Monday, May 16, 2022

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

 

SILVER PHOENIX has been on my to-read list forEVER and I finally caved a couple months ago and bought it but never read it. Now that it's AAPI month, what better time than now to pick it up? And I'm so glad I did. SILVER PHOENIX came out at a time when there really weren't a lot of diverse YA books and the ones that did come out weren't really being marketed properly to see that they would get into the hands of those who would truly enjoy them. One of my friends (Wen) said that this book probably would have done much better if it had released today and I wholeheartedly agree.

SILVER PHOENIX is an epic Chinese-inspired fantasy story that reminded me a little of a YA-friendly version of THE GHOST BRIDE. The whole time I was reading it, I kept thinking what a great C-drama it would make. Ai Ling is a strong determined girl with mysterious powers. Her love interest is a tortured stoic boy with secrets named Chen Yong. There's a hot and evil bad guy, the lovable comic relief, and an exciting portion set in the realm of the Immortals, which was probably one of my favorite portions of this book.

There's a lot to credit SILVER PHOENIX. I loved the heroine and how she could be difficult and that she wasn't some perfect girl character. I loved the monsters and how dark they were-- at times, it almost gave me Inuyasha vibes because of all the creepy monster-murders. And can we talk about how I wanted to eat literally all the food in this book? The food descriptions are everything. We stan.

Where this book failed a little was pacing. The beginning was great, but the middle was peppered with slogs. I found the ending ultimately satisfactory, but hearing that info dump from the dad for closure was... IDK, a take, I guess. There were parts of this book where I couldn't put it down and parts where I was like, "Agh, go back to the good parts!" Because there were a lot of those. ALSO, let's talk about how this doesn't feel all samey as the Fantasy of Tumblr canon does?? It's totally different and it's lusciously dark, so mad props to this woman for pushing the YA envelope. (Now pls do adult fic.)

If you love Asian-inspired fantasy, you will love the Kingdom of Xia.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Frankie Comics by Rachel Dukes

 

This comic is so cute. I didn't realize how badly I needed a kitty-themed comic in my life until I picked this up. Frankie is my cat. The obsession with rubber bands, the incessant need for cuddles (she spends half her day on my dad's lap and then sleeps at the foot of my bed at night), the begging for food. It was AWESOME.

The drawing style and sense of humor reminded me a lot of a more mature version of Chi's Sweet Home with a dash of Questionable Content. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if both of those comics are favorites of the author. Frankie was absolutely adorable, and I liked the afterword dispelling some myths about cats and advising people on how to adopt.

If you like cats, you'll love this.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8 Lee

 

Happy AAPI month! My project for this month is trying to read as many of the Asian-authored books I have on my Kindle that I hadn't been able to get around to for the rest of the year. THE FORTUNE COOKIE CHRONICLES has been on my to-read list for the longest time because it's a collection of linked essays about the history of Chinese food in the United States.

First, a caveat: this was published in 2008 so it comes across as a little dated. Some of the statistics about immigration and demographics are probably no longer accurate now, but that's because it's a product of its times and not bad writing. Second, it bounces around a lot from subject to subject as a lot of other readers have complained. I think that was pretty typical of nonfic at the time, because that meandering style was kind of popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, but it doesn't really work quite as well here.

The hook for this story is about this year where there were 110 Powerball winners. When people looked into it, expecting fraud, they found out it was because the Powerball numbers were a match for the numbers on the back of a Chinese fortune cookie fortune. Everyone who played those numbers who got fortunes produced by that factory won. From there, the author does a deep dive into the history of American Chinese food, delving into the stories behind popular menu items like General Tso's Chicken, Chop Suey, Peking duck, fortune cookies, and even the takeout boxes themselves.

My favorite part of the book was actually near the end, when the author goes to the most famous Chinese restaurant in a variety of countries (Brazil, South Korea, Mauritius, UAE, etc.) and talks a little about how the culture they are in influenced the take on Chinese. I also liked the chapter on Peking duck, which talks about kosher Chinese food and the relationship between Jewish people living in New York and Chinese cuisine. I was a little disappointed that chain restaurants that do Chinese, like Panda Express or Pick Up Stix, weren't talked about, as well as the ubiquitous but entirely inauthentic dish, orange chicken, but I guess in a book like this it's hard to cover everything. The book also covers Japanese history a bit, talking about how the Chinese fortune cookie is probably Japanese in origin.

I think people who like nonfiction books about food will really enjoy this book. I certainly liked it a lot and thought that Lee was a great writer and had an engaging writing style. I just wish there had been a more uniform aspect to the book, though, as it jumped around a lot and some essays were better than others.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 13, 2022

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

 

It's AAPI month and one of my goals was to try and get to some of the Asian-authored books on my Kindle that I haven't read yet. THE PRINCE AND THE DRESSMAKER has been on my radar for a while because I heard it was a super adorable graphic novel that addresses a non-binary identity in an accessible and fun way. And all those people who said that were totally right, because it DOES.

Frances is a seamstress. When she makes a risque dress for a girl who despises convention, she is fired from her job, only to be hired by a mysterious person claiming to represent a wealthy patron. It turns out the patron is the Belgian prince, Sebastian, who secretly likes going out and wearing dresses. In a touching moment, he tells Frances that sometimes he likes being a prince, but lately he's felt more like a princess and he wants her to make dresses for him.

At the same time, Sebastian's parents are putting pressure on him to get married and secure the throne. He's meeting princesses by day and going out on the town by night. When an opportunity arises for Frances to meet the designer of her dreams, it might risk Sebastian's big secret kidding out. And it tests the limits of Frances's and Sebastian's relationship: are they patron and creator? Are they friends? Or are they something more?

Obviously this is literally and figuratively costume fiction. There's a bit of wish fulfillment fantasy in it, too. But I don't mind that when it's done well. The themes of embracing your inner-self and accepting others for who they are is really beautiful, and there were at least three times that my eyeballs came pretty close to parting with some of their precious tears. The fashion show at the end was high key the best part. If you're looking for a feel-good book, this is it.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Donut Trap by Julie Tieu

 

It's AAPI month and I've been trying to read as many of the Asian-authored books on my Kindle as I can. I bought THE DONUT TRAP when it went on sale on Kindle a while back... and then never read it! I know, right? The shame! Especially since it's a food-themed romance and I tend to really love those, even though I'm not usually a fan of fluffy romance (food ones being the obvious exception).

Now that I've read it, I'm kind of surprised it has such low ratings! It's very cute and well-written and I really related to Jasmine, the heroine. The many donut references were also on point. That said, there were a couple flaws, so this ended up being a three star review. And you know what that means... it's a bullet-point review! HUZZAH!

LIKES:

πŸ‘ The anxiety rep. Honestly, I was surprised at all the hate Jasmine got as a heroine. I felt like her worrying and fretting and stalkerish tendencies were actually pretty accurate for someone (i.e. me) who obsesses over things. I could get on my soapbox and rant about how people take way less from heroines than they do from heroes, and basically seem to look for any excuse to hate on women in fiction for being too-too anything, but we'll save that for another time, yes?
πŸ‘ The donut references. I want a matcha donut right now, and let's leave it at that.
πŸ‘ The anxiety of being the person in your social circle with a "bad" job. I've been that person. It sucks when people you know are either happily married and/or working at a tech company, and you're the person who can't "adult" working minimum wage with a bunch of teenagers. Sometimes it's literally the only option apart from being unemployed and people judge you so hard for it. So I appreciated seeing that rep here, especially since the heroine went to a four-year college. A four-year college is not a guarantee of a job right after school.
πŸ‘ The romance. Alex was really cute and I liked his interactions with the heroine. I also like how they fight about realistic things and not ridiculous things for the sake of drama.
πŸ‘ The way the heroine's cultural heritage is integrated into the book. The heroine's parents are Cambodian refugees of Chinese descent who lived briefly in Vietnam, so they can speak Mandarin, Khmer, and Vietnamese. There's lovely descriptions of food (YAS FOOD), and the heroine also talks about the struggle of growing up and finding her own path while bearing the weight of her parents' struggle and hardships, and I feel like that message is probably going to resonate with a lot of people who are the children of immigrant parents. So that was kind of cool.

DISLIKES:

πŸ‘Ž The writing feels kind of immature. I think this is a reflection on Jas, who is immature, and that's okay because people grow and develop at all stages, but that being said, there is a very "YA" flavor to the writing that's kind of reminiscent of Meg Cabot's flighty, super breathless style of narrating. Everything is OMG!SUCH A BIG DEAL, even when it's not, and that can get exhausting.
πŸ‘Ž Fade to black sex scenes. Do they bang in this one? No, dear reader, they do not. I know some people don't like explicit romances, so if you're a younger teen reader looking for a mature romance without the spice, or just someone who doesn't enjoy graphic scenes, this is the book for you. For me, it was a bit disappointing to read a romance that didn't really delve much into the "romance" side of things.
πŸ‘Ž Um, closure? The whole Michael thing was weird and I felt like the whole sitch with Alex's ex-girlfriend was kind of glossed over. I kept waiting for something to happen but it didn't. 

Overall, this was a pretty fun book and I'm really happy I read it. I think people who enjoy food-themed romance books will really enjoy this one, although WARNING: it will make you crave donuts.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

A Song of Secrets by Jayci Lee

 

A SONG OF SECRETS was an impulse buy for me. I saw that Jackie Lau had a post of Asian-authored romance novels for under $5 in ebook and I went through and bought a whole bunch of things that looked interesting to me. Ultimately, I didn't really end up enjoying this one all that much, even though I love the cover and the premise.

Basically, Angie and Joshua were lovers in college, until her father forced them to break up (in a really cruel way). Now he hates her, but he also carries a torch for her, and when Angie discovers a secret about him that has the potential to save her floundering orchestra group, she sucks up her pride and asks him to help him: by blackmailing him.

I normally love blackmail romances because I think they add a lot of angst and tension. It's like forced proximity that has leveled up with dark runes. But this was one of the strangest ones I've read because it was fluffy and it didn't feel like there were a lot of emotional stakes. I saw a reviewer who said that they wished their past had been shown and I was like YES. I wish this was dual timeline because I really don't think enough substance was there to make this second chance romance work.

Since this isn't ALL negative, I will say some things I liked. The references to Korean culture, food, and family. The music references were beautiful and some of my favorite passages, especially when Angie is talking about how music made her feel (she had more emotional connection to music than Joshua, imo). Also, the sex scenes were pretty well-written. I don't think this author is for me but I'm glad I gave her a try. People who like kinder, gentler, blander romances will probably love this a lot.

2 out of 5 stars

Dragonborn by Jade Lee

 

DNF @ 36%

DRAGONBORN kind of feels like a direct-release softcore fantasy porn in some ways. I went into this book kind of expecting that because of her Tigress series, which is weird religion-based erotica. Sometimes her books are so weird they end up being fun and this was almost that, but I just hate how condescending her heroes usually end up being, even though the heroines are often pretty likable. Girlfriend can't carry the whole book alone, you know?

The premise behind this book is so interesting, too. There are people who bond with dragons (kind of like the Pern series), and they share a psychic link and all that jazz. Currently the evil overlord of the kingdom is busy killing off all of these dragonborn people, lest they pose a threat to his rule and if that doesn't sound like the plot of a JRPG, you can spray me in a pan and call me Pam. 

Anyway, the hero of this book is the evil governor, Kiril who murders the dragon people for the evil emperor. And the heroine, Natiya, carries a dragon in her actual bellybutton which she wears why she belly dances. Because why not? Anyway, she gets kidnapped and Kiril decides he wants to bang her so he helps her escape from jail so she can take him to the dragon egg clutches and also so they can bang. AND THE SEX IN THIS BOOK OMG. If I never see the words "prock" or "belly-horn" again, I will be very happy.

I thought about reading forward because Love Spell is cheesy-- I know that-- and it was so bad it was entertaining and I actually really liked the world building, but Kiril's mansplaining and the bad sex scenes were a no from me.

2 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 9, 2022

Edin's Embrace by Nadine Crenshaw

 

I've been slowly working my way through my bodice-ripper collection. EDIN'S EMBRACE has been on my radar for years, but I haven't really liked most of the viking romances I've read (90% of which were written by Johanna Lindsey), so I was a little leery about picking it up. Finally, though, I decided to bite the bullet and give it a try... and I am so glad I did.

Edin is an English lady who is engaged to her childhood best friend, Cedric. She's feeling ambivalent about the nuptials, however, since she isn't really attracted to him and she's also a virgin. Unfortunately for them, they never have a chance to work it out. Vikings come and murder Cedric and a whole bunch of other people, and Edin and a lot of the people who used to be her servants are all taken as slaves.

The hero in this book is Thoryn and he is a bad-ass motherfucker. I am a sucker for icy heroes who give zero fucks, and he fits that bill to a T. He murders the heroine's fiance right in front of her-- while he's in the middle of molesting her, in fact. He attacks his own men if they defy him, and rules with an iron fist and a massive blade. The only person who actually really dares to defy him is the last person who should: Edin herself.

This book was so amazing for a variety of reasons. First, Thoryn actually walks the walk of badassery, so when he humbles himself for the heroine, it usually happens in a subtle way. He doesn't kill her for running away, even though that's the punishment for runaway slaves. He pretends to give her the illusion of consent when he finally beds her (it's forced seduction, but both of them know he could have forced himself on her violently). And Edin has a valid reason for acting the way she does. She's a sheltered noblewoman who is used to being obeyed, so she has a lot of pride, and when she's subjugated in front of the people who used to be her servants and now revel in bullying her, it hits different.

EDIN'S EMBRACE is not without the usual litany of 1980s purple prose. Her pubic reason is described as "gently mossed" and I lost it when the hero compares her blonde pubes to "yellow parsley." But the book also feels exquisitely well researched, and when there are raids or descriptions of the viking homelife, it really felt transportive. ALSO, one of the villains-- a freeman who ends up as a "cripple" and therefore shamed-- kind of ends up with a pretty sweet redemption arc, and the other villain, the hero's mother, Inga, is 100% pure grade A batshit crazy. We're talking Mommie Dearest/Flowers in the Attic levels of crazy. And the way the author foreshadows her madness and drags it out-- GOLD.

Sadly, this book, like all of her others, appear to be out of print. I hope it gets rereleased, though, because it's really fun and the romance is so meaningful and emotional and fraught, and I actually loved the heroine just as much as I loved the hero. I can't wait to read more of her books!

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Wildsong by Catherine Creel

 

WILDSONG is a medieval romance set in Ireland that I picked up impulsively at a thrift shop. As far medieval romances go, it's pretty tame. There's some talk about what dickheads the English are, but the focus of the story is on the romance between the Irish Ceara and Sir Brian, the English knight who has been given an Irish castle to manage. Manage probably isn't the right word, but basically, if the king was the CEO of the United Kingdom, I feel like the knights and lords in his favor basically ended up being general managers of the lands he gave them.

Anyway, the hero and the heroine meet when he sees her playing her harp in the woods one night. And he's like HAWT. And then they kiss. There's several more encounters like that, despite the statutes of Kilkenny, which basically say, "No listening to Irish music, no fucking Irish chicks, etc." Sir Brian doesn't care for your rules, ENGLAND.

I liked this romance, okay? It's cute and sweet, and yeah, not very historically accurate. Everyone's clean and there's no breath of plague and the cruelest thing one of the English dudes does is try to force himself on Ceara like a drunken frat boy, but that is resolved with no consequence. Maybe I've been reading too many old skool bodice-rippers, but I kept bracing for some sort of grand villain finale. Even the thing with the OM, Padraig, Ceara's ex-fiancee, felt anticlimactic.

I'd recommend this to people who like the vibes of medieval romance but not the realism. If you want the Medieval Times/Disney version of a medieval romance, this is your jam. Very little violence, no OW drama, a cute secondary romance, and pretty tepid acts of villainy. Also, it has a beautiful stepback, which I'll be sharing to Instagram later. It's the H and the h in a moonlit glade!

3.5 out of 5 stars

To Covet a Countess by Sapna Bhog

 

DNF @ 18%

I'm sorry to say I really didn't enjoy this one, especially since I absolutely loved DARE TO BE A DUCHESS. (Seriously, I may actually purchase that one in hard copy.) TO COVET A COUNTESS, however, really didn't work for me. First, there's insta-love, which I really don't like. DtBaD had that, too, but it worked there because the heroine grew up with the hero as her sort of big brother and one day he realizes he's attracted to her. So they had a lot of emotional connection to base their attraction on. Here, Sania and Nicholas literally JUST meet-- and they meet while she's trying to break into Lara's and Wolf's house (she's Lara's cousin). Their meet-cute is her holding a dagger to his throat. Which-- don't get me wrong, that's why I bought the book-- is a total mood, but then they go right to puppy rescuing and making out? Nuh-uh.

Apparently, the third book in this series is coming out in December and I am VERY excited for that. And I would also 100% recommend DARE TO BE A DUCHESS, which is probably one of my favorite contemporary romances I've read since Amalie Howard's BEAST OF BESWICK or Meredith Duran's DUKE OF SHADOWS. It was almost a perfect read for me and I'd gladly recommend it to anyone. Sadly, this one... wasn't.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 6, 2022

Blackmailed Bride by Sylvie Kurtz

 

DNF @ p.82

 So I'm slowly working my way through some of my romance hoard and this is the recent book in my experiment. BLACKMAILED BRIDE was kindly obtained for me by my sister, and at a glance, it seems like it would be everything I'd love. Suspicious hot guy who may have killed his wife? Check. Blackmailed into a relationship? Check. Gothic vibes? Check. Hint of the occult? Cheeeeeck.

But pulpy gothic this is not. We're treated to a special snowflake of a heroine who meets the hero when she's desperately trying to buy back a family heirloom. When someone else buys it, she's like BUT THAT'S MINE, even though she doesn't have the money to pay for it, but because Karen-- oops, I mean Cathlynn-- is a dead-ringer for Jonas Shades's missing wife, he's like okay if you pretend to be my wife for a week to appease my nosy lawyer, I'll GIVE you the heirloom.

And then Karen-- oops, Cathlynn-- is like FINE. But you CAN'T call me by your wife's name. And he's like-- rightfully so-- but that's stupid. And she's like whatevskis, I don't care. So he calls her Cat. And they basically proceed to botch and fumble every inch of this "clever" scheme of theirs. We're supposed to think Cathlynn is spunky, but she's just incredibly annoying and dumb. There's also a dash of that obligatory 2000s fat phobia where the heroine whines about how she's ten pounds overweight. Because of course, nosy lawyer is like "Lol, you look FATTER, but I always thought you'd look better with more meat on your bones."*

*Not exact dialogue

I was going to give this a two but as I'm typing this out, I realized I was pretty annoyed by this book.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Desert Captive by Penelope Neri

 

So I have an Instagram where I showcase books from my collection of vintage romance novels, and people are always leaving me comments asking me if I've read this or that, and to my shame, the answer is usually NO. Which made me sad. So I've decided to rectify that by picking out books in my collection that have intrigued me and working my way through them. DESERT CAPTIVE, I decided, would be the first, since it's probably in my top ten favorite clinch covers of all time.

LIKES: 

πŸ‘ Childhood friends to enemies to lovers. Alexa and Sharif knew each other as children when her archeologist father was working in Egypt. They were separated for twenty years but neither forgot the other, and Sharif, in his obsession, is determined to get his precious at all costs.
πŸ‘ Hero is totally obsessed with the heroine. As soon as he has his precious "wild apricot," his previous mistress gets the boot. He barely looks at other women and doesn't cheat on her at all. And it's honestly hilarious, the lengths he would go to seduce, trick, and manipulate her into loving him. He was arrogant, yes, but he had a heroine-shaped weakness that was rather painfully obvious to everyone around him-- except the heroine. Whoops.
πŸ‘ Hero is hilariously arrogant and theatrical. I LOVE this man, okay. At one point, when she's being carried off into the desert, she thinks his erection is poking her. And he's like, "Nah, that's just my dagger. My dick is even bigger, praise God!" And at another point, he's like, "SERVE ME MY JUICE NAKED BECAUSE I WANT YOU TO." He recites poetry in his bedroom when he knows she's outside because he's hoping to make her think he's with another woman. This man is hilarious and I love him. If you're going to do a campy alpha hero, this is the playbook.
πŸ‘ He calls the heroine his "wild apricot." Just... PLEASE.
πŸ‘ It's surprisingly dark. The central conflict is that Sharif's friend (Kedar, I think?) wants to murder the heroine's sadistic brother, Keene, for raping his bride-to-be and killing her escort. Keene flees, so Kedar wants to take his revenge out on the heroine, since she's his blood relative, which obviously Sharif will not allow. There are some torture scenes, people are left to die in the desert, there are some descriptive plans of revenge, and there's an OW who's willing to stoop to murder to get what she wants (i.e. the hero). So that's fun.
πŸ‘ Random BDSM. When the heroine tries to run away, the hero punishes her by treating her like a slave in some weird consensual non-consent roleplay. He puts her in revealing clothing, then forces her to strip. He makes her serve him juice naked, and then he ties her to the bed and licks juice off her whole body. Also, he smacks her with a flogger before giving her a spanking. Kinky.

DISLIKES:

πŸ‘Ž Holy purple prose, Batman. There are meticulously pruned and tended flower gardens in England that are somehow less flowery than this book. The author knew how to spin a setting and create sexual tension, but boy, did she not know when to stop sometimes. At one point, the heroine's "flower" moistens with "honey" under the hero's tongue. When she climaxes at one point, it's described as if she were about to explode into a shower of flower petals.
πŸ‘Ž Uneven pacing. I wish there had been more action scenes and a lot of the I love him... no! No! I hate him! scenes were cut down. This book was 500 pages and I felt EVERY page of that. Someone needed to go through this book with a red pen and leave some of those purple prose sex scenes on the cutting room floor.
πŸ‘Ž Closure? What closure? Don't get me wrong, there's an HEA-- but what happens to the OW? And to Sharif's evil cousin? Also, I feel like the whole thing with Keene was super weird. The ending and what happened with him was not satisfying. He was a serial rapist, okay? You can't redeem him. And I'm sorry, but the "my brain tumor made me rape and murder people!" excuse really didn't work for me.
πŸ‘Ž I mean... it fetishizes Middle Eastern culture. I've said before that sheikh romances are the last lingering bastion of Victorian Orientalism. And I stand by that. Romance authors try to get around that by making up countries to-- I suspect-- a) avoid doing research and b) avoiding anyone specifically, but that doesn't really work because a) you look lazy and b) people are still going to be offended. Sharif is less rapey than most, and he's not a sexist, so yay. But this is set up in a pseudo-Bedouin like environment in what is basically a cross between Algeria and Egypt, and people ululate before killing people and Allah is thrown around in every other sentence, and it's honor this and honor that, and everyone loves the heroine's white skin and green eyes, and also I feel like the author must have tried camel milk at some point and hated it, because there's this long running gag about how gross camel cheese is and she makes a point of saying that one of the bad guys smells like rancid camel butter. It's basically like a *slightly* less offensive version of E.M. Hull's THE SHEIK or Johanna Lindsey's CAPTIVE BRIDE, which kind of worked but... yeah, I side-eyed a lot of things.

In short, this book is basically bodice-ripper lite. There is forced seduction and some weird OW and villain drama, and naturally, in the vein of Bertrice Small and internalized 80s homophobia everywhere, bad guys are effeminate Joffrey Baratheon wannabes who like doing it in the butt. But the hero is surprisingly sweet in a fucked up way and unlike 95% of sheikh romances out there, where I feel like I'm committing a hate crime just by looking at the covers, I felt like the author was at least trying not to be completely over the top offensive. For example, the heroine thinks nothing of converting to Islam while staying with the people, thinking to herself that there is just "one God" and people just worship him differently, so she goes with it out of respect to the people who have taken her in. Which I actually thought was super progressive and sweet considering when this was written. She also learns the language and ends up forming a pretty deep friendship with several of the women there, and there were lots of little moments like that where it's like, "Okay, author, you TRIED."

I'm keeping this book mainly because of the gorgeous cover but there are definitely some Sharif's Greatest Hits(TM) scenes that I would like to revisit, either because they were funny or hot or both. Thanks to my friend, Meredith, for reading this with me.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Dare to Be a Duchess by Sapna Bhog

 

While reading this book, I kept thinking that this is what THE PRINCESS STAKES could have been, if it hadn't been utterly gutted by the book's (I personally felt, incredibly unfair) cancellation by the romance community. When it comes to rep, I feel like authors of color are held to near impossible standards-- they have to be relatable, interesting, and inoffensive, all at the same time, but that is incredibly difficult to do, because relatability looks different for everyone, even within a specific community or ethnic group, and as for being inoffensive-- well, good luck with that. As ugly as our current reality can be, history is uglier still, and I think glossing over that and ignoring how much it really sucked to be anything but a white man with land and a title in history is, well, dangerous.

