Tuesday, October 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 to 4 out of stars

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Mistress on Loan by Sumiko Sonehara

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

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

2 out of 5 stars

One Night With His Virgin Mistress byMinori Momoka

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

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

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

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

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

2 out of 5 stars

Marriage by Deception by Kakuko Shinozaki

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

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

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

I know, whaaaaaaat.

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

Definitely my favorite in the bunch. :)

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Marchese's Love-Child by Ryo Arisawa

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

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

Quelle shock.

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

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

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

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Ruthless Awakening by Junko Okada

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

***Warning: SPOILERS***

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

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

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

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

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

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

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

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

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

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

Yes, you did just read that correctly.

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

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

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

And also, you totally just fucked the virus.

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

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

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

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Bitterwine Oath by Hannah West

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

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

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

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

2 out of 5 stars

Breathless by Laura Lee Guhrke

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

Like, at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 10, 2020

That's What Frenemies Are For by Sophie Littlefield

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L. Armentrout

DNF @ 13%

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

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

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

1 out of 5 stars

Damsel by Elana K. Arnold

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, October 9, 2020

Daughter from the Dark by Marina Dyachenko


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

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

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

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

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

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Wicked Fox by Kat Cho

WICKED FOX is the perfect fall read-- it's an urban fantasy novel set in South Korea that relies on Korean folklore, with shamans and demons, including the gumiho, a fox demon that's kind of like the Japanese kitsune/yako, only slightly more evil (they seduce men and eat their livers). Our heroine, Miyoung, is a gumiho who lives with her mothers but only kills evil men. But one day, she catches the attention of an ordinary human boy who ends up finding more about her than she ever dreamed, and makes her feel things she shouldn't. This is more than just a romance, though. Secrets and betrayals abound, and some of them might be deadly.

If you're a fan of the magical/spiritual girl anime, I think you'll really enjoy this book a lot. The pairing of a soft boy with a dangerous girl is a common plot thread in J- and K-dramas, and I loved the subtle nod to the K-drama, My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho. It also gave me Jigoku Shoujo and Vampire Princess Miyu vibes. Miyoung is the classic tsundere who starts out icy, aloof, and dangerous, but ends up being far more sensitive and vulnerable than she initially appears.

Jihoon was also a great character. He's sweet and ordinary, and his relationship with his grandmother was one of the best parts of the book for me. I like how both of them bond over their absent or neglectful parents, because it felt like a realistic connection to explain their need for intimacy and closeness. The Korean folklore elements were also really interesting and I loved learning about the every day life in South Korea, such as what schools are like there, what people eat, and what the social norms are. This is the first paranormal/urban fantasy novel I can remember reading that is set in South Korea, and I felt like Cho did a marvelous job bringing her settings to life.

I'm giving this three stars because it did feel a little uneven in terms of pacing. The beginning was wonderful but I felt like it began to drag in the second half. I liked the twist at the end, even though I suspected it, and I wasn't prepared for the emotional blow the author inflicted upon me. That didn't impact my rating negatively but I do appreciate when authors don't always take the easy, comfortable choice. I thought the plot of the story was good... I just wish I was more engaged in some parts than I actually was, and I thought the "legend" portions, told from omniscient narrator POV, were a bit too heavy on the exposition and actually ended up dragging me out of the story.

Overall, though, this was a really fun debut and has likable characters, an interesting story, and an exciting setting. I'd definitely read more by this author and I'd encourage anyone who's stick of the usual stock Western urban fantasy settings with the typical line up of vampires, werewolves, and witches to give this book a try-- especially if you're into supernatural girl anime and dramas.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Sing the Four Quarters by Tanya Huff

Reading SING THE FOUR QUARTERS took me back to my high school days of gaming, when I spent weeks playing Sword of Mana. I love books with elemental magic systems and Huff's is particularly interesting because here, the world focuses on bards. Bards, often mocked as being a weak class in RPGs, are all-powerful here: they have elemental powers, which they activate through song, and act as enforcers, prosecutors, and town criers, which I found super unique and interesting.

SING THE FOUR QUARTERS features extremely casual LGBT+ rep. The heroine is bi/pan and pregnant, and we see her in a relationship with both a man and a woman. Her longtime love interest appears to be a lesbian, one of her close friends is gay, and there are a few queer side characters who appear, as well as a villain who is bi/pan. None of them are fetishized, and whether good or evil, their sexuality is purely incidental and doesn't define their characters. It's so refreshing to see a magic world where being LGBT+ is so normalized, and I'm sure a lot of my queer friends are going to be thrilled with the rep here.

The plot is also really good. I've been on a 90s fantasy binge lately because something about the books is so hopeful. They're the perfect blend of hopeful and dangerous, with plots centering around court intrigue, but filled with characters who are flawed but good. Here, the heroine, Annice, finds out that the man who she slept with and who got her pregnant, Pjerin, is going to be sentenced to death as a traitor. Bards have the power to act as human lie detectors and Pjerin's treason seemed inarguable under oath, but she can't believe him capable of sowing the treachery they claim.

At the same time, her being pregnant is an act of treason in and of itself since she's an ex-princess and her brother declared her titles forfeit and declared that her getting pregnant without permission would be punishable by death. Theron, the king, her brother, seems like he's going to be evil when we first meet him, but he's actually just arrogant and proud as all get out, and has never forgiven his sister for undermining him in her plans to become a bard and making him look an opportunistic fool in their father's last moments. So it was cool to see how the plot totally rebounded off the expected tropes.

Finding out the secret behind Pjerin's treason, and watching Annice conspire with her lover, Stasya, to go against their empire to save an innocent man from death and stop a treasonous plot from hatching before war could break out was a total ball. I also loved the elemental sprites in this book, called the kigh, who are fickle and childish, but full of incredible power. The court intrigue, the suspicion of magic, and the schemes upon schemes upon schemes were a total guilty pleasure, and I think anyone who enjoys Mercedes Lackey and Sharon Shinn will love reading this series. Currently books one and two in this series are free to read if you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, too!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Hawke's Pride by Norah Hess

HAWKE'S PRIDE came in one of those romance mystery crates that are all the rage right now and I recognized the name, Norah Hess, immediately, because unlike a lot of bodice-ripper authors, her books have actually been rereleased on Kindle (many with their original covers, bless). This one is currently available in the Kindle store for not too much money and if you have Kindle Unlimited, you can even read it for free. Not that I am biased or anything, but you totes should. In fact, I'm probably going to be in her backlist very soon, click-click-clicking away, because I haven't had this much fun with a Western since reading Kat Martin's DUELING HEARTS.

The cray is strong with this one and it opens with a bang. Our heroine, Rue, is the daughter of a prostitute. One day, her mom takes up with a creepy stepfather type who wants to rape Rue. When he tries, she kicks him in the nads so hard that she ends up rendering him an effectual eunuch. He swears revenge and when the hero, Hawke, stops by, sees an opportunity. Rue's mother is now dead, so she is taking care of her half-siblings and the home, but the money her stepfather can get by selling her into slavery will more than compensate for her loss.

Hawke's married brother died along with his wife, leaving two small children that his elderly father is taking care of. He's moving all three of them to his ranch and needs a housekeeper to help things along. Even though he thinks Rue is a gross hillbilly (she's healing from smallpox when he meets her and is covered in scabs), good help is hard to find. But Rue had just enough time to run to her grandparents and cry at them and her grandfather's idea of helping is to show up with an actual shotgun and force Hawke to marry Rue. In the chaos, the stepfather escapes with the money and his life.


Hawke is an asshole hero in the extreme. He assumes Rue is a whore because of her class and situation and doesn't allow her an attempt to explain herself, OR when he does, assumes she's lying on account of her being such a "slut." Obviously, he's flummoxed and angered when she remembers all this mistreatment once he finds out how hot she is beneath the scabs and refuses to sleep with him. Doesn't she realize what a Studly McStuderson he is? He also has an OW-- a married woman-- who ends up hatching a grand scheme that involves murder and white slavery, which puts her up there with the Catherine Coulter and Bertrice Small OWs in terms of Being Evol for the Sake of Evol.

