Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Ones We're Meant to Find by Joan He

 

DNF @ p.56

Oh man. I was REALLY disappointed by this book-- especially since I'd been looking forward to it ever since it came out. I liked the author's debut novel, DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE, and really looked forward to seeing what she would do next. Especially since THE ONES WE'RE MEANT TO FIND was *checks notes* being compared to Studio Ghibli movies in the blurb and had one of the most gorgeous covers I've seen recently.

Sadly... I did not like it at all.

This is just SO confusing. I checked some of the one star and two star reviews to see if it would get better and it didn't seem to. This appears to be the kind of book where if you're not into it from the beginning, you're not going to be into it at the end. One of the POVs is about this girl marooned on a beach (first person). The other is this girl in a city environment who is looking for her missing sister (third person). I guess I was hoping, based on the cover, that the sisterhood dynamic would be more prevalent and less... I don't know, absent.

I also think I have a pretty good idea what the twist is. Definitely curious if I'm right, though.

Side note: not only is the cover gorgeous, the amount of design and thought that went into the layout is A+. I actually took a photo of the endpapers on my Instagram because they were so beautiful. If you're into some Nova Ren Suma levels of M. Night Shyamalan-like plot twists, this will probably appeal to you. But if you're looking for something that's more straightforward, give this a miss.

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

1 out of 5 stars

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

 

Are you there God? It's me, Trash Can. Years and years ago, twenty-something-year-old Nenia stockpiled YA like it was going out of fashion. Little did she know, it basically was. All those HG dystopias and prom dress paranormals would soon go the way of Vanilla Ice and parachute pants, along with all other bizarre and slightly embarrassing trends that normal people would like to forget.

Too bad for everyone else, I'm not normal. And my Vanilla Ice-listening, parachute pants-wearing ass just loooooooves bad YA.*

*I don't actually own any parachute pants or Vanilla Ice CDs. But, you know, I totally would.**

 **Probably.

Anyway, THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH is a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel set in a world inhabited by zombies, called Unconsecrated.  It's part Night of the Living Dead (1968) and part The Village (2004). Mary lives in a village that is cordoned off by fences. When the sirens sound, they retreat to towers or lock themselves in. But one day, an outside girl comes... and everything changes. Mary learns that their world might not be as isolated as they thought, nor as safe.

I personally really enjoyed this book a lot. The dreamy story-telling, the emotional stakes, the fact that the heroine is allowed to be unlikable and selfish, the world-building. I am not usually one for zombie stories, honestly. I think they're gross. I'm a vampire girl-- I like my undead with fangs. But Ryan really sold it. When Mary and her friends, Cass, Travis, Harry, Beth, and Jed (well, he's her brother, but you know) are wandering through the network of fenced paths, heading towards the unknown, it feels so claustrophobic and tense. I found myself quickly sucked into the story and finished it in a day.

The thing I think a lot of people won't like about this book is that there is a love square (Mary likes Travis, who is engaged to Cass, who is in love with Harry, who is engaged to Mary) and the heroine really comes off as selfish in a lot of the book. Also, it's depressing as hell. 

But apart from that, it honestly felt pretty fresh and enjoyable to me, and I think if you like The Village and zombie movies, you'll really like this book. It's like a teen soap opera version of The Walking Dead, and if that makes you want to read this book, you're probably well within the target audience. I own the whole "trilogy" but I must note that the two subsequent books are "companion" books. Mary's story ends with this one and the other two books each feature different narrators. That disappointed me a little bit because if I really like a story and am invested in a character enough to read further into the series, I generally like it to be about that character, but I'm still interested in seeing what Ryan does with this world.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Darkness Before Dawn by J.A. London

 

DNF @ p.92

Does anyone remember the Goth Girl Prom Dress Trend of the 2010s YA book covers that totally looked like Evanescence album art? Because I totally do. And even though I like to make fun of things, I secretly love covers like these and they make that inner voice inside my head scream, "BUY! BUY! BUY!" But luckily I didn't even have to buy this one because the entire trilogy showed up for FREE inside one of my local Little Free Libraries, so obvs I was like #NEED.

If there's anything that gets my little trash heart singing, it's a vampire book. And the fact that this was a dystopian vampire book where vampires are the oppressors and humanity is hiding inside a wall sounded dee-licious. Never mind that it kind of sounded a little like 30 Days of Night and a half-dozen other stories I could name. I don't expect all of my books to be 100% original as long as they can entertain me.

And at first, DARKNESS BEFORE DAWN did. At first.

Dawn, the heroine (TITLE PUN), is a delegate to the vampire Lord, Lord Valentine, who is pissed off that humans aren't meeting blood quotas. Her job is precarious. It probably got her parents killed. She's chafing under the constraints of her role and decides to go out and party. After her friends is roofied, she is rescued by a mysterious man whose name is, I kid you not, VICTOR VALENTINE.

VICTOR. VALENTINE.

I wonder if he has a cousin Vincent...

Anyway, obviously Victor is a vampire and the son of the vampire lord Dawn hates. And obviously Dawn is a specialy specialton not-like-other-girls heroine who has something that makes her different and special. And obviously... I did not care. Hence the DNF.

J.A. London is a mom and son writing team. The mom writes under the name Rachel Hawthorne (also YA) and I think this is the son's first work. I think it's really sweet that they're doing the project together but I also think that mom-and-kid writing teams don't always yield the best stuff, case in point: the P.C. Cast vampire series that shall not be named. (My mom bought me the series at Costco when I was a teen thinking I'd like it because I liked Vampire Diaries and Twilight. I read literally one chapter of book one before pronouncing it unfit to read and she returned them all to Costco.) I don't think I'll be reading further into this trilogy, which is a shame, because the colors are gorgeous.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

The Sea Is Salt and So Am I by Cassandra Hartt

 

DNF @ p.56

It's been a while since I picked up a book that I wasn't into. I'm sorry to say that THE SEA IS SALT AND SO AM I fits that description. Usually when I get ARCs, I'm super excited and want to dive into them right away, but after reading the first chapter of this book, I set it to one side and avoided making eye contact. There's nothing really wrong with it... it just does a lot of things I don't really like. The sort of dreamy portrayal of mental health issues (not exactly romanticized but definitely sensationalized), the multi POV narratives (Ellis and Harlow sounded exactly the same, only Tommy stood out), and a claustrophobic small town setting where everyone is focused on the cliffs. I definitely think that this will appeal to some people, because I know a lot of people like those things, but it didn't work for me at all.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Fever by Lauren DeStefano

 

Look, I never claimed to be a literati okay? I can be a smart, sophisticated woman and still wallow in book trash the way a Vegas bigshot wallows in a hot tub filled with hookers and champagne. That's why I'm on this trashy YA binge. I crave the mindless escape of soap opera drama and mediocre world building.

The Chemical Garden series really isn't very popular among my friends. A lot of them were kind of fatigued by the glut of Hunger Games copycats and some of them were (fairly) horrified by the child bride themes in this book. Which is totally understandable. This series revolves around a sort of Logan's Run premise where people don't live past twenty (female) or twenty-five (male). Which means that people get married and pregnant uncomfortably young.

If the first book was like a teen-friendly harem drama from the 1980s, this sequel is more like a classic adventure bodice ripper. The heroine, Rhine, is on the run from her evil mad scientist father-in-law, only to end up out of the frying pan and into fire when she lands in a carnival brothel run by a crazy lady who likes to burn people up in incinerators. Her captive gang of prostitutes have all been abducted and some of them are on drugs One of them has a mute child that the crazy lady nearly beats to death at one point. That child comes with Rhine and Gabriel when they try to escape-- again-- only to end up in YET MORE DANGER. Oh, boy.

FEVER took a long time to get moving. Unlike WITHER, which was pretty compelling from the start, this book definitely suffers from second book syndrome. Most of the book is running around. Lots of bad things happen. Rhine gets sick at some point and then it's pages of surreal fever dreams. There really isn't much meat to this book until the beginning of the middle and then, later, towards the end. We get some insight into why the House Governor did what he does (surprise, surprise, he's basically one step removed from a Nazi scientist-- and I mean that very literally, the man is basically a eugenicist). There's some medical gore that was hard to read. I found myself skimming towards the end. It's not a bad book but definitely not as good as the first and it gives the impression that the author was kind of figuring out the plot as she went, and completely ad-hocing it.

