Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Across a Starlit Sea by Rebecca Brandewyne

I was a little less excited about reading ACROSS A STARLIT SEA because of how melodramatic and campy its prequel, UPON A MOON-DARK MOOR was. ACROSS takes place with the next generation of the last set of characters. Laura, the narrator of ACROSS, is the daughter of Wellesley, Maggie's half-brother.

The convoluted family tree can be a bit difficult to follow, but by the end of the story (and with the help of the family tree in the beginning of the book), I'm fairly sure that I have everyone straight.

**Warning: Spoilers**

Laura is engaged to her first cousin, Jarrett, Maggie and Draco's eldest son. But she's in love with Nicholas, their younger son. This results in dalliances that happen right under her fiances nose, although Laura starts to have second thoughts when said dalliances start to become, well, rapey. But surely, she thinks, he does it because he loves her so much he just can't control himself? Surely. Oh, boy. You must be new here.

The melodrama in this book is more complicated than the last book because there are more characters to play with, although like UPON A MOON-DARK MOOR, the story spans from the characters' childhoods to their adulthood. The parallels between the story are numerous and interesting - both are narrating as teary old women lamenting the tragedies of their past; both make very cheesy foreshadowing statements like, "If only I had known..." or "perhaps the tragedy could have been averted if I..."; both feature love triangles/quadrangles, with female heroines who flit from one love interest to the other, gravitating to the "wrong" love interest first; both have very flowery descriptions of the moors that are caught in that uncomfortable limbo between poetic and purple.

Nicholas is actually a pretty insidious character, and about what you would expect of a bodice ripper "hero" from the 70s - he's rapey, without morals, and can't keep it in his pants. The only difference is that, in this book, he's kind of a villain. There's also Thorne, who is a villain as well, and homosexual, which is portrayed as being "wrong" in this book (the heroine keeps saying that there's "something wrong" about Thorne she can't put her finger on, and it turns out his sexuality is that thing). A lot of fallen women also feature in this book, and they all meet unpleasant ends, without fail.

I actually liked Jarrett. He was pretty sexy for a bodice ripper hero. (I'm not actually sure that this book qualifies as a bodice ripper, although bodices were ripped...) And unlike the previous book, the hero in this book does not rape the heroine, although at one point she speculates that he would probably try to rape her if she provoked him "lustily". I'm not sure what that means, or what I'm supposed to do with that information, but there you go. Rapeyness quotient aside, Jarrett was a good, solid Byronic hero, and it made the romance in ACROSS A STARLIT SEA much more palatable.

If you read and were put off by the rape in UPON A MOON-DARK MOOR, I think ACROSS A STARLIT SEA will be much easier to swallow. The writing is better, and the story is tighter (even if it is basically a mirror image of book one, right down to a mystery at the mines that's straight out of Scooby Doo). Brandewyne is like a toned-down bodice ripper, or a smutted-up Victoria Holt gothic. If that appeals to you, I say, go for it.

3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, May 30, 2016

So Sweet by Rebekah Weatherspoon

SO SWEET was part of a giveaway via Instafreebie a few weeks ago. Even though I'm so over billionaire romances, a few phrases leaped out at me while reading reviews: "sex positive," "woman of color," and "realistic." Words and phrases that, you'll agree, don't often appear in books of this genre. I decided to take a look.

Kayla is living with her flaky roommate, Adler, and both of them are in trouble. Kayla is failing job search after job search, and Adler isn't really looking. Rent is due soon, and both of them are either going to a) become homeless or b) have to live with their parents again unless they can come up with some quick money.

Under the - ill-advised - suggestion of Adler, Kayla decides to make money in the tried-and-true way of new adult novels everywhere: sell sex for money. However, rather than looking for a tattooed rock musician, or an angsty artist who is secretly rich, she looks for a sugar daddy by going to Arrangements.com, which is kind of like the internet dating equivalent of an escort service. She will hook up with an older guy, basically trading sex for payment of student loans, apartment rent, and clothes.

At one of the mixers, Kayla doesn't really feel the scene, and ends up sitting down at a table with a guy who says he isn't feeling the scene either. They talk - and Kayla realizes (SURPRISE!) that this is Michael Bradbury, the founder of Arrangements, as well as several other endeavors. He's no Christian Grey, though. He has the nerdy hippie vibe of a tech-made billionaire, and I appreciated that. I also liked the portrayal of Kayla, and some of the issues she dealt with as a young black woman.

SO SWEET is short but, well, sweet. Clocking in at only about 100 pages, a good portion of the novelette is about sex. It's well-written sex, but doesn't leave much in the way of plot or character development, and while I liked Kayla and Michael, I didn't really get a feel for who they were as people until the very end, when Kayla starts having some friendship problems with Adler, and both Michael and Daniella give her very good advice on how to deal with it (which she follows!).

The sex, as I said, was well written and the vibe of the book is definitely sex positive. It was nice to read about a heroine who was familiar with her body, enjoyed and pursued sex, and masturbated. On the other hand, there were a few scenes that made me raise my eyebrows. At first, when she and Michael are about to engage in anal sex, she proposes training up to it with a plug and lube, which actually made me happy, because yay, realism. But then Michael is like, "No, it's okay, we'll go slow." And Kayla is like, "I had anal sex years ago, so this barely hurts at all, I'm totally feeling it."

And I was like >_>

And they didn't use a condom, so I was like <_<


Some people don't mind lack of condoms in their erotica, but for me this is a major pet peeve. MAJOR. PET PEEVE. Yes, they were fairly exclusive at this point, but it wasn't official, and there was no mention of STD tests or sexual history. And just for the record, anal sex is more likely to cause STDs because there is tearing and therefore direct exposure to blood, so condoms are even more important with anal even though you won't get pregnant. The more you know!

SO SWEET was a short, fun read, just what I needed after coming back from vacation. I'm not sure if I want to read the sequel - $2.99 seems like a lot for such a short book - but I do appreciate the author putting it up for free & it's always nice to read books written by and featuring PoCs. Diversity!

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski

Confession: when this book first came out with the original cover, I thought it was a book about ballet.

Spoiler alert: this book is not about ballet.

When a new young adult title gets released, two things inevitably happen:
1) a whole swarm of bloggers read the book, talk about how they can't even, you guys!, and rate it five stars.
2) I read the book in question, wonder if I'm in a parallel universe where good books turn into bad books, and rate the book one or two stars.

With THE WINNER'S CURSE, I suffered no reader's remorse. This is pretty much everything I expect from young adult - it deals real issues in an intelligent and sophisticated way without talking down to the audience at all. The heroine is calculating, clever, brilliant- a military strategist who is a champion at her world's equivalent of chess. The hero is dark and dangerous, but not in a contrived way. His backstory is quite sad and heart-wrenching, and he has depth to his behavior that makes him seem less scary and more like an honest-to-god love interest.

THE WINNER'S CURSE is about two societies: the Valorians and the Herrani. The Valorians are fair, militaristic, and obsessed with honor. The Herrani, on the other hand, are artisans and intellectuals, who put a premium on artistry and religion, although they also had a powerful navy. The Valorians were jealous of all that the Herrani had achieved - and so, the Valorians decided to take it, and enslave the very people that they had once held in admiration, reducing them to the status of animals as they took them all as their slaves in the very villas where they once resided.

Kestrel is the daughter of a powerful general in the Valorian army. One day, while in the marketplace with her friend, Jess, she comes to a slave auction by accident. She sees a young, attractive man whose rebellious streak will doom him to a life of beatings. Out of a misguided sense of something, she purchases him - and the decision ends up changing her life in unexpected ways. The slave, Arin, is not all that he seems...and as her relationship to him grows closer, it could mean her doom.

Who doesn't love doom in their romances?

One of the best things about THE WINNER'S CURSE was the complexity of the characters. They are both very suspicious, clever people who are good at getting into the heads of others. Watching them try to read each other and gauge one another's thoughts was like watching a chess match between two skilled chess players. This was really well done, and it was especially refreshing to see a female main character who could keep the male main character on his toes, and even best him on occasion.

Boy, this book ended on the mother of all cliffhangers, though. It seems to be going THE HUNGER GAMES route, and I think I can espy a love triangle on the horizon. Honestly, though - at this point, I'm game. Rutkoski has proved herself worthy. THE WINNER'S CURSE is that rare book in a hundred that actually lives up to the hype.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Prince by Kiera Cass

I'm currently reading THE ROYAL WE with the Unapologetic Romance Readers (or the "Romaniacs", as Karly calls them), and that put me in the mood for more trashy royal drama. Conveniently, I received a notification that I'm next on the waitlist for THE SELECTION, and since the prequel was available, I thought I'd read it & see what I'm getting myself into.

At its heart, THE SELECTION is an interesting and titillating idea - what happens if you get thirty-five teen girls (and their hormones) and have them compete for the affection of a prince a la The Bachelor?

It's pure wish fulfillment fantasy.

So is THE ROYAL WE. So is What a Girl Wants. So is PRINCESS DIARIES. And there's not a problem with that, really. There's a time and a place for all sorts of romance stories, even the bad ones. The problem is the execution, in my opinion. THE PRINCE could be glorious, trashy, melodramatic, and awesome...but it reads as very watered down and bland. I think part of that is the way it's being marketed; this is obviously a book for young teens. Had this been written for an older audience (new adult, or even adult), I think it would have been much better, because then it could capitalize on all the things that make reality TV so fun to watch - swearing, sex, alcohol, fighting, name-calling, and passive-aggressively mugging for the camera in between all the former.

I'm also not 100% sold on the world built around this story. It's set in the Kingdom of Illea, which I think is supposed to be a "new" version of America (based on something Maxon said about America - yes, there is a heroine named "America" in this book - and her name). There's also a country called Honduragua (a conglomerate of Honduras and Nicaragua?) and then - France. THE PRINCE gets points for at least referencing the outside world (something its fellow dystopian sisters, DIVERGENT and THE HUNGER GAMES really did not do), but that's it. Just a name drop and vague references that things have changed. But why? (And why is France still France? This is puzzling to me.)

Prince Maxon is the narrator of this short story, and I didn't find him particularly engaging, either. To his credit, he's not a jerk, he's just...kind of whiny. "What if I fall in love with all the girls?" This is something he is legitimately worried about. Oh, Maxon, please. Go sit in the corner for a while. Please. Maxon is the type of guy who really, really wants to be a nice guy. He even believes his intentions are good. But he also oozes smarm from every pore. Calling all the Selected "my dear" is just so icky. I guess when he approaches the Selection expecting to have his butt covered in kisses, it's understandably intriguing when one of the other girls tells you to go to hell, but this concept has been overdone to death, and their hate at first sight is more like mild resentment at first sight, anyway.

Also, don't be fooled by that incredibly misleading blurb. The blurb would have you believe that there's going to be catfights and proclamations of unrequited love. It's really just a very short prologue of the events leading to the first part of book one, except in Maxon's view. "The other girl" in Prince Maxon's life gets a few pages to air her misery before skiving off. I felt sorry for her, because Maxon completely blows her off without even really empathizing with her, and that was sad.

So far, my impressions with this storyline are "meh." I had some people tell me that this book was awful, and I had some people tell me that this book was amazing. It is neither. It is meh. I'm hoping that someone gets slapped in book one, or at the very least that some hair gets pulled. If I'm going to get suckered into reality TV (even if it is in book form), you had better pull out all the stops.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Indiscreet by Mary Balogh

I don't normally go in for fluffy regencies like this, but Mary Balogh came highly recommended to me by Jenn Young, and I really liked the other Balogh story I read, so I figured, Why not?

Catherine Winters is a virtuous widow who rents a small cottage from the local "royalty", Mr. and Mrs. Adams. Mr. Adams is the twin brother of a viscount, and rather fond of Catherine, and Catherine is sometimes invited to parties at their estate whenever they have odd numbers, because of her manners and quiet charm.

One day the viscount comes to town and Catherine, mistaking him for his brother, smiles and curtsies at him. The Viscount Rawleigh, Rex, takes this as a proposition and immediately sets out trying to bed Catherine & make her his mistress until he returns home. But Catherine refuses him staunchly, which perplexes him as much as it makes him angry, and even more determined to have his way.

The attraction between Catherine and Rex is undeniable, but Catherine reacts oddly to his overtures. It's very clear that something is wrong, and that this "something" has a great deal to do with Catherine's lovely manners, her widow status, and the reason that she is so utterly, unequivocally alone.

I really wasn't expecting to like INDISCREET as much as I did. It starts off very slowly, and while I could appreciate the comedy of manners, it did start to get a bit dull. So did the constant bickering between the hero and the heroine. Rex does border on an alphahole at times, but he is self-aware in a way that many alpha-holes are not. By the end of this book, I was a Rex Fan.

Fans of slow burn romance and romance with substance will like INDISCREET, if they're willing to settle in for a bit of a wait. The sex scenes in this book are rather tame, but quite sexy, and fairly frequent. It was quite fun to see the hero and heroine fall in love slowly, empathizing with one another before exchanging vows of undying love - that's far more realistic, and all the more romantic because of it! Also, that ending was tense. I was NOT expecting that! o.o

3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, May 20, 2016

On the Brink by Kate Willoughby

Reading Elle Kennedy's THE DEAL taught me that I could enjoy sports romances. That realization gave me the courage to pick up UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT by Kate Willoughby: another hockey romance.

I liked UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT. It was similar to THE DEAL, except with older characters and an interesting soap opera twist that seemed like it could have been taken out of a scene from Jane the Virgin. Willoughby had a lot of interesting things to say on the topics of celebrity and attraction that made me sit up and pay attention.

I also liked the bro talk. One of the things that makes Kennedy's books so beloved is the bro talk. These ladies write guy talk in a really funny, engaging way that makes us feel like we're part of the club, too. I loved reading about these hockey guys talk about what they loved best - hockey, mainly, and also sex.

My favorite character in the book was actually Hart, who was also gay. The way he was portrayed in the book was really nice. He was attentive to his boyfriend and was not portrayed in a stereotypical way. He just came across as an ordinary guy with a bit of a snark streak who also loved dudes.

I enjoyed the story enough that I later messaged the author asking her if she had any intention of writing more about Hart and his boyfriend, Jeremy. She told me she did, and that was her next project, and that it would be coming out in summer. Lo and behold - my joy when I saw and was accepted for this lovely, lovely ARC on Netgalley. Come to me, my precious!

ON THE BRINK takes place not at the age they are in the main books, but back in college. Jeremy is proudly out and has a crush on one of the hockey players at his school - Hart. When he drags his friend to watch a game, Hart's eyes keep locking with his. After the game, Hart tells him gruffly that he's a distraction, without really elaborating as to why. Then they happen to notice Jeremy's car, which has been defaced with the f-word, and has all the tires slashed. Hart offers him a lift home but they end up making out in the car instead, and Hart gets embarrassed and angry and kicks him out.

In the aftermath of this incident, Jeremy turns the car incident into something he can own. He paints it with rainbow colors and writes "proudly out" in glittery lavender over the f-word. It catches local attention and gets him an interview with the college paper and an intervention with the school principal who wants to make the school a safer place for all diverse students (his intentions are coming from the right place, even if he has all of the subtlety of Dudner Mifflin's Michael Scott).

Some people have been concerned about whether it's GFY. It's not. Hart is seriously buried in the closet, but the signs are there. I think it also makes sense why he would be reluctant to come out, because sports can attract machismo dudes who think that masculinity means being anti-homosexual and anti-woman. I thought his rationalizations of past actions were well done, even though it upset me to see him say cruel things to Jeremy, or selfishly offer him a carte blanche type of relationship with the condition that it's done totally in secret and only in their own home.

There is an HEA but it kind of made me sad, because both characters still feel the need for secrecy. I was hoping for a leap to how both of them became so accepted in the present day, with the Barracudas. I was also hoping to find out who the jerk was that defaced Jeremy's car, and whether he would get his punishment... A longer novel might have answered these questions and more. But this wasn't a bad book. I think it's the author's first M/M work, too, so that might account for some of the awkward scenes, as well.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars!

Love and Glory by Patricia Hagan

LOVE AND WAR was a dense, horrific "romance" novel set during the Civil War. THE RAGING HEARTS was the gleefully sadistic sequel, where both characters are again separated and the heroine is manipulated and emotionally abused by pretty much everyone she comes into contact with. In LOVE AND GLORY, the conclusion to the trilogy about Travis & Kitty, the characters are again separated, except this time, there was so much craziness that I literally could not even. To convey the sheer insanity this plot had to offer, I'm going to have to resort to spoilers.

P.S. Speaking of spoilers, do NOT - I repeat, do NOT - read the Goodreads summary for this book. It has a huge spoiler in it. I read the spoiler by mistake (thinking in my innocence that a summary would be spoiler-free); do not make my mistake, for I was once like you, living in ignorant bliss.

**WARNING: Huge, Huge Spoilers!**

Kitty and Travis are living on a farm with their young son, but Travis doesn't like farming and doesn't hide it well. When Kitty finds out that Travis was offered a position to be a U.S. Marshal for Haiti and the Dominican Republic, she pulls the "I'm going to push you away for your own good" stunt with the help of his BFF, Sam. She does this by forcing him to go to a party he doesn't want to go to. There, she receives honors for her medical work (which annoys Travis, because how dare she have a part of her life that doesn't involve him or his child). She nags him the whole time about being more "gentlemanly" and this infuriates him even more, because he doesn't like being told what to do. The plan works: Travis gets angry that Kitty has changed into a nag, and leaves in a huff.

Sulking Kitty sulks, and everyone who hates her (or wants to bone her) takes pleasure that Travis dumped her so publicly. When she's marooned in a sudden and convenient storm, Jerome Danton (the KKK dude from the previous book) decides it's the perfect opportunity to try and rape her, but his wife (and Kitty's arch-nemesis), Nancy Warren, bursts in with a shotgun right as he's getting to it. Jerome panics and tries to claim that Kitty forced herself on him (uh-huh), but Nancy has none of it and kicks him out of the cabin. She then reveals that she's paid Luke Tate (the man who held Kitty hostage and raped her constantly in book one) to take her far, far away. To Nevada, in fact, where Tate plans to become rich by staking out silver mines. After much rape and abuse, Kitty has a mental breakdown and vows that she is going to die...

Meanwhile, in Haiti, Travis is sleeping with one of the local women - an underage girl named Molina and fuming about Kitty. When Molina finds out that Travis is not only married, but has no intent of entering into a common-law marriage with her, she goes to the island voodoo priest to invoke the gods to get revenge on Travis. One of his fellow U.S. expatriates freaks and explains to Travis that he's in huge trouble, but Travis laughs it off as "BS" and it isn't until he's drugged and wakes up in the middle of a voodoo ceremony where everyone starts fornicating and said friend is nearly killed that he even starts to take it seriously. Then he does the "I'm leaving because I want to not because you told me to" schtick as he stomps back to the U.S. in disgrace for infuriating all the locals.

When he comes back, he finds out that Kitty is missing. Does this stop him from sleeping with Nancy, though? Nope. Jerome catches them in the act, and reveals to Travis exactly what Nancy did. Travis dumps his son off with Mattie Glass (the woman from book two that Kitty saved), and storms off to Nevada to find Luke Tate, who shows Travis Kitty's grave. Travis kills Luke the same way he killed Nathan in book one - by stomping on his throat. Also, he gets a silver mine by saving a guy from being tortured. Then he goes on another U.S. Marshal mission - to investigate a KKK uprising in another state.

Here we meet Alaina and Marilee Barbeau, daughters of the local bigwig. Travis immediately sleeps with Alaina, infuriating her informal fiance, Stewart. The two of them get into a pissing contest that alternately amused and annoyed me. Marilee, on the other hand, is pretty cool. I liked Marilee. She spies on the local KKK chapter with the intent on finding out which black men they intend on harming or killing, and then warning them ahead of time in order to escape. She suspects that her father is involved, but doesn't want to report this to the authorities for fear of implicating them, so she settles for treating the symptoms and not the cause. One day, after coming back from one of these spying missions, she sees Alaina and Travis going at it in a field. She comes back to that field one day and starts touching herself, and Travis sees her, and then they start having sex, too.

Keep in mind that the hero sleeps with five women over the course of this book. If you liked Travis at all in books one and two, you will hate him by the end of this one, because LOVE AND GLORY is where he really lets his d-bag flag fly. He cannot keep it in his pants. At all. Also, he turns into an even bigger jerk. But more on that in a moment.

The KKK plot spins itself out, and Marilee is almost raped in an Indiana Jones-style snake pit by one of the clan members and is saved just in time by our hero. Then they have a series of close calls that ends with the appropriate people being punished. The villains in this book have very inconsequential deaths - one of them is a "blink and you'll miss it" death that occurs because of a misfire. How lame. Travis is so impressed by Marilee's bravery that he decides that she is worthy enough to marry, because she's almost (but not quite) as good as Kitty.

Marilee and Travis end up living together, but Travis is nasty to Marilee. He makes it clear that he doesn't love her and that she doesn't hold a candle to his first wife, who he refuses to talk about and snaps at her the one and only time she dares to ask any question. He drinks a lot, and snaps at her when he drinks, much to Sam's disapproval. Then he decides that he wants to move to California and gets angry at Marilee because she doesn't want to leave the Mormon school she works at, because she's grown so close to the Native American children she teaches. Travis gets into a huge huff, and talks about how he's the man, and blah, blah, blah. Marilee feels bad and says, of course I'll do what you want, sorry for being selfish and by the way I'm pregnant. Because poor Marilee can't catch a break, it's a rough pregnancy that requires her to be hospitalized. And imagine Travis's surprise when the doctor treating Marilee looks just like Kitty...only she doesn't recognize him at all, and calls herself Stella Musgrave.

Well, it turns out that Kitty developed dissociative amnesia from all the rape and abuse she suffered at Luke Tate's hands, and since he's a coward he decided to lie about her death rather than implicate himself. Travis's wife is in the hospital (and since he's already married to Kitty, technically that makes this bigamy. In fact, there is no technically. He is a bigamist - although this is never mentioned in the book, oddly) but could he give a fiddle about that when "the most beautiful woman that God ever created" is in the room? No. There's hemming and hawing about whether it's good for Kitty to remember who she is, and even though it's clear that she's better off now, Travis can't leave her alone. Kitty remembers Travis, and Marilee dies conveniently, telling Travis with her last breath that it's okay if he and Kitty are together before releasing a gush of blood from her womanly parts. Kitty was going to get a full scholarship to a medical school in Europe at the recommendation of the doctor she works for, but Travis is a man, and his happiness must come first, so to heck with that!

This book was absolutely over the top madness. It was like the author was cackling gleefully to herself and saying, "How many tropes can I possibly incorporate into this book?" While talking about LOVE AND GLORY to some of my friends, I joked that I was waiting for some amnesia to pop up. Little did I know that was waiting to spring itself on me in act three...

I debated about what to give this book, and I think I'm going to give it three stars. It's somewhere between three and three-point-five stars, but I'm rounding down because Travis's behavior really upset me in this book. Don't get me wrong - he's a terrible man, and not what I look for in a love interest at all. No, I had come to terms with the fact that he was a prat, but he never learns from his mistakes or his behavior, and while that's probably more realistic it isn't exactly fun to read. How can you root for a man who says that "he doesn't have to rape women" and claims that he can't be without the sex, and who forgets about his own son whenever it isn't convenient, and ignores his own wife when she's in the freaking hospital because sex trumps obligations every single time? Plus, Hagan writes these amazingly strong female characters who fall to pieces and forget their interests as soon as they meet Travis. Kitty was the best dang doctor in the whole Civil War, and Marilee ran a mini-version of the underground railroad right under the noses of the KKK, but when Travis walks into the picture they become sniveling messes who always put his needs above their own.

LOVE AND GLORY concludes the first part of the trilogy. The next set is about Travis's son, Colt, and I read the spoilers for it and it looks like it might be even crazier than this book. I'm not sure I'm ready for that. Even though I gobbled up books 1-3 like candy, I think I need a break from the series, because LOVE AND GLORY left a really bad taste in my mouth.

P.S. There are a lot of typos in these books, too! I'm not sure if they are left over from the originals or errors from the conversion process, but the last book had all kinds of mistakes and this book even got one of the characters' names wrong - Nathan Wright instead of Nathan Collins. Which I have to admit, made me laugh, because Nathan did sleep with Kitty, so accidental typocest for the win.

P.P.S. This book also uses three variations of the N-word. I actually didn't know what one of them meant and had to look it up. Apparently it's a more "polite" version of the really offensive N-word. Because it's always important to remember your manners, I guess... If seeing any variation of the N-word is a trigger for you, I'd suggest avoiding this book because it's very free with it.

3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Red Queen by Christina Henry

ALICE was an unexpected but pleasant surprise for me. I don't read a lot of fantasy and I'm picky about retellings - unless they bring something new to the table, I don't really see the point in them. But ALICE was a dark, alien retelling of a familiar story, about a dystopian world run by sadistic crime lords, where magic is outlawed, and everyone fears for their lives - and sanity.

Translation: awesome

ALICE was a four star read that came close at several points to verging on five. The world-building was original, the villains were terrifying, and Alice was a strong character who managed to pay homage to her original namesake (I thought). Of course, when I saw book 2 was going up on Netgalley, I applied for an ARC immediately. And when I got said ARC, I did a little happy dance before settling back down to read.

Here's the thing. While reading ALICE, I was glued to the book. There were nights when I only got about 4 hours of sleep before working my overnight shift because I couldn't put the book down. It was so compulsively horrific that I had to find out what happened next. With RED QUEEN, I found myself reading complacently to a point, upon which I set it down and forgot about it for a little while. It isn't a bad book, it just doesn't have the same tight, compulsive writing style as before.

Alice managed to survive her adventures in the previous book and now, with Hatcher, continues on in her journey, which takes them to a small village on the edge of a blazing ruin. The place is glowing with magic, magic that belongs to three key players: red, white, and black...as well as another monster, a goblin, who is nothing like your mother's goblin king who was content to sing David Bowie songs while dancing around in a silver leotard. No, this goblin - he means business.

Henry weaves some celtic faerie lore in with this second book, and even manages to squeeze in that infamous quote - "off with her head!" - before the book is over. There was a clear effort and I do want to say that I could appreciate the consistency with the writing. The story, however, was completely different in tone and mood. If ALICE was Tim Burton, RED QUEEN is Angela Carter: unevenly paced, needlessly melodramatic, and aspiring to far more than it needs to to get the job done.

RED QUEEN was an okay sequel, but not great. I think it falls prey to that hated of all series-related conditions "middle book syndrome." I am curious to see how Henry chooses to bring this to a close, however (I'm assuming it's a trilogy), so all is not lost!

2.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Raging Hearts by Patricia Hagan

When I started reading LOVE AND WAR, I wasn't sure what I was going to get. Sometimes bodice rippers are epic tales of melodrama doused in history...and sometimes they're just awful. LOVE AND WAR was great - it had history, it had a compelling female protagonist, and it had heroes who were virtually indistinguishable from the villains. My only qualm was that the pacing was uneven, but that's a common issue with 550+ page tomes of that nature.

Despite said qualm, I immediately raced out to buy the sequel, THE RAGING HEARTS, to see what happened to my new favorite romance heroine, Kitty Wright, next. Kitty managed to survive the Civil War and so did her lover, Travis Coltrane. But now Travis wants to finish up all his loose ends and retire to the Bayou, and Kitty doesn't want to do that - she wants to stay on her father's land.

The two have a falling out, and Kitty tries to make her living in the town that not only hates her father but also hates her lover. Things get pretty ugly, fast. The jealous OW is determined to see Kitty humiliated, if not hung. The KKK is gaining momentum - headed by one of the other "love" interests, no less! - and Yankee carpetbaggers are buying up all the Southern land at cheap, cheap prices...and God help those who get in their way.

If you really liked Travis, you might be a little miffed at RAGING HEARTS, because except for the beginning and the end of the book, Travis isn't really in here. And once he does finally drag his ass through the door, he behaves like a total jerk. I wanted to slap him for being such a horrible person. I mean, he was always a horrible person...but this was particularly bad.

In his place, we're left with two replacement love interests. There's Jerome Danton, who is a member of the local KKK chapter, and then there's Corey McRae, the Yankee carpetbagger, who is Creepy with a capital C. He uses unorthodox methods to get people to sell their land, manipulates Kitty over and over again with all sorts of schemes in an effort to get her into his bed, and upstairs on the third floor of his house, he's got a box of BDSM gear locked in a closet that he likes to use with the ladies.

THE RAGING HEARTS doesn't have the history or the depth of the first book, but it compensates with drama. I actually thought the middle section - the one with all the scheming and the manipulation - was incredibly well done and for a while, I thought this would be a five star book. TRH gets dinged because Kitty becomes a doormat in Act II (as she always seems to whenever Travis walks in), and she gets especially annoying once she has her baby. Plus, there's Travis and his annoyingness, and I had a lot of trouble buying that HEA at the end. She had to do that to gain your trust again? I said it before, but I'll say it again "what a jerk!" (Also, this book is waaaay repetitive.)

Overall, I enjoyed THE RAGING HEARTS. It was good and it kept me engaged, and didn't suffer from middle book syndrome the way so many books these days do. In some ways, it was even a better book than the first. I think I can safely call myself a fan of Patricia Hagan now. As soon as I finish some of the other books moldering in my to-read pile, I'm going to go out and get book #3. :)

4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Love and War by Patricia Hagan

One of the greatest things about the Goodreads community is that it has introduced me to books I never would have picked up on my own. I got interested in bodice rippers two years ago, and there's been no turning back.

LOVE AND WAR is a brutal read. It takes place during the Civil War and doesn't try to romanticize or sugar coat it at all. There's blood and gore and corruption and violence and rape and treachery and greed...entire family members are split down the middle of their ideologies with terrible consequences...relationships are destroyed...

Kitty Wright is the daughter of a Federalist sympathizer. Since he lives in the South, this has made her father the object of suspicion among the other men in town, with some of them even speculating that he has ties to the Underground Railroad. Kitty's mother is a spoiled, selfish woman who aspires to be a wealthy plantation owner's wife, and is resentful of her husband for freeing their slaves & having a simple living.

Kitty is a really cool protagonist. She can shoot a gun, ride a horse, and sticks to her principles. The town doctor trained her in medicine when she was young, so she treats the slaves and the poor, and she's damned good at what she does. The author doesn't tell us that Kitty is amazing - she shows us, time and time again, replete with many gory and unpleasant passages involving sutures, amputations, and even sucking out snake venom (which you are apparently not supposed to do).

The love interest, Travis Coltrane, doesn't show up until about halfway through the book. Her first romantic liaison is with one of the wealthy Southern gentlemen's sons, Nathan, although he doesn't understand Kitty at all, and wants to mold her into something he can enjoy. Kitty, however, doesn't want to settle for someone who can't love her for who she is and resorts to sneaking around with her because he's too cowardly to stand up to his own father and declare their relationship publicly.

Then something terrible happens, and Kitty's father gets beaten and lynched. Kitty is kidnapped by an overseer named Luke Tate, who rapes her repeatedly. Kitty's reaction to this is pretty realistic and horrifying. Travis Coltrane and his regiment of Union soldiers eventually rescue Kitty, but it's out of the frying pan and into the fire, because once he finds out that she's not only smoking hot, but also a) part of the Confederacy and b) a skilled doctor, he holds her hostage to fulfill various needs.

LOVE AND WAR is five hundred-plus pages of fucked up adventures, with Kitty somehow managing to stand strong and survive in spite of the carnage and the battles going on around her, being kidnapped and raped multiple times by multiple men, and being treated like dirt by the men who allegedly love her. Nathan and Travis are both horrible love interests who do terrible things to the heroine. I really admired her as a character; she was tenacious and intelligent and resourceful. Even though she did stomp her foot on occasion, she was also quick to pick up a gun and shoot someone in the chest, if it meant defending herself or someone she loved.

I wouldn't recommend this book to the faint of heart, because it is very violent and gory. It's also very dense. Hagan weighs down the narrative with lengthy descriptions of the battles and the horrors of war. At one point, she actually sits down and has a conversation with Robert E. Lee. Kitty experiences lice and mange and body odor. She sees gangrene, advanced syphilis, and amputations. Some soldiers are frozen solid or forced to eat rotten mule carcasses. At one point, she is kidnapped by Native Americans and treated as their medicine woman. It might be a train wreck, but I spent the better part of today reading this in a fever, desperate to see what craziness would happen next.

GONE WITH THE WIND doesn't have anything on this! I'm giving LOVE AND WAR an extra half-star just because Kitty was so awesome.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Fires of Winter by Johanna Lindsey

If you peruse the bodice ripper lists on Goodreads, you will consistently see two names near the very top the list: Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Johanna Lindsey. These two authors might not be the best writers in the genre, but they are prime examples of the most lasting and the most successful. I have a love-hate relationship with Woodiwiss's books - sometimes they're on on point, sometimes they miss the point - but I'd never actually read anything by Lindsey. I intended to rectify that.

FIRES OF WINTER is currently $1.99 on Amazon, as are some of the other first books in some of her other series, DEFY NOT THE HEART and WARRIOR'S WOMAN. I bought three of her books in three different genres  - Medieval, Regency, and futuristic romance - to get a broad picture of her writing style. Since I like historical bodice rippers, I thought I'd start with FIRES OF WINTER.

FIRES is a Medieval Viking romance. The heroine, Brenna, is a Celt, pledged to a Viking by her father. She's unenthusiastic about the marriage but is willing to go through with it for the sake of honor. Brenna likes honor. And swords (no, that's not a sexual pun). The second most important thing that you need to know about Brenna is that she eschews anything feminine. When we first meet her, she's barging in to stop a rape, swinging her sword around while dressed in drag. Unfortunately, she doesn't stop the rape before it happens...but oh, well. She tried.

You probably noticed I said that's the second most important thing about Brenna. That's because the most important thing is that she's beautiful.


Anyway, the Vikings come and immediately start killing, raping, and pillaging, because the marriage was a lie. Not only do they not honor their agreements with the Celts (who they regard as their enemies because they once kidnapped the leader of their son and held him captive), but the man who was pledged to Brenna - Garrick - hates women and refuses to marry ever again. Why? Because some Bitchy McMeaners dumped him for a merchant with a full purse & he never got over it.

Brenna is the only woman who escapes being raped during the Viking raid because her glowering puts off the Vikings. They take her and the other Celtic women - including Brenna's half-sister, Cordella - to the Viking home, and Brenna is informed that she is a slave. She promptly throws the first of many temper tantrums, informing anyone who cares to listen that she doesn't do "woman's work." Nobody really punishes her for this. She gets lectured a lot instead, and at one point she gets thrown into a punishment cell - but the hero has second thoughts immediately afterward, so I'm not sure that really counts...

Speaking the hero, when Garrick comes back from his hunting trip, he's surprised to see Brenna in his bed. Especially what with his complete disavowal of women. But he's attracted to her, despite her stubbornness (and his hatred), and eventually rapes her after growing exasperated with her constant insults and refusal to do any sort of labor. Brenna is initially terrified because Cordella, who was jealous that her husband found Brenna way more attractive than she, has been feeding Brenna lies about how painful sex is, and how the act of intercourse is on par with torture or death. So after the first rape, Brenna actually thanks her rapist. Because she's like, "Oh, yay, that wasn't bad at all! NOW TO TEACH THAT LYING COW A THING OR TWO ABOUT HOW I FEEL ABOUT LIES."

Priorities. Brenna has them.

I think my biggest problem with this book is how the relationship between Garrick and Brenna plays out. Brenna's character is incredibly annoying. I could see how she could be a strong female character in another light, but the tantrums, crying, and inane arguments really made me dislike her, as did her insta-love with the hero. Garrick isn't much better. Because he got his heart broken by a woman, once, he's decided that all women, with the exception of his mother (who can do no wrong) must pay. I really hate the Madonna/whore complex, and Garrick has the worst case of it I've seen in ages.

The way rape is portrayed in this book is also problematic. I would consider what transpires between Brenna and Garrick rape, because most of the time, sex begins with her begging him or telling him not to. Most people would probably call this "forced seduction" because Brenna usually decides by the end of it that she's game after all, but it's still difficult to stomach. Especially since rape in this book is kind of divided into two categories: there's the hero's version of rape, where it always turns out to be good in the end, and then there's villainous revenge rape, where the rape is done by a bad guy because he gets off on pain or wants to hurt someone else through her, etc. etc.

Even Garrick himself admits it's rape, because at one point, Brenna asks him why he won't free her. Then he tells her that as a freewoman, she would have the right to refuse him as a lover, and he doesn't want to give that up. Yeah, you read that right. "I won't free you, because then I won't be able to legally rape you anymore." That just happened. It's there - in print.

Another problem is that not much happens. Maybe I could have mustered up some interest if this were crazysauce OTT goodness in the "it's so bad it's good" way, a la Betrice Small, but there are very few scenes with any action. There's an escape attempt, a surprising twist with the Other Woman that I did not see coming (which I appreciated), a couple fight scenes, and a birthing scene. Most of the book, though, consists of Brenna and Garrick arguing with each other, Brenna throwing another tantrum, and then Garrick getting frustrated and either a) threatening her with violence or rape, b) storming off to rage-hunt in the woods, or c) telling other men not to touch her. There are only so many times I can stand to see the heroine say, "Nay--nay!" This book danced all over that limit. Brenna says "Nay!" so many times, she's pretty much a horse. The overuse of "Nay" and "'tis" read more like written tics than they contribute to the historical accuracy of this book.

I can see why people might like FIRES OF WINTER - it has a lot of tropes that people find titillating (hero with issues, captive romance, Viking, "strong" heroine) - but this book wasn't for me at all. Trying to brush off the hero's rapes and portraying him as a "damaged" good guy caused the narrative to give off some unpleasantly mixed signals. Ditto Brenna's tomboyishness when juxtaposed with her completely irrational attraction to the man who treated her like dirt. I would have liked this book more if Garrick had been portrayed as the ruthless, unfeeling man he was & Brenna was portrayed as slightly less childish. But they weren't, so I didn't. I do love that cover, though. *_*

1 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Upon a Moon-Dark Moor by Rebecca Brandewyne

Rebecca Brandewyne is a household name in the bodice ripper genre. Her Aguilar's Fate series is more popular than this one, but since I'd managed to obtain books 1 & 2 of this duology, Chandlers of Highclyffe Hall seemed like a good starting point for this author.

**Warning: Spoilers!**

Maggie Chandler is the daughter of Sir Hugh, the lord of Highclyffe Hall - an elegant, creepy castle built on the moors of Cornwall. Her father blames her for the death of her mother and abuses her at every turn. Matters only take a turn for the worse when he marries a fortune hunter, and she ends up getting two wicked step-somethings that waste no time in barging into every aspect of her life.

The opening of this book really reminded me of ELLA ENCHANTED - you know that part when Ella's father marries Dame Olga and she ends up getting Hattie & Olive as step-sisters? ELLA is one of my favorite books of all time so that similarity really stirred up all kinds of warm and fuzzy feelings. There's also elements of the WIDEACRE series in here, too, what with the feuding families and kissing cousins and matters of inheritance.

Speaking of inheritance, later on Sir Hugh finds out to his disgust that his estranged brother (who fell in love with a gypsy - gasp!) has a bastard son, Draco, who also ends up coming to Highclyffe Hall. Maggie isn't sure how to feel about him. He's quite a bit different from her other cousin, Esmond (who she's betrothed to), but she can't stop obsessing over him and how different he is. Just in case we forget that he's a gypsy, she keeps referring to him as My Gypsy Cousin. They end up forming a bond over the fate of Black Magic, a beautiful wild stallion that Sir Hugh brutally abuses. Be forewarned that if animal cruelty is a trigger for you, there are some pretty horrid passages of horse abuse in this book.

The second half of the book starts out with all kinds of soapy drama and, sadly, is where this book takes a turn for the worse. Sir Hugh ended up crippled for life by Black Magic, which has caused his personality to take a turn for the worse. He's even more of an asshole than before! Through mysterious means, Draco ends up becoming very rich. Julianne, seduces Maggie's betrothed away. Maggie ends up having jealousy-sex with Draco, which quickly turns into rape-sex when he realizes that he's not the man she's thinking of. Then Draco spirits her away to Gretna Green, where he drugs and rapes her some more prior to their marriage. Maggie gets blotted out from the family bible. She has a baby. Draco provides for them with his inexplicably gotten wealth.

Maggie is not a very subtle narrator and keeps making these foreshadowing segues like "I wish I had known that..." or "if only I had ____". It took a lot of mystery out of the writing, because it was like the author didn't trust me to deal with any bad events on my own and wanted to hold my hand the whole way. I also didn't like the way the rape was treated; Maggie is very dismissive of it, and convinces herself that it was something she actually wanted, calling herself a passionate and earthy person (which I guess is 19th century speak for "very interested in sex"). Since this is a gothic novel, there's a mystery tacked on at the end, and of course, the hero is implicated as being the perp. I didn't think that this was done particularly well, either, and the heroine's Nancy Drew skills made me roll my eyes.

UPON A MOON-DARK MOOR definitely contrives to write in that 70s gothic style, and even the title sounds like something you would see on one of those book covers with women in cumbersome gowns fleeing from sinister misty castles. The only difference is that those books tend to be very clean, and this actually had some sex in it. Honestly, if you're just getting into the gothic genre, I recommend starting out with Victoria Holt. Hopefully ACROSS A STARLIT SEA will be better...

2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Across a Wine-Dark Sea by Jessica Bryan

Buddy read with the Unapologetic Romance Readers group!

**Warning: Spoilers!**

I'd been lusting after this book for a while, partly because of that beautiful cover, and partly because it's a romance between an Amazon and an Atlantean. Ummmm, shut up and take my money? Also, that man on the cover is not wearing anything under that robe, so there's lots of sexy naked thigh action (even though his junk appears to have been photoshopped away for the sake of propriety, rather akin to the "missing nipple" phenomenon you see on many an erotica cover).

Sadly, the book itself did not live up to that glorious cover. Which was upsetting because the premise and the intro itself were quite good. I liked Thalassa and the Amazons. Who doesn't want to see a bunch of body positive, warrior women having sex and slaying misogynists? It's basically a blood-thirstier version of those Smash the Patriarchy necklaces on Etsy. Except instead of a hammer, they use a bipennis (and no, that's not what you think it is. This is, though! You're welcome. ;D)

The problem comes in the form of the hero, King "I'm a nice guy, I swear" Dorian, of the mer-people. Dorian is a nice guy. He will tell you this constantly. His people tell his victim, Thalassa, this constantly. But Dorian is not a nice guy. He kidnaps Thalassa from her people, turns her into a mer-person without her consent by magic, threatens her with the Sea Spell which will erase all her memories of her past life and render her docile, and repeatedly threatens her with rape.

I couldn't quite get over the body modification. I'm still kind of hung up on that. I mean, he gives her gills & changes her physiology by sticking her with a needle repeatedly. That's some serious Dr. Moreau shit right there. The concept of the Sea Spell was also disturbing, because apparently this is standard process for abducted brides among the mer-people and Dorian gets into serious trouble with the elders for not using it. I know we're supposed to applaud him for not doing this, because he loves her the way she is, but that, to me, is tantamount to clapping some bro-dude on the back and saying, "Good job for not raping that unconscious woman! Great self-control, dude!" Why someone should be applauded for not taking away someone's memory and free will is highly questionable to me because no decent person should do this, period. You shouldn't be rewarded for doing what any decent hero would do. Which begs the question: is Dorian a hero? He's an alpha who dreams of being a beta, but secretly also wants to be a gamma. I almost feel like the author would have been better off writing him in the style of a classic bodice ripper "hero": that is, someone completely without scruple, who does what he pleases, when he pleases, and God help you if you get in the way of that Master Plan. That I think would have been a better characterization for a needle-happy despot who thinks you need to be cruel to be kind.

ACROSS A WINE-DARK SEA also falls into a trope trap that I really don't like...the fated to be mated trope. I go out of my way to avoid books with this trope, because I have yet to see one that does it in a way that doesn't come across as apologist & rapey.

At first, I found myself skimming the Thalassa/Dorian chapters - because Thalassa loses her awesomeness quickly, becoming a pouting, foot-stomping, "No, I won't eat my food, I'm going to starve!" type heroine - and reading the passages about the Amazons, because they were great. Until I noticed another disturbing trend...that all of the Amazon subplots inevitably resulted in men arriving to Amazonia who wanted to rape them. The book opens up with pirates trying to capture them and sell them as sex slaves, and then there's the Greeks, led by Heracles and Theseus, who come to the island to steal Hippolyte's golden girdle and end up having a happy sex orgy until one jealous gay guy (and of course, he has to be gay) decides to commit murder out of jealousy and love for Heracles, thereby inciting a riot that leads to a bunch of Amazons being kidnapped as sex slaves/collateral. The ending cinched my dislike for this book. Bryan kills off some of the characters I did like, seemingly for shock value, and, of course, Thalassa and Dorian get their HEA.

I am glad I read this book, because it was different and now I know how I feel about it instead of lusting after that gorgeous cover and fantasizing about what might be. I read the synopses for the sequels, and I think that I might be willing to give this author another chance, because they look like standalones and book two is an interracial romance between a mer-woman and a Chinese man and book three is a contemporary paranormal between a female scholar and a mer-man. Depending on how that goes down, it might be a better premise for this book - especially considering that this was a debut effort, and the author would have had some time to better hone her craft. But I did not like WINE-DARK SEA at all. I desperately wanted to - the writing was beautiful at times and she wrote some kick-ass fight scenes (apparently she's into martial arts - it shows) - but I didn't.

P.S. The whole time I was reading this, I kept humming this song.

1 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Deceived by Bertrice Small

The last book I read by this author - ADORA - was so messed up that I almost gave it 5 stars for sheer daring alone. Even though her purple prose borders on ultraviolet, there's something about her style and her penchant for gleefully sadistic psychodramas that makes it hard to put the book down, no matter how raunchy & offensive it is.

**Warning: Spoilers!**

DECEIVED is a completely different animal. ADORA took place in medieval times, during the end of the Ottoman Empire. DECEIVED takes place in Georgian-period England. It's about two step-sisters, Charlotte Calandra Kimberly and Charlotte Aurora Kimberly, who live on a sugar plantation in the Indies, on an island named St.Timothy that's a stone's throw away from Barbados.

When Aurora finds out that her father posthumously arranged for her to be engaged to be wed to the duke of Farminster, she is outraged, because she wants to marry for love and not because a pair of dead fathers said so. But the marriage contract never specifies exactly which sister is supposed to be married, and since Aurora and her step-sister both conveniently have the same first name (they go by their middle names to avoid confusion), Aurora cedes her inheritance (the plantation) to her half-sister with the understanding that Calandra will marry in her stead.

The duke, Valerian, thinks Calandra is beautiful, but there's something about headstrong Aurora that tickles his fancy, IYKWIM. And if you think his engagement to Aurora's sister stops him from spying on Aurora while she swims nude, pull up a seat, because you must be new here, and you're about to get schooled. Aurora is very much in tune with her sexuality and masturbates on the regular, but Calandra thinks of it with revulsion, and an awkward birds-and-bees talk with her mother and sister doesn't help (nor does an equally awkward, borderline incestuous mutual masturbation scene with her sister - thank you, Small, I was wondering when the weird sex stuff would rear its head).

Anyway, the marriage with Calandra goes through but horribly because Calandra has no interest in sex, and uses her duchess status to snub people she deems inferior while spending the duke's pocket money. He's not happy about this, and in his frustration, he begins to obsess over Aurora and what a better wife she would be (little does he know...). Eventually, we find out that Calandra hates men and sex in general because she was molested as a young girl by an overseer on the plantation. She confesses this to Valerian, who decides to deal with this information by raping her in order to get her with child. He shakes his head over it after the fact, bemoaning that she drove him to such acts.

Calandra gets pregnant and depressed. Aurora fights her attraction to the duke, and vice versa, while also waving her romance with his cousin, St. John, in his jealous face. Calandra ends up dying in childbirth, and we get to find out that her child was actually a deformed conjoined fetus (which, funnily enough, happened in ADORA, too). Valerian finds out that he married the wrong sister, and rapes Aurora before Calandra is cold in her grave, arranging for them to be married the day after. I guess this would probably be defined as "forced seduction" by the die-hards because there's a bit of "no-no-yes-yes-yes!!!" going on, and Aurora decides that her desires just can't be denied, after all.

The last third of the book is the most boring, because it's the section of the book where all the unresolved plotlines (i.e. the secondary characters) are resolved (i.e. punished or married, as befits their characters). Aurora and Valerian can't keep their hands off each other, but it's sooo scandalous because she's the widower's sister-in-law. Aurora ends up befriending Queen Charlotte & making all the jealous ladies jealous. One of Calandra's friends, whose name I can't remember or spell, makes a rather lame attempt to get revenge and sully Aurora's good name, and gets his comeuppance. I roll my eyes a lot at words like "love grotto" and "love juices". Also, the bad guy likes butt sex!

I'm not really sure how I feel about this book. There were several attempts to inject this book with some dime store feminism - about how terrible it is that men can sleep around and women can't, and how more women should masturbate because it makes sex less terrifying - but it doesn't really work, because all the men are very misogynistic and there is a lot of rapeyness. It feels censored, honestly, and since this book was written in the 1990s, I can't help but wonder if Small was starting to receive flack for the wild and outrageous plots of her earlier books from critics & was trying to tone it down.

Since I love me a good psychodrama, I read this book to the end. It was like candy; I finished it pretty much in one sitting. Like candy, it also didn't particularly sit well with me afterwards, but I didn't care, because candy is candy, and the regret is part of the reward. I would NOT recommend this book to people who are new to Bertrice Small, because her older books are much, much better. I also would not recommend this book to many of my feminist friends, because I think it would piss them off. But if you like romance novels that read more like malicious soap operas than actual depictions of love, then this is the book for you, my friend, this is the book for you.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Adora by Bertrice Small

Bertrice Small is the Regina George of historical romance; even if you hate her, you have to admit that she's inexplicably popular & her unapologetic in-your-face personality makes her hard to ignore. I find it amazing that I managed to avoid her books after all these years, despite reading so many historical romance books. I'd been told by many people that I should avoid her work because she was bad, but "bad" is highly subjective. Does Small write in lurid purple prose? Yes. Does she write about unpleasant and illicit activities? Yes. Including child abuse? Yes. Including bestiality? Yes (although not in this one). Including rape? Yes. Will you find the phrase "manroot" in here? I think you know the answer to that.

**Warning: Spoilers!**

ADORA takes place in the late 14th century, during the late Ottoman Empire. Theadora is a Byzantine princess (part Greek) who ends up being forced to marry a man forty years her senior, the sultan, Orkhan. A child bride (only about 13), she waits out her days in the convent, where she ends up meeting the sultan's son, Murad, who thinks she is absolutely beautiful and wastes no time "grooming" her to be his sexual partner and future bride at the time of his aging father's death. His father's harem is so large, and Theadora so young, that Murad assumes that he will die before consummating the marriage. NOT SO, BOYS AND GIRLS. NOT SO.

With some intervention on Theadora's father's part, Orkhan ends up being nagged into having sex with his newest bride. And the sultan just so happens to be a pervert, so Theadora ends up getting raped on her marital night, along with some F/F action, sexy feathers, a long wooden phallus, and some bondage. She finds this humiliating, but knows that sex is power, so she decides to use the situation to her advantage and requests remedial sex lessons(!) in order to win Orkhan's heart so as to become his favorite.

Murad does not take kindly to this, and begins to hate Theadora, because he has fetishized the act of taking her virginity to such a great extent that he never (seriously, never) really gets over it. Because how dare she not fall into a weeping mess. Theadora dukes it out with Orkhan's other two wives, who of course are much less pretty, but eventually she has a son and the other two wives can suck it. Later, she ends up getting kidnapped by pirates, along with her son, and we find out that this is an assassination attempt executed by her jealous sister, Helena. But the pirate, who is named Alexander, thinks Theadora is sooo sexy he can't be bothered to kill her. He propositions Theadora, who is attracted to him but refuses out of loyalty to Orkhan, and after courting her for days, Alexander decides enough is enough, drugs her, and then after some F/F action and one wild, aphrodisiac-gobbling orgy later, Theadora thinks she's had the weirdest dream...

Alexander and Theadora end up together after the death of Orkhan, because Murad, in a wild fit of "we loves the precious! no, we hateses her!" invites her to be a part of his harem instead of his wife, and then actually calls her a whore. Because chicks - especially princess chicks - totally dig being called whores. Alexander and Theadora are very happy together, but jealous Helena and Murad are jealous (especially since Helenda propositioned Alexander, who lol'd and said she was too ugly and whorish). So Helena teams up with the sultan, arranges for Alexander to be assassinated, and then after that, for Theadora to be kidnapped and sold into slavery to the sultan.

