Sunday, September 25, 2016

Mistress of the Moor by Abigail Clements

We've decided to do a Halloween 2016 Reading Challenge in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group, which means spooky themed romance reads for October. Gothic romance was kind of a shoo-in for me, because I have several of these gorgeous, retro beauties just floating around my bedroom. MISTRESS OF THE MOOR actually came to me for free, as one of those so-obscure-and-so-old-even-the-library-doesn't-want-it-type deals.

MISTRESS OF THE MOOR is set in Edwardian England. Emma Waldon is a typist, who is summoned back to the Goathlands by her uncle, the baronet, for some unspecified but top-secret purpose. It turns out that he has been badly disfigured in a fire and is working on building an airplane with the help of the darkly handsome Roger. He wants Emma to type up their plans because yay, free labor.

Right away, however, strange things start happening at Goathlands and Emma starts to suspect that there is someone there who might have reason to scare her away - or maybe even kill her. But who is that nefarious person? Is it Roger? Her uncle's female physician? Her cousin? Or could it be her maliciously compliant servant?

A lot of these old-timey gothics are hit-or-miss with me. The only ones that I've consistently liked are by Victoria Holt, and even she's written some stinkers. MISTRESS OF THE MOOR was bad, though, even by my standards. Think Phyllis Whitney at her worst. The story line is tedious and dull, and the book's most sinister moments are laughable. At one point, the villain actually tries to intimidate Emma by cutting up her childhood teddy bear and spelling out her name with its fur on her wall. I'm sorry, but that's a Pinterest project gone wrong, and not a viable scare tactic. For shame.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars.

The Child Thief by Brom

Like most American children, Disney's Peter Pan was a part of my video library (we watched it on VHS, and waiting for the tape to rewind is an exercise in patience that few children these days know). Because my mother was a firm believer in reading, we also had the book, as well - a lovely illustrated edition of J.M. Barrie's classic tale. They're very different stories, though. Even as a child, I remember picking up the book and thinking to myself, "this is wrong" as I flipped through it. That's because 9 times out of 10, you know that all of your favorite characters are going to be safe and sound in the Disney movie (with a few notable exceptions), but in Barrie's book, death was very much present and very much real, and the morality of the characters is far more ambiguous.

Brom wrote THE CHILD THIEF with this initial version of the story in mind. Peter Pan is kind of creepy when you think about him too hard. I mean, he floats around outside nurseries, waiting for the parents to go to sleep before sneaking in and seducing children away and he has a markedly cavalier attitude when it comes to rules and the well being of himself and his lost boys.

THE CHILD THIEF opens in New York. We're introduced to a handful of children who have been forced to grow up before their time, either because of sexual abuse, drugs, crime, or neglect. Peter looks for these children specifically, because these are the children who are willing to leave their old lives behind and risk everything to follow him into the Mist to Avalon. One of these boys is Nick, who is facing persecution from a drug gang because he tried to make off with their stash when he ran away. Peter saves him from a slow and painful death and takes him through the Mist...but "Neverland" isn't like the stories, at all. It's actually incredibly dangerous...and terrifying.

I wasn't really prepared for the sexual and physical violence, the language, and the viciousness of the children and monsters in this story. It reads kind of like LORD OF THE FLIES, in the sense that the children gradually become more and more "wild" as the magic of Avalon infects them and they lose sight of their old lives in their blind following of Peter and his mission. Psychologically, it's very interesting, but it doesn't make for comfortable reading, either. I was expecting something along the lines of Clive Barker's ABARAT, I think - dark and brutal, but also fanciful and charming and morally sound. As convoluted as it can sometimes be, you can still recognize "good" in Barker's work. Here, "good" is much more ambiguous.

Despite all that, I was still mostly on board with Brom's reimagining of Peter Pan. Yes, it was darker and a bit bleaker than I'd anticipated, but it was an interesting story, and the use of Celtic folklore to explain both Peter's origins and the world he came from was inspired. The problem happens in the third act, when THE CHILD THIEF jumps the shark. There's too many things going on at once, with fight scenes that go on for way too long, and then a couple things happen that had me squinting at the book and going, "Wait, did that really happen?" And I started having flashbacks to the first, traumatic time that I watched the Super Mario Bros. movie and found out that the Mushroom Kingdom is actually a dystopian world forcibly torn from ours by the same comet that killed the dinosaurs.

I only paid $1.99 for this ebook, so I'm not as annoyed as I would have been had I paid the full $12.99 for it. For $1.99 it was solidly entertaining. I did enjoy the author's art, too. His style reminded me of the art work you see on old Magic: The Gathering trading cards. I also liked the idea behind the story and the use of Celtic mythology. The story did not live up to my expectations, however, and I thought the pacing and writing quality were both way off, with some passages being beautifully written and others reminiscent of the trashy indie pulp sci-fi serials that go for $0.99 a chapter. Some tighter editing could have made a huge difference. Ultimately, given the choice between ABARAT and CHILD THIEF, I'd pick ABARAT every time, although just between you and me, I like Brom's illustrations better. Maybe the two of them can work together on a new book. I'd definitely buy that...

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Illusion by Paula Volsky

How do I even begin to sing the praises of this marvelous book? ILLUSION - the title and cover might make you think that you're embarking on some farcical, fanciful, Dungeons & Dragons-like fantasy adventure filled with cheese and nonsense. You would be wrong. ILLUSION is a rich tapestry of lyrical prose, inventive world-building, and social commentary you can cut your teeth on. It is - and I am not speaking in hyperbole - one of the best fantasy novels I have ever read. If you, like me, have started to become weary and jaded with all these half-assed fantasy novels whose scantily-created worlds are just wispy pretenses for adolescent romance, hightail it to Amazon, order a copy of this book, and then stop by your nearest Papyrus store to get me a thank you card.

ILLUSION is set in the world of Vonahr. In Vonahr, a class division separates the privileged, magical Exalteds from the working class and serfs. Eliste vo Derrivale is the daughter of a provincial landowner, and oozes privilege from every pore, treating her servants as if they were little better than accessories, and just as quick to swap them out if they displease her. Her father, however, is a cruel man, who takes this objectification a step further - he conducts medical experiments on his servants, and is quick to lash, maim, or draw blood if they wrong him in any way because that is his right. Such cruelty is too much, even for Eliste, and when he turns his wrath on her childhood friend, she risks punishment by helping him escape.