So that's just part of the reason why I was delighted to read DARE TO BE A DUCHESS, which also features a biracial heroine of Indian decent. She is privileged, but her life still kind of sucks in some ways. She has two loyal friends and the protection of a noble family, but most of the idiots in the ton tolerate her at best to her face and spend all their time gossiping about her and being scandalized by her when she's turned the other way. Her father was disinherited by her grandfather for marrying an Indian woman, and he refuses to recognize her, despite the fact that she is, and ought to be recognized, as a lady. The racism and fetishization she faces can be hard to read, but they do feel real, and even though Lara is not bogged down by them, they do color her world and frame some of the choices she makes. Because she knows that if she marries the wrong person, she'd just end up locked in a house somewhere while her husband frolicked around with white mistresses and partook freely of her money.

Despite this, things are still pretty great for Lara. She has two wonderful friends-- Cammy and Anne-- and the protection of Anne's family, especially her guardian, Robert. Anne's older brother, Wolf, also acts as a sort of reluctant protector, even though he's aloof and standoffish and snobby. When he goes to a very naughty masquerade party that Lara & co. have sneaked off to, though, he finds himself seeing her as a woman for the first time. AND THEN THEY KISS and my boy immediately becomes obsessed, and I think we can all agree that an obsessive hero who occasionally toes the line of Psychoville is a hero for the ages.

Wolf is honestly such a great hero, because he's brooding and a little bit dangerous (although not to the heroine, obvs), and his "SHE IS MINE" and "TOUCH HER AND I KILL YOU" mindset really spoke to my toxic heart. But like all arrogant alpha heroes, he makes mistakes. He pushes her away For Her Own Good(TM) and he hurts her, also For Her Own Good(TM). And this really fucks things up between them. Until my boy makes good on the grovel (which, indeed, he does). The way his cold and tortured nature is juxtaposed against Lara's goodness and flightiness is so well done, and there were several moments in this book that I almost teared up because ~that emotional connection, tho~.

It's like someone handed this author a list of my favorite tropes and was like, "Go forth!" Naughty masquerade parties, aloof and tortured hero, flighty and difficult heroine, SEXUAL TENSION, insidious murder plot, evil asshole villain man who is obsessed with the heroine, family drama, female friend squad, serious BROMANCE, and just basically everything you could wish for in a romance to make it interesting and angsty and not too fluffy. When I saw that the sequel for this book, which is about one of Wolf's friends, features Knife to the Throat as one of the tropes, I threw down that $3.99 like a big shot placing a bet at a high stakes poker game, because that's how I roll.

Definitely recommend this author to anyone who likes Amalie Howard.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 2, 2022

Hungry Tigress by Jade Lee

 

DNF @ 37%

Well, it's AAPI month, and as I do every year, I've started to binge-read some of the Asian-authored books on my Kindle that, for whatever reason, I hadn't gotten around to reading. Jade Lee is not a new author to me. Earlier this year, I read the book WHITE TIGRESS, which kind of awed me with how bad it was. It was basically an enemies to lovers romance that went pretty in-depth into Victorian racism while also indulging in a bit of magical lactation porn featuring terms like "yin milk," "jade dragon," and "cinnabar cave." And you may be thinking to yourself, "I really hope that's referring to a bubble tea cafe, a Chinese restaurant, and a jewelry shop." BUT YOU WOULD BE WRONG, DEAR READER. SO WRONG.

But somehow, none of that was enough to prevent me from reading further in the series. I bought every single book in this wacky paranormal romance series, and the first book in her fantasy dragon series. Why?! I don't know. I feel like I'm being held hostage. And to be fair, HUNGRY TIGRESS starts out really good. Joanna is a well-meaning but privileged white lady who wants to help the Boxers overturn the Qin dynasty, but all the ends up happening is that her white saviorism gets her into trouble. She's saved by a monk who immediately starts berating her for how she treated her horse, insisting that she's going to be whipped. Okay, Christian 灰色. Just don't take her to your red room of pain, or whatever.

BUT OH NO. It turns out Fifty Shades of Monk is actually an imperial prince on secret assignment, and to keep her from talking he THROAT PUNCHES HER IN THE TRACHEA and then takes her to this perverted sex cult where, I KID YOU NOT, rubbing your boobs and jerking off are both considered purification exercises. Especially when you do them in front of someone else. Or have someone else do them to you. I could say more about this, but I already feel like I'm toeing the line of what Amazon allows in a cross-post pretty finely. This review might not even get posted, it's that racy, and it's not even my fault. How can I, the reader, be blamed for simply recounting the perversions of this book?

Anyway, Joanna and Prince Pervy Monk end up "partners," and then they listen to the Sex Cult Queen give this long and boring lecture with Powerpoint Slides (read: scrolls with dirty pictures on them). And afterwards she's like THANKS FOR COMING TO MY TED TALK. Also, she hates Joanna because she's white and keeps insisting that Hot Prince Pervy Monk pick another "purification" partner, but he's like, "Nah, we good." Even though he also hates her for being white. He thinks she has nice... uh, yin.

I'm sorry, but I can't get over the throat-punching, okay? That's the worst meet-cute ever. And he literally does it so hard that she can't swallow food or talk without going into these painful spasms that make it so she can barely breathe. Look, I get that it's historical. A lot of people were angry that in the first Outlander book, Jamie hits Claire for disobeying him. I didn't like it, but it's easier to stomach stuff like that in historical fiction than in modern day stuff just because that's what happened (even if it wasn't okay). But throat-punching crosses over the line in a pretty horrible way, and it's mentioned so much that even I started to feel vicariously uncomfy because it was so descriptive.

No matter how ragin' Prince Pervy Monk's jade dragon is, I don't think I can endorse a throat-puncher.

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Radically Content: Being Satisfied in an Endlessly Dissatisfied World by Jamie Varon

 

Okay, so I have a love-hate relationship with self-help books. Like, I appreciate what they are trying to do, but I feel like they tend to be geared people who are almost there in terms of happiness and not, like, wallowing in their own misery the way I am. And most of them seem to boil down to JOURNALING * NEW EXPERIENCES * LOVE YOURSELF * STOP COMPARING. And it's like, gee, thanks, if it was that easy, I guess my depression would be cured.

I know this is not fair, but that is why I tend to dislike most self-help books on principle. They just feel so braggy, like they're dangling happiness just out of your reach. And to be fair, RADICALLY CONTENT is not as irritating as some of the other books of this type I have read. For starts, she opens the book by acknowledging her own privilege (which, you know, falling in love in Paris-- I mean, obvi). And she has some really good advice, like not following people on social media who make you feel bad about yourself and not comparing your success to the perceived successes of others.

RADICALLY CONTENT feels very short and even though I did like most of the advice in here, a lot of it felt obvious. I think if you have a friend who is super interested in self-help, this would be a great book to give them. It's got a great aesthetic and pretty endpapers and the author seems to be coming from a good place. Which makes a world of difference.

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Golden Cage by Camilla LΓ€ckberg


 So I bought SILVER TEARS not realizing it was book two in a series, and when I saw it was only $4.99 to buy, I was like SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY. It was purely an impulse buy just because I hate not getting closure, but OH MY GOD. Best purchase I've made in a while. THE GOLDEN CAGE ended up basically being a checklist of all of my favorite mystery/thriller tropes. Like, it's dual timeline, it's a little bit smutty, it has an antiheroine narrator, and it deals out some TRULY BRUTAL emotionally charged scenes. But at the same time, I never felt like I was being manipulated, either. All the scenes spoke for themselves.

Faye is the wife of a billionaire named Jack who co-owns the firm that she helped build. But she stepped down to raise their child, and now he treats her like trash. He demeans her looks and her weight and calls her stupid. He throws temper tantrums when he doesn't get his way and goes out of the way to make her feel small. And Faye takes it, because the alternative-- being alone, being without everything-- is too terrifying to bear. But when Jack goes too far, she finds herself exactly in that position, and she decides to punish him by taking away everything.

First of all, I am shocked that this book has so many negative reviews. And that people are actually defending her emotionally manipulative boyfriend and her abusive husband? That sort of internalized misogyny is LITERALLY what this book is crusading against. But go off, I guess. Personally, I thought it was an excellent revenge story. I thought both men were awful and that Lackberg did an exceptional job showing why women stay in toxic relationships, and how they really can feel like a golden cage. There are also some really good female relationships in this book. Faye's friends, Chris and Kerstin, were wonderful. I loved them almost as much as I loved Faye.

Less is definitely more going into this book so I actually don't want to say too much, but if you like female antiheroes, revenge stories, and women who are just plain old tired of taking life's garbage head-on, then you're going to love this book. I got burned out on Scandinavian thrillers a while ago because I felt like they were too dark and too film noir for my tastes, but this is much more in line with books like GONE GIRL or WHITE IVY; beach read thrillers tinged with darkness. Oh yes, momma like.