I'm still curious to see how this trilogy ends and unfortunately, I DON'T own book three, but I'm not in a huge hurry to buy it, either. I do think that Chemical Garden gets a lot of unfair hate, though, so if you're curious about the book and have a strong stomach, don't let the negative reviews prevent you from giving it a try. It really is a lot like a dystopian bodice-ripper and if that's something you think you'd be into, you'll probably really enjoy this book.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Wither by Lauren DeStefano

 

WITHER is one of those books that all of my friends were hating on when it came out. I read their rant reviews gleefully but never actually picked up the book because, like everyone else, I was burned out on the YA Dystopian Flavor of the Week challenge that rode on the coattails of THE HUNGER GAMES's success. Then one day I saw this book at a thrift store and decided to buy it, where I immediately forgot about it-- until now.

This book is kind of like a young adult version of THE HANDMAID'S TALE with a dash of THE SELECTION and maybe a light sprinkling of 1980s harem romance trash. Rhine, the heroine, lived just above the poverty line with her twin brother, Rowan, until she was kidnapped by the Gatherers who make a living selling girls to be either wives or whores. You're lucky if you end up as a whore. Some of them just decide to shoot the girls in the head.

In this world, most of the world has been decimated by WWIII. All of the other countries except 'Murrica have sunken into the sea. (Haha, whaaaaaat?) Genetic manipulation has caused a degenerative disease in the newest generation that kills girls at 20 and guys at 25. The older generation is healthy but slowly dying out, and they're encouraging the younger generation to breed, taking wives as young as fourteen. Haha, gross. Some people are trying to cure the disease but other people, naturalists, think humanity should just go ahead and die out because clearly, this is a sign. There are good scientists, like Rhine's parents, and bad scientists who might resort to thinks like murder and body-harvesting to have new subjects for tests.

I think it's the whole child bride element thing that put so many people off this book and yeah, I totally get it. The first time I read this book, I got so squeamish, I put it down. Rhine is just one of three brides to her new husband, Linden. The other is eighteen and the other, I think, is thirteen when he marries her. And of course, he ends up having sex with all of them except Rhine and the youngest one gets pregnant. *vom* There's definitely some Bertrice Small vibes in this book, but I think if you read bodice-rippers, you probably won't be shocked by anything in here, even if you are disgusted. The descriptions of sickness and death in this book are also pretty intense for YA. You really have to be in the right frame of mind to deal and I think it helps knowing what you're getting into right out of the gate.

What makes this book tolerable (for me) is the narrative voice. Rhine isn't quite as annoying as other YA heroines can be. She actually resists but in a realistic way, even if other people probably aren't going to see her actions as particularly effective. Her slow challenging of the world she lives in does kind of follow the sort of progression a real teen's doubts might take. And even though there's an annoying love triangle between her, Linden, and one of the servants, Gabriel, most of the focus is on Rhine's new gilded prison and her relationship with the other brides, including Linden's dying first wife, Rose, who has reached the deadly age of twenty. In some ways, this kind of reminded me of a dystopian REBECCA, only it's about a heroine who really couldn't give a crap about living up to the first wife, she's way more concerned with the unholy science experiments happening in the basement.

So yeah, overall I liked it!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Lords of Wrath by Angel Lawson

 

HOLY SHIT.

Okay, so after I read LORDS OF PAIN by Angel Lawson and Samantha Rue, I had a lot of thoughts. Like, oh my God, why am I reading this? And, why do I want more? And, what kind of literary cocaine did the authors inject into this book to even make me like a story that has so many tropes I hate? I don't like reverse harem and I don't like caveman alpha heroes, I don't particularly like crime/mafia stories, and I hate stories that fetishize virginity/purity, so the fact that this book had all of those elements and I still enjoyed reading it made me feel like I should call shenanigans.

And yet, here I am. Champing at the perverted bit.

To be honest, I wasn't really sure what the authors were going to do with the story. It's a really weird story where frat boys act like mob bosses. The Lords of this story are one such frat and the girl they have chosen to be their live-in prostitute/sex slave is the stepsister of one of the boys, Killian. The other two, Tristian and Rath, helped sexually assault her when she was underage. So now that she's legal and still a virgin, they're like YAAAASS. And it's still really, really gross.

Story, the heroine, was really hard to relate to in the first book. She made all kinds of questionable decisions and felt like such a victim. I felt really sorry for her but she really didn't have a lot of agency as a character, and she was veering too close to one of those heroines in dark eroticas that just sort of takes everything thrown at her at the cost of her self-respect. I don't deny that this can happen in real life situations but it's not fun to read about and doesn't make for a good romance. So I was REALLY fucking happy that the glimpses of occasional maliciousness we saw from Story in book one took hold in book two and she becomes a one-woman revenge act who's ready to fuck things up. It was a total 180 in character development but it also made sense and I just loved her character so much. Her revenge was brutal, too. One of them actually made me gasp. I was seriously impressed.

Regarding some of the negative reviews for this book, I can totally understand why people wouldn't like this book. It's basically a modern-day bodice-ripper. There's rough sex, torture, dub-con, cult-like situations, abuse, and violence. Things get DARK in this book and really bad things happen to the hero and the heroine. I was actually expecting way worse because I've read things like SWEET SAVAGE LOVE or BLEDDING SORROW, and apart from having more graphic sex scenes, this book really didn't have anything that shocking if you're familiar with old skool romances. Hell, I can think of three bodice-rippers right off the top of my head with graphic torture and one where the hero gets castrated (partially). So, you know, I'd say that this looks like a puddle of sunshine in comparison.

I loved it, though. I tolerated the first book and appreciated it the way you appreciate movies like Glitter or greasy hamburgers, but this second book was a much more polished and sophisticated work because it had real emotional development and character-building arcs, tons of suspense, and some REALLY intense scenes that added drama and kept me turning the pages. I could have probably read this a lot faster than I did but part of me also wanted to save it so I could keep enjoying it.

So yeah, if you like dark reads and have a high tolerance for WTFery in your romance books, read this book. I roll my eyes at a lot of the so-called dark romances out there but this one actually fits the bill. Even if you do feel like you and your browsing history need a severe and thorough cleaning after.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Queen of Babble by Meg Cabot

 

Man, people go hard on these quasi-retro chick-lits, don't they? I'm not sure what people expected from this one, bar a fanciful, wish fulfillment fantasy, but if you were going into this expecting something life-changing, I suppose, yes, you're going to be very disappointed. Keeping in mind that all of Meg Cabot's heroines sound exactly like what I imagine Meg Cabot probably sounds like (in that they are all the same person with different hair colors), I found this incredibly relatable and funny since I tend to yammer on when I get nervous and sometimes find myself saying things I shouldn't, ESPECIALLY after a drink or two, IYKWIM. "Nenia, shut up," is a refrain I hear a lot. I'm sorry. I have a big mouth. That's why I blog.

Lizzie is a bit of a doofus and a space cadet. She's a fashion major and thinks she's graduated, only to realize that she hasn't, actually, because there was a senior thesis she, whoops, forgot to do. But the consolation is that she's off to England for the summer to stay with her long distance boyfriend who, whoops, actually sees her as a booty call and he's told all his friends and family that she's fat. Also, he gambles and is bad with money. What a prize.

Luckily, Lizzie has enough sense-- eventually-- to dump this toad and go stay with her friends in the French countryside where they're doing minimal helping out for an upcoming family wedding in exchange for food, wine, and free board. Sounds like a deal to me! On the train, Lizzie meets this super hot guy who, it turns out, is the son of the owner of the estate. And, whoops, she's confided way too much of her personal life to him including her thesis and some of the sexual stuff between Mr. Git. And now she's going to spend her vacation with him-- and his way too hot French Canadian girlfriend.

So here's the thing. This is a lot like ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS in that it's vicarious travel porn, but also sort of tries to cutesy-fi American ignorance about foreign customs. A lot of American movies and shows set abroad do this, where none of the characters bother to do any sort of research into local customs and then they show up in their white sneakers and khaki shorts, with their Lakers baseball caps and their American flag fanny packs, and they're like, "WOW, HOW DID EVERYONE KNOW I WAS AN AMERICAN? HEY GARCON, FETCH ME SOME POO-LAY NUGGETS PLEASE."

Gee, I wonder. *eye roll*

It's also like ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS in that the heroine is essentially the OW and the book tries to make that okay by making the hero's girlfriend as awful as possible. Fake tits? HOW DARE SHE. WHAT A HO. I actually really liked Dominique. For a bitchy girlfriend she was actually pretty entertaining and I stan a woman who's confident enough to spend $600 on shoes. What makes this tolerable is that the hero and the heroine don't actually do anything until the girlfriend is broken up, so the whole relationship is basically just there to make her feelings forbidden and add angst.

But overall, I really liked it. I liked that the heroine was so interested in fashion and how that was incorporated into the story. I liked the way that the French culture was represented and the American doofiness-abroad was pretty toned down for books of this type. Lizzie was really dumb sometimes but she's just out of college and I was really dumb when I was in my early twenties, too. Learning to be not-dumb is part of growing up (ideally). The side characters were fun and there's kind of a secondary romance with the hero's estranged parents that was REALLY, REALLY cute.

So if you like Meg Cabot, you'll like this. It feels like exactly what it is: an early 2000s rom-com. If they ever make a movie of it, I'll definitely be watching it.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

After All These Years by Susan Isaacs

 

This book was in a box of books someone gave me. I'd never heard of this author before but when I read the summary and the first couple pages, I was instantly intrigued. Rosie Meyers is a school teacher in a WASP-y New England town, married to a tech magnate named Richard. Richard used to be a teacher and a coach until he made it big and now they're millionaires several times over. It was a surprising success for two such humble people and Rosie looked forward to sharing it out together over the rest of their lives, which is why it came as such a brutal shock when, shortly after their 25th anniversary party, he announces that he's leaving her for a younger woman.

When Richard turns up in her kitchen, murdered, everyone-- her friends, her enemies, the police-- all assume it was her. But Rosie knows she didn't do it. And she knows that if the police arrest her, it'll be case open, case closed, letting the real killer walk away. So she decides to run and take matters into her own hands. What follows is a really entertaining story narrated by Rosie's scathing wit. It's got everything the popular mysteries and thrillers coming out these days in droves have-- sex, intrigue, and drama-- but it did it about twenty years before it became so popular.

This was definitely a trashy read but in a really fun way. I saw a couple reviewers saying that the killer was obvious, but it wasn't obvious to me. Maybe that means I'm dumb, I don't know, but I was surprised as anyone when the reveal was dropped. I also liked that when it does happen, it happens old school, locked-room mystery style (a personal favorite trope of mine). The satire of the American rich is really well done and I loved how fucked-up all the relationships in the book were. The nearly-fifty heroine also gets down and dirty with a twenty-something, which was kind of fun. You get some!

If you enjoy campy thrillers that are light and kind of chick-litty, you'll really love this. I did!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 19, 2021

Things We Couldn't Say by Jay Coles

 

Even though I wasn't the biggest fan of TYLER JOHNSON WAS HERE, I couldn't keep myself from wanting to read this book once I heard about the premise. THINGS WE COULDN'T SAY has so many important themes, ranging from discovering one's sexuality to dealing with feelings of parental abandonment. The hero, Gio, is the son of a preacher and a star basketball player. But he's also bisexual and coming to terms with his feelings of his mom walking out years ago. Both those things play major roles in the story, when Gio thinks he might be falling in love for the first time-- and when the ghostly specter of his mother reappears solidly in his life.

THINGS WE COULDN'T SAY shares similar themes with other books I have read and enjoyed recently, specifically Kacen Callender's FELIX EVER AFTER and THIS IS KIND OF AN EPIC LOVE STORY, and Brandy Colbert's THE REVOLUTION OF BIRDIE RANDOLPH, so I think if you really enjoyed this books, you'll probably enjoy this one, as well. One of the things I really like about the YA coming out these days is the emphasis on healthy amounts of communication in relationships and the importance of setting boundaries. A lot of the YA I had access to as a teen glossed over these things, and I think it's really important that teens have examples of positive, healthy relationships in their fiction if they want it!

THINGS WE COULDN'T SAY handles its difficult subjects pretty well and I think it's clear that Jay Coles has grown a lot as an author since his debut. But something about the narrative fell a little short for me. Gio felt young-- and not young in a realistic way, but young as in, like, middle school (and I think he was supposed to be in high school?). With a lot of high school-age books, there's like this yearning to be taken seriously and seeing yourself as an adult, and I didn't really get that with Gio. The primary focus was on the lessons he had to learn about relationships and the like, which kind of made this feel like an afterschool special in some ways. I believe this was published by Scholastic, which is geared at a younger audience than other teen imprints, but it's something to consider when buying this for a teenager. It's definitely geared more towards preteens and young teens than older teens.

Overall, though, I liked this book and look forward to seeing what the author does next.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Secret Child by Ann Major

 

Whaaaaaaat the actual fuck. Okay, so I'm about to have a friend over for socially distanced coffee so I have about fifteen minutes to pound this review out. I got this Ann Major book in a box of books that someone gave me as a gift knowing how much I love old romances. The summary on the back sounded intriguing. It sounded like one of those romances where the couple is already married and the husband thinks (mistakenly) that his wife wronged him, so it's kind of a second chance and kind of a revenge story, and I'm all over that trope like white on rice, so after my scream of YAAAASS, I immediately picked up this book and settled down to read only to find out that IT WAS NOT THAT.

This story is... OKAY. I need to tell you some SPOILERS because otherwise I don't think you'll believe me. Jack is half-Mexican and half-White. His mom was a whore and his dad is a wealthy rancher named... omg, Shanghai. So Jack is adopted by-- I think his grandmother?? Another rancher who knew his dad? I forgot. And lives side by side with this girl named Chantal who is the daughter of the woman who adopted him. The girl is as beautiful as she is heartless and into the kinky sex, so obviously he ends up marrying her, only to have her cheat on him nonstop and then frame him for murder, before skiving off to abandon him in jail and their daughter with the grandmother.

SO. The heroine is a woman who lost her husband and her son. She's an elementary school teacher and very depressed. One day she gets distracted on the street and hit by a car. Her face is destroyed and in the hospital she is basically kidnapped by this insane plastic surgeon named Webster who wants to make her beautiful. He's obsessed with her beautiful mom (who was a singer) and also with this fashion model named Mischief Jones, who, it turns out, is Jack's ex-wife, Chantal. She created a new identity for herself when she escaped him and the doctor is just another man who got caught in her web.

The story gets even more insane when Jack is trying to track his wife down and encounters the heroine, whose name is BRONTE, instead. Obviously he doesn't believe her when she says she's not his wife. Obviously nobody else does either. All of Chantal's old conquests try to hit on her. She ends up tracking Chantal down to her penthouse apartment where there's a sex party in full swing. Somebody tries to murder her by strangling her and oh, yes, the killer has a penchant for necrophilia. Bronte almost dies again and this time she "admits" that she is Jack's wife so he'll take her back to his ranch and to, she thinks, safety. Only, she's not really safe is she, not with murderers gallivanting around?

At first I was thinking this was getting four stars for sheer WTFery. I liked Jack's brand of down and dirty alpha hero who is super rough around the edges, but he was just a little too mean (kind of like an old skool Sandra Brown heroine, if you get me). Bronte was also a total wet blanket and I found myself rolling her eyes at her so called "kindness" which basically consisted of an endless array of teary looks. This was a fun read but I don't think it will be a keeper after all. I did end up buying two more of the author's books after reading this one and her other book, THE HOT LADIES' MURDER CLUB, though, so that must account for something, right?

I think my friend's here so I'm dashing this off with an O-to-the-T-to-the-T. Read at your own risk.

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Colder Than ice by Maggie Shayne

 

DNF @ p.148

I got this from a Little Free Library. There's nothing really wrong with this book, it just wasn't to my taste, which is a shame because the premise is AWESOME. Beth is an escapee from a cult called the Young Believers, which was run by a man named Mordecai Young. When the government did a raid on the compound, she was shot in the womb by one of the soldiers and ended up in the ICU. Everyone thought she would die, and her one child (which she had with the cult leader) was sent to be raised by a friend. Later, Beth tried to get her revenge by shooting the cult leader but he armored up with Kevlar and all she did was break a few ribs. She went under witness protection and now lives in a touristy little town in Vermont.

