Monday, August 30, 2021

Olivia by R. Lee Smith


DNF @ 8%

Jumping ship at 8% sounds like I didn't read much until you take into account that this book is over 600 pages. I read about fifty pages and then decided that I really wasn't into this book. After reading HEAT and SCHOLOMANCE, I was really excited to see R. Lee Smith's take on gargoyles, but this book didn't work for a variety of reasons. First, the sex is very much furry sex. Which a lot of Smith's books kind of verge on I guess, but the demons in SCHOLOMANCE and the Jotans in HEAT were at least humanoid in appearance for the most part, and Meoraq in Gann had a humanoid culture, even if he was more lizard in appearance, but the bat creatures in OLIVIA are covered in fur and have wings and snouts and definitely don't look like humans. Which I am soooo not into, so that was a huge turn-off for me.

Second, it's just really exhausting and not in a good way. Olivia spends most of the book crying. Which I guess is realistic but not all that fun to read. The sex is pretty unambiguously non-con and in one part of the book, it's a violent assault that makes the heroine bleed. The other books had their share of rape and gore, but they were either off-page or more dub-con than violently graphic non-con, so I was able to compartmentalize. Could not do that here. Yikes.

Third, it's... boring? Olivia is not a compelling heroine and I didn't like Murgull at all. The fifty pages I read was basically just Intro to Stockholm Syndrome 101. I'm shocked this was published after HEAT because HEAT was so much more polished. I'm all for experimentation but for me this was a failure. R. Lee Smith is a huge favorite of mine so it was a pretty crushing disappointment not to like this.

Make sure you watch this space for Caro's review (sorry for jumping ship!). Her status updates are hilarious.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Blood Red Roses by Katherine Deauxville


I bought this book because of a negative review I saw saying that it was too edgy. When it comes to romance novels, I'm practically all edge, so obviously I thought to myself, "MUST BUY." I was even more excited when I saw that it was a medieval romance because I've been reading a lot of those lately and somehow can't quite seem to get enough.

BLOOD RED ROSES is set during the Norman invasion. The heroine, Alwyn, is Welsh. Her father was a baron who was executed and has been mistress of the castle but now William has assigned one of his knights to marry her, a man named Fulk de Jobourg. She is literally bound and gagged and married while tied up, so that gives you an idea of what passes for courtship in this book.

Alwyn is incredibly resourceful and is constantly finding new ways to thwart her husband and his awful knights while also carrying for the people who have been under her family's charge. I recently read a book that was basically medieval in name only, so it was positively delightful to read a book that was drenched in all the unsavory aspects of history. I thought Deauxville did an excellent job showing how jaded people became to the everyday horrors of medieval life, just trying to survive and do the best they could with their circumstances. It's slightly horrifying, but I think if the past couple years have taught us anything as a society, it's that calamities often arrived stacked like a deck of cards and we just have to make do or perish.

My favorite part of the book was probably the siege at the end, but I also liked the scene when Alwyn saves a mason from execution using a secret passage and some of Fulk's hilarious outbursts (like his rage at a bard who is singing mean songs about him, LOL). I'm docking a star because the romance really wasn't so great. I kept hoping for a grovel or something but the hero and heroine basically went from hating each others' guts to being willing to sacrifice everything for one another with virtually no middle ground. I loved the writing and the story and the heroine is probably one of my favorite romance heroines I've encountered in a while, but this was merely good instead of being great.

That said, I'm definitely going to be buying more from this author. If you enjoy old skool bodice-rippers, this is your jam.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Dark Desire by Christine Feehan


DNF @ p.72

This is the second Carpathians book I have read and I think I'm going to call it quits here for now. After reading and not liking the "uncut" version of DARK PRINCE, I thought maybe me not liking the book was a case of the author going wild without her editor to keep her in check. There were, after all, some things I did enjoy about the story. A lot of things, actually! Maybe, with the presence of an editor, the sequel would be better.

And to be fair, the sequel is better. It starts right off with action. Shea is a doctor with an Eastern European father she does not know, but he's left her with a "mysterious blood disorder" that requires regular transfusions. She's also incredibly manipulative because she has empathic powers that led her persuade. It's made her a good doctor but, let's be totally honest: she's mind-fucking people for fun and profit. The only dark cloud on her life is the fact that she hears a sinister angry voice from time to time whispering in the back of her head.

But Shea's not crazy. That voice in the back of her head is Jacques, a Carpathian who's been the victim of a vampire slayer and left staked underground. Since Shea didn't drop everything she was doing to rescue him, he figures his mate must be in on it, so he's the one who's been feeding her self-doubt and fear this whole time! And when she finally does figure it out and rescue him, he attacks her like a dog with rabies who's just smelled fresh steak tartare! Ha ha! Did I mention he's the love interest? 

I was thinking about what it is that doesn't work for me about this series. It isn't necessarily the writing-- yes, it's cheesy, but HAVE YOU SEEN WHAT I READ? It isn't even the uber alpha heroes. Sometimes possessive works for me. I'm reading a medieval bodice-ripper right now where the hero is probably even crueler than Jacques. But there has to be some realism grounding the story and the characters have to act and feel in a way that seems believable. I really didn't like how Shea in this book and Raven in the other book quickly bowed to their abusive mates. They were bound to them against their will, had some pretty violent sex, and then had their guys rooting around in their heads, reading their minds, casually saying OF COURSE YOU HAVE A CHOICE-- as long as the choice is me.

Romance is supposed to be about fantasy and I guess if this is your kink, these books will appeal, because these dudes are antiquated patriarchs who want to control every aspect of their mates' lives (while insisting the whole time they're equals) and also while calling them condescending pet names like "little one" or "little red hair." I prefer a little more give and take in my romance novels and these books just aren't sitting well with me. I really wanted to love them because, you know, vampires, and the mythology of the books sounded super cool, but now I'm thinking that they just aren't for me.

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Hidden Honor by Anne Stuart


I've long said that Anne Stuart's historicals are among her best works and HIDDEN HONOR is no exception. Set during medieval times, this is the story of seventeen-year-old Elizabeth, a headstrong girl who is being sent to the convent to become a nun. She is to make the journey with an escort of monks, including Prince William, a cruel and hedonistic prince who is going to an abbey to be shriven of his sins.

Right away, Elizabeth catches the prince's eye. Only he's not exactly what he seems. For his own protection, the "prince" is going incognito, swapping uniforms with one of the monks. Right away, you learn that the man she thinks is William is actually a monk named Peter, who turned to the church to atone for his guilt in participating in the crusades. With him is Adrian, his cousin and knight to the king, who is there to act as the king's bodyguard. But the real prince might just be the wrench in all of their respective goals, with devastating consequences.

So I kind of loved this. Elizabeth was a pretty great heroine. I thought it was hilarious that she was feeding her philandering father potions to make him impotent. The fact that she was so young also made a lot of her actions excusable that would be more frustrating in an older heroine. To my surprise, I also really enjoyed the secondary romance between Adrian and Joanna, a courtesan. Normally, the secondary romances in Stuart's romances are tedious and read as filler, but this one didn't. Also, I really, really liked that the main hero was a celibate monk who hadn't been with a woman in over seven years. It was a totally refreshing change of pace.

I've been on a medieval romance spree and this was an excellent addition to my growing collection. I kind of wish I owned it in paperback because I think this is one I would actually reread. The only reason it isn't getting five stars is because all of the denial and prolonged UST between the main couple got kind of frustrating and repetitive, but I loved the banter and the action and the subterfuge, so four stars feels right.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman


Since I actually remember reading this one in school, I thought CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY would be the perfect addition to my rereading project. I remember this book being like a breath of fresh air because so many of the books we had to read in school were pretty boring because they definitely felt like literature for kids and a lot of them were about boys, as written by men.

CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY is about the daughter of a land-holding knight living in medieval England. Even though she is only fourteen, her father is already planning on marrying her away. In between hanging out with the sheepherd and practicing being a lady, Catherine conspires on how to rid herself of her suitors, whether it's blacking out one of her teeth and acting like she's crazy or pretending to be a peasant and sowing rumors of her own ill repute while in disguise.

We also get to learn a lot about her family. There's her father, a drunken lout who was apparently quite the heartthrob when he was 15. There's her mother, whose one act of defiance was marrying down to her husband. And then there are her three brothers, Edward, Thomas, and Robert (in order of favoritism). She also has a friend Aelis who may or may not be in love with her uncle George. There's a lot of side characters, too, all with distinct personalities, and because of Catherine's naivete, she ends up acting as an unreliable narrator, so reading between the lines often tells you the fuller story.

Because of its mature themes-- miscarriage, drunkenness, grief, death, love, gender roles, a light examination of antisemitism-- it holds up pretty well. I'm actually kind of surprised we were able to read this in grade school. I'm guessing whoever approved it to the curriculum didn't look any deeper than the cute cover and the Newberry. It's one of the more entertaining middle grade books I've ever read and I'd compare it to THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE or THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND, as it shares the same feminist, empowering themes with its realistically portrayed strong female protagonists.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, August 27, 2021

Bloodleaf by Crystal Smith


I decided I had to read this book after my friend Heather gave it five stars because we tend to have the same frustrations about YA fantasy. BLOODLEAF, however, is that one book out of one hundred that manages to turn all the usual tropes on their heads. It has innovative and interesting world-building, a compelling mythology, a strong female protagonist, real emotional stakes, and some really good twists and plotting that left me guessing (even if my guesses were right).

The plot is a little confusing and less is definitely more when going in, but the main character is a teen girl named Aurelia who is engaged to be married to the prince of a neighboring kingdom. Her own kingdom is like Scotland in the peak of its witch-hunting frenzy, and unlucky for her, she happens to be a witch. When she is betrayed, she ends up being forced into hiding and flees to the neighboring kingdom incognito where she discovers a treacherous plot to undo their magical protections and throw the entire city into darkness.

Aurelia is such a great narrator. She immerses you into the story without overwhelming you with info-dumps. You, the reader, basically see everything in real time as she's experiencing it. This book made me feel all the feels, too. There were some real gut-punching moments in here that made my stomach drop. I also like the three-tiered magic system of feral, high, and blood magic. Also, it's worth noting that blood magic involves cutting, so there's a lot of that in here (in case you needed to know).

BLOODLEAF was so much more than I dared hope it would be. I can't wait to read the sequels.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 26, 2021

His Captive by Diana Cosby


Zebra seriously has the best romances, I swear. Lately all I've been wanting to read are medieval romances and I was especially excited because HIS CAPTIVE was set in Scotland (I used to live there!). Set in medieval times, it's about a woman named Nichola who is the brother of a drunken wastrel of a baron. When a Scotsman named Alexander comes to kidnap him, he runs away, leaving Nichola at the man's mercy.

So this is a captive romance which will automatically put some people off. I personally liked the book and one of my favorite parts of the book is when they are traveling to Alexander's lands. The book kind of falls apart when they get there, though. I didn't really care for Alexander's brothers at all. They kind of have the bro-y, super macho dynamic of Christine Feehan's Carpathians or the guys in J.R. Wards BDB series.

This also ended up feeling more like a wallpaper historical than I would have liked. I kept forgetting what time period this was set in because the characters talked in such a modern way. And that's fine, too, but the story just wasn't good enough to carry me along and I really mourned the lack of atmosphere. Give me the knights and the toiling of the land!

I liked it enough that I bought the sequels but I wasn't as wowed by this as I would have liked to be.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

I Married A Lizardman by Regine Abel


I saw this book on Instagram and was instantly intrigued because while the cover screamed "MONSTEROTICA!" the blurb seemed way more sophisticated. It was kind of giving me LAST HOUR OF GANN and RADIANCE vibes, two books I loved. The premise is also great, too. Think Harvest Moon: In Space. Susan is from a human colony on a planet called Meterion but only first and second daughters get married and land. Third daughters like her get to become indentured servants-- if they're lucky.

Because of this, Susan agrees to a marriage match between the Prime Mating Agency, which basically pairs biocompatible humans with aliens on other planets in economically beneficial arranged marriages.

Susan ends up going to a planet that begins with an X-- I can't remember what it's called. Xenia? Xerces? Something like that. Anyway, it's populated by aliens called Altdurians that are hunter-gatherers who live off the land. It's incredibly fertile land and people would like to use it for farming and part of Susan's goal in going there is to convince the aliens about its potential.

Susan's husband, Olix, is a total bae. He's the clan leader and an incredibly well respected hunter. He's also so respectful that he basically puts all human men to shame. Sign me up for the next flight out to Lizardmandia. After an awkward wedding ceremony and an awkward wedding night, they find that each other's company is incredibly agreeable. The only problem is the farming. Altdurians associate it with their colonizers, who forced them to dig in the dirt and poisoned the land with harsh chemicals. So farming as seen as base, distasteful, and harmful at best-- oh no.

I'm just going to go ahead and list out some of the things that I really liked/found humorous about this book.

👽 All the farming. It really was like Harvest Moon set in space. Plus, it was cool to see the heroine have a passion-- one that came into play so heavily in the plot no less. (Seriously, that ENDING.)

👽 The hilarious sex scenes. Were they supposed to be hilarious? Iunno. But with lizard men with retracto-dicks who splooge come that tastes like cotton candy, you can't expect me not to laugh. ALSO, he is so pleased at the "honor" of being her first that he wears her blood-stained bedsheets. OMG.

👽 Marriage of convenience. High key one of my favorite tropes and it's handled really well here. The compromise, attempts to understand each other's cultures, emphasis on communication and consent, and the fact that they TALK instead of having big misunderstandings was SO REFRESHING.

👽 Themes of environmentalism and sustainability. I mean, need I say more?

Originally I thought I was probably going to give this a low rating because I thought it was one of those troll books, like the Coronavirus ones. But then I realized that it actually had world-building and plot and THEN I realized that it actually had good world-building and plot.

I am honestly blown away by how fun this was. It made me smile.

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Earl and the Archeress by E. Elizabeth Watson


DNF @ 27%

I think this might be a case of me being the wrong audience for the book. There were some things about THE EARL AND THE ARCHERESS that were fun but it doesn't really feel like a medieval romance. It's too modern and too clean. It's kind of like the Disney/theme park version of medieval times, which almost makes me think it would have been better as a fantasy novel. Bar the sexual content, it even sort of has a YA feel to it. Because of the heroine, I think this would really appeal to fans of Sarah J. Maas.

For my part, I came pretty close to liking this book. I love female archers (I blame Katniss) and one of my favorite romance novel tropes is when girls dress up as boys. I just wish the hero hadn't kept saying that she wasn't like other girls. There was a lot of slut-shaming, on the part of both the hero and the heroine. It was a shame because the heroine had a really good explanation for dressing up as a boy but the empowerment was only limited to her.

And I found I got tired of Mariel pretty quickly. She rolls her eyes every other page, to show her defiance, I guess. I wanted to like her, but I quickly got really frustrated with her character. I mean, she's a total Mary Sue. She's emaciated from starvation and yet has a perfect rack? Body fat does not work that way. Also, barely anyone side-eyed her for wearing men's pants. This is early Medieval. Pretty sure she would have been burned as a witch or something.

For the right audience, I think this book will find a lot of fans. Like I said, fans of Sarah J. Maas and Kristin Cashore will probably enjoy this, but read it as a fantasy novel and not historical fiction.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Dark Prince by Christine Feehan


With very few exceptions, I prefer to read the original editions of books and avoid "author's cut" editions like this because editors exist for a reason, you know? But one of my friends kindly gifted me the whole series of this book, including some of the original paperbacks published by Love Spell with the bodice-ripper covers, so I'm not going to be a dick and look a gift book in the mouth.

DARK PRINCE was so close to being a good book and I think I probably would have enjoyed the original "cut" edition because one of my biggest complaints for this book is that it is too long. Words are repeated ruthlessly and with abandon. "Velvet," "black magic," and "silk" are used over and over again during sex scenes. There also isn't really enough action to fuel the storyline. The vampire hunter plot was good but the climax happened too soon, and made the next 150 or so pages feel incredibly anticlimactic. I'm not sure that would have been the case if the book were shorter.

I also really didn't like Mikhail. He's everything that's wrong with the fated to be mated trope (which I am also not a fan of). He basically forces his way into the heroine's life-- and head-- and calls her "little one" (ew) and he's always manhandling her and telling her what to do. Sometimes the "you look at another man and I'll kill him" thing works for me, but not here. This felt more like professional gaslighting from a broody goth boy in sad pants. Especially since he's always like "you have choices" but then makes it so that she basically has none. He even (SPOILER) turns her w/o permission. RUDE.

The Carpathians themselves were pretty cool, kind of a blend between the vampires of old and shape-shifters. They can turn into animals and mist, but they go to church. Carpathians that don't find their mates become true vampires, they can't see color, life is bleak and meaningless. I thought that was an interesting biological imperative to make them seek their mates. Better than the classic "magic is making us fuck" PWP excuse.

I wasn't really sure on what to rate this. During the beginning, I thought it was kind of like a self-indulgent TWILIGHT for adults, which made me want to give it a three (what I gave TWILIGHT). Then, as the story dragged on, I thought maybe a two. When the fight scene picked up, I thought maybe it would get a three after all. But then there was two hundred pages of purple sex and Mikhail being a douchey angstlord, and I thought that maybe this book should get a one. I feel bad about it because there were things that were really good! But this was just too long and I really did NOT like Mikhail.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Perfect Strangers by Rebecca Sinclair


After reading and loving CALIFORNIA CARESS by this author, I went ahead and bought everything she had released on Kindle. CC was a Western set in the 1800s, but PERFECT STRANGERS is a romance set in Scotland just before the start of King James's reign. Quite a different time period and setting. I was excited to see how she'd handle it.

The beginning of the story is pretty good. Gabrielle was an orphan in Queen Elizabeth's court, but then she is set off to marry in the Douglas family, partly to create allies during the border wars and partly because Lizzie is a jealous cat who can't stand the thought of any other woman snagging some male attention.

Gabrielle thinks she's marrying Colin Douglas but the man who snags her is actually his twin, Connor, who thinks to snub his nose at Colin. Also, because she's English, Connor figures that he can get her with child and then she'll conveniently die off due to cold, childbirth, etc. come winter, thereby leaving him single and with a son. Ha ha! What a charmer.

Joke's on him, though, because Gabby is actually plus-sized and quite robust, which he likes quite a bit, although he pretends he doesn't. He was right about the winters, though. After buckets and buckets of rainfall, Gabby takes chill and ends up abed with a fever while Connor and his aunt take turns nursing her back to health. There's a kidnapping, some boink-a-doinking, some fights, and then a joyous ending where the couple decides that despite both of them being terrible people, they're in luuuuurve.

I don't remember CALIFORNIA CARESS being this purple prose-y but this one was ridiculous. The sex scenes seriously had me rolling my eyes. I also thought there were too many of them, often at inconvenient times. In the forward, the author said that when she rereleased this book, she toned down the brogue for readability and I thought she did a really good job with that and the dialogue. And, like I said, the beginning was good. It just needed more action and less boink-a-doinking. I also didn't need to hear how HUUUUUGE the heroine was, over and over. Like, she's actually grateful when some evol Scotsmen are giving her the lecherous eye. Ew. Please, give us plus-sized ladies some respect.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Meghan: A Hollywood Princess by Andrew Morton


Like a lot of people, I'd never heard of Meghan Markle until it was announced that she was dating Prince Harry. Then I did what millions of other people were also doing: I looked her up.

MEGHAN: A HOLLYWOOD PRINCESS is a biography about Meghan Markle. It's thorough, respectful, and exhaustive, delving not just into Meghan's own history, but also her parents (her mother, descended from slaves-turned-sharecroppers) and her father (studio light designer, German, English, and Irish descent). It talks a little bit about Prince Harry and his background, and how a lot of his wild years were borne from frustration at being in the fishbowl and unresolved feelings about his mother's death.

But most of this book is about Meghan.

I found this biography so fascinating. Maybe it's because it's part fairytale, part Hollywood expose. Meghan Markle is half-Black, and half-white, and scrabbled for her good role on Suits with many frustrating failures and setbacks on her acting journey. It was so cool to read about her passion for her now defunct blog and all the jetsetting she did while promoting her career and involving herself in causes and charities. It was interesting to hear about how her ethnic makeup impacted her life and career. She just strikes me as a really interesting, real person.

I think Morton did a good job showing her in a mostly good light while also hinting at the complexities that make her a real, and therefore flawed, person. There are a lot of Meghan haters out there. I've heard people say that she's a bitch and a social climber (and also things that were much worse), and I don't really get it. It always felt like she was held to an unfair set of standards, standards that were perhaps (probably) harsher because of her ethnicity. I don't blame her for being ruthless to get what she wanted in her career and I don't blame her for pursuing the man she believed herself to be in love with. Who of us haven't dreamed of having our own prince or princess charming?

If you, like me, were also fascinated by Meghan Markle's whirlwind, fairytale romance and also enjoy learning about Hollywood and fancy people shit, this is the book for you. I'm definitely going to be checking out some of Morton's other biographies. It looks like he wrote one for Diana, too.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 23, 2021

9 Romances with Tortured Heroes and the Women Who Save Them

 One of my favorite tropes is that of the "tortured hero." As much as I enjoy the classic tales of the noble knight saving the woman in distress, I absolutely adore it when the roles are reversed and the woman saves the man for a change. It's so amazing when romance heroes are allowed to be vulnerable.

Here are some of my top tortured heroes and their romances with the women who love them. Given the subject matter, some of these have triggers. I try to bring up some of the main ones without big spoilers.

9. GENTLE FROM THE NIGHT by Meagan McKinney
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Historical/Gothic

This is a surprisingly dark Gothic romance. I like it a lot, but it's definitely one that will not appeal to everyone because it has non-con and because the hero has a background of sexual abuse. The heroine comes to the hero's property, answering an ad to restore his traumatized brother's ability to speak. Once there, she finds out more about the history between the two brothers, and the way they were abused by their old governess whose presence still haunts the halls. I loved the no-nonsense heroine and the way she tried to instill the hero's self-worth and help him find salvation, but I think the story begs the question as to whether everything can be forgiven and if all hurts really do have cures.

My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Historical

This story is kind of a gem because it features a hero with bipolar disorder and I thought the author did a really good job showing the hero, Jonas, at his highs and lows while also weaving a really rich tapestry of the time period. The hero is an artist and the heroine, Imogene, is the daughter of one of his patrons. He's basically forced to teach her against his will because of politics, which initially makes him hate and resent her, but her hero worship eventually ends up winning him over. I liked this book because the heroine doesn't "cure" him; she just accepts him as he is, while trying to be a supportive and mediating influence, and I kind of liked that.

 7. THE LILY BRAND by Sandra Schwab
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

 Genre: Historical

THE LILY BRAND is a book that's been on my radar for a while but I only read it recently. The hero is an English soldier (caught during the Napoleonic wars, I believe) who is bought by the heroine's truly evil stepmother, Camille. Camille is a sadist and a psychopath, who has a harem of male slaves, and she wants the heroine, Lillian, to become her acolyte. Troy, the hero, is to be her plaything. It ends up becoming a really intense and angsty romance because the heroine does torture him to keep up appearances before freeing him, but when they meet again, the hero doesn't trust her and their relationship is rocky and fraught with all kinds of obstacles. 

6. SEVEN DAYS IN JUNE by Tia Williams
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Contemporary

There's a reason SEVEN DAYS IN JUNE is all over Bookstagram. This book has so many of my favorite tropes in it: dual timeline, second chance, teen whirlwind romance, hurt/comfort, writers as characters, and probably more that I'm forgetting. I guess this one is sort of cheating since both the hero and the heroine are tortured-- both come from problematic backgrounds and the hero skirts the edges of crime-- but they find comfort and solace in each other and their relationship builds off that. Love it. Also, the heroine has chronic pain (severe migraines) and it's portrayed really, really realistically.

5. LORD OF THE STORM by Justine Davis
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Science-fiction/futuristic

Even though the cover is a little cheesy, this book is SO good. The hero, a slave called Wolf, is one of the few remaining survivors from a planet that was the victim of targeted genocide. The heroine, Shaylah, is a war hero from the same army that decimated his people (although she did not personally participate in that battle). She is obviously horrified but also very attracted to Wolf, even though she doesn't want to be because of the differences in their station. That doesn't stop her from taking advantage of him in what is dub-con at best, and rape at worst. The book fully addresses it, though, tackling the hypocrisy of people who justify war crimes and claim sanctimoniousness while doing nothing, and she really, really, really has to grovel to right her wrongs against Wolf. Ultimately, this ends up being kind of a reverse bodice-ripper, with a heroine who saves the hero when things get tough and really has to work hard to prove herself worthy of him. It's angsty and surprisingly compelling.

4. ONE CUT DEEPER by Joely Sue Burkhart
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Romantic suspense/erotica

This is another romance that isn't for everyone but I really liked it. The hero and heroine end up in a sadomasochistic relationship, both of them enthusiastically consenting. The hero, however, is tortured because his father was a serial killer and he worries that his tastes for dark things are a sign of worse things to come. The heroine is a grounding influence, and their relationship becomes profoundly emotional as they spend more and more time together, and the hero defends her from an unknown threat. I loved Ranay and Charlie so much and their story was the perfect blend of sex, action, and suspense.

3. DUKE OF SIN by Elizabeth Hoyt
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Historical

DUKE OF SIN is one of my favorite romances of all time and also made an appearance on my villain list. But he also has an incredibly dark back story filled with abuse that has shaped him into the cold and unfeeling person he is now. The heroine ends up being really good for him, not putting up with his shit but also demonstrating tenderness when he needs it and their relationship had me figuratively biting my nails, screaming "JUST KISS" in my head multiple times. So, so good.

2. THE TIED MAN by Tabitha McGowan
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Contemporary

This romance really ended up surprising me because it's so dark. The heroine, Lilith, is an erotic, avant-garde artist who ends up being sent to an estate to do a commission to clear a debt for her father. While there, she sees a beautiful man named Finn, who at a glance seems to be the lady of the manor's lover. But it's soon clear that the truth is much more sinister than that. It's a very dark story, filled with sexual and physical abuse, substance abuse, and all other sorts of abuse. Reading it put me in a gloomy frame of mind but if you come in emotionally girded, it's a powerful, haunting story with an enemies-to-friends-to-lovers romance that blossoms in adversity.

1. THE COMPANION by Susan Squires
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Historical/paranormal

The only angsty vampire romance I'll allow. The hero, Ian, is a vampire who was turned after physical and sexual abuse sustained from an evil female vampire who then left him for dead. He's horribly depressed and hates his life. The heroine, Beth, is the daughter of an Egyptologist who recently passed, forcing her to return home. They meet on a ship and end up becoming friends of a sort, although the heroine soon begins to suspect something isn't right. I just loved the angst, the gloomy hero, and the heroine's quick wit. The heroine is also half-Egyptian and the author does a pretty decent job talking about how the heroine often feels like an outsider, never British or Egyptian but something in between. This status actually ends up letting her relate to the hero even more, who also feels terribly alone.

Got a book that fits this list? Totally blown away by one of these premises?

⬇️ Tell me about it in the comments below ⬇️

Heat by R. Lee Smith


Usually when I really enjoy a book, I want allllll my friends to read it, too. But R. Lee Smith is not an author I would actually recommend to most people. All of her books are quite long, usually 400+ pages (sometimes close to 1,000), which is a deal-breaker for some. And then there's the content: vicious, brutal, violent, and often filled with gross sex and dub- or non-con. I don't personally find many of the sex scenes in her books erotic but they are haunting and fascinating. She has a keen insight into the human mind and what makes people do what they do, and her ability to build and craft inhuman worlds with believable details and a rich tapestry of culture inspires awe and envy.

So, you know, if that's something you think you'd be into, check her work out. But if not, abandon all hope ye who enter.

I buddy-read this book with my friend, Caro, who shares my love for this author. I would say that this book isn't quite as brutal or frustrating as SCHOLOMANCE or GANN for the most part, although there were a few scenes peppered in that exceeded the aforementioned in terms of blood splatter and gore. The interesting thing about HEAT is that it is basically two very different books crammed into one. On the one hand, you have the story about Kane: prisoner, chemist, and slaver, who has come to the Earth to make street drugs out of human brains, while helping himself to the local flavor. The local flavor being Raven, his punk, purple-haired love slave, and Sue-Eye, a blonde biker chick he picked up at a bar to be his #2. On the other hand, you have Tagen and Daria's story. Tagen is the police officer who is tasked with hauling Kane in, and Daria is the human he ends up crashing with while trying to get his bearings.

The twist is that, for Tagen at least, Earth isn't what either of them expected. Jotan aliens hadn't been to Earth since the Bronze age, and were expecting spears and not-- well, handguns and automobiles. Also, it's hot because global warming sucks, and when they go to the normally cool PNW, it's hotter than Hades. And unfortunately for Tagen and Kane and every female human who ends up in contact with them, hot temperatures put Jotans into violent, mind-blistering heat. So, there's that.

Kane is probably one of the most fun characters I've read about in a while. He's just so evil, but the author does a good job kind of humanizing him a little, and his relationship with Raven definitely comes across as having a Joker/Harley Quinn dynamic where you tell yourself, yes, it's abuse, but if he has a human side to him at all, she's probably the one person who ever receives the benefit of it. Their romance is infinitely more interesting and fascinating than Daria and Tagen's, which is cute but bland. Their sex scenes end up feeling pretty repetitive, and I found myself skimming over some of their interactions because I wanted to see what Kane, Raven, and Sue-Eye were getting up to.

Overall, I would say that this is an excellent work but it probably needed to be shaved down a little. Some of those Daria/Tagen scenes could have been cut. The Kane chapters, on the other hand, were perfect, with Smith building up an atmosphere of dread that could put even Stephen King to shame. I kept thinking what a great TV mini-series this book would be because it has a little bit of everything: action, romance, horror, shoot-em-ups, adventure, sex-- the whole nine yards. It's dark and it's violent and sometimes it's cruel, but the author's trademark dark humor and incredibly deep insights into humanity and the world totally make it worth it, imo.

Now, all I need is a spin-off sequel about Kane.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Tea Dragon Society by Kay O'Neill


I think this is one of the cutest things I've ever read, right up there with the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic comics. THE TEA DRAGON SOCIETY is set in a fantasy universe filled with magical creatures. The heroine, Greta, is a goblin blacksmith with a black cat familiar and her friend, Minette, is some sort of unicorn/fawn prophetess. The two of them end up joining a gay couple, Hesekiel and Erik, who take care of tea dragons.

Tea dragons are tiny little dragons that can't take care of themselves and need to be raised and coddled. They sprout tea leaves from their heads, and different dragons make different teas. It's a consuming project because obviously, there are easier ways to get tea, but to Hesekiel and Erik, it is an art where the labor is its own reward.

This is a really cute graphic-novel aimed at children, revolving around themes of patience, passion, friendship, kindness, loyalty, and understanding. It reminds me a lot of the TV shows I used to watch on PBS when I was a kid, actually. Things like Sagwa and Dragon Tales. It just has that wholesome, magical vibe that quality children's programming has. And yet, it doesn't feel condescending or preachy at all.

Very cute. 100% recommend.

5 out of 5 stars

Reckless by Selena Montgomery


Stacey Abrams is kind of a hero to me, so naturally when I found out that she wrote romance novels under the name Selena Montgomery, I had to track them down. When I managed to get a copy of DECEPTION from a Little Free Library, I went ahead and bought RECKLESS on Kindle straightaway so I could read the duology back to back.

There are some things I really liked about RECKLESS. First, it's one of those stories where a woman with a tough childhood comes back to her town as an adult to confront the past and solve a mystery, which is one of my favorite tropes. Second, Kell, the heroine, is a tough-as-nails woman who is a powerful attorney but still filled with some insecurities about her past that she attempts to compensate for by being cold and difficult, which is one of my favorite types of heroines. Third, the mystery is really good. It involves shady organizations, orphans, corruption, murder, and all sorts of other good stuff.

Sadly, the weakest part of this romance for me was, ironically, the romance. I really didn't care for Luke all that much. He wasn't great, he wasn't offensive, he was just there. I wasn't feeling the chemistry between him and the lead at all, and unlike some of the romantic suspense I read, where I find myself wishing there was more romance, I found myself wishing that there was more focus here on the crime.

I read the whole book and was interested in the outcome of the story and it was so refreshing to read a romantic suspense that feels so grounded in reality. But I would read this more for the mystery than the romance as there isn't a whole lot of romance and what there is isn't all that great.

Still excited to read the sequel, though! I understand it's about Fin! :D

3 out of 5 stars

Her Norman Conqueror by Malia Martin


Did I stay up all night reading this book? Yes. Do I regret it? No.

Nothing brings me out of a book slump like a good medieval romance and HER NORMAN CONQUEROR has a truly unique plot with a great cast of characters, powerful storytelling, and very real emotional stakes. After floundering through several paranormal romances, I decided to give myself a break and go back to basics-- and I am so glad I did, because this book knocked my socks off.

The beginning of the story kind of starts out like a less problematic version of Johanna Lindsey's PRISONER OF MY DESIRE. Aleene is the lady of what used to be dower lands, but she is of Spanish descent and her English citizens stopped being quite so trusting of their ladies when they started marrying outside the blood. Now, she is going to be forced to marry her loathsome stepbrother unless she can take matters into her own hands.

When her people arrest a developmentally disabled poacher on the premises, Aleene decides he is the perfect target for her scheming. Due to a childhood filled with abuse, she is terrified of men, and the inequality in the man's agency and social standing makes her feel like she might actually be able to be physical with him enough to get with child. I know, it's super problematic, but Aleene is working through incredible psychological trauma and given the time and her circumstances, I could kind of see why she felt the way she did.

Since her new husband appears to be mute, she names him Cynewulf. Cynewulf is incredibly attractive and also supremely cheerful. He's basically the sun emoji and the puppy emoji combined. Aleene quickly becomes affectionate towards him and protective of him, and starts to feel guilt about using him ill and being so cold to him. Gradually, she even begins to love him. But obviously, this would be too neat a story if it were as simple and straightforward as that. IT'S NOT.

I don't want to say too much more because there are some really great twists in this book, but HER NORMAN CONQUEROR ended up being the perfect blend of angsty and sweet, with a huge cast of interesting side characters, realistic problems, a great villain (well, villains), a headstrong and determined heroine, and a surprising hero. Martin did such a good job showing the complexities of war, the politics of running a household, and how divisions never run neatly or evenly when lines are driven down two sides in opposition. I thought this might be a cheesy bodice-ripper but it actually ended up being one of those hurt/comfort stories, like Sarah Brophy's MIDNIGHT EYES.

I will definitely be checking out more from this author!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Out of the Night by Robin T. Popp


How can I NOT support an author who loves Star Trek and writes science-fiction/paranormal romances? That's like asking me to hate avocados or feminism. I just can't do it. Also the book was only $1.99. And it's about vampires. Goodbye, money. I hardly knew ye.

Initially, I was like, oh my God, I do NOT understand all the haters for this book! Sure, it seemed like a bad movie from the Syfy channel, but on the other hand, it seemed like a bad movie from the Syfy channel! Even if you don't like what you're watching, you still get plenty of yuks. Love Spell romances are the same way and I did about three takes at the publisher info because I was like, "THERE IS NO WAY THIS WAS NOT PUBLISHED BY LOVE SPELL," but apparently it was published by Warner Forever, so more fool me. The beginning was really good, too. Unlike 90% of paranormals which take place in Northern America or Europe, this was set in the Amazon.

The premise is pretty cheesy. Because it involves chupacabras and a convoluted vampire mythology that is seriously lolz-inducing. Lanie, a librarian and volunteer firefighter, goes to a city in the Amazon to track down her father, a cryptozoologist who went missing during his research on the chupacabra (lmao). One of his friends charters a plane for her and the pilot is Mac, an ex-Navy SEAL. When they get to his camp, everyone is either missing or dead and there's evidence of foul play and mysterious gargoyle statues locked in cages. Lanie immediately goes, "Huh, that's weird. Let's unlock it!"

Surprise! The gargoyle statues are actually chupacabras! AND NOW THEY ARE FREEEEEEE!

So this has one of the most original takes on vampires I've ever seen in a book, which gives it a bonus point. Humans become vampires by either being bitten by other vampires or turned by the venom in a chupacabra's teeth. I think humans killed in vampire attacks become vampires but if they're bitten by chupacabras and don't die, they become something called a "changeling" which is basically a daywalker, i.e. a good vampire that doesn't need to go around murdering people. I giggled for about a solid thirty seconds about the idea of chupacabras transforming people into vampires. It's so good.

Mac gets bitten by a chupacabra and starts transforming (oh no!) and then he and Lanie return to the U.S. to track down the bad vampire and Lanie's father, who is also a vampire (I think a changeling). At this point, the story gets pretty boring and dragged-out. I stopped paying attention and started skimming pretty heavily as soon as it gets into the "oh no, they're coming for the gov't" territory and "oh no, the bad vampire kidnapped the human girlfriend of the good vampire" plot device that literally EVERY vampire romance written in the aughts seems to have (I blame TWILIGHT). Also, it ends with a wedding, which is just SO romance novel. Even with gov't coups, there's still time for a wedding.

I wanted to like this more than I did but it was cheesy-bad and not-cheesy good. Whoops.

2 out of 5 stars

Tiger Eye by Marjorie M. Liu


Love Spell is probably one of my favorite publishing imprints. The blend of cheesy sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal romances is just too good to resist. Even though the books usually make me roll my eyes a little, I keep coming back for more because the stories are usually just that compelling.

TIGER EYE starts out really good! It's set in Beijing and the descriptions of the city are simply gorgeous. Dela, the heroine, is there on business, but her life takes a sinister turn when she buys a box from a mysterious market vendor. When she opens the box, a gorgeous, 7ft-tall warrior/genie comes out named Hari. He's a tiger shape-shifter who has lost the ability to turn and is now cursed to grant wishes.

The first third of this book had me zipping through pages. But then I got bored. Dela was a Mary Sue and it was annoying to hear how good and perfect she was, nonstop. Like, let me like her on my own, please. Hari was great and his story was really sad and intense but there were things about his predicament that didn't make sense. Like, apparently he was able to force himself not to harm women and children despite his curse, which... okay. I feel like this was because the author just didn't want to write herself into a corner by having him do bad things, but holy plot holes, Batman. Likewise, only his female mistresses took advantage of him physically? In 2,000 years? Really? That seems a bit heteronormative but ok.

I thought the villain was appropriately evil and there was an interesting side story about a crime syndicate. There were just too many pages spent on Hari and Dela mooning over each others' mutual perfection, and on Dela's friends, who basically just existed as further eye candy (and probably future love interests), as well as serving as the Greek choir to sing Dela's praises. I found myself skimming a lot. The ending was good and the epilogue was sweet, but this just felt waaaaay too long and circuitous.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, August 20, 2021

Virtually His by Gennita Low


DNF @ 33%

Do you ever find yourself thinking about a book you read a long time ago and the premise sounds so weird, even to you, that you aren't sure whether you actually read the book or whether you maybe hallucinated the whole thing in a fever dream? That was me, with this book.

I read VIRTUALLY HIS in original paperback when I was a teenager. It's a bit romantic suspense, a bit futuristic romance. Helen Roston (Elena Rostova) is a scrappy, orphan-off-the-Russian-streets recruit working for this mysterious paramilitary organization that trains its recruits through virtual reality. Cool, makes sense so far, right?

Well, apparently part of that training includes molestation.


Here's the thing, I didn't actually have a problem with the dub-con (although it shocked teen me enough that it made an impression), but it's just so weird and doesn't really make sense in this book. Also, her trainer calls himself Hades which is... pretentious, but part of the status quo for this book is pretending to be smarter than it actually is. That's why you find yourself buried in technobabble that only half makes sense and enough acronyms to make you feel like you spilled alphabet soup all over your reading device.

The scenes between the H and h could be kind of hot, but Helen's nonstop inner dialogue was annoying. I also didn't like how the POVs would randomly switch mid-paragraph practically without line breaks and there were tons of breaks to scenes that were super boring with people I didn't care about.

I remember liking this book when I was a teen but man, it does not hold up. I still have a soft spot for it because it was one of the first futuristic romances I ever read, and kind of ended up being my gateway book into the fabulous genre of science fiction romance, but man, it does NOT hold up.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Lily Brand by Sandra Schwab


This was my first book by Sandra Schwab but I can guarantee you that it isn't going to be the last. One of my favorite tropes in romance novels is when a tortured hero is saved by the heroine, which is exactly what happens here. Schwab puts an interesting twist on it, though: the heroine, under the cold eyes of her psychotic stepmother, tortures the hero herself. YIKES ON BIKES.

Camille is an evil, brutal woman who uses men as playthings and refers to them as "it" and as "toys." She tortures them, mentally and physically, until they do whatever she tells her to. To a lesser extent, she treats her stepdaughter, Lillian, the same way. She wants to initiate Lillian to follow in her own footsteps and the hero, Troy, is to be her plaything. After branding him (yes, seriously), Lillian feels incredible guilt. It's the last straw. So she takes Troy with her to the gardens, to a secret passage where she plans to escape. After taking Troy with her partway, she abandons him with her gold cameo necklace to pay for his passage. Then the two of them part ways... until they meet again. DUN DUN DUN.

Now in England, Lillian is living with her aunt and grandfather. She is on the fringes of society and flirting with a man named Alex. But bad luck! Alex is the cousin of Troy, who hasn't forgotten what Lillian did to him. He stops their engagement by assaulting Lillian at a party, and only fate keeps him from going further. They end up forced into marriage to save Lillian's honor, and you could cut a knife through the tension between them, as Troy's hatred festers even as Lillian's guilt mounts.

This was just so well done. It's kind of a Gothic romance with a couple nods to bodice-rippers of old. Camille is a great villain-- she reminds me of Asharti in Susan Squires's THE COMPANION-- and I liked that the heroine and the hero both did cruel things to each other. It was also refreshing to see a book where the heroine repeatedly comes to the hero's aid. Lillian was cold because she had to harden her heart to tragedy, but it was really more of a self-defense tactic to keep from getting hurt. Juxtaposed against that icy exterior are softer moments where you get an idea of what she could have been like, if not for her trauma. The hero is the same way. Even though I wanted to scream at him for NOT TALKING TO HER, it actually made sense for his character because he was so full of bride.

I also loved that the secondary romance in this book was a gay couple. Since this book was published a while ago, that came across as pretty progressive. Especially since they weren't stereotyped at all. I loved Lord Allenbright and Mr. De La Mere. They were both great characters and the intimate scenes between them were as great as their more active roles to the plot. All of the other side characters were pretty interesting too, especially Antoine, Camille's right hand man, and Nanette, Lillian's nanny.

If you like dark romances and are okay with some light questionable content and enjoy it when the heroine gets to save the hero and everything is drenched in angst and anguish, this is the book for you. It's slow-burn as all get-out but that just makes everything that happens between them way more satisfying because it feels like you've earned it at that point. I can't wait to read more from this author!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Bitterburn by Ann Aguirre


I absolutely adore anything Gothic so when I found out about this story, I was all over it like white on rice. Beauty and the beast retellings have kind of been done to death, but Ann Aguirre actually sort of managed to put a fresh take on it, so props.

Amarrah lives in the town of Bitterburn which is next to a castle by the same name. The town believes the castle is cursed and leaves offerings for it, but on a particularly lean year, Amarrah herself is sent as sacrifice to the castle. Once there, she finds an abundance of food and supplies and prepares to settle in for what she expects will be death when she encounters Njal, the tenant of Bitterburn.

Njal has been cursed but unlike other iterations of Beauty and the Beast where a prince was cursed for arrogance and selfishness, Njal's story is much more tragic and empathetic. As Amarrah settles into her new home, she becomes utterly obsessed with Njal's past and determined to set his present to rights.

BITTERBURN is a pretty good story. The writing kind of feels like it's a YA story but there is a lot of sex. That said, I think older teens would probably like this book. It's also a very feminist spin on what is traditionally a pretty sexist tale. Aguirre tweaked a lot of the things that made Beauty and the Beast a Stockholm syndrome fantasy: Njal isn't an asshole and Namarrah has tons of agency. On the con side, the sex scenes weren't the best and there was SO MUCH TALKING. Like, I'm all for consent IRL but there's a point where too much talking makes things unsexy for me, and this book crossed over that line dozens of times. Like, respectfully, shut up and bang. It almost felt like a playbook for sex ed at times. Very clinical and preachy. I was not into that at all. There's only so  much "is this okay? is that okay? are you liking this? are you SURE you're liking this?" I can take.

Apart from a couple nitpicky qualms I had with this book, though, I'd say it's pretty good. It's filled with magic and heroines rescuing the heroes and I think fans of Jill Myles and Naomi Novik will like this.

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Lord of the Storm by Justine Davis


As someone who was reared on Star Trek, I have a soft spot for alien/space opera romance novels, especially when done well. Despite its cheesy cover, LORD OF THE STORM is a pretty dark and incredible romance novel. I breezed through it in basically a day, sucked into the plights of the two protagonists.

The heroine, Shaylah, is a starship captain and a war hero. When she is on shore leave, her friend gives her a slave as a present to amuse her. The slave is named Wolf, a beautiful but haunted man from the planet Trios, which Shaylah's people razed and destroyed. Wolf is a glaring reminder that war does not determine who is right: only who is left, and that some wars truly are fought without honor.

As she gets to know him, her disgust with herself and her people mounts. She finds rapport with Wolf-- and then horribly abuses his fledgling trust by taking advantage of him. It's a truly disgusting scene and haunts her for most of the book as she comes to terms with her own sense of selfishness and superiority. I think it will be hard for a lot of people to read-- since it is basically rape-- but the author handled it well.

I don't want to say too much about the rest of the book because of spoilers, but it was incredibly action-packed and a real treat for anyone who likes space opera. It's got all the big checkmarks: rescue attempts, hostile planets, laser fights, chains of command, geopolitical intrigue, and so much more! My only complaint is that it felt like a lot of the main couple's fight scenes started to feel really repetitive after a while (although I guess it made sense) and some of the sex scenes were a little too cheesy even for me and I felt like the bad guy got off too lightly, but apart from that, I was totally in love.

Major props to my friend Heather for recommending this book to me!

4 to 4.5 out of  stars

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The School for Dangerous Girls by Eliot Schrefer


What a weird book this was.

THE SCHOOL FOR DANGEROUS GIRLS is about Angela, a problematic girl who has been implicated in the murder of her grandfather. As punishment, she is sent to a bad girls' school, which is kind of like a cross between a boarding school and a mental institution. They have no privacy and the punishments for rule infractions are severe, and it's clear that something dark is going on at the school.

Reading this was a lot like reading those Point Horror novels from the 90s. Cheap thrills and chills, a little Gothic, and a little lacking in the details or reasoning behind plot and important character decisions. I liked the beginning a lot but then it started getting kind of weird and at the end, it started getting really weird.

Props for writing an antiheroine character and making her sympathetic and having a pretty diverse cast of characters, but the ending was a little eye-roll worthy and Angela's parents have a LOT of 'splaining to do. Like, did you even Google the school you sent your kids to before sending them there, my dudes?

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 16, 2021

Inside Out by Maria V. Snyder


POISON STUDY is one of my f a v o r i t e fantasy books of all time, so obviously I would jump at the chance to read anything else this author ever wrote because I am all about supporting my faves. As of my writing this, this YA science-fiction duology is on sale for $1.99 each (8/16), which is why I ended up getting both books on the cheap.

INSIDE OUT came out in the middle of the big YA dystopian trend following in the wake of THE HUNGER GAMES'S popularity. It kind of falls into a subgenre of books that I like to call "sewerpunk," in that it takes place in the below-ground, kind of like METRO 2033, ESCAPE FROM FURNACE, and QUEENE OF LIGHT. In the world of INSIDE OUT, scrubs clean and scavenge the pipes and uppers do, I don't know, administrative/bureaucratic-type work. Trella, a scrub, is known as Queen of the Pipes for her in-depth knowledge of the sewer system, as well as her high and mighty attitude. She also inadvertently becomes a figurehead of rebellion for the people when she accidentally gets involved in a revolution and uses her know-how to further their agenda and disrupt the regime.

INSIDE OUT was simultaneously better and worse than I expected. I felt like the dystopian world was more well-imagined than I anticipated. This isn't really a HUNGER GAMES clone: it stands on its own two feet as fairly innovative, so props for that. I also liked that Trella was so reluctant to step up to the plate. She liked being alone and antisocial and didn't want the whole nightmare mess that came along with being a revolutionary, which I found totes relatable. I like difficult, stubborn heroines who have realistic flaws and occasionally act selfish. Spare me the sacrificial Christ figures, okay?

On the other hand, I was pretty confused on how everyone ended up belowground. And it wasn't really clear what the difference between uppers and lowers was. What about agriculture? They had food and talked about sheep-- but sheep eat grass and need sunlight. Where was that food coming from? Are there farmers? You can't tell me that there's just military, bureaucrats, and scrubbers. Also, I didn't really buy the sort of romance between Riley and the jokes about the hero's stuffed animal sheep ("Sheepy") were painful and needed to go away. It was an odd split-- here you have a book were people are fed to execution machines ("Chomper") and yet there's cutesy jokes about stuffed animals.

Also, don't expect me to take your military police seriously if you call them Pop Cops. The whole time I was reading this book, I kept thinking about PopCap Games, the manufacturer of Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies.

This wasn't a terrible book but it could have been a lot better.

P.S. Major cliffhanger ending.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 15, 2021

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly


One of my most recent reading projects is called the Literary Sad Girl Canon where I reread books I enjoyed when I was a teen/adolescent and write about my thoughts on them now, as an adult. This addition is particularly exciting because I was joined by my Goodreads friend, Nut Meg, so keep an eye out for her review, soon!

A NORTHERN LIGHT is a book packed with memories for me because when I read it for the first time, I was not actually living in the United States. Living in the UK, with my bedroom window overlooking a small wood, I remember feeling transported to the New York wilderness and the brutal elements. It gave this book a feeling of immediacy, and I liked and related to the heroine, who aspired to greater things that she felt she didn't deserve. I relate, girl. I relate.

Reading this book a second time around, I had a lot of mixed feelings. For some reason, I was expecting more of a mystery? I remembered the murder being much more focal to the plot than it actually was. Which is a shame because the murder in this book is based off of a real life murder and kind of gives off Corpse Bride vibes. But the bulk of the book is mostly about Mattie, the heroine, and her brutal work on the farm while she struggles to find a way to become a university student.  Her best friend, Weaver, is Black, and he also wants a higher education, but people keep foiling his plans too because it's the early twentieth century and people are racist fucks. Booooo, racist fucks! Boooo!

I liked the themes of empowerment over adversity and the grueling portrayal of life on the farm is a huge middle finger to anyone who romanticizes that sort of life (spoiler: IT WAS HARD WORK) but I was also hoping for more action. This is really more of a soap opera than it is a mystery and the dual timeline doesn't actually serve to do much, except make the narrative jump around. Mattie's whole shtick with words was kind of twee and I found myself rolling my eyes at it more often than not.

Also, hilariously, in my newly obtained copy, I noticed that someone highlighted all of the references to food. Why would they do this? I have no idea, but it made me realize how many food references there are in this book. That's okay, though, because I like food.

TL;DR review: I liked it but this was more of a Scooby Don't than a Scooby Doo.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Reaper of Souls by Rena Barron


That moment when the title of book comes into play. 😏

I quite enjoyed KINGDOM OF SOULS and was excited to read the sequel, REAPER OF SOULS. KoS was surprisingly brutal for a YA book and the negative reviews complaining about this were actually what ended up selling me on it. In a market that has become increasingly derivative and safe, I'm always down to check out authors who feel like being more experimental and daring. There's a long list of triggers for the book (which I tried to mention in my review), but if you can stomach such content, it's a pretty solid debut-- especially for fantasy.

RoS, on the other hand, was kind of a disappointment. Like the previous book, it took forever to get moving, but unlike the previous book it lacked the immediacy and it didn't really need to lay out all that world-building a second time. KoS had two really imposing villains and some super intense scenes to back up their evil-doery. On the other hand, RoS has already established those stakes, so I was kind of hoping for more action and less world-building. Arrah was a flawed but compelling protagonist and I feel like in this sequel, she ended up falling kind of flat. Rudjek, on the other hand, became much more interesting but he couldn't carry the narrative slog alone.

As with the previous book, RoS doesn't truly get good until the last half-- especially the last 15%. But I don't think it's worth plowing through. An editor really should have shaved a lot of the repetitive scenes from this book. It was shorter than the previous book (which I think was 500 pages?) but still way too long for what it accomplished. I'm not sure I'll be reading the next book in the series.

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Scholomance by R. Lee Smith


SCHOLOMANCE is such an intense and brooding work. Like all of the other R. Lee Smith books I've read, the pacing is very slow, and the romance is even slower. This isn't a book you read when you want instant gratification. In fact, I'd argue that this isn't the type of book you read when you want gratification at all, as very little about this book is what I'd call "pleasurable." But if you like dark academia and eldritch horrors, this will be your jam. There really is nothing else like it, although VITA NOSTRA comes kind of close. It is a dark, delicious treat of a book where no light can escape.

Mara has never been like other girls. She's cold and unfeeling, and kind of a sociopath. She's also a psychic. She lives a dull and meaningless existence but one day she gets a letter from her only friend, Connie. Connie has always craved magic abilities ever since Mara confided her powers to her in secret, and when Mara was unable to give her what she wanted, she sought out a mysterious demon-run school in the wilds of Romania. This is where the letter comes from, and in it, Connie is begging for rescue and help.

After a sinister journey up a mountain that isn't unlike the dash for the Cornucopia in The Hunger Games, Mara makes it to the Scholomance. And Harry Potter, this is not. Students must endure terrible trials just to be considered students at all. And as students, they are utterly at the mercy of their demonic teachers, who operate on a totally different level of morality and don't really have any qualms about making their human students into inhuman pets or fuckpuppets. If body horror is a trigger for you, look away, because this book has lots of it, and lots of unsexy sex, too.

As Mara searches ineffectively for Connie, she becomes a student in her own right while gradually beginning to get to know some of the demon Masters there. And this is where the book gets interesting and also where I will stop elaborating. I will say that Mara is an utterly fascinating heroine. She's the sort of antiheroine that people often beg for on Twitter, which makes it a shame that this author is so criminally underrated. I get it; her books are long and take a while to get into, but I think if more people gave her a chance, they'd see that she's writing the sorts of things that they've always wanted to read. The world-building, the dialogue (Kazuul's words are pure poetry), the philosophy, the exposition-- it's all done so well, to the point that this ends up almost being a rumination on the human condition in addition to also being a sort of romance (with a compelling love triangle!), mystery, and magic school fantasy. Anyone who says they enjoy grimdark should read this, because it actually is.

Thanks to Caro for buddy-reading this with me! We're starting HEAT next! >:D

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood


DNF @ 44%

At first I was really into this book but it's a bit too preciously written for the dark subject matter and Phryne feels like a Mary Sue. Endless pages of fashion porn and people talking about how hot/perfect/charming Phryne is, and I began rolling my eyes. The writing is good and I think if you like cozy, escapist mysteries, you'll enjoy this, but the TV show is a lot better IMO, so maybe it was a mistake to watch that first.

2 out of 5 stars

The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour


I recently read EVERYTHING LEADS TO YOU by Nina LaCour and it was so good that I decided that I simply had to read everything I owned of hers, ASAP. I don't normally like books about road trips or books about bands, so when I found out that this book was about both of those things, I was like "yikecycles." But, on the other hand, who else could shatter your jaded genre-bound ennui but a fave?

There were things I loved about THE DISENCHANTMENTS, and things that made me want to Hulk!smash. Unfortunately, the things that made me want to Hulk!smash were pretty close in number to the things I actually liked, which made for a pretty frustrating read.


So let's get down to business.

Our cast of characters:

Colby: Manic Pixie Friendzone

Bev: Flakier than a pie crust and not as sweet

Meg: Cuddly little ball of anxiety

Alexa: She's so bad she's good

All of these teens are going on a road trip through the Pacific Northwest because the girls are in a band. It's actually a really terrible band, but because they're all hot, they keep getting booked. Because this is America. Colby gets to come because he's their ride and also (less importantly) their friend. The plan is initially that they drop Meg off at college in Portland and then Bev and Colby are going on a trip to Europe that they've been planning all year-- but oh, once they're on the road, Bev is like, "You know how you threw away all your college plans for this? JK! I changed my mind without telling you and I'm going to RISD!" and the girl is so thick-headed that she just doesn't understand why he's so mad.

The best parts of this book are the road trip itself, surprisingly to me. Sleazy hotels, restaurants with hot tubs in the back, bars that are waaaaaay too comfortable giving booze to teens, lots of art talk. It feels like a 70s movie starring Brooke Shields and Farah Fawcett and maybe also John Travolta. But tensions are high because Flaky Bev won't tell Manic Pixie Friendzone why she bailed. And when she does, she tries to couch it in "one time I saw my mom fucking someone else and it traumatized me for life and now I can't have healthy relationship" guilt, which... no, that's NOT how that works, Bev. Just because the fuckboys do it doesn't mean it's #feminism to turn the tables and be a fuckgirl.

So this wasn't a bad book, but it wasn't nearly as good as EVERYTHING LEADS TO YOU and it made me really mad. I actually had to check the publishing date because it felt like it was published in the mid-aughts when indie teen movies were all the rage. I half-expected Michael Cera to pop up.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Shit, Actually by Lindy West


As a millennial 30-something who has seen movies, I was totally curious to see what this other millennial 30-something who has also seen movies would say about movies. Here's the thing: I don't actually watch that many movies. Some people are film buffs, and some people are like, "Yeah, I've never seen the Godfather," and I am the latter category (and yes, truefax, I have never seen the Godfather). But I love Lindy West and I love reading about people talking about movies, so I thought this collection would be superfun. And it was.

This collection of pop-cultural essays focuses primarily around movies that came out in the nineties. The essay about Love, Actually did me in, because THANK YOU, I also found that movie unwatchable. I also felt personally vindicated by the fact that she didn't like American Pie (ditto), and the overratedness of Reality Bites (I tried watching it in high school and never looked back). I think the crown jewel in this collection is her review for The Fugitive, which I have also never seen but now I kind of want to, followed closely by Face/Off (Nicolas Cage is in it, which I think is all you need to know).

Lindy West seems to favor action movies, as it is pretty heavy on titles like Speed Run and Rush Hour, and I do not like action movies, so the fact that I found these essays as engaging as I did is truly testament to the author's writing ability. Love, Actually and American Pie resonated with me on a truly personal level, and her essays on Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Lion King made me laugh, even though she was totes attacking my faves, because I know how to laugh at the things I love (which is maybe why the things I love sometimes get mad at me-- lol, HI FAM). I kind of wish that this collection was longer and included her thoughts on things like Glitter (an underatted classic, imo), Show Girls (ditto), and some of the other Disney Renaissance movies (Little Mermaid! Pocahontas! Mulan!). I seriously hope she has a follow-up planned, as I didn't even realize how NECESSARY her commentary was for my life until I started reading and couldn't stop giggling.

This collection isn't going to appeal to everyone-- it's leftist and feminist, which, you know, I appreciate, but I know some people are going to be like, "SJW [blankety blankety] polemical [blankety blankety] CAN'T USE MY FAVORITE WORDS ANYMORE [blankety blankety] POLITICS. Which, I mean, you do you. But also, this is the 21st century and if you allow things to stagnate and be the same as they were for the last twenty years, you're going to be mired in all of the problems you've been busily sweeping under the rug this whole time, and oh no, they've turned into mud. WE ARE LITERALLY STUCK IN THE PAST. SEND HELP. Nobody wants that. Except the right.

Anyway, I loved this collection. I bought it on impulse hoping that it would be good and it was actually great, so now I guess I need to hunt down all of the other books this author has ever read and read them.

P.S. I've never seen Garden State.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Matched by Ally Condie


One of my current reading projects is going through books I really enjoyed when I was young and revisiting them to see how well they hold up as an adult. Part of that is a low-key flex ("look what amazing taste I had!") and part of that is morbid curiosity. What we like as kids doesn't always hold up to adulthood. I think any of us who have sampled Dunkaroos or Capri Sun in a moment of weakness know that. What once tasted like the nectar of the gods now tastes like sugar water and tainted memories. Oh, woe.

MATCHED is one of those dystopian books that came out on the coattails of THE HUNGER GAMES. It reads like someone decided to write a crossover fanfic between THE GIVER and TWILIGHT, which I am weirdly okay with. Maybe it's because I really love romance novels, the trashier the better. And this book is pretty trashy. It takes place in a highly regimented futuristic society where people are Matched by the government, and most of history has been systematically destroyed. 100 History lessons, 100 Songs, 100 Poems, etc. were preserved because the thinking went that if there were fewer things around, what you had would be easier to appreciate. But we know that's not really why. Because they also don't write, either.

Also, everyone dies by age 80 in a ritualistic ceremony called The Final Banquet, which is ominous as fuck, so kudos to the author for coming up with that. It definitely has Logan's Run vibes.

On the day of Cassia's Match, though, the unthinkable happens-- she sees not one, but TWO boys. Faster than you can say "love triangle" Cassia begins wringing her hands over her true match, childhood friend and steadfast follower to the rules, Xander, and the dangerous bad boy who came from The Place Where Bad People Live who is classified as something called an Aberration, Ky. I'll give you three guesses who Cassia really likes.

I read this book for the first time in college. I thought it was really fun when I read it and I think I initially gave it five stars. When you're crushing out term papers and spending late-nights studying for final exams, you don't really want heavy reading, so books like this were really fun for me. It's easy to read, with clean, fluid prose, and there isn't really a lot of depth to the world-building so it isn't that hard to follow. So you know, the same things that would make it a good book for young readers also make it an easy read for stressed-out college students, which I was.

I think if you pick this up expecting Orwell or Huxley, you're going to be mad. But if you read this as a YA soap opera, it's kind of fun escapist reading. I didn't actually think it was that bad, but I also enjoyed other similarly maligned dystopians, like THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH and WITHER, and I think what happened to this book probably happened to those books, too: oversaturation of the market. They came out when people were already deciding that they were done with dystopians and moving on to The Next Big Thing, which I believe was toxic New Adult romances, if I recall correctly. What keeps this book from being too tedious, though, are the sinister moments, like the Final Banquet, and other little hints into the darker aspects of this world. I kind of wish there had been more of those.

In short: pick this book up if you love yourself some trashy teen drama, a la the CW.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars