Monday, August 27, 2018

The Lady Killer by Masako Togawa

Pushkin has re-released several freshly translated foreign novels, and THE LADY KILLER is one of these. In past reviews, I've waxed effusive on my enjoyment of translated Japanese novels. There is a dream-like quality to them that is very cerebral and thoughtful, and I'm not sure if it's just because writing in Japanese is a more deliberate and poetic process, or if it's a byproduct of the translation. Regardless, it's something that I've really grown to enjoy when I read Japanese fiction, and THE LADY KILLER is no exception.

Keiko Obano had a one-night stand with a man who sang her a poignant German song. Six months later, she committed suicide. The man, as we later learn, is a self-professed Don Juan type named Ichiro Honda who keeps a journal of all his conquests. Keiko was just one of many, and yet it is her death that serves as a catalyst for a dramatic and blood-chilling act of revenge.

I don't want to say too much more because part of the fun of this book is figuring out not just who "done" it (which is fairly obvious - or so it seems), but why. Masako Togawa's style reminds me a lot of Patricia Highsmith, and there's a twist that's worthy of Gillian Flynn herself. The novel is told in several POVs, which can be a bit confusing, but all of the POVs - Ichiro, Keiko, Ichiro's lawyer, the killer - were interesting, and distinct enough that they didn't blur together too much.

If you're a fan of noir fiction and are looking for something beyond a misogynistic gumshoe who thinks he's the sh*t, you should check out THE LADY KILLER. The setting, mood, and plot are all very well done, and I had a great time following this twisted journey from beginning to end.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy! 

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Empire of Storms by Sarah J. Maas

Q: Why are you reading these books if you don't like them?

A: So I can MST3K the hell out of them.

Q: Well, I like these books and I think you're an idiot for hating on books you don't like because I don't understand the concept of satire and therefore make it my business to police what and how other people read.

A: LOL, well just for that, I'm going to read and review all of the books in this series, so what do you think of that, Stan?

Q: ...I think you're a meanie loser with too much free time.

A: Your point being?

Q: ...

A: ...

Q: ...

A: ...

Q: I hate you.

A: Cram a book in it, Stan.

Well, the journey has been long and arduous but I'm finally caught up in the Chronicles of Mary Sue-ia, AKA Throne of Veggies, AKA The Little Special That Could. People were losing their collective shits over this book last year. Like, seriously. Friendships were tested and ended over this book, and people were accused of stanning too hard or not stanning hard enough. Meanwhile, I was just sitting there atop my hoard of bodice-rippers, squinting my eyes and thinking, "What the hell is wrong with you people?"

The books begin with THRONE OF GLASS, in which a candy-eating teenage assassin Hunger Games her way into being the "king's champion," and then has so much fun fucking and eating her way through victory that her criminal neglect ends up in the death of her best friend in CROWN OF MIDNIGHT. In HEIR OF FIRE, she takes her special levels from Charmander to Charmeleon with the help of Mr. Faeniverse, only to fall in love with him in QUEEN OF SHADOWS. Meanwhile, Sarah J. Maas takes shipping to next-level fangirl BS, creating entire armadas of forced-canon love interests, to the point of completely discounting previous characterization/relationship hierarchies. But in EMPIRE OF STORMS, Maas outdoes herself yet again as Celery Saltine-thin discovers her inner-holographic Charizard, and when Maas runs out of special powers to give her heroine, she starts creating new ones like "moonfire," which sounds like something cribbed from Sailor Moon. Oh, and the sex - let's not forget the sex. Violent, bitey sex where mountains shake and lightning flashes to the point that you'll probably need homeowner's insurance just to do it in your own bed.

🌟 Seriously, how many elements need to be present in the bedroom before Sarah J. Maas considers it "good" sex? Why is everything exploding and catching on fire? And if that's what sex looks like, what do sexual diseases look like? Active volcanoes? Cthulu? Condoms don't seem to exist in this world, so that's a valid concern.

🌟 While whining about affairs of state he's had to deal with, Durian casually mentions slavery. Does that mean he owns/has owned slaves? And we're still supposed to like him?

🌟 200-300 pages of this book could have been cut without loss. The writing takes a nose-dive from the previous books and gets seriously lazy. Where was the editor? Asleep at the desk?

🌟 Not that I blame them. This was 500+ pages of self-fanfic.

🌟 Seriously, the only character who is more special than this gal is Anita Blake. Sarah J. Maas frantically comes up with new powers to outdo her old ones, from moonfire to fire-breath, and of course she has weird freaky sex magic to go along with it. Then when that gets boring, Maas finds another couple to have weird freaky sex magic. I can only imagine how the sequel is going to go. Last I checked, it's 1000+ pages. Imagine all the sex magic she can pack in there with her armada of ships.

🌟 It's called KINGDOM OF ASHES, but we might as well just call it FIFTY SHADES OF FAE.

🌟 Everyone is obsessed with the heroine and won't shut up about her, whether they hate her or want to be her or just want her. I got really tired of hearing how Queen Special specialed her specials in order to proceed on her special quest to special to the land of Special to special the lost special.

🌟 Special.

🌟 Oh, and if I ever see another character in one of her books "purr," it will be too soon. Talk about a verbal tic! We all know the real reason why Sarah J. Maas was tasked with writing that Catwoman book; some scout saw the "purr" count of this book and thought, "YAS! Someone who can make a crazy cat lady look hawt!" The characters in these books are basically a pack of orgasming cats already, so why not officiate it and slap the DC label on it? Ergo, Catwoman.

🌟 "Kidnap the Celery, throw her in a box, bury her for 90 years, then see if she talks..."

Oh, I can't wait to see what happens with KINGDOM OF ASH. I've already written out a hypothetical ending in my pre-review of the series, and it made people REAL MAD. Don't @ me, though. Maas was baiting the hell out of Celery's demise in this book, but I just know that she's going to pull a Harry Potter and find some excuse for her to live with a fae-ex-machina. As much as I want her to stay locked up in that box forever, we all know that Celery is going to be best-woman at Dorian and Chaol's wedding, and they'll have fifty kids each and become gods on the moon, where they can leer down at us mortals here on earth while purring to their hearts' content.

1 out of 5 stars

Much Ado About You by Eloisa James

I buddy read this with Karishma and it was a very satisfying read, reminding me in terms of style of authors such as Meredith Duran, or Lisa Kleypas circa her Gamblers duology. MUCH ADO ABOUT YOU, which is apparently inspired by Little Women according to the author's note, is about a family of sisters who are the daughters of an impoverished lord who spent all of his money on horses. Now all of them are basically penniless, with only racehorses as their dowries. One of the chief complaints of this series is that there are too many characters, but that was what I loved about it. Tess, the main and eldest sister, is so strong and good, and reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Bennett, whereas the youngest sister, Josie, who is nerdy and a bit of a prude, reminded me of Mary. The middle sisters, Annabel and Imogene, are a lot like Kitty and Lydia, respectively, and since Lydia was my least favorite Bennett, it's certainly no shocker that Imogene was my least favorite here - only she is much, much worse than Lydia ever was, in my opinion.

Raised in Scotland and utterly without the fanciful trappings that make women into ladies, the girls find themselves at the mercy of their late-father's acquaintances, particularly Rafe, their new guardian, who is definitely a high-functioning alcoholic. When he first hears of his new charges, he thinks that they're actually children, and they actually walk into the nursery while it's still in the process of being decorated (lol). Tess finds herself engaged before she knows it, but is more attracted to the rakish and brooding Lucius than she is to her husband-to-be, the Earl of Mayne.

I loved the romance between Lucius and Tess. He's the perfect blend of kind and brooding, and a lot like Mr. Darcy. He even saves Imogene from certain ruin the same way Darcy did Lydia - and all for Tess, too. How romantic and kind! Imogene, on the other hand, was the WORST. Lydia was annoying because she was so immature, but Imogene completely blows Lydia Bennett out of the water with her selfishness. I could not believe how she treated Tess at the end of the book, or how Annabel gaslighted Tess into thinking that such abusive behavior was okay. I'm sorry, but you are not allowed to treat your family as emotional whipping boys and girls when you can't deal with your own mistakes in life. That's not how this works, and that's not how anything works. Take several seats.

Apart from that, I loved every second of this romance novel, from the frothy writing, to the snippy humor, to the wide and lovable cast of characters (minus Imogene), to the requisite carriage tupping, to the romance. I don't know why I haven't read anything by this author sooner, but I clearly need to rectify that mistake!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 25, 2018

For Cluck's Sake!: An "Egg"cellent Collection of Chicken Lore, Chicken Facts, Chicken Trivia Chicken Love by Stacia Tolman

One of the things I love about being a book blogger is that sometimes I'll receive copies of books I never would have bought for myself but ended up enjoying anyway because I was lucky enough to try them in a no risk way (i.e. for free). FOR CLUCK'S SAKE is one of those books. A trivia book about chickens? What? Also, what? But to my surprise, it was actually pretty fun. I had no idea that there were so many different breeds (and some of them look so funny!), or why eggs are different colors, or that egg-laying is triggered by the stimulation of a gland through light passing through their eye. (Moral of the story: don't look at the sun, you might get pregnant.)

