Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Followed by Frost by Charlie N. Holmberg


I think this is the first story involving a redemption ARC where I actually feel that the character in question didn't need to be punished. Hear me out: yes, Smitha is not a very nice person; yes, she's spoiled and selfish and doesn't help out her family as much as she should; yes, she's vain; yes, she turns down a strange man's proposal in a rather cruel way. Smitha is guilty of being vain and self-centered...but no more so than most other teenage girls. Are we bombarded with so many eerily perfect and uncannily nice female characters that we are supposed to riot against the first portrayal of an actual flawed and selfish teenager? I mean, I was no prize when I was a teen myself. I was actually unpleasantly surprised at the harshness of Smitha's punishment - especially since it comes at the hands of a man who is essentially stalking her. Smitha makes every attempt to avoid Mordan and he doggedly pursues her, approaching her when she doesn't want to be approached, ingratiating himself with her family to get access to made me quite uncomfortable, actually, because I've been in a similar position, and women are told by society that they have to be "nice" and let people down "easy." Well, sometimes that doesn't work. Sometimes you have to be a "bitch" to get the message across. Did Smitha let him down as easily as she could have? No. But then, I didn't really feel like she should have, and if it was mean of her, she certainly shouldn't have been condemned to what should have been death and wasn't only by the force of her own determination.

Apart from that rather bitter note, I really enjoyed FOLLOWED BY FROST. It has an old-fashioned feel to it, more typical of the fantasy novels I read in the 80s and 90s, like Diana Wynne Jones's work or Gail Carson Levine's. Smitha is a teenage girl who is cursed to be as cold as her heart when she unwittingly humiliates the wizard who's been stalking - I mean courting - her. She becomes a girl of ice, followed by a savage and violent storm wherever she goes, and is kicked out of her village because of the havoc it wreaks upon their homes. Poor Smitha is doomed to wander in the wilderness, seeking out either the man who cursed her or others like him and capable of removing the curse. She's hunted, chases by dogs, and then condemned to loneliness in an icy cave. Well...not quite loneliness. She is followed by the embodiment of Death, a mysterious being named Sadriel who seems determined to have her at all costs, and ends up eventually coming to a kingdom far away. A kingdom that might need her help.

Smitha's development as a character was probably the best aspect of this book. I loved her slow transformation, and felt like all of her reactions to the curse and its effects seemed very real. Character arcs are my bread and butter in fiction; I love complex characterization that develops and changes over the course of a story. And even if she is selfish, it's impossible not to root for Smitha. The story is written in first person, so we're treated first hand to all of her internal struggles, and how often she just wants to give up and succumb to her horrible fate because simply enduring it is such a trial. Her constant discomfort, her inability to eat or drink solid food (it would freeze in her mouth), her loneliness - all of these things made me feel terrible for her. I think the last book I read that tortured the main character to this extent was Donna Jo Napoli's THE WAGER, a dark and Faustian tale about a man who makes a deal with the devil that involves him not being able to bathe for a year (and let me tell you, I have never taken a longer or more thorough shower than I did after reading that book *shudder*). She is the most likable unlikable character I have ever read.

Smitha's love interest was also very likable. I don't want to spoil too much, but I will say that he is kind and sweet and considerate and caring and masculine in a way that doesn't involve being a jerk - a rarity, I think you'll agree. Sadriel, on the other hand, was intriguing but brutal...a real Jericho f*cking Barrons, if you know what I mean. I didn't like how he hit Smitha, or got violent/mean with her. I also didn't like how we never meet Mordan again, because eff that guy - I wanted to see Smitha get her revenge on him. Instead, he gets off scot-free and gets to go back to his own kind and play with magic? What kind of a moral is that? (Part of me was hoping that maybe Sadriel was actually Mordan, which would make Sadriel's obsession with Smitha make sense, and Smitha would get her revenge on them both in the end. I was disappointed. On both counts.) I also thought it was unrealistic how everyone in Smitha's village would be all, "Yay, Smitha, you're back!" They were happy enough to see her go, weren't they? At the very least, there ought to be some guilt, like, "Oh no, she's back - and now she might want revenge because we were a-holes!" I certainly didn't expect Smitha to be all happy to see the people who kicked her out cheerfully enough. Even her own family weren't particularly upset to see her leave. And Smitha's supposed to be the selfish, bitchy one here?

Part of me wants to give this book a low rating, because I didn't realize until now how annoyed I actually was by this book (really annoyed, apparently!), but I really did enjoy the story and Smitha was a great narrator. I guess I will just choose to award my stars based on the heroine and the story alone, and everyone else in the book gets -1,000,000 for being hypocritical jerk-nozzles.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 29, 2017

Ms. Manwhore by Katy Evans

You could bowl me over with a feather after I finished Katy Evan's first book in this series, MANWHORE, and actually thought that it was not all that bad. After all the things people had said about REAL, I was loath to pick up anything by this author, but it turned out to be the perfect example of why sometimes it's good to check a book out despite its bad press. I gave it two-stars, but it was a good two-stars, a solidly okay read, and the perfect guilty pleasure read for a lazy afternoon. Rachel was insecure and annoying, and I got awfully tired of her changing color more frequently than a broken mood ring, but Saint was a decent hero and the sex in the book was - call me shallow - hawt. Repetitive, but hawt, and far better written than I expected.

I bought three books in this series to review for my romance blog, along with various other titles (including CAPTIVE PRINCE AND BAD ROMEO) and despite having low expectations about MANWHORE, I enjoyed it well enough that I was prepared to immediately dive into the companion novella to the series, MS. MANWHORE, and after that, Tahoe's story, LADIES MAN [sic] (I'm fairly sure it should be LADIES' MAN with an apostrophe; Merriam-Webster seems to agree).

First, apparently MS. MANWHORE is #2.5 in the series and I don't have book #2, MANWHORE +1. That's all right. Easy enough to figure out what happened, right? Saint forgives Rachel for the article, dangles her around a bit before taking her back, and obviously it ends with a wedding. Apparently Ms. Evans couldn't help herself, she just had to foist the wedding preparations upon her readers. Because wedding preparations are so fun and romantic. LOL, just kidding. I almost said that with a straight face. Almost. (Sorry, I've watched Bridezillas.)

If you thought Rachel was immature and insecure in the first book (and probably the second), you're going to love the raging cluster of hormones she turns into in MS. MANWHORE. While the feminist in me appreciates the Ms., the feminist in me is also rolling her eyes at all the constant 24/7 lust, jealousy, whining, and crying that went on in this book. When Saint tells Rachel he wants four children, she says, "I'd be fat for almost for years. Of my life!" (27). When they're having their respective bachelor's and bachlorette's celebration, Rachel sits in her apartment with her friends drinking wine and stalking him on social media, presumably trying to figure out what he's doing without her and whether or not he's going to cheat on her (61). I dog-earred that page, because I thought that was the saddest thing I'd ever read - and not ha ha, that's so pathetic, but actually depressingly sad and legitimately upsetting. If you're marrying someone and you're still unsure as to whether or not they're going to cheat on you, it's time for a serious, sit-down kind of adult conversation (without sex) to talk about where you see the relationship going and what your expectations are; and if you are still not appeased after this conversation, do not marry this person. Not if it's going to make you unhappy and have you monitoring their social media to ensure that they are on their best behavior. Therein lies the path to broken dishes and broken hearts.

The mistrust and jealousy continue, with Saint telling Rachel that he wouldn't get her a vibrator as a present because "Why would I want anything inside you other than me?" (82). Then on their honeymoon night, Rachel starts freaking out about her appearance(?) and tells him, oddly, "you deserve for me to smell divine..." pleading with him that "I fix myself" (112). I thought that was so odd, because it's hammered in in the first book how beautiful, skinny, and blonde Rachel is - she even gloats about it herself, which is off-putting and refreshing in equal measures, because (1) Rachel is a twit and I didn't really like her to start but (2) how often do we actually encounter a heroine who feels confident enough about her appearance to own her good looks? But here in this book, it's like Rachel undergoes a complete 180, and constantly puts herself down.

If you really loved the other two books in the Manwhore series about Rachel and Saint, you might love this book. Maybe. I think you would have to love Rachel's character, though, because she's the focus here, and not Saint. I did not like Rachel at all in the first book, and in fact even abhorred her at points in this one. If I had paid the asking price of $2.99 on Amazon, instead of the $1 I got it for at the used book bin, I would have been very unhappy. As it was, $1 was probably entirely too much.

1 out of 5 stars

Manwhore by Katy Evans

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

I'm a romance blogger and sometimes my followers will ask me to review things. Twist ending: my followers did not ask me to review MANWHORE - no, I was asked to review REAL. Conflict: I have yet to find a copy of REAL in a used bookstore (yet). What I did find was one of her newer books, MANWHORE, and two of its sequels. Well, then, I thought to myself. Bring it on.

My friends really did not like REAL so I was a bit reluctant to start MANWHORE, but to be honest, it seems like the book is a vast improvement over her earlier work. Again, I haven't read REAL so I can't say this for sure, but based on quotes and excerpts I've read, it seems like the author's writing and story-telling has improved a lot. MANWHORE is well-written and actually features a surprisingly charming hero. I really liked Malcolm Saint. He was pretty sweet.

MANWHORE is a romance written in the vein of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY: an innocent ingenue-type heroine is asked to interview a Chicago playboy/billionaire for her dying magazine. The difference? No BDSM, and the guy in question is actually pretty nice for a playboy billionaire. Not knowing this, Rachel contrives to meet him to gain access to his deepest secrets for the article; he, of course, finds himself intrigued by her innocence and initial refusal of him; they obviously start hooking up after much ado, and business and pleasure become so hopelessly entangled that pretty soon the heroine, Rachel Livinston, isn't sure where one ends and the other begins.

I liked the chick-lit style of writing. MANWHORE is a speedy read and reminds me of a dirtier version of the Red Dress Ink titles I greedily devoured in my late teens/early twenties. And Malcolm Kyle Preston Logan Saint (good God, what a name), as I said before, is a great love interest with way more depth than I expected (although to be fair, I was not expecting much).

The problems stem mostly from the heroine, who is afflicted with 24/7 boner vision. The bulk of their scenes involve her waxing on about how much she loves [his] body part, or how [her] body part is reacting to him. It's a bit hypocritical of her, being as sex-obsessed as she is, because she's constantly going on about the hero's side-floozies and how she doesn't want to be one of them. Rachel also doesn't have much in the way of personality, which is always a death knell for me when it comes to romance novels. I like it when heroines have depth and character, and apart from salivating over Saint and working on her article (which I'm not sure counts as a separate hobby since the article is about Saint), she doesn't appear to be interested in much else. I think it's telling that all five of the hero's names make it to the back jacket, but the heroine's name isn't mentioned once. I get it, it's all about the raunchy sex and the attractive hero; Rachel's nothing more than a place holder for us to project ourselves into. If that's your cup of tea, then you'll love MANWHORE, as it is well written and erotic - way more so than most purely erotic books out there, to its credit. You could definitely do worse.

 2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a cat lady in want of cat pictures is going to buy your goddamn book if you slap a cat on it. Also, Yaa Gyasi's HOMEGOING was kicking my butt all over the place emotionally (yes, butts can be emotional, thanks), so I decided that my ARC of WE ARE NEVER MEETING IN REAL LIFE would be just the thing to revitalize my drained repository of feels.


Don't get me wrong. WE ARE NEVER MEETING IN REAL LIFE is funny. It's the crude kind of funny appropriated by YouTube celebs, but unlike most of the YouTube celebs I've read, Irby knows where to draw the line. Each expletive is delivered with deadly precision, each risque phrase meant to drive home a singular point or idea. Samantha Irby swears like a pro, and like a pro, she does it with finesse.

What surprised me the most, however, was not the swearing, but the gravitas of this book. Irby talks about some very difficult subjects, like racism, dieting, body image, sex, masturbation, depression, dismal childhoods, alcoholism (specifically living with someone with alcoholism), and discrimination. I wasn't expecting something so gritty, and even though Irby delivered these topics with the same candidness and humor as she did less weighty topics, I found myself struggling to get through some of these passages - not because I didn't appreciate them, but because I wanted to appreciate them, and had to get myself into the proper mindset to take in everything fully, which sometimes meant taking breaks to absorb what I'd read.

There are a lot of really decent memoirs coming out this year. WE ARE NEVER MEETING IN REAL LIFE is one of them. I'll have to see about getting my hands on some of her other work; her style may be unconventional, but it is entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

HOMEGOING is an amazing book, but it is not a light read. If you go into this book expecting a light read, you will be very unhappy. HOMEGOING is the history of a Ghanian family spanning the centuries, beginning in the 18th century and ending in the 20th. It begins with two half-sisters, one sold into slavery and the other married to a slaver. Each of their descendants gets a chapter, and the format of the story alternates from one sister's descendant to the other, with each individual character getting their own story that is self-encapsulating but still manages to add to the overall tapestry of the family history as a whole.

I loved the unique format of this book, how it was a family history that grew and became steadily more complex, following the characters along their respective journeys. There were so many heart-in-mouth moments in this book that it gave me relief to know that no matter how bad things got in the story (bad, bad, terrible, awful, bad), the main character of each mini-story had to survive, if only because the character in every other chapter after theirs would be their descendant. That knowledge made reading this easier, once I figured that out. 

Why? Because this book doesn't sugar-coat. Gyasi writes about slavery and injustice in excruciating detail and doesn't hold back when it comes to the infuriating cruelty that people inflicted on their fellow human-beings. Some of the contents broached in this book are rape, sexism, racism, shadism, substance abuse, child abuse, and violence. In many ways, it actually reminded me of another book, KINDRED by Octavia Butler, which is also about slavery. One of my book club members appreciated this book so much that she wanted to read more books on the subject, so I recommended KINDRED to her, because it shares the same themes, the same purpose: that even though we have come far, there is still injustice; but there is also hope, too, in the hands of our children.

Definitely a must-read.

3.5 out of 5 stars

One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

I was notified recently that my library just added a ton of books that I recommended, including several memoirs written by people of color and YA about LGBT+ characters. One of those books was ONE DAY WE'LL ALL BE DEAD AND NONE OF THIS WILL MATTER by Scaachi Koul, a culture writer for BuzzFeed Canada.

I'd been looking forward to this book for a while. I love BuzzFeed and I had heard that this book was going to address many topics like feminism and racism and cultural identity. Plus, it's written by someone who's roughly my own age, give or take a few years, and it's always amazing to read books written from someone in your generation - especially if their observations are written from a different perspective than your own. It's like seeing the world with new eyes...for better or for worse.

ODWABDaNoTWM is about Koul growing up in Canada in the 90s and early 2000s. The daughter of immigrant parents from India, she was in the unique position of being the only "brown person" in an area of Canada that didn't have many minorities at the time (I'm blanking on the exact location, but I believe it was a part of Calgary that was mostly white). She writes, with candidness and humor, about internal and external racsim; sexism; interracial relationships; rape culture; substance abuse; beauty standards; and dating. She's incredibly witty and makes some very cutting observations on Canadian and Indian culture, but she also talks about what she loves about these two different cultures, too, and how they have helped shape her identity and make her into the person she is now. Also, her relationship with her family, especially her parents, is both endearing and hilarious. I love how she includes some of her emails to her dad.

I really loved this book. Koul brings a fresh perspective to the millennial memoir collective, which seems to be mostly overrun by YouTube celebrities and pop stars. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I prefer books with a little more substance. This is the second book I've read that was written by current- or ex-BuzzFeed staff (the first was I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU by Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn) and let me tell you, I am impressed. Both ODWABDaNoTWM and I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU are pitch-perfect and culturally relevant, discussing many relevant and controversial issues that millennials - especially female millennials - face on a day to day basis.

You should definitely read this.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Overruled by Emma Chase

Occasionally, I get people who ask me why I read romance novels if I hate them. The answer is: I don't hate them. I love them. But I also don't think that romance novels should be above criticism just because they weren't written as literary fiction. Yes, they are written "just for fun." Yes, they are "fiction." But they are also consumer products. I call 'em like I read 'em, and if I like something, I'll be honest about why I like it, the same as how I'll be honest about why I don't like something. That's just how I am.

OVERRULED shares a lot of qualities with romance novels I just can't stand. I don't like jerk heroes, and Stanton Shaw, the main character, is eye-roll-worthy levels of "I don't freaking believe this guy." When he gets his childhood sweetheart, Jenny, pregnant, he decides he's going to pursue his dreams of being a lawyer anyway and leaves her and his child in Mississippi. They both agree to see other people in the interim, so Stanton happily sleeps around, popping back home every now and then to court Jenny and drop off some money. It's a great arrangement, and he's perfectly happy with it. Of course he is. Must be nice, not taking any responsibility for your choices. (Cue: "I just can't believe this guy!")

Then one day, he finds out that Jenny is getting married - to a man that isn't him.

His current FWB, Sofia Santos, is a lawyer just like Stanton. She likes their low-pressure relationship because it allows her to focus on advancing her career. She knows he's not ready to settle down and he has the mother of his child waiting in the wings. (Cue: "I just can't believe this guy!") But she also likes Stanton and the two of them work well together, whether it's in the courtroom or between the sheets (lol that was so cheesy). When Stanton asks her to accompany him to Mississippi to help him break up the wedding, she is less than thrilled, but he's determined to get Jenny back and desperately wants her help. And for whatever reason, when he asks her for things, she just can't say "no." (TFW your friend-with-benefits asks you to help win back the mother of their child.)

This is basically the book equivalent of a good chick flick, or an entire package of Lindt truffles. It's superficial and silly, but in a way that makes it a cut above the crap of its kind. I felt like Emma Chase really captures the small town vibe, and it has a pretty good cast of secondary characters that added a lot of entertainment without being too cliche. The relationship between Stanton and Sofia is well done, because even though they have the physical aspect down pat, it takes them a while to establish that emotional connection. Seeing them gradually learn to open up to one another was sweet. Probably the one moment I took the most issue with is this incredibly stupid scene when they're having sex by the water and they decide to bareback it, and have Stanton "just pull out." What is it with romance novels and their prophylactic-phobias? It's a major pet-peeve of mine.

OVERRULED managed to exceed my expectations, though - and I'm a critical romance reviewer. Call me snobby or elitist, if you must, but I have high expectations. Good writing, good characterization, and a dash of humor keep this from falling into the usual contemporary romance rut. Even though I couldn't find the hero sexy (I'm sorry, but I just couldn't believe this guy), I found myself enjoying the story way more than I ever thought I would a story with a womanizing hero. If you're a fan of jerk heroes, you'll probably love this one.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Because of Low by Abbi Glines

This cover makes me laugh. I'm not sure whether it's because the title looks like something printed out on a label maker, or because of the discount Emma Stone in the arms of a dude pouting harder than a teenager taking a MySpace pic in 2005, but it's all gold. Sadly, what lies between the covers is not, though.

Abbi Glines was pretty popular about four years ago, when new adult fiction was first making waves. A lot of my friends really did not like her work, which made me curious, because I am one of those contrary, masochistic people who feel the need to read a book and find out for myself whether it's really that bad (and sometimes it isn't - case in point: TWILIGHT). When I saw one of the author's books at the used bookstore, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to belatedly check out the hype.

Marcus lives with a playboy named Cage. One day, a girl comes to their apartment looking for Cage who isn't his normal type (which means that she doesn't have fake boobs and isn't model skinny, basically - I believe Marcus calls her "natural"). The girl - Low - is crying because her sister kicked her out of the house - again - to entertain her boyfriend and the father of her niece. Marcus decides he wants her immediately (insta-love), tears and all, and is perplexed when Cage warns him away, claiming that Low is the girl he's going to marry once he's decided he's going to stop slutting around and commit himself.

(Hmm...why does that sound familiar? *stares hard at Acehole from JOCKBLOCKED*)


Marcus slowly insinuates himself into Low's life, while both of them deal with their issues. Marcus is upset at his father for leaving his family for a younger woman. Low is upset at her sister for cavorting around with a married man. If you think that their problems seem like they're connected in some way - guess what. You're right. I mean, obviously. As soon as the word "married man" was used, it clicked for me immediately and I was like, "Well, this is not going to be a fun little ride to Happyville."

Here's the thing, the drama in the book is so stupid. I didn't like how Marcus put Low on a pedestal, praising her for being innocent and virginal, and talking about how hot she is compared to other women because she's natural. Whatever natural means. I mean, she wears makeup, and makeup isn't natural, so where is the line? Hair-dye? Cosmetic enhancements? Preservatives? There is so much girl-shaming in this book, it isn't even funny. Marcus is angrier at his father's girlfriend than he is at his father, but shouldn't his father be held accountable? He doesn't really call his father names, but he refers to the mistress as the slut or the whore, and then there's this delightful scene:

I wanted to hurt her. Slam her against a wall and scream at her. But I couldn't. So I settled for words.
"Suck him dry while you can, because you won't be young forever. He'll leave you one day too. For someone younger. A zebra doesn't change his stripes, and I can assure you there is nothing about you that's special. You're just a young piece of ass" (208). 

Then there's the way Marcus treats Cage. They're supposed to be friends. He's living in Cage's apartment. Cage tells him not to hit on the girl he likes and Marcus does it anyway. He does it because he knows that Cage won't kick him out because of the fear that Low might leave, too.

There was a possibility he'd get so angry he'd kick me out. But then I was banking on Willow threatening to leave with me, and I knew beyond a shadow of doubt Cage wouldn't let that happen. He might be upset, but he wouldn't lose her. He'd put up with whatever she forced him to put up with in order to keep her close. I didn't get their relationship at all. One minute he reminded me of a pussy-whipped guy around her, and the next he acted like her damn brother. I didn't like it. He wasn't her brother. I wanted him to back off. He didn't cherish how special she was. I did (137).

This was the moment that I really started to not like Marcus. He's one of those possessive alphaholes who stalks the heroine, turning up conveniently (read: creepily) to offer rides home that weren't asked for, or to "protect" her from confrontations that he started. When he decides he likes her, he makes Low move all her things from Cage's room to his, and does sexy things to her in the common room. He's emotionally manipulative AF, and the way he treated his alleged friend really made me sick.

What is even more annoying is how Low uses Cage. She knows how he feels about her and seems to feel no guilt at all about doing stuff with his best friend under his roof. She also still expects him to stick around and do everything that he did for her before. When Marcus upsets her, who does she run to? The selfish twit has a freak-out because she's afraid he's dumping their years of friendship just because he didn't buy her her favorite soda.

Once inside I headed over to the fridge to get a Jarritos. I was thirsty. Opening the bottom drawer, I realized there weren't any more. Only beer. Cage never ran out of my drinks. But they were gone. He was letting me go (178-179).

B*tch, you can buy your own damn soda. Or have your boyfriend buy it for you. You constantly talk about how poor you two are, and you're still making him buy you soda? What the actual flip. It made me angry that this was portrayed as a panic attack because it felt more like a plot device. I hate it when mental illness is used in stupid ways to add plot points to romance novels, especially when the hero or heroine is introduced as a curative. If you're going to give a heroine anxiety, that is perfectly cool. But using it for drama and then never bringing it up again? That's where we have a problem.

At this point, I was still considering giving this book 2 stars for sheer entertainment. But then at the end of the book it makes me angry. Marcus finds out that Low's sister is the Other Woman wrecking his family and assumes that she knew the whole time and was basically having a laugh at his expense. He says terrible things to her, and starts drinking and rage-sexing other women while moping around about how hard his life is. That was when I decided that Marcus could go firetruck himself. Lack of communication to create drama is such an annoying trope, and the fact that he was so quick to throw their relationship in the garbage really doesn't speak much of him as a person (but we knew that).

The sex/romantic scenes are kind of strange too:

All I could see was all that hair spread out on my pillows. It reminded me of flames. I'd always loved to watch fires (136).

*quietly begins playing Cascada's Pyromania*

All it took was one small caress just where I needed it, and my world fell apart. It was as if someone had lit a bottle rocket between my legs (165).

Literally all he does is touch her once and it turns into a fireworks show down there. Since when did a vaginal boop lead to the Best Sex Evar?

The writing isn't bad. Stylistically, these books reminded me of Jen Frederick's Gridiron series. I think it's possible that I could get into some of the author's other works. Sadie was very likable, and I thought Cage was interesting (even though he's the stereotypical, promiscuous alpha male, I liked him a sight better than Marcus). Pretty much all of the characters in here were interesting, except for the two leads. Low's sister, Tawny, had spice, and was complex even if she wasn't likable.

I might read more of this author's books. But I can't really recommend this one.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Painted Faces by L.H. Cosway

How often do you grab books while they're free or discounted on Kindle and then never read them? For me, pretty much all the time. That's why my friends and I have started the Kindle Clean Out club where we BR books that have been sitting in cyberspace, gathering virtual dust. You can read Sarah's review of this book here, and Heather's review of this book here.

This is actually my second book by this author. The first was STILL LIFE WITH STRINGS. I received a copy of the book directly from the author and ended up giving the book two stars because even though I loved the idea of a romance with a sexy violinist (*drools*), the romance felt rushed and unrealistic, the heroine was kind of a judgmental little sh*t, and the two of them had sex without a bloody condom - my #1 erotica pet-peeve.

I leaped at the chance to obtain PAINTED FACES because this sounded like yet another interesting concept - a romance between a baker and a straight drag queen. "Yes, okay, just give it here!" said foolish me. "I'll totally sign up for that!" I began reading the book and was dismayed to find myself with yet another book that also felt rushed and unrealistic, with a judgmental little sh*t of a heroine who has sex without a condom.

Oh. My. God. There is no escape from the madness.

Fred is the worst heroine. She's always making judgments about everyone around her, slut-shaming women, body-shaming women, reverse-slut-shaming women (if you're not actively having sex, you're all dried up). She's snide about a woman with a college degree who became a stay-at-home mom. She makes fun of her friend Anny for having a threesome. She age-shames this woman for having sex with Nicholas (before she and Nicholas are together) because having sex with a younger, attractive man makes you desperate. Her mouth (or at least, her words) is always running to deliver these constant asides that make her seem desperate to relate to you, the reader. Do you enjoy relaxing in sweatpants? Do you like watching people eat the food you cooked? Do you think furry animals are cute? Wow, you do? Oh my God, you're so unique and quirky...JUST LIKE FREDA.

Her relationship with Nicholas starts out with them being friends, but that, too, felt rushed and desperate. I liked how secure Nicholas was with his sexuality, and how he indulged in both stereotypically masculine and feminine activities without making a big fuss over it. Unfortunately, Nicholas is also an alphahole who gets really grabby with the heroine. When they first meet, he presses himself up against her backside while she's cooking (ew, predatory, no). He's constantly grabbing her breasts or talking about her body. He sleeps around with other women and then mocks them - either behind their back or in front of them, to other women (mostly Freda) - and uses them to make other women who want to sleep with him jealous (everyone). He's constantly tearing at her clothes, at one point yanking her dress down so he can molest her in a bathroom (again, before they're together). He employs the heroine with a job that's 100% pretense so he can gauge whether or not she's worthy of him. It's all so sick-making and by the end of the book I despised him. How can you possibly like a hero who tells the heroine that she's pure and clean, while other women are dirty, and after sleeping with another woman, tells the heroine he was imagining her while doing it??

I wanted to like PAINTED FACES, but I didn't. I liked parts of it - the role music had to play, the drag shows and performances, the descriptions of middle class Ireland, baking - but the whole of the book was ruined by the two main characters and the wasted potential. I feel like this book could have stirred up some very interesting dialogues about transphobia, homophobia, sexuality, gender fluidity, sexual abuse, and heteronormative relationships that would have been incredibly relevant and interesting. Instead, it just took the same tired old cliches and tried to gussy them up with sparkly heels and mascara.

It did not work.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

When I was in middle school, I was addicted to those trashy Point Horror stories for kids. They always had a similar premise: a group of kids get together for a party. Everything's fun and games until someone gets murdered. The kids, rather than being sensible and going to the authorities, take it upon themselves to solve the murder themselves, acting totally surprised when more murders happen. The book ends when the murderer, usually the last person you would expect and therefore the person you totally suspect, finally gets caught, and everybody else lives happily ever after. THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 was just like that, except for adults.

I'm a bit skeptical of these dysfunctional lady thrillers. The popularity of Gillian Flynn, specifically GONE GIRL, has had all these other mystery writers clamoring and going, "Me too! Me too!" The last one I read was GIRL ON THE TRAIN was so disappointing to me (seriously, what the eff?) that I gave up on these mysteries for a while. The only reason I picked this one up was because it was chosen for my book club.

To my surprise, I actually really enjoyed THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10. It has that throwback Agatha Christie feeling to it (or that Point Horror feel to it, if you're cheesy and camp, like me), which I loved. The fact it takes place on a ship instead of an isolated mansion makes it unique and even more claustrophobic-feeling, because you can escape from a mansion somewhat easily - it's hard to escape from a boat that's traversing through freezing-cold water.

The heroine, Lo Blacklock, finds that out firsthand when she witnesses what she thinks is a murder aboard the luxury ship she's supposed to be reporting on for the paper she writes for. The only problem is that the cabin she saw the murder in isn't occupied and nobody has laid eyes on the woman that Lo claims to have seen. She begins to doubt herself - and the fact that she has been drinking and has anxiety and PTSD does not help with her credibility - but then sinister things start happening to Lo, almost like someone is warning her off. The journalist in Lo is fatalistically intrigued. Who was the girl in cabin 10? And why would someone want her dead?

Comparisons to GIRL ON THE TRAIN are inevitable, because they are both about dysfunctional ladies with poor credibility who see something that they oughtn't to have seen and try to raise the alarm without being murdered themselves (somewhat unsuccessfully). Both heroines are also very unlikable and feature in storylines where suspension of disbelief is necessary. The difference is that GIRL ON THE TRAIN wallows in the unlikability of its main character and relies on relationship drama and emotional manipulation to keep the story moving, whereas THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 winks heavily at the audience as it checks off cliche after cliche, and has some genuinely suspenseful moments. My biggest gripe was the abrupt ending, which seemed far too neat. If you, like me, were disillusioned by GIRL ON THE TRAIN, I recommend that you pick this one up.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

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

A few years ago, when the movie had just come out, a woman was talking to me at a bus stop, and we ended up talking about the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. It was a while ago, so I don't remember the exact exchange, only that she asked me if I wasn't just "so excited for the (Fifty Shades of Grey) movie?" When I said no, she asked me first if I'd even read the book, then whether I'd finished it and if so, had I read it properly? At the time of this exchange, I'd only read about fifty pages of the book. But I had read chapter by chapter breakdowns and seen a number of quotes pulled from the book. This seemed like sufficient evidence that this book was Not For Me and for several years I managed to stick with my decision to avoid this fandom. But people kept asking me to review this book for my blog, especially once I started reviewing romance and erotica almost exclusively - or I'd get people telling me my opinions weren't worth two cents until I'd actually read the book, and oh, ouch, my pride.

It began to feel like this book and I were star-crossed, and destined to clash.

For those of you who don't already know the story, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is about a virginal college student named Ana(stasia) who gets involved with a billionaire named Christian Grey. He is charmed by her innocence and submissiveness but warns her away because of his dark desires. Ana is so wowed by his looks and his money that she refuses, and so he tempts her into the sinister BDSM lifestyle, and Ana adores him so much that she endures it, hoping to win him back to the light.

Yes, I'm being a little facetious. In case you couldn't tell. (Insert winky-face emoji here.)

When this book first showed up on Goodreads, I was intrigued by the summary. I like dark romances and this one sounded like a modern Gothic. Sinister billionaires in dark Seattle towers are only a step removed from dukes dwelling in crumbling castles on the English moors. However, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY disappoints in that quarter, as the vast majority of the book is them talking about engaging in a BDSM relationship without actually making it official. Bar a few bondage-light sessions and a bit of spanking and toys, there's nothing particularly racy about the sex in this book. In my opinion. It's also boring. Honestly, how many times can you flash the BDSM contract at us? If I wanted to look at official documents all day, I'd be an accountant. Is this sex or an offer for a time share?

Another issue that many of those better than me have already pointed out is the relationship between Ana and Christian: it isn't healthy, and not only is it not typical of a BDSM relationship (and gets a number of things wrong in potentially harmful ways), it's also not a healthy relationship, period. Many of the things that Christian does look an awful lot like emotional abuse. I get that this is fiction and that people expect to be entertained in fiction so fictional relationships often don't reflect the reality of "normal" healthy relationships because those seem boring by comparison, but when a man is using his anger and frustration as an outlet when he uses belts and whips on his submissive partner, stalking her via GPS and hired help, and micromanaging her eating habits, you can't help but think to yourself, "There's a problem here." He also appears to confuse BDSM dungeons with prostitution, rigorously defends his underage relationship with a married woman as a teenager, and uses things like natural filament rope in his bondage extravaganzas, which could do a lot of physical harm.

Then there's the fact that the writing in this book simply is not very good.

First, like many erotica authors, E.L. James appears to have some verbal tics, or words that she just uses so repetitively that you not only notice but they begin to pull you out of the story. "Cream" is not one of them, thank God, but some others that I noticed off the top of my head are "I peer/peek up," "Holy shit/crap!", "oh my," "I flush," "murmur," and "delicious." Sometimes, especially in the case of "I flush," these will appear two- or three- times to a page. I'm very surprised an editor did not challenge this.

Subconscious/Inner Goddess Greatest Hits:
-: I flush at the waywardness of my subconscious - she's doing her happy dance in a bright red hula skirt at the thought of being his (67).
-: very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba (78).
-: My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves (137).
-: My inner goddess is jumping up and down, clapping her hands like a five-year-old (176).
-: "And...swallowing semen. Well, you get an A in that."
I flush, and my inner goddess smacks her lips together, glowing with pride
-: I examine the list, and my inner goddess bounces up and down like a small child waiting for ice cream (257).
-: My subconscious runs, screaming, and hides behind the couch (259).
-: My inner goddess has a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the outside of her room (326).
-: My inner goddess pouts at me, failing miserably to hide her disappointment (357).
-: My subconscious is furious, Medusa-like in her anger, hair flying, her hands clenched around her face like Edvard Munch's The Scream (360).
-: My inner goddess is doing the dance of the seven veils (362).
-: My inner goddess is standing on the podium awaiting her gold medal (446).
-: My subconscious is frantically fanning herself, and my inner goddess is swaying to some primal carnal rhythm (485).
-: My subconscious has found her Nikes and she's on the starting blocks (502).

Am I the only one who was picturing Ana's inner goddess/subconscious as, like, a smaller cartoonish version of her, like Lizzie McGuire's alter ego?

Weird Sex Descriptions:
-: "Aargh!" I cry as I feel weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity (117).
-: I sit staring at the screen, and part of me, a very moist and integral part of me that I've only become acquainted with very recently, is seriously turned on (186).

Just, WTF: 
-: I eye Christian's toothbrush. It would be like having him in my mouth (76).
-: "No one's ever said no to me before. And it's so - hot" (348).
-: He reaches between my legs and pulls on the blue string - what?! - and gently takes my tampon out and tosses it into the nearby toilet (430).

I would give this a lower rating but I'm rounding up slightly for unintentional hilarity - especially that tampon scene - and for the fact that the companion book from Christian's POV, GREY, was so, so, so much worse. Seriously, if you think Grey is bad in this book, his eponymous retelling of their 'romance' makes him look like Patrick Bateman's bondage-obsessed cousin. Ugh.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Lemonade by Nina Pennacchi

I received an advanced copy of this for review several years ago. Unfortunately, I don't remember what I said about LEMONADE that first time, only that I gave it three stars and was disturbed by the rather brutal rape scene that takes place about 1/3 of the way through the book. And yet, despite only giving it three stars, LEMONADE has haunted me for two years. I kept thinking about Anna and Christopher and their doomed-before-it-even-began romance (if you can bring yourself to call it that). I wondered if perhaps I had been too harsh on the book, because if something can stay with you for that long, it must be good.

LEMONADE was originally published in Italian and then was translated into English. It is written in a very unique way that is difficult to explain - random asides in parenthesis to emphasis certain emotional moments for various characters; some very colorful and strange analogies and metaphors that sometimes fit and sometimes don't but are always unusual; and a charmingly stilted style of writing that is almost anachronistic, but smacks of 80s over-the-top sensationalism.

The heroine, Anna Champion, ends up catching the hero's attention over a misunderstanding with a glass of lemonade. He wounds her pride and she seeks revenge. It is a small, petty revenge, but Christopher is so damaged that his ego cannot stand even that small of an insult, and the next 450 pages consist of the two characters drawing to draw blood, figuratively and literally, any way they can. Some people will not like this because Christopher is such an awful character. He truly is a villain. And yet, it's impossible not to feel sorry for him at times because of everything he went through. Anna is very much the same way. At times I found her to be a very strong character, but she would buckle at random times, too, and sometimes she would be so stupidly petty. They both had issues, and in the end, I feel like the author was suggesting that they deserved one another.

In some ways, LEMONADE reminded me of that Japanese manga/anime, Hana Yori Dango. Christopher is just as cold and impulsive as Tsukasa Doumyoji. I enjoyed the beginning of the book, but after a while, LEMONADE started to feel very repetitive. I still enjoyed it, but I feel I would have enjoyed it more if the pacing had been tighter and it ended about 100 pages earlier. If you're a fan of vintage bodice rippers (and Hana Yori Dango), you should check out LEMONADE. Even if you absolutely hate it, it's highly unlikely that you'd read another book like it published in this day and age.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 19, 2017

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers

I am not religious, so my review of this inspirational romance will be coming from the perspective of a secular reader. Our theme read in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group for the month of May was "christian romance," and REDEEMING LOVE was actually my nomination. Francine Rivers is a name that gets bandied around a lot, not just in the christian fiction groups, but also in the historical romance groups in general. I was curious to see what she was like. As soon as I began reading this book, I literally had two people message me to inform me that this book allegedly takes two forms: the 1991 version and the 1997 version. I apparently have the 1997 version, which was edited to remove swear words and explicit love scenes to make it religion-friendly, which is definitely the case in my version. All sex scenes are very much fade-to-black, or in the case of one scene, ends with the hero and heroine soaring towards heaven - metaphorically, I'd imagine. Unless I somehow picked up a paranromal romance book without actually catching on.

Sarah/Amanda/Mara/Tirzah/Angel is a prostitute who was sold into the profession against her will as a child and then raped. Over the years she has become bitter and cold; it's her only defense against her growing despair at sleeping with men she doesn't like in a prison gilded by the gold dust of the Californian mining town she's settled in. On one of her walks, Michael Hosea sees Angel and hears God tell him that this is the woman he is destined to marry. When he finds out what she is, he throws a mini-hissy before pulling up his britches and delivering Angel the news. She is not amused, and rebuffs him multiple times. When he marries her, she's actually unconscious from a beating.

Much of the book is Angel learning to deal with her guilt and self-hatred. Her bitterness is exceptionally well done, and the pain she feels is warranted. The epilogue of this book is straight out of a bodice ripper, and the more I found out about her backstory - neglect, abuse, rape, assault, incest, probably PTSD - the more I sympathized with her. No matter how frustrated I felt with her as a character, I always felt that her actions were in line with her character. It takes a long time before she's able to trust Michael, and when she does, it happens in stages. She trusts him with her body and her well-being long before she's willing to let him have her heart.

This story is apparently a retelling of a bible story about two people named Gomer and Hosea. I have not read the original story, so I'm not sure how accurate or true the retelling is. I will say that the story manages to stand on its own fairly well and I was engaged for the majority of the book. It was in the last quarter where I feel it begins to fail a bit, as God appears to drive Angel away from Michael because she views Michael as a god instead of Him...and he drives her right back to the man who raped and abused her, which seemed...cruel? Then one of Angel's friends tells her that she has a prayer box to remind her not to be self-sufficient, but to rely on God instead, and that whenever there's something she wants to do something about she just writes a note and puts it in the box...right. I didn't mind the way God's voice was written in this book, however, and I thought it was clever how what I assume was the devil took the voice of Angel's abuser. What better way to turn her away from the path of self-betterment than to take the voice of the man who made her feel as if she were beyond redemption in the first place? I also thought that the way the religion was written in this book is probably suitable for the time period in which it was written (1850-ish), because most people in the 19th century were religious, and it formed the backbone of their social circles in many cases.

Honestly, my two biggest pet peeves were that epilogue and the fact that Paul got an HEA. The epilogue annoyed me because I felt like it wasn't realistic. I get that it was intended to be a miracle, but I really did not like it. I also really did not like Paul. He ill-treats her for 95% of the book, and then at the end of the book she apologizes to him. Ooh, I saw red when that happened. I kept thinking to myself, "If this were a bodice ripper, Paul would be killed in a stampede of cows, or in a cave-in while trying to steal someone else's gold." But this was not a bodice ripper, so Paul accepts Angel's apology, condescends to give one of his own, and gets his stinking HEA (the bastard).

In spite of its flaws, REDEEMING LOVE is a good book, and I think secular readers will be able to enjoy it too (probably more so if they can find copies of that elusive 1991 edition). I'm very glad I finally got around to reading a Francine Rivers book. She is a good writer, with a sense of characterization and pacing, and absolutely beautiful descriptions of nature. Yes, religion is a definite focal point in this book but not to the point where it's utterly preachy, either. 4/10, would read more by this author later. Her Mark of the Lion series looks especially interesting, and I'm hoping I'll be able to get a copy of that on the cheap. I love Ancient Rome.

3 out of 5 stars

The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace

I love wine - love it - but I honestly don't get this fascination with drinking 50+ year old bottles. And I'm saying this as someone who lives in California and drinks good wine all the time. As I sort of alluded to in another book about wine I reviewed, HEDONIST IN THE CELLAR, I think there comes a point where it stops being about the wine and more about the moolah. Perhaps an eighteenth century bottle of wine tastes amazing (I can barely force myself to drink milk that's a week too old, so I am the wrong person to judge). Considering how much those bad boys sell for, it's unlikely I will ever find out. As this book points out, there is a science to the aging process, but a lot of it also seems to be showboating with your money and agreeing with people whom you consider to be generally superior and "in the know" when it comes to wine knowledge. Think "Emperor's New Clothes" except instead of, "Wow, that guy is naked" it's "wow, that guy is naked and drinking fresh-poured Scam Wine."

THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR is a delightful comedy of errors about innocent and perhaps not-so-innocent people (we never really know for sure) who end up getting Scam Wine™ instead of the miraculously well-preserved historical wine they thought originally belonged to Thomas Jefferson. When a well-preserved wine cellar is unearthed in France bearing many popular old wines from the 19th century, everyone is excited and quick to bid. But then the taste of the wines and the look of the bottles is called into question and suddenly, everything comes down like a house of cards and friends become enemies, and trustworthy wines become Scam Wines. Benjamin Wallace crams the whole sordid saga in here, starting with the wine's high octane auction, descriptions of lavish wine-tastings and food-pairings, why people buy old wine (spoiler: bragging rights), what these people are like (spoiler: rich), the quest for the wine's provenance, and then, lastly, a quiet epilogue. 

I honestly had no idea that wine forgeries were such an issue. I guess it makes sense, though. Anything high in demand is usually in short supply, to there's a temptation to artificially manufacture additional copies of these high price items and cash in. It was fascinating to read about how Scam Wine™ is made, and the lengths people go to make them look authentic, some going so far as to stain the labels and pit the glass and then coat them with convincing artificial dust (Scam Dust™). I also enjoyed learning about the history of some of these wines. For example, prior to reading THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR, I did not know about the great French wine blight. For those of you who do not know, an aphid called phylloxera attacked the roots of many French grapes in the late 19th century, causing many of the plants to die. American grapes were apparently immune to the aphids, so the roots of these American grapes were grafted onto the French plants, changing the taste of the grapes - some say for the worse (Scam Grapes™?). So apparently, pre-phylloxera wines are a class of their own and many people seek them out as being more "pure" than modern strains of grape.

It's been a while since I read a good nonfiction book about history and THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR was the perfect return to that type of book. The writing style is great - colorful and vivid, but not veering into sensationalism and remaining relatively impartial at most times. It's like reading a very fun journalistic piece that continues for almost 300 pages, except wine is involved and you get to experience it vicariously. I read the gripping climax with a glass of petit verdot in hand (read: violet notes), and as I was reading, it occurred to me that the oldest wine that I have ever put into my mouth was only about twelve years old, and even that was almost too strong. When I was telling one of my friends about this book and the old wines mentioned inside, and asking rhetorically what they might taste like, she made a hilarious face and said, "I bet it would taste like balsamic vinegar. I would cook with it." I said, "I bet that would legitimately make someone cry."

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 14, 2017

I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn

Allison and Gaby were two of my favorite contributors on Buzzfeed and when they left, I followed them both on Twitter. They have forceful personalities, so when I realized that the characters in this book shared the first letter of their authors' names (Ava to Allison and Gen to Gaby), I figured that this was probably a sly hint at semi-autobiographical elements.

It's difficult to sum up I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU because it's told in the 21st century version of epistolary format: emails and instant messaging. Ava and Gen are both freshmen in college, and are determined to keep in contact and continue their friendship despite going to different schools.

Ava is a high-strung perfectionist who is good at school and wants to please everyone around her. She also suffers from depression and anxiety and has the tendency to self-harm. Being away from home makes her very stressed out, and she's so determined to have the correct college experience that she joins a sorority filled with girls she doesn't really like and starts a relationship with a boy who doesn't respect her as much as he should.

Gen, on the other hand, is the poster child for the socially aware millennial. She is a proud feminist, is open about her sexuality and sleeps with many partners because she wants to, and determined to be an ethical journalist by immediately writing an article about one of the faculty's sexual harassment suits for the school paper. She also experiments with cocaine and sleeps with one of her TAs.

The girls are so different from one another, but their conversations feel authentic and real because they bring up a lot of topics that are relevant in this day and age, such as how bisexual people often feel isolated from the gay community and the straight community, how people with depression often don't get the support they need from their peers because their peers consider them a "downer," how toxic relationships aren't always obvious, and how being an adult sometimes necessitates making childish mistakes. You know, for the learning experience.

I really enjoyed I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU. I was mentally reading the emails in Allison's and Gaby's voices, which made these characters feel even more fleshed out. It wasn't always easy reading, even though it's a short book and goes by quickly. I could relate to Ava's shyness and social anxiety, and her fears that someone not writing back = the relationship apocalypse felt totally real. Gen, on the other hand, could sometimes annoy me because I didn't like the way she was constantly policing her friend. I think it's extremely important to reduce ignorance and transphobic/homophobic constructs that are embedded into our society, but I also don't think that the way to do that is by making your friends feel bad about themselves, either. Later on the book, this is addressed, and the two girls talk about the tendency to project your own feelings of inadequacies onto "safe" targets and how sometimes advice given with good intentions can be hurtful (a lesson for Ava and Gen).

I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU is not for everyone, and I am sure there will be plenty of reviews calling this "SJW bullshit," but controversial and daring subject matter is never received with open arms by all. More importantly, I HATE EVERYONE BUT YOU gives a voice to our newest generation in the same way that CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER did, and this time, it's not about young men - it's about young women. (Yay!)

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Awaken Me Darkly by Gena Showalter

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

Given how my previous encounters with Gena Showalter's books went (spoiler: not well), I'm not sure why I decided to buy this one.

...Oh wait, now I remember. It's about an alien huntress.

Assassins and bounty hunters in books make my ears perk up. Aliens make me come running. If you discovered a bodice ripper about alien assassins, I would probably zoom towards you at a speed that would break the sound barrier. Luckily, AWAKEN ME DARKLY, despite the bodice ripper-like title, is not a bodice ripper, so the sound barrier is safe (for now).

Mia Snow is an agent of A.I.R. (Alien Investigation and Removal). She lives in a world where Earth has already made First Contact and many of the aliens we have encountered have chosen to make their homes on Earth. Most are peaceful, but some attempt to harm or kill humans, and those are the aliens that Mia deals with up close and personal (spoiler: *boink*).

When what looks like an alien serial killer happens on the scene, it's Mia (and her team) who are called in to deal with the situation and nip it in the bud before it causes a panic. Her investigations lead her into the depths of a seedy community, straight into the arms of an alien named Kyrin, an Arcadian alien who just so happens to be of the race of aliens that Mia is investigating.

Coincidence? Maybe. (Spoiler: Obviously, it isn't.)

Reading this book brought back memories of the paranormal romances and urban fantasy novels I plowed through in my early years of college. Good, bad, I didn't care - I read them all. One of my favorites at the time before the series went sour was the Anita Blake vampire series, and in a way, AWAKEN ME DARKLY brought back a lot of those rose-tinted memories of books 1-5. There are a lot of similarities between the two books. Mia, like Anita, is a ball-busting heroine who compensates for her femininity with machismo and showboating. Mia, like Anita, is also a hunter of an immortal species and, like Anita, ends up forging a relationship with a member of the species she's hunting, with Kyrin playing Jean-Claude to Mia's Anita in this case. Kyrin, like Jean-Claude, is also fond of long hair, puffy shirts, and leather pants, and has a condescending paternal air to him that makes the heroine alternate dropping trou with death threats and declarations of her own independence, etc. Even the cover, with its vague hits at kink and taboo, would not be out of place in Anita Blake.

I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did, and for about the first third AWAKEN ME DARKLY was engaging and fun, even if Mia could be a b*tch. It's when the mystery that Mia is investigating comes to light that things get weird (spoiler: WTF), and the abrupt ending did not help matters. Also, the hero's kidnapping of the heroine to his pleasure palace was so eye-roll worthy, it's straight out of a 90s futuristic romance. When she's dressed in gauzy silks, with a beautiful bejeweled armband designed to serve as an electric shock collar, draped in the arms of the blonde alien hunk, I kept picturing Fabio romance covers - especially when he braids his hair. Fabio the pirate alien. YAS.

AWAKEN ME DARKLY has the dubious honor of being the least offensively awful Gena Showalter book I have read. THE NYMPH KING was kill-it-before-it-spawns-sequels bad. AWAKEN, on the other hand, is just cheesy. I think I would have liked it more if it were set in space, like a Linnea Sinclair science-fiction romance. This just felt like a PNR with extraterrestrial window dressing.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews

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

I'm not very good at fangirling, but some books make me want to try. BURN FOR ME makes me want to try. It was so good. The heroine, the villainous antihero, the magic system, the was all so, so good. Reading this transported me to childhood again, when I could completely immerse myself in fantasy stories and they all felt real -

Except no childhood fantasy story ever had Mad Rogan in it.


BURN FOR ME is the first in the Hidden Legacy series, which takes place in an alternate universe where a magic serum has given various human beings X-Men-like abilities. Some control the elements, some control minds. Nevada Baylor, a private investigator, has the ability to discern truth. And right now, she's hunting down a powerful pyrokinetic named Adam Pierce who seems to want to set the whole city of Houston up in flames.

Mad Rogan is a powerful tactile who can level large buildings with the same ease that he can peel splinters of a chopstick, layer by layer. (And that's not the only thing he'd like to peel layer by layer *cough*) He's after Adam, too, although when he meets Nevada, he decides that he might just be after her, as well. You know, while he's at it.

The result is a tug-of-war between the various powerful mages, called Primes, with poor Nevada bouncing around between them like a ping-pong ball, as she dodges gunfire, actual fire, mutant turf wars, and the sexual advances of a very attractive, possibly sociopathic telekinetic, all the while trying to prevent the destruction of the entire world.

One of my friends recommended this book when she found out that I love villainous heroes, and Mad Rogan definitely fit the bill in that regard. Goddamn, that man is the type of bad that inspires X-rated fanfiction. He had some amazing lines, and some super steamy scenes with Nevada. Did I maybe skim ahead a bit, looking for said scenes? No, no of course not. That would be sacrilege. (Maybe.) It's so hard to find urban fantasy novels with romance that don't put the world-building in the backseat. In BURN FOR ME, it's front and center, and instead of detracting from the romantic elements, it makes them that much more stronger and compelling.

I want to say more about this book, but to be honest, I wouldn't know where to begin. I could tell you that the secondary characters are just as colorful as the ones in a Stephanie Plum novel, and I could tell you that reading this book gave me those same "this is good fantasy" vibes as I got from His Dark Materials and Harry Potter. I could tell you that Mad Rogan has a place in my exclusive heroes hall of fame, and I could tell you that I am insanely jealous of my friends who seem to have acquired ARCs for not just book 2 (which isn't out yet) but also book 3 (which also isn't out yet). I could tell you all these things, but you should probably just read the book for yourself.

Also, for all you people saying Mad Rogan is yours? Back off, he's mine. I WILL FIGHT YOU.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 12, 2017

Tender Wings of Desire by Harland Sanders

When pictures of this book cover first began surfacing on Twitter, I thought it was some kind of hoax. But, like Peeps-flavored Oreos, TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE was just as real, just as questionable, and just as compelling.

Released just in time for Mother's Day, along with an ad that seems to be channeling Fabio (with bonus lie/lay confusion), TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE is a historical romance novel in which a plucky and spirited heroine falls in love with Colonel Harland Sanders. The cover, which looks like a vintage Harlequin, features smiling Sanders holding a woman in 1950s garb - never mind that this is set in A Historical Era Where Women Wear Gowns™. Who has time to worry about historical inaccuracies? I'm too transfixed by the magically hovering bucket of KFC and the heroine's apparent attempts to tame the Colonel's hair with a chicken drumstick. The roaring ocean waves and Trump Tower-sized castle in the background are just extra.

I began reading this with the expectation that it would be a rip-roaringly ridiculous romp through the wilder side of the romance genre, in the vein of the tongue-in-cheek dinosaur erotica that peaked in popularity a few years ago. But if you, like me, were expecting "I Fucked Colonel Sanders," you're going to be disappointed. This is not Fifty Shades of Gravy; this is Fried and Frigidity.

Plucky Madeline's parents are attempting to force her to marry a duke. Not buying this arrangement with a man she describes as a "vanilla biscuit", Madeline flees to a tavern, gets a job as a barmaid of sorts, and falls into insta-love with the Colonel. She sleeps with him immediately, all safely off-screen, and everything seems like pure bliss until she realizes that he's the American version of the gentry - the same class of people that she was attempting to run away from. Oh, the horror of being wealthy! The novella is under 100 pages, but it's worth noting Colonel Sanders doesn't make an appearance until the 46% mark. Before that, TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE is all about Madeline chafing at convention and expressing a yearning desire for unspecified middle-class adventure. 

I think most people were going into this expecting comedy - if not "I Fucked the Colonel," then with over-the-top descriptions of thighs that looked like creamy mashed potatoes, and foreplay involving coleslaw and gravy - but it is actually a heartbreaking attempt at a sincere romance novel, made more heartbreaking still by the fact that it just isn't very good. Fried chicken isn't mentioned once, and the novel almost seems to "bait" the reader with the promise of puns to come with lines like this:

Madeline could not help but feel surprised, about what she did not exactly know, but once they reached the docks again she turned to him, her heart bursting with the desire to figure out what was burning in her stomach (69%).

The reader might be inclined to ask, with increasing desperation, whether the answer is KFC® Nashville Hot Chicken Tenders. But the novel just smiles slyly and flounces away, spinning lines of pseudo-romantic drivel so insipidly terrible that even Harlequin would deliver to them the cut direct:

Madeline's heart was pounding so heavily in her chest that she did not think she would be able to breathe; perhaps she would die like this. It would be terribly romantic, would it not? To be killed by such a longing (69%).

Oh, dear. How terribly improper.

To my knowledge, KFC is not mentioned once, nor are any of its products, and Harland's role is only alluded to, briefly, as "magnate of a restaurant industry." Since I was reading this for my romance group, I was determined to see this to the end in the hopes of some grand finale, or at least one bad pun about golden thighs, creamy potatoes, or seeing the phrase "finger-lickin' good" in a non-food-related context. I was disappointed on all counts. The story ends as you might expect of a romance novel: with the two of them sailing away to happiness. All that's missing are the white horses and the technicolor sunset, but perhaps they are saving those for the sequel.

From a marketing standpoint, I do applaud KFC's efforts. We as a society have grown mostly numb to advertising, since we're bombarded with it constantly at all hours, so it's genuinely refreshing to see a company that does something novel in a way that isn't "tone deaf." TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE attempts to parody the romance genre without actually deriding it, and considering how often the romance genre is put on blast for a cheap laugh, that's actually rather sweet.

I managed to get this while it was free, but it appears that it's now 99-cents (unless you have Kindle Unlimited), and I'm not sure it's worth it apart from the sheer lark of reading a romance novel published by a fast food company that has absolutely nothing to do with fast food. The concept is clever and original, but the contents don't match the cover at all. I think they should have either gotten a better writer, or just thrown all caution to the wind and taken the "I Fucked Colonel Sanders" route, because right now TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE reads like a joke without a punchline.

1 to 1.5 stars

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Act Like It by Lucy Parker

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

Carina's acquisitions team is seriously on point. Somehow they manage to find authors who can strike the perfect balance between trashy plots and smart writing - which, in case you were wondering, happens to be one of my favorite combinations, right up there with burgers and red wine and Jason Momoa and anything.

ACT LIKE IT by Lucy Parker was one of two books of the month in my romance group. (The other was LORD OF SCOUNDRELS by Loretta Chase.) I actually thought that I wouldn't like this book but would love the LORD OF SCOUNDRELS book, so you could color me surprised when the reverse proved true, and I eschewed the tried-and-true formula of douchey hero falls for spinster heroine in retro romance novel for a new adult small-press publication about a hate-to-love relationship in the theater industry.

I know - I'm surprised, too. What in the even.

Elaine Graham looks like Jessica Rabbit, but is actually a down-to-earth individual involved with charity work and who is very close to her family, and still kind of camera shy and star-struck when it comes to her quietly burgeoning fame. By contrast, Richard Troy makes headlines left and right with his marquee-scale name, but none of it is good press and it's beginning to affect his sales and brand. His agent has the brilliant idea of having the two of them pretend to be "involved," arguing that this will not only sell seats but also boost both their images (but namely Troy's). Elaine only reluctantly concedes when she finds out that a large percentage of profits will be donated to her charity.

It's hard not to compare this book to THE HATING GAME because they are both about characters who end up in a relationship with a coworker that they hate. ACT LIKE IT also reminds me of another Carina publication I read about a year ago, called HOLLYWOOD HOT MESS, that explores similar themes of how celebrity status wears and tears on one's personal life and makes relationships - especially sexual relationships - even more complex.

Honestly, I think I liked THE HATING GAME more, because I felt like the character arcs were more complicated and developed because the length of the book allowed for more time. ACT LIKE IT was a relatively short read, so when Troy starts to become a decent human being instead of, say, a spoiled teenage, it feels so much more sudden. There's also more time to prolong that UST. ACT LIKE IT is very back-heavy, with the first half suggesting a gradual romance, but the last half being nonstop drama (sexual assault, family drama, tragic backstories, exploding buildings, etc.). To be honest, it starts to feel like something straight out of a shoujo manga. But ACT LIKE IT wasn't a bad book, and it had some steamy scenes (although not as hot as the ones in THG) and both characters were interesting and likable, and of course, there was some great banter, too. If you're a fan of the enemies-to-lovers theme in romance novels, ACT LIKE IT is a great addition.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

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

LORD OF SCOUNDRELS has been on my to-read list for five years, so I was delighted when it was selected as the book of the month for the Unapologetic Romance Readers monthly read. One of my favorite romance pairings is the no-nonsense shrew with the duke of slut. I was expecting something along the lines of Anne Stuart's RUTHLESS or Elizabeth Hoyt's DUKE OF SIN. Until about 30% of the book, I got exactly what I bargained for. Jess is a spinster considered by many to be a bluestocking who is firmly on the shelf. Sebastian, Marquess of Dain, is a half-Italian man of unconventional appearance who has been shamed since childhood on account of his large nose and flighty mother who ditched him as a young boy to go live with another man.

Dain is used to purchasing the affections of women with coin, and sees many of them as opportunistic whores (and says as much, projecting many of his mother issues onto the females in his acquaintance). He is also used to controlling others through fear, intimidation, and - of course - money, and has made a name for himself with these horribly improper behaviors. Which is why it's so funny, then, when he finds himself completely blindsided by Jess, who bamboozles him with her sharp tongue and irrefutable logic, as well as her beauty and her inherent goodness.

Then around 34%, she shoots save face, I think, and allow the two of them to wed. I forget why. It was very strange. But anyway, to the shock of the ton, the two of them are married and that's when things fall apart because there's no longer any will they/won't they, no, it becomes a question of when. Within the context of their marriage, the witty banter of the first segment gives way to petty arguments, sulking, and slut-shaming, which is unfortunate because it's made clear from the very beginning that Jess is a force to be reckoned with and I didn't see the need for her to drag other women down. Dain, by contrast, becomes a sulky child who pouts and throws fits when he doesn't get his way. This is a far cry from the imposing, dangerous figure he's presented as from the beginning, and while I appreciated the author's attempts to make him vulnerable, it didn't really pan out. I think she could have conveyed his fragile emotional state without making him such a shit. Some of the things he said about his own son were just totally repulsive.

Also, the sex scenes were not noteworthy. There's the typical jack-in-the-box peen action, where the peen springs out of trousers like a wind-up toy, and talk of feminine curves and sleek curls, but there's also a few retroly bizarro lines like this: He trailed his tongue over one sleek eyebrow (67%). Which is very strange, although not quite as strange as the "arousing" eyelid-licking scene in FOREVER AND THE NIGHT. It's worth noting that both of these books also have a very odd scene about desperately having to go to the bathroom and also desperately needing to talk about it, as at one point, Dain tells Jess that sex will have to wait because he needs to drain the main vein: "I can't wait around to pick you up. My bladder is about to explode" (65%). Thanks for sharing.

I'm very disappointed not to have liked this more, because many of my friends raved about LORD OF SCOUNDRELS and it's on all the romance lists of note and I'd been lusting after this book (and that cover) for years, desperately hoping that it would live up to all the hype. Sadly, it did not. It's yet another 90s romance novel making the awkward transition from bodice ripper to modern historical romance, and it falls into one of those awkward trenches of fail where it has the worst attributes of both. Perhaps you will enjoy this more than me - especially if you love Beauty and the Beast, and find the plot of an intelligent woman being saddled with a sulky, miserable man appealing.

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Surrender to Love by Rosemary Rogers

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

It's difficult to explain my love of bodice rippers to people who don't already enjoy them. The distortion of reality that they reflect is not one that I find desirable at all: They are often brutal, politically incorrect (to the point of being offensive), with spoiled immature heroines and heroes who could just as easily double as villains. Oh, and the writing - the over-the-top, adjective-laden writing, with flowery euphemisms for primary sex characteristics and prose so purple that it makes violets look red.

This is bodice-ripper land. Go big, or go home.

At 700 pages (in my edition), SURRENDER TO LOVE is definitely a big book. It was originally published in 1982 and my reprint by Mira was released in 2003. Often when bodice ripper authors rerelease their older works, they will "clean them up" and remove some of the more un-PC references and rewrite blatant acts of rape into more "acceptable" forced seduction scenes. I was curious to see if Rosemary Rogers, who is fairly well known for her unapologetically OTT plots, would do the same. I haven't read the original version, but if this version is anything to go by, I would guess no.

(If you do know for sure, please tell me. I'm very curious.)

I was reading her author bio on Goodreads and part of what makes SURRENDER TO LOVE so fun is that the beginning part of it seems semi-autobiographical. Rogers, like our heroine Alexa, was raised in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in a rich family, and under constant supervision. The descriptions of Ceylon are amazing, not just of the land but of the climate and the people as well. Rogers's exotic setting is part of what makes this book so fun and is reminiscent of titles like Christine Monson's RANGOON (which is set in Burma/Myanmar) and Lane Harris's THE DEVIL'S LOVE (set in the Caribbean). I enjoyed both of these books, but the setting in SURRENDER feels so much more pervasive, and I'm sure that's because Rogers was actually there, and she knew its beauties as well as its disadvantages, and she had seen a lot of the local politics and tensions firsthand.

Alexa is a fairly likable heroine, as far as bodice ripper heroines go. She's feisty and headstrong and sometimes this can make her annoying, but for the most part she is a decent character and I was always (at least halfheartedly) championing her. Nicholas, the hero, is where the fun is really at, though. He's one of those villainish heroes. One who thinks nothing about dub-con (or non-con), who treats women like garbage and goes around whoring and slut-shaming in equal measures. He cheats, multiple times, on multiple people, supposedly murdered his last wife, and appears to think nothing of threatening the lives of the people around him even if they are people he allegedly cares for.

SURRENDER TO LOVE is more of a psychodrama than a romance in the traditional sense, since the characters spend most of the novel - about 680 pages out of 700, in fact - tormenting one another with physical violence, rape, whoring, manipulation, lies, and revenge. For reasons I won't reveal (come on, guys, you have to read it), Alexa wants revenge on Nicholas's family, and her attraction to him becomes just another weapon in her arsenal as she embarks on her vicious quest.

What had she ever done to injure him? Except - the dark demon side of him answered too promptly - except by marrying a very rich man who was too old to please her and finding her pleasure in playing the whore, bitch that she was. Not for the money - that at least would have been halfway excusable - but to satisfy her degraded appetites (380).

"If you had any realization of all the different kinds of pain and degradation and abuse that can be and are inflicted on some human beings by others in the name of 'pleasure,' I do not think you'd have dared indulge your whining, hypocritical little complaints to me of cruelty and the infliction of pain - unless you meant it as a challenge?" (443)

"You can keep your eyes closed or open - it's all the same to me. And you can take off that ugly purple dress you're wearing, and all your damned petticoats and your corset as well - or if you prefer it, I'll rip the clothes off your body myself! But either way, my mermaid, I'll have you naked the way I first saw you; and I meant to use you, my virgin slut, as I should have done then and later. In every way and every fashion I see fit" (474).

Nicholas - such a charmer.

The best way of describing SURRENDER is saying that it's two parts V.C. Andrews and two parts Bertrice Small. It's like V.C. Andrews in the sense of Alexa's father figures have incestuous feelings for her (one of whom has an almost sexual fixation with his own mother), and there's a wicked matriarch type character who runs the scenes and will stop at nothing to have her way no matter how much manipulation it takes. There's also a narrative style that I can only describe as "breathless" - peppered with numerous italics, so you know how important every word is, and how it's emphasized when the characters talk, and many exclamation points so you know it is a dramatic exclamation! It's like Bertrice Small in the sense that Rogers is very cruel to her characters, and has them be very cruel to each other. Someone is raped in a Turkish prison, and decides to inflict that torment on others. The hero is flogged towards the end of the book, and tortured in front of the heroine (something that Rogers apparently does in another one of her books, SWEET SAVAGE LOVE). There's lots of cheating and sexual abuse. The heroine is ambitious and incredibly good at sex, despite her inexperience. Parts of the book take place in a brothel, with some kinky scenes ensuing. This is all classic Small, but Rogers is a much better writer than Small, which makes it even more amusing.

Are these books for everyone? No. But unlike certain romance novels cycling around the popularsphere, SURRENDER TO LOVE doesn't pretend to literary accomplishment. It strives to entertain, instead - and entertain it did. I think this is actually my favorite bodice ripper that I have ever read to date because of the broadness in scope, and the epic journey the characters take across those neverending pages, from hatred to hate-sex to sex-sex to something that's sort of love but probably isn't because relationships like that aren't healthy at all. If you think you're up to tackling the mess, I definitely recommend this book. It will shock, it will disgust, but dammit, it will entertain!

4.5 out of 5 stars