Sunday, February 28, 2021

Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses by Kristen O'Neal


My thoughts for LYCANTHROPY AND OTHER CHRONIC ILLNESSES are kind of all over the place. There were things about it that I really loved and things about it that I didn't like as much. But one thing it did that I think is really fascinating is that it compares lycanthropy to chronic pain illnesses, choosing to focus on what impacts constant shape-shifting might take on the body, the muscle pain and bruising that could ensue, the gastrointestinal distress from inhuman diets (e.g. raw and possibly rancid meat), and what havoc it might wreak with hormone levels. I thought that was a unique take, one that I can't recall seeing being done before.

Priya, the heroine, is a Christian Tamil girl who has just been stricken with the "bad" kind of Lyme disease that causes lifelong health problems. Originally a pre-med student at Stanford, she's been forced to take a leave of absence due to health issues where she has returned to live with family in New Jersey to try and manage her joint pain and lethargy. To help cope, she talks with her online friend, Brigid, and a Discord server group for other people with chronic health issues/pain called "Oof, My Bones."

When Brigid goes missing one day, Priya automatically assumes the worst and drives down to check up on her friend, who has been seeming increasingly aloof and depressed. She's shocked to find a big, wolf-like beast in her friend's home and even more shocked when, once she returns with Animal Control, she finds her friend, naked, in the bathroom where she thought she left the wolf. Is her friend... the wolf?! (I mean, obviously, but let's play along here.)

I can't speak to the accuracy of the Tamil rep or the chronic pain rep, but most of what I read seemed to make sense. Which actually ties into one of the issues I had with the book which might actually be fine-- inconsistent tone. This book wavers between light-hearted good feelings and soft friendships and really, really dark. Some of the characters get frustrated, fed-up, and depressed. There were several moments in here that almost made me cry. And since chronic pain doesn't go away or lasts for a long time, I guess it makes sense that those highs and lows would be reflected here? It just felt weird to me, as a reader, because it felt like the book was wildly oscillating between extremes but once I finished, I decided that this could just be a reflection of the characters trying to make the best out of a bad situation, like someone else might be trying to do with gallows humor and the like. Just be forewarned that there are major mental health triggers in this book, as well as detailed descriptions of physical ailments.

A lot of the book is written in chat-speak and it felt natural but could also be tedious to read. The last act of the story really drags and becomes almost heist-like in terms of plot, which was fine, but I felt went on too long, and it felt as if it were written in such a way that the author was figuring out how the book was going to end as she went along and took us all along on that stumbling journey. The end result of that was that it felt like this book was about eighty pages longer than it should have been. I did like the ending, though, which seemed to be about accepting the bodies we're given and making the best of what we've got, which I think is a really positive message. I've read other books about physical ailments which took on a decidedly ableist perspective, and the "it's okay not to be okay" message of this one where the focus of the book was on a supernatural/adventure element instead of on the ailments of the characters themselves as the central conflict was actually really refreshing.

I will note two things: 1) the wolf on the cover is NOT Priya, but her best friend, Brigid, in werewolf form, and 2) there was some concern from South Asian reviewers that the rep in this book wasn't completely accurate since it isn't #ownvoices, so if you have similar concerns, I'd check out some of those reviews for specific details.

Also, if you read this and find yourself thinking "You know, I'd really like to read more paranormal books with Indian rep that actually feature Indian shape-shifters," check out THE DEVOURERS by Indra Das.

Overall, this was a very unusual and interesting journey with some emotional ups and downs and I look forward to seeing what else this author comes up with.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Lords of Pain by Angel Lawson


Oh my God. I feel like I need to turn in my feminism card and maybe set fire to my search history for good measure so no one will ever know that I read this book. It's easily one of the most trashy and ridiculous things I've ever picked up-- ever-- boasting a collection of tropes that usually make me want to rip out my hair and scream. And yet... I didn't hate it? Why didn't I hate it? This book was wrong, wrong, wrong, and I read it in less than 24 hours.


As others have said, the premise requires that you really suspend your disbelief and be really comfortable reading problematic content. This is basically the 21st century equivalent with a bodice-ripper. It opens up with a really graphic scene of non-con where the heroine is forced to blow one guy while another one fingers her. She's wearing slutty clothes because she's a cam girl on a sugar baby website for horny old dudes and the guys are all in a mean, ugly mood because one of them was brutally dumped by his girlfriend and they've all been drinking. It's ugly.

Cut to several years later and the heroine is armored in bitterness and out seeking revenge and the dudes are hosting weird auditions for a Who Wants to Be Our Gang Bang-ee contest for their next live-in whore, called, ironically, "The Lady." Because college, am I right?

Ostensibly, these are college guys but they have the emotional maturity of fourteen-year-olds and there isn't a whisper of school assignments to be found in this book. If you pick this up expecting a typical college-age romance, you're going to be very disappointed. Mood-wise, it's more like one of those mafia romances or motorcycle club romances. The men are all super aggro and sleazy and everything revolves around dick-swinging contests, one-upsmanship, violence, and sex. Speaking as someone who actually went to a pretty fancy college and hung out with some people who were in fraternities, no it is nothing like this. It needed to be said. This is more like a very intense, very smutty Japanese hentai manga take on college experience, by which I mean, it's all about the drama, llamas.

Anyway, the heroine-- whose name is Story-- goes to the audition and the dudes, Killian, Tristan, and Rath, decide they want her to be the live-in whore. So she's put in their house and given a huge contract that would make even Christian Grey say, "That's too much, my dudes." And then they proceed to construct a game where they get points for doing sexual things with Story (e.g. blow job gets X points, with bonus points if she volunteers it or if they do it in public, and so on and so forth), with the person who gets the most points winning Story's virginity as the prize. They're also in rivalries with other frats who also have their own live-in whores who are being groomed for some sort of contest and I was really confused about how this all worked, but it didn't seem to matter too much because #sex.

Also, Story is being stalked by some serial killer-ish dude who also has a hard-on for her virginity and has been stalking her since her cam girl days. Go to the police? Nahhhh. Too easy. Too convenient.

I normally hate heroes like this. I still hated these heroes but I honestly couldn't put the book down to save my precious female ego. The story was like crack-- addictive, bad for you, and liable to make others judge you for your poor life choices. I just had to know what was going to happen next. No matter how implausible the premise, the story-telling was tight. I had to know what was going to happen. I wanted Story to stand up for herself and get revenge on these fuckers... and she kind of did? One of my other friends didn't like this book because she was such a victim in this and while I suppose that's true, she did manage to get in a few sneaky attempts at revenge. The fetishization of her virginity was super icky and that's something I never really got over, which is why I deducted a star. I just... I really, really hate that trope. I don't mind virgin heroines but the way it was handled here? Super squick.

Trigger warnings are all over the place. The heroine is seventeen in the opening chapter, I think, where she gets raped by her stepbrother (oh, yeah, did I mention Killian is her stepbrother??? GROSS) and his two friends. She's also been molested and groomed by her stepfather (mostly implied, although there's one scene told through Killian's eyes where he sees something). Dub-con and non-con are scattered throughout this book and there's all sorts of problematic quotes and stuff that's misogynistic and gross. Underage drinking is also a common motif (probably the only realistic element in this college book lol) and there's violent sex, fighting, and also one scene that actually-- shockingly-- involves murder.

Also, foul language?? EVERYWHERE. Don't read this if you hate the F-bomb.

I normally don't even pick stories like these up but Namera's fantastic review sold me on the book and like her, I ended up really enjoying it even though part of me was like "oh no." If you like dark, smutty stories that are unapologetic trash and make no beef about it, this is definitely the book for you.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Flawed by Kate Avelynn


I'm going to get on my soapbox before I begin my review and talk about something I've seen a lot of people arguing about on the internet: tough subjects and antiheroes in fiction. A lot of reviewers and authors seem to assume that if a reader dislikes a story for having unlikable characters and an ugly plot, they are milquetoast pearl-clutchers who can't stomach the harsh truths and grey lines of reality.

Everyone is entitled to like what they like and if someone is a milquetoast pearl-clutcher who can't deal with the harsh realities etc. of life, that's their business. But there are different ways to go about approaching a dark story, and a character can be unlikable because of bad writing or bad character development and not because she's an edgy edgelord who edges close to the edge. Likewise, a plot can come across as being cheap and overly sensationalistic rather than the complex morality conundrum an author and his or her readers seem to think it is.

