Thursday, June 21, 2018

One Week as Lovers by Victoria Dahl

πŸ’™ I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Friends to Lovers. For more info on this challenge, click here. πŸ’™

Part of what drew me to this book was the intimacy of the couple on the cover. A lot of these historical romances have the hero and heroine locked in a dominant embrace by the hero, usually in a pose that suggests "they are having sex with clothes on." I love those covers, because I am a trash queen, but the implicit tenderness of this couple's embrace, as well as the cheap price tag, made me super curious regarding what this story would be about.

Nicholas is an impoverished viscount well-known for his affability and charm. When he was a young boy, before he claimed his title, his childhood friend was a girl named Cynthia. He left her when he left to claim his title, and his saddened when he receives a notice that she died in the post. This discovery rides hot on the heels of him finding his rich fiancee in flagrante delicto with another man, so obviously he's cheerful - not.

Cynthia, however, isn't dead. She's only pretending to be dead because her parents, who are also impoverished, are trying to force her to marry an utterly sadistic earl. She's actually hiding out in the attic of the hero's country home, and he finds her there when he comes home to hide from the creditors and mull on his unfortunate lot in life. The two grudgingly and then with real tenderness slowly, hesitantly rekindle their childhood friendship, but Nicholas is not the same. He's been touched by something dark and tragic, and if she comes to his bed, it will touch her, too.

I feel like this is a lot like what FIFTY SHADES OF GREY was trying to be, honestly - only the hero doesn't use his kink as an excuse to dominate and tyrannize, and the heroine is actually enthusiastic and willingly embraces the kink once she gets used to the idea. Nicholas's past is truly tragic, and Cynthia helps him work through his trauma not just with vagina magic, but also through compassion, understanding, and empathy. I also loved that she wasn't a virgin. That was quite refreshing.

The only reason this book doesn't get a higher rating is because it felt a bit bland. I've read a lot of historical romances set in Regency and Victorian times and after a while, they all start to feel very formulaic and you can only really judge them by the writing and the chemistry of the main characters and the peripheral details that make it stand out, like the ones I have outlined here. It was a lovely romance with great characters, but the story-telling just didn't wow me.

Still; I'm intrigued. Not sure her contemporary romances are quite what I'm into, but I will definitely be checking out some more of her historical romance. Girl can write.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Pawn by Skye Warren

This was pure, glorious trash and I regret nothing.

Avery came from a rich family drowning in privilege. And then one day, her father betrayed the wrong man in a crooked business deal. Now, he is in a hospital bed, and Avery is about to lose her home, her father, and everything else she values -

Unless she sells her virginity.

Because, you know, that's the classic "get rich quick" scheme in new adult romances everywhere. Avery, coming from money, happens to conveniently know of a classy venue to do it. And this being a romance novel, the dude who "buys" her isn't some sweaty, creepy, Internet troll with an overseas bank account and a fetish for weird porn, but a hot, jacked dude with tons of cash.

Because, you know, hot, jacked dudes just sit at home all day watching the Online Virginity Exchange and waiting to buy, buy, buy.

Even though my raised eyebrow stayed near my hairline for much of this novel, I enjoyed every moment of it. Avery is not as dumb as most heroines in her ridiculously expensive shoes. I felt like she was just awkward and uncomfortable enough about her situation to make it realistic, but her upbringing and her chess lessons with her father gave her an edge she wasn't afraid to pursue in order to take care of her life and not lose her soul in what was a pretty soulless bargain.

The sex scenes are hot, and while the virginity fetishization is a little weird - okay, REALLY weird - THE PAWN has this irresistible bodice ripper vibe that makes it feel like late-80s glamor trash, masquerading as one of those ridiculous medieval romances involving spoils of war and torn garments. The upside is, there's no rape (if you can wrap your head around the fact that she sold herself to the "hero" for money), and even though the hero ends his novel as a dirt-bag of the highest caliber, certain insights in this book make me think that he has his (dirt-bag) reasons for doing so.

Good thing I have the second novel.

P.S. For more books about dirt-bag heroes "buying" the women who have betrayed them, check out Meagan McKinney's LIONS AND LACE. It's basically like a classier, more old-fashioned version of this, only with less sex and more pining.

4 out of 5 stars

Deliver by Pam Godwin

My biggest beef with the erotica genre is that a lot of the ratings feel very inflated. People seem to mostly be rating based on how hot the sex scenes are while ignoring things like sophistication of the writing style and quality, syntax and grammatical errors, and believability of characterization and scenarios. While I get the rationale behind this, it means that books that are about as highbrow as the scribblings on a latrine wall have the same average ratings, in aggregate, as actual masterpieces do. And that is hardly fair.

For a while, I avoided the erotica genre entirely because of this, but curiosity pulled me in. That, and enabling friends, and the fact that some of the more popular books in this genre would occasionally show up for free in the Kindle store. I've been bingeing on them recently and DELIVER by Pam Godwin is the latest in the line-up, seeing as how it recently showed up for free ninety-nine, which I think we can all agree is the absolute best price for an e-book.

One of the things that makes DELIVER stand out from the other "captive" erotica in this genre is that the kidnapper/Dom is a woman. Liv scouts and kidnaps youths to be trained and broken as sex slaves. She's good at what she does - and why wouldn't she be? Before she became the emotionless tyrant that she is now, she was a slave herself, owned by the man who's now her partner, Van.

The requirements for her newest catch are seriously creepy AF and seem to be written by one of those misogynistic "incels" you keep hearing about in the news. Her buyer wants a heterosexual man who's never slept with a woman, but who has been taught to hate women, and who is also trained to be with a man. Liv's goal is to find a young man who meets these specifications and groom him via methodical debasement, teaching him the sexual arts even as she makes him loathe her.

Her quarry ends up being this college student named Josh, who is literally the epitome of the good old country boy. He's a virgin, he plays football and is about to receive a scholarship, he wants to be a minister and spends all of his free time studying the bible, he works on a farm and lives with his parents. Liv decides that the best way to capture to him is to appeal to his old-fashioned gentlemanly nature and pretends to have a car breakdown, luring him into the apartment that will become his prison. And then the "training" begins... dun, dun, dun.

The beginning of this book is pretty exceptionally well done. Liv's coldness and the sense of doom hanging over poor Josh all feels so inevitable. Godwin also doesn't shy away from the grittiness, which I appreciated. If you're going to write dark content, rule #1 is deliver. Don't try to romanticize it or sugar-coat it, because the book will end up being gross. Don't get me wrong, it's still gross - but gross in a "oh my God, this is horrifying, why are people out there who do this" sort of way, and not "what the hell is this author doing, why is she making this seem like it's totally fine" sort of way.

I was leaning towards a five star review for a while, but I think the last quarter of the book gets a little weird. The author tries too hard to rationalize what Liv does, and I think it's so she could give her a semblance of a happy ending without looking like she was rewarding a total monster. Even so, it felt too neat to me, and the beginning of this book suggested that this was going to be a story that scoffed at "neat" so I felt cheated. I also felt like Josh's reactions were unrealistic, that he warmed to Liv too quickly. I get the idea of turning the other cheek, but this was pretty ridiculous. The music angle was a little too silly for me, too. It felt like the author trying to push her book's soundtrack.

Overall, though, this was a pleasant surprise. Definitely one of the better "dark" eroticas I have read - I have read a lot at this point, and some of them are staggeringly horrifically bad. Godwin has a great style and really knows how to use suspense to her advantage to keep you turning those pages. I'm definitely curious to check out the rest of her books generally, as well as the ones in this series.

P.S. Is anyone else kind of dying now for a prequel about how Van and Liv met? Because I am.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Pas De Deux: A Dance For Two by Lynn Turner

I'm a sucker for books about dance and ballet - especially romance. I think the passion of dance makes it a compelling subject, and that same obsessive drive that fuels the characters' passion for dance pairs so well with passions of a different kind. PAS DE DEUX definitely fills this need. It's about two characters named Zachary and Mina. Zachary is in the process of creating a stage-adaption of Alexandre Dumas's La Dame aux CamΓ©lias called "The Lady in Red." When he sees Mina in person for the first time, he knows she'll be perfect for the part. He also knows he must have her.

