called? What was it called...?

Oh yeah. Red-Eye (2005).

Oliver isn't an assassin who's out to kill Hadley's father, though (which is a shame, because that would be a much more interesting story). They are just two teens, angry at the world, angry at their families, and dissatisfied with their middle-class lot in life. Which brings me to the second beef I had with this book. Both characters, but especially Hadley, are extremely unlikable.

Hadley literally spends 90% of the book treating her family like crap. She's en-route to England to go to her father's wedding to another woman, who she refers to as That British Woman. She's mean to her mom, too, her last words being something like, if the plan crashes you'll have lost me and dad. When she gets to the wedding, she acts like a total sour puss and is rude to everyone. Then she skives off early to go crash a funeral...because that's where Oliver was headed. His father's funeral. And when he seems like he's maybe less than happy to see her at his father's funeral, uninvited, her little feelings get hurt. Because she thought they were in love. What the actual eff, Hadley.

The first half of the book is cheesy and annoying, but in the way that Valentine's Day is annoying. You say, "Okay, this is too much, but it's sort of cute. I guess I can see why people like this book." The second half of the book is cheesy and annoying, but in the way that daytime TV shows are annoying. You say, "What the hell is wrong with these people? Do they not have basic human emotions? Why are they fighting over something so stupid? I do not understand." There is a happy ending, but it felt contrived and undeserved. What Hadley and Oliver had, it wasn't love.

Also, just a random note: the author makes a point of Oliver's Britishisms (and of course, Hadley corrects him and anyone else who uses the un-American term for something, even while in England (as if I needed another reason to hate the b*tch)), and yet at one point he calls his father a "lawyer." I couldn't help but think that "barrister" would have been more correct.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Jockblocked by Jen Frederick



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

Remember that time I read SACKED and I wasn't sure whether I liked it or not? Well, trust me when I say that I did not have that problem with JOCKBLOCKED. Reading these books is incredibly frustrating for me as a readere, because I find them so trashy and bad. They encapsulate all the tropes that annoy me so greatly in contemporary romance. Casual, unprotected sex. Instant love. Slut-shaming. Alpha d-bag heroes. Liberal use of the word "p*ssy."

What makes the experience even more frustrating is that Frederick isn't a bad writer. I loved the story she co-wrote with Elle Kennedy (although given my love of Elle Kennedy, I can't help but wonder if that's more testament to Kennedy's skills than Frederick's). As with SACKED, there's decent patches of writing in here. The parts about mock-trial were really, really great, and Frederick manages to inject enough enthusiasm to make football sound interesting to someone who has no interest in watching or playing sports, and never has (e.g. me).

The problem is really how Matt and Lucy come together. He wants her because she's beautiful and doesn't know who he is. He's so tired of girls throwing themselves at him that, naturally, he wants the one girl who tells him "no." Naturally, he doesn't take "no" for an answer and basically browbeats her into dating him.Which is...not cool, actually. But this being a romance novel, Lucy eventually agrees.

The second thing that bothered me is the sex. There's a weird double-standard in these books. The heroines and their friends talk about being empowered and how sex is okay, no big deal, blah, blah, blah. But the Jersey chasers in this book are ruthlessly shat upon by both the football players and the heroines and their friends, referred to as jersey chasers or "pieces of p*ssy" and a whole host of other, objective things that are pretty disgusting and dehumanizing. I hate that double-standard, and I hate how the heroines are portrayed as "better" than these other girls by either being less experienced or less initially enthusiastic when it comes to sex, because that is just such a terrible message.

Also, at one point while having sex with Lucy, Matt becomes so overwhelmed by passion that he "forgets" to put on a condom. What makes this even more gross is that he has slept with so many women, while drunk and sober, that he literally cannot remember all of their names. Does this bother Lucy? No, she's like, "That's cool, just bareback it, bro." Does she get an STD test? No. Does this result in an unplanned pregnancy? No - thank God, because I was afraid this was going to end with a secret baby and a shotgun marriage and then I might have hurled the book across the room. Which gives you an idea of what this book is like, if I thought that was a likely ending.