Ta-ta, off to read the sequel!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Credence by Penelope Douglas

 

Penelope Douglas is one of those authors where I always think the premise of her books sounds AMAZING but then I read them and I'm, like, virtually disappointed every time. Katee Robert is like that for me, too. I've liked some of their works, but most of the time, I read their stuff and just end up feeling seriously disappointed.

I bought CREDENCE at a thrift shop for a quarter, which seemed like a good deal. Especially since this seems to be the most controversial of her works. I remember when it first came out, my feed was filled with people DNF-ing and going "EWWWW" which obviously made me want to find out what the fuck was going on, because I'm a glutton for punishment like that.

Tiernan is the daughter of a film producer and his starlet wife. When they find out that the father has cancer, the mom and the dad both kill each other-- and they don't even leave Tiernan a note. They're just like BYE BITCH. And they Romeo-and-Juliet themselves. Which is in standard keeping with what we find out about their personalities. They're garbage people who resented their kid because she took time away from their One True Love, and as soon as she was old enough to be foisted upon someone else, they totally did that. Honestly, it was completely fucked up, and added a whole other layer to Tiernan's already-existing emotional damage, because she didn't really mourn her parents because there wasn't much to mourn.

In a last ditch effort at parental responsibility, we find out that her parents have dumped Tiernan off on her step-uncle, Jake, a mountain man who builds dirt bikes and lives off the land, swinging his cock around like an axe as he pees on everything he owns to mark his territory. Or something like that. The drive to his remote cabin is appropriately tense and suspenseful and actually kind of reminded me of TWILIGHT with the cold, privileged girl "exiling" herself to somewhere forested and remote and filled with hot guys. Except I'm pretty sure Bella didn't bang her uncle. Renesmee, on the other hand...

ANYWAY, Jake has two sons, Noah and Kaleb. Noah is honestly the only one I kind of liked because I'm a sucker for the fuckboy with the heart of gold trope. Kaleb was fucking creepy though. I felt like he crawled out of an Omegaverse book and nobody ever told him to go back home, so he just stayed in this book, creepily sniffing people's hair and sexually assaulting women and basically just making me want to slam the book closed every time he or Jake appeared.

So here's the thing. This book made me feel gross. It's the kind of taboo I really don't like. Parental guardians abusing their privilege? Gross. I can take daddy kink and stepbrother erotica, but girls or boys banging stepfathers or stepuncles or teachers?? NO. And what adds an extra layer of gross to this is that they're total misogynists. Like, when Tiernan fixes the fridge to please them and has to take out all the fridge contents and put them back, he doesn't notice she fixed the fridge; he just assumes that she wanted to, like, rearrange the contents like it was a dollhouse. There's all kinds of "not like other girls" type lines, and naturally, Tiernan is a gold star virgin that they all fight over, and some sexual stuff happens well before she turns eighteen, although they don't bang her until she is eighteen, thank GOD.

The brothers doubling up on her and the creepy uncle sexfests just really put me off. I think the book was pretty well written for the most part but I just wish it had been about her and Noah and maybe the rapey uncle could have been the bad guy that Noah saved her from in my ideal version of this story. The setting was great, the girl-on-girl hate was tiring, and the alphahole caveman dickslinging made my vagina pack up its bags and move to that iconic dry desert town known as Nopeville.

*insert kombucha meme here*

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Scarecrow by Richie Tankersley Cusick

 

Richie Tankersley Cusick was one of those Point Horror authors from the YA horror boom of the 80s and 90s. I've been gradually working my way through her whole backlist and her YA titles hold up surprisingly well, but the real gems in her collection are her two adult titles, BLOOD ROOTS and SCARECROW.

The titles and covers are very similar to her YA books, even more so in the rebrand, where it seems like the new publisher is trying to keep all her work in the same theme. However, BLOOD ROOTS and SCARECROW contain some very dark themes that would not be appropriate for really young kids. Like, at all. BLOOD ROOTS is like an old skool V.C. Andrews book set in the South, and SCARECROW is kind of like a disturbing cross between Midsommar and Wickerman, with a dash of messed up family drama.

Less is definitely more going in but basically, Pamela Westbook is newly widowed and lost her child in the same car accident that killed her husband. While driving to St. Louis from California, she gets lost in the Ozarks and then she has a car accident of her own. When she wakes up, her memory is super patchy and she's at the house of this super weird family, the Whittakers.

There's Seth, the gruff patriarch who knows more than what he's willing to reveal. There's Rachel, the godly and silently suffering wife with dark secrets. There's Franny, Rachel's much younger sister who's practically going crazy with the need to sow her wild oats (we won't talk about her relationship to scarecrows). There's Micah, Seth and Rachel's oldest son who comes and goes and is missing a hand. And then there's Girlie, the youngest child, who allegedly has some kind of "Gift."

Their house is super rustic. They house an outhouse with magazine toilet paper and grow and sow everything they eat and drink. It's claustrophobic and quaint... except for the scarecrows. Every year, they set up five scarecrows, and at the end of the season, they burn them. But this year, Franny's decided to hold hers back. And when the scarecrows don't burn, things go WRONG.

(I should totally write blurbs.)

I really liked this book a lot. It was weird and got kind of depressing, but as with BLOOD ROOTS, it had really solid atmosphere and kind of played out like one of those old 70s occult horror movies. I also really liked Pamela as a character. She was damaged and obviously super creeped out, and I think the author did a really good job showing how so much of the horror was in her own paranoia and fears of the unknown as she's literally trapped in the middle of the woods with the creepy family.

Also, wow! What a reveal. I'm still reeling.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

WtAFW: The Initiation by Jena Cryer

 

So in case you're new to my friends list, once a week, I let my followers suggest some really weird or bizarre work of romance or erotica for me to review, and then I read and review it. This week's is called THE INITIATION and it's... um, a work of hucow erotica.

And hucow, in case you didn't know, is a portmanteau of "human" and "cow."

Do you like milk? Not after reading this book, you won't. Lucky for me, I'm lactose intolerant. This work follows Julia Dorne, an American in England who would like to extend her visa. She does this by "entering the service" of some member of the British nobility, brought to Lord Ashe by the creepy finder, Brandon.

But the service is unspecified until Julia drinks a drugged glass of milk that basically turns her into a human cow for a week. Oops.

I'm not sure how to feel about this book, to be honest. I don't like erotica that has body modifications, it squicks me out. The writing was a cut above some of these other WtAFW offerings, but at the same time, it ended 60% of the way through the book and all the rest of the book were samples of the author's other works.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Corpse Flower by Anne Mette Hancock

 

I bought this impulsively a while back when it went on sale. I actually don't tend to like most Scandinavian thrillers-- they tend to be too dark for little old me, and normally they have stuffy old man protagonists. But I loved the title of this one and I was really intrigued by the fact that the protagonist of this one was a wrongfully disgraced journalist. So I picked it up and began to read-- and couldn't put it down.

Heloise got into big trouble with her paper when she accidentally used a bad source to write a bad article. Now her paper is trying to placate some extremely powerful people while also doing damage control, and Heloise is on thin ice. To make matters worse, she's getting vaguely threatening text messages and letters from a woman who is wanted by Interpol for the murder of a golden boy lawyer, Christopher Mossing.

Erik SchΓ‘fer, a Danish homicide cop, ends up working on the case, and is disconcerted to find that the facts don't add up. Why would the murderess Anna Kiel reach out to Heloise, of all people? What is the connection between them? Because it does look like there is a connection, and it involves corpse flowers, medieval history, and crimes committed by the very dregs of society who will do anything to prevent their coming to light.

When rating and reviewing a book I like, it's always difficult to compare a book to others I have liked. Yes, I liked it, but HOW much did I like it, how does it compare to other books in the genre, and would I recommend it to other people? Does it have reread value and will it stick with me for years to come? Or is it just a passing piece of fluff that I used to satisfy a brief hunger before moving on to something more substantial? These are all questions I ask myself every time I read the book, no matter what the genre.

With regard to THE CORPSE FLOWER, I thought it was exceptional. I normally don't like police procedurals at all because I feel like they tend to glamorize and romanticize a rather flawed justice system, but the characters in THE CORPSE FLOWER own that, acknowledging that justice can often me too lenient for the privileged, and too harsh on the undeserving, while also letting serious convictions slip through the cracks in favor of lesser crimes. It has several of my favorite tropes, too: strong but damaged women, a Suspicious Hot Guy (hi Martin), and all sorts of really interesting side-tangents about history, culture, and science that end up tying symbolically into the plot.

Compared to other books in the genre, it's a stand-out. It's dark and disturbing and parts of it genuinely tore at my heart, but it also has an incredibly satisfying ending and I seriously can't wait for the English translation of the sequel to come out in November. I've already recommended this book to two other people and I think it's going to haunt me for a while. Anna and Heloise are both wonderful characters and as a feminist, I just love seeing flawed women characters being allowed to exist and act with agency, even if their agency propels them to do things that aren't necessarily just, moral, or right.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Whisper Network by Chandler Baker

 

DNF @ 10%

I wish I'd seen my friends' reviews before buying this. I was expecting something gritty and edgy: a #metoo book for the professional set. Instead, this was pretty tedious. Women being catty to other women.

Not for me.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Brother by Ania Ahlborn

 

Who asked for the Deliverance/American Psycho mashup? Not me, but boy am I going to read that anyway. BROTHER is honestly one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. I normally hate horror novels but the kind that suckers me into traumatizing myself every time is the intimate, character portrait sort of horror novel, which is how I ended up being scarred for life by books like Misery. Once I get invested, I can't put the book down, no matter how much I want to.

Less is definitely more when it comes to BROTHER, but it definitely has TWs for basically everything under the sun. This is one of those books that not only shows people at their worst, but also kind of how they got that way. The two stars of this book are Michael, a not-so-ordinary teenage boy who hates his family (for a good reason). And Ray/Rebel, Michael's adoptive brother who is filled with a driving need for vengeance, poisoned by a hate that will literally stop at nothing.

The claustrophobic setting, high emotional stakes, and you-could-cut-it-with-a-knife level tension made this a gripping book, a real white-knuckler for sure, but I will also never read this again because it's so dark and so depressing. It's the sort of book that just kind of leaves you feeling dead inside. Brilliant story, brilliant writing, and daring author. I'll read more from her but it won't be this.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Chi's Sweet Home, Volume 1 by Kanata Konami

 

I found a full-color version of Chi's Sweet Home in a Little Free Library and it was honestly just the thing I needed after a slew of books about dark shit and murder-joy. A book about a family that adopts a lost kitten? Be still, my heart. I actually have a cat that we rescued as a kitten. She came to our house starving and shivering, and you could see all her little kitten bones through her fur. Now she's a lazy fatty who-- I kid you not-- has her very own chair, and a toybox where she keeps enough toys for like five cats. Spoiled? I think so.

Anyway, Chi is distraught when she's separated from her mama cat and embarks on a series of misadventures that culminate in her winding up with a family that consists of a mom, dad, and toddler. They are not allowed to have pets in their apartment but nobody wants to adopt Chi, so they kind of end up stuck with her. Also, "chi" apparently sounds like the Japanese word for pee, which is funny because when they're trying to box-train her, they keep yelling "pee" at her while taking her bag to her box after every pee incident, to the point where she thinks it's her name. WHOOPS.

(Hi there, Pee the Cat!)

This mangaka has done another kitten-related comic called FukuFuku which is about an orange and white kitten who lives with a sweet old lady. I think I actually like that one better because they humor is slightly more subtle and I just really loved the way that the kitten kind of brought joy and youth to this old woman's life, while at the same time, she gave the kitten nuturance and a home. That said, this was still super sweet and very cat-like and I laughed out loud at least four times.

4 out of 5 stars

Beach House by R.L. Stine

 

I'm pretty sure I read this when I was a kid but I didn't remember the plot at all, so when I found this in the garage while cleaning I was excited to give it a reread. If you've been following some of my vintage YA pulp reviews, you'll know I have ~thoughts~ about R.L. Stine. Namely, that he seems to have two modes: gleeful vicarious murder-joy and I'm-dialing-it-in-for-the-paycheck ennui. His Fear Street books can be hit or miss and most of the Goosebumps books don't hold up at all, but his standalone Point Horror releases are actually usually pretty good.

BEACH HOUSE in particular is balls-to-the-walls insanity, with numerous dated pop culture references, a dual timeline, and a grand reveal that is on par with The Langoliers in terms of redonkulous. So obviously, I loved it.

In the 1950s timeline, we have a bunch of teens who hang out at the beach. Maria, Amy, Stuart, Ronnie, and Buddy. They all decide to prank Buddy by stealing his pants when he's in the water and forcing him to come out to the beach naked, and then Maria stands him up on their date for Stuart. Buddy is pissed and then bad things happen. You also get references to Jackie Gleason, the Crewcuts, record players, Marilyn Monroe, and Tab Hunter.

In the "present" timeline, there's Ashley, Ross, Kip, Lucy, and Brad. All of them are summer visitors to the beach, except for Kip, who's a poor townie, and Brad, who's a rich townie. Lucy and Kip are together. Ashley and Ross are together, but Ross is like psychotically jealous and she's got a thing for rich Brad, and his big... tennis court. Here, in the "present," you will be treated to hot guys who look like Matt Dillon and Vanilla Ice, MTV and Coca-Cola towels, and day-glo sportswear. Also remember when people used to call sandals "thongs" and swimtrunks "baggies"? These were simpler times.

It would have been better if we didn't know who the killer was from the beginning and the connection between the two timelines was pretty lame. Also, this book kind of showed its ass with the "whoops, it's the 90s and we're not exactly tolerant to people who are different" mentality of the times because at the very end, one of the characters actually says "I was too ugly to have friends." LOL.

But I'm giving it three stars anyway because I had a genuinely good time laughing at this. It was almost four stars because it was surprisingly mature for a Stine book but the ending was really stupid and I'm afraid I can't condone that.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain

 

DNF @ 28%

I bought this book a while ago when it went on sale, started it, and forgot about it, which is why I was delighted when Heather offered to buddy-read it with me. You can check out her review here when the time comes, but as you can see, I called it quitsies just over a quarter of the way through, because I suck like that lol.

There were a couple reasons this didn't work for me. Psychic-themed books usually put me off from the get-go unless there's something really special about them. And I thought the intro for this book was good, as was the Louisiana setting, and the way the author wrote out the patois of the region. What I didn't like was how precious the writing got, how ridiculous some of the names of the characters were (Wrynn? Zale? Hart?), and how... well, over-wrought it all was.

Points for atmosphere and a good setting and not condescending to the YA audience but minus points for literally almost everything else.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Teacher's Pet by Richie Tankersley Cusick

 

It's a shame that Tankersley Cusick didn't write more adult horror because she has such an amazing style and I feel like when she tries to sanitize it for her young adult audience, so much of the vitals are lost. I mean, when you compare this book to the magnificence of BLOOD ROOTS, it's almost like apples and oranges.

That said, across all her works, this author does many things that I love. Her attention to atmosphere is truly incredible and reminiscent of those old gothic novels from the 60s and 70s that are all towering castles and mist-tossed moors. She also understands my (that's right, me, personally-- obviously this author writes for MEEEEE alone) personal need for villainous love interests, because her books always offer not one, but at least TWO suspicious hot guys. And best of all, she just has some really wonderful passages of writing, whether it's descriptions of nature, wistful meditations on human emotion, or obsessive teen passion.

At first I thought this book would get a much higher rating from me. he heroine, Kate, is a high school student on her way to a writing retreat with her teacher. Right away, though, things are weird. She's greeted at the train by an ominous dude who immediately tries to warn her away. Then there's another ominous dude who claims to be the brother of the famous writer who headlined this retreat, and he starts talking about how important fear is, how it's such a necessary drive, and just generally skeeving everyone out, but because he's hot it's ok. And then there's the way-too-friendly teen cook who is Kate's accomplice but maybe also an assailant. Who is the bad guy and who is the good guy? I guess you'll just have to find out.

What ended up making this a bit of a slog for me was how circular it all felt. I felt like in my favorite YA Cusick book, HELP WANTED, there were some really chilling scenes and some really impressively colorful characters. But that was a different teen horror imprint and maybe Point Horror wants their authors to reel it in, because this felt reeled in. The ending was ridiculous, in the way that some of those 70s and 80s teen slasher movies could be ridiculous (I'm thinking of one in particular), and I found myself rolling my eyes a little at the drama of it all. Also, there's a girl in here named Tawney who's also working in the kitchen and I think she's supposed to be developmentally disabled, but she also ends up being the butt of a lot of jokes. WHOOPS. HI 90S. DIDN'T SEE YOU THERE.

So overall, this was kind of eh. I mostly just skimmed it to read her interactions with the suspicious (but hot) guys and to get to the actual passages with creepy horror. You could definitely give this one a miss.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Replacement Wife by Darby Kane

 

This was a buddy read with my friend Heather, and you can read her review here. THE REPLACEMENT WIFE, in some ways, reminds me a lot of a grown-up version of the Point Horror books I read as a teen. Hear me out; it's a layer cake of twists, one piled on top of the other on top of the other, until the whole structure becomes an unstable mess of chaotic whodunnitry. I thought it was fun, and there a couple twists that literally made my jaw drop, but there was just SO MUCH.

Elisa is married to Harris and has a little boy named Nathan. Their picture perfect life is its own little solar system, satellited by her brother-in-law, Josh. Josh has terrible luck with women. His previous wife died mysteriously, and now his current girlfriend, Abby, Elisa's best friend, has disappeared. Now he's moved on... much sooner than she thought he would, and she's starting to suspect he's a murderer.

Major triggers in this book for gaslighting. Honestly, this works better as social commentary than a thriller in some ways, because of how it shows how casually dismissive we are when women turn up dead, and how quick we are to reduce women to shrill or mentally ill, when they're either justifiably upset, or justifiably traumatized by something terrible that happened. As a thriller, it's fine and it kept me turning pages, but it felt about a hundred pages too long.

I liked this book more than my friend and I think it was better paced than PRETTY LITTLE WIFE, which had a good twist but the journey was tedious. I actually think the emotionally distant narrative works here, because it's like Elisa is trying to remove herself from her trauma (something she even admits to herself at one point). But the writing was also very much all tell and no show and surprisingly clunky for a professionally edited work. It almost felt like a high quality self-published work in some ways, like it was missing that one final pass that would make everything perfect.

3 out of 5 stars

Who Killed the Homecoming Queen? by R.L. Stine

 

R.L. Stine is sometimes called the children's Stephen King, and just like Stephen King, he has his share of both swings and misses. This one, sadly, was a miss-- and it doesn't even have the benefit of nostalgia on its side, since this is one of the Fear Street books that I've never read as a kid.

The summary of this book is incredibly misleading, as it makes it sound like Tania is going to be the main character. The main character is actually one of Tania's friends, a girl named Eva. Eva is a living lie detector test with "the shining"-- but, for the sake of trademarks, let's call it "the deus ex machining." It's high school, in the 90s, or what someone who went to high school in the 50s thinks high school in the 90s is like, so there's a lot of "hey gang" and "let's meet up at the pizza parlor" with the hint of a "golly gee" or a "holy crow" hanging seductively on the wind.

Tania is a beautiful girl who has been crowned homecoming queen. And this is a Big Deal(TM). Suddenly, everyone can't stop talking about Tania, and she's being offered a starring role in an independent movie by a high school creep who just wants in her pants. The movie's title? Who Killed the Homecoming Queen? (Go ahead and roll credits, now.) It's a-- you guessed it-- horror movie where Tania gets murdered. Except, somebody didn't get the memo that art echoes life and not vice-versa, because Tania shows up dead.

Whoops.

I've really enjoyed some of R.L. Stine's books, but not the "golly gee" sorts. I think Stine is a lot better when he's writing for more of a YA than a middle grade audience, because in books like these, it really feels like he's pulling all the punches instead of the stops, and really dialing it in. The deus ex machining was a really lame twist, and the ending ended up being a cop-out sundae (with cop-outs on top of cop-outs on top of cop-outs). I was pretty disappointed, tbh.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 15, 2022

Help Wanted by Richie Tankersley Cusick

 

A gothic family melodrama for the YA crowd, HELP WANTED is a surprisingly grim and gritty book about secrets, tragedy, and what happens when the past repeats itself. Robin is just an ordinary girl, looking to make some extra money to live her life. So when she sees a "help wanted" ad promising quick money, she jumps.

It turns out the ad has been put up by Hercules Swanson, the patriarch of the creepy old Manorwood house, and grandfather of the hottest boy at school, Parker Swanson. Herk wants Robin to categorize the books left behind after his daughter-in-law's mysterious death. But the house is intimidating and filled with mysterious and unexplained happenings, and Parker's half-sister, Claudia, claims that she's been seeing her mother's ghost.

Richie Tankersley Cusick is honestly one of the better YA horror authors out there, imo. She has a formula she tends to stick with and it works: girl with single mother walks into a creepy haunted place filled with family drama that goes back generations. Girl meets two creepy and suspicious hot guys who may or may not be involved. There's always a creepy doomsaying old person who is also suspicious and may or may not be involved. Cusick also delivers on the chilling scenery, surprisingly humorous inner monologues, and some zinging one-liners.

This really reminded me pleasantly of some of my favorite 70s gothic romances, especially with the tug of war between the rich brooding guy and the working class brooding guy, and the crumbling manor in the middle of the woods. There are some pretty chilling scenes in this one that you wouldn't see in a Point Horror imprint (this isn't Point Horror, BTW), but the gruesome stuff is mostly implied.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Lifeguard by Richie Tankersley Cusick

 

Is there anything more 90s than a horror novel set at the beach? I don't think so. So far this is my least Cusick book I've read as part of my experiment. The heroine, Kelsey, goes to this beachy island with her mom to meet her mom's boyfriend and his kids. There's townies and tourists and all the hot young things are lifeguards, and it should basically be 90s teen paradise. Which it is... except for the murders.

Richie Tankersley Cusick writes a lot of my favorite tropes. Hot dangerous guys, strong but kind of dreamy heroines, and sort of a modern gothy vibe. I don't think this one works quite as well as THE DRIFTER did for a couple reasons. One, it just didn't have the same level of suspense and drama and atmosphere. Two, it's way more dated (party lines?? LOL), whereas, THE DRIFTER felt kind of timeless. Three, I don't know, I was just really bored. There were some great lines in here about grief and getting over trauma and also some good zingers (check my Goodreads status updates), but apart from that, it was pretty bland.

Will 100% be checking out more of her stuff, though. She seems to have a really good formula going and, like Caroline B. Cooney, one of my other favorite Point Horror authors, she has way more hits than misses, which can't be said for other authors. Also, fun fact: a lot of these rereleased Point Horror books have little mini biographies about the authors in the back with pictures, so that's neat. I love that this author writes at a desk that's allegedly haunted! #goals

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Drifter by Richie Tankersley Cusick

 

After reading and loving BLOOD ROOTS by this author, I immediately decided that I had to binge all of her books. Never mind that BLOOD ROOTS is adult and most of her other stuff is YA. When I love an author, it's a ride-or-die sitch. I will read literally anything they write.

THE DRIFTER is an old Point Horror-esque novel from the 90s. It's about Carolyn and her mother, and their move to an old house by the New England sea. Everyone around them, from the housekeeper to the librarian, swear it's haunted. The house is called Glanton House and it used to be the home of a sea captain and his wife. But when he was off on a mission, she had an affair, and, as the legend goes, when Michael Glanton returned, he murdered his wife and her lover, after the lover first tried to murder HIM by cutting off his hand in the middle of a storm.

Right away, creepy things start happening. There are accidents and strange footsteps and mysterious lights. Also there are two shady hot guys and one or both of them might be up to no good. Basically, this was everything that would have been total catnip for middle grade me. Even adult me was pretty impressed at the 90s thirst traps and some of the sensual passages that were age appropriate but still exciting in a non-threatening way. I stanned.

For anyone who loves old skool YA pulp, this basically checks all the boxes. Strong heroine, creepy house, ghosts, town legends, mysterious hot guys, and a solid ending.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Savage Flame by Betty Brooks

 

DNF @ 13%

The summary of this book tells you exactly what you're getting into. I've talked before about how I don't really gravitate towards Native American romances because they tend to be inherently problematic in a way that's hard to stomach. Especially the ones that have "Savage" in the title. 

SAVAGE FLAME starts off with a bang as Rebecca and this one guy are casing out their ranch, and then there's a raid and the guy gets scalped and Rebecca gets abducted and almost raped. She's saved from her rape by Black Bear by Lone Wolf, who is about to take her home, until Rebecca opens her Karen-ass mouth and starts talking about how she's going to sic the U.S. Navy on him and all his people. Obviously, being a sane dude, he's like, better not take her home then. Cut to him making her his wife in every sense of the word, with the incentive of some oral sex.

I did not like the writing in this book at all. Sometimes I love purple prose but this is an ultraviolet too intense for me. I also feel like the book was pretty heavily implying that Lone Wolf was biracial (with his gray eyes and English language skills), which is something else I've talked about in other Native American romances and sheik romances, because the implication in these books is always that their whiteness somehow makes them better, smarter, and more attractive than their non-White peers. And that's just a really tough message to swallow, even within the context of historical fiction. I've seen maybe one book that went with that and pulled it off because it was a deconstruction of racism and colonialism as a whole (JADE by Pat Barr), but this book was a no.

Thanks to Audrey for reading this with me!

1 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 11, 2022

Blood Roots by Richie Tankersley Cusick

 

BLOOD ROOTS was an impulse buy for me because I've read and really liked Richie Tankersley Cusick's Point Horror novels. This book-- this book is quite another type of beast. First, people are shelving it as young adult-- a danger whenever a YA author branches out into genre fiction. This is NOT YA. It is an incredibly disturbing, genre-defying book that I would probably classify as erotic horror. It's a haunted house story, a doomed family story, and a coming of age story, wrapped in the rotted, maggot-crawling shroud of a crumbling Southern Gothic. The best way of describing it, I think, would be saying that it's like a cross between Tanith Lee's DARK DANCE and Amy Engel's ROANOKE GIRLS.

The plot is deceptively simple. Olivia returns to her family's Louisiana mansion after the death of her crazy mother. But once she gets to the mansion, she's creeped out and has second thoughts. Too bad that the cab driver is a jerk and drives away, with her purse and wallet no less, leaving her there with literally nothing but the clothes on her back. Once inside, she meets the family matriarch, Miss Rose, an uncomfortable matronly Black servant stereotype named Yoly, an evil Black voodoo seductress stereotype named Mathilde, and two guys named Jesse and Skyler. Skyler is a cruel and sadistic rake, whereas Jesse plays the role of the consummate gentleman.

Instinct warns her not to tell them who she is, so she pretends that she was just an innocent tourist who was taken advantage of by an unscrupulous cab driver. She gets a job as a servant and does light housework while exploring the grounds, and I literally cannot convey to you how brilliantly done the swampy, claustrophobic backdrop of the house is, and how utterly smothering it makes the story. The stereotypes date the book, but I did kind of wonder if it was meant to be a parodying homage. Even if it wasn't, it certainly reads that way, replete with all of the melodrama that made Cusick such a popular teen horror author. This is honestly my favorite type of horror-- the kind that's psychological and leaves most of the real horrors to the reader's imagination. I think this is a keeper. Just don't get it for your kid.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

 

So I think I've developed a reputation on this site for being a bit of a hard-ass, but when I pick up a book, all I really ask for is to be entertained. To me, if an author can't deliver on that one note, they deserve to get a low rating. I was a little leery about picking up IRON WIDOW, even though I really liked the author's YouTube videos, because the YA fantasy genre has basically been serving the disappointment as regularly as an Amazon delivery truck. So ironically, when I saw that this had such mixed reviews among the people who usually five star all the books I hate, I was like HMM.

I actually disagree with a lot of the criticism that this is not a feminist book. Zetian, the heroine, is oppressed, and she lives in a world that actively oppresses women, but it doesn't really feel sensationalist. Foot-binding happens. People do put out propaganda and fake news about what women can and cannot do. People treat women like they're not worth more than the sum of their parts. So to see a fantasy novel where the female protagonist actively smashes the patriarchy, was really fucking cool. After being forced to swallow down heroines like Calen't-pronounce-her-name Sardothien for years, who spent most of the series being a slut-shaming idiot in a dress, this was so refreshing.

The summary of IRON WIDOW is basically this: put Hunger Games, Power Rangers, Edge of Tomorrow, Ender's Game, and Mulan in a pot, stir in a pinch of polyamory and a hefty dose of "no fucks" and then light the whole thing on fire while stirring vigorously. That's what you get in IRON WIDOW, a book that is set in a China-inspired country where men pilot these Zord-like metal things powered by qi called "chrysalises" and have female copilots that usually end up dying from, like, qi overload. Either you get conscripted into sacrificing your mind and body to the chrysalises and the boys who fly them, or you end up as a baby maker and the cycle continues. Zetian thinks that's a big fuck no, and decides that if she's going to die, she's going to kill the boy who murdered her beautiful older sister. So she does that, but it ends up-- uh, not going as hoped.

The rest of the book kind of feels like a big middle finger to THE HUNGER GAMES series in the best way. Why should the heroine have to choose in a love triangle? Why not both? Zetian gets her Peeta (Yizhi) and her Gale (Shimin), and lucky her, they like each other almost as much as they love her. The romance doesn't overshadow the plot at all and it feels pretty mature considering some of the other romances I've seen in YA books. I also liked how Zetian was pretty emotional (as you'd expect from a teen) and ended up succumbing to her unwiser impulses more often than not, although they frequently ended up becoming a learning lesson for her, and she ended up growing from her mistakes, rather than making the same stupid face-slap-worthy mistakes over and over and over again.

So yes, I liked it a lot. The only downsides for me was that the beginning felt a little clunky and took a while to get moving, whereas the end felt slightly too drawn out. Still an incredibly fun book, though, and I seriously can't wait to get my hands on the sequel. YAAAASS.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Forbidden Falls by V.J. Chambers

 

OMG, this was so good. I didn't even mind that it was so short, except that I kind of did, because I wanted more. FORBIDDEN FALLS is the story of seventeen-year-old Blake, a seventeen-year-old psychopath who used to be a weird nerd until he hit a growth spurt and became a weird hottie. He's got one of his classmates, Macy, wrapped around his finger and he's slept with most of the cheerleading squad, but that's not enough. His parents still own his life. So he's decided he's going to seduce his boss and get her busted for molesting a minor. After that, both her-- and her business-- will be his.

This is narrated in first person and I was honestly so impressed at how Chambers captured the logic of a psychopath like Blake. He was both terrifying and entertaining, and I read this novella in an entire sitting, desperate to see what he was going to get into next. The ending was a surprise, but not an unwelcome one, and I'm eager to see what happens with the other installments in this series, which are all set on the same fictitious Liar's Island.

I don't want to say too much else because less is definitely more with this book, but if you like smutty thrillers and unhinged narrators, this is going to be your jam.

4 out of 5 stars

What Will I Do with My Love Today? by Kristin Chenoweth

 

I don't actually read that many children's books, but I really like Kristin Chenoweth and I was curious to see what her take on a kids' book would be. WHAT WILL I DO WITH MY LOVE TODAY? is from the Tommy Nelson imprint, which is Thomas Nelson's kids' lit imprint. I think Thomas Nelson is a christian division of Harper Collins, for inspirational or religious-influenced works. The influence here is pretty light, apart from a few references to God. As a secular reader, if I hadn't already known it was Thomas Nelson backing this book, I probably wouldn't have noticed.

The art by Maine Diaz is gorgeous and the message of the book is wholesome, albeit mixed. It starts out talking about how being openly happy and content can inspire others, which I think is true for some people. Others will resent you for that, but since we're lying to kids, sure. Happiness begets happiness. Got it. The message shifts when her parents are like, "Hey, let's use all that excess love you have and get a dog!" And then it becomes all about having a dog, and how great dogs are.

As I said, it's a cute book. Not all kids can get pets, so I do feel like some kids might be like, "Wait, so if I don't get a pet, does that mean I didn't love hard enough?" So making it all about some sort of external reward, I have mixed feelings about. But it's cute and harmless, and it's pretty sweet.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Death Note, Vol. 1: Boredom by Tsugumi Ohba

 

When I was in college, I used to read a TON of manga, and this series was one of my favorites (until they introduced that weird manic pixie dreamgirl character and the whole series started to fall apart, that is). The Death Note series is one of the darker manga I have read, and it's kind of sad that all of the attempts to bring it to the big screen have failed, because it's got so many disturbing and sensational twists that I think it would do really well if they got the right team on the project.

Light Yagami is a brilliant high school student and star test-taker. Ryuk is a shinigami, or a "death god," or is bored AF living in the shinigami realm doing nothing but gambling or napping. All hell breaks loose when he casually drops his Death Note into the human realm and Light picks it up. Suddenly, Light has power over human life and human death, and he thinks he's going to create his own personal eugenics paradise by killing off all the bad guys, psychos, and murderers.

I feel like this manga tackles a lot of really tough philosophical questions about good and evil. The cat and dog relationship between Light and L is also really fascinating. Both people are brilliant and think they are working on the side of good, but they're also super manipulative and willing to do pretty terrible things in the greater name of justice. A lot of manga doesn't hold up, but this series really does. It was fun to revisit one of my old favorites and still feel myself getting shocked by the twists.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars