Sunday, October 30, 2016

Darkhouse by Karina Halle

We're doing a Halloween Reading Challenge in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group. I picked DARKHOUSE to fulfill the "romance set in/near a haunted house" category. Halle actually turned out to be a perfect author for this challenge, because I'm going to use the sequel to this book, RED FOX, for the "romance novel with a skull on the cover" category (it was toss-up between this book and PASSION & VENOM).

DARKHOUSE sounds great as a concept (GHOST HUNTERS!!!!), but isn't so great in execution. This really disappointed me, because I thought the cover was gorgeous, and the idea of ghost hunters (GHOST HUNTERS!!!!!) making a living through Youtube was really great. Ghosts in a creepy old lighthouse? Nightmares that might actually be real? Yaaaaaa to the ssssss.

Unfortunately, I really had to push myself to finish this one. I was so hyped up for it, too. All of my friends loved this one, including some whose opinions I really trust. I think only two people on my friends list actually gave it a one star. I wanted to like it, too, so I, too, could be one of the cool kids.

But I didn't.

Part of the problem was the narrator, Perry Palomino. I didn't like her "voice" much at all. Sometimes I can read about an unlikable character and still enjoy their narrative even if I don't like the person, but that wasn't the case here. She was selfish and rude and went on all these random asides about irrelevant things - and the "voice" itself was inconsistent. There were some genuinely spooky passages in here, which would be immediately followed my some random flashback or thought that detracted from the doom & gloom. I didn't care for all the woman hate in this book, either, or how she chases after Dex, even when she finds out that he has a girlfriend (she just demonizes the girlfriend instead). I didn't like that she goes after someone with mental illness, either, using her knowledge of it to insult them as soon as they have a fight, and referring to them as a "madman." Not cool, Perry.

Dex wasn't so great, either. He's a little overly fond of the r-word for my liking, which I think some people will find off-putting or offensive. He's described as looking like "Errol Flynn", which is an odd comparison for a twenty-year-old to make. I know who Errol Flynn is, but I like older books and movies. I'm not sure most millennials would know who that is. I did like that we actually got to see Dex at work, though. Wine Babes actually sounds like an awesome show, despite what Perry seems to think about the aforementioned babes and the fact that Dex is dating one. I love wine, and think the idea of traveling around and judging and tasting wines sounds like a blast. And knowing what I learned about him towards the end, I was able to sympathize with him a little more, too.

There's also some editing mistakes in here. At one point, "enviously" is used where "enviably" should have been used, and "conscience" is used in lieu of "conscious." I think there were one or two instances where a word was used incorrectly or in an awkward way. It's really not that bad for an independent work, and this actually did not factor into my rating because it was minor enough that it really didn't impact my reading, but I thought it'd be worth pointing out because in the future the author might want to consider running this by an editor, trimming down Perry's rambling and fixing the mistakes. I honestly think it would be a much tighter work with a second person on board.

DARKHOUSE may have been a disappointment...but I've been assured that the later books are much better. I peeked at the summaries of RED FOX and DEAD SKY MORNING, and they do look interesting. Navajo folklore and leper colonies? That does sound like something straight out of Stevie King's horror playbook, and I love me some Stephen King-style creeps. I bought books 1-6 in this series in ebook (they're on sale right now!), so I guess we'll just have to wait and see!

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online by Bailey Poland

I was joking around with one of my friends last week that my list of nonfiction books on Goodreads could just as easily double as the core reading list for a women's study class. We had a good laugh over it, but feminism is something I feel quite strongly about, and I think reading about women in history in particular is quite important because we are frequently told the stories of history from one viewpoint - the viewpoint of white men.

HATERS is an interesting little book that takes another anthropological segment typically written about from the viewpoint of white men: the interwebs. Specifically, harassment and stalking on the interwebs as experienced by women. I applied for this advance reader copy on a whim because internet stalking is something I have some experience with (sadly) and because I wanted to gain a new perspective on a very troubling and problematic issue that can be brutal for some women, to the point where it threatens their very livelihood. Why is this such a big problem, and what can be done about it? How does it affect women who aren't privileged?

HATERS is divided into segments, and Poland talks about the various facets of internet harassment: why it happens, who does the harassing, what the victims look like, why it's problematic, and why it continues to persist. I suspect that this was written for an academic publication (ah, yes, I just checked - the University of Nebraska Press) and it shows. The writing is very dry and deliberately politically correct with everything spelled out in very precise and inoffensive terms. I understand why this was done, but it makes for some very clunky writing and convoluted sentences. This is a subject I'm interested in and have some knowledge about, but I still had to toil through the first couple chapters.

The best parts of the book were the portions that had concrete examples of harassment with real women's stories. Poland even includes some of her own personal experiences with harassment online and how she went about trying to diffuse it (with only mixed success). This was more in line with what I expected when I requested my ARC from Netgalley, and I think these personal stories will do a lot to engage readers with the issue at hand, and cause them to understand why it's such a problem.

HATERS is more of a textbook than a pleasure read, but the writing is accessible enough that I think people who aren't enrolled in a women's studies class (wink) will still be able to appreciate the take-home messages of the book. I also think that this is an important book to read for women who maintain active presences on social media venues because it's a good warning of what you're potentially going up against, as well as comforting proof that, regardless of your experiences with harassment and the degree to which you've experienced it, you're not alone.

This is the point at which I direct you to my favorite Buzzfeed video of all time: What It's Like To Be A Woman Online.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

If Angels Burn by Lynn Viehl

I was introduced to Ms. Viehl's work through her science fiction series, STARDOC, and the standalone, BLADE DANCER. She wrote strong, sassy women who were often involved in a medical profession (because, surprise, surprise, the author is a U.S.A.F. veteran who worked in civilian and military hospitals). When I found out that she wrote urban fantasy/paranormal romance under another name, that went onto my to-read list faster than you can say "boo!"

At first, IF ANGELS BURN followed a similar theme. The main character, Alexandra Keller, is a skilled plastic surgeon, said to have the fastest hand in the world. She's a woman of color, who was adopted - along with her brother - by a rich, privileged white woman, but Alexandra still remembers what it was like to be homeless and living in loveless foster homes, so she has two feet in both worlds.

One day she receives an offer of $4 million to perform a surgery on a man named M. Cyprien. The shadiness of the offer makes her think it's coming from an unsavory individual who's probably got his fingers into some very crime-filled pies, so she says no. Then she's hit on the head and kidnapped, and wakes up in a mansion. The man in the mansion is horribly disfigured, but his skin has the ability to regenerate. He claims that if Alexandra can cut him a new face fast enough, he will heal back to the way he used to be.

The reason he can heal so fast? He's a vampire. Spoiler! know, not really.

I really wanted to like this book. I wanted to like Alexandra. I wanted to like Michael Cyprien. I wanted to like everything, so I could say that this dabbing in other genres was a success. But I didn't. I didn't like any of it. Ms. Viehl is one of my favorite space opera writers! And I love vampires! How could this possibly not have worked?

Here are some of the issues I had with this book:

1. The surgery descriptions and medical gore are detailed and gross. I cringed a lot while reading this book. The little old lady sitting next to me on the bus shot me some very curious looks because of all the squirming I was doing in my seat. I actually had to put the book away in my purse for a bit and regroup, which made me feel like a weenie.

2. The Knights Templar background was cheesy. There's another vampire series out there that includes a similar story line, called the Brotherhood of Blood. I didn't care much for it there, either. Why does everything have to be a conspiracy?

3. Priests are the bad guys who like to torture people. Natch, Alexandra's brother, John, gets mixed up with them. This actually could have been cool, having a brother and a sister become a vampire slayer and a vampire, respectively, if it weren't for the whole Brotherhood of Ick thing they had going on, what with their torture-happy ways.

4. Michael Cyprien is a jerk. He comes close (by my definition) to raping the heroine twice, and he's always tearing her clothes off and telling her to obey. The heroine's reactions to this are ambivalent and not very convincing. I mean, at one point she jokes about it, like, "do I get a say?" And then, by the end of the book, they love each other. Where was that emotional connection?

5. There's a character in here who likes to rape and torture people. Are they descriptive about this miserable joy of theirs? You bet your stars.

I give the author props for trying to come up with a somewhat original vampire story. I think it could have worked, but the measurements in here were off. There was too much violence and gore and not enough romance. If she was going for dark, it should have been written and marketed as straight horror, rather than attempting both categories but doing it by halves.

I don't think I'll continue with this series. What I really want to do is reread STARDOC.

1 out of 5 stars.

Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson

"Pitch perfect" is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot these days, but it is an apt description for WHERE AM I NOW? Matilda is one of my two all-time favorite movies (the other one is Princess Bride, in case you were wondering), and like many others, I often wondered what happened to the talented young actress who went from being in everything to being in nothing. Then I found out she had a Twitter, where I began quietly stalking her posts, and I found to my delight that not only was she talented, she was also funny - and smart. From her Twitter, I found out that she had an upcoming book of essays and well, you know the rest from there. I came, I saw, I lurked - and then I got the book.

Celebrity memoirs tend to fall into two categories - they're either (a) gossipy and ghost-written, relying on your guilty pleasure of watching famous people spill the tea to get you through the bad writing (and it does work - very well; I, myself, am not immune) or (b) very polite, very nice thank-you letters to everyone who made them famous, with a few agent-vetted anecdotes to make them seem a bit more approachable, but not too approachable (these are boring, but it's almost impossible to be mad at them, because they're so nice and so polite. Sometimes, though, there's a third category - authentic, relatable, quotable; an existentialist bible that you want to keep on your nightstand and highlight forever.

Mara Wilson manages to cover a wide array of topics, detailing her journey into fame and her journey out of it. She talks about her work on Matilda, and how much she loved her role, and lived her role; she talks about her hang-ups about sex; she talks about being a character actor for "adorable quirky child", and the anxiety she felt when she became too old and too plain to land adolescent leading roles (in fact she lost three to Kristen Stewart, which bums me out a little, because Mara would have been amazing in Speak); she talks about her experience with OCD and anxiety, and about being bullied in high school; she talks about first love; she talks about Robin Williams, and how his death affected her; and she talks about what it's like to finally find your people, and feel like you belong.

I don't really have words to talk about how this book touched me, and how powerfully I related to some of the chapters. The way Mara talks about the book KISSING DOORKNOBS, and feeling like she was reading about herself - that's kind of how I felt about reading WHERE AM I NOW? (Minus the fame, and various other parts.) This was such an honest, eloquent memoir, and finishing it was like saying goodbye to a friend you haven't seen in a while. It was bittersweet: it was perfect.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

Have you ever looked at the reviews for a book and wondered if you accidentally read a completely different book? Like, maybe some devious book gremlin sneaked into wherever books are sold and swapped the book jackets of a bad book and a good book? That's kind of how I feel right now: like I've been book-pranked.

ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS is a romance between a twenty-four-year-old man and a thirteen-year-old girl. Wavy is the daughter of abusive, mentally ill meth dealers. She's shunted from home from home for a while, from a grandmother who loves her but dies, to an aunt who doesn't love her and is afraid of the influence Wavy will have over her own girls, before being returned to her completely unfit parents.

Jesse Joe Kellen/Barfoot is a Choctaw man who is the child of alcoholic parents. His family is either dead or in jail. He currently works as a runner for Wavy's father, transporting drugs and sometimes beating people up if necessary. One day he has an accident, and Wavy is there to help him. She's eight-years-old and he's struck by what a beautiful child she is and how lonely she looks and how she doesn't seem afraid of him like everybody else. He feels bad about the way her family treats her, and ends up immersing himself into her life, stepping in for her parents. Sort of.

Here's the thing. Wavy is thirteen. When they meet, she's eight. But then they start having lots of physical affection between them that is inappropriate - kissing, touching, hand-holding. It turns sexual when she's thirteen. Some people have said that their relationship wasn't sexualized but I really did not get that impression. It felt very sexualized. He calls her breasts "little tits." When she gets dressed, he calls it "a strip tease in reverse".  Even when Wavy is 21, she's still described as child-like. Her roommate says she looks like a "child prostitute" when she's wearing makeup.

At first, I thought I was going to like ALL THE UGLY AND BEAUTIFUL THINGS because the writing and story are good, and even though it employs the use of multiple POVs, the story kept moving at a decent pace. But Wavy and Kellen's relationship made me very uncomfortable and I cringed reading it. What Kellen did was sexual abuse, because he took advantage of a very lonely, abused, and neglected child. It doesn't matter that Wavy consented to what he did and even sought it out; she was not in any emotional or psychological state to say yes because she was thirteen.

I really did not like that Wavy's aunt was demonized for calling the cops on Kellen either. Yes, he got sent to jail for six years. Because he did sexual things with a child.

I will give the author props for writing a controversial book that will stir up dialogues about abuse, consent, and sex. I'm sure it will draw inevitable comparisons to LOLITA, too. But I actually think I liked LOLITA better than this because Humbert was so unambiguously the bad guy, and that wasn't quite as clear in this book. Maybe that makes it a more compelling read for some, but that was what turned me off of it, and it disturbs me a little how many people are shelving this as "romance."

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Heather Crews

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this for review years ago, and Heather is one of my Goodreads friends.

After reading and enjoying Heather's other book, PRINCE OF MISERY, I was eager to leap into her repertoire to see what other vampire books she had written. I was all set to buy DREAMS FOR THE DEAD, because dat summary, but then I realized that I already had a copy of A DARK-ADAPTED EYE in my library.

A DARK-ADAPTED EYE is about the teenage Asha. She's an orphan and trapped in her home town of La Seca with her brother, Ivory, because it's under siege by vampires. Things get even more dramatic when she finds out that her brother his best friend, Les (who she has a crush on), are both vampire slayers. Things get even more dramatic when she wanders into a vampire club by accident and meets a vampire named Rade, with whom she has a strange but compelling connection that makes her feel like he's familiar...

I really wanted to like this book and I think it has a great premise. There's also a vintage feel to it, in the same way that PRINCE OF MISERY was; they feel like retro vampire novels from the 80s and 90s, when vampires were predatory and scary, and would kill you just as soon as look at you. TWILIGHT changed the status quo for vampires, and as much as I enjoy TWILIGHT, I have to say that these changes were not for the better. I miss the scary days of yore. Heather's bringing 'em back!

The problem is that parts of this book are pretty slow. Even boring. I stopped reading around page 54 the last time I attempted to start A DARK-ADAPTED EYE, and had a difficult time forcing myself to finish with this latest attempt. There's large portions where little, if nothing, is happening. Les and Crisedeys and Ivory aren't very compelling characters (and I really didn't like their names). Rade was great, but he wasn't in the book for very long, nor were many of the other vampires. The dialogue was also tedious, contrived, and didn't feel authentic at times, and I didn't care for the love interest, Les. He's one of those guys who angsts about the girl he likes and sleeps with other women because he just can't. No, Les. That is not how you have relationships. That is the exact opposite of what to do.

What kept me reading were Rade, obviously, and the club scenes and the action scenes. Heather is really good at writing horror and making it erotic. That sounds like a bad thing, but that's what people expect with vampire stories: the gothic romance of beauty and monster. Few authors are able to strike that balance and make it work, but Heather can. She's also really great at writing beautiful descriptive passages. PRINCE OF MISERY has great dialogue, too, but that's one of Heather's newer works: in DARK, a lot of it is stilted and wooden.

I'm always happy to discover new vampire novels I haven't read yet, and I'm sorry that this one was such a bust. But I'm glad I read it, too, because it shows how much Heather's style is evolving, which makes me excited for her future projects (which also hopefully involve vampires).

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann

I don't generally make a habit of posting my political beliefs in public forums, but that is a difficult subject to escape when reviewing a book about politics. I mean, it's possible. I could write something dull and impartial like, "GAME CHANGE is a great look into the 2008 election. Eye-opening. I enjoyed it" - but let's be honest, okay? Where is the fun in that? Plus, as it turns out, I actually have some sincere thoughts on the subject. I know, what a surprise. A blogger having an opinion. Imagine that.

Since there's a fairly good chance Clinton might become president #45, I bought a few nonfiction books about her because I wanted to see what she's about. One is adoring, tinted by the rosy lenses of nostalgia - it's called REBELS IN WHITE GLOVES, and it's about Hillary Clinton, and the women in her graduating class at Wellesley, and how their ideals helped mold the world. This book, GAME CHANGE, is a bit more unforgiving. Everybody's friends in politics, except when there's an election. Then it's Mean Girls on steroids with million dollar smear campaigns - oh, and on Wednesdays, we wear flag pins.

The first two-thirds of this book are exclusively about Clinton and Obama, and their rivalry to secure the position of the democratic candidate. I remember these events pretty well, because this was the first election I ever voted in, so everything was new to me, and I was completely wide-eyed as I tried to take everything in. It was a pretty historic election period for the democrats, because no matter which way it went down, they were going to get a first - the first black president or the first female president. Regardless of who I voted for in that election, I'm surprised to say that I like Hillary Clinton a lot more this go-round. Like many others, her 2008 run left a bad taste in my mouth. She was ruthless back then, and not in a good way. Many of her tactics were low-blows, and she came across as unnecessarily militant with her policies for the Middle East. Some of that is explained in this book - she was put in a difficult decision, forced to stand by decisions she made when the war was still popular, and afraid to go back on her decision and being a flip-flopper like Kerry. Part of the reason for her tenacity is because of who she was running against. Obama was unflappable, calm, cool, and collected, and it's hard to run against someone like that as a woman and still get your two cents in - too quiet and they call you meek and subservient, too loud and they call you a nasty woman. You really can't win. She's mellowed out now, and she's not making the same mistakes that she made before, which is very reassuring. She seems prepared and doesn't allow herself to be baited.

Some people criticizing this book have pointed out that Hillary doesn't come out looking like a good person, shrieking and screaming when things don't go her way. But Obama doesn't escape criticism, either, which I appreciated because some of his missteps actually explained a lot of the antagonism in the race. He slighted John McCain, turning down a position he'd been offered in 2007, and Hillary Clinton essentially took him under her wing when he was still a young senator, so according to the book, she felt like he'd betrayed her, and cut ahead of her in the presidential line. One of the reasons the race might have felt so personal was because it was; both of his opponents may have had cause to feel betrayed by him. And don't even get me started on John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth. I had no idea how messed up that situation was. A real sh*t show.

The Republicans and vice-presidential nominees don't make an appearance until the last third, where they're all lumped together with a quick conclusion and afterword. I actually felt a little sorry for Palin at the end of this - although the image of her surrounded by mountains of index cards as she studied policy with her increasingly frantic aides made me laugh a bit. It's interesting to think about how the election might have played out if McCain had ignored the advice of Rove and gone with one of his earlier choices of running mate, Joe Lieberman.The book ends on a happy note, with Clinton a little worse for wear but still as proud and indomitable as ever, being handed the olive branch in the form of Secretary of State by Barack Obama. A decent consolation prize, as far as things go.

I couldn't do politics. I hate superficiality, and in politics it's all about that glittery facade that posturing politicos put on for the public, when really, the two parties are made of mostly the same stuff with different labels. Or at least, that's how things used to be. There didn't use to be that much difference between the two parties, except for a few key issues. Now, it seems like a number of things are partisan issues that shouldn't be partisan issues, like consent and civil rights, for example, and that rallies of some parties (one in particular) are becoming overrun with people looking for a platform to spew hate. That's one of the things that has me so upset about this election.

It's something that I think many of us have reason to be upset about with this election.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

I love historical romance, specifically historical romance that takes place in Regency and Victorian times. I enjoy the language, the costume porn, the odd customs, the strange romance of it. But I would never, ever want to live there. We have a tendency to romanticize the past, and focus on the feel-goodsy aspects of it that make for good films and A+ school dioramas when the truth is, it's the past for a reason.

In UNMENTIONABLE, Oneill discusses all manner of R-rated factoids about the Victorian era that you most likely didn't learn in school. For example, did you know that those beautiful corsets crushed women's rib cages and moved their organs around (and also stank to high heaven)? Did you know that foundation was a heavy "enamel" made of lead? That soap contained arsenic? That strychnine and tapeworms were handy diet tools? That doctors had electric masturbation machines to treat women with hysteria? That underwear was crotchless?

I knew some of these facts because I read a lot of historical fiction, but others were new to me. And the tone they're delivered in is also very enjoyable. Oneill's writing style kind of reminds me of Gail Carriger's - affected, airy, light, and fun. It comes and goes at times, though, which can make the narrative seem off-balance. One moment, you're listening to the Mrs. Bennett from hell telling you gleefully why the heavy frippery of Victorian accoutrements made crotchless underwear a necessity for 19th century bathroom breaks, the next you're faced with a rather dry examination of food handling and hysteria. I can understand why the author might want to treat more serious subjects with more gravity, but it does leave the overall "mood" of the book feeling slightly off balance.

UNMENTIONABLE is a great book if you're interested at all in feminism, history, or Victoriana. I'm interested in all three, so it was a delight to receive this book from Netgalley for review. I enjoyed every chapter and learned a lot of interesting and disturbing facts that will make me look at my favorite romances differently (or perhaps not so differently in the case of my bodice rippers). I sincerely look forward to this author's future projects! Maybe 18th century France?

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Dark Masquerade by Patricia Maxwell

Gothic novels can be a mixed-bag. They were mass-produced in the 70s and 80s, and many of them were bad. You really have to pick and choose to find a good one. DARK MASQUERADE is written by Patricia Maxwell, the pen name of bodice-ripper author Jennifer Blake, and I got it during a promotion where most of her early books and some of her newer ones were free from the Kindle store. I forgot all about it until now, when I was combing through my Kindle to see what goodies were buried on there, and started reading on a whim.

DARK MASQUERADE ticks many of the usual boxes on the Gothic novel checklist. It has a young and resourceful heroine coming to a dark and unwelcoming mansion because of a tragedy. Nobody wants her there, and they aren't afraid to say so, either. The love interest may or may not be the villain. Someone tries to scare her away and, later on, kill her in order to accomplish some craven, dastardly purpose.

The novel is slow to start, beginning with Elizabeth coming to the Delacroix plantation in Louisiana, accompanied by her black servant, Callie, and her baby nephew, Joseph. We learn that the baby's mother, Elizabeth's sister, died in childbirth, and the father died in the Civil War. Before he did, though, he provided for his wife and child, and Elizabeth has decided to take on her sister's identity to ensure that the baby receives his inheritance.

The Delacroix make it clear that Elizabeth's presence as Ellen Marie is being tolerated solely because of the child, the late Felix Delacroix's sole heir. There's an additional black mark against Elizabeth because Felix ditched his childhood betrothed, Celestine, in order to elope with Ellen Marie. If you think that maybe Celestine isn't the kind of woman to hold a grudge, think again. The matriarch, Grand'mere, is slightly more welcoming, but she leaves most of the major household matters to her grandson, Bernard, who is clearly suspicious of Elizabeth, and reluctant to give up Joseph's money.

The atmosphere in this book is incredible. The descriptions of the mansion and the bayou are beautiful and I could easily picture the swamps, the gardens, and the furnishings. The family drama was exceptional, too. Far too often, the characters in Gothic novel are reduced to cardboard cut-outs. I read a book recently, also from the 70s as it happens, called MISTRESS OF THE MOOR, and the bad guy in that book attempts to scare the heroine by cutting up her childhood teddbear and spelling out her name with the fluff on her bedroom wall. In this book, the scare tactics are far more sinister, involving deadly spiders, poison, fire, and various attempts at assassination and subterfuge.

I also really liked Elizabeth. She was resourceful and clever, but also mostly kind. When she did lash out, I couldn't blame her, because it was usually in response to some Delacroix bullsh*t.

Also, Maxwell/Blake has an incredible vocabulary. Here are some of the words I learned in this book: epergne • cabriole • brocatelle • nankeen • demitasse • fainéant • tignon

Anyone looking for a good Gothic novel should pick up DARK MASQUERADE. As of my writing this, it's only 99-cents from the Kindle store!

4 out of 5 stars!

Black City by Elizabeth Richards

One of the chief complaints about the YA genre - especially the books being targeted and marketed toward young woman - is that they are becoming increasingly derivative, and seem to focus only on the romance. BLACK CITY is a perfect example of that: it's a book that can be neatly summed up by asking "what happens when you smush together DIVERGENT and TWILIGHT?"

I haven't given a one-star rating in a while, and to be honest - it feels weird. It's been so long since I read a book that I thought was bad, that I forgot what the actual experience was like. The incredulity. The frustration. The boredom. What really annoyed me was how much I wanted to like BLACK CITY in the first place, because vampires are awesome, and a dystopian society involving vampires should also be awesome, because vampires and oppression. Plus, that cover. That's a cover to take home to mama.

The problem starts with the world-building. The author employs a lot of really clunky terminology, like "Darklings" for vampires, "twin-bloods" for half-breeds, "Sight" for vampiric thralls, and "the v-gene" for...a special gene that lets you 'sense' vampires, I guess. There's also different classes of vampires, with different colored hair and eyes, and some have wings, and then there's this degenerative necrosis-inducing disease that only affects vampires that's called Wrath, which makes their skin rot away. Got all that? But wait, there's more -

They call the trance-like state humans go into "Haze", which is confusing because Haze can also be sold in a bottle in drug form, and sometimes it is especially potent, which is called Golden Haze. And then there's these creatures called "Bastets" which appear to be shape-shifter leopards who have venom in their teeth. Trackers hunt the Darklings after curfew, protecting the Sentry, or the ruling government class, from Workboots (the poor) and the Legion (vampire revolutionaries). Violating the various laws that are in place to fraternize with a Darkling makes you a "race traitor."

The world all of this terms are used in isn't much clearer. I think it's supposed to be an alternate version of our world, except for some reason all of the states in the U.S. have been split into nine megastates with lame names like "Emerald State", but it's never really explained. Also, why are we a fascist, cultish dictatorship with a fascist, cultish leader? What happened? I never voted for this guy!

By the end of the book, I mostly had a handle on all the terminology, although I was still eying the world skeptically (what happened to the rest of the world? This is exactly what happened in DIVERGENT - Future Chicago went to heck in a hand basket, but was that an isolated incident? A reality TV show that the rest of the world just watched in amusement while shaking their head and going, "Oh, Chicago, you silly little cinnamon rolls, what will you think of next?") Also, why are the vampires allowing this to happen in the first place? They have literal "opium dens" for the Haze users. If their strength and their wings failed them, it wouldn't take much effort to just get all the humans hooked on Haze for a hostile takeover. But I might still have been able to enjoy the book in spite of all these plot holes and vocabulary words if it weren't for the two main characters - Ash and Natalie. Ash is a twin-blood (half-breed) and Natalie is a Sentry (ruling class). Twin-bloods don't have beating hearts for some reason (they're vestigial, I guess), but when Natalie touches him on accident - his heart actually starts beating because, and I kid you not, she's his soul mate, and your heart only beats as a twin-blood once you find the One.

They talk about how special and unique their love is before they've even really exchanged much more than a few paragraphs of conversation and by the time that they agree to go out with each other, before they've even gone on a single date, they're already ready to sacrifice all of their friendships and family ties and even their lives for each other. Even Romeo and Juliet would be side-eying these two. They're also just not very nice characters. Natalie is especially helpless, biting her lip, blushing, and staring in horror whenever something unpleasant happens. She tries to brush all of the bad things under the carpet, including the horrible acts that her mother and father have done to the vampires. Ash isn't much better. He helps get his "best friend" hooked on drugs and does some pretty sketchy things to women who aren't Natalie. It's hard to root for characters you don't like - particularly when you know that you are supposed to like those characters, and relate to them, and see yourself in them.

I do own the sequel to this book, BLACK PHOENIX, which I will be reading soon. I'd like to see if the author improves over time, and is capable of doing that lovely, lovely cover justice. There were some things in this book I didn't expect, but they were minor plot twists and overshadowed by the epically unconvincing love story. I can understand why so many reviewers disappointed by BLACK CITY. I was, too.

1 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Jack Knife by Virginia Baker

I went through this period where if a book looked even remotely interesting, I'd buy it/request it from Netgalley/borrow it from the library. As you can imagine, this was problematic for several reasons - book clutter, for one. It also resulted in some very serious buyer's remorse. Take JACK KNIFE.Two government agents go into Victorian England to collect a rogue scientist who is hell-bent on reenacting the plot of Tomorrow Never Dies? Please.

I brought this book along with me to read while on a very long bus ride, so maybe it's the fact that I was essentially a captive audience, but I didn't dislike this book merely enough as I felt I ought to have. The writing quality was on the poor side - pulpy - and the characters of Sara and David, the government agents, were two-dimensional. David is your typical tough army guy with the heart of gold and Sara is the ball-busting feminist who everyone is attracted to, in spite of (because of?) the fact that she can kick their butts.

Sara and David find out that Jack the Ripper is running rampant, but for whatever reason, he's killing way more and far more bloodily than he ever did in their time. On the case is detective Jonas Robb, who is the son of a duke when he's not a cop, and who is also very attracted to Sara. He's suspicious of them, though, and he knows enough to know that something about their alibis doesn't match up.

I found JACK KNIFE entertaining, but it's a throwaway read. Not something I'd ever pick up again, unless I were marooned on a long bus ride and had no other reading materials present. There were a lot of plot holes and things left unexplained at the end, and I didn't really care for the characterization of any of the people in here. Or the use of science. Honestly, it seems like the more the characters stress how essential it is to preserve the timeline, the more they do their best to f*ck it up.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

I grew up saturated in 80s pop culture, so I was initially very excited when I saw a copy of THE IMPOSSIBLE FORTRESS available for request on Netgalley. The cover and premise sounded like READY PLAYER ONE, which is one of my favorite books of all time. However, THE IMPOSSIBLE FORTRESS isn't about a dystopian future with a fully immersible MMORPG - it's about teen game coders and a heist involving pornographic magazines.

Billy Marvin is failing school because he spends all his time programming things for his Commodore 64. His only friends are "losers" like him - Clark, who has syndactyl, and Alf, who's weird for a reason I forgot. Maybe he's just weird. Anyway, the three of them come up with the *brilliant* idea to steal the issues of Playboy featuring nude Vanna White from the local drug store. The problem is, the rooftop entrance is difficult to get into and the front entrance is alarmed.

Well, that's easy, they think - all they have to do is seduce the shopkeeper's fat daughter, because obviously she's lonely and desperate for attention! Billy's already interested in her anyway because he finds out that she's a coder like him, so he volunteers for the mission as an excuse to talk to the only other teen he knows who likes coding just as much as him. You can see how this might be a problem...

I almost, almost, was able to enjoy THE IMPOSSIBLE FORTRESS in spite of all the fat shaming - and there is a ton of fat shaming, from so many people, it's awful - because I told myself, "Fat shaming and bullying were common in the 80s because people didn't realize how harmful bullying was back then psychologically. Maybe the author is making a point here." And I liked how the girl, Mary, was so clever and smart and how Billy began to see her for the person she was, and appreciate her both romantically and intellectually. I even began rooting for them to get together.

But then Mary turns him down. And Billy does something unforgivable. I was so upset, because it seemed to go against his character. The narrative had been building him up as a better person, and then suddenly - that. There's this section of the book where everything gets very unpleasant around 80% in, and then we learn something about Mary that felt like it was an attempt to put some of the blame on her. Like, oh, what Billy did was bad, but Mary is bad too, so everyone's a bad person here!

Then the book ends on a happy note, totally glossing over all the consequences.

It's a shame, because as a nerd, I want to support authentic nerdy books in the YA and NA cannon. That's one of the reasons I loved READY PLAYER ONE so much - it embraces all the things I grew up loving. I did programming in high school, so I really thought it was cool to see the vintage 80s code at the beginning of each chapter, and compare it to the more complex codes of today, like watching a language evolve. The Vanna White Playboy heist just seemed like such an unnecessary secondary plot, detracting from the coding aspects, and I didn't understand why Billy and Mary had to do such horrible things to each other and to other people. Can't we just be geeks in love?

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

CRUEL BEAUTY was our October book of the month in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group - in fact, it won by a massive landslide. Not that I was surprised. CRUEL BEAUTY made quite a stir when it was first released; it seemed like everybody was singing its praises and mooning over Ignifex. On the surface, it sounded like a great story - love and death, revenge, magic, fairy-tales, demon lovers. That's Nenia to a T. But it was also YA. And I've been burned by the YA genre more times than I care to count. My heart couldn't take any more disappointment. So anyway, we started reading CRUEL BEAUTY in URR, and I was defensive and hopeful all at once as I prepared myself for the inevitable let-down...

Only to fall in love with the book.

I couldn't put it down. I think I read 40% of the book the first day. I finished it as soon as I got home from work the next day. Nyx isn't like other heroines. She isn't perfect and good - she's angry and vengeful and bitter, and rightfully so. Her family sucks, man. Because of a bargain her father made with some demons, her mother died in childbirth and he selected her to be the sacrifice so he can keep the sister who resembles the mom while boinking the aunt under their own roof. How messed up is that?

But Nyx doesn't just have the responsibility of avenging her family. She lives in this Greco-Roman city called Arcadia that's been frozen in time for almost 1,000 years because of a curse. They have a parchment sky and a demon lord, called the Gentle Lord, who makes Faustian bargains that always end in curses and tragedy. To fulfill the bargain made by her father, she has to marry him. To fulfill the prophecy handed down by their alchemists through centuries, she has to kill him.

There's a lot of Roman mythology in here, but it also borrows heavily from European fairy tales and folklore, notably Bluebeard's Castle (one of my favorites), Faust, Rumpelstiltskin, and, of course, Beauty and the Beast. It should have felt clunky, but I felt that the author blended everything seamlessly. I liked the alchemic magic system and how it fit into the world. The descriptions of Ignifex's magic house were amazing - I could easily picture the Heart of Water and the Heart of Air, but I'd like to see it on the big-screen. Maybe not even by actors...maybe animated, by Studio Ghibli, like they did with HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE. That would be appropriate, I think. Especially since there's more than just a dash of HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE in here, too.

And can we talk about the feels?


"I suppose gods as well as men become stupid when they have a chance to get everything they want."

Oh, yes. CRUEL BEAUTY is a stunning, beautiful book that definitely lives up to the hype.

I will be reading that sequel.

4.5 out of 5 stars!

Labyrinth: One classic film, fifty-five sonnets by A. Corrigan

I'm a die-hard Labyrinth fan-girl, okay? I grew up with that movie, and fell in love with the cheap, glitter-spackled set, with David Bowie with his hair metal mullet and Seinfeld-esque puffy shirt - creepy puppets and ambiguous target audience, and all. So you can imagine the double-take I did, then, when I was perusing the titles across Netgalley and saw the title & cover of this book.

"That looks way, it can't be...what is that?"

Ladies and gentle-goblins, I give you...Labyrinth - in sonnet form. You know, in case you're a die-hard fan-girl like me, and have been dying to hear your favorite movie summarized in iambic-pentameter. No, wait, come back - it's actually...decent.

I admit, I sneered a little at the idea of hearing a movie recounted to me in poetry format. It sounds like something out of a gong show or a high school curriculum. Look, I can come up with something right now. See - "And then, poor Frodo into the lava / did cast the One Ring back from whence it came / but found its power over him was great/ and to resist the Ring might be in vain."

But the writing was actually really great. I loved the words the author chose, and I swear she borrowed a few phrases from Shakespeare to sound extra authentic. The Star Wars sonnets that Quirk did a while ago didn't really work for me, but LABYRINTH actually left me smiling and feeling fondly nostalgic.

Here's one of my favorite bits:

His pallor was reflected in his clothes.
His cloak of night had changed to feathers pale,
and shades of grey were now his shirt, gloves hose - 
yet blazed his eyes, enough to make one quail

Oh, Jareth.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 10, 2016

Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kirstin Chen

I bought this book without reading the summary because at the time it was on sale for $1.99 down from $4.99. Later, when I was trying to decide which Kindle book I wanted to read next, I really took a look at the summary and my heart sank a little when I saw that it was - gasp, cringe - "women's fiction."

To my surprise, I actually really enjoyed SOY SAUCE FOR BEGINNERS. Part of that is the heroine herself. I wasn't sure how well I'd be able to relate to a Singaporean woman caught between two very different cultures. She was born in Singapore but is the heir to an old and reputable soy sauce company. She's separated from her husband, who cheated on her with a college student, and experiencing a lot of distress over what she wants to do with her life and where her loyalties and energies should lie.

Gretchen starts off very childish and petty, but over the course of the novel, she grows into herself. I really enjoyed watching her take ownership for her mistakes. I loved her relationship with her family - her mother, her father, her uncle. It was clear how much she loved them, and how much they loved her, and ordinarily relationship-driven books make me roll my eyes because they tend to be corny, but Gretchen's love for her family reminded me of the love I have for mine. I especially appreciated the emphasis on forgiveness & duty. They helped her become a better person, and vice versa.

Also, the food descriptions in this book are off-the-charts:

An avant-garde chef in Chicago had infused the soy sauce into butter. The resulting concoction was spread on bite-sized brioche, topped with tobiko caviar, and served as the AMUSE BOUCHE to his seventeen-course tasting menu (35%).

...our entire table was covered in food: an earthenware ramekin of pearly-pink prawns bathed in garlic butter; translucent, paper-thin slices of cured ham fanned out on the plate; tortilla espanola with nuggets of potato and sweet onion; candy-stripe beets studded with goat cheese and almond slivers; slow-cooked short ribs almost silky in their tenderness; thick chorizo stew (38%).

...crispy eel in sweet sauce, smoked duck two ways, hand-pulled noodles with crab roe...squirrel-shaped Mandarin fish, eight treasure rice, four happiness pork (68%).

What an unexpected gem this was.

4.5 out of 5 stars!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Blood Games by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Vampire novels actually used to be pretty difficult to find before TWILIGHT came out and renewed everyone's interest in vampires. I remember combing the shelves for them at various used bookstores and only coming across three in as many years of searching: PEEPS by Scott Westerfeld, MIDNIGHT PREDATOR by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, and WRIT IN BLOOD by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. All three are good books, but PEEPS and MIDNIGHT are both young adult books, whereas WRIT IN BLOOD is a bloated historical epic set just before WWI. As a teenager, reading a book like that feels more like work than pleasure, especially given the lengthy details and advanced vocabulary that would make someone who aced the SAT weep.

The books follow a pretty basic formula. It's a reinterpretation of the history of the Comte of Saint-Germain, a historical figure who reputedly claimed to be 500 years old. Yarbro ran with that concept and made him a vampire instead, placing him at various points of historical interest in our timeline. We see him interact with the people in these places as a foreigner, with his lovers, his enemies, and his friends, as he attempts to grasp a political foothold without actually becoming overly involved. The last book I read in this series, THE PALACE, took place in Renaissance Italy, with the Medicis and the Borgias and the terrifying Savonarola. This book takes a total U-turn in the timeline, going back to Nero's Rome, with gladiators and emperors.

In BLOOD GAMES, Saint-Germain is living in a palazzo on the outskirts of Rome. He's well-liked by those in power because of his contributions to the venatio, the events where Roman gladiators and imprisoned victims were forced to battle wild beasts to thte death. If you're curious, you should read the Wikipedia article - I referenced it several times while reading this book just to be sure that I understood all of the vocabulary words, because I am that dedicated.

At a party held by the hedonistic Petronius, a friend to Saint-Germain, he sees an impossibly sad looking woman sitting all by herself. He learns that she is Atta Olivia Clemens, the wife of a powerful Roman senator, Cornelius Justus Silius. Be prepared to hate Justus like no other character you have ever encountered before. He makes Jeoffrey from Game of Thrones look like a member of the Brady Bunch. He sends for the most brutal gladiators under his wife's own name, forcing her to submit as they rape her while he watches before he takes a turn himself. Because if she doesn't, he says, he will call upon all his debts and disgrace her impoverished family before the eyes of Rome. When that isn't enough, he threatens to kill them, sends her slaves to fight to the death in the arena, and exiles her sickly mother to a distant estate where he destroys all her attempts to contact her daughter - he doesn't even tell Olivia when she dies.

BLOOD GAMES has all the features of the Saint-Germain series that I don't really care for - excessive descriptions of costumes, long letters written in very small cursive font, and political intrigue that wears on for just too long to be entertaining. But it's also got some new things that actually surprised me. Saint-Germaine seems a lot more impulsive and impassioned in this book. Yes, the King of the Gary Stus actually loses his temper and makes mistakes that result in the deaths of people he holds dear. At one point, he suffers grievous injuries. Since he's about six hundred years younger here than he was in the previous book, it makes sense that he'd feel younger, and he does. He's much more sexual (although still no peen action) and much more hot-tempered.

I also really enjoyed the focus on the Circus Maximus and how the gladiatorial arena was used for power, vengeance, and political ambitions, frequently in a single sweep. It felt like Yarbro did a lot of research into the games, and the participants who worked both behind the scenes and in the spotlight (either voluntarily or against their will), and considering that this book was written years before the internet was a thing, that makes the attention to detail that much more impressive and daunting. I wasn't expecting the brutality or the blood-shed, of which there is tons, and because of Olivia's barbaric treatment, there are unpleasant descriptions of rape, as well. Yarbro shows how Rome could be ahead of its time in some ways and yet utterly barbaric in other ways.

BLOOD GAMES may actually be my favorite book by her so far. I'm a sucker for Ancient Rome.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Prince of Misery by Heather Crews

First, a disclaimer - Heather Crews is my friend, and one of my favorite people on Goodreads. As an additional caveat, she gave me an advanced copy of this years ago for review, and I'm only just now getting around to it. However, if you think that has any affect on my review of her work, you would be wrong. Friends have not been, and are still not, exempt from negative reviews. In fact, I'm apt to be a little harder on you just to make absolutely sure that I am compensating for any biases I may have.

I initially picked up PRINCE OF MISERY to satisfy the "vampire romance" category in my Halloween 2016 Reading Challenge. (I'm painfully behind, and attempting to binge-read this weekend to play catch up.) But then, as I was reading the book, we get this creepy masquerade scene - and I was thrilled, because conveniently, I also needed a book to fulfill the "a romance with a masquerade/costume party" category, as well, and that seemed like it was going to be infinitely more difficult to find a book for!

PRINCE OF MISERY starts off with a narration from Theron Vansauvage, a vampire with problems. He's vain (he would like to have rough, passionate sex with his own reflection, and often thinks of himself while, um, "feeling himself"); he's cruel (he enjoys hurting people, and feels no guilt); and he's become distanced from society and the world around him (he lives in an enchanted castle somewhere near Alaska, sequestered away from the world with the power of magic). This is because Theron is a vampire, who lives with a handful of vampire valets and all of his human slaves.

Our heroine, Iris, is a black woman with vitiligo. Theron is fascinated by her skin condition, because he has marks on his face, as well. Marks from where one of his past lovers tried to kill him. He likes the taste of Iris's blood and finds her defiance amusing. What better way to utilize that than to turn her into his own personal blood-slash-sex slave? But before he can put this dubious plan into fruition, one of his valets escapes, taking Iris with him, out of the magic curtain and back into the real world.

Heather reads a lot of vintage romances, including vintage vampire books, and you can see their influence in PRINCE OF MISERY. The vampires here are dark, brooding, and obsessive. They're not afraid to get down and dirty if that's required, and they certainly do not sparkle or attend prom. I also liked how Seth and Theron, the two main vampires in this story, have a morality that transcends that of humans - considering how long they live and that they come from another planet(!), it made sense to me that what they consider right and wrong wouldn't really jibe with what I do.

There is also dubious consent in here, as well as descriptions of rape, and of course, since it's about vampires, killing and maiming and torture. I have to give Heather props for that masquerade scene. Not only did it get me through my Halloween Reading Challenge, it was also one of the more gruesome scenes I've encountered in a paranormal fantasy novel of late. And that ending - man, that ending was brutal. I did not see that coming. Quite frankly, I didn't think she dared.

I'd recommend PRINCE OF MISERY to people who enjoy vintage vampire romance novels, particularly from the 80s and 90s. She captures the style perfectly, and it made me nostalgic for the novels I read as a young adult when I was just getting into vampires for the first time.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Crafting with Feminism: 25 Girl-Powered Projects to Smash the Patriarchy by Bonnie Burton

CRAFTING WITH FEMINISM caters to the demographic that identifies with traits of the oft-sneered at "Tumblr feminism." I'm not 100% sure what Tumblr feminism is, to be honest, but it seems to involve a lot of masturbation talk and Joss Whedon fanfics (not usually in tamdem, but it's Tumblr, so you never really know). There isn't anything wrong with this necessarily, but I can see why some of the people who received copies of this book are so upset. If you actually lived through the civil rights era and had to fight for respect and the right to choose and equal pay, it's probably pretty upsetting to see "feminism" paired with "Queen Bitch" merit badges and vagina Christmas tree ornaments. Oh yes. Vagina Christmas tree ornaments. Don't worry, we'll be getting to those.

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of CRAFTING WITH FEMINISM from Netgalley. It was published by Quirk, a publisher I often picture introducing itself in a Troy McClure voice ("Hi, I'm Quirk Publishing. You might remember me from titles such as PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, THE JERSEY SHORE COOKBOOK, and MY BEST FRIEND'S EXORCISM").

Yes, I side-eyed that title pretty hard, but let's be honest - this is Quirk. The name of their publishing company alone should give you a clue what they're all about. Even in the introduction, the writer talks about the importance of not taking yourself too seriously and creating a warm, empowering sisterhood of glitter-wielding feminist Pinterest crafters smashing the patriarchy one sequined pipe-cleaner at a time (to embellish and paraphrase loosely). I think that's true - feminism should be about supporting and empowering women; but you also have to be able to have a sense of humor about it, too, or you'll get frustrated or angry or potentially lose sight of your original goal.

Regarding the quality of the crafts in here - they're a mixed bag. I agree with some of the nay-sayers. A lot of the crafts in here are tacky. We're talking, relegated to the back of the hall-closet to be regifted to Satan's in-laws tacky. That uterus body pillow looks like a prop from a bad 80s exploitation horror film, and the vagina Christmas tree ornaments are just...well, vagina Christmas tree ornaments. They were only slightly less horrible than the tampon dolls.

To be fair, some of the crafts really are cute. I liked the plates and the nope necklace. I would wear the nope necklace. I also thought the tea candle and the girl band cassette tape business card holder were really neat ideas, too - I'd use the business card holder, as well. Even some of the crafts that annoyed me could be worked into something less tacky. But even after reading this book, I don't really see how any of these things are related to feminism, apart from slinging around various buzzwords and really hoping that they catch on. It also makes an effort to score some authenticity points by interspersing feminist song hits, reading lists, and various quotes among the material. They're actually pretty decent...I was pleasantly surprised to see Meredith Brooks's "Bitch" included among the songs, as that is one of my pick-me-up songs for when I need a boost.

CRAFTING WITH FEMINISM was a fun, interesting idea. BUST beat them to the punch, unfortunately, but Burton attempts to put a unique spin on the idea of feminist crafting by being cheeky and crude, appealing to the modern day gal who doesn't hide her tampons in that purse within her purse and goes into sex shops with pride, because vibrator = empowerment. I'm not sure there's enough meat to this book for me to consider buying it for myself, but I think it would be a great gag gift for a woman or man in possession of a certain temperament, or even something fun for a group of friends to do at a bachelorette party or while drinking wine & watching Bridget Jones.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Skye O'Malley by Bertrice Small

Bertrice Small has a very distinctive style. So distinct, in fact, that you could probably make a drinking game of it, although I would advise against this, as the end result would inevitably be alcohol poisoning. When you pick up a Bertrice Small book, you know that the hero and heroine are going to play a game of musical beds, until the end of the book where they're magically reunited with their 5+ children from various marriages in which their spouses were kind enough to politely off themselves in order to prevent inconvenience. You know that there are going to be bad guys, identifiable by their nymphomania/frigidity and outlandish sexual fetishes if they're women or their penchant for doing it in the butt if they are men. You know that the sex scenes are going to be outlandishly bad, with phrases like "honey oven," "love grotto," and "manroot" being used so liberally that you begin to feel like Regina from Mean Girls as you think to yourself, "Oh my God, Bertrice, stop trying to make manroot happen. It's not going to happen!"


Skye O'Malley takes place in the 16th century. Our eponymous heroine is the youngest daughter of an Irish ship merchant/pirate, Dubhdara O'Malley. She's the prettiest of his plain daughters, so naturally she's his favorite, even though he desperately wants a son. Even though all the doctors advise against it, Dubhdara has sex with Skye's mom once more, unable to control his passions, gets her pregnant, and ends up killing her. That's okay, because adolescent back-up mom is ready and waiting in the wings. She's pretty cool for a stepmother, though, but Dubhdara O'Malley can go to hell.

Anyhoo, Skye O'Malley is a very familiar type of heroine for those of you who are into the whole bodice-ripper. She's independent and her traitorous-bodied person will not be controlled by any man - except for the crotch-hoisting alpha d-bags on parade, that is. They're the only exception. We see this in how she staunchly rebels against her father's chosen husband for her, Dom, who is a d-bag. She thinks her father's right hand dude, Niall Burke, is pretty cute, though, and the two of them have some sensuous make out sessions and pledge their mutual adoration of one another. Niall wants to marry her but his father is titled and snobby and thinks a ship captain's daughter isn't a good enough catch for his son (a decision he rues in earnest once he lays eyes on her for the first time and sees how perfect her breasts are). Niall watches in despair as Skye is wedded to another man before his eyes, with her perfect breasts on display in an indecent wedding gown, and that's when he announces his intent to take droit du seignur. Or as he puts it to Dom, "Your life, or the wench's maidenhead" (6%).

They have a magical night together, but then Clan O'Malley conspires to tie him up and bandy him away because this marriage is important politically, and Niall's father has a wife chosen for Niall already (an almost-nun spirited away from the convent just before she took her vows). Skye is sent off to live with Dom who becomes increasingly abusive, and in keeping with true Small fashion, we know that he's the bad guy because he likes to do it up the butt. Also, he's having sex with his sister, Claire, because why not pull a Jamie and Cersei Lannister for the fun of it? Why the hell not?

Niall weds Darragh and Skye gets fed up with Dom and ends up attacking him back, paralyzing him for life. She announces her intent to leave, saying that if they attempt to make demands on her, she'll announce their shame to all. Claire swears revenge. Honey Skye don't care. Darragh ends up going away for some become a nun again, I think, because she hates sex (and you can tell that she's the bad character because she's frigid and hates having sex with the hot studly muffin that is the alpha d-bag hero). Conveniently freed up, he and Skye become betrothed, but Skye tells him that she's going to be in control of her ships & they go on one of the charters...only to get wrecked!

I could make a joke about sinking ships here, but I won't. I'm above that. I'm a mature ad -


Skye winds up in Algiers, with amnesia, where she is sold into a harem run by an attractive Spaniard-turned-Muslim, Khalid El Bey (or as I like to call him, Khalid El Bae, because he is the most likable male character in this book). Khalid initially intends to turn Skye into a courtesan but she doesn't like being touched by his right-hand-woman, Yasmin, or the training eunuch, consenting to physical acts only with him. He decides that the harem life is wrong for the beautiful Skye, and instead decides to marry her, which angers Yasmin, who has been contriving to become one of his wives for years - and now that this becoming is a one-woman show, Yasmin has absolutely no intention of exiting stage left. After Skye becomes pregnant, Yasmin conspires with this captain dude named Jamil who wants to have Skye for himself. She wants him to help her kill Skye, thus freeing up Khalid for her. He agrees...but with a twist - he's going to drug Khalid, so that he will be in Skye's bed. So instead of killing Skye, the love-maddened Yasmin will kill Khalid, thus freeing up Skye for him. My bae dies, and Yasmin is so distraught she kills herself after confessing all, and Skye is forced to escape from Algiers with the help of her friend Robert Small, but not before drugging Jamil in revenge with a powder that turns him impotent. I thought for sure that Jamil would appear again later on in the story, but nope, that's curtains for him. After this sequence, we never see him again.

Meanwhile, Niall is in Majorca for some reason and meets this count whose wife was held hostage by pirates. He considers this a taint on the family honor and has never allowed his daughter to marry because of this, scaring off potential suitors by insinuating that she's the offspring of a gang-banged whore. Niall is enchanted by the barely-adolescent Constanza and after having sex with her in a field, announces to her father that her virtue is compromised before offering for her hand.

Skye lies low for a while with Robert for a while, who helps create a backstory for Skye with amnesia. He has the feeling that "Wife of the Whoremaster of Algiers" is not a title that will impress the Elizabethan court. So he comes up with a tragic story for her before they go to England, and with her riches she buys up property next to Geoffrey Southwood, who is entranced by her perfect bosoms and her utter disdain for him. He enters a bet with his friend that he can make her his mistress before the year is out, made more tempting because he has a feeling he knows who Skye really is and can blackmail her by threatening to ruin her young daughter's prospects by exposing her secrets.

But Geoffrey falls prone to the beauty of Skye and after having sex with her many, many times in many, many places, ends up marrying her. Niall comes to the wedding with his new bride and is horrified to see the ghost of his presumed-dead wife marrying another man. He wonders if it's her, or if it's one of her father's bastards. His preoccupation ends up isolating him from his wife, who begins to take up lovers. It turns out that Constanza is a nymphomaniac, and her mother was as well - yes, the countess wasn't actually a victim, she voluntarily had sex with all of her pirate captors because she didn't think her husband did a good enough job, and Constanza is cast in the same mold. She actually goes to work in a brothel under the pseudonym "Book Lady", acting out scenes from the Kama Sutra, and the brothel is run by none other than the Incesty Claire, who is thrilled at this chance at revenge!

There's a duel, and Niall kills one of the men who slept with his wife before taking a wound to the chest. Skye gets all her memories back and is devastated to learn that she was married to Niall and has two other children she totally forgot about. Geoffrey is jealous. There's a disease that kills off two of her children and her husband, but not before we're treated to the picturesque scene of Skye's servant hooking her fingers into Geoffrey's mouth to pull out the mucous clogging up his throat. Ew. With Geoffrey out of the picture, Robert Dudley starts sniffing around her skirts, before blackmailing her into sex. We know he's the bad guy, because he enjoys doing it up the butt and also because he makes Skye call him "Papa" during sex. Ew. Skye goes running to Queen Elizabeth and finds out that Elizabeth not only knows about this, but condones it, and then swears revenge.There's a scene with a giant, rapey orgy, involving a twelve-year-old girl and a dog. I'd say that this was a shock to me, but in one of Small's other books, BIANCA, there's a very similar scene involving a donkey. The book rapidly ends with piracy, imprisonment in the Tower, and a happily-ever after.

SKYE O'MALLEY is definitely not for the faint of heart. A lot of the male characters are unpleasant, even the alleged heroes. What Geoffrey did to his ex-wife and daughters was despicable. Niall was cruel to his other wives as well, and at several points comes pretty dang close to raping Skye. The only reason she isn't treated like human garbage is because she's beautiful. If you're not gorgeous, with heart-shaped face, sapphire-blue eyes, and perfect breasts, you're not worth the air you breathe, is that it? That's the status quo for most bodice rippers though, so Small can't really be faulted for keeping with the popular tropes of the time. The adolescent (or in some cases, even child) sex/rape is more troubling and difficult to stomach, but again, that happens in a lot of older romance novels - especially the medieval ones. That doesn't make it fun to read about, though. That dog scene, especially, was entirely unnecessary, and seemed done only to underscore what an utterly despicable person Robert Dudely was (as if we didn't know that already from his butt-happy ways). Also, Bertrice Small proves that she's too good for walking off into the sunset hand-in-hand; her happily reuniting couple indulge in a bit of lactation porn instead - because why not? Why the hell not?

My favorite parts of the book were actually the scenes that most people seemed to like least - the food and costume porn. Say what you like about the dubious content (and consent) in Small's books, the woman clearly had a passion for history, even if she wasn't always quite sure what she wanted to do with it. I think I'd have liked to peruse her home library and see what works of fiction and nonfiction inspired her to come up with some of the stories she did. There's beautiful descriptions of clothes and food in here that made me itch to go shopping. It's pretty hilarious, though, combing through the reviews. About half the people who read this book seemed to love it and the other half seem to loathe it entirely for the reasons I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Understandably so, I'd say.

I read this book for the Halloween 2016 Reading Challenge I'm doing with the Unapologetic Romance Readers group. One of the categories was "a romance written by an author who is dead" and sadly, Bertrice Small died last year. What a loss. I mean that, too. I have a love-hate relationship with her romances, but I do think it's cool that she had a style that was so distinctly her own. Few authors are capable of achieving that, and as much as I make fun of Small's style, I'm envious of it, as well. When her book went on sale for $1.99, I snagged it, because I knew immediately that she was the author I wanted to pay homage to in my challenge. If SKYE O'MALLEY was just 200 pages shorter and a bit better edited, I think I would have liked it a lot more, but it's still a worthy addition to the cringeworthy bodice ripper cannon. Read at your own risk!

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Shades of Twilight by Linda Howard

I love challenges, and that's why the mods and I at Unapologetic Romance Readers came up with the Halloween 2016 Reading Challenge. We're shining the light on the darker side of romance and seeing what horrible, creepy things come a-crawling out. I picked SHADES OF TWILIGHT to satisfy the "romance involving a murder" category, and boy, did it satisfy on that end.

SHADES OF TWILIGHT features Roanna Davenport, one of the heirs to a wealthy Alabama family. When her parents and aunt die in a tragic accident, both she and her cousin Jessie are left orphans, and forced to live at the intimidating Davencourt mansion with the stern family matriarch, Lucinda, for whom honor is everything.

Jessie is beautiful, cold, and cruel - and even though she always gets whatever she wants, she hates Roanna for some reason and isn't afraid to show it every chance she gets. Heaping on abuse, making nasty comments, showing petty slights; Jessie isn't above anything to put Roanna down. For some reason, the other family members tolerate - or even encourage - this emotional abuse. The only person in Roanna's corner is the handsome Webb, her second cousin who is seven years older than she is. Roanna has a huge crush on him, and she's upset that even though he shows her affection, he is attracted to Jessie like everyone else and plans to marry her.

When Roanna is seventeen, Davencourt is stuffed full of Davenports and Tallants. She can't do any right, and seeks refuge with her horses  - and with Webb, who is now married to Jessie. Roanna wants Webb more than ever and is secretly happy that their marriage is failing. Then, one day, she catches Jessie sleeping with a man who isn't her husband,  and later forces herself on Webb. Jessie catches them kissing and raises a scene that brings all the family members running. A major fight breaks out. And then, later that night, Jessie turns up dead. Death by fire poker. Natural causes, obviously. Just kidding, it's murder and everyone assumes Webb does it, which is why he skips town. Roanna doesn't lay eyes on him again for another ten years when her grandmother Lucinda employs her to seek him out and find him and bring him back to Davencourt to assume his role as rightful heir.

With its bad sex, family drama, and sexist hero themes, this is 90s cheese at its cheesiest and normally I spread that on crackers and snarf it down like there's no tomorrow, but I took a lot of issues with SHADES OF TWILIGHT and I just couldn't put them aside.

Problem #1: The incest. I don't know what it is about this week, you guys, but this is the third book I've picked up this week that had incest in it. I thought COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE couldn't be topped in grossness, but I was wrong. So, so wrong.

Problem #2: The characters. Everyone in this book actively takes their vitamin D-bag supplements; there isn't a single likable character to be found within these pages. If the person in question isn't an outright psycho or b*tch, they're an emotionally insensitive, self-centered puckerhole, with the sensitivity of a lead pipe. Even the characters I was supposed to like, like Webb and Roanna, annoyed me. Webb is one of those overbearing alpha cavemen who tell the heroine how and well to eat and get so caught up in their passions that they "accidentally" forget to wear condoms. Roanna was awful because she's the definition of a doormat. In fact, if you look hard, you can still sort of make out the faded "welcome" on her forehead. All she does is cry and mope. Her character flaws are that she sleepwalks and that she doesn't eat when she's upset - which is all the freaking time.

Problem #3: The way eating disorders are broached in this book. It's hinted that Roanna might have anorexia. At the very least, she has an emotional-related eating disorder, because whenever she's anxious, upset, or guilty, she doesn't eat. Her attitude toward food really made me uncomfortable in this book. We're constantly told how skinny Roanna is and not necessarily in a bad way - she's compared to dolls or called child-like. Webb marvels that seventeen year old Roanna seems to weigh the same amount as seven year old Roanna. At one point in the story she gets so upset that she stops eating entirely and goes down to 80lbs (at 5'7"), and nearly dies. She calls eating a "chore" several times, and the hero admires her narrow hips, small breasts, and flat stomach on several occasions. We're told, several times, exactly how much weight Roanna can stand to gain (15lbs). When Webb actually gets romantically involved with her (and even before then), he starts trying to control her diet. This felt so unnecessary to the storyline and yet was such an integral part of it, that it felt odd. I'm not against skinny women and I do think it's important to raise awareness of eating disorders in fiction, but the way it was presented in this book created a lot of uncomfortable mixed signals.

Problem #4: The way sex is broached in this book. It's the 90s. Romance novels then were a very different animal from the ones in today's market place. Men had mats of chest hair and women were always virginal. But the slut-shaming is strong in this one. It's very important that Webb compare the differences between Jessie and Roanna once he starts sleeping with Roanna. It's important that Roanna have "uncomplicated sensuality" (or something like that) and that she doesn't use sex for power or manipulation. At one point he marvels at her virginal virginity, saying that if she didn't go horseback riding, he probably wouldn't have even been able to get a finger in her. I'm sorry, but at what point did the female anatomy become tantamount to a Chinese fingertrap? Vaginas do not work that way. Here, I'm not even going to say anymore on this. I'm just going to direct you to this awesome movie done by Adam Connover called "The Truth About Hymens and Sex."

But as much as this book annoyed me, I didn't hate SHADES OF TWILIGHT. The first 100 pages were excellent and made me think that I had a 4-star read on my hand. The problem was that in her quest to make Roanna a sympathetic character, the author made her an utterly unlikable one, because she lacked any sort of goals or internal conflict apart from "But I want Webb to like me!" It's a shame because I really liked the setup and I'm usually a sucker for small-town intrigues like these. Take this book from Sandra Brown's backlist, SLOW HEAT IN HEAVEN. It follows a very similar formula, but the mystery is more engaging and the heroine is a little less...sad. When the hero and heroine butt heads in SLOW HEAT, it feels less like victimization and more like a fight between equals.

2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Covenant with the Vampire by Jeanne Kalogridis

We're doing a Halloween 2016 Reading Challenge in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group and one of the categories is a romance novel with blood on the cover. This proved surprisingly difficult, because while 80s and 90s vampire romance novels were content to own up to their gothic horror roots and splatter their covers with blood, modern day vampire romance novels are much more coy and more likely to feature a woman in a prom dress being coddled by a brooding heartthrob than, well, a bleeding heart.

Luckily, being the old soul that I am, I have a conveniently large horde of retro romance novels to dip into for precisely these kinds of occasions. COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE is not a romance so I'm technically cheating, but given that the summary of the book speaks of seductive caresses and the hero's intense love for his wife and child, I figured that this was going to be a case of blurred genres.

I could not have been more wrong. This is a horror novel in every sense of the word. I actually considered putting it down at one point, because it's just awful. There's incest and necrophilia, creepy vampire foreplay, and really unpleasant torture scenes that are described in gory detail although not, thankfully, put into practice. At least not in this volume - I noticed that there are sequels. Perhaps the author is saving those delightful little nuggets for laterz.

COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE is about Arkady Tsepesh, a descendant of Vlad the Impaler. He lives in England, with his English wife, Mary, who is pregnant with their unborn son. When he is summoned by his uncle, to care for him in his failing health, his return to Romania is swift. An imposing castle greets him, run by superstitious and resentful servants. Vlad is effusive when he receives the couple and seems genuinely glad for their presence but there is something creepy about him. Mary, especially, finds him off-putting, but can't exactly put her finger on why.

Things get worse as Arkady's sister, Zsusanna, begins to sicken. Various people affiliated with Vlad and his family in some tangential way disappear. One of the servants shows up wearing one of these missing men's watch fobs and rings with blood on his wrist. And, of course, Vlad continues being creepy. Arkady takes a hit as well, with powerful headaches that come and go without warning, and lapses in memory that he is unable to explain. Mary and Arkady are starting to suspect that Vlad's servants' inexplicable terror and loathing of their master are perhaps not so inexplicable, after all.

To be fair to the book, it is a faithful reimagining of Bram Stoker's original DRACULA. Like the original, this book is written in epistolary format from multiple POVs, and the build-up is slow, gradual, and atmospheric. Many retellings often just focus on Dracula, and I appreciated how this book incorporated Romanian folklore about strigoi, as well as vampires' servants and brides.

My problem with this book is that it was just too gross. A lot of the random scenes in this book felt like they were included for shock value. I'm not averse to gore and violence necessarily, but I do think it should serve some purpose. George R.R. Martin, for all his faults, can be excellent at using horrible acts correctly: to show the effects of extreme terror or loathing, or as acts of power by someone who is attempting to curry favor or fear. I did not get that same impression here.

The diary entries also did not work for me. All the characters sounded very similar - bland and disconnected. I thought the story was interesting and liked the twist at the end, but I felt like it was told in a very poor way and that the medium in which the story was delivered was a huge contributing factor in this.

As far as COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE goes, I am not a fan. I love vampire stories but I did not like this one at all and will probably not be pursuing the sequels. Oh, and yeah, I was wrong - it's not a romance. (Whatever, I'm still counting it towards the challenge.)

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh

With Halloween on the horizon, the books I've been reading have definitely taken a dark turn. SOFT APOCALYPSE was a book I added years ago but only purchased fairly recently. I liked the idea of the world ending not quickly and all at once over a single event, but slowly wasting away as we carelessly burn through our resources. Actually - on second thought, maybe liked is the wrong word. Let's say intrigued by, instead.

I read McIntosh's newest effort, BURNING MIDNIGHT, earlier this year and thought it was quite creative, but suffered towards the end. I checked through spoiler-laden reviews of that book and noticed that one common complaint was that people really did not like the climax. Funny, that's how I felt about this book! BURNING MIDNIGHT was okay - maybe that's because it was geared towards a younger audience, more fantastical, and altogether less grim - but SOFT APOCALYPSE went from being fascinating to tedious in a drastically short period of time.

Our hero, Jasper, is part of the problem. When we first meet him, he's a youngin' just out of his teens. By the end of the book, he's a middle-aged man. He keeps making the same mistakes, over and over. Mostly - especially - with women. He cheats with married women, has friends-with-benefits sex with convenient women. Guilty but wrong sex with sociopathic women. Then he finds the love-of-his-wife woman, only to get her killed. But it's okay, spare love-of-his-wife woman just walks in.

I also really had to work to suspend my disbelief with some of the things happening in this book. In the beginning, everything was fine. The scarcity for resources, the conspicuous consumption of those who had energy and food to burn, and the racism/in-groups biases occurring because people were looking for a scapegoat were all well done. I had problems with the constant biowarfare and the Evil Government stereotypes. Some of those viruses were just ridiculous. I mean, Doctor Happy? Plus, it was hard to take the government seriously and with fear if they didn't even appear in person to show up and start oppressing people.

My two chief peeves in this book were probably a) that the focus of the book seemed to be more on the character's bad relationships with women rather than the dying world he was lost in and b) the multiple time skips in the book. Chapters were not linear. Time would jump ahead by weeks, months, or even years! It was very disorienting and while I get that it was probably done in the interest of time, I think a more cohesively written book wouldn't have needed all those skips - or at least, had them happen more gradually over the course of a longer, better developed novel.

SOFT APOCALYPSE was a disappointment. It isn't a terrible book but it won't be making any of my top ten lists either, and I didn't think it contributed to the genre in a fresh and interesting way.

2 out of 5 stars.