Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Sparrow by L.J. Shen

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

Can I just take a moment to say that I finished not one, but BOTH of my romance group's monthly picks? As someone who is notoriously bad at buddy/group reads, I take pride in this! #yaass

SPARROW was our January pick - I think I was actually the one who suggested it, because I'd gotten it for free from the Kindle Store & was trying to give myself a reason to get to it faster. Mafia romances are not usually my thing...I don't think I've ever read one I liked, and that's usually because "power" is portrayed as "moronic jackass who likes to wave his designer gun around." I don't know much about the mafia, but I'd imagine politics and business dealings are far more effective weapons than a pistol.

Troy Brennan is definitely a jackass who enjoys waving his gun around. To be fair, in the beginning of the book, he felt genuine. There was an icy restraint to him that felt authentic and convincing, kind of like Bastien Toussaint from Anne Stuart's Ice series, on steroids. I felt like that subtlety was far more threatening than anything overt. This disappears pretty quickly. Troy wants you to know he's a bad guy, so he's always wearing his gun, always using the f-word, always brandishing that stupid list of his so you know he means business. In the beginning, we see him kill one guy and get a graphic description of how he tortures another guy, and that was genuinely scary but after that, it's adolescent posturing, with Troy bawling out, "SHE BELONGS TO MEEEEEEEE!" to anyone who will listen.

But - he's also a CHEATER.

When he first gets married to the heroine, Sparrow, he gives her a gift and then gleefully tells her that his mistress picked it out. It's lingerie. When she needs a dress, his mistress sends her one. He sleeps with his mistress in the bedroom he shares with his wife, because he is a CHEATER.

He also fetishizes the heroine's virginity in a very weird way. At one point, he implies that her being a virgin makes her taste better after oral sex. The heroine is so afraid that he's going to rape her on their wedding night that she slices her foot and puts the blood "in there" so she can tell him she's on her period. Troy makes her take her underwear off, demanding to see the blood, and then PUTS HIS FINGER IN THERE AND LICKS SOME. Ew. I think that is worse than the tampon scene in FSoG. Even grosser, we find out later that Troy was forced to marry Sparrow by his father to get her inheritance, and knowing that, he kept her a virgin her whole life by threatening anyone he thought was interested.

"[He ke]pt you a virgin all this time so he'd be the one to pop your cherry" (246)

She was a blank, clean, white sheet for me to scribble on (222).

What makes this even more annoying is the fact that Troy has no problem sleeping around. CHEATING aside, he's slept with most of the women in their city, and brags about it. But God forbid his wife cheats on him. He threatens her about this several times, putting her purity on a pedestal.

Sparrow isn't much better, personality-wise. She doesn't have a personality, really. All we know about her is that she's a virgin, 5'3", underweight, and very young looking. (I think in the beginning of the story, she describes herself as looking barely legal.) She makes a big point of insulting all the other women in this story, including (especially) Troy's mistress, Cat. But not just Cat. Any sexually mature woman is portrayed as a vile, swooping harpy, whose only mission in life is to titter lasciviously in an attempt to coax men to cheat, usually juxtaposed against good, sweet, PURE Sparrow by means of comparison. Here's how she describes an innocent waitress whose only crime is to check out a man in Sparrow's presence:

"A middle-aged waitress with fake boobs and enough makeup to sculpt a small-sized vase brushed past us and eye-licked Brock..." (173)

She never appears in the story again, but it's so important that you know what a scheming tramp she is that not one, but two, descriptors are applied to her appearance to make you realize how pathetic she is.

I will admit that, bar a few typos, the writing in SPARROW was pretty good. And the beginning of the story showed a lot of promise. In my book group, I initially praised the author for taking the time to actually show - NOT TELL - us that the hero was a bad guy. I think the problem was that the author seemed to want Troy to be this troubled guy, who was so much MORE than an evil, heartless mobster (as that big reveal with Cat towards the end seemed to suggest). I.e. "He's damaged and just needs a hug, etc., etc." But his portrayal fell apart, and he became very immature and unprofessional, and his constant need to posture just made him seem insecure instead of powerful and intimidating.

I'm not sure I'd read another book by this author. Even though this is definitely the "best" mafia romance I've read, I still didn't enjoy it. I was tempted to give it a 2* because I felt like the author really did try her best, but I was just too annoyed with the hero and that tacked-on happy ending. A 2* would have felt fake. If you enjoy mafia romances, you'll probably enjoy this one, as it is better written than most. Just be aware that there's CHEATING, for those who are bothered by that trope.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Princess & the Penis by R.J. Silver

So many of my friends have read this book. It was quite the sensation when it first came out, with people going, "Look at this...omg...is it for real?" A lot of books have that effect on people, but in the reviews, my friends were giving this book fairly high ratings and saying it was so much more than it seemed. "Not smut," they said, "but actually quite clever and witty."

...Witty, you say? Tell me more.

But no, you all had to be so danged secretive. Your reviews were frustratingly vague, filled with laughing gifs, but no details.

No details!

No, I had to go out and read the book for myself to get an idea of what it was really about (the audacity!). And, like so many others, I was pleasantly surprised.

This is actually a pretty clever retelling of "The Princess and the Pea" fairy tale. THE PRINCESS & THE PENIS is about a sheltered princess whose virginity is guarded by her over-protective father who wants her to stay pure so he can marry her off to a prince. One day, however, she discovers that her mattress has a lump in it of a curious shape and quality, that is intriguing and pleasant...

Her distressed parents do what they can to get rid of the lump, panicked by the thought that their chaste princess might not remain so chaste for her upcoming wedding if they can't do something about it - soon.

But what is the lump? And how did it get into the princess's bed?

Honestly, I thought this was going to be one of those silly, so-bad-it's-good erotica novels that seem to be a dime a dozen these days, but PRINCESS & THE PENIS is actually a witty, sex-positive satire that urges the importance of sex ed. and sex positivity. I also liked how it implied that men who want to date virgins only tend to be insecure jerks, and that sexual exploration should not be punished.

Plus, the princess's aunts were hilarious. Their comments were seriously A+.

3 out of 5 stars.

Shadowlands by Kate Brian

SHADOWLANDS is one of those books that has me seriously questioning my taste in fiction, because even though everything about it was pretty poorly done, from the "paranormal" element to the characters to the way law enforcement handled criminal activities, I enjoyed every moment of it, terrible twist and all (seriously, Khanh puts it best in her review, when she says that the author M. Night Shyamalan'd the heck out of the story).

SHADOWLANDS is about two sisters, Rory and Darcy. Rory was almost the victim of one of her high school teachers, Mr. Nell, who turns out to be a wanted serial killer. Their lives are disrupted when the most incompetent task force of the FBI arrives on the scene, swarm outside their house, somehow manage to let the serial killer inside the house, and then pack off the family to a safe house in the middle of nowhere, leaving one of their squad cars unlocked for the serial killer to follow the family in pursuit.

Who does that? Who leaves an unlocked cop car out when a serial killer on the loose? Since he was able to just swipe it, I can only imagine that the keys were left in the ignition, too...

Why not just hand Mr. Serial Killer a map to their new house, while you're at it...

Anyway the family arrives at a place called Juniper Landing. There's several weird things about Juniper Landing: 1. everything has a swan logo on it, 2. the people who live there are super creepy and stare at Rory wherever she goes, and 3. all the kids have leather bracelets, like they're in some kind of super creepy, super secret club/cult. Also, they all want to be biffles with Rory.

*cut to a group of leather wristband-wearing kids holding a boombox playing "Why Can't We Be Friends?" outside Rory's window*

Rory suffers from PTSD/anxiety from her close call with the serial killer and bonding and making new biffles is the last thing on her mind, but Darcy resents Rory for dragging her away from her active social life and immediately sets about trying to hook up with the local hotties.

The weird thing (re: the cliche thing) is, the kids have zero interest in Darcy - they all seem to like Rory, instead. You can imagine how Darcy feels about that. Add that to the fact that Rory technically stole Darcy's last boyfriend out from under her, and yeah, there's a whole lot of tension.


By the way, just in case you didn't understand that Darcy is supposed to be a b*tch, nearly all of her dialogue is followed by a "glare" or "she spoke through gritted teeth." That is, when she's not launching herself at boys, "standing on her toes" to see where the boys are at, or begging to go to parties to be with boys (because as we all know, parties are the spawn of Satan and only demon girls wish to attend them). 

For a while, it feels like typical teen drama, but then Rory starts finding clues that suggest Mr. Nell might have followed them to the island, and some of the people on the island start disappearing. Pretty soon, Rory starts to think that Mr. Nell might actually be the least of her problems, because there might possibly be something wrong with the island - and its inhabitants - itself.

Like I said, this was a really weird and not very well done book. Incompetent law enforcement aside (seriously, why are the police and the FBI always so clueless in YA?), SHADOWLANDS tries to be a bit of everything - paranormal, teen drama, thriller, murder mystery - and falls short because it fails to cover all the bases. The author does drop a few clues, and I was able to more or less guess what the twist was about 100 pages before the big reveal, but it does feel a bit cheap. I can understand why some readers felt like their suspension of disbelief had been betrayed.