The cult leader, obviously, is looking for her to plan his revenge but surprisingly, the soldier who shot her ends up crossing her path, too. His name is Joshua and he has a teenage son named Bryan and he feels so much guilt over accidentally shooting Beth that it destroyed his marriage to his ex-wife, who died in a plane crash. He's shocked to discover that he feels an intense attraction to Beth, the woman he's supposed to be protecting, but he's afraid that if he tells her who he really is and how he knows her, she'll never want to speak to him again.

I love dark romances and I feel there was a lot of good stuff going on in the background here, but I just didn't really feel the chemistry between Joshua and Beth. Honestly, the whole time I was reading this, I was thinking about Anne Stuart's RITUAL SINS, another romance about a damaged heroine and a cult leader, only in that book, the cult leader is the love interest. I just felt like this book couldn't decide whether it wanted to be dark or not, so it settled for Diet Dark, hinting at exciting turns of events and subplots but then dancing nimbly away before shit got real. If you like romantic suspense, you'll probably really enjoy this. It just wasn't really for me. When I read dark, I want dark-- and when I read fluffy, I want fluffy. Please do not mix them, thanks.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

7 Days and 7 Nights by Wendy Wax

 

Once again, I'm shocked by the low ratings for this book because it's like a cross between How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and THE HATING GAME, which are probably two of my favorite rom-coms. Olivia is a radio therapist who counsels women through breakups and relationship problems despite being unlucky herself. She's divorced and had her heart broken at 21 by a guy who wasn't as into her as she was to him. Her competitor at the radio station is said heartbreaker, Matt, one of those hypermasculine dudes who probably self-describes as an alpha. He has a show called "Guy Talk" where he does the same thing as Olivia, basically, only with lots of sarcasm and insensitive remarks.

When their radio station's funding gets tight, their producer decides one of them might have to go and kind of sets them up to compete against each other. But then another solution presents itself: shutting the two of them up in a tiny apartment with a Webcam and having them host their shows with tons of endorsements from sponsors, while waiting to see if the two of them kill each other. Whoever gets the highest ratings will get to stay on air, and all the donations they manage to get from their callers go to benefit disaster relief. It seems like a win-win-win.

This is early 2000s chicklit which can sometimes be really toxic, but except for a lot of remarks about how old Olivia is at thirty (something I couldn't help but take offense to, as I resemble that remark), it was actually pretty fresh. Matt had a pretty sad backstory himself and even though it wasn't an excuse for his fuckery, I liked that he actually had to change. Olivia was a great heroine and had a lot of spine and some great one-liners. The love-hate chemistry between her and Matt was fantastic and there were some pretty spicy sex scenes in here, all very well-written. There's also a secondary romance between two of their callers, a waitress named JoBeth and an ex-football player named... Dawg.

Dawg.

Even though this could be silly at parts, I really, really enjoyed 7 DAYS AND 7 NIGHTS. It feels like it could be a movie; everything is so cinematic, and all of the characters had such distinct personalities. The reality TV angle and the radio host jobs were fresh and different from the legions of other chicklit that all had the heroine working in PR or as a secretary, and it was nice to see a romance from this time period that didn't sink too deeply into toxic gender stereotypes. I would 100% read more from this author!

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 15, 2021

A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux

 

Here it is! The best Jude Deveraux book I have read to date. It's actually a lot like that French comedy film, The Visitors, which came out in 1993, and this book came out in the late-1980s. The premise is really great. Dougless (terrible name, BTW) is an elementary school teacher who is related distantly to royalty but works a low-paying job because ~reasons~. She's dating a tight-fisted doctor who basically treats her like his slave, and despite the fact that he's wealthy, he either makes her go halvies or pay her own way on everything. Dougless has put up with it because she thinks a marriage proposal is forthcoming (#feminism) but then it turns out that the English vacation she thinks is his way of proposing (#photoop) is actually an excuse to bring along his estranged daughter who, by the way, he bought a $5000 bracelet for that Dougless thought was an engagement ring. What does she get? Nada. Zero. Zilch.

So while she's crying in a church with a monument to a deceased earl, nobody is more shocked than Dougless when a man in Elizabethan garb suddenly appears in front of her. He claims to be Nicholas Stafford, Earl of Thornwyck, a notorious womanizer who was executed for treason by Elizabeth I on suspicion of allying himself with Mary, Queen of Scots. At first Dougless thinks it's all a big ruse or, more likely, that he's addled in the brain, but Nicholas knows things that nobody who wasn't Elizabethan would know, and it seems more and more likely that he really is who he says he is. Which begs the question: why is he here? and how can she stop his death in the past?

The story-telling in this was so good. I have it on good authority that Nicholas is a universally hot name and the Nicholas in here was no exception. He was exactly the way you'd expect a charming man of Elizabethan times to be, for better or for worse, and the humor of him trying to navigate his way through the 1980s was hilarious. I also liked the romance a lot, and the mystery of Nicholas's past and alleged treason. That was what kept me turning pages, heart in my throat. Really, the only thing I didn't like about this book was Dougless. She was a difficult heroine to like because she kept letting people take advantage of her and she was so spineless, but a big part of her character development was learning to stand up for herself and not let people walk all over her.

If you like time travel romances and strong heroes who aren't rapey, I think you'll really enjoy this book. There were so many twists and turns and the action was balanced well with the humor. I don't think this is quite a traditional HEA but the bittersweetness of it worked for me and I liked it, too.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Bright Smoke, Cold Fire by Rosamund Hodge

 

"I liked it... until I didn't." You can put that on my tombstone when I die. I was sooooo excited to get this book because I'm a huge fan of Rosamund Hodge. Her books usually have the perfect blend of romance, danger, and hot bad guys, which is a MUST in YA. And even though Romeo and Juliet is one of my least favorite plays, I totally looked forward to seeing what she did with it.

And for like 30% of this book, I was on board. Seriously. Cults and revenants and cursed cities-- I am SO DOWN. It was like the author read THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH and thought to herself, "Cool, but let's make it high fantasy and also everyone is playing Machiavellian power games." Like, how could that not be 5+++?

Well, I got bored. I feel like maybe this was just too ambitious and confusing. I was worried when so many of my friends didn't like it but it's not like I've ever let anyone stop me from reading something I want to (my mom likes to say that I'm a contrarian). It's beautifully written and has some really fun ideas, but it's just SO MUCH and I got bored and now I don't want to read anymore. Boo.

Maybe it was the mind-control.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Life After Theft by Aprilynne Pike

 

What's with all the hate for Aprilynne Pike? I got this book from a little free library because I liked the cover and the title made me laugh and then I got a nasty shock when I looked at the reviews and saw that practically alllll my friends hated it. I was worried but not that worried because everyone on my flist felt the same way about her other book, GLITTER, which actually ended up being a really fun and frothy escapist read for me, so I was kind of hoping for samesies.

LIFE AFTER THEFT was not the book I was expecting. The narrator is a teen boy named Jeff who is new to this rich wealthy school. On his first day, he catches the eye of this beautiful, not-so-nice girl, only to find out that she's a ghost and for whatever reason, he's the only one who can see her. It also turns out that she was a total kleptomaniac and not a very nice person and she has a whole cave full of all the stuff she stole from people. She thinks that if she returns everything she took, she'll get to move on from ghosthood and she wants Jeff to help.

It sounds silly but I actually really liked the premise and I think maybe the reason it flopped is because it came out at the tail end of the "dead girl" trend prompted by THE LOVELY BONES that included books like BEFORE I FALL and IF I STAY and various other titles. Some things that make this stand out are the fact that it's narrated by a boy-- Jeff-- who is actually a pretty nice guy, and Kimberlee is a total BITCH but she still has some redeeming traits which actually make her weirdly relatable.

I read this in a day. It had some slow moments and it was definitely a YA book in tone, but also-- it's YA. I can't really fault it for that if it tells a good story, and it did. Mystery, a little bit of a romance, and tons of high school drama. If you're into that, you'll love this. The ending even made me choke up a bit.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Viscount's Bawdy Bargain by Connie Lane

 

I got this book in one of those historical romance mystery boxes and I'm honestly shocked at how few reviews it has because this is the perfect romance for anyone who enjoys those light-but-not-too-dumb historical romances in the vein of Lisa Kleypas, Julia Quinn, and Jude Deveraux.

Willie is the daughter of a crazy preacher who wants to marry her off to this horrible man in India. The hero, Nicholas, is a viscount who runs with a not-so-gentlemanly club that likes to carouse and make wagers. Their most recent bet is to procure an astounding sight in competition with another club. They produce a guy with a baby elephant. Nick, however, produces a virgin: AKA, a very kidnapped Willie.

Nick wins the bet but Willie ends up compromised, and his staff deserts him in disgust, resulting in Willie ending up serving as his chatelaine while he tries to procure a replacement. Eventually there's another bet that Nick will get one thousand pounds if he finds a wife by X date and Willie helps with that, too, only to have every encounter go sour for one reason or another. Which she's secretly happy about because she's rather attracted to him, too, not that she'd ever admit it.

This is very well-written and features a big cast of fun characters. Nothing happens that is too dark or edgy and the sex scenes are well-written, consensual, and hot. In short, this is everything that most of my friends of modern romances love, which makes it even more tragic that none of you seem to have heard of this romance OR this author. I would give it a higher rating but it moved a little too slow for me and I found the middle portion tedious. But I'm not a huge fan of fluffy romances, so the fact that this book made even my cold, dark heart elicit a pitter-pat speaks greatly in its favor.

Definitely a feel-good romance if I've ever read one!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett

 

Wow! THE VERY NICE BOX was an ARC I accepted purely on impulse not really knowing what to expect-- and honestly, that's the best way to dive into this book. It starts off as one type of story and gradually becomes something else and I really don't want to say too much more than that because the surprise is half the fun.

I will say that THE VERY NICE BOX is kind of a funny, tongue-in-cheek satire of start-ups and tech culture. STADA, the company in this book, is an obvious parody of IKEA. Ava, the heroine, appears to be neurodivergent and she is suffering from grief and PTSD. Several years ago, her family and girlfriend died in a hit-and-run accident and she's closed herself off from everyone else as a result. When the marketing company hires a guy named Mat who's a total extrovert/people person, she rolls her eyes along with her friend because of how utterly obnoxious and upbeat he is--

Until she falls for him.

There are so many layers to this book. I kind of predicted one of the main twists pretty early but that didn't stop me from liking the book anyway. The characterization was really well done and so was the humor and the story. I also liked that there was a bit of a mystery, as well! Also, Ava is such a great character. Her introversion and grief were really well done and I liked how she stayed consistent to herself throughout the whole book. I love seeing STEM heroines in fiction, especially when they are portrayed as strong and having agency. This would make a great movie and I hope to one day see it on the big screen. It really is that good.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Legend by Jude Deveraux

 

Whaaaaaat the actual fuck was this book. I don't think I've ever had my thoughts change about a book so often, so fast. Jude Deveraux is one of my go-to authors for cheery fluff and when I found out that this was a time travel romance, I was super excited because that's kind of my guilty pleasure. It starts off as kind of like a softer, sweeter version of OUTLANDER but set in the old West, but then it gets... really, really, REALLY weird. I'd say it was the weirdest time travel romance I'd ever read but that honor goes to Robin Schone's AWAKEN, MY LOVE. But this was a really close contender.

***WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW***

I really need to tell you the summary with spoilers so you understand how utterly ridic this was. Kady Long is an acclaimed chef who started working at a run-down steakhouse called Onions and ended up putting it on the map. Now she's about to marry the son of the owner, a man named Gregory, but she's starting to get nuptial jitters. Maybe it's because of her bad body image or maybe it's because her fiance seems so distant and remote, but whatever it is, it's there.

While buying accessories for her new home, she goes to an antique store and impulsively buys an old flour tin. There's a vintage wedding dress inside and when she tries it on, she gets dizzy and ends up in the past where there are these magic petroglyphs that kind of reminded me of the stone circle in the Outlander series. She finds herself in the Old West in the 1800s and saves a man from being hung. The man is named Cole Jordan and he takes her to a picturesque town called Legend. She ends up marrying him when she can't get a job or find anyone to help her but then it turns out that rather than being the poor outlaw she thought he was, he's a multimillionaire who owns the whole town. To punish him, Kady enlists the whole town in preparing lavish feasts on his dime.

But then... it turns out that she kind of imagined the whole thing? Because Legend is actually a ghost town, as she finds out when she meets Cole's grandmother, Ruth. Ruth destroyed the town by cutting off the finances after her entire family was killed in gunfire. She also had grief sex with the father of Cole's family friend while he was dying and had an additional son in her late forties?? And it turns out that Legend is the dream of a dead nine-year-old Cole who is a ghost and haunting the town? So the Cole that Kady met and married is only his "dream" idea of what he would have been like as a man.

What.

Anyway, Kady goes back to the present and realizes that Gregory and his mom were basically using her as a wage slave and also he was cheating on her. She breaks up with him and hunts down Ruth's descendant, who it turns out is the spitting image of the man on horseback who has been haunting her dreams. Also he's one step removed from a sheik fantasy because the friend Ruth slept with was Egyptian, although the book keeps referring to him as Arabian. Anyway, they go back in time together and the descendant, Tarik, stops the shooting that massacres all of Ruth's family, thus changing the future so that he becomes even MORE rich than he already was and everyone lives happily ever after.

What. The. Fuck.

This was honestly such a bizarre story. I've read quite a few Deveraux books and none of them were this weird. In fact, I found them all to be refreshingly straightforward for the most part with some really great character development. This was just... SO WEIRD. It's like something I would come up with while having a fever dream and I... well, I just can't hate it for being that weird. I went from thinking it was a fairly straightforward sweet story (three stars) to a more complex story with some interesting morality components (four stars) to leaning back in my armchair, two glasses of wine deep into the game, thinking, "Where the fuck is this going to go next?" (three stars again, but also maybe one).

In the end, I ended up liking this because it was such a clusterfuck. It's a fairytale for adults with no rhyme or reason and I'm kind of admiring the balls of the author to just do whatever she wanted, logic be damned.

3 out of 5 stars

To Catch a Pirate by Jade Parker

 

When I found out that Jade Parker was the YA pen name for romance author, Lorraine Heath, I bumped this way up my to-read list. I don't normally go in for the fluffy set, but Lorraine Heath, along with Jude Deveraux, is an author who has yet to disappoint me. It would be like finding out that Lisa Kleypas had a secret line of young adult mysteries (although as far as I know, she doesn't); I'd be all over that like white on rice. You gotta support your faves.

TO CATCH A PIRATE starts off intensely. Annalisa is aboard her father's ship delivering some of King George's gold to build a board when they are attacked by pirates. Held at knifepoint, the pirate is about to steal her mother's necklace, and maybe her tongue, but he settles for her ring and a kiss-- and the king's gold.

One year later, Annalisa's father is thrown in jail for conspiring with pirates. Determined to clear his name, she has counterfeited a marque and set out as a privateer to arrest and interrogate James. James, on the other hand, was marooned on a deserted island as punishment for accepting a worthless ring as payment and falling for a pair of pretty eyes. When he is captured by Annalisa, he finds himself intrigued by her anew-- if there's one thing a pirate likes, it's danger.

This is part of Scholastic's Point imprint. Not many people know that, in addition to horror, they dabbled in romance as well. This is YA so there's mostly just kissing, but there is sexy kissing and sexy swordfighting, as well, and there is a surprising amount of action. Mutinies and public floggings and seedy New Orleans taverns. After reading THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE, I found myself thirsting for more adventures on the high seas, and this book really delivered. It doesn't have that irritating "YA" tone that a lot of the books coming out these days have. Maybe it's because Heath is so used to writing adult romances that she doesn't condescend to her audience at all.

If you're looking for a light romance, and you like reading about pirates who aren't rapey, I think you'll really enjoy this book. It's got dangerous boys, lots of kissing, and a strong heroine who doesn't take any shit. The ending was satisfying and I wish I'd read this when I was a teen. I think I would have loved it even more than I did now, reading it for the first time as an adult.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

 

As you may know, I'm doing a project where I reread some of my adolescent favorites, so when I saw a copy of THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE sitting in a little free library, I knew I just had to pick it up and give it a read because this was one of my favorites as a young teen.

One of my favorite literary tropes is spoiled heroines who end up undergoing a redemption arc. Charlotte Doyle is a very proper young miss, class-conscious and prone to airs. When we meet her, she is dressed to the nines and about to board a ship to return to her New Englandian family from English boarding school. She's also such a laughable prude; definitely, she is the type of girl who would be the villain in anyone else's story but her own. Ugh on wheels.

Right away, things are super sus. Men refuse to work as porter for her luggage once they find out the name of her ship and its captain. The other two families she was supposed to be traveling with have mysteriously dropped out. And she's given several warnings from the crew-- including the gift of a knife from the preacher/cook Zachariah. Perhaps most sinisterly of all is when she takes tea with the captain and he tells her to be his eyes and ears and to inform him if she ever spots a round robin:

A symbol of mutiny.

TRUE CONFESSIONS is a fantastic story of betrayal and redemption. Even though it is young adult/middle grade, it imparts lessons about social class and morality that have stuck with me for over ten years. It is truly chilling in parts and had me breathlessly turning pages late at night with a flashlight when I was a kid. Perhaps best of all, it is a tale of adventure on the high seas with a heroine who is rife with agency and is permitted to be flawed and unlikable at times, because that is what it is to be human.

If you enjoy stories about strong female protagonists, this is a must-have. It really held up, and I thought it was fun that the author included a ship diagram and a recipe for duff.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

We're sorry, but the number you are trying to dial, 1-800-MY-FEELINGS, has been disconnected. Please try again later when the caller isn't a hot weeping mess on the floor.

Hi, this book fucking wrecked me. I'm not even sorry because it hurt so good. The original Peter Pan story is actually very dark and creepy; it is a world filled with cruelty and death. The Disney version only really scrapes at the surface of it. Jodi Lynn Anderson's interpretation is a marvelous, twisty world-- a version of Neverland that is fickle and capricious, as subject to whims as its inhabitants.

Here, the narrator is Tinker Bell, but the main character is really Tiger Lily. She is given full agency in this book. We see her troubles and woes. Her village is suspicious of her and thinks she is cursed, but because she is the daughter of the shaman (who I think is supposed to be a two-spirit person), she is granted some clemency. All of that is changed when she meets Peter and his band of lost boys and the English people come to their shores.

This was just so dark and so good. Mermaids eat people. The pirates are psychotic (one of them used to be and still is a serial killer). Peter's lost boys were actually boys he rescued/kidnapped that were swabs/slaves of the pirates. Wendy is-- well, a bitch, although she doesn't mean to be, which makes it even more annoying that she is. And Tiger Lily is... wonderful. I loved how fleshed out she was, with strengths and weaknesses. There's an air of doomed romance that hangs over the plot, keeping it tight, making you turn the pages with bated breath. I love doomed romance even though I hate it for being doomed and if a book makes you invested enough that the ending hurts, it must be a good book.

So yes, I read TIGER LILY fully expecting not to like it and it ended up destroying me.

Thanks, I guess.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

 

I'm doing a project where I reread some of the books I enjoyed in my teens and adolescence. SNOWFLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN is one of those. When I read MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA as a teen, I enjoyed it so much that I immediately started seeking out similar books and some of the authors that were recommended to me by... someone-- a librarian? a teacher? my mom? I can't remember-- were Anchee Min and Lisa See.

SNOWFLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN is an incredibly powerful story about the relationships between young women and how fraught with tension and conflict they can be, in addition to feelings of undying devotion and betrayal. The book is set in the 1800s when foot-binding still happened in China, and the descriptions of these events were so hideously visceral that I remembered them ten years later. Even with so much time to buffer my memories, I was still shocked and horrified anew.

Snowflower and Lily, the heroine, become laotong, which sort of seems to be similar to the "bosom friend" espoused by Anne in Anne of Green Gables, except it's arranged by a matchmaker. Lily and Snowflower undergo foot-binding together and learn nu shu, which is a language spoken and written exclusively by women, which I found fascinating. The intimacy between the two girls borders on the erotic at times and it's clear that the love they feel for each other supersedes anything they feel for their husbands or families, which is why, when the inevitable betrayal happens, it feels so cutting.

This is not a happy book, but it is a story about relationships and redemption. I think I actually enjoyed it a little more than MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA in hindsight because that book was basically a Western Cinderella story done up in Japanese costumes (not surprising, considering who wrote it), but this book was entirely female-focused and didn't really have much romance in it at all. Lily's husband doesn't really feature except when relevant to the plot and we don't learn his name (Dulang) until the end. A lot of books like these tend to be very love story-driven, so the fact that Lisa See chose to make it focused on female friendships and female agency made it feel very powerful to me.

Bear in mind that if you choose to read this, it deals with a lot of unpleasant subject matter-- foot-binding, child abuse (or what would be considered child abuse in Western, modern culture), wife beating/spousal abuse, miscarriage, death of a child, graphic medical gore, etc.

I enjoyed this book enough that I just bought PEONY IN LOVE.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson

 

DNF @ p.186

There's nothing really objectively wrong with this one and a lot of my friends enjoyed it. I just didn't like the narrative style. It had a dreamy, sort of fragmented style of story-telling and kept switching POVs. I think it's YA and for a YA it's pretty dark, which I don't personally have a problem with, but it is kind of odd reading the YA equivalent of Fargo that's being told in a dreamy, Maggie Stiefvater style of prose.

I also kind of felt like I was just waiting around for something to happen. The villain was pretty chilling but he didn't actually do much. Loved the opening and the idea behind this and the cover is GORGEOUS, but the execution failed me. You might feel differently.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Friday, July 9, 2021

A Mudlark's Treasures: London in Fragments by Ted Sandling

 

Books like these are why I love ARCs. I end up being exposed to books I never would have thought to pick up for myself. A MUDLARK'S TREASURES is a fascinating memoir/history lesson. Mudlarking used to be a sort of low-class vocation, where people would salvage scrap from the Thames (AKA, London's sewer) for resale. Now, it is a hobby, sort of like a cross between a nature walk and geo-caching. Ted Sandling enjoys wading through the Thames at low-tide and seeing what he can dredge up.

In this short memoir, he details some of his finds and their microhistories. So you learn about the history of the wine bottle, a bit about the Roman occupation of London/Londinium, the usage of snuff and snuff boxes, and all sorts of other fun tidbits of knowledge. I love books like these, where the author's passion carries the narrative forward, and he's such an engaging narrator. Even though the timeline is nonlinear, it's fun to jump back and forth as he talks about what he's found and how it was dated and how it pertains to English history.

If you enjoy history and fun facts and love hearing people ramble on about their unusual hobbies, this will be the perfect book for you.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

 

I picked this up again as part of my rereading project. Banana Yoshimoto was one of my favorite authors when I was younger and when I found my old books in the garage, the sight of these old covers filled me with an instant nostalgia hit.

***WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW***

All of Yoshimoto's books kind of have the same melancholic, dreamy feel. It appealed to me a lot as a precocious high school kid but I'm finding I don't like it quite as much now. Her heroines usually have something tragic happening to them, often death or some kind of loss. In this case, the heroine is an orphan who ends up living with a transgender woman and her son.

At first, I was enjoying this book quite a bit. Eriko, the trans woman in question, is a fun character, and even though she feels like a manic pixie dream girl, I liked her presence in the story. I also liked how the book revolved around the kitchen. I like food- and cooking-related books, since I cook a lot with my mom.

But then... Eriko dies.

Because, you know, of course.

That made me so mad, her death. Especially since it happens because a straight angry dude gets mad that she's hot and murders her. It's that classic "trans panic" trope and it made me really upset. I know this book was published in the 1980s, but I think it's the sort of thing that bears mentioning because the reaction that people are going to have to this isn't limited by date. Ugh.

I remember giving this a three-star rating when I read it for the first time. Now, it's a two.

2 out of 5 stars

Gloss by Jennifer Oko

 

GLOSS really only scrapes at the surface of what it could have been, and I'm not sure if that's because of when it was published, or how it was packaged. I loved the beginning. The heroine is a reporter who ends up over her head when the feel-good puff piece about makeup she's writing ends up being the cover-up for a terrorist organization.

There were a couple things about this book that didn't really work for me. It starts out in first person, but then it switches to third person in some parts for expositional reasons, which I didn't really like. The author also makes up a fake Middle Eastern culture, "Fardish," which is another peeve of mine. A lot of romance novels do this and I suspect it's so nobody gets pissed off, but it also just kind of feels like a lazy cop-out to avoid doing any cultural research. I also felt like the plot began to get pretty ridiculous. As soon as terrorism entered the mix, I was like "oh no." It turned into a shark-jumping extravaganza.

I thought the analysis of newsroom politics was very interesting, very Anchorman, and I originally liked the heroine's voice and how she had kind of grown jaded with her career. Usually I love stuff published by Mira-- they are so good at finding romantic suspense stories-- but this was just too much.

2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 8, 2021

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

 

So I'm doing this project where I reread books that I read in my youth. In my late teens/early twenties, I wanted to read all the dystopians. I don't know why, but I found it fascinating. Now, I find it too depressing. I guess as you get older, it becomes too easy to imagine the world crumbling inward like an overripe melon as humanity succumbs to either disaster or hubris or both.

In THE HANDMAID'S TALE, we learn about a grim future in which a pseudo-evangelical group of fundamentalists has wrested control of the country in a vicious coup, reducing women to wives, baby vessels, or prostitutes, and men hold all the power. Women are unable to own property or even read; they are essentially chattel, stricken even of their names. Offred belongs to a man named Fred (literally "of Fred"). Before the coup, she was an ordinary woman. A woman with a daughter, who had a bank account and a lover. Now her sole duty is to bear children for the Commander, since she is fertile and his wife, Serena Joy, is not.

The timeline in this book is very difficult to follow because it is non-linear. I have always loved non-linear timelines when they are done well but it forces you to pay attention. Here, we see Offred in the before times, as well as in her training/brainwashing facility when they were grooming her to be a handmaid, and then in the present where she is navigating her precarious position in the household where any misstep could mean death-- or worse.

Having watched the TV show (the first season, at least), I'm pretty impressed with how closely it follows the show. There was so much I forgot. The fact that they mutilated the girls in the facility who disobeyed because they only needed them for their wombs. The mob justice scene when the handmaids literally tear apart the man accused of rape. The scene when Offred goes to the contraband club and sees all the whores garbed in the risque clothing of old. It's SO intense. I read this in two days which is a long time for me considering how short this book was, but it was a lot to take in. Especially since it's easy to imagine a sort of future where something like this could happen, what with the rabid group of religious assholes in the U.S. who mask their bigotry in piousness. This feels like their utopia.

It's pretty fucking chilling when you think about it like that.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

 

David Sedaris is so fucking funny. I feel like he'd be a total laugh to grab a beer with. But I also feel like he would probably goad you to do naughty things, to drink that extra drink. And then he'd turn around and say, "You wouldn't believe how much she drinks, it's like watching an alcoholic balloon try to self-inflate..." and you'd be like HEY, that is NOT true and also, this was all your fault, you man-bitch.

Nowhere is this more apparent than DRESS YOUR FAMILY IN CORDUROY AND DENIM, where he unleashes his inner-snark. Sometimes he's cringe, sometimes he's sadistic, but he's almost always funny. I think I actually enjoyed these essays more than ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, maybe because, to me, they felt more consistent as a whole. I especially loved the one about his aspirations to wealth via his obscenely wealthy aunt, and his hilarious house-cleaning escapade that quickly ends up turning sexual (against his expectations).

I'm currently doing a rereading project to see what holds up and what doesn't and so far, David Sedaris is hitting it out of the park. If you enjoy humorous collections of autobiographical essays, I think you'll really enjoy Sedaris's writings. He's not very PC and sometimes he says things that are actually pretty offensive, but it helps that he doesn't spare himself when unleashing his cruel wit. He lets us see him at his best-- and also, at his worst.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Cows by Dawn O'Porter

 

My mom brought this book back from me when she went to the UK. I thought it looked really interesting despite the ugly cover (sorry, but it is ugly, okay?) and did what I do with 80% of my books: put it down somewhere and forgot I owned it. While cleaning out my shelves, I happened across it again and decided to give it a read. Almost immediately, I was sucked into the story and it was giving me ALL THE FEELINGS, good and bad. I wished I'd read it sooner.

THE COWS is a chick-lit book that is unlike other chick-lit books in that it doesn't play to the usual stereotypes. The women are allowed to be unlikable and non-traditional; they aren't peppy caricatures of girlhood. Tara is a TV shark and a single mom whose life is derailed by a moment that goes viral. Stella is the PA to a photographer and working through grief of her mother's and twin's deaths to cancer. All three of them have the BRCA gene and she wants desperately to have a child before having her breasts and uterus removed. And then there's Cam, a lifestyle blogger who's single and child-free and loving it. All three of their storylines end up intersecting in an interesting and unexpected way that had me white-knuckling the book.

Not only is the story good, I think it has a really great message. I loved Tara and Cam and I REALLY fucking hated Stella, but I can see why the author chose to wrote them all the way she did. Society really does place unfair standards on women. I related to Cam the most because, like her, I'm a blogger who can come off as charismatic online but is actually quite anxious in person, and I also am uninterested in having children. When you have a platform like that, I think there is an expectation that, as a woman, you portray a universal experience of womanhood. But you can't be EVERYTHING, and when you fail at that, people lash out at you for not being who they want you to be. That parasocial interaction and how quickly it becomes toxic is really played out intensely in THE COWS, how having a public persona makes people feel entitled to you and your spaces, and you almost start feeling more like an abstract and less of a person. It was done SO well here that it was honestly chilling.

Tara, on the other hand, is the perfect example of internet shaming gone awry. Her story kind of reminded me of that woman who tweeted the AIDS joke while on a plane and then had people tracking her flight number gleefully, waiting for her to find out that the whole world had declared her Public Enemy of the Day. She was the character I think I really felt for the most and I loved her interactions with her daughter and how she really fought hard to be taken seriously, as both a single mother, and as a social pariah. Motherhood can take many forms and there is no one right answer, and I felt like the author had a lot of things to say about that subject too that were all fairly empowering.

As for Stella, I think she's the epitome of what sometimes drives trolling on the internet. Happy people don't usually make it their business to ruin other people's lives. She behaved abominably and selfishly and I wanted to strangle her for it, but she was such a troubled character with so much shit being flung in her direction that it was hard not to feel sorry for her a (very) tiny bit. The ending with her storyline maybe wasn't the vindictive finish I was hoping for, but I guess that is kind of the moral of this story: we, as a society, feel far too comfortable persecuting women for not conforming to society's standards and leaving them at the mercy of mob justice. So I guess in that sense, I felt satisfied.

This is such a smart and intense book. I hope they make it into a TV mini-series. I feel like it would appeal to the same sorts of audiences who enjoyed Big Little Lies.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 5, 2021

Defy by Sara B. Larson

 

DEFY doesn't exactly break the mold when it comes to YA fantasy but it does a lot of the things I like-- geo-politics, gender-bending, and some really dark storylines. I was kind of hesitant to get into this book at first because so many of my friends hated it, but I actually ended up really enjoying it a lot, for the most part.

Alex(a) and her twin, Marcel, along with their village, are the victims of genocide by an evil sorcerer. Girls are forced into breeding houses and boys are recruited into the army. Alexa dresses in drag so she won't be raped for life and ends up becoming one of the most powerful soldiers in the king's army. As a result, she, along with her brother, become Prince Damian's bodyguards. At first, I really liked Damian because he had Cardan vibes from THE CRUEL PRINCE, and also because enemies to lovers is one of my favorite tropes and it's saved from being too squick because Damian's father is the one who is responsible for all the bad stuff, not Damian, and it's clear that he doesn't necessarily approve of everything his father does.

The first half of the book was really good, although I do feel like there is some LGBT+ erasure in the sense that Alexa keeps saying that boys wouldn't be thinking about other boys, or she wouldn't be having her traitorous thoughts if she were a boy. Um, what about gay boys? Also, BOTH love interests apparently knew she was a girl the whole time, which is a peeve of mine. The only gender-bending book I've read so far that really gets around this in a believable way was AN ASSASSIN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND TREASON, where the hero was bisexual and really did believe the heroine was a boy, and he feels understandably conflicted and betrayed when he finds out that this isn't really the case.

The second half of the book became more tedious because it turned into a non-stop love triangle and there was way less fighting and butt-kicking. It started to feel like set-up for the next book, and it was very uninteresting to me. I got bored and skimmed a lot of these sections. I am also a little unclear about the world-building and whether the characters were people of color, because Alexa describes her skin as olive (she's "Blevonese") and the prince, who is part-Blevonese, is described as "exotic" at one point, and the Blevonese language seems to be modeled off Chinese, replete with tonal marks.

Overall, this wasn't really a bad book and I enjoyed a lot of it (especially the kick-butt parts, and the fact that the author actually dared to give the heroine facial scarring), and I think I would probably read further into the series to find out what happens next, but it was also not without flaw. I probably would have enjoyed this more when I was younger because of all the gratuitous fan service to the female gaze.

3 out of 5 stars

Suggested Reading by David Connis

 

SUGGESTED READING is a book about book-banning. Clara, a scholarship student at a private Tennessee school, defines her life by books. For every year of her high school experience, she has a defining work of literature (and, for the record, I hate all of her picks except SPEAK, but these are her faves, not mine). She runs a book club with her friend at a Mexican restaurant and does book-related charities. Which is why it cuts so deeply when she finds out that her school has started surreptitiously banning books.

Calling it by the euphemism "prohibited media," the school has devised a sneaky, roundabout way of getting rid of books to please the rich and conservative parents who fund it. And since it's private, it's not technically illegal the way it would be if it were a public school. But Clara doesn't think this is fair and decides to start an underground library from her locker to fight against the man.

 **MILD SPOILERS TO FOLLOW**

There were many things I really liked about this book and some things I didn't. As for the things I liked, I think this is one of the few books about a book lover I read that convincingly sells the passion of someone who truly loves literature. A lot of the things that Clara does and feels are things that I do and feel myself. I have an (online) reading group, I do book swaps with my friends, I pimp out books to my friends and community because I want to share the things that bring me so much joy with others.

I also thought it had a pretty good plot and pace, and the side characters were all mostly likable.

As for the things I didn't like, well. Clara at one point talks about how she realizes, wow! You mean it ISN'T WRONG when people don't think the same way about a book that I do? Which I wish was touched upon more, because one of the rules of her book club is that people are only allowed to say positive things about the book, even if they don't like that. That, in and of itself, is a form of censorship and even though her group is a private group and it's not censorship in the legal sense, Clara discourages speech she doesn't like about the books she enjoys and I don't believe the author ever really circled back to that sort of mindset and how toxic it can be.

There is also an attempted suicide in this book and while I don't feel like the author was disrespectful, I do feel like it was a little clumsily handled. It felt like a 180 to be honest, because the whole book is "wow, books are so great" and then suddenly it veers into "wow, maybe books ARE dangerous." I felt like that could have been a great point in the narrative to talk about trigger/content warnings, and how even though books SHOULDN'T be banned or cancelled, having content warnings can be beneficial to people who maybe aren't in the right mental state to read a certain book at a certain time. I was surprised the author didn't take that opportunity to discuss it.

Overall, I feel like this book took a relevant topic and did some pretty good things with it but it does come across as somewhat simplified and also, I hated most of the books that were being lauded as great literature in here-- ELEANOR AND PARK, CATCHER IN THE RYE, PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. I can't stand any of these, so hearing them lauded to such extremes was like sandpaper to the brain. I know they're popular among high school students though, so I'm sure that the audience this book is being targeted at would appreciate those references more than me.

So, bottom line is, I liked it but didn't love it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Night School by Caroline B. Cooney

 

I read a LOT of Caroline B. Cooney growing up but there were still some titles that eluded me. One of them was NIGHT SCHOOL, which really intrigued me because as a night owl, part of me has always kind of secretly wished that school could be at night so I could sleep all day. But this is NOT an insomniac's utopia, no. The night school described in this book is actually... sinister.

When a notice appears on the school bulletin board inviting people to sign up for Night School, Mariah, Ned, Andrew, and Autumn all feel compelled to write their names on the list. All of them have secrets. All of them are hoping to get something out of the night class. All of them have something in common. When they get to the school at night, they discover that their instructor is sinister and so is his lesson plan. At night class, they learn to become one with the dark-- and scare the shit out of people.

The powers of the instructor are actually pretty similar to those of the vampire in her vampire trilogy and so is the way his smile is described. The plot is also very similar to the plot of Fatal Bargain, the last book in her vampire series, where teens basically spend the whole time talking about people to sacrifice. Because that is what people do in night class; they feed off of people's terror by exploiting their fears.

I liked the book okay but I felt like it was anticlimactic in a lot of ways. I kept expecting Mariah's big humiliating secret to be blown or for her to have to save her brother. It felt like the author was foreshadowing something like that but it never went anywhere. Then what happened with Andrew at the end totally came out of left field. Autumn seemed more like she might be the weak link. I felt like that should have been foreshadowed more, too. And as others said, the ending is abrupt.

This basically does what her vampire series does, only not as well.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 4, 2021

A Winter's Rose by Erica Spindler

 

DNF @ p.62

Erica Spindler is a new-to-me author and I REALLY like her mysteries and thrillers. I think I've read two of her mysteries and a Jackie Collins-esque potboiler called RED that was pure brain candy. I'm pretty picky so when I find an author who vibes on my wavelength, I get excited and basically hunt down their whole backlist.

I guess before she really made a name for herself as a thriller writer, she also dabbled in romance. Looking at her BL, I see that she had a couple of these Silhouette romances. This one is about an heiress who decides to cut ties to her wealthy family after her divorce in a quest for independence. But her mother has basically "bought" her a new job and the man, Jackson Reese, is resentful, so he decides to offer the humiliating position of being a nanny to his bratty thirteen-year-old despite knowing that she's angling for more professional work.

After reading Spindler's more recent efforts-- especially SHOCKING PINK-- I just couldn't get into this one. I could see her style evolving, as well as her ability for characterization, so that was cool, but the story just didn't resonate with me at all.

2 out of 5 stars

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

 

DNF @ p.18

So I'm probably going to book hell for not liking this book but I didn't really like PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, either, and those are sacred from what I'm told.

I read this as a teen and I remember thinking it was kind of boring then, although all the fights and relationship drama sort of interested me. The names were weird and kind of dumb, though. Now, as an adult, it all just feels so very Rebel Without a Cause-y.

Pass.

1 out of 5 stars

Shocking Pink by Erica Spindler

 

I REALLY liked this book! It ticks all the boxes for everything I enjoy in a thriller: dual timeline, childhood friends, fucked up families, and murder. The book starts off with Julie, Andie, and Raven in the 1980s. We learn all about their pasts and what makes them tick. Then they witness a couple playing kinky games in an empty house and spy on them. They become obsessed and curious, horrified and intrigued. And then... a murder happens. And all of their peeping comes to light when one of them goes to the police.

The rest of the book is about their adult lives. All three girls are still friends but what happened to them as young teens still haunts them. Raven is a cold real estate agent, Julie is a sex addict who works at a bar, and Andie is a therapist unable to come to terms with her own commitment issues. But all of them lead mostly normal lives... until they start receiving newsclippings and messages from someone from their past. Someone who knows what they saw and wants them to know it. Someone... who might just be the murderer.

So obviously I loved this book. Anything I five star means that I basically enjoyed every second of it and make it, if not a forever book, one of my go-to recommendations for the genre. I've read several of Spindler's books at this book and this is by far the best. It's the perfect blend of erotic suspense, romantic suspense, and classic whodunnit. There's great sex scenes and the men are HOT. I also really liked some of the twists, and the callbacks to the women's girlhoods. It was just really, really well done.

Anyone who likes Jennifer Hillier will love this book. It reminded me a lot of JAR OF HEARTS.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars