Monday, January 31, 2022

Hell's Belles by Jackie Kessler


A lot of old Zebra romances are on sale in the Kindle store and I ended up splurging on a lot of them-- because I'm worth it. When I saw that the entire Hell on Earth series was basically $1.99 ea, or LESS, I was like, why yes, I would like to read some early 2000s paranormal romance. And this one is actually pretty original. Unlike the ENDLESS ARRAY of vampires, werewolves, and witches (oh my) from the genre, this book is about demons and furies and hell.

Our heroine, Jezebel, is a succubus on the run from her demon masters. She goes to one of her witch friends, drugs her, and steals her identity-- both her papers and her actual physical form-- before tricking her into giving up a charm that will mask her presence from that of hell. From there, she takes refuge in a strip club of all places, which I guess is a good place for a succubus to work. Do what you know, etc.

There's a dual timeline of sorts. Jez in the present, and then Jez in the past, in hell, leading up to the incident that caused her to flee in the first place. It's a little confusing but I rolled with it. Actually, I thought the parts set in hell were some of the most interesting parts of the book. It sort of gave me a Little Nicky vibe. I also liked the parts set in the strip club. All of the other dancers had really great personalities and the dynamic between the owners was deliciously toxic.

Where this book failed, for me, were the sex scenes. I thought they were pretty awful and quickly started to skim whenever they popped up. I mean, the word "splashed" is actually used at one point, and at one point the heroine says that this dude "bumped" her cervix. Um, no. Very gross. I also didn't really buy the chemistry between her and the love interest, which felt a bit insta to me. I thought her relationships between Duan and, yes, even Lucifer himself, were way more interesting.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Wow, No Thank You.: Essays by Samantha Irby


This is a tough book to rate because parts of it were 4- and 5-star worthy and parts of it were so boring that I decided to skim. This is the third Irby "book" I've read so far (yes I'm counting that short New Years essay she wrote and published on Kindle), and unlike a lot of the nay-sayers on Amazon, I actually really like her ribald, in-your-face sense of humor, especially about bodily functions. She is very open about her Crohn's and I think that is super important. Doctors actually thought me and my family had an IBS-like disease for a while but it turns out we had a super serious corn sensitivity, so honestly, I GET IT. Maybe if more people talked about it, I would have saved myself years of-- ahem-- intestinal strife.

I also love how she writes about all sorts of other "you can't say that on television!"-type topics, like the natural stuff that comes with aging, what it's like being plus-size (and not giving a hoot about it!), a total unapologetic recount of some of her relationships with men and women (including her wife) as a bisexual woman. And stuff about blended families and the difficulties that come with that.

I think the strongest portions of the book were where she writes about anxiety and depression and also her own history and successes and failures. She has a very chatty, readable narrative that really reminded me of Lindy West (so I was not at all surprised to find out they are apparently friends). Her dating advice section was HILARIOUS (and I would probably read an entire book just about that). I also liked the chapter about mixed tapes and some of her favorite 90s/00s songs and their importance to her. Less strong were the passages that kind of read like she'd run out of ideas, like the list of things that are better than sex, the "hello, 911?" section where it's just a list of anxiety triggers, and the section on home improvement. The only thing more boring than house work is reading about house work.

The ending kind of picked up again with her ultimate fangirl moment of meeting Janeane Garofolo and how that ended up resulting in Abbi Jacobson from Broad City reaching out to her (!!!), or how Lindy West invited her to write for Shrill. I also kind of liked the section about how she got her book published, and the nostalgic mentions of MySpace's blog feature (I totally forgot about that).

If I could shave out everything I didn't really like as much about this book, I would give this a much higher rating. But because of how much I ended up skimming, three stars seems fair. Samantha Irby is still my fellow curmudgeon-in-arms though, and I can't wait for her next collection of essays.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Bloodline by Jess Lourey


BLOODLINE is the third book I've read by Jess Lourey and I think it's her best yet. The other two books were coming-of-age stories that took place in a landscape of horror. In this book, the heroine is a full-grown adult woman who wants to have a family and a career as expectations for women are changing-- set against a landscape of suspicion and horror. After being mugged, Joan decides to retreat to her fiance, Deck's, hometown of Lilydale in Minnesota. An idealistic little town where the motto is "Come Home Forever." But if you're at all familiar with Lourey's works, they're basically all about fucked-up small towns in Minnesota and naturally, BLOODLINE is no exception. Come home forever, indeed.

Right away, something is off. There's a sort of narc culture in town. Everyone's in her business and watching her all the time. Her parents-in-law to be are kind of creepy. There's a secret society of sorts in town. They're weirdly obsessed with the town founders. And she can't help but feel like her fiance is hiding something from her. Something, you know... big.

This book was basically a list of all my fave tropes. I loved that it was set in the 60s, which gave it a fun retro bent. I liked the homage it paid to classic horror novels, like ROSEMARY'S BABY or, like, some of Stephen King's earlier works. I liked how the author wasn't afraid to go "there" and really deliver on that star finish of a horrific reveal. And I liked how the heroine was a reporter, which kind of made her Nancy Drew shenanigans a little more believable.

4 out of 5 stars

Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry


Wild and beautiful, the Torres girls catch a lot of attention in their community because of their tragic homelife and unpredictable ways. The boys across the street watch them constantly and decide to follow when the four girls run away. This results in the girls being immediately found and brought back, which has the indirect consequence of causing the eldest, Ana, to die.

There are three sisters remaining. Jessica, the next-oldest, now assumes responsibility as the primary breadwinner while navigating an emotionally abusive relationship. Iridian, the middle daughter, suffers under the yoke of her guilt and unresolved conflicts with Ana, and retreats first into fiction and then into writing, where she explores the passions she doesn't feel confident or safe enough to pursue. And Rosa, the youngest and kindest, is haunted by visions of a hyena.

TIGERS, NOT DAUGHTERS reminded me a lot of I AM NOT YOUR PERFECT MEXICAN DAUGHTER, especially with how grief is experienced (or repressed) in the Latinx community. This was especially noticeable with poor Jessica, who turned to anger as a defense mechanism. The magic realism elements were really well done and added an almost Gothic element to the story, what with all the animal sightings and ghosts.

This is such an unusual book that it's really hard to compare it to anything else. The characters stand on their own and the ending is bittersweet. If you like stories about difficult girls navigating through adolescence and learning important life lessons while still being permitted to deviate from the path, I think you'll really enjoy this book. It's a short quick read but it's the kind of story that lingers.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family by Omid Scobie


I read this after MEGHAN: A HOLLYWOOD PRINCESS. I actually recommend you do that, too, because AHP is a biography of Markle before her life with Harry, and this book basically takes over where the other book left off. They are both also written from the same sympathetic perspective, and the details sync up nicely.

I bought this book because of all the negative reviews for it on Goodreads or Amazon from people who seemed to be anti-Meghan. Honestly, the hate this woman gets astounds me-- especially compared to the other royals. If you think it's due to anything but racism and classism, I suggest you check out this BuzzFeed article by Ellie Hall comparing the coverage that Meghan gets compared to Kate from the same media outlets. If you ask me, I'd say that Markle is guilty of nothing but "princessing while Black."

Having read FINDING FREEDOM, I will say that it reads like a puff piece, but it's an engaging one, and a harmless one, IMO. If you hate Markle, it probably won't change your mind, but if you're neutral or positive, it's a pretty fascinating read. I liked reading about Markle's interactions with her famous friends (including the daughter of PM Mulroney, Serena Williams, and Eddie Redmayne), her passion for cruelty-free and local goods (one that I share), and her not-so-fairytale romance with the prince. I kept annoying my family with facts I thought were interesting.

I respected Markle before reading this and I still do, now. I can't imagine the pressure of being in the public eye the way she does and I'm glad that she and Harry were able to do what they needed to do for the sake of their respective mental healths (and those of their children).

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 28, 2022

Until the Day I Die by Emily Carpenter


My friend Heather and I recently read EVERY SINGLE SECRET by this author and I really, really loved it. When she proposed bingeing through some of this author's other works, I was like, "Um, let me think about that... HELL YES!" UNTIL THE DAY I DIE was the first book we decided to read because, you know, tech companies and family dramas and tropical wilderness retreats, oh my.

Heather really liked this book. Sadly, I did not. In fact, I kept texting her, "Idk, I think I might bail," like a total killjoy. As someone who works in tech, I thought the tech company angle was a little silly. I didn't like the dual POVs, either. I was never won over by Shorie, the narrator, who mostly felt like she was just there to take up space and pad out the tension and, of course, help save the day. Erin was a more interesting narrator but I didn't really care for her much, either. And the big twist didn't wow me the way the one in ESS did.

Also, side note: both EVERY SINGLE SECRET and UNTIL THE DAY I DIE take place in shitty therapy retreats. No shade, but I'm kind of wondering if the author went to a shitty therapy retreat and she's just decided to use her shitty experiences for book fuel. If so, good for her. Having been to a shitty therapy session myself, I gotta say, if the person isn't doing their job well, the experience can feel so toxic. Anyway, just something I observed.

 2 out of 5 stars

Suspicion by Alexandra Monir


This is one of those books where even though the execution is weak, it taps into enough of my favorite tropes that I found it compulsively readable and wanted to push through to the end. SUSPICION is about Imogen, a pretty spineless example of a teenage girl, who is like third in line to inherit the fabulous duchy of Rockford. Her parents have the title of lord and lady, but it's her grandfather who is the Duke, and her cousin who is next in line to be Duchess when her parents die.

Imogen lives in New York but spends her summers in England at Rockford, where she crushes on Sebastian, dreamy marquis heartthrob who seems to have eyes only for her beautiful cousin. But one night, everything ends in flames, leaving Imogen an orphan, where she lives with her will-appointed guardians, the Normal Normalsons (I forget their names) and their daughter, Zoey. But it turns out the Normalsons have been busy hiding Very Important Information from Imogen all these years: news that her grandfather and cousin died, news that she's now the heir apparent, news that this makes her an emancipated minor.

Obviously Imogen is not pleased.

So Imogen goes to England, after all of her New York friends and enemies make a big deal of her being royalty (as Americans do), and it's like Downton Abbey meets the Hallmark channel. I actually checked to make sure the author wasn't from the UK (and no, she doesn't seem to be) because so much of it seemed kind of ridiculous. This is supposed to be a retelling of REBECCA but it plays fast and loose with the original and also incorporates magic that is never really explained all that well and ends up feeling more of a deus ex machina than something whimsical that is integral to the plot.

When I put this book down, I rolled my eyes a little. I don't think this book deserves the hate that it got from a lot of my friends but it's definitely bottom-of-the-barrel YA, the kind that makes a bit of a stir when it's released and then is promptly forgotten by everyone except me, who turns it up at a sale table a couple years later and reviews it when nobody cares. It's fun but forgettable and the heroine isn't much of a compelling narrator at all, so much as a passive vehicle to keep the plot moving.

I do love that cover, though. I'd hang a full-size version of that on my wall.

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg


Whoa. This was so much darker than I was expecting. There are lots of reviews that talk about how this is similar to Westworld but in a more Disneyland-like setting, and all of those reviews are basically totally on point. The Kingdom is a place for happily-ever-afters, filled with "hybrid" creatures of flesh and circuitry, ranging from the ordinary, like bears or birds, to the extraordinary, like horses with butterfly wings, rideable dragons, and geese trained to serve tea.

The show-stoppers are the fairytale princesses though. There are seven of them, and Ana, our narrator, is one of these. THE KINGDOM is told in dual timeline, so we know that, at some point, Ana committed an act of violence that she, as a cyborg, is now standing trial for. Her programming is supposed to keep her from harming humans, but it seems like a lot of the "living" creatures in the park have been acting strangely as of late, and the park has been doing their best to suppress this knowledge and act as if nothing is happening.

Yes, this is pretty similar to Westworld, although it lacks the on-screen sex and violence. There are plenty of implied horrors, though. People, including staff, but also guests, treat the princesses like pleasure devices, and there is something chilling about the way that these humanoid beings are basically objectified and dehumanized. It also tackles a lot of the ethnical questions of things like Westworld and Jurassic Park. Just because you can do something-- should you do it? What are the limits of AI? When does something cease being a means of profit and start to raise more broad concerns, such as environmental impact and human safety?

Ana is a compelling narrator and I really liked her interactions with the other princesses, and with Owen Chen, a sympathetic janitor. I also liked the mixed media style of telling. Two other books I really enjoyed, WATCH THE GIRLS and NIGHT FILM, do this as well, and I think it really works when it's done well. I think the story unfolds at a decent pace and despite what other reviewers seemed to think, I actually really enjoyed the ending. Usually, dystopian novels end up being total downers, so it was actually nice to read something that ended on a note of hope. Serious trigger warnings for animal abuse, animal cruelty, sexual harassment, and strongly implied sexual assault.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Glass Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg


I was enchanted by THE PAPER MAGICIAN and eager to dive right into the sequel. Sadly, I didn't think THE GLASS MAGICIAN was as good. Grath and Saraj weren't quite as compelling a pair of villains as Lira, and their motivations weren't quite as compelling. Likewise, whereas the first book followed a trajectory of self-discovery and immersion in the magic system, this book mostly just felt like thriller. Even though it takes several months after the events of the previous book, not much has progressed romantically or magically, and by the end of the book the romance is debatable and the magic follows the rather tired and predictable trend of making the heroine super special.

2 out of 5 stars

Black Widows by Cate Quinn


So I have way too many books and not enough time to read as much as I want. That's why one of my 2022 reading goals was to be way more ruthless with by book collection. I'll probably write more DNF reviews, not less, because I don't think there's any honor in wasting our precious time here on earth forcing ourselves to read bad books. I'm also going to try to read the most exciting books first, which is why I've been reading so many MYSTERIES. <3

BLACK WIDOWS was a book I've been excited to read for a while because based on the summary, it sounded like it had a lot of tropes that would be right up my alley: bad childhoods, family secrets, cult shenanigans, and murder. Um, yes? I didn't even care that it was multi-POV (not a narrative style I usually like) because each of the three wives were all so distinct and interesting in their own way.

The story is basically this. Blake, the most boring husband ever, dies pretty brutally. As it turns out, he's an FLDS Mormon and a polygamist, and he has three wives. There's Rachel, the first wife and the most traditional. There's Emily, the waifish crazy young wife who doesn't like to be touched. And then there's Tina, the wild Vegas wife, and the odd one out among the other two. As they are interviewed by the police, we get to know each of these three women and their secrets, which involve sexual dysfunction and an even scarier cult, while wondering which if the three-- if any of them-- did it.

BLACK WIDOWS started off really well. It also had some pretty interesting points in the middle, like flashbacks to a terrifying cult facility and a trip to Vegas that starts out as a quest to get information but basically turns into, well, you know: a trip to Vegas. It was a lot longer than it should have been, though, I think. This book had over one hundred chapters in it and I'm not sure everything was necessary. I do think the author did a really good job setting up the creepy premise, though, and there's not even that much bloodshed. Most of the mystery is in the characters' unreliable little heads.

I would read more from Cate Quinn. For a debut, this is pretty good and even though it has the usual first book jitters, I still thought it was really fun to read.

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins


When I was young, I really enjoyed Sarah Dessen books. Even though they were pretty trashy, something about the set-up-- family drama, family secrets, incredibly whiny but realistically angsty heroines-- really appealed to me. Maybe it was because she actually wrote flawed heroines whose lives weren't perfect. Maybe it was because she was super good at showing the cracks within a family. Either way, these stories were Teen Me's crack and I devoured them.

Kristan Higgins's ON SECOND THOUGHT is kind of like an adult version of a Sarah Dessen book. It's about two sisters, with like a ten-year gap between them. Kate, the older sister, is verging on forty but head-over-heels in love with her very East Coast Rich husband, Nathan, and his perfect family. She can't believe how lucky she is, which is why it feels like such a tragedy when all that luck is whirled away in a single instant when her husband falls while bringing her wine at a party and ends up dying from hitting his head on a counter.

Ainsley, the younger sister, is kind of like the living embodiment of the manic pixie dreamgirl. She devotes all her time to making her boyfriend, Eric, happy, who she nursed through cancer and helped find a platform for his blog. And how does he thank her for all this? By breaking up with her and then appropriating some of her sister Kate's grief in order to write a viral blog post about how she is a corpse from his past life that he must cut loose. And yes, he actually uses the word "corpse." What a fucking shill.

I've been reading this very slowly for the past week. I liked the build-up of the beginning because even though the back jacket tells you what happens, you kind of want to see how the shit is going to go down. I think it gets a little slow in the end once all the bits and pieces start getting tied up. Each sister ends up finding romance with a new guy while also navigating her big life changes. Daniel felt like a pretty stock 2000s fuckboy redeemed romance hero, but OMG I loved Jonathan. He was so awkward and cute (and possibly neurodivergent?) and I just loved him so much. He is everything.

So overall, this book was pretty good. I'm trying to go through my paperback collection and figure out what I want to keep and what I want to donate/pass along, and even though this wasn't a keeper for me, it ended up being really cute and fun and satisfying. It's just way too long at 500 pages.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg


So this week I decided to read a whole bunch of books I've been anticipating for a while because I am really bad at reading the books I already own. One of these is THE PAPER MAGICIAN, which has been on my Kindle for several years. The mixed reviews kind of put me off. People were saying it didn't make good use of its world-building and, I guess, had an unnecessary romance (one of my peeves). But I was still really curious about the idea of casting magic with paper, so today I bit the bullet and picked up the book-- and promptly finished it in less than a day because OMG it was so good.

I'm honestly shocked this has such mixed reviews, to be honest. It's got a Victorian setting but not in a super realistic way. More of a steampunk/costume fiction sort of way, which lends a fun touch of archaic charm to the setting. Ceony, the heroine, has just graduated from magic school and wanted to be a Smelter who works with fire, but because there's an oversaturation of certain kinds of magics and balance must be kept, she's assigned to be a Folder instead, which is a group of mages who work with paper, the weakest magic.

When she gets to her apprenticeship, she immediately recognizes that her new master is-- ahem-- an eccentric. He's constructed a spooky facade for his home that makes it look like an evil mansion, but then on the other side, there's a garden of paper tulips and he makes it snow paper snowflakes to show her how fun paper can be. He even makes her a living paper dog! Pretty soon, Ceony realizes that not only does the idea of magical origami seem pretty cool after all (WHICH IT IS), Emery, her master, is a pretty stand-up dude and she actually wants to learn paper from him.

But then his evil ex-girlfriend waltzes through the door and LITERALLY steals his heart, which forces her to undergo a terrible journey to confront the worst kind of magic at all: Excision, or flesh magic.

So this is like a Hayao Miyazaki movie in book form, I swear. It's got that same timeless charmless whimsical vibe to it, gilt with enough of a dangerous edge that you don't feel like you're drowning in fluff. Some of the visuals are just incredible and I thought the magic system was really inventive and interesting. I even thought the romance between Ceony and Emery was okay, especially since she isn't actually in love with him, just falling in love with him. And it makes sense that she'd have a crush on the man, given their backstory and how she ends up fighting to make him whole again.

If you enjoy authors like Gail Carson Levine and Diana Wynne Jones, I think this shares a lot of the same characteristics as those sorts of stories. It's a very different sort of fantasy than the kinds that seem to be popular right now, but I actually prefer these more fairytalesque stories of old.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

WtAFW: I Fucked the Puppet by Fannie Tucker


Welcome to my weekly project, What the Actual Fuck Wednesday, sometimes referred to as WtAFW or What the Actual F*** Wednesday if I'm cross-posting to Amazon because the Amazonians don't like it when I say naughty words. It's REALLY fucking hard to review books like these without naughty words though because they are just over the top. The point isn't even to titillate at this point, I don't think-- it's just to generate shock and outrage and clicks.


Yay, capitalism.

So the wafer-thin plot of this book is that Emily wants to be in ballet but she's stuck doing this lame kids' show that has puppets and dancing. So like a low-budget Lazytown or Big Comfy Couch, I guess, IDK. Anyway, she has a wardrobe malfunction one day and goes to change out of her clothes but then randomly starts dancing around in her underwear pretending she is the Black Swan-- but oh no, there's a puppet watching her with lustful ping-pong ball eyes.


🤡 Dongo is not a creepy method actor. He is a creepy puppet who comes to life after everyone else leaves apparently. Wow, no thank you. I don't like this universe and I think if I actually owned any puppets (NOT THAT I WOULD BECAUSE PUPPETS ARE CREEPY), I would throw them into a box that said "FREE-- BUT CURSED!", put that box out on the curb, and then lock all my doors.
🤡 The puppet only speaks in rhymes. This does not help anything. Does he know the elves from the author's other book, GARDEN GNOME GANGBANG? Why do all inanimate sexual predators speak in sing-song?
🤡 Puppets are into rope bondage. I'm not here to kink shame anyone, but if your kink is being tied up by a green puppet who keeps going "uh-HOO uh-HOO" like he's channeling Tim Curry's Pennywise and talking about how his face belongs in your twat, uh, I'm not sure we should be friends.
🤡 His dick is covered in fur. EW. That is so disgusting. And also, so unsexy. And also, I hope someone washes this puppet. Because this is a children's show and-- UGGGHHH I SHOULDN'T HAVE TO GO INTO MORE DETAIL THAN THAT. UGGGGH. *flails* Also, apparently it's a retractable dick because he has the good sense to keep it hidden around the children. *shudders*
🤡 Rainbow sparkle jizz. Because naturally. Also it tastes like candy. Which is a running theme with a lot of these WTFeroticas actually. I read a Santa erotica where his spunk tasted like peppermint and sparkled like, IDK, fresh-fallen snow. But even if it does taste like candy, it would be like licking it off of a shag rug (so described by the book), and who would do that? Note: DON'T ANSWER THIS.
🤡 I'm pretty sure they didn't wash the puppet. GROSS.
🤡 Only 62% of this is actual book. The rest is like teasers and fillers for other books. Like, WTF. I signed up to be a masochist for the day. Don't hold out on 38% of the masochism. Give me ALL OF IT.

So yeah, this was gross and disturbing. The writing was ACTUALLY NOT THAT BAD, like, this was not M.J. Edwards where it would have been written like "their bodies slapped together like a naked gerbil humping a very horny shag carpet as their tongues tangoed like two mating shrimp," but also I want nothing to do with this Dongo character. Even the cover kind of creeps me out LOL.

1 out of 5 stars

Beyond the Black Door by A.M. Strickland


Who knew that an asexual romance could be so... well, sexy? I bought BEYOND THE BLACK DOOR impulsively years ago because of the Bluebeard vibes the summary was giving off and because I'd heard tell that it was a villain romance. But then I fell into the sinkhole that is my never-ending to-read list and somehow never got around to picking this up until now, which was MY MISTAKE, because this book was everything I love in the fantasy genre.

Kamai, the heroine, is something called a soulwalker. She has the ability to walk into people's souls while they're asleep and potentially see their true selves and find out their secrets. However, the one soul she can't see is her own, and no matter which soul she's visiting, she's followed around by a mysterious black door that her mother tells her she should never open. But not why. So obviously, she wonders what the heck is behind there and eventually opens the door.

I think anyone who loves Rosamund Hodge is going to love this book because it has the same sort of narrative style. Plot-wise, it reminded me a lot of Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series, because there's a lot of political intrigue and it has a sort of Ancient Mediterranean setting. And the villain love interest did NOT disappoint, BEE TEE DUBS. He's like a cross between Jareth from Labyrinth and Julian from the Forbidden Game trilogy: the perfect blend of hot, arrogant, and dangerous, in other words.

But there were so many other things I loved about this book too. As someone who probably falls on the ace spectrum herself, I REALLY appreciated this rep. Kamai is a bit more acey than me, but so many of her feelings reflected my own and I wish so hard that this book had been around when I was a teenager because I feel like it would have helped me figure out some of my own confusions. There's this great on-page discussion of sexuality, and I feel like the heroine's angst over it makes sense because her mother is a courtesan and she's grown up in a house of courtesans, and no one has ever sat her down and explained this sort of stuff to her, so it makes sense why she'd have some internalized acephobia.

There's also a trans character and he is the BEST. He reminds me a lot of Luisa from Encanto because he's a strong and sweet character, and his struggle is less about his identity and more about being what he wants to be and living up to his own expectations. For most of the book he does use female pronouns, by choice, because outing himself will cause problems, but transphobia isn't built into the world for the most part (and neither is other bigotry, really), and the author even came up with a term for it called soul-crossed, which is part of this sexuality chart explained with moons.

I could honestly see this as a movie, you know. It has the perfect blend of action, magic, mystery, and romance. Kamai was a great character but so were all the people around her, and it was lovely to see so many strong female characters. I can't wait to read more from this author. I'm so happy.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 24, 2022

Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass by Lana Del Rey


I took a week-long vacation to catch up on my TBR and read and review some of the books I was most hyped about, because COVID is still a thing and I'm not going anywhere, and I can make it rain PTO. #adulting #nerd

One of the books I was really excited about was VIOLET BENT BACKWARDS OVER THE GRASS, a poetry collection by Lana Del Rey. I love Lana's music so naturally when I found out that she was putting out a book of poetry, which is basically music's shier little sister, I was like ummm yes please.

Now that I've read the book, I'm like... hmm. On the one hand, it wasn't bad. But on the other hand, it's by Lana Del Rey and I know what she's actually capable of, so "not bad" doesn't really slice it. It's like you think you're getting a Degas painting and instead you get something he doodled on a napkin while paying his phone bill. Like, yeah, the essence is there, but not the maximized potential.

Here's the short of it. Some of the poems were good. A few had an almost freestyle rap beat to them. Some felt like lyrical songs put to paper. And some, idk what the hell she was doing. Changing "you" to "u" and slapping random emojis in there and what have you-- it all felt very high school, whereas the cover tells me "I am a sophisticated and classy bitch who vacays in Provence." There was sort of a gap between what I expected from the presentation and her music, and what I got. Also, I wasn't sold on the photos. The random, grainy pictures felt very Myspace circa 2006. Which sort of ties into the whole high school vibe of this piece. Which is not my thing.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong


DNF @ 15%

Well, that was disappointing. The 1920s Shanghai setting hooked me and the idea of a Romeo and Juliet retelling intrigued me, because even though I'm not keen on the play, I think it offers a lot of potential for reworking the storyline. And a retelling with rival gangs? YAS.

Sadly, this book just wasn't it for me. The writing was such a slog. It has that forced ornateness to it that a lot of the YA coming out these days has-- THE GILDED WOLVES, AN EMBER IN THE ASHES, THE PRISON HEALER-- and I know a lot of people really like that style of narration, but I really don't. It's all tell and no show, and everything is just laid out like a folded hand of cards.

Part of my project this week is knocking out a whole bunch of books that I was really excited to read that had also been super hyped up. Most of the books sort of or really lived up to the hype but sadly, for me, this one did not.

1 out of 5 stars

Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica


TENDER IS THE FLESH has been on my radar for a while but I was a little worried about picking it up because it sounded intense and, as I have said in previous reviews, I am a soft and jellied wimp when it comes to horror. And this is no gentle, easy read: it's a dystopian work translated from Spanish (by way of Argentina) about a futuristic world in which a plague has rendered animals poisonous to humans, so humans are being born and bred for the consumption of other humans, either literally (as meat) or consumeristically (for sport, "leather," or extremely niche and sadistic forms of fetish sex).

***WARNING: this review will have spoilers and will discuss extremely disturbing things that happen in this book***

I am not a vegetarian but I don't actually eat a lot of meat, for a combination of reasons, which resolve around health (too much meat, especially processed, can lead to colon cancer and pancreatic cancer, among other health risks), ethical reasons (mass-produced meat is often taken from facilities that don't raise or slaughter animals humanely, and takes a huge toll on the environment), and financial (meat is expensive and alternatives are a lot cheaper (it's very easy to make seitan from vital wheat protein, or soak up and fry some textured vegetable protein-- and unlike 90s alternatives, it tastes great). I've read FAST FOOD NATION and watched interviews with Temple Grandin (an autistic woman who is famous for how she has helped change meat processing plants for the better, to be more humane, because of her incredible ability to empathize with animals), so I already know that a lot of the times, knowing the secrets behind the food on your table can sometimes leave you thinking that ignorance is bliss. But it's also sticking your head in the sand, because at the end of the day, you do vote with your wallet, and I feel like people who can afford to care should care about what goes on the table and in their mouths.

In U.S. culture (and other cultures as well, I assume) there's this almost fetishistic view of meat among some people. It seems to be tied into masculinity, as if by eating meat you prove somehow either your virility, or your complete dominion over the so-called lesser beings that inhabit this world. People lob around the insult "soy-boy," as if eating soy over dairy somehow makes someone less of a man, because real men eat meat. Bazterrica runs with this premise in her book, where the government has converted the way they process meat to accommodate for human flesh, and shows, by replacing with animals with humans, how utterly inhumane the meat industry is, and how we, as a society, dissociate ourselves from the process by which an animal becomes food. We even see that removal begin in the language itself: pigs become pork, baby cows become veal, sheep become mutton, etc.

Marcos, our narrator, is a depressed man who works in such a facility. His father is dying with dementia and his wife has left him following the death of their baby. He hates the meat industry and he hates that they don't call it what it is, tiptoeing around semantics by referring to human meat as "special meat" or as "head" when they're alive. Infractions can result in death, with those who commit the crimes ending up as meat, as well. He still remembers a time when real animals were slaughtered, and he knows that some people are unable to come to terms with this. His father is one of those people, and we are led to believe that this is one of the reasons for his cognitive decline. When Marcos is gifted a premium-grade human woman as a gift by his employer, she's the last thing he wants, but he ends up raising her as a pet and then as something more, as the line between consumer and consumed becomes terrifyingly thin.

This book wasn't as bad as I was expecting it to be-- I think because I've had to participate in a biology lab and have had to be wrist-deep in organs for science. People were a little cagey on the details, so if you're worried about whether this book will be too much for you, I will say that it goes into pretty great detail on the slaughtering process. There's an entire chapter about how humans are stunned, killed, and packaged. There's a part about human experimentation, run by a pretty sadistic doctor that the hero compares to Menegle (who was a Nazi scientist, in case you didn't know). There's animal cruelty, where a group of teens beat a bunch of puppies to death. And then there's a whole bunch of minor cruelties mentioned in asides. Pregnant "head" get their arms and legs cut off so they can't damage their babies. Rock stars and celebrities can sell themselves into a hunt, where gun nuts can hunt them and then eat them. One of these freaks captures and kills a famous rock star and brags about how eating his dick will make him virile. There are brothels that let you fuck and then kill women, and one of these same freaks refers to the process of raping the fourteen-year-old he eats as "tenderizing," jokingly.

The ending is disturbing and infuriating because I feel like it implies that a lot of our moral outrage is hypocritical and results in non-action, or is a mask for our own sublimated desires and cognitive dissonance. Which is a sad and depressing thought, but anyone who's ever been on Twitter knows that sometimes people who scream the loudest (or in all caps) can be huge hypocrites. I've seen people on Goodreads try to cancel authors for writing problematic queer rep, who also have J.K. Rowling books on their shelves with five-star ratings. I guess the point of dystopians is to make people uncomfortable and force people to confront incredibly jarring aspects of society, but this message is particularly chilling. 

As a thought experiment, I think this book works, and it's no more or less disturbing than some of the classic dystopian novels I was forced to read for school, like 1984, BRAVE NEW WORLD, MAKE ROOM, MAKE ROOM! (the inspiration for the movie, Soylent Green), LOGAN'S RUN, or THE HANDMAID'S TALE. As a cohesive world in and of itself, I have questions. It doesn't really tackle some of the problems with eating human meat, such as prion disease (there was a group of people in Papua New Guinea who ended up with prion disease because of ritualistic cannibalism where they consumed their dead), or insect alternatives. For example, crickets/cricket flour has as much protein as skinless chicken. Were insects also victim to this so-called plague? (Which, the book hints, might not even exist-- the government might have made up a plague just to give themselves an excuse to legalize and legitimize cannibalism as an extreme form of population control, and yet another way for the rich to consume the poor, this time figuratively).

I feel like I need to read something happy now.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Kingdom of the Wicked by Kerri Maniscalco


A lot of YA fantasy these days reads like it was churned out of the same word salad factory, if you know what I mean. Like, there's a vibe, and if you cobbled together a handful of quotes from a dozen or so of these authors, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you which is from where because the whole lot of them feel so samey.

That is why it is such an exceptional treat when you find something that actually cracks, if not breaks, the mold.

I was a little leery about reading the KINGDOM OF THE WICKED because I didn't really care for this author's other series, Stalking Jack the Ripper. It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't good, and I had no plans to revisit the author again. But then I started hearing whispers-- that this new series of hers was a villain romance, that it featured a ruthless heroine, that it actually had stakes-- and I was like BYE MONEY.

Now that I've read the book, I can 100% assure you that the rumors are true. This is such a good book. It's about two sisters, who are witches and twins, who are part of a prophecy about these legendary demon princes who each embody one of the seven deadly sins. Neither of them take it seriously, but one day, they cross the streams-- I mean, the amulets-- and something bad happens because of it. And Emilia, the slightly more practical of the two, ends down a labyrinth of secrets and lies and magic, as she looks to avenge a terrible wrong done against her family, with the reluctant assistant of Prince Wrath, one of the demon princes of hell.

Emilia was such a great heroine. She was every bit as ruthless as I was promised and her relationship with Wrath gave me the kind of enemies-to-lovers fix I've been craving since I finished Holly Black's Folk of the Air trilogy. The magic system in this book is interesting and we're immersed in it gradually rather than being info-dumped in. And the descriptions of food in this book? OH MY GOD. Don't read this on an empty stomach, is what I'm saying, or you'll be guzzling pasta, cannoli, and wine. The only reason this doesn't get a higher rating is because the pacing felt just a tad uneven and as others have complained, Emilia's inner monologues ran on too long sometimes. But apart from that this was truly excellent and I can't wait to read the next book in the series.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Luster by Raven Leilani


LUSTER is a fascinating novel and even though I didn't love it, I really liked it for what it was trying to do. Not only is it a commentary on Blackness, it is also a scathing criticism of the economy that millennials have inherited. I also interpreted it as saying that nostalgia culture is a way for millennials to return to thoughts of happier, safer times, and even that attraction to older men is more of an attraction to an aspirational lifestyle: having a family, owning a house and multiple cars, and having a career that gives you a 401k and a steady paycheck.

The summary makes you think that this book is going to be smutty, but it really isn't. There are sex scenes but most of the book is told in stream of consciousness format as she navigates her relationship with Eric, a married man who is in an open marriage. Eventually she meets his wife, Rebecca, and their adopted daughter, a Black girl named Akila. Shortly after this, she's invited to move in with them and sort of becomes a third wheel in their marriage, not quite a daughter, not quite a spouse, but something in between.

I feel like this book is trying to be Don DeLillo for a younger audience and it sort of succeeded, but at times the stream of consciousness format became too much and sometimes felt irrelevant. I also wish there had been more scenes focusing on the relationships between the characters. Not smut but scenes like when Eric takes Edie to an amusement park and it ends up being really uncomfortable and kind of infantilizing but she just goes along with it. I felt like that was quite telling of how they saw each other. I also would have liked more scenes depicting the nuances of interaction between Edie and Rebecca.

This was an incredibly good debut but it wasn't as good as I was hoping it would be, judged on its own merits. I would, however, read more by this author.

3 out of 5 stars

The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun


DNF @ 25%

I really wanted to love this book and it had really high ratings from my friends, but I couldn't get into it at all. The fact that Charlie so obviously had anxiety made me wonder how he made it through the screening process, and it was honestly pretty sadistic how he kept getting forced in all these uncomfortable situations. Which I guess is a well-placed blow at the reality TV industry, but it's not super fun to read about. Despite that, I think I still could have gotten into this book if the writing weren't so flat. It reminded me a little of RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE with its forced quirkiness, so if you liked that, you might like this.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Unfollow Me by Charlotte Duckworth


UNFOLLOW ME is a really intense read revolving around a popular "Mommy Blogger" named Violet Young. One day, without warning, she deactivates all her social media accounts leading to a flurry of speculation as to the reasons behind her disappearance. The book is narrated in three POVs: Yvonne, a forty-year-old woman who desperately wants a baby and hate-follows Violet, and Lily, a twenty-seven-year-old single mom who obsessively follows Violet's channel, and Henry, Violet's husband.

Through the POVs, we find out that Violet's life wasn't exactly as perfect as she let on, and that Yvonne and Lily have secrets of their own that play a role in Violet's life. It really reminded me a lot of Ellery Lloyd's PEOPLE LIKE HER, which told a similar story with a similar format, and I'd be hard-pressed to say which did it better. PLH is more of a straight-forward thriller whereas I feel like UNFOLLOW is more of a work of domestic suspense. It's less intense, which makes it feel more believable.

I like books that offer commentary on current events and I think that this author did a great job showing the dangers of the parasocial interactions that people experience with their favorite influencers and how that relationship can quickly turn toxic. It also shows how mothers are often imperfect people, fighting against their own standards of perfection, and even though none of the characters in here are likable (like, at all), they feel more relatable because of it. I went into this expecting something light and frothy and it was way more cerebral than I thought it'd be.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Education of Ivy Leavold by Sierra Simone


I decided to take advantage of being stuck in bed post-COVID vaccine booster by finishing up some of the half-finished books that have been languishing on my Kindle. Romance and thrillers are my happy places when I'm not feeling well, and THE EDUCATION OF IVY LEAVOLD is extra fun because of the gothic vibes and because Sierra Simone can really write a beautiful turn of phrase.

This book takes off exactly where the last one ended. Ivy and Mr. Markham are continuing their whirlwind romance and are now engaged, but the secrets of his dark past are still festering between them. He might have been responsible for the death of his two past wives and even though he's good at turning her crank, she's terrified that he might just snap her neck-- or worse.

In some ways this was a really frustrating read because we're told, rather than shown, how strong and wild Ivy is. She's actually rather, um, spineless, and while part of that can be chalked up to her naivete, it is a bit annoying that she's a gold-star virgin who takes to kink like a fish to water. Anal without lube? Piece of cake for Ivy. *eye roll*

The first book worked better for me because it was more about sexual tension, which I LOVE. And the Jane Eyre elements? Pure catnip. This was just nonstop banging. And the banging in question wasn't always sexy. Sometimes it was just lurid or gross. There's a bit of teacher kink in here and that is so not my thing (maybe it's because I used to tutor, and I'm just like EW), so every time he called her his pupil or referred to himself as her teacher, I kind of vommed in the back of my throat a little.

This is not a bad book-- and in some ways, it is actually a good book-- and I am curious where it goes from here. But it's also not a keeper, imo.

3 out of 5 stars

Every Single Secret by Emily Carpenter


I just got my COVID booster and it made me feel pretty sick, so after sleeping for most of the day, I finally feel well enough to sit up and read. And what did I sit up and read? This book I'm buddy-reading with my friend, Heather: EVERY SINGLE SECRET.

Daphne and Heath are two professionals who met at a summit and ended up finding love. But both of them are extremely damaged individuals behind their polished veneers. Glossing over their pasts has worked for them in the past, but now Heath wants to take the next step in their relationship by going to a couple's retreat called "Baskens" run by a meritorious psychologist and confronting the demons of his past.

Daphne agrees to go as long as she doesn't have to talk therapy, but right away, it's clear that something is off. They aren't allowed to talk to the two other couples there; their phones are taken away upon arrival and there's no Wi-Fi, and they're basically being monitored in the common rooms of their suite. You know, for therapy.

As things get steadily more creepy, Daphne ends up unwillingly confronting her path after all, which makes her afraid of two things-- what if Heath doesn't love her anymore once he finds out the terrible things that she's done? And what if Heath has been through worse?

So EVERY SINGLE SECRET was amazing. It has so many tropes I absolutely adore in thrillers: a psychology angle (psych major here!), fucked-up childhoods, toxic relationships, potentially dangerous but still-hot guys, and a heroine... who wears glasses! This is so exciting for me, as someone who wears glasses, and I know that was something Heather called out in her review too. Also exciting for me was the way that it was written so I was never 100% sure what was going on until the very end. I had so many theories, though! I'll definitely be reading more from this author and I think it will appeal to people who liked mysteries like NEVER SAW ME COMING and WATCH THE GIRLS.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 21, 2022

Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian


NEVER SAW ME COMING was an impulse buy and ended up being a checklist of all my favorite thriller tropes. It's got a girl with past trauma who's intent on righting past wrongs. It's got a dark academia setting/aesthetic. It's got a bit of smut. It's a murder mystery. It's even sort of kind of a bit of a heist.

Chloe is a freshman at a liberal arts college in D.C. She's also a psychopath intent on revenge against a boy who hurt her when she was young. She got into the school on scholarship because of a professor who's interested in the study and rehabilitation of young psychopaths. The identity of the others in the study is supposed to be a secret, but we meet some of them as the story goes on, either through Chloe or in their own POVs when they become relevant.

In addition to the revenge plotline, there's another mystery going on. Someone is killing people who are in the psychopath study. And it turns out that the psychopath study-- and the overseeing professor-- also have links to a serial killer who was active about twenty years before. But how does it all really connect? And WHY?!?!?

So this was a lot of fun. I thought Chloe was equal parts interesting and terrifying. Don't cross this girl! The other characters were interesting too. I probably would have liked it more if it weren't multi-POV but Kurian made it work here, so I wasn't mad. The mystery element was really well done and I liked the psychological angle, as a psychology major myself. I could see this being a TV show or a movie really easily, it has that cinematic pacing and memorable characters. It didn't quite hit the five-star mark for me but boy was it close. I'd read more from this author in a heartbeat.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Maverick Heart by Joan Johnston


This is my first Joan Johnston historical romance and big ups to Heather for buddy-reading it with me. I recently featured this book on my Instagram because I thought the cover was cool. I feature a lot of vintage historical romances on my Instagram but I've gotten kind of lazy about reviewing them, so one of my 2022 reading goals is to plow through some of my old paperbacks and see which I want to keep and which I want to give away.

MAVERICK HEART starts off with a wicked bang. Verity is being forced to marry a psychopath named Chester (LOL). If she doesn't, Chester will murder the guy she really loves, a man named Miles. And she totally knows he's telling the truth because Chester already killed Miles's older brother. So she humiliates the love of the life, telling him that the scar on his face disgusts her, even as she's carrying his baby. SO MUCH DRAMA.

Eighteen or so years later, Verity is going to the Ol' West with her son and his would-be fiancee, Freddy. Chester was impoverished before his death, and all that was left was a deed to some ranch in Bumfuck, Montana (at least, I think it was Montana?). So off they go, but oh no! EVIL NATIVE AMERICANS. Faster than you can say "problematic content," Rand and Freddy are both carried off and Verity comes face to face with the man who managed to save her: but oh no, it's the man she betrayed: Miles.

As it turns out, Miles has been thinking about her all these years (YAAAASS) and planning his revenge (YAAAAASSSS). We learn that he was the one who ruined Chester and now, he'll do anything to make Verity his. She's forced to marry him, and then they do it, but things quickly sour. First, there's this gross subplot with Freddy and one of the Native guys, who rapily won't take no for an answer. She and Rand escape eventually, with the help of the Native guy's first wife, Willow, who doesn't want to be second best. When he gets back to Miles, Miles finds out that Rand is his son and becomes a total little bitch to Verity, treating her like a whore and basically angsting about why Rand doesn't love him.

At this point, I was mentally banging my head against the wall. I don't mind a vengeful obsessive hero, but nothing is a bigger turn off than a vengeful obsessive hero with incel-like tendencies. The way he uses Verity's past against her, even when she tells him the truth again and again, was infuriating. He knew what Chester was like. And then when he starts inserting himself between her and Rand and saying that he's going to tell his son The Truth and maybe he won't let her be present when he calls her a slutty mcslutterson to the boy she raised (despite her spineless pleas) I got really grossed out. 

Also, there's another gross Freddy subplot where she's raped by a cowboy and then the Native guy and Rand fight over her again while she insists that she's damaged goods. Hooray.

I'm giving this a 2.5 rating because even though it pissed me off, I wanted to find out what happened and I'm also feeling generous right now. I'm a sucker for Western romances-- I don't know, it just brings out the yippie-ki-yay in me. And if you like a bit of yeehaw in your historicals, this is your jam. Especially if you don't mind some gaslighting douchery and un-PC content.

2.5 out of 5 stars

WtAFW: His Human Nanny by Michele Mills


DNF @ 39%

I picked up HIS HUMAN NANNY because I do a weekly feature called What the Actual Fuck Wednesday where I try to read some of the weirdest and most "out there" romance and erotica books and then talk about them and gently make fun of them.

After two seriously gross entries-- THE HAUNTED VAGINA and MY DILDO IS A SERIAL KILLER-- I was excited to pick up something that seemed cute. And the beginning of this book was genuinely good. I liked how Riley stood up for herself to the exploitative job placement people. Everything kind of falls apart once Riley is placed as a nanny in an alien household.

Aegir basically falls for her instantly, and she does too. And Riley goes from thinking that Aegir looks like satan incarnate to being, like, "I want to fuck that." The baby aliens were cute-- and breathe fire!-- and I thought the writing was decent. But the romance didn't work for me at all.

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Mr. Hotshot CEO by Jackie Lau


This is a quick short read about a tech CEO who doesn't know how to have fun. His father worked so hard that he gave himself a heart attack and Julian works so hard that his family is worried that he's heading down the same path, so they force an intervention requiring that he take a two-week vacation.

While going to a cafe in frustration, Julian sees Courtney, a biomedical researcher who enjoys gingerbread lattes in her downtime. He thinks she's cute and admires how she seems to appreciate the little things in life, so he offers her $5,000 to stay with him and teach him how not to be such a stick in the mud-- and by the way, ma'am, don't worry, I won't try any funny business.

As far as meet-cutes go, this is pretty ridiculous but also really fun. I'm also a workaholic so I really related to Julian. And like Courtney, I also have depression. I thought it was odd how her depression manifests every five years like clockwork, though. I feel like depression is usually more frequent than that-- or at least, it has been in the literature I've read and the people I've talked to. For me, for example, it's every year (especially in winter/early spring). Courtney also has treatment-resistant depression, which means she doesn't respond to therapy or medication, and she refuses to try some of the more experimental or extreme treatments, like ECT.

I liked the romance element a lot and I thought Julian was SO SWEET. He's one of my favorite beta heroes I've encountered in a romance and he was just everything. I liked Courtney but I hated the last-act drama, even though her behavior made sense. The author clearly did a lot of research into depression but Courtney's attitude towards treatment and mental health kind of made me sad, especially since she is a biologist. Obviously, whether or not someone pursues an avenue of treatment is their choice, but ECT is not the monstrous treatment that movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest have made it out to be (although it can cause memory problems) and there are ongoing experiments with things like psilocybin (a hallucinogen/psychedelic) that can facilitate new connections in the brain that can get people out of depressive feedback loops and that, I believe, have yielded promising results in clinical trials (including for treatment-resistant depression, which the heroine has).

This is actually my second time reading this because the first time I tried reading it while feeling depressed and found I couldn't really get into the book. There are some depictions of Courtney in the middle of prodromal symptoms of depression that some may find upsetting, particularly in the way she talks about herself and lashes out at others. It's realistic but painful. I actually kind of wish that this book was longer because I feel like it's so short that all the bad stuff comes at you all at once, and it feels like quite a shock after the cute and fluffy beginning. It actually ended up impacting my enjoyment of the book, and so far I think book #1 is my favorite overall, even though I liked the hero more in this second book. Thank goodness there's a spin-off series about Julian's two brothers!

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 17, 2022

Dante's Wedding Deception by Ellie Misono


DNF @ 35%

Omg this was not good. So, this is about Niccolo and Kiley who come from rival families and Kiley is claiming ownership to some priceless heirloom that Niccolo has... or something. Anyway, the meeting does not go well, and as Kiley storms off, she gets hit by a vehicle. Niccolo decides to lie to the paramedic and claim he's her husband because, you know. That makes sense.

Anyway, Kiley has amnesia and Niccolo takes her home. ALSO, and this is the best part, Niccolo's last name is Dante and his family has something called the "inferno," where you feel the scorch of flames when you meet your soulmate. LMAO WHAT. That's not how that works. But what even is biology? This is a romance novel, BITCH.

I'm sure other stuff happens but I had already decided that this book was so stupid that I wouldn't be continuing.

The art is beautiful, though.

1 out of 5 stars

The Rules of Arrangement by Anisha Bhatia


DNF @ 18%

I'm always concerned when I see a lot of #OwnVoices reviewers down-voting a book. It doesn't necessarily keep me from buying or reading the book, but it gets my antennae up because I respect the opinions and concerns of people being represented by said rep, even if I might not share their emotional reactions while reading. Sadly, I 100% agree with the complaints here. I was all set to love THE RULES OF ARRANGEMENT and at first I was kind of digging the Bridget Jones vibes, with how the plus-size heroine sort of tenuously navigates balancing her love life (or lack thereof) with her career goals. But then-- problems arose.

The problem is that, well, first of all, this is not really positive plus-size rep. Even though I'm plus-sized myself, I wasn't triggered by it, but it reminded me a lot of that toxic early 2000s chick-lit where heroines would spent the entire book body-shaming themselves and others. I'm sure that reflects actual issues within India's beauty standards (because, I mean, it's certainly an issue here, in the U.S., and with everything being international, there's a lot of dialogues about thinness and so-called healthy weight no matter where you live), but I think you have to treat that subject with a little care and I didn't really see that here. Zoya really isn't all that sympathetic because even though she has relatable problems, she's pretty awful to everyone around her, which makes it really hard to root for her. There's also a lot of colorism, and whitening cream is sort of portrayed as an inevitable evil that you have to succumb to to be attractive. Which, although not unrealistic given that skin whitening creams are such a booming and lucrative part of the beauty industry, it's not really an easy read, either.

I don't think that the author is a bad writer, but I think she succumbs to a lot of the unpleasant tropes that made chick-lit such a lambasted genre in the 2000s. And even in those times, I still needed the heroine to be relatable and likable to enjoy the story. It's unpleasant to read a book where the MC hates everyone around her, including herself. I felt sorry for her but that's about it. Yikes. YMMV.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

The M.D. Courts His Nurse by Misao Hoshiai


Meagan McKinney is one of my FAVORITE romance authors, so obviously when I found out that one of her Harlequin romances had been adapted into a manga, I was all over that like white on rice. The M.D. COURTS HIS NURSE is about a Rebecca who hates her new boss, Dr. Saville. Why? Because he makes her wear a work uniform and demands professionalism in the office. So far, I don't really see a problem, but apparently her last boss let her wear pretty dresses and gossip as much as she wanted, so fuck the new guy, ammirite?

Anyway, this book is pretty dumb. Not just because the hero really isn't in the wrong here, but also because the way that they end up falling for each other is super problematic. Rebecca has this older friend named Hazel who is sort of a parental figure for her since I believe her actual parents are dead. Anyway, Hazel sets Rebecca up with this would-be rapist and then makes a fake emergency call to the restaurant that they're eating at so Saville can come and rescue her. UM. What if he didn't? And what if Mr. Date Rapist already dragged Rebecca off and Saville was too late? I never really got over that, tbh. It was the ultimate fail of meet-cutes and Hazel can go fuck herself. I mean, really.

I still stan McKinney but this romance wasn't it. 

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Picture of Innocence by Hiromi Ogata


So the blackmailed mistress trope is one of my FAVORITE tropes (which you could probably guess if you read my own books, because it's a trope that features heavily in my works), so obviously when I found out that that was the premise of PICTURE OF INNOCENCE, I *may* have screamed, especially when I found out that it had two of my other favorite tropes: cruel heroes and REVENGE.

PICTURE OF INNOCENCE is a manga adaptation of a Harlequin novel by the same name that was published by Jacqueline Baird. Lucy is now in charge of a plastics company that was owned by her late brother and is in danger of going bankrupt. To save it, she goes to the bank owned by a hot Italian dude, to take out a loan. Why this bank, IDK, because hot Italian man's younger brother, Antonio, died on a mountain climbing expedition with Lucy's brother, Damian. And the fact that Lorenzo already yelled at Damian and goaded him to what was essentially suicide doesn't matter. Lorenzo is still mad AF and he's decided his next order of revenge will be on Lucy.

Yeah, it might be time to switch banks.

Lorenzo buys up all the shares of her company and essentially blackmails her into pretending to be his girlfriend and being his actual mistress. The reason is stupid. Someone photographed them at a party and his mom got all excited and since his mom has a weak heart, blah, blah, blah, she might get upset if she finds out what a gigantic dick he is, so she has to come to Italy with him to meet his mother. Man, this is so stupid, but I don't even care, GIVE ME MORE. So they go to Italy and there is sex and Lucy is way more into it than she should be, but oh no, there is angst because she's NOT LIKE THOSE WOMEN, and now there is crying. And Lorenzo starts to realize what a dick he is. But not really. And then he does realize-- FINALLY-- because Lucy is a saint, dammit! A SAINT.

And they all live happily ever after.


Moral of the story: all you have to do to make a douchebag love you is donate a kidney. Pass.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Code Name: Prince by Masami Hoshino


DNF @ 40%

This was really not good. Meagan and Shane have kidnapped the "prince" of an imaginary European country named-- you guessed it-- Edinburg. But oh whoops, somehow this pair of stupids accidentally captured the prince's cousin instead.

I really didn't like this book at all. Stupidly named imaginary country aside, I didn't like the heroine at all. I felt bad for her-- Shane is an abusive jerk-- but there's no background for how she got into this situation, or how her daughter somehow became a pawn that her brother is using to force her to commit treason.

Not a fan.

1 out of 5 stars

Dim Sum of All Fears by Vivien Chien


I've actually had this book on my Kindle for a while. I bought it not realizing that it was book #2 in a series. Book #1 went on sale pretty recently, so I decided to binge-read the two books, back to back. I don't think it's completely necessary to read book #1 first, but the books are chronological and have linear story-telling, and they do seem to build off one another, so I would not urge it, but I would recommend it.

DIM SUM OF ALL FEARS kicks off where the first book left off. After the last murder in Asia Village, the little shopping center in an Asian community in Ohio and the hub of many of their social events, society is gradually beginning to return to normalcy. Lana Lee is still seeing her new detective might-be-more-than-a-friend, and she's trying to get a job outside of her parents' restaurant. That's why, when her parents announce that they're going back to Taiwan for a stint to help out Lana's ailing grandmother, it really couldn't have come at a worse time.

Even worse; another murder happens. This time, it's personal. Lana's new close friend, Isabelle, is found murdered in the shop that she runs with her husband, Brandon. At first it seems like it might be a murder-suicide, but there are some details about the deaths that seem sketchy. Also, immediately after the event takes place, two women show up, both claiming to be Brandon's ex-wives. What on earth is going on? And which of them are telling the truth?

So this book was pretty good. I liked the raised emotional stakes and how this death felt especially personal since Mr. Feng was more of an uncle figure than a friend (he was closer to her parents). Lana takes Isabelle's death personally and it makes sense why she would want to get involved in the case despite probably having some lingering fears over her last close call. I don't think this mystery was plotted quite as well as the first one, though. I couldn't figure out who did it but I also felt like the details of the case were way messier, and I just wasn't as engaged in the mystery.

I think this is a really fun cozy mystery series but I was disappointed that food was less prominently featured in this book and there wasn't as much of the sense of community here that the first book had. I'd probably still read further in the series, but this book has a major case of second book syndrome.

3 out of 5 stars

Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien


I don't normally read cozy mysteries but so many of my friends kept raving about this one that I ended up becoming really curious. DEATH BY DUMPLING is set in an Asian community in Ohio, where everyone knows everyone, giving this area of the suburb an almost small-town vibe.

Lana Lee, the heroine, is biracial, and in the middle of a quarter life crisis. Having just been fired from her job, she's forced to work for her family's Chinese restaurant, while living in a pretty crummy apartment with her roommate and best friend, Megan. Being so close to the community puts Lana at the forefront of all of the problems, including rent prices. The property manager and friend of her parents, Mr. Feng, allegedly has plans to raise the rent prices of the plaza shopping center, where Lana's family's restaurant resides, as well as a number of other small Asian businesses. A lot of people aren't too happy about this, which is maybe why it isn't too shocking when he turns up dead.

As it turns out, Mr. Feng is deathly allergic to seafood and someone switched out the pork dumplings he ordered from Lana's family's restaurant with shrimp ones-- and then they stole his EpiPen just to make sure they finished the job. But who would want to kill him? And is it really just about rent prices? Lana decides to look into things herself, which results in a sort of love triangle, unearthed family secrets, and someone's murderous desire for revenge.

So as I said, this isn't the normal type of mystery I gravitate towards, but I've been reading a lot of dark things lately and I thought it might be fun to "cleanse" with something more light-hearted. I love the covers for these books and I think they do a really good job setting the tone for the books. This is a little light-hearted, but it also seems to be geared towards a younger audience. I think, since the heroine is in her twenties, this might be enjoyed by YA readers as well as adults, especially since there's a bit of a romance and there's as much focus on food and relationships as there is on the mystery itself.

I actually was never quite sure whodunnit, which made me happy. The only things that kept this from having a higher rating were that it didn't quite have the emotional tension or stakes I would have preferred. There's never any real sense of danger and I didn't really feel much emotional connection with the heroine, not because she wasn't likable, but because all of the tension was mostly surface-level. So, if you're looking for something light and fun, you'll probably love these books. As for me, I liked them a lot and I will probably read further, but they didn't have me white-knuckling the cover, either.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall


This book was so good that I actually want to cry a little. Before I get into the review, I just want to say that I love watching The Great British Baking Show (or The Great British Bake-Off, depending). Not only do you get to marvel at all the beautiful breads and cakes and pies, but you get so involved in all of the contestants and their stories. When the characters are booted off the show, it sometimes ends up being a really emotional experience for me and my family, who also watch the show. I've noticed that because of the increasing popularity of baking shows, there's been an increase in the number of books about baking shows, but not all of them can capture that magic of character-driven storylines and the connections between food and family--

Until now.

ROSALINE PALMER TAKES THE CAKE is brilliant. It's about Rosaline, a bisexual single mother who has just been accepted as a GBBS-like contestant on the show, Bake Expectations. While on the show, she ends up capturing the attention of two guys: Alain, the sort of man her parents always hoped she'd meet, who has a posh accent and a plush job, and is at the top of his banter game; and Harry, an electrician who tends to put his foot in it, but is surprisingly soft and awkward for a dude who's built like a bruiser with big honking forearms.

Some people didn't like the love triangle bit but I really did. One of the love interests-- the less optimal one-- reminded me of one of my own exes, and he said and did a lot of the things that happened to Rosaline. Bringing me down to make himself feel superior, always focusing on things about me that needed to be "fixed." It's so easy to make mistakes when it comes to who we're attracted to, and sometimes we don't realize that right away. Part of Rosaline's journey is realizing that she's "enough" just the way she is, and that she deserves better than to be someone's pet project.

The other love interest-- the "good" one-- is just... lovely. He's one of the best beta heroes I've encountered in a while and I just love him so much. I love how Hall made him a working class hero and didn't shame him for it at all, and how all the usual stereotypes associated with that sort of job are totally flipped. He was the best.

But don't get me wrong. This is just a really good story, romance squee aside. There's the reality TV show element, first of all, which is fantastic. Hall totally captures the banter and the set-up that makes The Great British Baking Show so good. Also, Rosaline goes through so much in this book and she comes out as a stronger, more confident person. As someone who is also painfully insecure and a little shy, I find it so empowering to see women like Rosaline learning to stand up for themselves and set up boundaries. It's a really great message to see in romance novels and so moving. I loved Alexis Hall's other book, BOYFRIEND MATERIAL, but I think this one is even better. He just seems to get better and better with each book. I can't wait to read the sequel.

5 out of 5 stars

Home Is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo


DNF @ 34%

Most of my friends really liked this book, and I think whether you will too will depend largely on (1) how you feel about books written in verse and (2) how you feel about really experimental books that sometimes don't make sense. I can go either way when it comes to (1) but (2) is where this book kind of lost me. The magic-realism element is really quite strange. I loved the parts about Nima and her family, and I felt like Elihillo managed to capture the ache that comes from being both too much and not enough when it comes to how people of color are "othered," but the whole bit with Yasmeen, her alter ego, was a bit too strange and sometimes the narrative felt incredibly dissociative as a result.

This is a stylistic thing for me, so you might very well enjoy this book.

2 out of 5 stars

Austenland by Shannon Hale


DNF @ 18%

One thing I am coming to realize is that even though I like Jane Austen, I don't like Jane Austen enough to be a Jane Austen fan. Unlike Jane here, who would live, breathe, and probably snort Mr. Darcy, if the well-meaning people in her life would let her get away with it. I do like the premise of a Jane Austen-inspired romance set at a historical reenactment society that the heroine receives a ticket for as part of a quirky will. Unfortunately for this book, I've also read DEFINITELY NOT MR. DARCY, which has a similar premise done slightly better with the added benefit of some reality TV drama. The whole story is just so bland that even though I could probably force myself through this book, I just don't see the point.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Dark Roads by Chevy Stevens


This is my first book by this author and I am so happy that I was able to buddy-read it with my friend, Heather. We've been reading a lot of mysteries lately and some of our favorites are about totally ordinary women who end up in totally extraordinary and dangerous situations. Especially if there's a little bit of smut on the side.

DARK ROADS is an interesting book because the two female narrators are both pretty young. In some ways, this almost feels like a young adult book because it's sort of a belated coming-of-age and tackles themes such as independence, first love, and asserting control over one's life. But it's also decidedly not a young adult book because the subject matter of this book is pretty disturbing. It's a little like Jess Lourey's work in that way. YA characters for adult readers.

The first narrator we meet is Hailey. Hailey is the daughter of a survivalist who, ironically and tragically, died. Now she lives with her aunt and her step-uncle. Her step-uncle is the absolute WORST. Not only does he control every facet of her life, he's also a total creep. Hailey's only two consolations are her best friend, Jonny, and her girlfriend, Amber. But her step-uncle seems determined to ruin all of her relationships before they even really get off the ground, and to make matters even worse, he's a policeman with way too much power.

The second narrator we meet is Beth. Beth is Amber's older sister and she goes into the town where Hailey lives, Cold Creek, after something terrible happens. Beth also thinks that Hailey's step-uncle is the worst and she also thinks Jonny is pretty swell, too. But the same mystery and bad blood that made Hailey's life so difficult is about to snowball its way right towards poor Beth.

Less is definitely more going into this book. Even the Goodreads summary is a little spoilery, although it does kind of give you a warning that you might need if you are triggered by certain kinds of content. I liked Hailey better than Beth as a narrator. Hailey felt way more immediate and in the moment, whereas Beth was just sort of there. She wasn't quite as compelling. The mystery also didn't quite hit right. I loved the beginning but the ending didn't make me go WOW the way I hoped it would and there also wasn't quite as much romance as I would have liked.

DARK ROADS was a really fun read but it was also a one-time read that I probably won't pick up again. The descriptions of the wilderness were gorgeous and I savored those parts like a fine red wine, but there was nothing else about the story that really made this stand out from other "girls in peril" books. That said, I did really enjoy this and the girl power elements it had. Woo.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Lady of Ashes by Christine Trent


Ughhhh. So at first I was really into this book. It's about a female undertaker named Violet who ended up becoming her husband's partner. Her husband, Graham, had a hard time marrying because of his morbid profession and at first he was grateful that his wife was super into his work, but now that she's beginning to surpass him and becoming less interested in the minutiae of housework he's kind of starting to resent her for it. Graham also has a huge chip on his shoulder. He hates America because his grandfather was injured and humiliated in the Revolutionary war, so he's decided to sell guns to the Confederacy in the hopes of ruining the so-called United States.

One of the things I really liked was all the day-to-day stuff, whether it's tidbits about mourning etiquette or how to embalm people in Victorian times. I also loved the sort of "girl power" element to this book, with Violet taking a decidedly unfeminine occupation and KILLING IT, and also her relationship with Susanna, the orphan girl she finds sleeping in one of their shop's coffins one day. You really do feel like you're living and breathing Victoriana, which is kind of neat.

The downside to this book is-- well, all the things that other reviewers have complained about, basically. There are too many characters. There's too much STUFF going on. The actual murders that should be the focal point of the mystery kind of get lost in all the drama. It's super obvious who the bad guy is. The book wants to be a mystery, a romance, and a work of historical fiction, and it doesn't quite succeed at any of them. It's way longer than it needs to be and despite a strong beginning, it ends with a fizzle that makes me pretty unenthusiastic to read on.

I started out thinking FOUR STARS! But now I'm thinking two stars. I was so bored by the end.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars