Monday, December 31, 2018

Looker by Laura Sims

LOOKER has a somewhat misleading summary on Goodreads which I think accounts for some of the negative reviews. The summary makes you think it is going to be like Caroline Kepnes's YOU or Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL, but this is not the case. In situations like these, I want to take the publishers aside and tell them, "Look, even if blurbs like these sell copies, they aren't going to get you good reviews, because if there's one thing that pretty much everyone universally hates, it's being lied to."

The unnamed protagonist's obsession with the actress who lives in her neighborhood is not what drives her to madness. She is woman who (I'm guessing) is in her mid-thirties. Her husband has just left her and is in the process of getting a divorce from her due in part to her infertility. She is an untenured professor teaching night classes on poetry at the local community college. Her identity as a woman, measured on the superficial standards of success set by society based on motherhood, sex appeal, and self-control, have been compromised. She feels panic, anxiety. She focuses on the woman who seems to have it all so, so easily: the actress.

I think if you read this as a traditional mystery novel, you're going to be disappointed. There aren't any last act splatter-fests, as in AMERICAN PSYCHO, no abrupt twists as in GONE GIRL. The worst thing that happens in this book is that the cat dies, and I'm sorry if that's a spoiler, but it's something I wished I'd known going in because animal deaths upset me, and maybe they upset you, too, so please consider yourself warned. LOOKER is instead a brutal character study into one woman's midlife crisis turned psychotic break. Initially, she sells her unreliable narration but pretty soon it begins to fray at the seems, as she herself begins to lose her tenuous grip on reality.

If anything, LOOKER feels like a condemnation on the unrelenting standards imposed upon women: we have to be attractive, we have to want and/or have children, we have to be poised and impeccable, we have to have careers and be successful at them (but not too successful). In short, we have to have it all. It's bitterly unfair that some women have to work 200% harder for things that come to men (specifically white men) with relative ease, and it's even more bitterly unfair that those things that come to women with difficulty are about 1000% harder for women of color. LOOKER reminds me of those books that I call "proto-feminist books," like MADAME BOVARY or THE AWAKENING or THE YELLOW WALLPAPER, where this sheer unfairness drives a woman to madness after she breaks social convention and finds the social ostracism and guilt too much to psychologically bear.

I don't think this is a happy book, or even a particularly satisfying one, but there is something honest about it that hits a little too close to home in the age of Instagram and FOMO and celebrity advice.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

The Dreaming, Vol. 1 by Queenie Chan

After reading so many Harlequin manga, it feels weird to pick up a manga that isn't about gushy romance, but gushy body parts. You think I'm kidding? Man, this is some creepy shit. I thought it was going to be a light-hearted gothic novel with cute little anime girls but now I'm literally freaking out because it's midnight and someone I know might disappear into the woods.

Jeanie and Amber are twin girls who are going to a boarding college in the Australian bushlands because reasons. They thought it would be an opportunity to connect with her aunt, but she drops them off and then immediately leaves under the cover of night, leaving them at the mercy of the crotchety and slightly creepy teachers, and the older than dirt VP. Almost as soon as they take up residence in the school, creepy things happen. Seances go awry, mirrors don't act normally, things watch them in the shadows, and they have some MFing terrifying nightmares about dead girls frolicking in trees raining blood. OH. EM. GEE.

I was actually very impressed by this story and how thoughtful and mysterious and creepy everything is. Sometimes horror anime goes totally over the top, like Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni, or "When the Cicadas Cry" had a good atmosphere but also relied on shock horror and had a lot of splatterpunk, whereas THE DREAMING is much more psychological in nature and reminds me of Japanese horror films like The Ring and The Grudge in how it relies on atmosphere, emotion, and secrets to keep the story driving to its inevitable and creepy climax.

Even after finishing this review, I still have chills. I'm going to have to stay up for another hour or two reading something that isn't scary. If you enjoy horror movies, you should pick up this book. It is almost cinematic in its delivery, to the point where I could almost hear the wind and the eerie howls. Apparently the story was loosely inspired by The Picnic at Hanging Rock.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Bride's Best Man by Takayama

Whoops, I kind of sped through that in a single sitting but it was just that good. THE BRIDE'S BEST MAN is set on the island of Hawaii. Shelby lives with her Aunt Kay, who is young enough to be her sister on account of Shelby's mother having her when she was really young. Both women have a history of abuse and tragedy in their family and are trying to move past it. They have come to Hawaii to meet Aunt Kay's pen pal, "Dan." But to Shelby's horror, she's also being forced to meet someone too, Dan's protege, the good-natured Pete (shown on cover).

I was attracted to this book because of the bright, happy cover and because the couple on the cover actually looked cozy (as opposed to 99% of these covers, which could be an exhibition on aggressive domineering manspreading 101). The book lives up to the expectations. The art inside is really cute and super adorable. Pete is a beta hero who respects the heroine and goes out of his way to communicate with her and make her feel comfortable. What? I know, shocker, right?

The best part of this book, though, is the story. Shelby initially comes across as a jerk, but she's actually very introverted and has learned to shield herself from pain due to the abusive history in her family. Her mother was abusive and suffered from alcoholism and died young, and her father disappeared from the picture after they divorced. She was also the victim of attempted sexual abuse from her step-father, and her mother, the twat, blamed her for it. She's afraid of opening herself up to others and losing the people she cares about most, which is 100% understandable.

THE BRIDE'S BEST MAN is a great book and easily one of the best adaptations I've read so far. The story is great, the emotional development is great, and the romance is super cute. It's so refreshing to read about a nice hero who doesn't have to do a last-act grovel because he hasn't done anything wrong. If you are frustrated with d-bag male leads, you should check this book out. The only flaw is that sometimes the dialogue bubbles are awkwardly placed or formatted so it's hard to figure out who is talking, but apart from that, there was nothing about this manga I didn't like.

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Every Street by Karina Halle

Sometimes I look at my Kindle and wonder if it's an e-reader or a trash can because of all the garbage I put on there. I will literally read anything if it shows up for free or ninety-nine cents, and if you don't believe me, yes I was one of those fools who read the promotional romance novel Kentucky Fried Chicken put out into the world as a publicity stunt that was in fact a real thing. Why? Because it was a romance novel, and because it was free.*

*P.S. It was called TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE. And before you ask, no, not a single golden crispy pun to be had. I'm still sore about that. Talk about your missed opportunities.

Karina Halle is one of those authors with a cultish fanbase whose works I never really got into while they were still at critical mass. I read and enjoyed the first two books in The Artists trilogy years ago - in fact, I got them both as ARCs - and I've read DARKHOUSE, which I did not enjoy at all. I've also tried one of her contemporary new adult novels, I think it was THE PACT (also received as an ARC) and that was a DNF. That is the extent of my experience with Halle's work, but I've read enough to know she's one of those hit-or-miss authors for me. But man, when she gets it right, she gets it right, in a fun, trashy way that makes her works a perfect addition to the bottomless garbage can that is my Kindle. #LiveLongAndTrashper*

*Trashper is a new word I have just made up. It means to prosper trashily. To trashper. As in, Nenia is trashpering happily, thanks to the books she has just obtained as part of today's Kindle Daily Deal.**

**True story

Halle has a lot of good ideas, and sometimes they work. The Artists works because it came out at a time when most new adult books were mostly just copying each other and playing at being edgy, whereas The Artists was actually edgy and raw. The problem is her style, which is very distinctive and resembles, I imagine, the way Halle herself talks. Meg Cabot has the same issue, where all of her characters sound kind of the same (I'm assuming that they all sound like Meg Cabot). I've only read three different samples of her current franchises, but the narrative voices were all pretty similar.

Her characters also like to go on weird tangents, which is more problematic in the Darkhouse series than it is in The Artists series, which results in weird statements like Eden saying that she felt like she was "offering up my vagina on a wooden platter" to Javier during sex, or Javier cooking a truly strange and eclectic meal for Eden consisting of the traditional Mexican dish of taquitos and "verde salsa" which his mother taught him how to make in Mexico, lol. There are also some typos in here, which pulled me out of the story, including an unfortunately placed interrobang.

ON EVERY STREET has been recommended to me as a standout among Halle's current backlist because it's a romance in which the villain gets the girl (although unfortunately, he doesn't keep her). I'm a huge sucker for villain romances, and Javier is smooth AF. I also liked the contrasts between his passionate, romantic side and the cold-blooded killer scenes that make Eden realize (very, very slowly, stupid girl) how toxic their relationship is. That was something hard for me to come to terms with, Eden's poor choices. I get that she's damaged, and that the nefarious part of abusive relationships is that sometimes you don't even realize that they're toxic until you're out, but it was really hard to read about someone who was on such a destructive warpath, and so filled with anger.

On the other hand, that anger and toxicity is part of what makes The Artists such a compelling read. Even if Halle sometimes doesn't tell a story as adequately as she could, she gets human emotion and portrays it in an interesting and unflattering way that reflects a reality many of us would rather not confront, said reality being, "Sometimes the world is an ugly place." I'm glad I picked this up because it provides insight into Eden's actions in the two latter books, which I plan on picking up for a reread soon. I seem to remember them being more polished than this was, probably because they were picked up by a major publishing house whereas this, I believe, was a self-published expansion.

Anyway, The Artists is a fun, edgy series and I did enjoy the wild, reckless ride of it. If you enjoy Tarryn Fisher's work, especially her Love Me With Lies series, you will probably enjoy this.

Traspher, and rejoice.

3 out of 5 stars

Tikka Chance on Me by Suleikha Snyder

This is an erotic short, kind of like those that brought Alexa Riley to fame, but unlike most of those types of stories, TIKKA CHANCE ON ME features a Desi protagonist who works in her parents' restaurant and the bad-boy MC member she falls for - only, he has a secret, and she's not as good as everyone thinks. Win/win

I bought this because it was only 99-cents and because I kept seeing it get mentioned on Twitter. I thought the title was great (I'm a huge fan of bad puns, the more cringe-worthy, the better) and as a fan of Indian food myself, I thought the idea of a girl working to help out her parents' in their Indian restaurant seemed really charming. I always like it when heroines have jobs or hobbies that exist outside the sphere of the hero. Everyone needs a hobby, you know.

Trucker is the head of an MC club called the Eagles and Pinky's Indian restaurant is their hangout. Pinky's always sort of had a crush on Trucker, even before he joined the MC, but the idea that he's probably involved in criminal undertakings (she's seen Sons of Anarchy) puts her off. This being a short story, it doesn't put her off for too long and before we, the readers, know it, Trucker and Pinky are doing it dirty in a car.

The writing in this book is good and I know the short story format doesn't really allow for heaps of development, but it was still shallower than I would have liked. I did like the sex scenes, though, and I think it's very important that the heroine was so experienced and assertive in her sexuality, and appreciated the discussions of double-standards and slut-shaming that the author threw in here. Trucker was also more decent than I was expecting: guys, this is the most "woke" motorcycle club guy you're ever going to encounter, although there's a reason why, you'll find out later.

If you're into erotic shorts and don't really care about the hows and whys of a couple getting together to bump uglies (or bump pretties, let's not self-shame ourselves), you'll enjoy the book. I'm not saying that to be mean, some people genuinely just want a cute, short story about a couple having sex. It's fantasy. I get it, even if I'm not a fan of it, and if you're into that, this will work for you. I'm not, so it wasn't really for me, even though I appreciate what the author managed to do.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai

You know that feeling when you have an ex and you see them on social media and they seem like they're having the time of their lives while you're just stagnating away? That's how I feel whenever I see one of my friends on Goodreads reading a book that I want to read. I think the feeling is called "envy." Hipsters call it "FOMO." I call it a typical weekday afternoon in Nenialand. When two of my friends decided to buddy-read this, it was the push I needed to go dig out my own copy and read the book for good.

HATE TO WANT YOU has been on my to-read list for a while. I've read one of Rai's earlier works and thought it was very sexy and well-written, but also kind of dark. HATE TO WANT YOU promised to be a sort of modern-day Romeo and Juliet. Livvy and Nicholas used to date when they were younger, but were driven apart when their parents died in the same car wreck - together. Family pressures kept them separated, except for the one day of every year when they'd get together for some no-strings-attached sex. This is their ten-year "anniversary," but this things are different. This time, they've left their marks on one another for good.

As with the first book I read by Rai, which I believe was called PLAY WITH ME, the writing in HATE TO WANT YOU was great. In fact, it was a little more polished, probably because PLAY was written while she was still indie whereas HATE was an Avon publication and I'm sure Avon can afford to give its authors decent editors that keep everything smooth. It's also been a while, so the author has had time to hone her craft. That said, in terms of story, I didn't like HATE TO WANT YOU as much as I enjoyed PLAY WITH ME.

I've been thinking about this a lot because HATE TO WANT YOU has a lot to like. There is a wide cast of characters, all dealing with variations on the OG Shakespearian tregedy. Even if they aren't likable, they're all interesting, whether it's the frozen Tani with her crushed dreams, Brendan with his callous obsession, Jackson with his bad boy torments, Eve with her inadequacies and insecurities, or Sadia with her pride and her sorrow. And then there's the main couple, who are like the baggage claim at an airport, dealing with everyone else's problems in addition to their own.

I think the problem was that Nicholas and Livvy felt kind of flat to me, so their emotions didn't really bleed through. It's like when you're baking a moist spongecake and you have to pour syrup into the mix but you don't poor enough so it doesn't properly seep through all the layers to evenly permeate (do I have any Great British Bakeoff fans here with me now?). Because HATE TO WANT YOU lacked that depth I was seeking, the stakes did not seem quite as high and I felt removed from the h and the H. The story was good but I had trouble staying interested because I wasn't invested.

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Greek's Christmas Baby by Rika Kawashima

Nothing gets my blood running like a good old-fashioned amnesia plot. We never watched soap operas in my household and my mom didn't own any romance novels, so my only explanation for my utterly trash tastes despite growing up with an abundance of Jane Austen and Anne Bronte is that I was always a child prodigy for trashy things and now that I am exposed to these things, this talent is belatedly asserting itself.*

*only logical explanation

THE GREEK'S CHRISTMAS BABY falls into a category of romance novel I would summarize as "title explains it all." Harlequin is a big fan of spoilerific titles that act as concise summations of the story. They are legion, and they are interchangeable. Fun fact, while looking up this book title on Goodreads, I accidentally typed it as "The Greek's Christmas Bride" - and wouldn't you know it, that's a book, too. Is it also a Harlequin novel? Lol, of course it is, you darling fool.

Basically, Eden and Aristide are a star-crossed married couple (she being of humble origins, he one of those millions of rich Greek tycoons that make up 99% of the Greek population) on the cusp of getting divorced when they get into a car accident. Also, she's pregnant. The car accident gives him ~amnesia~ and his evil but sexy secretary has brainwashed him into thinking that Eden is cast in the mold of the disgraced family member that darkens the past of all of Aristide's family members, so he's like lolz, new wife who dis? and totally treats her like garbage because the evil secretary who literally spends all of her scenes laughing evilly must be totes trustworthy.

I didn't like this manga much at all, which is super shocking because amnesia subplots are my catnip. I just didn't really care about either of the leads. The hero is dumb and the heroine is one of those drippy, spineless types who doesn't fight her own battles or stand up for herself. She just cries a lot. Is this supposed to be a Christmas story? The art was also strange - props to Kawashima for having her own style, but I wasn't a fan. The mangaka also tries to cram too many panels in to a page, so they felt very cluttered and hard to read. Having the timeline jump around didn't help, either.

Sorry to say that this is definitely not a fave.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

A Business Engagement by Kasumi Kuroda

I bought this manga because it was only $0.49 in the Kindle store. I saw it a while back for $1.99 and passed, so this lowering of the price felt like kismet. The premise sounds cliche and silly. Sarah is of noble ancestry but now they are impoverished. She works at a magazine called Beguile (think Glamour or Vogue) where her boss is constantly trying to leverage her tragic history for a story. One day, a man who featured in one of their recent articles (top ten sexiest single males - he was #3) comes into the office demanding to speak to Sarah. He has video footage of Sarah's sister Gina in his house, stealing a priceless artifact. He tells her that he's going to go to the police - unless she agrees to pose as his fake fiancee long enough for him to close a business deal with a sketchy female CEO who is hell-bent on seducing him, despite his protests.


My expectations for A BUSINESS ENGAGEMENT were not high, but I actually enjoyed it a lot. The art is great. I tend to prefer the more delicate styles, and this is very classic old school shoujo. The story also isn't that bad. Sarah and Devon are both good characters. I liked Sarah's devotion to her grandmother, and how big a role her grandmother had in her life. Her sister was an idiot, but she wasn't malicious, and I was ultimately okay with Gina, too. There are misunderstandings, but they actually feel reasonable. The sex scenes are hot and, surprisingly, more graphic than many of these manga usually are. I also thought the dialogue was great, and translated well to this format. It was a solid effort.

4 out of 5 stars

Grumpy Fake Boyfriend by Jackie Lau

There's a quote that goes "champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends." It's attributed to Francis Bacon, Tom Waits (and sometimes even Oscar Wilde) and appears in a Fall Out Boy song, but apparently used to be a popular toast back in the day (#BringBackChampagneVsRealPain2019). Regardless of the origin, I think we can all agree as to what the purpose of the quote is, which is that real is always better...

Except when it comes to the fake relationship trope in fiction! Because you know what I say, real relationships for my real life, and fake relationships for my trash life. My quote isn't as good as the one about champagne (problem #1: no champagne), but you get the point. We don't always want to read about what we want in our own love lives, which is probably why all of my favorite tropes in romance novels are such dysfunctional trash.

Not that I'm sorry about that. #SorryNotSorry

GRUMPY FAKE BOYFRIEND is kind of an amazing book. My expectations weren't super high because it got mixed reviews from my friends, but the guy on the cover was super cute, it featured one of my favorite tropes, and the heroine is a WoC. Plus, the hero is a grumpy introvert humorous sci-fi author who I kinda pictured as being like John Scalzi. Love!

Will, the hero, knows something's up when his friend Jeremy invites him out to drinks and asks for a favor. The favor is that he pretends to be his younger sister's boyfriend for a weekend getaway. Naomi, the heroine, has been invited to a cabin vacation in the woods by her friends, but they're all in relationships or engaged, and her ex is going to be there with his new fling. Naomi is very outgoing and wants to go out and socialize, but she doesn't want to be the one sad unicycle in a room full of bicycles, which is where Will comes in. Surprising himself (and the audience), Will agrees.

This being a weekend getaway with couples, you can imagine that there are some sexy scenes in here. You are not wrong. They are very well written sexy scenes, too. There's also some relationship drama and good discussions about what flaws you're willing to tolerate in a partner and what flaws are deal breakers. I also liked the point made that you don't have to date someone exactly like you to be happy - it's all about finding someone who complements you and makes you feel good about your relationship at the end of the day by showing compassion and affection, even during the bad times.

Also, I'm feeling a little personally-attacked by how spot-on Will's personality was. He is basically the male version of me minus the obsessive neatness.

GRUMPY FAKE BOYFRIEND is a really great book. It's light and fairly short, but the writing is solid, the romance is great, and both characters are immensely likable (and so are their friends, tbh). It kind of reminds me of Courtney Milan's Cyclone series. I can't wait to get my hands on the sequel, MR. HOTSHOT CEO. Not only am I digging the sexy Asian man on the cover, but the heroine is in STEM (biomedical research) and has depression. Um, yes to that representation? 

P.S. GRUMPY is only 99-cents in the Kindle store still as of my posting this. Check it out!

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 28, 2018

Ascension by Caris Roane

DNF @ p. 69 (tee-hee)

Cut to a woman sitting alone in a darkened room with a glass of wine. There is a book on the table before her. The book is on fire. She is laughing. She is crying. Despair is everywhere.

What even is this book? Oh my God, it sounded amazing. A hero with supernatural powers? An angel-vampire hero? Um, yes. Yes, yes, and yes. It sounded as fanfictiony as all get-out. Let me plop a quarter in my "mentioned Quizilla in a review again" jar and tell you about this fic I used to read called "Would an Angel, a Demon, or a Vampire Fall for You?" by user: icemakesyoumelt. This book was about a human girl ("you") who was courted, harem anime style, by three guys who all wanted her because, well, because! Anyway, then Satan came to destroy the earth and spoil the fun (except JK, because Satan was hot too, and was even a chaotic evil love interest for those of you into that sort of thing), and you got to fill out survey questions throughout the fic to find out who you would end up with at the end of each chapter.

But no, ASCENSION was all kinds of bad. The heroine was so backwards, she made Bella Swan look like a women's studies professor at a liberal arts college. The whole beginning of the book consists of her 1) being a jealous bitch to her sister for having a husband and being pregnant, to the point where she's fighting back angry tears and acting curt instead of congratulatory because 2) despite having a good job and a decent life and being attractive and privileged AF life is meaningless if you're alone and your womb is empty boo-hoo-hoo, and 3) the last guy she was with, she apparently went Rogue on, X-Men style, on account of the superpowers she also isn't interested in/grateful for.

I'm sorry, but WHAT on a bun is that? Are you kidding me? I'm supposed to root for this bitch?


I was initially excited because a therapist heroine who is tall (6'0"!) was exciting for me, a tall women with a psychology background, but the emotional whingeing and the whole Black Dagger Brotherhood vibe this book was projecting really didn't work for me, multiverse theory or no.

1 out of 5 stars

Obama: An Intimate Portrait: The Historic Presidency in Photographs by Pete Souza

I told myself that this was going to be a positive, happy review - and then I saw all the racist, hateful one star reviews for this book and got angry, because those people are exactly what is wrong with this world, and (specifically to the United States) this country. Like all other progressive people, I was shocked when Trump took (literally took because spoiler: he totes did not deserve it and probably didn't "win" it fairly) the presidency. Shocked, because I don't think anyone really thought that walking carrot can on legs was capable of forming an intelligible sentence, let alone leading a country. And yet here we are, in 2018. It's been two long years.

I'm tired.

Anyway, Trump had a big (might we say yuge) pair of shoes to fill because Obama was a great man. Even if you don't agree with all of his policies, you have to admit (if you're being fair and non-partisan) that he was coming from a good place. He respected the military, loved our youth, sympathized with the plights and the struggles of the everyday people, and goddamn, he loved his wife and his kids. Even if you think (how could you?) that he wasn't a good president, he was a good man. A wonderful, kind, compassionate man who was intelligent and driven and hard-working.

Is it obvious that I kind of have a crush on him?

Man, all I want in life is for someone to look at me the way Barack does at Michelle - and if you need proof of that, there are receipts. Full color receipts, taken in glorious, loving detail by Pete Souza.

Pete Souza was the White House photographer under the Obama administration, and in this lovely full-color book, you are treated to a Reader's Digest version of Obama's eight years in office. You see him with foreign leaders, both hostile and friendly; you see his daughters grow from young kids to young women; you see him totally head-over-heels in love with his wife; you see how much people, kids but adults too, look up to him; you see how much he really felt our nation's tragedies (as opposed to orange carrot cans who basically say that devastating wildfires are our fault for not raking enough, unlike Finland - cue that picture of the Finnish woman Hoovering the forest floor).

The pictures are gorgeous, emotional, heartfelt, and touching. I read it with my mom and kept showing her page after page, admiring Mrs. Obama's dresses or squealing gleefully over the many (there are many) pictures of him goofing around with kids. There's a Twitter account I follow called ObamaPlusKids that serves as a highlight reel of some of his most touching moments with youth. Is it any wonder that Barack and Michelle are the most respected and admired people in the U.S.?

Buy this book. Buy it to support an amazing photographer and the best first family. Reading it is bittersweet because it's a reminder of better times, but it makes me hopeful for the future. <3

5 out of 5 stars

Lord of the Nile by Constance O'Banyon

This book review is brought to you by Chardonnay. Chardonnay all day, er'y day. 🍷✨

When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with two things: Dinosaurs and Ancient Egypt. Today, that obsession has mellowed out into a chipper, "Oh, there's a romance novel about that subject? Let me just get right on that." Especially if they're free or on sale (I feel like the vast majority of my romance novel reviews either begin with "I got this when it was on sale" or "a publisher gave this to me and I'm a trash queen who can't say no").

LORD OF THE NILE was on sale for 99-cents a while ago as part of a Kindle Countdown Deal (and I'm a trash queen who can't say no). Danae is the daughter of an Egyptian animal tamer. He's on his deathbed and takes that dire moment to drop a major truth bomb: she's not his real daughter. He can't - or won't - tell her who her real parents are, but he does tell her that she needs to beat it or her not-cousin is going to abduct her as his sex slave when he inherits.

So, Danae flees to Egypt to make nice with Ptolemy in the hopes of keeping her freedom. On the way, she meets this guy named Ramtat, who she meets when he's in Roman garb but then appears to be an Egyptian soldier later on, after he changes costumes. It turns out that he's a double-agent for Caesar and because of what she saw, Caesar now wants her dead. Instead of killing her, y'know because penis, he abducts her to his Bedouin camp in the desert because not only is he an Egyptian soldier acting as double agent to Caesar and the Romans, he's also a Bedouin sheik. Of course.

I made it to the end of this book, but barely. I didn't really care for the hero or the heroine and I thought their romance happened far too quickly given the circumstances. Ramtat did some pretty skeazy things and then tried to play the nice guy card. Yeah, good luck with that. I can stomach heroes who do bad things but it has to be treated with the proper gravitas. Danae had potential - I thought the idea of a female animal tamer was neat - but that wasn't really put into action in the story and she actually came across as fairly helpless.

Honestly, a book about court intrigue revolving around Cleopatra, Ptolemy, and Caesar could have been so good but this was Grand Central Trash Station™ and not in the fun and racy Rosemary Rogers sort of way. It was fun to see the creep cousin get his comeuppance at the end, though.

Also, fun fact: this book came out when I was still in high school, and I think that thought is scary enough that it warrants another glass of Chardonnay.

P.S. The cheetah dies at the end. You're welcome.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

When it comes to books, I'm like Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones. I was raised and schooled to read literary books, but then I met Padme Amidala in the form of romance novels and turned my back on everything that I was taught was good. The difference between us is, Anakin lost his arm but I lost my credibility with snobs who use my love of the dark side to try and invalidate my opinion on anything they consider to have merit.

THE SECRET HISTORY is the quintessential snob book, in my opinion. It's a bloated mess of self-importance, and reading it is like being water-boarded by a thesaurus. It features a cast of snobby, pretentious characters, and our hero, Richard, wants to be just like them. It's kind of like Mean Girls meets Heathers, in a way, if the characters were like, "On Wednesdays we translate Greek mythology" and had Bacchanalian orgies instead of suicide pacts. I'm sure all the lit snobs just died a little inside at that comparison, but hey, if the gladiator sandal fits.

While the pastoral college initially seems idealistic, utopian even, all that changes when Richard meets Henry, Charles, Camila, Francis, and Bunny, and a chance encounter to prove his worth ends up catching the interest of their mentor, the reclusive and elitist Classics teacher, Julian, and bringing him into their exclusive fold. At first, he's the odd one out, looking in wistfully at these cool kids who seem like a fashion spread for Miu Miu, jealous of the secrets they're keeping from him, and all the times they spend hanging out without him. But then a murder happens, and then another murder happens, and he realizes soon that ignorance is bliss.

As far as lit-fic goes, this is pretty trashy, which is maybe why I liked it so much. 500+ pages of rich white assholes doing each other dirty? Nothing gets my trashy heart a-fluttering like some quality drama. I liked her other book, THE GOLDFINCH, a bit better, because I feel like the stakes felt a little higher in that book, and it was more reminiscent of actual classic literature, a modern GREAT EXPECTATIONS or DAVID COPPERFIELD, if you will. THE SECRET HISTORY was trying to be a Greek tragedy, I think, but it didn't really work all that well, except to thumb its nose at hubris and remind you that murdering your friends and family members often brings a visit from the Furies.

If you're reading this because it's a "mystery" you're going to be disappointed, because this is the slowest damn mystery I've ever read. Sherlock Holmes encased in carbonite would be faster. Given the dense way it's written and the important expositional dialogue that happens on each page, skimming this book is next to impossible, too. It's slow going. I'd say this is more of a character study than an actual mystery, although there is mystery and murder, as well as numerous other things that are apt to get your maiden aunts in a tizzy, like incest, drug use, suicide, and self-harm.

THE SECRET HISTORY caused a big trend of literary trash involving kids doing each other dirty, which I appreciate because that is one of my favorite tropes and I felt obligated to return to the book that started it all off so I could pay proper homage to it. I did like it, and thought the writing was lovely (albeit slightly torturous), but it went on for about 100 pages more than it should have in my opinion, and the ending - like the Greek tragedies - is rather demoralizing. Caveat lector.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

I've Got This Round by Mamrie Hart

I'm just shy of thirty but I already have a healthy suspicion of the "youngins" and their new-fangled Instapics and their Snaptalks and their YouTubes. As if the music weren't bad enough - I see you, with your Carly Biebers and your Demi Jonas Grandes, thank you, next - they're obsessed with people who literally just sit in front of you and start telling you unsolicited stories that go nowhere. What used to make people change seats next to you on a bus now gets you millions of subscribers. Go figure! Kids!

Of course, if anyone is famous enough, they'll be asked to write a memoir, and now that YouTubes have finally got on, the YouTube celebrity memoir is a Thing. The first one I read was by Shane Dawson, and if there was a pool big enough and deep enough, I'd have drop-kicked my copy into it so it would sink all the way to the bottom of the earth to chill and share rape jokes with tubeworns and angler fish in the hydrothermal vent community.

When I picked up a copy of Mamrie Hart's first memoir at the used bookstore, I had never actually heard of her. I thought her blouse was cute and she had a good-natured but slightly evil smile that said, "Trust me; you'll regret it, tho." OK, I thought, being the goofy sap that I am, and I bought the book. To my surprise, I actually loved it. Reading the book is like being an introvert and having your crazy extroverted friend drag you to a dive bar - you're terrified, way out of your comfort zone, but also fascinated (who knows? this could go into your memoirs someday), and also there is booze! The writing style was kind of unpolished, and she had some goofy phrases, but the stories more than made up for it.

When I'VE GOT THIS ROUND showed up on Netgalley, and I saw her smiling another good-natured but slightly evil smile and wearing another cute blouse (seriously, where does she get her clothes?), I thought, "You win, Mamrie. You win." I applied for the book and got it - shockingly, because this book seemed too cool-for-school for me, and I have a rep for going to town on pop-cultural memoirs I didn't like - and was dragged on yet another crazy, booze-filled adventure.

I'VE GOT THIS ROUND was even better than YOU DESERVE A DRINK. I don't know if she sat down with a notepad and looked at all her negative reviews, or if she hired a better editor, or both, but the writing in this book was snappy and polished. All the clunky phrases from the previous book had been sanded down, so the result was as smooth as CÎROC vodka. Also, her stories were even more wild and hilarious, to the point where I felt exhausted even reading about them. Between being stuck on an airplane next to a judgemental cam girl and going on a cruise with the Backstreet Boys, I couldn't decide whether her life was goals or My Worst Introvert Nightmare. Maybe both.

Honestly, though, I like this girl. She is officially free to be my  VIP Trash Gold Card BFF™ any time she wants, although since she's got Grace Helbig, she probably wouldn't settle for me. Understandable. Still, I know some amazing bars in San Francisco, so any time you want to hang, feel free to call me maybe (that's one of those Carly Bieber songs I was mentioning earlier, FYI), although I have a two-drink limit and a midnight curfew, so on the other hand, maybe not.

P.S. Netgalley did me seriously dirty on this arc. There were odd spaces between words, some paragraphs would mysteriously disappear when you scrolled down the page in the reading app (???), and - the most egregious offense of all: none of the pictures showed up in the book! 1-800-FIX-THAT. I'm sure you won't have this problem in the finished copy like I did in the ebook, but it kind of ruined the overall High Definition Digital SurroundWord Reading Experience™ for me.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Bookish Naughty Or Nice Tag!

I was tagged by شيماء at Runaway with Dream Thieves. I was kinda shocked, to be honest. Inviting me to take part in a hashtag-related event is like inviting your weird aunt to a party. You feel like you kind of have to, because everyone knows her, but she's weird as fuck and kind of morbid. C'est moi.

Original creator of the hashtag holiday party can be found here. Thanks for letting me crash.

➽ 1. Received an ARC and not reviewed it.

Yes. Usually because I've read a few pages of it and NOPE'd right out of there. I don't generally rate + review my DNFs unless 1) I read enough of it to review my impressions of the story, 2) it's an over-hyped book and I know its GR-rating will be able to take my I-don't-know-her Mariah Careyesque shade. My review ratio on Netgalley is abysmal, but whatevskis. I read what I read. (Or, um, don't.)

➽ 2. Have less than 60% feedback rating on Netgalley.

If Netgalley was a class, I wouldn't just be failing. They'd be piling up summer school forms on my desk and threatening me with remediation.

➽ 3. Rated a book on Goodreads and promised a full review was to come on your blog (and never did)

I have never done this, mostly because of the way I review. I always write my review on my blog as soon as I've finished the book (while it's still fresh) and then cross-post to Goodreads the next day.

➽ 4. Folded down the page of a book

Yes, because I'm a goddamn monster. Don't @ me.

5. Accidentally spilled on a book

OK, I'm probably going to lose friends over this one, but yes. Mostly because I use my books as coasters. I don't have any coasters, but I have a lot of books.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

➽ 6. DNF a book this year

I do it so much, I should call it DNFriday. Life is too short to fritter away on bad books.

➽ 7. Bought a book purely because it was pretty with no intention of reading it

Uh-huh. Conversely, I've also bought books with ugly covers because they made me laugh.

➽ 8. Read whilst you were meant to be doing something else (like homework)

I did some of the most efficient reading I've done when I was supposed to be packing for Japan.

➽ 9. Skim read a book

And then my eyes kind of glaze over and I realize I've been "reading" the same paragraph several times and have to go back like I've turned in a shitty paper and been instructed to do it over.

➽ 10. Completely missed your Goodreads goal

One time I missed it by, like, five books. I was so pissed off. That was the worst year.

➽ 11. Borrowed a book and not returned it

It's a self-help book about how come nice girls don't get dates. I still have no idea how this female-incel propaganda wound up in my possession, or what discussion precipitated its delivery, but it's floating around here somewhere like that spider you knocked off the wall and now can't find. Eek.

➽ 12. Broke a book buying ban

It's called "Tuesday." Also Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

➽ 13. Started a review, left it for ages then forgot what the book was about

OK, this is the worst. It's like, "New book, who this?" That's why I always try to review right away.

➽ 14. Wrote in a book you were reading

Usually only to underline a passage that I want to quote, and after I've already dog-earred the page.

➽ 15. Finished a book and not added it to your Goodreads

One does not simply finish a book without adding it to Goodreads.

➽ 16. Borrowed a book and not returned it to a friend

See #11.

➽ 17. Dodged someone asking if they can borrow a book

Usually I'm only too happy to lend my books out. In fact, I tend to tell people they can just keep them afterwards. The only time I refused was with a first edition to someone I felt wouldn't take care of it.

➽ 18. Broke the spine of someone else’s book

I may treat my own books like dumpsters, but with other people's? I get out the yellow hazmat suit + delicate tweezers and only read that shit in a climate-controlled room.

➽ 19. Took the jacket off a book to protect it and ended up making it more damaged

That's like putting your cake in Tupperware to protect it and then dropping the Tupperware off a cliff. So yes, I've done that. It sucks.

20. Sat on a book accidentally

Um, basically.

Ruthless Reunion by Megumu Minami

So, real talk: I had an interesting time getting this as an ARC. As you know, I'm basically the unofficial queen of Harlequin manga, having reviewed 40+ of the damn things at this point. They're basically josei adaptations of popular Harlequin Presents books, as if romance novels needed to be condensed into addictively snacktastic tidbits like the book equivalent of a bite-size snickers. (Read: Yes, yes, they did.) It boggles my mind why they aren't more popular, but most people don't seem to realize they are a thing yet despite my efforts, which leaves it to me to champion the cause and rally the troops, er, readers.

Recently, a batch of 10 or so of these showed up on Netgalley and I applied for them all without really thinking twice about it, since usually Harlequin gives me whatever I want. I'm a bit pressed for time these days and don't always read everything I'm given, but I do review everything I read, and I have always reviewed all of the Harlequin manga novels I was given, so maybe that's why I was approved despite being Trash.

Anyway, this time - I wasn't approved. For anything. Ouch. I think the last time I got that rejected, I was getting the "we should just be friends" speech from someone I liked. Ouch. Harlequin, I thought you were down with happy endings and reuniting people with their true loves. How could you deny me my fated destiny with your glorious love-trash? Was it because I call them trash? I call everything I love trash, basically, including myself. And trust me, I love myself. (Not like that. Perverts.)

While I was still smarting from rejection (and still trolling on Netgalley, because even though the last thing I need is more books, well - I still need more books), I noticed that another twenty Harlequin manga had been added to the site. Once again, I applied for all of them, although less cockily this time. And then I went on Twitter and sent them a "Hi, I'm Nenia "Do You Know Who I Am" Campbell" Tweet. Lol JK, I might come across as an a-hole in some of my reviews but I am a benign trash person and wouldn't leverage my reviewing cred for favors because that's real dumpster status . This was more akin to standing outside their headquarters with a boombox blasting "Why Can't We Be Friends?" by Smash Mouth. I get it, you know. I don't use Netgalley with the diligence that I probably should, and my review ratio is trash. That's on me. But these, I would actually review.


Days go by, and I'm hoping that I'm not going to be rejected for everything again because - ugh, my heart. I check my Netgalley dashboard the way a parent stalks their teenager's Instagram, and finally, finally, I hear back. Freaking Harlequin declined me for every single book I applied for but ONE. This one. I couldn't believe it. I checked through all the titles and sure enough, declined. Declined. Declined. I'm not sure if someone is trolling me (LOL, Nenia, this time we didn't decline you for everything), or if this approval was an accident as a result of someone failing to hit the 'decline' button they seem to love so much, but it looks like some serious grade-A trolling on HQ's part.

And honestly? I'm not even mad. Confused, Amused, and Bewildered, but not M-A-D.

I'm not sure what made me eligible for RUTHLESS REUNION when so many of the other books I applied for failed to make the cut. The ominous title could be an extra attempt at trolling, as Harlequin "ruthlessly reunites" me with my coveted HQ manga, only in a Monkey's Paw-esque "joke's on you, I only gave you half of what you asked for" sort of way. But by gum, I was approved this one Harlequin manga by Netgalley & you can be damn sure I was going to read the hell out of it.

Sanchia and Alex have a connection that she ends up running from, and she turns up as a juror in the courtroom over which he presides as judge, he's shocked to see her there. Especially when she claims she doesn't even know who he is. As it turns out, Sanchia has ~amnesia~ and has conveniently forgotten that she and Alex have a whole slew of history together, including marriage. Eventually she remembers and we're treated to a whirlwind of her memories. Here, the conflict switches from "How does he know me?" to "Why doesn't he love me?" And faster than you can dial 1-800-BIH-CRAY, she's preparing an epic flounce, when five minutes of conversation would sort things out right quick.

The non-linear timeline was confusing and not done particularly well in this format. I thought the art was okay (albeit kind of boxy) and some of the speech panels leaked out into other panels, which I guess was supposed to be artistic but actually made reading order kind of difficult.

I thought RUTHLESS REUNION was OK. It's definitely not one of my favorites, but I wasn't mad at it, either. I'm a sucker for a good amnesia plot. I just wish the characters had been better fleshed-out. Sanchia just didn't have much in the way of a personality, which made her hard to root for.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Everything's Trash, But It's Okay by Phoebe Robinson

I mean, there was no way I wasn't going to read this. Even if Phoebe Robinson of YOU CAN'T TOUCH MY HAIR fame hadn't wrote it, I would have picked it up anyway because it has 'trash' in the title. What kind of Trash Queen would I be if I didn't read a book that professes the solemn doctrine I hold so dear: that everything is garbage, and it's up to you to embrace the dumpster life because #traaaay (as in, trashy-slay). OF COURSE.

EVERYTHING'S TRASH is a much different book from YOU CAN'T TOUCH MY HAIR. I feel like YOU CAN'T TOUCH was a series of dialogues about what it means to be a black woman that unpacked a lot of the things that make up the identity, the heritage, and the current joys and problems that are associated with being black. EVERYTHING'S TRASH, on the other hand, adopts a broader focus while also refusing to bow down to white feminism or stray away from things that people might find uncomfortable or unsavory (e.g. white people can be trash).

I enjoyed this book a lot. Her sense of humor actually reminds me a lot of Tiffany Haddish's in her memoir, THE LAST BLACK UNICORN, but I feel like Robinson has a better idea of where the line is and knows when to stop. (Haddish, on the other hand, well. If we've read her book, we're familiar with the Roscoe chapter and we know how ~cringe~ it is.) I loved how she made up funny words and phrases that actually made a lot of sense in context, and I loved the topics she wrote on, which covered everything from sizeism to toxic masculinity to black lives matter to white feminism (and the problems associated with that) to sexism to racism.

There was a lot, and I feel like her ideas are going to make a lot of people angry (ha). I obviously was not, because I agreed with mostly everything she said, even (maybe especially?) about what she said about white people closing their eyes and covering their ears and going lalalalala every time someone tries to bring up race. It is uncomfortable to talk about, but that's all the more reason we should have these conversations. Talking about race is not inherently racist and saying that you don't see color is just as problematic as focusing on it too much. These are simple truths, and yet so many people can't be bothered to hear them. She has similar refrains when it comes to sexism and philosophy, as well. Her brief mention of what it means to be agnostic and mortality salience particularly struck me because it was a little too r e a l. I wasn't really prepared for how comparatively dark this book would feel while juxtaposed against the first, but once I got used to it, I was like, "Okay, yeah."

EVERYTHING'S TRASH, BUT IT'S OKAY is a very different book from YOU CAN'T TOUCH MY HAIR, but still manages to keep the same tone that made me appreciate the first so much. Honestly, I wish we made bigots take "good person" classes the way people who suck at driving have to take driver's ed, because this is one of the books I'd hand them to read as one of their assignments.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, December 24, 2018

Venomous by Penelope Fletcher

DNF @ 13%

Do you have a favorite author whose works are so niche that there's no one else who really writes like them? I have two: Heather Crews and R. Lee Smith. One supplies my dark vampire romance fix, the other my alien/interspecies romance fix. It's like they deep-dived into my mind and found the sorts of stories I'd comb through Fanfiction websites as a teen for, and then wrote them. "This is my original character"-type stuff, only actually original and bad-ass AF.

Science-fiction/futuristic romance is an especially niche genre because you have to be 1) a big ol' nerd and 2) you have to be a big ol' nerd who likes romance. Those two things shouldn't be mutually exclusive, but science-fiction hasn't traditionally been a safe space for women, what with all the dudes trying to keep us out of their Questionably Phallic Spaceship Appreciation Society for Big Boys Only™ club through the usual dudebro tactics of Passive-Aggressive "Are You a Fake Geek Girl?" Trivia Questions™ and Women Are Not the Target Audience Because My Penis Told Me So in a Dream - or Was It an Alternate Reality Brought on by a Singularity? Either Way no Non-Sexualized, Agency-Possessing Representation for You™ "logic." Basically, it's a niche genre for a niche audience that is only now starting to really grow.

R. Lee Smith is one of my favorite authors, and I'm super bummed that she appears to be on hiatus right now. Nobody writes like her. If you had told me ten years ago that I would think lizard men or zombie men or insect men could be hot, I would give you the side-eye before backing away slowly to the other side of the street. Her stories are just so full of emotional development. They are entire worlds, packed in book form, cinematic in scope and epic in the way that books rarely are anymore. She basically writes GONE WITH THE WIND, only with lizards instead of carpet-baggers. Go fig.

So anyway, with R. Lee on hiatus, I needed a replacement fix. Penelope Fletcher's book, VENOMOUS, shows up on a lot of the same lists as Smith's work, and if you search for Smith's work on Amazon, VENOMOUS shows up as a suggestion there, as well. Targeted marketing, indeed. I was super curious about the book because the premise seems really great. The heroine, Lumen, is auctioned off as a prize to a bunch of aliens fighting in a gladiatorial arena. The one who wins her ends up becoming her lover, and then he takes her back to his home world where, I assume, racism and sexism rear their ugly heads in a Cosmically Star-Crossed Battle of Fiery, Interspecies Love™.

Or so I would imagine.

The problem was that a lot of my friends had given this book very low ratings on Goodreads. I trust my friends (or I try to - except when they lead me astray. *cough* Disappointments *cough*). But here, their concerns actually seemed pretty legit and I couldn't bring myself to pay for VENOMOUS. But the author, perhaps sensing my weakness, said, "That's okay, boo, it's free now. Enjoy." And of course, being a trash queen with zero self control, there was no way I was saying no to a free-ninety-nine price tag - especially not when it was a book I was actually really interested in. I "bought" it.

Oh dear.

First, let's just say that all the complaints about this book are true. It reads like one of those late-80s bodice-rippers. Like early-80s bodice-rippers, late-80s bodice rippers had rape (or, "dubious consent" if you're living in Delusionland) . Late-80s bodice-rippers, though, felt a teensy bit guilty. Not guilty enough to remove the rape, but guilty enough for a rebrand. So, like a third-tier celebrity who's erroneously spilled the tea and then deletes all their Tweets and Instas like they think the Internet has no collective memory and won't remember all those ugly brown stains (spoiler: we do), late-80s bodice-rippers decided to rebrand the way they presented sex, where the no-no-nos became no-no-yeses, and the heroine's traitorous body made her realize that she could trade consent for true love, like exchanging a return item at the mall. VENOMOUS takes this approach, with some very dubious consent actually becoming very pleasurable for the heroine once she decides that she didn't really have a choice anyway, and at least he's sort of hot in a four-armed iguanodon sort of way.

I have no problem with dubious consent, but I didn't like the way it was presented in this book. I feel like characters should react to situations with some degree of realism or else your characters just kind of feel like a bunch of cartoony finger-puppets on a cardboard stage. It doesn't help that the writing in this book is exceptionally awful. It reads like the author had a thesaurus on stand-by and was trying to write the Great American Novel, if the Great American Novel had sex scenes where orgasms were called "harmonies" and penises were referred to as "stems." Some of these words were being used incorrectly or could have been substituted for better words. The writing is also very clunky. She has a habit of starting her sentences with a verb or a noun, so you'll get things like, "Proudly he lifted his viridian grated chest ribbed with proud scales and laid his orbs upon his mate." That's my own sentence, FYI, not hers, but it's a pretty close approximation of her style, imho. It's really weird.

I'm giving up on this book because it's not for me and I don't really have much of a stake in finishing it. If you're interested in the book right now, it is still free for Kindle, so I recommend grabbing it now while it has that free-ninety-nine price tag and maybe seeing if her style works for you. Just keep in mind that the reviews are right, she is no R. Lee Smith - she's more like early Johanna Lindsey.

1 out of 5 stars

Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir by Cinelle Barnes

When asked to describe my literary tastes, the quote from Lydia in Beetlejuice comes to mind: "I myself am strange and unusual." I'm drawn to weird books, the more outlandish the concept or the more mixed the reviews, the better. Oh, I like NYT best-sellers as much as anyone, because I'm a curious cat at heart, but what really gets that rush of anticipation through my veins is the idea of reading something super strange and freaky. #FFOMO (freaky fear of missing out). And memoirs are perfect for #FFOMO

MONSOON MANSION crossed by radar when the Kindle store was having a deal in which you could buy certain books for "credits" to get free books with purchase. I almost bought it but the price tag was too expensive, so I waited until it went on sale. The premise of abuse as explored in memoirs is sadly not a rare concept, and I think that uniform experience is another tick in the #MeToo movement's favor tbh, but MONSOON MEMOIR stood out among that backdrop of (mostly white) tragedy because it was set in the Philippines and being told by a woman of color.

Cinelle Barnes grew up in a large and opulent mansion. Her childhood was a whirl of color and glamor reminiscent of a Baz Lurhmann film, with champagne toasts and dinner parties and glittering chandeliers. Then, one day, a monsoon hits, causing destruction to both the house and their family fortunes. Her father leaves to pursue other opportunities that might make money, and in his absence her mother decides to take up with her (white) lover, a crazy and abusive con artist with political aspirations who thinks nothing of selling counterfeit title deeds or filling the house with prostitutes.

I think when I was picking this up, I was expecting something like CHANEL BONFIRE or THE GLASS CASTLE. Something that was sort of romantic, even as you found yourself thinking, "Oh my God, who does that with their kids?" (*cue "Won't Somebody Think of the Children?" refrain from Helen Lovejoy*) MONSOON MANSION was significantly darker than that. Norman, her mother's abusive boyfriend, is a monster. He makes her do chores for him to get meals. He stops paying the water bills, telling her now she gets to see what other people in her country live like, so she has to get her own water from a well and ends up getting food poisoning after ingesting hundreds of mosquito larvae (and probably bacteria as well) from the untreated water. As a present, her mother gave her a baby chick she raised to a chicken, and to punish her after losing one of his own cockfights, Norman kills her pet bird and serves it up at dinner, much to her horror. He also turns their house into a brothel and some of his creepy friends even come up to Cinelle's room and molest her. Ugh.

It feels wrong to say that I enjoyed this book because in part it was so awful, but also it had some technical errors that kept it from being a truly enjoyable book for me. First, I do want to say that I appreciate the raw honesty in the author's writing and the vividness of her recollection. I think tragedy can brand you, and if you can take that intense pain and turn it into something therapeutic, that's wonderful. Memoirs can be good catharsis - provided that they don't force you to relive your tragedies in an unhealthy way - and even provide solace to others going through similar situations. I've always believed writing to be powerfully therapeutic for people who have anger or sorrow that they don't feel comfortable expressing in other ways, and I suspect that Cinelle Barnes feels the same.

The problem is that the beginning is a slog. It's necessary to provide contrast to the last half of the book, when her family loses their fortune, but the long laundry lists of their wealth and privilege got a little dull after a while and caused me to shelve this book for a bit before gearing myself back up for round two. Her writing style is very flowery and dreamy, and while this usually works, sometimes it doesn't. She tends to use multiple metaphors, when one would serve far more concisely.

Also, from a purely technical aspect, there's something off with the page count of this book. It's supposed to be only about 241 pages but is much longer than that, because when I got to page 241 in my Kindle book, I was only about 85% done according to the progress bar. I continued reading, and the pages all said 241, even as the progress bar continued to move. Methinks someone screwed up.

Overall, MONSOON MANSION is a pretty good book. I think if you are into memoirs written by people like Jeannette Walls, Elizabegth Gilbert, or Mary Karr, you'll probably enjoy MONSOON MANSION. It wasn't quite to my tastes but I think memoir enthusiasts will enjoy it more than I did.

3 out of 5 stars

The Kommandant's Mistress by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman

After reading Amy Harmon's FROM SAND AND ASH, I found myself still thinking melancholically about WWII. Reading something super cheery or fantastical felt kind of disrespectful while in this mood, so I decided to delve into the bottomless black hole that is my Kindle for another book on the subject.

THE KOMMANDANT'S MISTRESS has been on my wishlist for a while. It's listed as a suggested read for people who also liked Margot Abbott's THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR, a book that dug its talons into my soul and absolutely shredded me. Reading THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR not only put me in a book slump, it left me feeling emotionally drained and haunted. There are scenes in that book I can't get out of my head. I'm sometimes skeptical about those AI-generated suggestions, but reading the synopsis of THE KOMMANDANT'S MISTRESS seemed like it was probably about right. However, the mixed reviews intimidated me a bit, and I only ended up buying this book just last week when it appeared on sale for a much more friendly $0.99. At that price, I'll read anything.

THE KOMMANDANT'S MISTRESS is definitely the perfect read for THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR. Both books take a rather dark view of the war, with nuanced views of flawed characters who don't always do the right thing. THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR was about Nazi officers and an American-German woman who felt torn, caught between the American desire at the time to remain uninvolved in the conflict and her closeness with a family friend who has become a soldier, and the stark knowledge that something about the German soldiers' ideas and actions isn't quite right.

THE KOMMANDANT'S MISTRESS takes place on the other side of the table, in one of the camps. It is told in three distinct parts. The first part is narrated by the titular commander himself. The second part is narrated by his mistress. Interestingly, the third part is told in a "neutral" tone, as though in a history textbook. The narrative style has an additional quirk in the first two parts: it's a nonlinear timeline, and there aren't paragraph breaks between these jumps. Instead, there will be a description or dialogue tag that triggers the characters' memory of an earlier or later even that is related to what is going on and the new scene will be described until another jump takes place.

I can see why the reviews for this book are so mixed and there are several things to keep in mind before reading or purchasing this book, I think.

1. The book will be difficult for non-native speakers or people who have reading disabilities. The nonlinear storytelling is very confusing, since it often happens mid-paragraph. Being someone who speaks a second language, I can tell you that when you only really understand the technical parts of a language, the "inference" parts can be what get you. The language in this book is not particularly difficult but what the author does with it within the parameters of the story is. Caveat lector.

2. The content is very dark. Most of the worst things happen off-screen, but you still know what's happening. Murder, racism, anti-semitism, violence, rape, abortion, torture, abuse - this book runs the gamut of things that people will find unpalatable. It's necessary, to tell the story in a way that feels honest (concentration camps were awful places), but it's still hard to read.

3. The Nazi characters are portrayed as nuanced and sometimes even sympathetic characters. I mean, this feels like a given since the first part of the book is narrated by the Kommandant. He's obviously not going to think of himself as a bad guy (at least not at first). He really believes himself to be a hero, and thinks that taking one of his prisoners as his mistress is his due for rescuing her from the gas chambers. A transformation happens towards the end, where he seems to really understand what he's done and truly be haunted by it, but until that point, his actions are pretty disgusting to read. Even so, he is a well-rounded character, and I have seen people complaining that Nazis should only be portrayed as bad people - not as heroic-type characters and not as love interests. While I understand what they mean, I disagree. History has nuance. Nazis are bad people, but within the framework of history, not all of them were objectively bad people who realized that they were doing wrong (bar any high-ranking officers in the know who did, obviously). To write such characters as blanket bad guys with cartoonish villainy reads to me like propaganda. I felt like the author did a really good job portraying the terrible actions of the Nazis while showing that they were real people.

4. The ending is kind of confusing and nebulous. It was obvious to me what happened to "Rachel." But at the same time, the Kommandant's ending was much less clear. When did he actually die? When he and Rachel meet again, is he a figment of her imagination? Or did they both escape their dark fates the first time, only to meet again in tragedy once more? I don't want to say more because spoilers, but if you read this book and then get to the last part, you'll see what I mean.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. It was dark, with sympathetic and interesting characters, and seemed very well-researched. I ached for poor Rachel, and how everyone around her was always trying to use her. Her incompetent and foolish parents, the abuse she suffered at the hands of her fellow Jews in the camps for her "favoritism," and her constant encounters of the Kommandant really made me feel so bad for her. The Kommandant is also an interesting character, and seeing his sharp fall from grace isn't quite as satisfying as it should be, since by the end he seems such a broken man.

If you enjoy morally grey books that will make you think, you will enjoy this book (and probably THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR) a lot, too. I've read a lot of WWII fiction that takes a romantic, safe look at the war, with black and white portrayals of morality. This feels much more realistic, even if that realism ultimately makes it more painful. Excellent book.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 23, 2018

From Sand and Ash by Amy Harmon

I've had incredibly good luck with Lake Union Publishing. There aren't many publishers I'll autobuy from, but the quality of their historical fiction has always been excellent: a fun blend of romance and historical details, with very good quality writing. Amy Harmon's writing has always been great, even if her stories can be hit or miss, and the fact that Lake Union decided to take a chance on this work of hers was a mark in her favor. Plus, it's WWII-era fiction, an old favorite. How could I resist?

As far as Harmon's body of work goes, FROM SAND AND ASH is definitely a hit. Eva/Batsheva is an Italian Jew living in Italy during WWII. Angelo is an Italian-American living in Italy with Eva and her father. He is missing a leg and has decided to become a priest at the urging of his rather disinterested father. FROM SAND AND ASH is about the forbidden romance between them, set against the backdrop of war, heroism and cowardice as they try to keep themselves and their families alive despite the callous and industrialized cruelty of the Nazi officers.

I liked FROM SAND AND ASH a lot. As with most of Harmon's works, it takes a while to get into and the romance is very slow burn. I liked the details about both every day life, and the war. It was interesting to learn about how the Catholic clergy helped shelter and rescue Jewish refugees. That's something I find interesting about books about war - you get to see snapshots of humanity at its best, and also at its worst. As brave as Eva and Angelo were, there were people who were much less selfless, and much more opportunistic. The stakes were both clear and compelling.

If you like WWII era books, I think this is a good one to add to the list. It has an HEA and seems well researched. The writing is also really lovely and the characters are compelling. Fans of books like THE BRONZE HORSEMAN will probably adore FROM SAND AND ASH.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Fight or Flight by Samantha Young

DNF @ 30%

I'm a sucker for enemies to romances and when I heard about this book, I was kind of hoping for something akin to the Mile High Club version of THE HATING GAME. Look, we all know that airports suck. Even if everything goes off without a hitch, it's uncomfortable and mildly inconvenient at best. Romances would have us believe that there are bucket-loads of cute guys flying around at any given moment but honestly, the last time a guy bought my drink on a flight, it was from this super nice older guy who was flying home to see his wife after being on a business trip. He was so excited to see his family again and kept talking about his wife. I was with my mom and reminded him of his daughter. (There really are good men in the world.) And the last time I sat next to a cute guy on a plane, I was just coming back from Scotland and had midge bites all over my body, so I was trying to get drunk enough to fall asleep so I wouldn't think about the bites during the eight-hour trip. He probably thought I was a tweaker-alcoholic because of how I was knocking back those glasses while fidgeting in my seat. Needless to say, we are not married. So yeah, I was interested in reading this romantic fantasy, to vicariously enjoy this true love at 30,000 feet experience that I have yet to encounter.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT started out sort of promisingly. I thought the misunderstanding with the H and the h seemed a little immature, but I felt the same way about THE HATING GAME and stuck it out, and it grew on me. Not so with D-bag McGee, AKA Caleb Scott, who is actually toxic in how unapologetically #NotAllMen #TreatEmMeanToKeepEmKeen #ImAStudAndUAHoe he is in terms of his overbearingly machismo attitude. The heroine isn't great either, but Caleb was especially awful. Also, their first encounter happens when she's drunk and she even talks about how her inhibitions are lowered and he's like, "How drunk are you?" Like that's due diligence in consent.

I'm not going to finish this one. It was making me too angry. I picked up this book hoping for a good time and instead it decided to neg me with toxic masculinity and cheap playground insults. Thank U, Next!

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1 out of 5 stars

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Substitute Wife by Junko Matsufuji

Man, I am revving my way through my collection of Harlequin manga. It feels like I've read 20+ of them in the last week, they're practically bite-sized. THE SUBSTITUTE WIFE is an adaptation of a novel by Barbara McMahon and illustrated by mangaka Junko Matsufuji. I wasn't acquainted with the work of either artist, but Matsufuji's art reminds me of Wataru Yoshizumi's work (you may know her as the mangaka of the popular shoujo manga, Marmalade Boy). The story itself wasn't too bad either, especially considering I'm not normally into books like these that are all about motherhood and wifery.

Deanna is an art student looking for a job to pay her tuition. She applies to be the live-in nanny for a man named Jay, who is in charge of a security firm. His wife is dead and he has two young daughters who are in need of care when he's away. Despite her lack of relevant experience, Deanna is hired because Jay finds her appealing in spite of himself and thinks her energy might be good for his girls.

There's a bit of a Sound of Music vibe to this book. Jay is a strict authoritarian/disciplinarian figure who has his girls on a schedule that runs like clockwork. He's also a bit of a sexist, actually uttering the phrase "that's women's work" in front of his girls at dinner, and to my surprise, the heroine calls him out and tells him that he needs to be a good example for his children if he wants them to be independent when they're older. The dead wife was apparently a Stepford Wife, so Jay has a hard time adjusting to the fact that women might not adore the opportunity to serve him dinner. Lols, not.

As far as these sorts of stories go, THE SUBSTITUTE WIFE really wasn't that bad. My expectations were pretty low, so I found myself pleasantly surprised. It was more empowering than I thought it would be. The only problem is that there's a Big Misunderstanding in the last act, because of course there is, due to Deanna taking something Jay said about wanting a boy (and she didn't even hear him say it - it was hearsay) out of context, and doing an epic flounce out of the room in the middle of this party he invited her to because she can't have children and not being able to have his heir is devastating. No man would want a woman who can't breed! Sob, sob, sob. Side-eye.

Until that point, this book was doing pretty well with its empowering message. Look, I get that not being able to have children when you want them can be very traumatic and bring about grief, and I don't want to trivialize the pain that must bring. BUT, at the same time, I felt like it was handled very badly in this book. Deanna talks to Jay about being judgmental but at the same time, makes this terrible assumption about him (he'll want more kids if he remarries and it will have to be a boy) without even talking to him first. She also tells him that men don't want to be with women who are sterile, which is a big fat lie. It felt like a huge 180 from her earlier characterization so if she had reasons for feeling this way (emotionally abusive boyfriend, cruel words from a doctor), this might have made more sense instead of feeling like internalized misogynistic BS.

Apart from that one thing, THE SUBSTITUTE WIFE was actually pretty good and I liked both the storyline and the art work. Also, funny/random fact: I was looking at some of this mangaka's other works and one of them looks very racy! Bare boobs on the cover and everything. I found that amusing because usually these mangaka tend to be lesser-known shoujo or josei authors, and this is the first time that the HQ artist in question has done something so baldly explicit.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

This book took me a long time to read - not because it was bad, but because it was so sweet and fluffy that I couldn't really stomach finishing it all in a single session. THE PROPOSAL would nearly be saccharine if not for the fact that it tackles some pretty relevant issues for women and features a very large and diverse cast of relatable characters with relatable problems. Reading it kind of made me feel like I was experiencing a book written by an extremely woke Meg Cabot; it's got that same bubbly vibe, but one that exists outside of the pumpkin spice latte basic AF white girl sphere.

Our heroine, Nikole, is dating a fratty douchebag actor named Fisher. He doesn't take her very seriously, and you just know he's the type of guy who would drop a "not all men" into conversation. The relationship is in its infancy and not particularly good, so Nikole is as shocked as anyone when he suddenly proposes to her on the JumboTron at the baseball game he dragged her to after just a few months of dating. Obviously, she turns him down. Obviously, this country being what it is, the crowd turns on her - a woman of color, turning down an attractive white man - and just when things are about to get ugly, Carlos Ibarra and his sister, Angela, decide to save her from the crowd.

Carlos, the hero, is a Latinx pediatrician (swoon) with a huge family and a fondness for cooking. He's gentlemanly but not chauvanistic; living in a family filled with strong women has taught him how to be respectful without overstepping his bounds, and he's smart enough to listen to what the women around him want and try to do that to show he cares. He's immediately attracted to Nikole, and is super supportive of her when her rejection of him goes viral and basically becomes a meme. This support blossoms into friendship when they realize that they actually have a lot in common, and eventually that friendship turns into something sexual when they can't deny their mutual attraction.

I liked this book a lot. Carlos's family was awesome - his sister, his cousin, his mom, his aunt: they were all great. I liked that he was also vulnerable; his sorrow over his father's death, his struggle to be masculine and a provider, and his phobia over going to the doctor all made him seem much more approachable and relatable than most romance heroes are allowed to be. Nikole was great too, and I loved her friends and how they all supported each other. The women's self defense gym was also a nice touch, as were the dialogues about empowered physicality and safe spaces.

The only thing I really didn't like about this book was the Big Misunderstanding that happens in the last act. This is pretty typical of most romance novels as a way to amp up the tension, and I kind of wondered if something like this was coming since their relationship was smooth sailing for most of the book. Seeing it coming didn't make me like it any more, though. I can't stand this trope. I was also angry because it made me mad at Nikole for treating Carlos that way, even though it was basically a gender-flip of the "I don't do relationships" men in romance novels who are so frightened by their own burgeoning romantic feelings that they feel like they have to lash out against the love interest.

Overall, though, THE PROPOSAL was really great. I love that there are romance novels coming out featuring diverse characters who don't read like cliches. Bar that last act, everyone in here was super likable and relatable and the romance is very modern and respectful. I'd read more by Ms. Guillory.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 21, 2018

Stranded with the Sergeant by Esu Chihara

I almost bought this a while ago when it was on sale for $1.99, but military romances aren't usually my thing so I passed. Then it went on sale again for 99-cents and I figured it must be kismet, so I decided to download the book - and I'm actually really glad I did. Harlequin manga can really be hit or miss (see my reviews - at this point, I'm practically an expert), but this one was actually really cute.

STRANDED WITH THE SERGEANT is about an elementary school teacher named Prudence. Her father is a high ranking official in the military and he's appointed one of his sergeants to act as a wilderness survival guide for Prudence and her students as they go on a camping trip in the mountains. It's supposed to be a beginners' trail, but of course a freak snow storm changes that. The kids are rescued first and both Prudence and Joe are forced to wait together in the cold for rescue, and as they wait they get to talking and find out they share some of the same demons. The simpatico is instant but so is the fear of being hurt.

The drawing style in this book is gorgeous and really complements the story, in my opinion. I love the soft lines and the way the author draws their faces. Expressive faces are so important in manga, which tends to be very emotional (Harlequin romances too, actually), so this is key. The story is also great. I have trouble stomaching stories with heroines who are doormats who don't aspire to be anything more than mothers or housewives, so it was refreshing to see a heroine who is passionate about her career and actually stands up for herself (and the hero) when being slighted. Woo-hoo!

Honestly, despite its cheesy title, this book is pretty cute. The h and H have some meaningful conversations about inner-demons and learning to move on, and they end up together because of the connection they feel after these conversations. (Also, you know, they're hot.) If you're into romances that have tsundere heroes who slowly warm up to strong, affectionate heroines, and want your romance stories to be 100% rape-free (you think I'm kidding, but bodice-rippers anyone), this is the book for you. It's a very sweet story with beautiful art. What more can you ask?

3.5 out of 5 stars

Rafael's Convenient Proposal by Shion Hanyu

When I pick up a problematic romance novel, I have two reactions. Romance reader me is like, "Yaaass, gurl, you get some. Bees! Birds! Flowers! Hearts! Yaaass!" And feminist me is like, "Um, actually, relationships should not be passports to sex. Women should be autonomous human beings with goals that exist outside of a relationship - and oh, by the way, you don't need to be in a monogamous relationship that leads to marriage in order to have sex, thank you very much."

RAFAEL'S CONVENIENT PROPOSAL is an adaptation of a novel originally written by Rebecca Winters. It's about a woman named Mallory who is the vice president of a huge cosmetics company called "Lady Windemere" (think Maybelline) that's aimed at single career women who don't need men to buy makeup and enjoy themselves, just like the creator. After being humiliated on a talk show by a sexist pig who hurrs and durrs his way through a gamut of stereotypes, Mallory goes to Lisbon to surf, where she saves the life of a girl who just so happens to be the daughter of the resident nobility, Rafael D'Afonso.

I rate these Harlequin romance manga based on several categories - the art, the text to panel ratio, the story line, and how well I feel said story line translates into manga format. The art in this book is absolutely gorgeous - Shion Hanyu is very talented, and I really enjoyed her gorgeous clean lines. The text-to-panel ratio is good and it feels like a clean adaptation. My problem is with the story. Mallory, as I said, saves D'Afonso's daughter, Apolonia, from drowning. She feels a connection with the girl and wants to help take care of her like a pro bono babysitter because the girl's father is a friend of her fellow employee and friend, Lionor. But she's also very attracted to Rafael.

The problem is that Rafael claims he can't allow her to do this because having a single woman hanging around taking care of his daughter reflects badly on the family's honor. If she wants to stick around, he claims, she has to marry him. Bizarrely, she agrees, but towards the end of the novel she has a "what am I doing?" moment where she realizes that this stunt has jeopardized her career. She leaves, but of course the girl chases after her car and falls while the contrivedly adorable pet puppy licks her wounds (looking sadder than any puppy conceivably ought to). The sounds of the little girl's sobs ring in her ears as she remembers Rafael telling her coldly that she only thinks of herself.

OK, let's unpack this. This father figure of the year cares so much about his little girl that he allows her to roam beaches unattended where she might drown so that a deus ex machina in the form of love interest might luckily happen upon her and save her from otherwise certain death? Oh, but she's the selfish one who only thinks of herself? What makes this worse is that this feels like a total bait and switch after we have a "you go girl" moment watching Mallory tell sexist TV host that women wear makeup for themselves, and not for men, tysvm, and you can be single and career driven and proud.

The "happy" ending (which the book actually has to tell us at the very end is a "happy ending" in fancy letters at the bottom, because I guess it's unclear) is that Mallory realizes how "selfish" she is wanting a career when this rich dude is willing to marry her in exchange for her babysitting, and she's like, "I'm ready to think of others!" Um, gag. As a career woman myself, I can't help but take offense to this. Having a job is not selfish. Honestly, I'm one of those people who needs fulfillment in my life to feel good about myself and being some trophy wife cum babysitter sounds like a waking nightmare. How dare this novel say that women who want career development are selfish.

Initially I was thinking I was going to give this a four-star rating but this ending left such a sour taste in my mouth that I can't bring myself to do it. I loved the story until it took that manipulative, antifeminist turn for the worse, which is a damn shame because the sexual chemistry and the art were both pretty great up until that point. Still, it's only 49-cents atm, which is a pretty great deal.

2.5 out of 5 stars