Friday, July 31, 2020

Eternity by Jude Deveraux

Jude Deveraux is one of the biggest names in romance but I didn't really start reading her work until recently because for some reason, I was under the impression that I didn't really like her as a writer. All that changed when one of my friends left a bag of romance novels on my doorstep featuring all of Deveraux's 90s romance novels in paperback. Bored, and intrigued, I read one fully expecting to hate it, and immediately launched into a binge of her backlist.

Carrie is the youngest in a family of older brothers, the daughter of shipping magnates and the sister's of wealthy traders and captains. Every birthday, they compete to see who can give her the most outrageously expensive present. She's always gotten her way, and is used to being the prettiest woman in the room.

She and her friends, all single, have started a "mail order bride" group for lonely single men, and when she notices one of her friends trying to hide one of the letters, she takes it from her, only to see a photograph of an incredibly attractive man with two children. Even though she knows her friend wants him, and even though he explicitly says that he's looking for a woman knowledgeable in cooking and farm life, Carrie decides that she knows best, "steals" him from her friend, tricks her father into signing the marriage papers, marries a proxy, and then heads to the town of Eternity with her many, many trunks in tow.

Joshua Greene is not pleased when he finds out he's been tricked. In fact, he's rightfully angry, and calls Carrie out for being naive and selfish because she, in her arrogance, basically assumed that he'd be so grateful for her beauty and company that he would forgive her lack of utility. Eventually, he decides that she has a week to prove herself, and Carrie immediately sets to winning over his son and daughter, Tem and Dallas, and manages to complete all of the tasks he's given her by hiring other people to do them for her (thus putting a significant boom in Eternity's floundering economy).

If you're familiar with the Harvest Moon series, there's an element of that: inexperienced city girl is forced to prove herself on a farm and find love. But instead of learning the land, she just uses her money to outsource the labor. "What's wrong with that?" is her rallying cry, over and over, and while I can kind of see her point, it does come from an incredible position of privilege-- but as it turns out, Joshua's sanctimonious is hypocritical, because he also comes from a position of privilege, and once we learn what his deal is, it's a little eerie how closely his story mirrors that of Carrie.


I thought this was a cute story and even though Carrie was SO ANNOYING in the beginning of the book, I did like her character arc, and that she genuinely cared for the kids. Spoiled heroines work for me if their character develops over the course of the novel. That said, I thought there were just way too many misunderstandings between her and Joshua, and it was frustrating that he kept everything he did from her, when just TELLING HER THE DAMN TRUTH (*insert genie gif*) would have solved all the problems. I also wasn't a fan of the gratuitous fat-shaming that came from Carrie, upon meeting Joshua's ex-wife. Come on, girlie. You already got the man. Don't be petty.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by ETERNITY. The first book of hers I read was THE TAMING, but I liked this better because there was no abusive marriage and no lice. Always a plus.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 30, 2020

French Silk by Sandra Brown

Trash Nenia likes bad books. She will scrape the dregs of the thrift store bargain bins, looking for that vintage pulp that makes her heart go pitter-patter. Then Trash Nenia comes back home and dumps her haul where I, the poor sucker in this equation, am forced to read it. I don't even remember buying this book in my Trash Nenia fugue, but apparently I did because it's been sitting on my bookshelf gathering dust until finally, I decided to read it and see if it was any good.

Spoiler: it wasn't.

Warning: There are going to be a TON of spoilers in this book. It's one of the more un-PC titles I've read in a while, and while that doesn't always bother me (I find it hilarious and tend to poke fun at it in a satirical fashion), I understand that such content can be incredibly hurtful and offensive to others, so read this review with a grain of salt knowing that negative stereotypes cometh.

Our main character, Claire, is the CEO of a lingerie company called French Silk that produces high-end lingerie with racy catalogues that are meant to titillate and cater to the female fantasy. Jackson Wilde is an evangelical preacher who has taken umbrage with their products and puts her on par with hardcore pornography of the most illicit kinds. When he shows up dead one day, everyone has an idea that Claire was probably responsible, as she had the most to gain from his death-- or did she?

The district attorney of Louisiana, Cassidy, is on the case-- and what does he do? Immediately starts kissing Claire of course. And when his boss finds out about this inappropriate relationship, naturally he gets a slap on the wrist but gets to keep the case. BECAUSE THAT'S REALISTIC. Anyway, Cassidy basically has one method and that is "coerce a confession out of Claire by bullying her" and asking "did you do it, huh, didja, didja?" every five seconds like a two-year-old asking to go to the bathroom on a long car ride. Much to his shock, this approach doesn't work.

There are other suspects in the case, of course. Claire's One Black Friend, Yasmine, a model for her catalogue and a main shareholder in the company. Ariel, Jackson's much younger second wife, who was (naturally) fucking her step-son, Josh. There are other characters, too, like a hotel owner named Andrei who has a crush on Yasmine because she reminds him of his mom (*shudder*) and a congressman named Alister who is having an affair with Yasmine because his wife is a Meany Meaners who doesn't like the sex and keeps his balls in her designer purse. Who killed Jackson Wilde? And will Cassidy and Claire EVER get together? One of those answers should be obvious.

So what's wrong with this book?

From a technical standpoint, the book is way too long. 500+ pages for a book of this type and it starts to feel repetitive and cyclical. The beginning was great and then it lost wind. I skimmed the last 150 pages because I was bored but invested enough in the mystery that I wanted to find out what happened. I see, finally, what other reviewers meant about red herrings. The ending was rushed and literally ended like, "This person killed Jackson! ...But oh wait, it could have also been this person... but just kidding, because it was ACTUALLY this person for this dumb reason! Bet you didn't see that coming!" Um, yeah, I didn't, because all the other clues were pointing to other people. I actually liked the first "killer" the best and was going to give this book an extra star for its ballsiness, but of course, this is why we can't have nice things.

The sex scenes were also... bad. "Seeds of femininity" and "delta of hair" were used. I cringed.

From a social standpoint, this book does not hold up to the test of time at all. It was published in 1991 and feels about ten years older than that. All of the gay characters in this book are ridiculous flamboyant stereotypes and it's embarrassing. Picture that one aunt you have drunk at a party attempting to be "woke" about gay rights while also showing her privilege and her ignorance, and you have a rough approximation of what this "rep" is like. The one Asian character who appears is described as having "porcelain" skin. The one Black character, Yasmine, is a catch-all of Black stereotypes: she's described as "an African queen," "a temple priestess," and her skin is described as various kinds of coffee several times. The way she talks is about what you'd expect. Oh, and she's into voodoo, which ends up resulting in her killing herself at the end of the book, which made me pretty upset, but I was also secretly kind of expecting it, because the Black character often dies in these types of books. It was sad to see that this one wasn't an exception though, because she was way more interesting than Claire, and it was a shame to see her sexuality used as a tool to juxtapose against Claire's relative purity, while she was also reduced to what was essentially a plot device.

This book also did some interesting things, which is why it isn't getting a one star. The way evangelicalism is criticized in this book still feels very timely: Brown points out the hypocrisy of some of these radical groups. They condemn people freely while enjoying their own vices in private, seeming to think themselves above the doctrines of the God they preach. Claire also says some very eloquent things about censorship and fascism, and talks about how people who can't think for themselves follow strongman leaders who feed them misinformation that confirms with their world view in an attempt to manipulate their behavior. (Hmmm, sound familiar?)

Some of Sandra Brown's older books are even worse than this one-- the 1980s bodice-ripper ones especially-- but I actually found those less offensive because they weren't really trying to be inoffensive. This book falls into that awkward transitional period where people were trying to incorporate "diverse" rep but didn't know anything about what they were doing, so relied on stereotypes and actually ended up doing themselves a worse disservice than if they hadn't tried to include any kind of diverse rep at all. I would not say that this withstands the tests of time and you should probably give this one a miss if the things I mentioned offend you.

2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Wine Taster's Guide: Drink and Learn with 30 Wine Tastings by Joe Roberts

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of WINE TASTER'S GUIDE, which is the third wine-themed book I've been sent this year to review, and my official #1 favorite. So long, other books. It was nice knowing you. This is officially my FAVORITE wine book ever and I will be recommending it to everyone I know who likes wine, because it has advice and knowledge that will appeal to everyone, regardless of their level of wine knowledge, but especially to those who are new to the wine game.

Being from California, I am OBSESSED with wine (as you probably know, if you are familiar with my interweb presence, which features many a wine bottle), but as with anything that is a matter of taste, wine tasting and buying is filled with its share of snobs and pretension. WINE TASTER'S GUIDE is the least pretentious book about wine that I have ever read and so accessible to beginners. I wish I'd had this when I was a twenty-one-year-old newbie going about town for the first time, because it would have made me feel not only better about what I was doing, but also about my taste in wine.

Despite being short, this is a very thorough intro guide and very affordable ($10 to buy in ebook and it's free right now if you have Kindle Unlimited). It covers everything from wines that are good for beginners, to the grape varietals, to the wines specific regions are known for, to how to have your own tasting party and what you should serve/pair with what. Plus, there are also some other really helpful tips that some guides forget when addressing beginners, like translations for French, Spanish, and Portuguese wine labels, and some information on how to get the most bang for your buck and what is actually worth spending $ on. For example, he says you should look at the tasting notes and maybe not get wines that taste like things you hate, and that buying different shaped wine glasses really isn't worth the money unless you're so well-trained as a wine-drinker that the taste difference would actually be noticeable to you.

I also love how the author, Joe Roberts, had so many suggestions for different wines. In the beginning, he includes a list of wines for beginners to try (including some that come in cans and boxes! Bless). He has lists of wines by type and region, an under $10 list, a list of his personal faves, and a list of wines that he thinks would be great for a tasting party along with foods to pair them with. I try not to deface books, but I was dog-earring pages left and right in this one, and the next time I go to Safeway or wherever, I'm going in with a wine shopping list to see if I can seek out any of these yummy new-to-me wines.

So many of my friends come to me for recommendations since they know that I'm not a judgy snot when it comes to wine (about books... however), and some of them have bemoaned their lack of knowledge, or that their favorites are things like sweet sparkling wines or rose. I always tell them that opinion is subjective and at the end of the day, having good taste in wine just means being able to buy what you like and enjoy it. They always walk away feeling better-- and with some of them, I've even been able to sway them to the dark red side, because I'll give them a jammy rioja or zin, when some snob was plying their newbie palate with things like cab franc or bordeaux that aren't accessible to people who haven't really had that introductory course to white wines.


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

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Dragon Lord by Connie Mason

DNF @ p.53

When I was younger, I used to take people out to bookstores on first dates because I figured at least if the date was bad, I could get a book out of the experience. This book was purchased on such a date, because I have zero shame. Love me, love my bodice-rippers.

The cover on this one is particularly brilliant. There's so much to appreciate here. The Runescape armor. The pixelated background (I have to upload a picture of the castle on the back cover to my Instagram-- it's hilarious). The raised, shiny gold font in Gothic letters. The fact that the guy's face looks real but the sword looks like a cartoon and you can distinctly see the faint blurring where the photo manipulation took place. This is bad cover design taken to near genius levels, and I think Trash Nenia knew that when she bought this book.

Sadly, the book itself is not so great. The book literally opens with the man banging his mistress, a woman named Veronica. In the 1200s. When he goes to see the king, however, he finds out that he's going to have to marry one of the daughters of a deceased (read: executed) lord in a territory by Scotland to help keep the peace, so he goes there instead where he meets the grieving widow and her two daughters, Rose and STARLA. Okay, if Veronica is not a name you would generally see in the 1200s, Starla is 100% not a historically appropriate name.

Also, the epigraph from Gertrude Stein kicking off chapter one. *nods* Very historically accurate.

I am not so petty that I would DNF over a simple matter of names, however. (Actually, I am, but that wasn't the reason this time.) The writing is exceptionally not good. Prose so deeply purple that it would stain your whites if you put it in the washer on warm. A heroine who is stompy and annoying, and meek and simpering by turns. A stalwart hero who probably practices his stoic Burt Reynolds faces in the polished copper mirrors (although considering the historical accuracy of this novel, the mirrors would probably be made of Tiffany glass hung on Paris green wallpaper).

Read at your own risk.

1 out of 5 stars

Roxy's Story by V.C. Andrews

DNF @ p.77

I wasn't expecting a story about a teen escort written by Andrew Neiderman posing as V.C. Andrews to be good... but man, this was really not good. I blame Trash Nenia, of course. Trash Nenia and Drunk Nenia are responsible for 99% of my bad purchasing decisions. Trash Nenia buys dumb books "because it could be fun" and Drunk Nenia goes shopping on Amazon while drinking wine, which means I end up with way too many books like these.

ROXY'S STORY is about the eponymous Roxy, a sixteen-year-old girl who gets kicked out of her house by her militant father after he's had the last straw with her stealing, acting out in school, and raising hell with the boys. She ends up going to live in the slums where she catches the attention of a sleazy scout who likes that she's part French and thinks she's the prettiest girl he's ever seen and would be great for-- you guessed it-- escort work. Gag. And yes, he knows how old she is, and doesn't care. Double gag.

This is terribly written. Roxy talks like a fast-talking jaded dame in a film noir, and not at all like a teenager. It has a pulp fiction vibe-- not pulp fiction like the movie, but pulp fiction like the actual mass-produced novels from the 50s and 60s that were drowning in sleaze. I guess if you're into those types of books, you might enjoy this, but they were always too trashy even for me and my bodice-ripper-loving ass. I'm calling it quits now because I'm starting to get annoyed with this whole hot mess. The only thing this has in common with V.C. Andrews is the irrationally douchebag parents and the doormat mom. Family saga, this is not.

1 out of 5 stars

The Taming by Jude Deveraux

WOW! Ratings for this romance novel are all over the place, and sometimes I'm like, "Why all the hate?" But this time around, I can totally 100% see why this novel was so off-putting for so many people. Honestly, if it weren't for the attempt at making this "feminist" and the tongue-in-cheek narrative (which you could argue, correctly, trivializes the abusive themes of this book), this would have been pretty unbearable.

Apparently, I tried to read this eight years ago and DNF-ed it and all I remembered of the book was that the hero had lice. GROSS. But... historically accurate. Medieval times were pretty disgusting times and even the lords-- even the attractive ones-- probably had wretched body odor and body lice, so points for accuracy, I guess, and for not taking the Disney-fication route that so many other medieval period romances do. Even if pee sluicing out of an indoor-outhouse doesn't get your motor running, it's probably at least true to the times.

The plot of this book is pretty interesting. Liana runs her wastrel father's house and her stepmother, Helen, hates not having any power in her home. She demands that Liana get married off or she's taking her unborn baby with her and leaving. Liana's father knows he's letting go of a good thing but the idea of getting saddled with a replacement woman is such a pain that he gets off his ass and starts making arrangements for suitors to come and pay his daughter a visit. Liana, obviously, is displeased, as said suitors all start making obsequious compliments to her appearance while keeping one eye firmly on her dowry.

It isn't until she rides off in anger and comes to a beautiful man resting in a glen that she feels the first stirrings of anything other than resentment. She approaches him in a peasant outfit, watching him sleep, and when he wakes, he is disgruntled and they have an altercation that results in her throwing his clothes in the bog. When he demands she cleans them, she pounds them full of holes and swears to him that one day, she will make him crawl. It turns out this man is Rogan Peregrine and he is one of her suitors, and wonder of wonders, Liana chooses him because not only is he incredibly attractive (despite the-- shudder-- lice in his clothes), he's the only one who didn't bullshit her.

Unfortunately, Rogan isn't the prince she'd dreamed he would be and is not so easily tamed. His castle is literally filled with shit. The moat is full of black ooze, the tower he keeps his hawks in has mountains of bird shit on the floor. All the bread has dirt and sand in it, the peasants are thieving and desperate, and it's basically hell on Earth. Also, the "hero" is a cad of the first order: he has a mistress for every day of the week and they're named after the days they fuck him on, with one kept in reserve called "Waiting" in case one of them is on her period. He rapes the heroine twice-- once to prevent an annulment, and once just because. He won't let his servants obey her, he keeps his mistresses under her very nose, and he basically insults and denigrates her at every opportunity.

What makes this an interesting book is that his behavior is treated as unacceptable. Joice, Liana's servant, keeps telling her to be an obedient wife and obey him in all things, but Liana quickly decides that isn't the way to go. She connives and bargains her way into getting the servants and peasants on her side, and when she finds out he's with one of his mistresses, she sets the bed on fire with them in it. While it's painful to see such a competent, strong woman saddled with such a pig of a man, the fact that this is set in medieval times when women were legally considered chattel makes this easier to stomach, and Liana probably is acting with all the agency that was allowed her during those times.

Rogan slowly starts to change and respect his wife once he realizes how better off he is with her, and one of the funniest, character-turning moments is when his wife convinces him to go to a fair in disguise and he sees the peasants performing a morality play in which he is the villain. That's when I think he starts to realize how his thrifty, slovenly actions are affecting those around him, and that he isn't the strong, take-no-shits man he's envisioned.

In the background, there is a sort of Hatfields and McCoys rivalry between the Peregrines and another family called the Howards, and we eventually learn that this rivalry probably dates back to (as one might expect) a contentious matter of lineage and inheritance. The Howards also kidnapped Rogan's previous wife, who ended up annulling their marriage and marrying into the Howards family, so Rogan's "women are traitorous scum" mindset is partially because of his assumption that any woman he lets his guard down around will ultimately betray him to his enemies. A stupid assumption, rife with misogyny, but one that is gleefully facilitated by his family, especially his brother Severn, who have several horses in this race and are unwilling to let him go.

Despite how problematic this story is, I did enjoy it. It was refreshing to see a story of this type that had humor that didn't come across as forced and a heroine who was strong and empowered in a way that felt plausible for the time in which it was written. A woman who found out I was a romance blogger gave me a whole bunch of Jude Deveraux as a present, and so now I have about fourteen of her older books to read, including the next book in this series, THE CONQUEST. I must say, I probably wouldn't have picked up this author if not for this woman, since my first memories of reading THE TAMING were so bad, so it just goes to show that sometimes it's worth giving an author a second chance.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 25, 2020

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

DNF @ p.130

I originally wasn't going to rate this book, since it was a debut and I didn't particularly care for the writing style, but people keep coming onto this review and leaving me rude comments saying that apparently you aren't allowed to write (non-rated) reviews for books you haven't read... so while I wait for my copy to renew again from the library, and since I did read almost a quarter of it, I will post my (rated) review with my thoughts so far, and will update if they change once I try to read it again and give it a second shot.

A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN is the first in a fantasy duology with Black characters, "in a world inspired by West African folklore." Our hero and heroine are Malik and Karina. Karina is a princess whose mother has just been assassinated and whose court is in the midst of political upheaval. Malik is poor and part of a discriminated-against cultural minority, and he and his sisters end up in a Jareth from Labyrinth-type situation with one of the gods when his younger sister accidentally makes a bargain and the only way to save her is to, you guessed it, assassinate the princess Karina.

There isn't anything objectively wrong with this book but I had a lot of trouble getting into it and when I stalled at page 130, I ended up returning it to the library for the next person. I was told that this was inspired by Aladdin and I can sort of see that; Malik is soft (in a good way) and cares for his sisters, and he wants freedom from the life that consistently beats him and his family down. Likewise, Karina is a princess who feels like she's in a gilded cage, and longs for freedom from her own, different brand of oppression. Plus, they're enemies-to-lovers, and there's a gladiatorial element, too. I loved the premise and I even liked what the author was trying to do with the characters. It just has the same sort of bland, plodding story-telling that countless other young adult fantasy books of this type has, which is made evident by its BLANK OF BLANK AND BLANK formatted title. Far too many YA fantasy novels have this bland, inoffensive mode of story-telling-- and not inoffensive in, "wow, there's nothing un-PC in this book, I am so angry!" but inoffensive as in, the book doesn't really take a lot of risks and plays everything very safe by sticking to a formula that feels very linear and predictable. I've had similar complaints about Sarah J. Maas's and Renee Ahdieh's work, and while I did enjoy Roseanne A. Brown's better than theirs, it still felt tedious to get through. It's worth pointing out that I'm not a teen, and I am not Black, and I feel like a lot of teens, and especially Black teens, will enjoy this book, because seeing yourself reflected in the narrative is a privilege that not all of us can enjoy. I just really couldn't get into it, and I'm going to try again, and if I feel like it improves upon a second read, I will adjust my rating and post an update to my review reflecting that.

2 out of 5 stars

Friday, July 24, 2020

Ice Storm by Anne Stuart

Anne Stuart is one of my "problematic faves." I can totally tell that a lot of people are going to read this book and be upset, and while I understand why (spoilers to come), for whatever reason, it just taps into all of the things that I really enjoy in a dark romance, which made it work. She's notorious for her antiheroes, heroes who could easily double as the villains in a different story, and I am such a sucker for villain love stories, so that's basically my catnip.

When Isobel was young, she was traveling abroad and nearly raped while hitchhiking at night. She was saved by an attractive man named Killian, also traveling, also alone. He ended up befriending him and because he was older and told her he had a girlfriend, he seemed safe and unattainable. Little did she know that he was actually a cold-hearted operative, planning on seducing her as part of his cover and then leaving her for dead once he'd finished.

Now Isobel is the head of the Committee, a paramilitary group of secret agents who tackle espionage. When she's instructed to give safe passage to "the most dangerous man in the world" for information, she recognizes him on security camera footage as being the man who wronged her years ago. And he did wrong her-- not only did he seduce her, lie to her, and treat her like a fool, he also drugged her and had sex with her while she was only half-conscious over several days. Cool.

When she meets him again, she's furious. Understandably. But she isn't prepared for that angst to hit her like a sledgehammer, making her feel like a lovefool teenage girl again. And of course, he's still a quasi-sociopathic asshole, who uses her sexual hang-ups to taunt her and mockingly refers to her as "princess." Again, he's practically an unredeemable douche by most standards, but I'm just sitting here, twiddling my thumbs and going "YAAAAASS" because this is the kind of material that I purchase in back alleys (by which I mean, on the computer, in the dead of night) like a some gritty, edgelord kid buying his first bag of weed in the early 2000s. Romance is my drug of choice.

I ended up liking this story a lot. I've read the first book in this series and didn't really care for Bastien all that much (although I liked the beginning of the book). Killain was much more on-brand for Stuart: a rakish, pithy, rangy guy with no morals and a heroine-shaped chip on his shoulder. It's second chance, enemies to lovers, with a heavy dash of villain-gets-the-girl, which are three of my favorite tropes in romance at the moment, so having all three of them was like Double Jeopardy.

I'm rating it three stars because the story itself wasn't all that great and I didn't really care for the last act, or the fact that characters from the previous books kept getting shoehorned in here and getting their own POVs. Also, the Middle Eastern and Asian rep in here is questionable. Killian has a Middle Eastern sidekick named Mahmoud who has sworn to kill him, whose sister was a suicide bomber, and who keeps getting described as wild and savage. One of the other Committee guys is a Japanese guy who has given himself the Western name "Reno," after a video game, and at one point he's wearing fundishi (the underwear you wear beneath kimono) printed with samurai Hello Kittys. Cringe.

I did like Reno, though. He's like a Goth assassin, with his long red hair and leather jackets, and kind of has the aesthetic of one of those visual kei guys. I was picturing him as one of those hot guys from L'Arc-en-Ciel specifically (I was always a fan of Hyde and Sakura). If you don't know what visual kei is, it has all of the fanfare and costume drama of K-pop bands, but Japanese and gothy. *hearts*

Overall, this was a solid addition to the series and reminded me why I am so obsessed with Anne Stuart, even though some of her books wind up being duds for me. If you like dark heroes and romantic suspense, the Ice series will probably quite enjoyable for you!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man by Mary L. Trump

In TOO MUCH AND NEVER ENOUGH, Mary L. Trump draws a detailed portrait of the Trump family pathologies with the intimacy of a psychological case study-- which makes sense, considering that she's a clinical psychologist. Her even-keeled, neutral (for the most part) tone make the irrational behaviors of the people in this book seem even more abhorrent by comparison. The occasional sarcastic aside is just icing on the cake.

I wasn't too sure what to expect about TOO MUCH AND NEVER ENOUGH going in, despite the attempted block from the Trump family to keep it from being published. Trump had also attempted to block Michael Wolff and John Bolton from publishing their "tell-alls," as well, and the result was that both of them became best-sellers and garnered a whole bunch of free press. Literally the same exact thing happened with Mary L. Trump's book, but Donald Trump's inability to admit to fault or learn from past mistakes is just one of his (many) flaws. I was left with the impression that Mary Trump was essentially opening her own "tea" shop to spill all the gossip about Trump, but this book doesn't tell anything too scandalizing or surprising. It basically fills in the gaps about things that are public knowledge but have been forgotten or pushed aside in favor of newer, more recent scandals.

The book starts out with a history of the Trump family, beginning with Fred, DT's father, who appears to have been a high-functioning sociopath that enjoyed pitting his children against each other, reveled in the humiliations of others, despised weakness and personal accountability, and groomed Donald to be his successor, while also enabling him to be antisocial, unaccountable, and superficial by not punishing him for misbehavior and essentially providing him with a bottomless well of cash flow for all of his horrible and/or questionable business decisions. Freddy, Mary's father, was the original successor, as the eldest child, but his personal weaknesses made him distasteful to Fred, and the inability to please or escape ended up facilitating an alcohol addiction that helped kill him.

We follow Trump through the 80s, when he began to be popular as "the poor man's idea of rich" (paraphrased from Fran Lebowitz), his two previous wives, his inappropriate comments and cruelties. It's chilling how his lack of empathy or concern towards the mounting American deaths in the COVID-19 crisis mirror his behavior towards his own family members. For example, when Freddy Trump was in the hospital for the heart attack that would end his life, Donald Trump went out to the movies instead of waiting at home with the family. When his own mother was mugged so violently that she suffered a hemorrhage, and Mary visited her every day, Trump snarked that wasn't it great that she had so much "free time." In his own internal calculus, it seems clear that weakness and suffering are liabilities that he can't afford in a world of superlatives where everything around him must be "great" or "fantastic," and especially if those things are a reflection on him.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this book-- apart from the obvious, which is how this country facilitated and continues to enable the abuses of power that Donald Trump wields with the carelessness of a child with a dangerous weapon-- is how badly Mary and her brother Fritz were treated by the family. Donald Trump first tried to essentially oust his whole family from his father's will by attaching a codicil to his father's will that would have made him sole executor. It was caught by pure luck and he and his siblings were all made executors with equal power. You would think that this would make the siblings sympathetic to being cut out of what is their due, but the whole family undervalued Mary and Fritz's inheritance when they were cut out of the will and forced to settle for a pittance, giving them a very, very small fraction of what they should have received. And when they tried to sue for what was theirs, Maryanne, Trump's older sister, had their health insurance revoked-- which came as a huge blow to Fritz, whose son had severe medical issues that necessitated hospital visits for frequent seizures. The lawyer suggested that if they were worried about their child not breathing, they could "learn CPR." Charming.

His lack of respect for Melania and creepy behavior with Ivanka get a throwaway scene each, which is all that's really necessary, because they are so emblematic of his usual patterns. Likewise, his pompous, inappropriate form of "leadership" as president is showcased in the opening scene, when he invites his relatives to the White House for a visit that ends up being both classless and disturbing. TOO MUCH AND NEVER ENOUGH is a portrait of a person who lacks empathy, shirks responsibility (but would like to take all the credit while also avoiding any blame). I think it's pretty safe to say, objectively, that he is the worst president the United States has ever had, and that his handling of our crises and petty attempts to deny care and funding to those who oppose him while also making a concerted effort to sow dissent while attacking our nation's most vulnerable showcase his bullying mentality and his desperate need to always feel strong by making others seem weak.

Some will probably say that Mary was too kind or too level in her biography of this man, but I think when writing books like this it's important to strike that kind of tone. If you make someone into a cartoonish villain, it becomes too easy to write them off as a joke, and I think that was one of the biggest mistakes of the 2016 election. Nobody took Trump seriously until it was too late. He needs to be held accountable and taken to task for his bad behavior, and his policies need to be questioned, and he needs to be asked the tough questions that he fears will make him out to be the fool he is.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Paradise by Judith McNaught

DNF @ p.175

Dammit, I wanted to love this book. Judith McNaught has been recommended to me so many times and when I found out that this book has some of my favorite tropes (hero wants revenge, rich/poor match, second chance but as enemies, etc.), I was like YES YES YES. But reading this book... was not all that fun. It has the same trashy vibes as one of those Harlequin Presents novels from the 1980s and 1990s, or a Jackie Collins novel without the fun sleaze that makes her books so addictive. It was all melodrama.

Basically, the heroine is the rich daughter of a man who owns an entire chain of department stores but he's sent her to poor school to build character. Everyone hates her for being rich and the only person she can become friends with is a walking Italian stereotype who's super smart and thinks her chauffeur is her dad. When she finds out she's been tricked she's mad for one hot minute and then is like YOLO. Heroine is "ugly" because she has straight blonde hair and glasses, but as soon as the glasses come off and she waves her hair, suddenly everyone is like OMG YOU'RE SO HOT. Oh, and she's a giantess at 5'7". *epic eye-roll* Ask me how tall I am, princess.

The hero, meanwhile, is a working class boy named Matt who has huge issues and basically takes those issues out by sleeping with rich women as a way of flipping the bird to the entitled rich guys he hates. Which is why it's so ironic that he falls for our heroine, Meredith, at a party, precisely because she's ~so much more than she seems~ and also she sleeps with him because she's mad at her father and decides to flip the bird to entitled rich guys because fuck Daddy (not literally, this isn't that kind of book). Only he's annoyed when it's him getting used because he's a man dammit... but only for a hot minute because there's a baby and they have to get married! Single moms are so declasse!

I love a soapy drama as much as the next girl, but this was just way too boring and the characters didn't have any depth. I was hoping for something like Meagan McKinney, who wrote a story kind of like this one that was historical, but her writing was heartwrenching and torturous and I couldn't put it down, even though her books were pretty long as well. This was a slog and now I am done.

1 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie

Jennifer Crusie is one of those "canon" romance authors that everyone who loves the genre seems to have read, but for some reason, I never got around to it... until now. Part of my trepidation was because a lot of those early contemporary romances that everyone loves don't really age all that well. Unlike historical romance novels, where you can say, "Okay, that's super uncomfy and problematic but it was set 200 years ago when men swam freely in the sea of privilege and everyone wore their racism like a merit badge instead of sneakily trying to get around it like a paywall in a freemium app," the problematic tropes hit much closer, which is why I wasn't able to enjoy the earlier books by authors like Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Rachel Gibson.

To my surprise, though... BET ME feels very progressive and was just as fun and breezy as some of my favorite recent romance novels. Plus-size rep is something that a lot of 1990s and 2000s chick-lits do HORRIBLY wrong, but even though Min has a lot of self-hatred, it's understandable because of her emotionally abusive mom... and honestly, Min doesn't let it get in the way of her living her best life. She has a great job and knows it (works as an actuary), has a squad of friend!goals BFFs, and the book opens up with her being dumped with a guy who's angry because she won't sleep with him and even though he says some cruel things, she's just like, FUCK THIS DOUCHE.

The douche in question is named David, and he's part of the reason Min has her meet-cute with Cal(vin), the reformed playboy who's just trying to live his best life while dodging clingy women and enjoying the peace and quiet of bachelorhood. David, angry at Min for not really being as repentant as he wanted, bets that Cal can't get Min in bed or get her to agree to dinner. Min overhears the bet and goes out to dinner with Cal. It's hate at first sight, even though the dinner is great, and they bicker through the meal and he walks her home (eeeee) although he accidentally elbows her in the eye. Then they go out again, and again, and AGAIN, and it starts to feel like this could be real. But both of them have huge hang-ups that they've been hiding from one another that might break the relationship before it even really sprouts the wings it needs to get it off the ground.

A really good romance has great side characters. I loved Cal's nephew, Harry, and his lesbian bartender friend, Shanna. Tony and Roger were great, too. Min's sister Diana is wonderful and much more complex than I was expecting, and I loved Bonnie and Liza. Even Cynthie was much more complex than I was expecting from an OW, although man did she have issues. All of the side romances were pretty funny and one of the best scenes in the book is the family dinners that Cal and Min have with each other's relatives where they defend each other against their families and it is SO CUTE. Easily one of the most casually touching scenes in a romance I've ever read.

I don't always like fluffy romances because sometimes they can be so sweet, you can practically feel the cavities sprouting like flowers in your teeth. But this really, really worked for me. I think it's because of how it kind of cheekily acknowledged its tropeyness while also deflecting some of them, and featured a genuinely likable and funny heroine who was self-conscious without kind of feeling like a soap box for Problematic Views About Heavy People masquerading as rep, and Cal was a wonderful love interest who was one of the best reformed playboys I've read about in a while. This is how you write a guy who is a bit of a cad but still redeemable. He was really sweet but a little immature and just needed to find the right person to love him for who he was while also not taking any of his bullshit. It takes a while to get steamy but once it does, it's surprisingly kinky haha.

If you're a fan of Lisa Kleypas, I think you'll really enjoy this book!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert

Books like these are why I don't five star everything I read just because the author "tried." It skews the whole rating system and undervalues the work of truly brilliant authors who aren't afraid to be edgy, messy, and real, which is part of the reason I loved THE REVOLUTION OF BIRDIE RANDOLPH so much.

Dove is a "good girl" with strict parents, but there are secrets she's keeping that even her parents don't know about. She's dating a "bad boy" named Booker who went to a juvenile detention center, and she's started doing things like sneaking out, experimenting with alcohol, and spending 1:1 time with her estranged aunt, who just got out of rehab and has just entered her family's life looking for a 2342343rd chance.

Every time you think this book is going to take the cliched route, it does a complete 180. I love the balancing act Dove strikes between trying to be her own person and make her parents proud. I loved the conversations about sexuality that arose because of her ex, Mitchell, and her best friend, Laz. I loved how Booker was so much more than he seemed, and while his history was treated with the gravitas it deserved, it also wasn't played up for the drama. He was a sweet kid who messed up once and was looking for a second chance. I loved Dove's aunt, Carlene, and her story. I felt like the way that this book treated addiction and recovery felt real, and it definitely didn't feel dramatic or easy. There was also a twist in the last half that I figured out before the MC did, but totally didn't see coming before then.

Anyone who loves YA books that deal with real world issues and have lots of diverse rep will love this. Our heroine is Black, and so is her family and several of her friends, including her boyfriend. Several of the characters are LGBT+. It deals with heavy-hitting topics like addiction, discrimination, sex, coming out, and substance use very maturely, never seeming too preachy or too exploitative. It's a tough line, handling topics in a way that feels natural and authentic without letting that "adult" pearl-clutching voice slip through, but Colbert did a fantastic job, and Dove sounds like a real, mature teenager.

Also, the feels. There were several moments in this book where I teared up. It definitely isn't a book that wraps up neatly with a bow, but real life is rarely like that, and the ending was satisfying, as it felt like a break and not a stopping point on Dove's journey to self-discovery. I'm so glad I read this book and would pick up more from this author in a heartbeat.

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

5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Heat Wave by Jennifer Archer

Honestly, I don't even remember buying this book. I found it under my bed while cleaning. Looking at the title, it definitely seems like something Trash Nenia would have bought: it's reality TV-themed chick lit in anthology format, written by three different authors, only one of which I recognize, published by Love Spell in 2003. And everyone knows, Love Spell has never published a bad book (what was that? Don't look at me, I had something in my throat).

Birds of Paradise: ☆☆
Katie MacAlister

This is about Adam and Hero. Adam is a private investigator masquerading as a popular but reclusive radio sex therapist while stalking the ex-wife of a popular athlete who's gone on the show. Hero is a journalist who's using the reality TV show as a means to write an exclusive behind-the-scenes article, and maybe meet a man, although because her mom was ditched by an American, that means all American men are pigs (*eyeroll*) and also, she's plus-size, so what man would look at a heifer like her? (*even bigger eyeroll*)

Honestly, for parts of this story, I was OK with it. I actually liked Adam (he has a pet kitty who ends up befriending a gecko). He's responsible for that line I quoted: "And then my nipples exploded with delight." And I was sort of okay with Hero until the big misunderstanding at the end where she insists, to the point where it begins to feel embarrassing and ridiculous, that there's no way he could possibly love her, because SHE IS PLUS-SIZED AND HIDEOUS, DAMMIT. I've read a couple books about plus-sized heroines from the early 2000s (weirdly enough, the other one was also reality TV-themed), and man, are they cringe. The woman always have body issues that border on dysmorphia and they are so shamey-- of themselves and others. It's hard to read, especially when it begins to feel like a lecture on being anti-fat and how you're not worthy of love unless a man deems you worthy because you have fantastic boobs, and then it starts to feel like a fetish.

It just made me so grateful for the plus-size rep coming out today that is actually positive. I saw some comments on one of Goodreads' articles about a book I liked and they made me realize that we still have a lot of work to do. So in that sense, I think books with rep like this are interesting in a clinical sense, in that they show that antiquated view on women's bodies that many people still internalize.


Breaking the Rules:
Jennifer Archer 

I actually hated this one. It starts out with one of the camera guys filming the heroine while skinny dipping and basically getting off on it. He's like "lolz, it's okay, she signed away all her privacy when she signed up to be on the show anyway I'm a good guy!" And also, it's the middle of the night, and she's in an area considered out of bounds, so the implication is totally that he saw her, followed her, and set up shop to wank, so NO, Greg, you are not a good guy, you are a creep.

When there's a blackout, she screams for help, thinking she went blind from hitting her head. He saves her but basically taunts her the whole time, knowing that she's naked, but also knowing that she doesn't know he knows, mocking her, gaslighting her, and basically making a game of her fear, knowing that he has the upper hand because he has all the power in this situation.

It's totally sick-making and I hated this story. This is not cute.


Hot Shot: ☆☆☆
Sheridon Smythe

The only truly decent story in the collection, which surprised me, since I had never heard of this author before. Whitney was signed up to be on the show by her mother, who thinks she is a dating coward. Rand is a widower who hasn't gotten over his dead wife, but if he wants to get custody of "Teddy" and "Dolly" he has to remarry, according to his wife's will. So they meet, and sparks fly, and there are actually some pretty steamy scenes in here... only it turns out that "Teddy" is his wife's teddy bear and "Dolly" is a nude statue of his wife with enlarged boobs that he had made and kept in their bedroom to remind her how silly she'd look with big tits when she told him she wanted to get plastic surgery. "What a lucky woman," Whitney actually thinks, and I was like uhhhhhhhh.

But there are some pretty great sex scenes in here, and despite some gratuitous slut-shaming, it wasn't horrible for the early-2000s, and even though Rand clearly has some issues, after Mr. Gaslight and Mr. Lying for Fun and Profit, Rand came off looking like a real prince charming. :/

Wouldn't really recommend this anthology to anyone, though.

2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Uncanny by David Macinnis Gill

DNF @ p.66

While reading this book, I was like, "Why does this author's name sound so familiar?" And then I realized he was the author of BLACK HOLE SUN, which I think I received an ARC of back when it first came out. I remember thinking the teen speak in that book was really weird, but since it took place on a Mars colony or something like that, I was like, well whatever, it's the ~future~ and rolled with it despite being skeptical. But no, actually, it seems like it's just the author, because this book was also super cringe with its slang-- or what the author thought was slang-- with gems like "bitchlette" and using "zucchini" as an insult.

I was actually in a weird mood, so horror felt like a great choice, but this book is SO BORING and it's 500+ pages??? Why is it so long? NOTHING IS HAPPENING. There's a dude who possesses bodies with lightning and an evil undead witch and a girl with super powers, so really this should be the opposite of boring. I went to Goodreads to write my review and when I saw the low average rating, I felt SO VALIDATED. Apparently I'm not the only one who thought the writing was ridic and the pacing was off. Thank you, Goodreadians, for making me feel better about my choices.

1 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Hush by Dylan Farrow

What even is reviewing?? I feel like I haven't picked up a book in years. (Okay, it's been days.) I've actually been reading this one on the DL for a couple weeks now, courtesy of the publisher, who was kind enough to gift me a copy when I expressed my interest in it being a feminist!fantasy novel, because I think we can all agree that what the world needs right now is more strong women kicking serious butt.

At first, it didn't click for me that this is the same Dylan Farrow who is the daughter of Mia Farrow. Which, at first, gave me some trepidation because celebrities don't exactly have the best track record when it comes to writing YA. Just take Kendal and Kylie Jenner's dystopian novel, REBELS: CITY OF INDRA, or Hilary Duff's paranormal romance, ELIXIR. Neither of which are reputed to be, um... good.

HUSH is a pretty decent fantasy story, though. I liked it, even if I didn't love it, and I think younger readers will enjoy it even more than I did, especially if they're a fan of authors like Shannon Hale. In HUSH, writing is forbidden because of a mysterious sickness called Blot, which basically discolors and poisons the veins. In this world, words have incredible power, and people called "Bards" can use them to do powerful spells.

Shae lives in a poor village that depends heavily on the Bards for good weather and growing crops. Having a brother who died of Blot, she's somewhat of a pariah, and when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, her lot in life only worsens. Of course, everything changes once Shae decides to confront her mother's death, despite "murder" being a forbidden word, and of course, her investigations end up making her even more ostracized than she is and catch the attentions of dangerous and powerful people... where she discovers that she, too, is more than she seems.

I'll be honest, I don't really see how this is a "feminist" fantasy. There is an insta-lust between her and one of the Bards, and I never really got the connection between them. She doesn't have any particularly positive relationships with any female characters, apart from a servant who helps her out for literally no reason other than "us women have to stick together" (yes, exactly that). Actually, a lot of the people who screw her over the most in this book are women, which isn't very feminist. The biggest girl power moment is when she turns down a marriage proposal-- not because he's a bad person but because she just isn't that into him and doesn't want to settle. You go, girl?

To be clear, three stars is a positive review (I keep getting comments from people on other reviews who don't seem to get that??); it just means I had some issues with the book that kept me from really loving it or liking it. This is a somewhat generic fantasy novel with an interesting take on the whole "magic is forbidden" trope, but the MC is kind of a Mary Sue and it ends on a wicked cliffhanger without much closure. YA fantasy fans are probably going to love this (and the gorgeous cover won't hurt). I found it passable, and it was refreshing to see a celebrity with decent writing chops.

I'd be interested in reading the sequel and seeing where she goes from here.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Behind the Scenes by Dahlia Adler

 DNF @ 24%

I find that I have a love-hate relationship with Adler's work. Sometimes I love her books, other times... not so much. It's a shame, because I think she really tries to tackle relevant issues teens actually have to deal with-- things like taking care of younger siblings, dealing with sick or dying parents, living paycheck to paycheck, coming out and/or dealing with everything that comes along with that-- and considering how much she champions diverse books, that doesn't really surprise me. Adler seems to really get what teens want to see in their representation.

I just don't always love her characters or stories.

Initially I really liked BEHIND THE SCENES. Ally is an ordinary girl who's watching her BFF become the next famous TV star (picture the lead on the CW). When she falls for her friend's costar who seems totally out of her league (Liam), she can't help but second guess herself. Especially since she's dealing with her younger sis and a father who might be dying of cancer.

I posted a status update praising Adler for taking complex issues and being realistic about them. If you're a reader of new adult fiction, you'll know that the genre is infamous for taking serious issues and being ridiculous about them for drama's sake. And while drama can be fun, if a serious issue is handled badly enough, it starts to feel insensitive rather than... you know, real. That doesn't happen here, though. No, what made this story fall apart for me was just that I wasn't engaged with the characters. I didn't really buy the romance between Ally and Liam, and I didn't really like how it takes the "hating on Hollywood" low-hanging fruit and makes Liam secretly hate his career.

I own the sequel to this, which apparently has an LGBT+ romance in it, so I'm definitely going to check that one out, but sadly BEHIND THE SCENES will have to stay behind the scenes for now.

2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

FELIX EVER AFTER was a really, really good book. It's a story about questioning your identity, writing secret letters, first loves, secret cruelties, calling out harassment and bigotry, and educating loved ones-- oh, and art, New York, and coming of age. Basically, it's a hodge-podge of everything I love about YA, handled really maturely, and with a really great message to boot.

Felix is a trans boy who has never been in love but would like to be. He's also an art student with big dreams, and a group of friends who he mostly likes, although they can be annoying. In liberal New York, he's mostly accepted but he still runs into bigots-- like his TERF "friend" who says he's a misogynist for transitioning from "female" to male and giving into the patriarchy, or the bigot who deadnames him and posts a gallery of photos from his Instagram taken pre-transition.

The secret bigot harasses him on Instagram, trying to tell him that he's a girl and damage his self-worth. The things the bully says are incredibly cruel and Felix is understandably devastated and enraged, and he decides he's going to figure out who they are and ruin them. He already has one suspect, the ex-boyfriend of his BFF who inexplicably seems to hate both their guts. But the more that Felix talks to him, under an assumed identity, the more he actually -gulp- starts to like him.

I don't want to say too much more because I don't want to spoil things, but I liked that I never knew what was going to happen. I also liked that Felix started out as really prickly, but as the story progresses we get to know the real him as he figures himself out. I liked the message about how even loved ones can screw up and it's important to forgive even as you hold them accountable, and how bigots should be called out so they can't continue to harass on the sly. I loved the message that you can continue to question your whole life, and how identity is this ever-evolving thing that belongs to you alone, and the power that naming yourself gives you when you find a label that is you.

There's a lot of YA that condescends to its audience so I'm always really excited when I find a mature work that deals out realistic problems with realistic people and dialogue that sounds like real teens speaking. Real teens make mistakes and sometimes do reckless things, but real teens can also surprise you with their insightfulness and their passions. When I was a teenager, I definitely saw myself as a very ~mature~ individual, and I think a lot of teens probably feel the same way and like to see reflections of their almost-adult self in fiction. FELIX EVER AFTER perfectly captures what it means to be growing up and having everything change, caught mid-glide on that journey of endless possibility.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

End of Day by Jewel E. Ann

DNF @ 13%

I'm sorry to say that I didn't really care for this book at all. While looking at it on Goodreads, I thought it was kind of weird how it was shelved as both "humor" and "dark." I think it was trying to go for like a satiric/serious spy movie vibe but it didn't really work out for me. I thought it was pretty boring.

1 out of 5 stars