Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

 

DNF @ p.89

I always feel like I should be writing an apology letter when I DNF a book that isn't technically problematic but just didn't work for me. Sometimes you're in the wrong mood for a book or it just stopped interesting you, and then WHAT do you rate it?? THE LOST APOTHECARY is such a book. I picked it up because I was obsessed with the cover and because I thought it either won or was nominated for a Goodreads choice award. 

It's one of those historical fictions with dual timelines where one is set in the past and one is in the present. Present-day heroine is having marriage problems (i.e. cheating) and when she goes to London and mudlarks, she finds a vial with a bear on it. Past-day heroine is a women's apothecary who poisons bad men on the DL on request.

I liked the concept a lot but I just found it too slow-paced and kind of dull. I can see why other people liked it but it just didn't happen to work for me. And I had a lot of tequila today so everything feels fun right now, so actually, maybe it was the book's fault and not mine (I'd gladly outsource the blame).

Sorry, book. :(

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover


 A lot of people have said that this is Colleen Hoover's worst book. I actually didn't think it was (I reserve that special honor for NOVEMBER 9, followed by HOPELESS). That said, I also didn't think it was a particularly good book. I'm not a Colleen Hoover fan. I've enjoyed her thrillers, but her contemporary romances always rub me the wrong way. I think it's because she seems to enjoy writing about fuckboy heroes and not-like-other-girls heroines, and I'm just not really into that. Even in romance, which is about fantasy, the idea of getting some woman-hating skeaze to love me and only me has no appeal.

UGLY LOVE is about Tate and Miles. Tate is a nurse and Miles is a pilot. When Tate moves in with her brother (also a pilot) into an apartment complex that mostly houses pilots, she finds a man passed out outside her door. After freaking out, she finds out that he's actually the guy her brother arranged to show her the place. We're already off to a great start.

After an initial hate-hate relationship (hate-cute?), they decide they're attracted to each other. But Fifty Miles of Grey doesn't do relationships. He hasn't been in one for six years (or even slept with anyone). He's willing to sleep with Tate, but only if she doesn't ask questions about his past or talk about the future. Those are literally the terms he spells out for her. Tate eagerly and hornily agrees and they start fucking and basically after the first time, he's SO amazing that she falls in love with him basically instantly. Whoops.

The rest of the novel is told in two POVs. There's Miles, falling in love with another woman named Rachel in a past timeline. And there's Tate in the present, doing the relationship equivalent of begging for scraps at the table from this man who makes it clear he doesn't love her and has no intention to. I guess the only redeeming factor about Miles is that he's upfront about how their relationship stands and seems to understand, at least on some level, what an emotional fuckwit he is. Does that make it okay? Eh, not really. He's pretty emotionally manipulative, imo. The way he uses sex to sort of punish Tate and put her in her place (at least in my opinion) almost felt like gaslighting, because he could always fall back on his stupid little rules and be like, well, I told you how it's going to be and we can stop at any time.

I've never read a "romance" novel where half of the narrative is about the hero falling in love with someone else and I really didn't like that. Especially since it was so cheesy. The only thing I did like was that it was a stepbrother romance (I'm a sucker for those, HMMM), but the sort of quasi-poetical way it was written in REALLY didn't work for me, and the fact that the hero is literally laughing about the size of his newborn's genitals moments before a tragedy is just kind of ick. I had seen that quote about "we laughed at my son's big balls" floating around on social meads when everyone was trying to cancel Colleen Hoover as The Worst Writer in the World and it was pretty bad. Not sure what she was thinking but I guess in the hero's defense, he was still a teenager at the time and that's something a guy would do.

Now, I consider myself a pretty fair reviewer. I don't rate books highly just because I feel like I should and I don't deduct stars from authors who write trash human beings if I thought the story was okay. Look, I got this book for free on a cruise ship library and read most of it while I was drunk on tequila. I was in a rather questionably positive frame of mind when I read this stupid book and in its defense, some of the sex scenes are hot. I hated the romance and as a romance I give it a one star, and I give Miles one star as a human being, and Tate a one star for having no backbone. But as an entertaining book that whiled away the time and entertained me for a few hours while taking me on an emotional rollercoaster of a journey while my Goodreads friends watched from the wings, pointing and laughing, it was ok.

I would probably be more harsh if I had to pay money and didn't have any good tequila, tho.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, November 25, 2022

Sugaring Off by Gillian French

 

I recently read THE LIES THEY TELL with a friend, and while it did some things really well-- bratty believably grumpy heroine, class disparity, small town dynamics, suspense-- there were things it did less well. Heroine didn't really feel like a well-rounded person, some plot points didn't really go anywhere or felt unexplored, the romance and sexual tension could have been better done. But I liked the author's writing enough that I was really eager to see what she did next, which was why I was so excited when I got a copy of SUGARING OFF.

In some ways, this definitely feels like a more mature work than TLTT. Owl, the heroine, has hobbies. She likes to watch animals in the woods and she helps her uncle make maple syrup. I feel like the setting for this book was just as good as the previous. It's also set in New England, but in a rural forested mountain area instead of a seaside town. The heroine's relationships with her frenemy, Aida, her male friend, Griffin, and her maybe-love interest, Cody, were all handled pretty deftly and with nuance. There was an emotional component here that hit a lot deeper than TTLT.

That said, I wish that this book had more of a mystery element. The syrup making was obviously well-researched but didn't really factor into the plot all that much and sometimes these scenes dragged. I also hated Cody. I thought he was a jerk (and he didn't really prove me wrong). Like the heroine in TTLT, Owl was difficult to like, although once you learn a little more about her backstory, it becomes a little more understandable why she's so prickly. The author also has this odd style of writing in SUGARING which makes the narrative feel odd. I don't know how to explain it, except to say that it's heavy in sentence fragments and seems to be channeling a sort of stream of consciousness lite at times.

I'll still read more from this author but this one still didn't quite hit the mark with me.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Duke in Question by Amalie Howard


 Amalie Howard is one of those authors where I really respect what she does, but I don't actually end up liking most of what she writes. So far, my favorite book of hers has been BEAST OF BESWICK (which I loved) but I didn't like the first two books in the Daring Dukes series much at all. I think my problem with these books is that they fall into the trap that a lot of modernized, feminist historical romances do, in that the heroine is often portrayed as the one-off pioneer of feminism, which ends up making her feel like a not-like-other-girls lead. Also, the heroes in all of these books have just been huge assholes until they see the light, and it felt-- to me-- that the sole attraction between them was sex-based.

I think THE DUKE IN QUESTION is the best book in the Dukes series so far. Most of that is because of the heroine, Bronwyn, who is pretty cool. I liked that she's allowed to be feminine and it's super cool that she's an informant/spy for good causes (there's an author's note in the back detailing some of the real life spies her character was based off). The hero, Valentine, is trying to find out who the Kestrel is, but like most men of this time, he doesn't really think much of ladies and so it never occurs to him-- or indeed, any man-- that the person they're looking for could actually be a woman.

For like 2/3 of this book, Valentine's internal dialogue is just about what a moron he thinks Bronwyn is (since he's taken her coquette role at face value). He actually grimaces in disgust at her while she's right there. She's a virgin but he doesn't think that, obviously, and so her first time is bent over against a tree. Even though she wants it, it still feels gross, because Valentine so obviously doesn't respect her as a person. Obviously, once he finds out she's a virgin, he wants to marry her and make it right, but the impulse feels less out of desire and affection and more like someone trying to pay for a piece of ceramic they broke in a shop because they feel reprisal from the salesclerk.

In the last 1/3 it does sort of feel like there's a burgeoning respect between them. Valentine eventually comes to admire her strength, but only after she's proven that she's not like other women. But  Bronwyn's thoughts for Valentine are mostly about how big he is, how manly he is, and how good he is in bed. Even their HEA is sex-based, and I found myself wishing that we could have seen them doing something together that didn't just involve sex. I know there's a lot of "there's too much sex!" type reviews that are written in bad faith, but here it really felt like it was working to the story's detriment. I mean, Bronwyn is supposed to be this amazing spy but then she forgets about this top secret letter she's tucked into her bodice and it falls out in the middle of sexy-times? That kind of buffoonery can get one killed.

I feel bad complaining about so much since I did eventually warm to the book. The representation of PoCs was great, and I felt like the author obviously did a lot of research about spy networks (especially those involving women). But the random passages were characters lectured each others (or themselves) about privilege definitely felt anachronistic, like they were playing to a modern-day audience. And I would have liked the book a lot more if the tension between Valentine and Bronwyn had been allowed to build, and their connection had been based more on the emotional and less on the physical.