She is later summoned by her grandmother to the city, to act as lady-in-waiting for Queen Lallazy. He grandmother, Zeralenn, is horrified by her rough-edged grand-daughter and immediately sets about getting her the right jewels, the right clothes, and the right conduct. Her cousin, Aurelie, uses these occasions as an excuse to obtain more worldly possessions for herself, and comes across as laughably selfish and empty-headed - which given Eliste's shallow personality, says something. The juxtaposition between the two girls is actually interesting because it highlights the fact that Eliste, despite her many flaws and her privilege and indifference to the suffering and plights of the lower class, really isn't a bad person. We see this when she helps a servant escape, the way she treats her own maid (who is really more like a friend), and the way she scorns the superficial courtship of men who are only interested in her beauty and her money.

Unfortunately for Eliste, the city of Sherreen is in the midst of massive political upheaval, stirred up by the political writer, Nirienne. An opportunistic despot named Whiss v'Aleur takes advantage of the displeasure of the lower classes, using the anger and frustration of the populace as a foothold to depose all ruling members of the Exalted class and start the "Reparation" movement. The revolution mirrors that of Russia and France in a pitch-perfect way that rivals - or, I would argue, surpasses - that of ANIMAL FARM. The emotions captured in this book are so convincing that I frequently found myself gripping the cover so hard my knuckles were white, as my stomach churned in either disbelief or disgust. Volsky portrays both sides without favoritism, and I found myself sympathizing with people of both sides, all the while loathing the despicable villain for being the scum of the earth that he is. Oh, and did I mention the evil robots? There's a steampunk element to this story in the form of four sentient robots - NuNu, ZaZa, Boomette, and Kokotte - who Whiss uses to carry out arrests, torture, crowd suppression, and public execution.

As if it weren't enough to provide an excellent re-imagining of two horrific civil wars, replete with evil sentient robots and a despot who resembles several real-world historical counterparts, Volsky's work, ILLUSION, is also evocative of many classics, including LES MISERABLES, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, ANIMAL FARM, and THE SCARLET PIMPERNELL. Really, though, this isn't surprising in the least. ILLUSION is written like literature, with complex syntax, beautiful writing, and a tightly controlled plot with character development arcs that spin out gradually, and copious use of foreshadowing. It kills me that this book appears to be out of print, as it isn't just a decent story that everyone should read and that should also be made into a movie; it deserves to be taught - or at least alluded to - alongside ANIMAL FARM.

I burned through the last 300 pages with feverish determination and ended up staying up until almost 3AM. My eyes were burning by the time I got to the final page of the book, but I was satisfied. ILLUSION was such a good book - I almost didn't want it to end, but at the same time, I did, because I needed to find out what happened to my characters after so many days of reading. Now, after looking through Volsky's other works (because my next plan of action is to purchase her entire back list), it looks as though she's written a follow-up to this work that takes place in the same world...

5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Dust Devil by Parris Afton Bonds

Bodice rippers from the 70s & early 80s are somewhat infamous for being violent, rapey, politically incorrect pieces of literary trash, and DUST DEVIL is no exception. It's been a while since I encountered a book that gave so few f*cks when it comes to the well-being of its characters. Parris Afton Bonds probably goes out to coffee with George R.R. Martin and the two of them just hobnob it over the atrocities they inflict upon their characters. "Red Wedding?" Bonds might say, scoffing. "One of my characters forces his wife to watch as he publicly castrates her lover when he catches them cheating!"*

*So yeah, that happened.

I normally try to not give spoilers, but bodice rippers are the exception because a) most of you probably aren't going to read these and b) the devil's in the details as far as these books are concerned, and you really don't get quite the same effect without knowing just what, exactly, makes these books so messed up. I read them, so you don't have to. It is my gift to you.

But you should know that this means major, major spoilers.

 DUST DEVIL (which is a pretty lame title, because dust devils aren't really that threatening or imposing) begins in the late 19th century. It's a multi-generational family saga, with three tiers of relationships. The first story arc is about Rosemary, an Irish mail order bride who is coming to America to get married and make her fortune. She marries this landowner named Stephen and immediately falls in love with his land, even if her feelings don't extend to her brutal husband. That might still be fine - except it turns out that Stephen is a pedophile who is well known in both the Mexican and Navajo communities for taking and raping their children.

Rosemary is sickened when she finds out what her husband is up to and does her best to stop him...but this is the 19th century, so her best doesn't really amount to anything. So she tries not to think about it, mostly, and lusts after one of the Dine'e workers, Lario. Racial tension is at an all-time high, with many Native American tribes attacking the invaders who stole their land, so the affection they feel for one another is forbidden. But Lario saves her from a raid and they end up having sex and oh, whoops, she gets pregnant and ends up having a child by him, who she names Stephanie (because if she names her after Stephen there's no way he will suspect infidelity, is her logic).

Stephanie turns out to be a beautiful child, like a more "exotic" version of her mother (dark eyes and red hair). She has romantic problems of her own. There's the nice, childhood friend, Cody, who wants to marry her, who she just wants to f*ck. There's the emotionally unavailable man, Wayne, who she wants to marry. And then there's the evil Native American stereotype, Satana, whom she was promised to at birth by her greedy father and she fakes her own death to avoid. (Although quick question here: what is the point of erecting a tombstone with your name on it if you're just going to continue gallivanting about town without any sort of disguise? That is not smart.)

The final chapter is about Chase, who is Stephanie's son, and his inability to decide between two women: Deborah and Christina. This was my least favorite story arc, so I don't really remember much about these characters. I think Christina is the rich white daughter of a senator and Deborah is poor and mixed-race. The last part of the story takes place during WWII. Chase is one of the Navajo Code Talkers, and ends up being imprisoned by Japanese soldiers in the Philippines. Deborah is there too, and I can't remember why, but the two of them end up escaping with the help of a sympathetic local.

DUST DEVIL is depressing as all get out. The first two story arcs end in tragedy, with public castration, paralysis, child sexual abuse, suicide, and mutilation all occurring within the first 60% of the book. I'd read spoilers and so I had an idea of what was going to happen, but the sheer brutality of it still took me off guard. Keep in mind that I just read the first two books in A Song of Ice and Fire, too. This little bad-ass made those two look like swaggering bullies at a playground.

