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.


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

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.


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 Erlkönig 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