Murad is basically a murderer. He's also a rapist. He rapes Theadora their first two times together. Then Theadora realizes that it's all her fault(!!!!!1!!) and comes to her senses and says, "Yes, I'm so happy you bought me as a sex slave," and begins to play harem politics in earnest while also currying favor with her husband and making the best of this situation. Harem politics get intense when Murad takes on another bride who, of course, hates Theadora. When sons get into the mix, things get really crazy, as everyone tries to force the emperor to play favorites, and nobody (except Theadora) wins.

ADORA has a lot of things in it that will either disgust, outrage, or squick people out. First off, the writing is very cheesy. Penises are called "manroots" and the heroine's breasts are referred to as "coral-tipped cones" many, many times. I did give this book bonus points for using the word "fuck" (and, more naughty still, "ass-fuck"), as that is a word that tends to be danced around in historical fiction romances published before the 1990s. There is also a lot of pedophilia. All the bad guys - and some of the good guys - have sex with underrage men and women. Which I guess happened somewhat more often back then, but that still doesn't mean that I'm cool with reading about it now, even if it was...*shudders*...canon. I'm sure this will upset some people, so be forewarned that it's in here, and yeah, it can be graphic. There's also some pretty brutal torture scenes. Especially towards the end, when one of the characters commits an act of treason and gets a pretty unpleasant and grotesque punishment that is, again, very detailed. And then there's the fact that every single love interest rapes Adora at least once.

If ADORA were written even slightly differently, I think I would have hated this book. It has so many subjects in it that I hate. But the plot is action-packed, and Bertrice clearly knows a thing or two about history. Even though I rolled my eyes or winced in disgust, I still couldn't put the book down. Imagine if V.C. Andrews co-opted GAME OF THRONES...I think that would be a pretty close approximation of what you could expect from this book. Icky sex, court intrigue, families dueling it out over power struggles, and rape. Books like these just aren't written anymore - to be honest, I don't think they could be...at least not traditionally - and whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of speculation. I, personally, liked it, but I can see why others wouldn't.

P.S. Anyone else ever notice that in a Bertrice Small book, the villain always seems to have a thing for doing it up the butt? BECAUSE I NOTICED.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

THE GOVERNESS AFFAIR is the fourth Courtney Milan book that I have plowed through this month. I regret nothing about this experiment, except for the fact that I have gone through all the books of hers that I already owned, so any further binges must be put on hold until I am able to obtain more books. Booooo.

GOVERNESS AFFAIR is the direct prequel to THE DUCHESS WAR. I think it could be read as a standalone, but reading it was also interesting in hindsight because it fleshed out some of the characters who were only alluded to in DUCHESS. This book is about the parents of one of the characters in THE DUCHESS WAR.

Hugo is known as the Wolf of Clermont because the Duke only has to snap his fingers before Hugo comes running in to deal with whatever problem is at hand. When a strange woman shows up one day, staging a quiet, sit-down protest outside of the Duke's estate, Hugo is surprised to learn that this quiet, not classically beautiful woman, is the latest problem.

Serena has good reason to hate the Duke, and she is determined to see that his dastardly deeds do not go unpunished, even if it means she has to wage war upon his intermediary first. The battle between Hugo and Serena is a battle of wills, and even as Hugo makes his attempts to crush her rebellion, he is curious to find out what, exactly, his employer has done to warrant such wrath.

I liked this book a little more than I did TALK SWEETLY TO ME, but that's mostly because of Hugo. Hugo is an amazing love interest. He's not quite as passive as most beta heroes, but he isn't exactly an alpha hero, either. I liked the power he had, and how he chose to wield it. Even though he was working for a bad man, he did not let that tarnish his personal sense of honor. Also, the sex scenes in this book are very good, featuring one scene in particular that was very inventive in how it went about showing that consent in sex can be very sexy, indeed.

I'm sorry to say that I did not particularly like Serena at all. I think she was probably my least favorite heroine out of all the Milan books I've read, which makes me unhappy, especially considering what this character had to go through. My problem her was that she struck me as very immature and a little petty. I would have liked to have seen her anger more fully realized, and to have gotten a better sense of her character beyond the victim mentality and the half-cocked quest for revenge.

That said, I enjoyed her banter with Hugo, and it was great to see her learn to trust again.

P.S. Milan seriously has the best romance novel covers ever. Just look at all those fabulous jewel-toned dresses on the covers. Looking at all the books she's published is like looking at a rainbow - especially in the new, as yet unpublished remainder of the Worth series.


3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Talk Sweetly to Me by Courtney Milan

Rose Sweetly is a brilliant, scientific mind whose efforts go mostly unrecognized because she is a) a woman and b) black. Most people roll their eyes a little once she starts to talk "Sweetly" (a.k.a. go on a major geeky bender), but not Stephen Shaughnessy.

Stephen is the columnist (Actual Man) for women who want to ask men questions and have an "actual man" respond. He's also a bit of a rogue and a rake, though not a rapacious one. The fact that he's so charming and so forbidden causes Rose no shortage of concern - especially now that he seems to have taken it upon himself to court her in a bizarre fashion: by soliciting her for mathematical tutoring.

It was so great to see a nerdy heroine who actually walked the walk. Rose is such a nerd. The nerdy jokes and scientific banter in TALK SWEETLY TO ME were great. I could relate so hard to being interested in something that makes most people roll their eyes and say, "Oh, there she goes again." (In my case, it's books.) Milan hit the nail on the head there.

Like all of Milan's heroes that I've encountered so far, Stephen is a delightful beta hero. Very sweet and attentive, despite an active sexual history. There are only one or two sexual encounters between them, and they were well written, albeit abridged and a little tepid. Stephen was a little bland for my liking...I think I liked Robert in THE DUCHESS WAR more because we got more time to explore his character, and he had a moody backstory and a bit of an edge, which is always exciting in a hero. Still, nobody writes beta heroes like Milan. I didn't even think that I liked them until I read Milan.

That said, TALK SWEETLY TO ME is probably my least favorite Milan book I read. HER EVERY WISH, a novella in her Worth series, does a much better job of giving backstory and providing steam in a short amount of time. But don't be alarmed: saying that this is my least favorite Milan book is a little bit like saying, "This is my least favorite glitter." Glitter is always going to be sparkly and fun, so even if it's your least favorite glitter, the fact that it is glitter means that, by nature, it's always going to be at least somewhat amazing. (By the way, for some interesting images, do a Google search of "ugly glitter.")

I enjoyed reading TALK SWEETLY TO ME. I'm not sure I'd read it again, but it was a charming bit of fluff that brightened my day with its sparkle and its charm. What more can you ask of glitter?

3 out of 5 stars.

The Viscount's Christmas Temptation by Erica Ridley

Amelia Pembroke is a close approximation of what I imagine Mrs. Bennett was like as a young woman. She micromanages lovingly & is determined to make the best match for herself so she can move out of her brother's home. And what better place to meet a new beau than at the fĂȘte of the year?

Viscount Sheffield's parties are always full of men and women of the hour. But this year he has been forced to cancel because a bolt of lightning destroyed his dance hall. Amelia has ideas for replacements, though. She has contingency plans upon contingency plans set out for pretty much any occasion.

As Amelia forces herself into his life to set up the party (against his wishes), Sheffield finds himself developing first a healthy amount of respect for this stubborn and assertive woman, but then also admiration and even affection later on.

Since I just bought one of the full length novels in this series (I think it was THE BRIGADIER'S RUNAWAY BRIDE), it seemed like an opportune moment to test out the freebie I got. It wasn't a bad book, but Courtney Milan, whose works I just read, is a tough act to follow. Also, even for a short story, this moved much too fast. They went from hesitantly having crushes to totally being in love!

2 out of 5 stars.