Also, I don't really feel like making this book into a trilogy was really necessary. With a little work, it could have been compressed into a single volume, and that might have worked better than what the author chose to do, which was build the plot up for 300 pages and then drop the twist bombshell on the last sentence of the last page and sequel baiting as brutally as those teenage fanfic writers.

I still liked it, though.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Mark of the Thief by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Buddy read with TL. You can check out her review here.

I recently read and loved THE FALSE PRINCE - it was amazing! TFP was a high-stakes fantasy thriller about a young boy who is competing with several other young boys, Hunger Games-style, to impersonate a long-lost prince & save a kingdom from rebellion. I finished that sucker in a single sitting, blown away by the non-stop action and surprise twists. Immediately, I told myself that I had to get all of her other books, pronto.

My library didn't have the sequel to TFP, but it did have books one and two of her other series, Mark of the Thief. Now, ordinarily, the middle grade label would have given me pause, but TFP was labeled as middle grade as well, and it was really good, so I was willing to step out of my genre comfort zone again.

I should have heeded my gut's instincts.

While MARK OF THE THIEF has a great concept, it lacks the subtlety and nuance of TFP. Nic, the main character, is a slave in Ancient Rome. One day, in a gave, he finds a bulla that used to belong to Caesar and contains the powers of one of the Roman gods. A whole bunch of bad people want the power of that amulet and are willing to do bad things to get it. Because they are bad people.

The female characters in TFP - a princess and a serving girl - did not get much "screen time" but were still interesting and layered when they did appear. Both had agency, bravery, and hidden agendas that were sometimes at odds with the main character, Sage. By contrast, the two female characters in MARK OF THE THIEF, Livia and Aurelia, were incredibly irritating. Livia is a whiny damsel in distress, sister to Nic, whose only purpose is to serve as a lust object, a bargaining tool, or someone to be rescued. Aurelia, on the other hand, is selfish and annoying, and you can tell she's a love interest because she's one of those "I don't need a man to live my life!"-type characters, only to be converted from the error of her ways and throw all her plans away as soon as the hero steps on the scene.

To the MARK OF THE THIEF's detriment, I recently read a good book about Ancient Rome that also took place in and around the gladiatorial arenas and dealt with corrupt politicians as a theme. That book was BLOOD GAMES by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. It was written for a totally different audience, but is solid proof that good research and an immersive, well-developed world can compensate for narrative flaws. BLOOD GAMES could be dry at times, but I rounded up for substance.

THE MARK OF THE THIEF, on the other hand, has incredibly modern language that detracts from the story. It almost would have worked better if this was one of those time-traveling stories, because Nic sounds like a modern boy. I'd suspect the author was incapable of writing in a more old-fashioned and serious way, if I hadn't read TFP, which had at least a semblance of courtly speech.

I got the impression that THE MARK OF THE THIEF wanted to be Artemis Fowl and Percy Jackson, all at once. If that was the intent, it failed. It doesn't have the creativity of Artemis, or the research of Percy, and the tone of the story feels like it's talking down to its young readers. I loved TFP and really wanted to enjoy this, but THE MARK OF THE THIEF just felt like a rehashing of the same basic plot and characters, only watered down and voided of any excitement or complexity.

If you're new to this author, start with THE FALSE PRINCE. Not this one. I'd normally give this a one-star probably, except I really liked Caela the griffin, and the last thirty pages of the arena battle.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth

Divergent Wars: One Force will define you.

Curious (and polite) people kept asking me if I was enjoying CARVE THE MARK while I was reading it. For the flippant response to that question, please refer to the opening of the song "Nobody But Me" by The Human Beinz. Or, you know, check out my star rating. (But my way is more fun, and you get a fun song out of it, too!)

I was one of the few people who did not like DIVERGENT. Part of that was the world-building that didn't make sense, and part of that was what I perceived as jarring anti-intellectualism. You might say I'm being oversensitive. Maybe. Or maybe the author's choice to make the intellectual faction into what were basically a bunch of fascists did not sit well with me. And no, I'm not just saying that because I scored as "erudite" in that stupid faction quiz. (Well, mostly. *sniff, sniff* I'm not a fascist!)

When I heard that Roth was penning a new series of books, I was skeptical. Especially when it was being blurbed as a cross between Star Wars and DIVERGENT. I liked one of those things very much, but would space opera and the compelling promise of vengeance and battles be enough to compensate for the DIVERGENT similarities? And, more importantly, how would her style evolve? Or would it be more BS about smart people wrecking society and brave people jumping out of trains?

CARVE THE MARK is a very weird book - and, to its credit, is a very different story from DIVERGENT. It's about the Thuhve, a "peace-loving" people, and the Shotet, an opportunistic and war-like people who are ruled by a "tyrant" and who carve marks denoting their kills into their forearms. Akos, the Thuhvian, is taken capture by the Shotet's ruler, Rhyzek, along with his brother, because his brother has the power of prophecy. Cyra is Rhyzek's sister, and has the ability to cause people incredible pain - or even death - upon physical contact. Rhyzek uses her to do his dirty work and to put fear into his people.

The power source in this book is something called the "current," which from what I gathered is like a cross between the "Lifestream" in Final Fantasy VII and the Force in Star Wars. It's a physical thing of immense power that people can draw upon, creating "currentblades" (e.g. lightsabers) and being born with "currentgifts" (e.g. the Force) that manifest in different ways to do different things.

Okay, cool. A little derivative, but hey, super powers aren't exactly a novel concept, and I'm always down to read about them if done well. What's 100% original these days, anyway? Exactly.

But I could not get into CARVE THE MARK at all. It felt very amateurish. It was too long, and the characters were not developed at all. At least Tris had some emotional complexity to her and the romance between Four and Tris was compelling (and arguably the best part of the story). On the other hand, the romance between Cyra and Akos has zero chemistry, and when they start talking about being in love with each other it comes totally out of left field because, again, zero evidence for it (that I perceived - by that point, I was skimming pretty heavily, and I may have missed a telltale "clue").

CARVE THE MARK read like a very bad debut for me, with shoddy world building, a cliche and cowardly villain, and two heroes who don't really have any interesting personality traits or conflicts. I'm honestly shocked by how unpleasant the experience of reading this was, and if I had read this without knowing who the author was, I might have thought that this was a cleaned-up self-published effort or a debut tentatively put forth by a first-time (and very young) author.

I'm honestly disappointed because I love space opera - it's one of my favorite genres - and I was hoping to see a mainstream author write a glowing example of it, because if space opera boomed like the dystopian genre did in the late 2000s, I'd be one happy gal.

Maybe it will, but let's not make this book the poster child for the movement.

1 out of 5 stars

Radiance by Grace Draven

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

We read this as part of a monthly "theme read" in my romance book group. The subject was slow-burn romances. I love slow-burn romances, when it's done well, that is, and when I saw that this was a fantasy romance, I was even more excited. More so, because most of my friends loved it, and one of them compared the author to R. Lee Smith.

Don't be thinking that this is alien-smut, though. For most of the book, it's actually quite chaste. Ildiko is a "Gauri" human woman and Brishen is a "Kai" man (something I imagined as being like a "dark elf"). The two are lesser nobility, and are being married to forge an alliance between their kingdoms.

They actually meet first in a garden, and both are charmed by each other despite the animosity between their two races. They're delighted, then, when it turns out later that the "stranger" they each had met is actually their husband/wife-to-be, respectively. Even though neither finds the other attractive (though both are considered the ideal form of beauty for their own race but ugly to each other's races), they know that they've got a good deal, and appreciate one another's humor and kindness.

The best thing about RADIANCE, for me, is that it's about two very kind, humorous, nice people falling in love with one another not because of their looks but because of their deeds. The relationship that develops between them is at first amicable and platonic. When Ildiko goes to court with Brishen, he's impressed by her bravery and her determination to conform to his people's ways, and in return attempts to help her get through the worst ordeals (like eating scarpatine pie - picture a chicken pot pie, only made with giant scorpions instead of chicken, and the scorpion is still alive). Draven also portrays culture shock well, with both characters feeling lonely and frustrated with their faux pas.

What killed this book a bit for me was the last 10% when something sad happens. I think that probably put some people off the book - especially those who like super happy, picture perfect endings. It didn't bother me as much, but it was enough to put a damper on my previously untempered joy. One of the people in the romance group also pointed out that the epilogue will confuse you if you don't want to read the sequel, as it doesn't really add anything to the story (which ends on an HEA note) and is pretty much solely intended to set up the sequel.

I really enjoyed RADIANCE, though. The characters and the writing were great, and for a story where pretty much nothing happens except for the characters interacting with each other - this is largely a character-driven piece - the world and the characters are developed enough that it was still a interesting read. Anyone who is tired of romance novels where the characters act like assholes to one another should pick up RADIANCE.

4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

There are a lot of books that talk about the antebellum south, especially in romance novels where it is a popular setting, but few seem to capture the sheer unfairness of what it must have been like as a non-white person living in the South in the nineteenth century. I love Octavia Butler's science fiction, but KINDRED is a book that I purposely put off reading because I'd heard it was brutal. Good, but brutal, and utterly unflinching in the portrayal of that brutality.

Dana is a black woman living in the 1970s. Her husband, Kevin, is white, and both their families disapprove of that union, even in the twentieth century. Things are pretty good for Dana, though; she has a decent job, a husband who loves her, and her own house filled with books. All that changes when one day, without explanation, she's plunged into the past to save a white relative from death.

Rufus is the son of a plantation owner, and one of her relatives, the Weylins, although her family history is so occluded that until now, she never realized he was white. There's a bond connecting them, tightening whenever Rufus is about to die - and the only way that Dana is able to return to her own time is when her own life is threatened. Some people have said that this reminded them of OUTLANDER, and that's true: the time-travel is just as sketchy and mysterious, and neither shrink back from cruelty and rape.

What makes KINDRED such an interesting book is the complex way that Butler portrays slavery. She makes so much social commentary about both the twentieth century and the nineteenth century, and despite being published about forty years ago, it still feels fresh and modern. Dana struggles with slavery as a modern woman, and yet even she realizes how sinister a trap it is: when you have no rights, any concession feels like a blessing, to the point where you may start to feel affection for someone just treating you like a human being. She experiences something akin to Stockholm syndrome, and sees firsthand how some of her peers struggle and are oppressed by those same societal constraints.

KINDRED is not an easy read. There is rape, and torture, and cruelty of all colors. The N-word is bandied around a lot (because this is the South in the nineteenth century, and it would not be realistic otherwise). I think many readers, white readers especially, will probably be shocked at the no-holds barred approach, especially if they're accustomed to the version of history that sugar-coats the antebellum period and has slaves and black servants being adored and treated like family. Dana herself has a similar moment of disillusionment when she is researching the period and picks up a copy of GONE WITH THE WIND, only to put it down in disgust.

The fact of the matter is, slavery happened. It happened and it was awful, and it happened. But it's important to know that it happened, and what it was like; it's important to know that real human beings suffered at the hands of other human beings, and were made to feel different based on where they came from and the color of their skin; it's important to know that injustice is a real and painful thing that is mired in our shared history and continues to be perpetuated to this day.

It's important to know that, so we remember why we must never go back; and why we must do our best going forward to work towards a future of true equality. We still have a ways to go.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Cold-Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas

Like so many others, Lisa Kleypas was my "gateway drug" into the historical romance genre. I loved her Gamblers series, and then her Wallflowers series. Then she took a hiatus from historical romance, working on her contemporary series, Friday Harbor and the Travises.  When she started writing historical romance again, I was so excited. But then the reviews for the first book in her new Ravenels series started coming in...and they were less than stellar.

I put off reading COLD-HEARTED RAKE for a while, but because I love Lisa Kleypas I wanted to give it a try. My tastes often don't align with what's popular, and Kleypas is such a great writer, that it really is shocking for me when I read something of hers that I don't like because it's such a rare occurrence. She's that good.

COLD-HEARTED RAKE features Kathleen, Lady Trenear, newly widowed after her husband, Theo Ravenel fell from an unbroken horse while drunk. His cousin, Devon Ravenel, inherits the estate upon Theo's passing, and he is less than pleased with the estate's conditions and debts. He intends to sell it piecemeal, and kick out its tenants, including Kathleen and his sisters, Helen, Cassandra, and Pandora.

The book starts out fairly well. I'm a fan of the enemies-to-lovers trope, and Kathleen had good reason to dislike Devon because of his callous insensitivity and utter selfishness. The trouble is, he warms to her and changes his ways far too quickly, to the point where it seems unrealistic, almost to the point of being a near-overnight transformation. I also felt like there was some indecision about how Kleypas wanted Devon to be characterized. He isn't exactly a cold-hearted rake - he's far too easily manipulated and too quick to feel guilt - but at the same time, he isn't a beta hero either, since he uses his sexual wiles to overpower the heroine and ignores several "nos" said on her part.

Also, the virgin widow trope is a peeve of mine, and I wasn't pleased to see it here.

Some have complained that the secondary romance between Helen and Winterbourne (it's not really a spoiler since, I mean, come on - the summary of the next book) overpowered the plot, and while this wasn't exactly the case, it did feel a bit like filler, especially in the latter half of the book. I've never read a Kleypas book where the secondary romance featured so prominently - usually it remained in the background, so as not to diminish the main story line. Winterbourne was kind of an ass, too.

I did like the descriptions of renovation, the interactions with the tenants and servants, and the witty banter (especially when done in epistolary form at the beginning of the book). I was torn on Cassandra and Pandora - they acted way younger than 19, and were so self-centered that sometimes I really didn't like them, although they had some great dialogue, too. The introduction of a pig as a pet was an interesting touch, but I didn't really find him comical, as he was undoubtedly intended to be. The beginning of COLD-HEARTED RAKE was much better than the end, which felt disorganized and kind of landed all over the place in terms of plot. This isn't her best, but it isn't her worst, either.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars.

A Note Yet Unsung by Tamera Alexander

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

Most readers tend to get into a loop; they know what genres they typically like, and what genres they typically don't like, and then they go out and pursue books that are in the category of the former, while actively (or subconsciously) avoiding the latter. Even though I'm a late starter to the romance genre, I've quickly learned that there are many, many subgenres in romance, and some of them tend to repel me more than others. Case in point: christian fiction.

I wanted to choose a good book for the 2017 Reading Challenge in my romance group, because christian fiction can be a mixed bag. I've read a handful of christian historical fiction that I actually liked quite a bit, my favorite being TIFFANY GIRL by Deeane Gist, because of its feminist themes and amusing love story, but as a non-religious person, some of them just feel so "preachy," judgmental, and even borderline-misogynistic. I realize it's unfair to judge an entire genre by its duds - especially in a genre that doesn't have me in mind as an audience - but man, when christian romance gets it wrong, it gets it wrong. Would my choice for the christian fiction category, A NOTE YET UNSUNG, get it right?

A NOTE YET UNSUNG actually has several wonderful/interesting/cool qualities that set it apart from other romances. One, that cover is gorgeous. And I loved the fact that she was holding a violin in the middle of a concert hall. She's a musician! That was what drew me in, because I have a history in music, and the idea of reading about a heroine who desperately wants to be a musician in an age when it was considered illicit for women to do so was incredibly intriguing.

Two, while this is the third book in a trilogy, it appears that they're an interconnected set of standalones revolving around a real person in history, Mrs. Adelicia Acklen Cheatham, plantation-owner and mansion-owner who was, at one point, the richest woman in Tennessee.

Three, this romance novel actually has some prevailing feminist themes. Rebekah, the heroine, wants to be a musician and is unwilling to let men - or society - tell her "no." She's actually quite sneaky and enterprising in how she goes about advancing herself, and is willing to settle for a less prestigious position in order to do or be around while she loves, all the while plotting how to advance herself.

Religion is present in this book, but it isn't used to judge; instead, it is used for comfort in times of need, or to meditate on one's desires and pray for what one desires - either for oneself or one's loved ones. I didn't mind this at all, and thought it added, rather than detracted to the story, and I enjoyed the use of religious music in this story to show how it can bond people together.

The reason this book isn't getting a higher rating is because of the love story, pointless drawn-out scenes with the hero's family, and some questionable actions on the hero and heroine's part.

The hero and heroine disliked each other at first. He starts liking her first, and when she likes him it feels so sudden! He also treated her quite badly at points, and while there are reasons to explain his bursts of anger and irritation later on, which do make sense, it was still annoying.

I also could have done without the long interludes spent with Tate's family. I didn't think they added to the story, except to make Rebekah look like a good person that was meant to be with Tate, and since the rest of the book was leading to that conclusion anyway I feel like it could have been cut out to reduce the page count and make the book a little breezier. I almost marked this book as "DNF" because the middle bogged down so much, but it picked up as soon as they left Casa Tate.

Finally, the questionable actions. At one point, due to a misunderstanding where the spying heroine finds some laudanum bottles, she assumes that he's taking them to an opium den to get high. Since he is a conductor (and she, his assistant), she decides to follow him to said opium den and then lecture him about how he's ruining his career and - more importantly - her own. It turns out that he isn't going to an opium den, though; the laudanum is for a terminally sick family member. Oops.The way Tate reacts to this is weird; he forgives her, and hardly gets angry at all, which isn't in line with his temperamental character. Me, I'd be furious if someone pulled that crap with me. Who does that??

There's also an abuse subplot in here with an evil stepfather stereotype, and that was also kind of awkwardly handled. He's creepy AF, though, so kudos for writing him as unambiguously the bad guy as possible, I guess. Others might be put off by the "happy black servant" stereotypes, done in the style of GONE WITH THE WIND, and the fact that the N-word is used, seemingly for shock value, by the bad guy to cement what we already know: that he is, in fact, the bad guy. This was an interesting contrast to me, because right now I'm reading Octavia Butler's KINDRED, a book that's also set in the 19th-C South, except it's brutal in highlighting injustice and the treatment of black men and women. The main character herself actually mocks the way black slaves are portrayed in books like GONE WITH THE WIND, as being a very sugarcoated, rose-tinted way of looking at the past.

Adelicia Cheatham's character was the bomb, though; many of the best lines were hers (I've quoted a couple in my status updates for this book if you want to look). And honestly, Rebekah's character was okay, even if she could be incredibly annoying at times. I'm glad I read this book because it was in a genre that I don't normally read (and even sometimes avoid), and it was good enough that I'd check out other publications by this publisher.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Carthya is a kingdom on the brink of war. The royal family is dead. The youngest son, Jaron, is missing, presumed dead. A group of regents all have their eye on the vacant throne, and if one of them seizes power, it's likely that the entire kingdom will be plunged into ruin. But one nobleman named Conner has a plan. He's rounded up a group of four orphan boys - Latamer, Roden, Tobias, and Sage - that all have the look of Jaron. His plan is to groom them, train them, and in two weeks, crown the one who has best taken to the role. As for the others, well...death.

Despite being a thief and an orphan, Sage is a proud boy, and doesn't take kindly to Conner's cruel tyranny. He sustains a number of beatings, whippings, and torments at the hands of his captor. The other boys can't be trusted, either. They're all in competition for the same thing, and if one of them fails, the survivors in this cruel competition will gain from their loss.

THE FALSE PRINCE is one of those books that sounded so good, I was afraid to read it, because I couldn't stand the thought of being disappointed. This was in error. THE FALSE PRINCE is awesome. It's got all the things I love in YA - court intrigue, surprising twists, peril, death, heartbreak, friendship, competitions, deception, and action. Sage is an excellent narrator. He has all the snark of Artemis Fowl, but the humanity and determination of characters like Katniss Everdeen that make your heart ache for them as well. No matter how big a jerk he is, there's never a moment where you don't want him to succeed, because you feel in your heart that he deserves it.

The only things that I can really ding this book for are - the main twist. I saw it coming pretty early on. Also, Roden's and Tobias's characters started to feel pretty interchangeable in the last third of the book. Roden especially did some things that just felt out of character. This is just me being nit-picky, though. I finished this book in a single sitting; it was just that good.

Lord, I need that sequel. That ending.

5 out of 5 stars

The Selection by Kiera Cass

People have been asking me to review THE SELECTION for years. Years. But whenever a book gets this popular I tend to back off, because at that point, most of what needs to be said has been said - and by reviewers who are far more creative and hilarious than me. Case in point, I only just this year reviewed BEAUTIFUL DISASTER, and that ship sailed a looong time ago. But then my library got a copy of THE SELECTION, and I thought, "Why not? Let's give it a whirl." My friends' opinions are split pretty evenly on this book, with half shipping it and even participating in role-playing games about it, and the other half expressing a strong desire to use it for kindling in the fireplace.

So, what did I think? I have so much to say, it's hard to figure out where to start. I didn't like the book. Obviously. It didn't make me sizzle and pop with rage, although after reading it, I'm a little puzzled as to why it's so popular. Nearly every aspect of the book held some sort of flaw for me, from its stilted dialogue all the way up to its shelving as a dystopia.

Let's start with the genre itself. I'm a fan of dystopian fiction. When done properly, it can be an excellent way to highlight the flaws in a society by taking a reductio ad absurdum "what if?" scenario to show how our many excesses and our hidden or subtle cruelties can destroy us. THE SELECTION, on the other hand, is basically The Bachelor set in a very tame, very unfrightening "Hunger Games lite" universe. America, the heroine, lives in a bizarre version of the United States that has been invaded by both China and Russia, and is now called Illea after the general who saved the country and later became king...because reasons. For some reason, the United States has also become striated by a rigid caste system that starts with one (royalty) and ends in eight (homelessness). I was trying to figure out the professions that went with this system, because one of the girls who works on the farm is a four, manual laborers (like movers) are six, and America's family, a bunch of performers and musicians, are fives. This seemed weird to me for several reasons, but the one I'm going to get into now is that performing arts are an activity of leisure generally associated with those who are middle to upper class. Why? Music lessons cost a lot of money. Instruments are expensive. Practicing costs time - time that would be spent doing other things, like having a part-time job. Who are their family's clients? What do those numbers mean? If this is a criticism of society, it would be nice if what it is criticizing had been laid out better, and if those being oppressed by the system actually seemed to feel some sort of real pressure or fear.

Poverty itself is a bit mysterious here, too. America is supposed to be fairly poor. At one point, she tells the prince that she has had to choose between food and electricity. But she doesn't seem to be hungry or desperate. In fact, she saves most of her meals for her poor six boyfriend, Aspen, and manages to do this without fainting. I might be more convinced by her plight if she got her clothing from the garbage of twos and threes, or if she often walked around feeling dizzy and sick. But no, she seems quite comfortable - enough to be flippant about her position. If she's that poor, why would she have fashionable dresses (albeit from an outmoded season) that don't have any rips or tears? Why can she afford makeup? Makeup is freaking expensive, and yet another thing that is often associated with the upper classes. This is the most gilded example of "poverty" that I have ever read about!

Gender roles in this book are another aspect of this book that felt very strange. Obviously, if you have thirty-five girls fighting over a boy there's going to be girl-on-girl hate. I didn't sign up for this book thinking I was going to get a feminist treatise on why you don't need a man in your life to be validated as a person. But at the same time, the sheer number of "boys are this way" and "girls are this way" stereotypes was a little surprising. And while the thought did occur to me that this could be part of the "critique" of this dystopian society, it really didn't feel that way to me. America, our heroine, dishes out some of these gender role stereotypes while instructing Maxon on how to treat women. One of the first things she tells him is that women don't want you to fix their problems when they cry, they just want to be consoled. And in the beginning of the book, Aspen breaks up with America because he's angry that she's been saving money for him, because - and he actually says this - men are supposed to be the providers, not women. America totally buys it! She feels bad. At one point, while contemplating her future with Aspen, she actually says: "If only I could sit and patch [up his shirt and jeans] for him. That was my great ambition."

I will give the author props for attempting to write a decent male lead. This was written when junior alphas were popular, and I think Cass really tried to write a decent beta hero with Prince Maxon. Again, props for the effort...but it wasn't a successful one. Maxon mostly just comes across as wishy-washy and bland. Originally, I gave THE PRINCE - the part where he meets America, except written in his POV - a two-star rating, but I deducted it, because apart from just being a POV-swapped rehashing of the events in this book, Maxon's head is a terribly dull place to be. When he's not dull, he's affected and smarmy. In THE PRINCE, his fear is that he'll fall in love with all the girls and won't be able to choose just one. He calls them all "my dear," and says this quote at one point: "You are all dear to me. It is simply a matter of discovering who shall be the dearest."

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the dearest of them all?

In my review of the "prequel" to this book, THE PRINCE, I expressed a desire for some trashy reality TV style entertainment in THE SELECTION. I didn't pick this up expecting Nicholas Nickleby, but I did expect to be entertained. I'm not above watching reality TV or soap operas, and I was hoping at the very least that the girl-on-girl fights would be colorful or interesting, with catty but funny insults, hair pulling, and even some well-executed social coups a la Sae from Peach Girl (my favorite two-faced witch-with-a-B, hands-down). But no, one of the rules of THE SELECTION is that girls are expressly forbidden from sabotaging or striking one another, or they will be disqualified. Somebody does actually get slapped in this book, but the slapper gets disqualified and nothing comes of it. Someone's dress gets torn, too, but only a sleeve - and nothing comes of it. The sexually confident girls are universally loathed by America and everyone else, and some catty remarks are made, but it's all very G-rated, and, again, nothing comes of it.

This is what passes for drama in this book:

"That was it. I slapped him. "You idiot!" I whisper-yelled at him. "I hate him! I loved you! I wanted you; all I ever wanted was you!"


Ironically, the YA books I read before and after this one were very similar concepts that did it better. The one before was Amy Ewing's THE JEWEL - which actually suffered many of the same problems: odd gender roles, bad world-building, girls competing for a "honorable" role that is actually mired in sexism (in one, decorative wife, in the other, surrogate to rich women). The difference is that THE JEWEL was not afraid to be dark. It was no 1984, but at least I got the sense that there was real oppression in this world and dire consequences for those who flaunted it. The book I read after this one was THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer Nielsen, which is similar in the sense that it has a bunch of commoners competing to fulfill a "royal" role. The difference is that a) it's all boys and b) failure means death, so the competitors have more than enough motivation to do well. I think that's what I expected going into THE SELECTION: I expected more hunger, more desperation, with a heroine who had to choose between love and death in a world of darkness. Instead, I got someone who thinks poverty is only getting to wear makeup when you go out and drama is having the sleeve of your dress half-heartedly ripped off when you refuse to swap outfits.

My intention was to read through the series and see if it picked up like THE JEWEL did, but it looks like my library has copies of every book in this series except book TWO. I'm not about to skip a book, because I might miss something important (wink), so it looks like I dodged a literary bullet. I'm in no particular hurry to dive back into this world and find out what happens to Maxon and Aspen and America, either. Who will she choose? What will she wear? Who will be queen? (Listed in descending order of importance, obviously.) Look, I get the fascination with royalty. Disney princesses, Kate Middleton, The Princess Diaries. It's a position of incredible power that seems feminine but isn't intimidating. Ask most little girls what they want to be when they grow up, and I'm sure a fair amount of them will say "princess." Capitalizing on that, and using it for social commentary? Brilliant. There was a great idea buried somewhere in here, that could have been used to highlight gender stereotypes, misogyny, double-standards, social inequality, and reality TV. There were dozens of possibilites! But making the U.S. a constitutional monarchy of a caste system that feels like a learn-to-count episode of Sesame Street while everyone twirls around in ball gowns probably wasn't the best way to go about it. But that's just my opinion.

1 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles by Kij Johnson

THE CAT WHO WALKED A THOUSAND MILES is one of the longer free stories on the Tor.com website, but well worth it. It's a story about a cat, named Small Cat, who lives with a whole bunch of other cats in a garden. After an earthquake and a fire, the cats scatter, and suddenly, Small Cat is left utterly alone.

Small Cat immediately goes out into the greater world of Japan to search for other cats. Her quest is driven by her desire to be part of a "fudoki": an interesting concept, which, from what I understand, consists of the collective stories of your ancestors, your family members, and you, that form your identity and give you a place in the world with which to carve out your niche.

Small Cat's quest to find a fudoki result in a long journey. There are bears and boats; monks and Shinto shrines; snow and fire; wolves and dogs; she even meets a few other cats, although many of them are unfriendly or have no place for her in their fudoki.

Reading this book made me want to hug my own cat extra tight. Small Cat's loneliness is the driving force behind this book, and it was really sad that no matter where she went, or how good her situation was, she never completely felt as though she were completely at home without having the stories of others like her to define her life and make a home.

Also, if you like the cover, you're in luck, because this is the first story I've seen on the Tor website that's illustrated. The art work is beautiful, and really captures the je ne sais quoi that is cat. I feel sure that both the author and the artist have cats of their own, because they really managed to capture the temperament and personality of that furry little animal that's an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a fudoki.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Wishing Well by Amy Ewing

Today is the day of short stories!

I recently read THE JEWEL and THE WHITE ROSE. I don't normally read this "between the numbers" fillers, but this "deleted scene" is free to read here, and I figured why not? Let's dive back into this incredibly f'ed up world and see what else Ewing has up her sleeve. "Bring it!" I say. "Bring it all!"

Surprisingly, THE WISHING WELL is not a story about Violet. Instead, it's a backstory into the secrets of the world revealed in book two. It's also a fantasy story with a moral, kind of like the stories you'd see in J.K. Rowling's BEADLE THE BARD, except far more heavy-handed and without that same level of grace.

THE WISHING WELL is about two sisters who find a magical well and each make a wish. One desires to be the most intelligent in the world. The other wants to commune with nature, because she's satisfied with her life and only wants to be able to enjoy it more.

At first, I was rolling my eyes a lot...but this isn't horrible. I can see why it was "deleted"; it doesn't quite fit with the tone of the overall story and would spoil too much if it were left in book one (as it seems it was originally intended to go), but it does add some insight into the magic system. I guess.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

In the Sight of Akresa by Ray Wood

Don't get me wrong - this is a beautifully written story, and part of the reason this story gets such a low rating is that downer ending. It was so unpleasant that it impacted my ability to enjoy it.

IN THE SIGHT OF AKRESA starts out with a descriptive passage about one of the main characters, Aya, having her tongue cut out to prevent her from blaspheming one of the gods. She's then taken and sold as a slave to Claire and her people.

Claire is immediately attracted to Aya and contrives to be alone with her by mutilating her pet hawk after taming it and then taking the poor hawk to be cured by Aya. To me, this was the first red flag that Claire was not going to endear herself to me as a heroine. Anyone who purposely hurts animals is not to be trusted.

They have a romantic and sexual relationship of sorts - a doomed one, trust me, you can sense the doom from the start - but Claire is much more cavalier about it than Aya is, and the power between them is never equal. Claire seems to view Aya as a thing that is her right to use as she wishes, and of course the fact that Aya is mute and never is able to voice consent adds an extra layer of ick to it. Especially since our narrator is an unreliable one. When she says Aya wants her affections, does she really? Or is that what Claire wants to have us, the readers, believe?

It is no coincidence that Akresa, their goddess of justice, has Claire firmly in her sights.

Oh, my love. I know so little of you.

Can it, Claire, you never loved her, or you wouldn't let that happen, you hawk-maiming, consent-waiving, traitorous cowfart.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

A Cup of Salt Tears by Isabel Yap

According to Japanese folklore, the kappa is a Japanese river goblin that drags people under the water to eat their organs and soul. The top of its head forms a shallow bowl that is constantly filled with water. Kappa can be defeated by tricking them into a deep bow, causing the water that is the source of their power to spill out. They can also be appeased by carving one's name into a cucumber (their favorite food) and tossing it into the water.

Makino is familiar with kappa lore, so she is understandably afraid when she is approached in the bath by a kappa. He claims to have saved her from drowning when she was young, and says that it's because he's in love with her. But Makino's husband is dying, and cannot be cured. The kappa might be able to help her, but his help will come at a steep cost.

This story was beautifully written and I learned some interesting things about Japanese folklore - specifically, that kappa are not always malicious; they are curious, polite, and interested in humans; they're so much more than just another flesh-eating monster.

There's actually a song by a Japanese artist called "Kappa" (by Keiko Matsui) that is supposedly inspired by the Japanese myth. I listened to that song while reading this short story, and they paired incredibly well. It is a mysterious and bittersweet song that perfectly matches this story in tone.

"I could take everything inside you and leave nothing but a hollow shell of your skin. I do not forget kindness, but I will let you forget yours, if it will please you."

This is a solid addition to the Tor.com repertoire, but the characterization that makes some of the other stories on the site so spell-binding is absent. Still; it's an interesting take on a Japanese legend, so if you're interested in Japanese folklore, I'd recommend it to you for that reason alone. :)

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

La beauté sans vertu by Genevieve Valentine

These days they use arms from corpses—age fourteen, oldest, at time of death. The couture houses pay for them, of course (the days of grave-robbing are over, this is a business), but anything over fourteen isn’t worth having. At fourteen, the bones have most of the length you need for a model, with a child’s slender ulna, the knob of the wrist still standing out enough to cast a shadow.

LA BEAUTE SANS VERTU is set in a dystopian society where couture fashion houses take rather extreme and cruel liberties with their fashion models. Their natural bodies aren't enough - they have their arms sliced off and replaced with the slender, emaciated arms from the corpses of fourteen-year-old girls.

Maria, the model of this story, was scouted and taken when she was nineteen. They like her because of her perfect walk and because there's “[s]omething miserable in the turn of the mouth” of her beautiful face. She becomes incredibly sought after, a valuable commodity.

LA BEAUTE SANS VERTU is definitely a scathing criticism of the fashion industry, of how thin is thin enough, and how artificial everything is, from the hype, to the personas of the models themselves, to the actual outfits worn on these fashion shows: ensembles that would never stand up to wear and tear, and are created to be worn once, and sold or discarded.

Are things only beautiful because we know they won't last?

As if all this weren't enough to make me love this story, Valentine works in many references and parallels to Charles Perrault's fairytale, "Diamonds and Toads."

The one who was kind married a prince, and spent the rest of her life granting audiences and coughing up bouquets and necklaces for the guests. The one who refused was driven into the forest, where there was no one who wanted anything fetched, and she could spit out a viper any time she needed venom, and she never had to speak again.

I liked the comparison of models to fairytale princesses. Both are renowned for being beautiful, and many young girls wish they could be both. But there is a darker side to being both a model and a princess, and behind the glitz and glamor, there's a lot of pressure, a lot of objectification, and a lot of misery.

LA BEAUTE SANS VERTU is a beautifully written Tor.com short. I really, really enjoyed it, and I'd love to see a concept like this fleshed out in a full-length novel. I think you could write it the way Paolo Bacigalupi would, and make it a cautionary tale against too much biological engineering. But this short story is good, too, and ends on just the right, judgmental note.

4.5 out of 5 stars

That Seriously Obnoxious Time I Was Stuck at Witch Rimelda's One Hundredth Birthday Party by Tina Connolly

Real talk: I wanted to read this story because of the big, demonic bath toy-looking thing on the cover. As it turns out, the demonic bath toy-looking thing is actually a baby kraken. Apparently, witch kids are too cool for pinatas and Marco Polo; instead, they unleash a whole bunch of baby krakens in the pool and have a competition to see who can spell and then subdue them.

Camellia, the only person at this party who isn't the witch, isn't in the best of moods when she has to kill a rampaging kraken with a plastic fork. Being relegated to watch the little witches isn't much better; imagine a kid with magical powers. Scary.

Anyway, one of the mothers at the party reveals, to the adults, while Camellia eavesdrops, that she's angry at the librarian at her daughter's school because the librarian thought her mother was actually a grandmother. Witches are only as old as they believe they are, and this even has caused both this woman and her mother to age terribly because of the horrible, traumatic incident of this event. They want revenge.

Revenge, in the form of banana bread.

One of the children, Pink/Primella is horrified to hear this because she likes the librarian. But her magic powers aren't that strong, and Camellia has none to speak of. If they want to put a stop to Operation Banana Bread, then they're going to need help. But how to persuade a bunch of unruly witch kids?

I liked the twist ending. It was sweet how Camellia corralled the witch kids into doing her will by using reverse psychology (kind of like real kids), and I liked how she teamed up with Pink/Primella, and helped her feel better about herself. The only reason I'm not rating this higher is because it was a little too oddball for me, and it doesn't compare to some of the other Tor.com shorts. But it's cute.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Dogs of Athens by Kendare Blake

That bright, happy cover in the tropical 90s colors makes you think that you're going to be getting a jaunty, cheerful read.


THE DOGS OF ATHENS is set in Greece. A jaded Athena walks the streets with her pack of dogs, dwelling over the past, full of ennui, searching for lost faces even as she hunts for game.

Not just animal game, either. Oh noes.

In the crowd, she thinks she sees Actaeon, the young hunter who was unfortunate enough to spy on her when she was bathing hundreds of years ago. Athena caught him, turned him into a stag, and set his own dogs on him to tear him apart. The handsome man she sees now fills her with something like regret, which is vaguely unsettling because gods don't change, and don't regret.

The story takes a dark turn towards the end. I haven't actually read anything by Kendare Blake before. My friends have raved about her, and say that her stories are dark and her characterization is excellent. A snippet like this isn't much to go by, but I will say that I was impressed by how Athena's frustration and despair were captured in this short tale. She seems to be becoming more human, and I think that's why what happened, happened to her dogs. It was an interesting parallel to the original myth of Actaeon and made me wonder what happens next.

This is one of those Tor.com shorts, so it's free, and it's hard to be mad at something that was free. I did find myself enjoying Blake's style, what I've read of it, but I wish the short story had been a bit longer, so I could get a better sense of this strange and gloomy world where even the gods seem to have lost hope.

3 out of 5 stars.

Brimstone and Marmalade by Aaron Corwin

This story made me cry.

Mathilde doesn't want a demon for her birthday, she wants a pony. But a demon is what her grandmother gets her, because demons are easier to take care of than ponies.


Mathilde is less than pleased with Ix'thor, which just goes to show how crazy she is. Speaking as someone who has spent a fair amount of time with horses, ponies smell. Ix'thor, on the other hand, has a flaming sword and surrounds himself with smoke.

Oh, and you feed him by putting grub souls on a little stone altar.


When disciplining him, you beam a flashlight at him instead of spritzing him with a squirt bottle (although I imagine holy water would probably do the trick nicely too).

One of the best things about this story is how Mathilde is written. Corwin really captures the mentality of a child. Mathilde wants a pony because the girls she associates as having greater social capital all have ponies, and she wants to fit in. On the other hand, once she shows her friends her demon and they are impressed by his fearsome powers, she starts to realize her pet has value. And as she gets to know him, and bonds with him, she likes him not because of them, but because of who he is. It's a really great portrayal of how affection develops and grows over time.

The ending of this story is depressing as heck, though. I never thought I'd cry over a demon.

...I did, though.

In the words, of Ix'thor, this story was: EXCELLENT. Just make sure you have a tissue handy.

5 out of 5 stars

That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn

"I remember you. You were kind."

THAT GAME WE PLAYED DURING THE WAR is a Tor.com freebie about two alien races, the Gaant and the Enithi. The Gaant are psychic and the Enithi are not. Previously at war, the two races are now in the process of formalizing a peace treaty, but lingering tensions still remain.

Calla and Valk are a Enithi and a Gaant, respectively. Both were involved in the war, and suffered losses because of it. At one point, she was his prisoner; at one point, he was hers. They share a bond because of chess: a game that they played during wartime; a game that Calla wants to play with Valk now, in times of peace.

You guys know that I love chess. I play myself, and have written about it, too. It's a fascinating game, with so many layers, and Vaughn takes a totally interesting & unique approach to it:

How would you play chess against a telepath?

TGWPDTW is probably my favorite short story that I've read from Tor. The characters are so complicated and likable. The world building is amazingly developed in a remarkably short time. I loved the scenes Vaughn wrote about the war, and the innovations the Enithi took to commit acts of subterfuge against their psychic opponents. I liked how she pointed out that the Gaant would seem terrifying because they would able to read your greatest fears and selfish motivations - but for the same reasons, couldn't use them because they would immediately be exposed to that suffering.

Carrie Vaughn's most famous work is her Kitty Norville series, but ironically, that's the work of hers that I've enjoyed least. I love her other stories, where she gets weird and experimental. She just wrote a science-fiction book that I received an ARC for, and I'm super excited to read it, because if this story is any indication, Vaughn has found her true calling in the marvelous world of space opera.

"The point...is to fight little wars without hurting anyone."

5 out of 5 stars

Heads Will Roll by Lish McBride

Most little girls love unicorns. They're magical and pure and mysterious and so fluffy you're gonna die - literally in this case.

Meet Steve, AKA Phantom, the cage-fighting unicorn. His owner is a Valkyrie. Together, they kick butt at supernatural cage fighting competitions and teach others the lesson that justice can sparkle and smell like warm sunshine even while it's tearing you a new one.

I loved the female narrator in this book. I haven't read the author's full-length novels, but I want to, now, because of her smooth mastery of first-person narrative. The heroine has that gumshoe noir class of nonchalance that a lot of the older, really good urban fantasy series do.

Steve is also a great character. I've read about evil unicorns in Diana Peterfreund's RAMPANT series (a must-read, if you're into unicorns and fantasy), and now I get to add gladiator unicorns to the list. He has so much attitude, and it's hilarious because it's coming from an unexpected source.

There isn't too much more to say about this book except that it's free, and it features an interesting cast of paranormal creatures that wouldn't be out of place in FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. If you're into urban fantasy stories with snarky main characters, you'll like this.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Selfies by Lavie Tidhar

Mirrors have always vaguely creeped me out, helped in part by such delightful films as Mirrors and Occulus. There's just something about the idea of something stealing and perverting your image into something demonic or evil that's, well, creepy. When you think about it, cameras are much the same.

SELFIES takes that concept and runs with it in a creepy short story about a girl named Ellie who buys a phone from a kiosk in the mall and starts talking lots of selfies with it. The problem is, some of the selfies don't look right. And the more pictures she takes, the more wrong they look, until suddenly, she starts seeing her face everywhere she looks...only it isn't exactly hers.

This story is very creepy and sent shivers down my spine, but from a technical standpoint, I do feel like it could have been constructed better. The beginning spoils the end, and the details of the story are so vague that you're never really sure what, exactly, is happening. I still wasn't sure what was happening by the end.

Still, SELFIES is free (from Tor.com) and is an interesting (and creepy) take on vanity in the technological age. Read it, if you dare. Just not at night. And not before taking a selfie. o.o

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The White Rose by Amy Ewing

In nature, animals with bright and beautiful colors are actually warning you off: "Do not eat or touch me! I will poison you! You will be sorry!" In the literary universe, books with beautiful colors appear to be similarly warning you off: "Do not read me! I will annoy you! You will be sorry!" The prettier the cover, the more likely the book is to be bad. This has been proven by science.*

*AKA, someone told me this once on a forum & I believed them.

Despite the questionable summary and the many reviews suggesting that this book was not for me, I decided not to heed the warning signals and bought the prequel to read - because it was on sale, and because I appear to have a knack for tempting fate and acquiring books I probably shouldn't be reading, but feel compelled to out of a very morbid sense of curiosity. I read THE JEWEL earlier today and it's a hot mess of bad world building, mixed messages, and two-dimensional characters.

It was also unintentionally funny - and surprisingly, disturbingly dark. I mean, here you have a costume dys-trope-ian fiction where girls - teenage and preteen girls - are sold at the auction block so people can artificially inseminate them. They get to wear pretty dresses and sparkly jewelry but they're also paraded around in chains, beaten, abused, and oh yeah - die after giving birth. Cool. Plus, teenagers are also apparently enslaved in brothels where they are groomed to be "companions" (read: escorts/prostitutes) to help young people of the opposite sex learn about love while also being "used" by the older members of the household and teenage and preteen males are also being castrated to be used as "ladies-in-waiting" (read: eunuchs) to serve the surrogates without being tempted by them.

The unintentionally funny bits are how dramatic Violet is, and how she pretty much falls for her love interest, a companion, the moment she sees him, and gets so territorial over him that she stops just short of peeing on the girl he's actually supposed to be romantically interested in and screaming out, "BACK OFF B*TCH! HE'S MINE!" The names are also ridiculous. I mentioned some of the highlights in my previous review, but there's some new winners in this sequel, with gems like Sable, Millet, Sienna, Cobalt, Olive, and Rye. (I think you're forgetting Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.)


If you want a quick summary of the previous book and the set-up, I do recommend checking out my review of the first book because I'm not going to be summing up everything again here. There's just way too many new things I want to talk about and discuss, because as dark as the first book was, THE WHITE ROSE says, "Guess what time it is? WTFUCKERY O' CLOCK, OFC!"

Regarding some of the questions I had in book one. Book two, to its credit, answers some of them. I know now why the surrogates can do magic, and why certain types of magic give them nosebleeds and headaches. I'm not 100% sold on that explanation (read: not at all sold on that explanation), but at least the author took the time to try and resolve that. Also, yes, apparently companions are not exclusively male. Girls get taken off the streets and used for "practice" in these teen brothels, too.

One thing that was NOT answered to my satisfaction was the origin behind this world. We get to know a bit of the history behind the Lone City, but I'm still not clear on whether or not this world of theirs is our world or a fantasy world that the author made up. The names of the other countries are different - but in one point of the story, Garnet drives Ash and Violet away in a car. So they have automobiles in this world? I don't recall them having roads. In fact, I was getting an 1800s vibe from this world, so please, tell me how this car fits into this agrarian- and factory-fueled society.

The reproductive aspects of this world still aren't really concrete, either. The author has explained what surrogates are (omg - it's kind of funny, it's so Avatar - and don't ask me to disambiguate, because both Avatar and Avatar: The Last Airbender apply) but not why the royalty rely on them for child-bearing...and what the heck is up with these accelerated pregnancies? In this book, they're saying that someone got pregnant in one day, and the crazy duchess was saying in the last book that she expected Violet to have a three-month pregnancy with one month designated per term??

Now I have more questions - like, still, what is the origin of this world? Why are the surrogates needed for child-bearing? Is this some sort of plague thing? Did the founders contract some sort of auto-immune disease from coming to a land that wasn't their own that directly impacts their ability to produce viable off-spring? If that's the case, why doesn't that impact people from the Bank/Farm/Smoke districts? I'm sure they're not all descended from the same lineage as the surrogate people. Why the heck was there a car? And regarding the end of the book, isn't that girl only 12? Is she really pregnant? Did a 12-y.o. really get pregnant in this book? And why does giving people lobotomies result in psychic powers? How do brains work in this universe? How does anatomy in general work in this universe?

As bad as the world-building was, I still have to applaud the author for going there. I felt so bad for Ash, knowing his history in this book and all the things he went through when he was essentially forced into sexual slavery by his family. Lucien's backstory was awful, too - his father tied him down and gelded him so he could be sold to the royalty as a servant. I felt bad for Raven, too, and Annabelle - oh my gosh, what happened to Annabelle was NOT COOL. Why is it that the heroine gets to make all these idiotic choices, but it's the people around her who suffer? That's hardly fair.

Honestly, at this point, I'm oddly charmed by this fustercluck of a series. THE JEWEL and THE WHITE ROSE are so cheesy and bad, but in a comforting and endearing way, like eating chips out of a sweatshirt hood while you watch Lifetime movies. Yeah, it's not good for you and makes a big ol' mess, but it was fun, right? Right. I had a good time reading through this nonsense, and I still want to find out what happens next, even though I know it will probably be even more ridiculous and leave even more questions unanswered. What can I say? I'm easily entertained.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

The Jewel by Amy Ewing

Don't be fooled by the pretty cover sparklies; THE JEWEL is actually pretty messed-up. Violet lives in a dystopian city that's organized like the nine circles of hell, with the Marsh, or the slums, on the outer rings; and then Farm, the agricultural; Smoke, the industrial; Bank, the financial; and in the very heart of the city is Jewel, where are the filthy rich members of royalty reside.

Violet was born in the Marsh but has been raised in relative luxury since puberty because she has the power of "Auguries," or magical abilities which mean her womb is perfect for breeding more members of royalty in the Jewel. This is called being a "Surrogate." When the Surrogates come of age, they are auctioned off in 200 lots, with the last ten being the most desirable of all. Violet is #197, because her magical abilities are so potent.

With her new owner, the Duchess of the Lake, Violet now resides in the upper crust of society, receiving expensive gifts, pretty dresses, and fancy feasts - but of course it all comes at a cost. She's treated as an object, paraded around on a leash, and artificially inseminated against her will multiple times, because she's essentially a bejeweled incubator, and not an actual human being. Since this is a YA dystopian, obviously there's a forbidden romance subplot and obviously she is the chosen one who will save humanity of themselves while making out and dressing up and getting into catfights with rivals.

THE JEWEL really made some of my friends angry, which, ironically, made me want to read it even more. I can see why, to be honest. The concept of surrogacy in a YA series is so odd, and it was done so badly in this world because the world-building leaves so much to be desired. Is this our world, or a completely different one? Why can they do magic? Why do they have nosebleeds and headache when they do magic? Why can't the rich people conceive? If the rich people can't conceive, why do they need specially trained people to teach them how to have sex and make out? Oh, yes, this book has teen escorts, called "companions" who basically teach the young royals how to seduce and be desirable, with the understanding that they sleep with the older members of the household. What.

Furthermore, what are they inseminating the Surrogates with? Is it just the women who are infertile? Why not the men? And if the men are too, where are they getting the sperm from? Are there male donors who are similarly imprisoned? Why don't we see them? And also, what does Surrogate training consist of, because Violet seems remarkably uninformed about sex and pregnancy.

Also, the names in this book are ridiculous. Violet's siblings are named Ocher and Hazel. Her friend is named Raven and she has a twin brother named Crow. The members of royalty have names like Sailor Moon villains, like Beryl (an actual Sailor Moon villain fyi), Carnelian, Garnet, and Sapphire.

I feel like there was a lot of potential in this book to be great, but considering the subject matter revolves around prostitution, eugenics, lobotomies, and reproductive rights, the tone feels deceptively - almost insultingly - light with all the descriptions of pretty dresses and luxury items, and the weird and totally unconvincing romance between Violet and Ash. It is compulsively readable and reasonably well-written, but I felt like it really glossed over the serious issues and that was not good. HUNGER GAMES and HANDMAID'S TALE were good because they had fully developed worlds (for the most part) and didn't shy away from the grievous consequences of insurrection. THE JEWEL tries, but the emotional disconnect and lack of atmosphere really put a damper on the horror factor.

My library has a copy of book two, THE WHITE ROSE, so I'm going to read that and see if this book develops more in the sequel. So far, I probably wouldn't recommend this to anyone unless they enjoy costume dys-trope-ian YA fiction like THE SELECTION that revolves more around romance and boys than social commentary.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Dead Seed by Reyanna Vance

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

Reading this book was like reliving the summer after freshman year of high school. DEAD SEED was originally published as "Vampires Don't Exist" on Quizilla, a magical fairyland of badly written fanfiction and erotica that has since gone to the internet graveyard. To give you an idea of the quality of some of these fics, "waist" was frequently used interchangeably with "waste" and I distinctly recall one story where the anatomically-confused author seemed absurdly sure that rectal hymens existed.

Anyway, I read Vampires Don't Exist in its original form in 2004. Vampires were super popular back then, too, except instead of TWILIGHT fanfic, it was usually Lestat and Louis fanfic (or fanfic knock-offs), where the vampires were always French and had waist-length long hair and frilly shirts and called everyone "mon cherry" (sic). The heroine in these stories was always a virgin who shopped at Hot Topic and wasn't understood by the preps. She always had a terrible life until the day she was kidnapped by the immortal hero of these stories who would whisk her away to a life of opulently decorated mansions and dubious consent, which she would hate until the day she realized she loved this hero and inevitably developed immortality and/or supernatural powers of her own.


Vampires Don't Exist took this to the extreme with a hero who was so unabashedly psychotic that I still remembered him over ten years later. Oh, yes, Aimeric was like the Hannibal Lecter of vampires. He even had a room that he decided to upholster in human skin, and a torture room in his mansion's basement, where he would dismember people before the horrified heroine as a way to "punish" her. When I saw that this book was on Amazon, I was a little curious, because I had read the series as a young teenager and how often do we get the opportunity to reexperience the webfics of our youth? So many people inevitably end up pulling their creations and never republishing. There are countless online stories like these that I will never be able to revisit as an adult, and that makes me oddly sad....

Anyway, for $2.99 this seemed like a relatively inexpensive experiment, and I decided, "What the heck. In the immortal words of Darkwing Duck, Let's get dangerous."

Aralyn's mother and sister died in a car crash and her dad became an alcoholic after the accident and doesn't give two coin flips about her. One day, she decides to die by throwing herself over a cliff. She's rescued at the last minute - she thinks, by the human man who's standing nearby watching the sea. He's cute, and they end up kissing, but he's actually Norman Bates and after calling her a slut, starts cutting her with his knife while he attempts to rape her. She's rescued - again - and knocked out, and when she wakes up, it's in a vampire mansion...by her sister, Claire, who it turns out is a vampire.

Claire leaves and Aralyn meets two more vampires, Virgil and Morgan, who's basically Igor in vampire form. Then she meets Aimeric, the Hannibal Lecter vampire. He tries to rape her, she rebuffs him, he takes her to the torture dungeon and tortures a human (he keeps a steady supply in cages so they're always at the ready - ugh). Then he rapes her, and this pretty much happens for a while. Aralyn is defiant, people get tortured, she feels bad, and the cycle continues, with her getting tortured as well, including but not limiting waterboarding, sexual assault by him and others, and branding.

There's a subplot with another vampire called Orrin, who might want to help free Aralyn, but 3/4 of the way through the book, Aralyn decides she loves Aimeric, even after all that physical, sexual, and psychological torture, and she sees his special "room," and he impregnates her by ordering three humans to rape her while she he watches (since vampires can't get people pregnant, hence the title of this newly edited edition, DEAD SEED). As the reader works his or her way through this sadistic psychodrama of torture and misery, they can't help but wonder, will Aralyn ever manage to escape? Or will she stay with this madman of depthless depravity?

I'm not going to spoil the ending for you, because I know I have friends who are just as morbidly curious as I am and I'm 99% sure that this review will encourage them to pick up the title for themselves and see if it's really that bad (yes). Let's just say that the ending gives literal meaning to the term "deus ex machina" and if you have any suspension of disbelief left by the time you get to that point, it will be gone and you will just be like, WTF. And keep in mind that this is after the heroine discovers that vampire transformations will have her looking like a Hot Topic commercial, replete with blue streaks in her hair. Because hair extensions come with the package, I guess.

It's been so long since I read the original that I'm not sure I can really do a fair comparison between the two works. I remember the original being more graphic and messed up, and I'm not sure whether that's because I was younger and just more easily traumatized, or if the author actually cleaned up the work for publication and censored out some of the more graphic parts. I was looking at some of the other reviews for DEAD SEED and other readers have made similar claims that this book felt "toned down", so maybe it was. It's still pretty gross, though. Honestly, what was most amusing to me was how this is just such a perfect snapshot of this type of fiction of this particular time, and the "emo" culture embedded in the prose was just perfect. I could almost envision those Livejournal 100x100 web icons that we used to collect and display on our Xanga pages. It was just...SO NOSTALGIC. She even links to a MySpace page in the back as a way of contacting her. I almost cried. It was wonderful.

That said, it's pretty obvious that this is a self-published work. Characterization is inconsistent, and there are a couple of pretty glaring errors and editor could have fixed. Honestly, if someone went over this with a fine-toothed comb and tightened the characterization, this would be like a modern-day bodice ripper, only with vampires instead of pirates or what have you. I would love that, but I know a lot of people won't, and if dark fiction, rape, torture, and poorly executed Stockholm syndrome plots make you see red, steer clear. If you have time to kill, though, and want to see what the 2004 version of "new adult" fiction looks like, drop the $2.99 and indulge in some over the top craziness that was self-published before self-publishing was cool.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Suddenly You by Lisa Kleypas

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

I've been wanting to read this standalone by Lisa Kleypas for a while now. One, it's a standalone, so I don't have to worry about acquiring the rest of the must-have series; and two, it's about a heroine who is a writer and a hero who is a publisher, and there's plenty of delightful book chatter, which I love.

I finally finished the book today (weekend!), and it was a solid addition to Kleypas's already considerable repertoire. Set in the very last year of the regency era (1836), SUDDENLY YOU starts off with Amanda Briars, who is not very happy about being single, alone, and thirty (although not necessarily in that order). Her unusual profession, a litany of family sorrows, and unfashionable figure have prevented her from landing a match the way her sisters have, so when we first meet her she is consulting a madam in a brothel about having a male prostitute delivered to her house for her thirtieth birthday. At the last moment, she decides to renege, little knowing that the surprised man who greets her on her porch that day is anything but a prostitute.

Jack Devlin is probably one of the better romance heroes I've read this year. He's the alpha hero done correctly - strong, capable, possessive, and charming, but not psychotic, and willing to yield to the heroine, ask for consent, and give her space when necessarily. The romantic scenes between Amanda and Jack were awesome...although incredibly numerous. My friend sraxe pointed out that the last half of the book actually got a little boring because there was so much sex crammed into it, and I agree; SUDDENLY YOU has way more sex in it than any other Kleypas book I've read to date.

And as much as I wanted to like Amanda's character, her constant put-downs of herself were wearing after a while. It made me sad, because some people are that insecure, and I liked how the love of a good man just didn't instantly fix that and make her think that she was a love goddess, but it was annoying to read about nonstop about how Amanda thought she was too heavy and too short, over and over. I also didn't like how she reacted to a traumatic event at the end. Said traumatic event was thrown in without warning towards the end of the book and seemed like a last-ditch attempt for drama. Amanda reacts in an insecure fashion, and puts Jack through the emotional wringer.

SUDDENLY YOU is still a decent read, though. The book chatter was wonderful, and I almost wish that some of the sex scenes had been cut out to expand on the glittering Regency publishing world. There were so many interesting characters in SUDDENLY who were introduced only fleetingly. That said, Jack was awesome, and probably this book's saving grace. If you enjoy books about books, older heroines, and kind alphas, you will probably enjoy SUDDENLY - especially if you like erotica, too.

3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Menfreya in the Morning by Victoria Holt

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

The best question to ask yourself before picking up this novel is: "Did I enjoy Daphne du Maurier's REBECCA?" MENFREYA is REBECCA redux; a romance about a young, insecure woman who doesn't feel as if she deserves the man who whisks her away to the magnificent house of her dreams - and also a mystery, involving death, murder, secrets, and an insidious other woman.

Honestly, it's magnificent how so many of Victoria Holt's (or Jean Plaidy's or Philippa Carr's - they're all the same novels) are good, considering how quickly she churned them out. Granted, there are some rather glaring misses on her repertoire, but the bijous outweigh the blights. I keep coming back to her again and again, which says something because quite often there's no sex, and often no romance even until the very end. I come for the atmosphere, and the layers of mystery and strange events, with the Eyresque heroine at the focal point of it all, steadfastly navigating through the oddities & terrors.

Harriet Delvaney is an interesting and sympathetic character because unlike so many other gothic heroines, she isn't beautiful; she's plain with good but unremarkable features, and a limp. Her father resents her, since her mother died in childbirth, and at one point she actually attempts to run away...to Menfreya, where she's friends with the Menfreys, especially their children Bevil and Gwennan. (Those names, though - omg.) The Menfrey's are everything she wishes she was: beautiful, mysterious, with a rich, epic family history that is both dark and romantic and doomed.

As Harriet grows older, she becomes clever, sarcastic, and bitter. She's in love with Bevil, but his ease with women makes her heartbroken and insecure. Various people around her die in unpleasant ways, diminishing the already small circle of people who care about her at all. She gets more and more involved with the Menfreys, and her fascination with them continues even when they tumble off their respective pedestals to reveal the flaws in their seeming perfection. And even when she does finally marry, it isn't what she expects: her marriage is plagued with insecurities and suspicions that her husband only married her for her fortune, that he's seeing other women on the side, and, toward the end, that someone might actually be trying to murder her to steal her husband!

MENFREYA is probably one of my favorite Holt novels to date. There's a lot of emotion in this book, and passion too. Harriet is a great heroine, who is selfish but also smart, and whose insecurities actually feel relatable. Bevil is a more typical gothic hero, in the sense that you're never 100% sure whether he's hero or villain until the end. The difference, I think, is that Bevil's sinister attributes were more realistic, like his cold anger and tendency towards mockery (and there's a rape/forced seduction scene in here, that's of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it variety). The atmosphere of this book, which is set in Cornwall, is so gloomy and dramatic, but romantic and a little fanciful. Honestly, it's like you took Dodie Smith's I CAPTURE THE CASTLE and du Maurier's REBECCA and mashed them up to glorious effect. A must-read - especially if you're a fan of Holt already, like me.

Here's a picture of the lovely hard cover I had with my fancy Pokemon card bookmark:

4 out of 5 stars!