The last item on my list of peeves is Ace. That POS. I hated him so much. I hated that we were supposed to feel sorry for him, because I didn't - not at all. He knows Lucy only likes him as a friend, but assumes that they're going to get married someday because they were childhood friends and that means that he has dibs. He sleeps around with anyone and everyone, even bringing girls back when Lucy is staying there for an emergency and tries to kick her out, but later on towards the end, tells her that he's just getting sex out of his system so he'll be ready to settle down when he proposes to Lucy. Um, ew. That is so disgusting. You just expect her to wait and watch you screw around and then accept your marriage proposal when objectifying women has lost its luster? Lucy tells him off, so props for that, but I didn't really like that he got a happy ending and I didn't think he deserved Matty's forgiveness considering that he tried to blackmail Matty into breaking up with her - twice. If he gets his own book, I may buy that book just to set it on fire because Ace is a POS and I hate him.

The book didn't end the way I feared, though, and once you wade past the pages upon pages of sex (this is really erotica with a plot), there's an okay story in here told, Sarah Dessen-like, about a girl who learns to overcome her fears of living her own life and manages to secure both a boy and her courage to pursue her professional dreams. If you're looking for a college romance that's better written than most and care more about sex scenes than plot development, this is the book for you.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Enslaved by Virginia Henley



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

Virginia Henley is one of those authors who shows up on a lot of "best of" historical romance lists, but I'd never actually read any of her work. When the e-book version of ENSLAVED went on sale for $1.99 a few weeks ago, it seemed like it was meant to be. I'm pretty well known for my reviews of historical romance reviews, and I've had a couple people asking me to write more snarky bodice ripper reviews. ENSLAVED was the perfect book to break my hiatus! Better still; I got my friend and co-mod, Sarah, to agree to read it with me. Bad HR novels are always better with friends. Always.

The best way to describe ENSLAVED is that it's like if you wrote a historical romance novel following the template of a play. There are three "acts" in this book, and they don't really fit together as well as they should because so much of what cinches them together relies on heavy suspension of disbelief.

***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***

Act I sets the stage. We meet our heroine, Diana. An heiress who is under the guardianship of her horrible aunt and uncle. They desperately want her money, and plan to be rid of her by marrying her to a wastrel who is up to his ears in debt, Peter Hardwick. Diana isn't attracted to Peter at all, even though he's very good looking, because he's a fop and she likes real, "manly" men: Conquerors. Knights. She thinks it would be so much better to live in medieval times than Georgian times. But her aunt and uncle are determined and will stoop to anything in order to see Diana out of their way.

This part of the book is probably my favorite because I thought it was hilarious how Diana managed to find ways to spite her horrible relatives, and her relationship with Peter and his (uncle??), Mark Hardwick, were interesting. I liked her encounters with the stuffy Earl, and how she flaunted his desire for her at any opportunity, rather than sinking to her knees in a puddle of lust.

Act II occurs after Diana randomly decides to "try on" a Roman helmet and it transports her to Ancient Rome. She's almost crushed by the patrician, Marcus Magnus, who manages to stop just in time and is so taken by her blonde hair and violet eyes that he decides to enslave her on the spot. He isn't pleased when she doesn't want to sleep with him, so he sets her to floor-scrubbing, and Diana hates menial labor so much that she ends up giving in and then the sexings start in earnest, with horrible phrases like "manroot" and "love slick" and "dark honeyed cave" and "creamy with craving" along with countless uses of "marble-hard" and allusions to peens as swords, with cringe-worthy double-entendres like "I shall bloody you, but not with my whip" to refer to taking someone's virginity and referring to sex as "swordplay."

This part of the book takes place in Nero's Rome, and obviously Nero is the bad guy and obviously since he is the bad guy, he is bisexual but prefers the company of men (as villains of romance novels of this time period often do). The hero's brother, Petrius (like Peter - get it), is also bisexual, and he and Nero end up getting it on later in a weird D&S-style relationship while plotting to ruin the relationship of Diana and Marcus. Petrius has it in for Diana because his attempt to woo her with animal sacrifice (warning: a cute baby lamb dies in this book) and rape did not go well, so now nobody else is allowed to have her since she spurned his "affections." Shockingly, his attempt to murder Diana succeeds. She's taken to the Circus Maximus, and turned into a human torch while having lions sicced on her, and her suffering ends when Marcus stabs her to put her out of her misery.

Act III takes place after Diana's "death". Being stabbed has put her back in the present, where she learns that she's been missing for months. Her relatives have declared her dead and taken her money and are none too pleased to have her return. Diana ends up under the care of Mark, who is Marcus's descendant, and who she now loves thanks to her stint in Rome. They start having the sexings. Diana spurns Peter. The guardians get a doctor to commit Diana to an asylum on the pretext that she is delusional because she believes she really did go to Rome. It turns out that Mark has "past memories" of his life as Marcus now for some reason(????). He rescues Diana from the asylum and together, they blackmail the evil relatives into giving them permission to marry. Peter tries to kill Diana and Mark and ends up getting thrown from the roof. Everyone lives happily ever after. The end.

There was a gritty bodice ripper in here fighting desperately to get out, but it was drowning in Bertrice Small-level purple prose and bad plotting. The three-act formula didn't work because part I feels like the opening to a different book from part II and part III weakly attempts to tie parts I and II together by bringing up past lives and hinging on odd coincidences. Plus, the writing is bad. At one point, Diana actually says "Ohmigod." And it's written just like that, too. Cringe.

I know the way bisexuality is handled in this book is also bound to upset people, but I'm afraid that was par for the course in many vintage historical romance novels. Many villains of vintage historical roms were either bisexual, gay, or homoerotic (i.e. they only wanted to have anal sex and/or had a weird, UST-turned-to-rage style obsession with the hero).

Did I enjoy this book? Yes and no. It was fun to laugh at, and was so over the top at times that it was genuinely entertaining, but other times it was plodding and dull. I've said this before and I'll say it again. 90s "bodice rippers" were part of an uncomfortable transitional period in the historical romance timeline where writers were seemingly trying to clean up the unsavory aspects of 70s and 80s bodice rippers (villainous heroes, unambiguous rape scenes, graphic torture, racism, misogyny) while also trying to keep that same gritty edge. What ends up happening, though, is that you get bland romance with alpha d-bag heroes who stop just short of rape with total, over-the-top cray-cray villains who are probably rejected "heroes" who escaped the archives of unpublished bodice rippers that never made it past the 80s and dead-pissed about it. I wanted to give this book a 1* for annoying me so much, but I made it to the end and it gave me some much-needed laughs, so I'll round up.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 10, 2017

Hold Me by Courtney Milan



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

HOLD ME isn't just the smartest romance you'll read; it's also an ode to the Bay Area. Like a modern-day PRIDE AND PREJUDICE set in Berkeley, CA, HOLD ME is about two characters who initially dislike each other intensely because of a misunderstanding and/or misplaced sense of pride, only to realize that they're practically perfect for each other and/or soul mates. I love PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and enemies-to-lovers plot lines, so obviously this was like crack candy to my inner-book-addict.

Maria is a transgender woman of color who enjoys dressing up to the nines. She's a little ditzy and fun, and reminded me of a Latina Elle Woods (from Legally Blonde). Her outfits are just as cool, too. She has a secret though: she's a crazy smart blogger who's become famous for her brainy, witty blog about pop science and nobody knows her real identity but assumes she's some bigwig male scientist/researcher/thinktank worker, not even entertaining the idea that she's a female undergraduate.

Jay, on the other hand, is a Chinese/Thai professor who spends all his time in a lab. He's close friends with Maria's brother, but ends up insulting Maria by assuming that she's some airheaded moron who's trying to get into his lab for brownie points. He doesn't realize that he's met Maria before; he's a devoted follower of her science blog and has been chatting with her for years under the name Actual Physicist. The reader gets to watch their virtual relationship develop even as their dislike for each other increases in real life, wondering all the while, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THEIR PATHS DIVERGE? Because you know they will. Jay was just as fascinating to me as Maria. He has a lot of issues under his belt, but he's also quite prejudiced, and one of the things about him that Maria likes the least is his assumption that pretty woman = stupid woman.

I love, love, loved this book. I loved the diversity - the Bay Area is diverse, and Milan really shows that to great effect in HOLD ME, and in a way that feels totally realistic and dimensional and not like someone ticking off a diversity checklist. I loved Maria and Jay's backstories. I loved how Maria was transgender without her transgender identity being the focus of the story. I loved that Jay was bisexual and we hear about his past relationships with men and women. I loved the relationships. I loved the descriptions of San Francisco, Berkeley, and BART. It's true, there only are a few cities where you can go and have like four different noodle places to one block.