It's also politically incorrect as hell. There are race-based insults for everyone, whether you're Asian, Native American, or white. Since it fit the context of the story (this was a time when outsiders were regarded with suspicion and nationalism was at an all-time high), it didn't bother me too much, but there were times when I did side-eye the book. For example, near the end, the Filipino man who saves their asses is described as monkey-like or monkey-faced several times. Rude.

I thought the first two thirds of the book were pretty good. There are beautiful descriptions of here in the land, and how crucial it was to the western way of life. Plus, since the first part at least is set during the Civil War, you get a glimpse as to what that looked like on the West Coast. I also thought Rosemary and Lario's story line was great (albeit depressing) and more in line with what someone might expect from a traditional bodice ripper (barring the depressing ending). Chase's chapter kind of ruined it for me; it was a bad cap on an otherwise decent tale. Unfortunately it went on forever, or seemed to. I'm not sure how a code talker in a WWII prison camp could be made boring, but somehow it was, and I got really tired of him jerking Christina and Deborah along. He didn't make his decision until the very last chapter of his story and you want me to buy their chemistry? How about nope.

DUST DEVIL is not something I would suggest for those new to the bodice ripper genre, but for people who already like bodice rippers and are looking for something crazy to add to their collection, DUST DEVIL is a must. Even though I found it only "okay", it is fearlessly brutal, and I admired that about this book, because it really does show the horrors of war and prejudice and greed to their full, gory effect. Bonds also makes her "heroes" and "heroines" selfish little mortals who suffer at the hands of fate and try to be good people in spite of that but sometimes fail, and I admired that, too. Would I read another of her works? Girl, please. I'm already in the process of combing through her back list.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

There's a magical formula you may have noticed. It's been going on all around you and has been for years. I call it "The Twenty Years Formula." That's how long it takes for things to become popular again, through the warm, pleasantly fuzzy lenses of nostalgia. When that happens, marketers, TV producers, and writers all sit up and take notice. That's when you start geting reboots, relaunches reproductions...and, of course, READY PLAYER ONE.

I think it's pretty obvious that I'm a nerd, so I'm not going to pretentiously reel off my "nerd cred." But READY PLAYER ONE was written for people like me, who were born in the 70s and 80s and grew up in the 80s and 90s, and who like nerdy, retro things. One of my favorite movies (Ladyhawke) and one of my favorite bands (The Alan Parsons Project) are mentioned in here, as well as a whole host of other things I really like.

When I'm describing READY PLAYER ONE to people, I tell them that it's a love story to the 80s with a big heaping dash of "Willy Wonka and the Video Game Factory." The story is set in the near future, in 2044. We're in pretty dire straits, with overcrowding and limited resources. An eccentric gamer named James Halliday created a place where people could take a break from their horrible reality, a fully immersive MMORPG called OASIS, which is completely free to use after you pay a simple 25-cent sign-up fee (bar any in-game purchases, of course).

One of the best things about this book is how OASIS is structured. Cline does a really great job of showing how appealing this world is. Poor Wade doesn't have any money of his own, so he spends all his time stuck on the noob world or the world where he goes to school, but plenty of third party developers have created code within the world for planets based on books, video games, and various other themes, where players can do anything from buy valuable items in-game to playerkilling to taking virtual tours of real or fictional places in an elaborate virtual landscape. Doesn't that sound amazing? I want to link in to OASIS. It sounds pretty freaking amazing.

But the game's creator eventually dies, and he isn't content to go quietly. In a viral video will, he announces that he's leaving his vast fortune, as well as the deed to OASIS itself, to anyone who can solve a series of incredibly complex puzzles, riddles, and games all revolving around 80s pop culture. At first, everyone goes crazy. People create clans to seek out the treasure in teams, and a nefarious government enterprise called IOI creates a division dedicated to finding the answers to the riddles themselves so they can privatize and monetize OASIS, forcing players to pay to stay.Years go by without a winner, however, and gradually the public loses interest as everyone assumes that Halliday was either mad or just trying to get a final laugh in at everyone else's expense.

And then, one day, Wade figures out the answer to the first riddle - and nothing is the same.

I read READY PLAYER ONE about four years ago, after checking it out from the library. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy and immediately read it again, this time paying more attention to all of the pop cultural references and looking up various facts, songs, or details that I found interesting. This is my third time reading the book, and I got to be more introspective this time, because I'm reading it for a book club, with people who are just now reading it for the first time, and I want to think about why READY PLAYER ONE resonated so strongly with me so I can explain that magic to everyone else. The book appeals to our nostalgic memories of childhood and our desire for wish fulfillment on a chillingly efficient level, to the point where it's really hard not to root for the main character or put yourself in his shoes. He wants his passions to make him special, and he wants a way to "check out" from the terrible things happening around him. Who doesn't relate to that?

I enjoyed READY PLAYER ONE almost as much as I did the first time, although this time, I did notice a few minor things that kind of annoyed me. Somehow, I didn't notice how selfish Wade was the first time around. When they're talking about what they plan on doing with their winnings, Art3mis says she wants to give a lot to charity, to help give food to people who have none. Wade seems incredulous at this, and when pushed, says that he supposes he'd charter a spaceship and create a new planet somewhere else. This struck me as a very selfish, defeatist way of thinking. I guess it makes sense that growing up in OASIS might make him very used to instant gratification, since planets are easily coded and terraforming isn't an issue at all, but it was still interesting. I found myself wondering if he would really squander all of his money away on a spaceship if he won. Personally, I think if you have more money than you could ever conceivably spend in a lifetime - such as the billions up for stake here - you have a social and moral obligation to give back to society. Certainly, that seems to have been James Halliday's intent here. He created a game that he could have charged anything for, and instead made it free, and then gave away all his money, too. It made me think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original one) when Willy Wonka gives Charlie that one final test to make sure he has the moral fiber, the character, that he desires for the person who continues his legacy. The lack of parallelism here was really striking in that regard, especially considering the many other similarities to Willy Wonka that were left intact here. We're shown how evil the IOI is with their capitalistic agenda and greed, but apathy can be just as cruel, and just as devastating to a society.

The other thing that bothered me was the ending. It felt anticlimactic. If you've read the book, I'm talking about that final scene when the outcome is revealed. I was expecting a huge standoff with the IOI, or at least with Nolan Sorrento. A kind of "gotcha!" at gunpoint moment.

Those two peeves aside, though, I really enjoyed READY PLAYER ONE. It's a great story, with decent characters, and a fascinating world that I could happily explore for hours. (Really, A Song of Ice and Fire has five books out and this is a standalone? I'll take OASIS over Westeros any day). I'd even go so far as to say that it's worth reading for the pop cultural references alone. It's a love story for the 80s and an ode to geeks everywhere. I relate to both those things, so of course, I adored it.

5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

When I wrote my review of the last book, I called GAME OF THRONES "an epic doorstop" and compared it to bodice rippers because of the violence, rape, and OTT plot lines that occur. If you follow me, you probably know that I am a fan of bodice rippers. (An understatement: friends and fans sometimes call me Queen of the Bodice Rippers - a title I gladly accept.) I enjoyed the book more this time around than I did the first time I read it, but I did have some complaints. 1) There are a lot of characters, and I didn't care about most of them at all. 2) The pacing is wildly uneven (possibly because of 1), and you'll have these long, draining portions where nothing at all happens interspersed with short, exciting portions where all sorts of wild events transpire.

My problems with A CLASH OF KINGS are the exact same problems I had with GAME OF THRONES, except more so. The book is a lot longer, and yet a lot less happens. Yes, there's scheming and Machiavellian (Lannisterian?) politics going on, and there are some battles, but nothing happens. The plot stonewalls as everyone - everyone - schemes, all the while telling us about their incredible schemes in mind-numbing detail. For example, let's look at Sansa's story arc. You'll remember that in book one, she was a spoiled little sh*t who wanted to twirl around in the flowers and listen to poetry all day, i.e. marry Joffrey, and she pretty much sold out her family to do this. Now, Sansa realizes that this was a mistake, and she doesn't want to marry Joffrey any more. Her whole story line is how much she doesn't want to marry Joffrey, and how much she fears Cersei, and how desperate she is to escape. Misery, misery, misery, with no resolution of any kind on sight until the very end, and even then it's open-ended, with hints of even more misery on the horizon. I almost felt sorry for her by that point, and she's one of my least favorite characters in this book.

As for the characters I don't like: Arya continues to be a Tamora Pierce reject, although her escape is a pretty great scene. She has potential. I want to like Arya, but she's so freaking annoying. She reminds me of those "plucky" bodice ripper heroines who feel the need to assert how they are good as any man to anyone who will listen (i.e. no one). Jagen H'ghar was cool, though. Catelyn is still on my sh*t list. I'm not sure how I feel about Brienne - in my head, she's "grown-up Arya." They're pretty much the same character. Jon was more boring in this book. He's in the woods, okay, I get it, the woods are cold and dangerous. There's not much mention of the evil creatures in this book, whereas in the first book they were a very real and looming threat that was quite frightening. Theon is probably one of my new least favorite characters of the love-to-hate variety. Honestly, Joffrey amuses me, because he's such a spoiled brat...exactly what you'd expect to see if you put a rich, spiteful preteen on the throne. Yes, that's right GoT fans, I think Theon is worse than Joffrey. Bran is still boring AF. I'm not sure Martin is capable of redeeming his story arc for me - he's so boring.

And the characters I do like: Davos. He's a new addition, and a member of Stannis's court. I'm not quite sure what his role is. Advisor? Whatever he is, I like him. He's torn between the old and the new, and between his loyalty to his king and his desire to do right. He kind of reminds me of Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed by King Henry II. Beckett became more devoted to his job than to his king, which led to a falling out and, eventually, a huge conflict. I can see Davos encountering a similar conflict down the road, especially with Melisandre running interference. (I was bummed that we didn't get to see more of her in this book; she was so cool in the prologue.) You all already know that I love Daenerys. Her narratives are few and far between, but she does the most exciting this in this book, traveling to exotic, far-off lands in her quest to draw up an army large enough to challenge and defeat Westeros and regain her lost legacy, involving sinister marriage proposals, magical trials, and assassination attempts. Tyrion is also an amazing character - he's so clever. And witty. And unapologetic. He gets how life works and tries to spin that to his advantage. You know he's not exactly a good guy, but he's human enough at least, human enough to root for him in any case. Finally, Cersei. Cersei is probably one of the strongest women in this book. She will do anything to come out as number one. And drunk Cersei is 100% about that salty life. You don't know shade until you've dined at Casa Lanister and had the (poisoned) tea spilled, that's what's up.

The problem is that my favorite narrators are the least frequent (with the exception of Tyrion) & the boring characters bog up the story line. I appreciate the world building, but I don't really need long blocky paragraphs describing all the characters' armor, the food they're eating, how they're eating it, all their titles and the names they enjoy being called, police sketch-artist-level descriptions of their appearances, and what their favorite color is on a Tuesday afternoon. Plus, a lot of the characters who Martin introduced in this book, who made me sit up and go, "Oh! That person would make a great villain!" or "Oh! That person seems like someone I could really root for" die. That's right. A CLASH OF KINGS is the book in which Martin introduces new characters for the sole purpose of making them cannon fodder. You could just as well call this REDSHIRTS (oh wait, that book exists already).

I'm still going to read the sequel because I want to know more about Melisandre, and what happens to poor Tyrion, and of course, see the infamous Red Wedding (which trusted sources have assured me happens midway through A STORM OF SWORDS, but I think I'll take a break first.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Right Honorable Gentleman by Courtney Milan

So disclaimer, I got A RIGHT HONORABLE GENTLEMAN for free from the author because I subscribed to her newsletter (I think a "neener, neener, neener" is in order). I was looking forward to this book a lot, but then life got in the way, and I lost the email with my free copy (!) and several weeks after the fact, I'm only just now getting around to it because I am a bad person.

I don't think it's exactly a secret that I like Courtney Milan's work. She's an author - a romance author - who takes a lot of risks. I like that she's working to write historical romances about men and women of color, to tell the sides of stories that are often overlooked or white-washed. I like that she tries to include LGBT characters in her historical fiction, for the same reasons; the status quo writes history, and everything else tends to be...well, erased.

A RIGHT HONORABLE GENTLEMAN doesn't have any PoCs in it, but I'm bringing that up because I want to talk about why Milan is a favorite of mine, and why I was so excited to read this book. Another thing she does well are her short stories. I think the last story I read that was under thirty pages was THE INITIATION by Jena Cryer - don't ask (it was a different time, okay - there was loads of free erotica to be had, and I was bored, and my followers are terrible enablers). Honestly, with most other authors, I would have passed, but given what I knew Milan could do in a short time, I said, "Okay, bring it, short-stuff!"

This book is a romance between a governess and the head of the household (I believe he's Chancellor of the Exchequer?). He's a hard-ass, for lack of a better word, living a severe life, ruling his household with an iron hand, and sending his help scurrying for the shadows from the moment he darkens the front step in a cloud of ill-humor. Even though Cat's duties are primarily with his son, she isn't afraid to keep his father in line, either, reminding him with a kind but stern word that he should ease up on the staff and make sure his son learns how to treat those who are in his employ right.

As stories like this go, the two feel more for each other than an employer and an employee should, and Cat decides, for the sake of honor, that it's best for her to leave in a state of grace. Edward does not like that one bit, and thinks he can cow her into obeying him the way he does his staff. But he is wrong. And when he realizes why he's wrong, he panics, because he thinks he's driven her away forever with his harsh and stubborn ways.

A RIGHT HONORABLE GENTLEMAN is a very sweet story, and romantic despite the utter lack of sexual content. I said before that I'm impressed with what Milan can do in a short amount of pages, and that sentiment holds true here, too. That said, I feel like this story was too short, even for me, even for Milan. It felt like I was reading the last chapter of a very long (but good) story, and it left me wondering, "What happened before? Where's the character development? The gradual dawning awareness of love?" Looking through the reviews, I noticed that I was not the only person who felt this way. I'm a sucker for a good governess story. I would have loved this as a novel!

This wasn't a bad book, but she has so many better books under her belt that I really can't rate it anything higher than a two because of how it compares to her other works. I'm a bit biased because I got this book for free. I think if I shelled out money for a book just shy of 30 pages and ended up with A RIGHT HONORABLE GENTLEMAN, I'd be very disappointed, so I kept that in mind, as well.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas

I've heard about the "polarizing" event in the previous book that caused so many people to hate Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. I also agree with what others are saying; that despite all the other characters in the book telling the readers, repeatedly, what a villain he is, he sure doesn't walk the walk (apart from that one incident). If I'm going to suck it up and read a book about a rake and a virgin, then by God, I want a man who is in desperate need of reformation. That's one of the reasons I liked Elizabeth Hoyt's DUKE OF SIN so much. Valentine Napier played every single jerk card in his hand.

Our story kicks off with Evangeline Jenner demanding an audience with notorious rake, St. Vincent. She has an offer he can't refuse. Her father is on his deathbed, and plans to leave her all the money from his gaming den, Jenner's. Knowing this, her greedy relations have been keeping her prisoner, starving and beating her, and refusing to let her visit him. Their plan is to force her to marry her cousin so that her inheritance will be in his control, and then, Evie suspects that their plan is to arrange her death in some way so that they can spend the money freely.

The only way to escape this fate is by elopement. She proposes a marriage of convenience. In exchange for her money, St. Vincent will grant her freedom - freedom from her relatives, freedom to visit her father, freedom to live with the protection of his title. Obviously - it's not a love match.

Lisa Kleypas can be hit or miss with me. I like her writing style a lot - it's very clean and spare, she really has a sense for how much description to give and how to balance dialogue and narrative. The problems are her characters. Sometimes her "strong" heroines are just plain bitchy, and sometimes her "sweet" heroines are just spineless doormats that people use for sh*t-sticking practice. Also, her alpha heroes are sometimes just Grade-A jerks who make me hate them. Irredeemably so.

Evie was an okay heroine. Nothing too special. She's a stammering virgin - literally - who ends up redeeming a rake with her meekness and her humility and her innocence. *cue eye roll here* Been there, done that, gotten the t-shirt, honey. What else you got? She has a couple more vertebrae than other heroines cast in her mold, and I did like that she at least tried to stick up for herself and for the most part, spoke her mind when it counted. Evie won't be topping any of my favorites lists by any means, but she isn't on my sh*t list, either. Let's just say that she's...inoffensive.

My feelings about St. Vincent are a little more complicated. I don't really like that he's hanging out in alpha limbo. He's a bit too...courtly to be straight up gamma/alpha, but he's way too rapey and chauvinistic for me to accept him as a "nice" hero. His constant bragging about his prowess definitely garnered an eye-roll or two from me. That said, he had some great lines. Sexy lines. He's the perfect example of a character who you might find sexually attractive but would make a sh*tty boyfriend.

On that note, the romance is pretty slow-burn, although the sex happens early on in the story (instead of that magical 3/4s point that so many books insist on adhering to). Towards the end, I found it hilarious, the lengths that St. Vincent would go to deny his attraction to Evie. They bickered too much, though, and when their arguments started getting redundant, I began to eye the page count.

Also, what's with Kleypas and her fondness for attempted murder subplots? >_>

DEVIL IN WINTER is a decent romance. It kind of reminded me of The Gamblers duology (which is appropriate in more ways than one, because she makes reference to Craven's in here, which made me happy). In particular, DEVIL reminded me of DREAMING OF YOU, because St. Vincent is like a "well-bred" version of Derek Craven - and both of them are just as stubborn as mules when it comes to dragging their heels about admitting their feelings. Nothing will surpass the love I feel for THEN CAME YOU, though: Alex, Lord Wolverton is the OG of Lisa Kleypas love interests. #SorryNotSorry

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson

I just read Amy Schumer's GIRL WITH THE LOWER BACK TATTOO, and if you follow me, you'll remember that I had some complaints. Mainly that comedians, for whatever reason, write unfunny memoirs that are either a) self-promotional, b) long, shopping lists of gratitude, or c) boring & dry. It's like they have to prove a point - that they're not just the funny man or woman, they can be serious, just you watch. But...that's not why people are going to buy your memoirs. It's not why I buy your memoirs.

Phoebe Robinson's memoir is not like that at all. It opens with the history and the politics of "natural" hair and why it's rude to ask to touch it. Robinson discusses how different hairstyles can make a statement if you're a woman of color, the hours and effort that go into maintaining natural hair, and the frustration she and other women feel when they are othered based on their appearance.

After this, as a bit of a wind down, she discusses some of the famous (black) celebrities who contributed to the pop cultural lexicon of black hairstyles. This section includes pictures and commentary, and I really enjoyed seeing the evolving looks.

The middle section is a bit about Phoebe herself, and some of the things she loves, as a sort of belated meet-cute before she gets into the heavy stuff. Try not falling for this woman, I dare you. She's so charming, and funny, and self-effacing. She drops pop culture references and slang like a pro, and her voice is so strong that you really get the feeling that you're having a dialogue with her - right now.It can be surprisingly difficult to capture a "voice" on paper, and she does it really, really well.

After the meet-cute, Phoebe gets into the Deep Stuff. Race. Stereotypes. Bigotry. Guilt. Othering. Coded language. Privilege. The stuff that will send a small population running for the hills (or their laptops), screaming about rabid SJWs. But Phoebe discusses these topics in a really great way, supporting her points with examples that help give you an idea of what she feels and why when people use insensitive words like "exotic", "urban", or "uppity", or why she got so angry when a woman burst into tears after Phoebe was forced to read aloud and then later criticized her offensive lesbian master/slave love story and claimed that she - a white college student - felt "picked on."


Phoebe gets right to the point. Even now, decades after the civil rights movement and about a century after the end of slavery, we are still pretty damn discriminatory as a society. And discrimination doesn't have to be overt. You don't have to say the N-word to discriminate. Discrimination can be as implicit as designing camera film for white skin, treating your black friend like they're the ambassador for all people of color, or only carrying lighter shades of foundation at a drug store. Buzzfeed did a few role reversal videos (1, 2) that help illustrate what things look like from the outside the privilege zone, but the fact that it feels so ridiculous just goes to show how heavily integrated such stereotypes are within the structure of society, and why we still need change.

The book ends with Phoebe writing a series of letters to her young niece about what it means to be black, biracial, and a woman, and the importance of being an authentic, compassionate individual who is open to new experiences but also not afraid to stand up for her principles. She brings up some more great points, too, but after the previous section, it feels a bit anticlimactic. I can see why Phoebe chose to end her book this way, though. You don't want to leave your readers on a note of moral outrage (for better, or for worse), and it helps bring the memoir full circle, as Phoebe starts out talking about the politics of the parts of the individual, and ends with the politics of the whole article.

This is probably one of my top 5 favorite female memoirs, ranking right up there with Felicia Day's YOU'RE NEVER WEIRD ON THE INTERNET and Tina Fey's BOSSYPANTS. It made me cry out, "I relate to that!" "I am interested in that!" "I am outraged by that!" and "I want to be your friend!" by turns. I love memoirs that are passionate, and political, and energized, and this book was all of those things. It was also thought-provoking, and honest in a way that a lot of memoirs these days aren't (I think you've probably heard me complain that too many celebrity memoirs are too "nice"; nice is nice, but it isn't controversial and it doesn't make a statement and it doesn't get you talking, either).

I loved that. And I love Phoebe. (And now I'm off to check out her comedy and stalk her on Twitter.)

Thank you so much, Netgalley, for the free copy!

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars.

The Palace by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

When reading Yarbro's work, it's hard not to compare her with Anne Rice (even though I'm sure she tires of such comparisons). Both are best known for their vampire-themed historical fiction and the series debuted remarkably close together, with The Vampire Chronicles being published in 1976 and Saint-Germain being published in 1978. (Which surprised me. For some reason I'd been under the impression that Yarbro's work came first (and this is why you should look at original publication dates and not go by what your late-80s mass paperback tells you, JSYK).)

I've read selections from both series, and I have to say that Saint-Germain is the (most consistently) better of the two. Oh, Saint-Germaine gets off to a rough start with HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, which has uneven pacing, some uncomfortable situations, and a wince-inducingly perfect hero capable of garnering a perfect score on the Gary Stu litmus test, but the series really gains strength as it goes on, and despite being over three decades old, the newer books are still good, if not better, than the earlier books.

Saint-Germain's character is based off the historical figure, The Comte of St. Germain, which is fascinating because he apparently claimed that he was 500 years old. Yarbro runs with that, making Francesco Ragoczy (Count St. Germain) a vampire who dates his origin back to the times of Ancient Rome. Like his historical counterpart, this Ragoczy also dabbles in the occult and alchemy, and Yarbro makes good use of vampire lore - he walks around in shoes filled with his native earth which protects him from the sun and allows him to cross running water; he can only be killed by fire, beheading, or crushed spine; he can create others of his kind by the sharing of blood, etc.

Each Ragoczy novel can be read as a standalone, as they jump around in the timeline and apart from sharing the same mythos, don't have a linear format. I've read books that took place during WWII, WWI, early Italian Renaissance, and mid-Italian Renaissance (she really seems to like Renaissance Italy), and the next one I have takes place in "Nero's Rome." This is a really appealing system, because I don't have to worry about series order, and I can read the books in the order I acquire them without crying over missing or skipped books. Compare that to the lunacy that is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders series, where it isn't enough to read chronologically - there's a wonky series order that matters if you want to have the correctly executed Pern experience. No thanks!

THE PALACE takes place in mid-Renaissance Italy, in the late 15th century. A Borgia is Pope, and Savonarola is stirring up Florence with his religious fervor, inducing people to make bonfires of the vanities, burning art, sculpture, and books; heading religious-inquisitions; and helping to put a stop to the courtly grace and aesthetic beauty of Medici Florence. I tell you, when they burned Boticelli's paintings, it hurt on a spiritual level. There's a great quote in here that Ragoczy says about art:

"[Destroying art]...[is] worse than killing children, because children at least can defend themselves. But art, art goes into the world unarmed, vulnerable to every quirk of fate, and it must survive only by its power to move men not to destroy it" (273).

I wouldn't call these novels romances - I wouldn't call them "horror", either, despite the tagline "a historical horror novel" on my gloriously bad edition from the 70s - but they often feature romance. Ragoczy, being a man eternal, has a couple "kept" women he's turned over the years, but they are independent and their relationships with R usually turn platonic after they become vampires as well. Ragoczy can't have sex the normal way - that is, no peen action. He does other stuff, instead, which is sometimes frustrating for his lovers, but he insists. I've read four of these books now and I'm still not 100% sure why - although I suspect it's because he has a magical peen that turns people into vampires. He has two lovers in this book: one crazy, one sane. I'll let you figure out which is which.

THE PALACE was a slow read for me. Yarbro has a tendency to describe everything, especially food and what Ragoczy is wearing. If you're a fan of historical fashion, you are going to love this book because of the clothes-porn alone. I can only imagine how many hours of research went into this book for the author to describe the ensembles in such meticulous detail, but Hollywood fashion reporters can only read this and weep in envy and awe as Yarbro fluffs these piffling details into long paragraphs with detail and flair, somehow without making it seem utterly boring, too.

The Saint-Germain series is not really light reading because there are a lot of characters and details to follow, and the history parts of the books can be dense. Also, Ragoczy likes writing letters and receiving letters a lot, so a significant portion of the book is written in epistolary format, which only adds to the challenge. That said, if you're willing to put in the effort of diving in and enjoy vampires (and history), I think you'll really appreciate this author. She clearly has a passion for her work, and I can honestly say that I have yet to find a vampire series that matches this one in scope.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Crimson Kiss by Trisha Baker

Initially, I was really into CRIMSON KISS. It's the perfect fall read, a 90s story about vampires that fits perfectly into the niche pre-TWILIGHT vampire cannon. You can easily imagine a Goth adolescent curled up with this book in a pre-commercialized Starbucks while nursing a black Americano as the leaves and rain swirl past the window and Nirvana plays moodily over the speakers.

The structure of this book is very odd. It starts out in the "present" (1998), before reverting to the mid-40s. We're introduced to a teenage Meghann O'Neal, her loving Irish family, WWII war hero fiance, her hopes, her dreams. She meets a charming man named Simon Baldevar at a party who threatens to sweep her off her feet. She knows she shouldn't spend time with him because she's engaged, but can't seem to help herself. After a night spent painting the town red (pun unintended, actually), Simon declares himself in love with her and all but demands that his feelings be reciprocated.

Meghann falls for Simon, and that's when the romance ends and the nightmare begins. Oh, we already know that Simon's a vampire - but did you also know that he's a demented psychopath who likes torture, kink, and human misery? Neither did Meghann. But Simon immediately sets to weaving a web of psychological manipulation and, later, physical abuse, to trap Meghann permanently in his clutches and put her completely under his control. I was shocked at the amount of sexual and physical violence in this book, as well as how uncomfortably convincing the abusive relationship dynamic feels.

Back in the "present", Meghann is free and in a relationship with a human vampire slayer who also has a bone to pick with Simon. She has friends, a new mentor, and a Simon-sized chip on her shoulder. All of them have their own reasons for wanting Simon dead, but he's far more powerful than any of them had ever dreamed, and the cost of defeating him might be more than they can afford.

CRIMSON KISS follows the typical vampire mythos pretty straightforwardly. Dual timelines, Gothic settings, and lots of angst and existential musings create the backdrop and set the scene for CRIMSON. The execution is what causes this book to stand on its own two feet. Simon is a very bad man. The things he did shocked me, and made me sick to my stomach. He is scary. And Baker's very good at deceiving the reader so we get deceived right along with Meghann. This makes it easier to forgive when she falls for his tricks again and again, when she refuses to leave or give up her feelings for her abuser, or when she finds herself giving into him (sigh) yet again.

The other characters aren't quite as fleshed out as Meghann and Simon, but I did like Alcuin and Charles a lot. Jimmy, I liked less, but certain events at the end of the book suggest that he might meet with some interesting developments in the sequels. The evil villain and the gloom-and-doom atmosphere are what really drive this story forward, though, and Celtic folklore adds some interesting bells and whistles to the magic in this book. It really is the perfect fall read; I think this would be a great vampire book for October. It's creepy, haunting, and morbid. Plus, it's only $2.99 in the Kindle store - and so is the sequel. I mean, how do you beat that?

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

I keep picking up these memoirs written by my favorite female comedians expecting them to be funny, and then the memoir inevitably turns out to be a "I may be a funny person for a living, but I'm so much more - let me list out the innermost details of my psyche for your pleasure so you can understand my soul" type of deal. Which is fine. I can totally understand why comedians would want to do that. I'm sure you have off days where you don't want to be funny, where the last thing you want to do is laugh, where you'd like to talk politics seriously without being expected to toss out a Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump joke. But on the other hand, that's exactly why people are suckered into these memoirs.

People like me.

Even when she's in "funny mode", Amy Schumer is one of those celebrities you will likely love or hate. She's brassy and bold, and outspoken about sex and girl power. Her comedy sketches push the line on the things that it's acceptable for women to talk about, and her movie, Trainwreck, is basically a gender-flipped take on the Judd Apatow "foul-mouthed slacker gets the girl" trope. I've heard pro-Amy and anti-Amy spiels, and I can understand both camps to a degree. She's controversial. She's assertive. She's in-your-face. But hey, it certainly gets her noticed.

Going back to this memoir, Amy decides to turn "funny mode" down a few bars. She still tries to be funny, but she also tries to tell us about the woman behind the humor. She talks about her childhood, her adolescence, her struggle to get her foot in the door. This is a pretty typical arc for celebrity memoirs, so I'm sure you expected all this. I was. What I didn't expect were some very odd digressions in this collection of essays. Essays about Amy's horror carnival collection of stuffed animals. Excerpts from Amy's childhood and teenage diaries, replete with footnotes and analyses from adult Amy. An essay about the difference between Old Money and New Money. Lists about things that annoy Amy. Lists about things that Amy loves. A two chapter long instruction guide for what Amy wants at her funeral. I'm sorry, what does any of this have to do with anything?

There are a few good essays, but for every good essay there's at least one bad one. I was expecting THE GIRL WITH THE LOWER BACK TATTOO to be controversial or provocative, but what I wasn't expecting it to be was boring. The second half is disproportionately variable in terms of the quality of content, so I found myself skimming over the last 50% of the book, especially the self-promo bits. I liked the photographs at the back, and thought it was nice that she paid homage to the women who were shot at one of the showings of Trainwreck, but I had zero interest in seeing Amy's analysis of her favorite things and what kind of eulogy she wants.

Like her or hate her, Amy does bring attention to feminism. She might not always go about it in the most PC or ideal of ways, but PC doesn't always grab the spotlight in the same way. Some of her sketches are really funny, especially the Last F*ckable Day and the Makeup one. This book, however, was not, and I can't really say that I'd recommend it to Amy Schumer fans, feminists, or celebrity memoir aficionados. Maybe if the collection had been better curated, and funnier, it could have been a decent read. But the way it is now, I could barely make it through the pages without glazing over.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Many by Nathan Field

I applied for an advance copy of THE MANY on a whim. The idea of a woman going crazy after hooking up with a strange, too-good-to-be true kind of guy on a dating site seemed like the perfect formula for a horror story. I'm a sucker for the malicious stranger trope, you guys. Just wave a book under my nose that promises doom and destruction delivered by a sinister out-of-towner, and I swear to you, I will fall over myself trying to grab it.

At first, THE MANY is pretty decent. We're introduced to the stories of two women, Isobel and Stacey, and their families. At first, their stories seem totally unrelated. Isobel is a lesbian who lives with her teenage daughter. Stacey is a vivacious twenty-something who lives with her down-on-his-luck brother. The two have pretty much nothing in common, except for the fact that they both had dates with people who seemed way out of their league...and they both came back from their dates NOT QUITE RIGHT.

The build-up is great. If Field does one thing right, it's how he holds the mystery above the reader's head until the very end. Even when the third act began to crumble around the story and I began to lose interest, it was the mystery that kept me turning the pages, desperate to get closure. It was a good mystery. I was leaning towards something out of Disturbing Behavior, which is probably my favorite "bad" horror movie. I love that movie, plot holes and all. I was hoping THE MANY would be just as unapologetically cruel and cunning in its execution, but the execution was something out of an episode of The Twilight Zone. A bad episode of The Twilight Zone. It was just way too cheesy.

This is the second disappointing thriller I've picked up this year. First it was I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS. Now it's THE MANY. Neither book was awful, mind - both had some genuinely creepy moments and great suspense to keep their respective plots moving. The problems came from bad plotting, terrible third acts, and some questionable character motives. But at the risk of spoiling the ending, I'll just say that it's the kind of book you need to pick up and read for yourself to see if it's right for you. If the beginning doesn't rope you in, it'll only be downhill from there.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

You know, after reading A GAME OF THRONES, I am shocked at how many male readers are quick to demean "bodice rippers" and yet tout this book around like it's the second coming of Fantasy Jesus. This is exactly what good bodice rippers are like - epic doorstops of character drama, over the top violence, rape, depraved villains, only-slightly-less-villainous heroes, and drawn-out journeys to far-off lands. The only differences between the two are a) GAME OF THRONES is a fantasy novel loosely based on actual historical events (as to historical novels loosely based on historical events) and b) GAME OF THRONES is a book that is really marketed towards men, whereas bodice rippers, as we all know, are marketed to housewives with too many cats.

I first read GAME OF THRONES six years ago, during my junior year of college, and I was not impressed. I thought the story and the battle scenes and the world were interesting, but the multiple POV format didn't work for me. The temptation to skip ahead was far too great. Oh, Bran's speaking again? Time to skip ahead to Daenerys or Tyrion or Jon. Eff you, Catelyn. No one likes you, anyway. Arya, stop trying to imitate Tamora Pierce's heroines - you're not good at it. Sansa, please stahp. Just stahp. Oh my God, Catelyn - Catelyn - SHUT UP CATELYN.

I wrote my review a few years after the fact, and was amazed at how many rude people felt the need to tell me that my three star review (fairly generous, I thought, considering how little I actually enjoyed the book at the time) was wrong, how I'd read the book wrong, how I clearly didn't understand that GAME OF THRONES had plenty of strong women, and also, what did I consider "good" fantasy? TWILIGHT? Sneer, sneer, sneer. TWILIGHT aside (yes, I like TWILIGHT, but it's not really a "fantasy" novel, and I wouldn't consider Bella the paragon of heroism in a million years), the viciousness of this series fans astounded me. Especially since I'd said that I "liked" the book (I just didn't "love" it). What were people saying to those who'd truly hated it? Well, I took a look, and I wish I hadn't - rabid GoT fans have a tendency to pull a "Joffrey" on negative reviews of this series.


Six years later, I found the first three books as part of a three for $3 deal at a used bookshop. 3,000 pages for $3 seemed more than fair. But since I couldn't remember all the events that happened in book one, I decided to read it from the beginning so I could just dive right into books two and three if I decided it was worth the effort. To my surprise, I found that I enjoyed the story a little more than I did before. Maybe because I'm older, so I could sympathize with the adults more and what their motivations were for doing some of the things they did. I still liked Daenerys and Tyrion and Jon the best, although Cersei amused me more this time around, and Joffrey wasn't as evil as I remembered - I mean, he was, but Robert, Lysa, and Catelyn were worse. I still don't think that there are very many good female characters in this book. Most of them are wives or daughters or whores. There's nothing wrong with being any of those things, but it's still frustrating to see such an array of male characters spouting agency, being featured in a wide variety of complex and interesting roles, while the women either stand firmly behind the throne...or under it. You could argue that Cersei is a complicated female character, and she is, but as with most willful female characters in male-written fantasy and science-fiction, she's a villain. Daenerys is strong, too, but she's not particularly complicated, and as much as I enjoyed seeing her transform from Oppressed Sister/Child Bride into Daenerys Stormborn, Queen of the Dragons, she's pretty much a Mary Sue. I still enjoy her, but she could be more.

A GAME OF THRONES is also uneven in terms of how the pacing goes. Some parts of the book move very quickly, whereas others - like those written from Bran's point of view - seem bogged down and bloat the book with unnecessary pages. Call it blasphemy if you want, but I feel like a couple hundred pages could have been shaved off, while still preserving the heart of the book, making it a tighter and stronger story as a result. I don't think it's a coincidence that the best narratives are often spaced out, book-ended by much weaker narratives. For example, I'm reading CLASH OF KINGS right now and even though the book ends with Daenerys, she doesn't make an appearance until almost page 200 in the sequel...about 20% of the story! And Jon doesn't make an appearance until 10%. Doesn't sound like a lot? The sequel is over 1,000 pages, so it actually kind of is...

But despite the dark content, lack of adequate female representation, and uneven pacing, I really did enjoy this story. It was like a medieval soap opera (or bodice ripper) - light and just complicated enough to keep me turning the pages without feeling like I was dropping IQ points. The battle scenes are great, and Martin is really choice at coming up with inventive deaths for characters he knows you care a lot about. I also could appreciate the amount of time creating the world of Westeros. There were some great descriptions and details - the crests, the armors, the landscape. Some of the scenes on the Wall gave me the chills - both because of the cold and the terror. But it has flaws, too.

If you take away any messages from this review, it's that:

1. GAME OF THRONES is not for everyone - and that's okay. What's not okay is to belittle or attack those who don't (or do) like the book on their personal review spaces. Write your own damn review!

2. GAME OF THRONES is the perfect gateway book for HR lovers who want to get into fantasy - or, for fantasy lovers who want to get into romances. Seriously, why aren't you all reading bodice rippers, yet? Patricia Hagan's Coltrane saga and Marilyn Harris's Eden saga would be perfect for you.


3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars.