Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Followed by Frost by Charlie N. Holmberg


I think this is the first story involving a redemption ARC where I actually feel that the character in question didn't need to be punished. Hear me out: yes, Smitha is not a very nice person; yes, she's spoiled and selfish and doesn't help out her family as much as she should; yes, she's vain; yes, she turns down a strange man's proposal in a rather cruel way. Smitha is guilty of being vain and self-centered...but no more so than most other teenage girls. Are we bombarded with so many eerily perfect and uncannily nice female characters that we are supposed to riot against the first portrayal of an actual flawed and selfish teenager? I mean, I was no prize when I was a teen myself. I was actually unpleasantly surprised at the harshness of Smitha's punishment - especially since it comes at the hands of a man who is essentially stalking her. Smitha makes every attempt to avoid Mordan and he doggedly pursues her, approaching her when she doesn't want to be approached, ingratiating himself with her family to get access to made me quite uncomfortable, actually, because I've been in a similar position, and women are told by society that they have to be "nice" and let people down "easy." Well, sometimes that doesn't work. Sometimes you have to be a "bitch" to get the message across. Did Smitha let him down as easily as she could have? No. But then, I didn't really feel like she should have, and if it was mean of her, she certainly shouldn't have been condemned to what should have been death and wasn't only by the force of her own determination.

Apart from that rather bitter note, I really enjoyed FOLLOWED BY FROST. It has an old-fashioned feel to it, more typical of the fantasy novels I read in the 80s and 90s, like Diana Wynne Jones's work or Gail Carson Levine's. Smitha is a teenage girl who is cursed to be as cold as her heart when she unwittingly humiliates the wizard who's been stalking - I mean courting - her. She becomes a girl of ice, followed by a savage and violent storm wherever she goes, and is kicked out of her village because of the havoc it wreaks upon their homes. Poor Smitha is doomed to wander in the wilderness, seeking out either the man who cursed her or others like him and capable of removing the curse. She's hunted, chases by dogs, and then condemned to loneliness in an icy cave. Well...not quite loneliness. She is followed by the embodiment of Death, a mysterious being named Sadriel who seems determined to have her at all costs, and ends up eventually coming to a kingdom far away. A kingdom that might need her help.

Smitha's development as a character was probably the best aspect of this book. I loved her slow transformation, and felt like all of her reactions to the curse and its effects seemed very real. Character arcs are my bread and butter in fiction; I love complex characterization that develops and changes over the course of a story. And even if she is selfish, it's impossible not to root for Smitha. The story is written in first person, so we're treated first hand to all of her internal struggles, and how often she just wants to give up and succumb to her horrible fate because simply enduring it is such a trial. Her constant discomfort, her inability to eat or drink solid food (it would freeze in her mouth), her loneliness - all of these things made me feel terrible for her. I think the last book I read that tortured the main character to this extent was Donna Jo Napoli's THE WAGER, a dark and Faustian tale about a man who makes a deal with the devil that involves him not being able to bathe for a year (and let me tell you, I have never taken a longer or more thorough shower than I did after reading that book *shudder*). She is the most likable unlikable character I have ever read.

Smitha's love interest was also very likable. I don't want to spoil too much, but I will say that he is kind and sweet and considerate and caring and masculine in a way that doesn't involve being a jerk - a rarity, I think you'll agree. Sadriel, on the other hand, was intriguing but brutal...a real Jericho f*cking Barrons, if you know what I mean. I didn't like how he hit Smitha, or got violent/mean with her. I also didn't like how we never meet Mordan again, because eff that guy - I wanted to see Smitha get her revenge on him. Instead, he gets off scot-free and gets to go back to his own kind and play with magic? What kind of a moral is that? (Part of me was hoping that maybe Sadriel was actually Mordan, which would make Sadriel's obsession with Smitha make sense, and Smitha would get her revenge on them both in the end. I was disappointed. On both counts.) I also thought it was unrealistic how everyone in Smitha's village would be all, "Yay, Smitha, you're back!" They were happy enough to see her go, weren't they? At the very least, there ought to be some guilt, like, "Oh no, she's back - and now she might want revenge because we were a-holes!" I certainly didn't expect Smitha to be all happy to see the people who kicked her out cheerfully enough. Even her own family weren't particularly upset to see her leave. And Smitha's supposed to be the selfish, bitchy one here?

Part of me wants to give this book a low rating, because I didn't realize until now how annoyed I actually was by this book (really annoyed, apparently!), but I really did enjoy the story and Smitha was a great narrator. I guess I will just choose to award my stars based on the heroine and the story alone, and everyone else in the book gets -1,000,000 for being hypocritical jerk-nozzles.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 29, 2017

Ms. Manwhore by Katy Evans

You could bowl me over with a feather after I finished Katy Evan's first book in this series, MANWHORE, and actually thought that it was not all that bad. After all the things people had said about REAL, I was loath to pick up anything by this author, but it turned out to be the perfect example of why sometimes it's good to check a book out despite its bad press. I gave it two-stars, but it was a good two-stars, a solidly okay read, and the perfect guilty pleasure read for a lazy afternoon. Rachel was insecure and annoying, and I got awfully tired of her changing color more frequently than a broken mood ring, but Saint was a decent hero and the sex in the book was - call me shallow - hawt. Repetitive, but hawt, and far better written than I expected.

I bought three books in this series to review for my romance blog, along with various other titles (including CAPTIVE PRINCE AND BAD ROMEO) and despite having low expectations about MANWHORE, I enjoyed it well enough that I was prepared to immediately dive into the companion novella to the series, MS. MANWHORE, and after that, Tahoe's story, LADIES MAN [sic] (I'm fairly sure it should be LADIES' MAN with an apostrophe; Merriam-Webster seems to agree).

First, apparently MS. MANWHORE is #2.5 in the series and I don't have book #2, MANWHORE +1. That's all right. Easy enough to figure out what happened, right? Saint forgives Rachel for the article, dangles her around a bit before taking her back, and obviously it ends with a wedding. Apparently Ms. Evans couldn't help herself, she just had to foist the wedding preparations upon her readers. Because wedding preparations are so fun and romantic. LOL, just kidding. I almost said that with a straight face. Almost. (Sorry, I've watched Bridezillas.)

If you thought Rachel was immature and insecure in the first book (and probably the second), you're going to love the raging cluster of hormones she turns into in MS. MANWHORE. While the feminist in me appreciates the Ms., the feminist in me is also rolling her eyes at all the constant 24/7 lust, jealousy, whining, and crying that went on in this book. When Saint tells Rachel he wants four children, she says, "I'd be fat for almost for years. Of my life!" (27). When they're having their respective bachelor's and bachlorette's celebration, Rachel sits in her apartment with her friends drinking wine and stalking him on social media, presumably trying to figure out what he's doing without her and whether or not he's going to cheat on her (61). I dog-earred that page, because I thought that was the saddest thing I'd ever read - and not ha ha, that's so pathetic, but actually depressingly sad and legitimately upsetting. If you're marrying someone and you're still unsure as to whether or not they're going to cheat on you, it's time for a serious, sit-down kind of adult conversation (without sex) to talk about where you see the relationship going and what your expectations are; and if you are still not appeased after this conversation, do not marry this person. Not if it's going to make you unhappy and have you monitoring their social media to ensure that they are on their best behavior. Therein lies the path to broken dishes and broken hearts.

The mistrust and jealousy continue, with Saint telling Rachel that he wouldn't get her a vibrator as a present because "Why would I want anything inside you other than me?" (82). Then on their honeymoon night, Rachel starts freaking out about her appearance(?) and tells him, oddly, "you deserve for me to smell divine..." pleading with him that "I fix myself" (112). I thought that was so odd, because it's hammered in in the first book how beautiful, skinny, and blonde Rachel is - she even gloats about it herself, which is off-putting and refreshing in equal measures, because (1) Rachel is a twit and I didn't really like her to start but (2) how often do we actually encounter a heroine who feels confident enough about her appearance to own her good looks? But here in this book, it's like Rachel undergoes a complete 180, and constantly puts herself down.

If you really loved the other two books in the Manwhore series about Rachel and Saint, you might love this book. Maybe. I think you would have to love Rachel's character, though, because she's the focus here, and not Saint. I did not like Rachel at all in the first book, and in fact even abhorred her at points in this one. If I had paid the asking price of $2.99 on Amazon, instead of the $1 I got it for at the used book bin, I would have been very unhappy. As it was, $1 was probably entirely too much.

1 out of 5 stars

Manwhore by Katy Evans

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

I'm a romance blogger and sometimes my followers will ask me to review things. Twist ending: my followers did not ask me to review MANWHORE - no, I was asked to review REAL. Conflict: I have yet to find a copy of REAL in a used bookstore (yet). What I did find was one of her newer books, MANWHORE, and two of its sequels. Well, then, I thought to myself. Bring it on.

My friends really did not like REAL so I was a bit reluctant to start MANWHORE, but to be honest, it seems like the book is a vast improvement over her earlier work. Again, I haven't read REAL so I can't say this for sure, but based on quotes and excerpts I've read, it seems like the author's writing and story-telling has improved a lot. MANWHORE is well-written and actually features a surprisingly charming hero. I really liked Malcolm Saint. He was pretty sweet.

MANWHORE is a romance written in the vein of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY: an innocent ingenue-type heroine is asked to interview a Chicago playboy/billionaire for her dying magazine. The difference? No BDSM, and the guy in question is actually pretty nice for a playboy billionaire. Not knowing this, Rachel contrives to meet him to gain access to his deepest secrets for the article; he, of course, finds himself intrigued by her innocence and initial refusal of him; they obviously start hooking up after much ado, and business and pleasure become so hopelessly entangled that pretty soon the heroine, Rachel Livinston, isn't sure where one ends and the other begins.

I liked the chick-lit style of writing. MANWHORE is a speedy read and reminds me of a dirtier version of the Red Dress Ink titles I greedily devoured in my late teens/early twenties. And Malcolm Kyle Preston Logan Saint (good God, what a name), as I said before, is a great love interest with way more depth than I expected (although to be fair, I was not expecting much).

The problems stem mostly from the heroine, who is afflicted with 24/7 boner vision. The bulk of their scenes involve her waxing on about how much she loves [his] body part, or how [her] body part is reacting to him. It's a bit hypocritical of her, being as sex-obsessed as she is, because she's constantly going on about the hero's side-floozies and how she doesn't want to be one of them. Rachel also doesn't have much in the way of personality, which is always a death knell for me when it comes to romance novels. I like it when heroines have depth and character, and apart from salivating over Saint and working on her article (which I'm not sure counts as a separate hobby since the article is about Saint), she doesn't appear to be interested in much else. I think it's telling that all five of the hero's names make it to the back jacket, but the heroine's name isn't mentioned once. I get it, it's all about the raunchy sex and the attractive hero; Rachel's nothing more than a place holder for us to project ourselves into. If that's your cup of tea, then you'll love MANWHORE, as it is well written and erotic - way more so than most purely erotic books out there, to its credit. You could definitely do worse.

 2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a cat lady in want of cat pictures is going to buy your goddamn book if you slap a cat on it. Also, Yaa Gyasi's HOMEGOING was kicking my butt all over the place emotionally (yes, butts can be emotional, thanks), so I decided that my ARC of WE ARE NEVER MEETING IN REAL LIFE would be just the thing to revitalize my drained repository of feels.


Don't get me wrong. WE ARE NEVER MEETING IN REAL LIFE is funny. It's the crude kind of funny appropriated by YouTube celebs, but unlike most of the YouTube celebs I've read, Irby knows where to draw the line. Each expletive is delivered with deadly precision, each risque phrase meant to drive home a singular point or idea. Samantha Irby swears like a pro, and like a pro, she does it with finesse.

What surprised me the most, however, was not the swearing, but the gravitas of this book. Irby talks about some very difficult subjects, like racism, dieting, body image, sex, masturbation, depression, dismal childhoods, alcoholism (specifically living with someone with alcoholism), and discrimination. I wasn't expecting something so gritty, and even though Irby delivered these topics with the same candidness and humor as she did less weighty topics, I found myself struggling to get through some of these passages - not because I didn't appreciate them, but because I wanted to appreciate them, and had to get myself into the proper mindset to take in everything fully, which sometimes meant taking breaks to absorb what I'd read.

There are a lot of really decent memoirs coming out this year. WE ARE NEVER MEETING IN REAL LIFE is one of them. I'll have to see about getting my hands on some of her other work; her style may be unconventional, but it is entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

HOMEGOING is an amazing book, but it is not a light read. If you go into this book expecting a light read, you will be very unhappy. HOMEGOING is the history of a Ghanian family spanning the centuries, beginning in the 18th century and ending in the 20th. It begins with two half-sisters, one sold into slavery and the other married to a slaver. Each of their descendants gets a chapter, and the format of the story alternates from one sister's descendant to the other, with each individual character getting their own story that is self-encapsulating but still manages to add to the overall tapestry of the family history as a whole.

I loved the unique format of this book, how it was a family history that grew and became steadily more complex, following the characters along their respective journeys. There were so many heart-in-mouth moments in this book that it gave me relief to know that no matter how bad things got in the story (bad, bad, terrible, awful, bad), the main character of each mini-story had to survive, if only because the character in every other chapter after theirs would be their descendant. That knowledge made reading this easier, once I figured that out. 

Why? Because this book doesn't sugar-coat. Gyasi writes about slavery and injustice in excruciating detail and doesn't hold back when it comes to the infuriating cruelty that people inflicted on their fellow human-beings. Some of the contents broached in this book are rape, sexism, racism, shadism, substance abuse, child abuse, and violence. In many ways, it actually reminded me of another book, KINDRED by Octavia Butler, which is also about slavery. One of my book club members appreciated this book so much that she wanted to read more books on the subject, so I recommended KINDRED to her, because it shares the same themes, the same purpose: that even though we have come far, there is still injustice; but there is also hope, too, in the hands of our children.

Definitely a must-read.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Letting Go by Maya Banks

If you have been following me, you might be asking yourself, "What's the deal, Nenia? Why are you reading all of these books if you don't like them?" Well, here's the thing, Dear Reader. I purchased most of the author's collection at a used bookstore because I'd heard good things, and then immediately regretted this decision upon picking up the first book in the Sweet series. Stuck with 10+ books I didn't like, and a following of fellow bloggers who enjoy seeing me suffer, I decided that since I spent money for them, I was going to review them, goddammit!

The Sweet series wasn't going well for me so I took a brief hiatus halfway through the series. When I returned to Maya Banks's work, I decided to switch to the Surrender trilogy instead, thinking to mix things up a little. You can imagine my thoughts when I found out that Surrender is really a spinoff of the Sweet series. Same stories, similar characters, with regular visits to The House that is owned and operated by Damon Roche. I'll give you a hint. My exact thoughts rhymed with "clucking swell." Especially because it turns out that I've attempted reading this before. Three years, ago, in fact. Twenty-four-year-old Nenia wanted to give it the old college try, and then DNF'd 1/4 of the way through. Twenty-four-year-old Nenia was wise.

LETTING GO is about Joss(lyn) and Dash. Joss is grieving her dead husband but after two years is ready to move on. Her one wish was to be dominated in bed, which her husband could never bring himself to do because of the abuse he experienced growing up. Joss is determined to find a new man who can give her what she needs in bed. Dash is a friend to her and her late husband, but has secretly coveted Joss for all these years. When he sees her at The House, with another man, he storms in to interrupt the scene and drags her out caveman-style, declaring that he'll be the only one to do that.

Basically. I mean, I'm exaggerating a little, but not by much.

Now, to the author's credit, the writing in this book is a cut above the writing in the Sweet series. I don't know if someone took the author aside and said, "Hey, you know, I don't think women want to read about 'swollen tissues' in their erotica" but the phrase only appeared once. The extremely strange sex metaphors were also absent, which was a plus (although the humorous factor dipped).

The anti-BDSM attitude was also reduced even more here than in previous books, although Dash still can't help himself; he just has to mansplain safe words to Joss:

"Now, many people in these kinds of relationships use safe words. I'm not a fan of them myself, but I understand the necessity of them. Especially for a woman being introduced to this world for the first time. After a while you won't need a safe word because it's my job to find out your boundaries and push you to the very edge without crossing that line. Does that make sense?" (94)


"[W]hen you say [your safe word], it ends and the mood will be broken. There won't be any going back. So be very sure that you truly want me to stop and aren't just overwhelmed by the moment. I'll push your limits. You want a man to push you. You've said as much. So don't chicken out the first time things get intense" (196).

The just oozes from the page. Also, safe words are not sexual training wheels. You don't have a commencement ceremony where people give you an award and say, "Congratulations! You don't need to use safe words anymore!" They're not a sign of weakness or inexperience. They're literally for stopping a scene when it becomes too intense, uncomfortable, or scary. That's all. I can't believe he implied that she would be a mood-wrecking chicken if she used her goddamn safe word.

Banks attempts to make Dash a sweet, considerate hero, cushioning the alphahole nature with pretenses of concern and nuturance, but it doesn't really work. Not only does he appear to not understand how personal space or BDSM work, he's creepy and possessive. Literally right after they start to explore their relationship, he drops this bomb on her:

"I want you to move in with me" (104).

Why? Because he doesn't want to have sex with her in the house she shared with her husband. When Joss asks for more time to think about this decision (understandable), Dash says this:

"The only thing me giving you more time would accomplish would be giving you more of a chance to back out. I'm not going to allow that. I've waited too long. I won't let you go now. Not when I'm so close to having everything I ever wanted" (105).

I'm sorry, I seem to have wondered into a Criminal Minds episode, by mistake. What the actual fresh hell are you still doing on his doorstep, girl? Those words should have you running faster than "on your mark, get set, go!" Dude is a total psycho who's probably going to lock you in his basement.

A few pages later, he tells her that he doesn't feel comfortable with the idea of her working:

"I like the idea of you not working. I like the idea of having all your time. I'm a selfish bastard. I don't want to share you with anyone and certainly not a job" (111).

Seriously. I have two words for you: Base. Ment.

The creepiness continues, as Dash considers impregnating her.

It would suit him perfectly for her to be barefoot and pregnant in his home. Tied to him irrevocably. Maybe that made him a chauvinistic bastard, but he didn't give a damn (153).

"Barefoot and pregnant" is actually a loaded phrase with negative, sexist connotations. Not necessarily something I really want to be reading about in an erotica that is allegedly about empowering a woman to find the courage to overcome her grief and pursue her own sexual desires.

Weird sex descriptions:
-: On p.135, Dash decides to feed her pasta and sauteed shrimp. He ensure[s] it [won't] burn her by testing it first, by which I took to mean he was taking a bite out of every morsel before giving it to her, which sounds gross to me: I'm a woman, not a baby bird! But Joss finds it erotic: The idea that the food had been to his mouth first and then to hers was as jolting as if he'd kissed her (135). Or if he vomited into her mouth, I suppose. That, too. But hey, po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
-: His d*ck was about to come out of his pants. He wouldn't be surprised if his erection tore right through his jeans (142). Has that happened before? I think he needs to buy better quality pants.
-: He sucked and licked, thrusting his tongue inside her to taste her sweet honey (151).

What shifted this book to a solid one star was what I'm going to call The Misunderstanding. This whole time, Joss has been experiencing grief. On p.286, she has a dream about her husband. It's supposed to be about moving on, and getting ready to embrace her life with Dash, but when she talks in her sleep, Dash misinterprets what's happening and thinks she still loves Carson.

Which isn't a big deal. He was her husband and he is dead.

But not to Dash, who starts yelling at her when she wakes up, accusing her of using him as a "poor substitute" for the man she lost. He adds this:

"You don't want to move on. You just want someone to fuck you and play master to your submissive. Hell, it would have been just any man, or don't you remember that night at The House?" (287)

You mean the night you barged into her scene unasked and dragged her out after threatening the other Dom? That night?

"It's obvious you weren't particular and any dick would have done" (287).

Keep in mind that this is over something she said in her sleep, which he didn't even ask her to clarify.

Joss makes a half-assed attempt to try and correct him and tells him that he's hurting her feelings.

Dash retorts with this:

"Good," he said savagely. "It's about time you hurt a tenth as much as I've hurt over the last years. I'm tired of trying to live up to a dead man's memory. When are you going to accept that he's gone?" (287).

After that, there was no going back for me. Dash was beyond redemption. I mean, who says that to a woman whose husband has died? Well, I'll tell you: the same kind of man who admits that he treated her badly when she first started going out with his best friend in the hopes that they'd break up:

"It shames me that I treated you so curtly in the beginning. I actually hoped that things wouldn't work out between you and Carson because I wanted you for myself. I had planned to swoop in and claim you the minute things ended between you and Carson....I fully admit, I looked for faults. I looked for any evidence that you weren't what was best for him. Hell, I hoped that he'd lose interest or you'd do something to put him off....I wanted you to fail just so I could have you as my own" (180).

Joss is so upset that she flees - and ends up getting into a car accident. Joss's friends confront Dash when they find out she's missing, but he has no idea where she is. They find her in the hospital. He finds out that he was - surprise, surprise, a big a-hole who ruined everything with his assumptions. There are tears. They end up deciding to get back together, because theirs is a totally healthy relationship with absolutely zero red flags or concerns, nope, no sir, not at all.

The book ends with this hopeful little nugget of happy endings to come:

"Let's go start making those babies," he said huskily. "I can't wait to see you swollen with my child. As beautiful as you are to me right now, I can only imagine you'll grow even more beautiful when you're heavy with our baby" (329).

 1 out of 5 stars

One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

I was notified recently that my library just added a ton of books that I recommended, including several memoirs written by people of color and YA about LGBT+ characters. One of those books was ONE DAY WE'LL ALL BE DEAD AND NONE OF THIS WILL MATTER by Scaachi Koul, a culture writer for BuzzFeed Canada.

I'd been looking forward to this book for a while. I love BuzzFeed and I had heard that this book was going to address many topics like feminism and racism and cultural identity. Plus, it's written by someone who's roughly my own age, give or take a few years, and it's always amazing to read books written from someone in your generation - especially if their observations are written from a different perspective than your own. It's like seeing the world with new eyes...for better or for worse.

ODWABDaNoTWM is about Koul growing up in Canada in the 90s and early 2000s. The daughter of immigrant parents from India, she was in the unique position of being the only "brown person" in an area of Canada that didn't have many minorities at the time (I'm blanking on the exact location, but I believe it was a part of Calgary that was mostly white). She writes, with candidness and humor, about internal and external racsim; sexism; interracial relationships; rape culture; substance abuse; beauty standards; and dating. She's incredibly witty and makes some very cutting observations on Canadian and Indian culture, but she also talks about what she loves about these two different cultures, too, and how they have helped shape her identity and make her into the person she is now. Also, her relationship with her family, especially her parents, is both endearing and hilarious. I love how she includes some of her emails to her dad.

I really loved this book. Koul brings a fresh perspective to the millennial memoir collective, which seems to be mostly overrun by YouTube celebrities and pop stars. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I prefer books with a little more substance. This is the second book I've read that was written by current- or ex-BuzzFeed staff (the first was I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU by Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn) and let me tell you, I am impressed. Both ODWABDaNoTWM and I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU are pitch-perfect and culturally relevant, discussing many relevant and controversial issues that millennials - especially female millennials - face on a day to day basis.

You should definitely read this.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Overruled by Emma Chase

Occasionally, I get people who ask me why I read romance novels if I hate them. The answer is: I don't hate them. I love them. But I also don't think that romance novels should be above criticism just because they weren't written as literary fiction. Yes, they are written "just for fun." Yes, they are "fiction." But they are also consumer products. I call 'em like I read 'em, and if I like something, I'll be honest about why I like it, the same as how I'll be honest about why I don't like something. That's just how I am.

OVERRULED shares a lot of qualities with romance novels I just can't stand. I don't like jerk heroes, and Stanton Shaw, the main character, is eye-roll-worthy levels of "I don't freaking believe this guy." When he gets his childhood sweetheart, Jenny, pregnant, he decides he's going to pursue his dreams of being a lawyer anyway and leaves her and his child in Mississippi. They both agree to see other people in the interim, so Stanton happily sleeps around, popping back home every now and then to court Jenny and drop off some money. It's a great arrangement, and he's perfectly happy with it. Of course he is. Must be nice, not taking any responsibility for your choices. (Cue: "I just can't believe this guy!")

Then one day, he finds out that Jenny is getting married - to a man that isn't him.

His current FWB, Sofia Santos, is a lawyer just like Stanton. She likes their low-pressure relationship because it allows her to focus on advancing her career. She knows he's not ready to settle down and he has the mother of his child waiting in the wings. (Cue: "I just can't believe this guy!") But she also likes Stanton and the two of them work well together, whether it's in the courtroom or between the sheets (lol that was so cheesy). When Stanton asks her to accompany him to Mississippi to help him break up the wedding, she is less than thrilled, but he's determined to get Jenny back and desperately wants her help. And for whatever reason, when he asks her for things, she just can't say "no." (TFW your friend-with-benefits asks you to help win back the mother of their child.)

This is basically the book equivalent of a good chick flick, or an entire package of Lindt truffles. It's superficial and silly, but in a way that makes it a cut above the crap of its kind. I felt like Emma Chase really captures the small town vibe, and it has a pretty good cast of secondary characters that added a lot of entertainment without being too cliche. The relationship between Stanton and Sofia is well done, because even though they have the physical aspect down pat, it takes them a while to establish that emotional connection. Seeing them gradually learn to open up to one another was sweet. Probably the one moment I took the most issue with is this incredibly stupid scene when they're having sex by the water and they decide to bareback it, and have Stanton "just pull out." What is it with romance novels and their prophylactic-phobias? It's a major pet-peeve of mine.

OVERRULED managed to exceed my expectations, though - and I'm a critical romance reviewer. Call me snobby or elitist, if you must, but I have high expectations. Good writing, good characterization, and a dash of humor keep this from falling into the usual contemporary romance rut. Even though I couldn't find the hero sexy (I'm sorry, but I just couldn't believe this guy), I found myself enjoying the story way more than I ever thought I would a story with a womanizing hero. If you're a fan of jerk heroes, you'll probably love this one.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Because of Low by Abbi Glines

This cover makes me laugh. I'm not sure whether it's because the title looks like something printed out on a label maker, or because of the discount Emma Stone in the arms of a dude pouting harder than a teenager taking a MySpace pic in 2005, but it's all gold. Sadly, what lies between the covers is not, though.

Abbi Glines was pretty popular about four years ago, when new adult fiction was first making waves. A lot of my friends really did not like her work, which made me curious, because I am one of those contrary, masochistic people who feel the need to read a book and find out for myself whether it's really that bad (and sometimes it isn't - case in point: TWILIGHT). When I saw one of the author's books at the used bookstore, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to belatedly check out the hype.

Marcus lives with a playboy named Cage. One day, a girl comes to their apartment looking for Cage who isn't his normal type (which means that she doesn't have fake boobs and isn't model skinny, basically - I believe Marcus calls her "natural"). The girl - Low - is crying because her sister kicked her out of the house - again - to entertain her boyfriend and the father of her niece. Marcus decides he wants her immediately (insta-love), tears and all, and is perplexed when Cage warns him away, claiming that Low is the girl he's going to marry once he's decided he's going to stop slutting around and commit himself.

(Hmm...why does that sound familiar? *stares hard at Acehole from JOCKBLOCKED*)


Marcus slowly insinuates himself into Low's life, while both of them deal with their issues. Marcus is upset at his father for leaving his family for a younger woman. Low is upset at her sister for cavorting around with a married man. If you think that their problems seem like they're connected in some way - guess what. You're right. I mean, obviously. As soon as the word "married man" was used, it clicked for me immediately and I was like, "Well, this is not going to be a fun little ride to Happyville."

Here's the thing, the drama in the book is so stupid. I didn't like how Marcus put Low on a pedestal, praising her for being innocent and virginal, and talking about how hot she is compared to other women because she's natural. Whatever natural means. I mean, she wears makeup, and makeup isn't natural, so where is the line? Hair-dye? Cosmetic enhancements? Preservatives? There is so much girl-shaming in this book, it isn't even funny. Marcus is angrier at his father's girlfriend than he is at his father, but shouldn't his father be held accountable? He doesn't really call his father names, but he refers to the mistress as the slut or the whore, and then there's this delightful scene:

I wanted to hurt her. Slam her against a wall and scream at her. But I couldn't. So I settled for words.
"Suck him dry while you can, because you won't be young forever. He'll leave you one day too. For someone younger. A zebra doesn't change his stripes, and I can assure you there is nothing about you that's special. You're just a young piece of ass" (208). 

Then there's the way Marcus treats Cage. They're supposed to be friends. He's living in Cage's apartment. Cage tells him not to hit on the girl he likes and Marcus does it anyway. He does it because he knows that Cage won't kick him out because of the fear that Low might leave, too.

There was a possibility he'd get so angry he'd kick me out. But then I was banking on Willow threatening to leave with me, and I knew beyond a shadow of doubt Cage wouldn't let that happen. He might be upset, but he wouldn't lose her. He'd put up with whatever she forced him to put up with in order to keep her close. I didn't get their relationship at all. One minute he reminded me of a pussy-whipped guy around her, and the next he acted like her damn brother. I didn't like it. He wasn't her brother. I wanted him to back off. He didn't cherish how special she was. I did (137).

This was the moment that I really started to not like Marcus. He's one of those possessive alphaholes who stalks the heroine, turning up conveniently (read: creepily) to offer rides home that weren't asked for, or to "protect" her from confrontations that he started. When he decides he likes her, he makes Low move all her things from Cage's room to his, and does sexy things to her in the common room. He's emotionally manipulative AF, and the way he treated his alleged friend really made me sick.

What is even more annoying is how Low uses Cage. She knows how he feels about her and seems to feel no guilt at all about doing stuff with his best friend under his roof. She also still expects him to stick around and do everything that he did for her before. When Marcus upsets her, who does she run to? The selfish twit has a freak-out because she's afraid he's dumping their years of friendship just because he didn't buy her her favorite soda.

Once inside I headed over to the fridge to get a Jarritos. I was thirsty. Opening the bottom drawer, I realized there weren't any more. Only beer. Cage never ran out of my drinks. But they were gone. He was letting me go (178-179).

B*tch, you can buy your own damn soda. Or have your boyfriend buy it for you. You constantly talk about how poor you two are, and you're still making him buy you soda? What the actual flip. It made me angry that this was portrayed as a panic attack because it felt more like a plot device. I hate it when mental illness is used in stupid ways to add plot points to romance novels, especially when the hero or heroine is introduced as a curative. If you're going to give a heroine anxiety, that is perfectly cool. But using it for drama and then never bringing it up again? That's where we have a problem.

At this point, I was still considering giving this book 2 stars for sheer entertainment. But then at the end of the book it makes me angry. Marcus finds out that Low's sister is the Other Woman wrecking his family and assumes that she knew the whole time and was basically having a laugh at his expense. He says terrible things to her, and starts drinking and rage-sexing other women while moping around about how hard his life is. That was when I decided that Marcus could go firetruck himself. Lack of communication to create drama is such an annoying trope, and the fact that he was so quick to throw their relationship in the garbage really doesn't speak much of him as a person (but we knew that).

The sex/romantic scenes are kind of strange too:

All I could see was all that hair spread out on my pillows. It reminded me of flames. I'd always loved to watch fires (136).

*quietly begins playing Cascada's Pyromania*

All it took was one small caress just where I needed it, and my world fell apart. It was as if someone had lit a bottle rocket between my legs (165).

Literally all he does is touch her once and it turns into a fireworks show down there. Since when did a vaginal boop lead to the Best Sex Evar?

The writing isn't bad. Stylistically, these books reminded me of Jen Frederick's Gridiron series. I think it's possible that I could get into some of the author's other works. Sadie was very likable, and I thought Cage was interesting (even though he's the stereotypical, promiscuous alpha male, I liked him a sight better than Marcus). Pretty much all of the characters in here were interesting, except for the two leads. Low's sister, Tawny, had spice, and was complex even if she wasn't likable.

I might read more of this author's books. But I can't really recommend this one.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Painted Faces by L.H. Cosway

How often do you grab books while they're free or discounted on Kindle and then never read them? For me, pretty much all the time. That's why my friends and I have started the Kindle Clean Out club where we BR books that have been sitting in cyberspace, gathering virtual dust. You can read Sarah's review of this book here, and Heather's review of this book here.

This is actually my second book by this author. The first was STILL LIFE WITH STRINGS. I received a copy of the book directly from the author and ended up giving the book two stars because even though I loved the idea of a romance with a sexy violinist (*drools*), the romance felt rushed and unrealistic, the heroine was kind of a judgmental little sh*t, and the two of them had sex without a bloody condom - my #1 erotica pet-peeve.

I leaped at the chance to obtain PAINTED FACES because this sounded like yet another interesting concept - a romance between a baker and a straight drag queen. "Yes, okay, just give it here!" said foolish me. "I'll totally sign up for that!" I began reading the book and was dismayed to find myself with yet another book that also felt rushed and unrealistic, with a judgmental little sh*t of a heroine who has sex without a condom.

Oh. My. God. There is no escape from the madness.

Fred is the worst heroine. She's always making judgments about everyone around her, slut-shaming women, body-shaming women, reverse-slut-shaming women (if you're not actively having sex, you're all dried up). She's snide about a woman with a college degree who became a stay-at-home mom. She makes fun of her friend Anny for having a threesome. She age-shames this woman for having sex with Nicholas (before she and Nicholas are together) because having sex with a younger, attractive man makes you desperate. Her mouth (or at least, her words) is always running to deliver these constant asides that make her seem desperate to relate to you, the reader. Do you enjoy relaxing in sweatpants? Do you like watching people eat the food you cooked? Do you think furry animals are cute? Wow, you do? Oh my God, you're so unique and quirky...JUST LIKE FREDA.

Her relationship with Nicholas starts out with them being friends, but that, too, felt rushed and desperate. I liked how secure Nicholas was with his sexuality, and how he indulged in both stereotypically masculine and feminine activities without making a big fuss over it. Unfortunately, Nicholas is also an alphahole who gets really grabby with the heroine. When they first meet, he presses himself up against her backside while she's cooking (ew, predatory, no). He's constantly grabbing her breasts or talking about her body. He sleeps around with other women and then mocks them - either behind their back or in front of them, to other women (mostly Freda) - and uses them to make other women who want to sleep with him jealous (everyone). He's constantly tearing at her clothes, at one point yanking her dress down so he can molest her in a bathroom (again, before they're together). He employs the heroine with a job that's 100% pretense so he can gauge whether or not she's worthy of him. It's all so sick-making and by the end of the book I despised him. How can you possibly like a hero who tells the heroine that she's pure and clean, while other women are dirty, and after sleeping with another woman, tells the heroine he was imagining her while doing it??

I wanted to like PAINTED FACES, but I didn't. I liked parts of it - the role music had to play, the drag shows and performances, the descriptions of middle class Ireland, baking - but the whole of the book was ruined by the two main characters and the wasted potential. I feel like this book could have stirred up some very interesting dialogues about transphobia, homophobia, sexuality, gender fluidity, sexual abuse, and heteronormative relationships that would have been incredibly relevant and interesting. Instead, it just took the same tired old cliches and tried to gussy them up with sparkly heels and mascara.

It did not work.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

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

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

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

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

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5 out of 5 stars

Lemonade by Nina Pennacchi

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

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

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

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

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 19, 2017

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sweet Seduction by Maya Banks

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 out of 5 stars

I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Awaken Me Darkly by Gena Showalter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 12, 2017

Tender Wings of Desire by Harland Sanders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, dear. How terribly improper.

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

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

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

1 to 1.5 stars