There is so much to love about this book. The writing has a poetic, dreamy quality that fits with the surreal ballet scenes and the romantic scenes between the two leads. It has diversity, and does so in a beautiful and respectful way. Mina is black, and talks about some of the difficulties that has caused her in her career when it came to getting her foot into the door and finding roles. There's a touching scene when Mina is a guest speaker at a ballet class for low income children, and one of the little girls wants to touch Mina's curly hair to see if she is like her. It made me remember when that little boy wanted to pat President Obama's head; Turner really captures the quiet joy of seeing someone who is like you doing what you want to do and succeeding.

Of course, Zachary also has a deep back story. He is the victim of sexual abuse, and exhibits PTSD in a really realistic way (with some trigger scenes that may be uncomfortable for some readers). After being passed from foster home to foster home, he ends up with a Latinx family and the scene with them was so cute and heartwarming. Mina's relationship with her mother is loving but distant and the overbearing, smothering affection that Zachary's family pours on him provides a stark contrast.

The reason I'm only giving it three stars is that there are portions where the book felt very slow for me. The lovely writing could, on occasion, spin out into pure melodrama, and there are only so many times that I could stand to see Mina cry out, "je t'aime, je t'aime, je t'aime!" or "merde, merde, merde!" during sex scenes (even if said sex scenes were well done). I set the book down and forgot about it for a little while before picking it back up (because I did want to see what happened with Mina and Zachary - I felt invested). Also, there's a weird criminal subplot involving murder and theft that comes out of left field and feels a bit too "soap opera," if you know what I mean.

If you enjoy well written erotica and stories about dance, you should definitely pick up Lynn Turner's PAS DE DEUX. It reminded me of Katherine Locke's SECOND POSITION, although not quite as angsty and with a happier ending. I can see this author becoming very successful in the years to come and look forward to seeing what she comes up with next. (There's a serious dearth of well-written erotica out there, as I'm sure you'll agree.)

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Tender Mercies by Kitty Thomas

Wow, I don't even know what to say about TENDER MERCIES. It is one of the more disturbing "romances," I've read, but I'm almost loath to call it a romance because the relationship it describes is in no way healthy, even if does depict a warped kind of tenderness.

TENDER MERCIES is about a woman named Grace, a submissive who wants to be "owned." She has gone to BDSM clubs and been in a 24/7 relationships involving total power exchange, but now she's tired of playing and wants the real thing. She's been talking to a man online named Lucas who says he can give her what she wants: there's an island called Eleu where slavery is legal, where the most extreme of the kinksters come to indulge in the most utterly depraved acts. He wants her to come there and be his.

After deliberating about it restlessly, Grace gets on a plane to Eleu.

It is a terrible, TERRIBLE mistake.

For a year, Grace is raped, terrorized, and beaten in a number of horrible ways as the dude who she thought would be a loving Master literally scars her and even uses his pet dog service her (eww) while keeping her locked up in his cold, dark basement dungeon, far away from the tropical sun. All of this is perfectly legal on Eleu, so Grace is pretty much trapped to this awful fate. Luckily for her, her evil Master doesn't really want her around and plans on selling her to the first sadistic lunatic he can find. This ends up being a man named Asher, who was rumored to have killed his last slave.

In my review of Celia Aaron's COUNSELLOR, I said that I didn't mind captive romance if the psychology of it was done well. It is a messed up thing to do, deciding that you're going to kidnap someone and take all their rights away. You can't have a normal, healthy relationship that stems from that kind of power imbalance. Kitty Thomas does a really good job with that, in my opinion. Grace's experience with her abusive Master leaves her utterly broken. When she comes to Asher, she's in a vulnerable place and utterly dependent on him and his "tender mercies." Like Lucas, Asher gets off on owning another human and is also a bit of a sadist, but unlike Lucas, he wants a trusting, loving relationship with a "partner" who will do everything he asks and trust that he will keep them safe.

This is a romance about Stockholm Syndrome and it is pretty brilliantly done. I think what makes it more palatable is that it takes place on a made-up island, which makes it an extra step removed from reality. It's about as fanciful as a scenario in a hardcore porno, but also has the complexity of a psychological case study, which makes for an interesting head rush. Even though TENDER MERCIES is a short book and goes by quickly, only the beginning feels rushed. Kitty Thomas manages to squeeze in an incredible amount of character development in a very short time.

If you have a pretty good tolerance when it comes to dark and disturbing stories and want to read a "dark" erotica that won't have you rolling your eyes or setting your Kindle on fire, this is a good choice. I'm really curious about Kitty Thomas's other books, now - especially that vampire one!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lions and Lace by Meagan McKinney

This was an unholy amount of fun. Not only is the hero a sexy, icy, bad-ass fother-mucker with an Irish accent that will make your pants burst into flame, the plot is filled with enough angst and drama to make a shoujo anime burst into hysterical tears. I tore through this in the span of two days, and when I wasn't reading it, I was actively thinking about it, wondering, needing, to know what happened next.

Set in New York during the gilded age, LIONS AND LACE is about the "romance" between two very different people. Trevor Sheridan is basically the 19th century "Wolf of Wall Street," only people call him "The Predator." He grew up destitute and through a series of events that basically personify the Horatio Alger myth, he became as rich as Croesus with a gold-studded chip on his shoulder big enough - and heavy enough - to crush all of New York's high society. Which it does, because despite their wealth, the very fact of their being Irish closes all the doors to them. It's only when the rich snobs go after his sixteen-year-old sister, by pointedly snubbing her debut, that he decides to get revenge with terrifying ruthlessness.

Alana Van Alen is a part of this wealthy set, and while privileged AF, tragedy has tempered some of her aspirations. She's the only member of the society that actually intended to go to Mara Sheridan's debut ball, but her abusive uncle beats her and then locks her in her room so she can't. When Trevor ruins Alana, her uncle, and all of their friends, her uncle binds her and leaves her trussed up like a roast on Trevor's doorstep, leaving her at his mercy. Obviously, Trevor doesn't believe her when she insists that she, unlike everyone else, meant his sister no harm, and he decides to punish her by blackmailing her into marriage. Using her name and her status, he'll be granted the acceptance of the society that previously refused him and his sister, and Alana won't be free of him until Mara is wed.

It's like Meagan McKinney had a crystal ball to see inside my head and pull out all of my favorite tropes. I love angsty, emotional melodrama when it's done well. There was a summer about seven years ago where I binged through the entire Hana Yori Dango series; reading LIONS AND LACE left me with a similar emotional hangover. Enemies-to-lovers, forced marriage, dark and tragic histories, elitist snobs, icy and cruel heroes, cheeky heroines, hate-fueled bedroom romps, groveling hero - oh yes, this was a nonstop party of smutty, glorious trash, and everyone was dressed to the nines. The writing is also excellent and reminded me a lot of Laura Kinsale's, so if you enjoy her work - particularly SHADOWHEART or UNCERTAIN MAGIC - I think you will enjoy Meagan McKinney's style, as well. The secondary and tertiary romances are also super cute and provide some much-needed comic relief amid the agonizingly torturous suffering of the main couple.

I could sit here and yammer at you about how much I loved this book, but it's probably better that you read it yourself instead of me browbeating you into doing it (although I will do so, gladly). My only qualm is that the sequel is far too much money ($6.99 for an ebook?? Noooo, whyyy?) and there are still way too many loose ends left hanging. A certain someone is in desperate need of punishment, and I won't be satisfied until I see them fall. *eyes gleam with blood-lust* Until then, I'll just sit here, nursing this emotional angstover while trying not to fall into Book Slumplandia.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo

DNF @ 15%

Do you like nasty, selfish, intolerant, mean-spirited, self-absorbed piece of shit heroines who don't care about anyone but themselves and take a savage glee in making everyone around them miserable? Then read THE WAY YOU MAKE ME FEEL by Maurene Goo. Otherwise, throw this book in a fire.

It's been ages since I was repulsed by a book so much. The premise sounded amazing. I love food trucks. I love diverse YA. I like mischievous, pranky heroines. But then I met Clara, who decides to throw tampons at the audience for prom election on the pretense of feminism but really to stir the pot, and after she gets into a fight at prom with this black girl named Rose, they end up setting the school on fire. Clara doesn't feel sorry at all, and is only mad that she doesn't get to go on vacay with her equally selfish "influencer" mother, instead working in her dad's Korean-Brazilian food truck with her "enemy," Rose as punishment.

The thing is, Rose actually seems pretty nice. High strung and rule-abiding to a T, but really nice. And when they're working in the food truck, Clara immediately starts a campaign to be as mean to her as possible, in front of the customers, no less. Does she get punished? Not really. I was reading this book with gritted teeth but what made me DNF was when Clara gets mad about Rose calling her out on cross-contaminating the pork and veggie pans, when Rose says that Muslim people can't eat pork at all - ANY pork - and Clara says, "What they don't know won't hurt them. They'll just have to wonder why their food is suddenly more delicious. Hint: pork."


I have no interest in seeing this little shit get a happy ending. She needs sensitivity training and anger management courses. Not a meet-cute. What an absolutely terrible heroine.

P.S. Her dad is adorbs, but not even he was enough to redeem this book.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy

1 out of 5 stars

Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

Like many others, I was interested in this memoir because I fell in love with her Star Trek: Voyager character, Kathryn Janeway. It was such an important show for me as a kid because I've always been interested in fantasy and science-fiction, but until fairly recently, all of the main characters were men. I used to write fan-fiction gender-swapping the leads, giving myself a female version of my favorite series that I could aspire to be. Kathryn Janeway was that gender-swapped fanfiction come to life, a female starship captain who balanced tenderness with firm command, and had the respect of her entire crew without having to resort to bullying.

BORN WITH TEETH is a great memoir and really shows the person behind the role. Often, celebrity memoirs tend to be very positive, following a rigid formula: the early childhood, the career awakening, and then their big break. Mulgrew, surprisingly, veers from this formula in her memoir, which is very personal. She shares a number of tragic experiences, such as her sister's terminal disease, her mother's incredibly odd (and possibly mentally ill) behavior, miscarriage, abortion, rape, reconnecting with her biological daughter, struggling to balance work life with family life (and still being found wanting at times, no matter how much effort she poured in), and of course, her romantic relationships with several men, none of them perfect human beings, but some better than others.

There were definitely slower moments in this memoir, and I would have liked more behind-the-scenes tidbits about her work (what was it like working with young Pierce Brosnan back in the day? What were some of the best and worst parts about working on the popular Star Trek franchise? Carrie Fisher's memoir had some very interesting insights in her memoir on the double-standards of Leia's portrayal, as well as some horrible/funny stories about people behaving badly at conventions). Sometimes hearing about her personal relationships was a bit tedious, as they do have a slightly privileged air to them as Mulgrew casually relates her obvious wealth.

Still, she also brings up a lot of interesting points about how difficult it is for women to work in this business, and how men are not held to the same exacting standards (particularly where work-life balance is concerned). She acknowledges the many wonderful people who helped build her up, but she isn't as gracious as some of the other female celebrities whose memoirs I have read; she owns her work, chalking it up to hard work, honesty, and persistence. You can see a lot of Janeway peering through this memoir - that grit, vulnerability, and toughness - and that made this book especially interesting for me, to see how much of herself she brought to her role on Star Trek.

If you're an Orange Is the New Black fan, you might be disappointed, because she doesn't mention her work there at all. The Star Trek chapter is one of the last chapters, and the book ends with her being reunited with the big flame of her life. It's an odd ending, particularly since the book opened so strongly with a very vivid and lyrical description of her unconventional upbringing.

Regardless of its flaws, however, I really did appreciate the honesty of this memoir and the beautiful way it was written. It made me like Kate Mulgrew more than I already did, because she always struck me as a bit of a mystery. I find it inspiring to find out how much actresses do to accomplish their dreams, particularly when they don't apologize for succeeding.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Counsellor by Celia Aaron

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

Remember when FIFTY SHADES OF GREY came out and people were like, "This is weirdly uncomfortable - this feels more like the ownership of another human being than a romance"? Well, Celia Aaron decides to take squick a step further in COUNSELLOR, because hey, wouldn't it be fun if a girl and a millionaire signed a contract where he would actually own her?

Stella's father is going to jail and Sinclair represents the opposing party. He meets with her on the DL and presents her with some papers and then says, "Hey, baby - be my slave for a year and I'll nix all the charges against your pops. But if you refuse, I'll make sure that he gets raped and probably dies in prison LOL. But seriously, sign or bad things will happen to your dad."

Faced with that kind of ultimatum, Stella signs the contract "willingly" while he is literally panting at her ear like a horny pervert insisting that she do so (alarm bells, anyone? no?) and promptly becomes a slave. As it turns out, Sinclair is part of this creepy group of people who have resurrected the slave trade in the South. I'm sure they have a name, but let's just call them the Slave Appreciation Society. Sinclair is in the running to become Sovereign, which is basically President of the Slave Appreciation Society, which means that he gets tithes from their income and also power and prestige. Oh, and that he breaks freaking slaves that he kidnaps. Let's not forget that part.

You become Sovereign by having weird, Hunger Games-like human versions of "dog shows" only instead of fighting for their lives, the audience has an orgy while watching the "contestants" (read: slaves) get forcibly tattooed with branding marks, paraded around naked on a runway while people catcall and grope, and then whipped 25 times (one time for each decade that the Slave Appreciation Society has been in existence). It's a truly bizarre and disturbing scene and I found myself both fascinated and horrified.

I know the slavery thing is going to be a deal-breaker for some, and I feel like even the author kind of had a "oh no!" moment when she realized that writing an erotica novel about romanticized slavery in the modern-day South might be triggering for some because at one point, Sinclair casually says, for no apparent reason, that this new slave trade isn't about color. To be fair, it isn't. All of the slaves at the competition are white (if I remember correctly). That doesn't make what you're doing any better, bro.

I don't mind reading "captive" romances as long as they're done well, but I feel like this one was executed pretty badly. Don't get me wrong - it was breakneck AF, and I sped through it while hating myself for each page read, unable to help myself - but there were some pretty huge problems that made suspension of disbelief fall utterly flat on its face. There are some pretty awful psychological elements that come into play for Stockholm Syndrome, and if you're going to write that book but wuss out at the idea of making the heroine hate the hero, then you really shouldn't write captive romances because as uncomfortable as it is to write a romance where the hero and heroine hate each other (for good reason), I think it's more uncomfortable when this is just glossed over as normal.

Seriously, why are people doing this? Sinclair keeps saying that he has to do it for duty, family, etc. Why? You have dirt on high-powered political people and if you really wanted to get out of it, all it would take was a whisper in the right ear, and all of this would come crashing down like the f'd up Jenga tower that it is. Whining about how you're powerless to stop what you're clearly capable of stopping just makes you a spineless weenie. Also, where are they getting these people, these slaves, from? Stella was blackmailed and one of the women was a prostitute - what about the others?

Also, I thought it was really creepy how quickly Stella started fantasizing about Sinclair. Right after she's kidnapped, she starts touching herself while imagining them doing it in the shower (uh?) and then right after he whips her so badly that they have to medically induce unconsciousness, she and him do it. The beginning was great, because she hated that jerk and with good reason, and I thought, "Oh, cool, a heroine who isn't going to take this BS, and will give the hero something to think about." #Nope. All of that flies out of the window as soon as she scopes out his hot bod and killer jawline.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, encouraging you to buy the next one, but I think I'm going to call it quits with the Slave Appreciation Society for now. Go figure, hey?

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Classic Gothics - Volume 1 by Jennifer Blake

This box set is a collection of Jennifer Blake's Gothic romances, most of which were published under the name "Patricia Maxwell." Unlike her bodice rippers, her Gothic romances are very clean and while they share features of her bodice rippers, such as lavish clothing and architecture porn and icy but misunderstood heroes, they are much more tame and inoffensive - at least in the sexual sense. There are other kinds of WTFery offered by these Gothic novels, as you will see.

Bride of a Stranger: ☆☆☆½

BRIDE OF A STRANGER is definitely the most WTF in the collection. Claire is supposed to marry her cousin but ends up catching the eye of a scarred and dangerous rogue who spirits her away to his plantation mansion where all of the freed slaves still reside and practice voodoo. Claire isn't the only one feeling ambivalent about this abrupt marriage as it quickly becomes clear that someone on her new husband's estate is trying to kill her.

I'm a sucker for the "hero in pursuit" trope, so that opening when Justin made his feelings known to Claire and blackmailed her aunt into allowing marriage was, well, amazing. It gave me heart eyes, because I'm a disturbing individual. I also liked the prevalence of voodoo in the storyline, because that was a common trope with bodice rippers set in the Caribbean, so it was like seeing a bit of Jennifer Blake's bodice ripper future trying to crawl its way out through the pages. Likewise, there's a bit of orgiastic naked dancing and animal sacrifice - not a Gothic romance for maiden aunts!

Stranger at Plantation Inn: ☆☆☆

This one was okay. Lillian's father is trying to force her to marry a local preacher and things get awkward when she refuses his suit. The two are riding home together, in awkward silence, when a storm hits, forcing the two of them to take shelter at a place called "The Plantation Inn." The Inn is quite crowded with a number of curious characters who all seem harmless until, of course, Lillian locks eyes with a dark and dangerous individual who sets her heart a-fluttering.

She and the other tenants also quickly find out that a murderous outlaw made his escape from nearby and might very well be among them. Suspicion rises, reaching a fever pitch after several increasingly malicious acts that include smearing someone's destroyed clothes with poop and killing the inn's cat (poor kitty). The parlor mystery set-up makes this book feel a bit different from Maxwell's usual formula of the ingenue getting wrapped up in domestic politics and treachery but I liked it. The ending was a bit confusing, though, and this book was very, very light on romance.

The Secret of Mirror House: ☆☆

I fully expected to like THE SECRET OF MIRROR HOUSE more than I did, but I felt like I'd read the story before in the form of Dorothy Eden's DARKWATER and Patricia Maxwell's own DARK MASQUERADE. DARK MASQUERADE definitely follows that ingenue-gets-involved formula I was telling you about earlier, but the characters were so flat that I didn't really care about what happened to them, sadly. I wanted to like this way more than I did, but the hot-and-cold hero and wimpy heroine killed this for me. The best thing about this book is the atmosphere.

I averaged out my ratings for this book and came up with 2.8, roughly, which I'll round up to three since the first two books in this collection were quite good. I don't always have the best luck with bundles but I got this one for free and I consider liking 2 of those 3 books a bargain, indeed.

2.8 out of 5 stars

Stranger at Plantation Inn by Patricia Maxwell

STRANGER AT PLANTATION INN is another one of those old retro gothic romances, but this one has a distinctly Agatha Christie flavor which makes it extra fun. Lillian Newton has been the victim of her father's meddling as he tries to finagle her a husband in the form of the semi-local traveling preacher, George. Lillian, being a feminist and an adventurous spirit, doesn't take kindly to George's sexism-infused gospel, and the two of them are returning home in rather awkward and miserable condition following her refusal.

A heavy rain forces the two of them to take shelter at a place called "The Plantation Inn." Run by an old-fashioned, cozy couple, the inn is peopled with tons of other travelers who are also seeking shelter. A claustrophobic atmosphere settles over the group as they chat, and various fissures and idiosyncracies surface, made ever more sinister as they learn that a murderous outlaw has escaped from nearby.

I liked STRANGER AT PLANTATION INN a lot because as I mentioned before, it has that "claustrophobic" Agatha Christie parlor mystery vibe. The bad guy(s) are also pretty inventive with their nastiness in this book, including tearing up someone's wardrobe and smearing all their ruined clothes with poop (ew) and killing the family pet (*sobs*). The escaped outlaw bit was super cheesy but it definitely added tension to the book, which I liked.

STRANGER AT PLANTATION INN is one of those throwaway-type books where you read them and are entertained, but then immediately forget the details of as soon as you close the cover (or click to the last page of the book, if you're reading a Kindle). I got it in a bundle edition of several of Patricia Maxwell's older Gothic novels and rating wise, it sits snugly in the middle of the three. If you're a fan of Agatha Christie, I think this would be a good introduction to the gothic romance genre for you, but if you're hoping for a more traditional, romantic read, this book is not that.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Bride of a Stranger by Patricia Maxwell

So, my current TBR-clearing "project" is to get through all of the Jennifer Blake books on my Kindle because I think it's so awesome how often she makes her books free, and I think the temptation with free books is to set them aside and focus your attention on the books you spent actual money on (I do that). However, I also think it's really important to encourage and support the authors who are so generous, which is why I'm trying to read and review her books.

When it comes to her books, I think I mostly prefer her bodice-rippers just because she can actually write good smut and her heroes seem to be of the cool and icy variety, which I prefer. Her Gothic romances are more hit or miss, and sometimes appear under the name "Patricia Maxwell" instead of "Jennifer Blake."

BRIDE OF A STRANGER is one of her better Gothic romances, probably because the other two I read felt kind of like carbon copies of one another, with the heroine appearing by carriage on the porch steps of an imposing Southern Gothic manor with nowhere else to go but to rely on the mercy of distance (and cruel, and mysterious) relatives who might or might not want to kill her.

In BRIDE OF A STRANGER, Claire is on the verge of announcing her betrothal to her milquetoast cousin, Jean-Claude, when she locks eyes with a stranger at a crowded ballroom. That stranger is Justin Leroux, who takes enough of a fancy to her that he threatens to call out her cousin if she refuses to marry him instead. Justin happens to be an especially trained and ruthless swordsman, and her cousin is not, so her aunt decides that she doesn't really care for Claire all that much and basically leaves her at the mercy of this possible madman, because not her boy, her precious boy!

Justin takes Claire to his estate, Sans Songe, which is populated with people who are obviously freed slaves (and there are some antiquated and un-PC references to black people that may offend, but seem to fit the era). More offensive probably are the voodoo stereotypes, which are lavishly sensational, and involve a woman dancing naked before ritualistically sacrificing a chicken. Voodoo plays a pretty heavy role in this book, as it becomes clear upon Claire's arrival that someone wants her dead, and she keeps finding evil voodoo charms in her belongings, poison in her food, and at one point, imprisoned and seemingly left for harm.

There are many culprits to choose from, from the jealous multiracial ex-mistress (and voodoo priestess), to the suspicious and sinister relatives, who are much more disturbing than they appear (one even has a Miss Havishamesque shrine to her late husband, including but not limited to a death mask). All the while, Claire nurses suspicion and resentment against her husband, who might also be a killer himself, even if it isn't clear whether he's the only person who might be able to keep her alive.

The WTFery was off the charts with this one, which I appreciated, because I think a lot of Gothic novels are far too lacking (to their detriment). Jennifer Blake is also an excellent writer and her descriptions of food, clothing, and architecture are enough to make a writer cry (I tell you this with great certainty, being a writer myself - I desperately want to be as good as Jennifer Blake when I grow up). I don't think her books are for everyone because they are un-PC, but I'm also very glad that she doesn't appear to be self-censoring her work the way many other historical romance authors from back in the day are when republishing her books on Kindle, as the past wasn't PC, and there was a certain romance novel "aesthetic" in the 60s-80s that has a certain tawdry charm from its utter lack of f*cks when it comes to caring about what might or might not offend the readers.

P.S. There's a certain scene in here that might make you bite your nails. Don't worry, the cat doesn't die.

3.5 out of 5 stars

To Love a Dark Lord by Anne Stuart

After reading and being disappointed with A ROSE AT MIDNIGHT, I was a little leery about picking up TO LOVE A DARK LORD. I really shouldn't have felt so nervous, however; the friend who recommended this book to me has never led me astray, and was my introduction to such authors as R. Lee Smith and Victoria Holt.

This book was truly excellent. If ARaM was a Charmander, TLaDL is a Charizard; the foundations are similar, but the story-telling and characterization in To LOVE A DARK LORD are so much more powerful, unlike ARaM, where the secondary romance detracted and distracted from the main couple, in TLaDL, the secondary romance fuels the story and is just as romantic and heartwrenching.

Killoran is a jaded rake who spends all his time stirring up trouble when he's not actively (or passively) courting death. When he hears a racket in the room next to his in the inn he's staying at, he's quite surprised to find an innocent but beautiful blood-drenched woman standing over a corpse. Naturally, scandal arises, but Killoran casually takes credit for the murder before leaving her with the means to make an honest living of herself.

Emma is an orphan and an heiress who was raised by her creepy, lecherous uncle and religious fanatic cousin. One day, the two of them decide to kill off Emma to take her money, but her uncle can't help but want to sample the wares first (ew). After Emma kills him, she thinks that it's the end for her and is surprised when Fate intervenes in the form of a long-haired, green-eyed rogue with an Irish brogue and apparent death wish. He sends her off to be a governess but end up meeting once more after yet another tragedy befalls Emma, and this time - heh - he decides to keep her.

In many ways, Killoran reminded me a lot of Viscount Rohan from RUTHLESS - he's cold, manipulative, and cruel, which makes it even more delicious when he starts to fall for the heroine and moves heaven and earth to avoid admitting it to himself. I didn't like Emma quite as much as Elinor, but as far as historical romance heroines go, she was pretty great. After all, she was fairly adept at stopping would-be rapists and murderers on her own. The dark fire between them is so compelling, and serves as a fine counterpoint for the apparently star-crossed romance between Killoran's cousin, Nathaniel, and the debauched young noblewoman he's considering making his mistress, Barbara.

I loved the revenge plot in this book, because revenge is only a cold dish if it isn't in a romance novel; then it fires everything up. Everyone in this book has a tragic backstory (except Nathaniel, really, but even he receives his fair share of angst), and it really gives this book a dark, almost Gothic feel that was very, very appealing. Barbara's romance with Nathaniel was pure anguish. Likewise, once I found out a little more about Killoran, I felt really bad for him, too. And poor Emma!

No one is spared.

If you like dark romances and cruel heroes, TO LOVE A DARK LORD is a great pick - particularly if you like cruel heroes who don't lower themselves to dubious consent/forced seduction. There are a lot of authors who try to strike this gloomy balance of atmospheric tension and seduction and end up failing miserably, but Anne Stuart really strikes the iron while it's hot here (and yes, it is hot).

Thanks, Jenn. I shouldn't have doubted you. <3

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Dark Side of the Sun by Addison Cain

DNF @ 51%

I'd had my eye on this book for a while because I love dark historical romances (because bodice ripper queen, obviously) and the idea of a modern author reviving the trend had a lot of appeal, as the only two authors who really "revamped" the bodice ripper genre with any modicum of commercial success are Anne Stuart and Anna Campbell. When it showed up for free in the Kindle store, I thought to myself YAASSS, and was thrilled when my friends Heather and Brandy agreed to a buddy read of it.

I only made it to about halfway before the book became intolerable. First, don't be fooled by that awesome title or the many reviews branding this as "dark." Gregory isn't a dark hero at all. He's an immature jerk but he's not a gamma hero - not in the bodice ripper sense and not even in the Anne Stuart sense. He's just a jerk who loses his cool whenever someone calls him the B-word.

Arabella, likewise, is one of those unconventional heroines who doesn't really garner more than a side-eye or the occasional unkind word from jealous rivals, even though she does things like ride side saddle or speak in thinly veiled innuendo in public. She kind of reminds me of some of Catherine Coulter's heroines, where foot-stomping is a form of feminism, because real women CANNOT be tamed, ooooooh! She has hints of a dark back story but nothing to give her serious character; both she and Gregory felt very one-note and bland to me, as insignificant as the side characters.

Oh, and let's talk about the writing. Now, I get that this is self-published, so a certain degree of clunkiness is expected. Sometimes that "diamond in the rough" style can give an author's awkward style of writing things a certain gawky poetry. Tarryn Fisher's works are like this - you can tell she is indie, but her works are well-written and there are passages of exceptionally gorgeous and insightful writing. Not so in Addison Cain, particularly the sex scenes, which were about as sexy as a trip to the gynecologist for a routine pap smear. It was unbearable. I literally could not go on.

I'm sorry I didn't enjoy this more because on the surface it seemed like a story that I would embrace with open arms. Sadly, DARK SIDE OF THE SUN feels like a very washed-out, coffee-stained hodgepodge of Anne Stuart's TO LOVE A DARK LORD and A ROSE AT MIDNIGHT. To this book's incredible misfortune, I just read those two books and the comparison was fresh in my mind. This book failed to live up to its predecessors in just about every way, shape, and form.

I think Addison Cain is not an author for me. :/

1 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

In YA, everyone piles onto the bandwagon of the latest trends. A few years ago it was dystopian fiction but now we've a glut of fantasy on our hands. As someone who loves fantasy, this should be a good thing, but the YA machine keeps churning out subpar, derivative works that are less good world-building and action-heavy plots than wallpaper fantasy settings for tepid romance.

In this regard, ASH PRINCESS is no exception.

I'm really annoyed about that because the book started out really good. Theodosia is the ex-princess of a country that has been invaded by conquerors. All of her people are slaves but for some reason they keep her around as a court mockery, forcing her to wear an ash crown that stains her clothes, while mocking her and subjecting her to public beatings for her people's infractions.

Obviously this means that when rebellion inevitably stirs from resentment about the genocide and the slavery and the torture, Theodosia is going to be chosen as the figurehead. And her jaded bitterness in the beginning gave me hope that despite the stupid names for everything (kaiser and prinz, seriously? why German names if it's not a German-inspired country? did you just choose foreign words for ruler than sounded "exotic"), I was hoping that this would be a fantasy novel cast in the mold of THE WINNER'S CURSE, my ultimate favorite.

The problem occurs when Theodosia is supposed to seduce the - cringe- "prinz," Soren, in order to get information about his people and their future plans for conquering before killing him. She drops that jaded bitterness right quick and Bella Swans it up, despairing about how much it'll hurt to kill such a cute boy when she betrays him, conveniently forgetting about all her people dying in slave mines. Similar whining occurs when she realizes she may have to kill her best friend, the daughter of the evil kaiser's closest adviser and the man who whips her before everyone to punish her.

Great choice in friends.

The other side of the love triangle is Blaise, one of her own people who is involved with the revolution. She's known him since childhood, although she never mentions him until he shows up on the scene bringing tidings of revolution. Go figure. I didn't really care for him, but after I found out that Prinz Soren is a cat murderer, he could never redeem himself for me. I guess I don't find wishy-washy heroes who can't stand up to their tyrant fathers and kill small animals attractive?

Theodosia does, though. She hardly bats an eye at the cat murdering bit.

I'm giving this 2.5 stars because it was entertaining and the concept of elemental "Spiritgems" giving people powers over fire, air, water, and earth kind of sounded like something straight out of one of those JRPGs, specifically the Mana series (in fact, if you haven't watched it already, I recommend that you check out CollegeHumor's "Every JRPG Ever." It's weirdly appropriate for this book). The world really should have been developed more, and Theodosia should have had more of a spine (and less of an, "oh, woe is me! I'm in love with two boys!" attitude). You know a heroine's in hot water when your sympathies lie with the people telling her to get her act together and not with the heroine herself. Like, "Yeah, get your act together! You're an effing princess! Stop dallying around!" But then again, this is YA fantasy and at this point, I pretty much come in expecting to be disappointed.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Death's Master by Tanith Lee

I'm a huge fan of vintage novels and fantasy is no exception. The trick is to find fantasy novels that are vintage that weren't penned by misogynistic dude-bros. Luckily, I have ladies such as Tanith Lee, Mercedes Lackey, and Andre Norton to choose from. Where would us female sci-fantasy readers be without that speculative cadre?

I recently read the first book in the Tales of the Flat Earth series, NIGHT'S MASTER, with my friend Elena, and we had such a good time that we decided to read the companion book, DEATH'S MASTER, together. The Flat Earth books are set in a fantasy world with a Greek-like pantheon. The origin stories meld into each other, and the whimsical (and yet sinister) magic system kind of reminded me of the Oz books, especially because of the many cruel ironies of the plot (Tanith Lee is a firm believer in Chekhov's Gun).

The first book was about the demon god, Azhrarn, who makes cruelty and mischief his domain. This book is about Uhlume, the god of death, and his stoic moodiness is clearly modeled after Hades, right down to the cruelty of his utter inevitability and the justness of his punishments. Azhrarn is a typical cocky immortal, calling to mind such elemental beings as Jareth, from Labyrinth, or Loki, from The Avengers. By contrast, Uhlume is much tamer and doesn't really inspire the same level of interest. He was just there, looming.

I feel like the plot of the story is cast in this mold, because it doesn't have the spiciness of the first book. Everything moved so quickly in NIGHT'S MASTER, one story leading seamlessly into the next before coming full circle. It was so much fun to see all the hell Azhrarn stirred up. In this book, there is still that sense of melding between stories, but it felt much more disconnected. I also didn't enjoy all of the stories equally, although I liked the part about the Golden Garden with Kassafeh, the opening sequence with Narasen, and the ending when spurned Zhirek got his revenge on Simmu.

One thing I will say about Tanith Lee is that her characters were lightyears ahead of their time. She writes convincing antiheroines - Lylas, Narasen, Kassafeh - who do terrible, cruel, selfish, cowardly things, and yet are still whole individuals with agency who manage to obtain the sympathy of the reader. This is a privilege normally reserved for male characters, and it was refreshing to read a book where women were "allowed" to be bad. She also has many LGBT+ characters, and this book is particularly special because one of the characters is gender fluid, able to shift between man and woman because of their magical dual nature, and yet they constantly embody the traits of both.

I still enjoyed this book, even though it didn't grab me the way the first one did. Tanith Lee is a truly exceptional author and I'm really glad Elena agreed to read this one with me because my omnibus edition of the three books is intimidatingly long, and I probably would have procrastinated on reading it otherwise. Hopefully I can convince her to read DELUSION'S MASTER, as well...

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 11, 2018

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

DNF @ 72%

When I saw the trailer for Red Sparrow (2018), I almost guffawed because as I watched, I could almost hear T.T.L.'s "Deep Shadow" playing in the background - it looked just like another Hunger Games trailer if the Capitol got a major downgrade and President Snow became Evol Russian Jeremy Irons. Still, I was intrigued because the idea of a "Memoirs of a Geisha"-esque rags-to-riches spy romance with sex, scandal, and espionage called out to my trash heart and said, "Nenia! Nenia! This book is for youuuuu!"

Because, you know, I have to read the book first.

Now that I've read the book, I'm no longer sure I want to watch the movie. RED SPARROW is a bad book. When women say that men can't write convincing female characters, this is the type of book that they are talking about (you know that infamous "breatsed boobily" meme?). Dominika is devoid of personality. She's a beautiful ball-busting hard-ass who's good at sex and has a temper... and that's about the extent of her personality: sex, rage, snark.

Oh, and speaking of sex, this book has one of the most bizarre sex scenes I've ever read. The heroine masturbates with the handle of her hairbrush, and it's pretty gross how it's described. o_O


Dominika starts off the book as a beautiful ballerina but her classmates are jealous and injure her foot on purpose. This is where the first character inconsistency rears its head because we're told that Dominika is violent, temperamental, and vengeful, and yet when she has the power to destroy the two classmates who injured her, she does nothing. NOTHING. She just takes it like a b*tch.

Now that her career is at an end, she basically is stuck living at home with her parents. But then her father dies and it's just her and her mother, who have nothing, and that's when her evol uncle comes in and says, "Hey, Dominika, looking hot, hey wanna do a favor for me? Favor is spelled H-O-N-E-Y-T-R-A-P, by the way, and hey, what a good looking apartment this is... IT WOULD BE A SHAME IF SOMETHING HAPPENED TO IT." So Dominika agrees to sleep with this rich Russian tycoon, only to see him assassinated before her very eyes and be dragged back before her uncle.

Her uncle, in case you haven't figured it out by now, is a Soviet Spy-type who's in cahoots with Putin, King Evol himself. So he tells Dominika, "Hey, thanks for the favor, niece, you'll keep your mouth shut and say nothing of this to no one, right? And oh, it would be a shame if you made me mad and something happened to you and your hot bod..." So of course, Dominika agrees to be his spy, and after completing her basic training (where she is almost raped by one of her classmates and treats him to an eye-gouging with a shower spigot), he sends her to Sparrow School, or what Dominika affectionately calls "Whore School" and what I have termed Honeytrap Academy, LLC.

At Honeytrap Academy, women are turned into sex!spies by watching nightly porn videos and observing live models go at it, and then having sex with men that the Academy just so happens to have lying around while their spymasters videotape it and then the videos are played back in front of the whole class while their spymaster teachers offer up critiques. One of the girls isn't into this at all and comes to Dominika of all people for comfort, which turns out to be the pretext for an exploitative, fetishy lesbian love scene where the hairbrush once more makes an appearance (o_O). In the video trailer, I noticed that the school is co-ed. In the book they are separate and the boys go to something called Raven School and seem proud of their work, and not at all ashamed (gross).

After Dominika graduates from Honeytrap Academy she gets sent out to spy and of course all of her new coworkers do nothing but make comments about her body and ridicule her for going to "Whore School." This is LITERALLY all the interaction she has with the dudes in her book. Slut-shaming.

She ends up getting this dude named Nate to spy on who works for the Americans and is involved with a really deeply-entrenched Russian spy called MARBLE. Her creepy spymasters keep pressuring her to sleep with him (as they do with all her other targets, because that's all she's good for), but oh no, she gets kind of close to Nate and for some reason decides to out herself and defect, and then she and Nate are in love and fighting against the evol Russian spiez, dun dun dun.

That's about the time that I stopped reading.

The plot literally sounds like a bodice ripper and since I like bodice rippers you would think that I'd be all over RED SPARROW like white on rice but I couldn't get over Dominika's utter lack of agency and the way she's objectified by every man in the book, or the fact that Nate kind of feels like a self-insert of the author (and even kind of sounds like a younger version of him based on that author photo I saw on Goodreads). Heinlein's books gave me that vibe, and I got a similar vibe with this book, and maybe that's me reading too much into it, but I didn't like it. It felt weirdly voyeuristic.

Also, these sex scenes are 80s bodice ripper bad. Check it out:

Dominika felt a sudden, excruciatingly sweet expansion, and the moonlight was rocketing around behind her eyelids, and she hoped he could keep her heaving body from blowing away like a piece of paper. She felt the hollow rush expand inside her, and then a rogue wave rose up from the deep, bigger than the others, hanging, curling, and she said, "Bozhe moj," from way back in her throat, and a white-eyed state of grace rolled through her like the wind bends a wheat field (224).

Not to make this a gender thing (I'm totally making this a gender thing) but how come bad sex scenes are ONLY called out when women do them? This is just as bad or worse as FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, and yet the dudes who are so quick to bash romance are awfully silent on this quarter. You could even argue that the hairbrush scene is almost as bad as the tampon scene, & just as phallic.

Also, two more WTF things about this book. Food plays a heavy role. Each chapter mentions some kind of food and then there's a recipe for the dish at the end of each chapter. The first time it happened, I was like, "Oh, what's this?" And then it kept happening. Every chapter, new recipe. That's something I'd expect from a cozy mystery and not a dudelit spy-thriller.

The second WTF thing about this book is that Dominika has synesthesia - music and words make colors, which helps her memory (this is actually true, because you do remember things better when they are encoded in multiple pathways with multiple associations) and at first I thought that was neat, but the author USES HER SYNESTHESIA AS A PRETEXT TO GIVE HER PSYCHIC POWERS. That's right. Dominika is a synesthete who can read goddamn auras. That's right. She sees colors around people's heads that indicate their moods. Which ties into the title, I think, because not only does Red mean communist, for her red means anger - she is a furious little sparrow.

An angry bird, if you will.

Funnily enough, I've been told that the psychic powers bit was omitted from the movie. I wonder why.

RED SPARROW is an awful, awful book. It's like someone decided to cross THE HUNGER GAMES with THE DA VINCI CODE, but also wanted to add a lot of weird sex and power games, with a dash of The Americans and some X-Meny stuff too, because why the hell not? The beginning was interesting in a trashy read sort of way, but then the book got dull with the spy lingo and kept finding more sharks to jump over and I decided I was done. Why this is popular, I have no idea.

I leave you with this meme:

Bless you, scottbaiowulf. And fuck this book.

P.S. I started skimming pretty heavily so I apologize in advance if I got any of the finer details wrong.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

A Rose at Midnight by Anne Stuart

 πŸ’™ I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Wildcard - Whatever Romance You Want! For more info on this challenge, click here. πŸ’™

I've had A ROSE AT MIDNIGHT on my to-read list for years and when my friend Heather told me it was on sale on Amazon for 99-cents, I shrieked. There are two kinds of romances that I love, you see: retro romances and romances where the villain gets the girl. This book is both those things. Instant five stars... or so I thought.

The premise of this book is great. Nicholas is a jaded and cruel libertine who has basically given up on life. He gambles, gets into duels, sleeps around, and doesn't care about anyone but himself. His greatest act of cruelty was allowing his French godfather to die in the French Revolution by refusing to marry his young daughter, thereby leaving him free to manage his own affairs and escape.

He tries to forget about that last one because it stirs up something a little too close to guilt in his blackened husk of a soul. But there is one person who hasn't forgotten and that's Ghislaine. Ghislaine is the daughter of Nicholas's godfather, and when he died both she and her young brother were forced to survive on the streets. Ghislaine went through fifty different kinds of hell to survive, and had to sacrifice her honor, her innocence, and her soul. She's been planning revenge this whole time.

She contrives to become Nicholas's cook through his young cousin, Ellen. Once installed in his household, she tries to poison him. Her attempt fails, and Nicholas decides it would be sporting to kidnap Ghislaine away to somewhere remote where he can punish her at his leisure.

I feel like A ROSE AT MIDNIGHT had a much darker book at its core. Ghislaine's background story is certainly one of the darker stories I've encountered in a book that was published after the 80s, calling to mind some of those tawdry tales penned by Jennifer Wilde, specifically LOVE'S TENDER FURY. The overall execution left me wanting, however. I feel like Nicholas talked a big game as a villain but that's mostly what it was - talk. He keeps talking about perverse pleasures, but for the first 70% of the book all he really does is kiss her. IT TAKES FOREVER FOR ANYTHING TO HAPPEN. And when it does, she wants it/doesn't want it, traitorous bodies, etc. Which I know annoys some people and I get that (but it doesn't bother me - because obviously, bodice ripper queen here, hello), and I can deal with some non-con if it fits the story and isn't glossed over.

Here, I felt like it was glossed over and the line between Ghislaine wanting to kill Nicholas and Ghislaine wanting to do the naughty with Nicholas ten times over wasn't really clear. When did she go from point A to point B? Particularly since he doesn't really soften towards her until the very end of the book when he decides to go all Rambo for the sake of her revenge (read: bloody murder). I guess I wanted a more ruthless and unapologetic hero who put his money (read: his peen) where his mouth was (read: whoops, that was pretty naughty) and then had the mother of all grovels in the last act, because I wasn't really convinced of his True Love for Ghislaine or why he would feel that way.

I also was not keen on the secondary romance. Ellen and Tony (one of Nicholas's friends) end up taking up a significant part of the page count and I wasn't really interested in him at all, since he is so smarmy. I found myself skimming when their scenes came up. They aren't even really mentioned in the blurb so that feels deceptive. I'll take my dark romance, thanks! Hold the fluff.

Despite these qualms, I did like the story and it was dark enough to capture my attention and keep me reading. If Ghislaine had kept her fire and Nicholas had been darker and more villainous, I think I would have enjoyed A ROSE AT MIDNIGHT more than I did. It certainly isn't as wishy-washy as other 90s bodice rippers I read, and I really appreciated the atmosphere and the effort that went into building Ghislaine's backstory. This definitely is not the worst thing Anne Stuart has ever written.

TO LOVE A DARK LORD, here I come!

P.S. Was it me, or did that epilogue feel totally tacked-on? What a lame, half-hearted ending.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton

I heard no preliminary hype about this book - it just kind of appeared out of the ether, but I really liked the Black Swan vibe I got from the cover and the blurb on Goodreads compared this book to Donna Tartt and Gillian Flynn, two authors whose works I regularly five star because they're amazing. Here's the thing, though: Burton is in no way on the same level as those two authors and to compare them is unfair to both parties. It's like saying that people who like Brandon Sanderson should read Piers Anthony because they're both fantasy novels. While this is true, their target audiences are totally different, and you're only going to set up the comparison to fail due to unrealistic expectations.

SOCIAL CREATURE definitely aspires to be a 21st century work of F. Scott Fitzgeraldian or Edith Whartian proportions. Set in the upscale parts of New York, it features two layabouts with social aspirations named Louise and Lavinia. Louise is one of those drab, pale people who just sort of exist while wandering through life like a ghost. She gloms on to Lavinia, a flamboyantly lazy intellectual, who quotes poetry and writes Instagram captions in French, but doesn't have a job and still lives off her parents.

Louise, struggling to survive, ends up becoming closer and closer to Lavinia, and there's a homerotic vibe of fascination as their relationship deepens that's reminiscent of works like Dare Me, A Separate Peace, and The Great Gatsby. Louise becomes uncomfortably fascinated with Lavinia as she figures out how to manipulate her friend-and-possibly-more, but Lavinia is not as lazy as she appears and sometimes she knows exactly when she's being manipulated and isn't afraid to wreak her revenge.

Both girls are absolutely garbage human beings and so are all their friends. In some ways, this book reminded me of another book I read, SOCIABLE, which was also set in New York, only it targets the social media and tech-using set instead of the lazy armchair intellectual. I actually liked SOCIABLE more because it was more relatable and had some cuttingly astute observations. By contrast, SOCIAL CREATURE tried much too hard and had far too little payoff, and was written in an overly precious way, particularly in the beginning where it had a distinctly "This is Jane. See Jane run" narrative style. I might have liked this book if it had more depth, because Tarryn Fisher, Gillian Flynn, and yes, Donna Tartt, all excel at writing antiheroines. But this was just dull and derivative.

I can't recommend this book and I honestly question whether the person who wrote that blurb had read either Donna Tartt or Gillian Flynn, because the really are nothing alike.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Prince Harry: The Inside Story by Duncan Larcombe

I've had a crush on Harry since I was in elementary school, so when I saw my bae's BAEography on Netgalley, there was no way I couldn't apply for it, even if it did sound a bit like tabloid trash. If you were hesitant about picking up PRINCE HARRY: THE INSIDE STORY for the same reason, let me be the first to dissuade you, because the writing in here is actually pretty good and relies on many firsthand experiences instead of idle speculation. This is because the author, Duncan Larcombe, was the former Royal Editor of The Sun. This basically means that he was a correspondent whose job it was to tail the Royal family to important social and state events to get the inside scoop.

It's pretty obvious that the author has affection for the Prince, which shows up in his interactions with him (my favorite was Harry jokingly attacking him in the bathroom with a flashing camera pretending to be a paparazzi while Larcombe just as jokingly cursed him out) as well as in how he paints this biographical portrait. It opens with the infamous Nazi Halloween costume incident, and from there we get a look at some of his other controversial behaviors, like his wild party in Las Vegas, his military career during the war in Afghanistan (and some of the borderline-racist things he said), and the use of a Chinook helicopter to abscond to an island retreat (on taxpayer money no less, oops).

One of the things I found most interesting about this book wasn't about Harry at all; it was about the press's relationship to the royal family and all the protocol they need to follow. Reporters kind of have a "no honor among thieves" reputation but The Sun seemed to always warn Clarence House before publishing anything unseemly or potentially devastating, and he said that his paper had a policy of not using stolen photos (including working with police to return a camera stick with pics of William and Kate on vacation that had been stolen from Pippa's purse, instead of using the photos). It was fascinating to see how fraught with respect this relationship was; it was a constant give-take.

The edition I got from Netgalley had Meghan and Harry on the front of it - perhaps to capitalize on interest from the Royal Wedding - but I can see that they decided to change it in the final edition. Perhaps they decided that it would be misleading. I was certainly shocked because I was expecting a love story chronicling how they met, based on that photo. Kind of like an IRL version of that Lifetime Harry and Meghan (2018) movie. If you're reading this to learn more about Meghan and Harry, you'll be disappointed because Meghan doesn't make an appearance until 20 pages from the end and it's only really a footnote. Chelsy Davy gets much more page time.

I really enjoyed this BAEography a lot, though. I think it would be so stressful to be a member of a royal family. There's so much pressure and even normal acts of adolescent stupidity are magnified to the scale of an international incident. When I lived in the UK, I remember constantly seeing him on the covers of the tabloids portraying him as "the naughty prince" alongside pics of the girls from Atomic Kitten and endless Posh and Becks pics. I think that was actually a part of his appeal, to be honest. He had the "bad boy" with a tragic past vibe, and since then his life has kind of followed the narrative of the redemptive romance arc that is so popular with us ladies (and some men).

I love Meghan Markle so I'm delighted to see that this not-so-bad boy got his amazing fairytale princess (even if it takes him out of the running for moi). If you're also a fan of Prince Harry, I really recommend that you pick this up, because it does a really amazing job of capturing his personality while also depicting his strengths and his flaws in a balanced but affectionate light.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Roses of May by Dot Hutchison

Nobody was more excited than me to get their hands on THE ROSES OF MAY, the sequel to the amazing thriller, THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN. I'm picky about thrillers and think a lot of the ones out there are crap, but THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN was that 1 book out of 100 that stayed with me, haunted me, and kept me on the edge of my seat, desperate to know what happened next. When I found out there was a sequel, I was stoked as a stoat.

ROSES OF MAY isn't really a direct sequel and I think it could be read as a standalone, although there's some insider information and side character cameos that might be confusing for people who haven't read THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN. Priya is a seventeen-year-old girl suffering from grief and depression and an eating disorder, exacerbated by her sister's gruesome murder several years before. Now, it looks like her sister's killer has found her yet again and she's going to be the next target.

The killer is actually pretty creepy and reminded me of a Criminal Minds episode. S/he thinks that women should be innocent and pure, and watches the various young girls who catch their eye to ensure that they adhere to their standards of purity. The ones who do die gently, so s/he can take care of them forever and keep them "good girls." The ones who exhibit wanton behaviors are brutally raped and violently murdered, as punishment. S/he's a highly messed-up individual.

Unfortunately, the process of catching the killer is hindered by department politics as the policemen's new supervisor kind of has it in for them and is reluctant to connect previously unrelated cases without solid evidence of Blues Clues-level obviousness. One of the cops is a family friend of Priya, so he takes this especially hard. Also complicating things is the trial for the Garden, where many of the ex-Butterflies are having trouble adapting to the "real world" and exhibiting obvious post-traumatic stress in the wake of the Gardener's trial and his one surviving son's arrest.

THE ROSES OF MAY isn't really a very good book. Even if it hadn't been connected to one of my favorite mystery-thrillers of all time, I still don't think I would have been super pleased with it. There are too many POV swaps, and apart from the killer and his creepy and unusual way of displaying the bodies, there wasn't much to make it stand apart from the many other serial killer novels out there. I did like Priya a lot, though. I'm a sucker for books that write about damaged women in a way that still portrays them as whole beings who are full of agency. Priya had a lot of issues but they didn't define her, and I really liked that. I also liked her relationships with the war veterans she played chess with and Inara, one of the Butterflies who reached out to Priya because of their shared tragedy.

I'm not sure I'm as eager to read the third book now, since this one was such a disappointment. It wasn't awful, but it wasn't nearly as good as I was expecting, and felt like it was an entirely different subgenre of mystery-thriller, which makes it extra weird that they're linked in a series.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, June 8, 2018

Silver Storm by Cynthia Wright

I got my friend Minerva to buddy-read this with me, because the only thing better than bodice-rippers are bodice-rippers with friends. Also, the covers. Can we all take a moment to appreciate that cover? The original artwork, the banner font, the colors - I'm not sure who started the bizarre trend of replacing the original artwork with badly photoshopped covers for the Kindle edition, but they suck.

I originally tried reading SILVER STORM a couple years ago but ended up shelving it due to boredom. During this reread, I felt the same urge once more. For about 70% of this book, the story is dull as dirt. Maybe duller than dirt, because at least dirt has some action (worms, woodlice, interesting rocks). This book did not have that.

The heroine, Devon, is one of those spunky Catherine Coulter rejects who says "Ooooh!" when she's angry and probably stomps her foot. When the British attack her town and kill'n'rape her family, she ends up at the mercy of French privateer, Ravneau, who also happens to be the man she's had a crush on since she was a kid - not that he looked her way, then. Now, though? Now, she isn't just HOT. She is bodice ripper HOT, which is like being Helen of Troy HOT.

The plot is difficult to explain but it's basically Devon and Raveneau arguing constantly, with her thwarted ex, Morgan, occasionally popping in to remind everyone that he exists and Was There First. Much to Devon's dismay, she's much more attracted to Raveneau and even though they were engaged, she let Raveneau pop her cherry and the thought of Morgan physically repulses her. Raveneau knows that he's the one she wants, so he's generous enough to officiate her marriage to Morgan himself - only to reveal later that it was a fake wedding(!), before spiriting her away.

Around 68%, Raveneau remembers that he's in a bodice ripper and starts to act less charming and more jerk. And around 75% in, Raveneau remembers that mere caddery doesn't really cut it in a bodice-ripper and starts to be abusive and rapey. Because I'm twisted, I actually liked that part better - BECAUSE I WAS SO BORED, it was nice to have some action finally happening. Ditto when he dumps her off at an island with a resentful servant and the aura of death (his father allegedly killed his money-grubbing mistress there and they screw mere feet away from where the corpse was buried). There's some OW drama that peters out to nothing (not even a cat fight? come on), and Devon becomes pregnant and immediately transforms into a rosy Madonna, because gag.

In many ways, SILVER STORM reminded me of a less WTF version of THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER, another book I didn't really like all that much, although I could appreciate the sheer scale of OTT nobody-gives-a-damn infused into the plot. They were published just a few years apart, so this isn't really surprising. Honestly, of the early bodice ripper canon, so far my favorite is SWEET SAVAGE LOVE which balances OTT with interesting characters and good story-telling.

If you're interested in this book, it is free, although it is my understanding that like many republished bodice-rippers, SILVER STORM has been edited (read: censored) to be more compatible with the sensibilities of modern audiences. Which, okay, I get. But also, at the same time this makes me sad because part of what I love about bodice-rippers is that unapologetic grittiness. I wish that publishers and authors made both editions available on Kindle - then at least the reader could choose whether they wanted that kidskin gloves to stay on.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Moonflower by Phyllis A. Whitney

πŸ’™ I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Non-Western Setting. For more info on this challenge, click here. πŸ’™

I've only read one other book by Phyllis A. Whitney and I didn't like it, but the idea of a Gothic romance set in Japan was way too good to pass up. I went to Japan last summer for the first time and it was a total culture shock because it's so different from American culture, and I loved learning about the history, the people, and the art. One of the last places we visited was Hiroshima, and given that we learn a distinctly biased version of WWII, it was great to hear it from the perspective of those who lost the war -in a horrific way.

I bring up Hiroshima because WWII plays a key role in THE MOONFLOWER. It's a contemporary gothic - or was, when it was first published in 1958 - and with the War having occurred just over a decade before, it's still very much fresh on every one's minds.

Marcia married a much older man who was a scientist. He went to Japan from his work and came back changed - irritable, haunted, cruel. Then he goes back and she basically stops hearing from him, so Marcia takes her young daughter Laurie and goes to hunt him down in Kyoto. The man she sees there isn't at all glad to see her; he wants her to return, and says all kinds of terrible things to her and their child. Their Japanese neighbors who share their duplex are unfriendly, and the wife of the man who lives there, Chiyo, seems oddly frightened of Marcia and her daughter.

Mysterious and awful things keep happening - ugly and possibly haunted masks, ghostly specters roaming at night, things going missing, dark secrets, and of course, the husband's complete personality change. Marcia is utterly puzzled and wonders what could have possibly happened to give her husband Jerome such stubborn ties to this alien country that is still slowly recovering from the devastating blow of the bomb.

THE MOONFLOWER moves at a slow and grueling pace in typical gothic fashion but the atmosphere more than makes up for it. There are some dated descriptions that seem a little racist, but honestly this is one of the best portrayals of Asian culture for the time that it is written (and even in some contemporary literature I have read, which is sad) that I have ever seen. Whitney was obviously very interested in Japanese culture and had a stake in doing it well. Many of the cultural references are on point, even to this day, and I loved the descriptions of places I've actually been to, like the Kyoto shrines, Nijo Castle, and Miyajima Island (which is one of the most beautiful places ever).

I'd kind of guessed what the twist might be, and it did make a lot of sense. I think people who saw the effects of the Hiroshima bombing and felt responsible had a lot of residual guilt. It completely destroyed the city. I went to the Peace Museum there and was lucky enough to hear some of the survivors speak (they were only babies/young children when the bomb fell) and discuss the effects that it had on them and their families. People react to tragedy in odd and frightening ways, and even though I hated Jerome by the end of the book, I could at least understand why he did what he did.

If you like vintage books but don't want to commit to the horror that is bodice-ripper, this is a good jumping off point. It has the colorful settings and flowery writing that is typical of books written at this time, but is also vivid and surprisingly insightful. I enjoyed it a lot.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars