Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Black Castle by Les Daniels

With October looming, I feel like it's time to break into the spooky Gothic reads, and what better way to crack open the creepy champagne bottle than with an old skool book about vampires who don't sparkle, who sleep on their native earth and can't come into your homes unless invited, set against the grim and gruesome backdrop of the Spanish inquisition?

THE BLACK CASTLE is about two brothers. Diego is an Inquisitor who hides his own morbid fascination with cultish ephemera in his pious devotion to burning heretics. While this book isn't too gory, the book does describe how people were tortured in the Inquisition, and the author makes no attempt to downplay the rampant antisemitism that allowed people to act on and benefit from their hatred of those who were different from themselves, sometimes for incredibly self-serving reasons.

Sebastien, on the other hand, is a vampire who lives in his dark tower. The eldest son, who died in the crusades and then came back as an unnatural terror. Diego knows he lives, and benefits from his existence in an attempt to further his own glory. Which begs the question-- given their mutual blood lust, which of them is the real monster?

The beginning of this book is much better than the end. The synopsis of this book would make you think that this is a romance, kind of like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's books, but it isn't really a romance and the ending is as grim and devastating as the beginning. That said, I don't think it could have ended any other way-- and if you think you know what I am saying, you probably don't. I wasn't expecting it. I do wish the pacing had been a little more consistent, as it dragged until it didn't, and ended with a bang.

THE BLACK CASTLE focuses on traditional vampire lore, and the emphasis is more on the historical elements than the fantastical ones. It does have some interesting things to say about mortality, faith, and hypocrisy, and one of my favorite scenes in the book is a Tarot card reading that takes place in the castle. It literally sent chills up my spine. If the book had more scenes like that, it would have been an easy four- or even five-star read, but because of the pacing issues, I'm deducting a star.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

F is for Fashion, Darling by James Tyler

For what it is, this book is incredibly cute. Adorable illustrations with fun details and bright colors that will appeal to child. The twisted definitions of traditional fashion terminology will appeal to parents who are fed up with more "basic" alphabet books.

That said, this is a book geared primarily towards children and not for adults. I got this, thinking it was one of those books that would work for adults as well, but it really isn't. The humor is cute and tongue-in-cheek but really doesn't wink at the audience in the way I was expecting, which is entirely on me.

If you're a parent looking for an alphabet book that's a bit different and won't make you want to pull out your hair and you've already had to hide your copy of CHICKA CHICKA BOOM BOOM, I think this will be fun. But if you don't have kids and aren't a children's librarian, there's no point in getting this.

I will likely be gifting my copy to a parent friend with young children.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 28, 2020

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Whew. I buddy-read this with my friends Maraya and Sage and I'm honestly glad it was a team effort, because I'm not sure I would have gotten through the book on my own. The last time I tried to read this, I ended up quitting at 14% because I was so bored. THE POPPY WAR is a pretty widely-read book that a lot of people have read and have opinions about and I guess I'm just one of the masses in that regard, because I have a lot of things to say about this book and it's going to be really difficult because a lot of those thoughts are conflicting.

***WARNING: some spoilers to follow***

First, I'd like to say that I've noticed that some members of this fandom likes to attack people who didn't like this book. I muted "TPW" and "The Poppy War" as keywords on Twitter because I kept seeing people making fun of the one-star reviewers and saying that anybody who didn't like this book was too stupid to understand/enjoy it, and that is such toxic behavior to me. There are a lot of reasons why people won't like this book and honestly, some of them are valid. If you are sensitive to violent content of any kind, this is going to be an incredibly unpleasant read. Bad things happen in this book and the main character is very unlikable. Part I is very different in tone from Parts II and II. Parts II and II move much slower, and more unpleasantly, than Part I. I understand that sometimes people hold authors of color to different standards than white authors, and might say racist things in their reviews, but simply being put off by negative content or critiquing the writing or the pacing or the story in and of itself is hardly problematic and doesn't, in my opinion, warrant shaming and bullying. I read positive and negative reviews of this book, sans spoilers, and unlike 99% of other books, where I fall firmly on one side or the other, I can actually see where both sides are coming from and why this book is so polarizing. The things that make one side love it will make another side hate it. One person's idea of daring is another person's idea of triggering.

Second, I'm writing this review as someone who is somewhat familiar with both Sino-Japanese Wars, the Nanjing/Nanking massacre, and The Opium Wars (of which, I believe, the Poppy War is a play). I've read Iris Chang's book on the subject, which scarred me for life (although it ended up preparing me for chapter 21 soooo... mixed blessings). However, even though this is heavily inspired by Chinese history, I wouldn't say that it's a direct allegory like ANIMAL FARM. It's more like GAME OF THRONES, in that it borrows in bits and pieces, and there are some direct parallels, but most of that borrowing is used to further the fantasy elements and give a "grimdark" feel to a book while also making people feel smarter for reading it for noticing the borrowed elements (no hate-- it worked for me). I say this because some people are saying that this book is history or historical and I would argue that while that may be a matter of some debate, I don't really think this book is history. It has demons and gods and magic in it. It isn't history. It just borrows from it and takes artistic license with it.

THE POPPY WAR stars Rin, an antiheroine who is willing to sacrifice literally anything to be the best and win the war against the stand-in for the Japanese in this world, the Mugen. When she starts the book, I think she's a young teen because she hasn't had her period yet (so maybe 13?). To avoid getting married, she crams for the national exam, the Keju, spending two years working her butt off to pass. She ends up scoring the highest in the province and goes to Sinegard, an elite military school. This portion was honestly my favorite, as it reminded me of other "dark school" type stories, like VITA NOSTRA or SCHOLOMANCE (the R. Lee Smith one), which also feature morally gray heroines with sociopathic tendencies who are slowly corrupted by power. I think this is also why so many people categorize this book as YA. It does have a dark YA vibe to it, the way some of Victoria Schwab's allegedly adult books do, and it can be hard to pinpoint who the audience for this book actually is. I liked Rin's unusual education and how she came into conflict with her peers and masters as the underdog, and probably would have given this portion of the book four or five stars.

Parts II and III have a major tonal shift as Nikara, Rin's country, engages in war with the Mugense for real. Rin finally has to put everything she's learned into action while also trying to control the magic she's only just realized she's had (she, like a very rare few, has the power to call gods down from their sacred realm and let them temporarily possess her). In part I, her mentor was the delightfully eccentric Jiang. Here, she's attached to Altan, and unpredictable student of immense power who was the only survivor of a genocidal attack by the Mugense. Altan is a drug addict and abusive, and thinks nothing of yelling, throwing things, or hitting people, including Rin. Rin is in love with him and idolizes him in a way that feels uncomfortable, despite the abuse. Especially since so many reviewers laud Rin as a strong heroine when she seems comfortable acting as a pawn at the hands of others and apologizing for the people who use her ill. Again, I think that this will be a major trigger for some people.

The absolute worst part of this book, in terms of violent content, is the infamous chapter 21. This chapter feels like a Wikipedia dump of the Nanjing massacre, so if you aren't sure if you will be able to handle the content, read the Wikipedia article on the massacre. If it is too much for you, do not read this book or skip chapter 21. It is brutal, but not as upsetting as I was expecting since, again, I've read Iris Chang's book on the actual events that inspired this book (which had photographs). This is a reason I think that this book shouldn't be categorized as YA. Most U.S. schools don't teach the Nanjing massacre, and so students reading this likely won't have the context that puts this chapter into perspective. It's incredibly violent and horrific, and while I won't begrudge anyone who felt legitimately triggered by this chapter, I think having that historical context does put this book into perspective. That said, there are other moments of violence that don't really have anything to do with the war, such as Rin giving herself a chemical hysterectomy (in a scene that was uncomfortably similar to Yennefer's similar decision in The Witcher, but way less graphic) or graphic dueling scenes in the school or Rin getting grabbed or hit by the boy she loves. This book is very violent, period.

That said, I'm not really sure what this book intended to do with that historical parallel to Nanjing. In ANIMAL FARM, for example, the purpose was to show the slow slide into a dictatorship with the gradual relinquishing of one's personal freedoms, and how sometimes liberation can lead to an even greater prison. Here, the parallels seem more like GAME OF THRONES, in that they kind of feel like they're just there to shock. There is no real context for the war unless you are familiar with Chinese history, and it isn't really clear why the Mugenese hate the Nikara unless you interpret them literally as Japan in that specific time frame of history. There is no slow backslide into corruption on behalf of the Mugenese because, through Rin's eyes and those of their other victims, they were never human to begin with. So many of the descriptions of the Mugense describe them as inhuman or not human, and the only really humanizing moment is Rin's shock that they look so superficially similar to the Nikara. There's really nowhere for them to go because they are the de facto evil villains in this book.

Ironically, the slow corruption happens in Rin, who ends up becoming a perpetrator of genocide herself, which is ironic, since in an earlier portion of the book, she says, "War doesn't determine who is right, only who remains." She survives but at the cost of her soul, I would say, since by the end of the book she is a despicable person who doesn't see reason and makes decisions solely on rage (like Altan). She is literally unable to see how her own actions put her on the same level as the Mugense and their annihilation of Speer, which is interesting from a moral perspective, but kind of frustrating from a reader perspective. Especially since we watched her give her all to understand everything in Part I, only to throw everything away that she learned in Parts II and III. It almost felt like she was a different person from the first part, and part of that is because she grew up and was subjected to horrible trauma, but it was frustrating to see someone who I admired for tenacity (despite loathing her for her selfishness) become such a stupid person who made such stupid decisions. Why, Rin?? Why?

I didn't hate this book, despite thinking I might, but I didn't love it either. I can see why people do, because it is different, and it does take a lot of risks, and in some ways, it is very similar to some of the manga storylines I loved as a child. The scene with the chimei, for example (one of my favorite parts) was like something right out of Inuyasha: a pseudo-historical epic filled with violent magic and dark content, with characters you rooted for even though they were incredibly annoying. I think Inuyasha even had a face-stealing monster in one of the earlier books. So it was cool to read a book that had some interesting Chinese mythology thrown into a world filled with geopolitical intrigue. I just wish the second and third parts of the book had meshed better with the first, and that Rin didn't flip-flop (to borrow my friend's term) quite so much in terms of her character. She was all over the place, and I expected a brutal queen and not an idiot with a magical firearm she didn't know how to use but was all too willing to fire. Even if it is a revenge fantasy that does appeal to the dark satisfaction all of us would have at triumphing over our enemies at tenfold delivery, I don't really like the message in that.

Anyway, hopefully all that makes sense. I'm probably forgetting half the things I was going to talk about but I think I hit on all of the important key points, and I'm wicked proud of myself for figuring out the major "twist" in this book before I even got to the 15% mark. Props to the author, by the way, for taking the chosen one stereotype and at least subverting the trope a little bit by making the character work for it. That, and the brilliance of part I, is why this is getting 3 stars and not a 1 or a 2.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Return of Nightfall by Mickey Zucker Reichert

I binged the Nightfall series in just two days. The first book, THE LEGEND OF NIGHTFALL, was published in the early 90s and the sequel was published over ten years later. Even though the first book definitely reads as a completed work, there's obviously an open ending for a sequel, which is where THE RETURN OF NIGHTFALL comes in.

Nightfall is a legend, a story parents tell their children to scare them at night. He's also a man who goes by many names and many guises. His current incarnation is Sudian, which is also the name he was given at birth. After saving a sanctimonious and naive king named Ned from the previous book, Sudian has been appointed to chancellor and is engaged to be married to his one true love. Things seem pretty sweet-- until Ned announces that they have to go back to make reparations to a Duke they wronged in the previous book by compromising his daughter's honor.

This being a fantasy novel, things obviously go awry. Nightfall gets pushed into hunting sorcerers to fulfill a promise that he made to break a curse. Sorcerers in this book are pretty terrifying. In Reichert's world, people can be born with "gifts," but sorcerers are born with a hunger for power that drives them to kill and slaughter the gifted to augment their own powers. The best way to steal those people's souls is to torture them first, which ends up leading to some horrific off-screen events. Being gifted and personally wronged and hunted by sorcerers, Nightfall obviously isn't overfond of them.

When he gets back from the hunt, he finds that Ned has been kidnapped, seemingly spirited away. What follows is a quest to not only track him down but also to navigate some pretty insidious court intrigue that involves a Gordion knot of policy and bureaucracy, dangerous and dashing pirates, evil slave-drivers, evil sorcerers, and lots and lots of reconnaissance and espionage. I think if you're familiar with Janny Wurts or Mercedes Lackey, you'll know what to expect with this author. Even though this can be a dark world, with people who have dark hearts, most people are just ordinary human beings trying to survive in it, and good usually triumphs over evil (although not always, and not at first).

One of the things that I found so charming about this author's work, which actually propelled me to buy all of her fantasy novels, including the unrelated Renshai trilogy, is her incredibly detailed world-building and the complex intrigue. She's so good at foreshadowing and I think her character-development is amazing. Despite being written a decade apart, the books feel pretty consistent and I wouldn't have guessed there was such a gap. The open ending of this book makes me wonder if maybe a third book is going to be forthcoming-- I mean, hey, it's been over ten years. *wink*

I'm giving this book a slightly lower rating than the first because even though I really enjoyed it, it felt denser and didn't move quite as quickly. The beginning took a while to get moving and there were several points where there just wasn't enough happening to make this feel as engaging as I wished. I loved the ending though, and Volkmier and Celdurant ended up becoming new favorite characters. I am so excited to dive right into her other fantasy works. It pains me that this author isn't more well-known.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Red by Erica Spindler

Holy un-PC, Batman! It's been a while since I delved into my vintage romance collection to pull out an oldie-but-goodie, and this one sounded like a fun foray down Sleaze Avenue, courtesy of Los Angeles. Anyone who likes Jackie Collins is going to love this book because it follows the same glitter-dusted garbage formula of the epics of 80s high-rollers rising to their great heights... only to fall into the pit of their own hubris. Sex, glamor, drugs, and violence-- brought to you by romance!

(Seriously, anyone who thinks that romance novels are all hearts and flowers have another think coming.)


Our heroine is a girl named Becky Lynn who lives in one of those states I forget exists until they try to pass legislation demanding that prayer be mandatory in schools or that abortion is punishable by public flogging. She hates it there, for precisely those reasons: she's poor, unpopular, and a victim of the machismo football culture that says that all women are fair game. Because she's helpless and vulnerable, her brother's friends sexually molest and then gang-rape her, which ends up being the final straw since she already lives in an abusive home. 

She goes to Los Angeles and finds out that people there are busy and rude (yes). They don't have time for her "I always depend on the kindness of strangers" mindset, although she ends up getting a job at a salon. That's where she meets the hero, who is the son of the woman who owns it. Jack is a bit of a manwhore but most importantly, he's an aspiring photographer and an actual bastard who hates his successful manwhore father, and is insanely jealous of his father's legitimate son, Carlo. One day, Jack vows that he'll show them both by surpassing them in the perfect show of revenge.

He's impressed by all of the knowledge of photography and modeling that Becky has from reading fashion magazines and ends up hiring her as his assistant. They work well together and when they're friends, the relationship between them is actually quite sweet. It's when things turn sexual that it gets to be a bit of a mess because Becky is a settle in and choose the wallpaper kind of girl, and Jack is a "commitment is just another word for byeeeee" type of guy. But because he likes her, he sucks it up, but it all falls to pieces anyway when Jack sleeps with Sexual Harassment Susan to close a business deal (her name was actually Garnet or something, but she SHS is her new name for quid pro quo harassment-- because fuck that noise).

Long story short: Becky leaves Jack and ends up working for Carlo, his half-brother, as a model. Both of them want revenge on Jack now, and Carlo relishes the idea of "finding" the beauty in the girl who was right under his nose and making her the Next Big Thing. Jack realizes he's made a mistake and launches his Get Becky Back Campaign unsuccessfully. Carlo and Becky get married, but Carlo is actually gay and Becky is just marrying him to be his beard. One of Jack's models is addicted to cocaine and also has (it's implied) some sort of PTSD/weird sexual feelings about her dad's incestuous overtures towards her. The cocaine is possibly a fix for his. Carlo's dad figures out he's gay and is disgusted. Jack is the new favorite. Carlo is publicly humiliated. Carlo ends his life. Becky and Jack are together.

Also, Zoe ends up in a rehab center. No more cocaine for you!

This was... a lot. The book was loooooong, too. Almost 400+ pages. I kind of figured Carlo was going to be killed off when Becky and Carlo get married in a civil ceremony because "it wouldn't be right for them to step into the house of God" (paraphrased). Yikes. Burying your gays is a real trope, guys. I'm deducting a star just for that, even if it was the 90s, because I liked Carlo a lot by the end of the book and his friendship with Becky was quite touching. Jack actually isn't too awful of a hero. He's genuinely charming until like the last 10% of the book, when he can't seem to dislodge his head from his ass. A lot of the twists are of the "gotcha!" variety, but there is some nice foreshadowing and call-backs.

Overall, I think this was a decent read. Erica Spindler primarily writes mystery thrillers now, but her older books kind of straddle the line between romance and thriller. Someone gifted me several books from her backlist, and I plan on reading them soon because I really did enjoy this one, even though it's incredibly problematic by today's standards. Becky is far more empowered than most comparable heroines of this era and it was really fun to see her get revenge by living well. When she told off her brother for allowing her rape to happen and then trying to rub elbows with her once she was famous, I wanted to cheer. When he tells her that he reported another rape to try and redeem himself, she isn't having it, and she's like, "You should have done it because it was the right thing to do, you motherfucker," (paraphrasing with artistic liberties) and I was like YAAAAAAAAASS.

I think this is the first time that anyone in the history of ever has ever said, "GO BECKY!"

(A moment of silence for all Beckys out there whose honor is unfairly impugned.)

So, yeah. If you like glitter-painted trash and Jackie Collins, don your oversized sunglasses and extra-strong margarita, because you're in for a wild and crazy ride.

3 out of 5 stars

Traded to the Sheikh by Megumi Toda

Sheikh romances can be incredibly problematic because of how they propagate and uphold negative stereotypes about the "barbarity" and "exoticism" of Middle East, which seem to be a holdover from 19th and 20th century obsession with Orientalism. It's not typically a subgenre of romance I seek out, but once in a while, I end up reading them anyway. TRADED TO THE SHEIKH was part of a big sale on Harlequin manga, which I just couldn't resist. Especially with the cover covered in butterflies that seemed like early 2000s shoujo.

The plot of this one is a little silly. Emily is traveling to Zimbabwe by way of Zanzibar to save her sister from a politically unstable environment. She accepts passage from a French trader in exchange for working as part of his crew, not realizing that he's actually a smuggler, and a spineless creep who will sell her out the moment he gets caught. Which is exactly what happens when a sheikh catches them at a port he controls and is none too pleased with the drugs.

At first the sheikh, named Zageo, thinks that Emily is in on it as a concubine (he finds a belly dancer costume in her things). But then he checks out her passport and does some investigating that leads him to believe her story. He's also moved by her concern for her sister and ends up making steps to save her family, but Emily doesn't know this and ends up offering him her body in exchange for her sister's safe passage, insulting them both.

So this was fine. This is actually the nicest sheikh I've ever read about, to be honest. He's not a jerk and seems to genuinely care for others. That was kind of refreshing. But I'm not happy about how the author (and the mangaka, acting as her proxy) avoided the traps that normally plague sheikh romances: she just omitted the location and any semblance of culture at all. We never find out where Emily actually is, or what Zageo is the sheikh of, and we never see any of his people. Zageo is the only one who ever shows up in traditional dress, and the rest of the time he's usually in suits or a t-shirt.

The art was also a little weird. It was drawn so that all of the characters looked like teenagers. I always think that's weird, especially when there are erotic scenes in the book. I thought the art was fine, in a basic shoujo way, but the presentation of the panels was decent and I liked how it was put together. Also, I liked that the author actually made an effort to have real African countries and there was at least a token attempt to give dimension to the political upheaval. You could definitely do worse.

3 out of 5 stars

Sale or Return Bride by Kazuko Fujita

Just as a frappuccino is a brilliant blend of a milkshake and coffee, Harlequin manga combine the bite-sized addictive nature of comic books with the compellingly luxe and trashy nature of romance novels. Whenever they go on sale, I always end up buying way too many of them. Love them or hate them, they're so much fun... but sometimes consuming too much of them, too fast, can lead to brain freeze-- or worse, a belly-ache.

SALE OR RETURN BRIDE is based on the romance novel of the same name written by Sarah Morgan. Set in Greece, it's about a girl named Alesia who is the daughter of a ruthless business magnate who has thought of the perfect revenge against his young rival. He will marry his daughter to his enemy, Sebastien, knowing she's barren, and that marrying her will mean the "end of his line."

So the two of them marry and Sebastien enters the marriage thinking that his new wife is a money-grubbing party girl. But Alesia isn't very good at hiding her true nature and pretty soon Sebastien begins to suspect that he's been party to a ruse. Alesia needs to be in the marriage because her mother was injured in a near-fatal accident and she needs the money to pay for hospital care. But pretty soon she begins to care about Sebastien, too, despite knowing she shouldn't.

Ugh. So this was kind of a dumb story. First, the whole "end of his line" thing was so dramatic and lame. One, because it perpetuates the idea that a woman who can't have kids is some sort of shameful, awful burden that a man must bear and two, even if it was problematic enough that he'd want to break the engagement, he could always... adopt? Also, I hate-hate-hate the "miracle pregnancy" ending. It's so gross and ableist. The text was also very small and looked ugly. It felt like the manga had just been slapped together and even though I liked the art, the presentation was sloppy. The heroine's name was also misspelled multiple times, switching from Philipos to Philibos and back.

Not really a fan of this one.

2 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 25, 2020

The Legend of Nightfall by Mickey Zucker Reichert

I'm finding that I'm a total sucker for the "rogue liberated from prison to fulfill some sort of daunting task" trope. It's why I love books like POISON STUDY, THE THIEF, and THE MIDNIGHT LIE. There's just something so richly rewarding about seeing someone being granted a second chance, even if that second chance comes with major strings attached. When I read a book, I like having someone to root for.

Sudian, our hero, is such an amazingly complex hero. I've never read about a fantasy character quite like him. He's a notorious rogue, assassin, thief, and knave, feared throughout all the kingdoms, with as many faces as a octahedral die. When he's brought to the king of Alyndar, he basically assumes that it's his neck on the block-- and it is, only not in any usual assassination. Instead, the king's chancellor (who is also a magician) binds Sudian to a magical Oath. He can't take on any of his nefarious past activities, cannot harm any member of the royal family of Alyndar or its councilors, and he must act as squire to the king's youngest son, Prince Edward, and succeed where all his past scholars and squires failed: see that he graduates from the school of hard knocks and gets landed.

Landing, in this book, means getting land. Because a noble just isn't a noble if they don't have something to lord over. And Edward is way more frustrating than any noble that Sudian has encountered. Not because he's a terrible person-- but because he wants very much to be a good person. He wants to singlehandedly take up the cause of every disenfranchised person in the empire, whether it's slavery in one of the outer countries, or giving money to beggars in the streets, but his privilege and upbringing blinds him to the changes he could easily make in his own bearing and behavior, and Sudian is exasperated and annoyed by turns when Edward thinks nothing of sending him back out in the rain for many miles to retrieve a lost shovel, or casually gives him orders with the expectation that they'll be followed because that's simply what's done

Ned truly does have a kind heart though, and this ends up almost feeling like one of those buddy movies, as Sudian begins to see how Ned could be an amazing man-slash-ruler in his own right once he literally gets off his high horse and starts paying attention to people on their own terms and not just as causes that he can take up to glory in his own perceived virtue.

Sudian is also a really fascinating character. First, major props to the author for her portrayal of someone who was warped by psychological abuse. Sudian's mannerisms and way of thinking are totally shaped by what his mother did to him as a child, and it's heartbreaking-- especially once he finally begins to feel safe enough to trust others and let a select few in. He's also incredibly clever and I liked that he was short and wasn't described as being particularly attractive (even though I think the guy on the cover of this book is quite attractive); everyone who likes him likes him for his compelling personality and unique set of skills. unlike 99% of alleged kick-butt heroes and heroines, Sudian can walk the walk as well as he can talk the talk.

And the action scenes! The adventure scenes! The witty dialogue! The TENSION!

I'm honestly shocked that more people aren't clamoring over this book, to be honest. It reminds me of books I've read by Janny Wurts and Mercedes Lackey, set in worlds where bad things sometimes happen, but they aren't grim-dark, and all of the characters (including the women characters) are fleshed-out and interesting in their own way, and the adventure of the journey is as good as the destination. I loved the ending of this book and can't wait to read the sequel (which I've already bought). You can get both for $2.99 on Kindle as of my posting, so what are you even waiting for?

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Married by Mistake! by Takako Hashimoto

When I started this manga, I felt like I was missing something... and it turns out I was. The first book! Even though this manga book isn't part of a numbered series, it seems like it's the sequel to TO MARRY A STRANGER, so I'd recommend reading that first if you're interested in reading these books. I'm not sure why you would want to do that, though, as I personally thought the story was very dumb. I guess it revolves around this place called the "Love Mansion" where, as rumor has it, if you're unmarried and stay there on your birthday, the next man you meet is going to be your one true love. I bet the women who stay there get married to a lot of pizza delivery guys and Uber drivers.

Lucy has been jilted by her fiance and so to make him jealous, she pretends to be engaged to her childhood friend, who's secretly loved her for hers. What follows is like 100+ pages of drama with both of them being trash people who can't communicate and a stupid ending that made me very unhappy. I wasn't a fan of this book at all and shan't be reading any more adaptions of this author's work if I can help it. Also-- the dog talks! Whaaaaaaat?

No hate to the manga artist, though. She did the best she could with the source material and the art was honestly one of the best things about this "romance."

1 out of 5 stars

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA doesn't even feel like it's written by the same person as THE THIEF-- and not in a good way. One of the things I loved about THE THIEF was (Eu)Gen(ides)'s narration. Gen is such a great narrator: he's witty, wry, and through his POV, we get to see the fascinating worlds of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis. It's written in first person so we get to experience everything through Gen's eyes, and even though the concepts of court intrigue and political coups are a bit mature, Gen's narration has just enough humor that he feels young enough (despite being, I think, an older teenager) that a preteen could relate to them. I would categorize THE THIEF has highbrow literary middle grade, like THE GOLDEN GOBLET or THE CAY.

THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA, on the other hand, is narrated in the third person and feels like it's geared towards an older audience (older teens). All of the charming wit and humor I loved in the first book is mostly gone, except as an occasional aside, and the story is much, much darker. In the beginning of the book, something terrible happens to one of the main characters and it's honestly like something out of Game of Thrones. I was so upset I put the book down and stopped reading for a day, and even though I was able to eventually get back into the book, I wasn't prepared for that tonal shift, and I'm sure it would be way worse for a kid to see a character suffer like that.

Once I got over my disappointment at the lack of a Gen-focused narrative, I did warm to the story. Turner plots very intensely and there were so many great twists that were carefully planned. It's one of the smartest young adult fantasy novels I've read in years-- everything was done so well, and I felt like all of the characters were developed in a way that felt real. Attolia's backstory, for example, felt like something a young queen might do if she were essentially a captive in her own palace and was willing to do anything to get her freedom back. Eddis was the perfect blend of cunning brutality and motherly kindness that one would expect to see in a queen that ruled with kindness but wanted to keep her throne safe from invaders. And Eugenides's depression was-- well, let's just say that it was warranted, realistic, and potentially triggering to anyone who has ever had a depressive episode or struggled with grief/loss.

Regarding that one missing star-- I think this is a book that, despite being incredibly successful and popular, doesn't really seem to have a specific audience. It will appeal to precocious younger teens and adults who love YA that doesn't feel dumbed down, but I also don't think it really seems to be a middle grade series anymore like the first one. I was also a little confused about the world-building because the first book made it clear that this was a Greek-inspired fantasy world, with its own Greek-inspired pantheon of the gods, and yet in this book, Gen is studying Euclid at one point, and the Queen of Eddis makes a sly reference to Helen of Troy. So, what-- do the Greeks actually exist in this world and this is just a made up set of countries that exist nearby them, the way Genovia was a made-up country in Europe created for the sake of the Princess Diaries? It was very odd, and I spent way too much time thinking about that as I read, because I'm compulsive like that.

I also felt like ~that one love story~ appeared out of nowhere, and I didn't really feel the chemistry between the two of them at all. I certainly wouldn't fall in love with my torturer and it was really weird and kind of uncomfortable for me. Flip the genders and people would be losing their minds over the abusive plot, and yet because the perpetrator of violence in this book was a woman people are like YAAAASS WHAT A STRONG QUEEN. I never really forgave her for what she did and was not impressed with that ending. I can't say anymore because spoilers but if you've read the book, you know what I mean.

Huge thanks to Erika for reading this series with me. I'm having a lot of fun.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Rakess by Scarlett Peckham

One of my friends was raving about Scarlett Peckham's other series, so I was really excited to receive an ARC of THE RAKESS... which I haven't read until now because I am a trash person. I'm so bad at reading ARCs on time and it took me forEVER to read this one because I actually wasn't... that in love with it. It wasn't a bad book, which is why I didn't DNF, but there were some things about it that I really didn't enjoy, which made finishing a bit of a slog.

I will say that the author did a good job role-reversing the usual trope of the Draco in Leather Pants duke of slut who sleeps around because of past traumas (usually daddy issues). Seraphenia is definitely a rakess of slut, and yes, she does it due to past trauma, although she also seems to have confused herself of her own white feminist doctrines: in leashing the male gaze, she has become the mistress of her own femininity, et al. I may have rolled my eyes the tiniest bit. And no, it's not because I was annoyed that the heroine wasn't a virgin (I actually hate the trope where the heroine is supposed to be a famed mistress, but she's actually a virgin widow and her "reputation" is a total lie), I'm not a fan of emo manbaby dukes and having a woman wear the slutty pants from the Duchy of Sublimated Issues didn't really make me embrace it any more.

That said, what really ended up being the saving grace was the fact that she was obviously inspired by Mary Wallstonecraft, and she had some genuinely prescient things to say about why being a woman in Regency England really, really sucked, even if you were a woman of means, but especially if you weren't. That's something a lot of the Julia Quinn and Lisa Kleypas novels of this era sometimes forget. It's all fun and games to tup in the carriage until your lover gets tired of you and tries to ruin your reputation, pay off your male guardian to shut your pretty, kiss-bruised mouth, or lock you in an insane asylum (or some variant of all three). The past belongs in the past, and as fun as it can be to read idealized versions of it, it's important to keep that unpleasant grain of truth top of mind. There were some events in this book that felt a little like wish fulfillment, but it was fun to envision a version of the past where a woman could publish a book publicly denouncing those who wronged her and steal her friend out of an insane asylum, especially since Peckham did acknowledge that things were shit.

I also liked Adam, who's the no-nonsense hero of this book (with a kinky side), although he's set up to be so likable that he almost feels like a Gary Stu. A widower with two precious children who works as an architect and falls for the first damaged woman he sees, despite knowing that she's no good? It sounds like a John Green book or a Judd Apatow movie. Naturally, the two of them find solace in one another, and find out that they share many of the same sorrows. And naturally, she teaches him to be a better man, and they find sexual healing in one another because theirs is a matching of souls, et al. I was not a fan of the sex scenes, though. Too much stickiness and gushing fluids. Ew, no.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on THE RAKESS. I'm just disappointed, because I wanted it to be so much more than it was. I think if you're looking for costume historical fiction with themes of female empowerment, and don't mind sex scenes of the gloppy, dripping variety (still ew), you'll probably really love this book. I'm still curious about her other series, because I've heard it's much darker than this one, and I might even continue with this series as long as Seraphina and Adam aren't the main characters, but this just felt a little too stock, and even though I loved the feminist themes, I just couldn't quite get on board with the story-- or the heroine.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 21, 2020

Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

This is one of those gems that I found while browsing the Daily Deals on Kindle. At the time that I bought this, a lot of my friends gave this really low ratings, but I wanted to read it anyway because of the title and the premise. A bunch of illegitimate children find themselves at the center of a dark plot to overthrow the kingdom and end up going on an adventure to save the world-- and each other.

As others have said, it starts off sounding like a very young YA book, but then something happens-- the inciting event-- and suddenly, the book gets dark. In some ways, this is a bit like Game of Thrones with the more offensive content removed, and that actually made it work really well for me because I loved the court intrigue of GoT but really hated the over-the-top torture and violence. There are some graphic scenes in here that are darker than what you would usually see in YA, but it isn't lingered on the way violence tends to be in adult fantasy.

All the characters in this book are likable, except for the ones who aren't supposed to be. Tallia, the main character, is crude and strong and funny, but she's also into feminine indulgences, as well. I'm honestly shocked that this character was written by a man, because way too often, male authors write female characters in a way that feels stereotypical and two dimensional, and both Tallia and Lyriana were interesting-- but in different ways, and they always felt like they were their own person.

Shvarts is also very comfortable writing from the perspective of the female gaze, which makes the scenes between her and Zell a pleasure. One of my favorite parts of this book is how Lyriana talks about her reasons for wanting to be chaste and Tallia later ends up sex, and her reasons for doing so were not diminished by Lyriana's, and she wasn't shamed for it (except by one bad character). It made the book feel very sex positive, but I liked the message that it's okay to not have sex, too.

The fantasy world itself was pretty good. It's a little stock but the complexity of the story makes up for the cliches. The only thing that took me out of the book at times was that all of the characters speak in a way that feels very contemporary and modern, despite this being one of those Medieval-Inspired Fantasy Stock Universes, which can be a bit jarring and anachronistic. I think it works for teens (and me), though, because it makes it much breezier to read without all the whilsts, thous, and verilys.

Honestly, I ended up liking this soooo much more than I thought I would and I would read the sequel happily. Definitely looking forward to this author's 2021 release too, which is set in a magic school. If you, like me, were hesitant to read this because of the initial negative reviews, I'd say give it a shot!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Blue Fire by Phyllis A. Whitney

DNF @ 12% 

Thank goodness I bought this book on sale! I think I jinxed myself with this one. I was just bragging about how I've never read a Phyllis A. Whitney book I didn't like, and then I pick this one up and am like, "Hmm, oh no..."

I'm being pretty ruthless with my Kindle library since I have too many books at this point and don't see any point in keeping what I'm not going to read. Phyllis A. Whitney usually narrates in first person, but this is an older publication (from the 60s) and narrated in third person, and it comes across as really crusty and dry. It's not bad and I could probably work my way through it if I reaaaallly wanted to... but I don't want to.

The South African setting sounded really interesting, but it's set during apartheid and not very PC and it focuses on the diamond mining industry, which was ruthlessly exploitative in how it treated native South Africans. Part of that is because of when this was written, but it's also not really something I want to read right now.

So I think I'm going to delete this from my Kindle.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 20, 2020

American Love Story by Adriana Herrera

So far, AMERICAN LOVE STORY is my second favorite romance in this LGBT+ series featuring PoC love interests. AMERICAN FAIRYTALE was a DNF, whereas AMERICAN DREAMER was the crown jewel in this series that was just shy of perfection. AMERICAN LOVE STORY sits at a solid three-star rating, smack-dab in the middle. There were some things I loved about it, and other things I didn't as much.

Our two love interests are Patrice and Easton. Patrice is an immigrant from Haiti who works as a professor at Cornell. He's a political activist and has a huge following on Twitter. Easton, on the other hand, is white and rich and works as an ADA (assistant district attorney). They had a hot hookup once but then things fell apart. Now they're getting back together but their relationship is already on the rocks: Patrice is outraged by police stops in the area targeting men of color, and Easton doesn't want to rock the boat and compromise his position by making too much noise. They dance around the issue, but as the relationship-- and the stops-- get more serious, something has to give.

I thought this book did a really good job talking about racism-- institutional racism and racism at the individual level. The microaggressions from Easton's family are a disgusting reminder that sometimes white people need to seriously reevaluate the vocabulary they employ when talking to PoCs and break out of their toxic mindsets in the way they think about and view people of color. The police stops were also really well done. When Patrice got stopped, my heart was in my throat and I was ready to cry. It was so intense and could be potentially triggering for some readers, I think. I loved Patrice's Tweets on Black Twitter, and how supportive the department head was in his passion for change.

The things I didn't like-- honestly? The relationship between these two. In book one, I could see where Jude and Nesto were both coming from. Here, I could see where Patrice was coming from. But even though Easton acknowledged his privilege and tried to do better, I felt like his fallback decision was to not do a thing. Standing silently by while his parents insult his boyfriend and only getting involved in the stops when his boyfriend was targeted by them were not the best ally or boyfriend behaviors (I mean, even when his boyfriend's young friends were targeted, the man still didn't hustle). It also really upset me when one of Easton's friends tells Patrice to stop being so "sanctimonious" and "angry." Calling black people "angry" is always a serious microaggression, but especially when it's justified, and I actually felt a little sick in side when Patrice apologizes to Easton. It felt wrong.

I'm giving this a three because parts of this book were done really well, and I loved Patrice as a character, but I really didn't care much for Easton as the love interest and unlike Jude from book one, I don't really feel that his character arc developed quite as significantly. Also-- the whole thing with Brad?? Where was the comeuppance for that? At least the Karen of the first book got publicly castigated and shamed, and had to go on leave at work. Unless I missed it, Male Karen wasn't really dealt the shaming he deserved here. But the difficult issues of police bias and racism themselves were handled really well here and I loved how the author dedicated her book to the protestors, and Patrice, and Ari and Yin are great. The author seriously needs to make a young adult/new adult spin-off about those two, I'd pick it up in a heartbeat. They are so pure and adorable. So even though there were things I didn't like, I really can't be mad. There was a lot to like in this book and it kept me reading.

Also, for more resources about Black Lives Matter and how to get involved, please check out the website

3 out of 5 stars

Columbella by Phyllis A. Whitney

Phyllis A. Whitney is probably my favorite Gothic romance writer that I've ever read to date. While a lot of her contemporaries could come across as prudish, dated, and problematic when reading them today, I've found that the exotic locales in Whitney's books always seem incredibly well researched (she wrote a really dark one set in Japan), her rep of people of color holds up mostly even to this day without too many ridiculously over-the-top stereotypes (even the ones published in the 1980s and before), and her heroines are usually strong and intelligent.

Reading the abridged biography of the woman in the backs of the ebooks, this doesn't really come as a surprise, though. Whitney grew up in Japan and traveled extensively, researching her locations on site, such as going on tour in the Virgin Islands (as mentioned here), flying in a helicopter over Hawaii for SILVERSWORD, and even going up in a hot air balloon for one of her other books. Her unconventional upbringing, travel, and the privilege she had to do all these things really translate to her heroines, who are open to new experiences, and tend to be no-nonsense but also empathetic and interesting in a way that Victoria Holt and Dorothy Eden's heroines are, well, not. I love her.

COLUMBELLA is no exception to the "Phyllis A. Whitney is awesome" rule. Set in St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, it is about a governess named Jessica who has come by request of the family matriarch, Maud, to the Clair/Drew family to look after their youngest family member, Leila, and put some sense into her. As it turns out, Leila is the pawn in a bitter war between all of the younger family members. It's a little confusing, so I'll lay it all out for you. Maud has two daughters, Edith and Catherine. Edith is the matronly sister, in an unhappy marriage of her own with Alex, a man who sells and collects exotic seashells and has a wandering eye.

Catherine is the beautiful sister and lets no one forget it. She's also a thrill-seeker, narcissistic, impulsive, and vengeful. Her husband is a man named Kingdon, although they're probably going to separate at some point, since there is no love between them. They have a daughter, Leila, and Catherine has mostly succeeded in turning Leila against her father. Kingdon wants to get Leila out from under Catherine's influence and send her to his sister in Colorado, but Maud knows that if Leila is forced to leave, she will leave idolizing her mother and despising her father in her heart.

So the burden falls to Jessica to "fix" things.

Oh boy.

I thought the shell angle was really interesting and it was really cool to read a book set in the Virgin Islands, even though there are some gross throwaway lines about the history of its colonizers and plantations, and how some of the characters long for the glory days of having people-- slaves-- to manage and obey them. Some books ignore where the characters get their money, but not this book. It's very uncomfortable but I think it's supposed to be, and considering when this was written, there were still people around, old people, who were alive and old enough to remember a time when people owned living human beings and exploited them for profit, and some of the racist ones probably did miss it.

Gross, but it added a touch of grim realism to the otherwise beautiful setting.

The drama in this family had me turning pages like nobody's business. Catherine is absolutely awful and the way she treated her daughter alternately like a pet or a rival was disgusting. Kingdon, the love interest, wasn't really attractive to me because he comes off as incredibly patriarchal and also he's married, although his wife was openly seeing other people, which made it feel less bad to me when he started to become attracted to the heroine. I found all of the side characters equally interesting, and thought the portrayal of Leila was pretty realistic to how a teenage girl at the time would behave.

If you like Gothic romances but are tired of the typical "woman moves to a manor home in the English country side and finds out it's sus" plotlines, Whitney's are such a breath of fresh air, because they're literally set all over the world, and the plots are always so interesting and unique.

4 out of 5 stars

Babe in Boyland by Jody Gehrman

DNF @ p.111

The whole time I was reading this book, I kept comparing it to Riley Redgate's NOTEWORTHY, and it kept falling short. NOTEWORTHY was published six years after BABE, and has the advantage of time. It covered a lot of the things that usually bother me about gender-bending books, like bisexual erasure (dude attracted to girl in drag: oh thank god, I know my heterosexuality radar wasn't broken! I'm not REALLY gay! I knew she was a guy all along) or how they can kind of come across as mildly transphobic (or at the very least, mildly insensitive) by appropriating the sorts of techniques that trans people have to do every day to pass and making tons of "I'm practically a boy already since my chest is so flat"-type jokes. Ick.

Gender-bending/girl-in-an-all-boys'-school books have always been a weakness of mine, though, and I can usually overlook some of that if the story is good. The problem is... it really wasn't? Natalie is an advice columnist for her school paper, running a Dear Abby-type column called "Dr. Aphrodite." She's never had a relationship, but just affirms girls in her article by telling them everything they want to hear (think: "yes, he ignores your texts because he's into you and he's so blinded by your beauty that he can't think of what glorious poetry to send you" / "make him choose between you and the Xbox, 'cause girl, you know"). Obviously... this doesn't work, and one day, she finds her fellow editors laughing at the comments (first rule of the internet: don't read the comments) because all these incels and angry ex-boyfriends have taken umbrage with the way that she has rallied the women-folk against them with her bad advice. Natalie is suddenly in danger of losing her column, and she decides she needs to do serious reporting. So while at a party, she starts asking guys what they really think, like why they won't call when they say they well.

Spoiler: it doesn't work.

Since boys are such lying, twisted creatures, Natalie decides hat the only way to get her answers is by becoming a boy. Luckily, one of her friends just happens to know a hacker who despite being a teenager, makes himself home at the FBI's virtual files, so of course he can toggle his way into the admissions roster and make her a student at an all boys' boarding school. And I guess Natalie's parents are the stupidest parents alive, because they see nothing sus about her being MIA for a week, spending literally every night at a friend's house, working on an inter-disciplinary project about biology and history... because that's what the teens do, you know. Spend the night getting all taxonomical.

Anyway, Natalie goes to the boys' school and is like, "Wow, being a boy is so hard. I have to keep remembering to stop swinging my hips and twirling my hair!" And I was like ... This girl has zero chill. She announces to the whole world that she's using a stall but "not because she has to pinch a loaf." While reading this book I kept thinking it was reminding me of something and then it hit me just now: the Disney Channel, circa the Hannah Montana years. The years where everyone wore neon outfits and teens shouted their way into every scene and all of the adults were total idiots.

*record scratch*

I probably would have loved this book when I was a teen but sadly I'm reading it in my 30s and I'm none too impressed. I think the author was trying to poke fun at gender norms instead of upholding them, but the book really hasn't aged all that well, and it really does come across as being quite stereotypical and bad to me while reading it now.

1.5 out of 5 stars

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

So, this was deliciously wicked. I feel like a great way of describing it is GONE GIRL but set in Nigeria, and with two disturbed women instead of just the one. This is not a spoiler. The book literally opens with Ayoola calling up her older sister, Korede, and asking her to help dispose of a body. The victim? Her ex-boyfriend. She claims it's self-defense, but this is not the first time it's happened, and Korede is starting to suspect that her gorgeous little sister who everyone loves is a serial killer. Does she do anything about that? No.

Well-- not until Ayoola turns her murderous eye to the guy Korede likes.

I don't really want to say too much about this because less is definitely more. MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER is a short read, but in that limited space, Braithwaite tells a tight, gripping story that revolves around the themes of not just murder, but also gender roles, corruption, sexism, cyclical abuse, and class. I honestly had a hard time trying to decide which of these two sisters disturbed me more, to be honest. Ayoola is obvious, but Korede plays her cards close to her chest.

I think anyone who enjoys books with antiheroines will love MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER. I honestly had no idea how it was going to end, and I found the psychology of the two sisters, as well as the Lagos setting, to be so different and fascinating. This is that rare and precious book that actually ends up being worth the hype. I'm so impressed and really hope this author has another mystery up her sleeve.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny by Holly Madison

I actually received an ARC of this when it first came out five years ago and I remember really liking it. When it showed up for free on Kindle Unlimited, I thought it might be fun to do a reread. I've been feeling pretty low and sometimes it's nice to just kick up your feet and read something that's all drama, all the time. And it really doesn't get much more dramatic than having one of Hugh Hefner's ex-girlfriends regale you, the reader, about what it was like to live inside his harem.*

*Allegedly-- I remember my professor teaching me in journalism that we're all the heroes of our own stories, and everyone tries to spin events to make themselves look better, which is part of what makes objective journalism so difficult. Even the journalist has Thoughts. Luckily, I'm not a journalist, and this is a memoir.

In DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE, Holly paints herself as a small town girl with big, glittering dreams. In the early 2000s, when party and tabloid culture was at its nexus, it makes sense why a girl with aspirations of Hollywood glamor would go for the Playboy lifestyle. I don't know if any of you were teenagers in the 2000s, but back then, it seems like you couldn't go into any store without seeing baby doll t-shirts with things like "Little Devil," or "I don't play well with others," and a lot of stores carried cheaply made facsimiles of the Playboy bunny necklaces. Several of our cheerleaders and dance squad troupe members wore them. I think Holly captures the zeitgeist (she actually uses that word, zeitgeist) of that time really well, and how many people fell prey to the honeyed trap of cheap, Hollywood glam. She constantly complains about how people only saw her as a bimbo, and in the beginning of the book she says that a lot of girls had to look and dress as if they were stupid because that was what society (e.g. cisgendered white dudes) had decided what was attractive, and while you could argue that she knew what she was getting into when she posed for that first semi-nude photoshoot, I think it's also important to point out that when cisgendered white men dictate the rules of the game, it's cruel and slightly unfair to select out the players for the lion's share of the blame.

Life inside the Playboy Mansion is... well, I was shocked then and I was shocked now. Hef just comes across as an emotionally manipulative sleaze, pitting his girls against each other to watch them fight, and referring to the Quaaludes he offers the girls as "thigh-openers." Like Donald Trump, he comes across as a poor man's idea of rich, and I guffawed when I found out that, according to Holly, he didn't actually own the mansion but payed rent on the rooms in use (upwards of $5000 per room in use), and that the bunny necklaces he gave the girls weren't even real diamonds but cubic zirconia. I wasn't laughing at his overt attempts to control and possess the women who ended up being his girlfriends, though, and even though they were trained to hem and haw about what really went on in the bedroom, apparently it was basically a group orgy that nobody was really into but him. He also apparently goaded them on in private to fight so he could play the good guy in public, and tried to control them with money. When Holly finally tried to leave, he left a copy of his will on her bed for her to read that said that he'd live her three million dollars when he died but only if she was living in the Mansion.

Her post-Hef life was also pretty dramatic. Her eventual falling out with Kendra made me sad (although I do wonder if Holly is really as blameless as she comes across here-- she mostly tries to be nice, but those "Southern girl" type insults (you know the ones, the "bless her heart, but" kinds) keep slipping out, and at one point she feels free to "correct" Kendra on something she said in her own memoir. So now I really want to read SLIDING INTO HOME because it would be interesting to see her perspective on things. Criss Angel comes across as an abusive creep in this book. Apparently he also took back all the jewellery he gave her too when they broke up, which is tacky. I liked how she got into burlesque stage shows, and how much she obviously enjoyed being on her own reality TV show once she was free of all the hot mess of her past. Reality TV is just another one of those things I just don't understand, and it was interesting to hear from one of the-- well, actors-- just how faked some of those scenes could be. There are definitely a lot of humble-brags. You'll get to hear about Holly's 2 hour delivery when giving birth to her child and how much she "enjoyed" it. Also, her breasts were insured, at one point, for one million dollars. But also, she's just like any other girl, she could be your bestest, nicest friend.

I actually did like Holly-- at least, I liked the version of herself she painted here. I never hear anything about her anymore either, which probably means she is nice. Hollywood gossip rags and YouTube commentators fall over themselves trashing people who are actual jerks. I'll never forget the Criss Angel sketch Mad TV put out, making fun of Mindfreak. And god, at this point, making fun of the Paul brothers is practically an Olympic sport for aspiring YouTube comedians. So, I'm like 95% convinced that Holly is as genuine IRL that she appears here, and I like the way she tells her story. Her frustration at being portrayed as dumb is pretty obvious, and I think it's equally obvious that she is not dumb at all, and felt taken advantage of and ill-shaped by her experiences as a vulnerable twenty-something who ended up in a situation that seemed to be way, way more than she bargained for.

Honestly, I'm kind of surprised that DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE has such ratings on Goodreads. It's a pretty quick read and a compelling story. It really shines a bright light on the dark side of reality TV, famous-for-being-famous D-listers, and party culture, while also serving as a cautionary tale about how sometimes the things we think we want can actually be the last things we need. I guess a lot of people were probably really turned off (literally and figuratively) by the sex and the sleaze, and maybe some of them figured Holly was a hypocrite for seeking this sort of lifestyle out and then turning around and writing a tell-all about it, and I'm slightly less sympathetic with those reviewers because I do think that situations can easily get out of someone's control, even if they consented first without knowing all the facts, and that people with a lot of money and power can make things very difficult for those who have neither (especially if, like Holly, they are poor and on the verge of being homeless).

So I liked this book. I'm taking it with a grain of salt, but I liked it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

American Fairytale by Adriana Herrera

DNF @ 16%

The first book in this series, AMERICAN DREAMER, was so good that I immediately zoomed out to grab all the other books in this series. It was a laundry list of everything I love in fiction: positive friendships, loving families (well-- for the most part), food and foodie culture, diversity(!), and a slow-burn romance where the focus is on the building of the relationship rather than a purely sexual need.

AMERICAN FAIRYTALE... is not that. Camilo is a social worker, which is awesome, and when we meet him he's at a charity event, where he meets a billionaire who casually throws down $10,000 for a plate at the event. They have sex in a bathroom before returning to the event. And then... it kind of gets boring?? One of the things that made AMERICAN DREAMER such an intense read for me was how real Jude and Nesto felt. I know people like them in real life. Even though the book was set in NY, SF has a food culture scene just like that, and I got to drool over the book while enjoying my foodie adventures vicariously through the story. It was passionate and interesting and emotional, and the villain of that story added some pretty desperate conflict to the pacing and plot.

I just don't find billionaires all that relatable. And while I will read billionaire romances on occasion, there has to be more to appeal than just "wow, he's commanding at sex and has a fuckton of money." Because I already have the t-shirt for that. In fact, I have many t-shirts. And they're all full of holes. I also didn't really like Milo as much as I liked Nesto. Part of that was maybe because the plot didn't seem to focus quite as much on his passion for his work, like Nesto's story did, which hooked me in from the beginning and didn't let go. I'm definitely going to continue with the series, but I think I'll be skipping this one, as I'm just not all that interested in Milo or Tom.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera

I don't think I'd gotten more than about fifty pages in before I put the rest of the series on hold at the library. AMERICAN DREAMER is such an amazing book, and there is so much about it that I really enjoyed. To start, it's a romance between the owner of a Caribbean fusion food truck and a children's librarian. Are you swooning yet? It's also infused with a love of books and good food, the importance of friends and family, and the desire to make your dreams real (but not, obviously, at the cost of love).

I wasn't expecting this book to take a sledgehammer and start whacking me in the feels. Nesto's story behind his food truck OuNYe (a play on ounje, the Yoruban word for "nourishment," and NY) was so touching and I loved how emotional and nostalgic he got over food. The moment he enters town, though, he starts getting harassed by a "Karen" named Misty, who seems determined to shut down his dream at all costs.

Coincidentally, Misty has also been bullying Jude (messing with his food, denying his budget requests), the librarian. Jude's big dream is to set up a mobile library for kids living in rural or low-income areas. His story of how he became a librarian actually made me cry, and his backstory was so hard to read (what is it with books about gay men named Jude always making me cry). He's been fucked up by his family, and it's given him trust issues, so even though he's attracted to Nesto, he's hesitant to get into a relationship.

AMERICAN DREAMER, in addition to being a fantastic story (romance aside), is also a great romance. No "gay for you." No "wow, anal sex is so easy and you can just go without lube!" sex. No exploitative hookups that magically turn into love without any sort of chemistry or relationship footwork. The attraction between the two of them is instant, but the relationship progresses at a slow, believable pace, with all of the usual pitfalls that plague new relationships, like miscommunication, broken promises, past histories, etc. Nesto is probably the most like me, personality-wise (stubborn and hard-working and focused), so when the inevitable falling out happened with Jude, it was hard not to side firmly with Nesto because I got it. Tragedy is hard-going alone, and when someone makes a promise like that, you expect them to keep it. Help, I'm crying.

My only qualms in the book were that some parts were a bit of a slog. Some of the scenes between Jude and Nesto felt repetitive, even though I understand that it was to build up their relationship. I also really wanted to see Misty get more of a comeuppance than she did. That ending was not satisfactory, and fucking around with people's food is a pretty serious offense. I never really understood why she was going after Jude, and came to the conclusion that she's one of those intolerable bigots who hate the LGBT+ and people of color with equal hateful fervor. Either way, I was out for revenge.

Anyone who likes romances that highlight other cultures, give good food porn, and focus on relationship building over sexual content (although there's some of that, too), will love this book. Reading AMERICAN DREAMER gave me the same rush that watching Million Pound Menu did: it's a success story rooted in how food brings people together, wrapped up in Afro-Latinx culture, and tied off with a cute bow of romance. I'm diving into the next book immediately.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 18, 2020

Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work Is Done by Susan J. Douglas

Keep in mind while reading this that this book was published in March 2010, which probably meant that the author was working on it for at least a few years before that. This is important because ENLIGHTENED SEXISM does read as being very dated, both in terms of references, who it's written for, and what it's addressing. Had this come out today, it would be laughably tone-deaf, because during several moments in this book, the author reverts to objectifying language herself, and, save for a chapter on Black women titled, perhaps unwisely, "You go, girl!", does not really feel all that inclusive in how it addresses intersectionality. "Where are the lesbians?" the author asks, rhetorically, in the reality TV segment-- ignoring an opportunity to talk about how bisexual women are fetishized on TV (A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila was definitely out when this book was published), and how trans women and queer women are often portrayed as glaring caricatures (when they're portrayed at all).

ENLIGHTENED SEXISM is a book that I was eagerly anticipating because I am a feminist and I guess, being a book blogger, I'm somewhat of a pop cultural critic-- at least, in that I read things that are famous in the spheres of pop culture and then I comment on and critique them. I've not been trained in professional criticism and I've never taken a women's studies class; everything I know has been taught to me, from friends, fellow bloggers, and authors of books and articles, and I am still constantly learning. The most important and meaningful takeaway that I've gotten thus far is that it is incredibly important to be mindful about what you consume, and how, even-- maybe especially-- if you love it.

In ENLIGHTENED SEXISM, Susan J. Douglas attempts to do just that, dismantling many forms of media-- movies, TV shows, commercials, billboard ads, reality television-- and talk about the conflicting messages that we, as consumers get: that we're told that society is equal and feminism is somehow unwanted or redundant, even as the subtext in many popular movies, TV shows, etc. involves the portrayal of a world that revolves around cisgendered heterosexual white men, where everyone-- even the rebels-- have to play by their rules in order to win. This is an important message, especially now. You see a lot of people online trying to steer the discourse away from critical movements in social justice, arguing that to put the spotlight on a group is to steal it away from someone else. I can't tell you how many times I've seen people say, "I don't believe in feminism, I'm an equalist." Or they get freaked out, because they think that believing in Black Lives Matter means that their (not-Black) life doesn't matter. What these people don't realize is that negating the group from the name of the movement negates the movement. It's like there's a house on fire, and a fireman comes and sprays the hose on the house next door. And the person who owns the burning building is like, "My house is on fire! Why aren't you doing anything about this?" And the fireman says, "All houses matter." 

All lives will never matter until Black lives matter. And society will never be equal until women and non-binary individuals have the same privileges as men do.

Hilariously, the person who owned this book before me was very conservative and took copious notes, suggesting their lack of respect for women and millennials, and bewildered by terms like "MAC" and "BET." Their comments ran the gamut of things like "why would you trust the media?" and "I haven't watched television since the 90s!" and "success and bitchiness go hand and hand" and "if you believe that, you're stupider than most women are." It's frustrating, because this is exactly the type of book that conservatives love to hold up as a strawman argument for how silly feminism is and, ironically, in my opinion, does exactly what Douglas criticizes the token lesbian character of being set up to do in Legally Blonde (i.e. superficial attacks against inconsequential facets of The Man).

The main argument of this book is basically what Gillian Flynn said so pithily in her oft-quoted paragraph about "cool girls." We're seeing more powerful, kick-butt, influential women in the media, but they are being repackaged in ways that renders them non-threatening to the status quo. Black women are expected to code-switch and behave in ways that don't make white people feel threatened or racist. Powerful women are portrayed as beautiful and vulnerable, which makes them seem attainable and desirable instead of threatening. Reality TV and soap operas perpetuates outmoded sexist stereotypes, but do so while winking heavily at the audience in a way that implies that they're somehow postfeminist, because surely, it's okay to say such things if it's all occurs in a vacuum, etc.

The problem, which isn't so succinctly summed up in this book, is that we don't consume media in a vacuum and our brains are wired in a way that makes us rely on shortcuts, like stereotypes. If we grow up consuming media filled with problematic stereotypes, those problematic stereotypes are what are going to be readily available when we think about women, people of color, etc. This is just one reason why having good rep in diverse books and other media is so important: it portrays society as it actually is, with fleshed out, dimensional characters of diverse and varied backgrounds that are more than just hollow stereotypes. Instead, we're peppered with shows that sexualize women, sometimes even while claiming to empower them, and often put people of color in stereotypical roles.

I'm going to talk briefly about the "You go, girl" chapter, but I'm not Black, so this isn't really my lane. Two quotes in particular bothered me:

"[Code-switching] was one of the great pleasures of the show [Living Single], for white audiences as well as for blacks, because here we gained access, however vicariously, to the truth-telling world of snap." (Emphasis and bold mine.) Um, yikes.

Code-switching in this book is portrayed as this fun thing Black people do on TV show to play up the audience for laughs. The author does at one point mention that it's a mechanism for juggling identities (paraphrased, since I can't be bothered to look up the quote again). From what I understand, though, the deeper purpose of code-switching is because Black people are expected by white society (and Black society, in some cases) of behaving differently in situationally dependent contexts, and are constantly having to recalibrate based on whether they're "white enough" or "Black enough" at a given moment. It is not a fun, quirky thing. It is a behavior that society has forced on people of color, due to ingrained, racist stereotypes that are embedded in the architecture of society as part of the status quo.

The other quote is this:

"[Oprah's] effortless glide into Black Speak is endearing and almost always gets laughs. It also reminds white viewers that, as a black woman, she has a unique vantage point in white America and a special community membership that they don't. But she's going to let us in." (Emphasis mine)

Here, I think the author tips her hand a bit. She's definitely writing for a white audience, in my view. But it makes this chapter extra uncomfortable, particularly since while she does criticize the "sassy Black woman stereotype" in media, and rightfully points out that often, when Black characters do appear on TV shows, they exist in isolation from Black culture, and issues of social justice and inequality, like BLM or serious conversations about racism and prejudice, she fails, in my opinion, to really point out the other problematic portrayals of women of color, like fetishization or existing to validate white people, and her critiques of BET, rap, and back-up dancers felt like it was detracting from, rather than adding to, her arguments for intersectionality.

Regarding the broader message of this book, I felt like it was mostly unsuccessful. I think this works better as a work of pop culture essays than it does about feminism, since it's mostly a collection of what the author likes and dislikes on TV and in media. It's well-written, but it doesn't really feel like it has a solid scholastic backbone, particularly when she's describing Victoria's Secret models as "Barbies" and "ectomorphs" and railing about how much she hates Abercrombie and Fitch. Women on women hate is a significant part of one of her chapters, so it feels weird and kind of hypocritical to see such catty asides in an essay that's supposed to be arguing against them-- especially since one of them is under a photo caption in the middle of the book, and therefore pretty hard to ignore. Even if she's being facetious, it doesn't really strike the right tone given the overall context and ambitions of the work.

As I said, though, this is about a decade old. I feel like this author was coming from a good place and it's unfair to criticize with the advantages of hindsight. I was pretty uninformed ten years ago, too (ten years ago, I was in college, and thought some pretty questionable things about the world and how it worked). Feminism is becoming more inclusive and white, cisgendered women are finally getting up and developing the vocabulary-- and the empathy-- to discuss and support issues pertaining to the LGBT+ and women of color, which white feminism can often overlook or ignore (or, in some cases, dismiss and even work against). That said, I don't feel like this book ages well, and it's weird to read a book that talks about pop-culture and feminism and doesn't mention the Kardashians or Taylor Swift. Instead, it's all about Laguna Beach, Abercrombie, Victoria's Secret, Jamie Lynn Spears, Miley Cyrus, and Oprah. Honestly, it's almost worth buying just for reliving the pop-cultural who's-who of the 2000s, which, again, makes me feel like this would be better marketed as pop-culture essays and not feminism.

I ended up skimming a lot by the last third, as I felt like the author had made her point. I wouldn't recommend this or read it again, but I would like to see an updated (shorter) work of essays by this author about her thoughts on pop-culture and intersectional feminism now.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

But Like Maybe Don't?: What Not to Do When Dating: An Illustrated Guide by Arianna Marguilis

I might be one of the most awkward people you'll ever meet IRL, but this book has made me feel like a veritable Superhero of Chill. I've never had my job transfer me across the country to chase after a guy I just met and I've never created a fake Facebook account to "research" my S/Os, but hey, maybe I'm just naive. Apparently creating stalking accounts is common, and I just never got on board because things like this just don't occur to me. I'd be the worst spy. I'd be out there with a "hello my name is" sticker and on it, I would write "Spy."

Why? Because I'm bad at lying.

BUT LIKE MAYBE DON'T? is obviously trying to follow in the footsteps of Allie Brosh, but instead of being a hilarious, sensitive memoir about depression, this is kind of like a dating guide as written by a post-college Lizzie McGuire. Some people seemed to think this book was really funny, but it was like half-humble brag, half cringe. Mad respect to people who can be this honest about themselves with perfect strangers, because the story about how she tricked her (high school?) boyfriend into matching outfits was pretty yikes, and my eyebrows shot to my hairline when she recounts feeling like Pretty Woman while dating an actual prince. (Yes, a prince! Which one??? There aren't that many...) Also, the Hamptons are mentioned like twice, and one of her dates was an Ivy,

I do like the constant validation, and if this was meant to be cathartic, then that serves a purpose, too. I just personally didn't find this all that funny, and most of the advice wasn't all that useful to me because I don't really have any of these problems. Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, reading this book was a lot like reading the advice columns in my teen girl magazines, where the questions that got published were always problems that a) either nobody but like maybe (ha!) .001% of people would have, or b) problems that everyone has but answered in a way that tells you what you want to hear but that you also know is unhelpful and probably wrong (kind of like your dentist saying "yes, candy is great for your enamel-- eat all the candy!" Like yesss, please, but also, seems like a lie).

Since this is a book about bad dating anecdotes, I will share one of mine. I had been dating someone for a few weeks and they didn't invite me over for Thanksgiving, which hurt my feelings a little, but I was also kind of like, "Well, Thanksgiving is a big step and some people have extended family over, so bringing a new girlfriend to be interrogated by Grandma Mildred and all of your extended cousins can be super awkward (true story)," so I didn't really think much of it. A few months go by and I'm like, "Hey, babe, what are your plans this weekend?" And they were like, "Well, I can't see you because I'm having my birthday party and everyone who's important to me will be there." And I waited. And there was no qualifier. So I was like, "Hmm, okay." And then I broke up with them the next day. By text.

Because a girl's gotta have some self-respect. Or a boy. Or a non-binary individual, too.

Respect is key.

A less sad but more amusing story is this blind date I went on with this dude who had clearly padded out his resume because what he told me he actually did was very different than the career he had listed on Facebook. That isn't a deal-breaker in and of itself, because I respect the hustle, but then it turned out that he was probably a Trump supporter (he didn't come out and say it, but he might have uttered the phrase "both sides" and said something against affirmative action, so I kind of knew) and rather than rushing out of the restaurant right there, I took the opportunity to spend the rest of the date talking about feminism and how important diversity was, and why I loved living in San Francisco.

Spoiler: he didn't offer to pay for my water and app. He wanted to network, though, and when it became clear that wasn't going to happen (hahahaha), I never heard from him again. In fact, he blocked me on all social medias. I call that a win.

Anyway, not sure who this book is really supposed to appeal to, but probably teenagers who watch Sex and the City and still think BuzzFeed is "fire." I think I'm too old and uncool to appreciate this book.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Easy Freedom by Liz Berry

Towards the end of the book, one of the characters describes Cathy's situation as being like a bad soap opera and that is literally the perfect way to describe this duology. It has the kind of toxic, relationship-fueled drama that you normally don't see outside of shoujo manga or old school Harlequin Presents novels. The previous book, EASY CONNECTIONS, is literally about a young woman who is raped by a rock star who uses his fame and connections to manipulate all of her friends and family into gaslighting her into being with him and having his baby-- oh, and did I mention that this is a book... for teens?

EASY FREEDOM takes off where the last book ends and Cathy finds out that it isn't so easy being Dev's wife. Not just because he's just as cruel and uncaring about what she wants out of the relationship, but also because of his best friend, Chris, who's decided he wants Cathy. Not only that, but it's also implied-- heavily in this book and in the subtext of the previous-- that Dev and Chris have or have had a sexual relationship in the past, so either way, she's got the two of them.

EASY CONNECTIONS made me really, really angry. EASY FREEDOM also made me angry, but it also made me really depressed, too. As with the previous books, I don't think you can really read these as a romance. It really is like a soap opera, and the drama is so over the top. I'm sure many a teen and their parents were scandalized by these books when they came out, as they read like many popular new adult books coming out these days do. That said, I was invested enough to find out what happened to the characters, even if I didn't particularly like either of them. Their story was so addicting.

If you're into manga like Hana Yori Dango, or like Harlequin Presents, I think you'll enjoy this book. If you're looking for something light and sweet, however, you aren't going to find it here.

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Gabriel's Bride by Samantha James

DNF @ 19%

This is another book that came very strongly recommend to me because of its cruel hero. I am a huge fan of romance novels with cruel heroes but it has to be done in a certain way or I won't like it. I'm okay with characters who make stupid decisions, but it has to be for reasons that make sense. Our hero, Gabriel, hates his father because his father always preferred his older brother (the heir). When the heir does in a war, the spare inherits everything-- including the late son's bride. But Gabriel decides to teach his father a lesson by marrying a poor American tavern wench (his father hates Americans). This marriage of inconvenience to the heroine, Cassie, is just a single exercise from the "Daddy Didn't Love Me" workbook.

I wish I could have loved this but I didn't like Gabriel at all. This is Draco in leather pants regency fic, with one of those plucky, "spirited" heroines who basically crumples in a heap the moment the hero broodingly turns in her direction. I didn't buy their chemistry and I didn't really like either of them, and the whole premise beggars belief. I am not a fan.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 14, 2020

Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare

DNF @ 36%

This is one of those rare situations where I actually eye to eye with both the positive and the negative reviewers. If you're into fun and froth, and you don't really care if your historical romances are very historical, you're going to love this. The heroine is enthusiastic, bordering on manic pixie dream girl. She has a pet ermine, she's the daughter of a children's book author who had her as the plucky main character (and does this legacy haunt her? oh yes), she's just inherited a castle. And the hero is a Broody McBrood on wheels who lurks in the darkness with his pet wolf-dog, unable to come to terms with the disability he feels unmans him.

On the other hand, it is all froth and fancy, and it doesn't really feel very historically plausible or realistic. As fun as Isolde ("Izzy") is, she doesn't feel like she could exist in whatever period in England this was, and Ransom just doesn't feel very realistic either. For a while, I tried to get on board. I do love Tessa Dare-- she's a rare delight on Twitter, and I have enjoyed some of her other books-- but this one is just too silly for me and I ended up getting bored and stalling at the 36% mark.

I appreciate what the author was trying to do here and I think some readers are going to love this. Many do, already. But this just wasn't my cup of tea at all and I don't think I shall be finishing it.

2 out of 5 stars

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

Before Martha's Vineyard became a getaway for the rich, it belonged to the Wampanoag, who then sold the land (arguably under incredibly unfair terms) to English settlers, who came from a town in England called Weald where Deafness was a recessive trait that ended up showing up more and more in the small and isolated population, which ended up resulting in the community developing a village sign language called Martha's Vineyard Sign Language. I had never learned about any of this before and was really excited to learn about the history of Martha's Vineyard.

Our heroine is a young girl named Mary whose brother has just died in a terrible accident. She feels responsible, and the death has caused a rift in her family, as her brother could hear (like her mother), whereas her father is Deaf like her. Watching her mother grieve and her lack of care in expressing her obvious favoritism among her children is heartbreaking, and Mary ends up spending more and more time with her friend, getting into mischief, when a scientist named Andrew comes to the island to make discoveries.

Pretty soon, however, it's clear that Andrew's intentions are less than pure and he has absolutely zero respect for those who are Deaf in the community. Prior to this point, I was thinking that this book reminded me a lot of the American Girl books I used to read as a child, but this book, with the way it confronts ableism, cruelty in the name of scientific advancement, and racism, is actually much darker than I anticipated. I don't think it's inappropriate for middle grade, but it will definitely give kids a lot to think about while reading. It gave me a lot to think about while reading.

SHOW ME A SIGN is #OwnVoices in that the author is also Deaf and worked to incorporate sign language into the story in a way that feels fluid and conveys to readers who might not speak sign language what that sort of communication feels like to "speak." I loved the physicality of it, and how LeZotte incorporated the motions of hands into the dialogue, and it was really, really well done. She wrote a great author's note in the back about the liberties she took to convey MVSL, which is now a dead language, as well as the history of Martha's Vineyard itself.

I liked this book. In terms of pacing, it's decent. Definitely feels slow until the dark twist with Andrew's character, and then everything speeds up. I do think that this will appeal to those who like American Girl books, as it ticks all those boxes: it is part of the history of the United States, but it also explores the darker side of that history, and a young girl who has that history as part of her heritage gets to pilot through that story with her own agency as vehicle. SHOW ME A SIGN will probably appeal more to young readers and educators than older teens and adults, but I do think it is worth reading and talking about, if only so it finds its way into the hands of more kids (particularly kids who are Deaf/HoH).

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

3 out of 5 stars