Sunday, September 30, 2018

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

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

I was curious about this book before the TV show came out, but the TV show made me even more curious. Aidan Turner is gorgeous, and it seemed like PBS was running with Ross Poldark to compete with Starz's Outlander, albeit without all the torture and rape. A Georgian-era romance set in Cornwall that transcends class and features an impoverished nobleman who cares a little too much about his tenants for society's liking? Hell yes!

ROSS POLDARK is not a very long book but it took me forever to read. In fact, I think it took me longer to read than OUTLANDER did, which is hilarious because OUTLANDER is twice as long (at least) as this book. The problem is the pacing - it is slow and plodding. I think part of that might be chalked up to the book's age; it was published in the 1940s and I think people were more willing to wait for a good thing back then. Now, access to internet and other technologies has shortened people's attention spans and increased the desire for instant gratification.

Ross Poldark, the eponymous hero, is part of the noble Poldark family. He has just returned from fighting in America - I'm guessing in what was the Revolutionary War - and has returned from Cornwall to find that the woman he was in love with has gotten engaged to his cousin instead. Morose, he turns to alcohol and the minding of the mine on his property, as well as the wellbeing of the people and their families who work in it. His care for his people is what prompts him to take in a girl, Demelza, from her abusive household and hire her on as his servant. It also prompts him to intervene when a man is caught poaching for his starving family.

There's some action in this book, but it's interspersed between long periods of nothing. I also didn't realize that this was going to be a guardian and ward romance, which I am sometimes into, but not when the ward begins the story as an actual child. I've expanded on my feelings about that more in other reviews, but basically I feel like it's a violation of a child's trust in a parental figure to turn that sort of relationship into a sexual one. The way that Verity's (Poldark's other cousin) relationship to a wife-beater is also portrayed in here wasn't great, either. I get that it's a different time and women were still considered chattel and beatings were only in poor taste if they were public or debilitating, but that doesn't make it any more pleasant to read about in the here and now (even off the page).

Overall, my feelings with this book are pretty lukewarm. It wasn't awful and I liked Ross Poldark, the cranky but well-meaning old drunk, but the story was boring and the writing didn't blow me away. I have books two and three on my Kindle so let's see if I can bring myself to get around to those later.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women by Phyllis Chesler

I am a feminist and have read a fair amount of feminist books over the last two years. When you're part of a movement/political platform or identify with a movement/political platform, I think it's important to read the classics (so you know where the movement is coming from), as well as some of the latest books from the up-and-comers (so your platform doesn't get stale). That's why I was so excited to see A POLITICALLY INCORRECT FEMINIST show up as an ARC on Netgalley. I had never heard of Phyllis Chesler, although apparently she is a notable second-wave feminist who moved in the same circles as Gloria Steinem and other "celebrity" feminists. I thought this was going to be a view on modern day feminism, from her unique perspective as someone who already saw the focus change a first time, and her thoughts on where we should go from here.

First, a note. I really don't like writing negative reviews for memoirs because when you read fiction, you can at least make the argument that you're critiquing the plot and characters, and not the person who wrote them. With memoirs, it's much trickier, because it is personal. They are the direct recollections of the person who wrote them, put to paper. That makes criticism uncomfortably intimate, but I have to assume, as a book reviewer, that the author put the book out into the world feeling okay with that, and I am bound to be honest.

In the beginning, I thought this book was fine. Chesler has a brash, direct style I didn't really like, but sometimes people have to be unlikable to get things done and I was willing to table that, if her ideas were good. She had a lot of things to say about rape and assault, and the historical context behind that was interesting (and sad); she wrote about how much we, as a society, have improved, even if we still have a lot to get done, and I agree with that. Women have achieved a lot. Things aren't exactly equal, but we have shrunk the disparity, and that gap is growing smaller still. Women: we get things done. It was also interesting to see all of the famous feminists she was in contact with, and some of her interactions with them when they were just rising to prominence and also, post-notoriety.

There were four major blips that really made this an unpleasant read for me.

As I said, I was expecting a broad perspective on feminism as a whole, and while I got that to some degree, a lot of this was very self-promotional. Huge chunks of this book are call backs to other books that Chesler wrote, and a lot of the stories about other feminists are either about how they are her best friends/acolytes or about how they screwed her over and she's still mad about it. It really cheapened the book for me, because it felt so petty and superficial.

I also raised an eyebrow about the way she identified her sexuality. It's a bit vague in this book, but I left thinking that Chesler was a lesbian who came out late. Later, she does refer to her "bisexual revolution," but at another point, she refers to one of her heterosexual relationships as back when she was straight. It was a bit jarring for me, because bisexual erasure is something I have been more sensitive to lately seeing how some of my bi friends react to language in books and movies, and I thought that was an odd thing to say, especially coming from a bisexual, because it suggests that you can't be queer if you're only dating people of the opposite sex, which just isn't true. That was odd.

I was willing to let both of those things go, however, because I get that women often don't get enough credit for their work (another subject of this book), and I have read a couple other feminists books with similar problems: where the authors name-dropped their bibliographies too much and couldn't stop talking trash over the people who did them wrong. Feminism is a frustrating ideology because there is a lot of misogyny on the inside, and on the outside you get all sorts of rude comments from people who want to demean you and trivialize your thoughts and beliefs, so I could understand that frustration even if I really did not like how it was affecting the book, and was willing to carry on.

The part of the book that genuinely upset me was how she appears to view Muslim women. Towards the end of the book, she briefly mentions the 2017 women's march (which she did not go to, apparently, because she was busy). She writes about her disdain for the pussy hats, but more so for the "virtue-signalling" women wearing hijabs and headscarves in solidarity...of what? Muslim women? Her disgust seemed to be with the idea that non-Muslim people were wearing what she considers a symbol of oppression to a march about recognition of women but there are two HUGE major flaws with that argument. 1. Many Muslim women find the hijab empowering, for various reasons. What it comes down to is choice: if women choose to wear a garment in accordance with their faith, then it is not oppressive. 2. Her suggestion that the women wearing these were not real Muslims was odd. How would she know if they were real Muslims? I hate to ascribe motivations to people that they might not have, but if she was looking at these marches secondhand and making these assumptions, I'm forced to conclude that she was looking at skin color and facial characteristics to make these decisions about who was a "real" Muslim and who was "virtue-signalling" and that's, well, not only super icky, but also not very informed, since Islam is one of the most common religions worldwide, and those who practice it are as diverse in appearance as they are in creed.

I suppose it's not surprising that she appears to harbor distaste for Muslims since she was essentially held prisoner by her Muslim husband in Kabul before her father-in-law helped her escape. I think she was only imprisoned for a few months, but that's still pretty awful. However, she appears to be coloring her view of the entire Muslim populace from that one incredibly negative interaction, and her writings on Islam are pretty upsetting, with their focus on honor-killings and her alleged calls to action for banning the niqab in Western countries. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia she claims that she has no problem with the hijab since it "does not obscure a women's facial identity," but that doesn't seem to be the case in this book.

By this point in the book, I was skimming pretty heavily, as it had become highly self-referential. At the end of the book, I hit another bump. She writes about all the countries she gave talks at, and once more the book takes on an uncomfortable tone, particularly when she refers to the Swedish people lighting candles at their talks as a lovely pagan tradition, and seems to be mocking the Japanese feminists she talked to for being overly demure when they "titter" after she suggests a visit to the Tokyo red light district, before going on about how much of their pornography involves children (I wasn't sure what she meant by this - the pornographic manga? the school girl porn?). I don't know what she saw but it is worth mentioning that most pornographic manga does involve adults (who, admittedly, look very young) and school girl porn is not actual child pornography (although I can definitely see how it could make someone uncomfortable). Clearly, Phyllis Chesler is determined to live up to her title of Politically Incorrect Feminist. My goodness, I cringed so hard.

I suppose it was my fault for picking up this book, called POLITICALLY INCORRECT FEMINIST, and not assuming that it was going to live up to its name. The thing is, I don't usually mind if books make me uncomfortable. ELOQUENT RAGE, written by a black feminist author, made me very uncomfortable because it caused me to have to confront a lot of my own privilege in order to wrap my mind about some of the problems with racism and intersectionality that plague feminism. It was not pleasant to read, but it was a good book, and had a lot of tight, reasonable points. This book, on the other hand, was not as organized, meandered a lot, and seemed to be determined to cause offensive without providing a reason behind that or giving a call to action to rally behind. I feel duped by that title's tagline, which promised me a new movement but instead felt utterly stagnant.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Darkest Star by Jennifer L. Armentrout

🦇 Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2018 Reading Challenge for the category of: A romance about aliens 🦇

This author's Lux series is basically what launched her from quiet indie author cult status to mainstream publication fame. A lot of my friends enjoy both her young adult paranormal romances and her contemporary new adult romances, so I was curious to pick something of hers up and see if I liked it. After picking up THE DARKEST STAR as an ARC, I'm no longer quite as curious. If this book is representative of her other works, we have some problems.

THE DARKEST STAR is basically like if you took the plot of TWILIGHT and injected it with more violence and sex, and tried to instill a bit of superficial commentary about illegal immigration and ICE through the use of aliens, a la District 9. Evie is an Ordinary High School Girl™ who lives in a world where aliens, called "Luxen," have made contact. They are called Luxen because they have magic light powers and usually that just makes them Groin-Meltingly Hot™ but sometimes if they are evil, they zap humans' eyeballs out.

Evie meets the Luxen while out with her Token Lesbian Friend™ and they go to the forbidden alien night club to meet her best friend's girlfriend, who is also a Luxen. It's super obvious that this is what she is, so I had a HI-larious moment later when Evie finds this out and is shocked. Anyway, that's when she meets the Pecs-and-Abs™ love interest, Luc, who is basically Edward Cullen with even more personal space issues. Also, he can read minds and finds Evie so fascinating. His personality can be summed up in one word: abs. In two words? Low-riding jeans. "Wait, Nenia," you're saying, "that's not a personality." Correct, friend. Because he doesn't have one - unless you consider being a possessive, lamely sarcastic alphahole a personality, in which case, that is his.

At Evie's school, the Luxen sit at their own Groin-Meltingly Hot™ cafeteria table, but unfortunately an evil Luxen is going around zapping humans' eyeballs out. This causes the kids to wantonly discriminate against the Luxen students against their school and say that they should basically be deported. One of Evie's ex-friends is the ringleader for this movement and Evie thinks she is so lame, but doesn't really do anything to stop her except saying, "Hey, not cool." Evie's ex-best-friend responds the way all bigots do - by flipping the verbal middle finger and then spending all night posting on message boards about how much they admire President Trump. In a word: Evie does jack shit. Unless you count agonizing over whether to bang or not to bang Pecs-and-Abs™, in which case she does that thing. Many, many times! But he's an evil alien, oh noes! But oh, she's not a bigot.

The story continues with a vain attempt at a mystery subplot, with Evie discovering that she's not an Ordinary High School Girl™ after all (what a shock! a young adult paranormal romance where the heroine *isn't* ordinary?), Luc trying to figure out who the evil Luxen who's zapping out humans' eyeballs is while also Hiding Potentially Existential Crisis-Causing Information from the Heroine for the Heroine's Own Good™ while also mooning over his Pure and Long Lost First Love™, much to Evie's admiration and jealousy (guys who moon over dead girls are so romantic - oh wait).

There are a lot of similarities to TWILIGHT, between the mind-reading and the evil human-hunting Luxen who wants to kill the heroine, the popular Luxen table at the school, and the way that Evie gets involved with Luc's whole "immortal" family (except they're not exactly his family, just friends and associates - so actually maybe they are his family after all, but in the Italian mob sense). Evie was especially unlikable as a heroine because she had no personality. I heard the heroine in the original Lux series was a book blogger, but this heroine has no interests and nothing about her was interesting. I also thought the twist about her was super lame and a cheap excuse to legitimize Insta Love™.

I feel like this book tried to do many things, and it did almost all of them badly.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

I wonder about Goodreads users sometimes. People will pile on to heap praises about one book in particular while utterly ignoring brilliant contributions to the literary canon like this. I almost didn't read this book because it was such a wild card - and I am so glad I did not do that. In many ways, FRUIT OF THE DRUNKEN TREE explores similar themes to other women-centered works of literary fiction like GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER or HOMEGOING. The book is set in Colombia in the early 1990s, when the cocaine lord Pablo Escobar held most of the political and economic power, and the wealth disparity led many low income individuals to support and encourage the gruesome violence of the guerillas.

There are two narrators. Chula, who along with her mother and older sister, is a member of the middle class in Colombia. By our standards, they don't have much, but when people across the city are living in shacks without electricity or running water, they seem very wealthy. The other narrator is Petrona, who is their maid. She lives in one of those shacks, called invasions, and is working to support her family in the absence of a real provider.

FRUIT OF THE DRUNKEN TREE, which is another name for the Angel's Trumpet flower, navigates the rocky political landscape of a country ruled by criminals, in a time of great inequality and political upheaval. The author brings up many great points about morality, and how it is easy to claim the high ground when you aren't starving. The people in Petrona's region, and many like it, were failed by the government, so men like Escobar who flashed cash and supplied jobs to boys and young men as runners and para-military, could seem like saviors, even if what they were doing was terrible in the big picture, because of the way he indirectly helped to bolster their economy. Chula's family, on the other hand, can afford to think big picture, and her mother was in favor of the liberal politician and reformist, Luis Carlos Galán, who wanted to end the corruption and drug running.

I really loved this story and thought that the author did a great job giving voice to Chula and Petrona. Both of them were very different girls, from different walks of life, and the author was very careful not to be preachy, or take sides. When Colombia is mentioned in fiction, it's generally portrayed as some grandiose, Scarface-esque locale that features glamorized portrayals of crime. This book, on the other hand, is influenced by the author's childhood memories of growing up in Bogotá during this time and seeing these kidnappings, rebellions, bombings, murders, and criminality firsthand. The focus on the relationship of these girls in the face of adversity was reminiscent of GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER, but this wasn't quite as gruesomely awful as GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER, and in my opinion, has a much happier ending, even if it isn't exactly a gleaming pot of sunshine.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras is clearly an author to watch. I can't wait to see what she puts out next.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Donald and the Golden Crayon by P. Shauers

HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON was one of my favorite children's books growing up, so when I saw a parody version of the book on Netgalley that proposed to be a satirical look at SCROTUS's so-called presidency, I leaped. I mean, look at that cover. It's a fantastic cover, with an official seal and everything. And the author being named "P. Shauers." It's brilliant.

The book is pretty straightforward in terms of what you're going to get. The humor is kind of lowbrow, but considering the subject matter, it's fitting. Think of it as a real of our so-called president's lowest moments, whether it's wanting to build a wall, calling developing nations "shithole countries," or passing laws that hurt the environment in order to turn a profit. He's an awful, awful, awful man, and this book really shows that. Honestly, it's so terrible that it's almost not funny. How terrible is that? We have a self-parody as a leader, & he isn't even self-aware.

I was amused by this book, so on that quarter it achieved what it set out to do. It's a good parody and manages to capture the style and spirit of the original, but with grown-up content. This would be a fun coffee table book for the furious leftist who also happens to be a connoisseur of irony.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

My friends, I want to tell you about this book. Minette Walters is one of my favorite crime fiction authors, and I was psyched when I found out that she was writing a work of historical fiction. The length is intimidating - it's a whopping 547 pages - but please don't let this keep you from reading this wondrous tome. It's everything I love in fiction, and the pages just flew by. I tore through it in two days and one of those days was a work day, which just goes to show you how unputdownable THE LAST HOURS was.

THE LAST HOURS is set in medieval times, during the 13th century. There are two main characters: Lady Anne and Thaddeus. Lady Anne is a lady who was raised in a nunnery, and therefore unusual in that she knows how to practice good hygiene and how to read. She is married to a man she despises, for reasons that we learn later on in the book. Thaddeus, on the other hand, is a serf, and a bastard. The only person who has ever shown him consistent kindness is Lady Anne. He is intelligent and hard-working and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, no matter how unsavory.

Lady Anne's husband, Richard, leaves their demesne in Develish to go to a nearby province to meet with their daughter's husband-to-be. In this other demesne, the serfs are terrified and people are falling ill. His chief steward, Gyles, who is loyal to Lady Anne, begs that they turn back, but Richard is too busy wining and whoring, and refuses - until the lord of the manor also sickens, as well as several of Richard's own men. Luckily, Lady Anne finds out that her husband is ill from a pestilence that is fast-acting and contagious in a way beyond anything that they've ever known before, and she boards up the manor, destroys the drawbridge, and secures their raft to the other side of the moat.

In the absence of their lord, Lady Anne becomes their liege lord, and because one of her ways at getting back at her husband was to educate the serfs on their estate, Develish finds social order turned upon its head as serfs and nobles alike must band together to survive against what we know is the Black Death. Here, the book takes on an almost post-apocalyptic flavor - survival at its most basic, against basically all of the odds. What makes it even better is that it becomes a study in sexism, feminism, and classism, portrayed in a way that many books try and fail to do because they attempt to do these things in a heavy-handed way that goes against the realistic conventions of the times.

I loved this book. It's like a better version of PILLARS OF THE EARTH, in that it tells the story of the common people, but does so within a feminist lens, exploring the potential of women who were given power (albeit in a limited way). All of the characters in this book are great. Obviously Lady Anne was my favorite, followed closely by Thaddeus, Gyles, and Isabella. There are truly loathsome characters in here too, despicable in the way that characters in Game of Thrones are despicable (but not quite so cartoonishly evil in their caricaturing), like Richard (fuck him), Hugh (fuck him, too), and Eleanor (fuck, fuck, fuck). Eleanor reminded me a bit of Joffrey, actually, but then as I got to know more about her story and where she was coming from, she gained extra layers that Joffrey never received as a character, which I thought was really great, because we're often far too quick to villanize female characters without really giving them a proper motive, in my opinion.

This might not be the go-to book for many people and I get that historical fiction can be an intimidating thing for some people because it might feel like work or research, but if you feel like venturing out of your literary comfort zone, you should definitely start with THE LAST HOURS. It's so good. It's fast-paced, character-driven, and gritty in the same compelling way that many sci-fi and fantasy novels are. I don't think you'll be disappointed if you pick this one up. How could you be?

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Not Even Bones by Rebecca Schaeffer

Fantasy stories often have magic potions that are made up of the body parts of living creatures, even in Harry Potter, where bits of unicorn can be put into potions or wands - but where do those parts come from? NOT EVEN BONES explores that grim and unsavory concept in the form of Nita and her family, dealers in the magical black market, selling magical body parts to collectors, perverts, and criminals. Nita enjoys her work, with a blood-thirsty joy that's reminiscent of Kerri Maniscalo's heroine, Audrey Rose, in STALKING JACK THE RIPPER. NOT EVEN BONES is a much better book, however, with tight plotting, morally grey characters, and a grim world and setting that at times seems almost too dark to be YA.

The summary for this book is vague and a little misleading. It isn't really like Dexter, except for the whole cutting up dead bodies thing, and I haven't read anything by Schwab to completion, but - unpopular opinion time - what I did read by her seemed pretty bland and fanfictiony, in that way that all Tumblr-popular writers seem to have. NOT EVEN BONES is set in our world, which came as a surprise to me at first because the summary made me think this was going to be high fantasy. There are magical creatures and everyone knows they exist, and governments are in disagreement about how many rights they should have and what should be done about them.

The heroine is Latina and the "hero"is Burmese/Thai. Most of this book is set in South America, which will be a pleasant surprise to those of you who often find yourselves complaining about the Western bias in fantasy settings. The characters actually swear instead of saying those made-up swear words that sound so stupid in everything that isn't Firefly, including dropping a few F-bombs. The story, as I said, is DARK. Graphic torture scenes, and discussions of incredibly unsavory topics like organ and body-part harvesting, eugenics, and abuse in virtually all forms. I'm pretty hard to shock, but this book made even me think, "I'm going to need a thousand hugs when this is over."

I'm honestly shocked this book didn't make more of a splash when it came out, since it's virtually everything readers have been asking for every time they criticize YA fantasy for being what it is.

Warning: ends on a mean mother of a cliffhanger.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Girl in the Locked Room: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn

Mary Downing Hahn was one of the middle grade thriller writers of the 80s and 90s. I vaguely remember seeing some of her books in my elementary school libraries, and I probably read them, too, though I barely remember what they were about. They were gentle reads, scary but not too scary, and always stopping short of that edgy line that the popular Point Horror books series loved to toe.

I picked up THE GIRL IN THE LOCKED ROOM for nostalgia's sake, and because the title and cover intrigued me. The book is about a girl named Jules who moves around a lot because her parents love to restore old houses. Their newest project is a house that's allegedly haunted. Her parents laugh it off, but then Jules starts seeing a face in the window and seeing images of a girl. Seeing the girl makes her uneasy. She knows something terrible must have happened to her, to make the house feel as it does.

I think the hints of sensuality in the Point Horror books and their bone-chilling creepiness have spoiled me for all other middle grade thrillers, because nothing else comes close. THE GIRL IN THE LOCKED ROOM feels painfully tame, kind of like some of the sillier Goosebumps titles. It tries to be interesting and different, referring to multiverse theory and the idea of altering a terrible event to change the future, but the way it's written just doesn't really pan out. I know I'm much older than the target audience for this book, but I think even most middle grade kids would probably turn up their noses at this.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy! 

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Nothing Good Can Come from This by Kristi Coulter

I wasn't expecting much when I picked up NOTHING GOOD CAN COME FROM THIS, which is maybe why it completely blew all of my preconceived notions of what it would be about out of the water. Rather than being the typical navel-gazing novel written by your average misanthropic Gen-Yer, NOTHING GOOD CAN COME OF THIS is reminiscent of early David Sedaris. It's an utterly bitter, utterly hilarious memoir of alcoholism, womanhood, and adulthood.

I devoured this memoir. It was so good. Kristi Coulter has so many valid points about how society drives people to drink, and how it can make people - especially women - feel both vulnerable and empowered. So many crucial moments of her life revolved around drink, and it became a crutch that she used to compensate for difficult moments. She never absolves herself of personal responsibility, which I liked, and she makes a point of showing how difficult it is to live with addiction.

NOTHING GOOD CAN COME OF THIS is a really poignant memoir that made me laugh and also gave me all the feels. There are a lot of "alcoholism" memoirs out there, but this is definitely one of the better ones I've ever read. You should read it, too!

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Dancergirl by Carol M. Tanzman

Alicia Ruffino is a dancer in New York. Being the daughter of a single working mom comes with baggage, so it's important to have something to define herself as. That's why she's so determined to excel in her dance competition and snag the solo part. Her dancing is well known to her friends, and one day, her friend Charlie gets the idea of filming her from afar under the pseudonym Shyboy. Uploading the video and calling her dancergirl, he creates a narrative in which he, the sensitive loner type, is pining after the ethereal manic pixie dream girl from afar. The video goes viral, and Alicia finds the taste of fame sours on the tongue, especially when it brings her unwanted attention in the form of a stalker.

I really wanted to like this book. I'm a sucker for stalker stories and for stories about dancing, but this book completely fell flat. Alicia is such an unlikable character. I mean, this is a girl who makes light of her mother's profession as a nurse and whose first reaction when she sees her friend crying is, "Hey, let's watch this video of ME online!" - what makes it worse is that it turns out the friend is crying because they have a degenerative disease. Wow, way to be all sensitive and sh*t, Alicia. The story is also pretty lame. I kept reading because I wanted to find out who the stalker is, but man, it takes FOREVER and with little payoff.

I think what made it worse is that I've recently read a much better YA dance story about sex and scandal called THE HIT LIST, and I've read a much better book about a stalker called THE BOOK OF YOU. By comparison, DANCERGIRL felt really tone deaf and read as though it were written by someone who only encountered teenagers through reruns of Degrassi. Very disappointing.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Perfect by V.J. Chambers

I bought this book when it was on sale for 99-cents because I really liked what I've read from this author before (for the most part) and the summary sounded a lot like a modern homage to STEPFORD WIVES, which is one of my favorite horror novels (and I love both movies as well, for different reasons). A reboot with fresh-faced yoga moms sporting glow-ups? It's the obvious conclusion.

Sidney, the heroine of this novel, is twice-divorced, overweight, and a struggling self-published author who has just moved to the bedroom community of Lassister Cove. All of the women there are yoga moms in the extreme and keep raving about this exclusive and intensive spa treatment called "Regimen," available at the Lotus spa and massage center. Everyone who's been through it says it's completely changed their lives - physically and mentally.

But there's a dark twist. Some of the people who participated in the spa treatment have disappeared. And the one person who's been friendly to her, a man named Leo, is most definitely in on it and hiding something from her. He seems to be on her side, and she's more attracted to him than she feels that she should be, but when her adult daughter starts to join the Regimen program, Sidney must play her cards very carefully...especially when her own life may be at risk.

God, this was so suspenseful and good. I blew through it in just a few hours (hence the lack of status updates). It kind of reminds me of a Criminal Minds episode I watched that creeped me out for days afterwards (can't say any more, because spoilers, but if you read this, and you watch criminal minds, I'm pretty sure you'll know exactly what I'm talking about). It was definitely inspired by Stepford Wives too but is different enough that I was never entirely sure what was going to happen, or what sort of twist it might take. I also feel like maybe there's a dash of Anne Stuart in this as well - she's famous in her psychological thrillers for having heroes who also might be the villain.

Honestly, it's a bit of a crime how underrated this author is. She's like Tarryn Fisher in that even while you can tell that her works are self-published, that gives them this edgy, personal charm that you probably wouldn't get in something mass-produced and edited multiple times, watered down in order to be palatable to a PC audience. She's had a couple books I didn't like so much but man, her thrillers are awesome. I can't wait to read the others I have on my Kindle so I can go out and buy some more.

Oh and that ending - that ending was brutal.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Blackmail Marriage by Earithen

Penny Jordan is one of those classic Harlequin authors, like Charlotte Lamb and Sara Craven, that are basically must-reads if you want to get into the retro "HQ Presents" books. When Netgalley suddenly appeared with a bunch of Harlequin Manga adaptations of popular romances, I was delighted to see that one of them was a Penny Jordan adaptation.

The plot of THE BLACKMAIL MARRIAGE is pretty basic. The heroine is the daughter of a prince's financial advisor in a made-up country called "Santander," which is allegedly between France and Italy and also appears to be the name of a popular bank (I Googled it). The prince has a thing for her and they smoosh, but then this evol countess tells her that the prince is just toying with her while he waits for his marriage with her daughter to go through, and she flounces away in tears.

Obviously, it turns out the evol countess with a stake in this whole marriage thing was - gasp - lying, which the heroine finds out when the daughter breaks it off to marry her handsome (and much lower maintenance) brother instead. When she returns the ring, the prince says, "Cool beans, I'll marry you instead." Cue whirlwind marriage arrangement of prince to his commoner bride, rife with scandal and danger in the form of mafiosi and anti-monarchy activists.

One of the key attractions for me with these books is the art, but I did not like the art in this book. It felt very basic and amateurish, kind of like the popular fanmade doujinshi you sometimes see at anime conventions and on Deviantart. It wasn't bad, but it did not have that classic shoujo style that I normally love about these books, whether I love the story itself or not. In this case, the story was also pretty basic as well, so there wasn't really much of anything to keep me engaged in the book.

Oh my God, and the hero and heroine looked like Cardcaptor Sakura characters or Fire Emblem characters or something. I wanted to lol at the prince's flowy cape (this is a modern story) and his delicate ceremonial tiara. And when they go on their engagement cruise, the heroine is wearing an ornament in her hair that looks just like Sailor Moon's magical compact, and a dress that makes her look like a magical girl in want of a scepter. Oh, and then the prince has an identical half-brother who wears an Assassin's Creedesque hooded cowl to go unnoticed lol. Seems legit. Apparently the artist didn't even do all the work herself as in the end of the book, she says in a note, "Quite often, I get the question, "Is that background a photograph?" No, no. My remarkable assistants meticulously add in the shading details with pens and pencils." Okay, well, I wish she'd credited her assistants in this book, then, especially since she goes on to add, in a vaguely self-congratulatory tone, "These backgrounds are drawn better than the people." Well, credit your assistants, then!

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Bettie Page: The Lost Years: An Intimate Look at the Queen of Pinups, Through Her Private Letters & Never-Published Photos by Tori Rodriguez

If you pick this up expecting softcore pornography, you're going to be very disappointed. This is not a collection of Bettie Page's most risque and memorable shots. Instead, it's a quiet biography told in photographs and stills, recounting how she got into modeling, her personal life during the peak of her fame, and then the so-called "lost years" after she dropped out of modeling - and making public appearances - entirely, basically becoming a recluse.

It's interesting to learn so much about Bettie Page because she was one of the keystones of the pin-up craze of the 50s, and I feel that she had as much influence on fashion then as Kim Kardashian does on fashion now, for better or for worse. Obviously, having your looks be the focus of all your worth as a human being would be trying for anyone, but it seemed especially hard for Bettie and her sister, Goldie, who both seemed to struggle with their weight and, as they got older, had many physiological ailments. Bettie also was apparently put into mental health facilities at several points as her mental illness flared up more as she got older.

There isn't a lot to say about this book, really. I liked the letters and photos and it was an interesting inside look at a cult celebrity figure. If you're interested in that sort of thing I think you'd really enjoy this book. I did.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

There's an author named "Jennifer Wilde" who wrote some of the trashiest, longest-winded bodice rippers I've ever encountered, always both lewd and boring, with heroines who go through hell and back and yet are somehow remarkably detached on an emotional level from anything happening to them, whether it's the death of a loved one or brutal rape at the hands of a captor. The stories are sometimes interesting, but virtually all of the voices of all of this author's heroines are interchangeable, because the only thing they lack more than agency is any kind of personality.

Jennifer Wilde is actually a man named T.E. Huff, and Jennifer Wilde is his bodice ripper pen name. He also had a gothic romance pen name, "Edwina Marlow." I've read two of his books recently, ONCE MORE, MIRANDA and ANGEL IN SCARLET, which were rags to riches tales similar to THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT. Also like QUEEN OF THE NIGHT, both of these books were much longer than they needed to be and read as if they were written by someone who had never actually sat down and listened to a women regale the stories of her life before. I know how that sounds, and I'm sure Chee has talked to women, but man, the heroine of this book was bland AF and didn't seem to have any emotions at all. I've seen mirrors that were deeper than Lilliet Berne. And the book is written from her POV, so there is no escaping it.

I bring up Jennifer Wilde because that author is a prime example of a male author who has a good idea for a story starring a female hero, but who doesn't have the chops to back it up. There is no excuse for failing to make Lilliet Berne interesting. She lost her entire family to sickness, then went to work in a circus, then became a prostitute and then the servant to a noblewoman (or maybe vice-versa, I may be mixing up the order), and then she became the captive lover of an evil man, and then she escaped and became an opera singer-slash-courtesan in her own right. With a colorful tapestry like that at the backstory, I should be scarfing this down like it's "all you can eat" Tuesday at the Bodice Ripper Bistro, and the entree of the day is Rosemary Rogers au gratuitous WTFERY. But this book was BORING. I didn't want to believe the people who were saying that this book was boring and slow - I thought to myself, "Well, maybe they don't appreciate a book that takes a while to build up its characters." Some people don't. But this was circuitous, with the heroine constantly telling things to us instead of showing them to us (as unemotionally as possible), and by the time I was 25% to the end I basically started skimming heavily and ignoring 85% of what I was reading. Something about a duel and a final showdown and I think someone gets doused in gasoline. I don't even care.

Apparently this book was many years in the making and it is well-researched and has some well-written passages and descriptions. The problem, I think, is that the author fell so in love with his own writing and grandiose ideas that he forgot all about the heroine. How else to explain why she feels like such an afterthought in her own narration? There are Phantom of the Opera vibes! Faust vibes! Memoirs of a Geisha vibes! HOW WAS THIS BAD? She had this terribad life that she was trying to keep secret for all these years - and then one day, someone presents her with a play that mirrors the secrets of her dark past? WHAT. That sounded amazing. How was this not amazing?? What dark and evil magics were afoot to make this so? I don't always agree with Goodreads At Large, but the critics were definitely right about this one: it was a huge disappointment. I barely finished.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Wyndham Legacy by Catherine Coulter

OMG, it's been forever since I actually sat down and reviewed one of these WTF!vintage novels. Given the choice between Johanna Lindsey and Catherine Coulter, I'd go with Catherine Coulter every time. My only beef with her is that she's apparently been censoring - read: rewriting - some of her older works, and apparently taking out the bodice-rippery elements. I get why she might want to do this, but it's a major bummer for readers like me who enjoy bodice rippers in spite of (or because of) their less savory, un-PC elements. So if you're going to read Catherine Coulter for the full bodice ripper ~experience~, finding a vintage paperback or hardback is probably going to be your best bet.

I picked up my ~original~ old skool copy at a thrift store and it did not disappoint. Josephina Cochrane is a bastard, which she finds out after hearing some of the servants gossiping about her, and being a ballsy sort of wench, she actually confronts her father's wife to figure out what it means, because she knows that since her father's wife hates her, she won't hold back the truth. And take her to Truth City she does, gleefully informing Josephina that bastard means that her mother's a husband-stealing whore.

Josephina is pure composure and has all the chill, which has led to people calling her Duchess - especially her cousin, Marcus, who finds himself creepily attracted to her despite the fact that he is an older teenager and she is scarcely adolescent. Ew. Flash forward years later and Duchess finds out that her father later married her mother (after the bad wife died) to legitimize her birth, only both of them had the misfortune to die without telling her first. She finds out from his lawyer after the fact, although her father has left a curious addendum to his will: he's cut out Marcus, the original heir, and given everything to her - with the proviso that she marry Marcus. If not, she gets 50,000 pounds (still a lot of money) and Marcus gets an allowance that is livable but by no means luxurious.

The plot is a whirlwind of action and drama. There's a secret inheritance hidden Scooby Doo style, according to legend. There's attempted murder and betrayal. Josephina drugs Marcus to trick him into marrying her, because she wants that money. Marcus repays her in kind by taking her by force and then mocking her that he's never going to get her pregnant. Josephina goes to Marcus's mistress and they have a friendly chat that goes in a direction I completely did not anticipate. There's a bitchy cousin who says terrible things under her breath and then lies through her teeth about it. There's servants with heirs who could be extras from a Shakespeare comedy of errors. And oh, probably about half a dozen things that I forgot - oh, yes, when Marcus acts truly dickish, Josephina starts beating him first with a whip and then with a bridle, and he's completely shocked off his ass. I know violence is awful, but usually in books like these, the heroine ends up brutalized, so it was refreshing to see a genuine spitfire who reacted to this misogynistic abuse with anger and outrage.

If you're a fan of WTF!romances and especially WTF!romances with enemies-to-lovers, you should pick up THE WYNDHAM LEGACY. It's a little too slow-paced for my liking, which is why it gets three stars instead of four, but it was dead fun, and I really enjoyed the parts that I did like.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

This book is called THE DARKEST MINDS but it could just as well be called THE X-HUNGERVERGENT GAMES, seeing as how it's a snapshot of everything that was trending in 2012. Set in the ambiguous "near-future," an idiopathic degenerative virus (idiopathic being medical jargon for "fuck if I know") has killed most of the United States' children. The ones who survive get neat, psychic powers. Rather than doing anything useful with these powers - which come in five forms: telekinesis, super-intelligence, fire-starting, electrical manipulation, and mind control/reading - the government says, "Hey, let's create a whole bunch of concentration camps to send the kids to! Only we'll call them rehabilitation camps and we'll tell the parents that we're fixing the kids. BECAUSE, YOU KNOW, THAT WORKED SO WELL BEFORE, HISTORICALLY." So the kids must fight for their lives against this fascist, Nazi-like government. And apparently all of the parents in this book are as dickish as the PSF ("Psi Special Forces"), or the government agents in this book, because nobody protests or marches against this. They're just like, "Yeah, fuck kids! Take mine too!"


Ruby, our heroine, has been stuck in one of these camps since she was ten. She is now sixteen. Oh, and she's a special-specialton who has one of the most rare and dangerous powers of them all; she is an Orange (e.g. psychic). She had the foresight to trick her doctor into thinking she was one of the harmless super-intelligent kids when she saw that all of the Reds, Oranges, and Yellows were being sent away, but that is literally the only smart thing she does in the book. From that point on, it's stupid decision after stupid decision. She's also a coward, and a firm follower of the three Ws: whiny, wimpy, and wussy. Want a heroine who bemoans what a monster she is and stands frozen in fear when forced to make any sorts of tough decisions? LMAO, no? Too bad. Her sole quality, apart from her special and rare powers, is her hotness (which she doesn't even know she has), and which you will be reminded of repeatedly from all male characters, usually in uncomfortable and rapey ways.

The rest of the cast is as by the numbers as the tropes of the plot. There's token ethnic girl with stupid nickname (because taking the time to learn to pronounce someone's ethnic name is so un-American) whose sole job is to look cute. There's token Good Guy Greg love interest who falls into insta-love with the heroine's lack of personality and advocates for her without any sort of basis (oh wait, she's hot). There's sidekick lackey with vaguely sexual nickname whose sole purpose is the laughs. And then there's the Red Herring Villain, the one who might as well have a neon sign that says EVIL, DO NOT TRUST, but everyone trusts him and of course he's much hotter than the Good Guy Greg love interest, because beautiful heroines need at least two love interests and the fans need a villain to write bad fanfiction about that they can later republish into a best-selling contemporary romance about sports or college love or some shit.

What annoyed me the most about this book was the wasted potential. It's readable in a way that DIVERGENT was not and the first couple chapters were decent. What bogs this book down is the tedious main character and the fact that nothing really happens. Honestly, I think that's why the movie bombed. If you shave out all of the introspective whining, this book is mostly Ruby walking or driving around and talking to people. Cut out the middle, and the end of the book literally takes off right where the beginning of the book ended, with no character development. We also don't know much more about their powers. As far as I recall, most of their abilities are not explicitly defined in this book - I had to look at some of the reviews for this book to figure out which did what. (Orange? Yellow? Red? Please tell me someone ironically picked Lorde's Yellow Flicker Beat as a soundtrack to this movie so I can laugh my ass off.) Also, major plotholes virtually everywhere you look. Why is this disease only affecting Americans, and specifically, American children? Why aren't the other countries that the United States has a history of being a douche to seizing the advantage and invading or overpowering the nation? So they put up quarantine blockades. Big freaking whoop. Also, the name of the book itself is pretty stupid because brains light up when they're active, so if anything these kids should have the brightest minds (and speaking of bright minds, what the hell is up with these stupid doctors who get tricked by kids at the drop of a hat and fail to produce any sorts of results with medical testing? Get a CAT scan. Take a blood test. Do an EKG. If kids were dying, you can bet that people would be pouring money into funding to stop the progress of the disease - and I highly doubt society would collectively shrug its shoulders and say, "Yeah, take away our kids to be imprisoned, tortured, and executed," psychic symptoms or no. And do you really expect that a teenager was the only person in the country who saw the potential uses of kids with super powers? REALLY?

I'm honestly not sure why this book is as popular as it is. The writing is not great and the plot is not particularly original. It has an okay premise, but STEELHEART and BURN FOR ME by Brandon Sanderson and Ilona Andrews have very similar concepts, and they did it much better. I guess the color-by-sorting hat premise will appeal to teens, who like defining themselves with neat little labels, but Divergent and Harry Potter beat Alexandra Bracken to that, with much success. HUNGER GAMES has more action and better fight scenes, with a kick-ass heroine to boot, and even though both have Amandla Stenberg stealing scenes like the BAMF she is, Hunger Games accords her so much more dignity than The Darkest Minds (which made me want to cringe just by watching the trailer alone, after seeing the mid-2000s special "eye" effects & the Michael Bay-esque explosions). YA Dystopians are so five years ago, and I'm honestly surprised that the people behind the movie didn't learn their lesson from Allegiant's ironically bleak and dystopic fate at the box office.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Book of You by Claire Kendal

It's a rare breed of book that actually manages to do the emotional equivalent of kneeing me in the balls, but this book did exactly that. I was in turmoil while reading this, figuratively biting my nails while frantically flipping through the pages, disgusting with the villain and society at large, while hoping, nay, praying, that the heroine wouldn't end the book as another statistic for society's gross negligence in its treatment of female victims. It was intense. Why does this book only have a 3.59 rating on Goodreads? It is leagues better than what I have read by Mary Kubica, easily on par with thrillers such as Caroline Kepnes's YOU or John Fowles's THE COLLECTOR. I'm honestly shocked at how many people didn't like this book, or who down-rated it because they were disgusted by the main character's helplessness. I'm sorry, but wasn't that the point? She felt helpless, both because of what was happening her and because no one was around to help.

THE BOOK OF YOU is a book about stalking, but saying it like that doesn't really do the book justice. Clarissa works in a university and enjoys knitting and sewing vintage clothing. She's an ordinary woman who made the mistake of getting emotionally involved with a married man, and a disgusting creep named Rafe preyed on her when she was emotionally vulnerable, which culminated in a one night stand that was pretty much date rape. She would give anything to forget that night, but Rafe has taken that as a sign that they need to be together, and stalks her relentlessly, giving her unwanted gifts, involving himself in the lives of her friends, following her to her home, around her work place (they're colleagues), and even on her errands. She's terrified - and not just of Rafe; she's also terrified because she knows that the police are unlikely to help because Rafe is a skilled manipulator, and society is much, much too quick to blame the victim.

The only place Clarissa feels safe is at the courtroom. She's the juror for a truly awful case: a girl who was kidnapped, raped, and tortured because of her involvement with the criminal underworld. Because she did drugs, dealt drugs, and engaged in prostitution, the prosecution are doing their best to sully her credibility and paint her as a drugged-up harlot who is either too confused to understand what really happened or too cowardly to own up to her own responsibility in what happened to her. It's truly sickening, and sickeningly realistic, and as the court case starts to mirror what's happening in Clarissa's own life, she finds herself becoming increasingly stressed. She has to make society to believe her. She doesn't want to be another victim blamed for her own abuse. So she starts documenting everything and fighting back... and that's when things get scary.

I seriously could not put this book down. It's a long book but I finished it in a day. Some books grab you and don't let go. THE BOOK OF YOU is one of those books. Not only is this an iron-tight thriller with some truly phenomenal pacing and character building, it has some on-point social commentary on victims - the ones on pedestals, the ones who don't fit our idea of what a victim should look like and act like; the sometimes unfortunate ineffectiveness of law enforcement in handling harassment and abuse; the isolation and helplessness that comes from experiencing abuse or stalking; the relentlessness of the abusers and the stalkers in how far they'll go to discredit their victims while dealing out their own personal brands of hell. This is torture, and this book contains trigger warnings across the board. I was upset. You'll probably be, too. Poor Clarissa. There wasn't a moment that I wasn't rooting for her, wanting to scream "YOU'RE GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT!" and Rafe, my God... what a truly despicable piece of trash. He was evil, and vulnerable and human in his evil, which made him even more disgusting and frightening, if possible.

Read this book. It's so good. Easily one of my favorite thrillers ever. I'm honestly shocked that it doesn't have more buzz, but you know what they say: be the chance you want to see in the world.

5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Save the Cake by Stella Torres

I love baking shows, especially The Great British Bake-Off and Adriano Zumbo's Sugar Rush. They are so wholesome and so delicious, even if they usually cause me to go to the store in search of some tasty doughnuts or pies. SAVE THE CAKE, then, seemed like a good choice for me, as it is the story of a baker who falls in love with a videographer while making a fancy cake for a wedding.

SAVE THE CAKE is written by Filipino author, Stella Torres, who is part of #romanceclass. I bought this while their August promotions were still on-going, along with probably a dozen other books. I love networked deals like this, because it lets me try a variety of similar books to see which authors' styles I like and which I don't. I've already found a number of new favorite authors through the #romanceclassdeals, all of them #OwnVoices.

SAVE THE CAKE is very cute and the cake descriptions lived up to my expectations. It's also one of the longer romances in the #romanceclass collective, as many of them are just over or under 100 pages. However, this one just didn't grab my interest the way some of the other books did. Eloisa was interesting but I wish there were more descriptions of her working, and that her romance with Sean was better fleshed-out. I also feel like her family drama was brushed over, especially the tension with her brother, Paul, who said and did some pretty awful things to her, and then at the end she forgave him very quickly. What?

This isn't an awful book for 99-cents but I can't really give it the ringing endorsement that I have given other #romanceclass titles. I put this on ice for a while, hoping I'd get more enthusiastic about it, but ended up forgetting most of what happened in the book. :/

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Dark Lord by Kathryn Le Veque

DNF @ 9%

I'm trying to clean out my Kindle and one of my current projects is trying to focus on the authors who have the greatest bodies of work. That way, if I like their work, I can go on a binge-reading spree; and if I don't like their work, I can go on a mass-deleting spree and get rid of a significant number of books from my already over-packed Kindle.

I often see Le Veque's historicals for free in the Kindle store, so I think I have about 12 of them at this point. I'll admit to being somewhat warier about self-published historical authors because of the amount of research it takes to write something solid and realistic, but authors such as Elizabeth Kingston and Courtney Milan have soothed my fears and taught me not to be such a snob in such matters.

THE DARK LORD is about a man named Ajax de Velt and when we meet him, he is busy storming a castle in what I imagine is somewhere in the modern-day UK. Once there, we meet the heroine, who pleads weepy tears for her father's life. Shortly thereafter, he forces her to strip naked in her cell and issues some bare-bottom spankings for her defiance before... ordering her to get dressed and start playing accountant in order to tally up all of his newly-gotten assets.

A disclaimer: I'm no historian but the sheer amount of anachronisms in this book were astounding. A woman who calls herself Kelli with an 'i'? A man whose nickname is Jax? Women wearing pantalettes beneath their dresses? A knight named Ajax at a time when most people were illiterate?

The writing is also not great. There's a lot of tell-not-show, and it feels very clunky. Kind of like some of Connie Mason's books. Just super cheesy, like something you'd see from the early 90s with a Fabio cover and some really bad early Photoshop.

I went to check the author's profile, curious to see what books she used in her research, and saw to my dismay that she had not only rated all of her own books 5 stars, she was also being incredibly ungracious with some of her Ask the Author responses on her profile. That, combined with my lack of enthusiasm with the book, made me come to a grinding halt at 9%.

I'll be deleting all of this author's books from my Kindle, unread. Luckily, I got most of them for free, but unfortunately I think I might have paid for one or two of them. Oops. :/

1 out of 5 stars

Survival of the Richest by Skye Warren

DNF @ 72%

That's it, I'm tossing in the tea towel. I was buddy-reading this with my friends Shruti and MG, but after several days of struggling to maintain my attention with this book, I can't stand it anymore. I think my honeymoon period with Skye Warren is over, and I'm deleting all of her books off my Kindle except for the Masterpiece series, which is the only one I feel like finishing.

You can't say that I didn't give Ms. Warren a fair shot. Including this book, I've read seven of her novels and novellas. I really liked the first Endgame novel and I liked the prequel to Masterpiece. About the others, my reaction can be summed up as "meh."

I had several problems with SURVIVAL OF THE RICHES, however, that just couldn't be ignored.

❌️ The first 99 pages is LITERALLY the free-to-read prequel, TRUST FUND. When I picked up SURVIVAL OF THE RICHEST, I felt like I'd read the beginning before. That's because I had. The first 99 pages of this book contains the prequel, TRUST FUND, which I'd already read and reviewed. And sure, you can say that it's nice of the author to bundle the prequel in to the novella - but when this novel first went up, it still cost $. I got it when it was free, and it was still free, but I imagine her fans aren't cheapskates like I am. They probably shell out $ for her work because I imagine they read the books as soon as they come out (as loyal fans do) and I can't imagine them being very happy at being forced to skim through nearly 100 pages of word-for-word regurgitated content. Maybe it was the author being nice and trying to make things convenient for her fans, but it also could be a sneaky attempt to bulk up the page count of this "novel" to make people feel like they're getting more.

❌️ The plot of this story revolves around whether or not to save this abandoned library that the rich love interests want to tear down and turn into the mall. I'm sorry, is this an erotic novel or a back to school special from the 90s about cultural values and community outreach? Also, how can you possibly expect me to root for a love interest who wants to bulldoze a library down. Think very carefully about who your target audience is. Now think about what you're doing. #Nope

❌️ The sex scenes are tired and uninteresting. I thought the sex scenes in THE PAWN, the first Endgame book, were hot. The ones in here were gross and stupid. You should hear what the heroine shouts while the hero gives her oral sex. Also they have sex in that library he wants to tear down while he spanks her with a book. That poor, poor book. It didn't ask to be a part of this.

❌️ Love triangle. Need I say more? Between two heroes I don't care about, because they are apparently library-haters. Also, I don't dig the whole alpha showdown of "who's got the bigger D?" that these dudes apparently have going on. Any dude who acts like I'm a trophy that he must win would be better off playing in a bowling league... or maybe Mario Kart. If you're into that thing, bully for you. Maybe you'll like this. I thought it was a pretty lame love triangle, as far as these things go, and if you read the prequel, TRUST FUND, before this, the love triangle basically shatters your expectations about who the heroine will end up with.

Overall, not for me. *deletes all Skye Warren books from Kindle*

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 3, 2018

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren

This kind of reads like Christina Lauren took the plot of one of Mariana Zapata's friends-to-lovers (or willful-denial-to-lovers, as I think of them) stories and replaced the heroine with a manic pixie dream girl. Josh Im and Hazel Bradford have known each other since college. Josh comes from a close-knit Korean family, is very conservative and down-to-earth. Hazel, on the other hand, sees nothing wrong with dancing in the middle of a field or deciding to make spur-of-the-moment blueberry pancakes without a recipe book or a mind for neatness. Yes, I pictured her as Zooey Deschanel.

I tried reading BEAUTIFUL BASTARD and thought it was godawful, but JOSH AND HAZEL'S GUIDE TO NOT DATING won me over with its winsome summary. Initially, I was smitten. I thought Josh was cute and even though Hazel's behavior was a bit too Amelie for me, I did like the message that men only want manic pixie dream girls that fit into their fantasies - any sorts of other quirkiness or unconventionalism is unwelcome, especially if it threatens their masculinity. So I thought that was a good message and thought that maybe I could stomach Hazel's manic pixie dream girl tendencies if she was allowed to do it on her own terms and not for a boy.

The problems come halfway through when Hazel and Josh start setting each other up on hilariously bad blind dates. At first it's funny, because they have a better time with each other and even admit to themselves that they're with the wrong person. But the cycle of denial persists for another one hundred pages and then the book introduces a trope that I hate but can't say because it's a spoiler, and this spoiler ends up helping to bring the characters together at the end. It was upsetting to me because this was such an original and quirky romance at first that actually had me laughing out loud, but then the last 100 pages are a miserable experience of two people refusing to sit down and fucking talk.

I'm giving this 3 stars because I think it was a good romance and I do like it, but it loses the 1.5 I was going to give it in the beginning for falling to lazy and trope-ridden lows to end the book instead of taking a more mature (and less cliche) out of the narrative hole it dug itself into.

P.S. There is a child in here whose parents allow them to dress in ways that go against gender norms and I thought that was sweet. That's part of the reason this gets a solid three, and not a 2.5 to 3.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

I am shocked that this was published by the same Octavia E. Butler who wrote PARABLE OF THE SOWER and KINDRED. It felt like it was written by a totally different person. If I hadn't looked at the publication date and seen the "2005," I would have thought that this was a less-successful first novel. That seriously bums me out because I love vampire novels, and the idea of reading a novel about a black vampire that explores the themes of racism within a supernatural context sounded fascinating, especially since I had loved what I'd read of this author before and how she explored similar themes within the science-fiction framework. Joining me in this buddy read was my fellow vampire-lover, Heather, who doesn't seem to be into this book either for many of the same reasons I'm about to dive into.

Shori is an adolescent vampire who awakes at the beginning of the novel to find herself mortally wounded and in a severe amount of pain. She's picked by a hitchhiker who intends to drive her to the hospital - until she bites him and that makes him sexually attracted to her and crave her like she's a drug and he's an addict. This would be fine if she didn't flipping look like a preteen. It's mentioned several times that she looks like a child, and while complaining about this in one of my status updates, I had someone basically tell me that I shouldn't be so offended. Well, I am. I think that's gross. And I don't care if she's fifty-three in human years, even in vampire years she's prepubescent, because it's mentioned several times that she's not fully developed and can't yet reproduce, even if her sexual organs are functioning (ugh and they are - prepare yourself for incredibly gross sex scenes).

I don't have children so I can't imagine how gross and uncomfortable this would be for people who do. I don't want to read about adolescent sex (or sex with people who look adolescent), especially not if it's framed as a functional and desirable relationship. I get that Octavia Butler was a daring writer who pushed boundaries of what was socially acceptable in order to challenge the status quo (something my critic seemed to be arguing, albeit slightly less eloquently), but it's my right to say when I feel like an author goes too far for my own personal tastes. I felt the same way about Bryn Greenwood's ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS, which is basically a romance between an eight-year-old girl and a fully grown man. One person's "oh my god, that's so brave and literary!" is another person's "no, god no, why would you write that? what the hell?"

Apart from the grossness of the female character and her - ahem - relationships with other characters in the book, I did like the way vampires were presented here (they call themselves the Ina, and they have their own rules and social hierarchies that reminded me of the Xenogenesis saga, except that didn't have gross underage freakiness), and I thought the trial at the end was interesting. The problem with this book is that it's slow AF, and while the human and compassionate part of you wants Shori to get revenge for the awful things that happened to her, the reader and hedonist part of you is going to be bored off your ass waiting for anything resembling a climax (EW, no, not that kind of climax - get out of here you gross person) to happen. This is Butler's weakest effort by far.

1.5 out of 5 stars

That Kind of Guy by Mina V. Esguerra

I'm loving the new covers with the Filipino models. The old covers were super cute in that mid-2000s chick-lit way, but it's great to see actual rep on book covers. Mina V. Esguerra's Chic Manila books are a series of contemporary #OwnVoices romance novels set in the Philippines. Specifically, Manila. Through the #romanceclassdeals of August, I was able to snap up MY IMAGINARY EX, which I loved, for 99-cents. Part of me was hoping that I was going to be able to snap up the entire series for 99-cents, but I did manage to get NOT THAT KIND OF GUY, which I consider a steal.

NOT THAT KIND OF GUY is about Julie and Anton. Julie is one of those women who is old beyond her years, and shells out advice to her friends that they don't want to hear. She reminds me of this CollegeHumor sketch that came out a few weeks ago, called The Mom of the Friend Group. I have the same personality, so I really related to Julie. Anton, on the other hand, is a playboy who ends up dating Julie because her neurotic behavior amuses him. They end up going out for a while and then she breaks up with him when he proposes, thinking simultaneously that he both bores her with his new reformed state and that she's terrified it's all a lie.

I liked THAT KIND OF GUY a lot, but it didn't reel me in the way MY IMAGINARY EX did. I think that's because MY IMAGINARY EX delves deeper into the personal lives of the characters beyond their romantic entanglements. A huge part of MY IMAGINARY EX is about Jasmine's female friendships, and while some of that is present in THAT KIND OF GUY, the shorter page length means fewer time spent on Julie's work and family life, much to the book's detriment.

I also felt like the relationship between them was kind of weird. I didn't really understand why Julie broke up with Anton. I mean, I did in principle, but it wasn't explained well in the book. Then they get back together, with Anton saying, "Let me show you what I was like with those other girls," and proceeds to show her how good she had it by treating her like semi-garbage (he can't quite manage to bring himself to go whole hog-wild because he's still in love with her, how romantic, *eye roll*). This felt uncomfortable and contrived, and made me like Anton less, whereas the romance in MY IMAGINARY EX was much more believable and compelling. I also did not like the attempt at a love triangle, which shows up in the presence of "Harry," one of those 'nice guys' who feels that it is his civic duty to bemoan the stupidity of women who end up in relationships with bad men.

This is probably my least favorite Chic Manila books so far. I liked the heroine but not the hero and I felt like the romance between them needed more development.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Star Dust by Emma Barry

I got this for free in a bundle of feminist-friendly romances a couple years ago that the authors had given out as ARCs to readers. I'm only just now getting around to it and I'm sorry about that! (But better late than never, right?) After reading STAR DUST, I'm thinking to myself that maybe I don't read enough cute romances because this... was really, really cute. Cute with substance.

STAR DUST is set in the 1960s, during the days of the cold war and the space race. Anne-Marie Smith is newly divorced, an oddity in these times, and is dealing with a lot of the social stigma her new and unusual marital status brings. Kit Campbell is an astronaut and a playboy. They're new neighbors in their suburban development, and the attraction between them is as instant as it is unwanted. Kit is reluctant to change his ways and knows that anyone who dates him will be in the limelight. Anne-Marie has two kids to think of, and is still trying to find her identity as an individual - not as a partner.

I wasn't expecting much from STAR DUST but it proceeded to shatter each and every one of my expectations or lack thereof. Obviously in a period piece, it's important to get the setting right, but while reading this, I felt like I was smack-dab in the middle of the 1960s. It gave me Stepford vibes. I also love seeing the hero and the heroine at work in romances, because I think it's important to show the characters as individuals who exist outside of being in a couple, and Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner did that. There's scenes of Kit flying into space, of him training for the process, and even scenes of him dealing (with some ambivalence) with the fame and hero worship of his job. Likewise, we also get to see Anne-Marie as a mom who deals with her kids' hurts, bakes and cooks meals, and who also works as a travel agent and finds joy in being able to achieve success outside of the typical housewife role. Her satisfaction was really heart-warming, as is her later heart-to-heart with her boss, who originally judges Anne-Marie unfairly for divorcing her cheating husband.

That's another thing I liked about this book. It brought up a lot of deep and important (and sometimes unsavory) issues that period romances like these tend to brush under the carpet. Writing romances set in the 1960s without sexism and changing gender norms is like writing writing a romance set in the 1860s without slavery. Just because something makes you uncomfortable, that doesn't mean you shouldn't pretend it exists. Many of the feelings Anne-Marie feels about her divorce and the judgments about who she is as a woman from people who don't even know her are still relevant today, and I thought that the authors handled the subject matter extremely well. The emphasis on female friendships and female relationships in this book is also quite lovely.

The romance itself is also great. Kit is hot and the sex scenes between him and Anne-Marie are extremely steamy. Normally playboy characters get on my nerves because they're written like misogynistic jerks but Kit is actually very charming. It's endearing how Anne-Marie forces him to go off-script and makes him second-guess some of the choices he's made in his life and how they are impacting his happiness. I didn't really understand at first why Anne-Marie wanted an affair with him and not a relationship at first, but I guess I get it. Her divorced-status makes her a social pariah and excuses her from the rules that "good girls" are expected to follow, so I guess maybe she was choosing selfish indulgence and mindless pleasure over something more concrete both because it was something she felt denied before, and because it wouldn't have any ties that could become constraints later. After thinking it over, I felt more comfortable with the idea and how it fit in with her characterization, because at first it felt very strange. The resultant sex scenes were totally worth it, though!

If you're tired of sexist romances, I really think STAR DUST will be a breath of fresh air. I really enjoyed how light and cute it was, while still hitting upon all of these relevant issues. In that regard, it reminded me a lot of Courtney Milan's and Beverly Jenkins's works. They're the only other authors who write het romance who manage to touch upon these issues in a meaningful and succinct way without sounding either preachy or ignorant, and I love them for it. Looks like Emma Barry might be joining their ranks in my book. I'm rather desperate to get my hands on A MIDNIGHT CLEAR now, as it's Parsons's book (Kit's boss), and I'm a sucker for the gruff and grumpy tsundere types. :)

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Body Positive Power: How learning to love yourself will save your life by Megan Jayne Crabbe

DNF @ 33%

I had to stop reading this book because it was upsetting me so much and I think it's potentially harmful in the wrong hands (read, emphasis: the 'wrong' hands). Nutrition is something that I am very interested in, since I have some pretty bad food allergies and sensitivities that have kept me from eating processed foods for over a decade. I noticed firsthand what sorts of changes cutting out processed foods seemed to have on my body.

From what I understand, the author is a body positive influencer on Instagram whose platform revolves around feeling comfortable with the way you look even if you don't fit traditional Western stands of beauty (e.g. fit and thin). I think that's great, and I guess her sponsors think so too, because I checked out her 'gram after reading this and it appears that she models a lot of plus-sized clothes to her followers, often in styles and colors that plus-sized women are told that we can't wear. I, myself, am a plus-sized lady, so I can appreciate the efforts behind this. My weight used to be a source of anxiety for me, and then I learned that being happy and healthy was more important. It was a lesson that took many years, and required cutting some toxic people out of my life, but I am much better for it.

Here's where I take issue with this book. I have read a lot of science articles about dieting and nutrition because health is important to me, and I feel like this author cherry-picks her science in order to get the conclusions she wants. Granted, this is my interpretation of her book and maybe you read it differently, but I interpreted it this way. She suggests (and even outright says) many times that dieting is bad and actually causes weight gain, but there's a difference between yo-yo dieting (restricting calories to the point of starvation and then having that bounce-back where your starving body eats all the food and you gain back everything you lost) to long-term dieting that results from substituting less optimal choices (red meat, white bread, soda) for better choices (fish, quinoa, rye bread, water or tea). Some of the things this author says I do agree with - diet teas or "teatox" teas can be bad for you, especially if you're sensitive to the ingredients in them, and juicing just essentially starves your body while injecting a lot of added sugars into your diet. However, the author then says that there's no such thing as a "bad" food and that was when I started to side-eye this book because there is NO WAY you can sit there and tell me that Twinkies and French fries and artificially colored soda and fruit drinks have any sort of redeeming value in terms of nutrition. Eating bad food does not make you a bad person, but I think it is totally fine to be honest with yourself that you're eating garbage. I've eaten garbage before. There are days when I have eaten chips and coffee as my lunch. I don't feel great after doing it, but I just try to eat better for my next meals, maybe buy an extra salad to compensate for the nutritional deficit. That's what dieting is - a mix of checks and balances, where you have to be honest with yourself about what you're eating.

Some people genuinely can't lose weight for various reasons, but that is rare. If you want to lose weight, you have to make long-term changes to your diet and exercise. Exercise is actually less important than diet. Exercise changes your metabolism and has good health benefits but diet is what actually causes you to lose weight: it's net caloric intake. YOU SHOULD NOT STARVE YOURSELF, and weight loss does not happen immediately, but through a blend of healthy, normal exercise (walking in the park, a 20 min. morning jog) and diet weight loss is possible. Perhaps not a lot of weight loss - society instills unrealistic expectations about body size - but some. Even when I was doing heavy physical labor every day and eating only 3 small meals/day, the smallest I've ever been was a size 8. Usually I'm a size 12-16, and at 5'9" many of those older BMI charts would say that I'm almost obese (which is just ridiculous). If you don't want to lose weight, that's fine too. But I think it's dangerous and foolish to blithely ignore the health risks that accompany obesity and chant out slogans like, "There are no bad foods" (or whatever her exact words were) because that is not true, and rather than promoting body positivity, this seems to be enabling bad lifestyle choices. ANYTHING can be done to excess, whether it's not caring what you put into your mouth or caring too much. The trick is moderation. Be healthy, but don't obsess. Eat well, but treat yourself to cake once in a while. Exercise, but don't run yourself ragged. MODERATION.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars 

The Wall of Winnipeg and Me by Mariana Zapata

So at this point, I think I'm well on the way to becoming an unofficial Mariana Zapata expert, having read 5 of her books. It's fascinating to me how her style can remain consistent and yet the quality of how she applies it can vary so much. Take KULTI, which is an amazing book and movie-worthy in terms of pacing and plot, and then take LINGUS, which deserves to be blasted into the sun because I think it's unspeakably awful. Calling it a "piece of sh*t" would be generous, because at least sh*t can be used as fertilizer, but this garbage was utterly toxic and I loathed it.

THE WALL OF WINNIPEG AND ME falls squarely between those two extremes. I did not think it was as good as KULTI. I felt like Aiden was much less endearing than Kulti, maybe because Kulti's gruffness made sense, whereas Aiden just kind of looked like a jerk. I also did not like Vanessa as much as I liked Sal. Sal, with her iron backbone, was of no endless source of amusement to me, whereas Vanessa felt much more timid and doormatty.

I guess if I was describing the plot of THE WALL OF WINNIPEG AND ME, I'd say it's one part Devil Wears Prada, one part The Proposal, and one part Muriel's Wedding. Van has been working as Aiden's personal assistant for two years, and both he and his agent have treated her like garbage the whole time. Finally, she's decided that enough is enough and she's going to quit for her own sanity. Aiden asks her to reconsider and then, after that, requests her to marry him so that he can get citizenship and continue to play American football (he's from Canada). Initially, she refuses, but she's several hundred thousand dollars in the hole for her student loans, and when he agrees to sweeten the deal by paying them all off and buying her a house, she decides to agree to his scheme. After all, they only need to be married for five years. That's practically nothing, right?

I have had a lot to say about Zapata's books and how they upset me. Fecal humor and homophobic jokes are not uncommon in her books and I'm not sure why. I think it's because that's how she thinks dudes are like, and maybe some dudes are, but I don't want to read about them in my escape (fluffy romance). Regardless of the reason, they annoy me. Zapata seems to have cottoned on to that because in KULTI there was a marked reduction in this sort of "locker room talk," and in THE WALL OF WINNIPEG AND ME it was totally absent, as was most of the slut-shaming that I've seen in some of her earlier books. I found this very refreshing and it pleased me that Zapata actually seems to be taking the opinions of her readers into account, because this is something that other readers (not just me) complained about as well, especially LINGUS, which was the worst of the lot.

The beginning of the book is good, because I think Zapata really captures that overworked, under-appreciated mindset of personal assistants. No, the biggest setback of THE WALL OF WINNIPEG is that it's slow AF. I know that "slow burn" is kind of her thing, but this was really slow and felt boring as a result. There's almost no romance between the characters until the very end and I don't think they even have sex until 97%. In the meantime, there's a lot of drama about Van working things out with her incredibly abusive family (especially her sister - ugh), Aiden worrying about his possible deportation and basically being a grump on wheels, and bonding between the characters, which can be cute (I liked their Dragonball Z marathon), but sometimes feels almost gruelingly slow.

I think after KULTI, WALL OF WINNIPEG AND ME is Zapata's second-best book that I've read so far, followed by DEAR AARON, and then RHYTHM, CHORD & MALYKHIN, and then LINGUS coming up dead-last. It certainly isn't a bad book but people were hyping it up to me and saying that it was better than KULTI and I disagree. KULTI is her best book by a long shot. THE WALL OF WINNIPEG AND ME is, at best, inoffensive. I don't regret reading it, but it's not great, either.

3 out of 5 stars

To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo

Here's the thing about my reviews. I will never hype something up just because it's the "in" book of the season and I want to be BFFs with the popular reviewers and publishers. I read a book, and then I say in my review why that book did or didn't work for me, and why, and then I say why it might not work for others. This puts me at odds with the legions of squeeing YA fangirls who seem to think that all praise should be both effusive and unequivocal, but what can you do? Block me or unfollow me, I guess. #YOLO

TO KILL A KINGDOM is one of those hyped up books that was gaining a lot of steam among book "influencers." Which, okay. I tend to take that kind of praise with fifty grains of salt, because one person's idea of "the best book ever," is another person's "who decided to publish this without sending it to an editor first?" My luck with YA and especially YA fantasy has not been stellar. Most of my favorites were published 10+ years ago, and I blame Tumblr in part for giving authors warped ideas about what "everyone" (e.g. people on Tumblr) wants to read. Still, the premise behind this book was intriguing enough that I decided to tackle the task. I mean, a blood-thirsty mermaid and a murderous prince? Um, yes, and also, yes. Nothing is better than a twisted fairy-tale, in my opinion. Count me so in.

The first 150 pages or so of TO KILL A KINGDOM are 4- or 5-star worthy. Lira is a vicious siren known as "The Prince's Bane," because she steals the hearts from princes in order to prolong her own life and extend her powers. Her mother is the vicious Sea Queen, a character right out of GoT, who thinks nothing of murdering family members to teach a lesson, and rules the sea with an iron, er, trident. Prince Elian, on the other hand, is a pirate prince who roves the seas killing sirens, and he enjoys killing them because he is a bit of a psychopath. Lira almost kills him but is stopped at the last moment and then punished by her mother, who thinks making her a human would be an excellent idea. Elian ends up dredging her up from the waters and reluctantly taking her aboard his ship, where she finds out that he's looking for a priceless artifact that has the power to destroy all sirens -

Or give the wielder power over all the oceans. You know, whatever floats the bearer's boat. Literally.

Elian, you see, comes from fake-Greece and has made a deal with a princess from fake-Japan in order to get access to a Forbidden Mountain where the artifact is hidden. And while Lira connives to steal both the artifact and Elian's heart, she slowly finds herself feeling something that isn't quite hatred as far as he is concerned. Maybe violence... isn't the only option? Gasp, what a novel idea. How quaint! How drole! But unfortunately, the Sea Queen may have other ideas...

As I said, the first 150 pages are amazing. Lira is written as a total bad-ass - basically, the kind of girl Celery Saltine-thin from Throne of Glass can only dream about - and Elian is just as ruthless. I loved reading about the depraved things they got into. It was dark. How often is a YA targeted at young women allowed to be dark? But then, right about the time that the end up on that love island, or whatever, things start to fall apart. Lira loses her "gives no sh*ts" attitude and Elian starts to be all, "hurr, durr, girls" and after a fight scene that is simultaneously too long and too convenient, we get the mother of all fanfiction-y endings (and yes, I've read the last Harry Potter book, and this may have been worse than that - this is "I've written a totally original character and her name is Opal Phoenix Melody, and she's half-angel, half-mermaid!" bad). Oh my God, that ending made me mad.

Alexandra Christo is not a bad writer but man, that ending sucked and all but ruined the whole book for me. I was expecting something daring and ruthless and unexpected and got... more YA romance packaged as fantasy. Man, what a disappointment. I'm rating it a little higher because the beginning was so good, but I'm actually kind of furious.

2.5 out of 5 stars