This is not specific to this author or her readers who, as far as I can tell, seem pretty chill. But it's something I thought about while reading because even though it's an interesting story with very dark themes, I did question the reasons behind some of their choices. This is a story about incest and abuse, and two siblings who end up closer than they should be because of the nature of their home life. Sarah lives in terror of her father's physical and sexual abuse and turns to her brother for protection. But her brother is very much his father's son in a lot of ways, and it isn't long before she beings to fear his protection as much as she used to need it.

There is a phenomenon in psychology called "learned helplessness" which is a horrible name for the behavior patterns that people suffering from depression and chronic abuse sometimes learn-- which is that, in the absence of any real control over the horrible things that happen to them that cause emotional and physical pain, it takes far fewer resources psychologically to just give up and shut down. It's why "just leave" doesn't work for those living in bad domestic situations and "just cheer up" doesn't work for people suffering from major depression. They literally cannot help the choices they make or the things they feel, and changing their behavior and thought patterns can require medication and therapy.

I bring this up because Sarah was a very frustrating and passive character and while this does work, some of her decisions felt questionable even within the framework of her situation-- such as her desire not to use a condom with her boyfriend (luckily, he refuses), and going to her brother again and again even when she knows that he might actually hurt her or the people she cares about. It's interesting and difficult having a character who is this damaged as a narrator because it requires so much subtlety and keen insights into her psychological underpinnings that she becomes almost an unreliable narrator who is completely out of tune with her own mind, as well as her reality.

James was an interesting character and his battle between wanting to protect his sister and give into his own darker nature was fascinating. I saw other reviewers talking about how he was the real star of the book and I think that's true. He was a very complex and tragic character but because of what he did, it was impossible to like him. The father was basically a cardboard cutout of a character-- a small town celebrity who can't let go of his own glorified past, whose alcoholism taps into and unleashes his narcissism and violent impulses. But despite that, he was pretty frightening.

The end result is a story that doesn't really have any likable characters, except maybe for Sam. All of their friends were awful and the rest of the town seemed to turn a blind eye to the father's actions because of his celebrity status. It's an interesting experiment but it's hard to say if this is a story I "enjoyed" because even though the author didn't romanticize the story, it wasn't really entertaining in a literal sense and the ending was such a downer that I would never want to reread this book. I can see why some people love this book because apart from Tabitha Suzuma's FORBIDDEN and FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, there aren't a lot of stories out there like this, and it's brave to take on such a weighty and controversial subject. But on the other hand, I can see why people hated it, too. It's a tragedy in three acts and if that isn't what you're into, I can see why someone asks themself: "was it worth it?"

Going back to my original point, "edgy" isn't always the draw that some people imagine it to be, and just because you think that darkness has merit, that doesn't mean everyone does, or that every author is equally good at handling it with equal finesse (or that everyone has the same definition of finesse). If you enjoy reading about soap opera-like stories rich in melodrama, difficult subjects, and dysfunctional families, you'll probably love this. It's incredibly well-written and I'm shocked that it's indie because it comes across as very polished and has a solid narrative arc that neatly leads to the inevitable conclusion. It's a shame this author hasn't written more stories...

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 26, 2021

Wet Hot Allosaurus Summer by Lola Faust


One of my friends recommended WET HOT ALLOSAURUS SUMMER to me-- I think because I reviewed all of those coronavirus erotica that were trending a few months ago. You read and review one freaky-deaky wtferotica and suddenly everyone thinks you want to read all the freaky-deaky wtferotica... and they are not wrong. At least not in my case. As soon as I was off work, it was on like dino-kong.

This is actually a collection of works by the publisher. The first story is the title story and then there's a follow-up from an author calling him- or herself Ambrosia Penance called Lord Bartholomew's Ankylosaur Lover, which features some man on anklyosaur lover action... only it stops just as the "couple" actually lock eyes. After that there is a series of "sexcerpts" which seems to be teasers from other dinoroticas from this publisher, and then there are some jokes about how to "properly" have sex with a dinosaur (which I found funny because I guess on the inside I'm secretly a teenager). And then there's another teaser for another erotica called The Elf and the MILF, or something like that.


A not insignificant portion of this book is teaser material and only the first two stories seem to be "complete" (and I'm not sure about the second). Wet Hot Allosaurus was REALLY weird. It kind of reminded me of that KFC-themed romance TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE in that the author seemed to be trying to capture the typical romance style rather than diving right into the porn. I actually have only read a handful of monsterotica books so I was unprepared for the scene where the allosaurus devours the heroine's gangrenous arm-- with love, of course. Um... that gives new meaning to the phrase "I want you inside of me." And not in a good way. And even though the allosaurus takes her virginity and her arm, as soon as they make it to a dino-human love sanctuary-- HE CHEATS ON HER.

What a bastardasaurus.

The second story was boring because it doesn't even have any funny sex scenes. It ends with the hero getting hard, after talking about how green the female anklyosaurus's eyes are several times. I was not impressed with Lord Hard-for-you (my name for him) and his sad dino-boner.

Originally, I considered giving this book two stars but... the cheating in the first story and the lack of consummation in the second (COCK BLOCK!) were super annoying.

If you want to check out the weirdness, this book is free on KU, but I'm not sure I'd pay $3 for it. Giving credit where credit is due, though, I fucking LOVE that cover. I'm not being sarcastic, either-- it is a thing of beauty. It really captures the style of old pulp novels and was honestly the deciding factor in me wanting to read this book. The water damage/mold spot on the upper left corner is *chef's kiss*

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

U Up? by Catie Disabato


Picture Meg Cabot's Mediator or Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas as written through the lens of a BuzzFeed article. Eve is a millennial woman attracted to women living in LA. She works for a start up and recreationally abuses substances while going to clubs and pursuing the latest health food trend. In many ways, she embodies the typical stereotype of the age 20-to-30-something woman except for one crucial way: she receives texts from ghosts.

This is almost an entirely character driven book as we watch Eve track down one of her missing friends, Ezra, when he disappears post-breakup to his girlfriend, Noz. Assisted by her dead best friend, Miggy, she attempts to track him down while dealing with a litany of personal issues. I thought the way that Los Angeles is portrayed here in all of its glittering, sleazy detail was one of the best parts of the book, to be honest. I've only been to LA a handful of times, but it is a city of contrasts, and I think Disabato really captured its highs and lows.

What makes this a three-star read for me is the pacing. The text bubbles were distracting because SO MUCH dialogue was repeated. It would have been better if only the new dialogue was shown instead of the old. There was also way too much wandering. Eve was also an unlikable character, which makes her flawed and realistic but also hard to root for. She also uses offensive language many might take issue with, such as the D-word, although since Eve is, herself, a lesbian, one could argue that she is being self-effacing and reclaiming the word on her own terms.

This was a fun, breezy read. I'd call it a beach read but I don't think many of us are spending much time on beaches right now. Anyone who enjoys books like SIRI, WHO AM I? by Sam Tschia will love this.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman


WHISPER DOWN THE LANE is a psychological horror novel that obviously draws heavy inspiration from the McMartin preschool trial and the "Satanic panic" of the 1980s. It is told in two POVs, one POV from a boy named Sean who lives with his single mother in the 1980s. The other POV is from a jaded art teacher named Richard in the 2010s and his own family. As the book goes on, and the two stories begin to mirror each other, the reader learns how the two connect.

I actually learned a lot about cases like these because I was a psychology major in school and one of the areas I chose to specialize in was cognition. In one portion of my course, we learned a lot about false memories. One of the ways that false memories can be created is by leading questions, which is why police need to be trained in the types of questions they can ask witnesses-- due to the potential of interview contamination. Even the way a question is asked can bias a witness, and as we can see here in this book, small children can be particularly susceptible to those in positions of authorities.

From a research perspective, I think this book was done very well. Anyone who is at all familiar with these cases resulting from the moral panic and mass hysteria is going to recognize the parallels. I also appreciated the author listing all of his sources in the back of the book; it's wonderful that he gave credit where credit is due. (Fewer authors seem to be listing bibliographies these days.) Where this book failed, for me, was from a story-telling perspective. I felt like this author was trying to channel Stephen King, and noticed several of King's tics here-- disembodied quotes and dialogue, insertions of seemingly innocent pop-culture slogans or song lyrics used in a sinister way-- but it kept pulling me out of the narrative because the way it was done felt so cheesy, and it was done so much.

I also... didn't really like or sympathize with any of the characters? Everyone was so awful. I felt sorry for Sean but... what he did was bad. And Richard wasn't great, either. He's so cynical that he makes pulp noir detectives look like Polyannas. And while I can understand why he acts and thinks the way he does given his background, it made it hard to root for him or be invested in his story. There's also a pretty graphic animal death in this book that occurs at just under halfway through (47% by my count?) that I found pretty upsetting. I kept reading, hoping that the ending would somehow redeem the book for me, but it just ended up making everything feel just as bleak and misanthropic and hopeless.

Usually, Quirk books are fun and campy-- kind of like an homage to pulp horror. One of their most famous authors is Grady Hendrix, and THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB'S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES is about as these books usually get, but the horror in that book felt like dark comic book violence, whereas this, tonally, felt much more grim and desolate. I'm reading another book from them right now called LYCANTHROPY AND OTHER CHRONIC ILLNESSES which is more typical of their brand: light, quirky fiction, often with a bizarre supernatural bent.

I didn't hate this book and I think people who love depressing 80s horror movies will love this. I, however, did not.

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Maddest Obsession by Danielle Lori


I was obsessed with book one, THE SWEETEST OBLIVION. I normally hate mafia romances but after I finished TSO, I was thinking about Nico and Elena for days and how explosive their chemistry was, and how much I loved the action sequences and the show-not-tell elements of the story. It was like watching a movie unfold in book form and I couldn't put it down. I finished it in just a few hours.

Obviously that meant I couldn't wait to jump into the sequel, THE MADDEST OBSESSION, which is about Christian Allister, the dirty fed who's in deep with the Abellis. And who is his love interest but Gianna, Nico's stepmother. She's basically like Harley Quinn if Harley Quinn were a mafia princess (so basically Margot Robbie a la Birds of Prey). I loved her outfits and in the beginning, I loved her smart mouth and her attitude. I thought this would be just as amazing as the prequel.

And then... something went wrong and it took me forEVER to get through this book. Gianna's sarcasm started to get less witty and more childish and Christian just felt like a pale, washed-out imitation of Nico. It's still leagues better than any mafia romance I've read but it didn't have the vivid, cinematic, larger-than-life element that drew me into the first book. The scenes with the therapist felt way too similar to The Sopranos, like it was a cheap attempt to show us that Christian was deep. I didn't like how the couple seemed to revel in their latex allergy, despite the fact that both of them had been with other people. I felt like Christian came off as controlling and stalkery like certain other Christians I could name. It just... didn't click.

I will say that I appreciate the author writing heroines who are in control of their sexuality and the inclusion of colorful side characters (although TSO was better at this). I also thought Christian had a truly dark backstory that was genuinely heart-wrenching. I also, again, loved all of Gianna's outfits. Since it was mentioned that she owned a Singer, I think she made a lot of them herself, which I thought was really cool. It was a good book... but with way more ups and downs than the first one and I just didn't enjoy it the way I wanted. I'll probably read more in the series and definitely more by this author, period, but I'm not quite as excited to meet Ronan as I was.

Thanks to Annalice for reading this with me!

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Blacksmith Queen by G.A. Aiken


DNF @ 31%

Ahhh, I feel so bad, but this just wasn't for me. There is something about this book that has a definitive YA feel only with more swearing and bloodshed (but the violence is very cartoon-y, so it's not too bad). I loved the girl power elements and the flouting of typical stock fantasy tropes-- especially ones pertaining to gender-- but the constant bickering between the characters wore on my nerves because it felt so juvenile to me. I think people who enjoy Kiersten White and Sarah J. Maas will like this a lot. It just wasn't for me.

I buddy-read this with my wonderful friend, Maraya, so be sure to check out her review. I'm sure it will be much more positive than mine!

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Something Like Gravity by Amber Smith


DNF @ p.120

The beginning of this story was really interesting but then it quickly became too bland for me. I liked Chris more than I liked Maia, but I didn't really like the romance between them. I understand that this is a book about grief and suffering, but I wasn't all that happy with the way it's done here. It's also worth noting that several #ownvoices reviewers took issue with the way the trans rep was handled.

This isn't a bad book, it's just a not for me book. I've been letting it sit for days, untouched, and I just don't think I'm going to get around to finishing it.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Out of Heaven's Grasp by V.J. Chambers


OUT OF HEAVEN'S GRASP is so good. It's a contemporary new adult thriller about an FLDS-inspired cult called the people of Life. Narrated in first person with dual POVs, our two protagonists are Jesse and Abigail, two teenagers living in the compound. When they're caught holding hands, Jesse is kicked out forever and Abigail is married off as the fourth wife to one of the Elders in the community, which is where their stories diverge and become incredibly interesting.

Abigail is treated poorly by her husband and some of the other lives and, torn from her loving family and treated like an interloper in her new one, she begins to question the "doctrines" she's been parroting her whole life. Jesse, on the other hand, becomes wildly out of control and his life begins to fall apart in the absence of order as he learns about everything he missed out on in his isolated community while swinging from one dead-end job to the next and experimenting with drugs.

This is a very dark story but I think it was handled incredibly well. Even the bad guys have nuances and layers, and the "good" guys, including Abigail and Jesse, feel like very flawed individuals-- to the point where it isn't always easy to like them or understand their choices. I'm not really sure I would call this book a romance, despite the connection between Jesse and Abigail, because so much of the focus is on their stories and the way the cult controls all aspects of their life, including ones that aren't immediately obvious.

I actually recommend reading the afterword because Chambers talks about some of her sources for inspiration and also about her own experience growing up in an extremist fringe religion. I ended up reading the whole thing because it was so interesting. I could tell the author really did her research because everything felt so convincing and realistic, but knowing that the author had a personal stake in it made it feel even more precious. I definitely recommend OUT OF HEAVEN'S GRASP to anyone who likes stories about cults or dark new adult books that veer away from the usual tropes.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Victorious Star by Morgan Hawke


Okay, so I actually ended up loving this because it was like a more explicit version of Linnea Sinclair's Dock Five Universe or Ann Aguirre's Sirantha Jax series, and as a Star Trek AND Star Wars junkie who is starved for romantic sci-fi that has GOOD world-building, VICTORIOUS STAR was practically a godsend. I knew from the very beginning that it was going to be good. A strong heroine who can psychically interface with ships who's on the run from the laws that be? YES. And she gets caught by a sadistic captain and his gleefully mischievous second in command who is basically like a hot vampire elf alien with some VERY interesting physical attributes? DOUBLE YES.

This is basically smut with plot, but the plot is so good that at times it almost overpowers the smut. If you've read C.S. Pacat's THE CAPTIVE PRINCE, this is similar in terms of themes and the plot-to-erotic content ratio, although VICTORIOUS STAR goes a step further with some really edgy stuff, including body modifications and some other things that I am not usually keen on but worked for the story because it was science-fiction and actually tied into the plot.

Parts of this book share similar themes with the Omegaverse erotica, including hierarchies, knots, and major dub-con. Especially in the beginning, where it's like, "Whoa, omg." At times this book could be seriously brutal, but-- again-- the author made it work with good writing and serious character development. It never felt like the author was apologizing for such behaviors; instead, there was an acknowledgement that what these characters were doing was beyond the pale, but that's just how they rolled. And honestly... again... it kind of worked.

I thought Ravnos and Seht were both hot and I liked their relationship with each other almost as much as I liked their relationship with Victoria. The third book in the series is actually a prequel to this one which is about how they met-- I was surprised by the twist! Actually-- I was surprised by a lot of twists. In some ways, this is like really well-written fanfiction, because the universe is so developed that it leaves the author fully free to explore her characters and their motivations. I'm super impressed at how naturally it all flowed and I love, love, loved the idea of sentient spaceships and the court intrigue among Seht's people, who really were a lot like the characters in CAPTIVE PRINCE.

My only complaint is that there was some not-so-great writing in that the author was overly fond of words that I really don't like (personal preference), and they occurred with enough frequency that they pulled me out of the story and made me go "ew." Ditto some things that happened in the scenes with these characters that just pushed my comfort zone too much. It's a tribute to this writer's skills, honestly, that she was able to get away with things that would ordinarily have me chucking a book across the room, but it definitely made this book a four star read instead of a five star one, although I think it was good enough to be a keeper that I'll want to periodically reread.

If you like edgy reads and gritty space operas, you'll love this book.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Initiation by Nikki Sloane


Will this book be the next Great American Novel? No. Do I really care? NOPE! THE INITIATION was recommended to me by someone who knows that I love dark, trashy, off-the-wall reads and it kind of reads like a 1970s bodice-ripper in that it is unapologetically trashy with some pretty messed-up scenes. I've read a lot of crazy stuff and even I was like "OH WOW WASN'T EXPECTING THAT" at the twist(s). So the book gets three stars automatically for keeping me engaged to the end, turning pages like I was working a finger treadmill.

The writing is... not the best. There is a five-star story buried in here but so much of it was just too silly. The attempts to tie this book into Greek mythology didn't really work and came across as too forced, in my opinion, and I feel like Marist gamed her "not like other girls" power-ups a little too aggressively. Who takes a book about mythology to a party and wanders into someone else's library to read it? I'm bookish and antisocial and not even I would do that. (Everyone knows you say you have to go to the bathroom and then read the book in there. Sheesh! Then nobody's going to come around checking on you JK.) Also, sorry girlfriend, but green hair is not a substitute for a personality.

So this Billie Eilish wannabe is a high society girl but her parents have money problems and her sister is engaged to the cute rich guy who wants her, Marist, to save herself for him. Whaaaaat. (And that's not even the twist.) It gets even weirder from there, in a series of events that result in her sister and Royce (hot guy) breaking off the engagement, and Marist being promised to him instead. But Royce's family is super weird and everyone's just a little too excited about Marist being innocent. Creepy? I think so. BUT WAIT-- IT GETS WEIRDER. Annnnnnd... that's all I'm going to say because I really don't want to spoil it. If you're concerned that you're going to get squicked out, it's probably because you will be and I'd definitely check out some of the reviews with spoilers if you are worried. I knew what was going to happen and I was still shocked, which is testament to Sloane's writing ability.

As I said, the writing is a bit cheesy and it was trying a little too hard to be more than it was. If you're familiar with Skye Warren's work, Sloane's style is very similar to hers, particularly the Endgame series. I think anyone who likes SW will really like Nikki Sloane. There is a cliffhanger but only in the sense that opens up more questions to be resolved in later books. You definitely get your fill of OMG WHAT with this installment. I'm super curious about the rest of the series and will be checking them out. You can't just leave it there!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters


TO HAVE AND TO HOAX gave me a veritable rollercoaster ride of reactions. When I picked this book up, I was like, "Wow, this is so witty and well-written, I can't believe it has such a low rating!" And then I was like, "Okay, this pranking is a little silly and I'm really curious what they were fighting about, and it's more witty than ha ha funny, but I'm still feeling it." And then I was like, "Okay, FINALLY! A kiss!" And then I was like, "But seriously, why are you still fighting? Literally no emotional progress has been made and we're over half-way through the book." And then I was like, "Three quarters of the book and I still want to shake you people and ask why your mother never taught you how to love (dee dee dee dee dee dee)." And then I got to the end of the book and was very, very tired.

This is the story of James and Violet. They were married because Violet was compromised on a balcony (ironically, with a different man-- James was only there to step in as rescuer). Since they both had an instant chemistry with witty banter, neither of them particularly minded this and it was a happy marriage-- until it wasn't. After something Violet refers to as The Argument, they both basically stopped speaking to one another unless absolutely necessary, neither of them willing to cross the deep freeze of their own home because that would be a violation of the Stiff Upper Lip Act of 1386 or something. I don't know.

The pranking really isn't as prevalent or pervasive as the summary led me to believe. The bulk of this book is the couple missing each other and arguing and dancing around the Big Misunderstanding (which made sense what I learned what it was but was still disappointing because they IMMEDIATELY repeat their mistakes after they finally talk about it and start fighting again over very similar pretenses). I buddy read this with my friend Heather, and she brought up a very good point, I thought, that a lot of what the couple has is purely physical-based. They don't have much of an emotional connection, apart from an apparent fetish for bickering that easily gets out of hand and turns nasty (and no, not in a fun way). So without that trust, I guess it makes sense why jest quickly turns to emotional daggers, but at the same time, this is never really met with closure. Even James's major grovel is a grand gesture DONE BEHIND VIOLET'S BACK which she has made it clear she has an issue with, so it's like he's hearing her, but he's also not really hearing her if you know what I mean. What a disaster.

The sex scenes in this book were quite hot and it was written with a breezy, bantery style that kind of reminded me of Tessa Dare's, but the constant cheeky winks to the reader and the fact that so many of these arguments quickly became tiresome and circuitous made this a wearing read. I'm interested in the sequels featuring the other couples-- especially West's book, I loved him-- but I wouldn't read this again and I can finally understand why so many people met this with a rather lukewarm response.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 15, 2021

Summer Lightning by Wendy Corsi Staub


I have this project I do where I look up vintage YA pulps from the 80s and 90s and review them! Some of them are rereads from my childhood but some of them are new to me. SUMMER LIGHTNING by Wendy Corsi Staub is new to me. It looks like she made a switch to writing thrillers for adults but she used to write books for kids. This is one of those, a Harper Prism title about ghosts and doomed love.

Set in Maine, our heroine is a girl named Melissa Loring, a Jane Everygirl who wants to be a writer when she grows up. When we meet her, it's her seventeenth birthday and she's just been given a computer as a birthday gift so she can hack out her books on there instead of a typewriter. She and her family live in an old Victorian house and her bedroom is in the turret room and if you think that's ripe for horrific ghostly happenings, you'd be right. It is.

As soon as she turns the computer on, she sees a weird message. She also has blackouts where she hears voices and strange music. Pretty soon, she starts to think that she's seeing a strange boy. A boy who makes her double-think her attraction to her long-term boyfriend, Tripp.

The set-up for this book is really good and I think it will appeal to any fans of Caroline B. Cooney, as there's some really lush Gothic imagery that's almost lyrical. And for a YA book, it's surprisingly sensual. I guess this is Harper and not Scholastic's Point Horror, so maybe that's why it talks about going all the way and has some pretty intense kissing scenes. Maybe Harper decided to skate the prurient edge a little more with their YA thrillers. I don't know, but I kind of liked it. It made me feel like I was watching one of those so-cheesy-it's-good 80s horror movies.

There are some pretty dated references in here-- music, pop culture, Nancy Reagan-- but rather than dating the book, they end up being charming and kind of sweet. The computer stuff also seemed pretty legit. Like the person who wrote the book actually knew a thing or two about technology.

Overall, I'm pretty impressed with this little book. It got damn creepy at the end.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 14, 2021

To Have and to Hold by Jennifer Baker


DNF @ 30%

This is actually so bad it's almost funny. A middle grade book about two college-age kids who decide to get married but written in a language for preteens? What makes it extra weird is that it deals with stuff like sex and underage drinking... what wild and crazy times the 90s were!

I'm doing this project where I hunt down and reread old books from the 80s and 90s that have been rereleased and are available on Kindle Unlimited to see how well they hold up. Some of them do... but this one definitely does not. It feels like an after school special and it's just too cheesy and I'm not even sure who the target audience is.

That said, it isn't bad written and the heroine, Julie, seems nice enough. But the love interest, Matt, is kind of pathetic. That's him on the cover, I guess, leering through that cameo peephole. *shudders*

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 13, 2021

May at the Peacock Ranch by Michele Machado


One of my New Year's goals was to read more indie fiction in support of my fellow indies, since I tend to stick to whatever catches my eye, which usually ends up being popular books or new releases I get ARCs for. Michele Machado is not a new author for me. I've read her other book, MARKET STREET CINEMA, which is an erotica novel set in a strip club in San Francisco (I actually walked by it a couple times before it was closed!) and puts a human face on sex work. I enjoyed it enough that I immediately put her other book, MAY AT THE PEACOCK RANCH, on my to-read list.

Unlike MSC, MAY is set in Pahrump, Nevada, at a legal brothel. Our heroine, May, becomes sole guardian for her two younger siblings, but because she is only nineteen and most of her mother's money went to medical care in her final days, their house is now in arrears and the kids are going to foster care unless May can come up with a game plan to show that she is fiscally responsible enough to keep them.

Enter the virginity auction.

Inwardly, I winced, because this is such a common trope in new adult books. Prostituting yourself for money. Selling your virginity for money. Stripping for money. You'd think that everyone goes into sex work right after they graduate if you went by your new adult romance for guidance. ALSO, they're almost always filled with slut-shaming and the author does all kinds of logical gymnastics to explain why Jane Heroine is a desperate paragon of virtue for doing this while all the other Whorry McSluts out there are Bad Women who do Bad Things and should be Ashamed.

Not so with this book!

Honestly, the author clearly did a lot of research because the Peacock Ranch is a professional establishment with rules that make sense and leave all of the agency with the girls. Most of the other women (with one exception) seem nice and normal, if a little jaded when it comes to sexual matters, and several of them actually offer advice or help. I was also pleasantly surprised by the guy May chooses. You'd think that anyone who places a bid in a virginity auction would be gross-- and who knows, maybe they are, IRL-- but this guy wasn't. Hot Russian billionaires FTW.

I'm not going to say that this is high literature but it does a decent job of showing what might make people look to sex work as an option and doesn't make it sleazy or degrading. As she did with MARKET STREET CINEMA, Michele Machado once again puts a human face on sex work and I wish she were still writing these books because honestly, nobody does it like she does. If she publishes another one of these smutty shorts, I will be first in line. Bonus: unlike MARKET STREET CINEMA, this one doesn't feel quite as bittersweet and there's more of a romantic element to it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Not Your All-American Girl by Wendy Wan-Long Shang


This was so cute! After a slew of some really dark reads, NOT YOUR ALL-AMERICAN GIRL was precisely what I needed to lift my spirits. This book is about a sixth-grader named Lauren who is Jewish and Chinese. She loves to sing and is incredibly talented, but when she tries out for a musical set in the 1950s, the teacher refuses to even consider Lauren for the role because Lauren doesn't fit what the audience will expect for the image of the "all-American girl."

So the role goes to Lauren's less talented, fair-haired and blue-eyed friend, Tara, instead.

This is a great coming of age story set in the 1980s. And while it captures everything fun and nostalgic about the 1980s-- the music, the fashions, the toys-- it also points out a lot of the things that weren't so great: like the racist stereotypes and the sexism. One thing in particular that gets called out is Sixteen Candles and its use of stereotypes that would never (hopefully) make it into TV today.

I liked NOT YOUR ALL-AMERICAN GIRL a lot. It didn't feel heavy-handed at all, the way some of these middle grade books sometimes can, and I thought both authors did an excellent job making Lauren feel like she had an authentic preteen voice. Sometimes she could be selfish or immature, but man oh man, when she clap-backed at Kid Racist and his father in that restaurant, I wanted to stand up and scream YESSSSSSSSSS! I also loved Lauren's button-making hobby. I didn't have a finished copy so I didn't get full illustrations of all the buttons but I really liked the ones that did make it into my ARC. Super cute and what a neat and amazing hobby!

Anyone who likes smart middle grade books about strong female characters will love this!

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Thud by Mikaël Ross


Originally titled Der Umfall in German, it looks like it is being translated into both THE THUD and THE FALL in English. The edition I got was called THE THUD. I was a little confused about what this was going to be about. For some reason I thought it was going to be about a neurodivergent superhero because of the way it was packaged, but it's actually a slice of life book with some magic-realism elements set against a backdrop of tragedy and coming-of-age.

Noel is a young man who lives with his mother in Berlin. They love each other a lot, despite the inevitable friction that arises in any family, but one day she has a fall and doesn't get up. She's taken to the hospital and Noel is driven to a real place called Neuerkerode, a small town in lower Saxony which is apparently mostly populated and run by people with developmental disabilities. He goes to town festivals, the disco, and tries his hand at things like pottery and judo, all the while wondering when his life is going to go back the way it was.

I thought this was a really good book. I love learning about new things and I'd never heard about Neuerkerode. I don't even think it has an English Wiki page (although it has a German one!). Noel is a sympathetic protagonist who makes some very human mistakes. Seeing him make new friends and learn some independence was very sweet, although there are a number of really sad moments in this story-- not just the inciting incident in the beginning, but also when the old woman Noel meets talks about being separated from her brother in Neuerkerode during WWII and his disappearance.

Overall, I think this graphic-novel is going to appeal to anyone who likes European graphic-novels that are more literary in nature. I guess while writing this book, the author made several trips to Neuerkerode to interview residents and learn about the town and I think it really shows. You can really imagine what it would be like-- the author captures it all in his unique drawing style.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 12, 2021

A Pale Shadow by Heather Crews


Disclaimer: I was the beta-reader for this book and the author is a friend of mine but I paid money for my copy!

I don't even really know what to say about this book, which is sad, because I've been thinking about my review for A PALE SHADOW for months because it was such a great story. I love long epic sagas jam-packed with drama and this had everything that is catnip for me: a villainous hero, small-town secrets, dub-con, and angst. Even knowing what was coming, I still experienced all the feels, and it's a testament to Heather's skills as a writer that something could make me feel so bad at times and still be so compulsively good.

This is definitely a book where knowing less is more going in. It does have a lot of triggers, though, and I definitely advise you to read the content warning in the blurb if you are sensitive to reading about certain content. I felt like it was handled with the appropriate gravitas and that it was necessary for the plot, but this book is dark.

Annice is a young girl when the book starts out. Her mother dumps her off at her childhood home in Rakewell Falls, a made-up town in Washington, when money gets tight. The town is a nostalgic idyll of the times of yore-- only it isn't, quite. There's something dark lurking beneath the gloss and she finds that out the hard way, which ends up bringing her to the attention-- and the mercy-- of the town's golden boy, and the descendant of one of the founders: Adrian Carey.

The whole time I was reading this, I kept picturing it as a movie. The writing is so descriptive and lush, to the point that you can picture everything unfolding in vivid detail. I think as writers, we often write the types of stories we want to read but can't find elsewhere. This is the story that I didn't even realize I wanted, and now that I've read it, I feel like I'm going to be haunted by it for a while.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Flawed by Auryn Hadley


Who was the genius who decided to read eight books at the same time? This girl right here! But when I heard the premise of FLAWED, I really couldn't help myself. As a girl gamer myself, I'm always really interested in reading stories about girls who game and this one was apparently inspired by Gamergate. It's a new adult romance about being a rape survivor, overcoming addiction, found families, and first love, and building your passion project from the ground out.

First, credit where credit is due: I've never read a new adult book with a premise similar to this one. I'm not an engineer, but all of the coding and technical elements sounded convincing and I loved hearing all of the characters talk shop and gush about their work. I also stan a STEM heroine and I really appreciated the authors writing about a heroine who was so intellectual and comfortable around technical knowledge.

Dez started blogging about games when she was a teenager. She's a wunderkind and a genius and basically has a job guaranteed as soon as she graduates-- until she's kidnapped and tortured by a bunch of men who hate that women have gotten involved in games and that she has apparently taken it upon herself to be their voice. When she's released, she's not the same. She's badly traumatized and addicted to drugs and can't stand being touched because it brings back all of her trauma.

She has a random meeting with the tech CEO she used to idolize in a Home Depot and he recognizes her and offers her a job on the spot. He's also attracted to her but respects her space. As it turns out, he has past trauma and sexual hang-ups of his own: he's a sex addict who can't really find intimacy. So he starts letting Dez pick out his partners while she watches, which is kind of weird, but it ends up working for the couple and at times, is even kind of hot. At other times, it isn't, but I found these two fascinating to read about and even though it's not a reverse harem, you can totally tell that this author writes those romances because she ends up befriending all of the guys on Chance's team and by the end of the book, you know they'd die for her, and her for them-- it's a close-knit group, a family, and they're building something amazing together: an inclusive game that breaks all the tired stereotypes.

I think FLAWED did a great job shining a light on all the abuse that women gamers face online, but also how hard it can be to overcome trauma and the importance of having a support network in healing. I liked that neither the hero or the heroine were perfect, and that their attraction went beyond the physical. When Dez's past started coming back to haunt her, I was literally on the edge of my seat, biting my nails, hardly able to bear turning the page to see what would happen next. This book has a LOT of triggers and definitely won't be an easy read for most people. But I do really like the story and I think it has a healing message, rather than an exploitative one, which definitely helps.

Things I liked less were Chance's approach to his pick-ups. That did feel exploitative, especially since some of them didn't know they were being watched. He also decides to go alpha caveman in the last act which made me like him a lot less. I get that he's insecure and that his own "flaw" probably made affection feel conditional when he was young and vulnerable, but it was still hard to read, and the way he talked about the women he picked up often felt sleazy and kind of gross. I also felt like this book was a little too long, and that some of the scenes began to feel really repetitive and similar.

Am I going to read the other books in this series? Heck yes. I'm especially dying for Rhaven's story.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Mexican Fire by Martha Hix


DNF @ 36%

No shade to this book. It's interesting and set during a time period that I can't remember reading about in a historical romance before-- in Veracruz, in the 1830s, in what I believe was the beginning of Santa Anna's dictatorship. The heroine is a resistor who wants to help overthrow him and the hero, Reece Montgomery, is a Yankee they want to recruit into their cause. Unfortunately, he's a womanizer and his loyalties aren't exactly clear, which leads to tensions of the most troublesome kind. If you know what I mean.

It was just a little too purple prose-flavored for me. Sometimes I'm in the mood for that writing style, but I guess I'm not right now. I'd read the sample if you're unsure if this is for you. It doesn't appear to be particularly un-PC and the hero is forceful but not rapey. The Spanish, from what I could tell, was all mostly correct, and I thought that the heroine's dysfunctional friends, family, and allies, were all portrayed as flawed individuals. The style just didn't work for me so I'm giving it a pass.

2 out of 5 stars

Wife Number Seven by Melissa Brown


In some ways, this is kind of like a romance version of THE 19TH WIFE. Our heroine, Brinley, is a member of a commune of FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saint) Mormons, and the youngest wife of this creepy old man named Lehi. Brinley is just aware enough to know that something about their commune is off, but she is so deeply entrenched in the religion that she feels like the problem might rest with her, even as she repeatedly sneaks off to get forbidden birth control pills and wears makeup for her husband at his request. I feel like Melissa Brown clearly did a lot of research in preparation for this book because it syncs up with a lot of memoirs I've read by ex-FLDS members and at times, it felt like I was reading a biography or a memoir about things that actually could have happened.

My favorite POV was probably the old woman, Jorjina, who was the wife of the previous prophet and now is basically at the mercy of her son, resigned to be a silent figurehead. I thought she was incredibly interesting and the most interesting character in the book. Brinley could be a frustrating narrator and all of her sections are written in first person, so there's really no escape. I can see why some readers found her annoying. She's selfish and almost painfully naive, but I think this makes sense given her age and circumstances. After years of being brainwashed and forced to marry young, she's finally recognizing her own agency and acknowledging her abuse by the men of her community.

I was less a fan of the love interest, Porter, who was pretty far from dreamy. He meets the heroine when he's STEALING HER PURSE. He's also an active meth user who's trying (with mixed success) to kick the habit. Points to the author, again, for going with someone so flawed as a love interest-- it made this book very, very different from any new adult title I've ever read-- but he wasn't exactly dreamy, and I found his controlling nature kind of off-putting. The way he started trying to control Brinley's sex life and berating her for wearing makeup just made it seem like she was stepping out of the frying pan and into the fire from one unhealthy relationship to another. I guess it's a tiny bit better that they're closer in age and finances and don't have the terrible power imbalance that Brinley had with Lehi, but I'm not going to be wearing any "Team Porter!" buttons anytime soon, if you know what I mean.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty good book. It seemed well-researched and there was so much dramatic tension that I didn't want to put it down. On the other hand, I almost feel like it would have worked better if it weren't written as a romance novel because I think the romance was one of the weakest elements of this book. The strongest was definitely the portrayal of the FLDS, the surprising themes of sisterhood and female empowerment against the backdrop of male tyranny, and themes of pursuing your own dreams while also weighing the costs it takes to achieve them.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Baddest Girl on the Planet by Heather Frese


I liked the beginning of this book a lot and I liked the idea of the premise... I just didn't like the final execution. The title is a bit misleading-- and while I think it's intentionally ironic, it does, in my opinion, set this book up to fail. I went into this expecting a "bad" girl but Evie isn't really bad. This is sort of a biography of a fictional woman who messed up her life. We get to see her as a child, a young adult, and then as an adult, and what she does after her traditional life falls off the tracks.

I liked the vacation she went on with her friend that kind of becomes an exercise in how sometimes friendship means being there when it counts even if you have abrasive personalities that end up causing friction. And I thought the infidelity plot in the beginning was really dramatic. The problem is that the timeline jumps around so much only to circle back. The parts with her as a child and the parts that were written in an almost stream of conscious style were hard to follow.

I'm sure lots of people will enjoy this but it wasn't my cup of tea.

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

1.5 out of 5 stars

Night Scourge by Pippa DaCosta


Pippa DaCosta is like the ultimate brain candy author. When I pick up one of her books, I know it's going to be cheesy goodness in a fun, escapist way-- basically, whatever the literary equivalent of eating chili cheese fries is. I loved the first book in this series, TWILIGHT SEEKER, so much that I immediately launched into the sequel, even though I'm usually the type of person who puts off reading sequels for so long that by the time I finally get around to it I forget what happens.

The heroine of this book, Lynher, runs a "station" which is kind of like the inn in Ilona Andrews's Sweep series. It's a waystation between worlds, so fae, demons, and vampires all stay there, and despite the fact that they all hate each other, the station is supposed to be neutral ground where there is a tenuous truce. Basically it's kind of like how Portugal was in WWII, with all the spies meeting up in Lisbon. Truly neutral territory where scheming and plotting comes afoot. Such it is with the station and its crew of supes.

The last book dropped some pretty harsh and interesting secrets that indicated that a lot of what Lynher thought about herself, her brother, her friends, and her guardian might be wrong. And then it ends with a truly bizarre cliffhanger that made me go "whaaaaat." After reading this book, I'm still a little confused... and maybe not in a good way. I feel like I missed out on a book, even though I totally did not.

NIGHT SCOURGE was, to me, not quite as good as TWILIGHT SEEKER. I really liked Jack from the first book and thought he was the love interest but in this book he's mostly absent and we're stuck with the incubus, Rafe, who has a Rhysand dynamic with the heroine. If you're a fan of the ACOTAR series by Sarah J. Maas, I think you'll be into this book because his character is super similar (he even has wings-- and the heroine thinks they're super hot), but I didn't really like him that much. I also felt like Lynher felt much more toned down, character-wise. In the first book, she was a consummate bad-ass who weighed her decisions carefully and was such an impressive tower of strength. Here, it's all about how hot Rafe is and second-guessing herself and making hasty, foolish decisions.

I tend to feel this way a lot about second books-- I think a lot of people do. It can be hard to write a series and have the second book follow up on all of the foundational action and still be as gripping. And to be clear, NIGHT SCOURGE wasn't bad-- I did like it-- but I ended up skimming a lot of the parts with Rafe, and I'm not sure a lot of the heroine's decisions really made sense. I'm excited for the third book but I really hope it pulls some of these threads together and that Lynher finds her inner bad-ass.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 8, 2021

Prisoner of My Desire by Johanna Lindsey


DNF @ p.279

This was a buddy-read with Tiana! I've been wanting to read PRISONER OF MY DESIRE for years. It's got a pretty crazy premise. The heroine, Rowena, is forced by her stepbrother to conceive a child for strategic reasons (and also because he wants to bone her). When her husband (an old man) dies, her stepbrother kidnaps a man off the street who has his coloring that they can pass off as the real heir. Unfortunately for the two of them, that man is Warrick de Chaville, a titled knight, who is infuriated at being chained up and raped by the lady of the manor.

When he's freed by a sympathetic servant, he launches an attack against their home, killing the guards and kidnapping Rowena, where she's imprisoned in the dungeon until he gets there and starts raping her as punishment for raping him. But oh no-- this being a romance novel, it turns into a cute little domestic drama while I'm just sitting here like O_o.

To be clear, the rape didn't bother me. The heroine knew what she was doing was wrong (unlike that fucking heroine in Bridgerton) and she had her reasons for doing what she did. It was an awful scene portrayed in all of its horror. By contrast, the scene when Warrick rapes her felt very toned down and the subsequent ones were, um, more like seduction than rape and the way they were written really didn't convey the gravitas that they should. I thought it was interesting that the author made the heroine's ill-treatment of the hero so much more horrifying and upsetting than the hero's ill-treatment of the heroine. I wondered if it was deliberate or unconscious.

If this had been written by a different author, I think the story could have been really great. The fact that they both raped each other was both disturbing and interesting, in a totally medievally appropriate "eye for an eye" sort of way and if the psychology of their torment had been explored further and had their relationship been more gradual in development and speculative in nature, I would have loved to see the author explore a romance between these characters borne of remorse and attraction. I didn't get that.

What a shame.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Twilight Seeker by Pippa DaCosta


TWILIGHT SEEKER was so much fun. I've read several books from Pippa DaCosta and I usually like them-- but I think this might have been my favorite work from her yet. It's such deliciously trashy brain candy, of the compulsively readable variety that I haven't really encountered much since my Quizilla days. Since I rate books purely on entertainment value, I have a special place in my heart for books that tell wickedly good stories, even if some snobs might not exactly consider them-- *sniff*-- fine literature.

If you like Ilona Andrews's Sweep series, I think you'll really enjoy these books because it's actually a lot like that with a dash of Underworld (2003) thrown in for good measure. Lynher is the proprietress of a waystation between worlds-- a place that kind of doubles as train station and hotel and seems to have a mind of its own (like the inn in Sweep). The MC wears fancy dresses and sees to the needs of her supernatural clientele like the witch in the bathhouse of Spirited Away (2001), but tensions are mounting between fae, vampire, and demonkind, and Lynher is caught up in the crossfire.

Apparently this is NOT a reverse-harem series and that honestly makes me sad because all of the characters in this book are super hot. There's Rafe, the incubus, and Jack, the vampire-- both dangerous, both wanting to devour Lynher in numerously exciting ways. There's also a bunch of side characters, including her brother, Kensey, and his lover and secret changeling child, Etienne, who works as Lynher's assistant. All of the characters have distinct personalities and were interesting to read about. I think my favorite parts of the book revolved around the court intrigue occurring between the species and the cruelty of the vampires, who make no secret of treating humans like livestock.

I'm actually not sure how to describe the plot of this book because now that I think of it, there really isn't one. Lynher just gets sucked into a bunch of secrets and drama that seems like it's building into something big and the book ends with an actual bang (although not the kind I wanted-- *wink emoji*). Normally, character-driven fantasy novels don't work for me, but this worked for me. The author has grown a lot as a writer since her Veil series.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 7, 2021

In the Shadows of the Citadel by Meredith Hart


This was a buddy-read with Maraya and Karen! Maraya thought there was too much pining and Karen loved it. I fell in the middle, where I ended up liking it but I also thought that IN THE SHADOWS OF THE CITADEL lacked the action and the snark that made me fall in love with the previous book, with all of its atmosphere and mystery.

This book begins where the last one left off, with Vethe recuperating from mage fever and Lyria returning home, exhausted and dejected. Almost immediately, both of them begin questioning everything they thought they knew about the history of their kingdom. What if history was wrong? It is, after all, written by the victors. A point that is rarely explored in fantasy novels and was quite refreshing to see here.

I liked the twist with Vethe and his family. They had a spooky Flowers in the Attic vibe in the previous book so it was interesting to see that behind the cold, Gothic facade, they are actually... not so bad in their weird way? And we also get to see more of Lyria's brothers, where I learned that I might actually stan Gaul. How can you not stan a man who doesn't feel at all emasculated by weaving flowers into his hair?

I can't really say too much about this one because spoilers, so I'll close by saying that even though it was a bit of a disappointment after the ~awesomeness~ of the first book, I still loved the characters and enjoyed how the author explored some of the unsolved mysteries of this world. Also, the sex scenes are hot-- even if the characters end up doing it in the back of a manure cart. It works, okay?

I can't wait to read the third book in the series with my friends when it comes out~! #ShamelessGaulFangirl

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Golden Paradise by Susan Johnson


SEIZED BY LOVE is one of my favorite romances of all time (and if you haven't read it, I highly recommend that you read it ASAP). When I found out I was the proud owner of GOLDEN PARADISE, courtesy of my book hoard, I was like YAAAAAASS.

There are some things I loved about GOLDEN PARADISE. I liked that Lisaveta has more backbone than Alisa. She's a scholar, so she's actually really smart and independent and that totally throws the hero through a loop. The sex scenes between Stefan and Lise are great. The problem is... there's way too many of them and it kind of feels like they are intended as a substitute for character development. There's all this banter but they never really have the important and dramatic conversations that the characters in SEIZED BY LOVE did, nor did it have the same stakes.

Stefan, like Nikki from book one, is not one-woman-for-all-time kind of guy. When he meets Lise, he's ENGAGED and initially has no intention of breaking it off. In fact, he parades Lise around in front of his fiancee, much to both women's fury. Then he takes Lise off to one of his estates, forgetting that his mistress is there, and she flips out. As one does.

Both women end up getting bought off eventually to pay the way for Lise but it doesn't feel good. I think if you read this book as historical escapist erotica (and also for the Nikki cameos because NIKKI <3), you'll enjoy it more, but it really pales in the shadow of SEIZED BY LOVE, which is truly an exceptional work, comparable to the best I've read by Jennifer Blake. It's just such an amazing and epic love story with action, high stakes, beautiful descriptions, and flawed and interesting characters. This, by contrast, felt more like fanfiction. And while I would never tell someone that self-indulgence is something to be frowned-upon, it wasn't exactly what I was hoping for from this book.

That said, I'm still obsessed with this author's writing and her ability to write alpha heroes, so I will 100% be checking out her other books.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 6, 2021

All-American Girl by Meg Cabot


I've owned this book since high school because I am le olde now, and I've been wanting to reread this book for a while-- but I've been saving it, because I didn't want to read about a girl dating the President's son while the Trumps were in the White House because oh my God, BARF. Can you fucking imagine dating one of the Trumps? Just the thought makes me want to vom. I didn't want to be thinking about that, so I waited until the Trumps made like French bread and loafed (ha ha) because #gross.

ALL-AMERICAN GIRL was my JAM when I was a teen. I reread this book over and over and identified so much with Sam, who wore all black and didn't like pop music and fancied herself an artist and didn't want to have her identity stifled by the #establishment. Sam was me!!! Actually, Sam was a lot of people but teen me was too stupid and self-centered to realize that, so I thought Sam was written for me and me alone. Ha.

This is escapist wish-fulfillment fantasy at its finest. When Sam is caught doodling and selling pictures of her classmates with late-90s/early-2000s sex symbols for money (hello, Heath Ledger and Josh Hartnett), she is forced into an after school drawing class. Well, one day she skips and accidentally stops an assassination attempt on the POTUS, and ends up becoming America's darling-- oh, and it turns out the cute, Save Ferris-loving hottie in her art class is POTUS's son. What is a girl to do??

Me reading this as a teen: OMG SAM IS SO SMART

Me reading this as an adult: OMG SHUT UP SAM YOU KNOW NOTHING

It's hard to watch her crushing on her older sister's boyfriend, Jack, who is like the posterboy for douches everywhere. He's like Trent, from Daria, without any of the self-effacing charm. He's just such a sleaze and I wanted to punch him in his ponytailed face.

Me reading this as a teen: OMG DAVID IS SO HOT

Me reading this as an adult: OMG DAVID IS SUCH A CINNAMON ROLL

David is a great love interest. Meg Cabot's love interests were always so good. She struck the perfect balance between, like, a swoony beta and a guy who would swoop in to defend his "querida" from danger. My only criticism is that teen me also thought Jack was hot, too. Which, no.

Me reading this as a teen: OMG THIS IS SO REALISTIC

Me reading this as an adult: Ummmmm, yeah. No.

I will say that this comes across as surprisingly not dated with regard to politics. There's a scene where Sam has to pick the best painting and she chooses one that shows illegal immigration and the POTUS gets all up in arms about it, like "omg, THAT can't win, it's too politically charged, oh no!"

Which makes me sad because this book comes up in 2002 and we STILL haven't fixed the problem. In fact, we made it worse. And by "we," I mean Republicans and Trump.

I enjoyed the old pop culture references to things like ska music, David Boreanaz, Espirit, denim mini dresses, and Virgin Records stores (not sure any of those are still around). It definitely doesn't hold up, though, and I don't think I would have enjoyed it quite as much as I did without all of the nostalgia.

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Texan's Wager by Jodi Thomas


This book was SUCH a pleasant surprise! I bought it when it was on sale for only ninety-nine cents, even though I'd never heard of the author before, because a lot of my friends were GUSHING about the hero. Also, I'm kind of a huge sucker for the forced/arranged marriage trope in romance novels, so when I found out that this series revolves around that, I was excited!

I recently compared another Western romance I read to Goin' South (1978), but this one is even more similar! It's about three women/friends named Bailee, Sarah, and Lacy. Bailee has murdered a man, Sarah is sick, and people think Lacy is a witch on account of her smart mouth. They're kicked out of their wagon train and left all alone on the trail when they encounter a horrible criminal who wants to assault them and take their wagon and maybe even kill them. Well, Bailee bashes him over the head with a piece of wood, but that only gets them out of the frying pan and into the fire, because when the law comes along, they're all tried for murder!

But there is a shortage of ladies in town, so the sheriff decides that he'll have a bride auction instead. All of them draw names out of a hat where the men in town have put down who they are and what they want out of a wife and each of them gets to choose that way, real democratic-like. Bailee ends up with a man named Carter, a tortured, brooding man who doesn't say much. It's pretty clear that Carter is incredibly socially awkward-- he's never been with a woman and has some huge hang-ups about interacting with others-- but to his surprise, Bailee doesn't seem to mind him much and quickly settles into his home.

This is such a cute romance. It's everything I love about Jude Deveraux actually in that the author has written some exceptionally strong heroines with real personalities whose behavior still fits in with the zeitgeist of the times. I loved the friendship between the women, the lack of slut-shaming, and Carter's backstory-- oh my gosh, what a great character. I don't normally love beta heroes, but when I DO, it's usually because they're tortured and tragic and strong in the face of adversity. What happened to him was really sad and I loved that an event happened in the story that allowed him to use the skills he developed when he was young in a display of strength and redemption. It was so good.

I'm giving this four stars because it feels like it was a little slower in the second half than it was in the first and I did find myself skimming a little bit. That said, Carter was a lovely hero and Bailee surprised me in a good way, and I liked the time the author spent developing the secondary characters (a must in a small-town setting). I used to think I didn't like Westerns but it's quickly becoming my go-to genre! I will definitely be checking out more books from this author.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field by Howard Bryant


This is such a beautifully written book and even though sports is a subject Bryant circles back to again and again, it is not the primary focus of this book, which was my main concern as someone who watches zero sports of any kind: I was afraid that some of the subtler sports metaphors and nuances might be lost on me. But no, FULL DISSIDENCE is so much more than a chronicle of injustice in the athletics industry (although there's an essay on that, too). Instead, is an open letter to America citing many of this country's greatest flaws, and why it is not enough for us, as a nation, to issue a "mea culpa" and go on with our lives, only to repeat the same problematic behaviors.

One of the best essays in this collection is about Colin Kaepernick, but there were also several more I enjoyed: the romanticization of white poverty as the first step on a staircase to a class mobility fairytale while at the same time taking Black poverty as the status quo; performative humanitarianism; the importance of holding police accountable; and so much more. I liked some of the essays more than others, and I feel like the title collection, FULL DISSIDENCE, was so broad in scope that it was hard to achieve focus, whereas everything from Why Tonya? onward was laser-direct, which writing so sharp that you could use it to etch metal.

FULL DISSIDENCE is not an easy collection to read. It's clear a lot of thought went into each word chosen, and Bryant deals out some harsh truths. When you have a country that has injustice embedded in its very foundations, changing the status quo becomes a polarizing act in and of itself because there are people who will become so angry and defensive at the thought of someone "taking away" what, to them, has always been comfortable and easy, that they will offer any hurtful excuse to keep things exactly as they are. All of these essays delve into those pain points with a clear-eyed frankness that is chilling in its precision. For anyone looking for a similar collection of essays, I'd recommend Lauren Michele Jackson as a follow-up, as she discusses many similar issues using pop culture as a focus.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Throb by Vi Keeland


DNF @ 23%

When I found out this was reality TV-themed, I was like *pterodactyl screech*. And then I found out that even though the heroine is on the reality TV show, the love interest is just the stalkery brother of the producer who is WAAAAAAY too jealous over this woman he doesn't even know. Way too jealous. Like, watching TV with only one hand in sight, jealous. Ewww.

Kate and Cooper meet a blackjack game. She's the daughter of a famous card player and picked up a few tricks. She's also the girl-next-door archetype on this reality TV show called Throb, which is like a tropical-set Bachelor where all these girls queue up to date this rock star named Flynn-- who's actually REALLY nice. I loved Flynn.

But the love interest is Cooper, who gets interested in the show just because of Kate (initially, he was like oh god little bro, ANOTHER probably-failed reality TV show? let me fall into rich boy agony). He's instantly jealous and starts demanding that the film crew force the rock star guy to take another girl out on a date besides Kate (who he was going to choose) and then after screening a video where he sees Kate and Flynn kiss, Cooper gets jealous and has one of the crew call her into his office, where he then forces a kiss on her himself and is like HOW WAS THAT.



I will be the first in line for an alpha hero of a man but not if he's like a stalkery, spineless, icky one. UNLESS he's supposed to be stalkery, spineless, and icky... and I don't think so. Kate is just like ohhh Cooper is so dreamy-- and I'm like yeah, if that dream is a nightmare about stalkers.

I'm so disappointed.

1 out of 5 stars

The Year We Fell Down by Sarina Bowen


DNF @ 9%

Before you guys all get mad at me for jumping ship yet again before the 15% mark, this is actually a reread. Not that I-- or anyone-- should be forced to justify a rating, but this is a book I actually have read cover to cover, and the first time I read it six years ago (back in 2015), I remember being pleasantly surprised and giving it a 3.5. Well, I don't know what twenty-something Nenia was thinking when she read this book, but thirty-something Nenia got to, like, page two before the "oh no" alarms started going off.

I have three big problems with this book. The first one is the disability rep, which I feel a little funny talking about since I am not disabled, but it felt like really, REALLY bad rep to me. The heroine keeps calling herself a gimp and speaking derisively of resources available to those with disabilities-- not to criticize, but simply to demean and deride, and to draw a line between her and others. The way she talks about the rehabilitation camp she was sent to was REALLY gross and the way she refers to herself is also really, REALLY gross.

Now, the heroine has only had her disability for a couple months and I get that with a lot of people-- especially people who were previously doing really physical things, as the heroine did with hockey, to the point where it becomes a core part of their identity-- there is a stage of grief, where people are forced to come to terms with what they've "lost" and adjust to their new approach to life. I think that is what the author was going for, and to an extent, I think it does work (she comes off as incredibly bitter but also trying to work her way through her trauma and adjust); I'm just not sure it was executed super well, and I think that some people might take serious issue with the rep.

The second thing that bothered me was the fact that the heroine is the OW. The hero has a girlfriend when we meet him and they're long-term. The way the author gets around this is by making the girlfriend a HUGE jerk. She's shallow, vapid, and mean, so any cheating-- and there IS cheating-- that happens between the hero and the heroine is "deserved." I just... if your girlfriend is that bad, break up with her and date someone else. Don't string people along and cheat. It's not fair to the girlfriend and it's not fair to the other woman. BREAK UP AND THEN GO OUT. Don't sneak around. I wouldn't be as bothered by this if the hero was supposed to be an arrogant jerk, but he's portrayed as Joe Nice Guy and I'm sorry, but if you're doing inappropriate things with two women-- including gifting your alleged "friends" sex toys as presents (yes, that's right)-- you're not a nice guy.

The third thing that bothered me about this book was the writing. The heroine has a "hope fairy" just like Ana's "inner goddess" from FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. I thought that was pretty uncool.

I don't want to take the mickey out of this book too much because I do think there was a serious effort to research accessibility and disability, I just really didn't like the romance.

2 out of 5 stars