Thursday, June 20, 2019

Bright Burning Stars by A.K. Small



Books about dance and ballet are so compelling; it is a strict discipline that requires physical and intellectual fortitude. Add into the mix the usual blend of angst and poor decision making found in your typical young adult book, with a dash of cutthroat competition, and you have BRIGHT BURNING STARS: a book about a prestigious ballet school near Paris where failure means elimination, and success means sacrificing everything.

Marine and Kate are best friends. Marine is French, Kate is American. They've been close since their first year of ballet school, and now it is their last and only one boy and one girl will walk away with the coveted "Prize," a ticket to professional ballet. Everyone else will go home. Both girls want to be the best, but one of them wants it more than the other. As tensions rise, and each girl becomes a speeding train fighting to outpace the other to careen off a cliff and into a fiery finish, the reader can't help but wonder: will their friendship survive? And will they?

I finished BRIGHT BURNING STARS in a single day. It's beautifully written and both girls are realistically flawed. It actually reminded me a lot of WHITE OLEANDER in some ways - toxic relationships, substance abuse, destructive behavior, and sex, all drowning in angst and exquisitely wrought prose. There's trigger warnings across the board, but if you can stomach the dark content, the writing and the storyline, which is basically the ballerina equivalent of THE HUNGER GAMES, totally make the struggle worth it.

Oh, and there's beautiful boys, too, for those of you who are into that sort of thing. The main boy, who ends up involved with both girls, is nicknamed "the Demigod" for his dancing and romantic prowess, and his name is Cyrille. Everyone in the school has put him on a pedestal, but that only means that he has farther to fall. Luc is a mysterious boy who seems more earnest and tender than most, but he's got his own inner demons and reasons for competing. And lastly, there's Benjamin, another bad boy, only he's got tattoos and is more of a devil than a god, if you get me.

BRIGHT BURNING STARS has everything I enjoy in a young adult novel, and while it doesn't exactly espouse feminist principles, I gloried in the high drama and illicit romance. I think this is a book that could just as easily be enjoyed by adults, as well as teens - I certainly did.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

10 Dance 1 by Satoh Inoue



I love books about dancing, even though I'm not a dancer. I just find the blend of passion and discipline the art requires so utterly compelling. I can only imagine the mastery it requires one to have over their body, the exacting precision, and the endurance it takes to be on one's feet for hours, contorting one's body in time to music, while staying on the beat. I can't help but admire those who can dance, and well. That's why I always come running if I see a book about dance; it's such a beautiful form of expression.

10 DANCE 1 is a yaoi manga (which means M/M) about two dancers with the same name. Suguki Shinya is a refined and buttoned-up ballroom dancer. Suzuki Shinya is a flamboyant and immature Latin dancer. Both of them are very skilled and have their own dance school, but in order to truly be champions, they have to master the other's arts and do 10 very different styles of dances from both schools of dance in competition.

Even though they are bitter rivals, they (and their dance partners) agree to an alliance, where they teach each other their dances. Their female partners quickly grow frustrated with their temperamental partners and are happy to leave the two men to their arguing, but both Shinyas are incredibly stubborn, and despite getting in digs at each other the whole time, they often end up dancing until dawn. It isn't long before things start to get complicated and their passion for the dance begins to bleed out into passion for each other.

"Yaoi" often means explicit M/M content in manga, so I wasn't sure what to expect when picking this book up. Apart from a few shirtless scenes, this book is very tame. Anyone looking for explicit will be disappointed, but I actually really enjoyed the connection between the two male leads and the descriptions of the dances. It's incredibly slow-going, and even by the end of the book, they haven't really kissed or moved their relationship in a truly romantic direction, but I don't mind slow-burn if it means that there's a deeper connection when the relationship between the leads is consummated.

10 DANCE 1 is a light, cute read and I think anyone who enjoys music and manga will be happy to add this to their collection. I'm really curious to see where both Shinyas end up taking their relationship from here, and whether any new rivals will enter the fray to shake things up.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Watch Us Rise by Renee Watson



WATCH US RISE is a young adult book that explores feminism and intersectionality in a way that breaks down core concepts and key figures for younger readers. Jasmine is a black, plus-sized young woman who is interested in poetry and theater. Chelsea is a thin, white feminist who also likes poetry and wants to be an activist. When the two of them start chafing in their clubs at their liberal arts high school due to their ideals and personal philosophies, they decide to start their own club: a club for feminists, replete with a blog where they can speak out about injustice, inspiration, and calls to action.

There was so much about this book that was great, and there were a few things that weren't. First, I want to focus on what was great. WATCH US RISE really deep-dives into feminism, highlighting problems that women face everyday, overtly and covertly. Whether it's the lack of plus-sized options in a clothing store, or an authority figure brushing off a sexual harassment claim with that hated word - "allegedly" - Watson and Hagan bring up a lot of issues that teenage girls face on the regular.

Jasmine was an especially lovely character. I respected her so much. In addition to starting the club, she's also spending so much energy on her father, who is dying of cancer. She had great comments about blackness, black stereotypes, being a bigger girl in a society that caters to and promotes the visibility of smaller women, and all sorts of other things that were very important. I also liked that she wasn't afraid to call her friend, Chelsea, out on her hypocrisy when Chelsea is constantly dragging her to small-size clothing stores and then forgetting to order plus-sizes when they make their club t-shirts and saying that oh well, Jasmine can just wear a men's shirt. It was so refreshing to see Chelsea get told off, and a perfect example of not letting your friends get away with toxic behavior.

Which leads me to my biggest gripe with this book: Chelsea. Chelsea is the epitome of everything that is wrong with white feminism: if it's not a T-shirt slogan or an internet hashtag, she has no interest in it. One of the key moments that really made me not like her is when she's saying that they need a social justice club, in the very beginning, and Jasmine tells her that there is one. It's called "Justice By the Numbers," or something like that, and it uses statistics and data to break down things like redlining and food desert. Chelsea has no interest because she doesn't like math, she wants people to listen to her, to speak up and be heard. As a white ally to people of color, it's really important not to co-opt the stories of the people you're trying to help, and I was disgusted when Chelsea wrote a poem inspired by a Harlem museum and then a kwansaba for Jasmine, her black friend. That, for me, almost bordered on cultural appropriation. Everything was about her.

She's also a hypocrite in other ways. Despite all her feminist rhetoric about calling men out and not putting down other women, she gets involved with a guy who has a girlfriend. I found that really disgusting. Just goes to show the power of cognitive dissonance, I guess, that someone could talk the talk and still drag their heels when it comes to walking the walk.

Towards the end, she also refers to herself as a "womyn," an alternative spelling of "women" to remove the word "men"; it is a word rooted in trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF). There are feminists who actively work to keep "non-biological" women out of women's spaces, who still consider trans women as "men" and exclude them from the movement, and the term "womyn" is sometimes associated with people who think that way. That seemed like a poor oversight, a mistake that someone might make who wasn't very familiar with feminism or its roots, and combined with Chelsea's rather off-putting "angry Tumblr feminist" attitude, she ended up sounding more like a gross stereotype from a misogynistic Reddit thread, and less like, you know, an aspirational figure.

I know I came down hard on this book, but I think it's important to be critical - even about books that you liked. And I did like this book a lot. I finished it in a single day, and apart from some of the poetry and most of the parts about Chelsea, I thought WATCH US RISE had a mostly good message. Feminism is important, and not all feminists practice their feminism the same or with equal good faith. Jasmine and Chelsea both come from very different walks of life, and even though privilege and white feminism aren't really discussed as much as they should have been, I get why maybe the authors didn't want to come across as too heavy-handed and therefore didn't give Chelsea the serious dressing-down that she deserved. But for young girls who might be new to feminism and have questions about how to start their own movements, WATCH US RISE may prove an invaluable resource.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant



If BLOOD & BEAUTY is the rise of the Borgia family, then IN THE NAME OF THE FAMILY marks their fall. This rather chunky work of historical fiction details Alexander Borgia in his old age, losing first power, then his grasp on reality, and finally his own life. Beautiful and cunning Cesare is being consumed alive by syphilis, and soon, Lucrezia joins him, catching it from another husband who happens to be a little too fond of prostitutes. Even though both books are about the same family, the first one sparkles like a dagger, whereas THE NAME OF THE FAMILY is shrouded in the gloom of a funeral shroud. I'm still kind of in a funk.

IN THE NAME OF THE FAMILY was not as easy to read as its prequel because the content is much darker and far less triumphant.We know how the story ends, and it's hard to root for characters when the writing's on the wall. It's a bit of a slog getting into this book, and normally I don't go for "slow reads" that wait you out, but the characters are so richly detailed and the writing is so gorgeous, that the journey is worth the effort. Honestly, this family was a real life Game of Thrones, and I'd really recommend this to anyone who's a fan of the series and wants more court intrigue and cunning schemes, as this family had both in spades. The scenes when Cesare kills his political prisoners are chilling.

Now that I'm done with the duology, I'm sad there's nothing left. It's hard for me to find historical fiction that I'm really into. Sarah Dunant has a masterful approach to story-telling, with a style that mimics that of nonfiction while still managing to be engaging. Lucrezia, Alexander, and Cesare were all so formidable in their primes; who knows what Cesare might have done to shape Italy if he hadn't contracted syphilis? He was a military genius. Dunant brought all of these long-dead historical figures to life, and they're alarmingly vivid.

I hope Sarah Dunant decides to write a follow-up to these books about the de' Medici family. Reading about the Borgias only piqued my interest in Machiavellian-style family plotting. I'd recommend BLOOD & BEAUTY and IN THE NAME OF THE FAMILY to anyone interested in history and fond of court intrigue, especially court intrigue set during the peak of the Italian Renaissance.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Better At Weddings Than You by Mina V. Esguerra



I'm kind of obsessed with Mina V. Esguerra's romances. They have the steamy, romantic vibe of something you would find in Avon's line-up, only most of her books are set in the Philippines and feature Asian heroes and heroines. I first found out about this author through one of my friends who saw me reading a Six de Los Reyes book and told me about #romanceclass, and the circle of Filipino writers who wrote romances under this hashtag.

The Chic Manila series is a chatty, modern set of romances featuring progressively-minded women who work, who are trying to navigate the obstacle-laden field of relationships in addition to figuring out who they are as people and what they want out of life. The best way to describe these books is as a coming-of-age story for adults in their late-twenties/early-thirties.

BETTER AT WEDDINGS THAN YOU features a hero and a heroine who are both wedding planners. Aaron is pretty small potatoes and gets most of his clients through his sister. His current job is with his childhood friend, Helen, but her husband-to-be, Greg, is firing Aaron because he's afraid Helen is in love with him. Daphne is Aaron's replacement, and one of Greg's friends. She's a little leery of the whole situation, and also of Aaron, but because Aaron has all of the details up to this point, they end up deciding to collaborate and save the wedding.

Obviously, this being a romance, the two of them end up falling for each other. This leads to some very sexy scenes; this is definitely one of the steamier Esguerra books I have read - not that I'm complaining. But Esguerra romances are fraught with last act crises, and Aaron's and Daphne's burgeoning romance isn't exempt from this. Daphne's been burned too many times before and isn't very interested in romantic relationships. Aaron is an ex-playboy who's starting to realize that he wants to settle down, but he isn't quite sure what to do with a girl like Daphne. And then there's Helen - Helen, who is a total piece of work and deserves a whole subreddit of her own on r/Nicegirls.

Screw you, Helen.

I really enjoyed BETTER AT WEDDINGS than you. I've liked all of the Esguerra books I've read to varying degrees, but this was definitely one of her best. I love reading romances when the heroines have jobs, and are good at their jobs, and it was so great to read about Daphne being as passionate about her work as she later becomes about her love life. And it's also really cool to see a hero with a job that wouldn't be traditionally considered macho or manly (i.e. wedding planning). He was also very nice and 100% not about that cad life. I was able to ship the two of them without any guilt.

If you like sweet romances with strong women and positive messages about work, sex, and love, I really do recommend these books.

4 out of 5 stars

Shades of Wicked by Jeaniene Frost



Whoa. That was the most addictive, fast-paced fun I've had in a while. Ever since I finished Ilona Andrews's Hidden Legacy series, I've been trying to find the next Big Thing to fill the paranormal void in my life. When I saw SHADES OF WICKED pop up as the deal of the day, replete with a sexy vampire hero who's basically a salacious playboy of the nth degree, I thought that might be it.

Ian is a master vampire who spends a lot of his time slutting it up or hanging out in brothels - that's actually where the heroine finds him in the beginning of the book, wearing a ringmaster's jacket and nothing else. Our heroine is named Veritas and she's also a vampire, but she's the face of the law and intent on using Ian as bait to capture a very evil demon who she has her own personal history with. As it turns out, Ian has a bone to reckon with this demon himself, and ends up as an unwilling pawn to help her catch him.

The sexual tension between these two is totally off the charts, and even though they come from opposite sides of the law and have about one hundred reasons to hate each other, they're more similar than either of them realize because of their dark and tortured pasts. I honestly didn't think that SHADES OF WICKED would get so dark, but some of the big reveals about Ian and Veritas hit hard. That was a pleasant surprise, settling in for just another paranormal romance and ending up with something deep. And speaking of deep, brace yourself for some of the hottest vampire sex ever.

I almost feel that SHADES OF WICKED shouldn't work, because despite the darker elements (and there are many), there is also a lot of humor, including some spiffy one-liners that actually made me laugh, and comic relief coming in the form of a fluffy flying demon dog. I didn't realize that I needed a fluffy flying demon dog in my life until reading this book, but I do. I do. Rather than dragging the book down, the inconsistent tone actually worked and made the pages just fly by. SHADES OF WICKED is my first book by this author, but it won't be my last - it's everything I love about the paranormal romance genre, wrapped up in a tidy package and tied off with a crimson bow.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Midnight Kiss by Nancy Gideon



I would be shocked if Stephenie Meyer hadn't read this book because the similarities between MIDNIGHT KISS and TWILIGHT are so similar.

πŸ¦‡ The heroine is named Bella.
πŸ¦‡ Bella is bookish, awkward, and doesn't think she's pretty.
πŸ¦‡ The hero is an angsty mess who hates being a vampire.
πŸ¦‡ The heroine has a rapey family friend her father would rather she be with over her vampire love interest.
πŸ¦‡ The heroine's father is not a great father, spends all of his time working, and shows way too little concern for her.
πŸ¦‡ There's a male and female "bad" vampire duo who have it in for the hero and the heroine.
πŸ¦‡ The bad vampires kidnap Bella at the end of the book to lure in her vampire love interest, who they want to kill.
πŸ¦‡ Bella ends up pregnant with a vampire baby.

I rest my case.

MIDNIGHT KISS came first, but as much as I wanted to love the OG, TWILIGHT did it better. And it's funny because I was just thinking the other day about how TWILIGHT was such a game-changer in the paranormal genre. Before TWILIGHT, I think people tended to write more about the traditional vampires who were either soulless, horrific killing machines, or Broody McBroodersons who spend all their time brooding about their lost humanity and how they will never feel the touch of the sun's rays. :tear: (Also, making your vampire hero a Broody and naming him Louis? Ballsy.) TWILIGHT gave the green light for people to write about "alternative" vampires who were basically just the cast of Beverly Hills: 90210 with fangs. That's basically what Vampire Diaries is, FYI.

The difference between MIDNIGHT KISS and TWILIGHT is that MIDNIGHT KISS relies more on traditional vampire folklore. These vampires are sensitive to silver, garlic, and crosses; they don't have reflections; they can control minds; they can turn into mist or beasts, as well as drink blood; and they float sinisterly. This had the making of a great story, but it just wasn't dark enough. I also didn't really like all the whining that Louis did. He meets the heroine because he's seeing her father, who's a doctor, and seeking treatment for his "blood condition." Her father has sort of had a breakthrough, able to sate his hungers through transfusions, and quell his symptoms with a drug, turning him almost but not quite mortal. Obviously, when the hero and heroine meet, it's love at first sight, but for someone who's so smart, she doesn't figure out what he is until the very end of the book. Christ, adult Bella. Teenage Bella was way quicker on the uptake than you, and that's saying something.

There's a lot of weird side plots that go nowhere, too. Like the rapey love interest deciding that he's going to ruin Louis and leverage Bella's father's secret to further his career. The evil vampires, Bianca and Gerardo, are introduced so late, with so little foreshadowing, that they aren't quite the menace that Victoria and James were in Twilight, nor is the final showdown as epic. There's also an evil resurrectionist that Bella's father uses to illegally procure dead bodies for his experiments, but he dies and then later becomes a revenant, but like all other threads in this book, it's resolved too quickly.

Props to MIDNIGHT KISS for being a paranormal romance in a time where paranormal romances were not nearly as abundant and trying to go for the classic Gothic vibe. I wish it had succeeded, because nothing makes me as giddy with joy as being able to find and promote a romance that nobody else has heard of, but for me this book was a miss. If you're looking for a Gothic historical vampire romance, you'd be better off picking up Susan Squires's THE COMPANION, instead.

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

10 Bodice Ripper Covers That Lisa Frank Fans Will Love

When I was a young girl, I was obsessed with Lisa Frank - I had the backpacks, the pencils, the stickers, the pajamas, the makeup. You name it, I probably owned it. There is nothing as joyous as an indulgent montage filled hearts, glitter, unicorns, and rainbows.

Now, an adult, I'm similarly obsessed with vintage romance novel covers. I love the original artwork and the bright primary colors and pastels. Some of them even have unicorns on the cover (you'll be seeing two of them in this list). It occurred to me today that many bodice-rippers share the same color palette and larger-than-life fantasy montages that I loved so much about my Lisa Frank trapper-keepers, so today I'll be sharing with you 10 romance novel covers that have that certain je ne sais quoi. (Or perhaps I should say, je ne Frank quoi.)

Note: None of these images are mine, all were taken from Goodreads.com. I've linked all of their individual pages below so you can go show them some appreciation up close and personal, and maybe even write them a review if you were lucky enough to read them. :)

10. TEXAS WILDFLOWER by Susan Wiggs


I don't know where these two are, but I want to frolic in those flowery, butterfly-laden fields. I bet allergies don't even exist wherever that is, and if you did sneeze, you'd shoot glitter from your nose.

A lot of romance authors who still publish today have roots in bodice-ripper shenanigans. Wiggs is still very active in the romance genre and the covers for some of her older books have changed, but let's not the ones that looked like you could pop them on an ice-cream cone and lick them slowly.

9. SWAN BRIDE by Betina Lindsey


SWAN BRIDE is the only book on this list from the 1990s. You know how I feel about 90s bodice rippers, but I couldn't hold that against this cover. Not when I want to hold this cover against my heart. The swans in the lake, the buttery flowers, the way her gown turns into flowers -

It's magic. It's also only 99-cents in the Kindle store. (And no, that's not an affiliate link.)

8. WILD WYOMING HEART by Sylvie F. Sommerfield


That dude looks way too miserable for this seascape-colored desert (dessert?). Originally, I thought this was one of those few-and-far-between science-fiction bodice rippers, because her gown kind of looks like a tail (or maybe even tentacles if you're into that sort of thing), but no, it's just blending with the plants.

I love everything about this - the pose, the colors, the everything. All it needs is some glitter.

7. VELVET CHAINS by Constance O'Banyon


Those butterflies in the foreground! The seagull! The fact that he's straddling the clouds like he's ready to go right now, and who cares that their ride is slowly floating off into the cherry sunset?

I'm not sure what's happening here, but I'm loving every candy-colored inch of it. BTW, this one is also available on Kindle, and if you have Kindle Unlimited, it's free.

6. TIME-KEPT PROMISES by Constance O'Day-Flannery


There is a LOT going in this one. The hero and the heroine are sitting on a giant bunch of neon roses, about to get it on while some horses watch. So, you know, a typical Saturday in bodice-ripper land.

I'm not sure why there's a floral border, or why it only extends around 3/4 of the book, but I'm not mad at it. The colors in this one are just great.

5. TIME-KISSED DESTINY by Constance O'Day-Flannery


This cover is from the same author as #6, but it's even better. I love the detail of the background, and the way the birds fill that empty space in the upper-righthand corner. What's with these characters and getting off in front of animals? Do we care? Obviously not. What's that glittery gem thing she's holding at his pelvis? Is it symbolic? Probably. Phallic. Definitely. But it glitters! OH, YES.

4. SUMMER OF THE UNICORN by Kay Hooper


This is the only book on the list that I've actually read (you can check out my review here), and the story is just as crazy as you would expect (I mean that in the best possible way). The heroine's apathetic expression as the hero sniffs her hair while surrounded by birds, more birds, and even a rearing unicorn is priceless to me. I love everything about this cover, and the story is fun, too.

This book was also recently re-released in a Kindle edition, although the new cover has nothing on the old one. If the author's name sounds familiar to you, it's because Kay Hooper is a fairly well-known mystery and romantic suspense author, although she too dabbled in the 'rippers once.

3. TIMESWEPT LOVERS by Constance O'Day-Flannery


This cover is SO BEAUTIFUL. The tulips in the foreground, the hair turning to gold coins, the painted in lens flares, the rainbow pastels - all of it is totally gorgeous. I'm even digging the hero's porn 'stache, since it's period-appropriate for the 1987 release. I would frame this on my wall.

2. CRYSTAL PARADISE by Johanna Hailey


WE HAVE GLITTER! WE HAVE GLITTER! THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

We've reached peak Lisa Frank territory here. The rainbow, the pink butterfly, the crystal rose, the clouds, the glitter, the sparkles, the gauzy gown - I wouldn't be surprised to see this on a binder or a backpack. Hell, I'd carry this around with my on a folder, and I'd carry it with PRIDE.

There is absolutely NOTHING about this cover I hate. I would be the second for this cover in a duel.

1. ENCHANTED PARADISE by Johanna Hailey


And here we are, at #1 - the most Lisa Frankiest cover to ever Lisa Frank. I am so in love with this cover; it's the perfect blend of artistic and sexy. The giant butterfly, the deer in the background, the galloping unicorn with the oddly-placed horn trailing a rainbow, never mind the fact that the heroine is apparently trying to wear a scarf as a dress and the hero is sporting some Fruit of the Loom -

THIS IS THE BEST COVER EVER, and I'm not lying when I say that it's probably one of my favorite romance covers that I've ever seen. This is pure, unadulterated 80s cheese at its finest. Also, apparently the story itself is about unicorns and elves?? Someone needs to bring this back into circulation ASAP, with the original cover, because I'm dying to see how that turns out.

Honorable mention goes to Lynette Vinet's PIRATE'S BRIDE. The only reason it didn't make the cut was because it was a little too monochrome, but it's still a gorgeous cover.

I hope you enjoyed my (click bait-y) blog post. I am very passionate about romance novels and Lisa Frank and was super excited to see some overlap between two of my favorite things, even if that overlap is purely imagined on my part. I'd like to imagine that one day, 80s bodice-rippers will come back and talented artists like Lisa Frank, but also Pino Daeni and Elaine Duillo, will rise again!

P.S. I've made a cover-is-a-lisa-frank-porno-shoot shelf on Goodreads to keep stock of all these pretties, and the others I will doubtless find. Feel free to bookmark my shelf!

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Black Rose by Christina Skye



I scored this book as a Kindle freebie several years ago and it's been languishing in The Library of Purgatory and Laziness for years. Lest you get confused by the name in the Kindle store, it was originally published as THE BLACK ROSE, but the author republished it as SEVEN NIGHTS WITH A PIRATE along with some apparent revisions. Comparing the reviews for those who read the original with those who read the updated digital version, it seems like some rapey scenes were removed and some sexy scenes were added. To what effect, I'm not sure, as this was still pretty rapey.

Our heroine is a woman named Tess, who masquerades as a local smuggler called The Fox. (She also works with the real Fox, but dresses up like him when he is busy.) When she's not smuggling, she operates the inn that also serves as their base of operations/hideout. Tess is haunted by her abusive father, who appears to have locked her in the seller and also sold her out as a prostitute to equally abusive and opportunistic men. When he died, he left her with debts as a last "Eff you." She's still trying to pay them off.

Our "hero" is a viscount named Dane St. Pierre, Lord Ravenhurst. He's a viscount and a veteran of the still-ongoing Napoleonic Wars, and haunted by the deaths of his friends and his own close brush with death aboard his ship. He was a childhood friend of Tess's, and when his superiors draw him back into military business to investigate a smuggling operation in the town of Rye where a traitor might be feeding secret intel to the French, he is shocked to see the child he knew all grown up.

Until about 50% of the way in, I thought for sure that this was going to be a 4- or 5-star read. Tess was such a great heroine- in fact, she was everything I love in a heroine: no-nonsense, smart, and brave. Dane was the perfect dangerous hero, and the unresolved sexual tension between him and Tess was off the charts. I also loved the cat and mouse between them, when she did her smuggling and he did his investigating; you couldn't help but wonder - what would happen when he found out??

40% of the way in, Dane finds out that Tess is involved with smuggling and thinks she's the lover of the Fox and he, like, loses his sh*t. I think in the original he rapes her, but in the update, the author tones it down to a "civil" sexual assault *eye roll*. She flees and ends up hitting her head, and her head injury makes her blind. When she wakes up, she's in the care of love interest #2, Andre, an equally rapey pirate, who definitely takes advantage of her in her incapacitated state.

The last act of the book was so crazy that I honestly didn't know what to expect. Which love interest, if any, would Tess end up with? And what would happen to the redundant one? Who was the traitor, after all? What was the dealio with Tess's dad? And how on Earth would this story end?

The ending, in all fairness, was actually pretty good. There was a twist I wasn't expecting (although in retrospect, I probably should have expected). We find out who the villain was, and I wasn't expecting that either, so that was cool, too. The heroine even manages to get in a duel with Dane, and I am very much pro lady duel. I would rate this book much higher if not for the fact that Tess's character development really suffered when she entered the "care" of Andre. I loved how strong she was in the beginning, but she really wimped out when that pirate dude did his misogynistic flexes.

I'm torn between feeling okay about this book and guiltily liking it because I am trash, so my feelings are floating between a 2.5 and a 3. It was action-packed, filled with swashbuckling, smuggling goodness and some twists that really caught me off-guard. If you like vintage romances and want to be part of the 90s Bodice Ripper Experience™, you could do worse than to pick this book up.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Queen's Game by Carla de Guzman



Last year, I found out that there's a whole bunch of #OwnVoices Filipinx romance novels floating around out there as part of a writing group headed by Mina V. Esguerra, called #romanceclass. A whole bunch of them went cheap or free last August, so of course, I checked obsessively every day, totally abusing that 1-click button.

THE QUEEN'S GAME is one of these #romanceclass novellas. I've read some of Carla de Guzman's work before, a friends-to-lovers romance with a plus-sized heroine called IF THE DRESS FITS. THE QUEEN'S GAME is also a friends-to-lovers romance, but it's about royalty instead of the common folk. Nina is an estranged princess of Cincamarre, returned home after the death of her father requires both mourning and acknowledgement of her succession.

Her aunt, Dita, doesn't approve of her at all. Nina is a wild child, wearing racy clothing, making out with Korean pop stars, and going to parties whenever she feels like it. Dita wants her to clean up her scandals and make a good name for herself. The best way to do that in her opinion is a fake relationship with neighboring prince, Felipe.

Fake relationship??? Ahhhh, be still, my heart!

This could have worked out so well. Felipe was a great hero, and an unusual one. He was kind, sensitive, silly, self-effacing, and fond of farming. I actually learned some interesting things in this book, like how tomato and basil complement each other when planted together, and that there's a type of vegan leather made out of pineapples (it's called PiΓ±atex). Felipe's family actually agrees to the fake marriage because Dita trades Nina to them for pineapples. So much for the 30 pieces of silver.

The problem for me was that the writing wasn't very good - there were a lot of mistakes and the author told instead of showed way too often. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it feels like lazy writing - and sadly, this was the latter for me. I also think that the story was way too short. I could have used more angst, more development of their relationship, more conflict. We don't see too many sexually precocious party children who aren't dragged down for their sexuality by the love interest and I would have loved to have seen more of that side to Nina, and to see Felipe come out of his shell. I liked what both of them represented, but at the end of the story they were still strangers.

I definitely recommend that you guys jump on board with the #romanceclass books because so many of them are good, but sadly this was one of the weaker books I've read in the line-up.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Studying Hours by Sara Ney



DNF @ 30%

You might be asking yourself, "Nenia, what's your deal, didn't you know what you were getting into with the title?" The answer, gentle reader, is sort of. HOW TO DATE A DOUCHEBAG did imply that the hero would be a well, you know. However, reading books like Elle Kennedy's THE DEAL has taught me that sometimes reading about jerk boys with hearts of gold can be fun. Will they contain and even perpetuate stereotypes that annoy me? Probably. Are they mindless book-cookies of endless joy? Maybe. Is reading them going to destroy my feminist principles? No.

HOW TO DATE A DOUCHEBAG is like a less-good version of THE DEAL. Sebastian originally meets Jameson in their school's library. He's hanging out with his friends and getting quickies from his all-girl fan club (no, really) and she's studying by herself while watching them stealthily through her long eyelashes like it's prime-time HBO she's watching with an ex-boyfriend's password.

Anyway, one of Sebastian's friends wants him to go over and see if she's his tutor because he's too lazy to get up and see for himself (no, really) and anyone wearing a sweater set and glasses has to be a tutor (no, really). So Sebastian gets up, talks to her, they insult each other, and then makes a skeazy bet with his friends that he can get her to kiss him. Which he does, after he promises to pay her half of the bet money, and it's the hottest thing he's ever felt in the history of sex. Also, they're friends now.

Here's my main issue with the book. Jameson is portrayed as a good girl and classy because she wears a sweater and pearls. BEAUTIFUL DISASTER tried that tack, too, as I recall. But Jameson isn't smart like the heroine in THE DEAL is, she just studies - which doesn't make her that special in a university setting, to be honest. Everyone studies; if you don't, you fail. Badly. She's also judgemental AF and totally inconsistently characterized, but I guess that's the best you can expect from someone whose sweater collection is meant to substitute for an actual personality.

Sebastian was even worse. Everything that came out of his mouth was so hyper-sexual and he said the most demeaning, objectifying things about women. If it was a sixty-year-old white dude saying it instead of a twenty-something white dude saying it, he would be the precautionary tale in a workplace sexual harassment training video, that's how bad it was. What makes this even more disgusting is that the hero's sister was the victim of workplace sexual harassment and the company rallied behind the perpetrator, so all their money was lost in litigation. How could you have a family member go through something like that and continue to gleefully perpetuate the very system that enabled someone you loved to go through so much hurt? It was so tone-deaf.

Maybe if I forced myself to finish, this book could finagle another star from me. I did like the beginning, even if it was very reminiscent of THE DEAL, but the insta-friendship/lust between the hero and heroine, and the hero's non-stop spewing of crudely objectifying language, really killed this book for me. If you don't mind dirty-talking sexist pigs, your opinion may well be different.

1 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Kiss of Death by Auryn Hadley



When I was a young teen, I used to go on this website called Quizilla. In many ways, it was a lot like a cross between Wattpad and BuzzFeed's quiz section, only since this was during the early 2000s, people were writing self-insert fics w/ Gerard Way and My Chemical Romance instead of Harry Styles and One Direction or BTS, and instead of Twilight, it was Louis and Lestat from Interview with the Vampire and they all spoke in butchered French. If vampires and emo boys weren't your cup of tea, no problem, you could read anime fanfic, anime-inspired fic, take quizzes, or read original fiction with titles like Lust for a Young Girl's Blood; Help I'm a Girl in an All-Boys' Boarding School; or Would an Angel, a Demon, or Vampire Fall for You?

Quizilla is now defunct but my memories of it are not, and I'm always delighted when I come across a story that captures the zeitgeist of my Quizilla days. I was thinking, while reading THE KISS OF DEATH, that I'd never read a reverse-harem story, but that's not quite true. In my Quizilla Days, there was a veritable pantheon of fratty immortal cadres falling for human girls.

THE KISS OF DEATH stars Sienna, a human girl putting herself for college while working at a bar. She also has a jerk boyfriend named Aaron (Aaron is such a jerk name). On her first day of classes, she runs into not one, not two, but three hot guys in all her classes (hi, obligatory nod to TWILIGHT) and then they all show up coincidentally at her job later, where they all leave her really big tips. It turns out that these guys - Sam, Luke, and Nick - are Samyaza, Lucifer, and Sataniel, demons who are looking for her because their enemies, the angels, are looking for her, too.  Because Sienna isn't a human girl, after all. She's a Muse, with the power to manipulate aether, the substance that souls are made of, and that borders and gates the many worlds. And people want her - or want her dead.

So, yes, it's a little bit Mary Sue-ish. A little bit. Normally this is something that bothers me, but I honestly loved it here. It's pure escapist fantasy. Sienna has cool powers, magic art skills, and a whole harem of immortal hot guys who treat her nicely and are willing to die for her. What really saves this story is the smart writing and the science and philosophy the author imbues the story with. Hadley really tries to make this more than just romance with plot, and it's damned creative.

It's also... well, some might say it's blasphemous. If you thought the movie Dogma (1999) was funny, you'll be fine, but that should be your litmus test. Can you stomach the thought of angels and, yes, even Jesus, being the bad guys? I look at Christian theology the way most Christians probably look at Greek mythology, in that I'm like, "Oh, how interesting, how dramatic, how antiquated - I'd like to learn more about this maybe, and read some books about it, but I would never believe in this." I thought the book was great, but I noticed some religious people in the reviews weren't happy with the content. So if you are very religious, and can't laugh at your doctrines, maybe you should stay away.

I honestly can't remember the last time I had such mindless fun reading something. THE KISS OF DEATH was so compulsively readable that I finished it in just over a day, even though it's long. I'm new to the burgeoning reverse-harem craze happening on Goodreads, and I don't think I'll be a stranger from now on. Not if this book is any indication of what I've been missing out on.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Embrace And Conquer by Jennifer Blake



There are many reasons that Jennifer Blake is one of my favorite bodice-ripper authors. She's very generous about putting her books up for deals or freebies in the Kindle store (I've gotten most of her books for free), and a lot of them are available through Kindle Unlimited. Unlike some bodice-rippers like Catherine Coulter and Fern Michaels, she doesn't edit (read: censor) her books of their un-PC scenes; she appears to republish her books digitally in their original form, preserving the work in its integrity, which I love. Also, all of her books are basically a free history lesson. I tell all my friends and family members that I've learned things from bodice-rippers that I never learned in American or World History. These aren't just wallpaper dressing; they tell a periodcentric story.

**WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW**

EMBRACE AND CONQUER is set in Louisiana during the time it was briefly ceded to Spain. Citizens are chafing at the new ownership and pledging their French allegiance against the Spanish soldiers and Irish mercenaries parading the streets, consequences be damned. The heroine actually meets the mercenary hero, Morgan, when her adopted brother makes a servant dump a chamberpot on his troops from their home as a political statement. Fearing for the servant, the heroine, Felicite, takes the fall - and sparks fly.

Later, a bunch of traitors are rounded up, and Felicite's father is among them, much to her horror and dismay. Valcour, her adopted brother, makes an attempt on Morgan's life, seemingly in revenge. Morgan thinks Felicite is complicit and was making eyes to set up him, chases her down to her home, and rapes her in her bedroom. He quickly realizes that she was innocent, but he's a cold sum'bitch and makes her his forced mistress in exchange for her father's life. All of her friends deliver to her the cut direct and she finds herself miserable and isolated from her former peers, and ends up coming down with a reluctant case of the Stockholms. But she's not a total doormat, and when her father dies mysteriously and it seems like Morgan might be involved, she flees with Valcour to Tortuga.

Spoiler: It turns out her adopted brother is a mega-creeper with a spanking fetish, and being marooned on a pirate ship with a whole bunch of rapey pirates isn't a good place to be in. This is honestly one of the best parts of the book in my opinion, because of (what I'm assuming to be true) the wealth of nautical terms, the descriptions of the islands, and the intricate hierarchy of the ship and its workings that keep everything running like a clock. Spoiler: Morgan will not be thwarted by rapey brothers and follows them via ship, which culminates in a whipping and a duel.

Valcour is an amazing villain, easily one of the best I've come across in one of Blake's books, but as another reviewer pointed out - he just won't die! It takes an act of god to bring him down at the end because the hero and heroine keep letting him slip through their grasp. I do like this heroine though - unlike the heroine in GOLDEN FANCY, whose bravest act is defending herself with a fork, this heroine skewers the bad guy with a sword and tries to get in a shot with a pistol for good measure. She also gets into a sword fight with the OW when the OW challenges her honor. #LadyDuel

There was so much I enjoyed about this book: the rich history, the icy hero, the great fight scenes, the heroine who gave as good as she got (like Ginny, in SWEET SAVAGE LOVE), and the villain. Plot-wise and hero-wise, it's very similar to NOTORIOUS ANGEL, which I liked slightly better than this one, but if you enjoyed NOTORIOUS, it's highly likely you'll embrace (you see what I did there) this book, as well. Blake is very consistent in writing what she's best at, and I really appreciate that.

My only complaint, as usual, is that this was just a bit longer than it needed to be.

4 out of 5 stars

Spice and Smoke by Suleikha Snyder



SPICE AND SMOKE is 1980s-style glitter trash set in Bollywood, filled with smut, relationship drama, and celebrities. If that's not reason enough to read this, I don't know what is. Another reviewer compared this book to Jackie Collins and that is a fairly apt comparison, as both deal with celebrity life, drug use, and promiscuity with a rather stark and admirable frankness.

The first book I read by this author was TIKKA CHANCE ON ME, which I didn't like for a variety of reasons. However, there were elements of the book I did like, and whenever that happens I usually don't write the author off completely, giving another one of their books in a different series/universe a try, because YMMV.

SPICE AND SMOKE is definitely a much different book than TIKKA. TIKKA was smut with a tiny side of plot, and read like an Alexa Riley quickie, whereas SPICE is a full-fledged story told in a very unusual and slightly surreal format which some readers may find disorienting but I found quite enjoyable and unique.

Avinash, Trishna, Michael, and Harsh are all Bollywood actors working on a big movie with their director, Joshi. Avinash and Trishna are married, but Trishna has been carrying a torch since her teen years for the heartthrob, goody-goody actor she worked with on her first movie as a teenager, Harsh. Avinash is bisexual and appears to prefer men, even though he's married to Trishna. They have an "open" relationship (although that openness appears to apply more to him than Trishna), and the current object of his desire is Michael, a biracial (white/Indian) actor who is openly gay.

Their sexual fantasies about each of their love interests upon encountering them are very surreal, and very Bollywood (which I imagine was the intent), and so are the scenes they're filming from the actual movie, which are interspersed between the romantic plotlines and often mirror the actors' own lives to highlight their emotional tension (which is cheesy, but I like it). Some readers have said that the relationship is polyamorous, but it feels more like cheating with permission (and in the beginning, in Trishna's case, cheating without permission). I also didn't really like that the "open" relationship only applied to Avi, and that he was actually quite jealous and angry when Trishna hooked up with Harsh in the beginning, until he realized that the arrangement could work to his advantage.

I liked the two main couples a lot, and reading about their interactions and their relationships as they changed and developed was really fun, and I liked it the best towards the end when they all became friends as they played musical beds - that part, more than anything, was totally Jackie Collins. What I didn't like was the addition of a third random couple towards the end, Vikram and Sam. Sam was very obnoxious and even though he had real problems, like drug abuse and not coming to terms with his sexuality, I felt like he was introduced too late to really explore that to its full potential.

SPICE AND SMOKE is a quick, light read with tons of drama, leads of color, and lots of hot sex involving people of a variety of sexual orientations. I'm surprised more people aren't reading these, because well-written smut is few and far between, and this was really quite dramatic and fun.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, June 7, 2019

What You Wanted by Mina V. Esguerra



WHAT YOU WANTED is the story of a one-night-stand turned romance. Andrea is the sister of Julie, from THAT KIND OF GUY, only whereas Julie was a goody two-shoes, motherly character, Andrea is a world-weary "free spirit" who has a lot of sex with different partners and doesn't really dig commitment. Her heart gets broken when she falls for someone, Thad, finally - only he breaks up with her for another girl named Naomi, leaving her in the dust.

The hero in this book, Damon, is in a similar boat. He's also been in love with another girl for a while, a prissy, high maintenance girl named Geraldine who is Andrea's total opposite in every way. When they meet up again, sparks fly, and Andrea suggests hooking up and going out on double-date-like situations with Thad and Geraldine, along with people from their extended circle of friends, in order to make their ex-lovers jealous.

If you think this plan doesn't work out, you would be right. Both of them start to fall for each other for real, but are still afraid of getting hurt and still not quite 100% over their past love interests. Pretty soon, it's not clear what is a game anymore, and what is real. Andrea has a shot at happiness but this time, her "free spirit" might end up shooting her in the foot and costing her the love of her life.

The first book I read by Mina V. Esguerra was her first book in the Chic Manila series, MY IMAGINARY EX. It had such a classic 2000s chick-lit vibe, and I loved it so much, I recommend it to all of my romance-loving friends and sent the link to coworker friends when it was free on Amazon. THAT KIND OF GUY, my second Esguerra read, was an okay read, but it lacked the charm of MY IMAGINARY, which had a better romance and a lot of focus on friendships.

WHAT YOU WANTED goes back to the formula I loved so much in MY IMAGINARY EX. I love how sex positive this book is, and how Andrea wasn't shamed for having multiple partners. I also like how there's always a twist with the other woman in these books, and that she's never as evil or nefarious as you originally think she might be. There are so many great discussions about sex and relationships and honesty and intimacy in these books, and even though they sometimes take a while to get rolling, by the end I'm always squirming with anxiety and hoping hard for that happy ending.

4 out of 5 stars

What Happened to Lani Garver by Carol Plum-Ucci



WHAT HAPPENED TO LANI GARVER is a book that I first read as an actual teenager, when I was feeling isolated from my peers and depressed. My latest reviewing project is revisiting some of the books I loved as a young woman: I'm calling it The Literary Sad Girl Canon. It's a very important book because despite coming out in 2002 and being "a little" (read: a lot) antiquated in terms of some of the language it uses to talk about being gender-binary and the difference between gender and sexuality, it actually does talk about it - and in fact, WHAT HAPPENED TO LANI GARVER introduced me to the concept of being non-binary for the very first time.

WHAT HAPPENED TO LANI GARVER also deals with other "controversial" teen topics, like underage drinking, abusive parents, parents who abuse substances, homophobia, closeted homophobia, being "out," HIV, cancer, bullying, false memories, confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and all kinds of other challenging and important subjects that books at this time, again, weren't really addressing so head on.

The premise of the book is basically the LGBT+ version of the "Magical Negro" trope. Let's call it the "Magical Gay" trope. Claire McKenzie is an ignorant, mildly homophobic girl living in a podunk fishing village in Pennsylvania filled with violently and gleefully homophobic, intolerant, and ignorant rednecks. Claire is a cheerleader and all of her friends are hunky "fish frat" dudes or other cheerleaders that make up their school's royal elite. But she has a dark and edgy side to her on account of her cancer survivor and eating disorder (which she's in denial about). She plays guitar and sings songs about razorblades and thinks her boyfriend doesn't understand her because he doesn't listen to The Rolling Stones or The Who. Then Lani Garver moves to Hackett, PA.

Lani Garver is a non-binary character who is ascribed "he"/"him" pronouns in the book but never explicitly says that they identify as a boy or even want to be called a boy. They only say that they do not identify as a girl. So I am going to use "they"/"them" pronouns. Lani is the child of adoptive parents, and doesn't really care what people think about them. They have a large, lanky build but a rather feminine looking face, and while they don't really want to be in a relationship with anyone, they admit to liking both boys and girls just fine and occasionally wearing feminine clothing.

Claire's friends take issue with Lani, especially the machismo fish frat dudes, one of whom appears to be a closeted gay man who takes out his feelings by sexually harassing Lani and at one point, outright sexually assaulting them. The other people in the town warp this harassment and bullying as Lani "asking for it" by being too effeminate and sexually precocious, despite the fact that they don't present themselves that way at all and actually getting quite upset from the attention. While all this is going on, Lani takes Claire on a journey to "find herself" by whisking her off to the big city of Philadelphia, introducing her to musicians with AIDS, a therapist whose eating disorder advice is "eat a whole chocolate sundae," and teaching her the wonders of leather clothing.

I really liked this book as a teenager because it was so edgy and made me think about things that nobody was talking about, which, as a precocious "nobody-understands-me" teenager myself who also experienced a fair amount of vicious bullying in school, I related to quite strongly. The language is dated, though, as in the early 2000s, people outside the LGBT+ community didn't really have the knowledge or the linguistic tools to talk about people in the community with respect, nor did they look for it. So there's a lot of talk and language that some may find offensive, like "girl-boy" or "he-she" or, you know, the fact that Claire basically just assigns them pronouns without asking.

It was actually interesting reading this book now because at the time I read this, the concept of someone who was trans or non-binary was totally foreign to me. Now I've met quite a few people who fall on that continuum, and Claire's reactions were totally cringe, as were the questions her bitch-friend Macy asked Lani. I also didn't really like how Lani was martyred in order to teach Claire to be a better person; it felt, again, like the Magical Negro stereotype with gays, in that Lani was portrayed as mystical and wise - and at some points, Claire even wonders if perhaps they are an actual angel? (no seriously, there's a subplot in here where it's implied that Lani is a supernatural force.)

I did still enjoy this and I think it does a good job showing the mob mentality of a small town built around homogeneity and intolerance, and what sort of culture drives people to vote for a man like Trump (I have no doubts that all of those in Hackett probably would). The tough subjects and truly flawed main character were also handled pretty well for the time in my opinion. Even though it's dated, I do think it's a must read, if only because it was one of the few mainstream books at the time that I encountered that was talking about these sorts of things, and my, how we've grown.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer



This was the okayest book I've read in a while. Did I like it? Meh. Did I hate it? Meh. It was okay. I'm not sure if that's damning with the faintest of praise, in light of the rather abysmal rating it has on Goodreads, or just a straight-up slam since the blurb on the back announces that the author "rewrites the rulebook." Um, yeah, no, sorry. Starmer definitely does not do that.

SPONTANEOUS is definitely an unusual premise for a book. Narrated by an annoying quirky/quirkily annoying girl named Mara, and set in one of those small, East Coast towns, it is a book about teens literally blowing up, as in spontaneously combusting. Nobody knows what is happening, or why, but it soon creates a panic and a quarantine and a whole bunch of conspiracy theories.

I liked the beginning of this book a lot more than I liked the middle for several reasons, which could be numbered as such: 1) terrible and forced romance, 2) lack of closure, and 3) overly precious narrator who feels inauthentic and fake (basically what a bad narc would sound like if they were pretending to be a teen).

I wanted to like SPONTANEOUS because this was actually a mom rec (i.e. a book recommended to me by my mom), but I'm afraid I wasn't really vibing with this book. This is the second mom rec to fail me! Does this mean I can't trust my mom anymore? Maybe, maybe not. But I definitely can't trust this author or his blurb writer, because I was expecting something sensational and ended up with what was a pretty disorganized mess with a rather unsatisfying ending.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Spin by Lamar Giles



Wow, Scholastic went edgy. When I was a kid, I think the most controversial book I ever read from a Scholastic imprint was Louis Sachar's HOLES. I'm honestly psyched about this, because I've gone on rants before about how way too many young adults books try to over-simplify and over-sanitize their content to make it kid-friendly, when we live in a world that really isn't kid-friendly and kids are going to look for content they relate to.

In that sense, SPIN is the perfect book, because it has a story to tell and it doesn't try to censor anything or dumb anything down. SPIN is a young adult murder mystery. A young black deejay named Paris Secord (stage name: DJ ParSec) was found dead on her turntables by her ex-friends and ex-business partners, Fuze, her social media consultant, and Kya, her tech gal.

Fuze and Kya want to find out who killed DJ ParSec. Not just because she used to be their friend but because 1) they're suspects in the murder and they want to clear their names and their reputations and 2) ParSec had some super obsessed, super cray-cray fans called #DarkNation who will do anything to serve their leader. Anything. Eep.

The narrative style is pretty breezy. Kya and Fuze have alternating POVs, and sprinkled in are some of Paris's leading up to the night where she died. I never really knew who dunnit until the end and I thought the grand reveal was... well, mostly pretty good. I guess I've read too many twisted thrillers; I expect everything to be as disturbing as the inner-workings of my own mind, I guess!

One thing I loved about SPIN is the rep. This is not diversity for diversity's sake. It's an excellent murder mystery with diverse rep. It has a lot of great fabulous about Black Lives Matter and black culture and black stereotypes and what it means to be "black enough," but the characters' blackness is not the focus of the story. All of the characters are fully fleshed out and they're flawed, three-dimensional beings. I liked all three narratives, even if I didn't always like them as people.

Honestly, if you like mystery thrillers and you want to read a diverse book that sets the bar super high, SPIN is a great pick. I was given this book as a gift and I might not have read it because of that cutesy rainbow cover and the cheesy Goosebumps-esque blurb on the cover, but it's surprisingly dark and disturbing for a YA book - and I mean that in the best possible way. Reader beware, you're in for a rather frightful experience and what is also legally distinct from the Goosebumps catchphrase. ;)

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 3, 2019

Golden Fancy by Jennifer Blake



I got into the bodice-ripper game pretty late. I was born when they were starting to phase them out of the romance literary canon, and since my mom didn't read them (and, in fact, actually abhors the romance genre as a whole), there weren't any lying around the house for me to "happen" upon and traumatize myself with, the way some of you did with Rosemary Rogers and Christine Monson. I actually discovered my passion for bodice-rippers through Goodreads, where there is an active subgroup of women (and men) who devote their time and efforts to mining these gems from the dusty racks of their local thrift shops, or in mildewed bags at garage sales. Their reviews were so convincing that I began looking for these books too, to see if they were really as wild and crazy as everyone was saying they were.

Jennifer Blake has become one of my go-to authors in the genre because she not only delivers on the WTFuqery Experience™, her writing is downright pornographic at times in terms of how luscious her descriptions are and how broad her vocabulary is. I'm always learning new words from her that I'd never heard before, and I would happily listen to this woman describe food and furniture to me for hours; she makes everything sound so pretty. It should be illegal to be so eloquent.

My review for GOLDEN FANCY is going to have lots of spoilers because this is the type of book that you can't fully appreciate unless you know how disturbing and over-the-top it is. The heroine is a girl named Serena, and she's beautiful, innocent, virginal, et al. Her parents are dead, so she lives with a bunch of FLDS Mormons, and they judge her gentile ass but mostly just ignore her - except for their leader, Elder Greer, AKA Captain Crazypants, AKA General Unconsensual, who decides to take her as his fourth wife whether she wants it or not, and what better to do that than a bit of sexual assault? But Serena hears him coming and stabs him with a fork, and when she escapes her wagon to find all the other Mormons awake, they brand her as a hussy and kick her out of the group.

Alone, with only a trunk of belongings to her name and her dearly-bought innocence, she wanders the fields, only to happen upon a gambler named Ward. He sort of saves her, after nearly sexually assaulting her, too, but some bad weather interrupts him and instead he dumps her off at a boarding house. When he returns, he takes her to the bordello that he jointly owns with Pearly, AKA Catty Got Claws, the jealous AF OW, and puts her in his own bedroom where he - you guessed it - rapes her. Eventually, Serena decides Ward is OK, but there's lots of shenanigans conducted by Pearlie and her evol rapey henchman, Otto, to sully Serena's innocence and put her in her place, including starving her out of her bedroom to perform on stage, threatening her with assault, and drugging her and delivering her into the hands of a man who also wants her (but is too "gentlemanly" to take advantage of her while unconscious, thanks bro).

Nathan is the OM in this story and at first I liked him a lot, way more than Ward, because he's the guy who steps in when Ward goes off to do who-knows-what. He's a millionaire and friends with Ward, and he's the fairweather protector of one of the classier dames in the bordello establishment, a Spanish woman named Consuelo. Consuelo actually loves Nathan, but he has eyes only for Serena (because of course he does). Rather than going batsquat inside over it like Pearlie, though, Consuelo just executes a couple of sneaky but non-violent coups in the hopes of winning Nathan. Nathan, however, will not be denied, and manages to swoop in to marry Serena when Ward has an accident and is presumed dead by drugging Serena and then marrying her while unconscious. Such a gentleman. Also, it's worth noting that while this fuquery is going on, Serena is nine months pregnant with Ward's child, so I assume that she gave birth to the child while in this comatose state.

While all this is going on, there's a Jack the Ripper-like murderer going around and killing prostitutes. Elder Greer makes a reappearance, saying he'll have his revenge on Serena, and if he can't have the delights of her flesh he's going to whip it all off in the name of mortification. He's a special kind of crazysauce, is Elder Greer. But he doesn't have anything on Pearlie, who goes from being the madam of a bordello, to an opium addict, to basically a born-again-christian who is definitely very much pro-whip. Serena finds out that Ward isn't actually dead and cheats with him, and Nathan cheats with Consuelo while hating himself a little and despairing that Serena won't put out. At some point he threatens her with an ultimatum, and tells her that he's going to take her against her will or else die training (and then he falls to his death, so oops, maybe don't make such promises).

In other words, GOLDEN FANCY was glorious.

A lot happens in this book, and yet at times it still felt very slow. There are vast swaths in the middle where nothing of import really happens and this book ends up being much longer than it needed to be. I found myself skimming a lot during these sections. The parts that are good are seriously good. Can a book be "fire"? (Asking because I'm not exactly hip with the slang.) If so, I would say that the good parts of this book are definitely fire. Blake knows exactly how much crazysauce to pour on her bodice-ripper sundae. If this book had just been a little more concise, it would have been great.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 2, 2019

A Beautiful Lie by T.E. Sivec



DNF @ 14% 

I really tried to give this a fair shot and maybe if I had forced myself to the very end of the story, I could have found some redeeming factor to bump this rating up to a 2*. But you know what? Life is short and there are a metric bleep-ton of books in the sea, and it really isn't worth slogging through 300+ pages just to see if something might make a 1* book 2*s. So here we are.

I didn't get that far into the book but the premise is basically this: two hot guys walk into a coffee shop where a girl is and it's love at first side. Before your reverse harem panties get into a twist, let me be the first to tell you "SORRY." One of the dudes pees on her (metaphorically) to mark his territory and the other dude backs off nobly, even though he's the one the girl is really in love with.

So girl and second best get into a relationship and are about to get married when he's deployed to the Dominican Republic. Their marriage-to-be is on the rocks, so girl feels mixed feelings now that her fiance is did, because that frees her up for guy. But oh no, it turns out second best's death might not have been an accident, so now noble guy feels compelled to investigate his death.

Girl, who is TSTL and one of the most slappable characters I've encountered in a while, decides to plunge headlong into SEAL business, and for whatever reason, she gets the job. Noble guy is super angry and girl just hikes up her chin defiantly and settles in to do the job. Even more tension and anger ensues when she finds out that she'll be posing as noble guy's wife on the mission.

The writing wasn't that bad, although there were tons of random POV swaps mid-paragraph even, and the author was super fond of laying everything out and basically abusing the hell out of the "tell" function of storytelling instead of "showing" anything. The characters were all pretty awful people and, perhaps even more unforgivably, ridiculous cardboard cut-outs who I felt no emotional investment in, beyond a stinging hate for the girl and a wish that she would be lost at sea.

1 out of 5 stars

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep



I have a lot of favorite genres to read, but one I find myself coming back to again and again is fantasy. You could argue that any fictional book is escapist, but fantasy (and science-fiction, to a lesser extent) is the genre that involves literally escaping to another world, and I find it so amazing that we as humans can actually dream up entire alternate universes, populate them with living things, and then put all of that imagination to paper.

KILL THE QUEEN snagged me with its blurb, which says that it's a cross between Gladiator and Game of Thrones. Even though I profess to hate those "X meets Y" blurbs and find them lazy, they still work on me, because I am a trash can. The book is also only $1.99 in the Kindle store at the time of my writing this review, which also helps. I can't say no to cheap or free.

Everleigh is minor nobility in a treacherous kingdom fraught with intrigue and betrayal. She lives in a castle, working as a servant, because in a hierarchy based on magic and might, she, as a lowly "mutt" doesn't have much power. Of course, she's not as powerless as anyone thinks - she has the ability to immunize herself against magic - but her mother swore her to secrecy about this ability, and now her mother is dead by assassination, so clearly she must have known something about treachery, right? Right. So Everleigh allows herself to be treated like crap until the crown princess, Vasilia, decides to pull a Red Wedding on the day of her betrothal, killing her husband-to-be, his entourage, her subjects, and then, last but not least, her own mother.

Everleigh escapes the fray only barely by using her powers against the magical assault. She ends up wandering and lost, still stunned by what she witnessed, until she happens upon a gladiatorial camp in the middle of the woods. It's headed by a woman who I'm not entirely sure isn't Brienne of Tarth (her name is Serilda), and Obligatory Hot Man Candy™, Sullivan. They aren't exactly eager to welcome her into the fold, but Everleigh proves her worth, so they do - only it turns out that at least some of the people at the camp have a ~mysterious~ connection to the castle.

So here's the thing, this is a love-it or hate-it type book. If you're a die-hard fantasy purist who likes everything to be by-the-book and Tolkienesque, you're probably going to hurl this book out the window. I looked at the positive and negative reviews before buying it and they are totally on the ball, in my opinion. Regarding the naysayers - no, KILL THE QUEEN doesn't quite live up to the brutality of Game of Thrones, and I think the main tie-in is the massacre in the beginning of the book (hence why I didn't tag it with a spoiler; it's mentioned in the Goodreads blurb and happens super early on in the story). The Gladiator comparison has more merit, but it's not the focus of the story.

KILL THE QUEEN is also a bit of an odd duck because it doesn't really have a clear setting. It could be, as another reader pointed out, anywhere from early Medieval to 18th century, and the language the characters use in dialogue is very modern-sounding. The end result is something anachronistic and odd, that feels about as cheesy and unrealistic as a small-town Renaissance Faire. There's also a bit of a romance thrown in here, but it feels like a flash in the pan because 1) it's kind of insta, and 2) it doesn't come into fruition at all, so what was the point, even? Hot Man Candy™ aside.

I did like the heroine, though. She had to struggle for what she accomplished, and the author wasn't afraid to make her work for that happy ending. There were a couple scenes in here that reminded me of ELLA ENCHANTED, in how the main character's intelligence and ability to be a quick study ended up saving her ass in a way that might have otherwise seemed like a deus ex machina. I liked the call backs to things that seemed irrelevant in the beginning; I like an author who plans.

KILL THE QUEEN is a wonky book and does some truly odd things, but I enjoyed the story and the characters, and I'm curious to see how the plot will develop with the release of the second book. If you're looking for something that'll keep you turning the pages, and doesn't require too much effort, KILL THE QUEEN is a solid choice, and proof that good can exist from great, and that's OK.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Dream Country by Shannon Gibney



I've said many times in my reviews that the YA genre needs to start taking risks. For about a decade, YA has been snowballing towards "safe" and "stale." Young adults are young adults, and I personally think, as a reader and a writer, that we need to stop acting like teens and adults in their early twenties need to be protected from difficult subjects or explicit content, as 1) they're going to go ahead and find it anyway if they really want to read it, so you might as well to try and do it well and for the intended audience and 2) it's not like teens aren't experiencing things like sex, swearing, alcohol, and bigotry/racism in their everyday lives.

So before I even get into the content of DREAM COUNTRY, I want to say that I appreciate that the author didn't try to dumb down the difficult subjects in her book, which was, to my surprise, for young adults. There is a lot of graphic content, everything from genocide, to rape, to racism, colorism, privilege, explicit language (multiple uses of the N-word especially, but also the C-word), as well as white supremacy and slavery.

DREAM COUNTRY is a multi-generational family saga centering around a Liberian family. The first narrator, Kollie, is a high school student in the early noughties who struggles with not being "black enough" to fit in with the American black students, but also very much conscious of the racism he faces as a man of color, and the xenophobia he faces as an immigrant. The second narrator is Togar, which takes place in the late 1920s. Togar is trying to escape the militant slavers who are forcing Liberians to work the plantations owned by ex-slaves who colonized Liberia in the 1800s. Yasmine is one of those ex-slaves, who thinks that Liberia will be a new chance for her and her children, but she is taken aback by the sickness, the poor health conditions, and the rural conditions. Then there's Ujay and Evelyn, whose narrative is set in the 1980s, during the Liberian Civil war. The story ends full circle with Angel, Kollie's younger sister, who is now an adult in the 2010s.

As I said, this book is written the way it would be for any adult. Gibney does not balk at the idea of communicating the horrors of slavery, racism, and war to kids. And really, I think most kids don't have any idea how horrific such events are, because frequently they are sugar-coated or glorified in children's fiction. Reading this book makes you fully cognizant of the stakes. It actually reminded me a lot of Yaa Gyasi's HOMEGOING, although between you and me, I thought HOMEGOING was a better book because each character was more fleshed out, and their story fully developed.

That actually brings me to my biggest complaint with DREAM COUNTRY: it felt like an unfinished book. The characters' stories didn't really close in a satisfying way, and in my opinion, the most interesting POVs ended way too soon and the less interesting POVs dragged on forever. I would have liked to learn more about Togar or see what Kollie's experience was like when his parents sent him to Liberia. Angel's POV felt like an afterthought, and Ujay's was the only historical POV that actually provided new perspective on his descendants, whereas the others really didn't, in my opinion.

DREAM COUNTRY isn't a bad book by any means and it does some pretty amazing things, but there were also many points where I found myself bored by the subject matter, and given the nature of the subject matter, that should not be the case. I'm going to donate my copy to a high school now that I've done with it. Hopefully the kids will enjoy it more than I did. :)

3 out of 5 stars