That said, it was great to find a book by this author that I did enjoy. I'm curious if this is the end of the Dukes series and she's about to start something new, or if some of the other side characters in this book are going to have future stories explored. Either way, I'll probably be there.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Monday, November 21, 2022

How You Grow Wings by Rimma Onoseta

 

I haven't been great about reading things lately, but when I saw the premise of HOW YOU GROW WINGS, I was so excited, because I really love stories about sisters with difficult relationships and coming-of-age stories in exciting places. After a few chapters of HYGW, it kind of made me feel like I was reading a Nigeria-set WHITE OLEANDER, with how it navigated toxic family dynamics and unlikable women doing what they had to do to survive.

HOW YOU GROW WINGS is about two sisters, Cheta and Zam. They live with their mother who favors Zam and physically abuses Cheta. But one day, opportunity comes and Zam is given the opportunity to live with a rich aunt, leaving Cheta behind. From there, the stories of the two girls diverge, with Cheta plotting her independence from her mother and Zam trying to navigate her newfound wealth and outsider status.

Less is definitely more going into this book because there's so much drama and part of the entertainment comes from watching it unfold and wondering what will happen next. I liked both girls, even when I wasn't supposed to. Teen girls can be evil, and I admire books that let them mess up like normal human beings. The dual POV also allows for some interesting unreliable narrator moments, including a twist that may (or may not) surprise you.

I liked this book a lot but I felt like it ended too neatly. (It does have a happy ending, though, in case you get worried.) Personally, I felt like the third act was also a little slow and maybe jumped the shark. The home dynamic element was the best part for me, so it was weird when the book kind of steered away from that. I'm not going to say more, because spoilers, but that knocked the book down from a five star read to a four star read for me.

Overall, though, this was wonderful and I would definitely read more from this author. I'm honestly surprised it has as few ratings as it does. Somebody's not doing their promotional due diligence.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Enchanted Paradise by Johanna Hailey

 

ENCHANTED PARADISE has been on my to-read list for a while ever since I saw it featured on a blog celebrating beautiful covers. It was like something out of a Lisa Frank-themed porno shoot and I knew I had to have it. But at the time, copies of it were prohibitively expensive and I despaired of every getting a copy of it, just like the other two books on my wishlist: STORMFIRE and THE SILVER DEVIL.

Then, I ended up getting a copy of it in a lot of books I had purchased in bulk! But tragedy of tragedies: my copy was badly water-damaged and infected with spots of blue mold. The beautiful Pino Daeni cover was also scratched and creased. I wanted to cry. Since I don't keep moldy books in the house, I stored it outside, where I've been reading it ever since. Because even though my copy wasn't safe to keep (*sob* *sniff* *sob*), I really did want to find out what happened.

This book-- it's so bad it's good. Some books are bad-bad, but reading this book made me nostalgic for all the trashy fantasy books I read as a kid. Books about faeries and unicorns and gnomes, where the good people are always good and the bad people are always bad. The book starts out with two elves witnessing the murder of a beautiful woman with a newborn at the hands of dark knights. The baby is rescued by the elves and raised at their own, and they name her Anduan, which means foundling.

Anduan, now eighteen, meets a hot dude in the woods in a naked bathing meet-cute. They bang before page fifty, and spend a couple weeks fucking, enough time to learn his language. That's when she finds out that he's in the employ of an evil sorceress and comes from a land named Tor. His name is Frayne and he's a knight (an evil knight? HMMMM) searching for a unicorn horn. The elves don't want him tramping around and ruining their shit, so Anduan-- who renames herself Aurora-- tasks herself with leading him to the unicorn, since being raised by elves means that she knows the old tongue.

It's worth noting that this is book one in a trilogy and it's mostly all set-up. There's no real satisfying conclusion or HEA. Imagine picking this up in the '80s and finding out that you don't even get a solid ending. I'd be so pissed lmao. This book is also purple-prosey as fuck. Similar authors are Rebecca Brandewyne and Bertrice Small, except, you know, this is way less WTFy. Actually, it's surprisingly woke for the time. Anduan/Aurora is raised by these elves that seem to be coded as lesbians. So she literally has two moms. Also the elves are funny. There's these things called Droonish curses, and when the sorceress's baddies track Frayne to the glade, one of the elves, Gleb, curses one of them to have a mare's backside and the other, a stallion's tool. Also they're horny. OHHHHH SHIT.

The rest of the adventure is a little slow-going with Frayne and Aurora bickering back and forth, but Aurora takes care of herself and does a lot of the rescuing. It was actually pretty refreshing to read a book where the hero is the one who repeatedly gets his ass hauled out of danger. My favorite part of the book was when they go to a place called "Krim's Keep," which is a sinister castle lorded over by an evil wizard who wants to bang the heroine. He sends his grandson, Crane, to try to fuck her while wearing the face of the hero, Frayne, but she only just barely sees through his disguise. It's a castle filled with illusions, and a monster that's part jaguar called the Asgeroth haunts the halls. Holy shit did this part ever feel gothic as fuck, and you can bet I loved every second of it.

After they escape, they encounter a mostly tribe of naked would-be-total-racist-stereotypes-if-they-weren't-blonde-and-white warrior people called the Shintari. Where, YOU GUESSED IT, the king wants to bang the heroine. But his jealous incest wife wants to bang the king, and she calls blasphemy, so it requires judgment from a god to determine whether she gets to live. And THEN they have a run-in with a vampire who YOU GUESSED IT, wants to fuck the heroine. And drink her blood. After that, they run into a bunch of asshole gnomes who lead them to a bunch of flesh-eating giants. And then...

THE NOT-ENDING.

So overall, I have to say that I did a lot of skimming. The purple prose is about a 9/10. I also didn't really feel the chemistry between the hero and heroine. He's one of those cold and icy dudes who says things like "little fool" and constantly treats her mean to keep her keen. But I also felt like there was something else going on beneath the surface. It almost made me think of The Snow Queen, which makes me wonder if maybe his sorceress has put a spell on his heart to keep him loyal. That's my theory, anyway. Aurora was also a pretty strong heroine. Was she a Mary Sue? Yes. But she was a Mary Sue who didn't take any shit and owned her sexuality, and the talking with animals thing was cool. I also liked that she was illiterate and that learning to read became her goal at the end of the book, so she could learn more spells and knowledge and stuff.

I made fun of this book for all 525 pages, but I already ordered books two and three so I guess that makes me a clown. If there were more dark and creepy moments like the evil castle and the vampire of the hot spring, I probably would have given this a four. Especially if there were some decent sexual tension.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 13, 2022

I'll Be You by Janelle Brown

 

Wow, has it really been two weeks since I've written a review? That's depression for you. When I'm feeling good, I'm a one-woman power-house of reading books and churning out reviews. But every winter, like clockwork, my brain goes into power-saving mode and it's like I go, "Books? I don't know her." So big thanks to my friend, Heather, for agreeing to buddy-read this book with me. It was the motivation I didn't realize I needed to make it to the end of a story and my slump.

I'LL BE YOU is the story of two twins who started out as child stars and ended up kind of messed up. Sam, the more outgoing twin, is a recovering addict. Elli, the more reserved twin, had the perfect life-- until she ditched it all after her divorce to go on a mysterious retreat to Ojai, leaving her young daughter with their aging parents.

When Sam is called to help out with the niece she didn't know existed, she immediately starts getting weirded out. The child's origins are shady, and Elli has been missing for a while. When Sam texts her, her messages are always "read" but never responded to, and she finds mysterious paper trails in her sister's abandoned apartment. Addresses across the state and a folder for a treatment program called GenFem which sounds kind of like a cult.

The book has two parts. One is narrated by Sam and one is narrated by Elli. The beginning of the book was really good and had some genuinely creepy moments that actually had me feeling paranoid and a little leery about reading this at night. But Elli's portion felt anticlimactic. The book literally ends at the point of climax, with a lot of it mostly being resolved off-page. Also, there's a sort of Suspicious Hot Guy who seems like he might become a love interest or even a villain, but then he's shunted off page just when things are getting interesting.

Despite its promising premise, I'LL BE YOU only half-delivers. I had the same issue with WATCH ME DISAPPEAR, a book that initially gave me the same delicious sensations of paranoia and fear, only to end in a way that had me rolling my eyes and going REALLY?! This book was even more frustrating, though, because it plays with so many of my favorite tropes and doesn't really do anything with them. So far, I think my favorite book by this author is PRETTY THINGS, which I five-starred. Nothing has come close, which is tragic, because that book had me thinking this author was the next Gillian Flynn.