The sex scenes in this book are pretty smutty. Oral sex??? In a 90s bodice-ripper? Pretty kinky. There are also quite a few of them once they start happening. Negative PC points for extremely questionable portrayal of Native Americans (one of them is described as having a "flat face" and the world "noble" is used), although considering some of the Native American romance novels I've read from this era, Hess comes across as being downright progressive. She gives the characters personalities and narrative arcs rather than reducing them to props, and it isn't quite as icky as it could have been. So yay?

Also, you know, most of the women in this book are evil, the hero doesn't really feel all that bad about his treatment of the heroine until he finds out she's a virgin, and everyone who meets the heroine wants to fuck her (including her stepfather, who is exceptionally creepy and is described as leering and fat about sixteen million times, just as the OW's sagging boobs are mentioned a ton, because in the Kathleen Woodiwiss school of Bitchcraft and Villainy, ugly = evol).

I still liked it, though. Because I am a garbage can. *flaps lid*

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

DNF @ 56%

Even though I had some reservations about THE POPPY WAR, I did ultimately end up enjoying it, even if I couldn't quite put my finger on who the target audience was or what it was trying to achieve. I did wonder where the author was going to go from there, since having a book end with your main character committing a grave atrocity is definitely a choice... one that's hard to bounce back from.

As soon as I began THE DRAGON REPUBLIC, my hopes for the book began to sink. As I said in my review of TPW, I really enjoyed Part I and admired the author's ability to show a character who was hard-working but unlikable. Parts II and III were where her characterization began to fragment and it was like she unlearned everything that had made her interesting. That's even more magnified here, where Rin spends the bulk of her narrative shrieking, yelling, insulting people, threatening people, mooning over the man who used to abuse her, and gulping down opium like a stoner with a Slurpee.

I was also really disgusted with how Rin treated everyone around her. Her "friends" were never really her friends and I don't understand why she's being shipped with Nezha now when he was so cruel to her in TPW, or why she's so shocked that Kitay is angry at her after what she did in the first book. They're portrayed as this motley crew of buddies who have each other's backs... but they never did, and it feels like an even bigger ret-con than what S.J. Maas pulled with Rhysand and Feyre. I also really didn't like the racism and misogyny in this book. The racism is intentional, as I think it's meant to show how Westerners were viewed by the Chinese, and how the British used their racist, taxonomical-inspired discrimination to legitimize colonization and oppression, but what Kuang does here just barely scrapes at the surface and, as in the previous book, makes everyone out to be awful in a way that just seems to be done for shock. I also hated how all the women in this book, including Rin, are portrayed. So many reviewers portray Rin as a strong protagonist, but anyone who relies that heavily on threats, emotional manipulation, and drugs, is weak, in my opinion. And that could have been interesting to explore, but it felt like Rin was always getting a free pass for what she was criticizing others for doing (genocide, racism, emotional manipulation, war crimes, etc.), and she was really only strong because all other women in this book were portrayed as spineless victims, noble victims, manipulators, or objects.

Also, to clarify: I understand that psychedelic drugs are a key implement in the religious ceremonies of many religions, and unlike some, my issue was not with their presence in the narrative, but the way that they were used. Rin has developed a chemical dependence, as a result of her guilt and trauma (PTSD), and, again, that could have been interesting, but it wasn't really explored fully and was basically portrayed as a free pass for all of her abusive or manipulative behavior, and I really didn't like that/feel comfortable with that, especially not in a character who is supposed to be so kick-butt and ~awesome~.

At this point, the book kind of feels like a gussied-up YA title with flat, two-dimensional characters that uses its violence to shock and titillate. I could understand the violence in book one being used to show the atrocities of war and how shocking that can be to those who glamorize it, as well as to call attention to the massacre of Nanjing, but I'm really not sure what this book was supposed to accomplish apart from making me despise a character I only found barely-tolerable.

Don't forget to check out Deidra, Sage, and Maraya's reviews!

1 out of 5 stars

Friday, October 2, 2020

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha

This is such an amazing book! ALMOST AMERICAN GIRL is about Robin Ha (Chuna) and her life growing up in the United States as an immigrant in the 90s. I thought her life was so interesting because it was so unconventional. Her mother was a single mom in Korea, and apparently that is even more stigmatized in Korea than it is here-- people always assumed the worst and Robin quickly learned to hide that her father wasn't around. Her mother started dating a man who worked in importing fish and later moved to Alabama to open his own fish shop, and he and Robin's mother decided to get married.

When Robin goes to the United States with her mom, she thought it was another one of their usual trips. Obviously, when she learned the truth, she was devastated. Her step-family was not interested in getting to know her much at all, and her step-sisters and step-cousins could actually be hostile (with the exception of the eldest). Her school didn't have ESL classes, so she ended up plopped right into regular classes with only her questionable step-sister/cousin to translate. After having a close-knit group of friends in Korea, the move left her feeling isolated and lonely with no one to talk to or share her interests.

This is such an amazing coming of age memoir because it offers a really unique perspective on what it's like to grow up in two drastically different cultures. Her mother's story as a single working mom was so impressive, and I loved the relationship between mother and daughter, and how her mother worked so hard to push her to be independent and pursue her own interests despite that not being traditional. My favorite part of the book was how comic books ended up being the key that helped Robin unlock her own new circle of friends in the United States, especially her friendship with Jessica, and having that foundation ended up making her stronger when she and her mom later moved again to Virginia.

I've been to countries where I didn't speak the native language and it could be frustrating and scary, especially when you are really trying and you suspect the other person you're interacting with might be having a laugh at you or you've just unknowingly done something rude. Dealing with foreign money, interacting with strangers, or getting lost and/or having to ask for directions in a language you don't speak can be so hard! And I was only traveling-- while reading this, I asked myself what it would have been like if I'd had to take classes in a subject that was taught in a language that I didn't speak, in a place with customs I didn't know, and my socially anxious self did an ~epic cringe.~

The art style of this book is simple but it suits the story and complements, rather than detracts from, the story. I think it will appeal to tomboyish girls and women, anyone who is interested in comics and nerd culture, and/or anyone who has immigrated or been an expatriate, or simply doesn't feel like they fit in with the rest of society all the time. I feel like the message of this book is that everyone has a group of people out there who will understand them and their interests if you take the time to look for them, and even when you travel and find new experiences, in the end you'll always find your way home.

5 out of 5 stars

The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

I'm going to save you a bunch of time and heartbreak, and tell you something I wish someone had told me before I was seduced by the sea of glowing four- and five-star reviews for this book: If you liked the first book, THE THIEF, the sequel, QUEEN OF ATTOLIA, is going to depress and anger you, and KING OF ATTOLIA is going to bore and frustrate you. There, I said it.

THE THIEF was one of my childhood favorites. I read it in middle school and really enjoyed it-- it stayed on my childhood bookshelf for years before I finally got rid of it in favor of other books, but it was a story I never forgot. All of these stories are set in a fantasy world inspired by Ancient Greece, where the gods interact with and look over their charges, but tend to take a light hand in favor of letting the mortals figure out things for themselves-- even at the cost of their suffering (read: see QUEEN OF ATTOLIA).

THE THIEF is narrated in first person and I loved Gen's voice, which made QUEEN OF ATTOLIA somewhat of a disappointment because it's narrated in third person-- and Megan Whalen Turner decides to torture the everloving hell out of her poor character, in a way that wouldn't have felt out of place in a Game of Thrones episode. I was honestly shocked, because even though there is violence and intrigue in the first book, it's pretty mild, whereas tonally and contextually, the sequel seems much older in terms of the age group it's targeting. This is not really made clear, and thank goodness somebody warned me.

In KING OF ATTOLIA, the reader is removed yet another step from Gen. Now the narration (still in third person, blast it) is from a guard named Costis, who is loyal to the queen of Attolia but ends up serving the king by marriage. Costis has a lot of scorn for the king at first and undermines him at every turn with resentment. But gradually, he comes to realize that the king isn't the usurping fool he imagined; in fact, he might be worse-- a blend of compassion and danger that makes him infinitely lethal and foolish to underestimate. That is really the only saving grace of this book-- the twists. There's always a great twist at the end of one of these books that just completely turns everything on its head.

So, I'm a little torn on what to read this book. It's filled with way too many characters I didn't care about (including the narrator), and takes way too long to get where it's going. Towards the 55% mark, it picks up-- finally-- and the payoff is good but isn't really worth the slog. Plus, I freaking hate the Queen of Attolia still and I think it's quite disgusting how the ship between her and Gen is forced in. I don't buy them as a couple anymore than I did Rhysand and Feyre from the ACoTaR series. I'm sorry, but you can't just ret-con a bunch of abuse and problematic behavior for the sake of your ships and your plot contrivances. I won't buy it, and it's lazy as all get out, and it makes me write reviews with a frown.

If I hadn't already bought the next two books in the series, I would have quit here. But apparently Sophos is in the next book and I like him, so hopefully this means Costis will be left in the dust.

P.S. Hugs and smiles to Erika for BR-ing this series with me. Her reaction to the events in QUEEN OF ATTOLIA made me feel like I was slightly less delusional and I'm so grateful for that.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Kissing the Coronavirus by M.J. Edwards

I often self-effacingly refer to myself as a garbage can because I read a lot of books that many people consider trashy. In fact, a lot of trash is quite excellent or at least aspires to be. Not KISSING THE CORONA VIRUS, though. This is a book that wallows in its terribleness. Even though it's only sixteen pages, the author has charged 99 cents for it, and written something so outlandish that all of us are out there, doing all of their publicity for them. It's so evil, it's practically a Disney supervillain's scheme.

Set in a lab, KISSING THE CORONAVIRUS features a female scientist named Alexa, one of a "crack team of scientists." (I can only imagine that the "crack" in that sentence refers to crack cocaine.) Alexa enjoys her work a little too much, because the COVID specimen she has in a test tube make her so wet (and her nipples "as hard as tic tacs"). So obviously, she's delighted when the teddybear scientist she works with takes a vaccine for COVID they made and it causes him to hulk out, COVID style, with a big, green, protinaceous dick.

The sex scenes are... about what you would expect from a book like this. It's like something a middle schooler might sit down to write if you-- inappropriately and inadvisably-- told them to write something "hot" (note: do not do this). Characters kiss like they're swishing around "chunks of microwaved fish". The word love lotion is used, unironically, as if in an ode to Bertrice Small and her "honey evens" and "love grottoes." Alexa's breasts glisten like water balloons under the summer sun. It is the worst, most hilarious, thing that I have ever read.

Is it worth 99 cents? No. Did it make me laugh? Yes. Did it make me feel slightly sick? Yes. Should you buy it? I mean... why not. This is what happens when people are stuck at home with nothing to do. We crack open a bottle of the good stuff and start creeping over to "the dark and shady corner of the erotica genre." And honestly, I can't help but admire the author for putting this book out there... if only because I'm slightly secretly jealous that I didn't think of it first. Could this be the next dinosaur erotica? Maybe.

Also, I don't think this needs saying, but just in case: if you encounter the Coronavirus, you should not fuck it. Not even if it makes you horny. COVID-19 is a real pandemic and it has cost real lives (200,000 in the United States alone). Please, please, please wear a mask when you go out, carry and use hand-sanitizer, avoid touching your face in public, wash your hands well and often, and practice social distancing. Even if you don't think you're at risk, you could be saving the life of someone immuno-compromised who doesn't have the luxury of being careless.

If you're an essential employee, hats off to you for keeping our country running through these terrible times.

And if you're the author reading this, thanks for giving us all something to bond over and laugh at during quarantine. I really, really needed that.

1 out of 5 stars