Sunday, January 31, 2021

A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert


My friends have been trying to get me to read a Talia Hibbert book for a while now so it was exciting to finally do the deed. A GIRL LIKE HER is one of those small town secrets/big time drama type books. It revolves around Ruth Kabbah, a woman with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who likes comic books and working on her web comic, but has pretty horrible luck with men.

Evan is her new neighbor and their relationship kicks off when he brings her a shepherd's pie in the interest of being neighborly. Initially suspicious, Ruth eventually relents and they begin trading off: food in exchange for lent comics. As they spend more time together, Ruth begins to relax around the one person in town who doesn't judge her for the scandals in her past, and Evan begins to learn more about what, exactly, was responsible for making Ruth so jaded in the first place.

I thought Ruth was a great heroine. The author did a great job inserting all the geek stuff without it feeling like she was pandering to her audience. It felt very natural and low-key. It was also cool to read about a neurodivergent heroine where her neurodivergence wasn't the main focus of the story: it just shaped the way she saw and interacted with the world.

Evan is an incredibly sweet hero. Normally I read romances with darker, more sinister heroes but it was refreshing to read about a sweet beta man who just wanted to feed and take care of the heroine and treat her like a princess. He has a tragic backstory to keep him from being too two-dimensional but I don't really feel like he ever felt as complexly fleshed-out as Ruth did, sadly.

Which brings me to the only thing I didn't like about this story: there just wasn't a big connection between the H and the h to me. They felt more like friends than lovers and a lot of their interactions felt drawn-out and kind of boring (to me). My favorite parts of the book were actually Ruth interacting with the other villagers and all the baggage that comes along with living in one of those towns where everyone knows everyone, basically how Heather felt in her review. If this had more tension and more chemistry, I would have loved this book. Also... more UK-isms? I LOVED all the little UK references to things like Parma Violets and Supernoodles. Things I haven't really seen outside of the UK, basically, right up there with Tesco sandwiches, Jammy Dodgers, and Scotch eggs (sigh).

All in all, this was a pretty sweet romance with a satisfying ending and I'd read more from this author.

3 out of 5 stars

Awaken, My Love by Robin Schone


Robin Schone is touted as one of the better erotic historical romance authors around and I've been wanting to check out some of her works for a while. When AWAKEN, MY LOVE showed up in Kindle Unlimited last month, I eagerly jumped on the chance to read it. It's a bit like an English version of OUTLANDER in some ways, only with body-swapping. Elaine is a normal thirty-something woman from the late twentieth century (e.g. the 90s), and one day she awakens (ha-- title) to find herself in the body of a twenty-one-year old Victorian woman who has just been deflowered by her husband.

At first, I REALLY liked this book a lot and thought it would be three- or even four-stars worthy. The author touches upon all of those unpleasant historical details that are usually glossed over: body hair, what happens when you get your period, body odor, lack of dental care (she tries to brush her teeth with lye soap-- gross), the cold in all the rooms, and just all of these other details that spoke of research and really added an air of gritty realism to the story that I really appreciated.

Where the book begins to fall apart are the sex scenes. Charles, the hero, is a chronic mansplainer who has to explain sex to the heroine all the time. What makes it worse is that, since he was stationed in India and apparently developed a hard-on there, he CONSTANTLY refers to Elaine/Morrigan's vagina as her "yoni," has her look at Indian pornography (because of course he does), and keeps talking about "love juice," "dew of ecstasy" and power centers on the body responsible for sexual desire (I think they're chakras-- not sure though). Paired with choice descriptors like sucking on someone's earlobe as if it's a nipple, referring to a clitoris as a pomegranate, and numerous passages where furniture and clothing end up more soaked than the "splash zones" at a water park, and it all began to feel, well.

So not sexy.

But apart from the sex scenes, I was enjoying watching Elaine try to navigate Morrigan's body. I feel like her dysmorphia and her confusion were pretty well done (she's so afraid of using the wrong accent in the beginning of the book that she pretends to be mute). But all of that changes when things get really, really dark. Like, unexpectedly dark. The cover and the first 60% of the story really don't prepare you for how dark this book is going to get, and I'm going to tag it as a spoiler because it does have the potential to ruin the book but I think people should know what they are getting into.


Okay, so around 60% there's an abuse plotline that pops up which I already suspected was probably the case because of how Morrigan was said to have acted. In the first year of her marriage she refused to bathe and wouldn't let her husband touch her. It turns out that this is because her uncle molested her throughout her whole childhood with penetrative anal sex so she would still be a virgin. This is revealed in a disgusting bedside confession when we get to meet Morrigan's horrible Methodist family, including her two awful cousins and the likely complicit aunt.

So that was pretty awful, and Elaine, living inside Morrigan's body, is horrified. As one would be. She also feels a lot of mounting guilt about her growing attractions to Charles because 1) she's not in her body and 2) she's married to another man in the 20th century (although they don't have kids). Well, then the story takes another dark turn. It turns out Morrigan swapped with her body and hated it-- hated Elaine's husband, Matthew (which is fair-- it turns out he's awful: he doesn't think women should masturbate and he doesn't like that Elaine is overweight), hated Elaine's body (bitch), and when she tells Matthew that she's actually a Victorian lady, he slaps her in a mental health clinic, no questions asked.

Well, it turns out that Morrigan actually IS crazy and after having sex with one of the staff to persuade him to let her out, Morrigan goes to an electrical train track and grabs the third bar to kill herself, thus destroying what used to be Elaine's body. Now she's possessing the body of someone in the 19th century, leaving Elaine sick notes, and also apparently she's a druid who can do magic, which was how this body swap happened in the first place. Well, it turns out the body she possessed was her rapey uncle's and that whole scene is just... oh my God. So wrong. So gross. So utterly WTF.

I'm giving this book three stars because I loved the first half of the book and the last quarter of it is as utterly insane as some of the most off-the-wall bodice-rippers I've read. But I'm not sure that two such different book styles really gel well, and I didn't like how sleazy Charles was with his culturally appropriative sex talk, even though this book was written in the 90s and he's a Victorian codger, so I guess sexism is something I probably should have expected as being par for the course.

Very strange book with some very strange themes. I kind of can't help but admire that.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Toxic Desire by Robin Lovett

Mandatory disclaimer: Robin Lovett is my Twitter friend. That didn't bias my review, however, and I paid money for this book.

TOXIC DESIRE was a purely impulse buy for me. I grew up on Star Wars and Star Trek and used to read fanfic of both back in the day, which has given me a soft spot for trashy space smut, especially when decent world-building and strong female protagonists are involved.

Nemona is the female commander of her ship, although in the interest of being a gender-neutral democracy, everyone wears disguising suits and uses voice coders. When we first meet her, she's all suited up and opening fire on an enemy alien, the Ssedez, a powerful and dangerous warrior race that are enemy to the humans.

The Ssedez is named Oten and he is not happy with the humans either, and he decides to fling them both into the fires of a nearby red planet. Only, rather than being engulfed in flames, they find themselves in a steamy jungle that appears to inspire heat in more ways than one IF YOU CATCH MY DRIFT.

I'm going to be honest: this book is porn with plot. Most of the emphasis is on the sexual content, which is done REALLY well, so I didn't mind that at all, but I would have given it a higher rating if there were more storyline and more emotional connection since that's what I really crave in fiction. A three means I liked it, though, and there is SO MUCH to like about TOXIC DESIRE. It feels like a fun off-shoot episode of Star Trek-- like, I could totally see this happening as a filler episode on one of the shows (I'm thinking of that Voyager episode where they entered Warp 10 and became salamanders???).

Anyway, this was really great and I thought the physiology of the Ssedez was super cool. Gold retractable armor and ribbed-for-her-pleasure anatomy??? *wink* Also, all the thought that went into the descriptions of Fyrian (the planet) and the whole concept of a living, breathing aphrodisiac planet was PRETTY COOL (or should I say pretty hot?). I was in need of a light read to cleanse my palate between DNFs and this ended up being the perfect thing to break my book slump.

I'd definitely read more from this lady! If you love Star Trek: Voyager, I think you'll especially love this, because Nem(ona) is kind of like Janeway crossed with Samus Aran. 

