Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Do you enjoy books about cheating? Do you like heroines who are so stupid that they literally spend a week starving in their boarding school because they are too stupid to order food from a cafeteria? Do you like heroes whose big romantic confessions literally involve the phrase "I cheated on her every day"?

Then this is the book for YOU!

It's been a while since I read a YA book that I hated so much. I think the last one was Molly McAdams's SHARING YOU, a book about some selfish trash people who decide to carry on an extramarital affair because the wife is such a bitchly, she totes has it coming, you guys. ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS is the PG-13 version of SHARING YOU. Teenage trash people, Etienne and Anna, end up connecting immediately and succumbing to their attraction to one another... despite the fact that he has a girlfriend.

I am so tired of these books that make apologies for cheaters. In a relationship and in love with someone else? End the first relationship first and then move on. Don't string both women along and run to the woman you don't like when you want sex so you can keep the woman you do like pure, and then later confess that you "cheated on your girlfriend every day" in your mind with this new trash person, and try to make it sound romantic. And especially don't try to make it all about you by saying that you're just afraid to be alone. Because you know what that makes you? A trash person.

And don't even get me started about ANNA. Freaking ANNA. She is the biggest trash person on Mount Trashmore. The face that launched a thousand trash ships. Anna - who doesn't know she's beautiful. Anna - who gets sent to a cool school in Paris and immediately starts whining about how much she hates it there. Anna - who is so stupid that she doesn't even attempt to order from her boarding school's cafeteria in English and literally starves unless someone isn't there to order for her. Anna - who doesn't know a word of French,is resentful about learning French, and basically pictures the entire country as a beret-wearing, Amelie-watching population. Anna - who puts a Canadian flag patch on her backpack because she doesn't want people thinking she's American. Anna - who is shocked that French people watch English-speaking movies, too! Anna - who orders a coffee from McDonald's and is shocked that it doesn't taste like French espresso! Anna - who the moment she gets home to precious Atlanta, immediately starts whining about how much she misses France.

Anna - the stupidest person on earth.

As if the cheating weren't enough, this is a codependent relationship written in the style of TWILIGHT. Anna is a pathetic, helpless heroine who needs a boy to save her from scary France. He uses her, too, to cope with his emotional issues - because he doesn't want to be alone - while resolving all the (ahem) physical ones with his girlfriend of one and a half years. The difference is, Edward didn't cheat. Etienne dreams of being Edward. Edward was not a perfect hero by any means, but with him I could see the appeal. With Etienne, I am side-eying all the people saying how cute and fluffy this book is and thinking, "What? This dysfunction?" And say what you like about Bella, especially in New Moon, but at least she didn't cheat with another girl's boyfriend and then start sobbing about how "she didn't mean it! she didn't know what happened!" when caught with her tongue in his mouth. Bella did not cheat, and Bella was not an idiot. She would certainly know who Emile Zola was, and wouldn't call him "Emily Zola"; the greatest female author you've never heard of. Given the choice between this and TWILIGHT, TWILIGHT would win, every time.

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Read This if You Want to Be Instagram Famous by Henry Carroll

I picked this up because of the title, because everyone is always talking about internet celebrity, and I was curious: what is the secret behind this fame? Is there a shortcut? Obviously, I was skeptical because there is no way in hell anyone would divulge all the secrets behind their fame and risk not only getting dethroned but also losing ad revenue to competitors of their own making. Books of this type are usually more similar to Pinterest inspiration boards, paired with vague, common-sense sounding advice that tends to conflict with itself if you look at it too closely ("be unique" - but also "be homogeneous/consistent!"). Um, yeah. To quote Ace Ventura, "Spank you, Helpy Helperton."

I have an instagram. I basically use it the way this book tells you not to use it. I'm over ambitious and over enthusiastic in what I like to share. Sometimes, I'll take book posts. I have a few #ootd posts, when I'm feeling fly (somewhere, a hipster just cringed). I document all my trips abroad, but also take pics of all the cool stuff I see locally in San Francisco, whether it's a tasty salad (yes, I do take pics of my food) or political graffiti or a protest that I'm participating in. I tried to make it author-geared once, and it just didn't work out. I felt annoying, repetitive, and fake. Maybe part of that celebrity is owning your self-hype and making it work, but I just felt like an obnoxious door-to-door salesman pushing my book on people.

To be fair, some of the pictures in here were really cool and even artistic. Some of them were also self-promotional and seemed to embrace the culture of conspicuous consumption that's so prevalent on insta ("look at this expensive makeup I'm using - buy it all, and don't forget to use my product code so I get a cut!") ("I bought the hardcover limited edition of this popular book, and that makes me a more worthy and hardcore fan than you cheapskates who only read it on Kindle"). I guess what I take issue with is when does it stop being an expression of one's individual sense of artistry and authentic expression, and when does it start becoming a corporate entity masquerading as the former?

Just something to think about.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell

I love romance novels - a lot. I'm creator and moderator of a romance group called Unapologetic Romance Readers, a promotional-free group involving critical discussion of popular and not-so-popular romance titles. In a given year, I probably read between 100-200 romance titles alone. I buy them in public and in private, I read them on the bus. I love romance novels, and I don't care who knows. The Smart Bitches obviously feel the same way. I've been following their blog for a while, and they have some of the best reviews of bodice-rippers I've ever seen (some of their Johanna Lindsey and Fern Michaels reviews have moved me to tears... of laughter, that is). When I found out they published a book, I was all over that like white on rice. (As of now, it's a steal at $3.99, so I say grab a copy - at one point, it was $9.99.)

Published in 2009, BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS is already dated because it was published before FIFTY SHADES OF GREY made erotica mainstream (for better or for worse) and before new adult titles because The Next Big Thing (again, for better or for worse). In a way, this makes for an interesting retrospective, because many of these ladies' predictions were true: that erotica would become less taboo, and that LGBT+ romances, and the increasing demand for them, would create a drive for more titles, more scenarios, and more representation (which it did, although there is still room for improvement, particularly with F/F, asexual, and transgender representation).

 BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS resonated with me on multiple levels because most people - especially women - who read romance have had to deal with people who feel the desperate need to take the piss out of their enjoyment. I've had people come up to me, and tell me that they thought romance novels are stupid. One man saw a vintage bodice-ripper in my hands at a thrift store and bragged about how dumb he thought they were, and their only redeeming value was in reselling autographed first editions for big bucks at swap meets. I have people who continually comment on my book reviews and say, "Why are you reading this? This sounds so stupid. I would never read this." Which... good for you, I guess? I'm not sure what these people's goals are in bragging about their disdain of romance. What do they want? A shiny gold star that says, "I made someone else's day slightly sh*ttier while touting my own intellectual superiority?"

There's a lot of jerks on the internet, so this isn't entirely a romance-exclusive thing, but the reason romance readers are so tired of hearing about how dumb romance novels are is because it's the only novel that's written mostly by women, mostly for women, and given the inherent sexism that still plagues many institutions of society (yes, including "Western" society), it seems a little fishy that romance receives criticisms ("the plots are all the same", "there's a lot of rape", "the characters are so bland", "the covers are stupid", "it promotes unhealthy relationship standards") that are supposed to be unique to romance and yet could just as easily be swapped out for criticisms of mystery, science-fiction, action-adventure, and horror novels. The only difference? Those latter genres aren't being exclusively marketed to and written by women. So yeah, it seems just a  little sketch.

What makes romance criticism even more aggravating is that many of the critics are people (often men, but not always) who picked up a bodice-ripper once, in the 70s, or flipped through Twilight "once, to see what all the fuss was about" and are using that as their yardstick to judge all romance ever, thereby contributing to the stereotype that all romances are created equal and are therefore interchangeable. Even in historical fiction there's a lot of variance, and bodice-rippers are in no way representative of the genre as a whole: they have branched out considerably from their clothing-shredding roots since the debut of THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER.

I can see the anti-feminists side-eying this book, and no, even though the bulk of this book is written with the feminist, forward-thinking woman in mind, it's not all "waaaah, someone told me the book I was reading was dumb." BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS offers a heavily satirical look at the books we all love to read best, pointing out the flaws, but tenderly; they manage to poke fun at romance novels while at the same time, making this humor a celebration of the wackiness of the books, as well as an appreciation of what they offer for women, be it escape or even empowerment.

The last part of the book is written "choose your own adventure" style and really serves to highlight how unhealthy and ridiculous some of the tropes in romance novels would be in real life, and yet somehow makes them hilarious and endearing. It's followed by a "mad libs" style game that does the same thing with purple prose. Again, this never feels mean-spirited. Not like those "why are you reading this?" type comments that seem to suggest that only silly women-folk with their simpering, inferior brains would pick up something to read that was so demeaning. No, this is fine parody, and feels more like a heavy wink than a backhanded slap.

I would love to see the Smart Bitches write a follow-up to this book, since romance has changed so much in the eight years since this was published, and I'd love to see their reviews of the POC rep books that are slowly trickling into the market in greater numbers, as well as college romance, mainstream erotica publications, and that mutated black sheep in the romance family... monsterotica, "Tinglers," and dinoporn. I found myself adding so many books to my to-read list while paging through BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS, even some of the more WTF Old Skool titles (I love me some Old Skool titles, the more the covers look like pastel soft-core porn, the better).

There was only one glaring mistake that occurred on page 112 of the Kindle edition, and that was when the authors said that Anne Stuart's MOONRISE had a hero who was a cult reader. She's actually confusing MOONRISE (which has a CIA hero) with RITUAL SINS. I double-checked to make sure, but I'm very familiar with RITUAL SIN's premise, because my friend Heather Crews keeps trying to persuade me to read it because it's right up my dark and twisted Old Skool alley.

If you love romance novels at all, you should read this book. It's an ode to the genre, as well as a parody, and achieves a nice balance between the two. If you're not a fan of romance, you might not enjoy this quite as much because the book is written for an audience that is familiar with most big-name romance authors and romance cliches and romance tropes. You might still have a laugh or two (or three, or four), but I think some of the jokes and references might go over your head.

P.S. These authors really love Laura Kinsale. ;-)

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I read this book for book club. Coincidentally, the only other book I've read by this author, THE HYPNOTIST'S LOVE STORY, was for another book club. Book clubs seem to love this woman - for better or for worse. I can't remember much about THE HYPNOTIST, except I spent most of the book wanting to punch the heroine (a fact I pragmatically shared at that book club meeting). When I picked up BIG LITTLE LIES, I felt a distinct lack of enthusiasm because one look at the summary suggested that the desire to punch more ladies in the uterus might be looming on the horizon.

Now that I've read BIG LITTLE LIES, I'm torn. On the one hand, all the characters in here are awful at one point or another (usually another). Meredith is a well meaning busybody who lives for the drama. Renata, you just know has one of those "Can I speak to the manager?" haircuts. Jane is so helpless and irritating. Celeste is a victim trapped in a delusional spiral due to constant psychological abuse. And Abigail is basically the incarnate of teenage girl from hell, only with misplaced activist ambitions.

And don't even get me started on Perry.

On the other hand, this was a well written drama that really does a great job illustrating the every day problems of women. Men like to mock women for being "school moms" and laugh about how easy it is to do domestic drudgery, but Moriarty highlights the difficulties of the mom life - the petty squabbles and rivalries between other moms, fighting your children's battles (whether they want you to or not), and navigating the oft rocky landscape of married life. Being a mom and a wife is hard, and Moriarty shows that to great effect in this book. Even though I found myself gritting my teeth during the narratives of certain characters, I always understood where they were coming from.

I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. Like WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE, it was saved from being too precious by solid writing and complex characters. The only thing I didn't like was what I called "the peanut gallery": foreshadowing quotes from other moms in this book who weren't important enough to have their own POVs. It felt way too cheesy, and was so frequent that I began to get increasingly more annoyed every time I saw it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 23, 2017

Bomb by Amy Isan

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

I am fundamentally averse to the idea of MC romances because I just don't find the idea of a bunch of leather-bedecked bearded dudes on Harleys attractive - especially not if they refer to said Harleys as "hogs" and throw around F-bombs the way a creepy dude with a front-row seat throws dollar bills at a strip club. I'm honestly confused about how many women find the idea of this attractive. Billionaires, I understand - but bikers... I've never seen a charming biker. Or an attractive biker. Most of the bikers I've seen are dudes in their forties with bushy beards and dirty leather jackets who ruin nice summer days by revving their g-d engines.

No, thanks.

So why did I read this? I lost a bet. Well... no, MC romances are a category on this romance challenge I'm doing, and since everyone else had to suffer through bodice rippers and sheikh romances, it seemed only fair that I encounter my worst nightmare too. Plus, it was free. And only 100 pages. I figured hey, it's short - if I hate it, I only have to hate it for about 1/3 as long as I would a novel.

Cassie hates her job and her boss and her stupid life. I could just picture her in my mind as that over-entitled, lazy, flaky person we all know who thinks they deserve more than they have but doesn't want to work for it. Case(s) in point she's late for work all the time and lies about why, and is super judgy of her roommate because she can't get any.

When she witnesses an accident involving a motorcycle (I can't remember if she was at fault, and I do not care), she crosses paths with Logan, AKA Bomb. And since he's mostly referred to as "Bomb" in this book, it took me a while to figure out that Logan = Bomb. He's not thrilled when he finds out Cassie called the police because his MC gang is into some shady sh*t, so he goes through her purse and takes her driver's license so he knows where she lives now.

When Bomb shows up at her door, waving her license tauntingly, she debates about whether or not to let him in. Literally - this is something she asks herself. And guess what? GUESS WHAT?

She lets him in.

For a short, this doesn't have much sex. The characters don't get together until the very end. Most of it is Cassie whining about her job and obsessing over this guy she doesn't know, and Bomb doing shady MC sh*t and thinking about how much he wants to have sex with this girl he doesn't know. The sex scenes are terrible, and at one point the heroine thinks to herself "I want to taste his soul."

I won't be picking up any of the other books in this series, but at least I've checked MC romance off my list.

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Ice Planet Barbarians by Ruby Dixon

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance about aliens ๐ŸŽƒ

I love my romance reading friends, but sometimes they lead me astray. Take my first foray into the Alexa Riley novels, which read like the manuscripts of a bad porno featuring a hero who wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Criminal Minds in which the cops discover a human breeding farm in his basement. Or, take the (thankfully) short-lived monsterotica trend, in which all the creepies from those pulpy 50s B-movies return in titles like The Blob That F*cked Everything or Swamp Monster Gang Bang.

When I saw ICE PLANET BARBARIANS showing up in my Goodreads feed, I was highly skeptical. It was being read by many of the same people who tried recommending Alexa Riley to me. I had horrific visions of probes, scary alien genitals, and bad dialogue being set to porn music with theramin solos (so, basically Broken Bells without the singing).

When this book showed up - for free - in the Kindle store, I decided why not? Apart from my time, that's as risk free as you can get with an ebook. I downloaded it immediately and forgot about it for several months until my romance group started its yearly Halloween challenge and I found myself looking at the "aliens" category and going, "Hmm..."

ICE PLANET BARBARIANS, despite that cover that seems determined to make you think that you are reading a terrible book, is... not a terrible book. In fact, it's a bit like diet R. Lee Smith - you have a heroine who is kidnapped by alien slave traders who are then forced to dump their cargo on an icy planet that is inhabited by hunky alien warriors. One of them, a chief named Vektal, happens upon Georgie while she's trying to get help or find food. She turns out to be his "resonance" or mate, the one who makes his khui all hot and bothered. Which means the sex is great (obviously - apparently ice planet barbarians are built like sex toys, with the downstairs equipment of a robust dildo, replete with vibrating) but the angst is high, because Georgie kind of wants to just go back home. To Earth.

Unlike R. Lee Smith, the world-building in this book is not so epic or complex. It's still creative, but it lacks that development, because the romance is at the forefront of this story whereas Smith is more about deep relationships that develop over the course of hundreds and hundreds of chapters in the style of the hefty epics from the 70s and 80s. The focus is on Georgie and Vektal's physical relationships, which then later graduates to insta-love. I rolled my eyes at that. This is that paranormal fated-to-be-mated BS, with interstellar packaging. YOU CAN'T FOOL ME, RUBY DIXON.

Despite my numerous reservations, though, I actually liked ICE PLANET BARBARIANS. I love the cheesy title. I thought the world building was cool (although I would have liked more development of the universe, as well as the other alien races, and though that the subplot with the slavers was tied off pretty hastily at the end). Georgie was a decent heroine. Vektal was actually kind of an adorable hero. I thought the secret behind the khui was interesting. I would read more in this series, for sure.

Thanks, Elena, for participating in this impromptu buddy read!

3 out of 5 stars

Happy People Read and Drink Coffee by Agnรจs Martin-Lugand

 ๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance where a graveyard is a major setting in the novel ๐ŸŽƒ

I've seen some blatant false packaging before - I've seen Sarah Huckabee Sanders's press conferences - but this book takes the cake. The title and bright cover with primary hues make you think you're getting some adorable little chick-lit book that's probably set in either New York or Tuscany, about some woman in her early thirties who's "finding" herself.

What you're actually getting is a grim book set in France about a woman named Diane who has lost her husband and daughter in a terrible accident. She's obviously in a period of grief, but that grief appears to be turning to depression - she doesn't wash, doesn't go out, doesn't live, and it's starting to impact her life in a hugely dysfunctional way. The title of the book is actually the name of the literary cafe she ran with her husband before he died, and now it's falling into disrepair just like her.

One day, Diane gets this idea that she's got to go to Ireland. Her husband always wanted to go there, because he liked the cold, so she feels like this trip, in a way, will be an exile that punishes her for her family's death even further, while also bringing her closer to her husband spiritually. I don't like to use the word "crazy" but... man, this woman is pushing it.

So she gets to Ireland, where she rents a place, and her neighbors are some pretty friendly Irish people - except her grumpy neighbor who irrationally dislikes her for no apparent reason. They fight with each other constantly and he says the cruelest things to her, and even makes her so upset that she throws up and cries. And then... suddenly, she and this guy - who happens to be named Edward - has an abrupt personality change, and they decide they like each other, and oh, by the way, how did you catch that crabapple so quickly and how long have you been 37 anyway? A long time? Are you just saying that or are you actually a vampire who transformed to escape from dying of the Spanish flu?

I'm kidding. None of that later stuff happens. Except for the personality change, that is.

I picked this book up on impulse, and when I saw the average Goodreads rating for this book, I was like oh no. The first half of this book is so depressing, and the main character is such a sh*t, that you're torn between feeling sorry for her and kind of wanting to slap her because she's so annoying. That's how I felt about Alessandra Torre's THE GHOSTWRITER, so I think if you enjoyed that book, you might enjoy this one, too, because both are dark stories that feature unlikable main characters. When the romance finally comes along, it's dysfunctional, and the hero reveals himself to be a man who is spinally challenged when it comes to the hilariously OTT b*tchy OW.

I see this book was originally written in French and translated for the benefit of an English speaking audience. Perhaps the book is better in the original language. I always wonder about that, whenever I get a translated book that falls short for some inexplicable reason, or the "writing" in English is just bad. I did enjoy this story, despite everyone being jerks and the somewhat odd story. I think whether or not you will like this book depends on how great your jerk tolerance is.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 19, 2017

How the Duke Was Won by Lenora Bell

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance with a masquerade/costume party ๐ŸŽƒ

This is a Nenia and Sarah BR brought to you by Kindle Clean Out Club Productions. Tired of hoarding ebooks and not reading them? Now, in 200-550 easy steps, you can! No, but seriously, if it weren't for this forum, I'd be way more behind on my to-read list. It is The Best. If your Kindle is also out of control, join our group and make us of this forum! I'm always looking for new partners in crime.

First, a disclaimer. I received a free copy of this book to review a while ago. I don't think it particularly biased me one way or the other, since I'm an assh*le and have no problem rating the books I receive - for free - one star, but just in case it did bias me, now you know. NOW YOU KNOW.

HOW THE DUKE WAS WON is kind of like a Regency era version of The Bachelor. James, Duke of Harland ("His Disgrace"), needs to get married for business. He decides the best way of going about this is inviting four ladies - and their mothers - to his estate for three days to choose which of them would make the best duchess. Which I guess would make this The Duchlerette?

Charlene - a totally accurate 1800s name that does not scream Dolly Parton-esque country music singer at all, no ma'am - is the daughter of a famous courtesan. The creepy dude the two of them are indebted to, Grant, is about to call her in for their debts, and just to prove that he's a total creep, he's tried to brand her with an iron to make her his. Charlene is also afraid for her younger sister Lulu (these names guys, omg) who she is trying to shield from their family's unsavory history.

As it turns out, Charlene is the half-sister of one of the women who's been invited to the Duchlerette, Dorothea. Her mother, a countess, proposes a My Fair Lady-esque transformation, lasting just long enough for Charlene to compromise the duke, thereby landing a proposal and allowing Dorothea to swoop in and claim her regal prize.



Most of my friends didn't like this book, which always has me worried. I can definitely see why HOW THE DUKE WAS WON could rub people the wrong way. It is not on the scale of Lisa Kleypas or Courtney Milan, and the dialogue is rather laughably modern with the characters all behaving in highly unconventional ways with no consequences. If you like historical accuracy, the names of the characters alone should have you tossing this down and fleeing the other way.

For a fluff piece, however, it's quite enjoyable. I liked Charlene as a character, with her penchant for martial arts as taught to her by her Japanese bodyguard, her devotion to her younger sister, and her very compelling reason for agreeing to this scam in the first place (Grant is a creep). James was a good character too. He was an alpha male without being brutish or creepy and I liked him a lot. The sex scenes in here are pretty steamy, too. Not too graphic, but definitely not fade-to-black either.

Overall, I enjoyed Lenora Bell's HOW THE DUKE WAS WON. I'd read more in this series for sure.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Peep and Egg: I'm Not Trick-or-Treating by Laura Gehl

I love Joyce Wan's art. My friend and I were looking over this at the supermarket together and giggling over the adorable illustrations. Peep is the outgoing older one and Egg is the younger little sh*t that acts like a brat. In this book, Peep tries to convince their younger sibling, Egg, to go with them for trick-or-treating, while Egg basically trashes all their ideas and says, "No! I don't want to go! I'm afraid! That sounds boring!"

Honestly, I'd buy these for the art alone. In fact, I want to get a copy of WE BELONG TOGETHER for my desk. The art is so cute.

If I ever have children, I'm going to buy up Wan's entire collection for my kids. Cute art, fun colors, and decent messages in most of the stories. How can you possibly go wrong with that?

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

I'm working my way through an omnibus edition of Maugham's work, and man, he can write. I'm torn between the impulse to swim leisurely through his prose or just gleefully cannonball into it. Unlike some writers of this time, Maugham is not particularly flowery, but he has an interesting way of presenting ideas and constructing sentences that makes you want to read over them several times, just to appreciate their ideas and form.

MOON AND SIXPENCE, which could just as easily be called "Portrait of the Artist as a Douche," is based loosely off the life of the artist, Paul Gauguin. I tried to pronounce his name several times, ineffectively, ranging from gewgaw, to Google, to gaijin. As it turns out, the way it's actually pronounced makes him sound like a creature from a Japanese monster movie (it rhymes with "Rodan"), which is only the first way this book surprised me.

Strickland seems like he has the ideal of the moderately successful life: a wife, children, a good job with steady pay. But he is discontent, and one day, coldly decides to leave his wife and job and go to Paris, living in squalor. Why? So he can paint. The confusion of his family, neighbors, and the narrator himself is palpable. To paint? Not because of madness, or because of another woman - but just... for art? For art's sake, and not for fame?

The narrator follows Strickland, as he wrecks yet another marriage, paints more art, and eventually goes to Tahiti, where he finds the climate agreeable and even obtains one of the locals as a "wife." The whole time he is cruel and scornful, dismissive of others' feelings, wants, or desires, and even his own comfort. Everything must be sacrificed for art. Ultimately, I'd say this is a tragedy, because that vision ends up consuming Strickland; he pours his entire being into his art, and like many artists, it isn't until he's dead that his work becomes first a curiosity and then something far more powerful.

A lot of my friends did not enjoy this book and I can certainly see why. Strickland is a jerk, and so is the narrator. There's a casually dismissive attitude towards the things that people generally consider worthy in a human being: compassion, empathy, loyalty, family, kindness, charity, etc. Art here is portrayed as something wholly selfish, and the message here seems to be that it is somehow okay; that an artist is allowed to be an egotist, because self-absorption is necessary for introspection. I don't like that message, so I can see why some people might write off MOON AND SIXPENCE as too dark and grim and irritating. However, I found myself fascinated by these terrible characters.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I've read Maugham before and really liked his work, so this isn't really surprising. His other book was more of a comedy of manners, though; it was nothing like this. I'm really looking forward to working my way through his repertoire and seeing how his stories vary, while enjoying his beautiful writing and compelling, yet flawed characters.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 16, 2017

Red-Hot Lover by Rieko Hamada

Clara is the sweet girl who plays a villain on a soap opera. Her last boyfriend ditched her publicly because she had no interest in living up to her primadonna stereotype, but luckily the handsome and rich Jared Blackheath was there to pick up the pieces and whisk her away to his love mansion for weeks. She had such a good time that she forgot about her own sister's wedding.

When Clara and Jared get to the wedding, Clara finds that Jared is acting odd - he's tense and angry, and it seems to be directed entirely towards her new brother-in-law. But why?!?!?!

I bought this HQ manga because it was only $0.99. I really like the format of these books, and I think it's a great way to rekindle interest in old romance novels (the original version of this story was published in 1998). They have a fun, old-fashioned feel that makes them charming rather than outdated. Tellingly, no one in these books, not even the rich people, have mobile phones or laptop computers.

The art in here is good. It's not amazing, but it definitely suits the story and doesn't do anything weird... except for Clara's face on the cover. The derpy thing she has going on with the duck face is a little strange. Also, these manga usually open with a full-color panel and for SOME reason, the one in here looks as though it's been colored in with crayon.

As for the story... ehhhh. I've read a lot of "family sekrits" romance novels and this one is pretty stock. I felt bad for Jared, but I was glad he was able to come to some sort of closure in the end (albeit, at terrible cost). There's an incredibly insensitive old lady character in this book who oh-so-casually drops a tragedy bomb after being all, "Oh, I remember you!" ...Guess who's not getting invited to any more dinner parties?

For $0.99 this was decent, though. Manga is usually pretty pricey, and for what I paid, I have to say that this was pretty solid.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Whisper by Naomi Watanabe

Just when you thought that those Harlequin Presents romance novels couldn't get any fluffier, someone got the ingenious idea of turning them into Japanese-style josei manga. God bless that person, I say. Truly a woman (or man) after my own heart.

Genna is a lawyer hoping to make partner. One day, while sitting outside, she hears this sexy-voiced dude in the garden of her law firm sweet-talking a lady under a magnolia tree. She couldn't see them, but her imagination ran away with her and now she can't get that guy's voice out of her mind.

Nick, Genna's friend, is her friend and her boss. She likes him like a brother, but there's something between them that's not quite platonic.

When her firm has a Halloween party, Genna goes in costume and recognizes the man from the garden (wearing a mask). They end up having an affair, but always in the dark, always anonymously. Part of her wonders who it is... but she's not quite ready to shatter the illusion. I'm a sucker for mistaken identity tropes, so obviously when I realized what this was, I was like :D

I really enjoyed this manga. The art style is gorgeous (sometimes the styles can be a bit hit-or-miss). It actually reminds me of some of the manhwa I really liked in college - for whatever reason, Korean-style manga is much more elaborate and ornate, and that's the style Watanabe's work reminds me of.

I also really liked the story. It's hot. There's great chemistry, the dialogue is good, and the case Nick and Genna are working on parallels their own relationship, in a way, which I always like. Meta is the new black, and all that. I honestly would have given this five stars, except Genna punches Nick in the face and bruises his mouth when he does something that she sees as a "betrayal." And honestly, I'm so over that "women impotently expressing outrage via physical violence" shtick. Hitting is not okay, and she literally had no reason to hit him. It was an overreaction in the extreme.

Apart from that, though, WHISPER was a great story, easily the best Harlequin manga I've read so far. I'm really growing to love these. I rolled my eyes a little when I first saw them, thinking they were a silly cash grab, but some of these artists are incredibly talented and really bring the stories to life. Plus - the outfits! And the scenery! It's glorious!

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Portrait of M and N, Volume 1 by Tachibana Higuchi

This is what happens when you buy all your manga secondhand: you end up with really popular books that everyone has read and really weird books that nobody has read. PORTRAIT OF M&N doesn't even have an English summary on Goodreads, and hardly anyone has read it at all compared to the author's far more popular series, Gakuen Alice.

PORTRAIT OF M&N is probably one of the strangest stories that I have ever read. It's about a girl named Mitsuru and a boy named Natsuhiko. Both of them have dark secrets and connect over an incident that reveals both their dark secrets.

Mitsuri was forced to leave her last school due to a scandal. She is a masochist who is sexually aroused by beatings because her mother beat her when she failed as a child, so beatings make her feel "safe" and "valued." When a kid at her old school hurt her by accident, she came onto him and begged him to hurt her more, much to her family's chagrin. The same thing happens here, with Natsuhiko, only instead of freaking out about it, he feels... well, awkward but mostly chill, much to Mitsuri's surprise.

Mitsuri looks like an awkward, nerdy kid, but without his glasses, he's actually supermodel gorgeous. Clark Kent syndrome, I guess. His dark secret is that he's attracted to his own reflection, like Narcissus, and enjoys gazing at himself in a trance-like state. He also had a scandal at his last school. The most beautiful girl in school hit on him, and he agreed to go out with her because she was his "rival", or equal when it came to looks. But when she came to his house and saw all the mirrors, as well as the shrine he had built for himself, she freaked out and told everyone how stuck-up and perverted he was. Now he wears coke-bottle glasses of a strong prescription so he can't see how attractive he is while also hiding his good looks from other people.

The story is basically these two trying to keep other people from guessing at their issues while avoiding the bond they feel for one another out of shared "hardship." Tension arises when one of the other boys finds out Mitsuri's secret and I thought for sure that this kid was going to turn out to be a sadist or something - but no, he has a dark secret all right and it's not what you would expect.

PORTRAIT OF M&N reads exactly how you would imagine a young adult story about sexual fetishes would read like - awkward, watered down, and... weird. There's another short story called "A Girl in a Bird Cage" at the end, which seems like the textbook example of an abusive relationship at first. By the end... well, to me, it still felt like the textbook example of an abusive relationship but I think the twist at the end was supposed to make it seem sweet. Um, no, still weird and uncomfortable.

I'm giving it three stars because I found it morbidly entertaining in the vein of 70s bodice rippers and pulpy horror novel from the 80s.

3 out of 5 stars

Trump Is F*cking Crazy: (This Is Not a Joke) by Keith Olbermann

The title is self-explanatory.

TRUMP IS F*CKING CRAZY is adapted from Keith Olbermann's series, The Resistance, which can be found on YouTube if you're interested. I haven't watched it, but from what I gleaned, it's comedic political reporting in the style of Samantha Bee, intended to criticize the Commander in Tweets: DT.

I despise DT, so obviously one look at this title and I was down. Because, you know, as a liberal-leaning woman, I'm so deep in this echo chamber that all I can hear is the sound of my own "shrill" screaming.

*eye roll*

You do know why we're repeating ourselves, though, don't you? Because nobody's listening. Or else they're pretending not to.

To be honest, I'm not sure which is worse.

I should note that if you are Team DT, you will not enjoy this book. If the news reports don't change your mind ("fake news") and the words of DT himself didn't change your mind ("locker room talk"), then this book is nothing but a single drop of "alternative facts" in the great lakes that compromise your cognitive dissonance. You're welcome to read it anyway, and probably should read it anyway, but I doubt it will make you happy. However, if you come onto this review with the intention of changing my mind or "sharing your opinion," you should know that I'm going to delete your comment and/or block you. I have zero interest in hearing your opinion, because I hear it from the man himself every g-d day, and it disgusts me. He is a despicable human being who is alienating our foreign allies while running this country into the ground and hurting the people in our society who need our help and protection and support the most, and if you support him, knowingly, despite every example to the contrary that says you should absolutely do otherwise, you're despicable, too. I stand by that.

Feel free to unfriend me over this. I no longer take it personally. I have a shelf of book reviews that have caused me to lose right-leaning friends (at this point, I'm not even sure I have any left - ha ha, "left" - but it's possible), and I'm always happy to add to it. I mean, talk about good advertising: "this book is so controversial, people will unfriend you over reading it!" I'd slap that on the front cover.

Back to this book - TRUMP IS F*CKING CRAZY knows its audience and caters to it with ruthless single-mindedness. I saw someone saying that it got repetitive after a while, and I must say that I agree. Up until about 275, I thought this would be a four-star read, but I lost steam around p. 300, and after that, I grimly skimmed the chapters until I reached the end. Olbermann is great at summing up issues and articulated many passing thoughts I had but couldn't fully express, but there's just so much going on with this administration that reliving it - again - left me feeling fatigued.

What alarmed me the most as I read through this book was how much of this I had forgotten. With new scandals happening every day, it's nearly impossible to keep everything in the forefront of one's mind. TRUMP IS F*CKING CRAZY begins during the election season, when Olbermann is certain that this clown is going to lose, and by the end, he's as bitter and jaded and angry and frustrated as all of us on the left, who are watching this demagogic, deceitful administration fan (either intentionally or inadvertently through great ignorance) the flames of hatred among our nation's most xenophobic, bigoted, violent extremists, whether it's condemning the NFL players peacefully protesting racial violence or ignoring Puerto Rico in the aftermath of a terrible national disaster, or initiating a ban that targets people not just on the basis of ethnicity but also on their religion... because one is not enough.

It's depressing, when you think about it too deeply, which is probably why most people don't. In fact, CollegeHumor just put out a video called "Now Is the Time to Do Something" that criticizes all the people sitting idly by, or acting like this is the very first instance in history where acts of injustice or incompetence have been committed on the administrative level. DT is just a symptom, not a cause. It's time for Americans to take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide for themselves what kind of a country they want to be citizens in... and why.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Just Haven't Met You Yet by Cate Woods

As of 10/14/17, this book is $1.99 in the Kindle store!

For the most part, I don't like Sophia Kinsella/Wendy Markham books. Something about her heroines put me off, and for the longest time, I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was. Then one day I realized: all her female heroines lie like they breathe. They lie over unimportant things, lie whenever they're cornered, lie to avoid conflict, lie to avoid solving problems. Lie, lie, lie. They take pathological lying to the next freaking level.

And you know what reaaaaally annoys me about that?

The way it's written, you can tell that we're supposed to find these liars so quirky and adorable and awkward. "Oh no, Ella Pants-on-Fire is afraid her boss is going to find out who released confidential information to the competitors, so she lied and said an angry mime did it. How funny! How awkward! How quaint!"

JUST HAVEN'T MET YOU YET features a heroine, Percy James, who could be fresh out of a Sophia Kinsella/Wendy Markham. She's in her twenties/thirties, with relationship issues and uncertain prospects (typical) and desperately wants to achieve happiness. So how does she do this? Lies on her CV to an interviewer to make herself more interesting. Lies to her boyfriend about where she's going and who she's seeing (she's actually going on her date with her alleged "SoulDate"). Lies to her SoulDate about not just whether she's single, but also that her mother has Malaria.

The plot is interesting and was a huge reason behind why I wanted to read this. Percy receives an invitation from an online dating company that claims to use browsing and consumer data to match people with their SoulDates - all the sites you visit and the ads you click are factored in to determine your personality and interests and, from there, your ideal match.

The problem is that Percy already has a boyfriend - a long-term boyfriend who she's about to move in with and who she's practically engaged with. Her friends caution her against the SoulDate idea (sort of - some are less opposed than others), but Percy eventually decides to do it... only, when she meets who her SoulDate actually is, she's surprised as all get out.

I felt really bad for Percy's boyfriend because he's my type of guy - you know, socially awkward, old-fashioned type. I felt like she treated him really badly. And yes, on the one hand, I get it: you can't stay with someone just to make them happy if you have no feelings at all, but you also can't just drop people like garbage. People have feelings. They aren't disposable. Percy treated romance like this thing she felt she was entitled to, and all her potential love interests in this book were just pieces that would help her to her end goal of having her happiness, and to hell with whatever they wanted.

Also, while I appreciated how one of the characters questioned her sexuality, I found it annoying how badly that was handled, too. I thought one of the other characters raised a fantastic point: you can't just use people as experiments to figure out what your sexuality is - especially if you aren't up front about the fact that you're questioning. Etiquette for LGBT+ couples is exactly the same as it is for straight couples: if one person is expecting a relationship and you're just "experimenting," for God's sake, say so up front so the other person can refuse, while fully informed, if that's not what they want.

This book annoyed me quite a bit. I couldn't put it down - I was oddly fascinated by the repulsive main character's shenanigans - but I didn't really like her as a character, and her constant lying and manipulation really got on my nerves. I think if you like Sophia Kinsella/Wendy Markham, you will like this author, as their styles are similar. Otherwise, though... no.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Husband-to-Be by Kakuko Shinozaki

I'm really starting to get into these Harlequin manga. The short, breezy romances translate really well to comic book format & have plots that wouldn't be out of place in most shoujo or josei storylines. This one, HUSBAND-TO-BE sounds cheesy AF, but it's actually pretty cute.

Rachel has a degree in zoology but right now she's hopping from job to overqualified job, mostly as a temp or a secretary. One day, she meets an explorer millionaire named Grant who wants her to work for him because of her unique background.

Both Grant and Rachel are engaged to other people. Rachel's seeing this mansplainer named Driscoll who resents her for her intelligence and sees her as either a tool or an impediment to his own future, depending on what he wants from her at the time. Grant is seeing a woman named Oliva, who is the stereotypical classy blonde mean lady that is so common in romance novels, but she's also smart and runs Grant's affairs for him when he's not around. Despite this, Grant and Rachel feel a connection, & find themselves attracted to one another despite knowing they shouldn't.

I don't normally like stories about cheating and this book was no exception. I take issue with the fact that the author went out of her way to make both fiance(e) as unappealing as possible in order to make the cheating "okay." One of my friends on Goodreads actually posted a review about this pretty recently regarding her feelings on the subject and I really agreed with what she said: she said that if your relationship is that messed up, it's better in the long-term to just break up, and that having another relationship on the side just makes you the bad guy, in a way. Which I think makes sense.

I did like Rachel as a heroine, though. She has a pet tarantula, has short hair, and dresses kind of like a hipster. I liked that she was smart and into science, and she was capable, too. Later on in the story, when there's danger, she doesn't scream and panic. This story was quite a bit different from the last Harlequin manga I read, which was SALZANO'S CAPTIVE BRIDE, and that was much more in line with the stereotypical tropes of alphahole hero and uber-passive heroine.

Overall, I quite liked this book for what it was, although I don't think the title does it justice or even really conveys what the book is actually about. That is one seriously crappy title.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, October 13, 2017

Peach Girl: Change of Heart, Vol. 5 by Miwa Ueda

Reading this book made me so nostalgic for the convenience stores in Tokyo. American convenience stores have a reputation for being dirty with greasy, unhealthy food. The ones in Japan, on the other hand, were amazing, serving things like uji matcha ice cream, whole bars of fresh tamago, soft cheeses (they were delicious!), imported chocolate, and all sorts of other amazing treats.


This was a fun surprise! I actually had never read volume 5 of this series before... I've read books 1-4, so those were all rereads, but this was completely new! When I got tired of my manga, I gave it all to my younger sister and it's from her that I'm borrowing these books for my little nostalgia bender. She actually enjoyed Peach Girl so much that she went out and bought the other books in the series to supplement what I hadn't given her. High praise!

Things are still rocky between Momo and Kiley now that he's revealed his feelings for another woman. Meanwhile, Sae appears to be dabbling in some unsavory hobbies - namely, prostitution and erotic photos. When Momo digs in and does a bit of harmless stalking, she finds out that Kiley's brother Ryo put her up to it and is acting as her pimp. Because he "loves" her so much.


If you thought Ryo was hot, like me, you will probably hate him right about now, like me. Nothing about him is at all appealing about him to me anymore as a character. He's just an awful person who does awful things to women and I can't stand his character. He's exactly the type of opportunistic misogynistic that's been making headlines in America far too frequently these days.

Honestly, this book was all about Sae - and I actually really liked it. Ueda took her character development in a great and surprisingly thoughtful direction. It made me think about how we all say at one point in our lives how we wish that someone who wronged us will "get what's coming to them." What we mean is that we want them to hurt as we have - or worse. That they deserve this pain because of karma. Well, Sae finally "gets what's coming to her"... and it made me sad. I didn't think that I could feel bad for Sae, but I did. I felt really bad for her.

That resolution, though? Beautiful.

I'm not happy with the cliffhanger ending though. This series has been brutal when it comes to cliffhanger endings and the drama between Kiley and Momo is reaching a fever pitch. I'm not sure how much more "will we / won't we?" I can take, but pretty soon I'm going to be rooting for Toji again, or even Gigolo/Goro. I'm especially not happy because Kiley - ONCE AGAIN - acts like a total tool. I believe the common parlance is "f*ckboy." Well. That is what he is.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Peach Girl: Change of Heart, Vol. 4 by Miwa Ueda

This cover is a little strange. Something about Momo's face just looks off and the shiny lip-gloss paired with the gumball just looks really, uncomfortably erotic. When I bought this as a kid, it made me feel vaguely guilty. Like I was buying porn.

Peach Girl is strictly PG-13, though, even with the drama quotient being upped. Honestly, I think this is my least favorite book in the series so far and it put me off reading further because Kiley was such a jerk. I get that he had a first love, but the fact that he strung Momo along forever without discussing it with her really rubbed me the wrong way.

Toji has a lot of nerve lecturing Kiley about hurting people you love, considering how quick he was to leave Momo for Sae. He raised a good point (even though part of that point was his fist... in Kiley's face), but it didn't sound very convincing coming from him.

I do like the complexity of the relationships and characters in here, though, which is why I think I liked Peach Girl a lot more than some of the other manga I dabbled in at the time like Tokyo Mew Mew or... God, what else did I read... Fall in Love Like a Comic. A lot of manga characters are two-dimensional and have one setting: chipper quirky girl who occasionally bursts into tears during moments of emotional tension. The artwork in Peach Girl is gorgeous and really highlights what emotion a given character is feeling at the time, which makes it expressive and intense reading.

If you're a fan of shoujo manga, I do recommend Peach Girl. Just keep in mind that all the unnecessary drama can be annoying and practically no one is faithful.

3 out of 5 stars

Peach Girl: Change of Heart, Vol. 3 by Miwa Ueda

I love Momo's outfit on the cover of this one. If it was a solid dress and not a midriff-bearing two-piece, I'd totally wear that!

The Peach Girl saga gets even weirder in this installment. Ryo continues to outdo himself in the rapey psycho department. Sae is determined to sleep with every guy Momo likes just to brag about it later. Kiley reenacts Katy Perry's "Hot N Cold" song with Momo, trying to get into her pants one minute and then avoiding her in school like she has the plague the next.


1. There are some weird messages when it comes to sex in this book, but I love how quickly Kiley came to Momo's defense when she wondered aloud if she was somehow at fault for all these men trying to attack her. He says, basically, "No! Don't think like that. You're the victim! They attacked you!"

2. On the other hand, there's this weird "honor among manwhores" thing going on here where both Ryo and Kiley "can't sleep with the one they love." Whatever that means. #RomanceLogic

3. Misao gets more of a role in this book, which makes me happy because I love her. She's such a great character - feisty and a little troubled, but also very intelligent and strong and caring. Momo's like that, too. She stabs a would-be attacker in the head - with a pen. Can you say bad-ass?

4. In addition to turning into paper, Sae can also turn into a balloon. Is she the forgotten Wonder Twin?

I'm trying to remember how I felt about this book as a teenager, and I remember thinking Ryo was hot (because I was dumb) but also really liking Toji. Now, I think I like Kiley more. He always has faith in Momo, and takes her at her word. Toji, on the other hand, feels "weak" to me: he let himself be blackmailed by Sae and now he just lets her push him around in their relationship while mooning after Momo. It's hard to like someone who doesn't stick up for the heroine when she needs him most.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Peach Girl: Change of Heart, Vol. 2 by Miwa Ueda

I forgot that Sae's magic super power is turning into 2D/paper.

The nostalgic adventures continue with Peach Girl, aka Momo. Kiley's ex-girlfriend, Morika, is back in the picture, which makes Momo jealous. On the other hand, Kiley's brother, Ryo, is getting pretty cozy with Momo... and despite Kiley's numerous warnings that Ryo is dangerous, Momo doesn't see the harm in him.

There's so. Much. Drama.

I forgot how rapey these books are. Also, the violence in here is so casual. People getting punched. People getting stabbed. People getting picked up and thrown wrestling style to the floor. And this is a graphic novel for girls (who says that girls only read "wussy" stuff, anyway?). That's not even counting the numerous death threats/physical threats Momo gets from Toji and Ryo's fan clubs.

That's right. Fan clubs. I guess popular boys in Japanese high schools are just a step removed from One Direction. I've read a lot of shoujo where the popular cute boys have "fan clubs": it's getting to the point where I'm beginning to wonder if this is actually "a thing."

Reasons why this book is awesome:

1. I always thought Ryo was hot. He's basically a bodice-ripper hero placed smack-dab in the middle of this shoujo manga. He's rapey and a little bit psychotic, but I like my antiheroes in my fiction (and not in my reality) and he certainly fits the bill when it comes to villainy. You know, for kids!

2. Speaking of kids, I love that BDSM-y splash panel on the first page where Momo's in the leather handcuffs and Kiley's wearing a chain. Some of these splash panels are hilariously racy (like the covers). It makes it seem like these books are way more sleazy than they actually are.

3. I'm still not quite over Sae's magical abilities to transform into paper.

4. Usually anime/manga villains seem like they wouldn't be able to scheme their way out of an open door, so it's refreshing to see characters that are actually (somewhat) convincingly two-faced.

I'm still enjoying this series. So far, it lives up to how I remembered it at seventeen: trashy but fun.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Peach Girl: Change of Heart, Vol. 1 by Miwa Ueda

This series was the shit when I was in high school. Screw Team Edward vs. Team Jacob - I was all about Team Toji vs. Team Kiley (and for the record, I was Team Toji, although being a fickle high school student, I often vacillated between the two depending on what plot contrivance was currently in the mix).

Momo (which means "peach" in Japanese) is on the swim team and because of her darker skin and bleached hair, a lot of people assume she's a "beach bunny" or a slut. She's bullied ruthlessly by her jealous female peers and all the dudes think they can get into her pants. After her first love betrayed her to go out with her BFF (best frenemy forever), Sae, Momo ends up with Kiley - a not-so-reformed player who might be carrying a torch himself.


Reasons why this series is awesome:

1. The clothes. It's an ode to early 2000s U.S. fashions (or I guess, late-1990s Japanese fashions, which we then stole). Girls in my high school dressed like this. I even had a few of those beachy-looking shirts with obnoxious logos emblazoned across them and I had a denim mini-skirt just like Momo is wearing on the cover of this manga. #TBT

2. The mean girls. This series came out before Mean Girls did, and Sae makes Regina George look like a girl scout. She is the OG Mean Girl. Her shenanigans are so malicious and over the top, and yet she's so self-conscious and needy herself that you almost feel sorry for her. ***Almost***

3. Momo herself. She isn't as helpless as some shoujo characters. She punches people a lot... which, okay, I guess is fine and not suspension-worthy in manga-land. But she doesn't just accept her bullying as her due, the way Tsukushi from Boys Over Flowers often did. She fights back.

My favorite character in here is probably Misao though because she looks and dresses like I do, and I love the fact that she's no-nonsense and curvy and respected. Momo was who I wanted to be, but deep down I always knew that I was a Misao and I was totally okay with that because #MisaoRocks.

I hope I've sold you on this manga. It's vastly underrated. I've even watched the K-drama!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

My romance group read CINDER for our Science Fiction Romance theme read, and it was such a hit that a number of us decided to go ahead and group read the sequel, SCARLET, as well. I'm always super leery when it comes to hyped-up YA books - especially retellings with shiny covers, because 9 times out of 10 I end up not liking them - but CINDER was such an unexpected delight that I, too, was eager to read the sequel.

SCARLET beings where CINDER ends, but with a new character named Scarlet taking the lead. Unlike the last book, which is set in Beijing, this book is set in the French countryside. Scarlet delivers produce while she looks for her missing grandmother, and on one of these excursions she meets a mysterious brawler named Wolf. Pretty soon, it becomes apparent that her grandmother's disappearance has some sinister implications and that Wolf, who she finds more attractive than she should, might have something to do with her disappearance in the first place.

At the same time, Cinder is breaking free from jail with a Captain (who I think is American) named Thorne. They're flying around in a spaceship that has Iko's chip in it, so picture a gabbing, gossiping, super-happy spaceship being piloted by people who are grim and on the run, and you get an idea of what that's like. Kai, meanwhile, is in Beijing, and spends his time between mooning after Cinder and making the same damn mistakes that he made in the first book. I felt sorry for him in the first book because he was naive and didn't know any better, but what do they say about fooling you twice? I no longer feel sorry for Kai. He's hot, but man, is he incompetent. Epic fail.

Part of the reason I liked CINDER was because it really let me get to know the heroine, CINDER. I wasn't sure about her in the beginning, but then I began to sympathize with her and by the end, I really admired her resourcefulness. SCARLET wasn't like that - it has way too many characters crammed into it. Just when we, the readers, finally got an opportunity to get to know Scarlet, Cinder & co. barged in to steal the limelight. The end result is that Cinder's arc is further refined, whereas Scarlet's storyline is just kind of crammed in there, so she never really graduates beyond shouty, immature dolt, and her love story comes across as super rushed and insta-lovey.

I liked Wolf, but I think that's because his conflict is so much more traumatic and apparent. It's so awful what's been done to him. In one of Levana's POVs towards the end, you really understand why he's so F'd in the head, and it's really, really sad.

I'd read further in the series, but at this point, I have to say that SCARLET is not as good as CINDER at all. CINDER shocked and delighted me, even though it was cliche and part of the reason it did this so well is because the storyline is relatively simple and easy to follow. SCARLET, on the other hand, sets out to accomplish way too much, with way too many characters, and ends up accomplishing far too little. The action doesn't even pick up until about 100 pages to the end, and while that may be acceptable in 900-page behemoths like OUTLANDER or GAME OF THRONES, it isn't at all, here.

P.S. Iko is my favorite.

3 out of 5 stars

I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond

My sister gave me this book, with the preface that it was so disgustingly graphic that it allegedly made one of the publishers who read it vomit in his office. I wasn't sure about that, but it's listed under the book's lore on Wikipedia, so who knows? It's a bit like the tales of the paramedics who were called to screenings of the Exorcist (1973) because audiences were fainting in terror: whether these stories are true or not, it's good publicity.

I WAS DORA SUAREZ is certainly violent. It is a story of a young woman who is violently killed by an axe-murderer. The nameless detective sergeant is puzzled, because a journal left behind by the victim reveals her to be a very troubled and unhappy woman who was already dying of AIDS. What was the motive? What follows is a grim chase in which the police look for a disturbing man who has compensated for his impotence with sexual self-flagellation that can only find release in murder.

The detective sergeant is your classic "Tough Guy." Quotes added, because he's tough in the same way those obnoxious brostanding dudes in bars are tough. You know the ones, who keep saying, "Wanna go? You wanna go?" The detective sergeant is constantly threatening everyone around him, just to prove who's really in charge, and scoffs at the idea of doing anything by the book. I'm sure any real police officers who read this book would hate this noir Neanderthal. I know I did.

What redeems him a little is his utter faith in Dora, the victim. Even when it's revealed that she had AIDS - in a time when AIDS was a mostly unknown and panic-inducing disease - he feels no revulsion for her at all, only compassion and a strong desire to bring her some small amount of posthumous justice. Even when it's revealed that she's a prostitute, he doesn't care. He gets angry at his colleague, when he suggests that such a fate might have been inevitable.

Suarez was killed because she was beautiful, poor, sick and at our mercy, and we showed her none, and may our country hang its head (168).

I wouldn't say this book is necessarily vomit-inducing - I managed to read it while eating chips and drinking a beer - but it is quite disturbing and if graphic sexual and physical violence disturb you, I would not recommend this to you at all.

Reading this actually made me think of a friend - I know, that's the last thing friends want to hear, right? "I was reading this book about a serial killer and thought of you" - because she used to love dark stories like these, whether they were captive romances, old school horror, classic noir, or just experimental graphic-novels and she was actually one of the first people I thought of when I was wondering who else might appreciate this mystery. Sadly, I don't think she's on Goodreads anymore.

Anyway, this is why I like it when people gift me books - they usually aren't things I would ever pick out for myself but sometimes I end up enjoying them, regardless.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatie

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

He lies in the room surrounded by pale maps. He is without Katharine. His hunger wishes to burn down all social rules, all courtesy.
Her life with others no longer interests him. He wants only her stalking beauty, her theatre of expressions. He wants the minute and secret reflections between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book (155).

I've had this book for about five years. My mom gave it to me. Sometimes she gives me books because she thinks I should read them, and other times she gives me books because she thinks I should try to read them. THE ENGLISH PATIENT falls into the latter category. If you asked me to describe this book in one word, I think I'd chose "overwrought." Sometimes the writing is beautiful (see quote above), but other times (many times) it's purple to the point of nonsensical, for example describing a peen as a "seahorse."

The plot is kind of strange. It's about four people - a nurse, a bomb defuser, a thief, and a burned patient - all living in this abandoned villa post-WWII. That sounds like it should be interesting, but in the first third of the book, the characters drift without purpose, swimming through the heavy-handed prose like sluggish fish. The story doesn't really get interesting until the last two thirds of the story, where the eponymous English patient finally tells his story of espionage and doomed romance.

Not really my thing. There are better WII stories out there.

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Salzano's Captive Bride by Banana Sarusuberi

As of 10/07/17, this book is $1.99 for Kindle!

Hi, romance lovers! Great news! Did you know that Harlequin has republished some of its titles as manga? Until very recently, I didn't, either. I tried to find a news article about it, but the best I could come up with was a BBC News article from 2004 called "How Mills and Boon turned to manga comics." It's still somewhat relevant, but appears to be portraying these books as an exclusively Japanese phenomenon and that is so not the case now. I went into a comic book store just a few weeks ago and saw a couple of these puppies gathering dust on the shelf.

Honestly, the Harlequin/Mills & Boon novels translate pretty well to manga format. Shoujo/Josei manga tends to follow a simple storyline that is made complex through characterization, emotion, and various unexpected twists...just like Harlequins. The art work in this particular Harlequin manga, the cringe-worthily-named SALZANO'S CAPTIVE BRIDE, is especially vivid and lovely, and reminds me of Miwa Ueda's PEACH GIRL (one of my favorite shoujo manga series, even if it is a total soap opera).

The plot of SALZANO'S CAPTIVE BRIDE is pretty simple. It's about two sisters who live in Auckland, New Zealand. One night, Amber wakes up to find this Venezuelan dude named Carlos busting down her door. After yelling at her and manhandling her, she finds out that he hooked up with her sister, Azure (cringe), and Azure became pregnant from their one-night stand. Azure was currently "off" with her then-boyfriend and fearing the thought of raising her kid alone, sent Carlos a letter demanding money. Now that she's back together with her boyfriend, Azure doesn't want to do a paternity test or have anything to do with Carlos, because she thinks it will wreck their family.

So Carlos makes Amber a deal: he wants an heir, and he'll leave Azure alone and drop the paternity suit if she agrees to marry him and pop out a baby for him in Azure's stead. LOLwhat.

This is a romance novel, so obviously Amber falls for Carlos despite this terrible arrangement. He takes her to his love nest - I mean, mansion - in Venezuela and introduces her to his large, perfect family. The book is pretty short, and the vast majority of the scenes are about sex, preludes to sex, or emotional declarations pertaining to the two former. Also, babies. Carlos is definitely an alpha, but he isn't rapey (sexually agressive, yes but there is no dub-con, here). In fact, he explicitly says that he's willing to wait until the heroine is ready and she's the one who asks for it/makes the 1st move.

I really enjoyed this book. I bought it for myself as a fun little present because I was feeling sick last night and couldn't sleep. I loved the art work and the storyline was entertaining and easy to follow. I would definitely read more of these Harlequin manga. I've actually got my eye on one by Junko Okada/Lynne Graham that looks AMAZING: it's called THE SHEIKH'S PRIZE, but at nearly $5 for just over 100 pages it's a bit out of my budget. Let me know if it goes on sale, ASAP. Deal?

P.S. This is published Japanese-style, so yes, it is read "backwards," from right to left.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Killing Moon by V.J. Chambers

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance about werewolves ๐ŸŽƒ

As of 10/07/17, this book is FREE on Kindle!

The Kindle freebie section can be a cesspool of literary garbage, but once in a while, you dredge up a total gem. THE KILLING MOON, named after an Echo & the Bunnymen song, is like a cross between one of those gritty early 00's paranormal romances and the movie, The Silence of the Lambs.

Dana was kidnapped and tortured by a werewolf named Cole, but their relationship was complicated before that, and became way more complicated afterwards. Now he's locked up and she's a professional werewolf tracker, and she's forced to interact with him yet again because of information he may or may not have about a bunch of werewolf-related murders. It's painfully clear how damaged she is psychologically, and the struggle between the mind and the heart is clear as she struggles to resist the manipulative Cole.

I thought the murder mystery part was very well done. The pacing was excellent and the flashbacks heightened tension and improved the storyline instead of bogging it down. Dana was a sympathetic main character and even though she made some stupid decisions, I felt like they were in line with her character and they never bordered on TSTL - because she's one seriously F'd up piece of work.

Cole was actually sexy and that's testament to the author's skills, in my opinion, that she managed to turn a werewolf serial killer into an attractive love interest. The sexual tension between him and Dana was seriously off the charts. I think what makes it work is that it's clear that he respects Dana and understands her. He's not an alphahole. Avery was also a great male character and I couldn't decide whether I wanted Dana to end up with him or Cole. Hollis, on the other hand? Total slime-bucket. Hated him immediately and wanted him dead by the end. Boooo!

THE KILLING MOON has some disturbing content (rape, gore, kidnapping, etc.), but it was nothing too graphic in my opinion, and it never felt gratuitous. The pacing is tight and I was actually almost late for work one morning because I just had to find out what happened next. I really enjoyed the story and the tone of THE KILLING MOON and am definitely interested in reading the sequel(s).

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Protector by Jodi Ellen Malpas

I've had several people recommend Jodi Ellen Malpas's work to me, so reading THE PROTECTOR felt like common sense. Plus, that cover looks just like the iconic carrying scene from The Bodyguard. I can practically hear Whitney Houston singing...

No, not "I Will Always Love You" but "Why Does It Hurt So Bad?" And by "it" I mean my brain, because reading this book gave me one mean mother of a headache.

The plot is pretty simple because there isn't much of one. Cami(lle) is the daughter of a rich magnate-type who is getting blackmailed. When Cami becomes the focus of the threats, her father hires Jake, an ex-Sniper from the SAS, to guard her body. This being a bodyguard romance novel, pretty soon he's doing far more to her body than guarding it. Also, since this is a bodyguard romance novel, Jake is naturally hiding something from Cami about his past. And naturally, she finds out about it in the worst way.


Cami is kind of like a cross between Paris Hilton and Tiffany Trump. She comes across as spoiled, but she has a business acumen as well (she wants to start her own fashion line). She also has moments of kindness, even if she's blinded by privilege. I liked her at first, because I like reading about feminine women who don't feel apologetic or ashamed by their femininity (one of the reasons Elle Woods from Legally Blonde and Cher from Clueless are my faves). Then Jake hopped on the scene and literally all she could think about was "Jake, Jake, Jake, Jake, Jake."

Jake, on the other hand, reminds me of those heroes from the Harlequin Desire line - alphahole, controlling, creepy, possessive, and manipulative. Cases in point: Using the word p*ssy and what I think is a British gay slur ("ponce"?) to refer to feminine things or emotional things and getting so jealous of the male model posing with Cami during one of her photoshoots that he shouts a curse word, disrupting the set, while thinking something like "that man has his hands on MY breasts." Because Cami's breasts are apparently his breasts. He owns them. Ew. Later in the book, he decides he loves her, so he controls her eating habits (forcing her to eat fatty food she doesn't want), and then an instant later, proposes to her and draws a wedding ring on her finger in pen. Ew. I didn't like him from the beginning and I liked him even less when I found out what his secret was.

Between the bad sex scenes, bad characterization, last-ditch attempt at conflict in the third act, and the insta-love that is utterly without basis or substance, I can't say that there's much to speak in this book's favor. I guess I liked Cami's mom a lot, and I learned a new phrase: "cunny funt."

Apart from that, I'd give this book a miss - unless you find men who think of women's bodies as Monopoly boards attractive.

1 out of 5 stars

Friday, October 6, 2017

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: a romance with a Celtic theme ๐ŸŽƒ

I recently reread and reviewed OUTLANDER, to see if it would hold up to my initial reading. To my pleasant surprise, it did. I enjoyed the book so much that I immediately launched into the sequel, DRAGONFLY IN AMBER. The book starts out in the present day for Claire - the 1960s. Now she has a daughter in her 20s, and she's returned back to the place where she first disappeared. After a hundred pages or so, the book slips back into the 18th century, to Charles Stuart as he holds court in France, and, of course, to Claire and Jamie's desperate attempts to avert the Battle of Culloden.

Usually time travelers do everything they can not to change the course of history. In fact, it's like a rule: don't touch anything, don't even step on anything, because if you step on a butterfly, even, the Internet might not exist, or the US might be colonized by England. Not Claire, though. Claire comes from the 11/23/63 school of history, in the sense that she doesn't just not try to avoid changing history - she actively dedicates her life to f*cking with events.

For the greater good, of course.

This is a difficult book to rate. It's so long. Longer than it needs to be, I think you could argue. Parts of it were great. I loved the parts set in France - the plotting, the intrigue, the scandals, the violence. There were duels, rape (of course), cults, assassination attempts, poison attempts, potion-making, and, of course, long and gratuitous scenes involving primitive healthcare. Parts of the Battle of Culloden were good, too (I've been to Culloden... it's a beautiful and haunting place). Jack Randall makes an appearance, and he is just as disgusting as he was in the previous book, reminding everyone that he is the Ramsay Bolton of the Outlander universe, and everyone wants him just as dead.

(Spoiler alert: he doesn't die in this book.)

I wasn't too keen on the parts about Roger Wakefield and Brianna. I also felt like there was a lot of wandering around, doing nothing - especially in the last three-hundred pages or so. Even when Claire gets kidnapped by (spoiler), I was just kind of like, "Well, okay, but what now?" Honestly, I feel like I was emotionally exhausted. Jamie and Claire's relationship consumes everything about this novel. When they're not having sex, they're arguing, and when they're not arguing, they're pledging their lives for one another, and when they're not doing that, somebody's trying to kill them, etc.

I did enjoy DRAGONFLY IN AMBER quite a bit, albeit not as much as the first book. There were fewer memorable scenes, but a handful (like the French Court) were just as good, if not better. I'm still interested in continuing this series and reading about my favorite Scottish romance hero.

I can't stop side-eying the condescending blurb on the back jacket, though.

"Diana Gabaldon is light-years ahead of her romance-novelist colleagues." -Daily News (New York), emphasis mine.

"Light-years," huh?

I mentioned in OUTLANDER that I came across an article about the book and TV series and how the author resisted the romance category because she apparently felt it would detract from the literary merits of her work. Under the FAQ section of her website, where Gabaldon says some interesting things about DRAGONFLY IN AMBER (my reason for going to her website in the first place), she also has a subheading dedicated to this same topic. I read it. The whole thing has left a sour taste in my mouth. OUTLANDER won a RITA award - although she's quick to point out on her website that non-romance books can win those too (*eye-roll*) and I believe she's a member of the RWA (Romantic Writers of America). I'm a die-hard romance fan, and I guess it makes me sad that a romance novelist whose work I respect and admire seems to be trying so hard to distance herself from the genre in a way that almost seems as though she considers herself to be superior to it.

That aside, the Outlander series has, thus far, caused me to read about 2,000 pages about the same characters without becoming utterly fed-up. Whether you agree that it's a romance or not, it's certainly a compelling and action-packed series with morally grey characters who are forced to confront their mortality and their passions, time and again. I'm looking forward to VOYAGER.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Darkwater by Dorothy Eden

๐ŸŽƒ Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2017 Reading Challenge for the category of: gothic romance ๐ŸŽƒ

As of 10/04/17, this book is currently only $1.99 for Kindle.

I really enjoyed this little book. Granted, my hopes were low. I'd looked through the reviews of DARKWATER and many of them were saying that DARKWATER was dull and flat, with a raging Mary Sue of a heroine who wouldn't STFU.

To my surprise, I found myself with a rather delightful Gothic romance written in the vein of such popular favorites as Victoria Holt or Patricia Maxwell (AKA, Jennifer Blake). Better yet, I got to buddy read it with one of my new Goodreads friends, Elena.

Fanny is the ward of some awful relations. Her uncle, Edgar, is an enabler to his cold and greedy wife, Louisa, and air-headed, vain daughter, Amelia. Much to the rage and annoyance of Louisa and Amelia, Fanny is far prettier than Amelia, the heiress, and is constantly turning heads despite being poor. When Edgar finds out he has two new wards to take care of, he's the only one who seems indifferent, even pleased. Louisa is annoyed and Amelia, disenchanted. Fanny is the only member of the family who truly harbors a soft spot for the young children, and despite having planned to use their pick-up as a chance to escape, voluntarily stays on in order to care for and nanny them.

I just want to pause here, and say that I often hate seeing children in fiction because they're either way too precocious and cutesy, or else used as plot points without much in the way of characterization. These children, Nolly (Olivia) and Marcus were incredibly well-written and actually acted like children (i.e. at times sweet, at other times, bratty). They added a lot of comic relief but they also stood on their own as characters. I also thought that Fanny's family was well done. Amelia was far from being the b*tchy, jealous rival... she had moments of thoughtless kindness, and even Louisa had some humanizing emotions. I felt like that made their dynamic so much more interesting.

Oh, and then there's George. Fanny's creepy, "no maybe means yes" cousin. Ew, George. Ew.

The love interest, Adam Marsh, appears mysteriously (such is the way of the gothic romance) and leaves just as mysteriously. When he returns, he seems more interested in Amelia than Fanny (much to Fanny's devastating) and he strings Fanny along while cavorting with Amelia, which I really disliked him for. Obviously there is an explanation towards the end, but I so did not buy that.

Call me slow, but I didn't guess the perpetrator(s) until the very end. I wasn't trying to figure it out, though. I was reading DARKWATER in between reading Stephen King's IT, and this cozy mystery was the perfect balm for sleepless nights inspired by psychotic, murder-happy clowns. I just sat back and let the story carry me away, and found myself pleasantly surprised by the journey.

If you enjoy Gothic novels, this is a great addition to the collection. I want to read more Eden now!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Ghostwriter by Alessandra Torre

You know, I was surprised (and amused) that I was given a copy of this book to review at all considering some of the things I've said about some of this author's other books. There's a scene in here, where the main character, Helena, writes a scathing four-page letter to one of the author characters in this book, detailing every single one of the book's flaws in pedantic detail. I did something very similar with one of TORRE's earlier books, BLINDFOLDED INNOCENCE (I was perhaps harsher then than I would be now - but oh, friends and neighbors, how I despised that book). I tried HOLLYWOOD DIRT, and hated that, too. It wasn't until I read THE GIRL IN 6E that I began to thaw towards this author just a little bit. She had talent, and could tell a good story: I just hated the stories she was telling. Finally, I can say that there is at least one Torre book I liked.

Helena Ross is a best-selling romance author. She's a big-name and publishing houses fall over themselves to court her. Her agent bends over backwards for her, despite Helena's lists of rules and cold and entitled approach to dealing with other human beings. They do this because no matter how high maintenance she is, Helena's a safe bet that always pays off. It seems that, when it comes to writing, at least, Helena is the poster girl for literary achievement with her whole life ahead of her. But she doesn't.

She has terminal, inoperable cancer, and a prognosis of three months at the most.

She also has a final story to tell. That's where the title comes into play. Helena decides to hire someone, a ghost-writer, to help her tell this story before time runs out. It's a grim, awful story... one that helps to explain how she became so cold and bitter, and why, even though she starts out with a vision of the perfect family, she ended up jaded and alone in her early thirties. She isn't sure whether it will succeed or fail, and she doesn't care - she just wants it done right.

Helena Ross is probably one of the most unlikable characters I have encountered in a while. It's impressively done, I thought, especially since Torre manages to portray her sympathetically. It made me sad how she poured her whole life into her books at the cost of everything else. I felt like that was a cautionary tale - that creativity can make people selfish, blinded by their vision, and that it's important that one doesn't let work consume them or harden their heart. I found it very fitting that Helena was able to forgive herself and find release only when she finally let go of that need for control.

I can't say much more without spoiling the book, which I do not want to do. I think I can safely say that if you're a fan of Jodi Picoult or Jojo Moyes, you'll probably enjoy reading THE GHOST WRITER. It's emotionally manipulative in some ways, and definitely a tear-jerker (I won't lie - I teared up at the end), but it also makes some very insightful commentary on humanity, writing, family, relationships, and the importance of living one's life in the moment instead of behind a screen.

Or in a book.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 out of 5 stars