Sunday, April 29, 2018

These Violent Delights by Victoria Namkung

"They want a perfect victim and a perfect perpetrator. Someone who jumps out of the bushes in a park in the middle of the night and drags you to the ground by your hair. They want witnesses and screams and blood. Anything short of that is considered murky or he-said, she said, even when there's proof" (35).

"This idea that an occasional false accusation is a more serious problem than thousands of actual instances of abuse or assault or rape enrages me like nothing else" (133).

"You know for every one thousand rapes, only about three hundred and fifty will be reported to the police. About sixty of those will lead to an arrest, then ten of those will be referred to a prosecutor and if you're lucky, five of those rapists will serve prison time with no real rehabilitation of any kind" (209).

"Even with our male friends we have to ask, Is he dangerous? Is he going to hurt me? Will he freak out if I say no? Sometimes it's easier to let a guy do something you don't want to do if you think it means you'll be able to leave the situation physically unharmed. Saying no to a man is often when the real danger begins" (222).

I'd honestly quote the whole book at you if I could, but I think you get the idea. These Truth Sandwiches™ were generously catered by Victoria Namkung, author of THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS. If you're following me, you know that I'm the Queen of Telling It Like It Is. When I say a book is good, it's because I genuinely thought it was good and not because I'm riding the hype train or trying to please all my like-minded friends. This book, THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS, is good.

In fact, it is more than good. It is a crucial reflection of the #MeToo movement, the drastic consequences that can occur in the wake of abuse, and the importance of breaking those cycles.

Jane is a writer at a newspaper: an ordinary woman, who's a bit of a Type A professional, who's also a little bit fed up with her rich intern, Caryn. One day, Caryn tells Jane that she'd like to submit a personal essay to the paper. She leaves it for Jane who reads it... and is immediately blown away.

When Caryn was in school at the prestigious Windemere School for Girls, she had a "romantic" relationship that was initiated by one of the teachers there, Dr. Copeland. Dr. Copeland abused her trust and made her uncomfortable, and that interaction has haunted her all these years later. Particularly since the school chose to brush the incident under the carpet, letting Copeland walk.

Jane and Caryn publish the piece and there is a ton of response. Death threats. Not All Men comments. Victim blaming. Sound shocking? It isn't really. Go to any of those BuzzFeed articles about actresses and comediennes coming forward about their own high profile experiences with abuse in the industry. Now scroll down and read the Facebook comments section. I'll wait.

Caryn ends up having to step away because the push-back is so bad, but her article ends up having a positive effect: two women end up coming forward claiming that they were also abused by Dr. Copeland. Their names are Shana and Eva, both as different as night and day, but with similarities that made them perfect targets for a highly experienced, emotionally manipulative abuser.

Truth Sandwiches™ are bitter to swallow and this was no exception, but man, was it hearty fare. Apart from being quotable AF, it really captures all the different and visceral reactions people have to stories about abuse and the women coming forward about them. I felt like I was following an actual news story as more and more details came out, becoming invested in the stories of Shana, Caryn, and Eva, and yes, even Jane, as the story developed and grew more and more sinister.

The only thing I didn't really like was the end, but I understand what the author was trying to say, I think. I also think it's important to point out (as the author did in one of those quoted text blocks above) that abuse cases are rarely as clean-cut as a sinister dude popping out of a hedge to attack a virginal maid. That doesn't matter. But our society takes issue with women who don't fit neatly into the whole Madonna/whore dichotomy, particularly when you fall more on the "whore" side. So yeah, like I said, I understand the ending and the need for gray lines, but man, that was dark.

THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS is an amazing book and I recommend it if you can stand the TS™.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Indecent by Corinne Sullivan

I am shocked that people are shelving this as a romance novel, because it's a romance novel in the way that ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS and LOLITA are romance novels, which is to say that it isn't (and yet people shelve those two latter books as romance novels, as well, which leads me to think that there is an assumption that anything involving kissing and sex is a "romance" novel in and of itself, which is not true - ugh).

INDECENT was an incredibly difficult read for me because the content was so disturbing. Imogene is twenty-two years old and working as a teacher's assistant at a prestigious boarding school. As we read more about her, we find out that she has a history of anxiety and depression and self-harm. She hasn't really progressed emotionally from how she was in high school. Wrongs that happened to her in high school are still very important to her now, and she has an unhealthy relationship with her parents and younger sister that makes her seem more like sixteen.

It's clear from the beginning how Imogene is supposed to conduct herself with the boys that she's teaching, but immediately she starts interacting with them as a peer instead of as an adult. She's intimidated by them sexually and desperately wants to be accepted by them, whereas she views the adults - her coworkers and mentors - as authority figures who stand in the way of what she wants to do. This attitude kind of mirrors that of her relationship with her family, and sets the stage for the sexual relationship that Imogene ultimately ends up having with one of her boys, Adam Kipling.

The only way this story works is if you view Imogene as an unreliable narrator, because Adam is portrayed as being the one who "wronged" her towards the end - which isn't true. Because she is an adult and he was not, and she should fucking know better. She treated him as if he were a consenting adult (which he wasn't), as if she weren't an authority figure in his life (which she was) with access to all kinds of information about him which she could use and abuse to set up meetings and pursue him when he tried to back away (which she did, and which he did).

Imogene's constant "woe is me" attitude sucks the reader in, as it sucks in her peers, who feel sorry for her (way more than I would have). She is incredibly emotionally manipulative, and if you read between the lines, you can see the toll that their relationship is taking on Adam, and how it's slowly causing him to fall apart. If you read this book at face value, I think you would be very angry, because it would seem like a child was being castigated in the narrative for treating this fragile but horny adult poorly instead of catering to her desires and being her boyfriend. But I don't think that's how the author intended, because there are so many well-placed clues in the text that say otherwise.

Sullivan's style kind of reminded me of Curtis Sittenfeld's, particularly PREP. The writing is edgy and the narrator is neurotic and unlikable, but this makes her seem more realistic. The end result is that you're reading a novel that feels more like a true account of something horrible. I really appreciated that, because there are so many articles coming out these days about authority figures' abuse of power, and Sullivan touches upon several different kinds in here, of various types and severity.

This is a great book to read for the #MeToo movement.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 out of 5 stars

Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life by Oné R. Pagán

I applied for this book because there was a mantis shrimp on the cover. If you don't know about the mantis shrimp, I suggest you watch zefrank1's YouTube video, "True Facts About The Mantis Shrimp" or refer to The Oatmeal's webcomic, "Why the mantis shrimp is my new favorite animal." This animal was making headlines a couple years ago, so I'm not surprised that it was chosen as the posterchild for a book about bad-ass science, even though its presence in the book is really more of a footnote.

Deceptive advertising and coolness of mantis shrimps aside, STRANGE SURVIVORS is a pretty fun book about science and a worthy addition to my bill-nye-the-science-guy shelf on Goodreads. Oné R. Pagán is passionate about evolutionary biology and his excitement cannot even be contained within the text itself, meandering outside the margins into footnotes that sometimes extend over multiple pages to cover asides that he is just dying to share with you, because they are so cool.