Courtney Milan is a good writer. I knew that. But sometimes her historical novels are a little too vanilla for me. Not in, like, the sex way, but in the sense that they're just pleasant and inoffensive and a little bland. I always enjoy them, but few are particularly memorable. HOLD ME, by contrast, was like a rainbow firecracker going off in a dark sky. This book made me giggle. It also made me cry. It gave me all the feels. When I finished the book I wanted to scream giddily and dance around to Hoku's "Perfect Day" a la Legally Blonde in honor of Maria's adorably girly-girl personality.

This book took everything I love about myself, my friends, and my home, and turned it into something magical and wonderful.

Read it!

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones



You could say that I'm a hardcore Labyrinth fan girl. I love the movie, Labyrinth, and have seen it many times, glitter-dappled set and cheesy puppets aside; it's an interesting story that's clearly inspired by Celtic faerie lore, and (you could argue) the allegorical tale of a girl's coming-of-age through the use of symbolism. In fact, many of the reasons I love the movie are less because of what's in the story and more of what's explicitly left out.

Because of that, I was a little skeptical when I heard that there was a book coming out that was inspired by Labyrinth - skeptical and also bouncing-off-the-walls excited. Because another book came out this year that was also inspired by one of my favorite stories: RoseBlood by A.G. Howard, which turned one of my favorite antiheroes into a psychic vampire who owns a rave club.

I was not pleased with these developments.

WINTERSONG starts out okay. It takes place in historical Bavaria, and is about a selfish brat named Elisabeth who only cares about music. She spends most of the book whining, feeling sorry for herself, and being jealous of her siblings. Then one day, her sister, Kathe, is kidnapped by the Goblin King, and Elisabeth is forced to go Underground to save her because if she doesn't succeed, her sister will be gone forever. The integration of The Goblin Market and Der Erlkonig were interesting, but I've seen Labyrinth fanfiction writers run with this concept before. In fact, one of my favorite authors, Subtilior, has a Labyrinth fanfic called Erlk├Ânig that runs with this concept beautifully. Likewise, Viciously Witty has an excellent Labyrinth fic set in Ireland that is based off and called The Goblin Market.

I get that there's only so many famous works of faerie lore, so the possibility of overlap is high, but that just makes it even more important to set your work apart from others' and go the extra mile to make the story interesting and the characters compelling. The Goblin King in WINTERSONG was not compelling. He did not feel like the King of Mischief; he felt like a nervous guy at prom who is afraid that his mean girlfriend is going to embarrass him in front of all his friends. He even blushes and stammers. He's also apparently a christian, or follows christian tenets, since he goes to chapel in his free time and talks a lot about God (especially in the last quarter of the book). This was really jarring to me as a reader, because many of the faerie lore is based on Celtic mythology that predates Christianity by centuries, so it doesn't really make sense that the "Elf King" would go to church....

I looked on the author's profile, and in one of her "Ask the Author" questions, when answering how she was inspired to write this story she says she "decided to write 50 Shades of Labyrinth." So I don't think that it's a stretch to say that WINTERSONG reads like Labyrinth fanfiction, and not even particularly good or original Labyrinth fanfiction, since it primarily relies on ideas that have already been explored by many others in the fandom. Even the sex in this book - arguably the selling point of the premise, since I'm sure many of the hard-core fan girls of Labyrinth wish that there was an alternative telling of the tale when Jareth and Sarah really did end up together - is uninspired and whiny. Elisabeth whines about the sex, that there isn't enough of it, that he doesn't really want her. There are some truly well-written passages in here, but then you also get ridiculous passages like these: "I dip my quill into the inkwell once again, and join up my teardrops into a song" (204).

If this book is 50 Shades of anything, it's 50 Shades of a Whining Heroine Who Never Shuts the Hell Up. She is one of the most unlikable protagonists I've encountered in a while because all she does is complain and whine and cry and talk about how ugly she is. The only thing that sets the heroine apart are her musical abilities (a similarity it shares with RoseBlood), and she's even a brat about this. She sets her brother's face on fire out of jealousy because he is able to study music because he's a boy and she isn't and gets mad at the Goblin King for obtaining her a klavier because - she says - it's too beautiful for her and that makes her feel bad, basically. I'm sorry, you want me to root for this twit?

This was a huge disappointment for me. The only upside is that it made me want to go watch Labyrinth again and revisit some of my favorite fanfic to read when I was in college.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars