Thursday, December 31, 2020

Bittersweet Bondage by Sonya T. Pelton


DNF @ p.27

The only thing more purple than the prose in this book is the heroine's dress on the cover-- and even that's up for debate. (Also, look at that cut-- holy cleavage, Batman!) Points for having this set in an actual Middle Eastern region unlike 95% of sheik romances that think that they can get around cultural stereotypes by just making up their own country and then pretending that it's not offensive if it isn't tied to a specific geographic location. The title and the cover made me think I was going to get a really smutty bodice-ripper but #NOPE.

Maybe I'll come back to this one some day-- I'm keeping it because of the cover-- but for now it's a DNF.

1 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

No More Lies by Susan Squires


DNF @ 9%

I've been in a huge book slump and the best way for me to get out of those is usually be dipping into my old fave: ROMANCE! So I've been trying to clean out my Kindle by picking up some of the romances I was really excited about but didn't have time to get into because there was always another book I felt like I *needed* to read, and romance deserves better than to be my 3am booty call, if you know what I mean.

Sadly, I won't be calling this book back. Like, ever.

It's a shame, because Susan Squires is one of my favorite cheesetacular romance authors. She has a really good vampire series (The Companions) and I like one of her sci-fi romances, BODY ELECTRIC, a lot. This one is awful, though. You should check out Elena's review on Goodreads because she hates this book for a lot of the same reasons I did (we even got annoyed by the same quotes). The writing is just so bad, and the Kindle ebook is formulated like a PDF file (why???), and the constant hating on psychology and psychiatrists got really annoying to me, a psychology major.

I'll rate DNFs 2* if I feel like I could have made it through the entire book and found something to redeem it, but this was so awful that I just don't see myself finding anything about it to like at all.

1 out of 5 stars

Monday, December 14, 2020

Forbidden Love by Karen Robards


DNF @ 48%

Five years ago I probably would have grimly read this to the end but that Nenia was younger and more naive; she still had high hopes and big dreams that books with bad beginnings could have good endings. Let's all take a moment of silence to reminisce fondly on Young Nenia, sweet summer child that she was. Bitter Nenia, who is writing this review over a glass of rose wine, is not so easily fooled.

FORBIDDEN LOVE is my first book by Karen Robards and this is the ebook, so I'm wondering if Robards is one of those authors who rewrites her backlist books to make them more PC because the hero was SUCH a sleaze bag but it kind of felt like the author was also trying to make him a Nice Guy, never mind the fact that he is MARRIED and chasing after his ward who is 17. I actually own an original paperback copy of this bodice ripper so I may check it out and compare it against the ebook, because the ebook is really gross and made me feel all the uncomfortables.

I'm not really sure what else to say about this book except that if you like Bertrice Small at her worst, you'll probably enjoy this. It has the same vibe of breathless purple prose, and it's about fifty flavors of ridiculous. The sex scenes are ~le cringe~. At first I thought it was really funny but then I got bored and decided it wasn't worth the trouble. Life is too short to read boring bad books.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 11, 2020

Mafia Captive by Kitty Thomas


Kitty Thomas is an erotica author whose works I sometimes really enjoy, but she can also be really hit or miss with me. I loved TENDER MERCIES and THE GAME MAKER, which I thought were both the perfect blend of messed up and hot, but sometimes, I really, really don't like her books. GUILTY PLEASURES disgusted me and this one, MAFIA CAPTIVE, was really frustrating and weird.

Faith is in trouble when she witnesses a mob hit, but rather than killing her, Angelo delivers her to his twin brother, Leo, a tortured doctor and would-be priest who has a taste for servitude and sadism. Faith isn't into this at all, so he just keeps her for reasons??? while being totally frustrated that she isn't into his awesome lifestyle, but also it's Christmas and his family comes, so he also has her pretend to be his fiance??? so it ends up being like a bad Christmas comedy, only with mob bosses, BDSM, and OW drama that is actually consummated on-page multiple times because Leo, the hero, is a creep.

Props to the author for daring to push the envelope but this book in particular just felt really tone-deaf and Leo kind of felt like a sleaze. I didn't think he was hot at all-- he was such a whiner leather pants-wearing emo trash baby, and I got really tired of his nonstop pity party. It doesn't help that Faith doesn't have a spine at all. The heroines in this author's books are usually really submissive (and often TSTL), but in TENDER MERCIES and GAME MAKER, they at least had personalities and grit. Faith... is like a whipped dog. Only, you know, not in the way that Leo would like her to be because he's gross.

Also, BRB crying forever at that scene with the SPECULUM. Speculums have no place in erotica novels. No shade if you're into that, but it is definitely NOT MY THING AT ALL. #NopeForever #Bye

1 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Moonrise by Anne Stuart


DNF @ 20%

Anne Stuart is one of my FAVES (seriously, check out my other reviews for her books), so nobody is more disappointed than me to give this book a bad review. I was interested in the prologue and then it got really boring, with the heroine being all, "I WANNA KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO MY DAD," and the hero being all, "BABY YOU DON'T WANNA KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR DAD. YOU AREN'T READY."

In many ways, this almost feels like a prototype of the Ice series, what with the ex-hired assassin hero and the simpering nitwit heroine who falls for him anyway. He's also a friend of her dad, and is in his 40s, I believe, whereas the heroine is fairly young, so it has a huge age gap. Which I'm not always into and didn't especially work here.

I have two ways of rating DNFs. 1 star if I think it's stupid and wouldn't have finished it anyway, and 2 stars if I think I probably could have finished it and just didn't want to waste my time. Lest you be of the "if you didn't finish it, you don't get to rate it" school of reviewing, let me be the first to tell you to go back to school and pursue a secondary degree in "I don't give a horse's oats."

I may come back to this someday but I really don't feel like it right now. If I do end up reading it, I'll post an update to my review along with the new rating.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The Game Maker by Kitty Thomas


I basically have two moods: Trash and Not Trash. Today was Trash, so I went and bought every single Kitty Thomas book I saw that was on sale that I didn't already own because even though her books aren't super well-written and complex, she's a good story-teller and clearly is self-aware enough to understand what so many people don't get: there's a difference between writing dark stories as escapist fantasies and actually muddling them into something that's idealized and romantic. I actually really liked the disclaimers in her works acknowledging that these are intended as fantasy and should NOT be emulated. Like, duh.

And yet...

THE GAME MAKER is a really dark story. The heroine, Kate, ends up fired from her job for sleeping with his boss and he retaliates after their breakup to make her life an extra bitter flavor of misery. She's so desperate that she's considering selling herself for money and ends up turning back to her ex, which is where things get... weird and darker still. Because someone knocks her out and she wakes up in a cell with another guy who's also captive, and a third guy on an intercom who wants them to play a sick little game with him involving blackmail and... some not very fun things.

This is a lot like the Saw movies, only instead of torture, it's blackmail and non-con/dub-con, and there's also a twist, so if you think you know what's really going on-- you don't. Sometimes it was a little too dark even for me but I pressed ahead wanting to see what happened, and it ended up being a really satisfying story with an interesting and uncertain ending. I wouldn't exactly read this as a romance but it is erotica and it's pretty thoughtfully written as far as these stories usually go. Kitty Thomas can sometimes be hit or miss with me but I usually end up really liking her work and I'm happy to say that THE GAME MAKER ended up being one of her successes for me.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 4, 2020

Till Dawn Tames the Night by Meagan McKinney


I really have to stop writing my reviews over wine or they're going to make you all think I'm even more ridiculous than I actually am. First, major thanks to my book bestie, Heather, for reading this book with me. She recently read and loved LIONS AND LACE by this author on my recommendation and I thought it would be totes mcgoats fun if we decided to read another McKinney Original because she's just SO GOOD at writing really intense heroes who are kind of domineering (in a hot way) and innocent heroines who still have a lot of personality. Case in point: WHEN ANGELS FALL, which is probably one of my favorite romances of all time because of its hero, Ivan Tramore, who is my king.

Initially, I really loved TILL DAWN TAMES THE NIGHT. It has this fun Indiana Jones on the high seas vibe to it and the hero locks eyes with the heroine in chapter two and it is... INTENSE. Like, with eye contact like that, you don't need explicit content in books if you get me. So I was like YAAAAAAASS. Especially since the hero is actually a hot pirate who is obsessed with finding this rare jewel that ONLY the heroine knows about and also he has long hair, an earring, and a dragon tattoo on his back that is the coolest tattoo I've ever seen described in a book.

So obviously, I was like YES.

The problem is that... um??? When the hero and heroine get together, he makes her feel bad about herself? It's like you have all this delicious tension that seems to be building towards a meaningful connection and then it just ends up becoming super cyclical with the heroine and the hero getting into the same petty arguments over and over without any sort of development. LIONS AND LACE was a complex story of revenge becoming attraction and WHEN ANGELS FALL is a tale of dark, passionate obsession that has the potential to blossom into destruction. TILL DAWN TAMES THE NIGHT had elements of both, but it felt hopelessly unfinished, almost like a rough draft composite of both stories.

I was mildly interested until about 65% or so where I just lost all interest. The villain had the potential to be grim and horrible but I don't think his character was done all that well, either. I'm wickedly disappointed at how quickly this went from simmering to stultifying and if I didn't know McKinney had written this, I would have called you a liar and slapped you in the face for telling me that my ultimate fave penned this sad, disappointing mess. I still love this woman and she can come to my birthday party whenever, but she's going to have to check this book at the door before she comes into my house.

Thank u, next.

2 out of 5 stars

Monday, November 30, 2020

Guardian's Key by Anne Logston


This book sent me into a book slump because I was so fucking disappointed. It was actually hard to find because it was recently pulled from ebook and I had to buy a used copy of it like a total book bitch. But someone told me that this was basically ill-concealed Labyrinth fic, and that sort of shit is my fangirl kryptonite so I was like shut up and take my $$$$. I ordered that shit used from Amazon like a champ of ordering used books and stalked the mailbox until it arrived in its little wrapper, before spritzing it with some sanitizer.

GUARDIAN'S KEY started out okay. It's about this girl named Dora/Dara (can't remember her name??) who is going to this place called the Crystal Keep to learn how to be a magician because she's poor and in love with this high lord guy whose family is a bunch of snobs that doesn't want him marrying with the poors (although it's fine when the poors serve the toast, etc.). Anyway, the Crystal Keep is owned by this hot dude named Lord Vanian who is basically Jareth with dark hair and it's pretty hot how he taunts her and pops up where he's not wanted... until he rapes her. Oops.

Honestly, I have no problem with the rape but what I DID have a problem with was one of the characters, Granny Good (e.g. Granny Gaslight) telling her that it wasn't really rape because only mind tricks were involved and not physical force (paraphrasing). I was so mad that I immediately began texting all my friends and raging about this book (as one does) and stopped reading it for a few weeks. If you're going to have non-con or dub-con FUCKING OWN UP TO IT. Don't be an apologist in the narrative subtext. I was mad. But every time I went into my bathroom, this book sat there mocking me, for my failure, and my lost hopes, and so I decided to sit down and skim-read it to the end.

GUARDIAN'S KEY is like half-plucky 90s heroine fantasy in the vein of Tamora Pierce or Catherine Asaro and half-bodice-ripper fantaporn adventure, but it does things by halvsies, so it ends up feeling really inconsistent in tone. There are dark scenes, like the heroine's near gangbang at the tiny hands of a swarm of rapey elves, and then of course, the rape by Lord Vanian, and then there's her Hoggle-like companion Gespry and all of her fun little traipsings through the Keepyrinth that feel much younger in tone and there's no explicit sex scenes, so I was like, omg, it's like Scooter's Magic Castle but with dub-con and rape apology. Hooray.

I'm not giving it the full one star because LV was hot and in the hands of another author, I think I would have been like hnnnnng. Also, the Labyrinth nostalgia of the Keepyrinth was pretty fun. I'm just pissed that this book went hardcore wack on my expectations and also I'm drinking some pretty strong wine right now and am therefore naturally inclined to become more forgiving.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Anti/Hero by Kate Karyus Quinn


A little young but super cute. This graphic novel is about two girls with opposite problems-- one with a big family struggling to match academic expectations, who is very physical; the other with a small family, struggling with financial problems and lack of coordination.

I thought this was an interesting take on the superhero genre because it is so targeted towards young girls and the problems they face. To the point where the superhero stuff nearly takes a back seat. I also liked how the "villain"-- or at least, the person you think is the villain-- ends up being surprising.

It's very light fare and a little forgettable but I enjoyed reading it a lot.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan


When I was in high school, I started getting into literary fiction because I thought that was what you had to read to be "smart." From there, I got really interested in Asian literature, and one of my favorite authors to read back then was Banana Yoshimoto. Her trademark style of dreamy, wistful tragedies was just so compelling to teen me, and I haven't really found an author that came close... UNTIL NOW.

For some reason, I had gotten it into my head that I wouldn't like Clarissa Goenawan's work. I must have seen a friend's review that put me off. But when an ARC was extended my way, I accepted greedily because such is the nature of me, Queen Trashcan. I will read pretty much anything because I'm always willing to be surprised. And this. Was such. A surprise! Like, reading it instantly transported me back to the angsty high school/college days of yore, being an awkward teen ridiculed with uncertainties, paying more attention to the environment than to the people because I didn't like the people...

It was transportive, basically.

THE PERFECT WORLD OF MIWAKO SUMIDA may sound all cute and adorable because of the title and cover, but it's actually a very dark story. When Miwako, the main character, goes missing, her three surviving friends, Ryusei, Fumi, and Chie, decide to find out what happened to her. They find out that she committed suicide, and even though the stories revolve around that, the book is less about her death than about her friends discovering themselves and learning who they want to be as adults. Ryusei's was the story that felt most "Yoshimoto" to me, but Chie's was probably my favorite because she reminded me so much of me. Fumi's story was the weakest because the author introduced a magic-realism element with her character arc that didn't really quite work with the rest of the story, in my opinion.

Overall, though, this is really, REALLY good and I want to check out RAINBIRDS now, as well as whatever else this author writes. I think you'll especially like this book if you've ever traveled to Japan because it mentions several places I've actually been to in my travels, which gave this book an extra level of depth. Definitely recommend if you enjoy books that are well-written and a little tragic.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 15, 2020

A Good Girl's Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson


DNF @ p.45

I'm quitting because I'm finding the writing style to be nigh intolerable. This is written in such a way that the reader knows right off the bad that the author wants all of us to know that her main character, "Pip," is quirky. Very quirky. Extremely quirky.

The premise of the story is basically that Pip is working on a capstone project where she has decided to investigate the murder-suicide of an Indian man and his blonde girlfriend. She doesn't think he actually did it because he was "nice" to her and she has a feeling. This being a young adult book with a presumably happy ending, I'm assuming her feeling paid off and he was actually innocent. Iunno.

It's told in a mixed media style, with Facebook posts, interviews, and excerpts from Pip's notes, along with normal narratives showing Pip living her every day quirky life in between research. The writing style makes it feel like she's much younger than she actually is. I think she's supposed to be a high school senior but she acts like she's in middle school. It kind of reminds me of the Sammy Keyes books, if you remember those.

I feel like maybe I would have enjoyed this more if I were younger and hadn't read so many other YA mysteries that I enjoyed better than this one. I'm giving it two stars because I feel like I could probably force myself through this if I really tried, but I don't really want to try. Life is too short.

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

1.5 out of 5 stars

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna


High key obsessed with the cover. Low key disappointed with what was inside it. The first 100 or so pages had me thinking that this was going to be a four or five star book and then it loses steam. I think that part of that is because the opening made it seem like this was going to be sort of a YA Handmaid's Tale sort of tale, about subversion within the patriarchy, and while this is partially that, it becomes more of a journey/military-style of fantasy, which is fine, but took some adjusting since it wasn't what I was mentally prepared for.

I like how colorism and racism and sexism are tackled in this book and the female friendships that develop within Deka's ranks are heartwarming and positive to see in YA, a genre which is often criticized for the girl-on-girl hate that runs rampant in the books. Looking at some of the other ARC reviews, I have to say that I agree that the narrative is a bit weak and unstructured. It starts out strong in the beginning of the book but then peters out, and I ended up skimming pretty heavily in the second half. Especially because of a forced love interest that, in my opinion, became too intense, too quickly and wasn't even really that convincing.

I think a lot of kids are going to love this book when it comes out, because of the surprisingly gritty battle scenes and, yes, the romance. But I wish the world had been developed a bit more and the narrative more compelling. I'm not sure this needed to be 400-plus pages. I think the first half is four stars-worthy and the last half is two-stars worthy, so I'm averaging those two together and giving this a three, even though I'm feeling that this is more of a solid two in terms of final execution. I'd read more from this author but I probably wouldn't read more from this series.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Empty by Susan Burton


This was an incredibly difficult read for me and I think it will be even harder for people who have actually suffered from eating disorders, as it contains major triggers for eating disorders and anxiety. I actually think the author went about EMPTY in as healthfully a manner as she could, and I agreed with her that sometimes memoirs about the topic can read (accidentally) as sensationalist instruction manuals if they rely too heavily on numbers and tactics to get the point across.

Susan Burton has enjoyed a life of privilege, but privilege does not lessen or eliminate the onset of psychiatric illnesses. It can make getting good treatment better and prevent the onset of environmental stressors that come with poverty, but sometimes what happens is a sort of cognitive dissonance where people feel guilty for not being happy or healthy despite having so much. Mental illness is an equal opportunity disease that can affect anyone or everyone and I think that is something important to keep in mind when reading memoirs like these, that we don't get to choose how our brains are wired, any more than we can choose who we are, and what we look like.

Burton describes her childhood in Colorado and her college years at Yale with a frankness that borders between self-effacing and brutally honest. She really captures the hormonally-charged uncertainties of high school and adolescence, and how that gets magnified with anxiety spectrum disorders. Over the years, she vacillates between anorexia and bingeing and talks about her body dysmorphia and the way she repeatedly turned to food as both a means of comfort and control. I can't imagine sitting down and writing about myself with such introspection; memoirs are tricky, because they almost require that you have to be removed from yourself, and look at yourself as you might a stranger. I think it necessitates an incredible amount of self-awareness and self-honesty and I'm not sure I could do that, even as a writer.

This is not an easy read or even a fun one, but I found it incredibly fascinating. As a psychology major, I was required to read a number of memoirs written by people with mental health disorders and since college was a while ago, the language and vocabulary employed by some of these authors was not as sensitive as it is now. I like how the author chose to structure this memoir, and I liked how it ended on a hopeful note with how she ended up being able to tell others about her disorder and seek treatment. It's raw and it's honest and it really tries to do as little harm as possible without pulling back the punches.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Wildflower Heart by Heather Crews


The best part about having friends who write books is reading their books. The worst part about having friends who write books is reviewing their books. Like if you agree. Also, hi, I was a beta reader for this book, but it's been edited and reworked so much since I saw it that it's basically a different books and I paid money for it.

WILDFLOWER HEART is the second book in the Aecoria series, although it can be read as a standalone. I think it's actually ten times better than the first book in the series, SEA AND SKY, which I felt ambivalent about. It's honestly amazing how much better this book is in terms of character development, complexity, and prose. It's filled with gorgeous passages, and the two leads, Arun and Fenella, are such well-rounded characters. I loved spending every moment with them, especially Arun, who has supplanted Tristan and Branek, my favorite vampire duo, as my favorite Crews-written hero. #bye

The plot is pretty simple in that it's just a character-driven marriage of convenience, but it ends up being so much more than that because of the writing. Fenella is flighty and headstrong and Arun is gruff and stoic. I think the best part of the story is getting to see them slowly fall in love and finding out what makes them tick. There's also an interesting secondary romance with Fen's wastrel brother, Emyr, and one of the forest sprites. The sexual tension is off the charts and the writing descriptions are so immersive. When Fen and Arun go to Seaside, I actually felt a physical ache, because it reminded me of the small, oceanside towns I visited in Portugal.

This is definitely one of Heather's best works and I'm so glad that we're friends because it's honestly been such a privilege to see her learn and grow as a writer (and also because she's basically the best human ever for putting up with me). I can't wait to see what she writes next.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Take Me With You by Altebrando

 DNF @ p.181

Officially, I threw in the towel at p.181 but I skimmed to and read the end because I wanted to see if the journey was worth it. Spoiler: it wasn't. I'm actually pretty disappointed because I thought TAKE ME WITH YOU had a really interesting premise and what sold me on the book was its superficial similarities to Danny Tobey's THE GOD GAME, which was basically the YA version of a cheesy potboiler.

Basically, the premise of this book is this: four teens are summoned to a classroom under mysterious circumstances where they find a device. The device tells them that they must take it with them, trading off every 24 hours. They are not allowed to talk about the device, they can't abandon the device, and they cannot get it wet. The first one hundred or so pages are mysterious and creepy because the rules give the appearance of dramatic stakes should the rules be defied.

I guess my problem with this book is that it didn't really go anywhere. It had all these opportunities to be either a bit ridiculous but fun like THE GOD GAME or a cheesy techno-thriller like Paycheck, where even if the science doesn't make sense, you can at least tell a good and compelling story with some emotional stakes. It's never really clear why these four teens were chosen and none of them really leaped out at me, personality-wise. The ending is anticlimactic and it just seems like this book goes on for way too long with way too little payoff. Very disappointing.

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

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid by J. Maarten Troost

I'm a little bummed after reading this. I loved this author when I read him in high school and college many, many moons ago when I was not a thirty-something-- I thought he was so funny and his madcap journeys to the far corners of the world were like getting to travel vicariously without any of the annoying things that make travel so unbearable: long flights, checking your baggage, finding hotel accommodations, figuring out what to eat, etc. Now, though, I'm beginning to second guess young me because this book doesn't really hold up as well as I remembered. Like, at all.

Before reading this, I urge you to check out some of the negative reviews for this book written by actual Chinese people who have good reason to be upset with the way Troost portrayed the people and the culture of China. That was how I found them: because something about his writing was really rubbing me the wrong way and I wanted to see if it was just me. 

LOST ON PLANET CHINA is a travel memoir of a Dutch/Czech man who now lives in America but decided to travel to China. He's written other travel memoirs about Kiribati and Vanuatu, and there is an almost colonial vibe to all of his writings, I'm realizing now: like, oh, look how craaaaAAAAazy the natives are, while he parades around with all of the smugness of a white dude on vacation and tries on the various trimmings and trappings of their culture as if it is a funny hat. Cases in point: most of this book is 1. talking about how dirty China is, 2. talking about how oppressive China is, 3. making fun of the food, and 4. making fun of how greedy the Chinese are, and 5. making fun of people.

1. China does in fact have a huge pollution problem but it doesn't exist in a vacuum. There's a fascinating video I watched on YouTube that was all about Chinese factories working to satisfy the needs and desires of global capitalism. I believe there's an entire province whose factories focus exclusively on Christmas decorations which are then exported to Western shopping centers. For many years, also, much of the U.S.'s waste was exported to China: plastics, e-waste, and other things. But now that China is becoming an emerging global power, they raised the purity standards of materials that they would accept, so a lot of U.S. plastics don't actually meet the standards to export anymore. Some of the dirtiness comes from other factors, but a lot of the pollution that he bitches about in this memoir was aided by the United States. I don't know about the peeing on the streets or the hocking of loogies being a Chinese-exclusive thing either; I live in San Francisco and I've watched people drop trou and shit on the buildings, and pre-COVID there were plenty of people who spat on the sidewalks.

2. I don't deny that China does have a totalitarian government but the way that Troost writes about it fails to capture the strange dichotomy of China that I've read about in better books and by talking to friends who actually came from China. One book that I really liked was SHANGHAI FREE TAXI, which is a Chinese travel memoir written with respect (in my opinion) that really focuses on the people who live there. Troost's is largely self-referential and doesn't really move from himself, which is a shame because I felt like the parts where he was writing about the actual Chinese people he encountered were some of the best parts. His tour guide, who he calls "Meow Meow" (I'm guessing it was probably Miaomiao) was a really interesting persona and I would have liked to have learned more. It feels like a lot of people see the totalitarianism of China as an inevitability, and if not fighting against it, are jaded and complacent because they have to be. There's a grim scene in here where the Chinese police come to drag a protester away and it's chilling because he kind of jokes about/makes light about it, but after reading SHANGHAI FREE TAXI and learning about the "black jails," this made me so uncomfortable because what happens to arrested protestors in China really isn't a joke. Which actually takes me to the Hong Kong chapter, where he's like, "Wow! It's so nice here! It's like Europe!" And he mentions their English colonialist history before their return to China but says basically nothing about the protests or the resentment about that, which felt like a pretty glaring omission from the narrative.

3. The food part was a little ridiculous, since he's traveled so extensively and it feels like he'd probably be used to weird food at this point? It felt like just another reason to be disrespectful, especially since he didn't even really talk about how it tasted. If I'm going to travel vicariously, I'd like to know how cow veins and pig knuckle taste, especially if it's surprisingly good! (Or bad.) That said, I was genuinely horrified by the portion of the book where he ripped apart a live squid and ate it. This is something that personally sickens me and I will never do, because it feels like such a blatant act of animal cruelty. Eating squid and octopus like this is especially cruel because they are INCREDIBLY smart (some of the smartest animals on Earth), so you're torturing these intelligent living creatures who are probably aware of what is happening to them and terrified and it honestly makes me want to cry.

4. Going on and on about the bargaining and the cheapness of the Chinese, which is at conflict with their desire for luxury goods and status was the only thing he said that really reflected what friends and family have told me about their experience in China. The scene when he bargains his way down to a cheap stay in a hotel was genuinely funny and I think it worked because it felt like a joke that everyone was in on, because he was actually playing along with the social mores of the culture instead of doing that "this is so ridiculous and beneath me that I'm just going to laugh instead" thing, which can either give his books a subversive, pithy humor or be outright offensive depending on what he writes. China is in a period of incredible flux and I think that conflict between tradition and innovation is one of the most interesting things about China and its people, and it's one of the things I've loved reading about in the books I've gotten about China that really show that growing divide between the new generation and the old.

5. I get that writing a comedic memoir is probably very hard and the line between humor and insult is margin-thin and doesn't always evolve with the times. I did keep in mind that this memoir is over ten years old, so of course it's going to feel dated. That said, the way he made fun of their English and their names, the way he cheekily waved at the North Koreans at the border (ugh), and the numerous Nazi jokes he made about the Naxi people, and all these other things... it felt irreverent and not in a good way. It probably also wasn't so great to make fun of the Chinese's anger over the Nanjing massacre, which the Japanese apologized for after this book was written (several years after).

Parts of this book were really good. I thought the parts about the history, the little vignettes with the random Chinese people he met and walked around with, and the parts where he actually went along with the culture and settled down were really fun. Parts didn't age well at all, like a line making fun of the Chinese for wearing masks (welp) and the Nazi jokes, and parts aged a little too well, like this line where he says that rather than China becoming more like America, America is becoming more like China. I was thinking about that line a lot, because it was one of the deepest parts of this book-- especially now. I guess this is the perfect example of why it can sometimes suck to reread your faves.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Admission by Julie Buxbaum

Like other pretentious people on the internet, one of my favorite things to do is watch TED talks. That was how I found out about Jon Ronson and his many fascinating discussions on internet shaming. The video I watched was called How one tweet can ruin your life, but he also has a book about the subject as well, and it's all about the pile-on effects of internet vigilantism and how a single misstep can result in devastating consequences for a person, even if their intentions weren't necessarily evil or bad.

I thought about that video a lot while reading ADMISSION, which is a VERY direct parallel to the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal that was all over the news just last year. Our heroine, Chloe, is a rich girl who, apart from her mom's celebrity and her fabulous wealth, is painfully average and ordinary. Not exactly the type of person colleges fall over to admit in other words-- especially since, as Chloe herself whines a handful of times-- her parents aren't rich-rich, just really well off, so it's not like they can afford to donate a library wing to guarantee her admission. Her parents can do other things with their money to help, though, like private tutors, special doctor's notes to give her exemptions to take her SAT tests in private, consultants, and so much more. Chloe basically just accepts it all as her due, while whining about all the work and how she's just not smart enough, so nobody is really more surprised than she is when she scores a 1440 on the SAT and gets accepted into SCC.

Because as it turns out, her parents-- but especially her mom-- did some very shady things to get that score and that admission. Things that cheated the system and probably ensured that someone who was actually deserving and did put in the extra mile work to get there didn't get accepted. And because of her mother's fame, and Chloe's own blithe, ignorant privilege, people are mad, and the other people involved in the scandal feel the need to backtrack and cover their tracks to prevent getting painted with the same brush. Her admission is revoked, her best friend and boyfriend won't talk to her and refuse to see her, she can't go to school because it is no longer safe, and people have turned her into an ugly meme online while baying for her mother to go to prison.

I think it's always interesting when an author chooses to make an unsympathetic character the narrator of the book and I thought about Jon Ronson's video a lot because I think it does beg the question: how should people talk about things like this? In this book, Chloe has no idea about what her parents are doing, but she's still blind to her own privilege, griping about how her boyfriend has a touching cancer story to put in his college essay and assuming her Nigerian friend will get in anywhere she wants just because she's Black and different. She doesn't realize how offensive she's being, and everything else is so easy for her that real work just seems to send up immediate mental blocks, because it's like she's just never had to flex those muscles before, so she can't really summon up the motivation to really try.

Unlike some of the people Jon Ronson talks about in his talks, I don't think Chloe is guiltless and it's really hard to muster up much pity for her because she does go about so totally up in her own universe. But she isn't an evil person and neither is her mother, and I don't think the author made too many apologies for people in these kinds of situations (which was my primary concern when I heard about this book). This book is a pretty good cautionary tale about self-entitlement and privilege, while also showing how toxic mob justice can be (even if that isn't the primary message). It doesn't have a total HEA but to be honest, that is probably best. Since Chloe is the villain of her own story, it doesn't really seem fitting for her to end the book walking off in the sunset when she's only really just started out on her own path to redemption.

I'm giving this four stars because it's well written and the story is very dramatic and as hard to look away from as a train wreck, but the CONSTANT flips from "then" to "now" weren't really that well done in places, especially in the beginning, where it felt very choppy. I also didn't like the romance between Chloe and Levi much at all. I stayed away from some of this author's other works because I don't typically get on with fluffy YA romances, seeing as how I am neither a young adult or a fan of fluff, and the way their relationship was written out makes me think that's probably wise.

I'll be back if she writes more timely dramas, though.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Poisoned Water: How the Citizens of Flint, Michigan, Fought for Their Lives and Warned the Nation by Candy J. Cooper

POISONED WATER is about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Most of you are probably familiar with it because for a while, it was splashed all over the news. To save money, residents were switched from Detroit-routed pipes fed by Lake Huron to a direct line piped in from the Flint River. Soon, residents were getting disgusting-looking water in various colors of brown, and started suffering conditions ranging from skin rashes to Legionnaire's disease. It turns out that not only was there microbial contamination from the water (gross), the chemicals that were being added to treat the water (at the ridiculously underfunded facility-- $8 million budget to upkeep something that should have cost a conservative $60 million) were being added without chemicals to prevent corrosion, which was resulting in all the metals from the pipes filtering into the water, including lead.

What makes it worse was that the officials responsible for the change from Huron to the Flint River were, in the words of the book "aggressively dismissive" to residents voicing their concerns over whether the water was fit for themselves and their families to drink. One woman was accused of dying the brown water in her bottle herself at what I believe was a council meeting. A dossier of scientific data collected by a leading expert in water safety was brought in to officials who even refused to touch or accept it. To save the town money, they switched to water that already had indications of being unfit to drink, and in an ironic twist of fate, anything that was saved was lost in the legal fees from the investigation of the mismanagement.

According to the back of the book, this is middle grade nonfiction. I don't really think this is middle grade-appropriate, just because the writing level is very science- and data-heavy, and it uses language that I, a thirty-something millennial with a Bachelor's degree, needed to think about. I certainly wouldn't discourage a kid from reading this who wanted to learn more about Flint and social justice, but I also think that it would be a struggle for a lot of kids. That said, I think it's definitely worth the read-- for kids and adults-- because it really delves into Flint's sad history as a racially segregated town (and race was probably a factor in why Flint was ignored; institutional racism is a huge problem, and even if it isn't the root cause of a given issue, it can help foster the symptoms and keep them lingering), its brief boom in the peak of the automotive industry, and then its collapse and penultimate ruin when GM went under (before being bailed out).

It's a depressing and hard book to read, but in a sad, twisted way, it's also inspiring. Seeing how the community banded together and refused to listen to the officials who were very clearly in the wrong was an incredible feat. Especially when they managed to get scientists and experts on the phone who, in turn, helped the people of Flint gather the incontrovertible evidence of the harm that they needed to force the switch back to Lake Huron water. It was grassroots community activism, and it's a shame that it came at such a terrible cost. FWIW, the book does end on a hopeful note, though.

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

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Loudmouth by Robert Duncan

I think this book is going to appeal to people who like Martin Amis, Bret Easton Ellis, and other 70s-era authors who fall into the canon of what I think of as "dude-lit." I got this because I noticed that the author was a writer for Creem and I was envisioning some sort of male-centric version of a Jackie Collins novel. Instead, it's a sort of tragicomic coming of age about a middle-class dude with high aspirations, caught up in the web of punk culture and cheap glamor.

I found it pretty boring, but I think people who lived through this time period and aspired to that kind of lifestyle might enjoy this. I just couldn't relate to the main character much at all.

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

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 7, 2020

World Wild Vet: Encounters in the Animal Kingdom by Evan Antin

Evan Antin is often referred to as "the world's sexiest vet," and while it's true that he's a good-looking man, I think to reduce him to that is an insult to the work that he does, which I really had no idea about until I read this memoir. Unlike some other popular White Guy Travel Memoirs™ (WGTM™), Antin is incredibly respectful of the places he goes to, the cultures he interacts with, and the animals he works with. At no point in this book did he ever come across as insensitive or anything less than humble, and his enthusiasm for travel, new experiences, and helping out animals in need was truly contagious.

Honestly, WORLD WILD VET, for the most part, gave me the same cozy vibes as playing a round of Animal Crossing with friends. I know it sounds silly, but it has the same wholesome message of befriending animals, respecting the land, and having new experiences that make Animal Crossing so much fun to play during quarantine, and I really enjoyed my spontaneous bit of vicarious travel through this memoir, which covers everything from South America to Fiji to Asia to Africa.

There were several really stand-out moments in this book. I liked his cautionary tale about being bitten on the nose by a copperhead snake as a kid, and how it taught him from a young age not to push his luck with wild animals and to treat them with proper care. I learned about binturongs (bearcats), which are basically the cutest things I've ever seen (but unfortunately lots of other people feel the same way and they are major poaching targets). I don't share his fascination with creepy crawlies, but I do like how he used his snake handling abilities to try to educate local populations whenever he had the chance, not only to prevent needless killings but also to help protect people by showing them how to move a dangerous reptile safely without harm to the snake/lizard or the handler.

One of the most devastating passages in this book is a fairly graphic description of a murdered rhino and her baby (by poachers). He worked with a group called Rhino 911 that moved orphaned baby rhinos to a care facility and sawed off the horns of fully grown rhinos safely and humanely to prevent murder by poachers, but the carnage he saw clearly got to him because it was such a waste of life. He used it as a teaching moment, as he apparently does with everything else, and this is extended to other misconceptions like animals people think are cute and so assume (mistakenly) are safe (like hippos and chimps) and animals people think are scary and so assume (mistakenly) are incredibly dangerous (like snakes and sharks). He also points out that interacting with social media posts of people who have exotic animals as pets feeds the habit and that an easy way to prevent poaching on an individual level is not to encourage, through clicks or views, the driving of engagement of exotic animal pets.

I wish there were more animal pictures in the middle of the book (some people seem to be hoping that they would be Magic Mike: Wildlife Edition-- they are not, so if you got the book for that, you are going to be very disappointed). He had so many great stories, I was hoping to see pictures of EVERYTHING. I know that pictures are expensive to print, which is probably why the gallery was relatively small, but I am one of those people who will just sit and watch several hours of cat videos on YouTube, so obviously I am big on pictures-- especially cute animal pictures. Like bearcats. (Which apparently smell like popcorn!!!! Wait, am I contributing to poaching with my admiration and accolades? DON'T POACH IT'S WRONG. APPRECIATE WILD ANIMALS FROM AFAR ONLY.)

Overall, this was a really great read on all levels. Kind of like a Bill Nye episode crossed with a travel memoir as told to you by a really cool guy you knew from college over a beer. His narrative is honestly so chill and I don't know what his secret is, but I hope he writes a follow-up to this book because it's so soothingly wholesome, it's basically the ASMR of animal-related science.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Bites of Terror: 10 Frightfully Delicious Tales by Cuddles And Rage

I'm not familiar with Cuddles and Rage but apparently they are a husband and wife duo who make these little anthropomorphic dioramas of food and other inanimate entities. I checked out their Instagram page as research before posting my review and the content they post seems consistent with this book. Looking at some of the other reviews for their work, I quickly noticed that some people seemed confused about the audience for this book and others. Even though it looks cartoonish, I would say that the age for this book is probably teen and up as it's pretty disturbing.

BITES OF TERROR reads kind of like a mash-up of Robot Chicken and one of the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror Halloween episodes. A cupcake comes to the dilapidated mansion of an evil cake scientist who is in the process of creating something wondrous and terrible, and to pass the time, he tells the cupcake stories ("bites") of horror, ranging from strawberries turning into mold "zombies," to using growing from seedlings as a Pet Sematary-esque allegory for reanimation of the dead, to a story involving marmalade that was right out of something you might see on The Twilight Zone.

I was pleasantly surprised by the stories in this book, which were a cut above some of the other web-to-book cash-ins I've seen as a blogger. The quality of the photographs was excellent but the stories were great too, the perfect blend of twisted and tongue-in-cheek. I'm not surprised that this was published by Quirk Books, as they seem to publish a lot of these sort of "niche" books that end up being so odd and interesting that you find yourself wanting them for the premise alone.

This definitely isn't appropriate for young kids, but adults who like cartoons and teens with a dark sense of humor will probably love this a lot.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Secret for a Nightingale by Victoria Holt

DNF @ p.118

I've been pecking at this one for weeks but I'm just not feeling it. Victoria Holt is probably the most famous Gothic romance writer of the bunch, but I also feel like her books, as a whole, tend to be the most milquetoast. She has a couple that are more like bodice-rippers in terms of subject matter-- this is one of them-- but the writing just didn't grab me at all because the heroine was so bland.

SECRET FOR A NIGHTINGALE is set during the British Raj, and no, it's not at all PC. The heroine discovers that she has magical healing powers when she lays hands on a wounded boy dying of something (I forget what) and he takes comfort from the touch of her hands.

She ends up marrying this dude named Aubrey who rapes her on their honeymoon. She thinks it's because he's out of sorts from some sort of night trauma but it turns out he's a drug addict and a devil-worshipper who's into voodoo and orgies, and also he hates her and might have purposefully caused the widow of the previous heir to miscarry so the legacy of the estate would fall to him. Such a great guy, is Aubrey. I'm pretty sure that he's the red herring love interest, though, and the "real" hero is his witch doctor, Dr. Damien. Incidentally, Damien is like the most popular name for demon and vampire guys, and at one point one of the characters is like, "Gasp! Damien! What a horrible name! It sounds just like Demon!" Like, duh, Sharon. Thus the appeal. Gawd.

I applaud the author for taking so many wild and crazy risks with this story but major thumbs-down for making it all so tedious to read. It doesn't help that the heroine seems to tend towards inaction and her general philosophy regarding matters like these seems to err on the side of "let's just sit around and see how this plays out." If you're going to read a Holt, there are better books to read than this one.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Mindfulness OCD Workbook: Effective Mindfulness Strategies to Help You Manage Intrusive Thoughts by Robin Taylor

So as you may or may not know, I actually do struggle with OCD and I got myself this workbook to hopefully work through some of my obsessions and compulsions. I think OCD is one of those disorders that a lot of people think they understand but don't. Like, they think that it means you want all of your papers neat and get all flustered and angry when picture frames aren't straight, and not what is much more commonly manifested: endless worrying about whether the staple you just saw fly off a desk and can't find somehow got in your mouth and is on its way to rip up your internal organs, or whether a minor earthquake could be enough to knock a pot off its rack and whether that could land on the burner and somehow turn off the stove and burn your whole house down? I'm exaggerating a little bit but only slightly because this really is the anxiety-driven logic of the chronically OCD lol. I was once late to class in college because I walked back three times to make sure that I actually locked my dorm door.

This workbook is okay. I like the exercises (some of them are a little silly) but the focus seems to be more on meditation and thought exercises and less on things like goals and planning and data. I know the "new age" approach is trendy and comforting for a lot of people, but I've never liked it all that much. One of the exercises in here is literally to visualize a lemon when you experience a trigger, which I did try, and actually it was sort of calming, but it made me feel REALLY silly. There are also places to write about your thoughts and some of your goals, but this is less like a roadmap than it is like an inspirational photo of a fantasy landscape. It doesn't exactly tell you how to get where you need to be, but it sparks your imagination and makes you think about some interesting things.

I'm going to use this workbook and I think people who respond well to meditation and brain storming might really enjoy this book a lot more than I did, but it's still a great place to start.

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

3.5 to 4 out of stars

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Mistress on Loan by Sumiko Sonehara

I accidentally bought another omnibus edition of Sara Craven manga adaptions and this was the second book in the collection. The heroine is, like, the caretaker of the mansion where she grew up and ends up in hot water when the previous owner sells it and skives off, leaving behind a mountain of fees. The new owner is actually her childhood friend, of Brazilian ancestry, who she became estranged from during a malicious act of childhood cruelty. He holds the money over head to blackmail her, because of course he does. And then they live happily ever after, because whoops, it was all a big misunderstanding. 

I'm not sure if I over-gorged myself on too much Sara Craven but this one felt utterly forgettable to me. The "whoops, it was all a big misunderstanding" plot had me rolling my eyes, and even though I thought the really old skool style shoujo manga art was charming (it looks like the 1970s/early 1980s manga art I've seen), it couldn't save the story, which I'd half-forgotten by the time I finished the book.

2 out of 5 stars

One Night With His Virgin Mistress byMinori Momoka

I'm really on a roll with these Sara Craven manga! It turns out I accidentally bought two omnibus collector's editions thinking I was just getting a single book, so that was basically six for the price of two. Whoever said that being a trash can didn't pay off? Just in case you didn't think that romance novels could get any more bite-sized and addicting, some genius had the idea of translating and localizing the manga editions of these works that were selling so well in Japan.

ONE NIGHT WITH HIS VIRGIN MISTRESS is... well, kind of a weird book. It's one of those books, first of all, that tries to be woke by having the hero or heroine involved in "issues abroad," but rather than doing research or risking offense, the author just casually makes up a country. In this case, it's the country of Buleza in Africa. I looked it up just to double-check, but I'm like 99.9% sure the author made that shit up, which is... a choice.

Anyway, the heroine is a romance novelist (the second by this author I've read with such a heroine) who's struggling with her book due to the lack of passion in her personal life. She ends up being accosted (read: assaulted) by the older brother of the shady man who rented her her current place, and it turns out that maybe it wasn't actually available for rent and his motives were even shadier than she anticipated.

I actually glazed over most of the story because I thought it was boring and the art was weird. This is drawn more explicitly than a lot of the manga I read (you actually see nipple), which is kind of icky because it's drawn like it's one of those middle school shoujo manga, so very cutesy, with lots of flowers in the side panels and bubble font, with the hero and the heroine both looking way younger than they actually are. Everyone's of consenting age, but it's still... um. Uncomfortable.

This is not my fave and I really didn't like this style of art, so I can't really give it a good rating.

2 out of 5 stars

Marriage by Deception by Kakuko Shinozaki

I thought I was only buying one Harlequin manga on sale, but the book I bought (RUTHLESS AWAKENING by Junko Okada) actually turned out to be a three book omnibus edition of manga adaptions from author Sara Craven. Which was super mega cool, because I had already bought the book on sale and I'm pretty sure there's an expression about not looking gift omnibuses (omnibi?) in the mouth... or pages... or whatever. Anyway.

MARRIAGE BY DECEPTION was the last story in the omnibus and that was kind of nice, because it meant ending on a high note, since this is the story that ended up being my fave. It kind of reminded me of How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days (2003), which I recently watched as part of my #LiveTweetThursday project. The hero is writing an article about dating women in personal ads (#dated reference) and his boss is his ex-girlfriend or a woman he turned down (I wasn't sure), who probably has at least one sexual harassment lawsuit pending because she is totes inapropes in the extreme. Anyway, he's writing an article about dating.

The heroine, Ros, is the sister to a flaky but beautiful cosmetics saleswoman who signed up for dating ads to teach her on again, off again guy a lesson. Ros ends up going on one of the dates, even though she has a boyfriend, because I guess she feels bad and doesn't want the guy to be left hanging and also cell phones and maybe not email have been invented yet. So she goes and has a great time and she ends up going on more dates and they end up sleeping together, but also it's okay because her current boyfriend is a momma's boy douche who is self-centered and privileged and also he's cheating on her with his physical therapist, so it turns out that everything is right and trashy in the karmic universe.

I know, whaaaaaaat.

Obviously, this does not represent the most functional or healthy relationship in the book (or at all), but I thought the story was fun and the mangaka, did such an amazing job adapting this work and making it appropriate for the manga format. She has a great art style that's unique and lovely, and I'm definitely going to seek out more of her stuff because I enjoyed it so much. It was also surprisingly risque in some of the sex scenes, too, which was interesting, since a lot of them are totally prudish about that lol.

Definitely my favorite in the bunch. :)

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Marchese's Love-Child by Ryo Arisawa

I read a lot of things most people would consider trashy-- and, arguably, they are. That's okay. Sometimes, you might be in the mood for something literary, but sometimes you might be in the mood for trash. A hamburger does just fine when you're not in the mood or the financial straits for steak tartare.

THE MARCHESE'S LOVE-CHILD is an adaption of a work by Sara Craven, who is one of those old skool Harlequin authors, like Charlotte Lamb and Penny Jordan, who wrote pretty alpha heroes who were cold and vengeful towards the heroine-- usually for a very stupid misunderstanding-- and it basically took beating them over the head with the truth (and realizing that the heroine was, in fact, a virgin and not the Whorish Whore Who Whored) before they would admit that they were the biggest obstacle to masculine happiness.

Quelle shock.

I'm not usually a fan of the nobility/secret baby romances and this book has both, so I had my eye-rolling monocle on and ready, but honestly... the story was okay and I really liked the art. Basically, the heroine is a tour guide and she fell in love with this dude in Italy while working at a hotel, they had sex, she never saw him again, and she ended up getting pregnant. Later, she was approached by a shady man who offered her a large sum of money if she never approached him again, leading her to believe that he is involved with the mafia.

He's actually a marchese and he wants that baby! So after threatening to take full custody, he ends up marrying her so they can share the ~joys~ of parenthood, and there's this jealous house lady who seems to hate her for no reason (spoiler: there's a reason), and everybody on the staff is afraid of being fired by this Whorish Whore Who Whored, so they all decide to do a bad job to teach her a lesson because never in the history of ever has anyone ever been fired from their job for doing it badly (spoiler: wait). It's a full-on hot mess, replete with an OW who would kill animals and also the man she loved if it meant teaching the world a lesson on women spurned (spoiler: yikes) and a big misunderstanding.

Let me just say that the heroine's mother is a Trash Person of the first order. She wanted to keep her daughter and the baby near her, so she just decided to hide all of the letters from the man she knew her daughter was looking for. WHAT A BITCH. I hope the h took a restraining order out on that betch.

Quality entertainment deserves a high rating, and for an HQ manga this was pretty good.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Ruthless Awakening by Junko Okada

Sara Craven is one of those old skool romance authors who writes the ultra alpha heroes that are complete and utter cads until they find out that the woman they were treating so abominably was innocent in all ways. RUTHLESS AWAKENING is no exception in this school of story-telling. The heroine is an actress who plays villains, but of course, IRL, she's naive and sweet.

***Warning: SPOILERS***

She was the daughter of the disgraced housekeeper who allegedly had an affair with the hero's father while the mother was sick with chronic illness, booted out when the pearl-clutching aunt of the family caught the hero putting the moves on her (because of course, it's always the woman's fault *angry eye roll*). Anyway, she's coming back for her friend's wedding and the hero is so sure that she's returned to play the villain IRL and ruin the wedding.

He kidnaps her aboard a yacht on the pretense of celebrating her birthday (jerk), thinking that she's actually having an affair with the groom because of something he overheard and misunderstood. When he tries to force himself on her, and she decides that she likes it, and the two of them go to bed, he realizes (gasp!) she was innocent and covering for her roommate to prevent a scandal, and that sometimes actresses aren't really like the people they play on TV. Whaaaat!

But it gets worse. It turns out his mom was FAKING her terminal illness so she wouldn't have to be physical with her husband, and also SHE was the one having an affair! She just let the heroine's mom's reputation get torn to shreds because it gave her an easy cover for her own indiscretions. *slow clap* Class. Act. But what else would you expect from the matriarch of the Trash Family.

The art in this book is OK, and the story is trashalicious, but I liked it anyway because I am your resident Trash Person who reviews Trash Books online, and harlequin manga novels are just so deliciously fun that I can never resist them, no matter how bad. Honestly, the story kept me entertained and the hero and the heroine had chemistry (even if I questioned the psychological and emotional health of that family, and man, wouldn't want to go to that family reunion). So I'm giving this three stars.

Also, apparently this is an omnibus edition of multiple books and I didn't realize that, so I think I accidentally got myself three HQ manga for the price of one, bundled, which is totes mcgoats awesome.

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Courting the Coronavirus: A Positively Viral Love Story by Lee Taylor

He calls himself...Count Covid (46%).

It's official-- 2020 is the year we strayed far, far away from God's light. I don't even believe in God, but if I did, I just know he'd-- sorry, He'd-- be looking down on us, shaking His head, and asking Himself, "What did I do to deserve this? I gave them the ability to write sonnets and the answer to world peace, and instead they're fucking the plagues I sent down to punish the lot of them for being such feckless buntcakes!!!"

In case KISSING THE CORONAVIRUS didn't have enough cringe-tastic sexings for you, there's now an (unrelated) follow-up called COURTING THE CORONAVIRUS. The best way to describe it is "more virus erotica but make it historical... sort of." Also, there's a particle collider that doubles as a time machine.

Yes, you did just read that correctly.

Joan is an ordinary girl. She does ordinary girl things, like dribbling arousal juices out of every orifice and tripping over fuck-all. You know, typical womanly things. Joan is angry about Covid because she is a slutty millennial and all she wanted to get into college for was to participate in fraternity sex parties. Instead, she's in a lab doing sciencey things... for science. And speaking of science, don't you hate it when you go to science lessons but you're so aroused you trip (because you're a woman) and sort of throw your viral sample into a hadron collider?

And don't you especially hate it when your hadron collider is also a time machine?

And don't you REALLY especially hate it when the act of traveling through time means that the virus sample becomes a living vector that ingratiates itself into the English nobility of the 1800s to create its own sex empire just for you, a clumsy, horny woman who loves doing clumsy horny woman things?

And also, you totally just fucked the virus.

I don't think there's much to say here about the plot-- except WHY???? So I'll write about my feelings on the book. I didn't come in here expecting great literature obviously. I wanted a laugh. I'm scared about the upcoming election and I miss going out with my friends, and all I wanted to do was laugh. I didn't really laugh. KISSING THE CORONAVIRUS was bad, but it was also pretty funny and fit neatly into the niche of other monsterotica out there that seemed designed to horrify and bemuse more than they are to titillate and arouse (although don't kink shame). COURTING THE CORONAVIRUS, on the other hand, has, as other reviewers have pointed out, an aura of misogyny and crude-to-be-rude humor that's a bit too gross and uncomfortable to really be funny. I actually felt kind of depressed when I'd finished. For anyone who wonders if anyone out there would really LiveTweet the apocalypse when it happens, the answer is yes. And also, there would be erotica of it called "I FUCKED THE BURNING BALL OF RAT FECES THAT KILLED THE PLANET AND HE MADE ME CALL HIM DADDY."

Like KISSING, COURTING THE CORONAVIRUS features a green anthropomorphized Covid who formed out of a lab tube that was dropped by a horny female lab student. I'm guessing that this is going to end up being canon for the inevitable Covid erotica that end up succeeding this one. I'm OK with Covid being portrayed as the Hulk, even if it weirds me out, since all of the pics I've seen have been red, yellow, and white. But w/e. I liked the cheekiness of KISSING THE CORONAVIRUS more, and didn't really think this book was all that funny. For example, her boob sweat lubricates her through the collider (which she compares to a gigantic cock being squeezed through a "virginal cunt"), and when she pops into the 19th century, the literal first thing she does is plunge two fingers into herself to make sure she still exists. (Cogito ergo cum?) I joked that KISSING THE CORONAVIRUS read like it had been written by a middle school boy. Well. COURTING THE CORONAVIRUS reads like it had been written by a middle school boy who has just been dumped by his girlfriend.

I'm awarding a few bonus points for the ingenious inclusion of the hadron collider, because that's the kind of wtfuckery you can't make up and it's why I keep coming back for more, but apart from that, no. You can leave your "pocket rockets" and cock-sized fingers, and vaginal snail trails at home, thanks.

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Bitterwine Oath by Hannah West

If there is a better month to read Gothic novels than October, I haven't found it yet. When I heard about the premise of THE BITTERWINE OATH and how it revolved around death cults and witches, my internal trash monster went "YAAAAASS." Set in a fictional town in Texas, BITTERWINE OATH is about a teenage girl named Nat who is the descendant of a woman named Malachi who is potentially responsible for two separate sets of murders many, many years ago.

I wanted to like this more than I did. It's a very slow book and takes a while to get moving. Once it does, it ended up going in a direction I wasn't expecting. In some ways, it reminds me of the Blue Is for Nightmares series that I devoured as a child, only with less magic and mystery. I did like the twist, but I don't think the atmosphere or the narrator were enough to really carry it off. The book feels overwritten, with way too many unnecessary adjectives bogging down the narrative and making it feel clunky, and Nat just isn't a very convincing teen to me. The way her narration is written, it feels kind of like one of those cozy mysteries that's geared towards old ladies.

I think some people are really going to like this book a lot, but it didn't really work for me. I ended up skimming pretty heavily, especially in the second half. Also, this book has some passages about death, murder, self-harm, and a couple other things, but nothing I saw seemed particularly graphic. The violence is what you would expect to see in a 90s PG-13 horror movie.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Breathless by Laura Lee Guhrke

Laura Lee Guhrke is an author who has been recommended to me so many times, but there are so many historical romances out there that look good, it's easy to lose the signal in the noise, and I never tried any of her work until now. Funnily enough, even though I own two of her more popular books in ebook, I started out with one of her out-of-print books that's not really all that well-known. BREATHLESS, unlike her other books, is set in the United States, and not England. In fact, it's set in the United States at the turn of the century, in a post-slavery Georgia. Uh-oh. Well... don't worry. Slavery isn't actually mentioned. 

Like, at all.

The heroine of the book, Lily, is a librarian and a pariah. Once a socialite who married into a good family, her reputation has since fallen into tatters ever since her ex-husband, Jason, hired his lawyer friend to make her look like an adulteress who pushed him into the arms of the willing women at the local brothel. Lily hates that brothel and has managed to get a judge to close it, which is where the hero comes in. Daniel is the lawyer who smeared Lily's reputation and now has his eye on a seat at the senate. But to do that, a lot of men with money (and women) tied up in the brothel want Daniel to go into the town of Shivaree and make sure the brothel stays open for the good of mankind.

Obviously, sparks fly between Lily and Daniel immediately. She hates his guts, and the way they get back at each other constantly was hilarious and made me laugh a couple times. Although, when Lily manages to rally the women to the cause of the temperance movement and the brothel stays closed, Daniel stops laughing. It was a Lysistrata moment in some ways, especially when the women of Shivaree kick the men out of their homes and refuse to cook them dinner. What with all the fighting over whether the brothel stays open or closed, at first, I thought this was going to be a whores = bad book, and it seems like it is, but BREATHLESS ended up being more thoughtful and progressive than I thought it would be, exploring how the temperance movement let a lot of women feel a taste of political power at a time that they couldn't vote, and how the women working at the brothel are just doing a job-- a job that some of them actually like-- and that doesn't necessarily make them bad people.

What? How progressive of you, 90s romance. *pats sofa* Come sit next to me.

It gets a little weird when the third act of the book introduces a murder mystery element (sad cliche: dead prostitute), and Lily's developmentally disabled friend, Amos, is accused of killing one of the prostitutes (hello, other sad cliche). Then the book becomes a court procedural drama when Daniel ends up representing Lily's friend. The book definitely crosses a lot of genres, and shifts tone a handful of times, and I was a bit disappointed that the mystery element wasn't more ingrained in the story, and that Lily's own involvement in the thriller element turns out to be a red herring at the end.

Slavery isn't really mentioned at all, and there are a few Black characters who are only mentioned a handful of times (all of them servants-- eek). The author gets around the hero having a slave-owning legacy, despite being rich, by having him come from a poor and abusive home. The heroine's wealthy family probably owned slaves, though. Is that mentioned in this book? NOPE. It feels a bit weird to have such a glaring hole in a book set around 1901, at a time when the South was still recovering from the social and economical ramifications of the war, and racism still ran rampant, but I guess just omitting the bad stuff and portraying a "slice" of that Southern way of life is one way of doing things. At least there weren't any wince-worthy racial stereotypes or cliches. And no, I'm not being facetious.

I liked this book a lot, despite it feeling a bit dated and having a few cliches that would probably be frowned at more heavily now. I think if you like Jude Deveraux, you will love this book, as the heroine is a bit of a feminist (but in a way that feels conceivable for the times) and the hero is strong but not abusive or domineering, and the sexual tension between him and Lily could be downright explosive. The commentary on social relationships, accepting people who are different, admitting when first impressions can be wrong and harmful, and loyalty were all solid messages, and I don't think the author did anything particularly offensive or trigger-worthy. So for anyone who loves the vintage vibes of older romances but hates the racism and dated stereotypes, this is a book for you.

I'm definitely bumping the author's other two books up my priority list now!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 10, 2020

That's What Frenemies Are For by Sophie Littlefield

I didn't even realize until recently that "mean girl thrillers" were even a genre, but it seems to be the newest Big Thing in the beach read genre, with books like THE LION'S DEN and PRETTY THINGS that show exactly what can happen when you push the wrong woman too far. THAT'S WHAT FRENEMIES ARE FOR is particularly interesting because in some ways, it's like Lianne Moriarty's take on a Patricia Highsmith novel-- what happens when you're a female Pygmalion and your Galatea makeover project turns on you and bites hard?

That's exactly what happens when trendy New York socialite Julia takes on the awkward but summery Tatum as her protegee. When Julia sees Tatum's spin cycle classes in a gift basket at a charity auction, she sees opportunity. She could make Flame, the studio, the "It" place to be and act like she was the one who discovered it and made it the raging success that it was, while touting her superiority before her equally hateful and competitive friends and flaunting her weight loss. WASPy society girls are the OG "you've probably never even heard of it" hipsters, apparently.

Tatum seems eager for the lessons, and pathetically grateful for all of Julia's "well-meaning" advice and hand-me-downs. Julia loves helping others out if she's seen doing it, and given credit for it. In her world, life is just a constant stream of petty oneupsmanship and endless competition. But pretty soon Julia's perfect life ends up cracking and falling apart, and she discovers in that maelstrom of pieces that Tatum was never really the girl that Julia thought she was: in fact, she might just have fangs. Poisonous ones. Uh-oh. It reminded me a lot of this movie that came out a while ago called Jawbreaker, which takes the cliche of teen makeover movie and ends up becoming a hot mess of betrayal, scandal, lies, and murder. It's one of my favorite teen movies of all time, and Marilyn Manson has a cameo in it!

THAT'S WHAT FRENEMIES ARE FOR has a lot of the same commentary on the toxicity of female friendships and societal expectations for (primarily white) women. At times, reading it could be exhausting because I can't imagine juggling all these lies and endless schemes. It made me wonder, probably naively, whether this is something that people actually do? I was never popular enough, or socially ambitious enough, to get involved in any friendships like... well, these.

Anyone who enjoys mean girl thrillers, as I call them, will enjoy this book, I think. It's a light beach read with some darker, unexpected twists and even if it can be farfetched, it's a fun story, regardless.

3.5 out of 5 stars

From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L. Armentrout

DNF @ 13%

I'm honestly flummoxed by the ratings of this book. How can DAMSEL, one of the best YA fantasies I've read recently, have a 3.4 rating on Goodreads, and this self-indulgent vampire AU version of ACoTaR has a 4.4? Like... I literally have no words. This is why I have trust issues, you guys. You have led me astray from the path of light.

FROM BLOOD AND ASH was all over my feed and even though I haven't been impressed with Armentrout's previous works (all of her heroines are basically the same person with different hair), I am a sucker for vampires and court intrigue, and so I thought to myself, "You know, maybe this could be awesome." Famous last words, I know. You'd think I'd learn my lesson by now, and stop reading books just because "all my friends are doing it," and yet here we are. I've been impressed by authors before, whose works I didn't like in the beginning and then they did a total 360, like they missed the freeway off-ramp to the Town of Awesome by complete accident and all it took was a U-turn.

But no. this was... bad. It's one of those "historical" fantasy worlds, but the heroine talks like it's modern day whatever. The love interest is a smirky smarmosaur who immediately starts calling the heroine "princess." She's a virgin because "reasons," which... okay. The whole beginning of the book is just a slew of info-dumping and I can already tell I'm going to despise the heroine. And the hero. And probably everyone else in this book.

1 out of 5 stars

Damsel by Elana K. Arnold

Books like these are why I often find myself at opposite ends of the majority of the book-reviewing community. I don't typically like what's popular because I don't like what's predictable or easy; I like books that are raw and difficult and dark and challenge me and the way that I see the world, even if it means heartbreak and tears and playing hours of Animal Crossing to get myself back into the happy zone.

Despite the slightly rough beginning, DAMSEL is an incredibly dark story that feels YA in the way that THE POPPY WAR did, in that only the writing and the age of the characters are "young": everything else is incredibly disturbing. In this world, princes become kings by rescuing damsels from dragons. In the beginning of the book, we see Prince Emory challenging the dragon in its lair, but just before the final confrontation, the narrative changes and we are with a nameless girl that Emory christens "Ama" who awakens in the Prince's arms not knowing who she is or what has happened. All she knows is what Prince Emory tells her: that he saved her, and their destinies belong to each other.

DAMSEL explores so many unpleasant subjects: the sexism of classic fairytales, the cyclical nature of abuse, the selfish cruelty of "taming" something wild to make it your own, seeking independence and flouting convention, and courting danger to find freedom. It's clear from the beginning that Emory is not exactly Prince Charming. His cruelty to animals (one in particular was basically Bambi all over again and nearly made me cry), his objectification of women, and utterly self-serving nature make him odious... and yet, we can see why people are attracted to him: he is good-looking and he has power, and the fear he instills in people make it incredibly unhealthy to cross him.

Reading this book made me think of several different stories. THE LITTLE PRINCE (for the motifs on what it means to be tame vs. free), THE SHAPE-CHANGER'S WIFE (a woman who is captive to a cruel man's passions, and a meditation on changing the nature of things without a care for their hearts), and JUST ELLA (another story where the happily-ever-after really isn't all that happy, especially for headstrong princesses). There's also a little bit of THE HANDMAID'S TALE in here, in that Ama's situation, and the situation of the other women's lives in the castle, is an exploration of institutionalized sexism taken too far. It wasn't always an easy read (I skimmed a few portions, fearing they wouldn't turn out all right-- but they usually exceeded by expectations, cue sigh of relief).

My favorite part of the book was probably Sorrow, Ama's pet lynx kitten, and the disturbing comparisons in the narrative between "taming" a woman and a wild creature. This is an analogy that is in many books, and one in particular that struck me was E.M. Hull's THE SHEIK, a story about another woman taken as a captive bride, where she is broken as swiftly and without mercy as the wild stallions her captor breeds and keeps as pets-- and, like her, he isn't afraid to destroy them if they don't obey. Unlike Emory, Ama eventually learns that there is no pleasure to be had in taking something beautiful and a little wild, and robbing it of the qualities that made it the creature that it was.

I could gush about this story for another couple pages or so, but I think I need to rein myself in before I spoil anything. If you're a fan of authors like Tanith Lee or Angela Carter, I think you'll really enjoy this book. Elana K. Arnold is an author who isn't afraid to take risks with her narrative or her prose, and I know I'm going to be haunted by this story, and its characters, for a while.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, October 9, 2020

Daughter from the Dark by Marina Dyachenko


DAUGHTER FROM THE DARK isn't the type of book I normally gravitate to, but I loved the authors' other work, VITA NOSTRA, so much that I resolved that I was going to read whatever else they wrote that was translated into English. It was one of my favorite books that I've read within the last year or so, quickly topping my list of "best fantasy books." So important note for those of you in a similar position: if you've read VITA NOSTRA, don't be fooled by the similar covers: the two books are nothing alike.

VITA NOSTRA is a dark magic school story imbued in metaphysics and suspense. DAUGHTER FROM THE DARK is one of those fantasy horror stories grounded in realism, like Joe Hill and Stephen King's works. The main character is a radio DJ named Aspirin who finds a young girl in an alley. Initially, he's going to leave her, but he goes back and takes her with him to spend the night at his apartment. It all ends up going horribly wrong. The girl might or might not be human and the teddy bear she has might or might not be a monster.

It isn't possible to say much more about this book without major spoilers, but Alyona, as we later learn she's called, is creepy and manipulative AF. But Aspirin is also bad in some ways, too. He's cowardly and he hits Alyona at least once, and he's so used to living his life like a selfish, callous bachelor that he isn't at all equipped to take care of a child, human or no. At one point, when she gets a fever, he's literally just like, "Oh well, so what do I do now?" and goes to the neighbor for help who's shocked that he never even considered aspirin (ironic, considering his stage name LOL). There really isn't much of a plot, either. The story is entirely character driven and moved by the suspense of whether what's happening is real or not and what will happen with the two main characters.

I really liked the beginning of the book but I began to get bored by the end. VITA NOSTRA was really long and I'm glad that this book was shorter, because if they were the same length, I probably would have DNF-ed. The ending was weird and unsatisfying, and a bit of a let-down after spending so much time with these characters. I liked the story and thought it was interesting, but it's not something I would read again, like VITA NOSTRA, and I would be unlikely to tear after someone in the streets, screaming, "YOU NEED TO READ THIS! IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE!" the way some books make me feel. This one is just kind of meh, and that's okay, but considering how much I love-love-loved their other effort, it's a bit disappointing.

That said, I am pretty amazed by how different all their works seem to be. VITA NOSTRA is a book that reminds me of SCHOLOMANCE and POPPY WAR-- an epic fantasy with an academic setting that features an unlikable, and incredibly flawed MC. Their other English-translated work, THE SCAR, appears to be high fantasy-- also featuring a morally grey protagonist. This is urban horror meets suspense, with a dash of magic-realism. It makes me really want to read all of their other works, because they don't seem to be derivative of each other at all, and that makes me want to read more and find out what I'm missing.

3 out of 5 stars