Sunday, February 27, 2022

Heart of the Impaler by Alexander Delacroix


Your girl was lucky enough to score a copy of this from the publisher way back in December...but then I didn't read it until now. Because I'm a bad person. Actually, JK, I'm a really busy person. Anyway, HEART OF THE IMPALER is a book about Vlad Dracula, the real-world prince who ended up inspiring the vampire myth. He was a real scary dude who liked to impale people on stakes to teach them a lesson, which is way scarier and more effective than being made to sit in the corner. Those people won't be making the same mistake twice, you can bet your hat. Anyway, this is like a YA fantasy book about a teen Vlad, and his interactions with his best friend and fellow prince, Andrei, and their shared love interest, Ilona.

I was looking at the critical reviews for this book, because the ratings are abysmal, and even though I agree with a lot of the critique, I don't think the book is as bad as people say. For some reason people really took issue with Ilona, but I actually thought she was fine. "Not Like Other Girls," to me, usually implies some sort of hypocrite, like the bitch in BEAUTIFUL DISASTER, who claims to be a good girl or whatever but basically indulges in whatever so-called slutty behaviors she criticizes others for. Ilona was kind of just a bland, beautiful nerd and I'm okay with that.

There were parts of this book I really liked-- the language (apparently the author has studied many of them), the political and court intrigue, the romantic tension. But it took me weeks to read and kind of put me in a slump because it was SO slow and a lot of the really important moments, like Vlad's assassination of one of his political rivals, happened off-page. The set-up in the beginning was really well done but the ending ended up feeling really rushed, and the whole time I was reading, I kept thinking that maybe if this book was written in first person so we were actually able to get inside these characters' heads, it might have been a better book. The writing was very clean so maybe his next book will be better. Oh, and by the way, despite the cover and the shelvings, this book is NOT fantasy. It's historical fiction. Which maybe accounted for some of the ire, too.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Marrying the Scarred Sheikh by Saki Hanamure


DNF @ 32%

I think I gave this book more than a fair shot even though, as a rule, I really don't like sheikh romances. But I do love Harlequin romance manga, and I'm wickedly behind on my reading challenge, so maybe I was in the mood to be surprised. Was I surprised? No, unless you count being more annoyed than I thought I would be with this book.

So first off, sheikh romances tend to do this thing where the authors will make up a "fake" Middle Eastern country and then, you know, make it a cultural mishmash of several other countries. I had high hopes at first because the hero had an Iranian last name instead of something made up, so I was like, oh cool, is this actually set somewhere real? NOPE. This fake country is named "Quishari" which kind of made me feel like the author came up with the story idea over brunch one day and was looking at her quiche and was like, BINGO. I guess we're just lucky that she didn't call it something like "Mimosastan" or something even more stupid. If you're going to set your book in some far-off location, just do the research into the culture. Seriously, it'll be so much better, and so much more respectful to the people who actually live there. I read this bad romance set in India (by a white lady), but it was in a real place and the author actually did some research into the scenery and setting, and even though it was totally yikes-on-bikes levels of problematic, that did factor into my rating. Trappings of Orientalism aside.

The story itself was super meh. The heroine is a glassblower who lives in the house of this rich lady (wife of a sheikh I guess) who basically gives her board in exchange for free art. This, my friends, is what is known as being paid in exposure, but hey, whatever floats your boat. Anyway, the heroine likes to walk by the ocean late at night by herself to cool off from working with all that fire, but one night she sees something even hotter: a naked man skinnydipping in the sea. So obviously she stays and watches. 


I bet you totally weren't expecting that. :yawn:

I got bored with this story because one, I was getting annoyed with the generic Middle East setting; two, nothing interesting was happening; and three, the sheikh is arguably conventionally attractive (I mean, it's a manga so it's hard to tell, but YOU KNOW), except for this scar on his face, and he's just SO SHOCKED that the heroine isn't turned off by this scar because literally every other woman he meets is either like EW GROSS or LOL I'LL PUT UP WITH IT FOR THOSE DOLLAR BILLS. Which I find hard to believe, ma'am. Jason Momoa also has a facial scar, and I don't see ladies being all, EW JASON MOMOA?! BUT HE HAS THAT GROSS SCAR THO. 

This was dumb. I can't go on.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Million-Dollar Amnesia Scandal by Marito Ai


I think we can all agree that MILLION-DOLLAR AMNESIA SCANDAL might be the cheesiest, best title there is. I went into this book expecting something truly ridiculous, eye-rolling monocle at the ready, so you can imagine my surprise when this book railroaded my emotions with a surprisingly sweet and emotional story that had no douchebaggery, no OM/OW drama, and no psychopathy. WHAT.

Marito Ai is one of my favorite mangaka and all of her adaptions have been absolutely amazing. I don't know if Harlequin lets the artists choose which stories they want to work on, but all the ones Ai does have been unfailingly good and this one is no exception.

The story is this: April is a talented jazz singer with amnesia. In the car accident that gave her the head trauma, she was riding with the son of a billionaire hotelier who had just taken over her record label in exchange for ownership of the Lighthouse Hotel, a luxury seaside hotel with a big old lighthouse. Obviously, her mother/ex-manager and the brother of the hotel guy are angry and both of them want her to sign a document voiding the deal, but April refuses to sign anything until she gets her memories back because she wants to know why she made the deal.

The brother, whose name is Seth, isn't actually a bad guy, and so when he starts to feel attracted to April, there is not one iota of creepiness. In fact, he takes her out on a boat and they have sex together for the first time under the stars, and the way it is drawn and written is so beautiful that I actually had an ~emotional moment~. Seth's biggest problem is that he's an illegitimate son so he has all these emotional hangups when it comes to love because he saw firsthand how it fucked his mother and younger brother over, but it hasn't turned him into a douchelord. He's just emotionally cagey.

A lot of the time when I read these things, people behave in ways like if an alien was told about what people do when they're upset and was like beep bloop blorp, I shall do the human thing. And then wrote that. Which usually leads to me swearing at my Kindle and/or laughing hysterically and asking myself rhetorically (and sometimes you guys, also rhetorically), "WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON." This is one of the few contemporary HQN romances I've read where I actually understood or agreed with all of the characters' decisions and liked all of the characters, including the secondary cast.

If you like sweet romances with just the right amount of angst and drama, this is your jam, baby.

5 out of 5 stars

Secrets of Castillo Del Arco by Naomi Watanabe


Look, I'm not all that difficult to please, okay? Give me an angst-ridden storyline with some Gothic elements and some really good character arcs, and I'll be a happy girl. It's as simple as that. And a book with a title like SECRETS OF CASTILLO DEL ARCO sure seemed promising. First, it's got "castle" in the title, which is only a step away from one of those lurid Gothic pulps that had some maiden fleeing from a crumbly cliffside manor. Second, it's about secrets and I love nosing around those puppies. GIMME.

In case you're familiar to the concept of Harlequin manga, they are literally Harlequin books in manga form. Which is AMAZING. Obviously, the books can only be as good as the source material and sometimes the art can suck, but sometimes you get a good story and an amazing artist and then it's like the perfect marriage of trashy goodness. And that's basically what this was for me.

This book is about Gabriella and Raoul. Gabriella is this shy and sheltered rich girl who's been living under the care of her grandfather and he wants her childhood friend Raoul to take care of her after his death to make sure she's not taken advantage of by predatory rich men. Raoul is this aloof rich guy who isn't mean or douchey, but he does kind of project "I might be dangerous" vibes. Also his wife died under mysterious circumstances and he has weird locked rooms in his castle. Red flag? More like blue flag-- for a Bluebeard. Amirite? Of course, that isn't going to stop Gabriella for falling for him. Because abs.

Like I said, I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. The art is great. The story is great. I liked the Venice setting and how it has all these Gothic and fairytale bits woven in. The heroine was sweet but not TSTL (even though she's clumsier than Bella Swan-- how do you fall out of a WINDOW?) and I thought Raoul was the perfect blend of sweet and dangerous. I don't always feel like chasing down the novel editions of these books, but for this one, I actually might.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Best Friends by Shannon Hale


I've not read a lot of books by Shannon Hale because, to me, her works often feel very self-insertiony and watered down. I know she has a devoted following but her style of writing really doesn't work for me, whether she's writing for a kid or an adult audience. That said, when I found her graphic novel memoir in a Little Free Library, I was intrigued. Not only is it set in the 1980s, it's also a story about navigating the perils of the changing social scene of adolescence, and a bit of an inside peek about how she got into writing.

Now that I've read BEST FRIENDS, I think I can pretty safely say that this is one of the best things I've ever read or will read from Hale. The 80s setting is so vivid-- the clothes, the songs (and part of that goes to LeUyen Pham for her illustrations). The way that Hale describes mean girl friendships and social pitfalls is honestly so on-point. And then there are inserts from the (yes, self-insertiony) stories that she wrote to escape. Perhaps most meaningful for me, though, was writing about what it's like to be a kid with anxiety. Whether it's chronic stomachaches or fear of rollercoasters, I honestly felt so scene when she wrote about this stuff.

Some of the reviews I get the most hate for are middle grade. There are people out there who seem to believe that writing for kids gets you a free pass from all the pedants out there like me who moan about things like "characterization" and "complex storylines." Because, you know, kids don't care about any of that shit. Throw on Ryan's World or even just jangle your keys at them, and they'll be entertained! I don't think these nay-sayers realize how utterly fucking condescending that is, implicitly suggesting that kids don't have the cognitive wherewithal to recognize a good story from a bad one.

That said, I do get how middle grade suffers under the delightful paradox of being one of the most difficult age groups to write for and also the most maligned. Authors who write for middle grade have to produce material that will appeal to kids just entering their teens while also not getting outraged phone calls from the parents of kids who are still in the single digits. It's a tough balancing act, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to do it. And despite all that, a lot of people are pretty dismissive of children's literature as a whole. Perhaps only the romance genre gets more shit from critics.

BEST FRIENDS really does a good job of straddling that line, though, being real-world relatable while also holding back just enough to kind of leave things to the reader to decide.  I think many girls and boys are going to find this incredibly comforting. I wish it had been around when I was a kid.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

WtAFW: Abraham Lincoln: Fuck Lord of the Moon by Catherine DeVore


So in case you've seen my reviews on other weird books like this, I do a weekly feature called What the Actual F*** Wednesday where I ask friends and followers to send me the weirdest romance and erotica books they can find, and then I read and review one a week. Why? Because people were sending me these things even before the challenge, and now, at least, I can contain the beast.

The beast, of course, not being Abraham Lincoln, who no man or woman can tame. Which brings us to today's weekly pick: the book whose title I cannot say in this review if I want to cross-post to Amazon. But let's just say that it involves Abraham Lincoln and his social dominance over our solitary satellite: the moon.

Here is the plot in a nutshell:

1. Abraham Lincoln is a ninja.
2. Abraham Lincoln faked his own death by hiring his good friend, John Wilkes Booth, to pretend to assassinate him.
3. John Wilkes Booth then faked HIS own death after concluding his mission.
4. Thus presumed dead, Abraham Lincoln is free to reunite with his Japanese squad of lovers/ninjas to go to a moon mission to FIGHT the emperor of Japan. On the moon.
5. Yes, you read that right.
6. The emperor of Japan and Abraham Lincoln have a sword fight.
7. The swords are not made of metal. Also they glow like lightsabers.
8. Insert "had**ken" joke here from Streetfighter.
9. Abraham Lincoln now owns the moon.

I really don't have much else to say about this book. I actually feel like that bulleted summary speaks for itself and perfectly encapsulates what you can expect to find within these pages. It was awful, yes, but the author actually sort of made An Attempt(TM) to have a "historical" tone to the narrative that makes it sound like one of those awful pulp novels that are now in the public domain, you know, like the Barsoom novels, or the original Tarzan books. Except, you know, NSFW x 1000.

It physically hurt to spend $2.99 on less than 50 pages, but I did it for science.

1 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Antoinette's Sister by Diana Giovinazzo


I was lucky enough to receive a copy of ANTOINETTE'S SISTER from the publisher. Marie Antoinette is one of those historical figures who's been done to death in fiction, so I was excited to see one of the other Hapsburg girls as the focus for this story. Charlotte (short for Maria Carolina Charlotte) is one of Maria Theresa's daughters. Maria Theresa is the OG momager of Europe. Kris Jenner wishes she was this much of a conniving, power-amassing bitch, my dudes. She married all of her children into powerful positions, maneuvering them across Europe like living chess pieces.

Charlotte was married to Ferdinand, the son of King Carlo, who was king of the Two Sicilies: Sicily and Naples. If you like The Great (which I've been totes binge-watching lately), you're going to love this book because Ferdinand is a lot like Peter: grossly unqualified to rule, childish, and basically down to fuck and party but not much else. Charlotte, on the other hand, totally rises to the occasion. She's there to kick ass and take names, and one of those names ends up being FRANCE when they decide to revolution and fuck with her sister. BOO.

This is written in first person and has the fun, frothy, gossipy tone that I LOVE in my historical fiction. I read a lot of Philippa Gregory in college because it helped me wind down from writing research papers without feeling like my brain was melting out of my ears, and I still feel a fondness for it to this day because of that. ANTOINETTE'S SISTER is smartly written and the character of Charlotte is really well done as we follow her from naive but groomed-to-rule teen to no-fucks-left-to-give old lady. I liked the beginning more because it was more Machiavellian and the power grabs really sang to my heart, but I liked that the author wrote about the full scope of her life and we got to be with Charlotte to the very end of her rule.

I wasn't too keen on this author's first book but this one was amazing and I'll be reading whatever else she writes, especially if it's about more bad-ass ladies taking names and playing games.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 14, 2022

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes


I honestly believe that middle grade is one of the hardest groups to write for successfully because your target audience consists of kids who are fresh out of elementary and/or just about to enter high school, and they want to feel grown up about the books they read, so you, as an author, have to deliver on serious subjects and solid characterization while also not traumatizing the kiddos. I think I'd have a lot of trouble doing that, so I really admire the middle grade authors who deliver on the serious factor for their child audiences.

GHOST BOYS is one of those books. It is an incredibly tragic, very dark book for a middle grade audience that deals with a young boy's death from a police shooting. Jerome was playing with a toy gun his friend gave him and a cop thought it was a real one and shot him. Now a ghost, Jerome ends up witnessing the aftermath of his death, watching his family grieve him, his killer stand trial, and his killer's daughter feel very conflicted about reconciling the father she loves with the man who has done something absolutely unforgivable.

Also in this afterlife is the ghost of Emmett Till, who was also the victim of racial discrimination (albeit of a different kind and flavor). Jerome doesn't know who he is at first, so his identity and history are something of a mystery to Jerome (and by proxy, the audience), until he tells his sad story. I knew about Emmett Till, and his story IS horrifying, but I felt like the author did a good job holding back on the details while still conveying the horror of his death. Violence in YA is always hard to read about but here, it has a purpose: to illustrate the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and to show that we are not the post-racial society some might like to imagine we are until we fix the racism that is embedded deeply into the social and infrastructural strands of the U.S.'s tapestry of discrimination.

I cried several times while reading this book. Jerome is a compelling narrator and so is Emmett. I felt so bad for his family. The only thing I really took issue with is the fact that part of Jerome's unfinished business is teaching the policeman's daughter How Not to Be Racist, which kind of makes me feel like this is more of a book about Black people for white people. The ending is not a happy one and might be hard for some kids to read, but I think the idea of the murdered Black people as ghosts also serves as a metaphor for all those silent spaces that should be filled with Black lives that were ended prematurely. It ends up kind of feeling like a cross between BEFORE I FALL and THE HATE U GIVE. I personally feel like both those books did what they did better, but this was still a pretty gut-wrenching novel.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhanon


DNF @ 11%

I bought this when it went on sale despite the low GR ratings because the premise sounded amazing. I love female-fronted thrillers/mysteries about troubled main characters trying to work through some sort of intense family trauma. In this case, the trauma is that the heroine, Autumn's, twin sister, Summer, has disappeared, and nobody cares because she is Black, and as far as the media is concerned, Black people go missing all the time. Like, that's the status quo.

Obviously this is wildly problematic and the heroine decides to take matters into her own hands. At the same time, she's working through some emotional baggage of her own, and you can feel the weight of her depression through the prose itself, which is maybe why the narrative feels so bogged-down and slow. Stylistically, this didn't really appeal to me. I think it will appeal to people who like books by authors like Francesca Lia Block and Nova Ren Suma. I call it the "depressed artsy girl" genre of fiction. That was me in high school but it isn't me so much now. I couldn't get through the writing.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

A Love Hate Thing by Whitney D. Grandison


A LOVE HATE THING was an impulse buy for me. I saw that the reviews for it weren't all that great, but it's enemies-to-lovers, and I'm a sucker for that, so I went ahead and bought it anyway. I don't think it's as bad as a lot of people were saying, but the complaints are all fairly on point: it relies on stereotypes, sometimes the dialogue feels canned, and it's a little bit vapid at times. But on the other hand, it's a story of teen drama set on the beach, so I wasn't expecting Tolstoy.

Trice and Nandy were friends when they were young, but then Trice moved to Lindenwood, which is a not-so-great area. Trice ended up involved in a gang and purchasing a gun, which his father then used to shoot his mother, himself, and Trice. Trice was the only one who survived, and ended up becoming the ward of Nandy's family.

Nandy is a spoiled rich society princess who is dating a white guy and spends all her time by the beach or planning social events with her multiracial group of rich friends. She's less than thrilled when Trice moves in and makes all these pretty toxic assumptions about him. Once she starts to get to know him, though, she realizes that she had him all wrong, and that where you come from doesn't really define you as a person. (Surprise!)

So here's what I liked about the book. I liked that both the hero and the heroine were Black. I thought it was cool how Nandy had an adopted younger brother who was Thai. I loved the beach drama and how it made me vaguely nostalgic for things like Laguna Beach and The OC. I liked how both characters had pretty dramatic character arcs. I liked the big cast of side characters. I liked that there were break-ups and make-ups and that these were handled mostly with maturity. I liked how the heroine was difficult and not all that likable, which made her feel very complex.

Here's what I didn't like about the book. I didn't like how Trice was made out to be this really talented writer when his work was just straight-up self-insertion. This is a key element of his character development, so it kind of stuck out. I didn't really like the romance between Trice and Nandy. They felt like they were more convincing as friends than boyfriend and girlfriend (although if you're into stepbrother romances, this ends up kind of being like that, since he's the ward of her family). I didn't like how the drama sometimes became circuitous and repetitive. I thought the book took a long time to get rolling and sometimes it felt more like an after school special than, you know, beach drama. Also, MYSTICAL COMA DREAMS. I hate this trope so much. I'm sorry, but I do.

Overall, though, I did think this was fun, and it has an AMAZING soundtrack in the back. If you like your drama to be served up with a side of real world issues, you'll probably like this a lot. Just keep in mind that, true to classic teen movie format, it's pretty clique-driven and every character in here kind of boils down to one defining stereotype (although the author does subvert a couple of them in interesting ways). This won't be topping my favorites lists, but I'd read more from this author for sure.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Princess Trap by Talia Hibbert


This is my second book by Talia Hibbert and it definitely won't be the last. That said, as with the other book of hers I read, it ended up falling just short of being something I really, really enjoyed. THE PRINCESS TRAP is pure fluffy self-indulgence, featuring a bisexual prince with a kinky side and a plus-sized, confident heroine who knows what she wants, when she wants it. And that something is Prince Ruben-- only, she doesn't know he's a prince until they are caught by the paparazzi whilst engaged in what the experts call "hanky-panky."

Then it all comes out. Ruben is the younger prince of a made-up Scandinavian country and he's recovering from a big scandal that had been cooked up by a malicious ex. In a moment of panic, he told the paparazzi that Cherry (our heroine) was his fiancee, but now that means being summoned back to his country, with Cherry in tow, to explain himself to his cold-hearted older brother and sister.

So things about this book I liked. Cherry, obviously. I stan me a confident heroine who has a good job, doesn't let people get her down, and stands up for those she loves. I liked Ruben-- at least, in prince-iple. He was a good guy Greg, for the most part, and while I wasn't exactly crushing on him, I could see why Cherry did. I also liked the slightly darker elements in the storyline, dealing with things like vengeful exes and abuse. It's also kink-positive and consent-driven, which will appeal to a lot of readers.

Things about this book I didn't like? The names. I felt like I was reading about someone's lunch. I kept mentally calling Ruben "Prince Sandwich," and there's a ton of jokes in the book about Cherry's name. I think if it were just one or the other it would have been fine, but because they were both food, it was very distracting. I also didn't really like the sex scenes. Consent can be sexy but it felt way too much like an annoying pop-up here (Continue? YES NO). Also, even though I stan me a dominant man, Ruben's constant nicknames and some of his dirty talk didn't ring my bell so much as knock the bell off its tower and send it flying into the neighboring county of Nopeville. Finally, and this is a complaint I think I share with a lot of reviewers, the tone and pacing are a bit off. It goes from fluffy-sweet to quite dark and serious, and then it ends all happy again, which makes it feel back-heavy. The connection between Cherry and Ruben wasn't bad, but I wish there was more emotional connection. It felt like a lot of their connection was through sex, and then suddenly boom, they're in love.

Despite these complaints, I did like THE PRINCESS TRAP. I think it feeds into that hankering that a lot of us adult readers still have for princess media, whether it's Disney or the Princess Diaries. And we all need a bit of fluff now and then to get us through the harder things, even if it sounds like lunch.

3 out of 5 stars

Ugly by Robert Hoge


This is such an interesting memoir. When Robert Hoge was born, he had a tennis ball-sized tumor in the middle of his face and some other physical deformities (mostly in his legs). To give him more of a "normal" life, his mother pushed for non-necessary surgeries, so Robert had multiple reconstructive surgeries, amputation of his legs, and a piece of his toe used to construct a nose.

UGLY was given to me by my sister, and I was happy to get it because I'd been considering purchasing this memoir for a while. I saw some reviewers comparing it to WONDER but I think this is a much better work than WONDER for several reasons. First of all, it's #ownvoices, because, obviously, this is a memoir. Second of all, it is a nuanced, well-rounded view of Hoge's life as a person with a disability-- his wins, his struggles, the things he can't do, and the things he can. The bullying elements were hard, but I think Hoge was right in showing that often times, the people who do bully have insecurities of their own, which doesn't make what they do right or even forgiveable, but it does make it easier (maybe) to understand why they do what they do. He also said that it's worse when adults are bullies and as someone who was bullied by adults as a kid myself (teachers, specifically), I completely agree. Adults should be role models and it's a sad fact that some are not.

This is nonfiction that I believe is written for kids. There are cute illustrations and the language is easy and simple to understand. There are some pretty detailed descriptions of surgeries which may put people off, but I found them really interesting and I'm a pretty big wuss when it comes to anything medical. Apparently, some of the ones Hoge received were quite experimental and other people benefited from the groundwork laid by his own procedures, which is pretty cool. He's also incredibly relatable. His fights with siblings, his hobbies, and, you know, his desires to make friends and have relationships is something I think that a lot of kids from all walks of life want.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Never Resist Temptation by Miranda Neville


DNF @ p.47

I recently scored a ton of Avon romances and I've been working my way through them, hoping to find some new-to-me authors that I'll adore. I never read anything by Miranda Neville before but I really liked the cover and the premise sounded AMAZING. Jacobin is the ward of her evol wastrel of an uncle who sells her virtue to an earl to pay his gambling debt. Rather than meekly surrender to her fate, she runs off-- allegedly to elope, but actually to dress in drag and work as a pastry chef.

She meets the earl, not knowing who he is, when he saves her from being gang-raped by a bunch of guys who still think she's a boy. The earl is alarmed that he feels attracted to her too (eek) but once she ends up pleading to work in his household, he realizes immediately that she's a girl and OH MY GOD THANK GOD HE'S NOT GAY. *eye roll*

I love gender-bending books but I do think that they often don't age well, precisely because of moment like these. There's a delicate finesse to them that some authors can pull off, but it didn't really work here and the fun of it was over way too quickly because of course, the earl figures it all out way too quickly. The beginning was super tense and really fun, with the perfect balance of food references and danger, but then it became kind of insipid.

To be fair, the author's writing was decent and there were a couple moments of sexual tension between the h and the H that seemed promising, but the story was too boring and too silly for me to want to continue. Your thoughts may, of course, differ.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

WtAFW: I Married a Merman by Regine Abel


DNF @ 15%

I'm sorry to say that this is the first book in the Prime Mating Agency series that I did not like. It was weird, even by these books' standards. Earth was populated by a bunch of copulating aliens? Melting ice caps has released a plague that caused humans to revert to some of these once-vestigial characteristics? WHAT?

Neera didn't really stand out to me as a heroine at all, and Echo felt like a blander mold of all the other heroes in this series. Usually there's something in each of these books that makes it feel special, but I'm sorry to say that that wasn't the case here, for me.

P.S. I'm still holding out for that I MARRIED A MINOTAUR book.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

The Weight of Lies by Heather Crews


THE WEIGHT OF LIES is a fabulous book that pays homage to the 70s Gothic genre while also being its own creepy thing, and someone should definitely make it a Netflix mini-series. I've been reading Emily Carpenter's books with my good friend, Heather, and this is the third book of hers we've read together. I actually think it's my favorite because it combines so many of my favorite tropes.

Megan Ashley is the daughter of an incredibly famous novelist who was basically a bloodier, more violent version of V.C. Andrews. Her most beloved work is a creepy cult classic: the story of a girl named Kitten who lives in a creepy house on a creepy island and eventually goes cray-cray and starts killing people, as basically every creepy little girl in every creepy work of 70s fiction did.

Megan did not have a good childhood though. Fame went to her mother's head, basically fueling her narcissistic tendencies, and for a while Megan escaped into party culture before kind of burning out and settling for relative obscurity. Which is why she's surprised when she meets her mother's now ex-agent and he claims that he wants her to write a book of her own, a big tell-all that delves not just into her childhood but also into Kitten.

Megan goes to Bonny Island to meet the woman that inspired Kitten, Dorothy Kitchens, who runs what used to be a B&B on land that used to be owned by Native Americans. Shit quickly gets weird. Everyone around her seems to be telling conflicting stories, there's strange notes in an old copy of Kitten that Megan found in her mother's office, there's a hot guy who might be dangerous, and Megan herself is suffering from a strange and mysterious illness that seems like it might be more than the mere neuropathy she thinks it is. Interspersed with Megan's narrative are excerpts from the Kitten book and it's honestly so deliciously satisfying how well these excerpts mirror the story.

As someone who loves 70s Gothic horror, this was pure catnip to me. It kind of reminded me of a cross between THE THIRTEENTH TALE and WATCH THE GIRLS, with a liberal dash of MY SWEET AUDRINA. The secrets upon layers of secrets, mixed media story-telling, Gothic setting, and literary references were so, so good. Also, as a writer, I loved all the elements about writing and story-telling and the sort of farcical pageantry that some authors buy into when they start believing their own bullshit. Here, of course, there is a much more sinister component going on: the potential for murder.

I don't want to say too much more but holy shit, that ending was CRAZY.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Matilda by Roald Dahl


I can't help but feel that every teen who likes dark academia secretly has a copy of this book moldering somewhere in their bookcase. MATILDA is like the OG dark academia book, and so many things about it shaped tropes I still love today: shy and bookish heroines who are quietly brave; evil schools; strong female friendships; and off the wall crazysauce. It's a scathing criticism of the cruelty of English schools, but it's also a story of female empowerment.

Every once in a while I get criticism for my middle grade reviews. People will say things like, "What do you expect, this is a book for children?" Which, if you ask me, is rather condescending, because it suggests that some authors are assuming children are too dumb to recognize inferior goods when they come across them. Which, to be fair, some don't. There's no accounting for taste. But plenty of middle grade is good and does hold up, so the "it's a book for children and adults shouldn't criticize!" remark really doesn't add up, and age group really oughtn't to be a shield against criticism for things like character development and cohesiveness of the plot. Just my two cents.

MATILDA is one of those rare books where I actually think the movie is better, just because of the casting and how the movie adds some chilling scenes (such as when they sneak into Trunchbull's house) and answers some questions that the book really didn't. I also personally like the ending of the movie better, but I won't say why outright because spoilers. It's the eponymous story of a girl named Matilda who is incredibly brilliant and is already reading things like Dickens and doing large mathematical sums in her head before she even turns five. Her parents are awful people-- the mom makes money from playing bingo and the dad is a shady used car salesman-- and neither of them like her much at all, and at worst, their behavior could be considered neglectful and emotionally abusive.

Before she goes to Crunchem Hall, all of her education was self-taught, mostly from a kindly librarian who helped her pick out famous classics despite being quietly fascinated by her intelligence. School ought to have been the place where she felt like coming home, but because of the sadistic and abusive headmistress, it is a place of terror. I think Dahl did a good job making her seeing fantastically but believably evil. The chokey was always incredibly terrifying: it's a cupboard where Trunchbull would lock up "bad" students. The walls were paved with broken glass and the door had nails in it, so if you didn't stand perfectly straight in the airtight cupboard, you'd get all lacerated. Yikes. Then there's Miss Honey's story and the implied molestation and abuse there, and it's all honestly pretty chilling.

So you can get what happens. Matilda ends up in a war with the Trunchbull. The movie is way more emotionally intense but the book does a great job too and the ending is still pretty satisfying. I loved the characters of Matilda and Miss Honey and I thought Matilda's family was believably awful because we've all met oafish jerks like that. Roald Dahl is a great children's author but this has always been one of my favorite books of his, partially because it's more believable and partially because it features a girl protagonist who is allowed to be strong and victorious, and not beaten down, which makes the story feel both timeless and incredibly progressive, all at the same time.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 7, 2022

Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women by Alexa Albert

 I've been reading this book on the DL for several days. I impulsively bought it at a thrift store several years ago because the idea of legal brothels has always fascinated me. I'm of the belief that prostitution should be legal, because a) it's going to happen whether or not it is, and therefore ought to be regulated by the government and b) acknowledging prostitution and other sex work as actual work (which it is) will afford protections for the men and women who participate it.

Alexa Albert seems to be of this belief too. After accepting an internship for sex studies and family planning, she had to make a public health study and decided to focus on condom breakage in brothels. Specifically Mustang Ranch in Nevada. While at the brothel, Albert lived with the women, heard their stories, and even watched some of them at work (yes, this means exactly what you think it means), and the end result was this interesting tell-all about some of the most interesting women I've ever read about.

I think BROTHEL debunks the Pretty Woman myth that a lot of these women are just waiting to be saved. Many of the women Albert interviewed enjoyed their work and some were long-time veterans. I thought it was interesting and sad how a lot of them had bad experiences dating ex-clients, because these men would hurl their past careers in their faces the first time they got angry and act like these women ought to treat them like saviors. I liked the camaraderie and competition between the women, and I thought it was interesting how Albert interviewed a Republican senator who was opposed to prostitution. It was very telling, I thought, that he wanted to end prostitution for their own protection but had zero interest in implementing any social programs to help them once they lost their jobs. The "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" mentality is pretty typical of Republicans, and they seem to be blissfully unaware-- or simply pathologically indifferent-- to the fact that a lot of the people they're hurting with their policies might not even have bootstraps, or boots, to pull themselves up with.

Anyone who is interested in sex work (intellectually curious, I mean) will really enjoy this book. It's a little dated, as I believe the author did these studies in the late-90s/early-2000s, so it ends up kind of being a snapshot of sexuality and female empowerment during the Bush administration as party and raunch culture was nearing its zenith. Most of these women seemed to have pretty ordinary lives, they just had an extraordinary job, so I think it sheds a lot of stigma surrounding sex work, too.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Frost Line by Linda Howard


This is one of the weirdest romance novels I've ever read-- and I actually really liked it. If you're into magical girl anime, I think you'll especially enjoy this one, because the premise feels like something that could have been cribbed from a late-90s shoujo series. The book starts out pretty gnarly, with seven-year-old Elijah witnessing the death of his mother, the mistress to a powerful senator who has just found out that she's been two-timing him and laughing about the size of his dick.

Elijah runs away and hides in the home of one of his friends by crawling through the doggie door. Inside one of the closets, he finds a pack of Tarot cards his friend's explorer father brought back from a trip and accidentally summons the deity Strength: Lenna, the physical manifestation of one of the Major Arcana, who's basically Xena Warrior Princess crossed with a Valkyrie. She takes pity on the boy and decides she's going to help keep him safe and avenge his mother's death.

Meanwhile, there's Caine, a Hunter tasked with retrieving Lenna after she vanishes from her magical realm (bad things will happen if she doesn't return within five days); Derek, the Senator's hitman; Veton, the physical manifestation of the Tower card, or chaos; his three idiotic henchmen; and ofc, the evol senator.

I thought this was so much fun. Even though it was cheesy and the sex scenes weren't all that great, I ate it up from a silver spoon. First, there's the fact that it vibes like an anime. Second, there's the fact that the heroine is pretty bad-ass. Third, there's the fact that the kid character actually acts like a kid and is incredibly funny and sweet. Fourth, there's a lot of romance tropes I love: stoic characters who can't own up to their affection, There Was Only One Bed, and forced proximity. I also thought the world-building was interesting and unique and the ending was incredibly touching. I almost shed a tear.

This wasn't a keeper but it was really fun and I read it in a single sitting. So.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 5, 2022

This Is Just My Face by Gabourey Sidibe


This is one of the best celebrity memoirs I've read recently and I'm shocked more of my friends haven't read it. Gabourey Sidibe is most famous for her titular role in Precious, but her recent projects have been American Horror Story and Empire. Before she got into acting, though, Gabourey (rhymes with cabaret) led a truly fascinating life, which is honestly worthy of being a movie in and of itself.

In THIS IS JUST MY FACE, Gabourey talks about her family dynamic. Her African-American mother married her Senegalese father to get him a green card and he implemented some pretty strict discipline in their household. Then he actually went back to Senegal and married his cousin, which her mother tricked her into revealing by asking whether their child together was illegitimate (apparently a huge insult in Senegal). Her stepmother, Tola, ran a psychic business in Gabourey's younger brother's bedroom when they all lived together, and hilariously, she even predicted Gabourey would be famous.

Some other things Gabourey talks about in her memoir are her stint working at a phone sex hotline, her love-hate relationship with social media (especially Twitter but also social media in general), what it's like dealing with relatives coming out of the woodwork when you become famous and how they always assume that you're richer than you actually are, her struggles with an ED and her later decision to get bariatric surgery-- not to look better or fit in with conventional beauty standards, but to be healthier, and her truly relatable experiences with depression and anxiety.

I loved this memoir so much. I loved her conversational style of writing and her funny sense of humor, her (mis)adventures with Senegal, her frank discussions of fame and mental health, and basically all of it. The only thing I didn't like is this one chapter where she writes about going to a film festival that is filled with effusive praise for Lena Dunham (I really don't like Lena Dunham), but thankfully she only makes up a small part of that chapter and isn't mentioned anywhere else. Literally everything else in this memoir is gold and I'll definitely be recommending it to all my friends.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Images You Should Not Masturbate To by Graham Johnson


I just wasted $5 on this book and if that isn't privilege, I don't know what is. I feel like if you're going to spend the price of an expensive cup of coffee on a book, you should qualitatively enjoy it more than you would have enjoyed an expensive cup of coffee, and I'm honestly not sure I can say that here. This book is a collection of sus images that look vaguely, um, sexual, but aren't. They're all just random images without captions, and while this allows for them to speak for themselves, it also feels pretty lazy and really not all that funny. I feel like this is the type of book I'd thumb through at a novelty shop and not buy, so I'm vaguely annoyed that I ended up spending money on it.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 4, 2022

In Every Mirror She's Black by Lola Akinmade Åkerström


This was recommended to me by one of my friends because I liked THE OTHER BLACK GIRL. It tackles similar concepts, such as institutionalized racism and micro-aggressions, but this book is primarily set in Sweden, so it's more of an insight into the difficulties that Sweden, as a country, faces with regard to immigrants, diverse work forces, and attitudes towards interracial relationships/families.

There are three narrators in this book: Kemi, a Nigerian-American woman who works in marketing and has been recruited to a big Swedish company following a highly publicized moment of cultural insensitivity; there is Muna, a Somali immigrant living in Sweden (I believe she is a refugee), first in a detention center and then in what I believe is gov't subsidized housing; and then there is Brittany-Rae, a Black American ex-model and current flight attendant who catches the eye of a Swedish multi-millionaire and becomes his trophy wife.

IN EVERY MIRROR SHE'S BLACK takes a lot to get moving. At first I considered DNF-ing but I did end up finishing. Each narrator is totally different and I liked how they all faced a unique set of problems and had such distinct personalities. I also liked the author's voice for all these women and the way she offered insights into social issues of Sweden. I was less keen on Jonny and the ending for all of the characters but Kemi. It ended up being quite a depressing book, and I don't want to say too much about that because, you know, spoilers. But don't read this on a bad day.

Overall, I did like this book and I'd recommend it to people who would be interested in seeing how racism looks in other countries and who enjoy intensely dramatic reads that don't necessarily end happily for all the characters. I wouldn't read this again but I'd read more from this author.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Passions of the Ghost by Sara Mackenzie


DNF @ p.136

I've been downsizing my book collection (and documenting this painful process on Instagram), which is why I've suddenly started reading a ton of old romance novels again. Also, I missed them. This book came in a romance mystery box and the cover was so hilarious that I think I laughed for a solid minute when I unboxed it. The fact that he looks like Sam Claflin and he's just LOOMING on the horizon with all that lightning and the chick looks like she's flashing the man vision is just too much.

At first, I was kind of into the story. It reminded me a bit of Jude Deveraux's A KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR. Reynald is bonked into the future by an enchantress to right past wrongs. He is a Norman who thought he was making peace with the Welsh but apparently something went wrong and the answers to that lie in the present... I guess?

So things I liked about this book: the heroine, Amy, isn't a virgin but it's implied that the hero is (for a reason that's actually really sad and believable). She and her brother are con artists with an abusive childhood. Reynald is a hot warrior dude and he is the perfect blend of chivalrous and macho. Also, it's freaking hilarious that his castle is turned into a sort of Medieval Times hotel in the future and he is so unbelievably offended by that.

Things I didn't like about this book: it got a little too silly, and not in a fun way. Like, the sorceress bit, I was willing to buy because there was a similar plot in The Visitors (one of my favorite movies; it's a French film and it's fucking hilarious-- look it up). But the thing about the dragons was a bit much. What are dragons doing in this time-travel romance? PLEASE EXPLAIN. I also started to think it was a little, um, boring. Delightful passages from the female gaze aside, there just wasn't much chemistry between the hero and the heroine, and I need that to really enjoy a romance.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

WtAFW: It's The Freaking Apocalypse And This Is My New Boyfriend by Olivia T. Turner


So every Wednesday, I do a challenge called What the Actual Fuck Wednesday, where I invite YOU to recommend me the weirdest romance and erotica books you can find. Not just to take the mickey out of them, but just because, well, it's fun. And I am very bored. I try to go into these books with an open mind and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, but sometimes I really don't like the book in question. Either way, I am unapologetically honest.

IT'S THE FREAKING APOCALYPSE AND THIS IS MY NEW BOYFRIEND was recommended to me by my friend, Julia. And at first I thought it was like some sort of Bane-inspired fic, kind of like the Omegaverse books, but no. And then I thought it was one of those "haha I'm trolling y'all as I laugh to the bank" type books, but also no. It is its own class of "(c)literature" entirely.

ITFAATIMNB is set in the future. I guess there was a zombie invasion or whatever and the government was like, you know what we need to fix this? Drafted civilians slapped in riot gear with total martial control. Because putting guns and tactical gear in the hands of the people never leads to anything bad happening. This plan is so stupid I can only assume that this was the American government. Anyway, faster than you can say "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" these dudes are calling themselves the Ravagers and going around raping and pillaging because YOLO.*

*I bet you didn't see that coming

Our heroine, Marley, lives in some kind of compound with other survivors where they alternate between living in fear and, I guess, living in denial. They're having a wedding and someone has managed to dredge up two 2000s-era slutty club dresses. Look out, y'all. It's time to get down and PARTAY. We even shaved our gross apocalyptic leg and arm hairs. Nasty, nasty! But oh no, Ravagers LOVE weddings because they like to jus primae noctis the shit out of that (bet you didn't think there was going to be this much Latin in an erotica review). Marley and her friend Cassandra make quite the star attractions in their slutty dresses and they are hauled off, one conscious and one not, to the big bad leader of the Ravagers, Boris the Butcher, who is the kind of creep who says "I like 'em feisty."

But before they can be raped, the women are saved by this dude in a skull mask named Max. But don't huff out a sigh of relief yet. Max has already decided that Marley is his girl and her virginity will be his. But for some reason... Marley is okay with this? Because Max is young and hot and ripped? Also, they love each other now? WHAT. At first I thought they were childhood friends and he'd been searching for her this whole time, but no, it was just insta-love, which makes it extra gross when he starts referring to her virginity as a gift and talking about how much he wants to breed her. Barf.

This book kind of ended up being a nasty petri dish of all my least favorite tropes in erotica. Fetishization of virginity. Sloppy and gross sex scenes. References to the words "cream" and "juicy." (What is this? Sex, or a fucking rootbeer float?) Breeding as a fetish. Insta-love. Caveman-like hero. No emotional connections. People behaving in ways that defy reality. Sci-fi w/o world-building.

The problem with ITFAATIMNB is that it isn't funny enough to be funny-bad erotica but it isn't good enough to be funny-good erotica, so it kind of languishes in this limbo where I guess you read it ironically or you just like reading about breeding and gross caveman sex. I actually had flashbacks to my (bad) experience reading Alexa Riley erotica while reading this, so I think if you like AR books (especially the breeding ones), you will probably enjoy this author. I'm honestly shocked at how many people loved this book, tbh. No shade to them or anything-- have you seen the weird shit I enjoy?-- but it makes me feel like I'm living in some sort of bizarro alt-reality where everything sucks.

1 out of 5 stars

Wishes by Jude Deveraux


Oh my FUCKING god, this book caused me so much secondhand anxiety that I felt like I'd run an emotional marathon by the time I'd finished. Jude Deveraux is a new-to-me author and even though I wouldn't say she's a particularly good author, prose-wise, something about her stories sucks me right in like a Hoover vacuum cleaner. I end up devouring them in a single sitting and feeling bad about myself afterwards. So I guess they're like the book equivalent of a bag of Lays.

The summary actually doesn't really give you a very good idea of what this book is about. This is a paranormal romance, of sorts, and one of the main characters, Berni, isn't mentioned in the blurb at all. It's also a (loose) Cinderella retelling. Knowing those two things I might not have picked up this book had I known because this book is really fucking weird. So the book opens with a funeral. Berni is a glamorous woman in her fifties (who still looks like she's in her twenties, ofc) who has just died of a heart-attack, presumably after boinking one of her young and studly lovers. She finds herself not in heaven or hell but in a spiritual half-way house called The Kitchen where she must redeem herself.

Her project? A girl named Nellie, living in late-1800s Colorado. Nellie spends all her time taking care of her cheapskate father and her total bitch of a sister. She's one of those fat girls with the beautiful face, and I'm only mentioning this because it is literally mentioned 23409234028 times how her face is so pretty, what a shame she's fat. Oh, and by the way, did you know she's fat? And Nellie emotionally eats when she's upset, which her younger sister knows and purposefully enables by intentionally triggering Nellie and supplying her with a literal endless supply of candy just to make sure she gains weight. 

One day, while slaving away, her father's new business associate comes to the house for dinner. Her sister, Terel, assumes he's old and ugly and forces Nellie to get the door. But SURPRISE he's young and hot and he falls for Nellie instantly because not only is she pretty, she's nice to the point of having a permanent WELCOME stamped on her forehead. The only problem is, her father and sister don't want to lose their live-in slave and do everything in their power to thwart her budding relationship with Jace, whether it's telling her that she's loose and stupid, or even (in the case of her sister) buying a bag of marbles and spilling them so Nellie trips and spills something on herself before the big dance.

A lot of people in the reviews for this book are hating on Nellie for being so spineless. Fuck that noise. She's an abuse victim. Abuse victims get to be spineless if that's what their fucking abusers have forced them to be. I might not like it but at least I get it. No, I fucking hated Terel. She is literally one of the worst characters I think I've ever encountered in a book and SORRY NOT SORRY, but any ending that doesn't have her suffering for all of eternity is a bad ending. This was a bad ending.

I read this book in a single sitting and thought it was weird (although not as weird as LEGEND), but not weird enough to stop reading or put it down. It left a bad taste in my mouth though and I'm not sure I'd revisit. Major trigger warnings for emotional overeating, fat-phobia, and emotional abuse. I might have given this an extra half-star if the book had the 'nads to let the heroine have her happily-ever-after while still being overweight, but naturally the grandmother wishes her skinny. WTF.

3 out of 5 stars