Sunday, April 30, 2017

Silk, Swords and Surrender by Jeannie Lin

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

Jeannie Lin has been on my radar for a long time. Not only is she an #ownvoices author of historical romances featuring Chinese characters set in Tang Dynasty China (reason enough to buy her work in my opinion), but she also received an absolutely stellar review from my Goodreads friend Khanh, for her book MY FAIR CONCUBINE (a retelling of My Fair Lady).

When I saw this Harlequin title at the bookstore for 50¢, it was super easy to rationalize the purchase to myself despite my self-imposed book ban (which has been ongoing for about a year now, and clearly not working considering how often I buy books). I wasn't really a fan of her Pingkang Li mystery series, but this was a fantastic way to sample her Tang Dynasty series - or so I thought.

This isn't actually a book in the Tang Dynasty series. It's a collection of short stories set in the Tang Dynasty, some of which are loosely affiliated with the actual main books in the series, but they are not officially part of the series. Also, of the five stories included in this book, four of them have already been published as standalone short stories. Only the first title in this collection, The Touch of Moonlight, is new and previously unreleased. So if you've already read her short stories, take note: this book contains four previously published short stories you may have already read before.

As with all short story collections I review, I'm going to break this book down story by story.

The Touch of Moonlight, 841 CE: ☆☆☆

"Was it possible not to know how much you'd missed someone until you saw them again?" (13)

Definitely the best story in the collection. Lian has been in love with Baozhen since she was young, but she knows that he still sees her as a child and is so used to female affection that the only way to snag his attention is to make him jealous. So she pretends to like his friend, Liu Jinahi, and conspires to have Baozhen "help" her get closer to Jinhai, all the while conspiring to win Baozhen.

The Taming of Mei Lin, 710 CE: ☆☆☆½

"If only I could offer you wealth and privilege. Your feet would never have to touch the ground."
"I don't mind walking...beside you" (101).

This was my second favorite story in the collection, because it has an odd fairytale-like feel to it. According to the author's forward, this story was the impetus for her book, BUTTERFLY SWORDS. After Mei Lin is propositioned by the governor, she turns him down because she thinks he's gross and decrees that she won't marry anyone unless they can defeat her in battle. The governor sends thugs to intimidate her, but none can defeat her - none until one day, a stranger named Shen Leung challenges and defeats her. But he claims he doesn't want to marry her, which results in her humiliation.

This story was strange, but I did like it for the most part. The only weird thing about it that put me off and caused me to lower my rating was the fact that after Mei Lin is beaten and nearly raped, Shen thinks this is a fantastic time to have sex with her. That was a big old nope for me.

Still, I couldn't really get that mad at a story about a girl with a sword.

The Lady's Scandalous Night, 759 CE: ☆☆☆

This was another story that could have been a lot better but fell flat for me. Part of the problem with these stories is that they are so short, the author doesn't have time to flesh out their characters. They often have sex very, very quickly for the silliest of pretenses, and she tries to force some sort of connection by mentioning how the two characters in question used to be close. In this story, River and Chen were going to be married at one point, but now Chen has to kill River's brother. To save them, she seduces Chen while her family and servants escape, fully expecting to take the fall.

Incidentally, this story is apparently linked to THE DRAGON AND THE PEARL.

An Illicit Temptation, 824 BC: ☆☆

I thought this was the lamest story in the collection. Princess An-Ming is an alliance bride being taken to wed the Khitan lord. She has a secret, though: she's actually a bastard serving girl named Dao ("Peach") who is being sent in the real princess, Pearl's, place after she eloped with someone else. Escorting her is a group of Khitan warriors, including one named Kwan-Li.

This story is lame because it relies entirely on insta-love. Kwan-Li kisses Dao after she falls off her horse, for some reason, and then they have sex before she is delivered to the lord. Then Dao tells him the truth of her origins but that she plans on marrying the Khitan lord anyway. Whut.

Still, it was cool to learn a bit about the Khitan people, who I had never heard about before.

Capturing the Silken Thief, 823 BC: ☆☆☆

This is a story, as Jeannie Lin describes it, about a scholar and a song girl. Cheng is an imperial scholar who is about to take his exams. One day he is robbed by a group of bandits who have been paid for by the hero, Jia, a concubine who plays the pipa. She has confused him for someone else with a similar name who possesses a pillowbook by the famous concubine, Xue Lin. Jia wants to steal the book because she's been offered enough for it to purchase her freedom and pay her debts. Cheng ends up helping her for reasons of his own. The two end up attracted to one another....

I'm shocked to hear myself say this, but I think these short stories might have been better without all those sex scenes thrown in there. I could buy their affection for one another because sometimes extraordinary circumstances have a way of bringing us close together, but having these women simply shuck off their futures and their dreams for a night of passion didn't feel very realistic. And it happened in every single story, so that I began to roll my eyes every time they talked of "dampness."

SILK, SWORDS AND SURRENDER isn't a bad collection of short stories, though. The writing is decent, and the stories are interesting. I don't think the new story is good enough that it's worth purchasing this collection for that alone if you've already read the other four short stories, however.

3 out of 5 stars

Tremulous Hinge by Adam Giannelli

I'm not quite sure what to call the spate of poetry flooding in that basically consists of typing diary entries and adding spaces after each "sentence." I've seen it called Tumblr poetry and prose poetry. Regardless of what you want to call it, or whether or not you agree with the nature of its being in vogue, I do not like this style, and for a while it seriously had me questioning whether I even liked modern poetry at all. Well, after reading TREMULOUS HINGE, I can safely say, No, Tumblr poets. It is not me. It is you. I do like poetry.

TREMULOUS HINGE is a prize-winning collection of poems that rely on word-play, vivid visual imagery, and evocative language to convey startlingly poignant ideas. I liked nearly every poem in here except for the ones that looked like word soup (you'll know which ones I mean when I see them). The vocabulary was incredible, the ideas were complex, and the allusions were unusual.

From out of the bare serene, the stars
all striate - and you arch in monochrome,
like a rainbow above
a distant hill in a silent film (27)


In your letters too,

rise like midges (41)


Already hibiscus
stoops by the roadside, dust-dangled.
The fields resound with stridulations of crickets -
the hills torched with mist (85)

If you, like me, are feeling burned out when it comes to poetry, check out TREMULOUS HINGE. It's quite good.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 out of 5 stars

A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran

Jane Mason has been imprisoned in her aunt and uncle's household while they slowly embezzle her fortune and plot for a marriage to her cousin in order to keep her vast inheritance in the family. Because of their work, everyone assumes she is simple and shy and safely on the shelf - but beneath her quiet demeanor, she is every inch her politician father's daughter, and betrays her fiery temper one day with an unflattering embroidery of her uncle at a dinner party.

Crispin Burke is a cruel and cold man who will stop at nothing to achieve his ambitions. He sees in Jane what nobody else sees: possibility beyond her wealth. He offers her an escape from her guardians: a dupe of a marriage certificate to any man she chooses, with the provision that she spy for him. Then one day, Burke is attacked and left for dead, and Jane decides what better man to wed than a dead man?

She wasn't expecting him to revive...or that when he would, he would lack any of his previous memories and be someone altogether different.

A LADY'S CODE OF MISCONDUCT combines several of my favorite historical romance tropes into one glorious volume. The shrewish heroine, the cold and dangerous hero, amnesia, political scheming and intrigue, murder plots, and slow-burn romance.

Jane was attracted to Burke before, but only physically. In his altered condition, she finds herself slowly growing attracted to the man he has become - with her. But as she learns more about this new Crispin, she also learns more about the man he was, and how he become as cold as hard as he did, and she starts to develop a solid understanding of the gestalt of him in a way that no one else has.

I loved Crispin's character. Even when he was still acting like a jerk, he was a compelling jerk. When his concussion turned him into a beta hero, at first I was skeptical, but given what we learned about him, and how he was basically set up to fail by his own family and colleagues, it started to make sense why he would strive so hard to better himself for the woman he thought he married for love. Set this against a backdrop of politics, ambitious, and murder, with a hero who is unable to remember the very information that might save him, and you've got a hell of a plot.

I liked Jane in the beginning when she was all fire and sharp tongue, but towards the end of the book she began to be a hypocrite, and spent most of her time lecturing Burke and feeling sorry for herself. It wasn't enough to ruin the book for me, but it did turn what was going to be a five-star read for me into a four-star, as did that rather silly climax (boobytraps? really?). Duran started out very strong in this one and then everything sort of fizzled out.

A LADY'S CODE OF MISCONDUCT works as a standalone and is a solid addition to Duran's repertoire. I don't recommend reading her short stories - they are not good - but the Rules for the Reckless series is good fun, and features no-nonsense heroines and secretly-nice-jerk heroes. If you're into that, and don't mind a bit of cheese, I highly recommend them!

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 out of 5 stars

The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory: Poems by Chris Banks

I'm starting to think that "prose poetry" isn't for me. It just doesn't fit in with what comes to my mind, personally, when I think of poems. Presented before me it seems more like a ramble, or a drabble, or a collection of archived Twitter status updates.

I requested an ARC of THE CLOUD VERSUS GRAND UNIFICATION THEORY because I thought the title was intriguing and I thought the goldfish on the cover were cute. I wasn't really sure what to expect going in, but I have enjoyed much of what ECW Press sends to me, so I had faith.

TCVGUT is a collection of poems, many of them "prose poetry" but some of them done freeverse and more traditional stylings, written from the perspective of a jaded Gen-Y-er, suffering from nostalgia, ennui, and existentialism. From 1980s rock music to Orpheus, Chris Banks manages to cover a fairly broad collection of subjects and the stylistic themes are fairly unified.

Here are some of my favorite poems in this collection:
+: "All-Night Arcade"
+: "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out"
+: "Amplifier"
+: "Roadside Attractions"
+: "Dusk Till Dawn"
+: "Orpheus at Ethel's Lounge"
+: "Narrative Versus Lyric"

Here are some quotes:
"Most poems I read feel like I'm walking through someone's private zoo. One of those sad-looking affairs with a hand-painted sign just off a highway with a bear in a cage sitting with his back to you, a fox obsessively pacing the perimeter of a fence."
-Roadside Attractions

"I look out at the island knowing it stares back at me uncomprehendingly, not seeing me out here in the open, detached from everything, one with so little to hold onto, for nobody inherits the earth."

"Someone invents electric light in 1800, so our planet now resembles a gigantic Lite-Brite chandelier hanging in space."

"We write our life stories like song lyrics on album sleeves."

While reading this, I couldn't decide whether or not to give it a two-star review or a three-star review. On the one hand, it was nice to read a book geared more towards my generation than millennials, especially poems about my generation that talk about arcade games.

On the other hand, the prose poetry was tedious and written in these large hideous blocks devoid of any kind of spaces that made reading them - when I didn't even particularly want to do that in the first place - even more of a pain. Luckily, these poems are spaced out with other poems that I preferred much more, and many of these latter are actually quite good.

Ultimately, I decided to go with the 2-star rating. It's a short work, which means that the content is even more important, and the sad truth is that I really did not care for a majority of these poems.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ask For It by Sylvia Day

Before Sylvia Day made it big with her contemporary erotica - which I have nicknamed Fifty Shades of Guns - she published historical erotica. I have been curious about this author's work for a while and historical erotica seemed like it would be a better match for me than contemporary. I was thrilled to find a copy of ASK FOR IT, the first in her Georgian series, for a mere 50¢.

It starts out okay. Elizabeth and Marcus are ex-lovers who were betrothed until Elizabeth caught him with another woman. Then she broke up with him for another man, Lord Hawthorn. Hawthorn and Marcus are both spies for the Crown and when Marcus finds out that Elizabeth's a widow, he goes in for the kill. And by "kill," I mean "that booty."


The sexual tension is decent, and I enjoyed the story until about 20% in when the hero and the heroine have sex for the first time. Why? Because it's basically rape. The heroine tells him no, fights him, resists him, and his answer to this is to tie her up so she can't move, tell her it's for her own good (basically), and then resume having sex with her. There's some BS about how he's giving her "the freedom" to enjoy him without "guilt." 

Um, newsflash, bondage only works like that if there is consent, which there is clearly not in this case. Unfortunately, this is a hero who is obsessive AF and doesn't know when to BTFO. The heroine is talking to another man? She must be cheating, that slut. The heroine locks him out of her room so he won't have sex with her? Clearly the answer is to obtain a key and break into her room. The heroine flees him to one of her lesser-known estates? Follow her there, and then sneak into her bed, naked, while she's asleep, while there is another man actively making attempts on her life, because no way is she going to freak out to waking up with a strange man in her bed, nuh-uh, nope. Insane!

The author also has a fondness for certain words, which she uses excessively. I began making mental tick-marks every time they had sex (and they do have sex many, many times). Each sex scene uses some variant of the words silk/silken, clasp, cunt, fuck, cock, swirl, curl, depths, and caress. But the word she uses the most is one of the few words that guarantees an instant turn-off for me. 

I will give you one guess as to what that word is.

He ran a blunt fingertip through her cream... (72)

He jerked his hand along the length and creamy moisture leaked from the tip (75).

She gazed, eyes riveted to the sight of the thick, proud shaft slick with her cream... (80)

He fucked through [her rippling caresses] like a mad man, forcing his cock into grasping depths, dipping into the scalding cream that bathed her inner thighs and lured his seed (115).

Eyes wide, Elizabeth whimpered as the hot velvet of his tongue swirled around and between her fingers, lapping her cream (161).

...he spurted, his hot seed splashing in creamy bursts through her fingers... (164)

Then his hand was between her legs, his long middle finger slipping through the lips of her sex to glide through her cream (209).

He was ensnared, gripped tight by her lithe thighs and creamy depths... (211)

His erection, covered in her cream, grew cold, but didn't diminish (212).

His hand, drenched in her cream, cupped her breast, pinched her nipple (232).

If you guessed "cream," you won! Congratulations!

Unless I'm reading a romance between a dairymaid and a milkman, I don't want to see the words "cream" or "milk" in my erotica - and this author uses both. A lot.

Other minor annoyances:
-:The dialogue is not done to the period. The hero drops f-bombs left and right. 
-:The heroine has purple eyes. They're described as "amethyst."
-:The espionage and murder angles are incredibly half-arsed.

P.S. Here are some stewed nectarines drenched in cream.

Think fondly of me - and this book - the next time you're having your morning coffee. ;)

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine by Jay McInery

When I was younger, I didn't like wine. My young adult self took great pride in the dropped jaws that ensued when I said, smugly, "I don't like wine." Not even white? "Ew, no." That smugness quickly disappeared when the listener inevitably, equally smugly, said, "Well, you're too young to appreciate wine. It's an acquired taste." Later, as I got older, I grew to enjoy white wines, but not red. And still, whenever I expressed my preference, I received that same smug response: "Well, you're too young to appreciate red wine. It's an acquired taste." Now, I enjoy both red and white wines, so perhaps it was an acquired taste, but let me tell you, nothing is more infuriating than having someone lord their opinions over yours as being superior. Oh, I'm sorry, did I say superior? I meant acquired.

While reading A HEDONIST IN THE CELLAR, I was reminded of those smug people who told me that wine was an "acquired taste." Those people who would pick up a bottle full of liquid that, to me at the time, smelled almost overpoweringly of cleaning solution and would boast about blackberries, and old leather, and stone fruit. McInery writes like someone who thinks that his opinion is better than yours. Perhaps this isn't actually the case; it is quite possible that he is a charming, wonderful person when you're sitting down and having a meal with him (as he does quite frequently apparently with the endless list of famous friends and vintners and restaurateurs - and oh, by the way, did you know that he's friends with author Julian Barnes? Don't worry if you don't; you will be reminded several times - although I can't say I blame him. Julian Barnes is an exceptionally talented author). However, in the book it is constant name-dropping and brand-dropping. Occasionally, he will slip into French. While perusing the reviews, it seems that this affected style of writing is what put off the nay-sayers and I get that.

Here are some passages that I feel best illustrate what I mean:

I have experienced some stunning food-and-wine pairings involving black truffles and Cahors (60).

A few years back I shared a bottle of truffly, rosemary- and Montecristo-scented 1969 wiht Kermit Lynch in the cellar of the domaine and guessed it to be fifteen years younger (69).

The '59 Chambertin that Gagey poured with dinner was still brimming with sweet red fruit and hauntingly complex, somehow reminding me of a Valéry sonnet (130).

The aromatic complexity of a forty-year-old Cheval-Blanc in a great vintage such as '64 or '55 is like a catalog of minor vices: tobaco, menthol, coffee, truffles, and chocolate, to name a few (155).

When I had lunch at the restored sixteenth-century château this past spring with Clarence's granddaughter, Joan, the Duchess of Mouchy... (163)

Sometimes, it honestly felt like you could turn this book about wine into a drinking game. Take a swig from a wine box every time the author says "my friend [famous person]" or "truffles." Only, on second thought, don't do that, because that could definitely cause alcohol poisoning. 

However, it wasn't all bad. There were a few chapters I quite liked. Here are some:

The Shedistas of Santa Barbara: talks about some of the small wine producers who can't afford the big, vast, sprawling wineries and vineyards like you see in Napa, and operate out of sheds. I have been to places like these in San Francisco. They are charming but odd (and often have good or at least interesting wine).

How to Impress Your Sommelier, Part One and No More Sweet Talk, or How to Impress Your Sommelier, Part Two: These two chapters focus on Germain and Austrian Rieslings, respectively. I love Rieslings, therefore I loved these chapters. Validate me - how I crave it!

The Semi-Obscure Treasures of Alsace: This one is about Alsatian Rieslings, and how they are the "most versatile food wines in the world." Perfect for pairing with spicy Chinese food.

Jilted Lover: This is about Auberon Waugh, Evelyn Waugh's son, and he is basically the Dorothy Parker of wine critics (and, much like Parker, removed from his position for being too incendiary). This book made me want to dig up some of Waugh's writings, and learn more about him.

"A Good and Most Perticular [sic] Taste": In which McInery trolls his friend by pretending to be the wine whisper. It's actually pretty funny.

Bacchanalian Dreambook: This one was nice, too. It's about a Parisian (McInery would probably say Parisien) restaurant that, according to Wikipedia, "contains more than 450,000 bottles [of wine]". Did you hear that choked-up gasp? That was me. The wine list is apparently 400 pages long.

Fish Stories From Le Bernadin: This was another helpful chapter about pairing wine with fish (psssst...Rieslings).

What to Drink with Chocolate: Again, another helpful chapter, and more in line with what I was expecting when I picked up this book in the first place.

The Wild Green Fairy: The last couple chapters are about misc. wines and this one is about absinthe. I thought this was interesting because I tried absinthe for the first time just after I turned 21 (along with several other alcohols. I learned that I liked vodka and rum and the farther tequila and scotch stayed away from me, the better), and it has such a unique taste. I've never had anything quite like it. Absinthe has a bit of a bad rep because of some unfortunate cheap imitations that caused death because of toxic adulterants (namely antimony, I believe).

Also, I loved the shout-out to my buddies Gewürztraminer and Rioja, two delicious but vastly underrated wines. He even gave props to that much-derided pumpkin-spice-latte of wines, rosé. He often referred to it as Bandol wine, but let's be honest. You can call a PSL "that seasonal coffee with cinnamon and cloves," but it won't hide your shame. Let's call a rosé a rosé and own it.

So that concludes my exhaustive rehashing of A HEDONIST IN THE CELLAR. As far as nonfiction about food goes, it wasn't awful. I want to stress that. The writing was excellent: it is accessibility in which it fails. At least for this PSL/rosé-swilling food-plebeian. McInery is writing for a very specific niche demographic, and while this book may resonate for the "acquired taste" folks who not only enjoy but can also afford wines that cost as much as used cars, that isn't something that a lot of us can relate to. But then, who knows? Maybe my thoughts on this style of writing will change in a few years. Maybe this book is an "acquired taste." When I'm rich and famous, I'll be sure to check back.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 24, 2017

Crimson Night by Trisha Baker

It's not exactly a secret that I like dark romance novels, especially when it comes to bodice rippers and vampire novels. CRIMSON KISS was basically a combination of both, and I really enjoyed it, despite the dark content. And trust me, there was a lot of dark content: sexual, physical, and psychological torture; rape and abuse; bloody or gory descriptions; mentions of pedophilia & bestiality. It could have been a really awful book but I felt for the most part that Trisha Baker handled the content well. The relationship between Meghann and Simon Baldevar was obviously an unhealthy one, and even when she kept going back to him again and again, it was obvious that she was still caught up in his web. CRIMSON KISS made me feel uncomfortable, but it was also an interesting portrait of twisted characters who become infinitely more debauched and depraved with the jaded ennui that comes from immortality.

CRIMSON NIGHT is...not like that. First, let me just say that if you choose to write your (anti)hero as twisted as Simon is, you have two choices if you want him to end up with the heroine: he either (a) has to enter one hell of a redemption arc (and have a viable reason for wanting to do so), or (b) has to completely and utterly break the heroine psychologically, to the point that it becomes a grim Stockholm syndrome mess. I have seen stories that took both routes, and one usually becomes a dark romance, and the other a dark tragedy. Those are really the only two options when it comes to antihero "love" interests, but I got the impression that Baker wasn't sure which route to pick, so she tried to do both at the same time.

It did not work.


CRIMSON KISS was a portrait of abuse. Simon isolated Meghann from her family, tortured her, abused her, forced her to kill and torture others (including her ex-fiance). He came damn close to killing her, just to prove a point! She was kept in isolation, unless he wanted to parade her around in front of others as a trophy to exert his power over her and show just how confident he was that she couldn't escape. When Meghann did escape, she wasn't just trying to kill him for her freedom. No, she was subverting his control, which he took personally. This was the set-up for what I thought was going to be an intense revenge arc, with the two of them resorting to bloody Machiavellian schemes to get back at one another, culminating in either hate-infused lust, or a twisted mutual respect (like the kind that Hannibal had for Clarice).

Instead, in CRIMSON NIGHT, I honestly felt that Baker set about ret-conning the events of the previous book. First, Simon decides that he doesn't want revenge on Meghann because she didn't really mean to kill him. It was an "accident." At first I thought this was arrogance on his part, but Meghann also seems to corroborate this later on. Boom - angsty revenge plot out the window. Second, Meghann starts looking back on her past with Simon with a rosy lens. She talks about the fun outings they had together, how much she enjoyed having sex with him. It's been a while since I read the book, but I don't remember this happening. She was miserable all the time. She was his prisoner. She was embarrassed by his weird kinks and depressed about being his sexual prisoner. Seeing his treatment of her seemingly romanticized like this really put a bad taste in my mouth.

Simon is still a bad guy in this book. His treatment of his sire, Nicholas, was awful. At one point, he uses his mind powers to convince someone to commit suicide. He disparages the two wives he had before Meghann for being unattractive (I think he describes her as being like "lard") and weak, respectively. He refers to the gay vampire, Charles, as a sodomite/catamite so many times that I lost count. There are some graphic descriptions of torture in this book, as in the other, but they are less frequent. Mostly, we just get to see Simon demean other women (and gay people), while Meghann admires his thickly lined pockets, sexual prowess, and predilection for intimidating people.

Then there was some stuff that was just weird. Weird sexual things involving blood and lactation (almost all the sex in this book involves blood, so if that's a squick factor for you, be forewarned). The vampire pregnancy. The science used to explain said pregnancy (this was actually kind of cool). Simon's druidic/alchemical powers. Demon summoning. Entire swaths of the story set in Elizabethan England (and more ret-conning to make Simon look like a more sympathetic character). This story was just...weird. Uncomfortably weird. Weirdly uncomfortable. Uncomforweird.

You're probably asking yourself why I didn't give it a one-star since I hated it so much. Well, that's the thing. I didn't hate it. I hated the romance, and I hated Simon, and by the end of the story I even hated Meghann because she was just so passive and idiotic. But I didn't hate the story. I couldn't put the book down, and finished it in a day. I've never read a vampire story quite like this.

Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is entirely up to you.

3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

An Unseen Attraction by K.J. Charles

This is the third book I have read by K.J. Charles, and the second M/M work of historical fiction. I was especially excited to pick up AN UNSEEN ATTRACTION because not only does it feature a neurodivergent person of color as one of the heroes, it's also an exciting murder mystery set in Victorian England.

Clem is a shy, awkward man who keeps to himself. He runs a boarding house for his half-brother and has always been satisfied with that. He also has a crush on one of his tenants: an intense, quiet man named Rowley who works in a taxidermist shop. There's an attraction between the two of them that seems especially promising, given their chemistry and their sexual compatibility, but then one of Clem's other tenants shows up dead one day, and the romance is put on hold.

K.J. Charles is a very good writer, and whether she's writing M/M or het, I can always count on fast-paced spare prose that manages to fit whatever atmosphere she's writing about. When she wrote about a hostess in Japan who got mixed up with the mafia, she was convincing. When she wrote about a Victorian boarding house owner of mixed ancestry, she was convincing. That is a talent to be lauded, and I am lauding!

I really enjoyed Rowley as a character. His troubled past and strong, intense personality were very attractive. I also liked that he was sexually submissive. There's a common stereotype in fiction that people with dominant personalities want to be dominant in bed, which is not always the case, and I think this is the first time I have seen that shown in fiction. Clem, I liked less at first. I felt like he was too quick to accuse Rowley of working against him. Given his history of being condescended to or misunderstood, I could understand that, but it was annoying to see him constantly getting angry at Rowley whenever he tried to help him, or projecting his own insecurities onto someone else.

The murder was well done. I had an idea of who was behind it and was sort of right, sort of wrong. Charles paints an exceptionally vivid portrait of how unpleasant Victorian England could be. I also liked the inclusion of taxidermy, which was a popular hobby in Victorian times. There was a cutting dig at Walter Potter's cheesy tableaux, too, which made me laugh, because a few years ago my lovely Goodreads friend karen sent me a copy of WALTER POTTER'S CURIOUS WORLD OF TAXIDERMY and it remains one of my favorite coffee table books to this day.

If you enjoy M/M, this will be a great addition to your collection. It's darker than some of K.J. Charles's other series that I've read, but that really works here and sets the tone for the story. I really can't wait to see where she goes with the other books in this series.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Status Update by Annabeth Albert

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

While looking at my books a few months ago, it occurred to me how most of the romance novels I read are about straight, white characters. I've been trying to change that, by incorporating some new and different titles into my usual mix of historicals. This week, I've been focused on M/M titles in particular, and while sussing out my options, I realized I owned four books by Annabeth Albert. Which pairing should I read? The geek/geek, the military/military, or the geek/military? My goodness, it's like a Punnett square of M/M romance. (And that's probably one of the nerdiest comparisons you'll ever hear in one of my reviews, but in honor of the #sciencemarches happening today, that seems appropriate.)

Ultimately, I decided to go with the geek/geek pairing. STATUS UPDATE is about a lumbersexual archeologist professor named Noah from Utah and a game designer named Adrian from LA. They meet by pure happenstance when Adrian and his boyfriend have a fight and he gets ditched at an RV park. Since it's below freezing, Noah grudgingly invites Adrian and his little dog too to stay with him and his dog. They have an instant attraction to each other, but it's hindered by the fact that Noah is pretty religious and has internalized his religion to the point that he hasn't just not come out, he's afraid to because of what it would mean for his family, his career, his religion, and the society in which he lives.

Noah was an intensely complicated character, and reading this book made me sad, because there are a lot of people out there who can't come out because they're afraid of what coworkers, employers, family members, and neighbors would think and that really breaks my heart. I liked his sort of tsundere personality, where he seems gruff and imposing at first, but is actually super compassionate and intelligent and deep if you manage to get below the surface. That's one of my favorite character types. Adrian, on the other hand, annoyed me. He was incredibly self-centered, and I began actively disliking him the moment Noah said he felt uncomfortable with flirting and Adrian did it anyway because he thought it was hilarious to make Noah uncomfortable. No. Noah had to worry about judgment his whole life, and while f*cking with someone for any reason like that isn't very nice, it felt especially wrong to see someone as emotionally fragile as Noah be subject to this treatment.

As they get involved, this becomes a pattern. Adrian constantly pushes Noah beyond his comfort zones. He mocks Noah about his reading habits and his porn, again thinking how amusing it is with how uncomfortable he is about discussing his sexuality. He pushes Noah into having sex with him, especially after he finds out Noah is a virgin. When they do end up together, Adrian starts asking him how he feels about having kids before they're even really officially a couple, and gets hurt feelings when Noah gets uncomfortable and dismisses the topic. When he finds out that Noah doesn't really want to pursue the relationship after that because he's afraid it will complicate his job (he works at a christian school and is about to get tenure), Adrian accuses him of ruining his (Adrian's) Christmas and then tells him (Noah) that he's ruining his (Noah's) life. Wow, what a charmer.

Noah does end up giving up his job at the university because he doesn't want to live in hiding anymore. The scene when he comes out to his family is so touching, probably one of the best parts of the book in my opinion. I loved that the author pointed out that some Christians do practice tolerance, because they don't feel it's up to them to judge, and that many churches are becoming more progressive. It's a really nice idea, since so often we hear about the ones who aren't. I also loved how Noah is validated for being brave for coming out and pursuing another job in greener fields. I just wished it had been with a more likable character, because I really didn't like Adrian.

Overall, STATUS UPDATE falls into the "barely okay" category. I wasn't particularly blown away by the sex scenes (because to me, the characters didn't really have any chemistry, and reading about sex where there's no chemistry does nothing for me at all). The writing was borderline sub-par. You know what it felt like, now that I'm thinking about it, is one of those pulpy Harlequin novels from the 90s with the throwaway characters who don't really have personalities that dive into a whirlwind romance that lasts just shy of the 200 page mark, at which point they have their happily-ever-after. It was just like that, except with two male characters instead of a male and female character. Since it's branded pretty heavily about being a "geek" romance, I was disappointed that the author didn't explore the culture more. Video games and tech culture? Yes, please! But no, there was none of that. Boo hiss. If you love M/M books, you might enjoy this more than I did. It's not badly written and neither of the characters is odious. I'm hoping that the geek/military and military/military ones might be better....

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 20, 2017

All About Passion by Stephanie Laurens

The Cynster series appears alongside a lot of other series I like, such as The Gamblers and Wallflowers series, so I've been meaning to get my hands on one of Stephanie Laurens books for a long time. When ALL ABOUT PASSION showed up at the local thrift store for 50¢, it seemed like the time had dawned for me to start living in Cyn(ster). That was a terrible joke and I'm sorry. But in a way that is actually perfect, because this was a pretty terrible book.

The plot is convoluted and I did not take notes, but basically it goes like this: Gyles Rawlings, Earl of Chillingsworth (heir to Dickensian surname), needs to take a bride, and what better bride than the woman whose inheritance is the property adjoining his estate? When he goes to seek her hand, he addresses not her but her uncle(?), and makes it clear that theirs is to be a loveless marriage where all he expects of her is an heir. When he spies a pretty blonde woman in the distance sitting quietly, whom her aunt calls "Franni", he naturally assumes that this is Francesca, the woman who is to be his bride. So naturally, when he crashes into a curvaceous buxom woman on his way out, he has no idea who she is, only that he wants her - immediately. He calls her "the gypsy," and waxes poetic on how his loins simply cannot even. I began to imagine him as Frollo, from Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, singing about raven hair and blazing out of all control.

It is literally that dramatic.


Guess what. Francesca and Frances (Franni) are cousins. If you think that this ridiculous coincidence is the pretense for a very long case of mistaken identity, you are correct. Francesca thinks that Gyles wants to marry her. So does Franni. Gyles thinks he's going to marry Franni, his biddable wife, and that Francesca is some random strumpet who is eager to lie in bed with him and plans to make her his mistress after just making the proposal of marriage to who he thinks is Francesca. If you think this is cheek, yes, yes it is. This results in 100+ pages of drahma, culminating in the wedding, where Gyles, who by ridiculous coincidence, has managed to avoid meeting his bride in any formal circumstances where someone could have corrected his error, realizes who he is marrying. Francesca, of course, figured it out when he had sex with her and referred to his bride to be in third person. She is outraged, but keeps having sex with him instead of correcting him and/or walking away. Rather than admit to his mistake, he and Francesca go forward with the wedding. They've already had sex by this point and continue to do so every other chapter (oh my God), but Gyles keeps insisting that their marriage is to be loveless. They basically torment each other for another 200 pages while Francesca succeeds in charming every member of the house staff, all of Gyles's male and female acquaintances, and every single eligible man within radius of the castle. They make each other jealous, talk about entertaining other lovers for their loveless marriage, and generally just petty the pet out of pettiness.

In the last quarter of the book, Laurens pulls a Lisa Kleypas and introduces a murder plot. Someone is trying to kill Francesca! They spend ages figuring it out when it is literally so obvious who it is that I knew from the moment the first suspicious goings-on began happening. Who is it? Franni! Why? Because she is mentally ill and has created this elaborate delusion that she and Gyles are in love, and he's only marrying Francesca for money, and he secretly wants Franni to kill Francesca for him.

Oh boy.

Oh boy.

It's getting late over here, so let me sum up some of the key issues I took with this book.

Gyles is an idiot asslord. His reason for wanting a loveless marriage is some sob story where he got hurt (his dad died when he was a child), and he decides loving hurts so he's not going to do it again. So he chooses this super selfish route of marrying one woman and then deciding to take a mistress immediately after making a wedding a proposal.

He's also a rapey asslord. Check out this swoon-worthy line:

If he'd taken her to the ground, no power on earth would have stopped him from taking her - passionately, violently, regardless of the pain he would have caused her (58).

This is after running her down through the woods on his horse. You know, like Frollo does in Hunchback of Notre Dame. (Is Gyles actually Frollo? Is his middle name Claude? I began to seriously wonder.)

Oh, but that's not the end of his charms. My no. He slut-shames, too. Check out this line:

"If you thought [Franni] was me, who did you think I was?"
"I thought" - the words were bitten off - "that you were a gypsy. Too consciously well endowed and far too bold to be a young lady." He took a prowling step toward her. "I thought you a bold and eager companion" (125).

Despite Francesca's boldness, she's still a virgin (or was), but the hero is blown away at how amazingly good at sex Francesca is. Unlike many other authors, Laurens attempts to provide an explanation for the heroine's knowledge. Which would be admirable, were it not this reason:

"My parents."
"They taught you?"
 "No. I watched....I was an only child....When I was young, my bedroom connected to theirs. They always left the door open, so they would hear if I called. I used to wake and go in...sometimes they didn't...notice. After a while, I'd go back to my bed. I didn't understand, not until later, but I remember" (142).

Congratulations, book. I think that is one of the creepiest things I've read in a romance in a while. And this is coming from someone who can't stay away from 70s bodice rippers, so that says something.

Later, they come back to this topic again, like it's an inside joke.

"Didn't you ever watch your parents?"
"Good God, no!"
"You've led a sheltered life, my lord" (176).

Hmm, I think I have to side with the asslord on this. That's not sheltered. That's just not watching your freaking parents have sex like it's the regency version of Skinemax. Staaaahp.

Then there's the treatment of Franni in this book. She has some sort of mental illness that is unspecified. At first, I thought she was developmentally disabled because everyone made an (annoying) point of talking about how simple and childlike she was (cringe). But then, later, they also say that she has delusions and makes up fantasies that are only half-rooted in reality. And then at the end of the book, it's revealed that this runs in her family: it's a hereditary illness that only affects the women in the family and usually only after they turn twenty. It must be deusexmachinitus.

Anyway, whatever she has, the way it was portrayed did not really sit well with me. Gyles calls her biddable when he thinks she's Francesca, and says she's the perfect "cipher." Which I just looked up, and it appears to mean "nonentity." So he's basically saying that she's this inconsequential thing who will not impede upon his ambitions. Francesca is no better, talking down to her cousin like a child, always describing her as childlike and blank.

Then we get lines like this:

She was neither cloying nor snide; she displayed none of the usual behaviors he deplored. His aversion was primitive, instinctive - not easy to explain (249).


"I'd be tempted to say she's softheaded, or to use a vulgar but appropriate term, dicked in the nob, yet that's not quite it. She's perfectly lucid if a bit simple..." (262)

Since this is, what, the seventh book in the series, I thought that maybe I just caught the series on the downward trend. It's hard to keep a book series going strong, especially once you get past book #4 or so. But then I checked out reviews of the first book and happened to see my friend Daniella's review of the first book, DEVIL'S BRIDE. So many of the things I took issue with, like a crazy amount of sex scenes, inconsistent characterization, and yes, even adultery (or cheating, I suppose, since it wasn't technically adultery yet at this point) are all present in her review.

I was not a fan of ALL ABOUT PASSION. The mistaken identity thing was done fairly poorly, but I was still on board for all the love-to-hate-you UST until they started going at it nonstop and all their relationship tension started to come from "to have adultery or to not have adultery?"-type dilemmas. I was also not really happy with how Franni was portrayed, nor that she was mentally ill and that her being mentally ill was the premise for her wanting to kill the heroine Hand that Rocks the Cradle-style. She even hires some men to take Francesca away, where it is implied that Francesca will probably be held in captivity and raped until her baby is born (forgot to mention she's pregnant at this point), at which point the baby will be brought to Franni to raise (since her aunt told her she isn't allowed to have children because she's mentally ill) with Gyles. I thought that was really messed-up (and also inconsistent because if Franni is too "simple" to walk around by herself, how the hell would she think to go out and hire a bunch of criminals, trick Francesca into meeting her, and execute this plan?), and it didn't mesh well with all the other stuff was going on. Also, making the villains mentally ill is a trope that has been done to death, and really ought to stop. I thought about giving this book a one-star review, but I managed to read it in just under two days. It was so hypnotically bad that I was unable to put it down. I had to see what happened next. That ought to count for something.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Punk 57 by Penelope Douglas

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

You know when you're ordering a really strong drink from a bar, and it's got a lot more alcohol in it than you thought, to the point that you can almost taste the hangover over the rum and artificial fruit, and you think to yourself, "This is a bad idea" but then drink it anyway, and order another because YOLO? That's me every time I pick up a new adult book. I tell myself, "Nenia, you're going to regret this, don't do it, you're not going to like it."

But trashy erotica novels, like booze, are easy to do to excess.

This is my second book by Penelope Douglas. The first I've read from her was CORRUPT, and that was lent to me by a kind GR friend via Kindle. I thought CORRUPT was okay, with reservations. I don't normally go in for erotica, especially erotica that reads like straight-up porn. All the men in that book were misogynistic and rapey, too, which added another level of nope. But the plot was decent and she was good at setting a decent pace, so I sort of half-enjoyed, half-wtf'd my way through the thing and at the end of the book, I wasn't mad. It was a flawed but decent read.

PUNK 57 I bought myself, which already means that I'm going to be an eensy bit more critical of it because I'm spending my hard-earned money on the book and judging it accordingly. PUNK 57 was our book of the month in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group for April, and as someone who had read her work previously, I was interested in seeing how it had changed from CORRUPT.


PUNK 57 is about two characters, Misha and Ryen, who are both in high school. They are also pen pals, although they have never met face to face before. Misha is punk and in a band and has piercings. Ryen is a cheerleader and preppy and into things like TWILIGHT and HARRY POTTER. After a tragedy happens in his life, Misha ends up going to Ryen's school under the name Masen for reasons that don't actually have anything to do with Ryen. When he realizes that she's not what he built her up to be on his imaginary pedestal, he gets angry and embarks on a mission to make her life hell. This, I actually didn't mind so much. It reminded me of Hana Yori Dango. A-hole heroes are actually a weakness of mine provided that a) the heroine reacts to this behavior accordingly and b) it takes a heck of a lot of groveling before the characters finally end up together.

This does not happen in PUNK 57. Ryen is attracted to this mean behavior, despite herself, and the two of them have several sex scenes that have this really uncomfortable element that was also present in CORRUPT that is neither healthy nor entirely consensual (at least, that's how it felt to me). And it wasn't the fact that it wasn't 100% consensual at times that bothered me so much as the fact that Ryen seemed to be embracing this behavior as natural and something she needed. Example: at one point Misha/Masen breaks into her house while she's sleeping and catches her in bed naked. He assumes, naturally, that any woman who is naked must be entertaining male company, and makes an effort of looking around for that Other Man. When he realizes that she was actually masturbating, he asks her if she was thinking of him. Me, I'd be on the phone with the cops well before that point, but she lets him watch. Ew. He's also constantly getting physical with her and making her feel bad about herself, whether it's berating her for being fake or criticizing her clothes for being too sexy - because how dare she bring male attention upon herself. Like it's her fault for them looking or some BS. In keeping with this "me man, woman mine" caveman attitude, the sex is always big man alpha sex, of the cervix-slamming variety (you know the kind I mean) and I know some people enjoy this, and that's fine, but that isn't my cup of tea at all. I rolled my eyes a lot. Especially when they try anal - without lube - and all she feels is a tiny burn. Ha! Woman must have Superman's butthole if he can go in dry and not cause her any pain, that's all I'm going to say.

I will say that the twist at the end with Misha's mom took me off-guard. I wasn't expecting that, although in hindsight it explains a lot. Like I said before, with CORRUPT, plotting isn't a weakness of Ms. Douglas's. But the confrontation and the way it was carried out left a similarly bad taste in my mouth, because it was a perfect mirror of his behavior towards Ryen and how it was actually pretty abusive. Misha is one of those guys who expects women to behave in certain ways, and if they violate that way at all, they are automatically bad. Ryen failed to live up to his sweet nerdy girl fantasy, so she becomes the whore in his eyes. Misha's mom couldn't take motherhood, so she becomes the horrible bitch who is responsible for all the problems in his life. It's the Madonna/whore complex, and I hate the Madonna/whore complex. Also, I'm realizing that I kind of hate Misha. I didn't want him to have an HEA with the heroine, because in my opinion, he never redeemed himself. He played the "Baby, I'm damaged" card and she completely bought it, final sale.

Two things I did like (so this review ends on a positive note): I like how the author incorporates music into her stories. That was something I liked about CORRUPT as well, especially since her taste in music is pretty similar to mine. I also liked how she had characters from CORRUPT cameo in PUNK 57, even if it was the creeps. Am I surprised that Misha knows/is friends with those creeps? No. He's a creep, too. Creeps of a feather flock together. (No, bad Nenia - stay positive!)

I didn't hate this book. I was afraid I would, but I didn't. Bar a few typos, it was fairly well written and had an interesting story. As much as I gripe, I must admit that I wasn't bored while reading it. It also has a Colleen Hoover-esque title whose meaning becomes clear at some point in the story, which is cool. Like Colleen Hoover, I think this author is capable of writing something some day that I will really enjoy. I like dark fiction, and I like suspense novels. She just needs to fine-tune the way she writes her heroes and sex scenes, and then we'll be golden.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 17, 2017

MAD About Trump: A Brilliant Look at Our Brainless President by Various

Oh, Various. You are prolific, aren't you? You've written about everything from Irish folklore to books about the best jokes, the most beautiful jokes, fantastic jokes. Obviously, when I saw that this prolific author had published a book making fun of Trump, I had to have it. I blew off watching Archer to read MAD ABOUT TRUMP, that's how thrilled I was. Archer. The new one.

First, a disclaimer. This is not going to be a pro-Trump review. Imagine that. A woman with a Women's March picture as her Goodreads profile photo (the SF one, no less) and the tagline "flagrant liberal" in her username reading a book that's making fun of Trump not being pro-Trump. It seems intuitive, I know, but I actually had someone accusing me of having an "agenda" a few months ago, and I had to laugh at that, because agenda usually implies that you're trying to hide your sinister schemes under some other sort of pretense and Blue's Clues is more subtle than that.

You know what they say. Sometimes the cigar is actually a d*ck pic.

MAD ABOUT TRUMP is a bit of a mixed bag. There are some genuinely funny passages in here, and some passages like Living Dead apprentice that just made me roll my eyes and scoff. I must say that I was impressed by the range. There's everything from movie poster art to comic panels to magazine pages to fake advertisements to poems and pretty much everything in between. The humor level ranges from sophisticated to low-brow (which is typical of MAD), so in a way, that's nice, because it almost guarantees that there is something in here for everyone, no matter your tastes.

Some of my favorites were the conservative Christmas carols for post-Trump election x-mas; the new presidential seal (replace the bald eagle with the bird from Twitter); a GQ mock-up featuring the cabinet picks that gets salty AF; a pretty brilliant Family Circus parody; an equally brilliant Suicide Squad Parody called "Donald Trump's Moral Slide Squad" (featuring Kellyann Conway as "Hardly Coherent"); a fake Shopkins advert called Trumpkins; and probably my personal favorite of the collection: an Undercover Boss Parody called "Undercover Boob."

Also, to whomever formatted this book: at first my heart sank when I realized that it was basically just scanned pages of the comic book as it would be read in hard copy form with both pages spread - but bless you for having the text on each page stand alone on each page, instead of forcing me to flip back and forth. It was very readable in e-book format, so that's something to keep in mind, as well.

Honestly, with what's been going on in the world lately, I needed this collection to make me laugh. And it did, a little. Enough to count. The beginning of the collection is a tad uneven, but it gets a lot better as you get closer to the end. (For some reason, they put a lot of the cheap laughs up front.) I was afraid it would be silly, but I actually ended up enjoying this comic book quite a bit! If you're tired AF of seeing BS on the news, and are currently between episodes of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Late Night with Seth Meyers, pick this book up when it comes out in June.

To quote Indra Devi: "Laughter drives shouting away."

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

A lot of people say that certain books make them cry, but when I pick up that book, I feel nothing. It's like trying to squeeze a rock to get water; I just don't tend to cry when I read. Well, THE HATE U GIVE made me cry. It also made me laugh. It made me smile. It made me so angry that at times I was literally shaking. It made me uncomfortable, it made me reflective, and - perhaps most importantly of all - it made me think.

Starr Carter lives in what she calls "the ghetto," AKA Garden Heights. After she watched a childhood friend shot in the street, her mother enrolled her in a prestigious private school. Now, she lives her life with a foot in two very different worlds. By day, she's with her non-black friends and her white boyfriend in a school filled with kids who think nothing of their privilege. By night, she lives in a cramped house in a bad neighborhood where gunfire is common and gang activity is a viable source of income.

She resigns herself to the fact that she doesn't really fit into either "niche" and changes the way she acts and speaks depending on which group she's with at the time. Friends and family are a delicate balancing act, but she's happy, and she's loved, and she has friends both at school and at home. Then she drives home with a friend and gets pulled over by a cop & sees him killed before her eyes.

What follows is an incredibly powerful story that follows Starr as her friend's death ripples through the news and gains widespread attention. It becomes an allegory for the very real problem of prejudice that exists in our society, and raises important questions about racism. That racism can be internalized, or expressed by people we care about. That it can be accidental or premeditated. That it can be institutionalized. That it isn't limited by color or gender. That no matter the form or the medium, it is harmful, and has devastating consequences when it is allowed to fester and grow.

I loved Starr's voice. She is an incredibly likable character. She has hobbies, she works hard in school, and she struggles to find her voice as the adult she will one day become. I loved her interactions with her family, especially her parents and uncle. Her friends, Maya, Jess, and Kenya, were great. I side-eyed her relationship with Chris at first, but he redeemed himself, and by the end of the book I was so impressed by how their relationship developed. He was a different person by the end of the book. Because of Starr. This is a heroine with agency, who is independent and flawed but kind and compassionate. By the end of the book, I was so invested in her story. She felt so real.

THUG is an important book because it mirrors many actual real events that have happened, and serves as a sort of call to action for people to examine their own thoughts and attitudes and the effects that their actions can have on others. It also shows the importance of speaking up and being heard, and how that isn't always easy as others say it is, especially in the wake of a traumatic event (much like Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK).

I want to say so much more about this book, but I don't want to spoil anything or express myself poorly, so let me just say that this should be required reading and whether you love it or hate it, THUG is one of those books that is so different and so powerful and so raw that it will change the way you see the world.

5 out of 5 stars

Everafter: The Pandora Protocol, Volume 1 by Lilah Sturges

Wow, it's been forever since I finished and reviewed a book (read: days). Is it cheating that it's a comic book? Maybe. But it's a DC imprint - and an advanced copy, at that. Cue excitement, because DC has turned down probably hundreds of requests for ARCs from me over the last four years. They, and Disney-Hyperion, are responsible for crushing so many of my book dreams, that when I found out I'd been approved to read not just EVERAFTER but also SUPERGIRL, I shrieked in disbelief and excitement.

Note to readers of this book: from what I understand from the credits ascribed to this book (and please correct me if I am wrong), the original creator of Fables, Bill Willingham, does not appear to be associated with this work. That was a major bummer to me, because I loved the story of the original Fables series. It had a dark, film noir aspect to it, like Once Upon a Time meets Sin City, and the artwork was fantastic.

The art in EVERAFTER is not bad, either. I like the comic books that go for a more realistic style without super beefed up characters - not everyone has to look like an action figure. It's just as gritty as the Fables I remember, except the gore factor has upped. There were three or four disembowlings in here, to the point where I started to wonder if I picked up an AU version of The Walking Dead by mistake. There are even zombies in here. Zombies. In a Fables spin-off. What is going on?

The apocalypse.


I don't want to spoil too much and to be honest, I was so confused by the events in this book that I'm not sure I could do an adequate synopsis. But basically, the Fables have created this supernatural agency responsible for protecting humans against magic. The story is set in San Francisco, which I loved, because I'm from the Bay, and involves evil Native American spirits and a girl who can resurrect zombies and who has a unicorn familiar named *snicker* "Mister Prisms."

For most of the book, I considered giving the book a two star rating. The story was too dark and really confusing. I had assumed that because it was a spin-off and the first in a series, I would be able to go in cold. After finishing, I'm no longer sure that's true and am interested in seeing what people who've actually completed the series think. That said, the book started to pick up towards the end, and I loved, loved, the short story at the end about Szymon the magician. That was more what I expected from EVERAFTER: a magical character study, with depth and tragedy and humor. This book gets an extra star solely because of the awesome short story at the back that I almost - foolishly - skipped.

Takeaway points:
1. Way too many pictures of intestines outside of the human body.
2. I still have no idea what the hell was going on for 80% of the book.
3. Jordan Yow is kind of awesome and I want a Mister Prisms plushie of my own.
4. Connor Wolf is sexy AF.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Captain of My Heart by Danelle Harmon

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

Heather, Sarah, and I decided to do an impromptu buddy read of CAPTAIN OF MY HEART because it was free, and as the mods of the Unapologetic Romance Readers group, it is our job to read as many romances as unapologetically as possible. #ReadDangerously

I was skeptical about this book from the beginning and only downloaded it because it was free. Why? A) that title, and B) this book was originally published in 1992, and you guys know how I feel about 90s bodice rippers (or should by now, considering how often I complain about them in my reviews - have you been following me?!).

So with low expectations, I began reading this book, and found myself...actually impressed.

CAPTAIN OF MY HEART opens up with action. We're introduced to Brendan Merrick, a charming, half-British, half-Irish flag-captain who is beloved by all his crew. When he finds out one of his immediate subordinates is mistreating members in exceedingly cruel ways, he immediately sets out to put a stop to it. But that man - Richard Crichton - is a villain of every sense of the word. He shoots Brendan's sister, Eveleen, shattering her hand, and then shoots Brendan as well, knocking him overboard. With no one the wiser, Crichton tells his superiors Brendan turned traitor, gets his position, and continues his villain unchecked.

Meanwhile, America is currently in the midst of its Revolutionary War. Mira is an overzealous patriot who enjoys dressing in men's clothing, fighting with her fists, singing boisterous songs, rescuing stray cats and then sneaking them into her house (they're called Rescue Efforts and they have numbers), and baking inedible pies. Her brother, Matt, is a privateer who leads his men against British ships to either sink or rob. When Brendan washes ashore, everyone assumes he's a no-good British spy, but it turns out he's actually her father's newest client with a ship design that's never been done before, but will make her father both famous and rich.

The romance unfolds against the backdrop of war, as well as Crichton's revenge quest for the man he felt robbed him of both his honor and his rights. The descriptions of the ships are wonderful, and the schooner that Brendan commissions, Kestrel, is pretty much a character herself. I can't imagine how much research went into this book, but it must have been a lot. The detail is incredible, and it seems like the author knows what she's talking about (I don't know for sure, though. What I know about ships could fill a thimble, and there would still be plenty of room left over for the thumb).

Crichton was a great villain. He was scary without being ridiculous, and his obsession with bringing Brendan down really kept the plot going. I loved Brendan. He's not one of those rapey heroes who still desperately tries to pretend he's the good guy that you see so often in 90s bodice rippers. He's a genuinely nice guy, and his charm seduces its way off the pages, making the reader go, "Faith!"

When Brendan's sister, Eveleen, is introduced, she and the heroine don't like each other and there is some body shaming that made me go, "Okay, here we go..." But then Eveleen's character is developed more, and to my surprise, Harmon did a halfway decent job portraying emotional eating. Eveleen and Mira bond, and Mira actually helps her exercise to lose weight and helps give her a renewed sense of confidence in herself. She loses the weight slowly, and learns to deal with the hand that was disfigured by Crichton's bullet. I really enjoyed her story arc a lot, because it isn't often that you see female characters who aren't the heroine developed so fully.

I could never really figure out whether Mira annoyed or amused me. I loved the Rescue Efforts (because I am a cat lady), and it was refreshing to read about a heroine who was genuinely a bad-ass and not just playing at one. It was cool to see her beating the crap out of people and manning the guns on a ship with deadly accuracy. Towards the beginning of the last quarter of the book, however, she does something pretty terrible to Brendan with devastating consequences, and it was really annoying to me because I've read several books about heroines who do annoying things because of a Misunderstanding, and then end up doing something drastic instead of just talking it out with the hero. She feels terrible about it later, as she should have, but I couldn't bring myself to like her as much after that. It tipped the scales too much in favor of "impetuous" instead of "endearing."

CAPTAIN OF MY HEART is a great book, though. The pacing is uneven, but the scenes with action and romance are well done, and all of the characters stand out as individuals. You'll be amused by Mira's family's terrifying fights, Brendan's rather eccentric crew, and the personality of Kestrel, the ship who doesn't have time for your games. It's got wonderful nautical descriptions and a villain who is genuinely creepy. Okay, 90s bodice rippers, you win this time. I surrender...

Read Heather's review here, and Sarah's review here.

P.S. I see that the Kindle edition I read was "updated and revised." I'm always curious to hear what's changed from the first edition. Does anyone have an idea? Inquiring minds want to know!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Sweetest Regret by Meredith Duran

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

I have to say, it feels weird reading a romance about Christmas in April. Kind of like if you were to go to the grocery store, looking for adorable chocolate eggs for the kiddies, and happened upon a dusty red-and-green package of candy canes. You can't help asking yourself, "How long have these been here? Is it even any good?"

I've only read one book by Meredith Duran. It was FOOL ME TWICE. I really enjoyed that book, because it employed one of my guilty pleasure tropes (Byronic hero falls in love with his servant). I couldn't wait to start SWEETEST REGRET. My expectations were incredibly high. I know they say not to judge a book by its cover, but how could a book with a cover like that possibly be bad?

SWEETEST REGRET is not a full-length book, which I could have found out more quickly if I had bothered to look up the book beforehand. I did not. The story revolves around "Georgie," the daughter of a British diplomat. He's hosting a number of European guests for the holidays but is called away to Constantinople last minute on business. In his absence, he gives Georgie the task of searching through the guests' rooms for a letter of the utmost importance, which he claims that one of them has in all likelihood stolen.

Also tasked with The Purloined Letter Caper is Georgie's father's protegee, Lucas Godwin. Awkwardly enough, Lucas and Georgie have a history together. They were very much involved two years ago until Lucas abruptly ceased all contact with her, thereby breaking her heart.

This is a second-chance romance with a "twist" ending that's reminiscent of THE NOTEBOOK and made me think that Georgie's father was an arse weasel. For a foreign diplomat to do what he did, well, that's just asking for an international incident, don't you think? It was difficult to be too angry, though. The story is much too short for the reader to get very emotionally involved in Georgie and Lucas's affairs. Short stories are difficult to pull off. Even authors I like, like Alyssa Cole, can't always pull them off. Courtney Milan is one of the few romance authors whose short stories truly excel, and yet even she has her misses as well. And Duran is no Milan when it comes to short stories.

SWEETEST REGRET is a harmless, fluffy romance with a bizarre plot that traverses the line between nonsensical and amusing. The Christmas theme makes it ideal for romance challenges like the one I am currently participating in, and the length ensures that even if it is not an enjoyable read, it will at least be a quick one. I have read worse, though, and both of these characters were decent and likable, despite their blandness. If you're looking for something short and sweet, you could certainly do far worse. Do check out FOOL ME TWICE, though. It's much, much better than this!

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Simply Irresistible by Rachel Gibson

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

I went through a chick-lit phrase during my first two years of college, during which time I devoured any book I could find as long as it had a pink cover. One of these books was called LOLA CARLYLE REVEALS ALL by Rachel Gibson. I barely remember what the book was about, only that the experience of reading it was surreal...and not necessarily in a good way.

SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLE is also surreal...and not necessarily in a good way. It actually kind of reminds me of IT HAD TO BE YOU by Susan Elizabeth Phillips in many ways, which was another sports themed chick-lit/romance crossover book from the 1990s that I read recently and had issues with.

Our heroine, Georgeanne, is a Texas belle engaged to be married to the manager of the Chinooks hockey team. No longer content to be a trophy wife to an older man, however, she jilts him at the altar and convinces a man from the wedding to spirit her away in his car. That man is John, a player on said manager's hockey team. As soon as he realizes who he has in the car, he begins freaking out, but Georgeanne browbeats him into letting her stay at his place.

Spoiler alert: they boink.

Georgeanne falls for him immediately, and is hurt when the next day after The Boink, he puts her in a car with a plane ticket back to Texas. Georgeanne doesn't want to go back to Texas, though, and stays in Washington instead. Where she gets a job working as a caterer. And, oh, yes, is pregnant.

Spoiler alert: She neglects to inform the father.

This is where I began to feel trepidation, because I do not enjoy the secret baby trope at all.

But hey, that's okay. Maybe this will be the time that I will be proven wrong.

Spoiler alert: Nope.

Georgeanne doesn't bother telling John that he has a daughter (Lexie). He gets to find out by pure coincidence. This starts a long chain of fighting that will last until the last fifty pages of the book. Custody. Whether or not they find each other attractive. Whether or not they're allowed to find other people attractive. More custody fighting. Lawyers. Whether or not their kid can have a dog.

Spoiler alert: Some people are born to dogs. Others have dogs thrust upon them.

There is so much fighting, most of it about Lexie. And while I can't really understand personally how difficult custody is, I can certainly understand the reasons behind why this is such an emotionally charged issue. That said, I felt like Georgeanne was incredibly unfair to John about his daughter, especially when she pretty much refused to let him pay for insurance and tuition out of spite. That felt so selfish, like she was taking her own feelings of insecurity and her desire to be independent out on her daughter.

For the most part, I liked the scenes of John interacting with his daughter except for one, when he says she looks like a slut. "He stared at his little girl, looking like a tart in heavy makeup..." (40%). That line just felt so unnecessary, and I couldn't like him as much after reading that.

Georgeanne's relationship with her daughter was way worse, because of how she was projecting all her insecurities in front of her daughter. For example, she is constantly calling herself fat in front of her daughter (and other people). Georgeanne is 5'10" and weighs 140 pounds (and she's curvy, because you will hear numerous times about how large her fabulous boobs and butt are). Considering how curvy Georgeanne is, that is actually quite skinny. I am 5'10" and I weigh bit more than 140 pounds. I, too, am curvy - but I'm also in ok shape, and despite my weight, would not call myself fat. So it was annoying to me to keep seeing these measurements bandied about and hear about how fat Georgeanne is, especially when it was clear that she was doing it in front of an impressionable child.

Even though John and Lexie were cute together, he's definitely borderline-alphahole with everyone else, talking about how he doesn't sleep with "skinny" women (oh boy, more body shaming), doesn't find "skinny" women attractive, that he's at least partially only interested in Georgeanne because of her body, etc. He also threatens to beat up other men, and uses "retarded," "pussy," and "sissy."

He wasn't as bad as Hugh, though - the secondary love interest for Georgeanne's friend, Mae, who acts like an aggressive pickup artist. Even Mae herself admits that the reason she went out with him in the first place was exhaustion from too many no's.

From a technical note, there was some odd formatting going on in this e-book (I have the Kindle version). There are no breaks between POV swaps, which interrupts continuity, and sometimes the same thing happens with dialogue tags. One person will be talking, there will be a description of something going on in the background, and in the same paragraph, Gibson would have someone else talking. This could make it difficult to figure out who was saying what at times.

Also, typos and random hyphens. The funniest one I saw was a misspelling of Georgeanne's name on p. 274: "Georgeajine."

SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLE is dated, and I would say that for me at least, it doesn't stand the test of time. Not even ironically. As with IT HAD TO BE YOU, there were just too many issues with the book that kept me from enjoying it fully, even if it was almost compulsively readable, and it didn't help that there wasn't a single character in here who really spoke to me. I appreciated Georgeanne's struggle as a single mom and how she had dyslexia, and I thought Mae's drag queen friends were cool (although the story about her brother was sad), and I liked John's interactions with his kid. It just wasn't enough for them to feel developed and interesting.

Points for hilariously dated 90s references, like the Macarena, jelly shoes, and Bob Ross.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

Lisa Kleypas is well known for her light regency romances with smart heroines and breezy prose. But she didn't start out that way. Once you start hitting her back list and reading the books that were published, say, in 1993 or earlier, you get into some weird sh*t.

STRANGER IN MY ARMS was originally published in 1988, according to Goodreads, which makes it the earliest Lisa Kleypas book I have read to date. It's about a noble widow named Lara whose life is upended when her late husband, Hunter, the Earl of Hawksworth, presumed dead on a journey to India, returns alive and well and ready to resume his position. This means kicking out his wretched relations, Arthur and Janet, and resuming marital relations with his beautiful wife - or so he thinks.

Guys, STRANGER IN MY ARMS features one of the most unlikable, selfish, sanctimonious, hypocritical heroines I have ever had the displeasure of encountering in fiction. Even though I'm rounding up this book to 1.5 stars, please, please consider this review an honorary 1-star review because I definitely considered bestowing that honor upon it for the sh*t I was forced to endure.

**warning: SPOILERS**

Let's talk about Lara. She's disappointed when she finds out her husband isn't dead. Which is kind of jerkish, but okay, her husband wasn't a nice man, so that's understandable. When she finds out that he has undergone a personality transplant in his absence and actually become a pretty decent human being, Lara still treats him like dirt. She adopts an orphan without telling him, expecting him to accept the child's presence and then acting surprised (and not grateful) when he does. She refuses to sleep with him, which, again, is her right. But she also taunts him about it, ordering her gowns cut an extra two inches lower with the intent of torturing him, enters into sexual bargains with him (for the orphans, again) and then speculates on how to welsh on the deal (this is the term that the book uses, so please excuse the potentially pejorative phrasing). When she realizes he's not the man to force a woman into having sex, she is amused by that and tries to figure out whether she can use his honor to renege on their sex bargain while still getting what she wants. When he tells her that she's the only woman he wants, she writes a letter to his ex-mistress, inviting her to their charity ball, causing a scene, embarrassing him in front of all his peers, and then acts surprised when he's angry.

But let me tell you about the cherry that is the b*tch sundae special that is Lara.

Kleypas seems fascinated by doppelgangers and mistaken identity. In a twist that mimics the twist in ONLY WITH YOUR LOVE, it turns out that "Hunter" is actually the bastard half-brother of the Hunter that Lara married. We never find out "Hunter's" real name, so I'll just put his name in quotes when I'm talking about her impostor husband.

Anyway, throughout the book, it's hinted pretty heavily that the man who returned isn't the one who left. Lara suspects but doesn't really believe it, until a stranger - a man she doesn't even know that well - tells her his real identity: that he's a mercenary he knew in India who saved his life. At this point, Lara doesn't know that "Hunter" is her husband's half-brother, she just automatically decides - at the word of this perfect stranger - that he must be telling the truth. Her husband is an impostor.

So what does she do?

Rat him out to those horrid in-laws from the beginning of the book who basically locked her away in the servant's quarters and verbally abused her at every turn. I'm not kidding. This is Lara's immediate course of action. Does she talk to "Hunter" about this? Nope. She totally goes behind his back, and when she finds out that he's probably going to be executed, she's all, "Oh well, it's the right thing!"


What makes this even more disgusting is that there's a side-plot with Lara's sister Rachel, who is in an abusive relationship. Lara knows that her sister's husband is hitting her but does nothing. She doesn't like it, but she does nothing. She basically forces "Hunter" to go rescue Rachel after she "falls down the stairs." When it turns out that she had a miscarriage, "Hunter" sends for the doctor, lets Rachel stay in his house, and when the abusive husband (who used to be his best friend) shows up to reclaim her, "Hunter" protects her and sends him away. What does Lara do? Hide behind "Hunter" while tossing off insults and provoking the abusive husband. This results in a physical altercation that makes Lara attempt to run, fall on her ass, and watch as her husband throws the abuser out the door.

So after being a gentleman, putting up with all her sh*t, allowing her to adopt an orphan and raise it like her own child, rescuing her sister, rescuing her, and choosing his ungrateful wife over a friendship that allegedly lasted years, what does Lara do? I'll remind you.


Obviously she changes her mind last minute and decides he doesn't deserve to die (ya think?), mostly because she's pregnant with his child (you b*tch), and mostly because she's afraid her sister will be sent down to her abuser because her horrid in-laws think he's the bee's knees. Oh, and because she loves him. Maybe. Can you see why this b*tch drove me bonkers?

"Hunter" is the only reason this book gets that extra half-star that rounds this book up to the two stars that I don't think it deserves. "Hunter" is one of the better romantic leads I've encountered in a Lisa Kleypas book, and he didn't deserve the hot mess that was Lara by a long shot. I was so frustrated, because if this book had a better heroine, I really think I would have loved the book because it has so many tropes that I enjoy: spouse-back-from-the-dead, enemies-turned-to-lovers, second-chance-romance, and, of course, sexy bargaining. And Lara ruined it all with her horribleness.

Yeah, I'm peeved.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Catch Me by Lorelie Brown

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

Have you ever picked up a book and then gotten immediately, even irrationally, annoyed with the main character(s)? That was what happened with me and the "heroine," Maggie. I couldn't stand her, and reading CATCH ME quickly became unbearable.

Remember when kids' TV shows from the 1980s and 1990s began introducing token female characters? If you're around my age, you probably do. They usually wore pink uniforms (to identify them as the female character, even while in uniform), and had, for the most part with few exceptions, a single character: "plucky female." They were the first to march stupidly into danger, the first to get kidnapped. They liked girly things, and were quick to say things, "I don't need help!" and "You're just saying that because I'm a girl!"

Token girl characters were annoying to me because they didn't really act like any actual girls or women I knew in real life. They weren't usually complicated characters ("I like girly things!" / "I don't want to rely on anyone else, even though I'm part of a team!") and more often than not ended up being the foil that resulted in the introduction of the villain because of how often they got kidnapped.

Maggie reminded me of these token girl characters that grated on me from childhood. Maggie robs a bank to get money to save her ailing father. A bounty hunter, Dean, is paid by the owner of the bank to hunt her down. If I remember correctly, he starts out in jail, and bringing in Maggie will not only grant him freedom from his cell, but also reward him with the sheriff's position he's been coveting. Anyway, he finds Maggie, who immediately starts waving around her gun and posturing. Even when she's captured, she continues to smirk and posture throughout the book, constantly needling her capture because it's fun to provoke him - she thinks it's hilarious.

And let's not talk about the instant love that's going on here. Dean is the worst bounty hunter ever. He immediately starts fantasizing about his captive-to-be when he sees her wanted poster, and pretty much immediately starts "flirting" with her (if you could call it that). There's zero chemistry, since neither character has much in the way of personality apart from "I'm a tough girl!" and "I'm the strong silent type with the tortured past!" It's no small wonder Maggie managed to escape several times.


The twist at the end was okay. By that point I'd checked out. Some rapey guy is introduced to put Maggie in danger, and it's revealed that Maggie's father has a checkered history of his own. Maggie, of course, is a hypocrite. "How could you do crime in the name of good!" thinks the girl who robbed a bank to "save" her father. Honestly, she gets so offended every time someone in this book points out her crime. Why are you so offended, Maggie? You robbed that bank. Unless you have an evil twin running around who is blaming you for their misdeeds, own up to your sh*t.

I'm disappointed that I did not enjoy this book more than I did. It was a really good deal and I usually love Carina Press titles. Sadly, this one was a miss for me. I did, however, enjoy reading it with the lovely ladies from my romance book club, Karly, Casey, Sarah, and Helen 2.0. Thanks, guys! <3

1 out of 5 stars