Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Killing Sarai by J.A. Redmerski

 🦇 Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2018 Reading Challenge for the category of: A romance novel with blood on the cover 🦇

I was not a fan of THE EDGE OF NEVER. To this day, it is one of the most irritating new adult books I have read. That said, I was still enthused about picking up KILLING SARAI. My friends on here kept recommending it to me, saying that it reminded them of my own work. I think that's one of the highest compliments you can get as an author, because you (ideally) write the stories that you wish you can read yourself, so when someone tells you that they've found a work similar to yours, it's like Christmas come early (and this is how I've discovered some of my favorite books incidentally, like THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME). Second, I'm a James Bond girl at heart (no, not that kind of Bond girl), so whenever I hear about a book with a dangerous mercenary with a gun, I get irrationally excited. #Nostalgia

I really wanted to like KILLING SARAI, but I didn't. To be fair, it is a much, much better book than THE EDGE OF NEVER. I hated THE EDGE OF NEVER and wanted to throw it at the wall. KILLING SARAI just made me sad because it had so much squandered potential. The heroine is the sex slave of a drug lord, and has been his prisoner since she was - gag - a young teenager. She has it better than some of her cohorts because she's his favorite, but life is still pretty miserable. That's why, when her captor, Javier, contracts a mysterious American hitman to kill one of his enemies, Sarai decides to try to persuade him to take her back with him. To both their surprise, he agrees, and she ends up accompanying him on his adventures.

There are several major problems with this book. One; I personally didn't feel that the characters were very well fleshed out. What made Victor, the hero, tick? I don't know. I know he's supposed to be mysterious but when his abs have more character than he does, there's a problem. (Seriously, I know he has abs. How many times must you tell me about his impressive musculature?) Sarai is not much better. She's an empty shell of a character, and not in the damaged way, but in the lack of character development way. "Damaged" is still a characterization. She did and said some very strange things, and I didn't understand why she was so quick to fall for Victor when she had no reason to trust him and by all accounts, should be suspicious of every man, especially men like Victor. She's also very hateful towards women, and said some incredibly disturbing things about rape, even implying at one point that being raped by Javier wasn't so bad because he was at least attractive. Um, what???? She was also very stupid, constantly running into danger and flashing a fan of $5000 in public. Dumb.

Two; the instant love in this book was ridiculous. I felt like they went from being wary allies to "I will die for you, my love" practically overnight. Both of these characters have ZERO reason to fall recklessly in love, and in fact, there are about a thousand reasons why they SHOULDN'T. It was very inconsistent with what little we knew about their motivations, and I don't think it did the narrative any favors.

Three; for a dark book, this felt very tame. I've read several books about sex trafficking, and so far I think my favorite is DELIVER by Pam Godwin. That book reveled in its darkness. KILLING SARAI tries to be unpleasant but feels surprisingly tame, to the point that when bad stuff does happen, you're like, "Whoa, what." I think Redmerski had some really good ideas and the showdown with the hotel magnate at the end was easily one of the best parts of the book (as well as the intense beginning), but it still felt very tame. I guess this is a pretty big departure from the author's first effort, so I get it, but that's no excuse for a bad story. It needed to be grittier, in my opinion, and more convincing.

Four; the writing was not great. The author misused a couple words (someone averted their eyes towards something, and I saw a couple typos). Again, I get the struggle of being self-published, but being a best-seller indie author puts you in a different class from your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, "this is my side-side hustle" indie authors like me. Her editor (she must have one, at this point) really should have picked up those sorts of mistakes. I also felt like there were a lot of sentences that just felt very oddly or awkwardly constructed, and things like that tend to pull me out of the narrative because I am compulsive like that. YMMV, and if you don't give two fits about grammar, then by all means, dive in and enjoy. I know some people really don't care about that sort of thing.

All in all, I can't say that I was very wowed by KILLING SARAI. It was just the thing I needed for my Halloween reading challenge (that blood on the cover, yo), but as a story itself, it was very disappointing. I'm glad I got it while it was free, that's all I'm going to say. But if you're into Anne Stuart's Ice series and don't mind the tics that surface in indie prose, I could see this becoming a favorite.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Game of Vows by Harumi Benisako

Dear Harlequin,

I'm so happy that you appear to have taken my Tweet to you to heart, in which I bemoaned the lack of discounted Kindle books of your manga line, and earnestly professed my intent to read more of these should they go on sale.

Since you have honored your side of the agreement, I have been sure to honor mine as well, and have been buying each of these puppies as soon as I see that $1.99-or-less price tag.

A GAME OF VOWS is based off a book of the same name by author Maisey Yates. I feel like I've read another adaptation of her work but can't remember what it was. This book was pretty good. It's one of those enemies-to-spouses books, which is apparently a pretty common theme in Harlequin novels. Who knew? Not me, but I kind of love it.

Hannah is on her way to be married when she is kidnapped by her ex-husband. Only since he never filed the divorce papers, she is actually about to become a bigamist. Whoops. She's also illegally changed her name and fraudulently crafted her reputation in order to go to college, and her ex-husband, Eduardo, tells her under no uncertain terms that unless she returns home with him as his wife, but also as his business partner, he will ruin her.

So she goes, because what choice does she have?

I thought this story was OK. Hannah was a bit of a con artist, but she also had a traumatic history. So did Eduardo, who suffered a major head injury that has caused him to suffer amnesia and debilitating migraines. I liked that his head injuries weren't miraculously cured by love, and it was clear that it was something he was going to have to deal with. All too often, romance novels buckle under the "healed by love" trope, which I find as problematic and insulting as it is harmful.

Hannah was not a nice person, but she had backbone and wasn't obnoxious. The dialogue and art were also good, although for some reason the author made their torsos ridiculously long and their shoulders very boxy. At one point, Eduardo is in a suit and he literally looks like a box with legs (vaguely reminiscent of those bodyguards in that artsy French cartoon, The Triplets of Belville (2003)). I've read several other manga Harlequin adaptations with similar plots this week, and A GAME OF VOWS was definitely one of the better ones. It won't be topping any of my favorites lists but it passed the time quite pleasantly and what can I say, but that I'm a sucker for HEAs.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Enemies at the Altar by Rieko Hamada

Man, what is it with me and marriage of convenience romance novels? I just can't seem to stay away, especially with a title like ENEMIES AT THE ALTAR, which hints at yet another one of my all-time favorite romance novel tropes: enemies to lovers. I wanted to like this book a lot, really I did, but it just had so much working against it. I can't even say that I particularly liked the art style, either, which features really round, almost bubble-shaped heads and eyes and super derpy expressions. I actually went through my Harlequin manga collection, because it reminded me of another book I read where the cover is literally so derp, called RED-HOT LOVER, and lo and behold, the cover artist is the same. Rieko Hamada, why??

Sienna's mother used to work for the Ferrante family as a maid, although she spent a lot of that time working on her back IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN. Sienna actually found out about her mother's affair with the Ferrante patriarch from the son, Andreas, after she tried to put the moves on him. When his father caught them, Andreas got all high and mighty, like, "Unlike YOU, I don't doink the help." Shortly afterwards, Andreas's mother died, and Sienna's mother blamed herself, made a HUGE scene at the funeral, and then became an alcoholic. Nice.

Years go by, and Sienna gets roofied by a guy who then films themselves doing it and makes it a sex tape. Humiliated, Sienna flees to a museum where she meets a sympathetic old guy who invites her to marry him and become his beard so he can continue seeing his male lover. The old guy is rich and kind, but also apparently incredibly stupid, because somehow he forgot to write a will leaving Sienna anything for her sacrifice (and the lover, too, it sounds like), so all of his assets went to his greedy homophobic relatives, leaving nothing for Sienna, who is now poor. We meet her at the funeral for Guido Ferrante, where she meets Andreas again for the first time in years, and the two of them are horrified to find that they have both received the bulk of the Ferrante fortune with one condition: that they must get and stay married for at least six months. I believe that's what lawyers call "the douchebag clause." I call it, "fucking with people from beyond the grave."

Sienna pitches a major fit but then decides, "hmmm, money." Andreas thinks she's a major slutpants, but is also like, "hmmm, that ass." The two of them get together and hate themselves - and each other - for it, but if you think that stops them from making such inane decisions, pull up several seats, my friends, because you must be new here. Eventually, Sienna learns that he actually cared about her all along and was just hurt by his Daddy issues, and Andreas realizes that Sienna wasn't such a slutpants after all and clears her name from the sex case scandal by implicating her attacker of rape. There's time for one last flounce, of course, after a double wedding with Sienna's twin sister, but Andreas redeems himself with a public accusation of Sienna's attacker and then boom, wedding #2, for realsies edition. They decide they love each other after being major garbage people. The end.

Oh man, this book was so lame. Derpy art aside, I just couldn't really get on board with either character. I don't like Poutypants heroes who act like jerks because of their Oedipal/Electra complexes, and Sienna was such a little twit. Her brash, obnoxious attitude reminded me of Celaena from that stupid THRONE OF GLASS series, which naturally made me want to deck her in the face. There's a difference between being strong and being a blowhard, and this character hasn't the faintest idea what that difference is. The dialogue is also very forced and artificial. I like how ridiculous and over-the-top this book was but in terms of art and story alike, it is lacking.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Twelve-Month Mistress by Earithen

How do I keep winding up with Harlequin manga illustrated by Earithen? Something about her art style just rubs me the wrong way. Her characters' mouths are too pouty and her covers always look like someone went overly crazy with the Dodge Tool. That said, this is one of her better efforts, and it's currently on sale in the Kindle store, too. THE TWELVE-MONTH MISTRESS is an adaptation of a Harlequin novel by the same name by Kate Walker and it's, well... it's something.

Cassandra is in love with Joaquin but he's one of those snooty rich dudes with Mommy and Daddy issues: his father slept around, most of his siblings are bastards, and there was no love in his parents' arranged marriage as a result. So, instead of taking time to see a therapist or have some serious self-searching, Joaquin decides to date around and break up with his girlfriends after one year. Cassandra doesn't like this bargain but her feelings for him are so great that she reluctantly agrees, even as she's miserably counting down the days to the end.

On the last day of their relationship, Cassandra flees to Joaquin's half-brother's house, Ramon, who she is friends with. Joaquin finds her there and assumes that she's been cheating with Ramon. He offers to marry her to keep her away from his brother and she refuses. As he makes his rich boy pouty-pants flounce out of the apartment, he falls down the stairs and gets amnesia from hitting his head. Meanwhile, I'm sitting here, thinking, "What is this? The male equivalent of Bella Swan?" Cassandra feels guilty and decides to take care of him in absolution. Joaquin has forgotten the last month and has no knowledge of their breakup, but when he proposes marriage, this time in earnest, Cassandra refuses and once more, Joaquin accuses her of being an opportunistic slattern. When he finds out the truth, he feels terrible and finds Cassandra working a minimum wage job while heavily pregnant and proposes to her yet again. She agrees, and the pouty pantersons have their HEA.

THE TWELVE-MONTH MISTRESS was amusing but not really romantic. I thought Joaquin behaved like a child, and Cassandra also somehow always managed to make the worst possible decisions. If I want a couple to succeed, I either have to like them both or buy their chemistry, and with the characters in this book, neither of those was the case. I didn't like either character and didn't really understand what they saw in one another beyond looking really really ridiculously good-looking. However, YMMV. It's cheap right now, so it might be worth the experiment.

3 out of 5 stars

Forgiven but Not Forgotten? by Sae Nanahoshi

This is another HQ manga that is on sale right now in the Kindle store and it is so good, combining several of my favorite romance tropes to great effect. Siena used to be a rich heiress but now lives in government-subsidized housing while working two jobs as both a waitress and a cleaner. One day, she runs into a ghost from her past: a man named Andreas Xenakis. He wants revenge on her for past wrongs, which ends up resulting in her becoming his mistress/prostitute, basically. But oh, whoops, they sort of end up falling for each other.

I am a huge sucker for enemies-to-lovers stories, and FORGIVEN BUT NOT FORGOTTEN? was a great example of the forced-mistress trope done right. First, it's not icky. There is consent and the heroine outlines the terms. Second, the sex scenes are hot (this was pretty racy for a HQ manga). Third, the hero actually has a valid reason for being mad at the heroine - what she did was really awful. Fourth, the heroine had a reason for being awful that doesn't excuse what she did but goes a long way towards explaining it and actually feels realistic.

I rate these manga adaptations based on the art, the story, and the overall quality of how well I feel the mangaka did on condensing a romance novel into comic book format. Here, Nanahoshi pulled all the stops and I felt like this is easily one of the better Harlequin manga I've read. I liked the dark-but-not-too-dark storyline, the big cast of characters, and the mounting sexual tension between the hero and heroine as they try to navigate their evolving feelings for themselves, and also their loved ones.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Marriage on the Rebound by Motoyo Fujiwara

Greetings, fellow romance-lovers. This book is currently 99-cents in the Kindle store right now, and trust me when I say that it's worth every penny. MARRIAGE ON THE REBOUND is a manga adaptation of the romance novel of the same name by Michelle Reid, and even though the title is eye-roll worthy, the story and the artwork are both actually very cute.

Shaan is set to be married to a man named Piers, the younger son of a wealthy family. However, on the day of the marriage, he abandons her at the altar for another woman. His older Rafe arrives shortly afterwards to announce that he is in love with Shaan and will be marrying her in Piers's stead since his younger brother was kind enough to stand aside for the sake of love. Privately, he tells Shaan that this jilting is bad for business, and it's up to him as the oldest son to repair their company's image by any means necessary. How sweet.

Rafe is the polar opposite of Piers, and I do mean polar - this guy is so chilly that he poops out ice cubes. Shaan finds him incredibly intimidating, and yet is intrigued by his manly ice sculpture nature. He is also one of those classic tsundere characters who acts all tough and aloof, but gradually lets down his guard as he begins to trust others, and seeing that softer, vulnerable side of Rafe makes Shaan fall harder.

If this sounds too easy, wait - there's more. While in Hong Kong there's a good old fashioned "whoops, I misunderstand something I eavesdropped on the phone out of context" misunderstanding that creates ~tension~ between Shaan and Rafe, and when Piers makes a reappearance in the last act, the reader can't help but wonder if her new feelings for Rafe are enough to compensate for how she felt about Piers... that is, if the reader has never read a romance novel before in their life.

This is one of those romances that manages to take cliches and still be fun and charming. Rafe is a great romance hero and doesn't come across as creepy or sleazy. I like the strong, icy silent types. I also thought Shaan was a good example of a shy, quiet heroine who doesn't seem like a TSTL idiot. Also, the art in this one is beautiful (the cover doesn't really do it justice). Smashing good read.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Ground She Walks Upon by Meagan McKinney

🦇 Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2018 Reading Challenge for the category of: A romance with a Celtic theme (bonus points if it mentions Samhain) 🦇

I feel personally attacked by this book because it was so bad, and after liking the author's other book, LIONS AND LACE, so much, I felt like she had done me - and her other fans - dirty by publishing this... this dreck. THE GROUND SHE WALKS UPON is real bottom-of-the-barrel historical romance, with enough cheese to start up its own artisinal shop in downtown Berkeley. Seriously, wtf was going on with this author when she published this book? How can you go from LIONS AND LACE to this?

I picked this book because I needed a Celtic themed romance for my Halloween challenge. This book, sadly, doesn't mention Samhain, but it does mention Beltane (the other major Celtic holiday), as well as the concept of a geis (also spelled geas), which is a sort of fateful pact that must be fulfilled, at the cost of grievous consequences.

Lord Trevellyan is an English/Irish lord who rules in Ireland at the time of the Protestant Ascendancy. At the start of the book he is nineteen, and told of a geis that is part of a curse put upon his family for basically taking the lands away from the Irish. If he does not marry the woman he is fated to be married to, who must come to him freely, then his lands will all fall into ruin. He is then led to a cabin with a beautiful woman lying on a bed - the woman is dead, but she has a baby. He is told, in no uncertain terms, that this is his future wife, which reminded me uncomfortably of that SNL skit, Meet Your Second Wife. Or that imprinting scene from BREAKING DAWN.

Nineteen-years-ish later, Lord Trevellyan is now almost forty years old and the heroine, Ravenna, is a teenager. She's freshly back from school, where Trevellyan sent her after he started getting icky feelings about her when she was scarcely prepubescent, and the feelings are now much ickier. He's quite cruel to her because all of his previous marriages have failed in one horrendous way or another and he's been told by everyone around him that it's because of the geis, and he is a man who does not like having fate wrested from him, so naturally he decides to basically hold her captive in his house and threaten to murder all the men around her, while also putting the moves on her and treating her like a whore, and then at one point even going so far as to lock her in his dungeon so she won't run.

Ravenna is one of those irritatingly plucky heroines that seem to populate 90s bodice ripper romances. They stomp their dainty little feet and act hopelessly outraged, and seem bewildered by their traitorous bodies. This one is an author, and large chunks of the book contain excerpts from her self-published fantasy novel that, interestingly, mirrors her own life and slow "romance" with Niall Trevelyan. This is ironically the most realistic element of the book, in that like many self-published hobby authors, she does not have talent and her character is a self-insertion Sue.

I couldn't quite get over the "here is the baby you're going to f*ck" in 19 years beginning. I thought that was gross. I also didn't like Trevellyan. I thought he was weak. Obsessive heroes are usually my cup of tea, but he felt more like a creepy pervert, and he was so angry all the time, and also so insecure about the red herring love interest in this book. The Ascendancy was also not handled very well. I recently went to Ireland and learned about how the Crown seized land from Irish people and oppressed them systematically by preventing them from having titles, voting rights, or political power, and it was pretty sickening. I am totally fine with unpleasant acts of history being written about (I have, for example, read a controversial historical romance with a Stasi love interest), but they have to be realistic and they have to at least make a token effort at being respectful and doing the culture and the time they are writing about justice, and I did not really feel like that was the case here.

Yeah, no. I'm pretty bummed, and I bought several of this author's other books after liking LION AND LACE so much, so I'm hoping that this was the exception, and not L&L. :(

1.5 out of 5 stars

Eternity by Maggie Shayne

🦇 Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2018 Reading Challenge for the category of: A romance with a witch 🦇

ETERNITY joins the cadre of bad paranormal romance I've read this year, alongside other greats such as TOUCH A DARK WOLF (a werewolf romance) and PRINCE OF THE NIGHT (a vampire romance). Fittingly, ETERNITY is about witches, and it's really unfortunate for this book that I happened to be watching Hocus Pocus around the same time because this book reads like someone watched Hocus Pocus, and completely missed the point.

Our heroine is a witch named Raven. Her mother is a healer in the 18th century, and after she fails to heal Raven's cousin, their relative decides to throw them under the bus by branding them as witches. They are rounded up by local witch hunter/heretic, Nathanial, to be hung. Nathanial's protege, Duncan, thinks that Raven is super-hot and is so horrified by the proceedings that he decides to abandon his master. Furious, Nathanial ignores his pleas and kills them both.

As it turns out, because Raven saved someone else's life in her past life, she gets to be an immortal witch. The only way she can be killed is if someone cuts out her heart, because that's how bad witches get to live forever: they live off the lives that they steal from someone else. And Nathanial, Witch Hunter Esq., is one of these bad witches who is not happy when he finds out that the dead bodies he planned to cut the hearts out of are both missing.

Raven goes to New England, has some run-ins with Native Americans, and settles in a small town where she becomes the object of lust for the local pilgrims who assume - guess what- since they are unable to control the activity of their privates, Raven must be a witch to fill them with such lusts. So the witch hunt begins anew, with Nathanial joining the fray yet again, and then Raven and a new witch friend flee into the woods to live with Native Americans, before going to...Salem. I think.I may be confusing the order of events, because it was all so ridiculous and I was rolling my eyes a lot.

Anyway, after Duncan dies trying to save Raven or whatever, they meet again and now he's a witch because he died trying to save her, only he's been re-adopted by Nathanial who has this weird, inexplained obsession with Duncan where he sees him as a son. Raven tries to get Duncan to love her but his attachment to the man who killed her mother is so traumatic, she doubts him. Nathanial fondles a statue of a raven while imagining cutting out Raven's heart. There's a final showdown. The bad guy wins, lol. Just kidding, this is a romance. Of course he dies, and everyone lives happily ever after. What did you think was going to happen, honestly?

I would just like to point out that the soulmate angle is this book's biggest weakness. Especially since their "meet-cute" is him thinking, "Wow, that girl is hot" while she's on the gallows, and they are basically eye-fucking while her mother is being executed. Gee, how romantic. I've never been a believer in love at first sight, and thought all of these characters suffered from a major case of TSTLitis. You know, it's funny because for last year's Halloween challenge, I read another witch romance set during the witch hunt times, called DEVIL'S MISTRESS, which also featured an obsessed witch hunter who hunted the heroine with fanaticism. It also opened with the death of the heroine's mother, and like this book, the hero is the man who helps save her from a similar fate.

I don't get why writing a good witch romance seems to be so difficult, but almost all of the ones I've encountered are painfully cheesy and weird. Let me know if you find a good one, because I haven't.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

The Italian Surgeon by Yoko Inoue

THE ITALIAN SURGEON is based off a 2005 Mills & Boon publication of the same name. The ratings for the original novel are pretty low, 2.86 as of this posting, and it doesn't have very many reviews. I was a bit surprised, to be honest, since these adaptations usually seem to be of authors with a cult following, like Penny Jordan or Sara Craven, so it was a bit odd to see a relative unknown like Meredith Webber in the mix.

The plot of the manga is pretty basic. Rachel is a talented nurse who works in a pediatric cardiology hospital for personal reasons, because in the romance novel/soap opera universe, the only reason you ever become a medical practitioner is because someone close to you died and you must use it as a form of catharsis to release your inner demons. Her life is pretty satisfying, especially since she has made it so she never has to interact with the teary-eyed parents who she finds way too triggering. Then one day, an Italian surgeon comes to the ward and he thinks she's pretty hot, so faster than you can say hostile work environment, he's all up in her business, pick-up style.

Here's my two cents about "alpha" type dudes in romance: you can't have your alpha cake and eat it too. Authors want to take these aggressively forward men and make them nice guys, but it usually doesn't work. Either you write an alpha dude and you stick to that formula, even if it means he behaves in ways some might find unpalatable, or you write a straight-up nice guy who is respectful. If you try to combine the two, you get some smarmy, icky dude you imagine calling himself a nice guy, even as he's texting his ex-girlfriend to tell her what a slut she is for not deigning to sleep with him.

I feel like the author really did try to make Dr. Luca so dreamy, and it has a bit of a Grey's Anatomy vibe (another show that sometimes toed the skeevy line with love interests). I mean, making the doctor a pediatrician who saves babies is like having a veterinarian carry around a bouquet of small, mewing kittens he's just saved from the side of the road. He's a hero who likes small, cute things. That's only slightly less desperate than taping a sign to his back that says PLEASE LIKE ME. And I wanted to, but his skeeviness in the beginning was just a bit much. I was unconvinced.

THE ITALIAN SURGEON also had some wtf moments, as I feel like it was very heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative regarding the difficult decisions parents have to make when faced with a terminally ill child who might not survive. I didn't like that it painted the people who elect not to perform these surgeries as basically bad people who are giving up on their kids. I don't think not wanting to force your child to live a life of constant surgeries is selfish or giving up. If someone is not equipped to deal with all of the gravity and complications that come with taking care of someone who is sick, or even just unable to afford it, then I think it's understandable to not want to go ahead with such a procedure. It made me wonder if maybe this is some thinly-veiled "pro-life" propaganda wrapped up in a pink romance novel bow. I've seen moral grandstanding in romance novels before and I always find it quite jarring and distasteful.

There's also a weird terrorist plot thrown into the last act, which feels slow because the romantic tension has already essentially resolved itself, so this felt like padding to flesh out the last quarter of the book. Some Middle Eastern family with political ties comes to the hospital to have their child operated on and their opponents phone in a threat to blow up the hospital. Then Dr. Luca has to flee to the Middle East to perform the surgery safely(?), and Rachel bravely follows him, despite the danger. *eye roll* I thought this was lame, and it felt highly unnecessary and irrelevant.

I loved the art, but the story fell flat for me. I think I'm done with Meredith Webber. If you're curious, though, the novel edition of this manga is available for purchase in the Kindle store for $1.99.

P.S. The heroine has a flamboyantly gay best friend named Curt, and yes; he is a walking stereotype.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Bledding Sorrow by Marilyn Harris

 🦇 Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2018 Reading Challenge for the category of: A romance set in/near a haunted house 🦇

Have you ever felt both simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed by a book? Because that's kind of how I felt about this one, BLEDDING SORROW. It wasn't bad, but everyone was singing its praises to me about how it was such a mind-shattering Gothic novel that didn't care about happy endings, and reveled in its own twisted nature. That sounded like something I could totally get on board with, and I knew already that this author was fully capable of writing such dark and gloomy stuff that reading it could just about ruin your day, because Marilyn Harris also wrote THE EDEN PASSION, which has the dubious honor of being one of the more twisted and unpleasant "romance" novels I have ever read.

BLEDDING SORROW is only a romance in the most liberal sense of the word. There are two people who are in love in this book, but other than that, it doesn't really fit the genre for a wide variety of reasons. The focus of BLEDDING SORROW is definitely Gothic horror. The setting is an old Elizabethan house owned by the Bleddings, minor nobility that can be traced back centuries. The current owner, Geoffrey Bledding, is impoverished and must lease it out to the Historical Trust's various events. He and his staff are relegated to a distant wing of the house and are expected to make nice with the tourists and the students touring his home, which he does, playing host most convincingly.

But Geoffrey is not the gentlemanly lord that he seems. He's got his wife, Ann, locked away (an homage to the madwoman in the attic trope, perhaps), only he's the one who has caused her to be mad through many nights of druggings and rapes. Poor Ann's only solace are the small mercies of Caldy More, the servant, and the curious attentions of the handsome new coachman whose job it is to drive the coach and do menial tasks around the estate. Ironically, the first Geoffrey Bledding was also cuckolded by a coachman, and his reaction to this was, well, shall we say unreasonable.

Ghosts haunt BLEDDING SORROW, foreshadowing what will happen. All of the characters in the book seem to be locked into their paths, without question; this is a book that seems to believe in both fate, and the idea that history repeats itself. You'll suspect the ending, but it will probably still take you by surprise. I read a spoiler in one of the reviews on Goodreads and was still taken aback. Holy shit. What an unfair, depraved little book. But then, of course the woman who decided to have a narcissistic coward as the hero of her romance would choose to end her Gothic romance in this way.

Should you read it? Only if you like dark, depressing books and aren't easily offended by outmoded tropes and language. BLEDDING SORROW is not PC, and it doesn't pull back any punches when it comes to the mistreatment of its characters. I think it might have been a more effective book if the characters were more fully fleshed out. Ironically, the supporting character, Caldy More, has the most deep and thoughtful development over the book, whereas the three mains feel much more shallow and superficial - at least to me. That said, I did think it was interesting, and if you can manage to find a copy (sadly it's still out of print), it's worth a read for the WTFery alone.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 22, 2018

An Assassin's Guide to Love and Treason by Virginia Boecker

🦇 Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2018 Reading Challenge for the category of: A romance where one of the characters is a murderer 🦇

I was initially going to post lots of status updates for this book, because I feel like that is what you are supposed to do when you manage to finagle a prized ARC like this one - but instead I knocked it back like it was a glass of drinkable wine and I was trying to get drunk off of it. What I'm trying to say is that it was good. Really good. Defies expectations good.

AN ASSASSIN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND TREASON, despite the cutesy title, is actually a very dark story. It is set during the times of Elizabethan England. The heroine, Katherine, is the daughter of an illegal Catholic and sees him murdered before her eyes. Naturally, she wants revenge and seeks out his associates who are in the middle of a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth and replace her with a Catholic ruler. Her plan? To dress up as a boy and join a group of performers who are performing Twelfth Night before the Queen...and then assassinate her during the last act.

The hero, Toby, is a spy in the employ of the Queen's spymaster. He's part of the intelligence behind Katherine's father's murder, and is determined to ferret out the rest of the culprits. His plan is to work with William Shakespeare to create a play that appears to be sympathetic to Catholics (called Twelfth Night) that will be performed before the Queen. Surely, the would-be assassins won't be able to resist the trap, and when they do, they'll be waiting. To be absolutely sure that he's got the right person, he'll be acting in the play. He doesn't expect to fall for his opposite though; the attractive "boy" who plays his love interest, Viola-Cesario to his Duke Orsino.

So yes, it sounds cheesy, and it was, a little. But it was also action-packed and reminded me of some of the good YA I've read, like POISON STUDY or GRAVE MERCY or even THE WINNER'S CURSE. Books that are well-written and don't look down on their audience, and feature heroines who actually have agency and don't just sit around twiddling their thumbs while pining away over the love interest. I can't tell you how happy I was to see a few F-bombs dropped in this book, or to have actual grievous consequences looming over the two star-crossed lovers. Also, this is a cross-dressing romance, which is a secret weakness of mine, but it tackles head-on what most of those types of books only skirt around: the hero is bisexual, and reacts in a very believable way to finding out Kit is a girl (unlike some of those other books, where the hero is like, "Woohoo! Thank God I'm not gay!")

This book is very gay, and in the best possible way. I think you should read it.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Playing the Dutiful Wife by Takako Hashimoto

This Harlequin manga is an adaptation of a romance novel of the same name written by Carol Marinelli. I haven't read the original, which is the case for most of the romance novel manga I read, but it's always a blast to check out the trashy soap opera-esque storylines in a fun new format. The quality of the stories and the art varies a lot too, with some being incredibly fun and beautifully portrayed and others... not so much.

PLAYING THE DUTIFUL WIFE falls smack-dab in the middle. The art is very nice but the story is incredibly OTT and cheesy and feels like an excerpt from one of those long-lived soaps that certain people refer to as "their stories." Meg is the legal consult for her parents' real estate business and terrified of flying. One day, she finds herself in business class seated next to the Brazilian millionaire, Niklas. Initially, he's not very nice to her but when he sees how scared she is, he goes out of his way to comfort her which results in some hanky panky and an honorary membership to the mile high club.

With an unplanned landing in Vegas, what better way to consummate their below-the-sheets fondling than a Vegas wedding and above-the-sheets fondling + bona fide hanky panky? Of course the next day, Niklas tells her it was all a mistake and absconds with Meg's heart, leaving her more terrified of flying than ever before, as well as with a fear of being abandoned and betrayed by men.

When some of Niklas's female employees contact her, she is less than thrilled - but then they tell her that Niklas is in jail and in need of her help. He's been accused of fraud, a crime of which they claim he is innocent, and they have the proof to free him... as long as Meg can sneak into the jail and give him specific instructions. How does she do that? By arriving as his wife for some conjugal visits.

This book... was so OTT and cheesy. It's like the author had a checklist of all the big romance cliches and was inserting them one at a time, before scratching them off. Everything from an orphaned hero to a virginal heroine to a mysterious twin to betrayal to unplanned marriage - it was all here. I'm finding that to be the case with some of these Harlequin adaptations, which probably speaks to why those tropes became tropes in the first place, if so many of these books have them. I did have a lot of fun reading the book, though, and if it had been a bit more developed, I'd have given it a solid 4.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Playboy's Proposition by Hiromi Ogata

I bought this book because it was 99-cents in the Kindle store, and if you have a better reason than that to buy a book, I don't want to hear it. Look at that cover. Just look at it. Oh, yes. One look, and I knew I was in for a gourmet cheese-fest and I came prepared with crackers and wine.

The premise behind this one has worn a little thin. It's one of those poor girl/millionaire romances, which seem to comprise 99% of the Harlequin Presents line based on what I've read. Bella is a waitress who also helps out at her aunt's spa. She meets this guy at her bar and has a one-night stand with him after he drives her home after saving her from a sexually aggressive customer. Turns out he's the same millionaire who bought out her aunt's spa, which she could no longer afford after her cancer treatments. Bella has mixed feelings about that. So does Michael, who tells her that she can have her aunt's spa back if she agrees to sleep with him again. What a creep.

As far as creep millionaires go, Michael isn't that bad. Some of these Harlequin novels, the sex scenes border on rape. Here, it's consensual. His problem is that he blames himself for his father's death and younger brother's disappearance, which are actually the result of a freak accident. Lo and behold, Bella has similar soap opera origins, so she can understand him like no one ever has, and because he is a romance novel hero, this makes him angry and defensive because he is like the wind, and cannot be captured or tamed or understood or any of that nonsense! So of course, whenever he opens a window into his soul, he also has to slam a door.

I'm giving this a positive rating because the story was okay, the romance was okay, and I liked the art. For 99-cents you really have to peeve me off to give you a low rating, and this book did not do that. For the price, I liked what I got. It's kind of a sappy and unrealistic story, but it made me happy and I did not have buyer's remorse afterwards. If you're into the whole bargaining trope/millionaire trope, you'll probably really get into THE PLAYBOY'S PROPOSITION. Added bonus: no OWs/cheating.

3 out of 5 stars

Mistaken for a Mistress by Marito Ai

Wow, this was really good and ticked all the boxes I have for my manga expectations. The art was great, the story was good, it felt like a good adaptation of the original work, and the heroine was strong and no-nonsense. Can you ask for more in a comic based off of a Harlequin novel? Because I honestly can't.

Marlene's mother was the mistress of a wealthy Italian man named Paolo who came back to them when he learned that he was suffering from heart complications that would hasten his death. When Marlene's mother (also named Marlene) died in a car wreck, the tragedy of it shocked Paolo into dying shortly after. Now Marlene lives alone with her baby half-brother, watching over the industrial sized herb garden that was her only legacy, until Paolo's will is read, and the child and representative of said child's estate come to contest it.

Rocco's father is the family lawyer for Paolo's family, and Rocco has come to the U.S. with the legitimate daughter as a representative for his father. He's struck by Marlene's beauty and thinks that she's just a gold-digger, who will be as quick to jump into bed with him as she was with (he thinks) Paolo. Unfortunately for him, Marlene is fluent in Italian and doesn't like what she hears him and the daughter saying about her, but she pretends that she can't understand what they're saying and files everything away for later, for when she goes to Italy to attend the board meeting for Paolo's company (he left her many shares), as well as to see the villa she inherited.

I loved all the secrets both families had, and the cattiness of the real family. There weren't any ridiculously over-the-top shenanigans, but I liked that, because you don't have to be extreme to be cruel enough to cut to the quick. I also liked Rocco's slow transformation. He was the perfect blend of icy restraint and possessive, without seeming pouty and childish (as many of the heroes in these Harlequin adaptations are). The romance between them was great. I honestly have no complaints. The heroine was strong and did what she had to do to stand up for her brother, and was willing to cast the hero aside when she thought that he wouldn't be able to respect that. *slow claps*

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Darkest Night 2 by Earithen

If there's one thing I love, it's Harlequin romance novels. Most of them are contemporary in nature so when I saw that Gena Showalter's Lords of the Underworld series had not only been adapted to manga but were also on sale, I bought books I and II. Apparently the actual novels are very erotic so it was hilarious to see how tame they were in these comic books, which did not contain that much more mature content than your typical shoujo manga for older girls (think Ceres: Celestial Legend or Black Bird). Even though the heroine was a Sue of the highest caliber, and the world-building was questionable at best, I devoured the first book. It was bad, but in a really fun way. Like Charmed.

I did not like the second book quite as much. The first book had a lot more action in it. This book was angstier, focusing more on the relationship between the hero and the heroine. Since they have a major case of insta-love, this was not that interesting to me. Especially since they're pledging to die for one another by the end of the book. I've already read the original Romeo and Juliet. Subsequent retellings of it pale by comparison.

That said, the art style is pretty okay and I liked the story enough that I'm kind of curious to see what the original novel (which I haven't read) is like with all the sex scenes and violence left in. The mangaka left an amusing after note, cautioning about the "passionate love scenes," and adding, "I almost want to tell girls younger than junior high kids to wait until they're adults to read this." Lol, why don't you leave that up to the parents, though? Seriously, what is the age demographic these Harlequin manga are targeting? Because in the U.S. at least, I don't think anyone quite knows and I always see these in the clearance sections of my local comic book stores (lucky for me, haha).

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Kiss of Steel by Bec McMaster

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

Isn't the hero supposed to be blonde? I'm sorry, but one of my pet-peeves is when the cover model bears zero resemblance to the hero and heroine as they're described in the novel. I know it's cool and smoky, and the dude is hot and all, but come on. At least try.

Moving on from Cover Aesthetics 101, KISS OF STEEL is one of those books that aspires to be a little of everything. It's a steampunk novel set in Victorian-era England, only this is a world with vampires and werewolves (oh my), with vampires, naturally, seizing power and forcing many poor humans to resort to using blood as currency. Vampirism exists on a spectrum, first as a plague, then as vampires, and then, in late stages, as violent blood-mad zombies that must be put down as if they were rabid animals.

The heroine, Honoria, was once a part of the glittering upper-class, but when her father was killed, she was forced to take to the streets in order to protect her younger siblings. Now, having reached the bottoms of her shallow pockets, she's forced to turn to one of the local crime lords for help, a vampire named Blade.

I thought the world-building in this book was pretty well-done. McMaster created a pretty terrifying one, filled with squalor and desperation and darkness. You could almost picture the fog-misted blood dispensaries and hear the creep of feet on cobblestones. For the most part, I also liked the romance, although the sexual tension was actually sexier than the actual sex scenes. I'm not really a fan of the phrase "lush pearl," and thought there were actually too many sex scenes towards the end, which seemed to serve an excuse to explain the rushed love between the hero and heroine.

Vickers was a great villain and I'm sad that he wasn't utilized more in the book. This is virtually the only thing that bothers me about some "dark" romances and that's when the books forget to be dark after squeezing in an under-developed love story that makes the story unnaturally fluffy. The beginning of KISS OF STEEL was so promising and even though it wasn't a bad book, I still felt cheated because I thought I was going to get something amazing and ended up with something that was just okay.

KISS OF STEEL passed the time, but it won't be topping any of my favorites lists. That said, if you're tired of cutesy, angsty vampires, this series will probably appeal to you. These guys (and girls) bite.


3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Vox by Christina Dalcher

I'm very upset about all the people who read this book and walked away thinking, "Not all Christians! Not all men!" If that was the only thing you took from this admittedly flawed novel, then you are part of the reason that this book was written. I'm not saying that to be mean. I honestly believe that as a fact. History is full of people who have covered their ears when people say things that they don't want to listen to. Look at all the people who continue to furiously support Trump, despite the fact that he's proved time and time again that he is not only a bad politician, but also a bad human being, with his efforts to use his station to alienate our allies and twist the laws for his own personal gain. It's a perversion of both justice and democracy, and yet the people who support him really seem to believe that they have the moral high ground. How does this work? Is it that cognitive dissonance grows stronger as the evidence mounts, because it's easier to believe a lie than that you've made an egregious lapse in moral judgment? I wonder.

With VOX, Christina Dalcher explores a concept that has explored many times: what happens if a bunch of radical extremists seize control of a nation and oppress them with brutal savagery in the name of a greater good? In this regard, it is very similar to THE HANDMAID'S TALE, especially since the victims in both books are largely (but not only women). The heroine is a woman named Jean who used to be a neurologist, and now she is a housewife. She feels the rub of her imprisonment every day, from men who actively oppress her (like the president), to men who passively and cowardly support the status quo (like her husband), to men who embrace the new laws in blithe ignorance because it tells them what they want to hear (like her son). I have never wanted to punch as many people as I did while reading this book and actually had to step back for a week because it was making me so upset.

VOX starts out more strongly than it ends (which I'll be getting to later), but the premise is a striking one: Christian fundamentalists have taken control of the country with something called the Pure Movement. Men are the glory of God; and women are the glory of man, subservient and secondary in every way. Those in power have managed to achieve this by affixing counters to every woman's wrist that monitor how many words they speak a day. The limit is 100, less than a Tweet, and speaking more than the limit delivers a painful electric shock that becomes more powerful with every word spoken past the limit, eventually becoming lethal. This seems a little silly, the idea of a word counter that looks like a FitBit. But certain types of men are always trying to silence or discredit women. Just last week, for example, I answered a question about science that someone asked, and one of the men reflexively said, "No, that's wrong!" without even thinking about it, as if it had become habit. Someone at the table looked up the answer, and, of course, I was right. Did this person apologize to me? No. They just shrugged, as if to say, "Well, even a broken clock is right at least twice a day." Look at the proceedings with Kavanaugh, and how everyone rushed to discredit the woman who claimed that he had tried to rape her, and how many disgusting excuses of men literally toasted the successful discrediting of this witness with the "Beers for Brett" or "Bubbly for Brett" hashtag. The universe created in this novel doesn't really feel like such a stretch if you think of how many people in the world long for an idealistic version of the 1950s when women weren't allowed to express themselves or push the boundaries of gender norms, and minorities were kept safely out of sight.

The second half of this novel deals with some interesting science. Interesting in the fact that it does kind of feel like one of those cheesy, less popular Michal Crichton novels, or a Dan Brown novel, in that you find yourself suspending more disbelief than you'd like while also pondering the realism of the literary equivalent of a cackling mad scientist looming against a lightning-strewn backdrop. At the same time, there's a historical precedent of performing unspeakable medical practices against the oppressed, so this isn't as comfortably fantastical as some might like to believe, either. And sometimes, taking the reductio ad absurdum approach works in literature because it forces us to realize that our reality is almost absurd as the satires that are created to rebuke it. What does that say about us, I wonder?

Reading VOX is almost guaranteed to upset the reader, but if you find yourself growing angry at the women - or the author - of the story, you should probably ask yourself why.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

I see that the title changed to THE ​7 1⁄2 DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE since I added it on Goodreads over a year ago. I can only assume that this change was due to readers confusing this book with the similarly titled THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO, although apart from their titles and the names of the women in them, the books are as different as night and day.

People were hyping up THE SEVEN DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE, as they always do with any title that manages to become a certified Hype Train™, and even though I consider myself "wise" to the shenanigans of influencers and targeted marketing, when you see everyone and their technologically literate grandmother saying, "OMG, this is the best thing since sliced bread," you can't help but feel a major case of FOMO. Sometimes Hype Trains™ are exciting, and take you to exactly where you want to go - and beyond. And sometimes, Hype Trains™ take you to a very different destination than the one you had in mind - and not necessarily in a good way.

THE SEVEN DEATHS (or THE ​7 1⁄2 DEATHS depending on which edition you have) combines the premises of the Groundhog's Day movie and turn-of-the-century parlor mysteries in the vein of Agatha Christie. Our hero wakes up confused, remembering nothing. He is in a grand estate, peopled with a number of servants and middling gentry, and one of those people is doomed to die. The hero is doomed to repeat the same day, over and over, jumping from body to body of eight people at the estate, until he can figure out the murderer of the titular Evelyn Hardcastle. If he doesn't, the cycle begins anew, as well as the murders. Obviously, there's a catch - and that catch is that our hero is not the only person who is competing to find out the murderer's identity, and if he doesn't guess quickly enough, he will stay in this tortuous loop forever, gradually losing the dominant aspects of his real personality to those of the hosts he's inhabiting, which feels like a very cruel sort of hell to me.

I've experienced variations on the "loop" concept in stories across several forms of media, some of them done better than others. I think THE 7 1⁄2 DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE has a very interesting concept, and the idea of a seemingly omniscient person forcing a group of people (which may include the murderer) to identify the murderer in their midst kind, Clue-style, almost reminded me of one of my favorite childhood books, THE WESTING GAME. THE 7 1⁄2 DEATHS is just as meticulous about the details, and I can only imagine how organized the author had to be to keep everything straight, but when it comes to the plotting, I feel like the book falls short. The author gets lost in his own flowery and self-absorbed writing, which leads to a lot of thoughtful introspection about forgiveness and humanity and punishment, but also means that the plot plods, and at times feels very circular. For large portions of the novel, I was bored, and by the time I realized how bored I was, I was invested enough in the outcome that I felt obligated to read to the end. How annoying.

I have a lot to say about the ending, most of which I won't say anything about because of spoilers. I will say that I feel like the ending jumped the shark and raised more questions than it answered, which is even more annoying, because if you read a book like this to the end it's probably because you want some damn answers. The nebulousness of the main character also made him a difficult person to root for, because I never felt fully invested in him - his personality was so muddled, and he was basically eight different people, and that spreads your sympathies pretty thin, imho. I'm definitely side-eying the reason for the "loop," as well as the more supernatural elements in the book, not to mention the convenience of the footman and the literal deus ex machina that was the doctor (no, not that Doctor). I'm also curious if the author actually believes in this Draconian method of meting out justice, or if this is just a concept piece that he decided to bring to fruition (from his after note in the book, it seems that the answer might be maybe). It was an interesting experiment, but in my opinion, not a particularly successful one.

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Darkest Night 1 by Earithen

I've read a Harlequin adaptation by Earithen before and I didn't like it. The book in question was called THE BLACKMAIL MARRIAGE. It was a case of bad story, bad art, bad execution. When I saw LORDS OF THE UNDERWORLD on Amazon for 99-cents, my reaction was one of skepticism. I'd heard of Gena Showalter's series, but had written it off as being too cheesy. Plus, the adaptation was being done by Earithen.

...But on the other hand, it was only 99-cents.

So, after reading this book, it looks like I may have been wrong about both Earithen and Gena Showalter. The art in this is leagues better than the art in THE BLACKMAIL MARRIAGE and I enjoyed the cracktastic trashiness of the story so much that I'm seriously considering hunting down and reading the actual Lords of the Underworld novels now.

Ashlyn is a psychic at a paranormal institute in Budapest for work. She decides to miss her flight, however, when she hears two people talking about a tower where angels live. She goes to the tower to plead to the angels to take away her power and instead meets a large, sexy man with a sword who threatens her.

This girl, Ashlyn, not having a self-preservation bone in her body, hunts him down and clings to him, demanding that he take her with him. Because he's hot and he literally quiets the voices. Surprising himself, he does, and she sees that he has a whole bunch of other large, hot men who also reside with him. All of these men are thousands of years old, and figures from Greek mythology. Originally they were guardians of the gods, but after committing an act of treachery, they were punished by being forced to house demons of various types within their bodies (wrath, lust, violence, etc.).

They are being hunted by people called, appropriately enough, Hunters and are not convinced that Ashlyn isn't bait. So she's imprisoned in this castle with demon-possessed hunks, and the hero, Maddox, can't decide whether he wants to destroy her or have his way with her or both, because his demon is the demon of wanton violence, and once started, he won't stop until satisfied.

Writing all this out like this makes me realize how cheesy this story sounds. I'm already side-eying the mythology a bit. It's a little of Pandora's box, a little of the Four Horsemen, and a little of the Seven Deadly Sins, with a slapdash of Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark. Both of these authors seem to treat their paranormal romances like a communal stew where you can just dump whatever into the pot and hope it tastes good. It honestly kind of reminds me of a Quizilla story I read back in the day called "Would an Angel, a Demon, or a Vampire Fall for You?" I believe the author of it named herself "icemakesyoumelt." It was a really bad story in which "you" were the name character and it was written in second person. I guess it just goes to show that no matter what age you are, or which medium you choose to consume your stories, we always fall for the same old trash.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Angelfall by Susan Ee

One of my favorite comedies is called Dogma (1999). It's a sorely unappreciated movie, and practically nobody I've talked to has heard of it - something that shocks me, given that its cast list is basically the "best of" list of the 90s from a wide variety of genres: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Janeane Garofalo, Alan Rickman, Jay and Silent Bob, Salma Hayek, Chris Rock, and Alanis Morissette, who, incidentally, plays God Herself. I bet you are thinking to yourself that you know why this movie isn't very popular, and if you read the synopsis and saw this quote from the summary, "An abortion clinic worker with a special heritage is enlisted to prevent two angels from reentering Heaven and thus undoing the fabric of the universe," you're probably getting an even better idea. It's a movie that takes the piss not just out of Christians, but out of the bible and theology themselves, pointing out the hypocrisy, cruelty, and callousness that are sometimes done in the name of religion and even God.

Why am I bringing this up? Because it's a damn good movie and you should watch it, and also because it shares many themes with this book. I mean, apart from the obvious angels connection and the whole "bringing about the apocalypse" thing. You see, ANGELFALL is about the apocalypse. Angels have invaded Earth, and rather than being divine, fluffy-winged creatures of mercy, they are wreaking havoc and wrath upon humanity, destroying cities, killing humans, killing each other, and using our world as a turf war for internal politics that have nothing to do with faith or piety and everything to do with power.

Penryn, the heroine, is one of the humans. While out with her mother, who is probably schizophrenic, and her younger disabled sister who uses a wheelchair, they witness an angel getting his wings cut off. Moved by mercy to intervene, Penryn attacks the other angels, and as a result her sister is taken. Her mother flees, and Penryn is left alone with the angel... Raffe. Left with no other choice, they bond together. Raffe, to get his wings back. Penryn, to get her sister back. They have a common enemy: the other angels. But they are also wary and suspicious of one another, as well.

Their partnership is weird and awkward as they navigate the Bay Area (holla!). It reminds me a bit of The Walking Dead in terms of how gritty and realistic it feels. Penryn is a survivalist, and does what needs to be done to stay alive. Unlike 99% of so-called strong heroines, though, she isn't arrogant. She's confident, but she also has moments of fear or insecurity that make her relatable. I liked that the author actually had a reason for her physical prowess, rather than her just taking instantly to ass-kicking and wielding a sword, and I liked the slow developing sexual tension between her and Raffe.

But what makes this even better is that this is a book - written for girls - that does not hold back on unpleasantness. This book is dark. It has themes that are mature and complex and controversial. It is edgy. I couldn't put it down. I was originally going to use this book for my Halloween-themed romance challenge for the post-apocalyptic challenge and ended up going with UNDER THE NEVER SKY, and man. Apples and oranges. Apples and oranges. That book was stupid. This book is original and amazing and well-written and you just need to read it and see for yourself. I can almost forgive the author for destroying the city of San Francisco if this is what comes out of the rubble.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Vein Of Love by R. Scarlett

🦇 Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2018 Reading Challenge for the category of: A romance with a demon 🦇

This is going to be one of those reviews where I share an unpopular opinion that is probably going to make people mad at me, but here we go. Spoiler: I didn't like the book. Isn't that crazy? You'd think I would, because it was supposed to be so dark and so sexy, and dark and sexy are, like, my bread and butter. Plus, it's based on an arranged marriage between two people who hate each other, which is basically my most favorite thing. So really, the fact that the author managed to take three of my favorite things and make me hate the book is, well... almost a talent. No, seriously. That's like making me hate bubble tea or avocados or romance novels. Good for you. Gold star.

Here's the thing, this is a book written for people who like fanfiction-style writing. The heroine, Molly, is a Mary Sue of the highest caliber. She has super special eyes, is a half-demon, and the most important thing about her is that she's a gold star virgin who has managed to capture the eye of the demon prince, Tensley (which kind of sounds like the name of one of those electronica/indie artists the teens are listening to. Halsey and Tensley, coming to an Outside Lands festival near you). The writing reminded me, actually, of this other really bad demon fic I read back in the early 2000s when Quizilla was the Wattpad of the day (I'm old, yo). Did I read it? Hell yes. But even fourteen year old me acknowledged that it was trash.

As for Tensley, the most important thing about him is that he's an incubus who is oozing sex appeal from every orifice. The ladies, they can't stay away. He has a side OW, so you can get a sneak preview of how hot he is without sullying the purity of the heroine. Plus, it serves as a juxtaposition to how mean slutty ladies have sex versus gold star virgins (answer: demurely but hornily). He's also a self-absorbed jerk, but in the fanfiction world, that means "confidence" (but only if you're male; if you're female, it means you're a mean slutty lady, AKA an "OW"). I rolled my eyes at his dirty talk, and of course the heroine is great at sex and the hero is blown away by the magic sanctity of her vag.

I skimmed pretty heavily, so I honestly don't really have the faintest idea what this book is about beyond the whole prophesized to become a demon wife thing, and the fact that there was an oral sex scene at 69% of the Kindle edition (if that was intentional, that actually makes me like you a little more, R. Scarlett - it shows you have a sense of humor, which I always appreciate). I don't think there was much more beyond that, TBH, apart from the many references to designer shoes and the fact that demons are born with half a heart and will be destroyed if they grow a whole one by falling in love, which I think is supposed to add a whole new level of angst to the story, but actually made me think of another forbidden love story between demons that I like much better, i.e. Little Nicky.

I guess this was a "thing" on Wattpad, and I honestly can't see why. I'm not saying that to be mean. I've read a lot of fated-to-be-mated books, and this one ticks all the usual boxes. It's unfortunate, because I was actually really hoping to like this one. Oh, well. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

1 out of 5 stars

Loading Penguin Hugs: Heartwarming Comics from Chibird by Jacqueline Chen

I'm sure you've seen Jacqueline Chen's art on the internet before. She's famous for her adorable chibi style bunnies, birds, kitties, and ghosts that are usually labeled with a positive, heart-warming message. One of the most popular ones I've seen floating around is the "sending virtual hug" one, although sadly a lot of people have altered it to remove her signature from the drawing. (Bad people! Shame! Artists need virtual hugs, too!)

When I saw LOADING PENGUIN HUGS on Netgalley, I recognized the cuddly, soft, squishy art style immediately and nearly tripped over myself in my haste to hit "request." I am so proud of this author for snagging a book deal because her art has often given me a small lift when I was having a bad day, and I often send her little drawings to friends who seem a little down, because how can you not smile at a happy little bunny who wants you to have a good day and thinks you're amazing?

You can't.

The art in this book is great, and reminiscent of the Pusheen and Sarah's Scribbles comics in that while I'm sure some of these are featured on her websites, there are a couple new ones thrown in. All of the illustrations are full color and while I have the e-copy and can't speak to paper quality or anything fancy-shmancy like that, I really, really enjoyed (virtually) flipping through all these pages. Positivity is one of those messages that can sometimes get warped in the telling. People sometimes conflate self-care with license to be selfish, but self-care is about taking care of yourself and being your best self, which in turn shapes your relationships with the people around you for the better. Chibird totally gets that, and really underscores that positivity is a two-way process and that being a caring individual means loving yourself and the important people in your life just as fiercely.

I loved this book and wish I had a hard copy of it to cherish (the real one apparently comes with STICKERS - oh my god, I love stickers), but reading the e-copy of it was just as good. Trust me. I don't always endorse the books I receive as ARCs unequivocally, but when I do, they completely deserve it.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 15, 2018

Undercover Man by Hibiki Sakuraya

I was trying to figure out the color-coding on these romance manga and it looks like I might be right and purple means romantic-suspense. I've read a number of these manga at this point but UNDERCOVER MAN is my first romantic-suspense adaptation, and new is always exciting, even if it isn't always good. (And was this book good? Well...)

Paige and David are engaged but lately Paige has been noticing that David's been growing distant and it's made her want to call off the engagement. Then she gets kidnapped after being mistaken for another woman, and it comes out that her fiance, David, is actually a secret agent for a government agency and the woman she met by chance is his colleague.

Quelle surprise.

Paige insists on helping, of course, because she's tired of David acting over-protective and treating her like a child. She argues that because they already believe her to be the other agent, it would be even more suspicious to introduce yet another woman by the same alias. Girl has a point. So David agrees to let her help... with some precautions. The stakes have never been higher, so by all means, let's set our watches to "amateur hour," and sit back and fold our arms. It's not like we were paid to do this mission or anything. Oh, wait.

This was... interesting? At first I liked how Paige called David out for his overbearing patriarchal BS, but it quickly got tiresome hearing her fight him at every opportunity - even over unimportant or ridiculous things. I'm all for girl power, but he is a seasoned agent and she is so not. He knows what he's doing, woman. Take his damn advice! I still can't believe he decided to throw his fiancee headfirst into the lion's den. That was so frustrating. And of course they make her bad at math. She's not just bad at math either, she gets "confused" by numbers, as her fiance declares condescendingly. I'm sure numeric dyslexia exists, but the way they went on about it in this book was super weird. Like, it actually becomes a plot point. Love cures her number dyslexia. Wut.

I also thought that the techy aspects of this book were ridiculous. The book really jumped the shark. It kind of reminded me of that really bad movie with Jackie Chan and Jennifer Love Hewitt, The Tuxedo. That's how ridiculous the science behind the espionage was. (If you haven't seen The Tuxedo, it is one of those bad movies that is so bad it is good, like Glitter, the Super Mario Bros. Movie, and Batman & Robin. I love all those movies and I'm pretty sure all of my friends think I have shitty taste, but I like to think that I have transcended quality cinema for the sheer value of camp and kitsch. But anyway, it didn't really work in this book and I was not wooed by the freaky-deaky DNA science.

Wouldn't really recommend this one.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Craving Jamie by Keiko Okamoto

Another Harlequin manga! And it's got such a cheesy name, too. The author had 99 ideas, but a title ain't one. With a title like CRAVING JAMIE, my expectations for this book were not high - but it was actually really good, and with much better art than that equally cheesy cover would have you believe. Also, side note: it's not about werewolves.

Beth and Jamie grew up on neighboring farms. Jamie's grandfather was tight-fisted and abusive, overworking and underfeeding him, putting him into school only as an afterthought. Beth's family felt sorry for him and gave him food and Beth herself helped him at school and even taught him how to read. After winning him over, the two of them became inseparable until the day Beth had to leave, vowing that they would one day reuinite.

Now Beth is a children's book author and Jamie is a rich businessman. They meet again at an art gallery. Beth initially wanted to reconnect with her childhood friend, but Jamie, who goes by Jim now, thinks she's a gold-digger and ends up taking her home to sleep with. A heart-broken Beth reveals who she is on the way out the door, bringing back a cartload of angst-ridden memories as Jim struggles to rectify the innocent girl from his memories with the fully-grown woman who is constantly forcing him to go off script as he makes multiple mistaken assumptions.

A romance is nothing without angst, and CRAVING JAMIE has some good damn angst. I love romance novels that have emphasis on family, and liked the role that Beth's aunt and father had in the storyline. I also thought their childhood relationship was portrayed well and gave a good reason why Beth would try to seek him out and persist, despite his newfound jerk-status, as she tried to find the boy he was inside the man he became. The ending was really great too, although I won't lie: so were the sex scenes. Seems like I was right about the red covers being spicier.

Another good addition to the Harlequin comics line.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

A Daring Proposition by Yoshiko Hanatsu

I don't think I can tell you how much I love these Harlequin romance adaptations. I love manga, I love romance. Whoever thought of combining the two was a genius. Whenever they go on sale, I buy them up on Amazon, and now that they've started showing up as ARCs, I can get even more of them. *insert evil laughter here* If you haven't gotten on the Harlequin/Mills & Boon comics train, buy yourself a ticket and hop aboard.

I usually rate these a little differently than I do typical romance novels. Story is still very important, but I also rate on how well I think they adapted the romance to the manga format, how good the art looks, and whether the art-to-text ratio flows easily or it feels either too bogged down for words or like I paid way too much money for a few line drawings with captions.

A DARING PROPOSITION sounded intriguing... but I should have read the summary more carefully because it's one of those "let's make a baby" romances and I can't stand those. Ugh. Having a child is a serious commitment and deciding to get pregnant because you think it will tie someone to you is selfish and cruel. /my two cents

Sam is Guy's secretary and has been in love with him for years. He is not only oblivious to this, he is also a hopeless womanizer who sleeps with tons of blonde women that Sam likes to slut shame while secretly feeling envious of. He always stops smoking before he starts dating, so she watches his cigarette habit (where is this story set, that they are allowed to smoke in an office?) with as much or more interest as a doctor.

One day Guy's father ends up in the hospital which makes Guy aware of his own mortal coil. He decides he needs to have a child, because when his father is gone, he will have no family. So he asks his secretary to go find him a baby surrogate, to which Sam stands up and says I VOLUNTEER AS TRIBUTE like this is The Baby Games and she's way too eager to service the Capitol in any way.

Guy is initially not keen on this, but when he overhears and misunderstands a phone call Sam is having with her aunt, he thinks that she's easier than he previously believed and goes to town - only to regret it afterwards (because he thinks she's seeing someone else on the side). Too bad that they already did the dirty deed, and now things are ~super awkward~ around the office. Especially when Sam, not knowing why he brushed off their baby bargain, decides to wear a skin-tight dress to seduce him back and their other coworker starts making super creepy comments to her that are basically a sexual harassment suit waiting to happen (like all of this baby side hustler business wasn't enough).

The childhood friend sort of presents a love triangle, but it's so obvious that isn't going to happen that it almost isn't even worth mentioning. The childhood friend, Norman, has just one purpose: to serve as a misunderstanding that becomes a catalyst for triggering Guy "Mommy Issues" McBusinessman into realizing that he has feelings in places beside his junk. Cue heartwarming music and marriage proposal upon realizing that Sam is pregnant.

Maybe the book is better? I don't know. This story felt way more dated than some of the other adaptations I've read and I'm wondering now if that's because it was an older book. Most offices don't let you smoke in them, and the sorts of creepy comments and hankypanky shenanigans going on in this particular office kind of make this feel like an especially gross episode of Mad Men.

I wasn't too keen on the art, either. :/

Sadly, I wouldn't recommend this particular book.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Count Valieri's Prisoner by Kazuko Fujita

Harlequin recently sent me several ARCs of their Harlequin manga, but this wasn't one of them. I bought it myself because the price dropped to a very agreeable $1.66 in the Kindle store, and I've had my eye on this particular title for a while. Sara Craven is one of those old skool Harlequin authors like Charlotte Lamb and Penny Jordan, well known for her melodrama. Well, of course I had to be all over that like white on rice, especially since it has a cover that I'd like to lick.

The plot of this one is pretty basic, although not quite as Gothic in nature as I'd hoped given the title. The heroine, Maddie, is engaged to the son of a rich and icy banker. Years of toiling under his father and begging for his approval like a dog for scraps has worn away any semblance of a spine. Their marriage is approaching and the son, Jeremy, has made it clear that he expects Maddie to un-invite her classless friends, fire the wedding dress maker and hire a designer, and, most important, quit the job she loves to serve his every beck and call.

Faster than you can say "Smash the patriarchy!", Maddie gives that a big hell-no, and books a flight to Italy, where she has been invited to interview a once-famous opera singer who went into hiding. Her means of introduction is an equally mysterious count who doesn't greet her personally but instead has a limo driver drop her off at the opera before allegedly taking her to a hotel. She falls asleep and wakes up in what is definitely not a hotel, wearing what are definitely not her clothes. As it turns out, the interview was a means of luring her to Italy where she could be kidnapped and then held hostage.

I'm a fan of kidnap romances, but I don't usually like the fluffy ones. That said, I felt like the author did a really good job making the hero not rapey. He did what he did because of revenge, and made it clear from the get-go that he had no intention of hurting her or punishing her, even when he thought she was a gold-digger. Once he got to know her, he actually started to like her a lot. So even though I'm not usually a fan of the kidnapper-with-the-heart-of-gold stereotype, this one was ... acceptable.

If you're a fan of Harlequin romances, you should pick this one up. The art is good, the story is good, the heroine is likable, and the hero actually is charming. Plus, it's only $1.66. That doesn't happen very often (the average price of these books is usually $3.99-$5.99), so it's a total bargain.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Barbarous by Minerva Spencer

Disclaimer: I am friends with the author.

When I was offered an ARC of this book, it was a no brainer. I loved the first book in the series, DANGEROUS, and couldn't wait to read more of these characters. Mia was such a strong character, and I loved how the author flouted some of the harem romance tropes even as she worked to modernize it for the tastes of a contemporary audience who might not be too chill with polygamy and rape.

BARBAROUS also follows in DANGEROUS'S footsteps, in that it is at heart a pirate romance (see cover) that also is a bit of a throwback to 80s bodice ripper culture (again, see cover). I was so excited to read this book but sadly, the most appealing thing about this book for me was the cover.

Here's the thing, this book takes place before the events of DANGEROUS, so when Mia initially makes a cameo I was really confused because she had just returned to England and was acting really strangely (totally OOC). So what this means in the canon of this world is that nothing that happened in book one has happened yet, which technically makes this book more of a standalone prequel. Which, okay, that's weird, but whatever floats your boat.

Second, whereas the first book's romance was one of the most compelling aspects of the book for me, Hugh and Daphne have zero chemistry. I didn't ship them at all, didn't really see what they saw in each other beyond the generic "here's a good-looking person I can do the hanky-panky with" sense. Also, the sex scenes in here were, um... bad. "Wet glove"? Um, what is this? Bertrice Small?

Third, even though I liked that the heroine was previously married and had two children, it's worth noting that her children (twin boys) are a product of rape and she was married to a much older man to cover up the scandal. And the main conflict in this book comes from her rapist continuing to taunt and blackmail her. That's much less fun and exciting than the conflict in the first book, which involved a lost son, and a political coup with a royal family. I felt like Daphne's rape was touched upon in a very superficial way and thought it was odd how little she appeared to be affected by it.

Fourth, it was boring. Unfortunately. I skimmed a lot.

I'm still excited for the third book, SCANDALOUS, which features another pirate, a flamboyant Frenchman named Bouchard. (Seriously amped for the cover reveal on that one.) However, my expectations have been tempered somewhat, because this was a real nosedive from the first book.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2 out of 5 stars

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

🦇 Read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers Halloween 2018 Reading Challenge for the category of: A post-apocalyptic romance 🦇

When it comes to genres with a lot of hype, like romance and YA, there's a bit of an "Emperor's new clothes" phenomenon in that some people just seem to get sucked up into all of the praise and excitement and end up rating the book higher because of how their experience of reading it ties into the crowd mentality. I also think that with some of the so-called "brainy" books, people mistake confusion for intricacy. How else to explain why so many people thought LOST was brilliant? (Sorry if you like LOST.)

UNDER THE NEVER SKY has a bit of both when it comes to these two phenomenons. It came hot on the coattails of THE HUNGER GAMES's dystopian popularity, and despite its incredibly shoddy world-building (which I'll be talking about shortly), people have been praising it for being complex. Um, maybe, but that doesn't necessarily mean good. A knot can be complex, but if your instructions were supposed to be a bow and you did a knot anyway, and nobody around you can untangle it, you didn't really do what you were told to do, and it defeats the purpose.

UNDER THE NEVER SKY is set in a post-apocalyptic world, on what I'm assuming is Earth. The sky is full of something called "Aether," which I'm guessing is a solar storm. I'm also guessing that being in such close proximity to these probably-radioactive (again, never explicitly spelled-out) rays forced humanity into hiding. The heroine, Aria, is one of these: her people are the Dwellers and they live in pods that shield them from the desert and the skies, and to keep from growing insanely bored they have retreated into virtual reality worlds called Realms for their entertainment.

On the other hand, you have Outsiders, or people who don't live in the pods and continue to forage in the ruins of humanity like hunter-gatherers. Dwellers derogatorily refer to them as Savages. They are tattooed, and a lot of them have X-Men-like powers, which I think they refer to as Scires. The hero, Perry, is one of these. He has two superpowers, the ability to smell "tempers," or emotions, and acute vision. If this sounds familiar, yeah, it's a bit like what happened in THE DARKEST MINDS, and I'm guessing it's because of radiation that humans ended up evolving like this, because what other explanation is there? The author certainly didn't provide insight into how humanity diverged, or why.

The story kicks off when a bunch of teens go out to be wild, as teens do, and Aria ends up taking the fall for the leader's son. She gets kicked out of her pod, and left to die in the desert. Here, she meets Perry, who saved her from death already. The way she treats him is pretty awful and until they suddenly decide they are in love, both of them basically hate each others' guts. Aria thinks he's a meanie savage and Perry thinks she's an over-entitled shit who is too stupid to live. I must admit, my sympathies lay more with Perry - especially when Aria plunges headfirst into a coven of cannibals.

I've read a lot of YA dystopian novels and I think UNDER THE NEVER SKY has more in common with the bad ones than the good ones. THE DARKEST MINDS and SHATTER ME also featured dumb-as-dirt heroines in dystopian/post-apoc worlds where humans suddenly developed super powers for no apparent reason, and in both of those books as well as this one, the lazy world-building ruined the story for me because the abundance of plotholes kept pulling me out of the story to ask, "WHY?" I also think that if you're going to write a post-apocalyptic novel, you need to answer the hows and whys of how the world was destroyed. This is a qualm I had about the Ritchie sisters' THE RAGING ONES, where both the timeline of the inciting event and the world-building are equally unclear. You can have post-apocalyptic novels where the end world has little in common with the original. I think one of the crowning examples of this is A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, which is told in three parts, and features society rebuilding itself in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, first as hunter-gatherers, then as a Medieval society, and then, if I remember correctly, as a futuristic one. Margaret Atwood's MaddAdam trilogy is another example, where genetic and technologic manipulation have basically caused society to implode, warping the natural into the unnatural. But both of these books, which I liked incidentally, had solid answers for the hows and the whys.

UNDER THE NEVER SKY has some interesting ideas but fails to execute them properly. Too many things were left unanswered, and the story was not really all that different from other HUNGER GAMES copycats who wanted to create that same dystopian environment without adding the same amount of stakes, world-building, or character development. The result? A painful drag of a read.

2 out of 5 stars