Friday, May 31, 2019

Playing for Keeps by R.L. Mathewson

DNF @ 15%

I wanted to like this book. A lot of my friends rated PLAYING FOR KEEPS very highly. Now, I'm questioning that, as I couldn't find anything that really called to me about this book. Haley and Jason are both incredibly immature. The book starts out as an enemies-to-lovers romance but they get over being enemies really quickly and then it becomes a friends-to-lovers romance instead. I felt like their reactions made them feel like high school students instead of adults in their twenties, and the "humor" in this book felt similarly juvenile.

Since I didn't get very far in, I don't have a lot to say about PLAYING FOR KEEPS except that 1) this book is definitely not a keeper, 2) it is boring AF, and 3) thank God I didn't pay money for this, or I'd be super angry about the waste.

1 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

People swear by this book; they want to make it their god. Well, if this book is a religion, then I'm an atheist, because there was absolutely nothing in this book I want to believe in. Did we all read the same book? Man, the author is lucky that books don't have hotlines where you can phone in to complain about your lack of customer satisfaction, because I'd be on the line right now, saying, "Dafuque-ce que c'est?" Comme ├ža.

JELLICOE ROAD is an utterly nonsensical book that appears to thrive on its own pretension. Taylor, the main character, spends all of her time either whining or crying, and her biggest claim to fame is that she's in charge of this stupid mock-war her school fights with the locals and the local military school for "territory." If that sounds confusing, don't worry - it's never explained, it doesn't make sense, and it's just as childish and lame as it sounds. Oh, and she's in love with the local bad boy military student who ~betrayed~ her once, many a summer ago.

Looped in with this Risk LARPing is the story of some other pretentious kids with ~issues~ who are connected with Taylor's story in a mysterious way. This other POV was incredibly boring and I skimmed it, and yes, the payoff was just as disappointing as I'd imagined it would be, and surprise, surprise, I was able to predict most of it. I'm guessing this is the part of the story that made people shed tears, but mostly I just thought it was lame. And pretentious.

I guess if you want to read about the most boring LARP session ever with a tepid love story that makes TWILIGHT seem deep and profound by comparison, read this book. If you're looking for the profound and live-changing story that was beautifully written and so moving and unique, take me with you, because I finished this book and I didn't find that story. Maybe it's on the Jellicoe Road...

1 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 27, 2019

Queen Takes Knights by Joely Sue Burkhart

DNF @ 38%

It seems a crime to mark this as 'DNF' when on the surface, it seems like something I'd really enjoy. The cover is hot, exactly what I'd expect a vampire erotica to look like. The premise is deliciously trashy, like something I'd expect to see in the halcyon days of Quizilla: a vampire queen gets not one, but two vampire mates who want to serve her in ~every way possible~.

The opening of this book, when the heroine is on the run being chased by demonic creatures who want her blood, made me think I was into something good. It actually reminded me a bit of the manga, BLACK BIRD, which is about a girl whose blood calls to demons and all of them want to eat her or have sex with her or both, including her dubious demon guardian/friend, Kyo.

The story - and the writing - fall apart when her knights enter the mix. I'm not sure what happened, or why it didn't work for me. This book was trying so hard, what with its sex positivity and the woman being in power despite being sexually inexperienced. I wanted to like it... it just didn't work.

If you enjoy porn with plot (even if it's only a thinly veiled plot) and menage erotica where the men, to borrow my friend's phrase from her review, happily "cross swords," this is probably a good read for you. It didn't really work out for me, but I got it for free, so I guess I'm only out my time.

1 out of 5 stars

The Black Lily by Juliette Cross

If you know me, you know I love vampire romances and I'm constantly on the hunt for the perfect darkly erotic read. THE BLACK LILY caught my eye because it's written by one of my Goodreads friends, Juliette Cross, and also because it's a loose retelling of the Cinderella fairytale told with vampires. Throw enemies to lovers into the mix and the fact that the heroine is the leader of a revolutionary movement determined to assassinate the prince, and I bought that shit faster than you could say VAMP.

Arabelle is the leader of the Black Lily, a movement that challenges the vampire monarchy that subjugates the human peasant class, using them or abusing them as they see fit. It's especially personal for Arabelle, whose mother was killed by vampires, so she schemes to be invited to the crown prince Marius's blood ball, snag his attention, and then assassinate him with a golden dagger the moment that she gets him alone.


This being a romance novel, obviously her plan doesn't work. And the prince isn't nearly as upset about the assassination attempt as he maybe should be, using the event as an excuse to hunt her down and get answers. Arabelle finds out that the prince isn't the tyrant she imagined and Marius learns about a blood madness tearing through the vampire population, turning vampires into crazed, bloodthirsty fiends.

THE BLACK LILY wasn't as dark as I'd like- I prefer my vampires to be a little more evil than Marius was. The sex scenes and tension between him and Arabelle was hot, but Marius fell for Arabelle way too quickly. I guess the instalust was supposed to be homage to the Cinderella fairytale, and Arabelle took longer to reciprocate his feelings, but it still felt a bit much. The evil vampires were much more in line with what I like my vampire love interests to be like- psycho and deadly. ;)

This isn't badly written and all the characters except the baddies are likable. The fairytale premise is really unusual and I like how the vampire mythos was incorporated to fit the retelling. I have the other books in the series and I plan on reading those as well, but I just wish this was a little darker. As it is, it's a quick, light read.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

The Dirty Angels Trilogy: The Complete Box Set by Karina Halle


Box sets are always tough to rate. Do you rate based on your feelings of the series as a whole? Or do you take the scientific approach and average out your ratings of all the other books in the box set? I personally take the scientific approach, which means that sometimes my rating for the box sets is lower than my ratings for various books in the series. Such is the case with Dirty Angels, as there were some books I liked, and other books I thought were really lame. The quality of these stories can be highly variable.

Dirty Angels is a spin-off series about Javier Bernal from the author's other Artists series. Javier is a crime boss who deals in drugs and power. The first book is about how he meets his love interest, Luisa. The second book is a secondary romance about Javier's sister, Alana, hooking up with one of Javier's ex-mercenaries-turned-traitor. The third book is about Javier and Luisa again, only now they're married and it's on the rocks, and Javier is on the verge of losing everything due to his ignorance and pride, when one of his associates decides to stage a coup.

Dirty Angels: ☆☆☆☆

Honestly, this book was close to perfect. I loved the romance between Javier and Luisa, and that it grows from such a dark place. He was cruel but still human, and even though he did terrible things to her as his captive, I thought that Luisa's vulnerability and isolation were really well-portrayed. She was already a survivor of abuse and strife, so it made sense that she'd find his strength appealing. It's got a lot of violence, but it's used as a spice and not a sauce, so even though the scenes were unpleasant, the book never felt drenched with it. DIRTY ANGELS is mostly an edgy erotic romance.

Dark Paradise/"Esteban": ☆½

I kind of hated this short story. It felt pointless and did not match the tone of the other books. Esteban is a bad man, and I did not want to read about his meet-cute with some lame artist in Hawaii indulging in cultural tourism as an attempt to cure her artistic ennui and suicidal ideation. After reading about Esteban in DIRTY PROMISES, I actually wanted to go back and deduct the half-star I'd added in my original rating to round up because I was so mad to see him romanticized. Yuck.

Dirty Deeds: ☆☆

This was another story I didn't like. It has nothing to do with the first book - instead it's about a mercenary who's mentioned a handful of times in Artists and Dirty Angels and one of Javier's sisters, Alana. Derek is supposed to kill Alana but falls in lust with her at first sight and changes his mind literally while he's on the job. It felt way too fluffy, which was jarring after the dark tone set by DIRTY ANGELS. There's a chase scene and fight scene at the end that have more of the action I was expecting, but most of this book was pretty boring and I didn't care about either character very much.

** In between the second book and the third book, there are two excerpts for books written by the author's fellow author friends. I didn't care for either excerpt, and I thought it was kind of sneaky to put them in between the two books, as opposed to the back of the book. It felt like Halle was forcing us to page through these excerpts, which I didn't appreciate. Ads should go in the back, and we should be able to choose to read them if we want instead of having them forced upon us. #JustSaying

Dirty Promises: ☆☆☆

The most violent book in the bunch, by far. Any trigger warning you can think of, this book probably has it. The violence fits the tone of the first book and is probably realistic for this kind of setting, but it's definitely hard to read and people who are sensitive to content involving rape and gore should exercise caution when picking up DIRTY PROMISES. I was actually not displeased with how this ended the series, and thought it struck the right balance between hopeful and depraved.

Also, it addresses the events in DIRTY DEEDS, which is that Alana isn't actually dead. (I don't think this is a spoiler, since she's in the second book and people are saying it has an HEA - I mean, duh.) That was a thread I was afraid the author was going to forget about, but she didn't. Only continuity error I actually spied was that she spells Derek's name as "Derrick" in the end of this book. Whoops.

Overall, the Dirty Angels series is a pretty good set of books to read if you like dark and edgy romances that feel borderline-realistic and don't try to be too neat. The first book is the best, and I think you could honestly get away with just reading the first book or, if you're not afraid of violence, maybe the first and the third, as one of my friends advised me. The second book feels kind of unnecessary, and along with the short story, drags down the quality of the series as a whole.

I'm not mad, though.

3 out of 5 stars

Dirty Promises by Karina Halle

"The real cartel life is not pretty, not easy and certainly NOT romantic and that is more than reflected in Dirty Promises."

You know, I kept coming back and looking at the Goodreads blurb while reading this book, and thinking about those words, "The real cartel life is not [...] romantic and that is more than reflected in [these books]." I asked myself, "Is it, though? Is it?" I mean, the Dirty Angels series are romances, they're tagged as romances on Amazon, and they (sort of) have HEAs. Worse still, she wrote a meet-cute story for Esteban, which is included in the box set version of these books. Esteban, who ends up being such an Evil McBad that he could double as a Bond villain, or land a supporting role in American Psycho as Serial Murderer #2.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about the last book in the Dirty Angels series. A lot of my friends didn't like it, and some of them even came onto my reviews and status updates of DIRTY DEEDS and DIRTY PROMISES to warn me about what I was getting into. Ultimately, I think I ended up liking the book more than they did, but I think that was partially due to the warning, and I assumed the worst as a result.

DIRTY PROMISES is a disgusting, evil little book that jumps the shark fifty times before diving back into a sea of blood, torture, and rape. The progression of this series is truly odd. DIRTY ANGELS was a pretty straightforward captor/captive romance with a few gruesome scenes at critical points to drive home certain character elements or plot points, but it's like the author looked at the reviews where people took issue with that violence, and thought to herself, "OK, I need to tone it down." So she wrote DIRTY DEEDS, a romance about two secondary characters only peripherally related to the series and not really about Javier at all. Apart from the hero originally having the heroine on his hit list, it's basically your ordinary new adult romance about a muscular bad boy who hooks up with a good girl from a bad family, and all the people trying to keep them apart. But then, again, it's like the author looked at the reviews saying it was too fluffy, and thought to herself, "OK, I need to make the series a total horrorshow and throw in lots of rape, because that's what the people want!" And then she wrote, DIRTY PROMISES, I guess, to show that she keeps her promises.

DIRTY PROMISES is about Javier and Luisa again, which makes the first and last book a duology if you cut out the middleman. After the "loss" of his sister, Javier has gone a little crazy. In books .5-2 of The Artists trilogy, he was a smooth criminal. In book 3 of The Artists trilogy, he comes off as an incompetent coward. In book 1 of Dirty Angels, he comes off as a suave sociopath. In this book, I don't know what he is, but I didn't like it. He's constantly cheating on Luisa, which doesn't really feel realistic, seeing as how he gave up some of his ways to be with her in the first book. Now, he's decided that he needs to push her away. In the meantime, he's torturing people for the fun of it because he says it gets him off. In case that wasn't bad enough, there's Esteban, who is planning on staging a power coup and taking the cartel - and Luisa - away from Javier.

Anyone who tells you to be careful with this series is right. The first book was pretty tolerable except for an abuse scene that was pretty bad and a torture scene that was worse. This book has multiple rape scenes and very, very, very graphic torture scenes. The sex scenes that are consensual are disturbing, with blood play, weapons being used as sex toys (as in DARK PARADISE), and at one point, a threesome that is used much like Hamlet's play was: to force a confession of infidelity. Readers may also take issue with the fake that one of the villains is coded as being bisexual, even if he says he isn't gay. The way it's written kind of feels like his sexuality is being used for shock value, and while that's the status quo with most of these characters and their bizarre fetishes, it can get into shady territory when orientation is involved. Anne Stuart's INTO THE FIRE does something similar.

DIRTY PROMISES ends the series in a much better way than BOLD TRICKS did, and I do think it brings both closure to the series and Javier's character arc full circle. I understand why people liked this book and I understand also why people didn't like it; both groups have their points, and it really depends on which side of the whole "sexual and physical violence used for titillation" fence you fall on. I read a lot of bodice-rippers and horror, so the scenes didn't bother me as much, but there were still several parts where I decided to put the book down and take a break because it was getting too dark. Ultimately, I did like this book, I think, but I probably wouldn't read it again...

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Dirty Deeds by Karina Halle

The short story, DARK PARADISE, which is about Javier's evil henchman Esteban, is proof that not every side character needs a story. DIRTY DEEDS is also proof of that, only in longer form. Derek Conway is a character I only vaguely remembered from The Artists and, I think, once or twice in Dirty Angels. He's a fixer for hire, ex-military, kind of boring. So of course he gets a book.

The heroine in this book is one of Javier's remaining sisters, Alana. Alana was actually an all right heroine, until one very stupid decision she made at the very end which I'll get to later. I liked that she had a normal job (flight attendant). I liked that she was sex positive and had a normal group of friends who looked out for her. She's just a good looking and ordinary girl in her early twenties... but since she also happens to be the sister of a crime boss, she's got a major price tag on her head. And Derek, the hero, is the man who's taken the job to kill Alana Bernal for pay.

The enemies-to-lovers or assassins-to-lovers trope is a huge favorite of mine. In fact, it might be one of my top 5 (apart from villainous heroes and morally bankrupt vampire romances). When it's done well, it can really spin out the tension and create a lot of emotionally fraught scenes. The problem here is, Derek decides from the very moment he sees her that he's not going to kill her. In fact, somebody else tries to kill her while he's on the job and he literally abandons his post to hunt the guy down and shoot him in the head.

DIRTY DEEDS feels more like a typical by-the-numbers new adult book about two people who shouldn't be together because of their tragic pasts. It almost feels like it's trying to be cute. DARK PARADISE was like that, too. If you know Esteban and what he does, it doesn't really feel realistic to have him doing meet-cutes in Hawaii. The same goes here. Derek should not be trying to act out 500 Days of Summer with a crime boss's sister. He's stupid about it, too. Lies to her about his identity when the smart move would be to tell her what he is. When she does inevitably find out about it - by accident, because he's a coward - she flounces out and gets captured by the bad guys! Of course.

The first book in this series, DIRTY ANGELS, is the best book by Halle that I have read. It's got crime, drama, forbidden love, and tight pacing. DIRTY DEEDS, on the other hand, has a couple that goes on dates and has lots of boring sex while a few not-so-scary threats keep pouring in, culminating in a chase scene that is resolved way too quickly and neatly, and with a cheesy HEA to boot. I didn't realize HEAs came so cheap. Hopefully DIRTY PROMISES brings this series back full circle, because I'll be upset if it's another BOLD TRICKS fiasco and the ending totally sucks.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Dark Paradise by Karina Halle

What does this say about me, I wonder, that this isn't the first book I've read where a woman gets sexually penetrated with a firearm? (The first was THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR, but the intent was meant to be disturbing - not kinky.) I'd say that I should reevaluate my reading choices, but we all know that I'm not going to do that. I may be a garbage can, but I'm self-aware.

DARK PARADISE is a short story that comes in the Dirty Angels bundle. Considering the graphic content of the main books, it feels kind of tone-deaf to have a fluffy short story about Esteban just tossed in there. I don't even like Esteban.

Lani is an artist who has come to Hawaii to find herself, because nothing says soul-searching like cultural tourism in the vein of EAT, PRAY, LOVE. *chokes* Sorry, acid feminism reflux. Anyway, instead of painting, she surfs and complains about her lack of inspiration. Her husband cheated on her with her best friend and she took this vacation without him. She's pretty miserable and has a lot of issues, only some of which seem to be external, and so one day, while surfing, she decides to take a page from Bella Swan's post-Edward diary in NEW MOON and try to off herself, only to be saved by a hot man who teaches her that she doesn't need cultural tourism to give her meaning and purpose in life; she can use magic peens (and also, apparently, guns).


DARK PARADISE was not a very good book, in my opinion. The sex scenes lacked the fire of the truly well done ones I know Halle is capable of writing, and the story itself was pretty dull. Also, the author kept repeating words. Esteban's skin was described as "gold" eleventy-billion times, and Lani keeps talking about "colors" and swirls of colors, just so you know she's an artist and she's deep. ON EVERY STREET at least brought some backstory to Ellie and Javier and served some purpose in establishing the motivations for the characters in The Artists and Dirty Angels. This seemed pointless.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Such Sweet Sorrow by Jenny Trout

SUCH SWEET SORROW is one of the weirdest fantasy novels I've ever read, and I honestly kind of loved that about it. The book is about Hamlet and Romeo making an unlikely alliance to go into an underworld rooted in Greek and Norse mythology, braving trials and dangers to rescue Juliet and bring her back.

Hamlet, when we meet him, is still grieving over the loss of his father and filled with fury over Claudius's betrayal. He's not just the Prince of Denmark, he's also a seer who can communicate with the dead and who acts as a guardian for the portal into the underworld. Romeo comes to his kingdom after communicating with a witch of the toil and trouble variety, and as luck would have it, Hamlet is the first person he and his friar buddy speak to when asking around about the seat of a murdered king. Oops.

The journey to the underworld is honestly really well done. Other reviewers have said that the author throws in one supernatural being after another, which is true. Right when they first get into the tunnel, they run into valkyries, and then shortly after that it's ice trolls, then sirens, a giant maggot worm, the Elysian fields, and even Fenrir himself. It really shouldn't have worked, but each scene was so well developed and there were some truly horrific moments in here, like the mirror hall and the thing with the buffet table, that served up chills.

In case you didn't know, Jenny Trout is the same person as the Jennifer Armintrout with an 'I' that I've been book-stalking over these past few weeks. I'm halfway done with her Armintrout backlist, and thought it might be fun to mosey on over to her Trout list and check out her first young adult novel. It can be hard for adult writers to switch over to YA, and vice versa. While there is a lot of cross-over appeal, they're marketed in different ways and have different standards with regards to sex, violence, and language. I honestly thought Trout did a great job keeping true to her trademark edginess while also shading it for a YA-appropriate audience. The only qualm I have is that the ending was totally gearing things up for a sequel, and yet I see no sequel before me. What's with that, huh?

If you want to read something strange that shouldn't make sense, but does, and follows that dark young hero's journey in the vein of stories like Mirrormask and Coraline, check out this book.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Bang by E.K. Blair

DNF @ 14%

The premise of BANG sounded really great, although the Goodreads blurb doesn't tell you that much. My friend, Lady Vigilante, wrote a much more detailed review that's way more helpful about letting you know what you're getting into.

So why did I put the book down?

I didn't like the writing style at all. It's got a very clunky, bulky feel to it and the author uses a lot of big words in strange ways that gave me the impression that she was using a thesaurus to sound more sophisticated and fancy, but it ultimately ended up making her sound like she was trying to channel the weird dude from The Room. For example, one of the characters tells Nina, "Your mood is really starting to scathe me." From then on, it's only a stone throw away from, "You're tearing me apart, Nina!"

I also really didn't care about any of the characters. The beginning of this book was boring, and it was boring in a way that made me feel like there wasn't going to be enough payoff to make struggling through worth it. Good golly, this book is long. Way longer than it needed to be. And I'm sorry, there's, what, three love interests? Holy cluck.

This book is not for me, so I am deleting it from my Kindle. At least I tried.

1 out of 5 stars

Into The Fire by Anne Stuart

I'd heard that this was one of Anne Stuart's not-so-great efforts, but several friends recommended it to me anyway because they know I'm a sucker for cruel heroes. In this regard, at least, INTO THE FIRE doesn't disappoint. Dillon Gaynor is a rapey alphahole of the first degree, in that hulking, sociopathic Neanderthal way that was made popular in the 80s and 90s by authors like Sandra Brown and Linda Howard. If you're into that, you're in luck.

The heroine, Jamie, is a sheltered innocent: the adopted daughter in a privileged family. Her cousin Nate has just been murdered and everyone thinks that his ex-best friend, Dillon, did it. Jamie's mother sends Jamie over to his house to pick up Nate's belongings, because nothing says parental love like setting up your daughter like a sacrificial offering to pick up the tithes you require for the shrine you're building in homage to the child you wish you had instead.

Fully aware of this favoritism and not liking it, Jamie's life gets even more suck when her car breaks down in front of Dillon's house. When she first meets him, he's pounding the face of someone who tried to cheat him at poker, which is not exactly a tickmark in the "I'm innocent" column.

Jamie tries to fight her lingering attraction to Dillon, despite the fact that he basically molested her when she was underage, and despite the fact that he handed her off to a high school jock who then raped her. Jamie has very warped ideas about sex and consent, and so does this book. The interactions between Jamie and Dillon are going to make a lot of people mad. I read this like it was a bodice-ripper, and took it as a fantasy, but it's still quite triggering. Readers, beware.

I think the twist about the villain is also going to make people angry. The LGBT+ are often demonized in fiction, and this book is no exception. Making villains queer or coding them as queer in the literary subtext has been tool that many authors have been using for a while as a cheap way to titillate and horrify. This book was published a while ago, and in that, it's definitely a product of its homophobic time. I took that with a grain of salt, too, because, again, I read bodice-rippers.

INTO THE FIRE is not a great book, but it entertained me, it had great sexual tension, and it told a pretty messed up story. I think if you're interested in reading another "Did He Do It?" murder romance about disturbed families, Anne Stuart's other book, NIGHTFALL, is a far better choice.

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Hunger by Susan Squires

I loved THE COMPANION so much that I immediately set out to buy the next book in the series after finishing it. How could I not? THE COMPANION had everything I love in a vampire romance novel: it was dark, it was erotic, the hero and the heroine were likable and intelligent and had great chemistry. It was amazing.

THE HUNGER is a very different beast.

The hero, John, is a spy for England investigating Napoleon Bonaprte's activities in France. The heroine, Beatrix, is a vampire who has grown weary with her life. We meet Beatrix in The COMPANION as well, but she is much more vibrant there than here. In backstories, we learn that she was basically Asharti's adoptive sister, and that their guardian was a vampire named Stephan who traversed the boundary between guardian and lover.

John is very jaded with women and thinks they're all a bunch of simpering tricksters, but is attracted to Beatrix despite himself. Beatrix finds his defiance bemusing, and sees him as a human enigma. They don't have the deep connection that the two leads of the previous book had; theirs is a physical attraction that inexplicably morphs into love when it's convenient for the plot.

There were some good portions in this book. I liked Beatrix's flashback scenes, and that scene when John is thrown on a prison boat was good. As with the previous book, the male lead is sexually abused and tortured by Asharti, which gives this vampire novel more of a horror flavor than many of its contemporary brethren. Some of the abuse scenes are very graphic. There's a final confrontation scene that's pretty dramatic, and was the only time I actually felt anxious for the characters.

I'm sorry to say that I didn't much care for THE HUNGER as a whole. I found myself skimming large swaths of it, wishing I were reading something else. It was much, much longer than it needed to be. There were definitely times when I was asking myself when it was going to end. I'm more intrigued by the sequel, THE BURNING, which no longer appears to be sold in the Kindle store. It's the only book in the series that isn't available for individual sale, and I wondered if maybe that racy and gritty summary had something to do with it. I hope not, since that's what made me want it in the first place.

Unless THE BURNING is published again, I think I might just stop at book two.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Authentics by Abdi Nazemian

THE AUTHENTICS is a tough book to rate. On the one hand, it brings up a lot of important topics in a fairly engaging and accessible way. On the other hand, it tried to do so much in such a short amount of time, that it ended up feeling disorganized. The heroine is not the most likable of characters, and is also a drama queen and a hypocrite, so the beginning of the book is a rough ride until she gains some self awareness about 50% of the way in.

Daria Esfandyar is a fifteen-year-old Iranian-American girl who is about to turn sixteen. Her mother is planning a huge (and unwanted) Sweet 16 party for her, and inviting a whole bunch of people she doesn't like, including distant relatives and her ex-best friend, Heidi Javadi, who Daria really hates. Heidi represents everything Daria doesn't like about Persian LA culture ("Tehrangeles"), with her expensive car, designer clothes and nose job. Creatively, Daria calls Heidi's group of friends the "Nose Jobs." Daria's own group of friends is called "The Authentics," because they are so different and that makes them so authentic.

The Authentics are also diverse. There's Kurt, who is into astrological signs and who everyone in their friends group is speculating may be gay. There's Caroline, who actually is gay, and is into art. Then there's Joy, who's like a Nigerian Claudia Kishi from the Babysitter's Club, in that her sole personality trait is basically "has strict parents who don't understand her weird but stylish fashion sense and her desire to eXpReSs HeRsElF." And then, of course, there's Daria herself.

Daria thinks her problems of being different and having upper middle class culture foisted violently upon her are the greatest problems in the world, until she takes one of those ancestry tests and learns that she's half Mexican. Which means one of two things: one of her fully Persian parents isn't her real parent, or she's adopted. She ends up doing a number of questionable things in order to find out the identity of her birth mother, which ends up resulting in her meeting a stepbrother who she thinks is cute. Oh no. He takes her existence with an entire container of salt and thinks she's cute too and they end up dating and he also helps her get closer to his stepmom, which is ten kinds of awk.

Additionally, Daria has a gay brother who is married to a Chinese man, and in a move that mirrors Daria's own parental angst, they decide to have a surrogate birth the child with Andrew's DNA. This means that Andrew's parents are in town to visit their granddaughter, which results in all kinds of cultural clashes with Daria's parents as they proceed to commit as many cross-cultural faux pas and veiled insults as possible, providing uncomfortable evidence that racism is not just for white people.

There's a lot going on in this book and there's a lot to unpack. As I said earlier, I think this book tried to do some good things. There's a bit in here about the Iranian revolution (although if you're interested in learning more about that, you should probably check out PERSEPOLIS). The girl on girl hate is addressed, and Heidi proves to be a much more complicated and interesting character than the Mean Girl she was being built up to be in the beginning of the book. She also checks Daria on her hypocrisy and slut-shaming, which I appreciated. THE AUTHENTICS has many dialogues about family, blended family, identity and ethnicity, as well as stereotyping and racism (including stereotyping and racism that occur within the more broadly sweeping "people of color" group).

I think the book might have been better without all the forced-romance, especially since it didn't amount to much. The stepbrother angle also made it feel kind of creepy (which is addressed in the book by multiple people, thank God, so I didn't feel like I was going crazy). I was also confused about the results of Daria's ancestry tests. My copy is actually an ARC that was given to me by a friend, so I'm not sure if this made it into the final cut, but in the ARC, Daria finds out that she is half-Mexican, half-Persian from the test results. The person revealed to be her father was not Persian, if I remember correctly (I believe he was white and Jewish), and her mother was fully Mexican, so where did the Persian come from? Was that a mistake? Did it transfer via osmosis? (Kidding.)

Overall, I did like THE AUTHENTICS but it didn't feel very realistic and the ending was too neat. It kind of felt like it was trying too hard to be quirky and different, and even though I liked how the cast was mostly fleshed out instead of just acting as name-dropped diversity tokens, there were still a couple main characters (especially Daria's friends) who fell flat on the pages. I didn't dislike this as much as some of my friends did, but it's definitely an imperfect book and feels like an unpolished debut.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Dirty Angels by Karina Halle

After the gigantic mess that was BOLD TRICKS, I was leery about starting the Dirty Angels series, which is a spinoff centering around Javier Bernal. By the end of The Artists trilogy, I was completely burned out on Camden and Ellie and resentful about what Halle had done to Javier's character arc in order to wrest a way-too-happy ending for a couple I couldn't root for. I ranted about this in my review of BOLD TRICKS, but in order to push Ellie and Camden together, Halle worked hard to make Javier seem cartoonishly cruel, incompetent, and cowardly, despite three prior books making it clear that this was not the case, making the last book feel fanfictiony and dialed-in.

DIRTY ANGELS is a much, much, much better book. I can't emphasize that enough. Everything I didn't like about BOLD TRICKS was fixed in DIRTY ANGELS, and Javier ends up seeming like an older, crueler, and more jaded version of the Javier we loved to hate in ON EVERY STREET. It's set several years after BOLD TRICKS. Javier, despite being screwed over by Ellie and having his heart stomped all over and then shot, has managed to rebuild his narco empire and become a truly powerful and terrible force in Mexico.

Luisa is the wife of a rival cartel boss named Salvador. She was previously a beauty queen, but gave up that path to work in a restaurant in order to care for her older disabled parents. She married Salvador to provide for them but ended up trading the frying pan for the fire, as she now lives a life of debasement and abuse. When she tries to escape her husband, she ends up getting kidnapped by Javier's men and is taken to their compound where they plan to torture her to extort Salvador. Luisa is a much different heroine than Ellie: she's softer and more vulnerable, but there's a core of steel in her, too. I liked her a lot, even when she started making some self-destructive and dumb decisions.

This is a pretty brutal romance, and has rape and graphic torture in it. It actually reminded me a lot of the second book in The Artists series, SHOOTING SCARS, which was my favorite book in the trilogy. All the characters in this book do horrible things, but they do it for believable reasons, and it makes the book feel gritty and real in a way that a lot of these so-called dark romances don't. You can definitely feel the stakes weighing down on the characters at all times- I honestly couldn't put this book down. I love a good villain romance and Javier didn't disappoint, and Luisa's slow transformation to the dark side was really well done. I saw someone call them the Mexican Joker and Harley Quinn, and that's a good description, although the Joker never really cared for Harley beyond a passing amusement, whereas Javier obviously does care for Luisa in some way.

The only thing I didn't like about this book is the "content warning" or whatever you call it on the Goodreads blurb. I think it's supposed to be funny, but it comes off as mean-spirited and bratty, in my opinion.

I can't wait to read the other books in this series. Javier Bernal has been, and always will be, my favorite hero in the Karina Halle universe.

4 to 4.5 stars

The Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay

I side-eyed this book a little when it got placed into my hands because on the back, it's compared to THE HATE U GIVE. Given the popularity of THE HATE U GIVE, I can see why publishers and publicists are going to be eager to draw such comparisons, but it feels like a mistake to compare every book about serious issues being faced by people of color to THE HATE U GIVE. THUG was a powerful book; let's not trivialize it with false comparisons.

Just my two cents.

That one qualm aside, PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING was kind of amazing. I didn't have any expectations going in, which is probably the best way to enter this book. It's about a boy named Jay, who is half-Filipino and half-white. He's a pretty typical boy: he's not popular, he plays a lot of video games, he doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up. All that is shattered, however, when he finds out that his cousin was just killed in the Philippines as a result of Duterte's War on Drugs.

Frustrated with his family's reticence on the subject, and the utter lack of information online, Jay elects to spend his Easter vacation in the Philippines, living with his extended family as he tries to gather clues on why his cousin died. Jay runs into wall after wall, until he gets help from an unlikely source, but as he learns more about his cousin, Jun, and what he did after he ran away from home, Jay starts to realize that people can be quite a bit different from how you remember them in your mind.

There are so many things that this book does really well. It's not afraid to tackle difficult subjects, for one. PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING brings up colorism, American Imperialism, drugs, ethnocentrism, loss, grief, privilege, and so much more. Privilege plays an especially strong role: for example, even though Jay is quick to recognize privilege when it's at his own expense, he learns that he has privilege of his own both as a light-skinned man of color, and also as a man, that people of color with darker skin and women (especially women of color) do not have. Racism and sexism exist on a spectrum, with some people getting the shortest end of the shortest stick, so it was really great to see Ribay unpack those nuances in a way that kids could understand easily.

I also thought the war on drugs was discussed in a really great way. I knew about Duterte's authoritarian war on crime, but not to what extent. It was really awful to read about, and to see the wealth disparity between the slums in Manila versus the ostentatious displays of wealth by the government and the upper class. It's easy to fall into the same trap Jay (and, later, his white friend, Seth) did, I think, and marvel in pearl-clutching awe, and think to yourself, "Wow, things are so bad here, people are so poor." But that's a mistake, a huge mistake, because if you look hard enough, you can find examples of privilege and injustice in any society. Black people in the U.S. face incredible injustice from the police, and people demonize Black Lives Matter and the victims of police violence using the same logical fallacies that people in the Philippines use to excuse the drug users and sellers who are gunned down or jailed by the police. Why? Because it's easier to imagine that the recipient of violence and injustice deserved it than the alternative: that we're facilitating a grave injustice.

This is a really important book and really touching. At several points, I laughed. At other points, I cried. Ribay talks about the goods and bads of Filipino culture, working in everything from food to family, and from colonialism to Catholicism. I hope PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING becomes a raging success, because so many global issues get lost in the face of domestic issues, and understanding that privilege and the importance of truth-seeking and empathy are important educational tools that help make kids into more thoughtful and compassionate adults.

P.S. This was an ARC, so my copy and reading experience might differ from yours. Obviously, that didn't bias me since I'm the queen of telling it like it is, even if nobody wants to hear it.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip

SKELETON WOMEN is a book I've had my eye on for a while and bought only recently when the price dropped to $1.99. The title comes from (allegedly) the Chinese word for "femme fatale," or skeleton woman, which is a deadly woman whose touch literally kills men (i.e. turning them into skeletons). SKELETON WOMEN is about three "skeleton women," Camilla, the heroine, who is a singer and contortionist; Rainbow, a queer and cross-dressing woman who is a reporter; and Shadow, a stage magician and Camilla's top rival.

Set in 1930s Shanghai, SKELETON WOMEN focuses on Camilla's secret role as mistress to one of Shanghai's biggest crime bosses, Lung. Camilla is actually a spy put in Lung's household by another rival crime boss named Wang, who saved Camilla from being an orphan and expects Lung's death in return. She's Lung's "lucky star," and he's sort of in love with her, but unfortunately so is Lung's son and bodyguard, which makes her cover extra precarious, because it's just more to hide.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. I'm a sucker for historical fiction revolving around intrigue and the idea of a woman being a mistress to a crime boss is a topic that's still heavily explored in new adult romance to this day, so obviously that's a topic that hasn't been tapped out. Most of those are self-published and I'm not crazy about them because they tend to be characterized rather shallowly and have stilted writing, but then, SKELETON WOMEN was traditionally published and had those same problems. I'm not sure if it's because Camilla was so emotionally removed as a character of it was just bad writing, but I'm leaning more towards bad writing because of some of the truly odd descriptions and writing choices that were made by the author in this book.

I skimmed to the end, not really engaged but invested enough that I wanted to see how everything panned out. I think people who like those new adult mafia books might like this more than I did. It's definitely got some shocking and edgy scenes. Lung allegedly fed his previous mistress to tigers and at one point Camilla ruminates on all the methods of traditional Chinese torture she might face if she's caught out. She also attempts to commit suicide after watching Madame Butterfly, a scene made (perhaps unintentionally) more chilling by how rote and unemotional it is in the text.

I think this could have been a really good book if the writing hadn't been so clunky and more of Camilla's character was allowed to shine through the pages. But again, I'm not sure if that was intentional, since I know how emotion and individuality is expressed can vary across cultures, and I wasn't sure if maybe this was an intentional move that I didn't get due to cross-cultural differences. It was an interesting effort and others may enjoy it more, but it wasn't really my cup of tea.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Bold Tricks by Karina Halle

Ending a series is hard. There's so much riding on the last book in an established series, and you have to make sure that you deliver a full and developed story that is cohesive on its own while also supplying a conclusive and satisfying ending to the series overall. In short, if done well, the last book in a series needs to be greater than the sum of its parts, while making sure those parts are great, too.

BOLD TRICKS...did not do this.

I was worried going in because when I was looking at my friends' reviews for this book, a lot of them couldn't finish it, and many of the ones who did expressed varying degrees of disappointment over how Halle chose to end The Artists series. And yeah, she's the author, creative control, yadda, yadda, I get that. But at the same time, if a significant number of fans are telling you that you did your story dirty then it's possible that maybe you did.

The Artists starts out with SINS & NEEDLES, a story of a young scammer named Ellie returning to her hometown, ostensibly to get clean but in actuality it's to scam. And who does she choose to scam but her ex-friend and fellow loser, Camden, only he's hot now. So she dicks around with him with one eye on his pecs and the other on his safe, only it turns out that Camden knows a thing or two about scamming too, now.

SHOOTING SCARS begins where SINS & NEEDLES ends: with Javier, Ellie's ex-love-of-her-life taking away Ellie to help him in a Huge Scam, at the cost of Camden's life. Camden returns to his ex-wife and their child, ostensibly to start where they left off, only it turns out that his ex-wife knows a thing or two about scamming too, now, and has sold Camden out to her mafia brothers. Meanwhile, Javier is offering Ellie revenge on a silver platter lined with drug money: the chance to kill the man who scarred her leg while also getting revenge on her neglectful and idiotic scammer parents.

SINS & NEEDLES is a cheesy book but in a way that makes it too fun to put down. SHOOTING SCARS is a much better book, addictive, fast-paced, and developed and thoughtful in a way that SINS really wasn't. BOLD TRICKS undoes all of that hard work. Halle tears apart Javier's character arc, turning him into your typical laughing, perverted villain and also kind of a coward, whereas in the previous books he seemed much more complex and brave. Halle also seems to be doing her damnedest to ignore all of the shady things that Camden did in SHOOTING SCARS, which admittedly made him less appealing as a love interest but more appealing as a character. In BOLD, he becomes sappy and ridiculous, and Ellie won't shut up about his glasses, his tats, his height, or his cock. It's like she thinks they'll disappear if she doesn't sing their accolades enough, or something.

And let's talk about Ellie. I didn't like her, and never did, but at least in the previous two books you could kind of understand where she was coming from. SINS & NEEDLES was about her adolescent pain and SHOOTING SCARS was about Javier's betrayal, but in BOLD TRICKS she just becomes a raging, leg-humping psycho with no moral compass at all, who makes the most idiotic decisions, like having sex in the middle of the big bad's compound while they're looking for her.

The story was also ridiculous, with Halle flinging plot device after plot device into the mix, hoping something would stick. I thought the reveal about Ellie's parents was lame. I thought that sex scene where they decide unprotected is OK because they want children - a decision they make, and proceed to enact, while in the middle of mortal danger - and then calling it "baby-making" and saying "I want to put a baby in you" in the middle of sex was really gross. The sex scenes in this book in general are really gross, with some truly bizarre lines like "cock as hard as cement" and "wetter than water." The sex scenes in the first two books were great! What happened? Was the author asleep?

I was hoping for a high octane conclusion, but the fanficcy ending and the dialed-in way that this whole story was written just totally killed any enthusiasm I had about the story. Please, please, please tell me that the Dirty Angels series treats Javier right and takes some of the tarnish off this embarrassment, because I am so done with the cringe that is Ellie and Camden.

2 out of 5 stars

Blood & Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant

I actually received a copy of this as an ARC seven years ago, but I didn't finish it at the time. Clearly, this is proof of how much 30-year-old Nenia's taste has evolved from 23-year-old Nenia's, because 30-year-old Nenia thought this book was quite fine indeed. In fact, I'd totally recommend this book to those of you who have just finished Game of Thrones and are asking yourself, "What next?" because of all the sex, scheming, intrigue, and general fuquery that goes on in these 500-something pages. Best of all? It's true -

Well, mostly.

The Borgias are a much-maligned family and proof of what can happen when history decides to turn on you and make you into a scapegoat. The opposite is also true; just look at what history did to Christopher Colombus, turning a homicidal and delusional moron who perpetrated mass genocide against people of color into a nation's hero. In the Borgias' case, they became known for incest, poisoning, and debauchery, and were notorious in an age of notoriety.

I thought Sarah Dunant did a really good job bringing the Borgias to life and turning them into three-dimensional beings. If you have ever watched the show, The Borgias, this book is a lot like that. Alexander Borgia became Pope in Italy, despite openly flaunting his mistress, being of Spanish birth, and having bastard children (for whom he then used his churchly powers to advance). Cesare, his most famous son, was a brilliant military strategist until he went mad from syphilis (which he may have tried to treat with quicksilver, or mercury, steam baths). Lucrezia Borgia had three husbands before she was even in her mid-twenties, and for a short stint, even resided in a nunnery.

Alexander had two other children, Juan and Jofre. Jofre was a childish king married to a woman of great beauty (Sancia), and Juan was a more flamboyant and assholish version of Cesare, and flashing his womanizing and ill-gotten jewelry around to the wrong crowd ended up getting him stabbed and tossed in a river. History doesn't talk about these two as much, so it was interesting to learn about Alexander's other two children and their relationships.

Dunant actually does raise the matter of the potential incest between Lucrezia and her brother, and Lucrezia and her father. In this book, Dunant decides to make Cesare very jealous of Lucrezia, and at several points he does actually try to put the moves on her, giving this book a distinctly FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC vibe. His jealousy is also what leads him to kill Lucrezia's second and most beloved husband, Alfonso. Her relationship with her father is less uncomfortable, but there are still several moments in this book when he looks on her as a father probably should not look upon his daughter.

BLOOD & BEAUTY takes a while to get moving, but once the action starts, it doesn't let up. I'm not 100% sure how historically accurate this all is, but it was a lot of fun to read and see a different take on one of history's most notorious families. Looking at the names and events in this book, I wouldn't be surprised if George R. R. Martin borrowed from the Borgias as much as he did from the War of the Roses, because there are too many similarities to ignore.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

American Vampire by Jennifer Armintrout

The best thing in the world is when you find an author who really resonates with you. For me, Jennifer Armintrout is that author. It's like she peered into my mind, saw the checklist detailing everything I love to see in fiction, and then immediately set out to write a fleet of books that have every single one of those delicious tropes that I love so much.

I kickedstarted my Jenny Trout Experience with THE TURNING, which is a dark vampire erotica with an evil villain, vampires who actually behave like vampires, and enough horror to put the romance elements in their place. QUEENE OF LIGHT is a fantasy story about faeries and court intrigue, with high stakes coups and betrayals and yes, also doomed romance. How could the author write two totally different styles of books and have them both be so different, and yet so good? I have no idea, and yet she did it again with AMERICAN VAMPIRE.

AMERICAN VAMPIRE is a totally different book from her two other series done under this name. For starters, it is a standalone, which will come as a relief to those of you who want to read a good book without committing to a long-term relationship. This book is the perfect one-night stand for the impatient reader. The tone is also different. It's got a small town horror vibe reminding me of American Gothic, and it's really creepy.

Graf is a vampire who's on his way to a racy orgy party at the home of his sire. He gets lost en route, and finds himself in a small town that looks to be abandoned. When he goes into a gas station, however, he ends up finding a cowering girl and a monster. The girl is our heroine, Jessa, and the monster is this powerful and evil entity that's been holding the town in thrall for five years. Nobody's been able to get in or out in all that time, and the townsfolk have started to get kind of, well, crazy.

One thing I really liked about this book is how imperfect the narrators are. Graf is not a nice man and is a bit of a psychotic playboy who's used to getting his way. Jessa is also morally grey. She's an adulteress and has a slew of emotional issues and personal baggage. That said, neither of them are truly Bad People, and they have some pretty intense character arcs that transform them over the course of the novel as they slowly start to fall for each other despite knowing that they shouldn't.

The backdrop of horror is also really well done. It reminds me of Stephen King's older stories, the ones that took place in a small town hiding a big evil, like NEEDFUL THINGS or IT. In fact, the monster in this book is actually called "It" by the townsfolk (although nothing like Stephen King's IT), which made me wonder if that was maybe done in homage to the King of Horror himself. The way the townsfolk - and Jess and Graf - were trapped in the town gave this book a desperate, claustrophobic vibe that had me frantically turning pages, and Armintrout doesn't skimp on the gore.

If you're into horror novels with romance (or romance novels with horror), and want to read a vampire story that has an unusual plot and an even more unusual romance, you should definitely read AMERICAN VAMPIRE. I went in not expecting much and ended up being totally surprised.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Veil of Shadows by Jennifer Armintrout

Reading these books gives me the same sense of heart-in-throat whimsical awe that I get from watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, or from listening to Halestorm. It's a combination of enjoying something epic and basking in essence of girl power.

What I love most about the Lightworld/Darkworld series is that each book stands on its own while contributing to the series. As I said before in my review of CHILD OF DARKNESS, QUEENE OF LIGHT is a star-crossed love story with an underdog, and CHILD OF DARKNESS is more a tale of courtly intrigue. VEIL OF SHADOWS is a different story still: a more traditional fantasy-style epic featuring love, redemption, and betrayal.

If I told you I didn't spend most of this book figuratively gnawing on my fingernails, I'd be lying. Armintrout proved early on that she was not averse to killing off beloved characters, and unlike Game of Thrones, where you expect it and even become inured to it, with these books it always came as an unpleasant shock and never really stopped hurting. I'm still upset about the second book.

One thing I noticed some reviewers saying in their reviews of CHILD OF DARKNESS was that they hated what Ayla became and thought Cerridwen was even more annoying. I think that's fair, but Cerridwen was a spoiled and sheltered child, distanced from her parents and anxious to - literally and metaphorically - spread her wings. Her actions at the end of the second book sent a major tragedy in motion, and when we begin this book, Cerridwen is still struggling under the enormous burden of her guilt. She matures a lot over VEIL OF SHADOWS, learning not just what it takes to become a good person but also what it takes to be a good queen. It's a hard lesson, and it's meted out in pain.

Speaking of pain, let's talk about Cedric, who suffered almost as much as Cerridwen in the previous book. I liked Cedric from the get-go, because he's a master assassin and a faery babe, and that's hot AF. He wasn't a love interest until this book, and his growing relationship with Cerridwen seriously hurt my heart. There were two moments in here where I was on the verge of tears. I'm a huge fan of the tortured hero trope (see my review for THE COMPANION), and Armintrout is good at it.

Between the doomed romance, the epic battles, the creative world-building, and the court intrigue, there's just some really good scenes in here that will stay with you. My favorites were the first sex scene between Cerridwen and Cedric (even though it hurt me), and the scene when Cerridwen rides to challenge her enemy in tattered, blood-stained robes on the back of a white bull. Holy cinematic moment, Batman! I really, really recommend these books to anyone looking something different.

I'm going to go weep quietly, now. What a way to end the series.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Risk by S.T. Abby

THE RISK was a book that I fully expected to hate, so you can imagine my surprise when it actually ended up being a cat-and-mouse game of awesomeness. Lana is a female serial killer who's systematically dismembering and murdering the dudes who abused her when she was young. Logan is an FBI agent who specializes in bringing killers like her to justice. The two of them are dating, and Lana knows exactly who and what he is. Logan does not, yet, but Lana is starting to get sloppy.

I've read a lot of books where authors try to go the dark route and they bomb. S.T. Abby doesn't bomb. The dating scenes are done really well and would actually be super cute if you didn't know exactly what Lana is doing. We know what Lana is doing because the author shows us, and even though she doesn't wallow in the gory details, she still shows us enough to be shocking.

Helping Lana is a childhood friend, Jake, who knows everything about the violence committed against Lana and the violence she's committing to avenge herself. He doesn't approve of Logan, but he's also kind of nauseated by violence, so it's possible he could end up being a problem later.

The story ends on a major cliffhanger, and that brings me to my main issue with the book. Everything about this story was perfect except the length. This is one of those serialized stories that's super short and broken up into multiple installments instead of being, you know, a normal, full-length book. I get that this is probably an easier way to not just make money but also cater to fans in a timely, but it's pretty frustrating from a reader standpoint. I'd rather just wait and have the whole book, thanks.

I'm deducting a star for the ridiculousness of the story length because this literally ends right after a reveal and clocks in at just over 100 pages according to Goodreads. It's just too short to be good.

3 out of 5 stars

Empathy by Ker Dukey

DNF @ 18%

My first encounter with this author was through her PRETTY STOLEN DOLLS book that she wrote with K. Webster. PRETTY STOLEN DOLLS was a Pretty Stupid Book, but since it was a joint effort, I wasn't sure who was to blame for the suck and figured, hey, it's been several years and maybe she's honed her craft and this is gonna be awesome.

Spoiler: Nope.

EMPATHY is about two psychotic brothers who - you guessed it - are lacking in empathy. One of them is chaotic good (a contract killer who's acting out his revenge fantasies through the violent murder of his pedo father), and the other is chaotic evil (a violent, misogynistic incel who enjoys exploiting women). Between them is one woman, the idiotic Melody, who makes questionable life choices. #1 bad choice: courting these two assholes.

Also, I'm down for sociopathic heroes, but I'd prefer that they were done well and don't just spend most of their narrative gloating about how bad they are.

This could have been a fun train wreck to watch, but the writing was absolutely terrible. I couldn't get into it at all. It's clunky, amateurish, and totally dragged me out of the story. I'm surprised at how many people gave this book high ratings, that's how bad it was. I guess most of them probably aren't grammar sticklers like I am - each example of bad syntax was like an unscratchable itch that kept pulling me from the story. If you like good grammar, do not read. Bleh.

Another Kindle freebie scratched off my list.

1 out of 5 stars

One is a Promise by Pam Godwin

DNF @ 24%

If this had an alternate title, it would probably be Idiotic Love Triangle: The Musical! ONE IS A PROMISE is not a genre of romance I would ordinarily read, as nothing makes my eyes roll harder than another dominant millionaire who thinks that he can treat women however he wants if he's hot enough and stuffs his crotch with enough hundred dollar bills, but I really, really enjoyed her other book, DELIVER, which is also a book in a genre that I don't normally enjoy. My thinking was, if she could win me over once, she could probably do so again.

Danni is a dancer/dance instructor working at a Moroccan restaurant as a belly dancer. She used to be married but isn't anymore, although we don't know why in the beginning. She's on a date with another man when a rich blowhard literally interrupts her date to make her an offer she can't refuse. When she turns him down, he breaks into her house to restate the offer, and rather than calling the damn police, the little idiot flirts with him.

This book is told and back and forth timelines, one with her now-missing husband, Cole, who as far as I can see is also a wannabe-dominant asshole, and in present with the wannabe-dominant asshole millionaire, Trace. I heard people talking about how there is a love triangle, so my guess is that Cole comes back and finds Danni in flagrante delicto with Trace, and then testosterone canons start firing.

The quality of the writing is fine, but I thought Danni was an idiot, and when a book is told in first person and you're supposed to relate to the narrator, it's really hard to like and relate to someone who is such an idiot. I also thought her "witty" back and forths with Trace were lame. Fast-talking film noir dame she is not. They sounded like children bickering at a playground. Also, I'm down for an antihero/sociopathic love interest, but at least don't make him an odious slimelord like Trace.

I don't think I'll be finishing this one. Another Kindle freebie, scratched off my list.

1 out of 5 stars

Shooting Scars by Karina Halle

I'm a pretty happy garbage can right now because this was just the trash I needed to fill me up. Starting a second book is always hard because at that point, you, as a reader, already have some expectations about how the story and character development are going to go, and the temptation for some authors is to stall for time and use book 2 as a means to pad the story with filler. To its credit, SHOOTING SCARS doesn't do that - it jumps right in to the action.

The Artists Trilogy begins with SINS & NEEDLES, a saga of scummy trash people living their trash people lives. There's Ellie, the scammer, and Camden, the rube with anger management issues. They are attracted to each other, but, being trash people, only end up doing each other dirty. The book ends with Ellie sacrificing herself for Camden, who decides he's going to pick up the pieces of his past life with his son and ex-wife - only surprise! He's scammed again.

If you thought these characters were unlikable in the first book, SHOOTING SCARS is going to swagger up to you and say, "Hold my beer." Ellie gets even more scammy and indecisive, using and abusing everyone while she tries to figure out what the hell she wants out of life. Camden, meanwhile, shows off his psychotic side, abusing pain killers and torturing people with a tattoo gun. And Javier, Javier is like a GQ Scarface, undulating between suave AF and scary AF.

If you want to read something that is trashy and ridiculous, this really is the perfect trilogy. Sex, violence, and drama on steroids, plus more stupidity and hormones than a remedial course in basic middle school thinking skills. For "professionals," these characters make some pretty stupid and questionable decisions, but it's very entertaining. It's basically a soap opera that started running with a bad crowd and got into drugs and crime - plus some light, soft-core porn.

4 out of 5 stars

The Companion by Susan Squires

You know you've read a good book when you just want to rub your hands together and laugh once you've finished it like you're auditioning for the "world's scariest super-villain" competition. I wanted to do that with THE COMPANION, because it easily is one of the top 5 best vampire books I've ever read.

THE COMPANION is set in Egypt and England. It's about a man named Ian who is captured by pirates, enslaved, and then sexually abused and tortured under an evil and tyrannical vampire queen named Asharti. She accidentally turns him into a vampire during one of these torture sessions and then abandons him to die in the desert. Beth is the daughter of an Egyptologist looking for a secret lost city of power in the desert. When he dies, unsuccessful and out of funding, Beth is left on her own, without protection, and is forced to end the search unfruitfully and return home.

The two characters meet on a boat, and while Beth is struck by his good looks, they don't really connect until they are forced to defend their lives from yet another pirate attack. After that, they get to talking, they play chess, and they fight that damnable sexual tension. All the while, Beth wonders what it is about her new companion that makes his skin so pale, why he acts like he's got some unspeakable horror hiding behind his eyes, and why he only comes out at night.

I really can't emphasize what a good book this is. Beth is a strong character: she's intelligent, she's unusual, and she sticks to her principles. She reacts to Ian's vampirism in probably one of the most realistic ways I've ever encountered in a book. I liked that she was half-Egyptian, half English, and that her biracialism is actually addressed - also in a very realistic way - and she talks about not fitting in in either Egypt or England, and feeling too white or too brown depending on where she is. I've read books where this is swept under the carpet, so it was refreshing to see it addressed.

And Ian, oh, Ian, the shining star of this novel. He is so tortured, and a huge part of his character arc is learning to overcome that abuse. My heart ached for him, and I felt like his reactions to his abuse and his emotional responses were very realistic - so much so, that this might be a hard book to read for people who have actually experienced abuse firsthand. In the beginning of the book, he is so emotionally exhausted and traumatized that he tries to kill himself (I don't think this is a spoiler, since it happens early on), but because he is a vampire, he is unsuccessful. Beth doesn't make him forget his trauma, but he learns to accept the memories and continue living his life to be happy and learn that sex and confidence does not equate to abuse, which I thought was a beautiful message.

The vampire system was also really interesting and unique. Vampirisim comes from aliens - in a way that reminded me of Animorphs actually - and is a parasite that attaches to the blood. There's a fountain of youth in the desert that contains parasites in the water, but the way it's contracted initially here is from one of the old aliens himself, who's living alone in a tomb waiting to be collected by his brethren. It's so creepy. But you know what they say, more aliens and more vampires equals more sequels, and there are several other vampires in here who I suspect will be the focus of the next books. (Cue that gleeful, giddy villain laughter/clapping.)

I hope that I have successfully impressed upon you that you need to read this book. I was afraid nothing would be able to top my enjoyment of her futuristic romance, BODY ELECTRIC, but THE COMPANION left it quite easily in the dust.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Pleasure Unbound by Larissa Ione

I wanted to read this book because that title was way too sexy for the bus, and also because I am a garbage can and this looked like primo trash. PLEASURE UNBOUND was, indeed, far too sexy for the bus, but whether it was primo trash is up in the air. I'm a fairly discerning garbage can, and I'm snobby about my trash.

PLEASURE UNBOUND is set in a world filled with various types of demons, who can pair off and breed and share traits like sexy CryptoKitties. These demons are hunted by a group of slayers called the Aegis, who believe that they're dangerous. Sometimes people also collect the demon parts and sell them to black markets, but most of the Aegis, who appear to be holier-than-thou (literally) snobs want no part of the magic world, even by proxy.

Eidolon is an incubus who works as a doctor in a demon hospital. Being a demon hospital, they see a lot of patients who have fallen victim to the Aegis. But one day, a patient comes in who isn't a victim to an Aegis - she's an actual Aegis. Everyone in the hospital wants to kill her, except Eidolon, who thinks that she might be useful (and it doesn't help that she's hot, and Eidolon Jr. agrees).

It isn't until he's poking around in her anatomy - no, not that way, perverts - that he realizes there's something off about this demon slayer, who calls herself Tayla. She's not quite human. In fact, she's part demon herself. *le gasp*

I bought PLEASURE UNBOUND because it was 99-cents in the Kindle store and the garbage can inside me deemed that a fair price for worthy trash. With a title like PLEASURE UNBOUND, I didn't have very high expectations. I figured this would be a lightly pornographic romp through an equally lightly plotted urban fantasy world, and in that sense, I was right and this isn't that different from what you would expect to see in a Sherilyn Kenyon or Kresley Cole novel.

PLEASURE UNBOUND had an interesting idea but it wasn't fully fleshed out (heh). The porn definitely overtook the world-building at the expense of everything else. The villain in here was so creepy, and yet got almost no air time. The secondary characters were interesting, but weren't given a lot of air time - and the one I wanted to read about the most, Yuri, was killed off. How could you kill off Yuri, Larissa Ione? I wanted to read more about this sexy Middle Eastern demon man who had his own BDSM dungeon. That would have made for an excellent garbage can read. RIP, Yuri.

Plus, and let's face it, the heroine of this book was incredibly annoying and made the most stupid decisions. The only good things about her was that she a) wasn't a version and b) didn't have orgasms at the drop of a hat and the hero really had to work for it to make her come. That would have been great except the heroine says that this isn't "normal," implying that you have to explode with orgasms all the time in bed to be "normal." She's always marching into danger, she whines and cries a lot, and she made some of the most ridiculous decisions on the most flimsy pretenses of logic. That would be OK if she were an ordinary human but she's supposed to be this amazing demon slayer. I don't buy it.

The hero was hot, but he couldn't carry the book on his own and deserved way better than Tayla.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Vixen in Velvet by Fern Michaels

I got this book in an omnibus of Fern Michaels's two earlier works, called FATE & FORTUNE, which contains both VIXEN IN VELVET and WHITEFIRE.

VIXEN IN VELVET is a story about a girl named Tori who is engaged to be married to a much, much older man. Being a firebrand, she is naturally not happy about this, and spends the weeks leading up to her wedding sulking and pouting and trying to figure a way to get out of it. Help comes unexpectedly in the form of her maid, who tells her a story of a tavern wench nearby who could easily pass as her doppelganger. Enlisting the help of her cousin, Granger, Tori goes to the tavern and persuades the girl, whose name is Dolly, to take her place at the wedding and let her live the free and completely-problem-less life of a tavern wench in her stead.

Dolly agrees to this one-sided bargain, and Tori realizes how screwed she is when all the men at the tavern try to harass her, she's living in a scummy apartment with the rent unpaid, and she actually has to work hard on an empty stomach. Her cousin was supposed to come see her and help her, but he flaked, and just when you think it can't get any worse, it turns out that Dolly was lovers with a feared highwayman named Scarblade who decides to pay Tori a visit.

Scarblade, called such because of an S-shaped wound on his face, is actually using his money to gather funding for the colonists during the Revolutionary War. He's not actually that terrifying, and is a great hit with the ladies (who apparently sometimes actually want him to rob him, just so he'll paw through their clothing, lol). He met Tori when she was young, and he was robbing her family, and she was struck by his free and imposing spirit, and she's just as struck by him a second time.

Also, unexpected bonus for this era: he doesn't rape her. I'm not sure if that's because this book was rewritten for a discerning modern audience in the new Kindle edition, and maybe there was rape in the earlier editions published in the 1970s, but in the edition published in VIXEN IN VELVET, at least, Scarblade is a perfect gentleman and doesn't take advantage of her. Woo!

I wanted to like this book. I wasn't prepared for the tone, which is unexpectedly comical. Tori's shenanigans had me smiling in the beginning of the book. I think the problem is that this book wants to have the dark and dangerous high stakes adventures of its more grim predecessors, but doesn't fully commit. So when Scarblade gets imprisoned and Tori has to seduce a disgusting guard, for example, you never really fear for the characters as you might in a book where the author is a gleeful sadist, because the light tone of the novel makes you know that nothing bad will happen. Tori is also an exhausting heroine and eventually her antics got old.

Honestly, VIXEN IN VELVET is a "bodice-ripper" for people who don't like bodice-rippers. If you want the vibe of a bodice-ripper, without any of the horror or rape, this is a book for you. I thought it was kind of boring, but I do appreciate that this will work for some people who aren't me.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Bride of the Unicorn by Kasey Michaels

THE BRIDE OF THE UNICORN had the makings of a good novel but sadly, I couldn't get into it. I made it to nearly 75% of the book, and then I decided to skip to the end. The beginning is amazing - a cruel nobleman makes a deathbed condition to his cousin, a marquis. He tells his cousin that he was party to the destruction of a young heiress whose family was murdered and her title snatched.

Skeptical, Morgan (said marquis) begins a search that ends up taking him to a madhouse. There he makes the acquaintance of the plucky orphan, Caroline, who's skilled in infirmary work and thieves' cant, but not much else.

Caroline agrees to go with Morgan to learn how to be a lady, but that means that Morgan has to bring all of her friends with him, including a crazy old lady named Peaches O'Hanlan, a delusional old lady who's obsessed with Don Quixote and chivalry, and a crazy young dwarf named Ferdie whose father abandoned him in the asylum on account of his dwarfism and who often speaks in rhyme.

As I said, I liked the beginning of the book, but it quickly began to fall apart. The writing of this story isn't bad, but I felt like the tone was inconsistent. The murder plotline was dark and I felt like it should have been incorporated more thoroughly into the story with more angst; having it be a light-hearted book kind of trivialized Caroline's tragedy, which brings me to the second problem.

There were too many damn sidekicks. I like a good secondary romance and underdog story as the next girl, but you know your romance novel is in trouble when the hero and heroine are constantly having to fight for page space from the many grasping hands of numerous (and irritatingly quirky) sidekicks.

A good idea was buried somewhere in here, but it was very poorly executed.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 17, 2019

Unravel by Calia Read

I was watching a YouTube video recently about a psychiatrist talking about the portrayal of mental illness in films, and while talking about schizophrenia, he went on this side tangent about how he knew a couple patients who suffered from visual hallucinations and part of how they dealt with that was with their pets. If their cat or dog didn't react to the hallucination, then no matter how real it seemed, they knew it wasn't real.

I remembered that video while reading Calia Read's UNRAVEL. I thought to myself, "Oh, man, what Naomi needs is a dog."

UNRAVEL is an interesting new adult book. Read's style, in how she combines mind-fucks and psychology, reminds me a lot of Tarryn Fisher's. Our heroine, Naomi, is in a mental hospital. We don't know why she's there, and neither does she. All she knows is that something horrible must have happened and that she needs to get out to save her two friends, Max and Lana.

This is one of those books where saying too much about it will ruin the entire story, but it has some pretty dark themes - mental illness, obviously; abuse; rape; self-harm; suicide; and so much more. The themes fit the story, though, and don't feel like they're thrown in there for shock value. The reveal, when it comes, is chilling. I saw it coming, but I have a degree in psychology and have read about some cases that were similar to this. That's all I'm going to say.

If you're tired of the typical instalove new adult formula, UNRAVEL is a great way to break the mold. It's dark AF, and a little slow in the beginning, but I feel like it's worth the ride - especially if you enjoy Tarryn Fisher's MUD VEIN.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Pretty Broken Girl by Jeana E. Mann

I wouldn't be Queen of Literary Garbage Cans™ if I wasn't on here reading deliciously trashy fiction brought to you courtesy of the Kindle store. I'm actually trying to focus on reading books I already own, which is why my latest slew of reviewed books has been so weird. I've hoarded almost 1,000 books over the last four years, and my taste has changed a lot since then. This particular book was scored from the Kindle freebies section, and was something I probably wouldn't have even bothered to pick up if my trusted book whisperer, Heather, hadn't recommended it to me first.

Here's a true confession: even though I like the idea of second-chance romance, I often say I hate it, because when I read books in that genre, they're almost never done correctly. I love it when two characters start off the book hating each other and wanting revenge. When it's done right, it usually ends up being a favorite. But 9 times out of 10 it ain't done right. PRETTY BROKEN GIRL does it right.

Sam and Dakota used to be married...until Dakota betrayed him. For six months, she cried herself to sleep every night before getting over it and putting the past behind her, where it's firmly stayed in the backs of her mental closets - until she finds out that he's her new boss and plans on making her life hell. Slowly, piece by piece, we learn about how they met, how they fell in love, and how she betrayed him, as their story is told in alternating past and present, switching between their two POVs. And it's freaking exhilarating.

I don't normally like dual POV or alternating timelines but it really worked for this story. When these two characters first meet, they hate each other - with good reason. But their past gives that simmering hatred some unresolved sexual tension that sets the pages ablaze. I also liked learning about their past, and the inequality between them (Sam was rich, Dakota was poor), and how Dakota felt powerless with her lack of choices and undeserving of him. Whether or not that excuses what she did is up in the air, but I definitely didn't think she was TSTL. Not at all.

If you're into love-hate romances, second chance romances, rich-guy/poor-girl romances, and boss/employee romances, this book has all of that, and it still manages to do it in a way that doesn't read as being totally cliche, knocks down some of the usual stereotypes, and has enough angst and emotional content to keep you anxiously flipping the pages. Heather doesn't usually steer me wrong, and I'm happy to say that this recommendation from her was yet another win.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy

I understood for the first time why the punishment for Lot's wife was so severe. There were times when it was unforgivable to look back (88%)

This is a dark and edgy book that explores the same themes of innate violence and tribal belonging as LORD OF THE FLIES. Set in a Southern military college, THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE is about a young Irish Catholic boy named William McLean. Since he's the most liberal and cynical boy in the academy, he's given the task of protecting the new black recruit who's entering the school as a result of desegregation. Their school, Carolina Military Institute, is well known for its "plebe" system and brutal hazing methods of incoming freshmen, culminating in something called "Hell Night." Will needs to make sure that Tom Pearce isn't run out of the school by racists who use that hazing to exert sadistic and bigoted revenge.

Unfortunately, hazing and Hell Night aren't the worst thing about the school. There's whispered rumors of a secret society called "The 10," filled with influential and powerful boys, who will stop at nothing to purge the school of anything that they deem damaging to the Carolina Military Institute's honor code. And if Will McLean does his job and protects Tom, he might come under fire, too.

This was so good, you guys. Even though it's 500+ pages, I finished it in just two days. It's brutal and twisted and violent and awful, and has all kinds of dark themes, but it says powerful things about honor and friendship and pride and loyalty and what it means to really do the right thing. I'm a huge sucker for secret society and boarding school stories, and when you throw revenge, friendship, and plotting into the mix, I'm sold. This book didn't fail to deliver, either. The hazing scenes are so disturbing and the stakes in this book are so, so high. There's a lot of grief and suffering.

THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE is why I feel the need to read old books that nobody else has heard of. This is an excellent story that I would have loved to have read in college, and I think it's got a story in it that a lot of my friends would be interested in reading. It says a lot of bad words (the F-word, the N-word), and has a lot of tough themes running the gamut from torture and assault (sexual and physical) to teen pregnancy and suicide, but it's such a powerful read that I feel like it's worth the struggle. The only reason it doesn't get a full five stars from me is because the writing can be a bit clunky and hard to get into, but man, the story is totally worth that bumpy, dumpy ride.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Air He Breathes by Brittainy C. Cherry

DNF @ 18%

Not quite my fastest DNF, but it didn't take me long to realize that this book wasn't for me. THE AIR HE BREATHES employs your typical Early New Adult Formula, which means it's 2 parts tragedy, 3 parts insta-love, 1 part toxic gender roles, and 5 parts cliche.

Elizabeth meets Tristan when she accidentally runs over his dog. She's about as sympathetic as one might expect, i.e. not very. ("Oh my God, why is he being so mean to me? What did I do?") Honestly, if someone ran over my pet and then started arguing with me about what the fastest route to the animal hospital was, I'd probably be pretty sour, too.

Tristan is a bit of a psycho. He yells a lot and when we first meet him, he's running around without shoes. I'm guessing that his rage is what he uses to hide his emotional pain, because he's just too ~macho~ to emotion, you guys, oh, the suffering, oh, woe, woe.

It seems that each of these characters had someone close to them die and now they're upset and afraid of letting others in and being hurt all over again. Tristan has a dog. Elizabeth has a young daughter. Both of them (Elizabeth and Tristan) have the emotional maturity of teenagers. I guess if you're into authors like J.A. Redmerski and Abbi Glines, you might like this. Me? Not so much.

1 out of 5 stars