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Taken by Passion by Jaymie Holland


DNF @ 66%

So I actually read this book back in 2012 when it was published by Ellora's Cave and Jaymie Holland was Cheyenne McCray. The original title of this book was KING OF HEARTS but now it appears to have been changed to TAKEN BY PASSION. I downloaded this when it was a freebie from the Kindle store because how often do we have the opportunity to reexperience the foibles of our youth? Even if it lands us in horny jail.


Oh my God this book was just as bad as I remembered. No shade to the people who liked it because I do understand that this is basically just like an expanded version of those erotica shorts that people enjoy reading for the smut (#FTS) but... even with the alleged 60 new pages of content to expand and flesh out the story, I thought this was pretty awful.

The heroine is plus-sized but the way this is brought up is pretty cringe-worthy. Back in 2012, people were way worse about body positivity so I guess I was hoping that maybe the expanded, rewritten version wouldn't have Alice hating on her appearance so much. Not so. Also it still has the icky beginning where she finds out her boyfriend/fiance is cheating on her with TWO other people and when caught, he immediately insults Alice's weight. Gross. And then you have the hero, Jarronn, validating the heroine by telling her how hot he thinks she is which feels... um. Gross.

I didn't like the sex scenes either. They felt very juvenile to me. I think they're supposed to be. This is one-shot escapist fantasy but it's written like it too. And the writing is not good. The heroine's internal monologues are so weird. When she's not beating herself up for her weight, she's making up-- I kid you not-- fake Twitter updates that she could post about her situation, replete with hashtags. In terms of quality, this definitely feels up there with monsterotica and dinoporn.

Read this for fun, or for the lols, or because you like being in horny jail. But don't get this and expect it to be that much different than the smutty original.

1 out of 5 stars

Bad Company by Carol Carson

This book originally came out in 1998 but was recently rereleased in the Kindle store and right now it's FREE, so me and a whole bunch of friends (Nut Meg, Karen, Annalice, and a couple others who casually jumped in on the wagon because ~peer pressure~) read the book. The premise is pretty hilarious. Trixianna (that NAME) comes to a small Kansas town after an unpleasant misunderstanding with her sister over her brother-in-law. In the Kansas town, she bakes pies and just lives her best life. Unfortunately, she bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain red-haired bank robber named Mad Maggie, so the sheriff, Chance Magrane, thinks that she's actually a bank robber in disguise.

Well, he goes over to arrest her because due process and she shoots him in the arm because this is Kansas so why wouldn't a single woman living out west in the 19th century have a firearm? Anyway, he faints and when he wakes up, he's like TIME TO GO TO JAIL. But in the short time that she's been in town, Trixianna has endeared herself to everyone from the local madam to the cranky restaurateur to the eccentric drunkard claiming that he's a viscount (LOL) so pretty soon, Chance is peer-pressured into letting her out of the jail and into house arrest.

But not her own house, no. She's living in his.

Also, Chance is engaged to some fancy woman named Fanny but apparently Fanny is 100% okay with him having another woman living under his roof, even if this woman did shoot him. And that's not the end of it. By the end of the book, Trixianna also accidentally stabs him in the crotch with a knife (accident) gives him a case of hives with a cranberry pie (accident), nearly burns his house down (accident-- she was giving cooking lessons to the madams and the working girls), AND causes a little B&E when some of the local punks were hoping to get a glimpse of the T&A (hahaha). It's SO ridiculous and over the top and yet because of the decent writing and the author's own sense of comedic timing, it ends up being more fun than stupid and I read through this whole thing in a day.

I recently watched Goin' South (1978) with my family and while reading this book, I kept thinking of that movie because it has that same madcap adventure/mismatched couple sense of comedy, filled with just enough heart, romance, and danger to keep it from being too sappy or cheesy. I don't normally like Westerns because I'm a city girl at heart, so nothing about a bunch of dirt and cows and scruffy weeds really inspires nostalgia or longings in me, but books like this make me understand why people do. The descriptions of baked goods in this book were so decadent that they ought to be illegal, and it uses words like galoot and pandowdy (I didn't even know what a pandowdy was-- I had to look that up), and the sex scenes are surprisingly decent. If you like cheesy good fun, you'll like this.

Just keep in mind that since the sheriff is engaged to another woman, Trixianna is technically the OW.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 29, 2021

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio


DNF @ 18%

I tried. I loved THE SECRET HISTORY and I actually enjoy watching stage productions. I used to go all the time in college because one of my friends was an ex-theater major. But for some reason, THE SECRET HISTORY and Shakespeare just didn't work. I think it was... okay, it was like a pretentious book for boring people. When I was in college, there was this guy who was a philosophy major and he was really hot and we got along well, but he was SO full of himself and everything he said was like listening to someone say stupid things in a smart way and that's what this book was like. It made me want to slap my head with a folio.

I'm happy for those of you who liked it but I thought this was boring.

1.5 out of 5 stars

At Any Price by Brenna Aubrey


 DNF @ 47%

While reading this book, I kept thinking of that controversy when that famous gamer girl sold her bathwater and people (mostly dudes, let's be honest) started posting videos of themselves drinking and even smoking it. EVERYONE was talking about it (as people do). But AT ANY PRICE kind of takes that whole fetishization of the girl gamer one step further with a popular female gaming influencer deciding to auction off her virginity to her audience of simps.

Naturally, the winner is a billionaire and hot. Which is where this book takes a decidedly FIFTY SHADES OF GREY tone with an unsexy contract and a lot of talking about "doing it" without actually doing it. Even halfway through the book, the couple still hadn't had penetrative sex. I get that a lot of authors feel the need to draw this out for tension, but it felt unrealistic and kind of weird. And I know, "realistic" in a romance novel? I know it's fiction, but I do like some realism.

So let's talk about what the author did right. She tried to understand gaming culture, to the point that she either did serious research or is a casual gamer herself. I feel like she really tried to make the heroine seem like an influencer and the hero seem like the CEO of a gaming company. And the game that the MC is playing does have Runescape/WoW vibes that gave me all the nostalgias. I also feel like the writing was halfway decent. I just didn't like all the mixed messages about the heroine and what she was trying to do. Her manifesto in the beginning smacks of "white feminism" and even though I wouldn't call it racist, it definitely feels tone deaf and misinformed. I liked the attempt at making this a more empowered version of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY... it just didn't succeed.

There's nothing objectively wrong with this book. I just feel like it gives off too many mixed signals and I don't really like how it tries to demonstrate feminism through objectification and the purity myth.

2 out of 5 stars

Easy by Tammara Webber


Dear everyone who recommended this book to me: you were right.

EASY is... such an amazing book. It takes basically everything I don't like about the new adult genre and turns it on its head. It's a college-set romance where all of the characters actually work hard on homework and studying for tests. It has a realistic portrayal of frat life, with all of the pros and cons that come with that. It has feminist themes and an interesting heroine and an adorable emo love interest with a devastatingly tragic backstory that brought me to tears. It has a sex positive heroine who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to set boundaries. It has positive female friendships. It reflects a vision of college life that mirrored my own and made me feel all the nostalgic feels, like I was reading about someone I could have known from my own life.

When we meet Jacqueline, she's having a pretty awful time. Her boyfriend of three years just broke up with her and then someone she used to consider a friend tries to rape her in the parking lot while she's leaving a costume party. She's saved by a mysterious guy named Lucas, who makes sure she gets home safely without being invasive. Lucas ends up coming into her life again and again because he has dozens of odd jobs around the university, in addition to being a student himself. He's also a genuine nice guy and manages to be protective without being chauvinistic, which is a nice subversion of the "dominant" male leads cast in the mold of Christian Grey and Edward Cullen and Travis Maddox.

Jacqueline is a great heroine. I loved her friendship with Erin and how she wasn't one of those "not like other girls" heroines. I loved Erin, and I liked their support of Mindi and that surprising show of sisterhood in the sorority. I loved that Jacqueline started taking self-defense classes and that she worked so hard for her grades. I loved that she was sex positive and that she knew what she wanted, and I felt like all of her fears and insecurities were real. I loved that psychologists were presented as a normalized response to trauma and mental health, and that it was dropped in so casually. More of that, please.

And Lucas-- I wish I'd read this book when I was in college because when I was a college student, I craved stories like these. It has all of the drama and romance of a K-drama, and I read huge chunks of this book at a time. For a while, I put off reading EASY because I had lumped it in with books like THE EDGE OF NEVER and BEAUTIFUL DISASTER, but it's really nothing like any other new adult book I read, except maybe THE DEAL. I just loved the romance and the love interest so much. I read a lot of trashy books with heroes who I would run from in real life, but Lucas is the kind of guy you would run to, and he would catch you every time. I'm not normally into guys with tattoos and piercings but I feel like the message of this book is that sometimes appearances really are only skin-deep and people can end up surprising you in the best possible way. It was just so sweet and I seriously can't recommend this book enough. Just look at me, handing out four and five star reviews like candy.

Reading has never been so easy.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Seized by Love by Susan Johnson


How do I even review this? God, I loved it so much-- from the very beginning of the book, I knew this was probably going to be a five star read. Prince Kuzan is a Russian playboy prince whose exploits are as inexhaustible as they are notorious. He's such a womanizer that he's grown jaded and when his friends decide to place a bet on whether he can seduce the unseduceable woman, he unthinkingly takes the challenge.

Alisa Forseus was married at sixteen to a man old enough to be her grandfather. As if that weren't enough to end the romance of a young woman's dreams, he's also abusive and keeps her a prisoner in her own home. Her backstory was incredibly sad, and when she meets the hero, she's off on one of the rare exploits permitted to her: painting watercolors by the river.

Since this is a romance, you can obviously guess what happens with the bet. Hilariously, though, Prince Kuzan ends up enamored with Alisa, and ends up becoming my favorite kind of hero: an unapologetic jerk of the first order, traversing the line between alpha and gamma, because even though he's controlling AF, he's also incredibly conniving and sneaky, and has a lot of polish and charm that makes it easy to see why women flock to him, even though he can be crass.

Considering this came out in the 1970s, I was surprised at how explicit parts of this were. The steamy scenes are all on-page and very detailed and the OW in this book has some, um, very icky taboos. Not only that, but she's been with father and son. Yuck. It doesn't appear to have been rewritten for the sensibilities of the 21st century audience and I'm actually very happy about that because SEIZED BY LOVE ended up being everything I love in these old-timey romance novels: beautiful writing, rich history, passionate and flawed characters, love-hate relationships, and an incredible story.

I've never read anything by Susan Johnson before but now I want to read everything she's ever written!

5 out of 5 stars

Wanderlust by Skye Warren


*turns in feminism card*

Skye Warren can be very hit or miss with me. This is one of her better works and I actually did enjoy parts of it quite a bit. Evie is the daughter of a neurotically overprotective mother who has catalogued all the bad news stories of girls getting abducted as a means of keeping Evie close to home. One day, Evie decides she's had enough and wants to go on a road trip to Niagara Falls, her dream destination.

At a truck stop, a creepy hot guy offers to buy her dinner. She refuses, but that isn't the last she sees of him. In her rundown motel room, Evie learns firsthand what her mother never specified-- what happens after those girls in the news stories disappear. From there, this book becomes a road trip, erotica, and dark angsty romance, and while it does work to a degree, the dark beginning doesn't really match up with the sweet, romantic ending the author tried to tack on to this work to make it into a romance.

I did really like the sex scenes and the first scene in that hotel room was SO MEMORABLE. It literally gave me chills. Like, oh my God, this is like something out of a nightmare. I've read some bad sex scenes from this author; this was good. I also thought the story was really intense-- it kept me turning the pages, wanting to see what happened next. Hunter's backstory could have used some development. This is a short read and I think being longer might have made his character feel more real. I just had trouble buying that Evie would have such a brisk change of heart after what he did.

Content warnings for abuse and non-con. This is not a safe read and it won't be everyone's cuppa. I liked it but probably wouldn't read it again.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Flame and the Blade by Meredith Hart


I snagged this while it was a freebie in the Kindle Store because the guy on the cover looked like the Witcher, whereupon I basically forgot about it until my friends Karen and Maraya agreed to a buddy read of the book. THE FLAME AND THE BLADE is an incredibly fun read. It's one of those books that straddles the genres of fantasy and romance, with enough elements of both that it's hard to classify, and it's reminiscent of fantasy greats with beta heroes and strong female heroines, like Mistborn or The Witcher.

The heroine, Lyria, was a leader of the Adventurer's guild, beloved by her crew and on the track to success, but when she finds out her lover (and superior) is cheating on her, she abandons her men to return to her family's guild, the Guards. That's how she meets the hero, a wild mage named Vethe, who is descended from the bad guy who once tried (and failed) to take over the world. His family live in a rotting castle in the middle of the woods, and they still long for the Glory Days That Almost Were, which is why they've hired a guard for an escort mission to take Vethe into the Demon Forest to look for the hidden marriage contract that will assure their return to power.

This was such a fun read. Vethe is a fun, rakish hero who uses his magic creatively (wink, wink) and Lyria is a brooding warrior nursing old wounds. They're fun apart but even more fun together, and I thought the steamy scenes between them (when they FINALLY happen) were really well done. This is definitely a traveler's journey sort of story, though, which won't appeal to everyone. A huge chunk of them is about being lost in the forest, fighting demons and sexual tension with equally mixed success. The story ends without an HEA or an HFN because there is still much to be explored between them, although there isn't a cliffhanger. All conflict, save for the question of romantic entanglement, is resolved for now.

I've said in previous reviews that you don't need to be original if you're a good storyteller and you can take the usual stock tropes and make them your own with solid characters and good plot twists, and that is definitely the case with THE FLAME AND THE BLADE. It's reminiscent of half a dozen stories, but manages to stand on its own two booted feet because of the way it spins out the tale of Vethe and Lyria. And honestly, one of the best parts of the story is when Lyria goes to Vethe's family's gloomy, Gothic mansion and sees how utterly mad they all are. The atmosphere and the love of fantasy tropes just ooze from the pages of this book. You can tell that the author loves the genre and has a fondness for all of the cliches, which is why she's so good at turning them on their heads. Really well done.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

See Jane Die by Jane Spindler


I've been reading SEE JANE DIE on the DL for several weeks. I usually like to read my books really quickly but sometimes I like to keep one or two on hand to read in pieces (usually before bed). SEE JANE DIE was in a box of random books I got from someone and even though Erica Spindler was an author I'd heard of before, I'd never actually read any of her work until I got that box. She's actually a really cool author. She writes mostly mysteries these days, but back in the day, she wrote romance novels and big, potboiler epics like Jackie Collins. I've read the potboilers and they're really fun. I have one of her romances on hand and plan to read that very soon, too.

This is my first mystery from Spindler and I thought it was good. It's about the Killian sisters, Jane and Stacy. When Jane was a teen, she was horribly disfigured in a hit and run boating accident. Stacy dared her to swim that day that she got injured in the water, so she blamed herself. So did her parents, who cut her out of the will. Now Jane is a rich heiress and a famous artist who does gritty, avant-garde sculptures and videos that are basically a scathing criticism of the beauty industry. And Stacy is a hard-boiled cop, determined to soothe that burning guilt.

When women start dying, it seems like another random instance of the world being messed-up. But then Jane starts receiving sinister notes and it surfaces that most of the women being killed were clients of her plastic surgeon husband, Ian. Jane starts wondering if her husband only married her for her money. If maybe he was the man who hit her with the boat when she was young and ruined her normal adolescent life. Stacy struggles with her feelings of guilt, envy, and inadequacy as she struggles to resolve the case without letting any of her old feelings bubble up, because not only is Ian the suspect, she also dated him briefly before he met Jane. There's just SO MUCH DRAMA.

I liked this book a lot but I skimmed about 100 pages of it because it was really too long. This mystery is almost 500 pages and it really didn't need to be. There were too many scenes of the characters running around and some of those could have been cut. On the other hand, points for actually surprising me regarding who the bad guy was. There was also a pretty good sex scene in here, and I liked the dynamic between the two sisters. This definitely falls into the niche known as "airplane books" or "brain candy" but there's nothing wrong with that. If you're looking for something intense and fun, this ticks all the boxes. I'm looking forward to reading more from this author.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Ruthless Pride by Naima Simone

I'm honestly not sure how to rate this because the writing was great and the sex scenes were steamy and really well done but I really did not care for the storyline much at all. Joshua Lowell is the CEO of a big company and the heroine, Sophie Armstrong, is a journalist doing a piece on him and his family, which is full of scandal (his dad was a womanizer and an embezzler). That could have been interesting if it was developed, but I really don't think it was, and when the big misunderstanding comes along in the last act, it comes way out of left field because none of the tension really felt there.

What really bumps up the rating is the surprisingly evocative imagery. The hero is described as a "study in contrasts" and an "avenging angel," and at one point, when he's angry at the heroine for her tell-all article, he compares her to a vulture who pecks at carrion down to the "bleached bones." It kind of made me wonder how much of the blandness of the storyline was maybe the publisher's fault, because a lot of modern Harlequin novels have a very tame, very watered-down vibe to them that just feels way too subdued.

I like the author's writing style so I'd be curious to see what she comes up with if she decides to self-publish or work with a different publisher than Harlequin.

Points for having an alpha hero who doesn't act like he belongs on a rack at Lowes.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Night Fire by Catherine Coulter


DNF @ p. 103

Side note: Catherine Coulter is one of those authors who rewrites her bodice-rippers to make them more PC. She's better at it than Fern Michaels, whose books seriously felt like they'd been gutted when I tried to read some of the "revised" editions *stares at WHITEFIRE* but I really don't like when authors do this because I feel like it just ends up muddying the waters. If you're going to write non-con, just write non-con and slap a content warning on there to warn people about it. Don't try to make the non-con consensual. It just... please. It makes it worse.

ANYWAY, this is the 1989 printing of this book, and as far as I can see, appears to exist intact (because it was still the 1980s, I guess, IDK). It opens up with some seriously bad stuff happening to the heroine. She married as a teen (gross) to an old man (gross) who likes to beat her (super gross) and because he's an impotent old bastard he thinks it would be a swell idea to get his actual bastard French son to impregnate her while he watches (super mega barf-in-the-back-of-your-mouth gross). The night before this family reunion is to take place, he chokes on his food and dies, freeing the heroine, Arielle.

Our hero, Burke, fell in love with the heroine when she was underage (GROSS) but then he went off to the Napoleonic wars or something (I think it was the Napoleonic wars, this is Regency fic), and when he comes back, he finds out that the teenager he was lusting after is now widowed (ahahaha GROSS), so he decides to pursue. First of all, GROSS. Second of all, your name is Burke so who are you? Third of all, HE HAS NO FINESSE about his courtship and basically just starts blackmailing her around just like her traitor brother Evan did when he sold her into marriage slavery to Beaty McChokesalot. So I already have zero sympathy for any male character in this book and they can all go jump off a cliffy ex machina for all I care (and I do not care-- at all).

Fourthly, this book was boring. Catherine Coulter is a very hit-or-miss author for me so I am not at all surprised. She is like Bertrice Small and Johanna Lindsey in that she is part of the Trifecta of Books I Don't Actually Admit to Reading in Public But Secretly Do So Don't Judge Me™ (ToBIDAAtRiPBSDSDJM™). I like some of her books in a guilty pleasure way-- like DEVIL'S EMBRACE, WYNDHAM LEGACY, and THE COUNTESS (an old skool Gothic, which is my favorite thing I've read of hers so far, 10/10 recommend). This one was a miss.

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp


SOMEWHERE BETWEEN BITTER AND SWEET is a tough book to rate and I waffled between three and four stars because there were some things I really liked and some things that I didn't like quite as much. (For the record, three star reviews are the hardest to write because how do you say "yeah, I liked it, but I didn't REALLY like it and here's why?") This is the story of two Latinx teens with very different problems, who come together because of food-- and oh my God, the food descriptions are one of the best things about this book, because food is one of those things that sparks joy and brings people together and the author perfectly captured the emotional experience of eating something that your parents taught you how to make, and watching your loved ones consume something that you prepared with love.

Pen, the heroine, wants to work in the restaurant business. She doesn't want to go to college. Some people might not like this but I actually did because college isn't necessarily a path for everyone, and sometimes it's better to go to a school to study the trades, and I think it's nice for kids to see rep where other paths are explored.

Xander, the hero, is an undocumented immigrant who is searching for his father, and he's currently living with his grandfather while also lying low. He meets Pen when he's hired to work at a restaurant, cash under the table. They end up becoming friends and then, maybe, something more? Guess you'll have to read to find out. (And you should.)

I liked how the struggles of each character were represented although, like another reviewer, I was a little surprised that Pen could afford to live on her own on a fast food salary in a nice-ish apartment. I thought this was set in Texas(???) and from what I understand, Texas real estate is almost as pricey as California, so I wasn't sure if this would be feasible. It certainly wouldn't be here (in California). There were also a LOT of plot strings and it felt like a lot of them were resolved pretty hastily in the last act, and I think part of that might have been because of the time spent on developing the romance (which didn't really work-- their connection felt forced to me, you might disagree). I also felt like the subjects of depression and (CONTENT WARNING: self-harm) were pretty glossed over, which surprised me because this was compared to the book I AM NOT YOUR PERFECT MEXICAN DAUGHTER, and even though this explores the same themes of how depression can manifest as anger (something that REALLY isn't talked about enough), I didn't feel like that comparison was very fair to either book because this book didn't feel quite as developed in terms of fleshing out characters. (IANYPM is one of my favorite young adult books, so I may be biased.)

BETWEEN BITTER AND SWEET is definitely a YA for older teens because of its focus on what happens after school and also because of some pretty grim content, including an evil loan shark type character who is very terrible and some scenes of police discrimination. Nothing is over the top and everything is handled with care, but I think it will be intense reading for some (even though it serves a purpose). At the end of the day, this is a story about making mistakes, forgiving family for being imperfect, and how the things that can make a community vulnerable can also make it strong in times of need. And also, of course, FOOD.

I would definitely read more from this author. (Also, the author's note at the end was very sweet. Read it.)

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 25, 2021

Wicked Games by Jessica Clare


This weekend I was purging most of the new adult romances from my Kindle because I've come to terms with the fact that for the most part, it just isn't the genre for me. This book almost joined its fellows, but while reading the reviews, I noticed that Jessica Clare is actually a pseudonym for my beloved fantasy romance author, Jill Myles.

Well, obviously, that meant I had to read this book because it was written by my QUEEN. And to my pleasant surprise, WICKED GAMES was actually really, really fun! It's got a reality TV premise. Abby works for a media company as a book reviewer (heart eyes) but when one of the contestants for their television department bows out of a reality competition, Abby is forced into it with a lucrative book deal held over her head as a reward. Plus, she might win the two mil!

Dean is in it to win it and at first Abby can't stand him. So naturally, she ends up as his partner. Even though he's a jerk, she has to admit that he's got the physical parts of the competition nailed-- and she's incredibly smart, and can act as the brains of the operation. Their talents complement each other, and as they spend more time with each other, their mutual enmity seems to fade... but is it real? Or is it just all part of the game?

This was so much fun. It captures everything that makes reality TV such a guilty pleasure to watch. I liked the setting of the Cook Islands and I thought the author did a good job coming up with interesting challenges and drama to fuel the fire. The ending gave me so many feels and even though there's an HEA, it ended up feeling a little bittersweet. I didn't realize how invested I was in the couple until they really put my emotions through the wringer in the last act.

I'm definitely going to be checking out the other books in this series!

3.5 out of 5 stars

To Tempt a Scotsman by Victoria Dahl


TO TEMPT A SCOTSMAN is living proof that when I give a book the three-star treatment, it isn't meant to be a dig. Victoria Dahl is an incredible talent in the historical romance genre. Her books are always so emotionally intense and have incredibly steamy scenes (much more so than you would expect). This is apparently her first in the series, which I read out of order, and so far it's the weakest. I love jealous alpha heroes, but Collin's behavior in this one verges on abusive and it's hard to read at times, even though it makes sense given the historical context for the book and his own sordid history as an illegitimate son.

The premise is this: Alex is the spoiled youngest child of a duke, and used to testing her boundaries. She wears breeches and is a bit of a tomboy, and she likes to mess around with boys. Unfortunately, she went a bit too far and was caught by one of her love interests while spending time with another (and his hand was up her skirt). They had a duel over her honor and one of them was shot and Alex was solidly ruined.

Now the half-brother of the departed love interest has come to seek his revenge against the fallen woman who was responsible for the death of his family-- only he's shocked by her naivete, and that she doesn't seem like the cold ruiner of men that he expected, given her reputation. After hating her on sight, he quickly ends up falling for her instead, and one sordid assignation turns into marriage due to ~unforeseen events~.

I liked this book a lot but it took forEVER to get moving. The beginning was very slow and Alex's character was all over the place. I don't think the author could figure out whether she wanted her to be naive, bitter, jaded, or sheltered, and so she settled for an odd blend of all four traits which don't really mesh. Once the story got off the ground, it was REALLY good. The last half was twice as good as the first and I thought the villain was properly terrible. (The third book also had a really great villain.)

If you like steamy historical romances with unusual characters and good villains, you'll love Dahl.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa


I almost didn't buy this book because some of the positive reviews for it made it seem like it was going to be one of those trying-to-hard-to-be-quirky cookie cutter romances that all seem to share the same identical pastel covers and too-plucky-to-be-believed heroines. I am so, so glad that I bought this book anyway because that really couldn't be farther from the truth. THE WORST BEST MAN is like a smart rom-com in book form, only better because, ummm, gratuitous food porn, a smart woman of color protagonist who loves her job and has some pretty important dialogues about what it means to express emotion in public spaces as a woman of color, and an honestly hilarious battle of wills in an enemies to lovers romance that never feels too easy or too mean-spirited. It was just the pick-me-up I needed.

Lina is a wedding planner who was ditched by her own would-be-husband at her wedding several years ago. Andrew, her ex, sent a mystifying text message to his brother, Max, suggesting something he said on their night out was responsible before just, you know, going dark. Even though Lina is super successful in her own right now, she has never forgiven either brother for ruining what should have been the best day of her life, which is why when she ends up landing the chance to make a major career move with the owner of a successful boutique hotel chain, she is not happy to see that the brothers-- and their mom-- are also involved.

As it turns out, Lina isn't the only planner the hotel might want to work with. And since Max and Andrew are ever in competition, they're going to let the best brother-- and planner-- win by working to develop a pitch that will appeal most to the Cartwright hotel chain. At first, Lina is icy to Max and pranks him (including tricking him into eat a very spicy Brazilian pepper at one of their lunch meetings) but it soon becomes pretty clear that Max isn't a bad guy. He's very different from Andrew and he's also very attracted to Lina-- to her looks, her personality, her success, and her vulnerabilities. It doesn't take all that much time for the ice to melt. But the drama that awaits them is much more lasting.

I ended up liking this book a lot. It's the perfect quarantine read because of all the vicarious parties and celebrations. Honestly, the beautiful descriptions of food warrant an extra star alone. The cake-tasting scene and the lunch at the Brazilian restaurant had my mouth watering. I loved how the connection between food and family was brought in with Lina and her family, and its ties to Brazilian culture. Also, all of the in-text Brazilian words! I love it when authors do this; it's fun seeing people speaking their native languages on the page because people do this in real life and it adds a touch of realism. I'm also a huge sucker for books about professional women who love their jobs, and I liked especially how the author wrote about what it meant for Lina, as a woman of color, and how it affected her perceived freedom to express her emotions in public. The story about her work as a paralegal was sad.

I honestly wasn't all that sold on Max as a love interest at first, but I ended up liking him more later on in the story. As other readers have said, there was a LOT of talking in the sex scenes-- to show consent and the importance of communication, I think. It wasn't really my cup of tea, but I think I just don't really like it when humor and sex are mixed. I read another chick-lit recently, CRUSHING IT, that did this also, and I didn't really like it there, either. Some people do, though, and I think this is just a matter of personal preference. For me, I thought the sexual tension between the couple and their banter were the best parts, and it was the moments where they opened up and talked about their feelings despite all of their emotional walls and barriers, that really made me swoon.

Anyone who enjoys fluffy romances with fiercely intelligent heroines who love their jobs, have a dry sense of humor, and encounter plenty of drama that won't require you to suspend your disbelief will really like this book. I said on Twitter that I think it would make an excellent movie and I stand by that.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Portrait by Megan Chance


I was really glad when my friend Heather agreed to buddy-read this with me because THE PORTRAIT has been on my to-read list forever. It's a love story between an aspiring artist and a brilliant one, but it's also so much more than that. It's a story about finding self-confidence, second chances, and learning to be loved. In a way, this is an ode to both art and love-- and I'm honestly amazed at how much research the author must have had to pour in to write all of those scenes in the work studio and the salons with such detail. This would make a brilliant mini-series because it feels so much larger than life.

Imogene, the heroine, is the unloved daughter of an academic who regrets that her prettier, smarter sister passed away of cholera. She lives with her guardian right now, who seems to feel more affection for her, but he is also distant and remote. They have sent her to study with Jonas, a renowned and brilliant painter-- unknown to Imogen, he has been blackmailed into taking her on. If he refuses her as a student, Imogen's father will no longer patronize him.

Initially, it's an enemies to lovers romance of sorts, with Jonas despising her on sight and seeking to humiliate and destroy her. Imogene bears it all, determined to learn, determined to understand, and one day something shifts and Jonas finds himself fascinated and terrified, like a sentient moth drawn to the very flame it knows might consume it wholly. I worried that the romance might feel unequal or exploitative but it is neither. Imogene has the presence of mind to stand up for what she wants and doesn't romanticize Jonas or let herself be romanticized. And Jonas, in turn, learns self-honesty and the importance of letting people in when you're feeling raw. Both of them have been betrayed badly by loved ones, so the road to these lessons is a rocky and arduous one.

At the core of this story, this is about what it is like to love someone who is mentally ill. Jonas suffers from bipolar disorder, and since this historical fiction, there isn't much treatment around, so he's forced to endure his episodes and largely self-medicate. This is not a "love fixes all ills" story and one of the things I loved about the book is that Imogene isn't setting out to save him or fix him. She wants to love him and keep him safe, but she also appreciates his brilliance and she loves the way that he makes her feel loved after living with such a cold and unloving family.

This is a very hard book to read because when it gets dark, it gets dark, but it is not without hope of redemption and I thought all of the characters were really well-written. So many historical romances feel like the "same" story with a slightly different wrapping, so it was refreshing to see something that is so uniquely plotted. Imogene was a fascinating character in her own right and Jonas was so tortured, and seeing him struggle was genuinely painful and made me worry about the cost of an HEA. I did really like the story but it did feel slightly longer than it needed to be, and the end in particular felt a little too drawn-out, and I found myself skimming, desperately hoping that everything would be OK.

Note: there is always a debate about art and suffering, and whether a creator who is enduring problems with their mental health ought to do so if it means that their art is the means to the end. As someone who has studied psychology, I would say no. Mental well-being should always come first. If you are afraid that you will no longer be able to create while pursuing treatment, remember that art comes in many forms and that "different" does not mean worse. How Jonas's illness affected his art isn't really touched upon as much, but reading this book made me think about other discussions I've seen on the topic, and if you're reading this and feeling that struggle, there are hotlines and professionals out there who can help provide you with the resources to feel better, and your art will wait.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Frankly, My Dear by Sandra Hill


DNF @ 18%

I bought this even though it had mixed reviews because I'm a sucker for time travel romances and I thought the premise seemed really fun. Unfortunately, it really didn't work for me. Part of that is because of the way it's written-- it is a book from the 1990s that attempts to make light of romances set on plantations, particularly those like GONE WITH THE WIND, which the heroine professes to love. Unfortunately, this means a lot of Black stereotypes and making light of racism. I see that this book has a cult following and I'm sure that for some people, this will be of the "so bad it's good" variety of entertainment, but it really comes across as quite tone deaf and I wasn't able to enjoy it. I'd read more of this author's more recent books, since the 1990s were a while ago and I'm sure she's evolved her style since then, but I wouldn't recommend this one.

1 out of 5 stars

Flat-Out Love by Jessica Park


DNF @ 12%

This reads like some of the popular romance stories that were on Fictionpress when I was a kid and I think I probably would have enjoyed this more as an older teen than I did now. The biggest problem I had with it is, as others before me have complained about, the judgmental snarkiness of the heroine. I am one of the most judgmental, snarky people EVER and even I was like, "Oh my God, dial it down from thirty-six to six, Julie."

I thought the side characters were interesting and I actually enjoyed the Watkins family and some of the jokes were decent and the writing is a cut above what I typically expect from the new-adult self-published genre, but I just couldn't stand Julie as a heroine and I'm no longer finishing books I don't love. It just felt like this book was trying way too hard to be witty and ~different.~

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Midnight Eyes by Sarah Brophy


I bought MIDNIGHT EYES purely on impulse because it was pretty inexpensive in the Kindle Store and one of my hobbies is buying and reading half-forgotten romance novels that are 10+ years old because it's fun finding a book that nobody else has heard of and getting people as excited about it as I am, case in point: THIS BOOK. Oh my gosh, this book. It gave me all the sighs, all the feelings, all the nail-biteys. You know a book is good when you're reaching the high-point of the dramatic tension and can't stop click-click-clicking away.

Medieval romances are something that I love in theory but often find myself disliking in execution because the material either isn't handled well or the characters are flat and dimensionless. Neither is the case in this book. The heroine, Imogen, is known throughout the land as "Lady Deformed" after a beating from her abusive brother left her blinded. When he marries her to a hardened warrior of the king's, it seems like another cruel joke: putting her at the mercy of a man who will use her ill. But Robert is anything but cruel. He has an old man named Matthew as his squire and treats all of his men well, and honor means everything to him, so before even laying eyes on her, he's already putting an end to the cruel nicknames, saying that an insult to her is an insult to him. 

And then he sees her and... well, obviously she's pretty because of course.

But a lifetime of abuse has left its toll on Imogen and being unable to see and abandoned in a place filled with shadows and bad memories has left her feeling angry and defensive. I could see some reviewers annoyed by the repeated mentions of Imogen's beauty but she never really felt like a Mary Sue to me because she had so much damage and it soon became pretty clear that Robert was interested in her in a way that went beyond the surface. So MIDNIGHT EYES ends up being a story of a slow-burn love between a man who is afraid of being vulnerable and a woman who is afraid of being ill-used and the best part of this book is their beautiful love story of intimacy and trust, replete with incredibly well-written sex scenes that add to, rather than detract from, their bond.


I think the plot line with Imogen's brother is going to be triggering for some but for the most part, much of it is alluded to rather than explicitly written out. Most of the focus is on the main couple and I loved Robert, who is one of the best representations of the caring alpha hero that I've encountered in the wild in a while. My only complaints were that the rescue mission in the last quarter lasted way too long and having the hero named Robert and the brother named Roger was a bit confusing. If I were the editor, I would have advised against having two main characters being named so similarly.

Honestly, this is just such a great book and one of the better medieval romances I've ever read. I wish the companion book about Gareth wasn't out of print because after reading this one, I'm desperate to know his story, too. Sigh.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 22, 2021

Crushing It by Lorelei Parker


Ever since I heard about CRUSHING IT, I was dying to read it. I love reading romance novels about heroines in STEM fields and this one-- about a female game dev struggling with anxiety-- really spoke to me, as someone who also has anxiety and loves to play games. Late night Mario Kart tourneys? OH YES.

Sierra is the co-founder of a video game company and desperately wants to go to a German convention to promote the game that she helped build. But she has a terrible anxiety about public speaking due to a traumatic past incident that she needs to get over. The trick? She decides to participate in a contest at a local bar where people get up and read their cringiest stories to get a free drink and a chance to move forward for the $1000 cash prize.

While at the bar, she meets all these people from high school and college, including a past flame and an ex-geek who had a major glow-up. Sierra has terrible self-esteem issues and is used to settling for less, so it's difficult for her to tell whether or not she's really interested in someone or if it's just a physical thing. Which guy will make her feel good about herself for real? And is it really love?

I liked this book a lot. Actually, 2021 has been a slew of disappointments for me so far so it's honestly really exciting for me to find something that exceeds the three-star mark. But I just couldn't help it! All the geeky references and late-night Mario Kart races had me feeling so nostalgic in the best way. It's so hard to find geeky romances that REALLY get the tone right but this one checked all the boxes. I also loved the bits about Sierra at work, and how much sweat and hours she needed to put in to succeed, despite being passionate about what she did. It really added a lot to the story. I couldn't refrain from posting a ton of updates about my feelings on the characters and everything they did.

The only things I didn't like about this book were the sex scenes and the big misunderstanding. And honestly? The big misunderstanding had a purpose and was handled pretty maturely. But the phrase "pulled me to him like a tractor beam" and a bunch of other weird lines just didn't really do it for me. I think it was because the book was trying to strike a funny tone and I just don't usually like humor blended with the sex. But those were the only peeves I had with this book, which ended up being a stand-out in the nerdy romance genre. If you love games, or work in tech, you'll love this.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Trickery by Jaymin Eve


DNF @ 43%

Last year, I decided that if I wasn't enjoying a book, I wasn't going to make myself finish it because life is too short to read bad or even mediocre books. If I give a book a one star, that means I thought it was pretty bad. A two star means I probably could have finished it but just didn't see the point. That's kind of how I feel about TRICKERY.

I can definitely see why TRICKERY is so popular. It has the breathless, madcap vibe of some of those stories that used to be really popular on the website, Quizilla, which I used actively as a teen. I actually probably would have enjoyed this story a lot when I was thirteen or fourteen because a lot of the popular stories on Quizilla were reverse-harem (although they weren't called that back then-- they had names like I'm a Girl Trapped in an All Boys' Boarding School or Would an Angel, a Demon, or a Vampire Fall for You?). 

The heroine, Willa, along with her friend, Emmy, end up being taken to serve at a school for gods-in-the-making. Emmy is taken because she is brilliant but Willa, who is so clumsy people say she's cursed, was a mistake. Not that anyone is sorry to see her go. Once at the school, Willa, with her clumsiness and her attitude, catches the attention of five brothers: a twin and a triplet set who each possess the manifestation of some particular element.

I took issue with a couple things that kept me from finishing. The heroine is very immature and so are all of the other characters. Even though this is kind of new adult-feeling, the characters all feel very young and the jokes are juvenile and not all that funny to me, a thirty-year-old woman. The tone also feels very chatty and modern, which was an issue I had with Jennifer Armentrout's vampire fantasy novel, so actually if you enjoy that book, you'll probably enjoy this. They felt similar in tone.

I think this is mostly a case of "it's not you, it's me."

2 out of 5 stars

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan


So I guess this is a loose retelling of A ROOM WITH A VIEW and I was excited about it ever since I heard Kevin Kwan was coming out with a new book because CRAZY RICH ASIANS was so addictive and I compulsively devoured all the books in that series, and I totally expected SEX AND VANITY to be more of the same.

Lucie, the heroine, is half-Asian and half-white. When we meet her, she's still very young and attending the (interracial) wedding of a family friend with her WASP-y white family and all of the prestigious attendees in Capri. There, she meets George Zao, a Chinese boy from Hong Kong whose showy mother makes all of the reserved and snooty white ladies (and other Asian ladies) cringe. But Lucie is intrigued by George and his quiet mystery and the fact that he doesn't really seem to care what anyone thinks about him. They end up having an encounter that goes horribly wrong and then we see Lucie as a fully grown adult, now an art appraiser and engaged to be married to a prissy man of Latinx heritage named Cecil. But then George walks into her life again and all of her old feelings come flowing back...

I have a lot of mixed thoughts about this book. On the one hand, I liked Lucie a lot as a heroine. She reminded me more of Astrid than Rachel (which is fun, because Astrid has a cameo in here!); she comes from a life of incredible privilege and everyone sees her as a cool trendy girl, but she really struggles with her biracial identity-- not being "white" enough for her white relatives, being "other" to her Asian relatives. I feel like there were also more discussions about the stratification of class and wealth in the U.S. Even though the U.S. does not have nobility the way some parts of the world still do, money does accord status and prestige, and the older your money is, the more respected you are. The oldest, wealthiest families in the U.S. have the same status as the lords and ladies of Europe, and no matter how much money you make influencing or whatever, you can't buy that kind of respect.

That said, this book didn't suck me in the way the CRA series did. There were just way too many info-dumps about conspicuous consumption and I began skimming over all of the portions talking about labels, brands, etc. (The Gossip Girl books had the same problem.) There were a couple funny observations, which I noted in my updates for the book, but it took up WAY too much of the word count. It's also not really a straightforward romance/saga in the way that CRA was. There were way too few scenes between George and Lucie, which made me sad because I thought they had great chemistry. I liked Rosemary and Marian a lot, and was pleasantly surprised by the arc of Charlotte's character, but I just didn't really feel the depth of the secondary characters the way I did with the cast of the CRA books.

The thing that really vibed the strongest with me, though, was Lucie's struggle as an art adviser with promoting her own paintings. I felt that so strongly because I'm a book blogger who also self-publishes, and it almost feels like a breach of trust when I try to advertise or sell my own work to my friends because they trust my recommendations and I don't want to compare my own books with the greats, because who am I to make presumptions at the expense of that trust? This isn't really something that's talked about much within the art industry-- what it's like to be both critic and artiste-- so it was very refreshing to see it here.

Overall, I think that this book is a bit better than a lot of people are making it out to be, but it doesn't match the quality of the author's debut at all and I can see why people were disappointed.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes


Ever since I heard this book was supposed to be like Knives Out, I was super interested, since that's one of my favorite movies of all time for its brilliant plotting, complex characters, sympathetic protagonist, and brilliant satire about class stratification in the U.S. Obviously with a comparison like that, a book has huge boots to fill and sadly, I'm not sure THE INHERITANCE GAMES can really hack it. If anything, it's more like a modern, reverse-harem version of THE WESTING GAME, but since that book is older (from the 1970s) and more obscure, I guess such a comparison won't sell as many copies.

Avery is a poor teenager who lives with her older sister who is constantly in this off again, on again thing with an abusive boyfriend. One day, she finds out she's become the heiress to one of the nine biggest fortunes in the world-- even though she's pretty sure she has no relation to the eccentric billionaire. So why her? That's what everyone else in the family would like to know, too.

I really forced myself to keep reading because I thought the beginning was really interesting, but I quickly began to get bored, as you can see from my status updates. The romance felt forced and I wasn't as amazed by the "puzzles" as my friends seem to be, and I thought the "twist" at the end was hugely anticlimactic and disappointing. I really don't care about any of these characters and I don't think I'll be reading the sequel. Younger readers will probably enjoy this but I couldn't suspend my disbelief.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Master of Salt & Bones by Keri Lake


DNF @ 66%

I was so sure I was going to love MASTER OF SALT & BONE and there were some things about it I did enjoy. I'm a fan of old skool Gothic romances from the 60s and 70s and this book did manage to capture some of the things that make those books so great. I also liked the slow burn between the protagonists (YAAAAAS, sexual tension!) and all of the backstory. I'm a fan of dual timelines and I thought Lake did a pretty good job employing them to great effect here.

I actually ended up setting this aside around the 40% mark for several months because I got bored but then I found myself thinking about it and I needed to clean up a spot on my KU so I could start checking out more books. I think I'm going to put it down for good at the 66% mark. I don't really like the sex scenes and the book ended up getting a little too weird for me. To be clear, the darkness of the content didn't really bother me at all... this just turned into something that I'm not into and I really didn't like the way the writing style developed.

I can see why other people liked this and will probably check out some of this author's other works, but this ended up being a disappointment for me.

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata


CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN is a really interesting book that analyzes social norms from within the microcosm of a Japanese convenience store. Keiko has never been "normal" and probably has Asperger's. Most of the things that people do confuse her and she's learned to fit in by imitating others, but the strongest anchor in her life is her job as a convenience store clerk, where she has worked without advancement for eighteen years.

She finds her job at a convenience store comforting and has learned and internalized all the cues that make the job go more smoothly, whether it's watching a man pat his pocket to determine that he is going to pay with a card, to when certain items move fastest, to the importance of greeting and bowing with the appropriate level of deferential enthusiasm. But Keiko is no longer a fresh university graduate; she is now a single, childless woman in her thirties and people are far less tolerant of her unusual profession now than they were when she was young.

I liked the beginning of the book the best because I went to Japan three years ago and the convenience stores there really are so amazing, I actually really enjoyed hearing Keiko talk about her work. They aren't like the ones in the United States: they have things like fresh baked goods, sliced brie, and fresh ready-to-eat meals, like onigiri balls and big logs of tamago. Since I often couldn't eat out at the places we went to for lunch, I quickly learned to stock up at the konbini. 

The book gets scathing and critical with the introduction of a misogynist who Keiko ends up getting involved with because she sees his hatred and frustration with women, in her weird, hyper-logical way, as being simpatico with her own desires: he's tired of being ignored and wants someone to take care of him. And Keiko thinks that having him in her life will ease the ceaseless questions about the absence of men in hers. It does-- horribly, even though he is jobless and has no prospects, people suddenly become much more tolerant and welcoming of her, and the chilling message seems to be that "typical dysfunctionality" is preferred to "atypical functionality" because what society does not understand, it eschews. It's a sad message but illustrated to great effect in this book.

CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN is a quick read but not a particularly happy one. I don't think it's something you'd want to pick up if you're sad or already feeling frustrated with the world, but I did enjoy the opportunity it provided to revisit the convenience stores of Japan and I think it did a good job conveying the message it wanted to say without coming across as heavy-handed.

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Butterfly Effect by Rachel Mans McKenny


DNF @ p.49

I'm not sure what I was expecting with this one but it wasn't what I got. The blurb compares this book to THE ROSIE PROJECT, but I've read THE ROSIE PROJECT and didn't think they were really all that similar apart from having leads who both appeared to be on the autism spectrum. The science hook really got me but I was kind of disappointed that the heroine's alleged passion for what she did didn't really translate into the narrative (imo). The writing was flat and the heroine was incredibly unlikable. I get what the author was trying to do with her character, but I'm not entirely sure she succeeded and it's really hard to root for a character you aren't engaged with and don't even really like (especially if they aren't interesting). I skimmed to the end after quitting, just to see if it got better. It didn't.

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

1 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 18, 2021

Zen Meditation for Beginners: A Practical Guide to Inner Calm by Bonnie Myotai Treace


I got this book, ZEN MEDITATION FOR BEGINNERS, because I have anxiety, and sometimes when I'm fretting I end up staying up for most of the night unable to sleep and feeling literally sick to my stomach. Several people have recommended meditation to me, so when I had the chance to obtain a copy of this book, I was very excited since it seemed like one of those fated moments.

This book seems to be more for spiritual meditation than for psychological/wellness meditation, and while there is some overlap between those two things, I'm not sure that all of these exercises will necessarily benefit someone who is prone to anxiety. One of the exercises is to examine whether you have a habit of negative self-speak. You're not supposed to correct it, just to sit there and acknowledge it. Um. Yeah, I do. That's part of the reason I'm up until 4am some nights. Because I'm acknowledging my negative self-speak. I have, shall we call it, an over-indulgence of "acknowledging my negative self-speak."

Another exercise is to meditate on a time that you felt insulted and how it affected your self-identity. I can see how this might be a beneficial exercise to someone neurotypical, but again, for someone with anxiety, I'm not sure this is a great tip. One of the things about anxiety is that you sometimes fall into the negative cycle of revisiting past incidents that made you feel bad and I think that this exercise could send someone down that spiral.

There were a couple good tips in here, like breathing exercises and meditating on kind things you can do for other people, but overall this book wasn't what I hoped it was or needed it to be. I'm sure it will work for someone else.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews


This review is going to contain very mild spoilers that are mostly mentioned on the back of the book jacket. WHO IS MAUD DIXON is a Patricia Highsmith-esque tale of stolen identity and opportunism. Maud Dixon is the best-selling author of a work of literary fiction called Mississippi Foxtrot, a tale of murder and obsession. Nobody knows who the author is, which means that his or her identity is the subject of much speculation among the literary crowd.

Florence, a young aspiring author in her mid-twenties, is one of these. She is a desperate social-climber with a wavering moral compass who wants to fit in to the upper-class elite of the New York literary scene, but no matter what she does, she looks like a hapless poseur. All of that changes when she's offered the opportunity to work with the real Maud Dixon as an assistant, which results in life lessons, writing lessons, and a spur of the moment trip to Morocco for book research.

Obviously, the real Maud Dixon is nothing like what Florence expected. But then-- Florence isn't exactly what she expected, either.

For about 50% of this book I was in love with it... and then it sort of fell apart, pacing-wise and character-wise. Let's just say there were some questionable decisions towards the end that had me rolling my eyes a little. I liked the Morocco portions a lot and I love a good mystery about writers who act crazy, but I just felt that things got a little too unbelievable and required too much suspension of disbelief. Was this book bad? No. I did enjoy it. It just didn't wow me like I wanted it to.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn


I was so happy when Charlotte agreed to buddy-read this book with me because SUMMERS AT CASTLE AUBURN has been on my to-read list for a while and highly anticipated books are always better with friends. This is a young adult fantasy, kind of like a de-fanged version of Paula Volsky's ILLUSION. Our heroine, Corie, is an illegitimate noble who comes to Castle Auburn every summer to see her true-born sister, the crown prince, his brother, and the servants.

Corie's uncle, Jaxon, is a noble who makes a fortune capturing and selling the fae-like Aliora, who kind of remind me of the Alichino from the Japanese fantasy manga. Corie has always taken her fae-like servants for granted but as she gets older, she starts to realize that taking sentient beings and treating them like possessions isn't exactly... good. And when someone you love is causing so much pain to others, the cognitive dissonance that arises from that can be incredibly uncomfortable.

Style-wise, I think this will appeal to fans of Sherwood Smith. Corie is not a very compelling narrator and many of the other characters have more dimension than she does, the privileged, witchy MC who slowly starts to recognize the harmful nature of her own ignorance even as she comes into her own magic powers. More interesting is Elisandra, the beautiful, correct and prim sister who ends up proving somewhat surprising. Bryan, the villain, is a red-haired Joffrey you'll love to hate. And Jaxon, Corie's uncle, is proof that sometimes we seek to harm what we desire but can't possess.

I think I would have liked this more as a teen. As an adult, I thought it was a little heavy-handed, but it was still interesting and I'm really glad I could read it for the first time with a friend. If you're a fan of Sherwood Smith, Tamora Pierce, Paula Volsky, or Tanya Huff, I think you'll really enjoy this author.

3 out of 5 stars

Sicilian Millionaire, Bought Bride by Yu Senke


Yu Senke is a new artist to me but I love their work. Sadly, the story they were adapting wasn't very good. The basic premise is that a woman dies of leukemia and her last wish is that her husband marry her best friend so she can be a mom to her child. Said friend is also widowed (her husband died) and has a son of her own. But I guess her dead BFF was like #yolo, I want what's best for my kid and who cares what you might or might not want for your own kid???? LOL

Beyond the grave entitlement.


Anyway, of course the guy is super rich and the heroine ends up going along with this marriage of convenience scam. You think at first that the mom might be mean, but she is actually the only sane one in the story: she thinks this is a bit ridiculous. I agree. 

Yatta yatta jealousy, kid shenanigans, sexual tension, pregnancy, car accident, "oops I guess I also love you," HEA.

Not a fan of this one.

2 out of 5 stars

The Amalfi Bride by Marito Ai


I wish I could meet Marito Ai because I feel like she and I probably have really similar tastes in books. Every single manga adaption I've read from her has been wonderful-- even the ones with the silly titles-- and she's become one of those artists I actively seek out because I love her style and her work so much. Part of me hopes that these mangaka read the romance novels they choose to adapt prior to adapting them and then choose the ones they like best. Something about that just really appeals to me-- it's like the highest level of fanfiction, almost like directing a movie adaptation but with art.

THE AMALFI BRIDE has a really interesting plot. Basically, our heroine is a lawyer named Regina who doesn't need no man and plans to have a child with a surrogate and live with another woman (either her sister or a friend, I forget which-- friend, I think) who's doing the same thing. 

Her tune changes a bit when she sees a hot guy at a bar she assumes is a gigolo because he wears plain clothes and she's constantly seeing him in the company of other woman. Taking a risk, she decides to try to catch his attention and obtain his "services," but he isn't who she thinks he is, and her night with him turns into three, which quickly turns into a big misunderstanding.

I liked this story a lot and I don't want to say too much more because it'll spoil the twist (which I wasn't really expecting-- haha, I'm such a clown). I would give this a higher rating if not for the hero deciding to be a raging jerk in the last act and one of his relatives gaslighting the heroine by saying that people are only angry when they're worried. I'm sorry, but that's the rhetoric of abusers and seeing that used when the couple was so sweet together up until that horrible rage-quit moment was kind of sad.

I still really enjoyed this story and I will round up to a four but that really left a sour taste in my mouth. Doesn't make Marito Ai any less of a talent, though, and I'll continue to seek out her delightfully trashy adaptations of HQ romance novels.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Powerful Persuasion by Ayako Shibata


Art is incredibly pretty but the story is dumb. I'm with the other GR reviewer who was hating on the hero. This is a lot like The Proposal with Sandra Bullock only stupid and without the charm. Hero is a sleaze who hires the heroine for a legit-sounding position only to take her to his family and announce that she's going to be his fake fiance to appease his VERY TRADITIONAL Italian grandmother (and does he tell her before he meets the family?? hahaha no).

There's also a jealous, cheating OW and a car accident, so it feels very soap opera-y. I'm rounding up for the strangeness of it all and because I liked the art, but there isn't much to say about this one.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Cindrella Solution by Kyoko Sagara


DNF @ 75%

Okay, so I just double-blinded myself into proving how consistent I am as a reviewer, because the #1 complaint among my critics is that I'm biased by the author into not giving them a chance. Well, this was so boring and I decided to DNF, and I just happened to look and see who the author was and it was Cathy Yardley and no hate on her because I love Fandom Hearts but I REALLY don't like her early contemporaries and many, many years ago, I actually read another book in this exact series of contemporary fairytale retellings (THE AWAKENING OF SLEEPING BEAUTY) and it was so boring that I one-starred that sucker and NOPED right out of there.

So, I may be a jerk, but at least I'm a consistent jerk.

The art was okay but I really didn't like the story. I do recommend Fandom Hearts if you love geeky heroines who are passionate about being in STEM and smashing the adamantium ceiling. But her earlier work just really doesn't do it for me, sadly. This is proof.

1 out of 5 stars

The Spanish Billionaire's Pregnant Wife by Tomoko Takakura


This was the last book in a three-book bundle that are all about an interconnected series of romance novels about women finding love with rich guys who are all connected in a surprising and unexpected way. I wasn't expecting the connection in the second book so it was fun waiting for it in the third, kind of but not really knowing what would happen. I like it when romance novels are linked.

This book is about a waitress named Molly who catches the eye of a rich Spanish guy who's a business man and also a duke, because when rich guys do things, they don't do them by halves. They have a night of unprotected passion which results in the usual thing, and suddenly he's all like "MARRY ME AND LET ME MAKE AN HONEST WOMAN OUT OF YOU AND MY HEIR." And she's like, "Okay," but the mother is totally 100% NOT okay with that.

Drama ensues. Also, the hero is jealous AF and there's some secret drama between him and his late wife and the heroine lives in the house of a rich landlord who might also like her? And it's just. So. Much. Drama. Like, I seriously can't even.

This one was fine. So far I liked the second book in this bundle the best. The first one had a good story but bad art. The second one had good art and a good story. This one has a bad story but good art. I'm going to give it a three but it would be a four if it weren't so happy with the big misunderstandings.

3 out of 5 stars