I'LL BE YOU is far from a bad book but it could have been an amazing book and wasn't, so I'm sad. But it was interesting enough that I was able to finish it, despite my slump, so go me! (And go Heather, for reading it with me!) Hopefully this author's next book can match the pacing and intensity of PRETTY THINGS.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 30, 2022

A Man to Slay Dragons by Meagan McKinney

 

DNF @ p.59

It actually causes me physical pain to have to give this a low rating because Meagan McKinney is one of my favorite authors, and when I found a copy of this at a thrift store, I McCouldn't wait to read it. Meagan McKinney is the genius behind two of my favorite romance novels Of All Time: WHEN ANGELS FALL and LIONS AND LACE. She also wrote two gothic romances I loved: GENTLY FROM THE NIGHT and THE FORTUNE HUNTER. She's also written some duds. I think only Anne Stuart fucks me around this much and keeps me coming back for more.

A MAN TO SLAY DRAGONS is a contemporary romantic suspense which already made this quite a bit different than some of McKinney's more popular works. I know she wrote some Harlequin novels as well (all contemps), but I've only read one of those-- in manga form, no less!-- and I can't say I was a fan. Here's the thing about McKinney, she's one of those authors where all of her heroes are basically different facets of the same mold. Anne Stuart is like that, too. Usually I like their heroes, but sometimes they're either too mean or too smarmy. 

A MAN TO SLAY DRAGONS is about a women's right group that gets fed up and goes vigilante. They start holding lotteries to murder the abusers of women in the group. Holy shit. What an awesome premise. Claire, the heroine, is the lawyer and cofounder of the group and she's horrified when she finds out what's happening. Liam, the hero, self-identifies as a redneck and used to ride rodeo before he got into the paramilitary organization where he became a gun for hire. When he sees an add from the group, asking for "a man to slay dragons," he ends up responding, which is how he meets Claire.

Here's the thing. I'm not a fan of military romances. I'm also not a fan of really meek heroines (usually). This had both of those things, and Liam was kind of a jerk. The multiple references to white supremacists and women's rights violations was also bumming me out, because even though this book was published DECADES ago, we still haven't fixed those things. In fact, in some ways, they've gotten worse. All of that was kind of a recipe for disaster with regard to my reading experience. People who enjoy military romance/heroes may like this, especially with the murder mystery angle and themes of justice gone too far. But it wasn't for me and I found myself quickly getting bored.

I'm sorry Meagan McKinney! I still love you. <3

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 29, 2022

The Fortune Hunter by Meagan McKinney

 

Meagan McKinney is one of my FAVORITE authors, as anyone who has ever had WHEN ANGELS FALL or LIONS AND LACE foisted upon them by me knows. When I love an author as much as I love McKinney, I'm willing to forgive them a lot, and will continue to buy their books like a sucker even when-- ahem-- they are lackluster. Sadly, WAF and LAL are McKinney's two best efforts that I've read to date, and while she has some other books that are good, none of them consume my thoughts and my soul the way those two titles do. I still think about Ivan and his "let's destroy each other" line. OH MY GOD. *fans self*

THE FORTUNE HUNTER is actually a really good read for Halloween because it's about mediums and spirtualism. The heroine and her "sister" are famous mediums who have gotten rich bilking the wealthy from their readings and now live in a manor home filled with constructions that help add to the illusion. But their latest customer (i.e. rube) is a copper magnate named Vanadder and his bastard son, Edward French-Stuyvesant, doesn't take too kindly to these monies going into their coffers when they should go to his half-sister, Daisy, the true heir.

Edward decides to make it his mission to destroy the Murphy sisters and prove them frauds. He's really quite cruel to the heroine in the beginning, at one point threatening to rape Lavinia and turn her into an unwed mother like his dead mother. YIKES. Holy mommy issues, Batman. And you know I love me a good cruel hero, but Lavinia, spineless con artist that she is, not only convinces herself that she's doing these rich people a favor and using the money to help her young charges (WON'T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN), but she also just spends way too much time fretting over her attraction to Edward, even when he's treating her like something he scraped off his shoe. He never really atones, and they basically go from cat-and-mouse enemies to "I WILL FILL YOUR ROOM WITH POSIES."

THE FORTUNE HUNTER succeeds where lesser works have failed because it has a good story, one of the hottest sex scenes I've ever read in a hist-rom (THEY BANG IN A HAMMOCK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STORM AND HE ASKS HER-- AHEM-- "HOW SHE WOULD LIKE IT" BEFORE TELLING HER WHAT HE'D DO TO HER WHILE SHE BLOWS HIM #BYE), and not one, not two, but THREE secondary romances... which were actually all pretty decent and didn't take up too much page time. I also loved the gothic elements and the supernatural element (even if it was cheesy). It reminded me of McKinney's actual gothic romance GENTLY FROM THE NIGHT, which I loved, but also featured an inexplicably cruel hero who treated the hero like shit until-- boom-- it's love.

Also, the hero has a stupid Colonel Sanders beard and I wasn't into that, so minus half a star.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom by Sara Benincasa

 

AGORAFABULOUS! is one of those books where after I finished it, I'm like, "Did I really enjoy reading this?" because even though it was rip-roaringly funny in parts, it could also be surprisingly brutal. The two toughest scenes involve her recollections of the violent (self-inflicted) death of one of her classmates and a description of severe anxiety, agoraphobia, and depression-- which had escalated to the point that she was peeing in bowls to avoid leaving her bedroom and had mostly stopped eating.

Despite these triggers, though, AGORAFABULOUS! was a very endearing, if uneven, memoir. There were parts that were so funny, like her stint working as a teacher with at-risk kids, which kind of came across as a less pedantic version of Dangerous Minds. The story about Billy made me laugh hysterically. I also liked her writing about her trip to Planned Parenthood, her response to the jerk protestors stationed there to heckle women, and the fact that PP apparently has escorts to walk women up to the clinic through the protestors while distracting them. Oh my God, how wholesome.

I've been following Sara Benincasa for a while. She's one of those women who's kind of famous for her online work doing commentary and interviews, like Lindsey Ellis or Anita Sarkessian. I think I first remember seeing her as a guest star on College Humor's Bleep Bloop segments way back in the early 2010s, and she had an appearance on BuzzFeed as well. Mostly these days I follow her on Twitter, because she's really funny (her thread about the fates of '80s and '90s children's book protagonists was nothing short of brilliant), and I was curious to see what her experiences with psychological disorders was like, as someone who, you know, has mental health issues herself.

Overall, this was a pretty great read. I found it incredibly validating and I wish I'd had a copy when I was feeling at my worst in the late aughts/early 2010s. Knowing you're not alone is such an integral part of healing and recovery, so I'm so glad that she put this book out there in the world.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Bad Decisions by Heather Crews

 

Disclaimer: I was the beta reader for this work and Heather is a good friend of mine, but I paid real live monies for this book and was not in any way biased (HAHA... no, really) in the writing of this review.

So when I was reading this book in the raw, I was originally conflicted because Dante, the hero, normally isn't the type of hero I like in fiction. The author really brings him down to a level of vulnerability that most heroes in romance never face. But I ended up really liking that, and liking the book also, which ended up being the atmospheric haunted-house-maybe-but-not-really story that I didn't realize I needed.

This is another one of those books where the less you know going in is better, but it examines rape culture, bullying, and obsessive love through a very fine lens, with two flawed and realistic leads. It took me a while to read it, though, because it was so high stakes and high stress, and I found myself needing to take frequent breaks because of the subject matter. It is just so well done, and ended up being possibly my new favorite work from this author, and I am honestly just so blessed to have the privilege of being friends with someone who has such talent (I mean, OMG).

Seriously, people in Peach Creek suck. I don't think I've ever had such a long list of People Who Need to Be Punched in the Face while reading since, like, IDK. Game of Thrones, maybe. Maybe Peach Creek is the Texas version of King's Landing. (And we all know what happened to King's Landing.)

Also, June is officially my new favorite heroine and I will attack anyone who comes for her or her sexuality (because girl, you get some-- just ease back on the wine, please, ILY).

LOVED this book.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 20, 2022

MARVEL Spider-Man: A History and Celebration of the Web-Slinger, Decade by Decade by Matthew K. Manning

 

SPIDER-MAN: A HISTORY AND CELEBRATION is exactly what it promises to be. A history of the Spider-Man comics, replete with lots of pictures and panels, showing how S'Man evolved throughout the decades, and how his costume changed, and even how the lore got built out and complicated when Marvel expanded its legendary universe (sometimes for the worse lol).

I liked this book a lot. The pictures are gorgeous and I felt like the history was pretty thorough. It would be an amazing gift for anyone who loves Spider-Man.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Promise Not to Tell by Jennifer McMahon

 

DNF @ 25%

I will say that I am honestly delighted at how many female-fronted thrillers are available now, because when I was young (high school), there weren't really a lot of books like that except for police procedurals like the Kay Scarpetta or Bones series, or old school gothic novels. Jennifer McMahon was one of the first of these sorts of authors I'd read (pre-Gillian Flynn, even), so I have really warm feelings towards her work.

PROMISE NOT TO TELL is her debut and I'm sorry to say it shows. I remembered really liking one of her earlier books but I couldn't remember which one it was. Now that I've gotten about a quarter of the way through, I know it wasn't this one. The premise is interesting. It's set in rural Vermont with dual timelines in a hippie commune, and when Kate returns as an adult she's haunted by the disappearance and murder of her very strange and very dysfunctional friend, Del.

This story just didn't grab me. I felt like the structure was shaky and I wasn't really compelled by the main character's narrative voice the way I have been by some of this author's other offerings. 

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, October 14, 2022

Book of Extraordinary Tragedies by Joe Meno

 

DNF @ p.118

I really, really wanted to like this book-- especially since it's written by an author who I've been wanting to check out for a while (he wrote HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED, which is high on my list because it's about punk culture, which I think is really cool). BOOK OF EXTRAORDINARY TRAGEDIES, on the other hand, is about an Eastern European family cursed with extraordinary bad luck. The hero, Aleks, and his sister, Isobel, are ex-child prodigies whose bright futures ended up tarnished and crumbling into nothing. Now, as young adults, they are all washed-out and struggle through existence.

As other readers have pointed out, this is a very depressing book. There's a Canadian author I can't remember right now, but she wrote a book about two young adults who are big fish in the little pond of their Quebecois city, children of a famous regional athlete?? And that's, like, their only claim to fame. And it's all about how they've just kind of peaked young, but told in an earnestly fatalist voice. That's how this book reads, too. There's nothing objectively wrong with it, but that's either the sort of story that you're into or you're not. I was not into it. I tried.

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars 

The Heights by Juliet Bell

 

So apparently I'm just giving five star reviews to every thriller I read now, but that's okay, because every thriller I read now has been unusually awesome. Case in point: THE HEIGHTS. I'm actually shocked that it has such low ratings because it's such a good story. It manages to capture the bleak passions and the emotional insanity of the original WUTHERING HEIGHTS story while also modernizing it. It's been about ten years since I've read WH so I looked up the summary, and THE HEIGHTS follows it really well, with a couple tweaks to ensure that it ends up being period-appropriate and working for the story.

THE HEIGHTS, like its predecessor, is dual timeline. The modern-day one has DCI Lockwood looking into the numerous deaths surrounding a coal-mining town, specifically a place called The Heights, where the Earnshaws used to live. Maybe I'm twisted for finding this amusing, but it makes sense-- why wouldn't a police want to look into a place where a horrendous amount of people mysteriously died? DID YOU EVEN READ THE ORIGINAL WUTHERING HEIGHTS? Emily Bronte was aiming to be the 19th century George R. R. Martin.

The past timeline starts out with Catherine and her other brother, Mick, as children. Heathcliff is brought on as a foundling, like the original, but here it's implied that he's one of Catherine's father's by-blows. The story is set against the background of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's decision to close twenty coal mines, which led to a miners' strike in 1984. This gives the story a bleak and gloomy setting, except instead of the moors, it's working class poverty and hopeless and coalface and unsafe mines and riots that set the gothic backdrop. Cathy and Heathcliff avoid their family by running off together, always together, until they meet the Linton children: the wealthy offspring of the people who owned and helped close the mine.

I don't want to say too much because less is more going in, but I think you can read this as a standalone book separate from it standing alone as a WH retelling. Heathcliff is seriously crazy. Juliet Bell (brilliant penname by the way; if you know, you know) captures how selfish Cathy was and how aggressive and irrational Heathcliff was. I mean, he murders a puppy. (Spoiler.) I loved the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff, even though I recognized how destructive and unhealthy it was, and everyone around them just ended up caught in their chaotic maelstrom. It was brilliant.

And now I'm sad and more than a little devastated.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris

 

This was another book I had campaigned pretty hard to get an ARC of. But once again, book-blocked. How rude. But then it went on sale and I bought it IMMEDIATELY. Reading ALL HER LITTLE SECRETS, I had very high expectations-- but somehow, this book still managed to exceed them. The comparison to THE FIRM is excellent but I would also compare it to ACE OF SPADES, with how it deals with the subjects of privilege and infrastructural racism. 

Here's the premise. Ellice is a high-powered lawyer nursing a very dark secret, which we find out slowly through the dual timeline medium (MY FAVORITE MEDIUM). She might have her professional life together but her personal life is a mess: she's sleeping with her boss, for one. Which is why it's such a shock when she arrives to one of their early morning tete-a-tetes only to find out that he's dede-a-dede. That is: dead. Uh oh.

After deciding to flee without telling a soul, Ellice waits out the discovery and is shocked when she's promoted to her late-lover's job: the much-coveted position on the executive level suite. It seems too good to be true. And you know what they say about things that sound too good to be true. But if you don't, this book is going to be an even bigger surprise for you than it will be already, and I'm so thrilled for you.

I honestly don't want to say too much about this book because the less you know going in, the better it will be. There are MAJOR TRIGGER WARNINGS, though. Not just for racism (but also that), but also for a rather graphic and chilling depiction of what happens when you deny a woman reproductive rights. That's not a huge spoiler, and it's honestly so awful that I feel like people should brace themselves for it. I didn't see any reviews with warnings, so it surprised me in a really unpleasant way.

Apart from that, I loved every moment of this book. I loved the heroine's voice, I loved the pacing of the story and the satisfying ending. I loved the writing style and the message. I thought all the characters were really well done (good and bad). After Ellice, Juice and Vera were probably my favorite people. And I LOVED her friend, Grace. This isn't just a story about a woman triumphing over evil: it's also an ode to the power of having a good support network and the bonds between women. 

I can't wait to read this author's next book.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Stephen King: A Complete Exploration of His Work, Life, and Influences by Bev Vincent

 

I'm often skeptical about coffee table-style niche encyclopedias like this, because they're often only accessible to the super-fans of whatever they're about, and even though I love Stephen King and he was, at one point, my favorite author, I would no longer call myself a super-fan of his work. I think the last thing of his that I actually read was REVIVAL and I didn't like it.

But you can color me wrong for this book because I actually loved it so much. I actually think this would be a great companion to read with Stephen King's memoir-slash-writing guide, ON WRITING, because it has pictures of a lot of the things he talked about. This book is part biography, part extended bibliography/CV, and part fan trivia. For example, I didn't know that early editions of MISERY had a fake romance stepback inside picturing Paul Sheldon's Misery cover! And better yet, THIS BOOK INCLUDES A PICTURE. AND STEPHEN KING WAS THE MALE COVER MODEL.

The whole book was full of fun little facts like that, including his inspirations, insights into his relationship with his wife and sons (I honestly LOVE how Tabitha is Mr. King's "Ideal Reader." Every time he talks about her, you can tell how much he worships her), and what his life was like after the accident that caused him serious injury. I've read most of his early works and a lot of the ones into the '90s, but everything from the aughts onward was a little new to me and there were several things he did that I hadn't even heard of. After seeing the summary of LISEY'S STORY, I'm kind of interested in picking it up now.

Horror fans, King fans, and movie fans will probably get a lot out of this book. I'm happy to report that you don't need to be a super-fan to get something out of this book. There's literally something in here for everyone and I kind of like that. Bev Vincent knocked the ball out of the park.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Bride of Pendorric by Victoria Holt

 

DNF @ 18%

I was actually telling my friend that I felt like I lost my mean reviewer edge because I have just been four- and five-starring everything in sight. What's wrong with me? I wondered. What if I just now love ALL THE BOOKS? What if I've become one of those pod people who just five star everything like they've never known despair? And then this book came along and I was like OH THANK GOD I'M STILL AN ASSHOLE.

Victoria Holt was actually my first foray into gothic romance and when I like her books, I really like her books. But also, all of her heroines are the same heroines and they're all weirdly prudish and uptight. Which fits the times, I guess-- but I like heroines with a little more personality. Prudish and uptight can be fun if the heroine has some bite to her. Which is why I tend to gravitate more towards Mary Stewart and Phyllis A. Whitney now when I want to go old skool. I just like their heroines-- and settings-- better. Whitney's are particularly fun because she has books set in places like Japan or the Virgin Islands because she's actually been to those places.

BRIDE OF PENDORRIC is a REBECCA knockoff. I don't particularly mind books that are derivative as long as they're good. While I don't think this is a bad book, I do think it's a boring one. The heroine is very milquetoast, there's no chemistry between her and the hero, and she reacts to things the way an alien might react to things if they were briefly shown a YouTube video on Humaning 101 before being laced into a petticoat and plopped down to Earth. I think I'll give this one a miss.

2 out of 5 stars

Blood And Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause

 

BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE is such a weird book. It revels in its 90s-ness the way your one hipster friend who still owns a VHS player and Instagrams their collection of Pogs does, and it's weirdly sexual in a way that I'm not sure a YA today would be allowed to be without drawing all sorts of outcry. I mean, for starters, there's ~SEDUCTION~ where one of the heroine's boyfriends is waiting for her naked under a sheet with candles all over his room lol. And also, the heroine is sixteen and in a love triangle between a human boyfriend her own age (Mr. Bedsheets and Fire Hazards) and a werewolf guy who is-- ahem-- TWENTY-FOUR. (Also it's implied that he may have banged her mom. Yum. Not.)

I can see why this book gets a lot of flak from critics. It's kind of like a gender-reversed TWILIGHT, if Edward were a girl named Vivian who was also a werewolf. (Her mom is even named Esme!) But there's so much more about it, too. It's a coming-of-age story that's about pushing boundaries and wanting to grow up but also wanting to explore and find adulthood and be your own person. Vivian has grown up under her wolf pack but she doesn't want to be wedded to convention, and she loathes how juvenile and immature the only other werewolf kids in her pack (all guys of course) are. So it's not really any wonder that she would be attracted to their total opposites: a sensitive artist type (Aiden) or a powerful and dominant man who doesn't need to make displays because he owns them (Gabriel).

The weird age gap is uncomfortable, especially since the heroine is underage. If she were seventeen it would have been better, and it would have been even better still if she were eighteen. But I also can see why the author chose to make that choice because sixteen is an age when you can start to feel like you have your whole life figured out (even if you totally don't). Also it was written in the '90s when fewer people had the means of giving a shit. I was mostly able to roll with it because of the fact that Vivian isn't human. I think my favorite parts of the book were actually the action scenes and the scenes describing the political intrigues between the pack members. Even though this is a short book, I felt like a lot of work went into fleshing out the world building and the way they changed. I'm not usually into werewolf books because they're all furry and sweaty and gross, but in this book, paired with the beautiful writing, I felt like Klause really did a great job portraying the beauty of the page.

Also, unlike THE SILVER KISS, which was about vampires (and which I usually prefer), I felt like the heroine was a lot more likable (even if she was a bitch; she was my bitch, you know?). It also has more of a romance ending than THE SILVER KISS, which I feel is more of a love story. Apparently Blood and Chocolate was made into a movie, but I have never seen it. Now I'm kind of curious to see how it compares to the book, which is pretty dark and often brutal. I'm guessing they aged up the heroine and took out a lot of the violence and sex.

I don't know. I kind of liked it. Is that weird?

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, October 7, 2022

The Woman in the Water by Kelly Heard

 

I'm always leery about reading books about authors I'm on friendly terms with, because I've found that nothing can put a wrench in those friendly terms quite as fast as a negative review. So I typically don't read a book by a friend unless I'm pretty sure I'm going to like it (because I'm not going to lie!). Luckily for me, Kelly Heard writes in what is probably my favorite subgenre of fiction: domestic suspense with gothic and romantic elements. Um, yes. Come to mama.

I was initially a little lukewarm on the first book of hers I read, THE SILENT GIRL, which I thought had a ton of promise but didn't take enough advantage of its admittedly cool elements. But it had the recipe for something good and the writing was clear and immersive, so I knew I was definitely going to want to check out other books by this author because it felt like she had a ton of potential. And that potential comes to a head in THE WOMAN IN THE WATER, which was excellent.

Felicity lives in the Virgin Islands in tropical paradise which is abruptly shattered when she gets a call from a Virginian cop in her hometown: her sister is dead and she's been named guardian of her two children. As soon as she touches foot in Virginia, she's swamped by memories: the sexism and classism of her town, the swamplands and lakes where girls have drowned (they're called the "Reverie Girls"), and the creepy abandoned fairgrounds that are haunted by more than just ghosts. Felicity has bad memories of something that happened when she and her sister were teens and of a night that went horribly wrong.

So let's do a check of some of the tropes in this book that were THE BEST: second-chance teen romance revisited as angsty adults, woman going to confront the dark secrets of her hometown, sexism and patriarchy confronted in the narrative, reasonable and mature heroine with a slight spiteful streak (YAS GIRL), sisters with a close bond that broke over betrayal/tragedy, suspicious hot guys, forbidden romance, CREEPY GOTHIC ELEMENTS, a hero who wears GLASSES, dual timeline, sinister stalkers. And let's not even talk about the Reverie girl mythos and all those creepy swamps. I was all over that like orange on a pumpkin.

The only things that really kept this from being a five-star read were some very mild pacing issues (there were parts that felt slow), pseudo-supernatural elements that felt a little too cheesy, Felicity having some truly odd and unrealistic-seeming reactions to things (particularly the bad guy and what they did, but then again I get that people process trauma in different ways-- especially if the whole town is brainwashed by sexism-- so IDK), and the fact that I would have (personally) appreciated just a teensy bit more smuttiness and romance.

But honestly?? I loved this. I can't wait to see what the author writes next.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 6, 2022

The Story of the Great British Bake Off by Anita Singh

 

I love The Great British Bake Off. It's a total comfort show and there's nothing mean-spirited about it, which is what puts me off a lot of reality TV. Some people enjoy shows about people being egotistical jerks, and more power to them, but my favorites have always been the good-natured competitive crafty shows. THE STORY OF THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF is an unofficial "guide" to the show that provides profiles on all the bakers from all the seasons, collections of the best bakes, and even the inside scoop on "Bingate" (which surprisingly was way more innocent than it seemed). I should note that there are NO RECIPES in this book (lest you think it should contain some) and while it's beautifully designed with fun illustrations and a few photos, it's not really a pictorial book either. I feel like this is almost like an encyclopedia-cum-oral history, so, like a Buzzfeed listicle padded out to full length. You could probably find out a lot of the behind-the-scenes trivia in this book from browsing the web but it's nice to have it all in one place and I think the author did a great job capturing the wholesome tone of the show. But this is definitely a book that is ONLY for people who watch the show and are already big fans.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

I'm Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

 

So in my pre-review of this book, where I lamented about not being able to find a copy anywhere because of all the HYPE (seriously, I could not find a copy of this anywhere and the library had, like, a five-hundred year wait-- thank GOD for my sister sending me a copy as payment for watching her kitten), I said that the people giving this author shit about her choice of title were dickheads. Some people got mad at me about that, but I stand by what I said. Even more so after reading this memoir. I am seriously side-eyeing the people defending the mother, actually, because based on the accounts in this memoir, she was verbally, emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive. Not only that, but she coached her daughter into an eating disorder at age eleven and then managed her to ensure that she continued to starve herself. That's not to mention the stage-parenting, the freak-outs (especially while driving), and the fact that she wiped Jennette when she went to the bathroom well into, like, her preteens (imagine not even trusting your eleven-year-old daughter to wipe her own ass) and showered her into her late teens (sometimes with her older brother and also while giving her breast and vaginal exams, ostensibly to search for cancer, I guess). 

What the FUCK.

Here's a hard truth. Some people are shitty people. Some of those shitty people are shitty parents. Being a parent does not give you a free-pass from all wrongs. Especially if you're just doing the whole parenting thing for a little human-sized accessory that you can live all of your failed dreams through. By the end of this book, I was kind of glad Jennette's mother died, too. After living under that kind of suffocating parenting, with gaslighting and serious emotional trauma, not to mention abuse, I would be fucking done. I don't blame Jennette for her feelings. And I love my mother. I'm lucky enough to have a pretty good relationship with her. And a few years ago, my mother got breast cancer, just like the author's mom, and I was so devastated that I felt like I was working in a total fog. I stepped back from social media and it was all I could do to focus on my day job because I was so upset. But I know that other people's experiences aren't like that, and we don't get to dictate how other people mourn (or choose not to). My mother ended up okay, but I would have been really sad if the worst happened, and that's because she was a good mom and she still works hard at being a good person. People who don't try to be good people are owed nothing. Why enshrine the dead if they leave behind a legacy of trash? The title is shocking but only because we tend to airbrush the pasts of the departed.

I'M GLAD MY MOM DIED rejects this premise. In this memoir, Jennette McCurdy lays out her upbringing in painfully explicit detail, starting from her mother's hoarding and growing up in poverty in a house that sounded like it should have been condemned, to the way her mother forced her into acting and she ended up being the golden goose that kept her family afloat after years of living hand to mouth. She talks about the way her mother emotionally manipulated her, and her guilt. She talks about how she started to get body dysmorphia because she felt like the only way she could continue to be successful was to look like a child forever, and when she expressed this fear to her mom, her mom taught her how to starve herself, starting an eating disorder that would basically rule her emotional breaks and her relationship with food for over a decade. She talks about her hatred of acting, what it was like working under the man she calls "The Creator" at Nickelodeon (we know who), her friendship with Miranda, and her jealousy and resentment of Ariana. And then she writes about her utterly conflicting feelings when her mother began to die of another bout of cancer, still manipulating her emotions.

This book stressed me out so much. I think it would be very triggering for people with eating disorders and people with abusive parents, as it is SO descriptive when it comes to these passages. It's also a brand new look into celebrity, because most celebrity memoirs are written by people who are still in the business, but this is kind of a fuck-you memoir written by someone who doesn't care if their bridges are burned, so she really unhauls all the dirt in a way that someone who probably wanted to keep working in this field wouldn't. It's really well-written but the writing can, at times, feel a bit amateurish. McCurdy has a lot of raw talent but the people hyping her up as brilliant are exaggerating a little.

ALSO, who the fuck is calling this book a "hilarious" memoir? Are these the same people who were talking about how "funny" CRYING IN H MART was? Is this where we open up the floor to a conversation about how women's emotional pain and fraught relationships are often mined for comedic value? Why do people find it so amusing when women hate their mothers? My review is already getting longer than I intended it to, but this is definitely a trend I've noticed lately where I'll pick up a memoir that's supposed to be funny and instead it's just an emotionally wrenching book about a woman dealing with her trauma. Ha-ha, I guess. Fuck that.

Do read this book, if you are in a healthy mental space, but gird yourself against the hype. It is not Jesus's Second Coming. It is just a very brave story about a woman trying to come clean with herself and the past.

4 stars

Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops?: The Lost Toys, Tastes, and Trends of the 70s and 80s by Gael Fashingbauer

 

I meant to post status updates for this book on Goodreads as I was reading it, but I basically have two modes when it comes to how I devour a book: greedily, all in one chunk; or slowly, with multiple pauses to savor. I can't command the reading mood, either. The reading mood commands me. And with this book, it was chunk.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO PUDDING POPS? is a fun nostalgic retrospective. It's arranged in alphabetical order, and every nostalgic item on the list gets a paragraph or two describing its role as a phenomenon of '70s and '80s pop culture, whether it's still in existence or actively being produced today, and, in relevant cases, a fun trivia fact about said thing. For example, Kim Basinger did commercials for Maybelline's Kissing Potion lip glosses and Meg Ryan did a commercial for Tickle Deodorant.

Just so you get an idea of what sorts of things are in here, this book covers this like Jell-O 1-2-3, Wacky Packages, Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific shampoo, Love's Baby Soft, the Osmond family, ugly '70s furniture, Saturday Night Fever, and unsafe playgrounds (remember those rusty metal slides and the swings that had chain links that could pinch your fingers?).

I actually just read this book hot on the heels of another book called INTERIOR DESECRATIONS, which takes shots at bad '70s interior decorating, and while I liked the pictures in that book more (this book had a couple pictures scattered in, but they're few and far between and all in black and white), I liked the tone of this book better. The authors have a wry tongue-in-cheek sort of tone that manages to be both affectionate and teasing. Even if they understand that the things in question have aged badly or were bad ideas, their sense of nostalgia and appreciation still seeps through. I liked that. I think it's okay to enjoy things that are tacky, juvenile, problematic, or stupid, as long as you talk about why.

Anyone who enjoys pop-culture essays will love this book, I think. I gave it to my mom to read after me because I thought she would really enjoy it. I am a bit too young to remember all of the things in here, but the late-80s and early-90s had a lot of holdovers from the '70s and early '80s, so I definitely had access to some of these things. 

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes from the Horrible '70s by James Lileks

 

Console stereos, sunken living rooms, mirrored wallpaper, mixed prints. These are just some of the features that probably cross your mind when you think '70s decor. If not "NOPE." Honestly, I'm with the author in the sense that I agree that the '70s were just kind of the worst when it came to art and fashion, and that includes interior decorating. That said, the retro look some of these rooms had really did appeal to me, and with just a few tweaks, I could see some of these rooms looking pretty cute. The author, however, seemed not to degree. The vitriol of their commentary was a little off-putting, and looking at some of the reviews, it seems other reviewers didn't think that they were as funny as they seemed to think they were. (Did a rogue roll of '70s wallpaper kill your mother?)

Honestly, what really made this book for me were the pictures. Whether you love or hate the '70s, it's good design inspo, and it's a fun look into the trends of the decade.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 3, 2022

Hold Back the Tide by Melinda Salisbury

 

So whenever I stay over at someone's house, I immediately stalk their bookshelves, so when I did a kitten-sit and saw that my sister had a copy of Melinda Salisbury's latest, I was all over that like white on rice. Salisbury is the author of THE SIN EATER'S DAUGHTER, which a lot of my friends didn't like but I actually thought was a lot of fun, and this Scotland-set The Village-esque claustrophobic horror novel sounded it was going to be absolutely perfect for Spooky Month.

Alva is the daughter of the master of the loch. For centuries he and his kin have looked over the loch and monitored the water levels. But now, things are different. The water levels are falling. Strange things are also happening. Animals are dying and traps are being ripped apart. Alva knows that he should tell the village elders but for some reason he's being secretive about it. She can't help but wonder if the reasons for that are as sinister as the ones behind her mother's disappearance.

This is a really good story but less is definitely more going in. Some of the reviews have big spoilers. For my part, I will say that I enjoyed the sort of Lovecraftian horror angle (except, you know, without the Lovecraftian racism) and the small village politics. There's even some cute boys and hints of romance and the heroine is unbelievably strong in a Katniss Everdeen sort of way. The ending is kind of a downer, though, so if you don't like downer endings I would recommend against this book. It definitely took some of the shine off the polish, if you know what I meant. But apart from that, this was an enjoyable way to spend my afternoon.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Beach Read by Emily Henry

 

BEACH READ is my first book by Emily Henry, who definitely seems to be a love her or hate her kind of author when it comes to how people feel about her work. I've been seeing Tweets making fun of how basic and white her stories are for ages, and I've come to the conclusion that maybe her books are the pumpkin spice lattes of the chick-lit world. Yes, maybe they are a little over-hyped and saccharine-sweet, and maybe they are a little basic-- but also, there's a reason why millions and millions of people define themselves by them, right?

This book is the story of a girl named January. January is a romance author who's feeling a major slump because she was always inspired to write based on her parents' own larger-than-life love story, and her own good luck in love. But now she's just discovered that her father was cheating on her mother-- while she had cancer-- and when she falls into a depressive funk, her boyfriend-almost-fiance decides he just can't handle it because she's not fun anymore, and they break up.

Ouch.

Now January's father has died and she's at the beach house that she thinks used to be his love nest, trying to figure herself out and what she's going to do next. The picturesque town is beautiful but she's too upset to enjoy it, and all she can think about is the fun loving person she used to be. That's when she meets her grumpy neighbor-- or at least, she has several passing interactions with him where she can't really see his face. And it turns out that Grump is actually her old college writing class rival, now famous in his own right for writing pretentiously depressing lit-fic. The two of them end up bonding at a social event gone wrong and becoming closer-- close enough that they start talking about their writing road blocks and then come up with a challenge: they'll trade genres and see if writing something else fixes it, and the winner gets to have the other person blurb their book.

At first I was thinking this book was going to get a four or a five. The way the emotions the characters feel can be so beautiful. It's kind of like if someone turned every meaningful 3AM conversation you've ever had into a book. The portrayal of depression and grief felt dead-on, and I liked that every light moment of banter was counterweighted by some heavy emotional stuff. Where this book failed for me was that it started to feel a little too cyclical. After a while, it felt like Gus and January started to have the same arguments over and over. The ending, when Gus does his confession, felt a little bit mean the way he did it. And I hated the way he ended his "romance" novel-- because it didn't have an HEA. THAT'S NOT A ROMANCE NOVEL GUS. Oh my God, if I read a romance that ended the way his did, I'd be so mad. 

In the end, I'm giving this a very high three because I loved the way this author wrote about two authors falling in love and I did think that it was just the right amount of quirky. It gave me good '90s rom-com vibes. If you enjoyed Beth 'O Leary's THE FLAT SHARE, I think you'd enjoy this too. Same vibes.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Putney by Sofka Zinovieff

 

I found PUTNEY on a list of books suggested for people who enjoyed (maybe enjoyed is the wrong word?) MY DARK VANESSA. This is an excellent multi-POV, dual timeline saga with three narrators. The first narrator is Ralph, who is dying of cancer in the present timeline as an old man, but in the '70s he was a wunderkind composer hobnobbing it with other bohemians, when he meets the heroine, Daphne, at the Greenslay estate. Daphne, in the present timeline, is a single mother with a good job, but in the '70s she was a wild child with too little adult supervision which left her vulnerable and lonely. The third narrator is Jane, Daphne's childhood best friend and a not-so-impartial observer who has secrets of her own regarding both Ralph and Daphne.

PUTNEY is an exceptionally difficult read because it portrays the nuances of grooming behavior and the way its aftermath can take hold for decades after the fact. Daphne's story actually reminded me a lot of this memoir I just read recently, called CONSENT, which was written by a French woman named Vanessa Springora. Like Daphne, she thought she was "consenting" to a relationship with an older man who also referred to her as his "muse" (I wonder if perhaps this memoir inspired the author), and like Daphne, it took her a while after the fact to recognize his behavior for what it was, and how it upset her life.

The first half of this book was genuinely painful to read. I have ZERO sympathy for people who abuse children so it was difficult to stomach these portions, like watching a train wreck in progress. I think people who have experienced actual abuse may find this book very triggering, because the accounts are detailed (but not graphic). The second half was satisfying, because Ralph does eventually receive his comeuppance, but not in the way you might expect. It was also great to see the relationship between Jane and Daphne play out, and how childhood jealousies still affected them decades later, as women in their fifties. I found it genuinely touching and gratingly realistic that motherhood is what really cements what happened in Daphne's mind as abuse, when she realizes that if someone did to her daughter what Ralph did to her, she would find it unconscionable and come for him with claws out.

PUTNEY is not a light read but it's beautifully written and basically a master class in how to write complex, deeply flawed, and outright unlikable characters. Even the side characters were so layered and interesting. I feel like if a book makes you want to read between the lines of every interaction, then it is a genuinely good book. I can't wait to see what other books Sofka Zinovieff writes. I would definitely recommend this book to readers who enjoyed MY DARK VANESSA or THE GOLDFINCH.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Green Girl by Kate Zambreno

 

I found this book on a list of transgressive women's fiction. GREEN GIRL, by the author's definition, is sort of like a depressed ingenue. Picture a Shirley Manson music video or any '90s Winona Ryder character, and that's basically our heroine, Ruth. She is a sad clown, but in girl form. There's no real plot to GREEN GIRL. In the afterword, it seems like this character was written with the old cinema trope of the "shopgirl" in mind, and I can see that; it's a symbolism that's forcibly emphasized with epigrams from old Hollywood movies.

GREEN GIRL is a good book but if you don't like "unlikable" female characters or stream-of-consciousness, character-driven stories, you won't like this book. Sometimes the writing style could be grating but most of the time I really loved it. There's a sort of poetry to the writing, which I think is why this book is being compared to THE BELL JAR. Some people are saying this is a bad comparison but I don't think it is. Both books are about women who are depressed and don't really know how to even really exist in the midst of all their exhaustion. The only difference is the zeitgeist, and what ennui looks like in different decades, in different venues.

I used to read a lot of literary fiction when I was younger and still defined myself by the media that I consumed, but I stopped because most of the voices getting lauded were white, cis-gendered men, and when only one sort of voice is dominating the narrative, things can get a little boring. I wish I'd had more access to books like these when I was a younger woman: books about women who aren't happy, who struggle to exist, who aren't good people but who are still entitled to their stories. Reading GREEN GIRL made me appreciate that now, we're finally starting to get those stories and they're finally getting some airspace-- not just for white women, but for the LGBT+ and women of color, too.

If you know of any other books about women toiling under the weight of their malaise, please send me recs. Books like WHITE OLEANDER and THE BELL JAR made me realize that yes, I actually do enjoy literary fiction if the stories resonate and the characters are interesting.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 30, 2022

Impulse by Candace Camp

 

So there are a couple romance tropes that make me go absolutely feral and one of those is a well-written blackmail romance and another is a calm and composed hero who loses his shit only where the heroine is concerned. IMPULSE has both of those tropes, and so many other tropes I love that it was almost as if she had reached right into my depraved skull and written this romance just for me.

IMPULSE is the story of Cam and Angela. Angela is the daughter of nobility (an earl, I believe) and Cam is their stable boy. They've been childhood friends since they met, but recently they became secret lovers. But then Angela's grandfather finds out what they've been up to in the stables and he threatens to destroy Cam and frame him for theft unless she marries the rich asshole he's picked out for her personally. So Angela tearfully marries Dunstan and Cam is then beaten by the grandfather and sent away, and things are off to a pretty gloomy beginning.

Thirteen years later, Angela is divorced and finds out that someone has been buying up her family's shares in a failing mine. This person also wants to marry Angela, and if she doesn't, they will ruin her family. TA-DA! It's a hardened, bitter Cam, fresh from the America's, nursing lust and grievance. Also, apparently Angela's brother, Jeremy, is bisexual, and in addition to bankrupting her family, he threatens to out her brother (which is douchey, but we later learn that he had no intention of actually doing this). With no choice but to save her family, Angela grudgingly marries her childhood lover-turned-enemy, but only after telling him that she has absolutely no intention of having him in her bed.

I don't want to say too much more, but let's just say that there is a TON of well-plotted angst, emotional intimacy, kinky sexy-times (BDSM), a murder subplot that doesn't feel like an afterthought, a quest to find one's hidden family, and a secondary romance that is super cute and takes up just the right amount of page time. Also, Angela has such a truly tragic and horrific backstory. When she reveals what her first husband did to her, my heart broke. And I also liked how both Dunstan and Cam were both kinky, but Dunstan was an abuser, whereas Cam was a consent king. Often plot devices like these end up kind of demonizing kink culture, so I liked that Camp portrayed both the light and dark sides of it.

My only qualm was that the author used a few phrases in her sex scenes that I wasn't the biggest fan of. "Fleshy buttons" for nipples and "male breasts" were a bit too ish and ended up pulling me out of the otherwise really steamy sex scenes. But that's my only petty complaint and I'm not going to down-rate for it. If you enjoyed Meredith Duran's DUKE OF SHADOWS and Meagan McKinney's WHEN ANGELS FALL, then I think you're going to love IMPULSE, as it shares the same theme of obsessive "I've loved you for years" loved, family legacies, and danger. I love, love, LOVED this!

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Comeback by Ella Berman

 

THE COMEBACK is yet another book that I applied SO HARD to get an ARC of when it was just coming out. Obviously, I did not get one, like the book peasant I am, so I had to wait until it came out to get my hands on a copy. Now that I've spent a delirious two days of gut-clenching agony and vindictive elation experiencing the highs and lows of this book, I think I can safely say that THE COMEBACK met all of my expectations and even exceeded them in some ways.

Grace Turner/Hyde is in her early twenties. When she was in her teens, she was an It Girl, one big movie away from being a red carpet A-lister. But then something happened and now she's just a wreck. After disappearing for a year, she's back home in L.A., trying to figure herself out. We see her with her dysfunctional family, ex-husband, and old friends, as she tries to navigate who she is, and what the film director, Able Yorke, reduced her to with years of abuse.

This is simultaneously the story of a damaged girl's rise and fall, like WHITE OLEANDER, and a #MeToo story that ends in triumph (or, at least, something like it). It's hard to write a fully fleshed out and nuanced character who has serious emotional baggage without sensationalizing it, but I feel like Ella Burman did such an amazing job with Grace. Her thoughts and the way she turned to substances to ease her cognitive load really rang true, and there was never a moment that I wasn't in her corner, even when she was making all the wrong choices.

I think anyone who enjoys dramatic coming-of-age stories or female characters with trauma is going to love THE COMEBACK. It's a sympathetic portrait of a very troubled woman, and I loved hearing her story. Just keep in mind that it has loads of triggers for abuse, addiction, and trauma, so if that's something you're not comfortable reading about, you might want to avoid.

I can't wait to see what this author writes next.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Black Sheep by Brynne Weaver

 

DNF @ 36%

Maybe I'm just not in the mood for this book right now but I've been struggling with it for weeks. I liked the beginning but Bria kind of felt like a Mary Sue. She's too perfect and too good at what she does, and she's a sociopath, so there's that. I stan me a good antihero and no-holds-barred psychopathy can be fun, but this kind of just felt like a gender-reverse Dexter with porn. Her love interest, Eli, is just a really nice guy (except, you know, for lusting after his student), and he's okay. It's kind of nice to see a nerdy professor who has a hard-on for BDSM. But that's his core personality. The two of them eventually find out that they're both hunting down the same cult figure and his group of followers, which is a really cool premise. It just wasn't clicking for me. I tried.

The writing is really good, though. So don't let my review discourage you if it sounds like it's something you'd be into. I'm just not feeling it.

2 out of 5 stars

The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas

 

THE HACIENDA has been on my to-read list ever since I learned of its existence. As someone who is a huge fan of old skool gothic novels, this sounded like it was going to be everything I loved about the genre, infused with Mexican history and culture.

Beatriz's father was killed as a traitor during the overthrowing of the Mexican government. After that, she and her mother were left at the mercy of distant relatives, who resented their presence and treated Beatriz cruelly for being too dark. When she meets Rodolfo and he proposes marriage, it seems like a dream come true: he has the fair good looks of the upper-class and runs an agave plantation that is used to make pulque. San Isidro is so massive that there is plenty of room to send for her mother and have the two of them live happily ever after.

But pretty soon it becomes obvious that a traditional ending is not in the cards. Beatriz sees and hears what appear to be apparitions and there is a darkness, a coldness, that runs through the house. Her new sister in law, Juana, does not appear to care for her, and there are terrible rumors about her husband, Rodolfo. The only one who can help her is a priest named Andres, but he has secrets as well. If Beatriz is unable to fix what is wrong with the hacienda, her life might be in terrible danger. But so might be everyone else's, too.

So this was really good. The writing was beautiful and spare and I thought the atmosphere was amazing. Cañas did a great job staying true to the classic gothic formula, and there were scenes in it that scared the shit out of me. I liked all the characters I was supposed to like and hated all the characters I was supposed to hate. The ending was fantastic, too. My only qualm was that the characterization was a little bland. I guess I was hoping for more nuance from some of the characters. Beatriz and Andres felt pretty interchangeable as narrators. It sure was great for a debut, though, and I honestly thought it was a lot better than MEXICAN GOTHIC (it's weird that they're being compared so much because they have totally different writing styles and HACIENDA runs circles around MG, in my opinion).

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

 

I stayed up until about 2am finishing this book. I knew from the beginning that I was going to like it, but it took me until about halfway through the book that I realized I was going to love it. As other reviews have mentioned, this book employs a really unusual narrative style. The two sisters, Cat and El, grew up with a childhood that was heavily tangled up in their magical world of makebelieve, called Mirrorland. So in the present day, when Cat comes back to Scotland after finding out that her twin sister has gone missing, and she finds out that her sister is now living in their old childhood home, the past bubbles up to the present, until fantasy and reality collide.

Once I got used to the fairytale-but-not-really narrative, I really liked the book. MIRRORLAND is what my friend Heather and I like to call a FULT (a Fucked Up Lady Thriller). Catriona is a deeply flawed and traumatized woman. As she looks into her sister's disappearance and fights against her attraction to her widower (and their old childhood friend/mutual crush), she starts to remember things that she half-forgot. And she starts receiving secret notes and emails warning her that she NEEDS to remember. That she is, in fact, in terrible danger.

This is one of those books where it's better to know less going in because the payoff simply won't be as good otherwise. MIRRORLAND kind of reminded me of a cross between WHITE OLEANDER and COLD LIGHT, but with some of that allegorical Pan's Labyrinth and MirrorMask pseudo-fairytale atmosphere woven in for spice, to give this an interesting spin on the more typical Gillian Flynn-esque formula of a woman coming back to her hometown to confront her disturbing past. There are TWs for a lot of seriously messed up shit in this book, and even though some people like to say TWs aren't spoilers, in this case, they really are and would spoil the mystery. That said, I would advise people who are sensitive to abuse not to pick up this book. It goes to some very dark places.

What a brilliant clusterfuck of a thriller. The ending was absolutely perfect and alternately made me tear up/gave me chills. I can't wait to read other books by Ms. Johnstone. She's a vastly underrated talent.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

 

I've been wanting to read this book forever. WEIRD THINGS CUSTOMERS SAY IN BOOKSHOPS is an anthology of quotations from customers in bookshops, as reported by various booksellers. Most of them come from Jen Campbell herself, who used to work at a bookshop in the UK called Ripping Good Yarns, but the ones from elsewhere are quoted and cited, ranging from the obtuse to the delusional to the entitled to the barmy.

I thought this book was fun. It's not a keeper read, but it's definitely a solid pick-me-up. Anyone who has ever worked retail will recognize the language in here, especially the ridiculous requests. But I think it's even more fun if you've worked retail and you love books.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth by Wendy E. Simmons

 

Oh dear. I remember getting approved for an ARC of this when it first came out but then I gave it a pass because all of my friends said it was seriously problematic. When I saw that the hard copy was on sale for $2.99 on Kindle, though, temptation took hold. I'm fascinated by books about North Korea and the thought of reading a book about a Westerner who was able to go on a tour in NK was really interesting to me. And while there were things that I really liked about this book, there were also a lot of things that were, indeed, problematic.

So Ms. Simmons was able to go on a tour to North Korea (which she refers to as "NoKo," like it's a trendy neighborhood in SF or something), and it definitely seems like she went on this trip with an agenda in mind (i.e. write a book). I would not be surprised if she were a fan of J. Maarten Troost, because she seems to be trying to emulate his overly sarcastic and incredulous style, but it doesn't really work here because she doesn't have Troost's charm or willingness to play along. She says she loves travel because it makes her feel like an ambassador for U.S. culture, and all I have to say is, "please don't be my ambassador." Especially since she also claims to have a high emotional IQ. I was not there for her trip, but it was apparent, even to me, how uncomfortable she was making some of these North Korean employees, putting them in positions where it was impossible to save face, or asking them questions that could compromise their employment. I really, really hope that some of these scenarios were exaggerated for comedy.

I don't know how much of this is exaggeration, but reading this book, I kind of feel sorry for her guides, because it seems like she went out of her way to give them a really hard time. Sneaking photos of things she wasn't supposed to, poking her nose around, staring at native Korean citizens, making fun of cultural centers (at one point, they take her to a sort of museum where gifts of state are stored, and she starts telling the guides why the gifts aren't as cool as they think they are), etc. Her running gag with this book is that everything in North Korea is a sort of Potemkin village, and she recounts multiple situations where she tried to pull a "gotcha" on the guides, and get them to admit that the pageantry isn't real, and then acting frustrated or annoyed when the guides deflect or refuse. My jaw actually dropped when she said she hit one of the drivers for killing a bug for her (after he already saw her freak out about a bug earlier). She claimed it was a joke and was apparently incredulous to find out that this hurt the driver's feelings, since in her mind, they were BFFs.

The pictures were great but I wish she had given them real captions instead of Alice in Wonderland quotes (seeming to underscore her idea that this was all some sort of fantasy world or game?). I don't think that Wendy E. Simmons is a bad writer and she took a trip of a lifetime that is incredibly very difficult to get, but I wish that she had written it from less of an ethnocentric perspective. Most of the memoir is just "ha ha, how RIDICULOUS" and it would have been cool to have more descriptions about the tour itself and what she saw and less about making fun of them. Look, I'm not exactly sympathetic to the North Korean regime, but at the end of the day, the people taking her on the tour are just trying to work their 9-5 and take care of their families, like anyone else. Why make their job difficult?

2.5 out of 5 stars