Obviously with a book like this, where the premise is a bit one-note, there's a risk that you might get bored. Luckily, at just under 100 pages, I think this book is the perfect length, stopping just before the concept wears thin. The pictures of the chickens are of good quality and I especially liked the fluffy little chicks. If you know me at all, you'll be aware of the fact that I am solidly #TeamBabyAnimal. This would be a fun book to give a child, or a good White Elephant Gift for the holidays - especially if you work somewhere with a lot of animal lovers.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2.5 out of 5 stars

How to Be Successful without Hurting Men's Feelings: Non-threatening Leadership Strategies for Women by Sarah Cooper

Fun fact: the ink for this book was made from male tears.

I applied for this book on a whim because I think breaking the glass ceiling is still a challenge that many professional and professional-aspiring women face in the workplace, particularly in the fields of science and tech. And yes, I realize that some workplaces are the exceptions. Some do an exceptional job incorporating diversity and acceptance into their corporate culture and making everyone feel welcome, regardless of sex, gender, ethnicity and creed, and those places should be lauded - deservedly so. However, for every place that's doing it right, there are even more places doing it wrong, and virtually every woman I know has at least one horror story of harassment, gaslighting, or even just under-appreciation in at least one of their jobs by sheer dint of being female.

HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL WITHOUT HURTING MEN'S FEELINGS satirizes the sexist old guard corporate culture (think Mad Men) of places where all of those in charge are white dudes, and women and minorities are treated as interlopers who are threatening the sanctity of their Boys' Club. Some of my favorite sections in this book were Gaslighting 101, "blank pages to doodle on while men explain things to you," and Being Liked vs. Being Successful. There's also a great comic in here that someone in my professional circle shared with me about how differently people view men vs. women when they say the same exact thing. It's amazing, really, how quick we are to label women as aggressive or bitchy for just doing their damn job and saying it without a smile or an emoji.

If you are a feminist who is frustrated with archaic gender roles and norms, or you've had a job where you didn't feel welcome and are still seething at the injustice, I think this will be a good book for you. I liked how the author identified the sexist problems while also making fun of office culture as a whole, as in The Office, and the email bingo was hilariously on point. The lighter moments balanced out the darker sections, such as the one on workplace sexual harassment, which made me very sad and uncomfortable. I feel very lucky in that all of the places I have worked have been very good to me, but this also makes me sad because feeling safe and secure where you work should not be a matter of luck and there are so many people who seem to think that just because inequality and harassment don't happen to them, personally, means that nobody anywhere is experiencing it, which is not the case. I'm glad that books like these are coming out to push equality and call out toxic behavior. Awareness and recognition are just the first steps when it comes to social change.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Because of Miss Bridgerton by Julia Quinn


Sometimes you read a book and the pages fly by. Other times, you read a book and each page drags on and on. You set the book aside for other, better books. But each night, when you go to bed, you see the book sitting there on your nightstand. Judging you. Mocking you. BECAUSE OF MISS BRIDGERTON is the latter.

In other words: BOOOOOOOrriiiiiiin. Boring. Yes.

I've noticed this problem with a lot of newer historical romances (like, written within the last five years or so). They play it way too safe. Rather than coming across as politically incorrect, they do their best to be as inoffensive as possible, with no mention at all of any sort of unsavory topics like plague or war or racism, sweeping those all under the fringed jacquard carpet to indulge in a bit of costume romance. The dresses make it seem historical and everyone speaks very prettily, but the focus of these books is solely romance and beyond that, not a whole lot of conflict.

I think I like Julia Quinn's earlier romances more, because they at least had a bit of fire to them. This book was dull. When we begin the novel, the heroine is up a tree trying to rescue a cat. Then getting down from the roof takes about two chapters. There's a couple more chapters at a dinner table where they all tease each other and the heroine, Billie's, sister feels left out. Then there's talk of a party. Then the hero, George, and the heroine, almost kiss and immediately go on the defensive to themselves that they don't really like each other, not really.

How dull. I had to DNF at that point, because the whole thing felt so tedious. I buddy-read this with Karishma and she liked it at least, so maybe if you enjoy light, fluffy reads, you will too.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

The ProtΓ©gΓ© by Brianna Hale

I'd been following the author's teasers for this book eagerly on Twitter and was delighted when she offered me an ARC. I started reading it a month ago...and then put it on hold and basically forgot about it, because it was so, so different from the other two books by Hale that I'd read and loved, and not in a good way.

THE PROTEGE is a romance between a cellist (Isabeau) and a conductor (Laszlo). Laszlo happens upon Isabeau when she's just eight-years-old, playing a cello as large as she is for money in the bad part of London. Disgusted, he follows her home and learns that her mother is dead and her father is a heroin addict. After a cursory discussion with her fried-out pops, Laszlo decides to make Isabeau his "ward," a title that he maintains until her eighteenth birthday, when she tries to put the moves on him and he pushes her away, until they meet again three years later.

OK, so there are some things I really enjoyed about this book. The writing is lovely, as it was in the other two books I've read by this author, and so is her clear passion for the arts. SOFT LIMITS was about opera and literature, both things I love, but THE PROTEGE is all about the beauty of classical music, and as someone who was in a symphonic band for over a decade, I loved this aspect of the book: all those old composers made my fingers itch for an instrument to play upon, to feel the music move through and around me. It was so nostalgic.

There are really three problems I have with this book and they were severe enough that they kept me from enjoying the story as I wished I would.

Problem #1: The nature of the relationship between Laszlo and Isabeau. First, a disclaimer. I'm OK with large age gaps and I'm OK with guardian/ward romances (in fact, I'm a sucker for them in regency romances, particularly Georgette Heyer's REGENCY BUCK). What I am not OK with is romances that start out with a parental figure falling in love with their child. This just feels like all kinds of gross to me, and such a breach of trust. It's like falling in love with and having sex with a student, or a step-child. Even though they're not your flesh and blood, even if you wait until they're legal, it's a violation of the role you are supposed to serve to said child. I can stomach depictions of this nature only if they are not romanticized (as in WHITE OLEANDER or INNOCENT), but as soon as the relationship is touted as some sort of HEA, I find myself unable to resolve my feelings of cognitive dissonance with the storyline - especially here, where Laszlo was fantasizing about her while she was still underage and Isabeau was reciprocating those feelings, and when they found out, they talked about this as if it were lost time. Um, no - it doesn't matter if it was consensual or that you weaseled your way around the illegality of such a relationship by not officially adopting her, you were effectively her parent and you were sexualizing her and keeping her from enjoying normal relationships by guarding her the way a dragon does its hoard while she was still underage.

Problem #2: I didn't dig the sex scenes in this book as much as I did SOFT LIMITS and MIDNIGHT HUNTER. SOFT LIMITS was daddy-kink with sadomasochism and MIDNIGHT had BDSM undertones with a Stockholm Syndrome-like captivity plotline. However, both the h and the H in those stories had so much passion and feeling for one another, and it just made the pages fly by because I was invested in what happened to them and whether they would be together (MIDNIGHT HUNTER actually had me white-knuckling my laptop). Isabeau and Laszlo were much more nebulous and this book felt more like it was just about sex for these characters. Sex and music. Laszlo always seemed to be much more interested in Isabeau first as a fount of talent and then as the object of his desires than he was for her as a person, and Isabeau was just caught in his thrall from the beginning and had no personality of her own. This book felt much more like an awkward debut, and less like a novel by an established writer, whose works I normally love, and I was sad about that.

Problem #3: Laszlo. He just came off as such a skeevy hypocrite and a bit of a pervert. It's funny, I was thinking how this story reminded me of Woody Allen and then in the storyline, he's literally fretting about becoming "the Woody Allen of the classical music world," and I'm just sitting here thinking, "Well, duh. She's basically your adoptive daughter." And also she was underage. Did I mention that? It's always worrying when your Byronic romance hero feels more like Humbert Humbert than Edward Rochester, but watching him pant over his underage ward and try to hide his feelings like a mastubator sneaking out of a pornographic theater just made me feel fifty different shades of #gross. I wanted to like him but it was impossible to, and that's something else I'm super upset about, as both Frederic and Reinhardt from her other two books made my all-time favorite heroes lists, but not Laszlo. Nope, nope, nope.

Hopefully I'll like this author's next works better. She has a lot of talent and I love how thoroughly she researches her settings and trappings for her novellas. This one in particular was just a total miss for me.

I was provided a copy of this book from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.

2 out of 5 stars

The Raging Ones by Krista Ritchie

I am always ripping on Robert Heinlein. He was the reason I stopped reading science-fiction for a while; he was like the gold-standard of what dudes in the 70s wanted to write: badly-devised worlds with bizarre sexual mores and inexplicable psychic powers. And everyone hails him as a genius? What's up with that?

Reading THE RAGING ONES kind of reminded me of Robert Heinlein's work. It lacks his icky sexist undertones (in fact, with two queer male characters as the main characters, it subverts that aspect of sci-fi entirely), but everything else is very much old guard science-fiction, and not in a good way. The three main characters are named Franny Bluecastle, Court Icecastle, and Mykal Kickfall (*cringes at these names*) and they live in a society that is hierarchically organized around how long you have until you die. People with shorter amounts of time to live are called "Fast Trackers" and people who have longer amounts of time to live are called "Influentials." Fast-trackers tend to burn out quickly, having lots of sex and doing lots of drugs to pass the time, and then blow all of their savings on a luxurious "Death Day," in order to die in comfort. Influentials, on the other hand, are accorded a number of privileges and look down on Fast-Trackers as being uncouth and uncivilized.

Franny is a Fast-Tracker who had planned to use her savings to go out with a bang (probably a literal one). However, something goes wrong retrieving her money, so she ends up in the frozen wastes of the streets. She expects to die that night, and is surprised when she outlives her expiration date. Mykal and Court are also Fast-Trackers, although Court at one point came from wealth. They're scrambling up money in order to go into this program (for Influentials only) that will take them to another planet, hoping to make a new start away from this ice-encrusted hell of a planet where people are imprisoned in a cast-system of their own making that's ruled entirely by death. When they find Franny in the middle of the street, they end up taking her with them.

Once they get to the aerospace department, they find out that it isn't as simple as paying the $5,000 fee and having the pedigree to match. They have to undergo a series of tests and exams designed to weed out the best of the best. Several hundred enter the competition but only about five will actually fly. It's a little bit Hunger Games, a little bit Ender's Game, a little bit Logan's Run, a little bit Stranger in a Strange Land. As I was reading, I found myself asking all these questions that were never resolved or hinted at to my satisfaction. How are death days regulated? Do you die automatically or do you have a police force, as in Logan's Run, who keep track of you to make sure that you die? Why do some people have psychic powers and why are they such weird ones? If weapons don't kill you before your death days, how have you kept the Fast-Trackers from rebelling against the Influentials, who have so much more to lose? Why is everything covered in ice, and is this population so fail about working around it? The freeze has lasted for centuries and you're telling me that in hundreds of years, nobody's thought about adapting to that, technologically?

I appreciate the originality that went into this book but man, the execution was pretty bad.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2 out of 5 stars

Sugar Daddy by Sawyer Bennett

Don't be fooled by this pink and sparkly cover. Even though Loveswept normally publishes light and easy confections, this book completely shatters that mold. It's like someone took a rape and revenge film from the 70s and tried to make it a chick flick, which sounds like it absolutely should not work, but it almost does except for a few problems I'm going to talk about later. Sela was gang-raped when she was just sixteen-years-old when she went to a college party and had drugs slipped into her drink. Now, an adult woman, her views on sex and relationships are totally skewed; she's never forgotten that night. When watching a commercial for a dating website called Sugar Bowl, she recognizes the tattoo of the company's CEO as belonging to one of her rapists, so she signs up to Sugar Bowl to become a Sugar Baby in order to get close to the CEO and kill him. Instead, she winds up meeting his business partner, the coding mastermind behind the site, Beckett North.

The beginning was very strong. What happens to Sela is not sugar-coated, and even though the book doesn't wallow in the details (thank God), you learn enough about what happened to understand the severity of her trauma and really feel a strong sense of sympathy for the heroine. Her desire for revenge gives the book a driving pace, and the reader feels that tension, anxiously wondering what will happen: will Sela get her revenge? Or will she be found out?

The problem is that once Sela gets involved with Beck, the book becomes all about the sex. At first, she has these PTSD-like flashbacks, which made a lot of sense and felt realistic, but then it was like the sex was so good that it just "cured" her because he gave her orgasms. This is a huge peeve of mine, because sex is not a magical panacea that can absolve people of any sorts of mental or emotional problems that they have. Having a support network and emotional intimacy can help, but I really don't think you can just fuck your problems away, if you'll pardon my language, despite what many of these dark and edgy romances would have you think. The sex scenes were also pretty awful, and I was really annoyed when Beck wanted to do away with condoms and Sela's response was, "I'm clean." Yeah, but what about him? The onus is not just on the woman to be clean.

Towards the end of the book, SUGAR DADDY remembers what it sets out to do, and to be fair, the villain in this book is truly awful, and it's genuinely infuriating how blind Beck is to his friend and business partner's actions, in the way that it sometimes feels only men can be (locker room talk, anyone?). When Sela got down to business, I wanted to be like, "YAS GIRL," but then the book ends on a cliffhanger just when things are starting to pick up again. It's a mother of a cliffhanger, too.

I literally slept on this review because I wanted to think about it more deeply, and I have to say that this "dark" book is really only for people who want to read something edgy that talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk - let's call it "Diet Edgy." I personally don't like books that do things by halves, so it was annoying to get a book that was allegedly about one thing, only to find myself with pages of tediously written sex scenes and a heroine who lost her edge as soon as a hot guy walked into the picture. Even Beck, the so-called nice guy, reveals his douchey side when at one point he takes the heroine's silence for consent. Um, no, that's not how that works. I probably won't continue this series.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Law of Moses by Amy Harmon

Some of my friends really loved this one and a couple of them seemed to hate it. In typical contrarian fashion, I fell smack-dab in the middle. Amy Harmon was a name that was mentioned to me many times, both for her YA fantasy novel and her new adult romances. THE LAW OF MOSES starts off with several chapters of info dumping as we get to know the hero and heroine, Georgia and Moses. Georgia lives on a farm, and is the daughter of people who use horses for physical and emotional therapy for troubled teens and kids. Moses was the son of a crack addict and was found abandoned in a laundromat. Georgia is attracted to Moses and goes manic pixie dream girl on his ass, and he manic pixie dream boys her right on back with his supernatural painting that turns out to be tied into an ability to communicate psychically with the dead.

While reading this book, I kept thinking about how it was reminding me of something that I'd read a while ago, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it until a few hours ago, when I was reading horror lists on Goodreads and happened across Dean Koontz's ODD THOMAS, and thought to myself, "Yes, that's what this is reminding me of! A manic but star-crossed love story with a boy who can speak to the dead? Oh, yeah, bring on the pain." And there is pain; the author straight-up warns you from the beginning of the book that this story isn't going to be all sunshine and roses. She wasn't wrong.

I liked the author's writing style but there were still a number of embarrassing typos that revealed this author's self-published origins ("knickers" instead of "nickers" to refer to a sound a horse makes), and thought that she kind of had a wallowing sense of poetry that hearkens back to my Sarah Dessen days, when I thought that being self-absorbed and full of angst made you cool and interesting. I think I would have loved this book a lot more when I was fourteen, chowing down on angst the way I did Taco Bell or Starbucks frappuccinos. I did think that the pacing was off (the beginning was tedious and sometimes there were chunks of the story I had to skim because it was just one of the characters pontificating on their woes). I also didn't really feel much of a connection between Moses and Georgia. Georgia was irritating and Moses was kind of a jerk. I didn't understand the obsession, there.

THE LAW OF MOSES is definitely creative, and in a genre where many of the titles feel like derivatives of the last big hit, I appreciated that. I also appreciated the writing and the author's ability to emotionally manipulate her readers with devastating events. It might have hit harder if I'd liked the characters more and if they'd been better fleshed out, but I still think that Harmon is an author to watch and I look forward to reading the other books of hers that I have waiting on my Kindle.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

The Castle by Skye Warren

As a chess-player and a smut queen, there was no way I couldn't buy this series. I mean, it combines two things that I love in a weird and unexpected way - like a peanut butter and pickle sandwich (no, okay, this is actually a thing and you should try it). THE PAWN, the first book in the series, lived up to my smutty expectations with its "dangerous" hero, virginity auction, revenge subplots, and utterly depraved cast of characters. THE KNIGHT was a step-down because it lacked the things that made THE PAWN so much fun. No more racy auctions, only lots of angst about whether or not the hero loves her, and a bizarre criminal underground subplot that showed no hint of going away.

THE CASTLE takes all of the weird subplots from the two previous books and just runs with them - and I mean runs with them. At breakneck speed. Probably while nude, with a half-drunk bottle of tequila in the other hand. This book is freaking insane, and not in the good, bodice-ripper way, but in an "Oh my God, what is even happening right now?" way. The criminal underground subplot culminates in a hit being put out on the heroine, Avery, who spends the whole book angsting over her love for Gabriel and whether it will destroy one or both of them, and she starts to hear the same voices that drove her mother mad, so there's also a bit of, "What is sanity? Am I insane, too?" going on, as well.

And then there's that twist. Wow, I have no words. That's all kinds of messed up.

You know, now that I'm sitting here mentally cataloguing all the messed up books I have read, I think I've found the perfect comparison to Skye Warren's Endgame series. Andrew Neiderman. Andrew Neiderman was the writer who took over for V.C. Andrews (of Flowers in the Attic fame) after she died. You can totally tell the difference, too. Andrews had a sort of poetry to her writing, and Neiderman tried to keep it up for a while, continuing the 4- to 5-book-long family sagas that were Andrews's claim to fame, but then the estate seemed to give him what was basically free reign and he started turning out all these really bizarre, borderline smutty stories that were off-the-wall crazy. That's how I feel about Endgame. The first book was like OG V.C. Andrews, the second book was like that transitional phase when he was still trying, and the third book, this book, is unbridled Andrew Neiderman shouting, "YOLO!" while writing the YA equivalent of a bodice-ripper (which is what I adore him for, in his own way, but he is definitely not V.C. Andrews-caliber). (Comparisons of YA aside, I feel obligated to issue a disclaimer that this book is not YA and deals with virtually every unsavory topic you can imagine (sometimes graphically).)

I'm really grateful for my friend who loaned me this book for my Kindle so I could see how the series ended. It was just as weird and OTT as she promised, so at the very least you can say that this book will deliver your full quota of WTFery for the day (especially if you're short on vitamin WTF already.) Now let's break out the peanut butter and pickles, shall we?

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Sadie by Courtney Summers

One of the things that infuriates me - infuriates me - about violent crimes against women is that each time one of these articles gets out, dudes (yes, yes, #notalldudes) act totally shocked, like this sort of thing has never happened in the history of ever and it's the first time they've ever heard of it. "What do you mean rape?" they squawk, clutching their man-pearls like scandalized aunts. "That's a thing? Who would do that? You're saying people abuse young girls? Children? Wow, I would never do that. As a heterosexual white guy, I can't even imagine  such a sick individual... I mean, I had someone look at me funny on the bus once but this is definitely ten times worse. ANYWAY, let's see what's on the sports channel." Wash, rinse, repeat.

Don't even get me started on the straight white guys who seem to feel its their duty to tell this story, usually from the lens of a concerned father ("As the father of a teen girl, I feel sickened by the thought of someone doing this to my innocent princess") or the condemning judge ("Well, she was known to drink sometimes at parties and met this athlete (who scored the fourth down touchdown pass at the last home game, incidentally) at a party, so I imagine alcohol was involved, and frankly, women are known to exaggerate, so what's all the fuss?"). Either nobody cares unless a straight white guy tells the story, or a straight white guy does his damnedest to help cover the story up. In either case, the woman - the victim - is omitted from the narrative.

So it's fitting, then, that SADIE is told in a split narrative, one from the concerned white guy who is a father (although he's not straight), the other from the victim herself, in her own words. Sadie is one of those girls who, when they disappear, nobody is shocked. Her mother is a drug addict and the only father figures have been a revolving door of men, some worse than others. She has a stutter. She has no money, no privilege, nothing except her younger sister, who turns up dead one day. Shortly after her sister's death, Sadie herself goes missing, and we are privy to her odyssey as helpful radio personality (and father of a daughter himself), West McCray, fills us in on the aftermath.

You really can't know too much about this book without having all the crucial details spoiled for you, but it's basically a girl on the hunt for her younger sister's killer while trying to exorcise some of her own dark and personal demons. It's a short read and goes by at a breakneck pace, because man, if you're not invested in the beginning, you will be by the end. I was desperate to see what happened to the two girls, and that ending - WITHOUT SPOILING ANYTHING - made me want to hurl my laptop out of the nearest window, because it was so unsatisfying to me, personally. It's not for the reason you think (again, I'm not spoiling anything - this is not about the HEA or lack thereof). It's about all the dudes out there, who co-opt these stories of violence against women and either make it about them or use it as a cautionary tale against women who don't follow the rules, or else trivialize it into some bite-sized sensationalism with a cheeky, "tune in next week to find out" attitude.

Sexism is happening, and sometimes it's sickening, violent. But sometimes, it's much more subtle.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 out of 5 stars

Trust Fund by Skye Warren

I must warn you up front - that cover, with its wordmark-cum-censorbar might make you think that you're about to pick up something really naughty, but you're not. This is a very tame book, and a far cry from the flock-fests that some of this author's *other* works are, so if you're looking for that, disappointment looms heavy on the horizon.

That said, I thought this was pretty okay for a freebie! I'm currently in the middle of a purge-fest of my Kindle backlog, and as a result I'm finding all kinds of weird and random stuff on there that I don't even remember downloading. TRUST FUND is one of these books, a story about Christopher and Harper as young adults, meeting each other for the first time as stepbrother and stepsister in their crazy rich family with its myriad problems.

Skye Warren is an author that I only recently started reading and while I really like some of her stuff, some of it is just not that great. Here's the problem, I think: she wants to be Elle Kennedy, but she also wants to be Tarryn Fisher. The problem is, she doesn't appear to know which she wants to do more, so she tries to do both. So you'll get really dark books about messed up people with no morals (or questionable ones) and then you'll get books with that, but that also try to be this quirky, romantic love story.

Spoiler: this doesn't work.

I do like that all of her stories (at least the ones that I've read so far) appear to take place in Tanglewood. It's kind of hilarious to see these familiar characters marching in and out of their books, especially when the stories have a very different tone to them (like Gabriel Miller's cameo in ESCORT). Kitchy but fun. I can dig it.

So anyway, TRUST FUND is kind of a new adult story about Harper's "poor little rich girl" type problems, and Christopher's attraction to her manic pixie dreamgirl/tortured artist vibe. He even has to rescue her, Titanic-style, when she falls overboard from the family yacht by being a dumb-ass. His character plays a foil to hers as the principled but angsty patriarch, who must put duty above all else because of his ~honor~, even if it means hurting those who are closest to him. (This book is definitely more Elle Kennedy than Tarryn Fisher.) It's really short but it engaged me. I'd read the sequels.

2.5 out of 5 stars

This is How It Starts by Dawn Lanuza

It's a crime that sub-par books like MILK AND HONEY get international acclaim while books like THIS IS HOW IT STARTS fly woefully under the radar. A crime, I tell you.

I'm slowly working my way through the #romanceclass books that are written by a group of Filipino authors, and one of the ones on my list that I haven't checked out yet was Dawn Lanuza. She's a Jane of All Trades when it comes to fiction, penning novellas and poetry, and I had purchased one of her novellas and her poems.

THIS IS HOW IT STARTS is a collection of poems about being in love and getting over heartbreak. I guess you could probably call this Tumblr poetry, only Lanuza actually uses punctuation correctly (and effectively) and she doesn't only write in lower-case. She is quite the artist, and unlike Rupi Kaur, she actually has a lot of talent, both with wordmarks and full-on illustrations. I loved them and wished there were more (did you design your own cover, too?).

There isn't much else to say about this book except that I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Some of the poems are pretty basic but they are full of emotion, and there were a couple stand-out lines that I felt were really powerful. I could see these being paired with an electric guitar and being used as lyrics to a mid-2000s alternative rock band in the soundtrack of a good teen Disney movie. :)

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Matched to a Billionaire by Mio Takai

*side eyes book*

This is based off a romance novel by Kat Cantrell. Daniella is poor and looking for a way to save her sickly mother, so she decides to go to a matchmaking agency and marry for money. Luckily for her, she ends up with a billionaire who answered the same way as she did on the questionnaire (they both want stability). Leo is a venture capitalist who is a total workaholic and thinks the apocalypse will happen if he gives himself a moment's reprieve, so he agrees to take care of Daniella as long as she keeps the machine of his household well-oiled.

I don't mind stupidity in romance, but when stupidity is the reason for all the drama, I can't help but side-eye the book. Leo was just such a fool, working himself until he was literally sick, pushing Daniella away because he was afraid love would ruin all of his carefully laid ~plans~. It's like, dude, chill. Seriously. I started rolling my eyes every time he started talking about all of his self-manufactured sad boy problems. Yes, he was poor when he was younger, but making yourself burn out isn't going to help secure your future.

I liked the art in this book (it kind of reminds me of old skool CLAMP), and the romance is cute I guess, but I found myself a little bored by the drama. Maybe I'm being too picky, but I was hoping for some sort of dramatic tension behind "I'm terrified of being a slacker!"


Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Prep and Prejudice by Miren B. Flores

I'm a sucker for enemies-to-lovers romances and if they have a dash of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE thrown in there, then girl, you know I just can't say know. Especially since I love. love. loved this author's other book, LOVELESS. CHILDLESS. CLUELESS., an excellent novella about heartbreak, existential crises, and grief.

PREP AND PREJUDICE is about a girl named Andrea, the formerly awkward and poor teenager who orbited like a small, sad planet outside the circle of her rich and popular friends. Ever since she was fourteen, she's had a crush on the golden boy, Manolo, but it was his cousin, Jaime, that she couldn't stand. It was Jaime who humiliated her sexually when she was young, Jaime who always made fun of her and put her into her place. She's never forgiven him for the way he embarrassed her at her first big party.

Now an adult in her mid-twenties, Andrea has shed some of her gawkiness but she is still a highly anxious and self-conscious individual who gets ulcers from stress and has trouble eating when other people are around. She works in television doing slice-of-life stories, but lately the focus has shifted from the people who can actually use the publicity to the kinds of attention-seeking people who rack up cheap views. Both her boss and her doctor tell her she needs a break, so when her friend Pilar offers to take her on an island vacation with their old crowd, she just can't say no. Unfortunately, Jaime is there...

Jaime is just as arrogant and lazy as she remembered, but now he has the looks of a fallen god. Immediately, all of her old defenses spring up like quills, but Jaime doesn't seem as interested in fighting with her anymore, and she finds herself responding to him in a completely unfamiliar and scandalizing way. HELLO BOOK, YOU'RE SINGING MY FAVORITE SONG.

I liked this a lot in the beginning. It reminded me of one of those J-dramas I used to be obsessed with in college - those were huge on enemies-to-lovers, rich-guy/poor-girl storylines, especially if they were reliant on misunderstandings to stir the angst and dramatic irony pots. Man, did Miren B. Flores stir those pots. She stirred them hard. The only problem is, this book felt much too short - especially towards the end, with the rushed ending. Andrea lost me when she started being cruel back and just couldn't stop. I guess, like Elizabeth, she just couldn't let go of her own prejudice - until it's almost too late, and like Elizabeth, she finds out the truth about the guy she's been hating this whole time.

I still recommend this, as it's fun, quick, and short. Miren B. Flores is an exceptionally talented writer and I'd love to see her write a full-length angsty novel. I know she'd do an amazing job. I've really liked the two books I've read by her before and she's just such a wonderful contributor to #romanceclass with her #OwnVoices Filipino romances. Please, write more! Write longer! Write!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 13, 2018

Escort by Skye Warren

This is the second "male escort falls for sexually innocent client" book I've read in a relatively short period of time, the first being Helen Hoang's THE KISS QUOTIENT. On the surface, the two books are pretty similar. Both heroines are shockingly gorgeous and young, with a special ability that intrigues the hero (musician and economic scientist, respectively), but are held back by a psychological disorder (agoraphobia and autism, respectively). Both heroes are escorts who are mixed race (French/Moroccan and Vietnamese/Swedish, respectively) who end up alleviating both sexual and psychological problems by the grace of their magical dongs, but not without much insecurity and drama.

Bea is a YouTube musician of great renown. Her parents were murdered by pirates (I'm not kidding), and apart from her ward, she has nobody else in the world and lives along in the penthouse suite of a luxury hotel. For reasons that later become clear, she decides she needs an escort to rid her of her pesky virginity, because her agoraphobia keeps her from going out to seek men and the ones she meets within the hotel itself have made it clear that they expect more than just a one-night fling. Enter Hugo.

Hugo was a poor kid in Morocco, and also has no parents. He learned that whores were the ones who made the most money in his country of his class, so when a woman twice his age hit on him as a teenager, he accepted her advances and fell in love with her - until he found out that she was more interested in being his madam than participating in any sort of reciprocal relationship. He's shocked when he finds out that Bea is not just young, but also gorgeous and a virgin. Of course he decides to see to her personally and take things slow, and falls in love with her pretty much instantly.

I can already tell that Skye Warren is going to be one of those authors that I have a love-hate relationship with. I like her Endgame and her Masterpiece series, but the quality of those books is uneven, with some being much better than others. Here, with ESCORT, Warren diverts from her tried-and-true formula of writing messed-up soap operas with gritty characters to attempt something that could be out of a Harlequin novel. The male hooker with the heart of gold, tormented by his past, brought to the heroine's doorstep by fate, or more. And of course, the power of his magical dong is so great that she gets over her agoraphobia without therapy as soon as she falls in love with him, LOL.

To be fair, Hugo isn't a bad character. He's not the cruel, domineering alpha I was expecting. But that kind of made that story boring. Reading a 250 page treatise on why the heroine is the most specialest special to ever tread the halls of special-specialburg is... boring. Also, the romantic nature of the storyline made the darker parts of this book feel super out of place and weird, especially when Damon Scott and Gabriel Miller make cameos. Why would you do that? Why would you remind me of better books I could be reading instead of this one? That seems like a bad play.

I didn't hate this book, but I didn't like it, either. Maybe you'll disagree, especially if you are a little more sold on the "hooker with the heart of gold" stereotype than I am and don't mind your darkness mixed with a heaping dose of light.

2 out of 5 stars

Queenpin by Megan Abbott

It didn't hit me until the very end of the book that our heroine was never even given a name. That's because she rules the narrative with her forceful, first-person account of how she went from a pencil-pushing, sweater-wearing 9-to-5er to a "queenpin." I've only read Abbott's young adult novels before this one and one of the things, okay, two of the things, that I've always liked about them are the fiercely intense, fiercely rivalrous homoerotic relationships between her female heroines, and the fact that she lets them be bad people if she wants, without judgement.

I don't usually like crime noir fiction because I feel like a lot of it is very misogynistic. And yeah, you might be thinking, "But wait, Nenia, you read bodice-rippers, you of all people shouldn't be talking about misogynistic." It's true that bodice-rippers sometimes carry an internalized misogyny of their own class, but it's penned by women, from a woman's gaze. It's an entirely different sort of misogyny than the "breasted-boobily" variety, where the heroine is constantly written from the male gaze, even as she's looking at herself in the bathroom mirror, and every "strong" heroine must be given a history of (usually sexual) abuse, and all of the men toss off bigoted one-liners while getting called "smooth" and "tough" in reviews.

Awful things happen to our plucky unnamed heroine and the woman who takes her under her marabou boa-wearing wing. They do awful things to other people. But both of them are full of agency, and I can't tell you how satisfying it was to see these women doing the things that men do, and taking advantage of that sexism to, in some cases literally, get away with murder. QUEENPIN is literally a Lana Del Rey song come to life, and if the idea of that appeals to you, put on Ultraviolence, plug in your ear buds, and just bask in the truly F'd up glory that is QUEENPIN.

Here's looking at you, kid.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Sabbides Secret Baby by Keiko Yamada

Phoebe was just a hotel receptionist when she caught the eye of the Greek millionaire, Jed. He showered affection and presents upon her, so pleased was he that She Wasn't Like Other Women™ (e.g. crafty, money-grubbing harlots). All that changed, however, when Phoebe told Jed she was pregnant. What does this prize do? Tells her nobody wants a pregnant mistress and then offers to "take care of" her situation. She says a big "to hell with that" and runs away, only in her clumsiness, she trips and falls and ends up miscarrying.

Secret baby romances all seem to have the same plot. Rich guy and ordinary girl have passionate fling, pregnant girl flees, rich guy finds out after the fact and uses his impressive resources to intimidate girl into letting him back into his life. This book had a nearly identical plot to another Harlequin manga I recently read, WHEN FALCONE'S WORLD STOPS TURNING. Only that hero was Italian, not Greek. (I guess Greece and Italy's populations are, like, 90% millionaires?)

This wasn't a bad book. I thought Jed was a jerk but he sort of redeemed himself by the end. I feel like most of the heroes' problems in these Harlequin Presents books boil down to Sad Boy Mommy Issues™, which makes me wonder if Oedipus is mandatory reading if you want to be penning these tawdry little 100 Calorie Packs of drama. I was wondering how, if the heroine had a miscarriage, she still had a baby to spirit away and the book threw me a total curveball: she was carrying fraternal twins and only miscarried one of the fetuses. Apparently it's rare, but this can happen(?).

I liked FALCONE better, but the art in this was aces, so I'm not mad at SABBIDES.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Girl on a Diamond Pedestal by Riho Sachimi

This is a manga adaption of a Harlequin Presents romance by the same name, GIRL ON A DIAMOND PEDESTAL. The author is Maisey Yates. From what I understand, these romance manga started in Japan as a way to attract young audiences but then they started releasing them over here, in English. Thank God for that. If you love romance and you also love manga, this is the biggest game changer since the cake pop.

GIRL ON A DIAMOND PEDESTAL is about a young piano prodigy named Noelle. An utterly sheltered child, Noelle lived and breathed the piano because it was the only way to get her mother's approval (and she also really enjoyed the attention). When she got older, and was no longer cherubic and cute, her sales fell and her angry mother stormed out of her life - with all of her earnings - leaving her in a mountain of debt.

One day, when she's selling her home to reduce the debt, a man approaches her, introducing himself as Ethan Grey. He needs to be married in order to seize control of his family fortune and asks her if she would like his help getting her revenge on her mother? They become engaged for a marriage of convenience - and vengeance. But Ethan isn't exactly who he claims to be, and his motives may run far deeper than Noelle can ever guess.

Nothing like a good fake marriage story to make my ears prick up. Throw revenge into the mix, and I'll be there with a front-row seat and an armload of cake pops. I haven't read the original Harlequin this was based off, but the adaption is good and the art is GORGEOUS. Seriously, it's some of the best work I've seen in these manga adaptions. The style is very flowery and detailed, and also old-fashioned. It reminded me a lot, actually, of Hana Yori Dango (MY FAVORITE).

The hero is cold and aloof, but he isn't an alpha-hole like the one in the last HQ I read. You get the sense that he's a broken man trying to find meaning and purpose. The romance between the H and the h is actually quite sweet as they end up indulging in childish-like whims and finding the affection and approval in one another that they both missed out on from their families.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

When Falcone's World Stops Turning by Shion Hanyu

I haven't reviewed one of these Harlequin manga in forever because they stopped going on sale in the Kindle store. Previously, you could occasionally find one or two for $1.99 or $0.99, but for some reason that stopped. I was heartbroken.

And then, Harlequin gave me FIVE of them as ARCs.

I almost cried.

WHEN FALCONE'S WORLD STOPS TURNING is a mouthful of a title, and it's based off a novel by Abby Green of the same name. Rafaele Falcone is the CEO of a prestigious luxury car company. When he was a child, he watched his stone-cold bitch of a mom walk out on his dad when he lost everything, and resolved that he would never be humiliated at the hands of a woman in the same way by loving her.

Samantha is working at a university. She used to work at Falcone Motors, but left after her affair with Rafaele soured. She fell in love with him, you see, and on the night that she was about to tell him that she was pregnant, he basically told her that she was too clingy and they were Donesville.

They meet again when the university comes to Falcone asking for a grant. Samantha's current boss accidentally lets it slip that Samantha is a single mother, and when he sees the kid and recognizes the unique green shade of his eyes, he realizes that the boy is his own and that Samantha has been keeping him secret all these years. He, of course, gets angry and blames her, the insidious woman who is only proving his misogynistic theories right, eye roll.

If you're familiar with the secret baby trope, you can probably guess how this works out. If you're not, don't let me be the one to spoil you. Falcone is definitely your typical alpha male billionaire, but he's a shade less cruel than most. The summary on Goodreads is actually quite misleading because it says that Falcone uses his money and power to make "life as difficult as he can for her," but that really isn't the case. Bar an empty threat to sue her for custody, and the rather strange and terrifying decision to move himself into her home without her knowledge or permission, he doesn't really do anything awful to her at all.

I thought this was a light, cute read. I don't normally like children in romance novels but Milo was adorable (and the way he was drawn was just, ahhsdjflsdf, SO CUTE). There were also some pretty hot (but tasteful) scenes in here, including a bit of the ol' kinky stuff. I also really liked Rafaele's biological father, and the scenes with him at the end were touching. If you like romances and you like manga, you really can't go wrong with these Harlequin adaptations. I think they're super fun.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

If The Dress Fits by Carla de Guzman

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

When I found out that this was a romance between a plus-sized woman of color and her best friend, I screamed. Even better, it's #OwnVoices Filipino rep and the hero is a veterinarian. This book was also on sale. Honestly, this was like the perfect storm of all possible outcomes to get me to want to read this book.

Martha is an accountant who has carried a torch for the first guy she's ever had sex with. It's the usual story - he's the good-looking boy who made her feel good about herself, and she's fallen under a spell of hero-worship. Even cuter, they first connected while they were both playing the leads in Hairspray (they like theater).

So naturally, her heart shatters when she finds out that this boy, who is named "Enzo," is going to be marrying the awful cousin who terrorized her about her weight and appearance when she was younger. Martha already feels so self-conscious and the thought of going stag to the wedding is a nightmare in and of itself, so she ends up roping her childhood friend, Max, in to accompany her to the wedding as a fake boyfriend. She doesn't tell him her scheme, thinking that she'll just avoid any questions and he'll be cool enough to play it off, but to her surprise, he plays the role a little too well.

There was a lot I really liked about this book. First, de Guzman really nails the insecurity of what it's like being plus-sized/overweight. Microaggressions/outright aggressions in the form of "helpful" advice or backhanded compliments? Check. Having difficulty finding clothes that fit well? Check. Feeling incredibly self-conscious about your body in certain situations? Check. Sometimes Martha feels very good about herself, but that attitude can shift throughout the day depending on who she's with, what she's doing, what she's wearing, and who she's comparing herself to. That also felt very accurate, and even though her self-loathing could sometimes feel uncomfortable, who hasn't had a bad day where they've been their own worst enemy? Society teaches us to be cruel to ourselves.

I also loved Martha's family. Even though they got on her case about her appearance, it wasn't done out of meanness (which can, ironically, make it hurt more, I think). They cared about her a lot in their own, weird way. And apart from those comments, de Guzman created a warm and loving atmosphere that also captures how kooky and annoying relatives can be. Even the horrible cousin, Regina, is actually not that bad. One of the revelations Martha has is how much Regina has grown up, and how some of her dislike for her comes from self-projection about her own self-loathing moments.

The hero was also adorable. Max, the real love interest, is a veterinarian and one of the first things he does in this book is go to a zoo for a calving giraffe, which he helps birth. How freaking cool is that? Both the hero and the heroine have dogs and are animal lovers (hers is named Bibi, his is named Wookie), and at the end of the book, he saves her dog after it ingests something poisonous. He's also thoughtful, charming, and zany - all of my favorite attributes in a beta hero. In case that wasn't enough, he loves to read. He's a mood-reader, picking books based on his mood, and Goodreads even gets a name-drop in this book (although not a very good one - Max things it has too many spoilers).

Also, the food descriptions. Oh my God, they were all so delicious-sounding. Even though it's the middle of the night right now, they gave me a pressing urge to get in my car and find a Filipino restaurant that serves tapsilog or a Taiwanese boba cafe for some delicious milk tea.

Things I didn't like? At one point, one of the characters' eyes is referred to as "chinky." I thought that was weird, since it didn't seem like it was meant to be offensive, even though some people would assuredly find it so. I also thought that Martha was very hard on herself, and even though it was well done, some readers might find it disturbing how often she fixates on the jiggling of her body or, when she's in a moment of emotional distress, how she immediately rushes into the bathroom to purge (note: she is not a bulimic character, but she does emotionally binge-eat). There's also this weird moment where one of her aunts announces that she will only receive her trust fund if she marries by age 27, which ends up serving as a call-back to an ending that I was not that fond of.

I was also kind of bothered by Enzo and Regina's relationship. Enzo confesses something pretty problematic to Martha, and then he and Regina end up married anyway. And we're just supposed to take it at face-value that there's a happily-ever-after without any sort of problems to follow? I know this is supposed to be a short, sweet romance, but with some serious issues broached, the length of this story actually creates a downside to the plot because too many things are resolved too neatly.

Overall, though, this was a pretty good book. As far as plus-size rep goes, this is one of the better books I've read, and the hero isn't a creepy jerk who sexualizes overweight people (unlike the heroes in some BBW erotic I have read). I loved that it was #OwnVoices and I really look forward to reading the other book I own by this author, a royalty romance called QUEEN'S GAME. YAS. <3

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Bad Mommy by Tarryn Fisher

I remember the first time I watched The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992). I remember thinking it was so creepy, because when you invite people into your home, you're allowing them into the place where you feel safest. You don't expect that trust to be violated. BAD MOMMY is a lot like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, only from a modern-day perspective. Fig is a desperately unhappy woman with psychological issues who latches onto an upper-middle class family. She bitterly resents the mother/wife, who she calls "Bad Mommy," and insinuates her way into their lives in an attempt to get closer to both the husband and child.

BAD MOMMY is told in 3 different POVs - Fig's, Jolene's (the "Bad Mommy's"), and Darius (the husband). Each POV yields new insights about the characters, each of them flawed in their own way, and none of them being completely honest. I am such a sucker for unreliable narrators and I always love it when I find a thriller that makes good use of this technique.

This is one of those stories where the less you know going in, the better. It's kind of like what you'd get, I think, if Gillian Flynn had written BIG LITTLE LIES. It's a domestic drama about imperfect people doing bad things to one another while trying to hide their dirty laundry from the outside world. The narrators are all deliciously awful people - and that's another thing I like about Tarryn Fisher: she isn't afraid to write imperfect female "heroines." She lets them be bad, if they want.

If you're a fan of domestic thrillers and female antiheroines, or if you loved The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or anything that Patricia Highsmith or Gillian Flynn write, you should definitely read this!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Lingus by Mariana Zapata

This book made me so angry that I took an ice cream break after finishing it so my review wouldn't consist entirely of angry swear words. How does this problematic, awful book have the following that it does? I picked it up because I find the adult entertainment industry fascinating. I've read Asa Akira's memoir, and watched several interviews with big name porn actors, including Cracked's 4 Surprising Downsides to Being a Porn Star, which really gives a human face to the industry. Given Zapata's reputation for romantic "slow burn" romances, I was hoping for a similar sort of "inside look" at a much-maligned industry. Sadly, the only "slow burn" to be found here is probably going to be caused by a stupidity-induced STD, or a headache from repeatedly banging your head against a wall.

Kat Berger, the heroine, loves porn. So when her friend manages to finagle tickets to an adult entertainment convention, what does Kat do? If you thought "accept with gratitude," you would be wrong. She proceeds to drag her heels and be a major buzzkill, proclaiming her embarrassment to anyone who will listen - when she's not shaming everyone in sight, that is. If you're not a modest, young, well-groomed person, you're apparently not allowed to enjoy porn, as Kat shames the old people at the convention (women are pathetic cougars, old men are creeps), the women in revealing clothes (sluts and desperate whores), and the women with big breasts (she calls them "monstrosities").

Here are just a few choice descriptions from Kat:

The eight bitches in front of us were all dressed up like trashy versions of country girls in microscopic cut-off jean shorts. If that wasn't bad enough, the old geezers behind us were wearing enough makeup to stock Sephora for six months (4%).

I wanted to ask him which whore in line was his friend, but I didn't. I also silently wondered why such a good-looking male specimen was at a porn convention. This guy didn't need porn to get off; he could easily just flash that perfect face at any girl. I was sure they'd flock to him like a bitch in heat looking to get mounted (5%).

Some gonorrhea-infected fans might try to kiss him or grab his bubble butt. Women with loose, flapping vaginal lips that were capable of clapping would try to hug him and whisper suggestive things in his ears (77%).

Another thing that bothers me is how Kat's friend, Nicole, treats one of the porn stars at the convention, named Calum Burro. When she gets his autograph, she grabs his ass and whispers obscenities in his ear (the same thing that Kat is afraid of happening to her own porn star boyfriend at that quote I cited at 77%, funny how it's OK when Nicole does it). If you watched that video I linked to at the top, the one by Cracked, you'll have heard that one of the problems porn stars face is people assuming that porn stars are fair game because they've shared their bodies with the public, which some people - i.e. Kat and her friends - take to mean that it's okay to follow them home or touch them inappropriately. I feel like in a real life setting, behavior like Nicole's would get you thrown out on your ass from the convention, but it gets Nicole a phone number and an invitation to follow-up on what she whispered into his ear. They end up in a relationship and then a few weeks after they start dating, married. An ending like this validates such mistreatment of people in the entertainment industry, and I found it, frankly, sickening.

Kat meets the love interest, Tristan/Robby, while he's walking around at the convention, incognito. He actually catches her tugging her wedgie out of her ass, and his first line to her is, "Digging for gold?" He thinks this is so cute that he gives her the nickname "gold-digger," and then, later, just "goldie." Kat is very upset when she finds out what Tristan's profession is, and when he goes out on business while they're together, she equates it to cheating. This porn = cheating thing is a running theme in this book, and it's very disturbing. At the convention where Nicole first meets Calum, her friends have to hold her back from attacking one of his female coworkers because she's that jealous that the two of them had a scene together (keep in mind that this is before he even speaks to her or even knows she exists). When Nicole and Calum are engaged, he goes to his last job, and Nicole and Kat consider Nicole cheating on him behind his back to make it "fair," since he's cheating on her. Kat is insanely jealous of all of Tristan's past working relationships and slut-shames all of them, picking on in particular their appearance, especially their breasts.

The way Kat sees porn is highly warped and sexist, because she obviously considers it a form of slumming: something that's she's above but occasionally deigns to indulge in, like a guilty secret. The male porn stars are all admired by Kat and her friends, but the women are called sluts and whores. Kat's friend, Zoey, is also a porn star, but because she's cute and Asian and only does girl-on-girl, she isn't considered a sexual rival, so she is the sole exception to Kat's misogyny. Despite being attracted to Tristan, she still considers him "the worst type of man" at first because he has sex with women on video. Later, he gives up porn for her (as Calum does for Nicole) and Kat seems to accept this as her due. Obviously, Tristan considers her the best lay he's ever had, and one of her friends (Zoey) tells Kat that her breasts are probably the only real ones he's ever touched. This is "magic vagina" syndrome in full, because why would Tristan need to continue with his debauched ways now that he has a "good girl" to save him through sex? I wanted to throw my computer into the wall when Kat wants to "make things different" for him by not having sex with him using a condom, since he's always had sex with his partners using condoms and she doesn't want to be like his other women. Not only is this INSANE, it's also incredibly unsafe. Tristan has probably had sex with dozens of women (if not hundreds of women), and there was no mention of an STD test, just birth control. Great.

But the crowning moment of Kat's hypocrisy was when they go on vacation together and Tristan finds a video of Kat doing porn on her computer. Apparently, when Zoey was trying to make it, she needed someone to help her do a girl-on-girl scene and after several friends turned her down, the unwilling Kat reluctantly agreed to participate. Tristan is, of course, incredibly turned on, and after telling her what a selfless and special person she is (and how "not enough" people would do such a thing for their friends), they have hot sex for the first time. I was so angry. First of all, that was not selfless, that was stupid. Real friends wouldn't force their friends into doing something exploitative. Kat is an elementary school teacher, and teachers have been fired for doing less. An elementary school teacher doing porn? Even if the video was never distributed, as Kat claims, if that ever got out, it would ruin her career. Zoey was selfish and cruel to ask that, and Kat was stupid to accept.

Speaking of careers, Tristan is doing law school in addition to porn (because of course he is). He's bizarrely certain that his career will never get out because he had the sense to use hair dye. Any law firm worth its salt is going to do a background check, and I can almost guarantee that they're going to turn up his old career, and it's going to ruin him, too. Lawyers are highly reputation-bound, and as much as I hate that this is the case, nobody is going to take an ex-porn star lawyer seriously. No one.

LINGUS also shares many of the features that made Zapata's other book, RHYTHM, CHORD & MALYKHIN so unpleasant for me. There's a heavy reliance on fecal humor, which I find juvenile and gross. I don't need to hear about it whenever someone needs to go to the bathroom, and I don't want to hear Kat rant about how she apparently pees herself every time she sneezes (girl, do some kegels, seriously). There are also the same homophobic/transphobic jokes peppered in here about sex changes and people so hot they could turn gay people straight, which are comparatively harmless in the grand scheme of things, but are still harmful, because they passively perpetuate those kinds of harmful views by joking about them as if they are fact. Don't even get me started on Kat's gay best friend, who is portrayed as a total slut who sniffs out gay men like "a male dog catching a female dog's scent in heat." I kept waiting for him to say "fabulous!" He didn't, but I'm sure the author considered having him do so. Probably while farting or peeing himself, keeping in the scatological vein of this book's sense of humor. It was that bad.

I've read four of this author's books now. DEAR AARON started off charming and devolved into what I considered an unhealthy relationship. RHYTHM, CHORD & MALYKHIN was awful, and I only rounded it up because I really appreciated the musical references and that feeling of being "on tour." KULTI was absolutely wonderful, and I honestly can't believe that the author who wrote that book, which flew by because I was enjoying it so much, is the same author who wrote these three other books, because LINGUS was the worst yet. There was nothing to redeem it. It was wretched.

I guess if you're going to read a book by this author, start with KULTI. It is the only book of hers that has lived up to the hype. I still have WAIT FOR IT and THE WALL OF WINNIPEG on my Kindle, so I'm hoping that those veer more on the KULTI side of the spectrum than the LINGUS side.


1 out of 5 stars

Settle the Score / Hustle Play by Tara Frejas

What's this? A romance between a male cheerleader and a female basketball player? Why, yes, of course I'd love to read you - and oh, what's that? You're also free right now? Girl, put down the phone. I'm coming over, and I'm bringing pizza.

This month, a number of Filipino writers are putting their books up for either a discounted price or for free. I'm usually the last to find out about things like these but somehow I happened upon the promotion right as it was starting - completely by accident. Obviously, this means that I've been wading in #OwnVoices this whole week and if there's something better out there to wade in, I haven't discovered it yet.

SETTLE THE SCORE / HUSTLE PLAY is a duology of two short stories about that couple I mentioned in the first paragraph. Garnet is a basketball player and Charlie is a cheerleader. They're both very good at what they do and they're both kind of in like with each other. The only problem is that Charlie has a girlfriend - and she's cheating on him.

SETTLE THE SCORE is about Garnet trying to make Charlie see the truth about his girlfriend, Nica. She intends to convince him but ends up kissing him - in front of everyone - by mistake, which causes all sorts of drama. In HUSTLE PLAY, they're together, but Garnet thinks they're going too "fast" (apparently kissing and hand-holding are "fast"), so she wants them to just be friends. However, she's ~so~ attracted to him, she can't help but feel ambivalent about her decision, especially when the star male basketball player, a boy named Chris, ends up becoming closer to her at a sports even, and their burgeoning relationship begins to push Charlie away.

I've loved most of these romances but there's a handful I haven't really liked all that much, and sadly, SETTLE THE SCORE / HUSTLE PLAY is one of these. I wanted to like it so badly because I'm all about romances that trump (ew, "that man" has ruined that word for me) the gender role status quo and I wanted to give this book props for having a male cheerleader as a love interest, but the characters were so immature that if I hadn't read in the summary that they were in college, I would have thought that they were in junior high, maybe sophomore year, tops. I love drama, but not when it's manufactured over silly pretenses, and there just wasn't much going on. Too bad.

2 out of 5 stars

The Prince by Skye Warren

I picked up this free novella because it's the prologue to Warren's Masterpiece series, a series that ties into the other series by this author that I'm reading, the Endgame series. I think they can be read as standalones, but they share characters, so reading the Endgame series first gives you unique insight to their backstories.

THE PRINCE is actually a really good story. Sometimes these freebie prologues can seem rushed, but it was clear that a lot of effort went into writing this one and planning it out. Penny is a mathematical prodigy, and the daughter of an addict and a compulsive gambler. Her father frequently disappears for days on his gambling binges, leaving her to her own devices. One day, while wandering around, she happens upon a boy in the woods named Damon. They sort of establish a rapport, and then she promptly repays him by stealing his cache of money.

A couple days later, Penny meets the boy's father, Johnathan. He's taken an interest in her mathematical talents because of her teacher, but she gets a creepy feeling from him and flubs the answers he gives her. When she tells Damon about him, he warns her away, claiming that whatever he or her teacher promised her is a lie; despite his words, he wishes her ill.

This is such a suspenseful story. The segue from gritty and abusive childhood to grim and melancholic adulthood reminded me of Tarryn Fisher's work (whom I love). In this story, Warren shows the dangers that children - especially (but not only) girl children - face, and why it's so important that they have people in their corners to protect them from the evils of the world. The crushing tension and looming sense of doom really propel the story forward. It came as a bit of a shock when it ended so abruptly.

I'm really excited to read THE KING now. :)

4 out of 5 stars

To Love A Highlander by Donna Fletcher

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

First of all, big thanks to my friend MG, who was kind enough to lend me this book on Kindle. I was desperately trying to find a Scottish romance to fulfill the category for my romance challenge after the one Scottish romance I owned didn't pan out (spoiler: it was a Maya Banks book). She said this book was one of her favorites, and I love her taste in books, so I was excited to read it.

Unfortunately, even though I am very grateful for my friend's kindness, I didn't end up caring for this book much at all.

The plot is pretty simple. Espy is a talented healer who had an equally talented physician as a father. Her father traveled a lot to foreign lands and learned a variety of experimental and unconventional techniques, which made him a figure of ridicule and suspicion among some of his more orthodox peers. Espy, armed with those same techniques, is overseeing the birth of a Scottish clanleader's wife when we meet her at the beginning of the book. The wife is hemorrhaging and begging Espy to save her child, but the (male) physician present convinces the clanleader that Espy has killed his wife, and she is hurled out of the tent, and informed in no uncertain terms that if she returns, it will mean her death - or worse.

So of course, many years later, Espy returns, because her grandmother Cyra still resides in the village. She's still haunted by that woman's death, but now she has new ghosts to terrorize her as well, in addition to a fresh scar on her face. When the clanleader, a man named Craven, finds out she's back, he fully intends to torture her. But when he sees how sickly and pathetic she looks, he agrees to let her grandmother nurse her back to health just so it will be more satisfying for him to break her later. What a prize, right? Now would be a good time to inform you that this man is the love interest.

When Espy inevitably recovers and is taken to the village proper to receive her fate, she is accosted by many members of the clan who have had to deal without healer or physician this entire time, and have injuries that run the gamut of splinter to serious infection. Craven observes her usefulness and decides that maybe torturing her isn't the best route - especially when new evidence arises that suggests that perhaps the physician and not Espy was the culprit responsible for what looks to have been the premeditated murder of his late-wife.

I liked the healing scenes, because I'm a sucker for healer and doctor characters. It's part of the reason I loved THE KING'S MAN and OUTLANDER so much. There is something selfless about people who devote their lives to the healing of those who are sick or wounded, and I love that. I also thought the murder mystery element of TO LOVE A HIGHLANDER was well done. Sometimes romance novels include murder as if it's an afterthought, something to prolong the tension or to bulk up a skimpy page count, but Donna Fletcher did a good job incorporating it into the story, I thought.

What I didn't like was the hero. He is one of those uber-alpha dudes, the kind who choke women to show off their superior power and get their attention (he chokes Espy several times). When she's his prisoner, he followers her around constantly and berates her for disappearing without telling him where she's going first, which I guess is understandable. However, he does the same thing when he decides he likes her, telling her that he expects to know where she is "at every moment." Ha ha, no. I get that this is a medieval romance, so this mindset is probably accurate, but it was still very annoying, and I didn't really see much to redeem him by the end of the book. I thought he was awful.

Espy also verges on TSTL territory. She's constantly wandering off into the face of danger, and what was frustrating to me is that she's obviously far more educated than a woman of her time would typically be, and given her history you would think that she would have learned caution, but no. Her stupidity was the turning point for many a plot revelation and it was extremely irritating to see the story moved along by such poor decision-making. It really made the plot drag a lot.

TO LOVE A HIGHLANDER isn't a bad book, but it wasn't a particularly good one, either. There were a lot of typos, the writing was pretty basic, and the hero was a turd.

At least I have finally read and finished my Scottish romance challenge, though! :)

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, August 10, 2018

Tame the Kitten by Bianca Mori

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

Ladies and gentlemen (and other dignified personages who may not identify as either), today is a monumental day in history. Today is the day that I found a motorcycle romance that I actually loved.

I know. I didn't think it was possible either.

Motorcycle/MC club romances are my least favorite genre of romance. All the ones I've read have been awful Sons of Anarchy knockoffs, with total cavemen heroes who swear a lot and treat women like garbage. I know that does it for some people, but I hate the unintelligent brutish alpha male stereotype, and avoid reading them whenever possible because it never ends well.

However, my romance group - the Unapologetic Romance Readers - has a yearly challenge that encourages people to read romances that they might not typically enjoy or, indeed, even go out of their way to avoid, which is how come every year I end up reading things like Amish romances (although we retired that category this year), rock star romances (another disliked trope of mine), and yes, of course, motorcycle romances.

One thing I do like, however, are diverse romances. And while this is not a genre, it is a type of romance that often does not get the publicity or attention it deserves. Lately, I've gotten into #romanceclass romances, which are romance novels written and published by a group of Filipino women, and headed by Mina V. Esguerra. This month of August they are having this event where a number of their works are discounted or free each day, to encourage people to keep checking back to see which ones are the daily specials.

I bought TAME THE KITTEN after several days of deliberation. Even though it was a motorcycle romance, the premise sounded really great. The heroine, Kit Torres, is not Filipina (the first of these #romanceclass novellas I've read to not have a Filipina heroine); she is a Puerto Rican woman living in New York. She works as an HR manager for an investment firm, and enjoys sticking it to the mostly-male offenders (although she would not phrase it as such).

One day, her male boss comes to her and tells her that he has a rich and famous potential client who's acting highly reluctant about signing with them. He wants her to babysit the client and take him around New York to show him a good time. To cinch his Creepmaster status, he even leverages the promotion she's angling for, and makes it contingent on the would-be-client's membership.

Kit reluctantly agrees - and then is immediately outraged when she finds out that the client, professional motorcycle racer Fabrizio Magnani, is the same reckless driver who nearly hit her as she was getting out of her taxi as she was going to work. Initially, she dislikes him, but she also finds him very attractive. Something Fab capitalizes on when he tells her that he'll only agree to each stage of the membership process if she goes out on a date with him following each "step."

Friends, this is such a good book. It sounds cheesy, like so many other romances of convenience of this type, but manages to be better and deeper (heh) than any of them. First, there's some pretty hot fem-dom action in here, which I wasn't expecting but was totally welcome, because romance needs more sex scenes about woman taking charge. And take charge Kit does (and it's hot). Second, the characters actually have some really great discussions with one another which is the source of their gradual connection, and it's actually meaningful. Their dates are also great - at one point, they go to an authentic New York ramen shop, and at another they go to a vintage punk clothing store and pick out clothes for each other to try on. Third, this book has some great conversations about what it means to be a professional woman - especially a professional woman of color - without being heavy-handed. Kit has a conversation with her coworker, Tamara, that's very moving and accurate.

Who knew that the answers to all my frustrations with the romance genre lay across the ocean? I'm not kidding, all of these #romanceclass romances are gold, and I've read about ten of them so far, and they've just been subverting one trope after another, and featuring leads of color. I am shooketh.

Get on this romance train, you guys. #FilipinoRomances are the future.

4 out of 5 stars