Monday, August 31, 2020

Marriage Scandal, Showbiz Baby! by Marito Ai

Marito Ai is one of my favorite Harlequin manga artists. I will read literally a n y t h i n g she's worked on, even if it has a silly title like this one does. I don't know how much control these mangaka have over which manga they decide to adapt, but Ai has only worked on really good ones, many of which are super emotional and unfailingly tug at my heart.

This is a second chance romance between an actor and an actress named Matteo and Jennifer. He met her when she was doing Shakespeare plays as an amateur and fell in love with her because of her ingenue-like innocence and wonder. As the two of them became more famous and busy, she got jaded and distant, and in a moment of weakness, Matteo ended up having an affair with another young woman at the beginning of her career.

They meet again at the premier of one of their movies and when they're stuck in a stalled elevator, all of that past history catches up with them and they "do it." Unfortunately, Jennifer ends up pregnant from the encounter, and Matteo wants to be involved, which ends up forcing both of them to confront all of the hurts and miscommunications that had built up over their faltering marriage.

Obviously, the cheating is going to be a sour note for a lot of people. I'm not too fond of it as a plotline myself, but I did like the message in this story about how human beings can make mistakes but still love each other, and how physical intimacy exists on a different plane from emotional intimacy. Sometimes, these manga end up feeling like throwaway reads, but this one hit me deep inside and almost made me cry at one point. All of the manga Ai has worked on have done this. She's so good at translating romance novels to a more visual medium.

If you're new to the world of Harlequin manga adaptations, start with Marito Ai.

4 out of 5 stars

Omens by Kelley Armstrong

Olivia is a society princess with a fiance to match until she discovers (1) that she's adopted and (2) that her birth parents were actually these awful serial killers who went after couples. The perfection of her life is immediately shattered as she is forced to flee, and seek answers elsewhere. Her searching takes her to a strange town called Cainsville, a place where everyone knows everyone and sinister omens run rampant.

I read some of this author's urban fantasy works years ago and was curious to see how she'd make the transition to thrillers. For the first 75% or so of this novel, I was in love. It was giving me STILLHOUSE LAKE vibes, which is probably one of my favorite thriller book series (and was also penned by an author who I knew primarily for her urban fantasy works).

OMENS is mostly a detective story but it has paranormal elements, as well. Mostly, I thought this worked out in the book's favor, and gave it a creepy, psychological horror vibe that managed to be spine-chilling without a whole lot of gore. There were a couple scenes in particular that made me certain that I shouldn't be reading this book at night. It's only when this book begins to stroll down the path of bunk psychology that I broke out the side-eye. I wasn't really a huge fan of the ending, to the point where I'm not sure I want to read more.

OMENS isn't a bad book by any means and the suspense will keep you turning pages, but I think it's a flaw in this case that it doesn't seem to know what genre it'd like to fall under. For some readers, I'm sure it will be an amazing book, since it draws from pseudoscience, folklore, and horror, and there's even a bit of romance and unresolved sexual tension with an attractive, morally grey bad boy.

I wish I'd loved this book more than I did but man... it got a bit too ridic.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Most Coveted Prize by Yoko Iwasaki

This one was fine. I grabbed this book while it was on sale because I'm a huge fan of Harlequin manga. The hero, Kiryl, is a rich Russian billionaire in the middle of negotiating a high-stakes deal. The heroine, Alena, encounters him in the lobby of an expensive hotel, drawn to his good looks. By pure coincidence, it turns out that she's the sister of Kiryl's rival, Vasili. So what does he do? Plans to seduce her, thereby ruining her and compromising the family-oriented Demidov company image. But he doesn't expect to fall for her in the process.

The art was great. Hero was a jerk, but this is adapted from a Penny Jordan romance, so I expected nothing less. Heroine has her pride and isn't about to sacrifice it for the hero, which I liked. The ending was pretty sweet and I liked how her controlling brother showed his softer side at the end.

When I rate these HQ manga, I typically grade based on appearance, the story itself and how well it gets adapted to the comic book format, and the art. Everything was satisfactory but nothing really stood out to me, so I think a 3-3.5 star rating seems fair. Some of these manga are actually quite terrible, but apart from moving a little fast, this one was pure, bite-sized fun.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Royal's Child by Motoyo Fujiwara

ROYAL'S CHILD is a holdover from the last Harlequin manga sale I participated in. I bought it on impulse and never finished it-- I think because I was bored. This is definitely one of the poorer manga I have read, because the plot is just so ridiculous. I've read and enjoyed adaptations by this mangaka before, so that isn't all her fault, I'm sure. Manga artists are somewhat limited by their source material after all.

**warning: spoilers**

After being sexually harassed by her employer, Angel quits her job and hitchhikes to seek her fortune, but when she finds herself being stalked by a creepy man who thinks she's fair game, she goes off-road, hiding deeper in the fields, where she encounters "Royal Justice" and his daughter, Maddie. Royal. Justice. That's his name-- omg.

Anyway, Royal thinks she's a horse thief but Maddie thinks she's the "angel" she saw while having fever dreams from a venomous spider bite. Apparently a woman she hallucinated told her that an "angel" was coming to stay with them. She's been drawing pictures, and to Angel's surprise, the pictures Maddie has been drawing showcase not just a ghostly bride, but also a girl who looks like Angel with Angel's heart-shaped birthmark.

At Maddie's insistence, Angel stays on as her nanny, despite a lack of references. Royal ends up calling her creepy ex-boss and threatening him if he ever bothers Angel again. They feel attraction to one another despite being strangers. A power outage and a tornado force them even closer, and when Angel is stalked by a man with murderous intent, Maddie's psychic visions once again save the day. Oh, and it turns out the ghost bride is actually her dead mom's ghost. Cool, huh?

This book was so cliche and bad. I thought the art was fine, although Angel was drawn to look so young, she seemed like a child, which I didn't like. There were too many lazy writing tropes. The ghost mom, the deus-ex-tornado, the evol murderer, and the whole nanny thing with the child being used for emotional manipulation were all overkill to me. Didn't really care for this story much at all, which makes me think that Sharon Sala is probably not an author for me.

1.5 out of 5 stars

A Change of Fortune by Jen Turano

I am a secular reader and not typically in the habit of reading inspirational romances, but I got this when it was free for download from the Kindle store a while ago because one of my friends enjoyed it, and I trust her reviews. I think inspirational romances tend to work for me better when they're historical fiction, since people tended to be much more religious in the past than they are today, and it was much more a part of daily life.

Eliza used to be an English heiress until her father fell ill, and her ex-governess absconded with her father's ex-man of business with all of his money, leaving her penniless. After her friends abandoned her and her fiance jilted her, Eliza was forced to chase down those evil thieves to the United States (New York), while posing as a governess to an illustrious soap manufacturer.

One day, while evening out the numbers at a society dinner, her blundering catches the eye of two brothers who are also railroad magnates, Zayne and Hamilton Beckett. As it turns out, they're also looking into the same man that Eliza is pursuing, because he's acquainted with another nefarious fellow named Eugene. She finds this out while trying to break into "Lord Southmoor's" house and seeing the Beckett brothers already there.

Her scheming loses her her governess position and she ends up staying with Hamilton, who has two young children. As it turns out, he's a widower and his children are lonely. They take an instant liking to Eliza, and conveniently enough, the oldest child she was "governing," Agatha, now has more freedom and visits with Eliza (and the handsome Zayne) on a regular basis, even as all four of them gradually draw closer and closer to uncovering the wrong that has been done to all of them.

So this was fine. It's very much a "shenanigans" type of story, written with the intent of being light-hearted and humorous. I was more or less in the mood for that so it worked for me, although towards the end, I got bored and began to skim until the final confrontation. I just didn't really care all that much for Hamilton as a hero. I thought he was kind of a jerk. He apologizes for being a jerk and has the self-awareness to realize what a cad he was, but I definitely wasn't invested in him at all.

If you're looking for a light, clean romance, this is your book.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Innocent in the Ivory Tower by Karan Dan

The TL;DR synopsis is Russian billionaire with mommy issues falls for the nanny of his godson. But obviously, this romance is ~much~ more complex than that. Obviously.

Look, I don't make the rules around here, but if I see a Harlequin manga on sale, I must buy and review it. This is the task I have taken upon myself to better humanity. INNOCENT IN THE IVORY TOWER is one of these Harlequin manga adaptations that originally began in Japan as the popular way to consume Western romances, but somehow cycled back here-- kind of like when you translate something into Google translate, and then translate that translation back into the original language. Full cycle. I mean circle. Whoops.

Anyway, the heroine of this book is named Maisy. She is the nanny to a child named Kostya because she was BFFs with the kid's mom. After his parents died in a tragic accident... she just kept raising him, I guess? So she's shocked when one day, Russian dudes burst into the house. At first, she thinks it's the mob, but it's actually a billionaire named Alexei who is Kostya's godfather, come to take custody.

He takes Maisy with him back to his home in Italy, to help the kid get accustomed to the sudden changes, and immediately propositions her. She "not like other girls" him, but that lasts for like two refusals because she gives in on the third or so attempt, and then realizes that she really likes him. Sad for her, because he has issues connecting to women because his mom was an actual lady of the night who had him when she was sixteen, and all of his previous girlfriends were models he could happily buy off with jewels (one of them was named "Jessica Rando," which I find hilarious).

You can probably guess how this romance ends but I won't spoil it if you're new here and aren't sure how Mommy Issues and Complacent Nanny could ever end up together when they come from Such Totally Different Worlds. (Spoiler: magic.)

As far as Harlequin novels go, this one is pretty typical. It follows a Disney princess rags-to-riches story arc, where having a good heart nabs you the prince (as long as you're also pretty and don't realize how good you look without makeup). The art is honestly what gets this book a three-star rating. If you're familiar with the CLAMP comics, it's reminiscent of that. I liked it a lot.

3 out of 5 stars

The Takeover Effect by Nisha Sharma

Corporate/billionaire romances were basically done to death in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey's popularity, and since most of them were equal parts superficial and terrible, I basically stopped reading them. Until I heard about THE TAKEOVER EFFECT, a romance between an Indian hero and heroine who are on opposing sides of a business acquisition. And then I was like, "I NEED IT."

Mina is a lawyer at a firm that used to be her mother's, but was wrested away by her terrible uncles. They're holding partnership over her head with her newest assignment: guide Bharat (a tech company) through their takeover and advise them to agree to the terms, and she'll be made partner. With a heavy heart, Mina goes to her new assignment, uncertain of what she'll do.

Hem is the prodigal son in his family. He turned his back on the family business before it went public, but after his father has a heart attack due to the stress of his suddenly struggling company, he returns to help out with damage control. And obviously, the first time he sees Mina, he can't take his eyes off her.

The two of them have to fight their attraction to each other since a relationship would be a conflict of interest, and that's very important because it's starting to look like Bharat's sinking ship is an act of corporate espionage. Someone wants the company to fail. Hem and Mina suspect it's probably WTA, the company that wants to see the takeover happen, but the burden of proof is entirely on them.

As it turns out, I've actually read something by this author before-- MY SO-CALLED BOLLYWOOD LIFE, which I did not like. This book was leaps-and-bounds better. Mina is one of the strongest romance heroines I've encountered in a while. I loved her fortitude, her competence, and her agency. She was willing to do what it took to succeed and make herself happy. Seriously, she was the best. I was less in love with Hem, who was very alpha (which is not really my cup of tea). He's much more gentlemanly and respectful than your typical billionaire hero, though.

Honestly, this could have been so cliche, but the corporate espionage parts were actually some of the best. I can't tell you how nice it is to see a corporate romance that isn't all garish conference rooms and mysterious business portfolios. This actually felt real. I also love how Indian culture was infused into the story. Mina and Hem's interactions with their families, all of the insights into tradition and cultural norms, and the WONDERFUL, drool-worthy descriptions of food were A+.

I'm giving this three stars because I liked it, but there were also things in it that it didn't do so well. I wasn't that fond of the hero. He wasn't awful, or anything like that, he just wasn't a favorite. I also felt like the sudden and intense closeness they felt was a little contrived and weird. I know, this is wish-fulfillment fantasy in book form and the author did manage to find a way to make it work (sort of), but things were so rushed along that I found myself wondering if they had met before as children and I missed it, or if they had some sort of previous connection to explain their intensity. I kind of wish that had been the case, as that would have helped me suspend my disbelief.

That ending though... it was one of the most satisfying conclusions I've paid witness to in a while.

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Legacy of Honor by Linda Hilton

DNF @ 62%

Normally, I don't make it this far in books I decide not to finish, but LEGACY OF HONOR tricked me! It had an amazing begin and then preceded to undulate in terms of quality; every time I thought about putting the book down, it got exciting. But I realized once I got to the 50% mark that I was doing more skimming than I probably should, and I've decided that I'm not going to read this book to the end.

My first book by this author was FIREFLY, and it is one of the best romances I've ever read: a Western romance with a heroine trapped under her cruel and manipulative family's thumb and a drunken doctor haunted by the past who wants to be redeemed. It is a romance in every sense of the word and, more than that, it's a tale of redemption, and of two wounded people taking solace in each other. I was moved to tears at points, heart in my throat. I was fully invested in the characters, and their pains and their victories felt like my own. I'd gladly recommend that book to anyone.

LEGACY OF HONOR, on the other hand, is a true bodice-ripper, replete with OTT wtfery and a cruel, morally grey hero who could easily double as the villain. Alexandra is an ingenue in Post-Revolutionary France. Her father was murdered by the guillotine. Now living with her aunt and step-uncle, she aspires to the trappings of the noble class, which is where she meets Mikhail.

Mikhail is a Russian count and a spy who wants to bring about the end of Napoleon's tyranny. He's taken with Alexandra and once he realizes how useful she is, he wants to use her as a spy. In some ways, LEGACY OF HONOR is like RED SPARROW, if RED SPARROW took place in the past and was written from the female gaze. Mikhail whores her out to people for information, resulting in a very strange and disturbing naked sex scene. He doesn't realize that she's a virgin until he has sex with her not-so-nicely, although that doesn't stop him from raping her later, in anger.

The scenes in this book are brutal but expected in a book about war. The hero is nearly whipped to death by the French. The heroine is held captive in a barn and subjected to sexual abuse. War is depicted as the zero-sum game that it is, and we see exactly what people do when they have either too much power or not enough of it. I know the disturbing content in this book will likely be too much for some. The whipping scene was definitely hard for me to read (and so was the rape). But what really put a nail in this book's coffin was that it felt WAY too long. It looks like the paperback is almost 600 pages, but it just felt like-- to me-- that there were too many scenes that were focused on wandering around or on side characters whose stories weren't all that focal to the plot.

I will say that I respect this author keeping her book intact. She has a foreword about how she considered making her book more palatable to modern audiences but decided to keep it in its original form. I like how vintage romance novels act as a snapshot of societal attitudes back in the day, and show the "tone" of how such knowledge of history was delivered. I've read books where the authors edited and rewrote their bodice-rippers and some of them, like Fern Michaels' end up being awful.

Even though this book wasn't for me, I think it will be a four or five star read for others. It has some very memorable scenes and I thought both leads were interesting. It was just too, well, boring.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Fable by Adrienne Young

DNF @ p.56

Practically all of my friends were singing this book's praises, so I was so happy when I was given an ARC of my own. But then as soon as I cracked open the book, I got a sinking feeling. I even put off reading the book and writing my review, despite my early copy, because contrary to popular belief, it doesn't really feel that great to be the only prominent one-star for a book that everyone loves. Not just on a guilty, personal level, but because people tend to come for you, and demand that you explain yourself further.

Which brings me to two crucial points:

1) I do not "down-rate" books simply because it's popular to go against the grain. I am always honest. If I like a book, I rate accordingly and say why. If I hate a book, I rate accordingly and say why. If I truly feel that I am so biased towards an author that I am unwilling to rate and review their books fairly, I will not touch their books at all. I find it incredibly presumptuous and, frankly, insulting, that people imply I'm such a whore for votes that I would lie about my thoughts.

2) I rate my DNF books because I usually know within the first 10-20 pages what rating I'm going to give a book, and I think if a book is so bad for a reviewer that they're unable to finish it, they should be able to rate it accordingly. I'm not here to pay fan service to authors. I'm here, as a reviewer, to read books and write honest reviews for them. Life is short, and this whole "you must read the book to the end or you're a trash person" philosophy some of you have is not only ridiculous, it's a waste of time. Why force yourself to finish things you're not enjoying? You're wasting precious hours you could be spending on better books.

/rant over

Anyway, FABLE fell short for me for several reasons. The biggest, and most unforgivable, reason is that it's boring. Nothing about the world or the characters drew me in. I looked at some of the negative reviews for this book before posting mine to see if it got better, or if it was worth continuing, and none of them seemed to think so. In fact, I agreed with all of their opinions, and the ones who pressed on seemed to regret it. I went into FABLE expecting a girl power story of rising against the patriarchy, but it's just another basic fantasy story with minimal world-building about a girl we're all supposed to believe as special without any sorts of complexities to actually build that cred.

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

1 out of 5 stars

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Some of my friends were saying that this is like The Mortal Instruments, and while I can kind of see what they mean, I also think that LEGENDBORN is a much better book. Clary and Jace were such immature little shits, whereas all of the characters in LEGENDBORN-- even if they aren't nice-- have nuance. Plus, the heroine, Bree, is just really fascinating. She is unlike a lot of heroines I've read in YA. She's allowed to have sexual agency. She knows when she looks good. She gets mad and calls people out when she should. She doesn't cower. She's a bona fide bad-ass. But she also has moments when she feels vulnerable and weak. In short, she behaves more like a teen and less like an adult's idea of what a teen ought to be, and I really loved that.

The premise of LEGENDBORN is kind of weird. Basically, people who are descendants of the Knights of the Round Table have magic powers called "Bloodfcraft" and they defend the world from evil demons called "Shadowborn." Bree ends up getting involved with one of their prodigal sons, Nick, when she starts to have reason to believe that they killed her mother.

Bree is a high school student taking college classes at a prestigious North Carolina university. Remnants of history-- and the grim legacy of slavery-- are everywhere, and that history ties into Deonn's take on Arthurian legend in several unusual ways. One of the things I liked best about this book was how it tackles inequality and racism. Bree faces discrimination from ordinary people (like a cop who lets her white friend go but takes her and her Asian friend in, or people who touch her hair without her permission), but the history of racism and slavery aren't ignored either, which is something that a lot of fantasy and historical fiction fail to touch on: that a lot of historical figures or people in power who exist in economies where exploitation of other human beings is a product often did terrible things to get their money and their power. In this book, all power has a cost, and sometimes the price can be unforgivable. It's a chilling and powerful lesson.

There were other things I really liked about this book, too. It's diverse. Bree is Black. Her best friend is Asian. We meet several other Black mages, and there's a focus on Black history and Black experiences. The LGBT+ rep was really pronounced and done really casually. One of the love interests is coded as bi or pan (I'm not sure which). There's a non-binary character. There are several F/F couples. There's a love triangle, but for once, I actually liked both love interests for different reasons, and I like that it's not super obvious which one Bree is going to end up with (maybe both??). The golden boy or the bad boy??? I mean, how does one choose? (Take the bad boy, obviously.)

Even though the premise was a little cheesy, I found myself really drawn to the inventive world-building, and I felt so much more invested when things got dark and things took a Hunger Games-like turn. Honestly, with the bonding Scions and the training sessions, LEGENDBORN gave me Vampire Academy vibes more than anything else. Especially with the whole "hot for trainer" trope. I could easily see this becoming a movie (in fact, I hope it does), and I'm really excited to see where the sequel goes with all of this since there's still so much left unexplored.

If you like books with strong heroines and immersive fantasy novels, you'll probably love this.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, August 28, 2020

Fire and Sworde by Theresa Michaels

FIRE AND SWORD came in an assortment of romance novels I bought in bulk and the hot pink cover beckoned me, even as the summary tantalized and beguiled. The book is such a tease, because it opens with scenes of brutal political machinations that wouldn't be out of place of Game of Thrones, but by the end of the book, it spins out into a weak, annoying facsimile of Catherine Coulter at her worst. It's been a while since I was so let down by a romance novel and I just have to tell you about why this one was so fail.

The story revolves around two Scottish clans who have been at war but now have a tenuous peace because of a brokered marriage: the Gunns and the MacKays. Bridget, one of the Gunns, is marrying Liam, one of the MacKays. And to cement peace even further, Bridget's younger brother, Micheil, is betrothed to Liam's sister, Seana. Of course, Micheil is an older teenager and doesn't see much in Seana, an actual child, and after threatening her to remain pure for him, he goes off to have sex with the OW, Fiona.

Remember that name, Fiona. You'll be hearing more from her.

Anyway, weeks pass, and then the Gunns are shocked when Bridget returns, sans Liam, disfigured from beatings. She claims that Liam did it. So the Gunns go to war against the MacKays. The parents of Seana and Micheil are both killed in the battle, but the MacKays come off way worse. Even so, Micheil and his crew vow that they must be utterly destroyed, and Seana is spirited away to a convent where she can be raised until she's old enough to marry Micheil-- where he then promptly plans to beat and disfigure her as his sister was. And Bridget is so ecstatic about this, it's almost sexual. Ew.

Anyway, fast-forward to the "present" day where Seana is now an adult. Obviously, she's gorgeous, and obviously she has no idea what's going to happen to her, except she knows that it isn't good, and that the people holding her hostage in the convent want their revenge on her family. She manages to get out to the fair, where she has a run-in with Micheil who doesn't recognize her but wants to fuck her (because she's hot). He tries to force himself on her and she flees, and then he figures out who she is, but he wants her anyway (because she's hot) and vows that he will find her.

Anyway, he rescues her from raiders who also want to rape her, takes her to his lands, where there's a forced-seduction scene (and then several more). When Seana finds out that the man who told her his name was Jamie is actually Micheil, she's furious-- and then, resigned. Because of course he tells her that without his protection, terrible things will happen to her (obviously Bridget volunteers to make those things happen). There's another forced-seduction scene, and this one feels way more like rape. Seana gets pregnant from it, and his clan is infuriated that he's boinking the object of their revenge.

OK, this is where it gets REALLY weird. Micheil has a bastard brother named Niall who hates him and wants to usurp his place. I started skimming pretty heavily but I think it's implied that he's been having sex with both Bridget and Fiona (Micheil's OW). Bridget, I believe, was cuckolding Liam with Niall (obviously Liam didn't beat her-- she was lying about that). I wasn't quite clear if she hurt herself or if Niall did??? I must have missed that part. BUT ALSO APPARENTLY THEY'RE WITCHES, because they brew up a potion to drug Micheil and Fiona rapes him by pretending to be Seana while feeding him drugs and Bridget laughs maniacally to herself.

Then there's the final showdown where all of this is revealed and they've kidnapped Seana's baby. Fiona, I believe, wants to kill it. But Bridget thinks it's hers. Bridget demands that Micheil kill Seana before bringing the baby back from a cliff. But when she finds out Fiona wants to kill it, the two of them fight and literally both off themselves by going off the cliff. Seana and Micheil live happily ever after and there's a "touching" scene when he wipes her breastmilk off the baby's lips and drinks it, and then they kiss with the baby between them "in a loving arch" and I'm just like ew.

Disturbing shit doesn't really bother me that much in books but bad storytelling does and this was just ??? First, Fiona was just such a bad villain. So was Niall. There was no suspense. They had all of the subtlety of, well, a Game of Thrones villain. They literally exist just for you to hate them. Also, I was confused about how Micheil's brothers kind of seemed to flip-flop in their roles in all this, and I thought that Seana forgave Micheil way too quickly considering he killed her whole family. The weird witch-shit, deus ex rape-inas, and the Big Misunderstanding were all just icing on the cake.

I'm bumping this up to two stars because I did (barely) manage to make it to the end and I was invested enough in the storyline that I wanted to continue, but now I'm mad. This could have been so good but it was like the author chickened out at her own dark beginning and had to tone things down. This could have been a really complex and tragic story and instead it was weak sauce.

I has a sad.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

One and Only by Jenny Holiday

This is it. This is how you right a bad boy romance without making it toxic. ONE AND ONLY filled my dark and frowny heart with pure joy. I normally run in the other direction when someone says "fluff," but someone in my romance group recommended this one and the summary sounded really good and I loved the cover, so here we are. Me, sitting in my chair. About to eat my words.

Jane is basically the mom in her friends group. Elise is the high strung one. Wendy is the chill one. Gia is the gorgeous one. And Jane is the one who plays everything safe and plans out everything. That's why she's the one who's jumping through all the hoops for Elise's upcoming wedding, even though she's become a bit of a power-mad bridezilla who seems like she's working on building her own personal reign of terror, one frosted mason jar at a time.

Elise has found Mr. Right in her fiance, Jay, but he has a black sheep of a brother named Cameron who seems like the very epitome of Mr. Wrong. If the rumors about him are true, he got his high school sweetheart pregnant and then didn't take responsibility, burned down a barn, and got dishonorably discharged from the military. Elise is terrified that he's going to ruin everything, which is why she has assigned Jane to "babysit" him. Poor Jane.

At first Jane finds Cameron super frustrating-- because he's a player and seems like a flake. But the more she gets to know him, the more amusing and even likable she finds him. Especially when she ends up in a bet with him: he has to stay celibate if she does some of his post-military bucket list items with him, like going to Niagra Falls or bungee-jumping off the highest point in Toronto. The more they do together, the more they genuinely like each other, but Cameron and Jane have some real hang-ups in their pasts that might pose a serious impediment to any semblance of a relationship.

I loved this book so much. It's so rare to see a book that takes two likable people and makes them fall in love, and makes them fall in love in an interesting way. Of course it helps that Cameron is basically a grown-up version of Patrick Verona from 10 Things I Hate About You and Jane is a YA author who likes to cos-play as Xena and go to Comicons. Jane and Cameron were fun to watch, and the sex scenes in this book were surprisingly steamy and risque! I was actually shocked LOL (in a good way). The perfect blend of light-hearted humor with serious emotional issues gave this such a cinematic vibe, I could totally picture this as a movie-- replete with the last act of redemption, which managed to be sweet and over-the-top, but not so over-the-top where I was like whaaaaat.

But perhaps the sweetest moment in this story is like the first time they're ever intimate and he just gets on his knees and puts his face in her hand. That nearly undid me. I was like unnffff. Marry him now.

The PTSD element in this book was SO well done also. Way too often, you see books that seriously underplay the effects of mental illness, or else forget about it entirely as soon as the two characters fall in love. I felt like it was handled seriously and respectfully here and even though Jane helped him, she was a comfort and not a "cure." I was so happy to see that in a romance novel, because I think normalizing mental illness in romance is so important!

If you like cute romances that take mental health seriously, have fantastic nerd rep, show how both fun and annoying weddings can be, and show a likable character falling in love (hot scenes included), I think you'll really love this book. It's one of the best romantic contemporaries I've read in a while.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

I bought this a while ago when it went on sale purely on impulse because I was so intrigued by the title. It's one of those titles that tells a story and makes the reader wonder: "Who is Yaqui Delgado and why does she have it in for ME?" But it's actually the main character, Piedad "Piddy" Sanchez that Yaqui hates. As with most things in the girl universe, it all boils down to jealousy and a boy. Piddy has always been a good girl, but as the bullying intensifies, her grades begin to falter and she starts cutting classes, fighting with her mother, and behaving more and more recklessly.

Speaking as someone who was bullied in high school, I can say that this book really hits deep. Some readers I saw were disappointed that we never found out the "reason" that Yaqui was a bully-- but honestly, does there need to be a reason? We already learned that the bullies figured Piddy was too full of herself and resented the fact that guys found her attractive. While I understand that there are gray areas, it was kind of refreshing to see a book that completely focused on the victim of the bullying and didn't make any sorts of apologies for the bullies themselves.

YAQUI DELGADO ticks all the boxes of what makes a great YA story for me. It deals with tough subjects in a nuanced way that never feels preachy. Piddy acts and talks like a real teen and the author allows her to make the mistakes that a real teen would. A few people didn't like the fact that Piddy fought with and disrespected her mother, and all I can say to that is COME ON. Being a bratty teen is practically a right of passage. I know I was a huge pain, and honestly, it's refreshing to see a book where the kid blows up at the 'rents, but it's clear that they still love each other despite everything.

I also liked Piddy's mom, and her story as a single mother. It was a really interesting take on what it means to be an adult making mistakes while parenting, and I think it captures that kind of poignant, heartbreaking moment when a kid learns that their parents can be weak and don't always have all the right answers to life's tough questions. All of the supporting characters were really great too, like Joey, Lila, and Allen. I like that each of their characters had an unexpected turning point.

If you're tired of the cookie cutter YA books that look at high school through Disney Channel glasses, mosey on over to this book and give it a read. I know I'm tough on YA as a reviewer, but I think it's important to really focus and laud the books like this one that take serious risks. It was so good.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin

DNF @ 45%

That cover. Please, let's make one of the new romance trends to have kick-butt ladies with swords gracing the covers. It's a great aesthetic. I think we can all agree. *chef's kiss*

I've read a couple of Lin's books before, the Pingkang Li mysteries, and a collection of short stories that are all set in and loosely connected to her Tang Dynasty series. I gravitated to this book because of its premise (a girl running away from her evol fiance who's been trained in the art of blades! and a White guy who's like a mercenary knight who's super attracted to her!), but I was a little worried about starting the book because the ratings are so low.

I bought it anyway because I love my friends but sometimes they can be wrong (lol) and I was so sure I was going to love this. Sadly, I did not. It falls into the trap that a lot of these Harlequin historicals do, where it just kind of feels bland and, as one of my friends called it, "condensed." It's like the book equivalent of eating oatmeal-- there's nothing offensive in it, but it's also really plain, and isn't as satisfying as juicy bacon.

I was going to try to push through anyway, but as I approached the halfway mark, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of chemistry between the two main characters, and the slow, plodding plot (it's basically one of those books where the hero and heroine just wander around, and I'm not super into travel stories). I also bought MY FAIR CONCUBINE by this author, so I'm hoping I might like that one better, as this one was, sadly, a bust.

2 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Pirate Prince by Gaelen Foley

DNF @ 14%

This book basically exemplifies what I don't like about 90s bodice-rippers. It tries to keep to the breathless excitement and racy content of the originals, but by trying to make the hero a "nice guy," all of his actions start to feel... I don't know, hypocritical? He's supposed to kill the heroine for honor, but all he can do is obsess over her untouched state and how hot she is. Creeps McDeeps.

The writing isn't bad, but I just don't really have patience for books like this anymore and I'm trying to clean out my Kindle, so I'm probably not going to be finishing this one, sadly.

1.5 out of 5 stars

An Inconvenient Woman: A Novel by Stéphanie Buelens

AN INCONVENIENT WOMAN is about two women. One of these women is Claire, a French teacher who is haunted by her ex-husband, Simon. She's convinced that he is a child abuser and blames him for the death of her teenage daughter, Melody. Now he's about to get married to another woman who has a young daughter, and Claire is convinced that he's going to do it all again. The other woman is Sloan, an ex-cop, who is the daughter of a cop, who now works as a "fixer," although she self-describes as a "sin eater," which is interesting but not quite analogous.

It's difficult to say more about this book without delving into spoilers, but this book is similar to stories like GIRL ON THE TRAIN, where the reader is made to wonder just how much of the situation is in the unreliable narrator's head, and how much is real. Did Simon actually do the dangerous things that Claire says he did? Or was Claire actually the dangerous one all along?

This is a very short book (under 300 pages) and very readable. Once I actually had time to sit down and read, I finished it in a few hours. I'm giving the book three stars because I found it a little predictable. I guessed most of the twists before they happened, which is always disappointing in a mystery, where part of the fun is getting to be surprised. The writing also sometimes comes in telegraph bursts, which I found distracting. I did enjoy AN INCONVENIENT WOMAN, and there were still some elements that I didn't see coming, so a three-star "I liked it but didn't like-like it" review seems fair.

I'd definitely check out more from this author in the future.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Vampire Viscount by Karen Harbaugh

THE VAMPIRE VISCOUNT was recommended to me on Twitter, given my love for historical romances and vampires, and the premise intrigued me. Leonore's father is a compulsive gambler and one day, when he ends up in debt to a mysterious lord, he casually decides to barter off his daughter in marriage. Leonore is obviously horrified, thinking that her husband-to-be is going to be old or cruel or both, and is therefore surprised when she meets the apparently young and very charming and rakish Lord Nicholas St. Vire.

But Nicholas has a secret-- many years ago, he was turned into a vampire while attending a salacious event at the Hellfire Club, and the woman who turned him, a woman named Mercia, has no intentions of letting him go. Nicholas is tired of being a vampire and having the dulled senses (not being able to taste food or listen to music with the enjoyment he did in life) and plans to perform an alchemical spell to become human again: but first, he must marry a willing virgin and convince her to fall in love with him.

The story has an interesting fairytale quality to it that is reminiscent of other enchantment type stories like The Little Mermaid or Beauty & the Beast, and I did like how that element was introduced into the storyline. In the foreword for this book, however, the author writes about how she is "probably" the first to write a regency-era romance about vampires, and she is actually not. VAMPIRE VISCOUNT was published in 1995 by Signet, and another regency romance about vampires, MIDNIGHT KISS, which was published in 1994 by Pinnacle, precedes it.

Both stories are superficially similar. They're about angsty vampires (sigh) who hate being vampires and wish to use alchemy/bad science to change back into humans. Nicholas, the hero of this book, was a much better hero, however, and the erotic scenes in THE VAMPIRE VISCOUNT were far steamier. I do think THE VAMPIRE VISCOUNT is a better book, but it was definitely not the first. It's actually funny that Nicholas was turned by an evil vampiress, because she reminded me of a much less evil version of the vampire, Asharti, from Susan Squires's THE COMPANION (another vampire regency). I couldn't help but wonder several times if Squires was inspired by this book.

I did enjoy THE VAMPIRE VISCOUNT quite a bit but the heroine, Eleonore, was whinier than I typically like, and even though her suffering was warranted, she wasn't really a heroine that I wanted to get up and root for. And even though Nicholas does get his bite on a handful of times, the focus of this book is primarily on the attraction between Nicholas and Eleonore and how their marriage of convenience gradually blossoms into a true marriage of the heart. There's nothing wrong with that at all, and the romance is sweet (and steamy!), but those who prefer darker vamp stories will probably not enjoy this one. Still, if you're in the mood for fluff with edge, this is the book for you.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age by Trina Robbins

Wow, can you say "keeper"? I love getting graphic-novels to review because they're normally quite pricey to buy, so it makes the books feel extra special-- and FLAPPER QUEENS is perhaps the nicest collection of comic books that I have received to date. It looks like something you would buy in a museum gift shop: fabric bound, with the interior covers tinted a gorgeous blue, and full-color illustrations that take up the whole page, in such good res that you can see the ink dots.

I think you would be remiss to expect humor that's about a century old to translate well, and most of the comics really don't hold up to today's standards. I would not get this to read the comics, but to enjoy the highly stylized caricatures of flapper girls, the ode to fashion and frippery, and to appreciate a very interesting snapshot of the 1920s from the female perspective. All of the artists included in this book are women, and it's refreshing to see that perspective from an age when women were still largely oppressed.

This is gorgeously produced and the illustrations are so beautiful. A good chunk of the book is about Nell Brinkley, but she has some lovely, fairytale-like illustrations, so that was hardly painful. I enjoyed some of the more satirical artists-- there was a good comic in here where one of them was making fun of the hairstyles of the day, including "the walrus" and "the pagoda" and "the acorn" lol-- but the ones that looked like Merrie Melodies cartoons and Disney princesses were great, too. I think this would be an amazing coffee table book (I'm keeping it to flip through, along with some of my other prized art books), as well as a great resource for artists and fashion designers who might wish to use it as a lookbook in order to emulate the styles of the era.

Oh, and as a caveat-- since these comics were written and published in the jazz age, a lot of them would be considered un-PC, whether it's using Lux toilet soap to land you a man, to referring to people of other cultures (portrayed here as ethnic caricatures) as "savages." YMMV.

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

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 23, 2020

A Scoundrel's Kiss by Margaret Moore

Meh. This is a tough one to rate. On the one hand, it was light and frothy and exactly what I needed after some heavier reads. On the other hand, the plot is all over the place, and the last quarter of the book has a chain of "Guess what? No, guess what? But-- oh wait, GUESS WHAT?" reveals that make all the twists feel REALLY contrived and resolves the story way too neatly.

Set during the Restoration-- not Regency, the people who shelved it that way are wrong-- this story is about a slovenly man named Neville who has been disinherited by his father for living in filth and ignominy, spending too much time gambling and with the ladies. To punish him, his father, the Earl, has decided to adopt a ward and give what would have been Neville's inheritance to her: Arabella, a provincial girl who is the daughter of a fanatic Puritan.

Arabella is not only faithful and good, she is incredibly beautiful. Which is why Neville, after encountering Arabella in the bathroom, decides that he is going to seduce her to make a point to his father that nobody can live up to his impossible standards. He even bets his two friends, Richard and Foz, fifty pounds each that he can convince her to sleep with him.

The story gets a little convoluted with King Charles II deciding he wants Arabella as his new mistress, and King Charles II's mistress deciding that she wants Neville as her new lover, and Neville's father (and his childhood friend and maybe lover, Lady Lippet) deciding that they need to pick out a suitor for Arabella, which results in a montage of parties, dinners, and excursions, one of which nearly ends up in assault, and all of which only serves to draw out the sexual tension and frustrations between the two leads, who just can't. Be. Honest. With. Each. Other.

There were some pretty steamy scenes in this book and just enough action to keep me turning pages, but I skimmed the last couple chapters. Neville really didn't have to grovel all that hard considering all the cruel things he did to Arabella, and as I said, the climax of the book was a bit convenient. I do love the cover, though, and the writing was decent. It was also cool to read a romance that wasn't a Regency or a Victorian. A SCOUNDREL'S KISS was a fun read but not a memorable one.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Magic Strikes by Ilona Andrews

Urban fantasy was my method of escape in college when I was frequently mentally exhausted from writing ten-page research papers and fatigued from pulling all-nighters. After reading endless books about psychiatric disorders, behaviorism, and the physical structures of the eye, sometimes it's nice to kick it with something that's just pure fun-- and for me, PNRs were always that. I will forever have a soft spot for vampires, shape-shifters, and witches.

The Kate Daniels series is basically the epitome of every book I loved as a woman in my only twenties, only upgraded, and equipped with a fancy sword. It borrows heavily from the folklore and mythology of all cultures (not just Western ones) and features a jaded, quippy heroine who the authors also aren't afraid to portray as emotionally vulnerable. MAGIC STRIKES, in particular, really delves deep into Kate's personal history and what makes her tick.

This book takes on a Hunger Games-like flavor when we learn about an underground fighting league that pits magical creature against magical creature in a high-stakes stadium tournament that frequently results in fights to the death-- only the price of defeat may be higher than anyone thought. Creatures are turning up dead and there's some sinister challengers who read as human but have abilities that no human would have, and things are bad enough that even Curran's Pack members are trying to undermine his authority, out of fear of starting an out-and-out territory war.

So you know, just another day in the world of Kate Daniels.

I didn't like this book quite as much as the previous book because this one was so brutal and violent and cutthroat. The other books in the series aren't exactly free from violence, but I must admit, I'm squeamish and I tend to balk at the presence of too much graphic physical violence. The gladiatorial elements were compelling though, and everything that happened in this book was relevant to the plot, but I was surprised at how much more violent it was than the previous too books. Poor Derek.

That said, I really appreciated how diverse this series was/is. Especially considering that it was published 10 years ago, before that was really the status quo and everything was overwhelmingly white. Andrews really makes an effort to be inclusive and while there are some stereotypes that have since become outmoded, it really stands out from its contemporaries, which tended to be way less diverse and feminist in tone. I love that Kate Daniels doesn't just fall over for a man, and she doesn't eschew femininity like Anita Blake did. I mean, she wears underwear with bows on! Love. Being a strong woman doesn't mean hating on feminine things. I'm glad to see Team Andrews gets that.

Also, Curran! I'm still Team Rogan for life, but this book made me realize why everyone loves him. That cliffhanger ending! I am DECEASED. Thank goodness I have books four and five on standby.

Definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves UF/PNRs but is tired of the same ol' same ol'.

3.5 out of 5 stars

When Angels Fall by Meagan McKinney

Some readers like alpha heroes. Some readers like beta heroes. Me, I have always enjoyed a conniving gamma hero who could just as easily double as the villain. Meagan McKinney gave me exactly that in one of her previous works, LIONS AND LACE, which had one of the best revenge-themed plots in a romance that I can remember reading about for a while. So I was very excited to get my hands on all of her other works, including this one.

Lissa is called "Lusty Lissa" by the cruel townsfolk where she lives because her mother was an adulteress. Her parents suffered a tragic fate and are now dead, but their legacy lives on, and because of her ethereal beauty, everyone assumes "like mother, like daughter." Effectively orphaned, Lissa has assumed responsibility over her blind sister and young brother, but even though they were all affluent growing up, they have all but fallen into ruin, and only pensions from a distant relative are keeping them afloat.

The Marquis of Powerscourt, Ivan Tramore, used to be poor but is now immensely wealthy, since his father decided to make him his heir despite him being illegitimate. Now he has returned to the very place where he once used to work as a stable boy to take what's his-- and we're not just talking property here, oh no. Because back when he was working class and Lissa was a lady, the two of them had a ~moment~ and he has never forgotten that moment, or his dark attraction to her, which has slowly boiled into obsession.

First, let me say that I love an intelligent, cunning hero who can scheme. And Ivan is such a schemer. I loved how manipulative he was. Problematic? Oh yes, but for the sake of Romancelandia, I could ship it. I also loved the slow burn attraction between the characters, and how both of them were so scarred from past hurts that they were unable to let down their guard to each other. It kept things interesting, and the tension and the emotional melodrama were just so well done. Not that I was surprised. LIONS AND LACE had me all but crying in frustration at parts and, like this book, reminded me a lot of a historical Hana Yori Dango, which is only my favorite manga ever.

Anyone who likes gamma heroes, slow burn romances, revenge plots, "I've loved you for years" tropes, and obsessive heroes who aggressively pursue the heroine will love this book, I think. It's a little dated, but the hero is not as problematic or as predatory as some, even if there are some scenes that hinge on dubious consent. I'm trying to decide whether I loved this or LIONS more and I honestly can't-- they were both so good. Guys, I think I have a new favorite romance.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer

I was still a teenager when I first read TWILIGHT, and now I am... well, not a teenager, obviously. (Beware, kiddos who follow me, one day, you too will be one of the "olds.") Since that first initial read, I've reread TWILIGHT a handful of times, and each time, I've felt a little differently about it as my thoughts about feminism, young adult fiction, and romances slowly changed and evolved with my own self-identification over time. I eventually settled on a sort of affectionate resignation. No, TWILIGHT won't be winning any female empowerment awards, and it's all too easy to make fun of (whether it's vampire baseball, sparkling in the sunlight, or the infamous misuse of the word "nattering"). But it was a book written by a woman for young girls that somehow became overwhelmingly popular and a cultural phenomenon, and women really didn't get to have a lot of things like that. Most things in pop-culture are created by dudes, from the perspective of the male gaze, so it was refreshing to see a romance novel become so inescapably popular that it gained a firm toehold in the fantasy/paranormal literary canon forever.

Even if the heroine was a klutz with zero self-preservation.

I actually read the original version of MIDNIGHT SUN back when it was still available to read for free on Stephenie Meyer's website. I remember when she first announced the project, she got so much backlash for it, and everyone said she was greedy/milking the cash cow/etc. (and yet radio silence when every other romance author decided to copy her and write POVs from their own abusive heroes' perspectives). I remember there was a lot of drama because someone had leaked the chapters, and they were circulating the internet, and Meyer was mad and said something like, "I'm not going to write this anymore because if I did, I'd let James win and kill off all the Cullens!" And in a final "so there!" she had posted a PDF version of the leaked chapters on her own website. Which... yikes. Not yikes to Meyer but just yikes because I honestly felt so bad for her at the time, getting all that hate and then someone screwing her over like that. I'd probably want to red wedding my own characters, too, at that point. So I read the 12 chapters on Meyers' website and went on with my life...

Until our year of 2020 when Meyer announced to the world that she would FINALLY be publishing MIDNIGHT SUN, the rewrite that nobody asked for. Or... um, wait, actually I think LIFE AND DEATH was probably the rewrite that nobody asked for. Anyway, people took in this news and basically lumped in with the general craziness of 2020 but they also had Thoughts. I had Thoughts. Namely:

1. Ummm, okay, that's great and all but WHAT ABOUT THE HOST SEQUELS.
2. And why does that cover make me so uncomfortable? It looks soooo sexual.
3. There is no way that this is going to be good but I am a trash can-- we all know that I'm a trash can-- and TWILIGHT was my shit back in the day, so we all know I'm totes mcgoats reading this.
5. Does this mean that vampires are FINALLY becoming popular again?
6. Just kidding. That was a trick question because we all know vampires never left.

Anyway, I finally got my hands on this book and managed to read it in a day with some skimming and all I can say is HOLY HELL WHY AREN'T MORE PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT WHAT A CREEPS MCDEEPS EDWARD IS. Like, yikes. If you thought he was problematic and patriarchal in the firsts four books, grab a blowtorch and some mace, because he takes stalking and problematic behavior to serial killer heights. Where it's methodically breaking down how he would go about meticulously snapping the necks and killing everyone in his biology lab in order to get to Bella while her blood is still warm, or stealing what I believe was her house key (some kind of key) while sniffing her hair and then OILING HER WINDOW TO MAKE IT EASIER TO SNEAK INTO TO WATCH HER SLEEP, Edward is the King of Creepy. And what makes it worse is that he knows what he is doing is creepy and he literally does not care.

Another thing that I found really funny in this book is how Stephenie Meyer really tries to give us a reason as to (1) why every single heterosexual man with a functional penis pants after Bella in the books and (2) belatedly and retroactively tries to infuse her with a "personality." What results is that we are treated, through Edward's psychic powers, of the inner monologues of EVERY MAN in this book who finds Bella attractive and told over and over again how dazzling, how stunning she is that she leaves boys literally unable to think while speaking with her-- and she doesn't even know it! Bella dramatically understates her own worth and Edward finds this so charming, compelling, and appealing that he has taken it upon himself to act as appraiser. Which is... gross. But gross is a recurring theme in this book, just as another recurring theme in this book is every attractive woman who actually knows she's attractive being repeatedly looked down upon, rejected, and shamed.

Woo, feminism!

Through Edward's eyes, we're told how selfless and good Bella is. They have a conversation that definitely wasn't in the first book and felt about twenty pages long (I think it was actually ten) in which Edward asks Bella all of her favorite things, and she answers, so we learn her favorite flower (dahlia), candy (black licorice and sour patch-- is she an old lady??), and ALL OF HER FAVORITE BOOKS which we already kind of knew about from the previous four books, but now in addition to the Jane Eyres and Jane Austens, we're informed that she loves Robin McKinley and the Dragonriders of Pern series, and oh yes, Agatha Christie! She's BRANCHED OUT!

I must say, this book felt about a thousand times longer than it actually was. In addition to the long odes to Bella courtesy of Edward's being psychic, we're also treated to long and waxing odes of how rich, attractive, and amazing Edward is, courtesy of his being psychic. One creepy thing in this book which I'm really not seeing mentioned more in the reviews of this book is how Edward allegedly looks seventeen and yet a number of older women-- adult women-- in this book are panting after him and fantasizing over him, EVEN THOUGH HE IS A TEENAGER. I'm sorry, that's gross. That's just as gross as a one-hundred-and-four-year-old man panting after a teenager.

Which is another thing that makes this book creepy. Being inside Edward's head, we find out just how unequal their relationship is. Edward holds two medical degrees and is over a century old, and yet he doesn't like women of his own age and doesn't like women who have sexual agency (they seem to make him feel some weird mix of scorn and shame). Instead, he goes to a high school, where he sneers at the biology teacher for not knowing as much as he does with his ~sniff~ two medical degrees, and tunes in to his fellow "high school students" like he's watching a soap opera on the radio. Like... why?? If I was an immortal psychic vampire, high school is the literally last place I would go. I'd be on a remote island somewhere with my own personal library, or travel the world. I certainly would not be looking at lab slides and writing out prophase, anaphase, interphase.

TWILIGHT works because it's written (allegedly) from the perspective of a teenage girl who doesn't feel like she fits in, who feels like she's more mature for her peers, who feels like she sacrifices endlessly and nobody knows it and she doesn't want people to know it, but also she does. She whines about attention while craving it, and even though she's annoying, she is also a perfect stand-in for the walking, irrational paradox that many teenage girls (and boys, and people) are. It works. And how many of us, told that "things will get better in college" haven't innocently fantasized about a dashing older man (or woman) who would sweep us away from high school and tell us we're special and also a secret princess or heiress or faerie queen or whatever? Everyone wants to be special, especially people who are not. So, even though TWILIGHT doesn't really make sense, and Edward is ridiculous and toxic AF, the fantasy is appealing because it taps into Bella's desire to be seen and, yes, special.

MIDNIGHT SUN, however, doesn't work-- because it rips the sparkly tablecloth off that fantasy, revealing the horrors underneath. Edward is dangerous. He's a stalker, he's a bit of a psychopath, he has anger issues, he's jealous, he's possessive, and he's one-hundred-and-four years old and in love with a teenager, and because of that discrepancy, he feels like he knows what he wants better than she does-- because he's an adult, and she's the irrational, and naive teenager. In this book, it's no longer romantic; it's creepy. As we see Edward not through Bella's rosy lenses but through Edward's own, we realize just how creepy he is. So if this was an attempt to rationalize and humanize Edward's behaviors, it failed, because it only served to make him 10x creepier. But if this was Meyer's attempt to be like, "ha ha! you want dark?? I'll give you DARK," then she succeeded, because man, Edward is super scary and I want no part of him. Team Jacob all the way, thanks. At least he's her own age.

The only thing this book really succeeded at was filling in some of the bizarre plot holes from TWILIGHT, such as why the tracker didn't recognize what Bella was right away at the baseball game, and why, between Alice's mind-reading and Edward's psychic powers, Bella ended up having so much bad shit happen to her in this first book anyway. I didn't ask for MIDNIGHT SUN and I'm not really sure it adds anything of real value to the series, apart from doubling down on the Edward is Creepy vibes from the previous book while trying to ret-con Bella's vapid, schoolmarmish character based on criticism from the first four books. Only one of those things was successful, though, and I don't think it was the one that the author was going for, sadly.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

The Awakening by Jude Deveraux

Jude Deveraux's books are the equivalent of eating macarons. Are they junk food? Yes, but they're a cut above your average cookie, and eating them makes you feel rather liberally decadent. I've read like 4+ books by this author at this point, and with a few exceptions, I've enjoyed almost all of them. All of her stories are a little steamy, and have strong heroines who are realistically empowered given the context of the times. She also isn't afraid to make her heroines or her heroes unlikable-- at least at first-- and I would say that in most cases, character development is prioritized as heavily as the romance.

THE AWAKENING is a really interesting book. It's set in the 1910s. Amanda lives on a California hop ranch. Even though she's in her 20s, her father has her under the full care of her male tutor, who is also her fiance. The tutor, Taylor, makes her a schedule for every day, telling her what she's allowed to eat, how long she's allowed to be in the bathroom (3 1/2 minutes), as well as giving her cute little assignments like translating things into Greek and calculus.

Our hero, on the other hand, is a free spirit who doesn't believe in schedules. He's a college professor who is even wealthier than Amanda's wealthy father, but instead of living a life of hedonism, he's out organizing labor unions for migrant workers sweating in the fields in incredibly unsanitary and dangerous working conditions. He enters Amanda's life when he comes to their ranch and Amanda's father and Taylor connive to have Amanda woo him into basically thinking that they're the best, and that no labor unions are necessary in such an ~amazing~ place.

It's really impressive how slimy Taylor is-- he has Amanda go to a talk about Eugenics, for example, and has apparently told Amanda that he doesn't like fat, lazy women. What a prince. Therefore, it's not really all that surprising that she's fascinated by Hank, the hot professor, even though she professes to hate him. He wins her over with food, and then, passion. But Amanda has been brainwashed pretty heavily by her father and tutor, and she is determined to believe that luxuries are wrong and that workers who unionize are really just greedy people making trouble.

One of the most poignant scenes in this book is when Hank drags her into the fields and literally forces her to experience and look at what her father's poor workers deal with every day.

I enjoyed THE AWAKENING a lot. It's the second book I've read by Deveraux that had a vapid heroine (the first was ETERNITY) and I think she does a really good job with them. I'm not always a fan of spoiled heroines but I do like reading about them when they have a really elaborate character arc, and you get to see them change and grow over the course of the story. This was a fun read.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, August 21, 2020

Firefly by Linda Hilton

Don't be fooled by that cover. Even though this book and everything about it screams "bodice-ripper!" this is a tender, angsty romance between two broken people and their ultimate triumph over those who are determined to keep them apart. Set in 19th century Arizona, back when it was a "Territory" and not a state, we're treated to the hellish heat and hard-grit lives of those who live on the frontier.

Julie, our heroine, is a tall, gangly bespectacled woman who lives with her parents and young brother while they work her literally down to the bone. They eat all the food she cooks while she's waiting on them, so there's scarcely enough left for her after all that back-breaking labor. Her mother is confined to her bed and has Julie wait on her all the time like a spoiled cat. And her father hates her for reasons we don't know, and seems eager to revel in her suffering.

Del, our hero, is a man who hasn't gotten over the death of his beloved wife. He used to be a doctor but alcoholism took that away, as it also took away his ability to be with women or even function normally. When the heroine meets him, he's unshaven, wearing old clothes, and has a bad case of BO. Not really the makings of a romantic hero, I think you'll agree.

Julie ends up having to seek his help when her mother breaks an arm because the real doctor is out, and then another injury-- her brother gets a fishhook caught above his eye-- results in another Del encounter when the doctor turns out to be a major, child-hating ass. Nobody is really all that sorry when the doctor dies, leaving Del the only capable man in town. Particularly Julie, who is angered by his squandering of his talent and agrees to help him get back on his feet again.

Oh my GOD, the feels this book gave me. First, as much as I enjoy the backwards, heteronormative romance novels of yore (and even of today, in some cases), it is SO refreshing to see a hero who struggles with his masculinity and has real vulnerabilities (impotence and alcoholism and PTSD). I mean, the man literally saw his wife shot before his eyes. That would fuck anyone up. And Julie-- God, how I hated her family for treating her the way they did. When you find out her backstory, you just want to take the poor girl in your arms and hug her forever while promising her everything. (Luckily she has Del to do that for her-- or does she?? Hehehe...)

The medical scenes were gnarly. The villains were truly villainous. The romance is slow burn. The heroine is scrappy and competent but also vulnerable and broken-- and so is the hero. There are SO MANY moments in this book where I just wanted to slap them over the heads because of all the misunderstandings but in this book, it actually works. Both of them have self-esteem that's lower than dirt because of what happened to them, so whereas 99% of books have me rolling my eyes over the misunderstandings in question, here, though frustrating, it actually made sense.

I'm honestly surprised this book isn't more popular than it is. The ratings for it are pretty abysmal and I'm shocked by that because it is smartly written, and completely unique. I don't think I've ever read another romance quite like this one-- I could see it playing out like a movie in my head, the scenes are so vivid. Mandatory disclaimer is that I was friends with this author back when she was still on GR and I stalk her on Twitter (but I stalk everyone on Twitter-- hit me up with your username and tell me who you are from Goodreads, and I'll stalk you, too). We haven't talked in years, though, and I just happened to think of her while looking up old books on Kindle Unlimited and seeing the name.

I honestly can't wait to read more from this author since I loved this one so much. Even the title, once you realize the reason behind it, is probably going to make you cry.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Choosing Her Alpha by Isoellen

How did I end up becoming the inadvertent Smut Queen of Goodreads? One day, you're just an ordinary individual, the next day, people are blowing up your socials with links to books that they want to see you review. There's probably a cautionary tale in that somewhere. Being ordinary is boring, though.

CHOOSING HER ALPHA initially made me guffaw when I saw it. The title is cheesy, and the guy on the cover-- yike on a bike! His abs have abs, and there's so much body hair on this dude that it seems to be growing like kudzu. I'm somewhat new to the whole omegaverse premise, but if you're unfamiliar, it's actually pretty scary. It's like the big girl panties version of the sci-fi/futuristic romance genre. Think sex-caste societies, like THE CAPTIVE PRINCE, only with the outdated wolf pack hierarchies (since debunked) and enhanced anatomy that allows for things like "knots" (dick engorges, staying pinned in the female), cervical gates (so the dick can go all the way into the stomach), and gushing bodily fluids of all kind. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

To my surprise, CHOOSING HER ALPHA is exceptionally well-written, a cut above even the one Zoey Ellis book I liked. It was actually reminiscent of R. Lee Smith's work, who I consider peak science-fiction romance. Like, she is the queen of the genre. She is for that genre what the YA gang thinks of Sarah J. Maas when it comes to YA fantasy. The world-building was just so well done, and while some of the biology in other omegaverse books had me rolling my eyes and/or clenching my legs (cervical slamming? NO THANKS, BYE!), well-- this one did that, a little, but it also made sense and it seemed like the author was really going out of her way to make this an addictive, well-written story instead of a smutty erotic work drenched in mating fluids.

Sascha is an Omega Breeder, which means she's one of those females with the cervix gate thingies that allows her body to take in the super-size Alpha dicks. (I feel so dirty just writing that.) She's also, as her group implies, a prime breeder: the only kind of female who can give birth to other Omegas and Alphas. Sometimes, Omegaverse books have the A/B/O folks being some kind of humans, or humans with special abilities, but here they are a separate group of individuals entirely called "breeds." Humans are often referred to as "drones" and some of them are kept as slaves, but when they're free, they typically do day-to-day drudge work. There are also Betas, the lower-tier.

Sascha lives with her dying mother, who hated her father and hates Sascha too. Sascha thought she was going to be able to choose her own husband but she finds out that her mother, mad with hatred and pain, has decided to basically sell her as a sex slave to her step-father, who can't wait to rape her and tells her so. Obviously frightened, Sascha decides to flee to find another Alpha who can protect her from her step-father's clutches, which turns out to be a man named Kane.

Kane initially has no interest in Sascha, because despite being eighteen, she's still a "juvenile" because she hasn't hit her estrous yet. Some readers might be angry because Kane has an orgy while Sascha watches, but in his defense (1) he didn't know she was there, and (2) one of the harem women contrived that she would be there in a dominance power play that would have the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills quaking (actually-- can we get a Real Housewives of the Omegaverse spin-off? 10/10 would pay to watch/read the shit out of that, thanks). But surprise, Kane actually does like Sascha a lot, and even though he can't have sex with her yet, it's very clear that he admires her bravery.

OH MY GOD, I loved this book. The consummation between the main couple takes a while, but that makes sense and he even tells her that if he tried to be with her before she developed, he would hurt her and anyone who does that is sick. He cares SO MUCH about her, and not only that, he cares SO MUCH about his people. When we learn the truth about Sascha and her family, and how their history ties into Kane's, my heart went UNNNNNGGGG. Mindless smut is fine but well-written stories with good twists are even better, and this one had a really great message with a moral(!) hero.

Also, another thing that turns a lot of people off from Omegaverse novels is that they are rapey as fuck. Like, all the ones that I've read before, even the ones I liked, have the hero raping the heroine. This book is the first I've read where it's all completely consensual and the author did such a great job playing up the connection between them and showing Kane to be a dangerous, powerful man without making him an abuser. And while sometimes I eat up romances with problematic heroes on a silver spoon, it is also way more fun to root for a strong man with a good heart who isn't afraid to chop off some hands or bash out some brains in the name of honor (true story).

I really enjoyed CHOOSING HER ALPHA and will definitely be reading the next in the series!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Pirate's Bride by Lynette Vinet

DNF @ 3%

This is one of the prettiest bodice-ripper covers that I have ever seen, and I've been hungering after a copy of this book for years just because of that sultry, Lisa Franky goodness.

Sadly, this book was a huge disappointment... proving once again that the books with the prettiest covers often feel the most dialed-in. The writing wasn't cringe-so-hard-your-face-crumples-like-origami-paper bad, but it felt very basic. While reading this, it reminded me of about five other bodice-ripper novels I've read, but without any of the elements that made those books more readable than this one.

I was debating on giving this two stars since it's so overwhelmingly mediocre, but if I can't make it to the 10% mark of a book, it's got to be pretty not good.

I still love the cover, though. *weeps*

1 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America by Khyati Y. Joshi

I initially had no interest in reading this book but then I saw a review for it that, to me, felt like such a bad take that I just had to get the book and see for myself. This is written by a professor and reads like a textbook (in fact, I think it is a textbook), which doesn't exactly make it pleasure reading material, but it's such an important topic-- especially NOW-- that I honestly recommend reading it anyway. The only downside is that the people who would actually benefit from this book the most are probably the same individuals who are going to rate it one star because of knee-jerk emotional reactions, which is a terrible shame.

I come at this book from the perspective of being someone who is white but non-religious. I was not raised with religion in the home, and even though I know a little bit about Christianity, I'm really not all that familiar with it. In this book, the author, Khayti Y. Joshi, talks about the hegemony of Christianity in the United States, and how even people who are non-religious benefit from religious biases-- especially if they're white-- because people will typically assume you're Christian unless you tell them otherwise.

The main assertions of this book are that (1) people often conflate patriotism with religious fervor-- specifically Christian religious fervor-- and the two should really be separate in order to have a more fair and just society because (2) there are now a number of individuals who identify as either non-religious or with religions that are not denominations of Christianity (Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, etc.) and (3) letting Christianity be the status quo for the United States results in either deliberate or accidental discrimination and failure to accommodate, whether it's forgetting to include a vegetarian option on a work function's menu or actively targeting and harassing members of a non-Christian religion (as we sadly saw in the post-9/11 atmosphere, onward).

This book is definitely going to be a bitter pill for some people to swallow but I hope people read this and gain something from it. Most of the reviews I saw for it were quite positive and it made me happy to see many people who identified themselves as Christians reading this book and talking about how it made them think about how they could change and become more inclusive. As someone who is not religious, I can definitely see a lot of the ways that Christianity has seeped into the everday trappings of life in the United States, whether it's "God Bless the USA" signs, the "one nation under God" line in the pledge of allegiance (which I have never felt comfortable saying), the abundance of religious-themed cards at Christmas and cards with Christian iconography, and even the fact that our calendar revolves around Christian holidays, with things like Christmas and Easter being national holidays, but not things like Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha, Diwali, Ramadan, or Hanukkah.

Joshi talks, towards the end, about how some of her students find her classes divisive and take them to mean that she hates people who are different from her, which is a sad take. You can be critical of something you like or love, and taking issue with problematic facets of our country definitely does not mean that you hate the United States. I think the past four years have taught us all that we have LEAGUES of improvement left ahead of us, and just taking small steps to become more inclusive can lead to big changes for all of us as a whole. Whether it's giving employees religious holidays off (without forcing them to take their own PTO) or providing lists of ingredients and vegetarian alternatives at work and social events, you can make pretty big changes with very small steps.

At the very least, this is a book that should make you stop and think.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 17, 2020

A Girl Is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

I am such a sucker for epic sagas that follow someone's growth over time, so when I realized that A GIRL IS A BODY OF WATER was such a story revolving around a Ugandan girl's coming of age, I was so excited. I don't really think the blurb on the back of the book fully tells you what the book is going to be about, though. I was left with the impression that we were going to follow Kirabo around as an older child, but we actually stay with her as she becomes a teenager and then, an adult. There's also a section where we get more insight on her grandmother, Muka Miiro, and the village "witch," Nsuuta, as well.

Kirabo is a child in rural Uganda who has grown up without a mother. She's mostly been raised by her grandmother, who is very traditional and correct, and Kirabo's wild, tomboyish ways-- playing with boys, demanding to be the center of attention, climbing trees, etc.-- are a source of frustration to her, which end up being why Kirabo takes such an interest in Nsuuta. She tells her that she feels like there are two of her-- a good version and a bad version-- and it's far too easy to let the bad version take control.

We see Kirabo with her friend, their eventual falling out, her first love, her life in Catholic boarding school, and then, once she comes home again, how she navigates the mazes of what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society and also what family means and how many forms it can take. Based on this book, it seems that women in this society are largely defined by the role they serve to men. They lose their first and last names when they marry, they are expected to play hard to get and be chaste, bonuses are awarded to the family if she abstains until marriage, and girls are only sent to school to become marriageable and drop out and leave their careers for their husbands.

I think some people are going to fall into the trap of reading this and feeling superior about their own society's gender norms and expectations, but that would be a foolish mistake to make, because many of these problems continue to plague Western countries as well. The only difference is that the biases have become more insidious as more attention is brought to them. Women are still blamed for abuse and cheating, and women are often expected to leave careers for men or continue working while also expected to shoulder the bulk of the housework and child care (often with little or no support from employers). Friendships are still torn apart over boys, and it's often the girls who are blamed for cheating boyfriends and straying husbands instead of the man, who "can't help himself."

The feminist themes in this book and the strong women were wonderful. I loved how the book examined things like privilege, colorism, relationships, and marriage, and I liked that it did all that while providing a fascinating insight into Ugandan culture and history. I don't actually know that much about Uganda, so it was really fascinating to read about how it was negatively impacted by colonialism, their war with Tanzania, and how the traditional beliefs mixed with and/or superseded the christian ones that were imposed on them from England. Even though the patriarchal rules and expectations are harsh, it was surprisingly refreshing to see how the women still found ways to seize power from within, and how Kirabo, as part of a newer generation, was able to push the boundaries still further because of the efforts of the strong women preceding her.

I honestly won't be surprised if this becomes a movie or a mini-series. It's the type of book that gets people talking because there aren't a lot of books out there like it, and it's fun to read because it has a fascinating story and great characters. The beginning is a little slow, but once Kirabo becomes a teenager, it gets so, so good. I'm definitely going to be recommending this one to all my friends!

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Brooding YA Hero: Becoming a Main Character (Almost) as Awesome as Me by Carrie Ann DiRisio

I bought this a while ago because I used to see RTs from the Brooding YA Hero account on Twitter and they would always make me laugh or smile, so I figured I might as well take my chances on the book, because book adaptations of internet phenomena and memes are always better than the source material. To quote Julia Roberts, "Big mistake. Big. Huge."

Making fun of YA is kind of the low-hanging fruit when it comes to literary parody.  Once something becomes popular, it feels like everyone falls over themselves trying to copy, until, like a Xerox (remember those??), there are so many copies that the trend is completely burnt out to exhaustion and has literally and figuratively become unreadable. BROODING YA HERO seems specifically to be targeting what I call the "Byronic Revival Movement" of the late 2000s/early 2010s, which started with the popularity of Twilight and persisted with love interests from things like Six of Crows or Empire of Storms, with brooding, ridiculous love interests whose sole claim to fame was being a hot bad boy.

BROODING YA HERO is an exhaustive criticism of young adult books, tackling a number of elements that result from frenetic copying of popular trends, lazy writing, and reliance on tropes. Some of the things that are mentioned in here are the fetishization and stereotyping of people of color, the chosen one stereotype in fantasy novels, and the treat-em-mean-to-keep-em-keen style of "wooing" where the love interest often acts in ways that are quite abusive to the heroine and it is accepted that his lack of emotional intimacy is a weakness that should be tacitly understood and accepted and overcome by others because he is worth get to knowing and making the effort for. The author also points out that YA books have a tendency to punish female characters who exhibit agency and confidence (especially sexual confidence), and that most popular heroines typically are either unaware of their appeal, or act as blank slates that exist only to further the hero's narrative arc.

I think all of the criticisms in this book are fair and part of the fun is trying to guess which books in particular that she is making fun of. Sometimes the references are fairly obvious (Twilight, Meg Cabot's Mediator series, etc.), but others are fill-in-the-blanks that you can populate with your fave-to-hates. Where the book really fails in my opinion is the repetitiveness and narrative structure of the book. It's written from Broody McHottiepants's POV, which quickly starts to grate. I had been hoping, when I bought this, that it would be written and constructed in the vein of Sarah Wendell's BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS, which was a fun criticism of bodice-rippers and romance novels, while also essentially providing a reading list of some of the author's faves, even as it talked about cliches and popular trends that could be a bit ridiculous. This was definitely not that.

I ended up DNF-ing this around the 27% mark during my first read of this book and I can see why.

2 out of 5 stars