Monday, July 30, 2018

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Scientists just came up with a new, effective form of birth control: this book. Not sure if you want kids? Pick up BABY TEETH and recoil in horror from the Queen of Devil-spawns herself. Reading this book is like watching a horror movie and screaming, "Don't go in there!" at the idiotic teenage scream queen as she traipses into the room with the killer. But what if the teenage scream queen is a bougie mom with Crohn's disease? And what if the room with the killer is her own child's nursery?

You see the problem here.

I don't recall the last time I read a book that frustrated me so much. On the one hand, BABY TEETH was excellently plotted, and, speaking as someone who has studied and received a degree in psychology, actually takes the time to research the material and not write a contrived mess of outdated fake news a la mode. Sociopathy and conduct disorder are often portrayed in ridiculous ways in media, but most of the information in this book is correct. Sociopaths often manifest their symptoms at a young age, in something called "conduct disorder," and can take perceived slights - minor things that other people wouldn't blink at - and stew over them, growing violently angry.

On the other hand, using a mental disorder as fodder for a thriller is a rather tired trope. What makes it interesting is that, in this case, it is the child who is causing the problems. Hanna, the fledgling sociopath, who wants to grow up to marry her Daddy and is more than willing to make Mommy go away. It's disgustingly Freudian, and Hanna's narrative made me so uncomfortable, because she was such a slimy, unpleasant character. It was almost unrealistic, how unlikable this character was. To one-up this witch-with-a-b in terms of how evil she was, you would probably have to come up with a character called Dr. Fluffykittens-Stomper McMurderNazi. Every time I thought to myself, "Oh my God, it can't possibly get any worse" - it got worse. Because of course it did.

The most frustrating character in this book, though, is probably the father, who coddles and enables his daughter, even as she's actively putting his wife through hell. He reminded blithely ignorant of his wife's suffering, even going so far as to blame her for it in some instances or do the adult male equivalent of sticking his fingers into his ears and saying, "La la la la la la." Eventually, he wises up, but only at the last freaking possible moment. If this were a horror movie, he'd totally be the one going, "Hey! Those dark, blood-soaked stairs over there! Let's split up and check them out alone!" I get wanting to love your kid and giving them the benefit of the doubt, but when you catch them red-handed, and it's blood, and not paint, on their hands, it's time to seek outside assistance.

I read BABY TEETH until the very end, and I - and probably you - was relieved to find out that the ending wasn't horrific as it could have been. I was bracing myself for a blood bath and got a blood bird pond instead. Not pleasant, but not the nightmare fuel I was expecting, in the vein of LET'S GO PLAY AT THE ADAMS' or BAD SEED. They're probably going to make a movie of this and I'm not going to see it, because children are scary, and if I wanted to see a bunch of demon children acting out, I'll park myself by the registers of any toy store on Christmas Eve and watch all hell break loose.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Nightfall by Anne Stuart

๐Ÿ’™ I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Romantic Suspense. For more info on this challenge, click here. ๐Ÿ’™

Romantic suspense is kind of a misleading name, because the "romantic" part makes me think of a cozy cop romance, when the truth is usually anything but. Take NIGHTFALL, a story about a man accused of murdering his wife and children, and a woman who is the daughter of the super-shady author writing his "true crime" story.

Cassidy, like most of the nation, has heard about Richard Tiernan and his trial. A man accused of murdering his beautiful wife and two young children, with all evidence pointing to his guilt. Worse; his trial is being expedited because his late wife was the daughter of a beloved war-hero and notable political figurehead. As far as he's concerned, the writing's on the wall, and it says GUILTY in red, dripping letters.

Richard Tiernan is willing to let his story be told by Cassidy's father, but in return, he wants Cassidy. The reasons aren't clear, but it sounds sketchy as hell. Her father doesn't like it, but Richard's story is important to him for reasons that are also made clear as the story goes on, so he agrees to this Faustian bargain over his conscience, inviting his daughter to the very apartment without telling her that it's actually the lion's den. Obviously, this being a romance novel, she finds him darkly fascinating and finds it difficult to reconcile her attraction to him with his possible guilt.

Anne Stuart's first published novel was actually one of those pulpy Gothic romances, and in NIGHTFALL, she goes back to her roots, with a densely atmospheric story that is absolutely mired in whodunnitry, with a sick, utterly disturbing twist that I'm sure made V.C. Andrews sit up in her grave and break out in applause. It's been a while since I was so disturbed by the grand reveal in a book. And this was published by a mainstream publisher? Man, that's ballsy. Just goes to show how quick people are to write these off as fluffy drivel. That was some Game of Thrones level horror.

NIGHTFALL is not one for the fluffies and I'll be the first to admit it has its flaws. The pretense for the hero and heroine meeting is pretty thin, and a little lame, and as my friend Heather pointed out in her review of A ROSE AT MIDNIGHT, her writing can be very repetitive, as she tends to become overly attached to specific phrases (e.g. "he said, very gently"). The hero in this book is also more unpleasant than some of her other heroes, who were blithe, morally grey men cast in the mold of Jareth, from Labyrinth. This guy is more like the OG James Bond, a broken man with a broken moral compass who doesn't value his own life, sees nothing wrong with hitting women if the situation calls for it (warning: he hits the heroine and also the heroine's adolescent sister), and will basically rationalize any sort of unpleasantness if he thinks it is for "the greater good." I find characters like that fascinating, but other romance readers may not. Consider this a warning, please.

Man, I'm still kind of blown away by the ending, and all that doom and gloom. If you're a fan of dark romances and atmospheric tension, this is a must-read. Just keep in mind that the hero is a jerk, and for about 50% of the book, most of the interaction between the hero and the heroine consists of, "Did you murder your wife?" "Maybe." "Do I frighten you?" "Yes." "Good. Want to screw?" "If we must."

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

The Black God's Drums by P. Djรจlรญ Clark

So real talk: I wasn't sure I'd be given an ARC of this book after committing the cardinal sin of giving CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE a one-star review, especially after said review caused a ton of people to low-key imply that I'm a racist for not liking a book written by a black woman. The blow-back was such that I wondered if maybe I'd been put on a blacklist entitled, "Warning: racist blogger, do not give any ARCs written by PoCs." Luckily, if there is such a list, I don't appear to be on it yet, because I received my ARC of THE BLACK GOD'S DRUMS and I really enjoyed the novella, because it was basically exactly what I'd expected from CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE, but didn't get. So joke's on you, haters. Maybe I really did just think CoBaB was shitty, after all!

THE BLACK GOD'S DRUMS is also about the Orisha, a pantheon of African gods, just like CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE. Unlike CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE, this doesn't take place in a made-up country inspired by Nigeria, but a steampunk New Orleans in the Civil War-era of the U.S. timeline, where the Confederacy and the Union are at a weary detente, but racial tensions continue to flourish and grow. (I made a mistake in this status update, when I compared the two and said they were both African-American-fronted; CHILDREN OF BLOOD is African-fronted, since it takes place in Africa. Only THE BLACK GOD'S DRUMS is AA-fronted. I apologize for the mistake.) The main character is an African American girl nicknamed "Creeper" who is blessed by the Orisha, Oya, the goddess of storms. After she receives a vision that appears to foretell destruction of the city by the hand of a man in a skull mask, she ends up on a quest that leads her right into a hot mess of deadly weapons, nun-scientists, gods, voodoo, racism, and, of course, heroism.

This novella is super short (my copy was under 100 pages), but packs a mean punch. It's told in first person, with a Southern patois, so there were some words where I actually had to read them aloud in order to understand what the heroine was saying, but once I got used to the narrative voice, I thought it added a really authentic and interesting flavor to the heroine's story-telling that made the setting feel much more "real," if that makes sense. I also liked how involved the mythology was in this story, whereas CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE glossed over the Orisha, focusing more on a typical stock fantasy setting with an insta-love romance. Readers, you will be pleased to hear that there is no romance in this book, only butt-kicking girls kicking butt with the help of the gods.

Also, major props to this dude, the author, a male writer who wrote a book about mostly female characters who felt real and multi-dimensional, who came from all walks of life, without sexualizing these female characters or subjecting them to the male gaze. This is literally one of the few books I've read written by a dude where the female characters actually read like authentic female characters, and I feel weird praising this book for doing something that everyone should be doing, but it's the exception rather than the rule, so hats off to P. Djรจlรญ Clark for being one of the few male writers to actually write women as multi-dimensional beings with agency that exists separate from sexuality.

It took me a while to get into the story, but I really liked how much it reminded me of the Wonder Woman movie, as well as the setting, and even though it was really short, I think it worked in a way that a longer book wouldn't, because there was so much information to digest in THE BLACK GOD'S DRUMS that a longer book might have been way too intimidating. I'm hoping that this is the first book in the series, because I think Steampunk New Orleans is a setting that begs to be explored.

If you, like me, were disappointed by CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE, pick up THE BLACK GOD'S DRUMS instead. It's an #OwnVoices fantasy novel with a kick-ass heroine and a rich mythology, which is pretty much exactly what most of us have been asking for.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

I think I went into this book with elevated expectations because so many people were singing its praises. I get that I might not be the "ideal" person to review this, but I also think that I have some valid criticisms as a somewhat experienced reviewer who has read a great deal of books (both good and bad), and also has some firsthand experience with social anxiety. There were some really good things in this book, and there were also some things that I really did not like. I'm going to talk about both, in detail, and I'm not going to couch my words in platitudes. If that offends you (I'm not being facetious - the words "sacrilege" and "appalling" were both used the other day for one of my other YA reviews), I'm not sure why you're still following me at this point unless you're a glutton for punishment, but if you find yourself unable to resist commenting on here with something rude, don't.

Things I liked:

The way cultural and ethnic identity were approached. We're getting an influx of  #OwnVoices reads lately, especially in YA, which is great. However, a lot of them are being approached from the same angle, in which cultural and ethnic identity are synonymous and the characters in question are fully immersed in their culture. Here, Bowman explores the "gap" that can occur between the two, particularly in an interracial relationship, with the main character, Kiko, being utterly isolated from her Japanese heritage in large part due to her mother's distaste for it. She doesn't look like white people, but she doesn't feel Asian, so she often feels adrift and isolated, and watching her rediscover herself and learn to appreciate Asian food, Asian culture, and Asian language was really nice. I think a lot of people probably feel like they aren't "enough" when the portrayal of people of color always shows them being very connected to their cultural roots, so it was refreshing to see a character who wasn't born connected to her cultural and experiencing it for the first time; it made me feel really happy because I feel like there's probably a lot of kids who feel similarly and need this rep.

The way sexual abuse was approached. We know from the beginning that Kiko was abused, but we don't know what happened. When we find out what did, it's a bit shocking because it seems "like no big deal" as Kiko describes it, dismissively, at one point, in order to hide about how much it bothered her. I actually liked that the author didn't choose something "extreme" because you know what, all forms of abuse are bad, and it shouldn't have to be something really graphic and disgusting in order to make people sit up and shout, "This is wrong!" It says a lot about our culture, in my opinion, that we treat abuse like it's heat on a spectrum, acting like some are more comfortable than others. No. So, after meditating on the author's reasons for doing what she did, I found that I really appreciated this.

Problematic microaggressions. There are a number in here, some of them done in innocence, some of them deliberately harmful. At one point, someone tells Kiko that they aren't "into Asian girls." Her friend, trying to cheer her up, tells her that people love exotic looks. On the one instance her mom tries to be nice and give her makeup tips, all of the tips are for white people with fair complexions and blue eyes. There was another one, actually committed by the love interest, which I'm not even sure was intentional by the author: he expresses surprise that she'd never been to Chinatown, which I know a lot of my friends would probably be offended by if asked, especially if they were Japanese, as Kiko was (because, as that stupid stereotype goes, all Asian cultures are interchangeable).

Things I didn't like:

Kiko's mother. I know I wasn't supposed to like her, but her character was just so over-the-top and the emotional abuse was just a constant barrage. I think it's going to be really triggering for people who have ever experienced emotional abuse, because the way her mother twisted words and always made everything about herself was pretty well done, even if her character was not. The author was effective in making her a despicable character, but she comes across as grotesque stereotype, a blonde "Mommie Dearest" who is about a phrase away from screaming "No more wire hangers!" I saw another reviewer who said that it felt like her characterization was done the way it was for shock value, and I agree. After a while, I just felt resigned whenever she appeared and steeled myself for more self-absorbed rants about how unappreciated/beautiful/special she was. Whatever.

The way Kiko's mother expressed her racist thoughts. This was ridiculous. I couldn't understand how she married a Japanese man if she hated Asian culture so much. Wouldn't this have come up while they were dating? (People are really bad at hiding their racist thoughts after more than a few dates, or whenever they start feeling "comfortable") What made Kiko's father go out with this woman for so many times without wising up to her attitude? She was such a racist, it was almost cartoonish. But then I reminded myself that we have enough racists in this country that Donald Trump "won" the presidency, so maybe her attitude wasn't that far off, I don't know. I feel like there's a lot that I, as a white person, will never understand about racism, because I don't experience it the same way that many people of color in my country - and others - do on a daily basis, so I feel funny criticizing something like this in a book, especially where it seems like it might be valid. I would have liked more insight into the relationship between Kiko's parents. It was utterly bizarre.

The social anxiety rep. When I was younger, someone said to me something like, "People who are depressed are such deep, caring people, and part of the reason they're so upset all the time is because they feel everything so deeply." This person was trying to help but actually made me feel worse, because at the time I felt very selfish spending so much time inside my own head, so I couldn't help thinking to myself, "Okay, so not only am I really sad, I'm the wrong kind of sad. Great." Her words actually made me feel like literal garbage for a week. I've noticed this mythos in a lot of YA books about mental illness and neurodivergence where they are portrayed as sensitive, wronged people who aren't appreciated by the people around them, and that really bothers me, because I feel like it creates this mindset where you don't need to change, you just need to find people who can fix you by thinking about you the way you want to be thought about. Kiko lives in this weird fantasy world where she thinks everything will be better if she can get into Prism and she uses her friends as crutches (she literally calls them her "crutch friends" or something like that). This is the absolutely wrong mindset to have, because as tempting as it is to think, "My life will be perfect if only I could have X," that isn't the case. You have to decide to change, as scary and awful as that can be. I didn't want to change when I was anxious, because change was scary and uncomfortable. I had to learn to want it, and I learned to want it by starting small and feeling that rush of learning that I had more agency and power than I dreamed. Kiko sort of goes through this eventually, but the opportunity is handed to her in the form of a beautiful (and white) love interest who looks like a European model (or so she describes him) and a shiny art mentor and scholarship, both handed to her on a silver platter. It isn't this easy for most people, and I think perpetuating this mentality of "learned helplessness" by telling teens to rely on external things to solve their problems (which only works for as long as those external things are around) is harmful and dangerous. When Kiko finds out she didn't get her scholarship at first, she literally falls apart. She has no idea what to do, because she put all her hopes and dreams and expectations in that one basket.

I actually wondered about the title because at one point, it's revealed that Kiko's mentor, a Japanese artist, calls selfish people "starfishes" because they have multiple legs that all point inward. Kiko thinks of her mother as a starfish, because I mean, obviously. But I also kind of wondered if the title of the book was supposed to refer to Kiko as well, since she spends so much time thinking of herself and what other people are thinking of her, and even though she doesn't appear to have narcissistic personality disorder (which her mother appears to have), her anxiety does make her selfish in a way because she's constantly thinking about what others are thinking of her, and how much people disappoint her by forcing her into the wrong choices, and this whole litany of other stuff. At the end of the book, she finally learns to be independent and get out of her own head, so part of me wondered if the title STARFISH was actually a decoy, referring secretly to Kiko learning to get out of her own head and learn other, healthier ways of thinking about herself and her life.

There are other things in this book that are triggering, like suicide and adultery, but I'm not going to talk about those things because they involve spoilers and because I feel like this review has become enough of a downer-fest. I do think that people with triggers should take care while reading this book, although I imagine that some will find it really useful and relatable. I didn't like it that much, for the reasons I mentioned before, but it wasn't a terrible book and even though I really did not like Kiko's character, I didn't want to throw this book into a furnace like I did with ~other~ mental health books. It was actually thought-provoking and interesting, and I liked the relationship between art and feelings; it reminded me a lot about SPEAK, which was the first time I'd ever read a book about someone with anxiety/depression, and was exactly what I needed when I was fourteen. I hope that this book ends up being that same useful tool for someone else, even if it wasn't for me.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

The Hit List by Nikki Urang

There's nothing better than trash when you're in the mood for a hot, soapy mess. THE HIT LIST served this function admirably, with a truly bizarre storyline that somehow worked. I mean, I never would have thought about combining a story about a broken ballerina trying to redeem herself and a college sex game together, but maybe I'm doing something wrong with my life.

Sadie was once a promising ballerina on the cusp of a prestigious career. Then her dance partner let her fall, and after a devastating injury and even more devastating breach of trust, Sadie was left in the ashes of her rising phoenix ex-partner. She was so ~damaged~ that she left New York for L.A., to go to a performing arts college where she can lick her wounds.

She is instantly attracted to this guy named Luke, but all of her friends - especially this girl named Brielle - say that he's bad news. When he's assigned as her dance partner, Sadie absolutely feels that she cannot trust him; she's afraid of falling in more ways than one (ho, ho, ho). Worse still, Luke is one of those dudes who delights in mixed signals, and the whole book is a game of "he loves me, he loves me not," up until the very end, when you finally figure out what's going on.

What makes the whole "he loves me, he loves me not" aspect even more devious is that Sadie's college is playing a sex game where a bunch of boys, called "Hitters" can sign up to "hit that" (read: hot women voted on by the school) for points. Urang saves this from being super-extra-wtf-skeevy by having the people in charge of the game insist that all "scores" must be consensual. It's still pretty skeevy though.

Sadie is one of the chosen, because of course she is, and the blurb is a little misleading in this regard because it makes it sound like Sadie is the #1 choice. She isn't. At least, not for a while. The game actually has little to do with the story, apart from stirring up all kinds of angst with Luke.

I liked this book because it was trashy, and I was in the mood for trash. It is very readable and those pages went by quickly. The dance angle was interesting and I'm apparently a sucker for these types of performing art/tortured artist stories. Sadie's story was sad and I did want to see her do well - that's PART of what annoyed me so much about the ending. The other thing that annoyed me about the ending was someone does something bad and faces no consequences for it. WHAT. Why?

If you like trashy new adult that is well-written and more engaging than the usual "rich white people with self-manufactured problems and way too much unprotected sex" formula, THE HIT LIST is worth checking out. Just keep in mind that it is very trashy and has a stupid ending.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Pretty In Ink by Merryn Dexter

๐Ÿ’™ I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: BBW (Big Beautiful Woman) Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. ๐Ÿ’™

Man, I always secretly dread the BBW challenge. In principle, I think the concept is great. As a plus-sized woman, it's awesome to see curvy or heavy women gracing the covers of romance novels. When I saw the cover of this book in the Kindle freebie section, I snagged it instantly, because of course I want to support that.

The problem is that these sorts of books usually come across as cliche-ridden and fetishistic. PRETTY IN INK is no exception. Aubrey is rich and overweight. When we meet her, she's at a bar with her skinny-bitch sister who's getting married. They're double-dating (Aubrey's seeing the best man). Aubrey has issues about her weight (and it's suggested that she's this heavy because she eats), but refuses to starve herself to become as slim as her sister. Her entire family is this cliche bunch of villains that demonize her for being heavy, and this loser she's dating actually tries to veto her dinner order at the bar to force her to eat a salad and chicken instead of cheese and steak. It turns out this loser is just dating her for her money and utterly resents her for being fat.

Cut to our hero, Garrett, who loves big women because they give him a "smooth landing" or something like that. He loves curvy women a little too much, actually, because his attraction to Aubrey is simply because she's big, and that makes sex more fun for him. I guess that's fine, but at the same time, he's not really seeing her as a person, but as a plus-sized blow-up doll, and while I get that that is the point of these short, sexual fantasies - objectification, but in a "positive" way - it still feels gross. Particularly since the narrative appears to be trying to belabor the point that Garrett is such a nice guy for willing to date her for herself, and that he's the only one who sees her as a sexual being with feelings and not as some gross blob, so he is validating her very existence, blah, blah, blah.

PRETTY INK INK tries really hard, but the quickie format just doesn't work for the topics it broaches. It made weight-shaming and body image issues feel cheap. Maybe if you enjoy Alexa Riley romances, you'll enjoy this, as they are very similar in tone - there's that same protective alpha, "I MUST CLAIM HER" caveman vibe that their fans seem to love. But if you're expecting something substantial, with good plus-size rep, you're going to be very disappointed.

1 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster

When word got out that Disney had purchased Star Wars, I was skeptical. Basically, I envisioned a reprise of Star Wars: Episodes I and II, with tons of annoying side-kicks, annoying children, and annoying romance, with cheesy sets and way too much drama. I should have known better. Say what you like about Disney being corporate evil incarnate (I've been reading too much S.J. Maas, clearly, I keep thinking of that word, incarnate), they know how to spin a story that will appeal to the masses, and The Force Awakens is no exception. Okay, it's very similar to the plot of A New Hope (in fact, Dorkly actually did a hilarious video called 6 Star Wars Characters Meet Their New Equivalents, which is a must-watch if you're a Star Wars fan), with one key exception: the hero of this franchise is a girl named Rey, who is tech-savvy, strong, vulnerable, powerful, and interesting.

I am always defending my love for Jupiter Ascending, another female-fronted space opera movie, because critics really took the piss out of it - unjustly, I feel. It's basically a Disney princess movie set in space (although not Disney-made, it has many wonderful parallels, and I often like to describe it as Brave meets Tangled in space - with a werewolf-angel love interest, soylent Phoenix Down, and magic rollerblades). Jupiter Ascending is cheesy, but it's also vastly entertaining, beautifully shot, and has a compelling story with a female protagonist who is kick-butt while also still retaining that touch of uncertainty and reluctance that I think most people being called to being defenders of the galaxy would feel.

Part of the reason I love this new Star Wars franchise so much is because it gave me exactly what I wanted: characters from all walks of life who are complex and interesting, and not just a bunch of white dudes hashing it out in space. Leia, you could argue, was a strong character, but she was also very much a love interest and grossly sexualized in the second movie. Rey, on the other hand, has the makings of a romantic character but her agency and her power are separate from her sexuality. Likewise, we also get some diversity in these movies - Finn is black and Poe is Latino and I totally ship both of them together, or with Rey, or whatever, because all of these characters are just beautiful, developed people with great on-screen chemistry, and I don't care if it's sexual or platonic, I just want more of them, together. (Also, for those of you arguing that there have been black people in the Star Wars franchise before, so Finn is not a #BigDeal, I beg to differ: Mace Windu was not a main character, unlike Finn who is the hero. All people remember about Mace Windu was that he had a cool purple lightsaber and was played by Samuel L. Jackson. And yes, that is cool, but it is also not the same as having a person of color play a lead role in a hit franchise. Not all rep is equally significant.)

But I think the biggest reason I love this new Star Wars franchise is #Reylo. I'm a sucker for villain love interests, okay? Leia and Han, maybe. I personally didn't think they had that much chemistry (and I couldn't quite forget that she kissed her brother first, ew). Kylo Ren and Rey? Chemistry everywhere. They didn't even kiss in this movie, and it was scorching hot. 90% of the reason I bought this book was because I was hoping for some insights into the scenes between Kylo and Rey, and Alan Dean Foster did not disappoint. The man understands a fan's need to ship, and he didn't just hint (if by hint, you mean, beat you over the head with a ship) that there was chemistry and desire between Kylo and Rey, he also hinted at the chemistry between Poe and Finn, and also the chemistry between Finn and Rey. He also makes the Han/Leia relationship much cuter and poignant than it ever was in the movies. I'm not kidding - there's one scene in here where I legitimately teared up.

If you've watched the movie, you're going to know the plot of this book already (and if you haven't, I don't want to spoil it for you). This is a novelization so much of it is the same, although Foster has taken liberties with the dialogue, curiously omitting some lines while adding others. I think the creativity comes in with the scenery descriptions (he manages to do "tech talk" really well), the psychology of the characters, and the exploration of some of the nuances that were subtle in the films. I have seen the movie and I still really enjoyed the book, and now I want to check out more of Foster's works because he has an impressive vocabulary and did a good job of keeping this from being some dialed-in movie script with just a few extra scenery directions.

#ReyloForever #Dont@Me

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Never Never by Colleen Hoover

๐Ÿ’™ I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Young Adult Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. ๐Ÿ’™

I love weekends. You know why? They give me the perfect excuse to clean out my Kindle. I think I must have finished about eight books this weekend, and I feel so proud of myself. One of those books finished was NEVER NEVER. I've been on a Tarryn Fisher binge, because I really like her style and you never really know what you're going to get with one of her books. One of the last ones I read, THE OPPORTUNIST, even had an amnesia subplot like this one, so that was amusing but okay. I'm a sucker for a good amnesia plot. They're one of my favorite cracky tropes.

As I said, I like Tarryn Fisher, but I'm more ambivalent about Colleen Hoover. I like some of her darker books like TOO LATE and IT ENDS WITH US, but a lot of the other ones of hers I've read have really made me angry. I didn't see how two such very different authors could mesh together, but Tarryn lightened up her style and Hoover darkened it. I actually thought Hoover was Fisher, because Silas's POV was my favorite and I assumed that was because it was written by my favorite author of the two, but no. Maybe they were trying to imitate each other's styles? Anyway, they did manage to blend, so kudos to them, because I totally wasn't expecting that to happen.

The plot is weird, and kind of reminds me of those other "memory loss thrillers," like Memento, Paycheck, and Before I Go to Sleep, only this is told from a YA/NA perspective. Silas and Charlie both "wake up" in school not knowing who they are, where they are, or why they can't remember anything before their moment of dawning consciousness. When they glimpse one another and see how lost they are, they know that they aren't alone and that they must have a connection. They do. They're boyfriend and girlfriend.

As they form a wary partnership and start digging into the lives that don't even feel like their own, they discover some very disturbing revelations about themselves and their families. Legal trouble, cheating, violence, betrayal - it seems like their relationship wasn't just on the rocks, it was impaled on them, bleeding out treachery. But they also seemed to love each other, too, despite everything else, and it isn't really clear why they would want to cause each other so much pain if there was love. That's just one thing in a long list of things that they can't remember.

The book starts getting really creepy towards the end, with two particularly notable scenes that gave me chills, even if they were a teeny bit cliche. But right when things begin to pick up, the book ends on a wicked cliffhanger that occurs after one of the biggest revelations in the book. If NEVER NEVER feels short, it isn't your imagination; it's under 200 pages, and by the time you finish the book you don't really know anything more about the mystery behind these characters than you did at the beginning. It's incredibly frustrating to become that invested in the story with so little payoff.

NEVER NEVER isn't a bad book but it's definitely not one of my favorites. It's actually my least favorite Tarryn Fisher book I've read so far, although it's fine for a CoHo (I expect better from Fisher). I'm certainly not so wowed by what I read that I feel the urge to race out and purchase the sequel. There are too many other amnesia books that did it better and answered my questions better.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Dirty Red by Tarryn Fisher

I'm usually pretty bad about reading sequels because I'm both easily distracted and a cheapskate, so sometimes years will go by before I'll say to myself, "You know, I really liked X book, maybe it's time I should read the sequel to X book..." but of course, I never do. Or at least, I usually don't. I read the prequel to this book, THE OPPORTUNIST, just a few days ago, and I've already finished DIRTY RED with my eye on THE THIEF. It's that addictive.

While reading, I kept wondering what this series reminded me of, and then it hit me: BIG LITTLE LIES. This Love Me with Lies (see? it even has "lies" in the title) is like a smuttier, trashier version of BIG LITTLE LIES. Maybe if BIG LITTLE lies were written by Jackie Collins instead of Lianne Moriarty.

The first book is written from Olivia's POV, in both "past" and "present," and we see all the scheming and conniving Olivia had to do to not just meet Caleb the first time but to steal him back later. This book is written from the "other woman", Leah's, POV, and as with Olivia, we get to see all the scheming and conniving Leah had to do to steal him again and then try to hold onto him. Not an easy task, because as we saw in THE OPPORTUNIST, Caleb's not all sweetness and light, either.

It's been a while since I read about a character who was so flawed and repulsive and yet still managed to be interesting. I think the last one was probably one of the women in that 70s potboiler classic, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Leah obviously has some sort of personality disorder - she's clingy, needy, manipulative, and cruel. The things she does to Caleb and then, (spoiler) to her own daughter are just awful. And yet you can't help but feel bad for her, because technically (well, not technically - actually) Olivia is the other woman and Leah is just trying to hold onto what's hers. The problem is that she won Caleb's affection through false pretenses, just as Olivia did, and sees him more as a prize to be won and displayed than as an actual person with thoughts and feelings. In many ways, she and Olivia are cut from the same cloth, and you find that out when more of Leah's backstory is revealed in this book and you discover just how messed up of a person she is, as well as her family.

Like THE OPPORTUNIST, this story is told in "past" and "present." The writing in this book, however, is a real step up from its prequel. The characterization is excellent, and Leah bursts from the pages in a way that Olivia really didn't - maybe because the author tried too hard to make Oliviafeel like a sympathetic character, whereas Leah just gets to completely be her wretched, awful self. I loved it. How often do you get a truly disgusting antiheroine as a protagonist? It's so rare. I devoured this book in a single day, feeling as giddy as a person working their way through a tub of illicit 2AM ice cream. I know that this is trash, but oh what decadent, glorious trash it is. I want more.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Chosen One by T.B. Markinson

DNF @ 19%

I picked this up as a Kindle freebie a while ago. Sometimes in the Kindle freebie store you can find an understated gem that you never would have picked up otherwise. But sometimes, your find is better left in the "Kindle freebie graveyard," my name for my failed experiments with finds picked up from the freebie section.

The premise of this book was really interesting to me: it's F/F NA about a girl with a rich and prestigious political background who ends up falling for a mysterious girl in one of her poli-sci related classes who also happens to be a woman of color. There's also some mystery elements.

What really made this a DNF for me was the writing style. It was very juvenile and unpolished, with some very odd metaphors. I also thought it was really gross how when the two MCs meet, Ainsley is going on and on about how hot and wet she is "down there," even wondering if her dress will have a wet spot when she stands up? Um, ew, gross, please stop, you don't even know this girl.

THE CHOSEN ONE is not my chosen one, and I'm sorry for that, because I was really looking forward to reading a self-published NA romance.

1 out of 5 stars

Rush Me by Allison Parr

 ๐Ÿ’™ I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: New Adult Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. ๐Ÿ’™

I've been following this author's works since she was posting on Fictionpress under the name Tessandra, so when I found out that she had published something for real, I went out and bought her debut novel, RUSH ME. I've only previously "re-experienced" an author from online once, and it was not a positive reading experience, so I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up Allison Parr's work. Would I still be charmed the way I had been as a never-been-kissed sixteen-year-old? Or would my jaded twenty-nine-year-old self scoff in the face of squee?

Spoiler: I didn't scoff. I embraced the squee.

I know some people think I hate everything I read, but I'm just very choosy in that I know what I like and what I hate in a book and I rate accordingly. This book... was everything I like. The story sounds a little ridiculous, but this author's stories have always required a certain degree of suspension of disbelief. She wrote a lot of wish fulfillment stories involving super romantic and unattainable heroes, like celebrities or royalty, in the vein of Meg Cabot's earlier works. They were trashy, yes, but with a lightness and a frothiness to them that was also witty and sharp, with a gossipy tone that made you feel like you were having cocktails with your best friend. This book, RUSH ME, is no exception.

Rachael Hamilton is working in New York as an intern for a publishing house and dreading her five-year high school reunion. She's an ordinary girl with a close-knit group of friends, worried parents, and a desire to live on her own and have security and stability, but not at the cost of her passions. One day, when meeting some of her drama friends at a club, she follows the wrong group and ends up gate-crashing a party being held at somebody's apartment. And that somebody is a professional football player. Or rather, a whole group of professional football players: the New York Leopards.

She ends up leaving pretty quickly after that, but not before leaving a certain "impression." And when she's forced to go back for her scarf the next day, head all but hung in shame, it starts the beginning of a long-term association with the Leopards football team, including their heartthrob quarterback, Ryan Carter. I'm a sucker for love-hate relationships, especially ones with lots of arguments and banter, and Ryan and Rachael do not fail to satisfy in this regard. Rachael is exceptionally witty and I loved her back and forths with Ryan. I also liked that when they argued, they also argued about real issues that were important - at least to them, like financial inequality, personal biases and stereotypes, and the use of protection in sex. This book actually has one of the most realistic reactions to unprotected sex that I've encountered in a romance novel, new adult or otherwise, so big ups for that.

There are so many good things to say about this book. I liked that Ryan wasn't a cheater and he wasn't an abusive jerk. When he catches Rachael kissing another man, he doesn't punch said man in the mouth. He talks to her about it first and gets upset, but he doesn't get physical. I liked that Rachael wasn't a virgin and had some sexual exploration of her own before committing to Ryan. I know some people aren't going to like that, but I found it very refreshing considering the legion of virginal heroines who consider the hero the be-all, end-all of sexual interactions. I loved the witty dialogues, the warm and close friendships, the good advice and female talks, the subverting of tropes. I liked that Rachael checked herself when she was slut-shaming another girl and I loved her confrontation with the ex-mean girl of her school and the result of the conversation that they finally ended up having. I loved that people actually talk about their problems in this book with each other. I loved it.

I'm kind of surprised that so many of my friends felt ambivalent about this book, because I really enjoyed it. The pages whizzed by, and I was utterly charmed by both the hero and the heroine. This is easily one of the better contemporary romances I've read, and definitely one of the top ten best new adult books I've read. I can't wait to read the other books in this trilogy and I'm desperately hoping that she has some new projects up her sleeve. Maybe revisiting some old Fictionpress stories?

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

 ๐Ÿ’™ I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Chick Lit. For more info on this challenge, click here. ๐Ÿ’™

I think the last time I saw a contemporary romance getting this much attention, it was Sally Thorne's THE HATING GAME (in fact, initially, I thought this was a sequel to THE HATING GAME, since the colors of the book covers and the art style were so similar). When I read the summary (and looked at the author's name), I realized, of course, that it was a totally different book. But it still sounded like a book that I'd read before...

Last year, I read a book for a romance reading challenge called BEGINNER'S GUIDE: LOVE AND OTHER CHEMICAL REACTIONS. Tell me if this sounds familiar: a brainy, heroine in STEM with Asperger's has trouble dating and feels pressured by family to commit to that monogamous life. She decides to find a boyfriend by quantifying her love life by establishing a baseline that feels comfortable and seeking out an Asian creative type who originally seems like he's her total opposite but ends up being her soulmate and oh, by the way: he has a cool tattoo. Sounds like this book, right? It's also the premise of Six de los Reyes's book, LOVE AND OTHER, which came out two years before this one.

THE KISS QUOTIENT has differences to LOVE AND OTHER, of course. The main character, Stella, is white. Her love interest, Michael, is half-Vietnamese and half-Scandinavian. The characters in LOVE AND OTHER are both #OwnVoices Filipino characters. Stella is a econometrician and Michael is a tailor by day and an escort by night. Kaya, on the other hand, is a geneticist and Nero, her love interest, owns a bubble tea cafe and paints. Kaya and Nero originally agree to go out on blind dates whereas Stella and Michael meet when she seeks him out with an escort app. They aren't the same story and their trajectory are totally different, but they're similar enough that one made me think of the other and I can't help but compare the two while reviewing THE KISS QUOTIENT.

I'm sorry to say that THE KISS QUOTIENT falls short.

My expectations were very high for this book because people were praising it for the Autism rep as well as the Asian rep. People were also saying that the sex scenes were hot, and that it had a very feminist-friendly bent. All of these things sounded very appealing, because as much as I love those trashy romance novels from the days of yore when men behaved like d-bags, sometimes it's nice to read about a male hero who wouldn't make you run - fast - in the other direction. But now that I've read the book, I'm a little bewildered because I noticed so many problems that nobody else was really bringing up.

1. The autism rep was portrayed awkwardly. I feel like I'm getting a little out of my lane here, but Stella's portrayal made me uncomfortable. There's this dinner scene with Michael's family that actually made me wince, and I couldn't help but wonder: did her mother never explain to her the rules of social conduct? Lecturing people about microwaving plastic and how it causes death (and using that as a pretense to refuse to eat the food that's cooked for you) and then probing incessantly into your date's absentee father is so tasteless and is basically rule #1 of "don't's" in social interactions. Another thing she does is read his bills when she's alone in his apartment. That's how she finds out his real name (he gave her a fake one because of his job, and for other personal reasons), as well as the fact that he's financially in debt. Again, pretty sure most kids are told that "snooping is bad." And I've met some autistic people before and even if they can get stuck on a single subject in conversation, they're usually pretty good with rules - especially if the reasons behind them are explained - so this felt very unrealistic and needlessly awkward, as this is something that would definitely come up in parenting, and just felt like it was created to create drama! for Stella. Also, of course their sexual relationship mitigates some of the issues she has because of her autism. #MagicDicklit strikes again. It seems like good sex can cure just about any ailment or symptom, doesn't it? Especially psychological conditions or neurodivergence. How interesting.

2. The relationship is not healthy. Any time a relationship is based in prostitution, I'm a little skeptical. Adult entertainment is a high stress, high risk job, and jealousy is going to be an issue, no matter how openly you communicate. Michael accepts her as a client, despite knowing that he's probably going to get too attached (and he does, spoiler: because obviously). They move from "educational sex lessons" to "educational fake relationship lessons," which basically consist of them going through the motions of a real relationship whilst lying to themselves about how they really feel about one another. Worse still, in the last act, Michael becomes this alpha stereotype, claiming that he's going to beat up this other guy for kissing Stella against her will and then later, when Stella goes out with the Kissing Assaulter on a date(!), he interrupts their date to punch the other guy in the eye while talking about how he's going to make the guy choke on blood or something like that. It's also pretty clear from the get-go that there is a definite economic imbalance between them, as Stella is wealthy and comes from money and Michael is poor and in debt (as she found out from reading his mail). Towards the end of the book, she donates fifteen million dollars to the hospital where his mother is receiving cancer treatments, so they'll treat his mother for "free." This felt so weird to me, because if she wanted to pay for his bills, why not just pay the bills - why sneak about it behind his back in some grand gesture that ends up depleting her entire trust fund account? When he breaks up with her (for her own good, of course), she almost resigns from her well-paying job on the spot to pursue him. Feelings that strong and that reckless aren't healthy - that's more like an addict w/ a fix.

3. The relationship is superficial. We're told over and over again that Stella feels comfortable with Michael in part because he's so attractive, she just can't help herself (he looks like Daniel Henney). Michael also founds Stella wildly attractive, and is absolutely thrilled that she wasn't lying about being thirty when she sent in the app, in fact, she says that she looks barely legal despite being older than him by two years! OH BOY! She's also thin and curvy, with "porn star nipples" that he says "men and babies both dream about" and a body that would make her perfect at pole dancing, not to mention that she's suddenly incredible at sex under his brilliant tutelage and comes like a porn star. We're led to believe that Michael is this great guy for being so considerate about her autism but it feels more like he's liking her despite her autism and making all these concessions for her (because he's actually annoyed with her at times for her behavior, and sends her mixed signals about them that I imagine an actual autistic person would find very confusing). At least in LOVE AND OTHER CHEMICAL REACTIONS, it's clear that Nero loves Kaya for who she is, whereas it kind of feels like Michael just likes Stella because she's good at sex and doesn't know how attractive she is, and brings out his alpha male protective instincts. In some ways, it kind of reminded me of a gender-swapped version of PUDDLE JUMPING, another autistic romance I had many problems with.

4. Philip. He's such a creep. Forcing himself on Stella and hitting on interns and employees at the office? How the hell does he still have a job? Stella totally seems to take his behavior for granted, and apart from the punch in the eye Michael gives him, he doesn't face any sorts of consequences for his behavior. For such a "progressive" romance, it was weird to see one of the villainous characters in this book get away with what would be considered a form of assault by some people.

5. The sex scenes were actually kind of awkward. I didn't really feel their dirty talk. Michael said some pretty odd things and so did Stella, including telling Michael that French kissing reminded her of pilot fish cleaning a larger fish's teeth. The weird porn star remarks and the comment about boobs that babies would love were just the cherries on this bizarre sundae of bad artistic choices.

I don't think this is a bad book, per se, and I would be interested in reading more by this author in the future - especially since it looks like she has yet another #OwnVoices romance with an autistic character coming out (one of Michael's cousins). I think the escort angle made this book awkward, even though the author said in her author's note that she was trying to go for a Pretty Woman vibe, maybe because she wasn't quite sure how to portray some of the complex gender role crises that could arise from a relationship of this type. I did think it was odd, for example, that Michael didn't feel any shame about his escort services but was embarrassed about being a tailor/fashion designer. Things I did like: I loved Michael's family and Stella's mom (hated her dad - and Michael's too; all the dads in this story just seem to suck), and thought the econometrician angle was interesting (I'd never known that was the science responsible for AI-generated recommendation algorithms on commercial websites). I probably would have liked this more if I hadn't read LOVE AND OTHER CHEMICAL REACTIONS first, but it wasn't as bad as puddle jumping, and if people with autism relate to this story and feel like they're seeing themselves in a romantic story for the first time, that can't be too bad of a thing. I wish this author luck with her next effort.

3 out of 5 stars

Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas

I started reading the Throne of Glass series in January 2018, starting with THRONE OF GLASS before working my way through the two immediate sequels: CROWN OF MIDNIGHT and HEIR OF FIRE. After HEIR, I had to take a break, because the book was so long and there were so many more characters, 90% of whom I didn't really care about. Honestly, CROWN OF MIDNIGHT was where I mostly stopped caring because that's when the book stops being a fairy tale retelling and starts being a knockoff Game of Thrones, only with more pining and shopping.


Celery Saltine-thin is probably one of my least favorite characters in the history of ever, and what makes it more ironic is that I've never had a character forced down my throat this hard. Celery does nothing but gloat about how awesome she is, and you might think that the other POVs might offer a hint of respite from this, but no - whether they love her or hate her, they're still obsessed with how much they want to have sex with her/kill her/befriend her. It's like that Lady Sovereign song. EVERYTHING is about Celery.

HEIR OF FIRE is where the series starts to broaden in scope and jam-pack in way more POVs and characters, and QUEEN OF SHADOWS takes that a step further. Everyone gets a narration in this story, no manner how minor the character. I was half-expecting one of those sexy nightgowns that Celery is so fond of wearing to have a POV (and if the nightgown did have a POV, it would probably pour forth glowing adulations about the perfection incarnate that is her hot bod, and how honored and delighted this humble nightgown is to clothe the glorious form that is Celery). We're also introduced to Listeria, Arobynn, Elide, Lorcan, Asterin, and a bunch of other minor characters that I've already forgotten about. I haven't even bothered to come up for nicknames for most of them. Good luck keeping them all separate. I couldn't go more than a couple pages with a new character pushing a slightly-less-new character out of my short-term memory. Eventually, I gave up trying to keep them all straight. I figured a lot of them would probably be killed off, anyway, and I was mostly right.

At this point, I'm mostly in it to satisfy my own morbid curiosity because there's a handful of characters I still care about. Unfortunately, Maas has this habit of either a) killing off the most likable characters, b) destroying the personalities of the most likable characters and turning them into total trash people, or c) utterly ruining the most likable characters and leaving them broken and miserable beings, as if to punish them for NOT being Celery. Everyone is always talking about what a great character Mutton (Manon) is, but in this book I couldn't stand her. She basically sold out her own people to be raped, and there was no salvation for them at all. She was awfully cavalier about it, too, for an allegedly take-no-prisoners character that so many reviewers on my feed are fond of calling "a queen." Yeah, a bad one. And you know what happens to bad queens, right? Kaltain makes an appearance, only to go the way of basically any other powerful and attractive female character in this book who isn't Celery. And then Durian, Onion, and Kale are all built up to be destroyed, only to be reassmbled yet again, and when the book is steeped in more misery than an emo kid's Livejournal circa 2005, it's kind of hard to dredge up much emotion, especially when characterization is already so weak, since everything is told and not shown, and told in the most purple prose imaginable, too.

Then of course there's the main couple, Raisin (Rowan) and Celery (you-know-who). Their Suzy Homemaking portions of the book that mostly involve sexy nightgowns, vows of companionship, lots of pining and mutual admiration, and "no-we-mustn'ts!" are so freaking annoying. I liked Raisin better when he called Celery on her sh*t in the previous book and held her accountable for her arrogance, hypocrisy, and utter b*tchiness. In this book, he swallows the Team Celery handbook and follows her around like a well-trained dog performing demeaning tricks for a steak. Her cousin, Onion (Aedion) who is also in love with her is the exact same way. And after a few testosterone-laden showdowns filled with fancy words and meaningful glances, Onion steps aside for Raisin, while continuing to extol them both - but far be it from Maas to leave anyone in this book single. I already have a feeling who he's going to be paired off with and that person is Listeria. (Sorry, I know that's not a vegetable; but at least it's a bacteria that can be found on vegetables, yeah?)

I got so freaking tired of Celery and her smugness in this book. Literally everything she said or did made me want to slap her. How many times do I have to hear about how great she is? Or how she's too good to share her plans or intel - even with her alleged allies? She is seriously the worst queen ever, always sneering at people who criticize her, and failing epically at any sort of subtlety or stealth. I rolled my eyes when we found out the "truth" about Arobynn because of course he would want to bang her too - why is that a shock? Practically everyone else who's appeared in this book has.

The writing in this book also takes a nose-dive. There's a lot of unnecessary scenes and the book is a lot longer than it needed to be. CROWN OF MIDNIGHT was probably the best book in this series so far because it had action and it was also a lot shorter, and I almost gave that book, as well as HEIR OF FIRE, a three-star rating, because they were such an improvement over the first book, which is basically a dress-eating, candy-eating extravaganza of fail. QUEEN OF SHADOWS is much longer than it needs to be, clocking in at 560+ pages in the EPUB edition that I got from my library and 600+ pages in the paperback. At least 200 pages of this book could have been shaved off or shortened for conciseness. I didn't need all the Raisin and Celery scenes, and all of the Durian Being Tortured scenes were virtually identical. This author also has some very notable word tics, like "midnight," "glorious," "incarnate," and "swagger." Between the lengthy and dull scenes interspersed between the action sequences and the repeated words, it kind of felt like the editor had gone on vacation.

Also, hilariously, while the previous three books were relatively clean (albeit HEIR OF FIRE being way more violent), Maas suddenly discovers swearing, with the word "sh*t" sometimes being used multiple times per page, and numerous sexual references and sexual scenes, in addition to a notable increase in violence and disturbing content (particularly that ending scene with Durian's father, which is probably one of the darkest and most miserable reveals that I've encountered in YA). Some people have said that this is because Celery is older in this book, but only by two years! She was seventeen in this first book - and she's a seventeen-year-old who has been imprisoned and had sex, so there's no reason she shouldn't be swearing more or suddenly discovering sex for the first time, because these are things that she's already been exposed to; they shouldn't be novel. It was really weird. Even though I haven't read the last book for several months and have already forgotten a lot of what happened in it, I found myself side-eying some phrases, and thinking, "This seems very extra."

Now that I've talked about the things I hated, I'm going to discuss the things that I liked. Abraxos is cool. Even though Mutton is trying so hard to come across as Daenerys Targaryen II (while coming across more as a Dragonite owner who doesn't have enough gym badges to make her wayward Pokemon obey) while also enabling the rape, torture, and impregnation of her people and I hate her, her wyvern is cool and kind of adorable. Unfortunately, he doesn't have as many funny scenes in this book and it's mostly just about his owner, who I now despise.

Listeria is also a pretty cool character, even if she does fall a little too neatly into the whore/courtesan with the heart of gold stereotype. I look forward to seeing her more in the second book, although part of me is afraid that Maas is either going to utterly null out her edgier parts or just completely remake her character to force her into a stupid romantic relationship like she did with Durian and Sorscha.

I also liked the plotting and some of the more devious parts of this book. I told someone who commented on one of my status updates that I do honestly feel like there's a good book in here clamoring to get out, but the Mary Sue protagonist holds the story back, and I still think that's true. It's hard to respect a main character when all of the sacrifices fall on the literal backs of her friends.

Speaking of backs, poor Chaol. I still haven't forgiven Maas for what she did to his character in CROWN OF MIDNIGHT, especially since he was the only male character I really shipped with Maas out of the 5+ "experiments" that have been lobbed at her so far. I couldn't believe how stupid the reason was for Celery's flounce and it seemed to cement her impulsive selfishness that she would do what she did without actually taking a moment to TALK to him instead of running like a lil' b*tch. What she did to him in this book was just as bad - making him suffer even more for Celery's sake, after she was rude to him for 3/4 of the book. Yeah, he didn't deserve that. F her.

Apart from that, I actually did like the ending. It was intense.

BTW, I've had a number of people ask me why I read these books if I didn't like them which is kind of a silly question because 1) how can you know you don't like something unless you read it? and 2) you can read a book you don't like and still enjoy it. That's why people enjoy trash cinema, or "Z movies." Sometimes it's fun to take something you don't like or think is ridiculous and make fun of it; that's the whole point behind the cult classic TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000, which basically reviewed pulpy movies from the 1970s and earlier. I enjoy doing similar things with romance novels. I've explained this many times, defending my choices. Some fans of this book, however, are ridiculously entitled and rude enough to the point that they will come onto these reviews and leave passive-aggressive remarks insulting me. I will block you if you do this, so please keep in mind that if you have a comment about my reviewing style, the place to do this is not on my review itself but as I mentioned on HEIR OF FIRE, by calling the "1-800-GIRL-BYE" hotline. It gets a lot of callers, so you might be on hold a while. Perhaps forever. Sorry about that.

Overall, my thoughts about this series have pretty much remained fairly internally consistent. I don't really get the hype and while there are some favorable things about this series, I really can't stand the heroine and it often feels like one of those generic epic fantasies, in the vein of Game of Thrones. I put EMPIRE OF STORMS on hold at the library, so I will probably be reading that soon, and also Chaol's book as well, in preparation for the final book in this series and the end to this experiment. It will be interesting to see how this tangled knot of characters and motivations is resolved, if at all.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Friday, July 20, 2018

Hidden Fires by Sandra Brown

If you're new to following me, one of the things that you should definitely know about me is that I love vintage romance novels. I think they're super fun, partially because they're a snapshot of a different time, when expectations for women (and tolerance for racism and sexism) have become utterly outmoded, and partially because they are cheesy and bad in a way that's hard to find outside of the gamut of self-published and utterly self-indulgent trash-reads.

HIDDEN FIRES is not a good book - in fact, in many ways, it is an objectively bad book - and yet despite loathing parts of it and shaking my head at even more parts of it, I did have fun reading it while internally making fun of it because it is so ridiculous.

Set in the old west (e.g. Texas in what I imagine is the late 1800s), the heroine, Lauren, is a virginal stereotype of propriety wronged: after a corrupt preacher tries to put the moves on her, he manages to gaslight her adoptive family into thinking that she's a harlot. When they try to force a marriage, Lauren flees to the Lockett estate where a man named Ben once extended her an invite to visit. Ben is now dead, and only his wastrel son and icy wife are in residence. In fact, when Lauren first meets the son, Jared, he's on death's door from alcohol poisoning - but he doesn't look so bad that Lauren can't help but admire his hot, heaving bod.

Anyway, both Jared and the wife, Olivia, assume that Lauren is one of Ben's harlots. He actually was matchmaking though, having picked Lauren out for his son, since Lauren isn't his type (read: lusty, buxom, kinky). Jared, however, hates being told what to do, because he is a Real Man, and also because he has major Mommy Issues. Unfortunately, he screws up a railroad deal between his mommers and some real tacky "new money" types, who decide to take the slight personally, and in order to save his reputation, Mommy decides that Jared and Lauren should be married, because she's the perfect foil to Jared, who is a little too good at playing the lusty wastrel with no self-control.

The plot of the railroad deal continues as it's revealed that Jared's mom plans to destroy the Mexican settlement near the river they want to dam up for the railroad in order to prevent dissent, and then there's the "Okie" stereotypes working the land who are probably some of the most repulsively written stereotypes I've seen in a book of white people. Of course they're rapey, incesty redneck hicks, because why wouldn't they be? And in case that isn't enough offense, there's stereotypes aplenty with a dude who's been disfigured by Native Americans (of course) and some questionable portrayals of Mexicans and specifically Mexican women (hint: it's the "exotic and sexual" stereotype), whose sole purpose in the narrative seem to be to showcase Lauren's own white purity.

WTFery continues with several rape/sexual assault attempts, a scene in which Jared attempts to force Lauren to watch a bull being castrated only to cause her to flee and break her horse's leg in the process resulting in approximately 1 dead horse, a scene where Jared and his Mexican buddies start shooting at each other for funsies and Lauren nearly faints because she thinks they're bandits, and a scene in which Lauren after nursing her Mexican servant back to health nearly collapses from exhaustion and Jared takes her to bed, undresses her while she's passed out, thinks, "While I'm here," and helps himself to her bosom while she's unconscious and is rough enough (???) that her body actually stings from washing it the soap the next day. (What the hell was he doing? Also, that's rape, dude.) And while we're talking about sex, I just want to add that the sex scenes in this book are pretty bad, even for an 80s romance novel. We're talking cringe-worthy bad. I have receipts:

[Her nipple] melted against his tongue like a piece of sugar candy, and tasted even sweeter (184).

His ardent lovemaking was followed by a nonchalant, take-it-or-leave-it attitude that challenged every woman's innate feminine instincts. Perversely they loved him for it (205).

She had been a virgin. And it was the first time Jared Lockett had ever been with a virgin. It was a gift he had never expected toreceive and one he didn't feel he deserved, yet she had given herself to him.
Why? After the abuse he had heaped on her, why had she come to him, offering herself? (233)

This is actually a valid question, since the abuse he's referring to is actual abuse. He actually hits her (sort of by accident, but he was shoving her). He constantly emotionally abuses her and makes fun of her. He sexually assaults her and comes close to raping her during at least one point (I think it was two). Oh, and until he finds out that she was a virgin, he still thinks that she slept with his father and he constantly holds that over her head, treating her like she's dirty laundry or worse. Gross.

Emboldened by his impassioned plea, she stroked and caressed until she found the smooth spearhead lubricated with the precious nectar of his desire (270).

In spite of her modest wariness, she felt her muscles surrendering to the diplomacy of his mouth (280).

In answer, she took him in her hand and guided him to the gate of her womanhood. Bathing the pulsating tip with the moistness of her own loins, she led him further into the welcoming folds of her body (356).

Jared is basically the hirsute machismo stereotype of the 80s romance hero mold. If you like Rosemary Rogers, Linda Howard's earlier work, and Diana Palmer, you'll know what you're getting into with this Jared dude. He's super possessive and uncomfortably patriarchal.

Lauren is also a stereotypical virgin without much agency, although she does stick up for the Mexican people and her beloved servant (of course), and she is excellent at nursing people back to health and befriending prickly characters who normally don't like anyone (including Jared). Apart from those two superpowers, she is a foot-stomper, and the author does everything she can to remind us not just how virginal she is, but also how small, and dainty, and helpless, and pretty she is.

You know, just in case the 23432324 other reminders somehow didn't sink in.

You're probably wondering why, with this ranty review, this book isn't getting a 1 star. I've certainly had people come onto some of my other 1-star reviews to express outrage about how I could give X-book a positive review, when they considered it trash, and yet give Y-book, which they considered chock-full of literary merit, a low review. Well, the answer to that is that I rate exclusively on entertainment and joy. If a book makes me happy or engaged, it has done its job, and regardless of the alleged caliber of the writing itself, I will rate it accordingly. HIDDEN FIRES does not get a positive review because I spent the bulk of the book unhappy with the writing, pacing, and characters, but it also does not get a hard 1 because it was unwittingly hilarious at times, and because there were parts of the story where I felt interested (particularly that utter fustercluck of an ending, my God).

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Circe by Madeline Miller

My insomnia has a name and it is "Circe." I wasn't even expecting to like this book, you see. When I was young, my mom used to read me stories from a big book of fables about the Greek gods, and apart from Ancient Egypt and dinosaurs, Greek mythology was one of the major precociously geeky obsessions of my childhood - only the Greek gods, with their adultery, vanity, cruelty, fickle affections, and crippling humanity, had an edge on Cretaceous Park and the Egyptian pantheon: they were relatable.

So obviously, with that "inside knowledge" under my belt, I was leery of starting CIRCE. The hype didn't help, either. Lately, I've noticed a disturbing trend of people dog-piling on hype trains that seem to go absolutely nowhere for me as soon as I (reluctantly) get on board. I started CIRCE fully expecting to hate it, so I'm sure you can imagine my surprise when it didn't just blow my expectations out of the water, it made me feel... feelings.

Circe appears in Homer's Odysseus, which is an epic you were probably forced to read in high school. I was forced to read it twice - first in high school, and then in college. Circe is the witch who entices Odysseus's men with wine and food, only to turn them into pigs, and then seduces him, because why not. Miller re-imagines that story, piecing a heroic origin fable in which the woman gets center stage. We follow Circe as a young and unloved demigod, caught up in the power-play between Titan and Olympian, despised by her mother and abused by her siblings. We see her fall in love, have her heart broken, and learn not just how to be cruel - but also how to be kind. In many ways, it reminded me a bit of GAME OF THRONES, but GoT is notoriously unfriendly to its female characters, and even though countless bad things happen to Circe, she gets stronger and stronger, with grit and indefatigable spirit that none of the women in GAME OF THRONES really have.

What really sets this book apart, though, is the gorgeous writing. I wanted to highlight everything in this book. It was more quotable than Mean Girls. Circe shines from the pages like the sun-goddess that she is, and I loved seeing her character grow and develop within the framework of the gorgeous, gilded, lyrical prose. I couldn't put the book down - and it's a long book! I finished it in just a few days. Too often, authors seeking to humanize villains in fiction end up taking away the core of steel that made them a force to be reckoned with in the first place. Miller leaves Circe's steel core intact, but gives her an aching vulnerability, and a naivete that becomes the ivory tower of her immortality.

If you've been holding yourself back from this book because of the hype, I urge you to try it. This is one of the best fantasy books I've read in a while, and the writing is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood at her very best. I can't wait to see what else this author writes, and I've already put in a request for her Achilles book at the library. This book was just that good. I was very sad when it ended.

5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Opportunist by Tarryn Fisher

๐Ÿ’™ I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Second Chance Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. ๐Ÿ’™

A lot of my fellow romance-lovers enjoy cute, fluffy romances that make them smile. Not me - I like my romance novels to make me feel like I've been sucker-punched in the solar plexus half a dozen times before throwing me out on my ass in the middle of a busy sidewalk. That's why I chose THE OPPORTUNIST as my "second chance romance"; when it comes to messed-up romance novels, Tarryn Fisher invariably delivers.

Our main couple, Olivia and Caleb, are epic trash people, and this is their saga of dumpster-worthy decisions. They first hooked up in college, but only after Olivia schemed, lied, and stalked her way into his heart, even going so far as to screw over his then-pregnant girlfriend by spilling out all of her dirty laundry. I saw a meme earlier that said "All Tea, All Shade" - that's Olivia. She's scandal wrapped in an ill-fitting dress. You can't quite hate her because her life is so awful, but you can't really stand to be around her, either.

It's told in dual timeline format, with the present story being written in present tense and the past story written in past tense, which can be a little confusing (especially since sometimes the author forgets which story she's telling, and slips into the wrong "tense"). This format is used to conceal information from the reader, because in the current story, Caleb, now with a different girlfriend, has amnesia, and Olivia, schemer that she is, takes advantage of his delicate condition in order to worm her way back into his heart a second time. We know that when they last parted, Caleb hated her for some unforgivable transgression, but we don't know what. All that we do know is that Olivia is one sick puppy... and as we read on, we find out Caleb is, as well. Maybe worse than we think.

The last third of the story gets extra weird and a little unbelievable, but I just decided to roll with it. MUD VEIN and MARROW did the same thing. Tarryn Fisher seems to be making "jumping the shark" her trademark, and somehow she makes it work, even if you secretly admit to yourself that what's happening is a little stupid. The "past" story was the embodiment of virtually every negative new adult stereotype that I hate, but somehow Fisher made that work, too. I think it works because she doesn't try to apologize for being over-the-top or writing trash people characters. She just writes them and lets them tell their story themselves, rather than wasting time trying to apologize for them. ATHEISTS WHO KNEEL AND PRAY also featured a cast of incredibly repulsive characters, but I liked that book more than I should have, because it was compelling and unapologetic.

This definitely feels more unpolished than MUD VEIN and MARROW (both of which I believe were published later), and I noticed more errors in THE OPPORTUNIST, as well. There is also a higher rate of awkward metaphors that sound like something you might expect to see in a high school creative writing class, some notable ones comparing a dude to a shiny pepper she wants to take a bite out of and mouths clashing together like thunderclouds. *eye roll* But if you can get over the negative tropes and the unlikable people and the OTT drama, this is actually a riveting read. I devoured it in just a few hours and was frankly amazed at how quickly those pages turned. I own the two sequels and am excited to see what dark and reeking twisted alleys this story takes next.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 16, 2018

You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is one of those hit-or-miss authors for me, where I really like some of her books, but I wouldn't call her a favorite author because she's let me down too many times. Cases in point: while PREP and THE MAN OF MY DREAMS are among my favorite books, AMERICAN WIFE and SISTERLAND were both crushing disappointments that I could hardly stand to get through.

With that in mind, I approached YOU THINK IT, I'LL SAY IT with hopeful caution. "Please don't let me down again," I thought.

YOU THINK IT, I'LL SAY IT consists of ten very different stories that look at women as if they were specimens in a Petri dish. Have you ever looked at a Petri dish? They can be pretty disgusting, as fascinating as they are, and you might not like what you see in them, even if you can't quite bring yourself to look away. Such it is with the women in these short stories.

Gender Studies: ☆☆☆

Initially, I gave this four stars, but I think I was being over-generous. It's a weird story about a gender studies professor who think she's lost her driver's license, so she calls up her cab driver (who revealed himself to be a Trump supporter during their drive) and asks him to look for it. He pretends he's found it but says he'll only give it back if she buys him a drink (red flag). They end up hitting it off and having a sexual encounter of sorts, but it quickly sours. Deeper meaning ensues.

I liked this one initially because it shows how people are rarely as black and white as we think they are, but the more I thought about it, the more I disliked how the woman was portrayed as being at least partially in the wrong. That dude was a manipulative creep. F him, and his skeevy tactics.

The World Has Many Butterflies: ☆☆½

Probably my least favorite in the collection, although any story that involves cheating is going to earn my side-eye. This story is about two married friends of the opposite sex who like to play this game where they casually sh*t-talk mutual acquaintances. The woman in the relationship builds what they have up as being something more, and it turns into a meditation on extramarital affairs.

I thought this one was too unlikely, and the heroine was too unlikable and immature. The most interesting thing about this short story is the title (and if you're interested, this is the story from which the collection itself draws its title; it's the name of the sh*t-talking game the couple plays).

Vox Clamantis in Deserto: ☆☆½

Another story I didn't really like all that much upon further reflection. Probably because it feels like a washed-out, shorter version of PREP. Set in Dartmouth, it's about a student who becomes weirdly fixated on one of her classmates and her boyfriend. It's got the class anxiety and slumming around of PREP, but without the character depth, and I couldn't really get into it, even though I'd have liked to.

Bad Latch: ☆☆☆

Another weak story, Bad Latch is about mothers one-upping one another, and addresses the bias that natural breast-feeding and natural birthing are better, as well as the ugly side of motherhood that involves fear, anxiety, and the desire to conform to societal expectations. I didn't really like this one much better than the previous two, but I'm rounding up a bit because the topics that it mentions are so relevant and because all too often, motherhood is written about as the be-all, end-all of womanhood.

Plausible Deniability: ☆☆☆½

This story is also about cheating. It is about two brothers - one of them is married, one of them is unmarried. The married brother confides to his unmarried brother a desire to cheat on his wife, and is always venting about her. His unmarried brother is unsympathetic and urges him not to cheat. But the married brother doesn't know that his unmarried brother and his own wife are writing to one another.

I thought this was an interesting story, and it does subtly bring up the difference between physical and emotional cheating, and how both are equally damaging to a relationship.

A Regular Couple: ☆☆☆☆½

I think A Regular Couple is the story I related to most out of this collection. Two couples end up meeting at this resort, and it turns out the wives knew each other in high school. One of them was the stereotypical pretty "mean girl," and the other was an awkward loser. Now, in middle-age, the tables have flipped, and the mean girl is kind of washed out and unsuccessful and the awkward one is a rich and successful lawyer. However, the meeting brings back all of the awkward girl's social neuroses.

I recently had my ten-year reunion so I found this story interesting, because it's amazing how some people can stay the same while still changing so much. The awkward girl couldn't let go of her high school resentment and expects that the mean girl feels the same. It ends up being much more interesting than the typical "nerd's revenge" fantasy that I was expecting, and I liked that.

Off the Record: ☆☆☆☆

This was another story that I enjoyed a lot. A single mom journalist with a newborn baby is interviewing a vivacious young starlet whose career is on the rise. An ordinary interview quickly becomes juicy and potentially devastating for the starlet, and the journalist is desperately trying to jot everything down while keeping the starlet placated enough that she won't remember that she's "on the record," even as she's fielding calls from her nanny claiming that her baby is at death's door.

This is one of those "devil's choice" scenarios, where the journalist is essentially forced to choose between her baby and a potentially career-pivoting moment. The tension was really well done, and I liked the twisted ending. These darker, more unhappy stories really appeal to me for some reason (what does that say about me?); Sittenfeld is really good at writing unlikable characters.

The Prairie Wife: ☆☆☆☆½

After A Regular Couple, this was my second-favorite story. This is about a woman who likes to spite-watch a YouTube influencer, while damning her as a hypocrite and fantasizing about ruining her career. At first, you think it might be jealous but then you found out it's because the influencer has branded herself as a farm-to-table, 1950s ideal of an evangelical rustic Stepford Wife, when the woman in question knows firsthand that the influencer is a lesbian because they hooked up when they were young. The ending to this story was great, and was much more positive than I expected.

Volunteers Are Shining Stars: ☆☆☆☆

This story has an almost Patricia Highsmith vibe to it. The heroine of this book volunteers at a shelter for low-income women and their children. She also has OCD, of which she is in denial about, and while her compulsions may be obvious from the get-go, her obsessions are somewhat sinister - especially when they cause her to fixate on one of the other volunteers: could she be a sociopath?

Do-Over: ☆☆☆

Another short story that mentions Trump? Nooooo. This story has a male protagonist. Trump's "win" has made him question one of his own wins, when he was elected student council president in high school. He ends up reconnecting with the woman he "beat," seeking her out to apologize.

Much to his dismay, it ends up going badly. She gives him a royal dressing down while calling him out on his privilege, and he has literally no good response to anything she says, apart from that old fall-back about her not being ladylike or attractive. It ends up being a pretty grim portrayal of how men view women - especially successful, dominant women - and how privilege can be blinding.

For the most part, I liked this collection. There were no truly awful stories in it, and I liked that Sittenfeld actually took on some pretty challenging and controversial topics. She writes grit and grunge well, and I think it's neat that you can like her characters even as they make you cringe.

That said, it's a somewhat mixed array of stories and I think it's a mistake to put the strongest stories in the middle, where they will be forgotten, leading with the weakest stories in the bunch, and then sandwiching the whole affair with two Trump-related tales that are kind of downers. The arrangement could have been much better, to showcase the strongest stories, leaving the weakest towards the end.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Kulti by Mariana Zapata

As a romance blogger and fan of slow-burn romance, it seemed like a crime that I hadn't read any of Mariana Zapata's books, especially given that she was so freaking popular and I had about six of her books that I'd bought while they were on sale gathering virtual dust on my Kindle. I sought to remedy that, binging DEAR AARON and RHYTHM, CHORD & MALYKHIN, one after the other. I'm sorry to say that these were both a bust, as the emotionally manipulative, domineering heroes really put me off, as did the spineless, weepy heroines, with their hearts wrapped in a film of angst that's as clingy as cellophane, and their complete double-standards to any and all other women in the books, not to mention their shallowly-tapped emotional issues. I was told that KULTI was different, and it is - it's a much better book than DEAR AARON or RHYTHM, although not with out flaw. I'll get into both in a minute, but I do want to preface this review by saying that if you're going to try this author, start with this book.

KULTI reads a lot like a J-drama. Kulti is a classic tsundere, who starts out cranky and cold and aloof, and gradually softens over time, to the point where he is possessive in his love for the heroine and will do practically anything to defend her. I'm a total sucker for that, which is why I ate up Hana Yori Dango (also known as Meteor Garden) and the very similar new adult novel, PAPER PRINCESS, despite their highly problematic gender stereotypes and d-bag heroes. I love me a good tsundere, and Kulti in this regard was very well done. When the heroine, Sal, first meets him, he acts like he can hardly stand to be in the room with her, and he is such a jerk to her teammates and then, later, her dad, that she gives him a royal telling off that practically makes his ears burn.

This is where KULTI diverges from DEAR AARON and RHYTHM - Sal actually has a spine. She isn't afraid to stand up for herself, but she also knows when to keep her mouth shut. Her actions are those of an adult, and even though she's roughly in the same age bracket as both Ruby and Gaby (the heroines from the aforementioned books), she acts much more mature, and I really appreciated that. I also liked that Kulti wasn't as controlling as Aaron and Malykhin were and didn't string Sal along. It was clear that he respected her a lot, and he was hard on her as a coach to his player, but also knew when to back off when Sal told him that she wanted to deal with something herself. Again, I like.

Sal's interactions with her family and her teammates were also some of the best parts of this book. The interactions with Sal and her mom and dad made me smile big, because it reminded me of my own family, and how they always went to my stuff, even if they thought it was boring (I was a band kid, and both my parents went to every single one of my concerts and performances, and there were a lot and they were long). Her dad was especially cute and I thought he gave her really good advice while being totally supportive. I also thought Zapata captured the team dynamic really well, from the oft-supportive atmosphere to the petty jealousies that can spawn from the slightest infractions.

On the other hand, KULTI also had some problems that appear to be chronic issues in this author's work. Slut-shaming is one of these issues, although it was mitigated in this book and Sal called herself on it. Still, the way Sal described Kulti's groupies and his ex-girlfriend (or was it his wife?) was kind of gross, especially since she was receiving similar treatment from her teammates and Kulti's fans. You would think that would make her sympathetic but no, she considered her pure self utterly undeserving of such treatment, whereas others were fair game when her man was on the line.

And going off on that vein, Sal also says some very immature things in this book. Immature language was one of the things that bothered me about RHYTHM, and while it was, again, mitigated in this book, it was still present. Sal has a weird poop-fixation and if you think I'm exaggerating, think again - the word "poop" is mentioned 70 times in this book. Every time Sal wants to not think about how sexy or awesome Kulti is, she imagines him pooping and by proxy, so do you, the reader. KULTI lacks the transphobic jokes and comments that bothered me in RHYTHM but at one point, Sal implies that Kulti might be gay or bi and then calls it a "jab." Implying that saying someone is gay is something worth being offended over. This was a one-off comment, and I probably wouldn't have noticed it if the language in RHYTHM hadn't offended me so much. I try to view things from all sides as a reviewer, and after thinking this over, it occurred to me that this is probably what the author considers authentic "locker room talk," as RHYTHM is a book about rock stars and KULTI is a book about athletes, and both those professions seem to attract toxic chauvinism and slur-ridden trash talk. I get that, but at the same time, it's very hard for me to like heroes and heroines like that as people, as I go out of my away to avoid people who talk like that in real life because it upsets me so much.

Lastly, the sex scenes in this book are just not good. Somehow I always end up cringing at the moment when the hero and heroine get together, and considering how long this takes, I feel like I ought to be celebrating, and not asking myself, "Why? Why God, why? Why do you think that's sexy?" For the record, the thought of a weeping purple head just doesn't do it for me. Sorry.

I know it seems I'm being hard on this book, but I did think it was a vast improvement over the author's previous works, so it seems like she does at least look at her critical reviews and tries to improve, which I really appreciate. Colleen Hoover had a similar transformation in her writing, and it's truly remarkable how much better her later efforts are than her earlier ones. Some authors seem to take criticism as an affront, so I am always grateful when authors actually take criticism as a means to improve their craft and write better stories. It really did work here and I enjoyed most of the book immensely, even if I did think one of the revelations towards the end was incredibly unrealistic and hyper-cheesy (the epilogue and deleted interview, however, made me smile and laugh, respectively). If you were put off by DEAR AARON and RHYTHM like I was, definitely check out KULTI. In some ways, it's reminiscent of an edgier Meg Cabot, and the romance between the hero and heroine really is quite sweet as it blossoms out of its prickly origins like a rare and precious cactus flower.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars