Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

Here we freaking go again. Once more the Conductor of Crushed Dreams and Disappointment™ has seen fit to kick me off the YA Hype Train. Most of my friends were singing this book's praises, and I was like, "Oh boy, a book about sexy heists with diverse main characters." And then what happens? WHAT HAPPENS? I pick it up, enjoy the first chapter, and then immediately lose interest as soon as the narrative seeps into something that I call Basic Bitch YA™, and that someone with more sophistication than I would probably call "a flash in the pan." All these YA books these days seem to prance around in fancy prose, as if putting a silly and ornate hat on their tired storylines and lack of characterization will make up for it. Well, I see through your silly hats, YA books! I see through them and I am not amused.

I think what annoyed me about THE GILDED WOLVES is that it had a lot of potential. It has a steampunk vibe and is set in late 19th century Paris. (Does it capture the vibe and the style of Paris? Er, no. The language is very modern and anachronistic.) It has a huge cast of diverse characters. Laila is Indian. Zofia is Jewish and on the autism spectrum. Hypnos is multiracial and LGBT. Enrique is Filipino and LGBT. It's got an Indiana Jones meets Dan Brown meets Leigh Bardugo vibe. But that's it. The buck stops there. The characters are all childish, and the focus is more on their lame banter than on, well, actual heists. And when I say childish, I don't mean "typical teenager shenanigans!" I mean that this reads like a book for middle school students, with characters who are actually much older talking like kids who are much, much younger. I had the same problem with that Maggie Stiefvater book that everyone loves that I hated. It felt dumbed down, and I found the dialogue to be watered down and insipid. Such is the case here. The narrative writing is much better and I hoped it would go the way of Dhonielle Clayton's THE BELLES, where after a while the purple prose would get dialed back in favor of darker plots, but I was waiting right up until the end and wasn't really impressed with the reveal of the bad guy who was such an obvious bad guy and the mega-cheese of the magic artifacts.

I also didn't really dig how diversity was used in this book. It felt very gimmicky. And before you come bursting down my door to yell at me, no, I am not saying that diversity in and of itself is a gimmick or a trend and that is not the subject of my complaint. I, personally, felt like the characters in this book were not really fleshed out, and their diversity was just name-dropped and then, with the exception of a few reminders, ignored. All of their voices felt highly interchangeable, and I would have liked way more background on who they are and what makes them tick as individuals. Except for a few key elements about each of them, they were all written with exactly the same "voice." You might feel differently and think that they were sufficiently three-dimensional but for me, these characters felt more like a checklist being ticked off and less a portrayal of vibrant individuals who are bringing solid rep to the table. Again, you're free to disagree. I'm white and straight and none of this is really in my "lane." I call things as I see them and try to be honest about where I'm coming from in my views. This is just my personal opinion about what I viewed as happening in this book. 

If you enjoy authors like Renee Ahdieh or Maggie Stiefvater, then you'll probably enjoy Roshani Chokshi's writing. I didn't really care for either of those authors' works, which is probably why I didn't much care for THE GILDED WOLVES. I did find the idea of Forged objects interesting and I liked the idea of the characters more than I actually liked the characters themselves because representation is important (although it's certainly not the only factor in making a book good, and rep does not equal good rep by the very nature of existing) and some of the scenes, like the garden of sin and the illusion house, were fascinating. This book just felt way too young for me and watered down and bland, and I don't really think this is an author for me. Maybe she'll be the author for you.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Hidden Huntress by Danielle L. Jensen

Nothing - I repeat, nothing - beats a good old-fashioned fantasy romance. Something about the combination of a high-stakes romance and magic gets to me every time. In that regard, the Malediction trilogy more than delivers. STOLEN SONGBIRD, the first book in the series, is a Labyrinth-like story about a human girl who is kidnapped to be the bride of a troll prince who is imprisoned along with his people under a giant mountain. It's hate at first sight until she realizes the tenuous position he holds in his court, and how much he has grown to care about her after getting to know her. HIDDEN HUNTRESS takes place where the last book left off, after Tristan, the prince, has released Cecile for her own good to be back among the humans. She's resumed her singing career under the care of her mother, but the bond between her and Tristan remains, and she can sense that he is in trouble.

One of the major twists of the last book - SPOILER - is that Cecile is actually a witch. Humans and trolls have different types of magic, and while she and Tristan are separated, Cecile begins to really tap into her power ... including dabbling in the Dark Arts. Tristan, meanwhile, is subjected to all manners of torture for his "treachery", as both is father and his father's enemy, Angouleme, have wasted no time in scapegoating him for their own foul purposes, turning even Tristan's sympathizers against him. He's helpless to do anything to aid or protect Cecile, even though he knows she's in danger, because the witch who cursed his people is still around, and Cecile is the key to finalizing her revenge and destroying both him and the rest of the trolls for good.

I love it when sequels build off the previous books, and HIDDEN HUNTRESS made Cecile a force to be reckoned with while also developing the romance between Cecile and Tristan. I'm a huge fan of captive romances but it was great to see them reunite on equal footing. Tristan never got a chance to court Cecile, even when he was falling for her, because it was too dangerous. In this book, he gets to court her for real and it's actually romantic. There's also new characters - Cecile's mom, Genevieve; Sabine, Cecile's best friend; and Julian, her mother's young lover/protege. We also get to see more of Lessa, who was introduced towards the end of the previous book and really becomes a menace here.

Did I guess the major "twist" of this book pretty early on? Yes. It was pretty obvious. Do the hero and the heroine spend most of this book separated? Yes. Is this book more character-driven and less action-driven than the previous book? Yes. Those seemed to be the biggest criticisms of those who were disappointed by the sequel, and that's fair. I would venture to say that HIDDEN HUNTRESS is a different sort of story than STOLEN SONGBIRD, as this is more of a "girl finds and develops her secret powers against dark forces while trying to protect those she loves" story whereas the prequel is "girl is kidnapped by a boy she falls for, and their star-crossed love is hated by everyone" story. Cecile has much more agency in this book and the romance is much more companionate than lustful.

That sequel was evil AF, but I guess it was only a matter of time before magic made its way back into this world. Thank goodness I already own book three, but I think I need a break before diving back in. There were a lot of new developments in HIDDEN HUNTRESS and I need time to process them.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 28, 2019

Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang

I bought this on impulse a few days ago because it was on sale in the Kindle store and I recognized one of the authors. Lydia Kang writes really inventive medical-themed historical fiction, including THE IMPOSSIBLE GIRL, which I loved. The caliber of her medical writing really shouldn't be surprising since she has an M.D. and, according to her Goodreads profile, works as a doctor when she's not penning fiction. I have never heard of Nate Pedersen, the co-author, but if he was working with Kang, I assumed he was awesome. I assumed correctly; this book was awesome.

QUACKERY, as the title suggests, is a history of bunk medical treatments. Some are merely hilarious, whereas others are tragic or perilous. Good health is a concern that has plagued humanity since the dawns of time, and given that we're also afflicted with the grim certainty of our own mortality, it isn't really that surprising that we'd go to extreme measures to ensure not just survival but also a long life.

QUACKERY is like the younger sister of this other book I read, THE ART OF POISON. There's a Latin quote, "The dose makes the poison," adapted from a quote by Paracelsus, "All things are poison, and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison." Often things that are poisonous can be beneficial in small doses, and things that are beneficial can be poisonous in larger doses. One prime example of something seemingly harmless that can be dangerous in large doses? Water. Obviously water is necessary for life, but if you drink too much of it you can get something called "water intoxication" which occurs as a result of electrolyte imbalance. It's fitting then that one book focuses primarly on the more malicious applications of these substances (e.g. greed, murder, stupidity), whereas this book, QUACKERY, focuses on people attempting to use these substances for good health (although greed and stupidity feature prominently here, too).

Grossest medical treatment: There were a lot of contenders, but I still can't quite wrap my head around the idea of antimony pills (which were also mentioned in THE ART OF POISON). Antimony is a heavy metal and toxic. Eating it gives you the sh*ts (in addition to other health problems), and in the 1800s, it was a popular purgative used to clear the bowels. It does not break down in the human body, so the pills largely remained intact after passing through the body, which led them to be called "the everlasting pill." People would fish in their toilets to recover the pills after use, and sometimes they were passed down within the family. You hope they washed them first, but given how gross people were back then, they probably just let them dry off. Barf.

Weirdest medical treatment: Again, tons of contenders, although one that stuck with me was the female medieval doctor Trota of Salerno's method for contraception: having a woman take a pair of severed weasel testicles and wearing them in her cleavage. I mean, it could work - seeing your wife or lady friend wearing the castrated byproduct of a small male animal doesn't exactly put you in the mood, and it probably didn't smell great either - but this is probably less medicinal and more WTF.

Most cross-your-legs-and-cry medical treatment: Leeches being applied to the cervix to help with menstrual problems. No thank you, I am moving to space.

Medical treatment I knew about but you might not: Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine and was marketed as a brain tonic. The authors failed to mention the equally interesting corollary: that 7up used to contain small amounts of lithium citrate, and was called "7up Lithiated Lemon Soda."

QUACKERY was a really great book. I couldn't put it down and have spent the last two days gleefully reciting facts from this book to various people in my social circle (I'm limited somewhat by what is work/socially appropriate, although my family got a kick out of the weasel testicle treatment). If you're interested in history and enjoy knowing random pieces of trivia about a very specialized subject(s), this is the book for you. I am now fully equipped in all sorts of snake oil treatments.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Stolen Songbird by Danielle L. Jensen

I'm obsessed with Labyrinth, so when I see a romance cross my path that promises to woo me with similar tales of faeries, goblins, elves, or trolls, I obviously get more excited than a kid on his or her birthday. When the Malediction trilogy went on sale for Kindle a few years ago, I bought every single book, because there was NO WAY, my eternal optimist said, NO WAY this wouldn't be good. My eternal optimist can be an eternal idiot and is responsible for 99.9% of my stupid book-buying decisions, but luckily for me, this particular decision was 100% spot-on.

Cecile is a talented singer who lives in a village with her father and brother. While on her way to go to her mother in the nearby city, to sing on stage, she is kidnapped by a man who has decided to deliver her to the trolls imprisoned in their kingdom under a mountain in exchange for Cecile's weight in goblin gold. Once in the kingdom of Trollus, Cecile finds herself in a truly bizarre society filled with racism, paranoia, and power plays.

The trolls were imprisoned beneath the mountain by a witch because they were too dangerous and too  powerful to be around humans. To break the curse, they believed that they needed to marry their prince to a human woman. Despite the farcical wedding ceremony to Tristan, said prince, nothing happens, and Cecile finds herself imprisoned in a kingdom filled with bizarre people who either ignore her, threaten her, or else treat her like she's less than dirt.

Enemies-to-lovers romances are my favorites, and so are fake marriages or marriages of convenience. This book has both tropes and even better, it does them well. It was interesting to see how Tristan had his people's interests at heart, and how he spent every step of the way fighting his attraction to Cecile "for her own good." There's also a really rich tapestry of side characters, like Marc, Tristan's best friend who has a mismatched face, Anais, the sister of Marc's dead wife, beautiful as anything but unlikely to wed due to her flawed DNA. And then there's Tristan's evil father, his mother who has his aunt growing on her back like a sentient tumor, and so many other interesting and bizarre people, too.

This is definitely more romance-driven than fantasy-driven but the forbidden romance and the need to escape the mountain are both mired in some very good world-building. The magic system isn't really that clear, as magic is kind of a catch-all here, where trolls can do just about whatever sorts of illusions they please, but I did like the clear divide between human magic and troll magic, and based on some of the reveals in this book, I'm hoping that divide will come into play more in later books.

STOLEN SONGBIRD lives up to its hype. It's a very fun fantasy romance that's a bit reminiscent of darker stories aimed at women, like Phantom of the Opera or Labyrinth. Cinematic in scope, it's got everything from fancy dresses to a dangerous love interest, peppered with a smattering of magic.

Book two, here I come!

4 out of 5 stars

One Reckless Night by Rin Natsumi

Zanna goes back to her mother's hometown to find the truth about her mother when her car breaks down. She's saved by a repairman who turns out to be a millionaire and is also her stepbrother. The art in this book was gorgeous but I wasn't really into the storyline at all. I set the book down for a few weeks, forgot most of the story in the progress, and then picked it up today again trying to remember where I had left off.

Even after skimming through the story again, I still don't fully understand what happened. It was such a ridiculous premise and I didn't really like the hero or the heroine. It felt like the author was trying too hard to throw out all these various romance novel tropes and see what, if anything, stuck.

1 out of 5 stars

A Secret Vengeance by Mio Takai

I am not a fan of "the other woman" trope in romance novels at all so if you feel the same, you probably won't like A SECRET VENGEANCE as it's about two generations of women, both of whom were "the other woman" in the same damn family. Also, the blurb for this book on Goodreads is ridiculous and inaccurate. The heroine in this book is described as "a young temptress who deceives elderly men" who is "desperate to avoid falling victim to the same trap she has set." Um, WHAT? No, she isn't. She's a physical therapist or some shit, not a honey pot expert. I swear, some people need classes in blurb writing...

Celia starts out the book having herself a grand old time with a nude swim at the cabin where her mother and her lover used to have sexy fun times (hence the "temptress" label, I guess). Imagine her shock when the son of her mother's lover stalks to their cabin and catches her naked, thinking that she's the "other woman" who's been sleeping with his father all these years.

When Celia hears the name "Jessica", she knows that Luke is looking for her mom, but he's so agitated and her mother is so distraught over his father (Lionel)'s death that she decides to take one for the team. As it turns out, Luke's mom was raped when she was young and except for the wedding night, she never let Lionel be intimate with her, forcing him to turn to other women (i.e. Jessica) for solace. He also didn't tell Jessica he was married when they met, so by the time she found out, she was already too in love with him to leave. Wow, what an asshole.

Luke is also engaged to be married to a girl named Isabel but that doesn't stop him from trying to put the moves on Celia, first after he catches her nude swimming and then again after he finds out the truth about Jessica's mom (and he's drunk off his ass). The main source of angst comes from the fact that neither one of these dumb kids want to be like their cheating parents, but they're exactly like they're cheating parents. It tries to say that cheating is okay if it's done with love, but that just feels like a means of rationalizing bad behavior to me. Lionel could have divorced his wife and married Jessica instead, rather than ruining her reputation and forcing her to meet with him in secret.

At least Luke did the right thing and broke things off with Isabel after he slept with Celia but man, he took his sweet time about it. It's better to break things off before you cheat. I thought there would be some drama with Isabel but she was chill about it, because she wouldn't stand in the way of love. Lols, probably she realized she dodged a major bullet by moving out of Casa de Cheata.

I was thinking I'd give this three stars but I'm deducting a star because in typing this out I'm realizing how stupid this all was, and how much it annoyed me. If you're also annoyed by other woman storylines you should probably give this manga a miss.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Body and Soul by Hiroko Miura

I finally got my hands on one of the Charlotte Lamb adaptations. This is a Big Deal because Lamb was - and still is - one of the biggest names in the Harlequin romance community. She wrote over 160 romance novels, which is an insane amount of books to have on your backlog. I mean, can you imagine? Plus, from what I've heard from friends, she preferred her heroes to be more on the psychotic side, of which I fully approve (being a writer of psychotic heroes, myself).

BODY AND SOUL is about a secretary named Martine. Her boss, Charles, is a German banker and even though he's much older than she is, they have a very close and warm relationship. One day, Charles announces that he's hired a new protege, Bruno. Martine and Bruno have met before: he wouldn't yield to her at a door and they got stuck in it together. She thinks he's very rude and he assumes that she's sleeping with her boss and treats her dismissively for it while also being jealous AF.

Later, Charles reveals to her that he has a tumor that appears to be inoperable and he'd like her to be closer to Bruno. But Martine already got "closer," and now she's pregnant as a result. Not knowing Bruno is the father, Charles takes pity on her and offers to marry her, which Martine rejects. He continues to be in her life anyway, as Bruno gets more and more jealous and more and more dismissive, treating her - and, later - even Charles - like garbage.

Good thing it was all a big misunderstanding and they can live happily-ever-after, right? Right? RIGHT? Haha, I love it when garbage people get happy endings. Nothing like a dude spending 90% of the novel sneering at you, only to remember human compassion in the last 10%. It's always kind of annoying to me when a dude's hero's journey consists of him learning that women are people too, wow!

I did like Martine's close relationship with Charles and I wish he had been the romance hero instead, even though he was so much older. It was so touching how much he cared about Martine and her baby, and the plot with his cancer was so touching and sad, as was his depression and the way he talked about his late wife. Including him in the narrative was a mistake, because it only served to highlight Bruno's unpalatability, like putting aged Kobe beef next to a shit steak.

2 out of 5 stars

A Convenient Wife by Marito Ai

Wow, this is my third Harlequin manga adaptation from Marito Ai and it was amazing, I loved it so much. I don't know if Ai is a big romance reader herself, but no matter which author she's adapting from at the moment, her work is amazing! When I rate and review Harlequin manga, I grade the books based on the art, the story, the readability of the manga format, and how well the text and art "present" on the page. Marito Ai's work is one of the few that's been consistently amazing. She has a fantastic (but unique) art style, she uses great fonts, and the panels are very readable. When I read her work, I have no complaints.

A CONVENIENT WIFE is also a really great story, and this is one of the manga adaptations that actually made me want to go out and hunt down the original. Blake is the heir of a manor home in the UK and lives there with his mother and his son, Josef. One day, Josef finds a pretty lady with a baby crying and scattering ashes in the cemetery next door. The woman is named Nicole and she is the daughter of Blake's prodigal uncle.

Blake is suspicious of Nicole's presence here because Nicole's father was a drunk and a wastrel, according to Blake's mother, who told him never to seek him out. You see, Blake is not the natural heir of the property. His father was a Romani man his mother fell in love with, so he doesn't have any of the paternal Bellamie family blood. If Nicole wanted to make claims over the house and land by saying that her young boy, Luc, was heir, she could easily dishinherit both Blake and his young son.

But as it turns out, his father's identity wasn't the only thing Blake's mother lied to him about. Nicole's father was a good man, an artist who had no interest in money. The drunken wastrel she was describing was actually Blake's own father (the non-Romani one), Darcy. Worse still, he is falling for Nicole but is afraid that she will only believe him to be after the property titles if she finds out the truth his mother has been trying to hide for years.

Marito Ai seems to be a huge fan of dramatic stories about rich people and inheritance - which is a huge plus for me, because I am, too. One of her other stories I've read, MISTAKEN FOR A MISTRESS, employed similar themes. I was lucky enough to get a copy of it as an ARC and it was amazing. Her art style is so emotional and she does a really good job of capturing important scenes beautifully on paper while also condensing a story in a way that makes it feel whole.

I hope more of Marito Ai's books go on sale. I've read three books by her so far, and really enjoyed all three of them, even the ridiculously named STRANDED, SEDUCED...PREGNANT. If you're a fan of the soapy shoujo manga like Hana Yori Dango or Paradise Kiss, you'll like her work.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Her Impossible Boss by Yoshiko Hanatsu

I'm a huge fan of romance novels but I'm very picky about what genres I'll read. I mostly read historical romances and dark romances, with the occasional new adult college romance if it seems like it's going to be smartly written. I don't actually read that many adult contemporary romances. Most Harlequin manga are adaptations of contemporary romances, so it's interesting for me to see what types of romance scenarios seem to be really popular. For example, I had no idea how popular nanny romances were until I started reading these manga.

HER IMPOSSIBLE BOSS actually reminds me a lot of another nanny-themed romance I read recently called THE SUBSTITUTE WIFE. Like THE SUBSTITUTE WIFE, HER IMPOSSIBLE BOSS is about a young, ditzy, manic pixie dream girl who is desperate for a job she isn't really qualified for. The man in question in both books just had his wife die, and without a woman's hand, he is totally lost and incapable of taking care of his kids, so he becomes an asshole workaholic.

Tess, the heroine of this book, is the younger sister of one of Matt's employees, although when he meets her he's slightly horrified that she's only got a high school diploma and dresses like a kid. He hires her out of desperation to take care of his daughter Samantha, and is shocked when they hit it off right away. Samantha has a long list of needs and demands that he's never bothered to find out about, and pretty soon Tess has them doing board game nights or going out to see sports games.

Matt invites his girlfriend out on one of these trips in an attempt to put distance between Tess and himself, but it backfires when he realizes how much he prefers Tess. He breaks things off with his girlfriend and his relationship with Tess turns sexual but oh no, the first time is the unprotected time, so you can imagine what happens. You can also imagine what happens when Matt acts like he's doing Tess a huge favor by proposing, after telling her he doesn't want to be married & accusing her of doing it as a ploy to get her hands on all of his fabulous money. Bad move, Matt. Bad move.

The last act conflict in this book was much better than the drama in THE SUBSTITUTE WIFE. I also liked Matt better. He was just a big fat idiot, whereas Jay in the other book was kind of sexist. I think the dead wife trope is a cheap way to get the previous woman out of the picture w/o conflict, but I get that a lot of women reading these probably don't want to have a jealous or angry ex-wife in the picture, especially with a kid involved. A rich and incompetent widower is probably the ultimate fantasy for a lot of women, especially if it means a stepdaughter who's crazy about them.

HER IMPOSSIBLE BOSS really wasn't a bad book. I'm not a huge fan of nanny romances or manic pixie dream girls, but the romance in this book was okay and I did enjoy it anyway. The art style is pretty simple but pleasant, and it's consistent which is nice (I recently read one of these books where the character models kept seeming to change). Is this one of my favorites? No. Does it take a tired concept and do an okay job with it while keeping the characters sympathetic? Yes. Not bad.

3 out of 5 stars

Tallie's Knight by Earithen

For whatever reason, the historical Harlequin manga don't seem to go on sale as often as their contemporary counterparts, but this week appears to be my lucky week because not one but two Harlequin historical romance manga went on sale: this book, TALLIE'S KNIGHT, and THE BARTERED BRIDE. The joke's on me, though, because it turned into a monkey's paw sort of situation where even though I got what I asked for, it didn't really turn out the way I wanted, so I ended up just as unhappy.

My first clue that something about this book was amiss was that the mangaka is Earithen. Earithen is an artist who is very hit or miss. I've liked a couple of her adaptations but she has a very unpolished style; her art looks like something you'd see on Deviantart from one of those mid-tier anime artists from the mid-2000s who had an overly fond penchant for the dodge tool.

I rate Harlequin manga adaptations based on several categories and my ratings for them is unique for manga, meaning that a five-star manga book is not equivalent to one of my five-star reviews for a standard format romance novel. When reading these, I take many things into account, such as the presentation of the pages, readability (too text heavy? too much white space in the panels?), the art itself, and, of course, how entertaining the story is in and of itself.

TALLIE'S KNIGHT is about a girl named Tallie who is a distant orphaned relation of this wealthy family, headed by a bitchy matriarch named Laetitia. Tallie watches Laetitia's kids without pay in exchange for room and board, and some very ugly hand-me-downs. One day while watching the kids during a party, she overhears this hot guy named Magnus looking for a bride with "strong teeth and hips" because he's interested in producing an heir. He decides that person is Tallie after he overhears her preventing an "Old Yeller" sort of punishment when one of the kids' puppies interrupts the party.

Tallie asks that in exchange, he take her to Italy to find her younger brother and he says that's fine, but if she gets pregnant he's cancelling the trip. Sex is a tricky terrain because Laetitia has equipped Tallie with bad information in the hopes that Magnus will break up with her, and Magnus has Mommy Issues because his dad was basically his mother's slave, and he has no interest in being made into a love-struck fool. Unfortunately for him, Tallie is really hot without clothes. Whoops.

The art and formatting in this book really isn't that great, especially when compared to the art on the cover. You think you're getting something nice and then you end up with pretty basic anime and some truly ugly font. I don't know what the artist was thinking, going with that font. It looks like Arial, which is much too modern looking for a historical romance, in my opinion, especially in those word boxes. The translation - I'm assuming from Japanese - also feels very half-assed, with some odd, clunky word and grammar choices. It was not very fun to read.

TALLIE'S KNIGHT was a disappointment. I wouldn't recommend it.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Bartered Bride by Riho Sachimi

Harlequin manga are comic book adaptations of romance novels done by Japanese mangaka. They were the way that Japanese people consumed romance novels and apparently word of their existence made its way to the United States because now, suddenly, I'm seeing them on Amazon all the time. Considering how popular comic books and romance novels are here, especially among women, double-barrelling the marketing by combining them was ingenious. In fact, Harlequin manga are only truly limited in that they are only as good as the work they are adapted from. The curation process seems to be halfway decent, as most of these books are quite good, but every so often I come across one that leaves me annoyed.

BARTERED BRIDE was an exciting buy for me because it's an adaptation of one of Harlequin's historical novels. I've read several different kinds of Harlequin manga so far, but this was my first historical adaptation. Unfortunately, my feelings are pretty mixed, since I didn't really like any of the characters all that much, even though the art was lovely.

The problem is that the heroine, Charlotte, comes from a Garbage Family. Her father, Mr. Garbage, is a compulsive gambler and when he runs out of money while pitting his luck against a marquis, he just decides he'll wager one of his daughters' hands in marriage. He has two, after all. No big loss. Mr. Garbage comes home to tell his daughters the great news, but Clarice, whose hand he has wagered, tells her sister that she can do it because she met her true love in Paris, thanks. Just in case Charlotte gets any bright ideas - like saying, "No, bitch, you marry the damn jerk" - Clarice runs away, leaving Charlotte with no choice but to marry the marquis in her sister's place while her dad looks for her.

The marquis is not super thrilled with the marriage because at the gambling party (at which Clarice was in attendance), he caught Clarice pick-pocketing his guests. However, due to his Mommy Issues™, he doesn't want to fall in love with his wife anyway because love hurts too much, so he's just grateful that she's young and healthy and completely unattractive to him personality-wise. Unfortunately, he catches on pretty quick that he married the wrong sister, and unfortunately, since the papers were signed in Clarice's name and not Charlotte, that grants Clarice all the rights.

While the marquis races off to correct his error, Charlotte endears herself to the people of the march. She's learned that the marquis is also garbage and has been neglecting his people, letting them suffer by the banks of the rotten river that's overflowing its banks. She tells them that if they dam the river and do it well, she will pay them and let them keep the tools and refurbish their own homes, and she manages to do all of this with the spending money allotted to her by the marquis. This endears her to the marquis, who shares his Mommy Issues™ with her as a result. His mother died of a fever from one of their Daily Visits to the Poor™ and he never was able to get over his butthurt from that.

Anyway, sister Garbage Clarice comes back for a visit one day, and is super jealous that the man who she turned her nose up was actually a rich marquis (she didn't know that). She blackmails her sister out of the remainder of her spending money and then steals the necklace that the marquis gave Charlotte as a gift that was from his mother. When she shows up to a party without it, the marquis thinks she's hawked it when he hears of a woman holding it up to a lowlife dude in the garden outside, but nope, it's Clarice Garbage, and when Charlotte runs out there to stop her, she's like, "WHAT A SELL-OUT" and tries to have Charlotte shot, only for the marquis to intercept the bullet.

Clarice goes back home to her father who for some reason 1) isn't mad about the blackmailing incident, 2) isn't mad about the stealing incident, 3) isn't mad about the attempted murder incident, and 4) tells her that she doesn't need to be jealous of her sister, because they're just different (ha ha ha ha, what a garbage thing to say). Charlotte continues to receive letters from her father and sister, although not many, but mostly she is too busy living happily ever after with her new family.


The lack of consequences for Clarice really annoyed me. I get that bad people do not always get what is coming to them, but that is not why I read fiction. Fiction is supposed to be an escape; it is an oasis of logic and predestiny in a world that seems chaotic and unpredictable. That's why I find romance novels such welcome respite, to be honest. You (usually) know you're going to get a happy ending and that the evil, villainous people will be punished or redeemed to such a point that they don't really deserve punishment anymore. But apparently the Garbage family is above such lowly treatment and get to get away with being garbage. I'm sorry, but no. I can't get on board with such trash behavior.

While I also really liked the art, the way this graphic-novel was organized made it hard to read. The mangaka tried to cram too much writing in each panel and this doesn't really work for the e-manga format. The letters - especially the more stylized letters that looked like handwriting - were all scrunched together and very hard to read. I found myself having to squint and hold my laptop closer to my face in order to properly read the dialogue. It could have been laid out much better.

Overall, my verdict for BARTERED BRIDE is not my favorite, but it was barely okay.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Air Awakens by Elise Kova

I saw someone in my feed post a status update today about hating books that you might have otherwise liked because of the main character and - um, yup, feeling that pretty hard right now. AIR AWAKENS was one of the most frustrating books I've read in a while because it had a lot of potential, but a lot of that potential was squandered away on Vhalla, the Worst Heroine in the World.

AIR AWAKENS is very similar to Avatar: The Last Airbender in that it takes place in a fantasy land where certain people have magic powers, each based on one of the four elements. Each part of the world is known for possessing a certain type of these magical powers and yup, air, the rarest, was wiped out by an enemy kingdom and our heroine, Vhalla, is the Last Airbender. Oops, I mean Airwalker. She finds this out by complete accident due to her magic powers oozing themselves like magic snot all over an envelope that finds its way into the hands of a trained sorcerer, who then pays her a little visit and patiently walks her through her powers and explains to her who and what she is -

LOL jk, the sorcerer is Prince Aldrik and he pretends to be the Phantom of the Library (no, seriously, he signs his notes "Phantom") and leaves her little notes in the books that she's reading that are half-insult, half-hints at greater knowledge he won't share. When he finally introduces himself to her in person, he asks her if she's ever masturbated before (no, seriously) and then pushes her off a roof.




The argument for this is that her falling is necessary to be Awoken ... but she doesn't float to the bottom or anything with her air magic. She literally hits every spire and roof on her way down and is in so much pain from her bruised, broken, and fractured everythings that the sorcerers have to use magic to heal her. Aldrik later tells her that he only did it because they have a ~bond~ and he knew she wasn't going to die, just get hurt, and if he'd known how badly she would have been hurt, he wouldn't have done it - but then he insults her some more and gets mad at her for not wanting to be #TeamMagic despite the RoofGate incident which... is one thing I'll give Vhalla. I would not exactly want to be #TeamMagic either if some self-righteous a-hole sexually harassed me + tried to murder me, even if it was "for my own good." But anyway, the deed is done. Vhalla has magic now -

Only she doesn't want it. And here's where my big issue with AIR AWAKENS (e.g. Vhalla) comes into play. Vhalla does nothing but whine, cry, complain, sulk, pout, cower, when she's not making moony eyes at her not one, not two, but three love interests. She is the most useless waste of space. The way she treats her alleged friends, Sareem and Roan, is disgusting. She whines and cries so much and threatens to give up her magic (called Eradication) to the point where her would-be magic tutor allows her to take a ridiculously long time to decide whether she wants training because Vhalla is such a special snowflake and such an overall pleasant person to be around, of course he would do her this solid. Probably he just wanted to postpone having contact with her as long as possible. Her personality can be described in one word: books. If there's a book around, Vhalla is going to tell you about how much she wants to read it, and if a person's around (unless it's Aldrik), Vhalla is going to tell you about how she'd rather be reading a book than talking to that person. I get that she's a library apprentice, but this "my whole personality is books" thing feels very lazy to me, and was overused way too much to make up for her lack of other hobbies or personality traits (besides bitchiness).

Also, her romance with Aldrik came out of the blue, honestly. I thought she had a crush on Baldair but no, as soon as she gets over the RoofGate incident (it takes like one day) they become BFFs and have lunch dates and garden parties and sketch under the sunset, even though he called her a worm after he nearly killed her. But honestly, any clout he gets for being a fancy lunch date disappears when Vhalla is framed for treason and held on trial and Aldrik just sits on his royal heiney and does nothing while Vhalla stares at him with big helpless eyes and cries some more. Oh, and the reason she was framed in the first place was because she didn't listen when Aldrik told her not to run into danger, saying, "I'LL SAVE THE DAY WITH THAT MAGIC I HAVEN'T TRAINED WITH YET BECAUSE I'M A BIG STUPID LOSER WHO DOESN'T DESERVE AN OWL OR A HOGWARTS LETTER!" gets to the scene of the danger, realizes she can't do anything, and cries for Aldrik to save her - which he does, because love interest. I was honestly kind of glad when she got tortured, tbh. I spent most of the book wanting to punch her in the face and then at the end someone does it for me.

I hear the series gets better as it goes on, so maybe this is a debut author problem. I noticed a lot of technical errors as well, such as words being used incorrectly or incorrect tense usage, whereas in the author's Loom saga, the quality and style of the writing was objectively better. New book, new you. The problem for me was that AIR AWAKENS was so hyped that my expectations were very high. I read a lot of fantasy and have very particular preferences of what I like, and it didn't help that I'd just read another fantasy romance novel about elemental magic right before this one called THE FIRE-LORD'S LOVER that was so much better. I ended up comparing the two unfavorably the whole time.

On a positive note, there were a few things I did like. Kova doesn't shirk from violence and she knows how to use it in a way that adds dramatic effect without feeling gratuitous. Some of her scenery descriptions are lovely (and more in line with what I expected from this book after reading Loom which I'm thinking now might have had a better editor), and I also liked that Vhalla isn't a virgin when we first meet her. It's refreshing to see heroines that have experimented with sex before meeting the love interest. I'm thinking part of the reason this book is so popular is that the audience reading it seems to be younger and not romance- or fantasy-genre readers, but YA-genre readers, so they're happier with taking things at face value rather than demanding explanations and back story for everything (like me). I know I'm pickier than most and sometimes this makes me look like a jerk when it comes to how I rate, but that's how I am. Your mileage may vary (and odds are, it will vary for the better). If you're a fan of books like CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE and THRONE OF GLASS (both of which I hated, FYI), you'll probably like this. Also, the cover's pretty. So there's that.

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

Gather 'round, friends. Come sit at my table because I've just put the tea on and I'm about to spill it all over the damn place. It took me two months to finish this series, and I have some major thoughts on how it ended and what Kwan did with some of the characters. Each book in the series is a very different sort of story. CRAZY RICH ASIANS, the best one by far, is more like an underdog love story of the kind that was so popular in the mid-2000s, in which the "plain" (read: beautiful) ordinary girl hooks up with the major hottie because he sees through her plainness to all the beauty that lies within (read: hot sex). It ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger so reading CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND is necessary for closure, even though it isn't really a romance anymore at this point but one of those gossipy potboilers of the type that were popular in the 1980s, where rich people behave badly just because they can, and to hell with the consequences as long as you look good doing it.

With the two previous books neatly adding closure to Rachel and Nicky's love story, I wasn't really sure what more there could be left to address for them in RICH PEOPLE PROBLEMS. The quick answer is: not much. Apart from what I believe was a brief appearance in the beginning, Rachel basically disappears until around p.250 or so. In RICH PEOPLE PROBLEMS, the family matriarch who disapproved of Nicky's marriage to Rachel, Grandma Su Yi, has a heart-attack and the entire family turns Tyersall Place into a circus ostensibly to care for her but with her last will and testament very much on their minds.

Eddie, in particular, reminded me very quickly of how much I hated him with his maneuvering to keep Nicky barred from entering the house. Eddie is basically human-shaped garbage on legs. Everything he said and did made me want to punch him. The other relatives, too, sink back into their odious ways as soon as the question of money comes up. Kitty, who had a Pretty Woman redemption arc in the previous book, starts up a rivalry with Colette Bing. Colette is also human garbage on legs. I almost warmed to Eleanor in the previous book because she did reunite Rachel with her father, but in this book her sleazy machinations to pressure Rachel into having kids were super creepy, especially when she invites her to a bible study group - only to try to have one of her friends give her an ob-gyn examination in a room they have set up just next door? -cue horror movie music-

Astrid and Charlie are given more air time in this book than Rachel or Nicky since their romance is the one filled with uncertainty now with both of their ex-spouses making as much trouble for them as possible. I did not like the Isabel subplot and Michael proved that he was even more of a creep than I'd imagined in this book. I also didn't like what happened to Colette at the end of the book. Isabel and Colette were both terrible characters, but I don't really like it when physical or psychological trauma is treated like "justice." There are better ways for characters to get their comeuppance.

I did actually warm to Su Yi a bit in this book and the scenes with her were surprisingly touching. I also liked Carlton's romance with Scheherazade (although "Scheherazade"? Really?). Oliver came off looking like much more of a worm in this book, and I kept wondering what had happened to Connie. Some people didn't like the fighting about what to do with Tyersall Place but I felt like that was pretty realistic and handled well, especially since it is true that because of property values something like that never would be or could be built again in Singapore. Not everything needs to be bulldozed.

RICH PEOPLE PROBLEMS was a definite downgrade in terms of quality and felt more like straight-up trash than the smart, snappy CRAZY RICH ASIANS. I feel like the author probably could have stopped at two book, or even the first book (if he had written in that happy ending) instead of padding Rachel and Nick's future out across two books and then throwing in a whole bunch of other random stuff about the family in for the lols as Rachel gets to know her dad. This book felt entirely unnecessary but trilogies are in and I'm guessing the author wanted to cash in on that as much as anyone. It was the perfect thing to read while sick because it didn't require a whole lot of thought but I can definitely see why so many people who read this felt cheated or disappointed.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Fire Lord's Lover by The Fire Lord's Lover

They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, and that's definitely the case with this charming little monstrosity. While the cover looks like an exercise in What Not to Do in Photoshop 101, the story inside is 100% delightful. I mean, I'm a little biased - it opens up with a woman who has the ability to do magic dances (dance magic dance) who is engaged to be married to a hot elf guy who has power over fire, and their wedding is basically that ballroom scene from Labyrinth. In fact, now that I look at the cover, I think the artist(s) were even trying to channel a bit of David Bowie as Jareth (even the waistcoat/cravat kind of look the same).

I mean, they failed, obviously. But A+ for effort.

THE FIRE LORD'S LOVER is set in alternate universe Georgian England. Elves with various magical abilities have come to England (and presumably elsewhere) from Elfhame and carved out territories in England. The hero, Dominic, is the son of the Imperial Lord of Fire, and his father is a mean son of a bitch. Dominic is half-human and his father lords this over him constantly, torturing him on the reg and subjecting him to all kinds of physical and psychological abuse to make him cold and inhuman.

The heroine, Cassandra, also has elf-blood, as all humans with magical powers in this world do, but hers is the ability to dance. In particular, she can do something called a "death dance" which is basically Footloose, only it ends in murder instead of Kenny Loggins. She is marrying Dominic as part of the rebellion against the Elvish tyranny, to get close to and then murder Dominic's dad. She was trained in secret in a nunnery by another magic dancer masquerading as a priest. Being so attracted to Dominic throws a wrench in her plans, though. Especially since, in the typical "I hurt you for your own good" Male Issues fashion, Dominic pretends he wants nothing to do with her emotionally. And once he does let her in, it's highly unlikely he'll let her proceed as planned.

I was expecting this book to be cheesy but it's actually rich in political intrigue, has thoughtful world-building, a great magic system, wonderful secondary and tertiary characters, a fantastic love story, and hot AF sex scenes. There's also a twist in this book that is about 1,000 times darker than I was expecting, but then there's a lot of dark moments in this book that that goofy cover would leave you woefully unprepared for. Dominic tries to keep his wife at arm's length because his father has a habit of killing everyone he loves and his only companion in the world is the dragon that lives on their roof. Even when he flaunts his mistress in Cassandra's face, it's easy to forgive him because he's really trying to keep his wife safe by pretending to be icy and indifferent and cold.

This book needs a rerelease and a cover change, because it is awesome.

Obligatory visual interlude:

4.5 out of 5 stars

Reflection by Elizabeth Lim

Mulan is my favorite Disney movie, so while perusing books to read on my Kindle, in between bouts of flu-induced naps whilst curling up in a ball and asking what sins I've committed to deserve this suffering, there was really no question about indulging in a bit of Mulan fanfiction to make myself feel better. REFLECTION is part of the Twisted Tales series that Disney has put out, in which the corporation asks, "What if...?" hypotheticals that put spins on their original retellings of the story and then hire out young adult authors to write them. Most of the books are written by Liz Braswell, but they actually got a Chinese author to write the Chinese story - how woke.

REFLECTION takes this new approach to Mulan: instead of Mulan getting slashed by Shan-Yu (and betraying her identity as a woman), Li Shang takes the blow for her instead. The wound is fatal, and to save him, Mulan makes a deal with King Yama, the ruler of the Chinese Underworld (Diyu) to find and rescue him and escape from the 100th level of the underworld before time runs out and she's imprisoned there - forever.

I'm a sucker for underworld retellings, and this one smacked a bit of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as Dante's Inferno, but with Chinese mythology instead. The writing was pretty simple (I think this book is for a middle grade audience) but could be vivid. At times, I could imagine this as one of those direct to VHS sequels that were so popular in the 90s. It really should be a movie; it'd be amazing.

There are a lot of call-backs to the movie, which is to be expected, and I thought the author did a good job staying in keeping with the characters as they were portrayed in the movie, although Mushu fell somewhat flat here in comparison to his portrayal in the movie. While I enjoyed the portrayal of the Chinese underworld and the trials Mulan had to undergo, at times the pacing was inconsistent and the middle section in particular got kind of tedious, although it picked up again by the end.

Overall, this was much better than the cash cow I was expecting. It entertained me and even moved me to tears at a couple points. If you're a fan of the Mulan movie and have always wanted more, you should pick up REFLECTION.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

As a reader of bodice-rippers and books that are a part of the Luxury Suite Trash Experience™, I'm prepared to discuss how and when some of my favorite reads can be problematic. I don't feel bad about enjoying them but I do think it's important to have dialogues about why others might not, and why this is 100% okay for others to feel this way without having their opinions lambasted by stans. I, for example, refuse to buy or read anything by Orson Scott Card for personal reasons and once had an Angry White Man™ call me names for being unable to separate my personal feelings about what Card has said about the LGBT+ from my feelings about his books. We all have those lines that can't and mustn't be crossed, so I totally understand why others choose to get political with their wallets.

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA came under fire for multiple reasons, parts of which had to do with the book, and parts of which had to do with the film. The book has obvious surface issues, like cultural white-washing (giving the heroine blue-grey eyes, downplaying the tragedy of Hiroshima by portraying all American soldiers as fun-loving rascals who are definitely not rapey (seriously)), as well as presenting Chiyo's rise to geisha as a glorified Cinderella story shrouded in Orientalism (and some of the blurbs in this book really underscore that view with coded language, such as the Chicago Tribune's describing the book as "[a]n exotic fable" (emphasis mine) and Vogue's "a startling act of literary impersonation, a feat of cross-cultural masquerade" (emphasis mine). I'm not sure what "cross-cultural masquerade" means but it sounds unfortunately like, "literary yellow-face."

The deeper issue came with one of Arthur Holden's sources, an actual real life geisha named Mineko Iwasaki, who took umbrage with the way the details of her life were mangled in the telling of this novel. I had always been aware of the controversy, and knew it had prompted her to write a memoir detailing her life with more accuracy called, GEISHA: A LIFE, but only found out today while researching the background for this book that she apparently sued both the author and the publisher on the grounds that he had allegedly promised to keep her identity secret, and yet her name features prominently in the "acknowledgements" section of the book.

The movie was controversial because Chinese actresses Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri), Michelle Yeoh (Mameha), and Gong Li (Hatsumomo) were cast to play the roles of the Japanese women in the book. The response to this was the typical "white people who are of X descent play characters of Y descent all the time, and no one bats an eyelash," but the problem with that line of reasoning is that it assumes that actors of color have the same opportunities and varieties of roles open to them that white actors do, which isn't the case. Actors of color have far fewer opportunities, and when opportunities do turn up, they are usually type-cast. Memoirs of a Geisha was a beautifully filmed movie and I felt very grown-up when my mom took me to see it with her after I'd read the book for my high school book club, and it will always have a place in my heart, and I still admit that it smacks of cultural appropriation.

Getting to the book, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is one of those rare books that I have reread several times, and I consider it the entre to my love of epic stories and bodice-rippers. There is something so exciting about following a character from childhood and seeing them evolve and grow over the course of a novel, following them as they navigate new and exciting life changes and forge new relationships. Chiyo/Sayuri was a very readable protagonist and her goal - become a successful geisha  - is a very clear one to follow, and root for, because the Cinderella story is so universal.

Upon this subsequent reread, I did notice things that somehow escaped my notice before. Chiyo's detachment from her family, and her under-reaction by the news of their deaths was very strange. I was also bothered by the fact that she never met her sister, Satsu, again, as it kind of felt like the author had left the door open for that reunion, seeing as how Chiyo/Sayuri experienced so many other reunions in her life. I also remember feeling sorrier and more sympathetic for Nobu the first time around, but now, as an educated and wise woman, I see that he is one of those "nice guys" who puts women on pedestals and cannot forgive them for toppling or getting dusty. Even when Chiyo/Sayuri was in his good graces, he was so mean to her, and it was kind of hard to read about that this time.

There were also some wtf moments, like the mizuage scene (or the virginity auction), which I guess was one of the portrayals that Iwasaki was much more upset about. Then the man who buys Sayuri's mizuage takes the blood stained towel her maidenhead dripped on and puts it in a briefcase holding his virginity collection, or vials containing blood-stained fabrics from all the geisha he has despoiled. What a creep! I couldn't believe I'd forgotten the virginity briefcase. It reminded me of a scene from a historical bodice ripper I read about this Norman invader who had a necklace made of the pubes from all the women he'd raped. You can't make this stuff up, guys. Romance novels are the wild, wild west.

To the author's credit, he wrote a somewhat convincing woman, especially with regard to sex and her views of her body and her relationships with other women. While reading this book, I couldn't help but compare this to Jason Matthews's RED SPARROW, in which the heroine didn't resemble an actual human being so much as an emotionless sex robot. Sayuri had hopes and dreams, and Golden doesn't kid himself that pretty young women dream about banging geeky older men for their personalities or their pasty looks; Sayuri does what she does to survive, but she prefers men she's attracted to on her own terms and isn't truly happy until she settles down with someone who can give her what she really wants. It's such a simple thing, but so many dudes either choose not to understand this or don't want to understand this in their writing of women and man, it shows. So, kudos.

I enjoyed this book, problematic content and all. I'm sorry it caused pain, and controversy, but I am reviewing this from my own biased, privileged perspective as a white lady, so take my opinion with several grains of salt. It helps to read this as a trashy bodice-ripper and not as 'historical' fiction.

4 out of 5 stars

The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli

THE LAST NAMSARA was ... okay. I liked it, but I'm not in love with it, which I guess puts this book in the reader equivalent of the "friend zone." It's better than a lot of the YA fantasy that's been coming out lately, but falls short of reaching that level that would put it on my favorites list or make me truly invested in reading the sequel. Which is a shame, because it contains a lot of things I love, like court intrigue, dragons, forbidden love, and curses. It could have been amazing but the execution and world-building failed it.

Asha is the Iskari, or the death-bringer. A cursed god for a cursed girl, after she brought fire to her kingdom by telling the forbidden stories that lure the dragons who cause wanton destruction. The same stories that killed her mother with their power. Everyone in her kingdom despises her, except her father, who sees her value as a dragon-slayer despite the scars that mar her face and body - oh, and her super creepy fiance, Jarek, who sees her as an interesting conquest that might be fun to overpower.

Knowing her reluctance to marry Jarek, Asha's father gives her an ultimatum. If she can kill the most powerful dragon of all - the same dragon that scarred her face and body - before the date of her wedding ceremony, the engagement is off and she will be free. Asha agrees and sets out on her quest, only to experience a vision from one of the older gods instead, who has different plans for her. And this time, when she meets the dragons, she's in for a surprise.

So there were many things this book did right. Asha is a powerful heroine, scarred and not particularly beautiful - it's her personality and her strength that make her attractive. That's a refreshing change from heroines like those from - shudder - THRONE OF GLASS, who double as super-models when they're not incompetently trying to defend the kingdom. Ciccarelli also just has her characters swear instead of making up cutesy fake swear-words for her characters, which I'm sure the pearl-clutching parents of YA readers love but actual YA readers would much rather just see the swear-words. Otherwise it feels like your parent grabbed her book from you and censored out all the good stuff (take note, fuddy-duddy YA authors). The political intrigue was also really well done. There were a couple twists in here that I didn't see coming, and as a jaded reader, I appreciated that.

I think what dropped this book down a couple stars for me was 1) the characters didn't really feel fully fleshed-out to me. I kept comparing this book to THE WINNER'S CURSE, which has a similar plot and similar forbidden romance between a noble and a slave, but in my opinion did it a lot better with more character development, higher stakes, and more emotion. 2) the world-building was not very developed and it kind of felt like you could have picked up this world and plopped it down in virtually any other fantasy novel, and still had it make sense. The best fantasy novels have worlds so strong that they're practically characters in and of themselves. This book didn't have that.

All in all, THE LAST NAMSARA was a pleasant surprise. My expectations are pretty low when it comes to YA these days, but NAMSARA gets more things right than it does wrong and that has to count for something. Plus, dragons. I'm a sucker for dragons. (And if you're also a sucker for dragons and dragon-riding, I highly recommend you read Mercedes Lackey's JOUST, if you haven't, already.) This wasn't a bad debut, and even if I might not continue the series, I anticipate her other works.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Donners of the Dead by Karina Halle

DNF @ 58%

Things I liked about this book:
+ the cover
+ the concept
+ the title

Things I didn't like about this book:
- everything else

A few years ago, Halle put most of her books on sale and I went on a buying spree. Karina Halle has a big cult following and I wanted to experience the edgy blend of horror and romance that she's become known for with books like Experiment in Terror and The Artists. What I'm quickly finding is that she's very hit or miss. Some of her books are very well done, and others are... not.

I was side-eying this book from the get-go with its slightly judgey sounding disclaimer in the blurb:

"A note about this book: Donners of the Dead is set in 1851 – couples were often thrust into marriage together with short courtships, racism was widespread and not overly frowned upon, and women had little to no rights. What wouldn't fly in today's day and age was unfortunately the norm back then - it is worth keeping that in mind when reading this book."

Like, I get the need for disclaimers if you're going to emulate a bodice-ripper from the days of yore. Whenever you're writing about a different era in which bad things happened to women and minorities, it can be uncomfortable - at best.

That said, there were nuances, even back then, and the words you used with certain people varied. It is pretty gross to see the love interest in this book casually deride the heroine for being half-Native, calling her pine nut, and, I think, "Injun." The others in their treasure-hunting party were certainly happy to fling the word "Injun" around like racist confetti. Which, on the one hand, okay, they are working class and ignorant, so it fits. But it felt gratuitous and, well, forced.

The plot of this book is pretty creative. Eve is hired on as a tracker to look for treasure when she and her party encounter a bunch of zombies influenced by the Wendigo myth. The execution was lacking. There's a lot of gore, but the horror lacks subtlety. Eve is a helpless heroine, shrieking, flinching, and constantly looking to Jake in a way that's reminiscent of Kagome's catch-phrase, "Go get 'em, Inuyasha!" Like, girl, take some responsibility and at least put some value on your damn life?

I did not like Jake at all, and the historical context seemed limited to homespun, casual racism in dialogue, and an overuse of the words "I reckon." I was hoping for Dawn of the Dead meets Rosemary Rogers, and instead I got... not that. If you're looking for a Western romp, just read Rosemary Rogers instead. Jake McGraw can only dream of being Steve Morgan when he grows up.

1 out of 5 stars

Challenge to Honor by Jennifer Blake

Fact: if I go too long without reading a trashy historical romance or a bodice-ripper, I start to get itchy. It's been weeks since I picked one up, and I decided to rectify that by reading one of my favorite authors, Jennifer Blake. Jennifer Blake can be a bit hit or miss, but she strikes it out of the park more than most of her cohorts, and has penned two of my favorites, NOTORIOUS ANGEL and ROYAL SEDUCTION. I'm pretty open about the fact that a lot of the books I enjoy contain problematic content, and one thing I do caution people who are new to Blake is that a lot of her older stuff has "forced seduction," which is basically a euphemism for rape that ends up becoming consensual by the skin of its teeth for the sake of not squicking out the audience (spoiler: it does, anyway, because rape). CHALLENGE TO HONOR, on the other hand, is one of her "newer" books (published in 2004) and to my surprise, even though the hero is still cast in the same sexy dangerous role as her classics, there is no forced consent and the heroine drives the interactions. So I guess this is where old vs. new bridges the gap. Good to know.

CHALLENGE TO HONOR starts with a bang and continues on that trajectory with one of the most action-packed plots I've ever read in a romance novel in a while. It's set in 19th century New Orleans, in the French Quarter. The heroine, Celina Vallier, has just learned that her younger brother has challenged the most deadly swordsman in the city because of a slight on her honor. Celina, who lost her older brother to a duel, can't bear the thought of losing him, so she goes to the swordsman, Rio de Silva, to plead her case. To her surprise, Rio agrees to deliver only a glancing blow, even though doing so will tarnish his own honor and cause other duelists to call him out to test out what they perceive as his failing strength. In return, he wants to sleep with her.

I was bracing myself for the usual blackmailed mistress trope, but the story proved much more complex. As it turns out, Rio hadn't smeared her to insult her brother, but her husband-to-be, the sinister and odious Count de Lerida, with whom he has history and wants revenge. Rio is also surprisingly gentlemanly and charming, and has some excellent lines (her heroes always have the most amazing lines). The swashbuckling duel scenes were also amazing, and the overall vibe of the story reminded me pleasantly of THE THREE MUSKETEERS, only with more romance.

The side characters are also great. I loved the other sword masters, who are the heroes in the other romance novels in this series. Celina's relationship with her slave/maid were great, and I loved that she freed her at the end as soon as she was freed from her father's power (slavery is bad). Olivier, Rio's servant, was just as noble as the man he served. And Celina's aunt, Tante Marie Rose, was a rare example of a positive maternal influence in these sorts of books. They even have a rather frank discussion about sex. The descriptions of food and architecture are also delicious, and there's a very sexy masquerade ball scene, which is a trope that doesn't happen often enough (thanks, Labyrinth).

If you're a fan of action-packed romances with chivalrous heroes and somewhat strong heroines, this is a really good pick. I went in with tempered expectations and it totally blew me away.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I loved SPINNING SILVER. And it's funny, because I only felt lukewarm about her previous book, UPROOTED. Don't get me wrong - UPROOTED wasn't a bad book, and I still occasionally have nightmares about heart-trees, but it didn't wow me the way I expected it to based on all the preliminary reviews, either.

SPINNING SILVER reads like Naomi Novik saw my review for UPROOTED, said to herself, "Aha," and then set about to write a story that personally addressed each and every one of my complaints. UPROOTED was slow to start; SPINNING SILVER grabbed me from the beginning and wouldn't let go. UPROOTED had a very dull heroine who ends up in a very dull love story. SPINNING SILVER has a huge cast, mostly of strong female characters, and the main love story is unconventional and fraught with tension (and doesn't really come to fruition until the end). UPROOTED has a fairy-tale vibe without any clear parallels, whereas SPINNING SILVER very obviously borrows elements from The Glass Mountain, The Snow Queen, and, of course, Rumpelstiltskin. In short, SPINNING SILVER is amazing.

It's difficult to describe the story because there is so much going on, in terms of plot and in terms of the large cast of characters. The main character is really a girl named Miryem, the daughter of a Jewish moneylender who ends up taking up his mantle when he proves too soft-hearted to carry out his work. Actually, that's another thing - I loved how Novik incorporated Jewish culture into this fairytale retelling, especially since the Grimm tales really aren't so kind to Jews. One need only look at the tale, Jew Among the Thorns, to see the rampant antisemitism. So it was great to see the greedy money-lender stereotype turned on its head, as Miryem is portrayed as fierce and capable and willing to do anything to see her family through the cold and cruel winters.

Her ability to turn a profit makes her an enemy of most people in her village, except for a girl named Wanda who Miryem's family ends up taking in as a servant to pay off her father's debt. Wanda is the daughter of an abusive alcoholic and initially, while she sees her job only as a respite from beatings and a means of getting food into her mouth, she starts to truly love Miryem's family and appreciate Miryem's strength. Wanda has two brothers named Sergey and Stepon, who also have POVs later on in the story. They are just as abused and desperate as Wanda, but have cores of strength, as well.

Then there's the daughter of a duke named Irina, whose father buys fairy silver from Miryem, when her money-making abilities catch the eye of the local fairies, the Staryk, who only live in the cold. He uses the silver jewelry as part of his daughter's trousseau, and the magical jewelry enchants anyone who looks upon it into thinking that Irina, who also has fairy blood, is beautiful. She is married as a result to a local tsar she has known since childhood, a powerful man of fire who is possessed by a demon. He wants to devour Irina, to steal her magic, unless she can offer him something better.

One of the things I loved about SPINNING SILVER is the interconnectedness and the focus on relationships. All the disparate storylines connect, sometimes in surprising ways, and it was so satisfying as a reader to see everything neatly come together. I also really appreciated how fleshed-out each character was, even the villains (who aren't as villainous as they initially appear), and how much time Novik seemed to have spent developing each character to be their own person. The ways that they interact with one another are so nuanced, platonic and romantic relationships both handled just as lovingly (which isn't always the case). And all the women characters are so strong.

It isn't often that I find a book that is basically perfect, which is why I tend to be somewhat stingy with my five-star ratings. But SPINNING SILVER is that book, and it deserves each one of those stars. I didn't think this book could possibly have a happy ending, but Novik surprised me there, too.

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

Reading this after THE GIRL KING turned out to be a really weird experience because they are both very similar stories. Dare I say that "Asian-inspired" fantasy novels in kingdoms where magic is forbidden seems to be the new trend? But, like, seriously, both are about royal siblings who must struggle to learn to manage their kingdoms in times of severe political upheaval. These kingdoms are also utterly opposed to magic - in THE GIRL KING, magic comes in the form of shape-shifters called the "Kith," and in DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE, it comes in the form of mages called "sooths." Both kingdoms are on the brink of civil war/foreign war, and about to implode from all the factions of unrest stirring up drama within the community.

Hesina is forced to take up the royal mantle when her father dies under mysterious circumstances. Her mother, who dislikes her for unknown reasons, abdicates very reluctantly, leaving Hesina to manage the kingdom and lead the trial to find her father's murderer, all without her help.

Luckily, Hesina has several siblings to help her out. Caiyan and Lillian are twins, and her half-siblings; Sanjing is her full brother; and Rou is the son of her father's favored mistress. Despite knowing that it is high treason, she seeks out a sooth to help set her on her path, who tells her the path she should take to find her father's murderer. It points her towards a criminal imprisoned in the dungeons, a foreign man named Akira, who is brilliant, powerful, and mysterious.

I liked DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE a lot more than I liked THE GIRL KING, for several reasons. The world-building was more cohesive and there were many direct parallels to actual elements of Chinese culture (the writing/characters, the religion, historical allegories (I was thinking of the Cultural Revolution specifically, as the rebellion of the eleven and the persecution of the sooths reminded me of that), culture, and clothing). It did not feel quite as nebulous as THE GIRL KING did. The actual magic was a little vague; I'd like to learn more about sooths in the next book. Still, we did see some examples of sooth-saying and what I did see was compelling (blue fire, though).

This book's biggest weakness was its pacing. There were some elements that moved quickly, that I couldn't page through fast enough. This has one of the best "trial" scenes I've seen in a book, like Joan He was the John Grisham of YA fantasy authors. Then there are other parts that move very slowly and/or feel almost repetitive. It was frustrating for me because I initially thought that this was going to be a four-star read, but then it got too tedious and my enjoyment of it lessened over time.

The book's biggest strength are its twists. Several of the grand reveals in this book were excellently done. I found myself looking forward to seeing how the other mysteries in this book would be resolved and finding myself pleasantly surprised each time.

Hesina is a flawed but compelling character and it is interesting to see how the choices she makes in the book end up changing her. She is a very different person by the end of the story than she was in the beginning. I am curious about the names, and why some are Chinese but Hesina's is, I believe, an alternate spelling of a Muslim name, and Lillian is a very Western name. I'm also confused by the ending, which was very strange to me. The author had already proven she was very good at twists, but that one, for some reason, felt especially extra. Maybe it will make more sense in the sequel.

Hopefully this review helps you decide whether you want to read this book without giving too much away. I am totally in love with the cover and was surprised by how much I enjoyed DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE. Hoping the author continues the story on even stronger footing in the sequel.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

People, especially conservatives I have noticed, like to make fun of content warnings. They like to say that it's yet another facet on the crystal of over-sensitive, over-entitled "millennial privilege." (Right, because we're the generation that needs to choose between iPhones and health insurance. So privileged.) Speaking as someone who has, historically, gotten panic attacks, let me tell you that for people who do experience anxiety from "triggers," it isn't something that's made up. Your blood pressure plummets, your heart rate picks up, you feel nauseous. It can feel like you're going to faint and have a heart attack at the same time. I no longer get panic attacks, but reading this book was so physically uncomfortable that, for a moment, I remembered with stark clarity what having them was like and how much I used to dread them.

This is because A LITTLE LIFE is the most wretched, depressing book that I have ever read. That is saying something, considering that I have some pretty strong contenders on my "just-tear-my-heart-out-why-dont-you" shelf on Goodreads, which features books such as OUTLANDER, for its gruesome torture and rape scenes, KINDRED for its grim portrayal of slavery in the South, THE BOOK OF YOU for its portrayal of stalking and abuse, and the previous winner of the title for "most depressing book of all time," THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR, an extremely visceral WWII-era book about an American woman who finds out that her husband is a Nazi and experiences severe emotional, physical, and sexual abuse over the course of the novel. I am someone who rarely takes offense to books, and reads bodice-rippers from the 1970s for fun. My tolerance for problematic content is very high.

This is actually my second time attempting to read A LITTLE LIFE. The first time, I received a copy of it as an ARC but ended up DNF-ing it around 80% in and writing a 2-star review for it on Goodreads. It was upsetting me too much to finish, and I actually felt myself becoming physically nauseated from reading about the subject matter. There's a reason most of the reviews are either ultra-positive or ultra-negative, and I think that rating really stems from your mindset on depressing books. At the time, my mindset was, "This book made me feel like crap afterwards, ergo I did not enjoy it," so the two-star rating was an accurate representation of my feelings at the time. This time around, I was more aware of what I was in for, and was able to steel myself going in. The four-star rating I am giving this book this time around is to acknowledge the beauty of the writing, the compelling portraits of the characters inside, and the very on-point portrayals of anxiety and body dysmorphia.

A LITTLE LIFE is about four boys named Willem, Malcolm, Jude, and JB. They are all talented and brimming with potential when we first meet them while they are in college. Willem is an actor, Malcolm is an architect, Jude is talented with numbers and logic and law, and JB is an artist. Willem and Jude forge the closest relationship that ends up growing over the course of the novel, but the four of them retain a closeness that is reminiscent of the cult-like bond of the college-age kids in Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY, especially since the bonds between them are largely defined by secrecy. Specifically, one secret: the history of their friend, Jude, and his secret past.

Jude is essentially the main character of this book. Everything - the events, the characters, their narrations - all revolve around him. He is the best-looking of the bunch but also the most reticent. He is in chronic pain from a childhood accident he refuses to divulge, incredibly private, and has very low self-esteem and poor body image. As the story unfurls, we learn that he was the victim of truly horrific child sexual abuse and physical abuse, and has been able to recover from these events psychologically. To compensate for his physical and mental pain, he self-harms - something that his doctor basically enables by refusing to take action or force him to get help - and at several points in the novel, his self-harm intensifies to such a degree that he is hospitalized.

Willem, his friend and, later, his boyfriend, and Harold, his adoptive father, and Andy, the enabling doctor, are his closest confidantes, but even with them, he has walls that he refuses to lower. Bits and pieces of Jude's story come out, either in his own narrative arcs, or in reluctant admissions that are basically given under duress. He is a truly flawed and pitiable character, and to make it worse, it never stops. His past is bad enough - God, how I ached for him - but his future offers no respite, either. One by one, those in his life leave him - or at least, he perceives them as leaving him - either by choice or reluctantly, and Jude allows his life to spiral out of control. Being in his head is a truly terrible place, because he is so vulnerable and negative and damaged. I can't help but feel that this book takes a highly ableist view of disability, much in the same way that ME BEFORE YOU did. Jude is portrayed as being a fraction of a person, someone who is broken and beyond help.

Even though I enjoyed both this book (ultimately) and ME BEFORE YOU, I can understand the criticisms of both books. Both books portray disability as being an obstacle that cannot be overcome and in both cases, disability is weighed against able bodies as being the desired norm, and any action that cannot be matched against one who is able bodied is considered a depressing short-coming. With the other books on my depressing book shelf, they had some sort of redeeming value or message, but A LITTLE LIFE is so bleak. What is the message, then? That some people are beyond redemption and should be allowed to rot away on their own terms, like a piece of forgotten bread? That was the message I got here, from Jude, and his pointless struggles, and how all effort to live and carry on only resulted in more pain - like he was being punished for trying to live his life as best he could.

I have never done this before, but with A LITTLE LIFE, I slipped a little piece of paper inside the book before donating it that listed out all of the content warnings. I know some people get angry about these and consider them spoilers, but I couldn't bear the thought of someone going in cold and feeling that same icy feeling of dread that I did while reading this the first time. The content warnings in this book run the gamut from child sexual abuse to domestic violence to medical gore to grievous self-harm to anxiety and post-traumatic stress flashbacks and substance abuse, and just about everything else. I hope the next person who gets this book is able to enjoy A LITTLE LIFE for the think-piece that it is, but I would not, in all honesty, recommend this to anyone with an anxiety disorder or a history of abuse, as I think the flashbacks and the content would just be way too much.

P.S. You don't have to use content warnings, and aren't obligated to be responsible for others, but please respect the people who need/want them. Anxiety is not a joke, and it is very unkind to make fun of people who experience it. Consider this my PSA for the day.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Assassin and the Desert by Sarah J. Maas

"You're just a spoiled, selfish bitch."

Celery's punishment saga continues as she finally makes her way into the Red Desert, a vaguely Middle Eastern land where the Silent Assassins live. The Silent Assassins seem to borrow very heavy from George R. R. Martin's Faceless Men, and it's almost funny how closely this story arc mirrors Arya's training under Jaqen H'ghar. But this is not the first thing in this series I've seen that really reminded me of Game of Thrones. The valg are pretty similar to the wights, Mannon and her wyvern is basically a knockoff Daenerys Targaryen (I mean, she's a dragon queen with white-blond hair), and QUEEN OF SHADOWS introduces something called "hellfire" that sounds a lot like wildfire. I'm not even a hardcore GoT fan, and even I noticed the similarities.

Long story shorts, Celery must study under the Silent Assassins and get a letter of recommendation from them. While there, she makes friends with a girl named Ansel, who has a tragic history of her own. After her initial distrust with anything female, Celery finally condescends to accept these overtures of friendship and actually find herself quite taken with the chatty red-haired girl. Of course, this being a Throne of Glass novella, this comes to nothing.

Okay, seriously, what is the deal with the way women are treated in this book. Good women are chaste and end up married and pregnant by their mates, whereas bad women are slutty or power-hungry and ambitious. Even Celery, who's supposed to be the best of the best, doesn't actually do much that's bad-ass. Considering how all of these novellas have the words "assassin" in the title, she doesn't do much assassinating. In fact, she balks from it at every opportunity, even if it's her damn job. And I'm sorry but how does killing people of adultery weigh more than killing people who are essentially selling people (including youths) into prostitution (per pirate lord)? She should have killed Rolfe, but she didn't. And when Ansel betrays her in this book, because of course she does, nobody can eclipse our shining star, Celery Saltine-thin, Queen of Every Fucking Thing, Celery doesn't even kill her. She lets her get away with betraying all the people who took her in. Because of course she does. She even manages to get herself drugged/poisoned by quaffing food that's put in front of her.

Best. Assassin. Ever.

Despite my complaints, this is easily the best of the three assassin prequel novellas I've read so far. The scenery descriptions are much better here, and all of the side characters are interesting (except for, you know, Celery). The way Ansel was treated in this book was basically Nehemia pt. 2 and I don't know why Maas seems so reluctant to portray healthy female friendships, but man, it's becoming a pattern and it's kind of upsetting. Nehemia was the best part about books one and two, and we all know how that went down. Ansel was a repeat of that. Don't be friends with women, I guess, or they'll either try to kill you or die for your sins. Oh, and Celery adds yet another conquest to her ever-growing man-harem, the ill-fated assassin, Ilias. Honestly, considering how cruelly these books treat sexually empowered women, Celery sure has a lot of admirers.

2 out of 5 stars