STRANGE SURVIVORS is still very science heavy, and while enjoyable, I do think it would be difficult for readers who are not familiar with biology. I found it difficult at times, but I'm a huge fan of trivia and enjoyed learning random facts like how part of the reason fugu aficionados love fugu is because of the way that the poison in the fish makes their lips tingle. Or that dolphins have been known to pass a blowfish around like a bunch of teens passing around a blunt because it gets them high. Or that the difference between venom and poison is that venom is active while poison is passive. Or that there are toxic birds who carry the same poison as the poison dart frogs.

Obviously the poison part of the book was my favorite, hence why all my trivia of interest comes from that section, but there's other parts of the book that cover everything from unusual senses to defense mechanisms to hunting and even slime molds and slime bacteria (note; not the same) and eusocial organisms like the naked mole and, of course, ants.

If you like learning about animals and are passionate about science, this is a great book to add to your collection. Also, check out zefrank1. He's the chief of research and development for BuzzFeed, but for a while, bizarre and NSFW animal trivia was his pet project on YouTube. I imagine he got too busy to keep up with it, which makes me sad, as all of his videos are hilarious (and informative).

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu

There are a lot of fun graphic novels about feminism coming out lately, like THE LITTLE BOOK OF FEMINIST SAINTS and DEAD FEMINISTS: HISTORIC HEROINES LIVING IN COLOR. I think this is great because graphic novels are a medium that are accessible to a wide range of ages (kids and adults), which makes them an excellent resource for classrooms and libraries. In terms of maturity levels, though, BRAZEN (as befitting its name), definitely seems like it's intended for older audiences, with depictions of nudity and some violence.

One of the best things about BRAZEN is how inclusive it is compared to the other two books of this type I was privileged enough to read. Both of the two former titles I mentioned included women of color, but I would say that a significant portion of the women represented in BRAZEN were not white. One of them was transgender and several were LGBT+.

When you do books like these, there is bound to be overlap with other similar titles, but I felt like Pénélope Bagieu went the extra mile to think about women who might not ordinarily be represented. Some of my favorites were Betty Davis (the singer and wife to Miles Davis - when I Googled her, Google asked me if I meant "Bette Davis," which I found upsetting), the singer who was ahead of her time and vastly underappreciated. There was Agnodice, whose effectiveness in medicine caused the law against women practicing medicine to be revoked in Ancient Greece. And there was Frances Glessner Lee, whose inclusion here delighted me because Vox recently did a video about the forensic dollhouses she built called "The dollhouses of death that changed forensic science."

I liked the vast majority of these stories but some of them were depressing, like the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, or the Mirabel sisters. Those were thankfully few and far between, because it's sad to think about death being the endgame for exploring your dreams and passions and fighting for your rights, even though that is sometimes (sadly - and far, far too often) the case.

I'm giving this three stars because I wasn't a huge fan of the art style. The colors were interesting and I liked how the splash panels at the end of the chapters managed to pay homage to the women's personalities, achievements, and culture in the aggregate, but the bright colors and small font made it very difficult to read these comics. Also, there was this weird font that looked kind of like size 6 Arial in the panels for dialogue and descriptions which was at odds with the more detailed and elaborate font used outside the panels, and again, also made it very difficult to read.

If, however, you're interested in learning about some cool ladies (and are a fan of bright colors), this book is for you! I can see this being a great tool for classrooms and libraries as it inspires further research.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw

Do not be fooled by the quotes people are using in their reviews for this book. Those quotes will make you think that you are going to get a dark and twisted and impactful story about magic and revenge. I think this book wanted to be about those things, but what THE WICKED DEEP actually ended up being was on par with what you'd get if you'd asked Stephenie Meyer to rewrite The Craft.

The Swan sisters (see, TWILIGHT) were three beautiful, scandalous girls who ended up being murdered as Witches in Sparrow, Oregon because the townspeople got tired of their BS. Now, Sparrow has become a West Coast Salem, MA, with tourists flocking to the small island every summer for a chance to see the mysterious drownings that occur once every year. Because, as local legend has it, the Swan sisters never truly died, and are taking their revenge by possessing the bodies of young girls and seducing young men into the sea to die.

Penny Talbot is our insipid main character and yes, before you ask, she's one of those plain, clumsy girls who doesn't know she's beautiful. She's also a judgmental little you-know-what who's jaded beyond her years and has something to say about pretty much everyone. Her love interest is a drifter-like dude named Bo who won't disclose why he's come to Sparrow, or where he came from before, and his current life goals include having a part-time job in a tourist trap and sleeping on the beach.

Obviously, it's meant to be!

Sinister, Scooby Doo-like sh*t starts to happen, and the touristy shenanigans reach a fever pitch as teenagers do what teenagers have done since the dawn of time according to Hollywood and YA authors: use any event of the slightest bit of significance as an excuse to have wild parties and drink a metric farkton of alcohol. When/if the Swan sisters come back, these teens will be ripe for slaughter.

Annnnnd... I guess that leaves only trusty old Penny to save them.

Sorry teens, it was nice knowing you.

I received an ARC of this book and initially had no intention of finishing it because I looked at the reviews and compared them to the blurb and realized that rather than being the Gothic mind-flip I was expecting, it was going to be closer to something that Sarah Addison Allen would write, only with the insta-love-laden melodrama of ASHES ON THE WAVES. But this kept showing up in my feed, over and over, and everyone was like, OMG, it's so good, and I thought, "Well, they were wrong about CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE, but they were right about THE BELLES, so maybe..."

Nope. There really isn't much to make this book stand out, apart from the decent writing. For 70% of the book, the story is as slow as sap sliding down a tree trunk on a cold day. In the last 30% there's finally some action, but by this point, the "sympathetic" main character has revealed herself to be an utter twit (only replace that "I" with an "A" to get the gist of my true sentiments), so I no longer cared what happened to her or if she even got a happy ending, because she had officially made my sh*t list.

Oh, and that ending - that ending was TERRIBLE and brushed aside a pretty serious issue that I felt should have been handled much better than it was. I can't say anything else about that because it's a huge spoiler, but I'll say that it involves consent and sex and yeah, what the actual hell, book.

Not sure why everyone is giving this positive buzz. I thought it was incredibly lame. I'd rather watch The Craft.

P.S. I predicted the "twist" by the end of the first chapter.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

With social media being full of Bad Men Saying Stupid and Hurtful Shit, you're probably asking yourself why I'd read a book like this, which basically exemplifies female objectification at its worst, running the gamut of topics such as sex trafficking, sexual abuse and assault, forced marriage, colorism, mutilation, and other grim facets stemming from gender inequality.

Well, because these issues are real issues - and with some people doing their damnedest to silence the victims or others sweeping this unpleasantness under the carpet for being too unsavory, I think it's really important that these stories get heard. Because it's easier to ignore statistics than it is to ignore a visceral reaction.

GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER is a work of fiction, but I imagine that it matches the stories of girls in India who are struggling to overcome racism, sexism, classism, and poverty. Poornima and Savitha are two Indian girls who end up becoming friends. Both of them are poor, although Savitha is poorer, but they are united in their strength and their anger.

Over the course of the book, many, many, many terrible things happen to these to girls. They end up separated, and bad quickly turns to worse. I actually posted a status update expressing my bewilderment at the awfulness of their situations, asking if it could get darker than it was - and yes, it did. I think the last book I read that disturbed me so much was Yaa Gyasi's HOMEGOING.

What I loved about this book was the beautiful writing and the slow burn of the girls' anger. Fire and burning is a leitmotif in this novel, which you might guess from the title: sexual awakening, rage, actual fire (or physical sensations approximating it), and fear. Poornima and Savitha are constantly burning, and it is this flame that keeps them going even when everything seems lost, in their goal to find one another and escape their horrible situations, no matter what it takes.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

A man not satisfied with looking up women's skirts, he wanted to get closer, ever closer, until he took the object of his desire apart, breaking it in an effort to discover how it worked (228).

Wow, it's the mystery-thriller I didn't know I desperately wanted to read. I actually got this author confused with Minette Walters when I saw it at a thrift store, because the covers and names are a little similar and both of them write dark mystery novels. Minette Walters this author is not, but she's still a damn good story-writer.

THE CUTTING ROOM is about an auctioneer named Rilke, a man of gray morals who solicits sex by night and often frequents gay bars, when he's not dabbling in objects of dubious provenance. Rilke is a great character because he fits right into the noir novels of the 50s, and yet his character is much more modern (and gay!), while also slotting neatly into the tone and the mood of his gumshoe predecessors.

His latest client is a woman whose brother has died. She wants Rilke to clean out their house in under a week but the pay is so good that the nigh-impossible challenge becomes an impossible-to-resist lure. The reason for her haste soon becomes clear when Rilke works his way up to her brother's office and finds all kinds of books, photographs, and art devoted to morbidly sadistic fetishes that cross into psychotic: an obsession not just for causing pain, but also to mortally wound... even murder. Pretty soon, Rilke is asking himself, "Yes, I know this man is f*cked up - but would he kill?"

That's the question.

I had a lot of people ask me about this book when they saw me reading it because they were intrigued by the cover and title and I told them that it was a lot like THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. The mystery kept me turning the pages, but the journey getting there was fun because of the way it was written and the fleshed-out characters with their intricate complexities. I was desperate to find out the truth about the man who owned the pictures, even as I wondered whether Rilke's desire to make a buck would end up causing obstruction. It was a brilliant moral tug-of-war.

I also liked that as a gay character, Rilke got a decent amount of sex. Good sex, too.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 22, 2018

First Love, Wild Love by Madeline Baker

💙 I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Multicultural/Interracial Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. 💙

Wow, there's a lot going on in this cover. From the Lisa Frank color palette, to the fact that the K in "Baker" looks like an accent mark, to the Escherian contortions of the H and the h that seem to be more and more physically impossible the more you stare at them (what the heck is going on with her neck?), it's classic 80s WTFery.

FIRST LOVE, WILD LOVE by Madeline Baker (not to be confused with FIRST LOVE WILD LOVE by Janelle Taylor) is one of those Native American historical romances that peaked in popularity in the 80s before mostly disappearing from the shelves. With good reason. I feel like Native American cultural appropriation is somewhat more accepted by society for whatever reason (I mean, you can still get "Native American" costumes during Halloween from another of stores and don't even get me started on music festivals), and romance novels featuring Native American heroes are sadly no exception.

From my experience, they tend to resort to either one of two tropes:

The noble and violent "savage" (and yes, these romances often have the word "Savage" in the title, as a "clever" play on words). A famous example of this is SAVAGE ECSTASY by Janelle Taylor (yes the same Janelle Taylor who authored that other FIRST LOVE WILD LOVE book - ooh the plot thickens). Gray Eagle, the hero, is pretty brutal, and kidnaps and rapes the heroine, before torturing a bunch of the white dudes he captures along with her - all in the name of revenge.

There's also the "half-breed" trope (and yes, they are often referred to as half-breeds in the summary and yes, they often have the word "Savage" in their titles as well). Now, to be clear, I want to say that I have no problem at all with interracial marriage or biracial characters. The problem stems from the fact that in these cases, the "half-breed" characters are touted as being somehow superior to the rest of their non-white people because of their whiteness. I touch upon why this is harmful in more detail in my review of E.M. Hull's THE SHEIK, but a NA romance that does this as well is CHEYENNE CAPTIVE, where the half-white hero is, of course, much more civilized. Gross.

FIRST LOVE, WILD LOVE gets bonus points from the get-go for not having the word "Savage" in the title. The hero is also fully Native, and I felt like the author actually made an effort to portray the culture in a respectful way (I don't know enough about the culture to tell you with any authority whether the things in here are offensive or accurate or not). There are no crazy torture scenes or rape plots. Their first time is consensual. The other Native people are suspicious of her at first but don't treat her badly and ultimately welcome her in. There's Native OW drama, but unlike Gray Dove in CHEYENNE CAPTIVE, Soft Wind doesn't try to sell the heroine in this book out to be raped.

The plot is pretty simple. Brianna sees a Native guy on a road gang and thinks he's hot. She ultimately ends up falling for him and helping him escape. The bounce back between living with other Native Americans and living with white settlers, and each of them have moments where they experience culture shock and try to overcome it for the sake of their love. There's occasional cameos of OTT WTFery but all of these WTF acts are committed by outside parties, and not the hero.

I was actually pretty pleasantly surprised by FIRST LOVE, WILD LOVE and would be interested in checking out some of this author's other books. It's only 99-cents now if you want to give it a try yourself.

Also, many thanks to Gaufre, Karlyflower, Korey, and Maraya for participating in this big buddy read with me! Sorry for racing ahead!

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

The Dawning by Hugh B. Cave

We don't often get to revisit the books of our youth - the classics, yes, but the mindless, pulpy trash we read in abundance? That's harder, because those are the tomes that tend to slip through the cracks of time, only to be forgotten in favor of newer, shinier trash.

THE DAWNING was some mindless, pulpy trash I read in middle school, when I was starting my short-lived "horror" phase. Everything was Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, and Dean Koontz. And this guy, apparently. Hugh B. Cave. I found this book while going through some boxes of old books I'd chosen to keep, and when I looked up my pal, Hugh, I found that he apparently used to primarily write books about evil voodoo ritual inspired by his residence in Haiti. This book, THE DAWNING, seems to be a one-off.

THE DAWNING is more science-fiction than horror. Specifically, it is post-apocalyptic. Technology is beginning to fail, the cities are hopelessly polluted. Gun violence runs rampant as people get desperate, scared, and violent, and the streets are terrorized by gangs of teens who are high on a dangerous drug called "Hallelujah."

The violence has increased to the point that a small group of individuals have decided to band together and go out into the wilderness, where the corruption is lesser and they have a greater chance to survive. Going back to their roots, so to speak. They're a pretty motley group, but mostly get along - there's Cricket, the animal lover; Max, the lovable brogrammer; Dan, the doctor; Don, the teacher (not smart, having a Dan AND a Don); Professor Varga (who I kept reading as Professor "Viagra"); and Cuyler, wife-beater, racist, gun nut, outdoorsman, and probable Trump supporter.

As a group they mostly function together... except for Cuyler. Cuyler is a little too fond of his guns and he enjoys killing the animals they come across in the wild. You know, for fun. The rest of the group can see and hear that his wife is subjected to the same brutal treatment that he uses with everything else, but in typical non-confrontational fashion, none of them want to get involved and sow trouble. They decide they may be forced to put up with Cuyler.

- until strange and awful things start happening at their camp.


The funny thing is, I was about thirteen or fourteen when I read this book and I remember thinking about how weird it was, reading about a bunch of "old" people. I had carried my adolescent impressions of the book with me for all these years, thinking that it was about a bunch of older people led by their "wizened" professor/grandfatherly figure. You can imagine my amusement and horror when I realized that all of the main characters are the age I am now, and the "wizened" professor is actually in his early forties - within my dating range, in fact. This, gentle readers, is what "growing old" feels like, in action, and I can't help but be reminded of that surreal shock of the kids in IT, when they return to their town as adults and are shocked to find that time has moved on without them.

THE DAWNING is a pretty good book. I liked the survival elements, and the horror elements, although I feel like it gets a little too mystical towards the end. Still, what can you expect from a pulpy horror novel from a dude who enjoys writing about voodoo?

P.S. I'm one of those people who enjoys reading the ads in the back of the book, and I was amused to see Mary Ann Mitchell's SIPS OF BLOOD in the back, which I've also read.

3 out of 5 stars

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

Paula Hawkins's work falls rather easily into a category that I - yes, patronizingly - call a "best-seller book." These types of books are too "high brow" to be considered a pulpy potboiler (which I love) but too "low brow" to be considered true literary fiction (which I also love). Book clubs love them, which is pretty much the only reason I ever end up reading these types of books. As far as I can tell, "best-seller books" are basically the Kim Kardashians of the book world: famous for being famous and making headlines and, well, not a whole lot else.

I was not super psyched when my IRL book club chose this as our book of the month because I had read THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and found it disappointing, over-hyped, and dull. It was clearly written with Gillian Flynn in mind but someone needs to tell this author that she's no Gillian Flynn, as she - and her readers - clearly haven't gotten the memo, because I am constantly seeing these two touted in the same breath. NOPE. Not even close.

Gillian Flynn writes tightly woven narratives featuring morally gray female protagonists who are compelling because even though they do awful things, they are sympathetic and relatable. As far as I can tell from INTO THE WATER and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, Paula Hawkins writes about irritating, whiny little stereotypes who are all equally unlikable, and it's less about finding the murderer than who shares the greatest percentage of the blame. INTO THE WATER manages to one up its predecessor, though, by featuring an even greater cast of unlikable stereotypes than before. LITERALLY EVERYONE GETS A NARRATIVE POV IN THIS BOOK. The investigator? Check. The aunt? Check. The daughter? Check. The teacher? Check. A random psychic? Check.

Someone please, please get Mariah Carey in here to tell all these people she doesn't know them.

The plot is equally weak. A woman dies in a pond, called, appropriately enough, The Drowning Pool (which would have made a much better title for a thriller, in my opinion, than INTO THE WATER, which sounds like the name of a 1950s musical set at the beach). She is survived by her daughter and her sister, who sort of want to find out why she killed herself, but also not really, because the woman who died was a really awful person. Her daughter and sister are also really awful people, and so, as it turns out, are the rest of the people in this town. Pretty quickly, it turns out that a number of them had good reasons to want the Pond Woman dead, and it might just be murder and not suicide. #Surprise

I feel like this book was going for a Midsomer Murders vibe, but it didn't capture that same compelling atmosphere of a small town in everyone else's business or the complex relationships that form between flawed individuals who are desperately trying to keep up appearances while at the same time making sure all skeletons stay firmly ensconced within their closets. I spent most of the book being incredibly bored as I waded through POV after POV, and when the grand reveal(s) came, it felt totally anticlimactic and poorly handled. If you're going to deal with a serious issue, don't do it for sport, all right? Handle it as it deserves to be handled, and not for sensationalism. That's what tabloids are for.

This book is probably going to turn into another stupid movie that I'm not going to see, because for some reason beyond me people actually think this author's books are suspenseful and good. I'm fine with that: you do you, like what you like, etc. etc. But if you were like me, and found yourself compelled by a book club (or morbid curiosity) to pick this up after reading and being burned by THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and its false comparisons to GONE GIRL, let me save you the trouble - DON'T. Just put this book down and reread GONE GIRL or SHARP OBJECTS instead.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Csardas by Diane Pearson

Usually, I have no trouble at all reviewing books I like but CSARDAS is a different kind of beast. After finishing the book, I felt both a sense of satisfaction (I got through 600 pages of weighty material! I did good!) but also a sense of dread. Sometimes, you pick up a book of such substance that simply reviewing it doesn't quite do the damn thing justice. This is one of those times.

CSARDAS, which according to the book jacket, is pronounced "char-dosh," is a novel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire written just prior to, during, and then immediately after WWII. It chronicles the lives of two families of noble origin, the Ferencs and the Racs-Rassays. The first part of this book is set before WWII, in an idealistic golden age filled with prosperity and affluence. During WWII, there is a sense of fear, desperation, and violence. After the war, when the Communist party forms in the void left by the Nazis, there is a sense of paranoia, hypocrisy, and futility.

The first part of the book was my favorite, because I thought the way Malie and Eva's relationships with their families and their love interests was portrayed was exceptionally well done. None of the characters here are purely good or purely evil, and that morally grey characterization really reminded me of THE BRONZE HORSEMAN, which is set around the same time, only in Russia.

CSARDAS nearly does for Hungary what THE BRONZE HORSEMAN did for Russia, only the last part of the book feels a bit weak in comparison to the first two thirds. It doesn't help that the main characters are either shunted to the side - or SPOILER: killed - meaning that the romance of the third act falls between a character who was previously secondary to the plot, Janos, and Terez. Neither had the depth of character that Eva and Malie did in the beginning, which really disappointed me.

That said, I'm really glad I managed to locate a copy of this out-of-print gem and I really enjoyed learning about WWII from a different angle. I also loved that the handy book jacket (which also included a pronunciation guide for the title), disclosed how long the author spent researching this book - 3 FREAKING YEARS - and the book itself included a detailed bibliography. That was cool.

The only thing better than reading these types of books is reading them with friends. Thank you, Korey, for being my book buddy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Body Electric by Susan Squires

💙 I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Science Fiction Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. 💙

While reading this book, I had the song "Silent Running" by Mike & the Mechanics playing in my head on loop because it reminded me of a good 1970s science-fiction movie, like Westworld or Silent Running - one that might be a little dated, but still holds up over time because of how it tackles serious ethical issues about what happens when technology goes too far or falls into the wrong hands.

Looking at the cover for this book, you might think that you're going to get something like ABSOLUTE BOYFRIEND meets DEMON SEED. A lonely woman creating a "sensual" artificial intelligence that she wants to find a human body for? Gee, that doesn't sound creepy at all. I had nightmarish visions of what that story line would entail, let me tell you. Spoiler: The Mummy.

What I got instead was an incredible story with a great romance and pulse-pounding action. It had this fantastic 70s or 80s movie vibe, and I kept thinking to myself, "Damn, it's a shame people are pretentious twits who can't look past a romance cover, because this would make an amazing movie!"

Vic is a brilliant computer hacker working for a huge software company named Visimorph whose creator, McIntire, has a total monopoly on the industry. Vic is in charge of one of their newest products, Neuromancer (yes, named after the William Gibson book), but she's also got a side-project nobody knows about that's hidden inside Neuromancer's code: the first truly autonomous AI, Jodie.

Jodie, who is named after Jodie Foster, feels a near-instant bond with its creator, even if they sometimes butt heads or misinterpret the other's feelings or intentions. It wants to please her, and tries to get her gifts or presents, and feels jealous when it sees others attempting to vie for her affections (but not in a creepy way). After watching Jodie evolve and grow, Vic feels affection for her creation in the manner of all creators, but when she learns that Jodie identifies as male (and not female, as she originally intended), that affection quickly grows muddled and far more complicated - especially when Jodie expresses his desire for a body, so he can live, and breathe, and feel, as he aches to do.

BODY ELECTRIC references many cyberpunk books, like Ray Bradbury's I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC, William Gibson's NEUROMANCER, and even THE CONCEPT OF MIND, in reference to Gilbert Ryle's criticism of mind-body dualism. This is only fitting, though, considering the weightiness of the subject matter. Even though I would call BODY ELECTRIC a romance, it brings many interesting and serious discussions to the table like gender identity and dysphoria (and the pain of having someone misgender you, especially intentionally); what it means to have true AI, and the ethics that come with that; and, of course, sexism, particularly sexism faced by women in a male-dominated industry where their achievements are either overlooked, appropriated, or both.

I couldn't put this book down. It was one of those books I found myself thinking about as I went about my day, looking forward to the moment when I could return to the story. McIntire is a truly terrible villain, and I found myself invested in Jodie and Vic's star-crossed romance, wondering how they could possibly have a happy ending when they had so many people working against them. There are moments when it was almost painful to read, but there was no way in hell I was going to stop.

I can't wait to read this author's other books.

P.S. This makes for the first romance I've read that involved sex on top of bubble wrap.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 15, 2018

My Boyfriend Is a Bear by Pamela Ribon

💙 I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Interspecies/Alien Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. 💙

I was going to try to look up some funny memes for this review, but apparently typing "bear" and "sex" into Google search mostly just turns up a lot of gay porn. Go figure.

MY BOYFRIEND IS A BEAR is a graphic novel about a girl named Nora whose boyfriend is a literal bear. Nora has a lame job working as a call center associate for a phishing site. She has a long list of "douchey" ex-boyfriends guilty of crimes such as wearing pukka shells and suspenders (not together - each item was a crime particular to a unique individual), or wanting to issue spank in the bedroom. The fiends! With such cads on her dating history, it's only natural that she'd want to date a bear.

Nora met Bear when she was hiking with one of her nasty ex-boyfriends (who still works with her at the call center). He berated her for reading fashion magazines instead of real literature and Bear saw her burying them in shame. Bear followed her home to return the magazines, and in the vein of human-human relationships, Nora is flattered by this stalkery (predatory?) behavior. One of Nora's friends is 100% on board with Team Bear, but her other friend is like WTF are you doing. And after some thought, I'm afraid I'm on Team WTF Are You Doing, as well.

Bear and Nora's relationship is cute, and maybe if it kept up the whole platonic, anime vibe I could buy it. There's a pretty cute manga called Tuxedo Gin about a boy whose spirit is reincarnated into a penguin after he is killed. But Bear is not a human cursed to live as a bear; Bear is an actual bear. This makes it especially weird when Bear does things like get a job(!), fixes things up around the house(!), or has sex with Nora(!!!!). The sex, thank God, is never on screen but it is hinted at multiple times, and I'd say that it was the elephant in the room, but that's not the case is it? (At least I hope not. What a threesome from hell that would be.)

Fun fact: bears have something called a baculum, which means that they have a literal bone in their boner. I'm not going to say anything else. You can just take a moment to think about that.

P.S. I resent the hipsters touting Jose Saramago in here being portrayed as the bad guys. Jose Saramago is awesome.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Blush Pink Rose by Fawn Bailey

Apparently this is "Isabella Starling" writing as "Fawn Bailey." I have no idea who either of those people are but it was worth putting on the cover in fairly big font, so I figured I should mention it.

I picked up BLUSH PINK ROSE because it was free in the Kindle store and I liked the cover. It also promised to be one of those dark romances, which I either end up enjoying a lot or hating and making fun of ruthlessly (so either way, a win for me).

It's super short, but it's one of those books that manages to feel 10x longer than it actually is because it's so dull. This is not a romance. There isn't even any erotica in here. What you have in this book is a girl named Harlow who is seventeen. She is a ballerina who lies and says she is twenty so she can work as a waitress and reap the benefits of being an adult. Her evil Mommie Dearest guardian is totally complicit in this for questionable reasons.

There is a creepy dude who is stalking Harlow and has been stalking her since she was a preteen. Since she was a preteen, he's been watching her and mentally (and probably physically) jerking off to the thought of how he'll groom her when she's "ripe", i.e. turns eighteen. I don't think he's named in this book but this is the type of "hero" who equates "Domination" with "free reign to be a psychopath." And while I love psychotic heroes, the whole "stalking her since she was a preteen" thing was kind of gross, and he has an oily, Norman Bates vibe that's rather off-putting.

The writing is also not that great. There are a number of typos, some bad enough that they affected comprehension (there was one sentence where I have no idea what the author was actually trying to say). It also just feels like a lackluster effort - I see that it's a prequel to a series, so maybe it was just cranked out as a "tie in" to promote another book or something like that. It feels like it lacks "effort."

I'm not sure I'd go on to read the rest of the books in this series if this is a sample of what the author's work is typically like. Clearly Isabella Starling and Fawn Bailey are not for me.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson

Quirk Books is my go-to for fun, quirky reads. They specialize in books that pay homage to or satirize pop-culture, and NIGHT OF THE LIVING TREKKIES is no exception. First, let's take a moment to appreciate the frak out of that cover. The artist totally nailed the 1960s pulp look (trust me, I would know: I read them). The book is just as good. NIGHT OF THE LIVING TREKKIES is a gory celebration of comic book/sci-fi conventions, Star Trek, Star Wars, zombie movies and books (specifically The Walking Dead and Dawn of the Dead), and horror movie cliches.

Jim is a veteran from the Afghanistan war and it messed him up. He used to be big into Star Trek, but after serving in a real war he lost interest in watching fake ones, even if they're set in space. But he's reunited with his long lost love when the hotel he works at ends up becoming the venue for GulfCon, a Star Trek convention.

Pretty soon, things start to go wrong in a bad way. People getting hurt or sick and a series of mysterious no-call, no-shows and outright disappearances. There's also a bunch of creepy people huddled in the alley outside the hotel who don't look like your typical homeless people. That's because they aren't. They're zombies - but of course, this being an homage to Star Trek, they aren't going to be your typical zombies, oh my no. How pedestrian.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING TREKKIES kind of reminded me of Scott Sigler's INFECTED (only better written and without all the shock horror and gore). The zombies and their transformation were truly terrifying, and even though I don't like zombie films or books typically, I really appreciated the survival element in this book, as Jim and his new friends navigate the hotel and try to figure out what's causing the outbreak as well as how to survive. The Star Wars references were also hilarious.

If you enjoy any of the things that I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this review (Star Wars, Star Trek, zombies, etc.), I think you'll enjoy NIGHT OF THE LIVING TREKKIES. It's been a while since I had so much fun being scared.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Uncertain Magic by Laura Kinsale

I enjoyed Laura Kinsale's SHADOWHEART so much that I immediately went out and bought all of her ebooks that were on sale. I'm very picky about what I enjoy in historical romances and SHADOWHEART had all of it - a strong heroine, a brooding hero, kinky sexy times, court intrigue, love, danger, gorgeous writing. I wanted to quote the entire book, it was so beautifully, passionately written. The only reason it didn't get five solid stars was because sometimes the angst was so intense and so unpleasant that reading actually became a chore, especially since the hero's Broody McBrooderson attitude was a total 180 from his character in the first half of the book. But the slightly-too-long length and inconsistent characterization were just minor qualms I could afford to nitpick about because I loved the book so much. As soon as I put it down, I said to myself, "I need to read ALL the things by this author!"

UNCERTAIN MAGIC is one of Kinsale's earliest books. SHADOWHEART was published in 2004, and this book was published in 1987. Sometimes I'll read a book by an author whose later works I like and I'll be totally shocked by how different (read: bad) their earlier works are (e.g., Lisa Kleypas). My expectations going into UNCERTAIN MAGIC were tempered by the expectation that as an earlier book written nearly twenty years before the book I had just read, there was a possibility it might not be as good.

I'm a little blown away by how awesome UNCERTAIN MAGIC was. Especially as a backlist title.

Like SHADOWHEART, UNCERTAIN MAGIC has a lot of the elements that I love in historical romance. Faelan Savigar is a sexy Irish Earl, called "the Devil Earl" by the townsfolk. He's dark, brooding, dangerous... and possibly mad. "OH YES," I bet you're thinking. "GIVE ME THAT HOT, HOT BYRONIC LOVING." The heroine is also pretty cool, even if her name "Roddy" hearkens back to those unfortunately-named protagonists penned by author Jennifer Wilde (it's short for Roderica). Roddy is gifted (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with the ability of empathy: she can read the minds of both people and animals. The only person she's ever met who she can't read is Faelan.

They end up getting married out of convenience, and the sex scenes are numerous and steamy. But Faelan has secrets. Even if he's not mad, it's clear that he has involvement in the Irish rebellion, and won't balk at violence when it comes from dealing with the people who get in his way. His home in Iveragh is Gothic and appropriately spooky, and I loved the atmosphere of the Irish countryside.

One thing that makes UNCERTAIN MAGIC unusual is the paranormal element. There weren't a lot of paranormal romances back in the day - I don't feel like the genre really took off until the late-1990s, with the advent of things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Interview with the Vampire (the movie), and the Anita Blake series. Until that point, I feel like paranormal creatures were viewed more from a horror lens than a romantic lens, although there would still be crossover occasionally with things like Fright Night. I like the way Kinsale incorporated the magic element into this book. There's a Tam Lin-twist towards the end, and I thought the reason that Roddy could never read Faelan's mind (which is never explicitly stated, only implied) was very, very clever.

SHADOWHEART was a four-star read that fell just short of the five-star mark. Even though I'm also giving UNCERTAIN MAGIC four stars, it's a four-star read that only just rises above the three-star mark. The last 20% is incredibly slow, and it annoyed me how much Faelan hid from Roddy and vice-versa. If they had just sat down and talked for fifteen minutes tops, none of the last-minute gotchas of the last act would have even been an issue. I really don't like Big Misunderstandings.

Thanks to Minerva for BR-ing this with me. I can't wait to pick up the rest of this author's works!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper

This is one of those books where it feels wrong to say that I "enjoyed" the book because it is a book about inequality and oppression, and anger and pain, and I didn't exactly have a grand old time reading it. On the other hand, I found it fascinating and interesting and important, and even though it isn't necessarily something someone would read for fun, it should be read and I'm very glad I received a copy of it to read and review for my blog.

I am a feminist, but I'll be the first to agree that feminism as we know it comes from a predominantly white, cis-het perspective. There are a lot of oversights and holes in the doctrines, and ELOQUENT RAGE sheds some light on those holes, particularly as they apply to women of color. It was so wonderful reading a feminist book from a woman of color's perspective because she brings up so many things feminist books exclude.

Some of my favorite essays were the one about using one's anger productively; the essay on politics of black hair; the essay on BLM; the essay about the Obamas; the essay on sexuality; and the line about "woke" guys who talk the talk but continue acting like misogynistic "not all men" a-holes. This latter especially happens to be a major peeve of mine. Some of her essays were a bit drier than others and I liked the ones that had her personal touch, like the scene with a student in the beginning that ended up providing the inspiration for this essay's title or the one about her grandmother gleefully recounting her sexual prowess. Those were great.

I think some people are going to have difficulty swallowing these essays because they're probably going to make you uncomfortable. I felt a little uncomfortable while reading this, but in a good way, because books like these force you to ask important questions of both yourself and society. A lot of people think that if something makes them uncomfortable, it is "bad" and I'm sure there's going to be a number of reviewers saying, "Oh boy, another book attacking white people, how racist!" But the thing is, this book isn't attacking white people. It is a book that condemns people, some of whom happen to be white, who continue to omit black women from feminist and progressive dialogues. The anger is justified, and, yes, eloquent, and serves as a call to action to change that.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Die By the Drop by Kaia Bennett

💙 I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Ménage à Trois. For more info on this challenge, click here. 💙

When it comes to vampire novels, I have very specific things that I like and very specific things that I don't like. I guess you could say that I like my vampire novels the way I like my coffee: smooth, dark, not at all sweet, and with a whole lot of bite. Three vampire novels that did it all "right" in my opinion are Tanith Lee's DARK DANCE, Trisha Baker's CRIMSON KISS (first book only, though), and Heather Crews's DREAMS FOR THE DEAD.

When Heather gave DIE BY THE DROP a glowing four-star review, claiming that it was everything she liked to read about in a vampire story, I immediately raced to pick it up. Especially because it was free, and the only thing in the world better than a good vampire story is a free vampire story, especially when it's being lauded by one of my favorite people on the internet. I read DIE BY THE DROP immediately, and asked myself, WTF.

Did we read different vampire books?

The story is pretty simple: Evie is just an ordinary girl who ends up becoming the plaything for three vampire "brothers" named Jesse, Vaughn, and Liam, when they happen upon her as she's storming from a party. Their initial plan was to kill her after torturing her and having sex with her, but it turns out that Evie is actually an empathic witch, which makes sex extra interesting. Their leader, Jesse, decides she's interesting enough to keep around as they go on a psychotic road trip. That's the plot.

Reading the Amazon reviews for this book was a hilarious experience because the things that people were upset about over there aren't the things that bothered me about this book at all. "This isn't a romance!" they cried. "This is torture and violence!" Which, okay, fair enough. But then, what did you expect from a vampire erotica called "DIE BY THE DROP"? Twilight: The Musical? I wonder about people sometimes. I actually have no problem with rough and kinky stuff in fiction if it fits the tone of the story (and no children or animals are involved, because I find that disturbing and upsetting). What I have a problem with is bad writing, which this book has in spades.

The sex scenes were just disgustingly written - not because of the content (I want to emphasize that) but because of the words used to describe them. Overuse of words like "juicy" and "sloppy" (ugh), and phrases like "defenseless little star" used to describe an anus. This author also uses my least favorite word for the female anatomy, and Evie's "kitty-cat" has so many action verbs that you would think her hoohah was an autonomous entity in and of itself. Um, yeah, no thanks!

The second half of the book was much, much better than the first and the writing improved significantly. I wondered if maybe the second half of the book was completed at a much later date (like the author had written the first half and then written the second half a few years later after shelving it), or if two different versions of the story had been smooshed together. The difference in tone and quality was that noticeable for me. I'm sorry to give this a relatively low rating because I did think there was a lot of potential with this book and I loved the idea of the story Bennett was trying to tell; I just absolutely loathed the execution and the disgusting, juicily dripping sex scenes.

I'd be willing to read the sequel if it was free like the first one, but I won't be shelling out $ for it.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

I'm basically that one friend of yours who keeps threatening to delete their Facebook account but never does, only instead of "delete their Facebook account" replace that with "stop reading YA." After the utter disappointment that was CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE, I decided that I was officially putting everyone's YA reviews on notice. I was tired of getting duped.

And then I read THE BELLES.

THE BELLES is not a perfect book. The first 100 pages or so are a nightmare-confection of hyphenated words, overuse of the word "Belle," and more pink, pretty, fluffy things than you would expect to see in the average seven-year-old girl's room. If you can stick it out, you should, because after the first 100 pages, THE BELLES strips off its ballgown to reveal machine gun bazongas, like those women in the first Austin Powers movie, and says, "WHAT UP MOTHERFUCKERS." Shit gets real.

The best way to describe this book is to imagine the Capitol from THE HUNGER GAMES. (Remember all that ridiculous makeup and those costumes?) Now imagine a world where their entire culture and economy revolves around all that conspicuous consumption and superficial beauty. Orleans is a fantasy kingdom that appears to be very loosely based off New Orleans, where magical girls called Belles use powers called "arcana" to make people beautiful (or ugly) - but at terrible cost.

There have been a number of books coming out over the past couple years that have taken this frothy-fantasy-gone-wrong approach. Similar books are Melissa De La Cruz's THE RING AND THE CROWN, Amy Ewing's THE JEWEL, Richelle Mead's THE GLITTERING COURT, and Aprilynne Pike's GLITTER. Some of these books ran with the topic better than others, but it seems to be becoming a pretty popular subgenre of YA dystopic fantasy and I actually like that, because I think that sense of "othering", of being not good enough when weighed against society's ruthless standards, is something that a lot of people - men and (but especially) women - relate to. Peruse enough hashtags on Instagram and you'll see all sorts of tips and tricks (with sponsored products) about how to make your nose look smaller, your breasts look bigger, or how to slim down in time for summer.

What makes THE BELLES stand out more from some of these other books is that it is, in many ways, a lot darker, and isn't afraid to show that darkness rather than relegating it off-screen. It borrows techniques from chilling works of dystopic sci-fi, like 1984 and THE HANDMAID'S TALE.

You're probably thinking that this is a pretty positive review, and wondering where that "THE BELLES is not a perfect book" business comes in. Well, here's the thing - it's a tad predictable. There are three pretty big twists in this book and I figured out two of them from about twenty pages in. When it happened, I was like, "Aha." Instead of, "Oh noes!" I stuck around through that tedious first 100 pages because of the build-up, so I was kind of disappointed to have my suspicions confirmed.

This book also falls to the Bury Your Gays trope, where the sole LGBT+ character dies in order to spur on the plot. It's a pretty horrific death, too, and happens completely on-screen. Even I was disturbed, which says something if you follow me and know what kinds of twisted shit I enjoy reading. I can definitely see why so many people who read this book were upset because of that. There's also a bizarre moment where the book refers to a transgender (or at least non-binary) character in one of the "newsies" (read: tabloids) as "BOY TURNS INTO GIRL" via the arcana magic, which, okay. 1) If they're trans, they were never a boy, and 2) context, please? and 3) gender-reassignment magic seems to be opening up a whole kettle of fish this book isn't ready for.

Apart from that pretty awkward blip, I did enjoy THE BELLES. It's a strange creature, and kind of terrifying, but I found the story fascinating enough that I couldn't put it down. It would make a good movie, too. Just be forewarned that the author sequel-baits the hell out of the ending and yes, it ends on a total cliffhanger and no, The Belles, #2 doesn't even have a publication date, yet.


3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Wallbanger by Alice Clayton

💙 I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Contemporary Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. 💙  

WALLBANGER by Alice Clayton is aptly named, because when I finished this book, I wanted to throw it at the wall, it was so bad.

I wanted to read this book because I love romance novels and people were saying that it was the funniest romance novel they had ever read. When I picked it up, I envisioned BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY for the twentieth century woman.

Instead, I got... something lame.

Caroline lives in a San Francisco apartment that is much too nice for her to afford based on the job that she has (interior designer). Her next-door neighbor has great sex every night... with another woman - and Caroline is annoyed because they bang against the wall they share, and it reminds her that she can't get any.

Not only that, but she comes up with mean nicknames for each of the girls he sleeps with. "Giggler" for the girl who laughs during sex. "Purina" for the girl who meows during sex (??). And "Spanks" for the girl who enjoys rough stuff in bed. She charmingly calls these girls his "harem."

One day, she confronts him in a pink nightgown and for some reason they find each other attractive. The next 300 pages is a hot-mess of stupid cat-puns, as related to female genitals, Caroline exclaiming "Mother of Pearl!", bad jokes, poorly characterized individuals running around and acting like idiots, and some of the worst sex scenes I've ever read.

Considering that his sex life pre-Caroline is like a traveling circus act, his sex life post-Caroline is surprisingly vanilla and banal. Is this perhaps anti-marriage propaganda, paid for by a corporation that has a vested interest in keeping the world promiscuous? (I SEE YOU, TROJAN CONDOMS). Don't have marriage, or you will lose your exciting and numerous meowing, spanking, giggling sex partners and be whined at and nagged and humiliated while having boring sex!  I can see no other rational explanation for how something so consciously terrible gained so much steam (especially considering the lack of steam).

Also, extra negative points for using the line: "I am not like most women" (66) and meaning it.

Terrible sex scenes:

The idea that a kiss, just a kiss, had turned me into this giant lusting bag of CarolineNeedThat was undeniable, and I knew that if he continued to make me feel this way I was going to invite him straight into my Tahoe. Great idea.

"Come into my Tahoe, Simon," I mumbled incoherently into his mouth (203).

She's so pretty. I mean, there's pretty and then there's pretty... What a pussy I am. Fuck pretty - she's beautiful ... pussy ... And she smells good ... pussy ... why do some girls just smell better? Some girls smell like flowery, fruity bullshit. I mean, why would some girls want to smell like a mango? Why should a girl smell like a mango? Maybe if I think the word MANGO enough I won't think about pussy anymore. Caroline ... mango ... Caroline ... pussy ... God! And now I'm hard ... (217).

My shirt bunched up around my waist, and the feeling of his hi-there against my hoohah was indescribable (267).

Oh, and you know how Ana from FIFTY SHADES OF GREY has an inner goddess and a subconscious? Not to be outdone, Alice Clayton gifted Caroline with O, the personification of her missing orgasm. O, who has a personality and who Caroline talks to the way she does her cat.

I could see the edge, high above the raging waters. As I peeked over the edge, I saw her. O. She waved at me, diving under and over the water like a sexual porpoise. Crafty little bitch (333).

Spoiler: Caroline's not swimming.

I can't say I'm surprised that I didn't enjoy this book, though. I knew it was going to be rough sailing when the heroine shames the hero in front of all their friends for NOT taking advantage of her while she's drunk. Because how dare he not find her attractive enough to ignore her lack of consent!

1 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Shadowheart by Laura Kinsale

There's a part of me that's screaming, "Five stars! Five stars! Five stars!" with regard to how I should review this book. To be fair, it's a really good book. I'd been wanting to get into Laura Kinsale's works for ever because of how lovingly touted they were in the Smart Bitches's romance-themed book, BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS. Lately, her books have been going on sale for $1.99 in the Kindle store and I've been snapping them up left and right.

Elayne is a bit of a wild child growing up in the rural forests of England with occasional tutelage in herbal-type medicine from her godmother. She has a flirtation going with a knight, and despairs a little about her single status but is otherwise content with her life.

All of that changes when Elayne finds out that she's an Italian princess in hiding, sheltered from the chaos and the bloodshed across the water. Don't worry, though. She gets to make up for lost time when one of these power-mad would-be despots hires a bunch of pirates to take Elayne and her guardian, drugs her, marries her while drugged and then fakes the consummation, only to rapily accost her later and ensure that there's a legit consummation later.

The perpetrator of these foul deeds is a Bad Man named Allegreto: nobleman, assassin, pirate.

The beginning of the book feels much like a traditional bodice ripper, like something you'd see in the 70s or 80s, which is why the sex in this book stands out. Allegreto might hold all the power in the beginning, but by the end of the book, he is utterly in Elayne's thrall. Also, considering SHADOWHEART was published in 2004 - as a mainstream title - it is kinky AF. You wouldn't guess it from that innocent little cover, but there's some serious masochistic/Fem-Dom action up in here.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the court intrigue, the gorgeous passages of writing, and the cinematic aspect of the story as it rolls along, with sweeping backgrounds, intense confessions, and heart-stopping betrayals. It made me feel like I was watching The Princess Bride, or reading one of those older epics like GONE WITH THE WIND, where the romance in romance novels could often be overshadowed by the plot - and came out all the better, for it.

So why not five stars! five stars! five stars! you ask? Even though there was so much of the story that I loved, there were many moments when I did not buy the characters' developments. Elayne's proclivities for domination and inflicting pain seem to come out of nowhere, and I was a little surprised at how quickly and competently she turned Monteverde on its head and gamed the political system with no formal training in such matters (although Allegreto did help her a little, I guess). I was also puzzled by Allegreto's character: in the beginning he is icy, cold, and utterly in control. At the end of the book, he's a hot mess: angsty and weepy, with such soul-wrenching agony that I was half-tempted to put on some My Chemical Romance or some Smile Empty Soul in sympathy. I don't mind the direction his character took, but I would have liked to have understood it more.

SHADOWHEART is a really dark, sexy medieval romance, and if you enjoy stories about taboo romance and court intrigue, I think you'll really like this book. Don't believe me? Just check out some of the quotes in my status updates for this book. Go ahead, I'll wa - what's that? You already bought the book? You're halfway done with it already?

*rubs hands together evilly*


4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World by Zak Dychtwald

I'm going to be honest: I almost didn't read this book when I realized that the author was white. I've been burned on way too many "White Person Abroad" memoirs: the most recent was one about North Korea, and there was just such a condescending, consciously "look-at-me-I'm-so-quirky-and-woke" vibe that I honestly felt so nauseated that I had to put the book down. There is an abundance of books out there where (specifically white) people treat foreign culture like it's a funny hat they can try on and take a selfie in, without giving them the respect and solemnity they deserve. It's annoying at best, blatantly offensive at worst.

If you, like me, were concerned that YOUNG CHINA was going to be like this, it isn't. At all. YOUNG CHINA is such a good book, written more like a journalism piece than a memoir. Dychtwald actually speaks Chinese, and as he traveled through China, he had an interviewee chosen to discuss a number of various topics that each get their own chapter heading: sex in China, marriage in China, hobbies in China, the Chinese economy, food in China, politics in China - there is so much, and yet, by the time you finish the book, you also realize that it isn't nearly enough. A single book is not enough to learn about a country.

This should be a must-read for people who would like to learn more about China, particularly if you live somewhere with a large Chinese population or a significant Chinese-American cultural presence. As a Californian-cum-San-Franciscan, this gave me a lot of insight into Chinese culture and confirmed and/or expanded on things that acquaintances and friends have told me or hinted at. One of my favorite chapters was about the resounding success of Alibaba's (Chinese Amazon, basically) own manufactured corporate holiday, Single's Day, and how much money this holiday rakes in annually. The saddest and most poignant chapter is about China's treatment of the LGBT.

Dychtwald also has such a great voice. I feel like he really makes an effort not to judge or inject his storytelling with his own biased views as an outsider. Obviously, no one is truly impartial in how they record events, but Dychtwald makes a concerted effort, and it shows in how each of his interviewees comes across as complicated, interesting, well-rounded people who, like many of us, have pride in their country and heritage but also a number of concerns about money, freedom, and change.

I hope the author writes another book. I'd read one about the food alone. My God.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The One She Was Warned About by Shoma Narayanan

💙 I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: #OwnVoices Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. 💙  

A few years ago, I took a look at my romance shelves and was forced to confront a pretty ugly reality check: 99% of the romance novels I was reading were about straight, white characters. I made a conscious decision to seek out romances that featured leads of color, and the end result meant that when I needed to find an #OwnVoices romance for a reading challenge, I had about 25+ choices on my Kindle instead of a mere one or two.

THE ONE SHE WAS WARNED ABOUT is a romance set in India between two people who have known each other since childhood. Shweta is a conservative woman who grew up dorky with giant glasses and has a reputation for being a goody two-shoes. Nikhil had a bad-boy reputation and had to endure rumors and cruel jokes about being illegitimate because his father had a mistress as well as a wife. Now, he's a successful businessman who works with celebrities. The two of them have a chance encounter at a restaurant, and when Nikhil sees how pretty that Shweta has become, his nostalgia blossoms into attraction.

I feel like I learned a lot about dating in India from reading this book and how sexuality is treated, especially in woman, and the double-standards between men and women. It was interesting to see Shweta struggle to reconcile her desires to be a modern woman who felt comfortable expressing intimacy with the man she was attracted to with what she learned from her own strict upbringing. Likewise, the indulgent way that Nikhil's step-mother broaches his womanizing is a disturbing echo of the way that she describes her own rape as a man who "misbehaved" with her. Shweta also slut-shamed her friend, Priya, ruthlessly, even going so far as to blackmail her friend into doing what she wanted by threatening to tell Priya's (also apparently strict) parents about her boyfriend.

I think I actually enjoyed reading about dating in India more than I enjoyed the romance playing out between the characters themselves. Nikhil was fine - reformed playboy doesn't really do it for me, although it was clear that the dude thought he was smooth with a capital "S" - but Shweta really annoyed me. She was constantly throwing tantrums and berating the people around her and even acting violently, with punches! I was not a fan. I can't stand immature, bratty heroines.

This is actually my first Harlequin Kiss book, and I'm guessing that they probably call them that because they are light, sweet, and over quickly. I like the idea behind it, and even if I wish that I'd enjoyed THE ONE SHE WAS WARNED ABOUT more than I did, I'm definitely interested in pursuing more books from this line, as well as more books from the author herself.

If you're curious, you should give this book a whirl. It's currently only 99-cents.

2.5 out of 5 stars