Monday, February 25, 2019

This Golden Rapture by Fancy DeWitt

I am a woman of refined and exquisite taste - except when it comes to my taste in books, where I read whatever trash I can get my hands on. THIS GOLDEN RAPTURE is the perfect example of smutty pulp that has been all but forgotten with the passage of time. I happened upon this author randomly while checking out books shelved under the "bodice ripper" tag on Amazon, and was delighted to find that, unlike the vast majority of pulpy bodice rippers, Fancy DeWitt's books were still available in ebook format, presumably in the original edition and without the PC-rewrites authors like Catherine Coulter like to do to make their books more palatable to modern audiences.

This is my second Fancy DeWitt book. The first book, WILD HEARTS, was a rapey Western reminiscent of SWEET SAVAGE LOVE. I enjoyed it, despite some slow portions and OTT scenes. THIS GOLDEN RAPTURE could not be more different. Instead of being set in the 19th century "old west," THIS GOLDEN RAPTURE is set in Tudor England, right around the time that the Catholics and the Protestants were really going to town on one another.

Diane is a busty noblewoman whose father is about to betroth her to a dude whose pockets are probably inversely proportional to the size of his peen, this being the Renaissance when women were chattel and forced to marry old men who could have been their fathers or even their grandfathers in terms of age discrepancy. She is kidnapped by a pirate named Guy Ramsey, previously a nobleman whose house has fallen into disgrace after his father was charged for consorting with the Spanish and loving Catholics and trying to help both get their fingers into some forbidden English pies. Now his father is executed - falsely, Guy claims - and with no recourse, he decides to kidnap an English lady.

Diane is kept on the ship for a while, watching in horror as Guy is made to walk the plank and an evil Spanish grandee terrorizes her with threats of rape while the Basque captain turns his eye the other way and the jealous Basque OW Aimee dreams of petty revenge to make Diane's life miserable. Also on the ship is a South American indiginous woman named Amute, who is there with her father to lead the Spanish sailors aboard the ship to El Dor-fucking-ado.

I thought there was no way this would pan out to anything - until I read the summary of the book on Goodreads. They make it to El Dorado, the Spanish people betray Amute and her father when their greed gets the better of them, and decide to go after their people with guns and cannons. Meanwhile, Diane becomes a goddess who is about to get married to the Native prince, only Guy is there to beat the prince to the wedding night, which involves pre-gaming it with an underage girl, for some reason.

The book ends with an exploding ship and Guy and Diane sailing off to their happy ending, and of course his honor is restored when it's revealed that the man Diane's father would have married her off to was actually the traitor who was helping the Spanish this whole time. This book was even crazier than WILD HEARTS, with Guy being psychic (he learned from Indian - that's Indian as in actually from India - wise men); ridiculous scenes that make this feel like an X-rated version of The Road to El Dorado, and woman-on-woman erotic oil massages because, as my Goodreads friends put it when I posted this as a status update, what else are you going to do aboard a pirate ship? Point taken.

I would recommend reading this book for the lolz alone, but it doesn't really hold up plot-wise the way WILD HEARTS did. WILD HEARTS had an OK plot and told a story I was interested in, whereas I found myself increasingly bored with THIS GOLDEN RAPTURE, reading only for the WTF scenes to see just what crazy shit the author would deliver to give me my money's worth.

Honestly, I'd rather just watch The Road to El Dorado and then write my own erotic fanfic for it.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Summer's Storm by Denise Domning

DNF @ 22%

I really wanted to like this one because the recommendation for this book actually came to me from my mom. Denise Domning writes historical mysteries, in addition to historical romances, and my mom read the mysteries when they were on sale and really liked them. When she saw that the author had bodice-rippers on her backlist, she naturally thought of me, and luckily for me, on the day my mom was telling me about this author, one of her books was free! Unfortunately, it wasn't the one that looked the spiciest, WINTER'S HEAT, but this one looked good, too. I was a little leery that it was a Topaz publication, as those tend to be heavy in 90s-bodice-rippers and super fluffy/cheesy, but I took a chance.

The premise is actually really good. Philippa is the bastard daughter of nobility. She lives with her abusive husband and abusive mother-in-law. One day, a 'knight' and his lord come to their impoverished castle, and she finds out that her husband is involved in a lawsuit against her half-sister, Rowena, from the previous book, which is contesting her inheritance. She's brought to her sister who is initially displeased to see her, until she finds out that this is all a big scam on Philippa's husband's part to get more money.

Meanwhile, the 'knight' is not actually a knight but the bastard half-brother of the man that Rowena married (also from the previous book), Rannulf. His name is Temric and he has refused knighthood for reasons I forgot... but anyway, Philippa is off-limits to him, which is a shame because her vulnerable, delicate nature makes him want to protect her. Then there's also the whole unfortunate thing about in-laws being considered blood relatives, so being with his sis-in-law = medieval incest. Seems fake, but OK. He's about as good at resisting his attraction as a colander is at holding water.

This was just too fluffy and ridiculous for me to like. I didn't like all the flowery language or that the plot takes forever to get moving. I liked how Domning tried to introduce the concept of domestic abuse in Medieval times in a real way, but Philippa was such a dull heroine and Temric was pure generic good and I didn't really root for them or feel invested in their futures because they read as cardboard cut-outs of characters without any real panache or personality.

Basically, this was the epitome of everything I find it hard to like about 90s bodice-rippers. Sorry, mom.

1 out of 5 stars

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Whenever I see a book with a crazy-low rating on Goodreads, I'm always intrigued. In this age of politically correctness, it's not uncommon for people to down-rate books for mentioning uncomfortable topics just because they're uncomfortable. In this case, I do understand why people would be so quick to hate on TAMPA. TAMPA is a gender-swapped LOLITA: a book about a female hebephile/pedophile who likes 13/14-year-old boys. I'm pretty liberal in what I'm willing to read and it's really hard to offend me, and even though child abuse and especially child sexual abuse are one of the hardest things for me to read about, I think TAMPA handles the topic well, and makes some good points about how we view female predators.

I just read FORBIDDEN, by Tabitha Suzuma, which is another book that pushes the envelope when it comes to socially acceptable topics. In FORBIDDEN's case, it was incest. Two siblings, Maya and Lochan, find themselves lusting after one another when their screwed up family dynamic forces them to play house and they realize that they don't feel like brother and sister so much as husband and wife. The attraction happens on both sides, but Maya is the instigator, the one who keeps things going and always takes things too far. At the end, Lochan is forced to take the fall for their relationship and it utterly destroys him, but he knows that everyone is always quick to blame the man in these instances and it's the best way to ensure that one of them ends up free.

I'm not sure how I was supposed to read FORBIDDEN but I definitely saw Maya as the bad guy. She totally manipulated Lochan into going farther than he wanted to go, and when he told her at one point 'no,' and asked her to stop, she didn't. She emotionally manipulated him and said all sorts of horrible things to him in order to get him to continue treating her how she wanted, and I thought that was super creepy. The author even mentioned in the book how female abusers are never really taken seriously in part because they're so rare, but also because of how society views women. I feel like the same is true with TAMPA, which is a story of a female middle school teacher named Celeste Price, who takes up the job because it puts her in close proximity with the boys she wants to have sex with.

Celeste is unquestionably a sociopath: she sees nothing about using and manipulating people to get what she wants. She's very attractive and knows it. She has married a beard, a police officer of all things who is as good-looking as she is, and manipulates him, as well. The way she grooms the boys in her classroom and abuses her power to pursue a relationship with an unfortunate named Jack was sickening. Celeste is obviously not a good character, a likeable one, or one you want to root for. Reading about her antics is like watching a train crash. That said, I did appreciate reading about a female character who is so completely opposite from your typical female protagonist. She's completely in charge of her sexuality, she's evil, she's sadistic, she's sociopathic, she's a pedophile.

Female abusers do exist, and part of the irony of sexism is that if women are portrayed as weak and helpless, then women like Celeste slide under the radar. Men can be abused and raped, and not just by other men but also by women as well. And even though child sexual abuse does happen significantly more at the hands of men rather than women, there are cases when women do commit these acts of abuse and they should be taken seriously. I couldn't help but think of that Southpark episode, Miss Teacher Bangs a Boy, while reading this, which really hit the nail on the head when it comes to the double standard of how underage sex is viewed with older man/younger woman vs. older woman/younger man. One is clear-cut abuse, whereas the other is sometimes seen as "initiation."

I did not enjoy reading TAMPA but I still thought it was a good book that tackles a lot of unsavory topics in a thoughtful way. If you can wrap your mind around the topic of child sexual abuse without feeling overwhelmingly disgusted or triggered (and again, I get it if you do), it's a worthwhile read.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

It's been a while since I was able to finish a book properly. I've been so busy with work that when I get home, instead of reading, I just go to sleep instead. FORBIDDEN isn't really the type of book that keeps you coming back for more and leaves you with sweet dreams, anyway. It's one of those melodramatic tearjerkers that feels an awful lot like watching a train wreck happen in real time.  

The plot of this story could basically be summarized as Romeo and Juliet with incest, written in young adult format. Lochan and Maya live in a dysfunctional household. Their father jumped ship and their mother is a low-functioning alcoholic. When they're not at school, they're taking care of their three younger siblings: Tiffin, Willa, and Kit. They've been forced into the role of parents, in a non-traditional relationship, so given how messed up their home life is, and the nature of their interactions with one another, it isn't too surprising then when they start to act more like husband and wife than brother and sister, or that behavior takes a more sexual turn.

I believe this started as a self-published work. It's very polished and displays a depth and emotional complexity that I often find to be lacking from most self-published work (and most traditionally-published work, too, to be fair). Lochan and Maya both know that what they're doing and feeling is wrong, but find themselves unable to fight the tide that's driving them closer together as their attraction and obsessive need for one another mounts. This really isn't a romance, in my opinion, both because it doesn't have a happy ending and because their relationship isn't romanticized or eroticized by the author. The characters are attracted to each other, but it's still quite clearly portrayed as bad.

Comparisons to FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC are inevitable, and while I really enjoyed that book and they are quite similar stories in some ways, I feel like the end goal is different. FitA was, in my opinion, written to shock and titillate, whereas this book feels less sensationalistic and more grimly realistic in its portrayal of dysfunctional families and the many shapes of abuse. I do think the relationship between them was abusive, and I think Maya was actually the worst of the two of them. She was the one who kept driving them closer, even when Lochan wanted to pull away. I thought it was very interesting that the author brought up female abusers, and how nobody ever believes their male (or female) accusers or even believes that there is such a thing, because in some ways, Maya really could be abusive (the things she said to Lochan when he tried desperately to end their relationship, how she didn't stop when he said 'no'). I don't think that was accidental.

Honestly, except for Lochan, I hated most of the characters in this book. The mom was awful, of course. Maya was manipulative. Willa and Kit and Tiffin were so annoying. Lochan was the true victim in this story, in my opinion, and while the doomed relationship may have been initiated at least in part by both of them, Maya was the one responsible for carrying it to its cruel and final end.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 18, 2019

Wild Hearts by Fanny DeWitt

WILD HEARTS is one of those crazy bodice-rippers that doesn't know the meaning of politically correct. The heroine, Camilla, lives with her mother and young siblings on their Louisiana plantation. One day, a business partner of their father's drops by and announces smugly that her father is presumed to be dead and unless they can prove that he's alive in six months, all their property goes to him. Although -wink-, he'd be willing not to kick them off their land if Camilla decided to marry his greasy, money-grubbing ass.

Tossing off a quick "hell no" to that, Camilla decides to dress up in drag and journey out to Texas to look for her dad and drag him back home. Her secret is spoiled when a gunslinger-type named Abel accidentally-on-purpose spies on her as she bathes. She wants him to be her guide, but he refuses, and gives her a kiss instead before saying that she should be on her way. Unfortunately, she gets kidnapped by a man named Lopez, cousin to General Santa Ana.

Lopez threatens her with rape, does some nonconsensual petting, mocks her for wanting him, and then waltzes out with a "girl, you wish I'd let you have the D." Then Abel busts in and rescues her, only to discover her sans clothes and feel manly insult that the damsel he just rescued is not a virgin. Since she happens to be on a bed, he decides to take advantage of her, and for some reason she decides that this is awesomesauce. They end up having sex several more times, although of course Abel tells her he doesn't want to get married.

It turns out that Camilla's father is a soldier in the Alamo. (Remember the Alamo?) Convenient, since Abel needs to deliver a message for Bowie, and Camilla knows what he looks like since he's a friend of her father's. They run into a fake impostor Bowie, Abel gets wounded, Camilla gets him drunk by feeding him 3/4 of a bottle of whiskey before heading out to the Alamo herself to deliver the message. She hears fake news that he's dead and is sad, but marries a man old enough to be her father named Ben Archer. Meanwhile, Abel feels betrayed by Camilla, because she reminded him of his late Mexican wife, Carlotta, who was raped and murdered by three cutthroat criminals.

Those same three cutthroat criminals are also at the Alamo, and eventually Abel realizes through the gossip grapevine that he has the chance for both revenge and sexings, all in the same venue. He races over and runs into Lopez, who grants him mercy and will let him get revenge, mostly because Lopez also lusts after Camilla as well. More stuff happens, Santa Anna turns out to be a pedophile, an opium addict, and a coward, and his unsuccessful attempt to flee after the battle of San Jacinto ends up making Texas a state. Camilla and Abel end up with an HEA and the farm is saved, woo-hoo.

Honestly, WILD HEARTS kind of reads like a racier WILD TEXAS FLAME or a much milder SWEET SAVAGE LOVE. Abel McCord definitely comes from the "I chew on cigars and shit scorpions" school of manliness, like he spent his adolescence watching one too many Clint Eastwood movies. The only other review for this book complains about the sexual nature of this book and I do get that. For a bodice-ripper, this had an outrageous amount of sex scenes (most of them aren't this smutty), and a good portion of those were consensual in only the most imaginative sense. I almost got a LOVE'S TENDER FURY vibe from this book, which was written by Jennifer Wilde (pen name for a male romance author), and I definitely wondered if maybe DeWitt was a male romance author, too. The heroine's very strange reaction to rape and the male gaze-focused sex scenes (boobz!!) were a bit eyebrow-raising. Also, not a single mention of the hero's washboard abs. What? I feel cheated!

I got bored of the sex scenes after a while, but the fight scenes and battle scenes were excellent and there was a surprising amount of action packed into this rather short book. I have a couple more of DeWitt's books on my Kindle and I'll definitely be checking those out. If you're into bodice rippers and like authors like Jennifer Wilde or Rosemary Rogers, you'll probably enjoy DeWitt's works, too.

3 out of 5 stars

The Last Stormlord by Glenda Larke

I was describing this book to someone as Game of Thrones, only set in a desert where magicians are responsible for bringing the rains and water is the ultimate currency. But honestly, that doesn't quite do this book justice, as it's much better written than Game of Thrones and doesn't quite wallow in the physical and sexual violence like GoT does - not to say that this isn't a brutal MF of a book; it is.

Set in the Quartern, a desert land in which water-sensitive magicians called "Stormlords" are responsible for bringing water, THE LAST STORMLORD is about a land in the middle of political and environmental upheaval. All that magic has brought about climate change and water is becoming scarce in a land that desperately needs it. The last stormlord is dying without a replacement, and hostile factions who have been oppressed by the stormlords are rallying forces to seize powers in the void and resort back to scavenging.

The two main characters are Terelle and Shale, both teenagers. Terelle is a young woman who was sold into a brothel when she was a child by her cruel stepfather, and now lives in dread of reaching puberty and being auctioned off for her virginity like a prize mare. One day she decides to escape, hoping to become a dancer, and instead discovering that she's capable of much more. Shale, on the other hand, lives in the outskirts of the Quartern, called "the Gibber," in a labor camp where people mine for resin. His father is an abusive alcoholic, but freedom comes when Shale realizes that he has the power to detect and manipulate water. Unfortunately, his powers bring him to the attention of very dangerous people on both sides of the water war who will stop at nothing to capture him alive.

Lately, I've found myself reading more and more fantasy by women because for the most part, male fantasy authors don't really deliver what I want: complex, nuanced world-building with a rich tapestry of culture; strong female protagonists who aren't sexualized and whose agency isn't wrapped up with that of the male hero's; and heroes who don't style themselves after the Chuck Norrises or Tyrion Lannisters of the world, punching holes in trucks or laughing drunkenly in the fate of death. THE LAST STORMLORD is set in an original world that deals with poverty, climate change, colorism, racism, sexism, and so much more.

Oh, and this book is brutal. I've seen dudes scoff at female fantasy, but there isn't a whiff of romance in this book yet. Shale is a strong character but also flawed realistically. Terelle has agency and interesting powers, and doesn't need no man in her life to tell her what to do. Taquar Sardonyx was an excellent villain (and does it help that he's brooding and good-looking? But ofc.) It's also a pretty grim world, with mages who can bleed all the water out of people and leave them dried out husks; flesh-eating beetles called "ziggers" that like to burrow into people's eyes or noses and eat them alive; child prostitution and slavery and evil nomads who live by honor and enjoy torture as punishment.

I also loved the machinations of the royal family. There's definite Cersei/Laisa and Joffrey/Senya parallels, which is maybe why I found them such a pleasure to hate. The Lannisters were always my favorite characters in Game of Thrones just because they were so unabashedly evol. There's a lot of heavy thoughts about power and how sometimes you do harm when doing good, and vice-versa. When I saw that the author lives in Malaysia working on rain forest conservation, the climate change messages made a lot of sense. This is no heavy handed Ferngully - it's very nuanced, and very good.


4 out of 5 stars

Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE is one of those books that was pushed at me by a pretty huge number of people on my friends list. It came out during that mad-dash YA paranormal craze following in the wake of TWILIGHT, which is hilariously appropriate because despite its fans' loud protestations that it is nothing like Twilight, it kind of reads like a cross between Clive Barker's ABARAT and Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT. #SorryNotSorry

For the record, I actually like TWILIGHT. It doesn't pretend to be anything it's not, which is maybe why so many people find it threatening. It's a straightforward love story between an ordinary girl and a vampire. Is it silly? Yes. Problematic? Oh, yes. Do I like it? Yes. I liked it when I read it at eighteen and I even liked it when rereading it again at twenty-nine. I'm a fan of romance and liked that it wasn't mired in pretentious asshattery unlike...

Well, this book.

I almost marked this as 'did not finish' based on the first chapter because of the utterly pretentious writing that says, I'm trying so hard to be poetic, look at me. There was a line referencing "the occasional cheek-chew of bitterness" and a "pout-puckered lip" that begged to be sucked on "languorously" and I was just reading this in disbelief, resisting the urge to punch a teddy bear in the face. This is not good writing. This is purple prose in the extreme, and definitely has vibes of, ~My HeRoInE iS aN aRtIsT yOu GaIz, lOoK aT mY aRtIsTiC pRoSe~.

The author seemed to realize how obnoxious this was, because this teeth-gratingly ornate writing disappears after one or two chapters and everything becomes much more straightforward. Thank God, or I would have slapped this with a one-star so fast. Karou, the heroine, is the Baskin Robbins of being a Mary Sue. She isn't satisfied with just one flavor, no; she needs all 31 flavors of special. She has blue hair (it grows that way!), she can speak tons of languages (so exotic! so sophisticated, so cultured), she's covered in tattoos (wow, I wish my mom would let me get some of those!), and she's an artist (oh, wow, special! unique! creative!). Oh my God, why.

She's not just any artist; she's an artist studying abroad in Prague while living with a family of demons, one of whom uses teeth to create wish tokens. Karou runs favors for him in exchange for wish tokens that she uses for a variety of petty things, like making her hair blue or wishing that the girl her ex cheated on her with would have bushy caterpillar eyebrows. She's been hooking up on and off with this con artist-cum-street performer, but all that changes one day when she sees a mysterious man with dark hair and eyes the color of fire who wants to kill her.

As we all know, murderous intent is the single most important ingredient in the insta-love cocktail, and lo and behold, pretty soon he's graduated to watching her sleep and professing his undying love, and she of course reciprocates that because of his charming abdominal muscles - oops, I mean personality. The personality of his abdominal muscles. I mean, his face. I mean, whoops, it's what's on the inside that counts. Unfortunately, angels hate demons, so his buddies aren't going to be too keen on the fact that he's hooking up with a human who's neck-deep in demon shenanigans.

But, of course, our spumoni-swirl snowflake of a heroine won't stop with just being a special human. No, this being a young adult fantasy romance, she has to be more. And with a flashback that lasts the entire last quarter of the book, replete with a second insta-love relationship, we get to find out the true special nature of our heroine in all her sparkly, winged glory. You know when someone weird sits next to you on the bus and just starts talking to you for no reason and unloading all their drama? (No? Maybe that's just a big city thing, I'm from San Francisco, after all.)

The biggest drawback of this book is that it's branded as being something new and different from all the tired tropes of young adult fiction when it is so not. It's got insta-love by the buckets. The heroine is such a Mary Sue that she's pretty much one of those original character self-inserts in fanfics. The romance doesn't make sense, the hero is ~perfect~ with magical eyes, and there's a huge reliance on amnesia and flashbacks to steep everything in mystery. DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE? More like DAUGHTER OF CLICHES AND TROPES. I got through it and it did have some interesting world-building, but let's not be so quick to turn our noses up in the air and look down on TWILIGHT just yet, darlings. This is YA fantasy-romance, not the second coming of Christ.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Duke and I by Julia Quinn

I think it's been a while since I've seen such an even split among my friends when it comes to how they rated the book. Half my friends loved THE DUKE AND I and the other half apparently hated it. The Bridgertons series is Julia Quinn's most famous historical romance offering so I've been wanting to read it for a while, but I'm not unfamiliar with her work. In my opinion, she's a bit notorious for over-aggressive heroines who come across as petulant and bitchy and Big Misunderstandings that are especially stupid and tends to draw them out for extra dramatic tension in the last act.

The titular duke, Simon Basset, is cast in your typical damaged hero mold of "I slut around because I have daddy issues." In his case, the issues are probably warranted. He didn't speak until he was four years old, and when he did, it was with a stutter. After his dad basically rage-quits on parenting, Simon is left on his own, unloved, except for the tender hand of his nurse. His father basically disowns him, telling his servants and all his friends that he has no son, and refuses to answer any of his correspondence.

Of course, once Simon is able to overcome all of this and become the most desired bachelor in the ton, his father is secretly pleased and ready to take pride in his son because hurray, Simon got over his stutter and that means that he isn't mentally defunct, i.e. "an idiot." Simon is so over his dad, though, and since breeding, honor, and titles are all that matter to his father, he has vowed never to have children so that the Hastings line dies with him, and all the property will cede to his cousins.

Daphne, the heroine, is part of the Bridgerton family, and the daughter of a viscount. They name their children like hurricanes, in alphabetical order, chronologically, so Daphne is the fourth-born child (as well as the oldest daughter). She's also a bit of a wallflower and a spinster-in-the-making, and her mother is determined to make a match. Daphne's brothers are friends with Simon, and they end up meeting at a party when Simon saves her from a creepy friend-zoned suitor who won't take no for an answer. They end up liking each other, although Simon denies his attraction once he's figured out that she's the off-limits sister of his friend. They decide to pretend to have developed a tendre for one another, to keep Simon's unwanted suitors at bay while also making Daphne more desirable. Too bad that he ends up compromising her and Daphne's oldest brother, Anthony, calls him out at dawn.

Knowing that Simon's honor will lead him to not fire, and that Anthony's rage on her behalf will undoubtedly result in a killing shot, Daphne demands that they be married and Simon protests, much to Daphne's hurt (because he'd rather be dead than marry her? ouch). He tells her that he can't have children and that since she's always yapping about wanting a Little Women type family, he doesn't want her to be unhappy. Daphne tells him he's worth it and insists. And it seems like this actually might be a cute little love story...until Daphne rapes her husband in order to forcibly get him to impregnate her. That's right, when Simon is drunk, Daphne mounts him and then hunkers down on him so that he has no choice but to come inside her, and she is so smug and so pleased, thinking that she has "fixed" him and then has the gall to cry and get all teary and sanctimonious when he is angry.

My friends had warned me about this scene going in, but reading it still left a hugely bitter taste in my mouth. Now, I do want to say that as a reader of bodice-rippers, I am no stranger to unconsensual scenes in books. But there is a major difference between acts of rape in which the rapist is depicted as a rapist, and acts of rape in which the rapist is depicted as having the moral high ground. This is part of the reason sexism is so harmful: not just because women are victimized or robbed of agency, but also because people don't ever think that women can be the perpetrators of physical or sexual violence, because they are so "harmless," and so we get bullshit scenes like this.

Daphne can fuck right off.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE is one of those young adult books with a cultish following that is hyped up to the point where the book itself nearly becomes annoying because of all the fan baggage attached to it. Maybe it's the contrarian inside me, but when I'm surrounded by people who are all screaming "LIKE THIS! LIKE THIS!" I wanna be like, "NO! I HATE IT AND I HATE YOU. GOODBYE." It's the same way with books. The more people try to force me to like something, the more I drag my heels and am determined to find my own way.

Unlike 90% of other leading hyped-up YA titles, THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE has a couple things going for it that actually pleasantly surprised me. There's a trend of precious, twee fiction that's written like a series of Tumblr posts in which diversity is used like a checklist and the writing is as painfully and tackily ornate as a Bel-Air McMansion. THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE, on the other hand, has a bisexual hero who is seen with both men and women. He's portrayed as being a bit of a slut, which points from Gryffindor, because stereotypes, much? But on the other hand, he's also a teenage boy wallowing in privilege and wildly swinging a hand basket of emotional hang-ups and issues, so this might actually be semi-reasonable.

Henry, said bisexual hero, is in love with his friend Percy. Percy is half-black and lives with a noble family, although they treat him like a second-class citizen. Lately, though, he isn't even accorded that much "privilege" because he's started to develop seizures, and his family has decided that they are "done" and are going to consign him to an asylum. It takes Henry a while to realize that his friend has his own set of problems, because Henry is so focused on his own - inheriting his father's business, the abuse handed out to him by his father, his forbidden attraction to boys. Going on Tour in Europe is going to be his last hurrah - or would have been, had his father not cottoned on to his attraction for the opposite sex and foisted a hand-wringing guardian upon him and a threat that he'll be disinherited if any whiff of shamed honor or homosexuality makes its way back to his priggish ears.

The way racism is addressed in this book was done pretty well, I thought, and wasn't too heavy-handed. Henry has to tackle his own privilege and confront the way that he really looks at his friend. One of the best moments was when he realizes that equality means not feeling obligated to fight all your friends' battles for them because you think them incapable of doing it themselves, and the fact that society sweeps their agency away from them is one of the intrinsic problems with discrimination. There was definitely a bit of "virtue signalling" with Henry "Look how tolerant I am" Montague, and so when he stopped looking down on Percy or viewing him selfishly, the attraction worked.

The story itself was a bit odd. I liked the beginning a lot more than the middle or the end. It's fun to read about rakes, and this was a good deal more salacious than I was expecting for a YA novel. Henry's drunken, slutty shenanigans were funny. I liked his interactions with Percy as well. At first his sister, Felicity, annoyed me a lot. I tolerated her by the end of the book but she won't be winning any "favorite character" contests for me. Modern day feminist characters don't really work in historical fiction for a myriad of reasons. But everything was mostly fine until the alchemy plot rolled in and there was all that bunk about panaceas and immortality. Suddenly this book went from being Oscar Wilde for kids to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Magical Surgery. I could not believe the ending of this ridiculous book. Pirates, sinking islands, living forever - did I MISS something?

Ultimately, I decided to deduct a star for that mess of a resolution. It really felt like the author had three ideas for a story and decided to cram them all together while crossing her fingers that it'd work. It didn't. I had fun reading THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE, but sticking in all that crazy scientist stuff ended up making the book seem stupid and OTT, turning what could have been one of my top reads of the year into yet another YA novel that preemptively jumped the shark.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Bad with Money: The Imperfect Art of Getting Your Financial Sh*t Together by Gaby Dunn

This isn't the type of book I would normally obtain for myself, but I'm a huge fan of Gaby Dunn and have been ever since her BuzzFeed days, so in a show of support, I downloaded the book from Netgalley and read it without adding it as "currently reading" on Goodreads just in case it wasn't the type of book that I wanted to move forward with.

As others have mentioned, BAD WITH MONEY is equal parts memoir and financial self-help guide. Some people seemed put out by the memoir parts, and I can see how if you were looking for something solidly informational, that could be annoying. Personally, I thought her struggles with loans, over-spending parents, and lack of college resources made her relatable and gave her cred. It was like, "Look, I've struggled and seriously regret some of the mistakes I made that have made my current situation so difficult. Let me tell you how I fucked up so you don't."

I honestly would recommend this to older teens who are just about to start college (or are already in college). My mom told me a lot of this stuff already, but there were still things I didn't know (text messages count as wills in some states?!). Dunn gives some pretty great advice on a wide array of topics ranging from "is your unpaid internship a scam?" to "intro to tax forms 101" to the hidden costs of weddings and babies to "millennials are destroying everything: a baby-boomer story"-type clickbait bullshit opinion pieces.

People love to talk about how millennials are the over-privileged, lazy generation - one that they usually envision as a white, blonde, upper middle-class stereotype decked out in Anthropologie and sucking down on a customized Starbucks drink while using ten unfathomable apps expertly on the Pixel 3. The sad reality is that a lot of millennials can't afford health insurance, spend most of their paychecks on rent, are overqualified for the jobs they perform, weighed down by student loans, and find themselves without property, much less a well-balanced checkbook. They live in a tanked economy that was spoiled by the generation that came before them, and that generation continues to do its damnedest to continue to make their lives hell by mocking them for eating avocado toast.

The fact of the matter is, being a millennial is hard. There's no easy entre into adult life, and as much as we're sneered at for not knowing how to "adult," a lot of this stuff isn't taught in schools, and if you aren't lucky enough to have a parent or guardian figure who's willing to walk you through this kind of stuff, you might be SOL the next time you apply for a credit card or file your W2.

I enjoyed BAD WITH MONEY. The balance of memoir and instruction guide doesn't always quite work, but she says what she has to say with candor and a ready willingness to help.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

On The Come Up by Angie Thomas

I've been looking forward to ON THE COME UP ever since I heard that Angie Thomas was writing a new book. THE HATE U GIVE was one of those life-changing books for me, in that it was a pitch-perfect book that came out at a time when the subject material was relevant and necessary, and delivered an emotionally-charged story about institutionalized racism, as well as the importance of movements like Black Lives Matter that shine a much-needed spotlight on racial injustice.

ON THE COME UP is a similar story in that it also features a girl in Garden Heights who comes from a low-income family and deals with gang violence and gang activity on a day-to-day basis. Bri's mother is a recovering drug addict and her aunt is in the local gang, the Garden Disciples. Her father was a famous up-and-coming rapper who was murdered. People make assumptions about her just because of the color of her skin and where she comes from, and a racially-targeted bag search that ends in violence inspires Bri to write a rap song that ends up going viral.

I really wanted to like this book, but it didn't have the same strength in writing that THE HATE U GIVE had. Starr was a compelling protagonist and it was a really emotional read. ON THE COME UP was emotionally distant, by comparison, and Bri was such an awful heroine. She made one terrible choice after another and treated her friends and family like garbage. I hated the way she talked to her mother, and how she called her mother by her first name with such a lack of respect. I hated the way she treated her friend, and how she made a move on her taken friend who was in a relationship. She also wrote a song with very vivid references to gang activity, which is fine, but then she tried to deny that that wasn't what the song was about when she was called on it. Um, what?

Here's the thing, ON THE COME UP was trying to tackle some weighty issues just like THE HATE U GIVE did. This book was about the hypocrisy of white people when it comes to guns (OK when white people have them, thuggish and scary when black people have them), cultural appropriation (white people listening to and consuming rap but not wanting to think about the deeper issues and sociocultural suffering and struggles endemic to the black community due to oppression and injustice), and, of course, institutionalized racism leading to the disenfranchisement, abuse, and even murders of black people over infractions that white people would get minor consequences for.

The issue with Bri and her school was not resolved in a satisfactory way. They gave her mother a job, sure, but that felt more like they were trying to buy the family's silence and not a moral turnaround. Bri didn't really advance as a character. She ran around doing and saying whatever she wanted and didn't want to take ownership for her actions or the consequences of her actions. At the end of the book, she's basically rewarded for acting like a total shit because of her raps, and the other problematic aspects of her behavior - getting involved in gang wars, siccing her aunt on a rival gang member despite knowing it could end up in murder, failing in school and treating her tests like they're unimportant, ghosting her friends and/or snapping in their faces, and bitching at her mom - are all basically ignored, because oh, she belatedly became part of a movement and then capitalized on it for financial gain and fame, isn't she a good person? Lmao, her friends basically did all the work getting that movement started, and in the beginning she treated them like trash for it. What in the ever-loving heck? Am I supposed to root for this girl? I mean, I get the fear of wanting to get involved against the same authority figures that oppress you and mistreat you, but letting her friends take the fall for her and then jumping on their shit was totally disgusting and I hated her for it. The writing in this book was a real step-down from THE HATE U GIVE, and seemed unpolished and clunky in comparison. Starr was such a great character, and I loved her so much. Bri was a brat, and the best moment in this book was when her mother gives her a real dressing down over her behavior. #TeamJay

Honestly, Jay(da) was the star of this book. I loved Bri's mom. She had so much to deal with, and some of her quotes in this book about racism and police brutality and inequality really reminded me of Starr. I almost wish that this was an adult book about parenting and that Jay(da) had been the heroine, because I was much more interested in hearing about her story than Bri's. Yes, the raps were great and had good flow, and I enjoyed them, but I hated that Bri wrote them because I hated Bri. Jay had to deal with lingering biases over her drug use (including her own daughter), despite being eight years sober. She's in college trying to better her education so she can get a good job, while taking care of two kids and dealing with her deceased husband's younger sister, who's a leader in a gang. The most emotional parts in this book all involved her, especially when she goes to Bri's school to speak up about the racist treatment of her ungrateful shit of a daughter. That packed a punch.

Huge disappointment. I was wondering why more of my friends hadn't reviewed this book already and I'm guessing maybe they either didn't like it and didn't want to say so, or they were leery about reading the follow-up book from a successful debut author without reading advance reviews. Well, I didn't like this book and I'm flummoxed at the people saying that this was better than THUG. It really wasn't. If anything, this reads like a debut novel, because of how unsteady it is on its own two legs.

I'm so bummed that I can't say great things about ON THE COME UP. :/

2 out of 5 stars

The Poison Master by Liz Williams

I finally found an author who rivals Tanith Lee and R. Lee Smith in terms of dark, original world-building; resourceful heroines; and creepy, dark heroes who don't fit in the typical alpha/beta/gamma mold. THE POISON MASTER was amazing, and I don't use that word lightly. I've read a lot of books, which makes it even more of an event when I find something that is really out of the ordinary.

THE POISON MASTER is a science-fiction novel with fantasy elements set on a faraway planet called "Latent Emanation." It is a planet of ice and swamps and darkness, ruled over by insect-like lords who reside in the Night Palace and use corrupt and brain-washed humans called Unpriests to subjugate the human populace.

Alivet, the heroine, is one of these subjugated humans. She works as an apothecary, which is considered a woman's profession due to its similarity to cooking. She provides recreational drugs to the wealthy humans on the planet, many of whom use hallucinogens in tandem with sex to while away the time. One day, one of the drugs reacts badly with a client and Alivet finds herself wanted for murder.

Her savior comes in the form of a red-eyed, dark-haired stranger who Heather was totally right to describe as Vincent Valentine in her review, since that's totally how I was imagining him too (hot). He offers to help her but at a cost - he wants her help destroying the Lords of Latent Emanation. Her drug-making skills are of use to him because he's looking for a substance that will kill the Lords, and capitalize on their light sensitivity that forces them into hiding in the shadows of their palace.

As I said before, I loved the world-building in this book. It was interesting how the poisons were so psychedelic, and how Alivet (and others) could communicate with the "spirits" of the hallucinogenic substances. The poison-making scenes were really well done, and it was great to see a heroine who was so competent and passionate about her work; I feel like it adds to a story when you have a heroine who exists beyond the romantic role she plays for the hero. There's a bit of romance in this book but it isn't really the focus of the story; the sexual tension is just a nice addition to the danger.

I saw another review complaining about the age difference between Alivet and the hero, Ghairen. She's an older teenage (17 or 18 I think? maybe 19?) and he's 40. But Ghairen is a different species from Alivet, and his race lives to be about 200 years old, so in his race's life span, he's not that much older than Alivet. That made the age difference a little less weird for me.

THE POISON MASTER is very dark and has some gruesome themes. I really, really enjoyed it - it reminded me a bit of Labyrinth, as Alivet is trying to save her sister from the Lords and the Unpriests, even as she seeks to destroy the Lords and figure out what Ghairen's intentions with her are. There are historical passages from Elizabethan times interposed between Alivet's narrations that are about one of her ancestors, John Dee, a man who brought the Lords upon the humans and opened up the pathways between Earth and other worlds. These passages are strange but grew on me.

If you're looking for something different and enjoy dark fantasy and science-fiction, THE POISON MASTER is a solid choice. I enjoyed the high stakes heroine's journey, the emphasis on poison, the strong female protagonist, the dark love story, and pretty much everything else. She even referenced one of her other books in here, talking about world-souls! I'd definitely read more from this author.

5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A High Stakes Seduction by Motoyo Fujiwara

You know, I'm not sure why Netgalley keeps denying me for these Harlequin manga titles. Don't they know that I am the Queen of Trash? Last time I applied for a bunch and only got one. This time, I lucked out - I got three. One of those titles was A HIGH STAKES SEDUCTION, originally based on a novel by Jennifer Lewis and adapted into manga format by Motoyo Fujiwara, who also did MARRIAGE ON THE REBOUND.

A HIGH STAKES SEDUCTION is about a forensic accountant named Constance who is charged with investigating a casino for fraud. The casino is owned by a man named John Fairweather, who is part of a seemingly fictional tribe of Native Americans called the "Nissequot." She is attracted to him, despite the fact that she cannot have anything to do with him, but when a fire leaves her without rooms, John, who happens to be a volunteer fireman, arrives on the scene and insists that she stay at his hotel. Constance agrees, because conflict of interest? What's that? Lollerskates, must be a synonym for room service.

Unethical behaviors aside, Constance does do her job, and she does it so well that she discovers John's uncle Don hasn't been reporting his gambling earnings to the IRS. While this is not an example of corporate fraud, it's enough to launch an investigation into the casino. She does this after she and John sleep together, and she overhears Don making a sly remark that if Constance is infatuated with him, she might let them skirt the rules and get off without an investigation. Kudos to the girl for doing her job, but points from Gryffindor for making it about being a lover spurned. #professionalism

I liked the art in this book a lot and it was great to see a heroine with glasses, even if there were several iconic "wow, without the glasses she's totally hot now!" moments. I also appreciated seeing a heroine who was handy with numbers and praised for her brilliance. The hero was also a pretty nice guy, much less ruthless than rumors made him out to be. I'm a fan of psychotic alpha heroes, but once in a while it's nice to have a break from Psychoville and go to the island paradise of Beta Hero.

I must say, I don't see the need for the author to invent a fictional Native American tribe when there are so many real tribes she could have given representation to with a little bit of research. This is like when authors write sheikh romances and set them in made-up Middle Eastern countries. I wonder whether this is due to a fear of causing offense or a laziness in doing research (or maybe a mixture of both). While I understand the reasoning behind it, making up fake tribes and fake countries and attaching to them the cultural histories and trimmings of real people and real cultures smacks of cultural appropriation. Do the research. Write about the real people. Don't fudge the facts. #my2cents

Overall, though, A HIGH STAKES SEDUCTION was a decent adaptation of a romance with an interesting storyline, nice art, and a decent hero and heroine. Motoyo Fujiwara is on her way to becoming one of my favorite Harlequin mangaka. I just wish HQ would stop being so stingy with their ARCs and give me all of the ones I ask for. I'm greedy, I know, but... but... manga. They're so addictive. I swear, they're like the Pringles of romance novels. You can't stop at just one (or three).

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Gypsy Lady by Shirlee Busbee

It's been way too long since I've picked up an old skool bodice ripper. I've been on a fantasy binge lately, and it's been absolutely swell, but the desire for bodice rippers was eating away at me like an itch that I couldn't resist. GYPSY LADY has been sitting on my bookshelf for two years, ever since my mom bought it for me as a birthday present. I'm one of those people who hoards books they're really looking forward to reading in order to build up the anticipation until the time is right, and when I spied that bright cover, I thought, "It's time."

As you might have guessed from the title, GYPSY LADY is not a book for the PC-set. It's about a girl named Catherine Tremayne who, along with her brother Adam, was kidnapped by gypsies when she was young and then returned to her family as an adolescent. She has been raised as a young lady but still enjoys frolicking in the nearby gypsy camps under the name they gave her, "Tamara."

The hero is named Jason Savage, although you could argue about whether or not he's actually a "hero." The book opens with him as a young man in an Aztec tomb, marveling at the treasure with his three friends, Nolan, Davalos, and Blood Drinker. Blood Drinker and Nolan are skeeved out, but Jason and Davalos decide to take a small piece of treasure, vowing that they'll come back some day for the rest.

Flash forward to the early 1800s, and Jason is now a man of wealth and privilege in his own right, running errands for President Jefferson to facilitate the Louisiana Purchase. He tomcats around and sleeps with Catherine's slutty and stereotypically evol cousin, Elizabeth, but when he sees Catherine at the gypsy camp, he decides that he must have her, and being a noble man, she can't say no. She tricks him by sending a decrepit old gypsy woman to his bed, who he almost has sex with by accident, and the horror and humiliation of this is so great that he decides a bit of rape is in order.

At first, he keeps Catherine as his mistress and rapes her a few more times (which she decides she likes, traitorous bodies and all), but when he finds out that she's actually a lady, he is forced to marry her; an insult to his manly pride, which he uses as an excuse to ill-treat her some more. She runs away to her brother's property in Louisiana, and when Jason chases her there, he assumes that her brother, Adam, is her new lover, and the baby she's carrying is a bastard she's had to taunt him.

When he finds out the baby is actually his, he gets angry all over again (I sense a pattern here) and uses that as yet another excuse to get angry at Catherine and treat her like garbage. At this point, she basically rolls with all the punches and moans about her broken heart and the fact that Jason will never love her. Ew. Since they're both experts at not fucking telling each other critical information, Jason fails to tell Catherine that Davalos, that guy who was his treasure hunting buddy from the beginning, now has it in for him because he thinks that Jason has the key to the treasure cave.

Davalos kidnaps Catherine after she flounces -yet again - from Jason Savage, rapes her a bit, and indirectly causes her to miscarry her child when, beaten and abused, she flees his camp on horseback. Jason finds her in the depths of agony and sends Blood Drinker to find, capture, mutilate, torture, and castrate Davalos, before leaving him in the desert to die. Once the deed is done, Jason informs Catherine, who is still suffering from PTSD, that the best cure for rape is marital rape, and forces himself on her to help rid her of those traumatic memories. She likes it, and the book ends "happily."

Man, what do I even say about this book? It kind of reads like an off-brand SWEET SAVAGE LOVE. That book also had a POS hero who liked to slut his way around the globe, but the heroine gave as good as she got and didn't spend the whole book crying and whining and basically embracing victimhood like it was the most romantic gesture she'd ever seen (cringe). The surprisingly graphic torture scene at the end was also unwelcome, because most of the story was pretty dull (apart from the rapes, which are basically a given in romances written during this time period). I think the last time I saw something so graphic in a romance novel, it was in Parris Afton Bonds's DUST DEVIL.

I did not really enjoy GYPSY LADY that much and I don't think I'd recommend it to anyone but the most hardcore readers of the old skool bodice ripper experience. I didn't feel the connection between the hero and heroine and he never groveled or suffered for his actions at all. Torturing one of his fellow rapists as a grand gesture didn't really do it for me. And the heroine lost all of her spirit and pluck as soon as the hero walked onto the scene and started making her body feel traitorous. Nope.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

The Wicked King by Holly Black

The relationship between author and reader is one of constant courting, and sequels are especially hard. You've one my trust once, with a stellar book, but that's no guarantee that I'm going to enjoy the sequel. Second Book Syndrome is totally a thing. It's what happens when authors get complacent and think that less effort can be expended when publishing their sequel. I loved THE CRUEL PRINCE, despite thinking it would be a disappointment, and immediately added THE WICKED KING to my to-read list. The wait was agonizing and plagued with self-doubt. Would I still enjoy the sequel as much as I'd enjoyed the prequel? Would it live up to my expectations? Did I really enjoy THE CRUEL PRINCE as much as I thought I had? The answer to all these questions was "yes." Yes, I enjoyed the sequel. Yes, it lived up to my expectations and then some. Yes, I love this series. It is the bomb.

THE WICKED KING starts off rather similarly to how THE CRUEL PRINCE did, by which I mean slow AF. Cardan is the High King of Faerie and also Jude's puppet, but her power over him only lasts for a year and a day, and she knows that as soon as that grace period is over, he's just going to be one person in a long line of many who wants Jude dead. Most of the first third of the book is Jude attempting to get all of her fey ducks in a row, scheming and conspiring, while also (hopelessly) trying to resist her growing attraction for Cardan.

I loved that THE WICKED KING was much more sensual and erotic than THE CRUEL PRINCE was. One of my biggest complaints about the first book was that it felt confined by the young adult genre, and the author wasn't really exploiting this world of treachery and sensuality to its full potential. This book really runs with those darker themes, and it does it in a way that feels adult without being smutty, if that makes sense. THE WICKED KING has all of the plotting and intrigue that makes Game of Thrones so popular, but does it without the exploitative gore and porn that also make the series feel cheap. I wish that more young adult books were like this, because Jude is a total antihero and completely unlike most helpless heroines I read about who dabble in perfection as if beauty and power are just essential oils you can soak up during your latest spa day. Jude has to scrabble and work for everything she's got, and she's so competent, you can't help but like her.

Also, the bad characters in this book are so awful that hating them is almost an art form. Locke reminds us right away why he's such a bastard, although he doesn't play as much of a role in this book as the previous one. Nicasia is that classic mean girl with anxiety that she tries so hard to hide. Taryn is a back-stabbing twat who likes to pretend that she's Jesus on the cross, and I was very proud of myself for not buying any of her very lame attempts at peace offerings, especially in light of the end of the novel. Fuck Taryn, seriously. Oh, and Cardan - the hero I love to hate and hate to love. The unresolved sexual tension between him and Jude is amazing. These are characters that I love to ship. I am the Helen of Troy of enemies-to-lovers in that I have launched a thousand ships for these sorts of relationships and I regret nothing. It really is like Hana Yori Dango meets Game of Thrones.

Best of all, we get to explore a new part of faerie land: the Undersea. Hence the crown slipping beneath the waves on the cover. Man, I love it when everything becomes clear as you read the book. Even the title makes sense once you find out more about Cardan and where he's coming from. The beginning is dull, but necessary because it ends up setting the stage for the hot mess of schemes upon schemes upon schemes that are peppered with sex, murder, violence, and intrigue in the last two acts of the book. And that ending is so cruel. I need QUEEN OF NOTHING in my hands now.

Why is 2020 so far away?

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

THE NIGHT TIGER was an OK read. There were some things about this book that I really enjoyed, and other things I didn't. The book is set in 1930s Malaya (Malaysia), when it was still under British rule. There are two main characters: Ren, an 11-year-old houseboy to British doctor William Acton, and Ji Lin, a dressmaker moonlighting as a dance hall girl. Their stories end up interconnecting due to a severed finger in a vial that Ji Lin obtains from one of her clients. The finger belongs to Ren's old master, and he has only 49 days to get the finger back to his master's grave before his soul is lost forever. At the same time, the women that William Acton fraternizes with keep turning up missing, dead, or both, often looking as though they were mauled by a tiger, and Ji Lin keeps having strange dreams about a river and a train, with a boy who tells her about five people whose names resemble the five Confucian values, and a terrible curse...

So what did I like about this book? It has the creepy, murder plot of a BBC murder mystery. I like how the murders were steeped in Chinese mythology and magic realism, and the looming specters of the weretiger, as well as the finger in the vial, were both suitably creepy. I didn't guess who (or what) was responsible until the very end, so there was a very nice series of reveals to make me feel as if the journey had been worth it. That's important in a murder mystery novel, I think you'll agree. Ji Lin was a great character and I liked that she had a job that was looked down on as being morally loose, and that she didn't tolerate any shit-talking from people about her career. Ren took longer for me to like, and I'm not sure I bought his "cat whiskers" premonitions. That was really strange.

So what didn't I like about this book? Good Lord, it was long, and took forever to get to the damn point. The first 100 pages or so were a breeze, and I thought I wouldn't be able to put the book down. Then the book started to drag a lot without revealing a whole lot of new information. While I did like Ji Lin's eventual love interest, that whole subplot was also dragged out for what seemed like emotional tension, and kind of felt like another excuse to pad the already bloated plot. I also felt like the ending was simultaneously too neat while failing to wrap up a few loose ends. I know on the surface that sounds like it doesn't make sense, but THE NIGHT TIGER focuses more on the kismet between the main characters, and yet ignores the rather glaring problem of the other severed fingers in the hospital, as Chelsea pointed out in her review. Do those souls just never get saved? Lame.

THE NIGHT TIGER is an interesting book, and I like the author's style of writing. I bought her other book, THE GHOST BRIDE, relatively recently and I'm hoping it'll be better than this one. I didn't hate THE NIGHT TIGER, but it has all the good ideas/less than optimal execution dichotomies and pacing issues of a debut novel, and since this isn't a debut novel, that isn't good. Still, it's great to see #OwnVoices historical fiction that explores time periods and situations that aren't getting as much representation as, say, Tudor England or British/American-fought WWII, so kudos for that.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

The Mountain's Call by Caitlin Brennan

The best thing about being a blogger with some sphere of influence is that you can tell people about sorely underrated gems like these. THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL only has just over 1,000 reviews as of my writing this review, which is a shame, because it has many elements that are very popular in the romantic fantasy novels coming out now. The ratings for it are polarized, but my guess is that's because THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL reads like YA, but has elements of both romantic and hardcore traditional fantasy, and it's not really clear who the target audience is. Apart from me, that is. Your residential trash queen contrarian who is here for the lulz.

THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL was published by Luna in 2004. Luna is Harlequin's fantasy imprint, perhaps most famous for its publication of Maria V. Snyder's POISON STUDY, although they have also published titles by Mercedes Lackey and Laura Anne Gilman. Caitlin Brennan is also a big name author, although you wouldn't know it without some minor sleuthing that her "name" is actually a pen name of the famous fantasy author, Judith Tarr.

In THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL, a bunch of gods who take the form of white horses live in a place called "the Mountain." Every year, they send out a Call to mages of potential, which drives them to stumble towards the Mountain by whatever means necessary, like zombies, to seek out the school there which teaches these Call recipients how to use their powers and become Riders. The Call has, historically, only gone to men, which is why Valeria is shocked when she hears the Call as clear as a bell, demanding that she go to the Mountain to learn her new trade. Her family tries to imprison her to stop her, but Valeria escapes and disguises herself as a boy in order to attend the school.

At first, THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL has a kind of Mulan vibe. Valeria even cuts off her hair. That changes when her secret outs, and the school rejects her. The only one who stands up for her is Kerrec, the youngest rider, and her savior when she was nearly raped as she traveled to the school. He is her advocate and volunteers to be her teacher, but then a group of barbarians invade who worship a different god and have managed to channel the magic of the gods into its concentrated, unnatural form, resulting in a dark and evil force called the Unmaking, which has the power to destroy.

The barbarians capitalize on Valeria's anger at the sexist jerks in charge of the magic school, offering her the chance to take her loyal horse and study at a new school that totally welcomes women - as long as they're, you know, willing to be evil. It helps that the guy who stole her virginity, a good-looking prince named Euan, is totally #TeamEvil and advocating for the school and its master. But then when they capture Kerrec after he comes looking for her, torture him, rape him, and then mind rape him, #TeamEvil stops looking so good - especially since Kerrec was the only one in her corner.

THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL is surprisingly dark, much more so than I was expecting given that Luna titles are generally fluffy and romantic (although not always - POISON STUDY was also dark). I was not expecting the hero to get raped, although luckily one of the other reviews I'd read warned me of this in advance, so I don't think it came as quite of a nasty shock to me as it did to her. There's also a pretty gory sacrifice scene, and while Valeria is in the school, there's some pretty unpleasant trials resulting in rather graphic death to those who don't obey the order and take the magic seriously.

Ultimately, I really liked the book. I thought the magic system was interesting and I'm a sucker for fantasy novels about animal companions, and in this regard, THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL reminded me rather favorably of Mercedes Lackey's JOUST. It also has the potential to start some interesting dialogues about feminism and role reversals in fantasy, as the hero is the one who is abused, and the heroine is the one who has all the sexual power and entertains multiple partners while driving the hero made with jealousy and feelings of inadequacy, which he must then overcome. The women in this book are strong characters, and I loved that the heir apparent to the throne, Briana, ended up playing more of a role towards the end of the book in saving the kingdom and redeeming Valeria.

The thing that turned me off the book the most was actually how the romance and the love triangle were handled. I didn't like Euan from the get-go, and when I found out that Kerrec was the love interest, I was frustrated by the fact that Valeria kept sleeping with Euan, even though he has such a sleazy frat-boy vibe going on and she totally knew that he was bad. I was firmly in the Team Kerrec camp from the moment his icy ass walked on the page, and when he had to endure all that torture, my heart ached for him - especially when he heard Valeria banging Euan and thought she had betrayed him. It was interesting to see the gender role reversal of a promiscuous and idiotic heroine jerking the hero around for a change from a feminist perspective, but as a romance reader, I found it frustrating.

Overall, though, THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL was a solid fantasy novel with many great elements and I'm very interested in reading the sequel, SONG OF THE UNMAKING (perhaps when it goes on sale). From the cover, to the writing, to the mechanics of the storyline and magic system, THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL has a lot going for it. I'm honestly surprised that it isn't more popular. If you enjoy dark reads and don't mind rape and violence in your books, you should definitely pay the 99-cents this book currently costs and pick up a copy for yourself. It was a wonderful surprise for me.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

The reviews of this book are hilarious. Half of them appear to be taking this book at face value, and the other half seem to be trying to come across as if they are op-eds for The New Yorker. MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION is a polarizing book, and whether you'll like it depends on how you feel about reading depressing books with unlikable characters. If you want escapism and "soft" and "gentle" reads and joy, this book is going to go down about as well as, well, a dose of infermiterol.

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION is set in pre-9/11/2001 New York. The heroine is young, thin, beautiful, privileged, independently wealthy - and clinically depressed. She engages in a number of toxic behaviors, dating a user, befriending another woman who has an eating disorder and with whom she engages a highly co-dependent relationship, and spending all of her free time in bed or on her couch, watching old movies while taking drugs to "hibernate" and escape the uncomfortable intensity of her own emotions.

The narrator is jaded, selfish, and emotionally dulled. The portrayal of depression here is actually quite well done. People who have never experienced depression seem to think that it makes you cry and whine all the time (and, perhaps most unforgivably, willfully self-indulgent and done with agency), but for many people, there's a numbness and a feeling of hopelessness and despair: "What's the point?" you might ask, if nothing brings you joy and contentment, and you don't have the energy to do anything but sleep and eat and exist. When you're depressed, living isn't about enjoying the small things; it's about trying to muster up the energy to do the small things when you barely have the energy to get out of bed. Even though the heroine comes off as privileged, she is unable to enjoy any of the luxuries she has; the only solace she has in life is the escapism that comes from "dreamless" sleep. So what does she do? She engages a quack psychiatrist to feed her pill habit.

The psychiatrist is probably one of the most unlikable characters in the book (although the boyfriend, Trevor, is awful, too - having sex with your drugged-out unconscious ex? Yeah, buddy, that's rape). Dr. Tuttle is a crazy cat lady who has sessions in her nightgown and gives away free pill samples like they're fun-sized candy bars and it's Halloween. Some of the NYT-wannabe set were talking about this book being an existential satire, only I'm not sure what, exactly, MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION is trying to parody. Is Moshfegh trying to go the MODEST PROPOSAL route in the vein of Johnathan Swift, suggesting that if #FirstWorldProblems sufferers want to use intoxication the way the population of Brave New World did with soma to escape from reality, then why not physically escape from reality by drugging yourself out and going into a coma-like hibernation state? The ending kind of suggests that, as if life itself is a dream and death is the awakening.

I found this book amusing and bemusing in equal parts. For most of it, I took the book at face value, as a depiction of depression that transcends class and circumstance. The heroine has a life that many would kill for - minus her dead parents - and has every opportunity in the world at her manicured fingertips, but because of her psychological state, it still isn't enough. That, I appreciated, because it's true that people can be depressed no matter how "happy" their life seems, and while depression is totally worse for people who don't have the resources or the safety net that a caring group of family and friends affords, that doesn't mean that being privileged means that you feel any less helpless.

It becomes harder to take this book at face value with the introduction of the walking malpractice suit that is Dr. Tuttle, the enabling solution she finds with avant-garde artist, Ping Xi, and the pill cocktails she takes on a daily basis that seem as though they should be causing some kind of physical harm or side-effects, especially since she mixes them with caffeine and alcohol. The human body is resilient, but not that resilient. I also disliked the ending, as I'm sure many of the people who rated this book so low did, as it feels like suicidal ideation. Here we have this character who describes their self-damaging behaviors as "saving herself," and when she witnesses death being committed with agency, she describes it as being awake; as if death was the solution to her problems all along.

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION isn't a bad book, and both the accolades and the criticisms are well-deserved, for various reasons. I fall in the middle here, because while I liked the book and found it interesting enough to continue, I didn't really like the end goal and I'm not sure what exactly the author was trying to accomplish with her message (if anything? maybe it was just a character study or an exercise in trolling the audience, and Ottessa Moshfegh is leaning back against the giant pile of money she got as an advance for this book and laughing at us all).

If you're depressed, you should probably avoid this book, as it will be triggering. It also deals with eating disorders, pharmacological abuse, suicide, addiction, and death. I'd read more from this author, but I wouldn't reread MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION. It's a pretty miserable experience, even if it has some sharply cutting observation on the foibles and hypocrisies of humankind.

3 out of 5 stars