Thursday, June 30, 2022

My Mess Is a Bit of a Life: Adventures in Anxiety by Georgia Pritchett


DNF @ 18%

So as someone with anxiety who is also introverted, I was really hoping to enjoy this book. I liked the idea of this starting from an experiment that she was doing as part of her therapy. Part of the reason I started writing as a teenager was as a way to cope with my crippling social anxiety. I felt like I had no control in social interactions, and writing gave me a sense of control that I really needed, and later ended up being a source of validation, as well.

I think this author is trying to channel Jenny Lawson's brand of scattered, frenetic humor, but it doesn't quite mesh. The little vignettes end up feeling more like snippets from someone's journal, which is fine, but most journals aren't really written for the consumption of the public. It's also pretty depressing, too. Around the 12% mark there's a description of her father beating her pet parrot to death?? As someone who loves animals, I found that pretty upsetting, ngl.

Apparently the author is a writer on a number of very popular shows. I don't watch any of the shows she writes for, so maybe if you like those, the writing style of this book will appeal to you more. It always feels strange to rate a memoir you didn't like, because it feels like you're saying you didn't like the person, but Georgia Pritchett honestly seems, you know, just like any other person. I have no beef with her. I just didn't particularly like her style of writing.

2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida


I impulsively bought WE RUN THE TIDES without really knowing what it was about when it went on sale because it's set in San Francisco (which ended up being a huge treat for me, because I've been to about 90% of the places mentioned in this book). It was just languishing on my Kindle until my friend, Heather, told me that she was just about to read it, and then we decided to do an impromptu buddy read.

WE RUN THE TIDES is a coming of age work of literary fiction. Some people are shelving it as YA because the heroine and her friends are 13-14, but even though I'm sure this would be accessible for teens, it's really a book for adults. Eulabee is the daughter of an American father and a Swedish mother. She has three friends: Faith, Julia, and Maria Fabiola, her beautiful best friend.

The four of them attend a private school for girls, and in an era before TikTok or internet, there isn't much to do but to roam the streets of San Francisco and get into shenanigans. But as with any horror novel involving children, everyone knows that when kids get bored, they can become quite cruel. And these girls are no exceptions. As they discover themselves and their sexuality, they start to become incredibly dangerous-- but the world also becomes dangerous for them. And the book ends up tackling some pretty heavy subjects, like toxic friendships, predatory behavior, and lies.

I don't want to say too much about this book because less is definitely more, but it's pretty dark. Also, I think there's a rule in literary fiction that all sex scenes have to be gross, and there has to be at least one gnarly scene involving private parts that makes you cringe (this one had at least two). The heroine is a sort of unreliable narrator; she's cold and self-serving, and you can tell that she's definitely spinning the narrative. And since her friends are as manipulative as she is, sometimes the heroine is left in the dark, too. I think people who enjoy Megan Abbott's work will really enjoy this because she really captures the intense mean girl friendship dynamics that occur between teen girls, and how quickly it can turn toxic.

Unfortunately, since all the kids are such jerks, it means that there isn't really someone to root for. This is largely a character-driven novel, and it's as much about the city of San Francisco in its "heydey" before all the tech people moved in and gentrified it, as it is about these girls who get into things way over their heads. It's also probably going to be triggering for some people, because the author examines how creepy dudes (apparently most dudes) could be in the era before #MeToo. Literally every boy and man in this book says or does something skeevy. So there isn't really much of a plot beyond exploring that, and the girls interacting with their environment.

Despite that, I liked the book. It did some daring things and the ending was great. I could see this becoming an indie movie or a Netflix movie. It has that kind of retro cinematic vibe.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

A Night to Surrender by Tessa Dare


This is my first foray into the Spindle Cove series. I was a little hesitant to read it because Tessa Dare can be hit or miss with me, and while I dislike writing negative reviews, I especially dislike writing negative reviews for those authors who seem to be genuinely nice people and use their platforms to do good. Because then it kind of just feels like you're kicking a puppy. Or in her case, I guess it would be a baby goat.

A NIGHT TO SURRENDER features Susanna and Bram. Susanna is the daughter of the, I guess, squire of Spindle Cove, where there is a little village that basically caters to all things women. There, she kind of runs a sort of social club/finishing school for outcast ladies who run the gamut of being too shy or too loose for polite society, which sometimes gives the place the charming name "Spinster Cove."

Bram, on the other hand, is coming to Spindle Cove to run a militia and recruit people into his army. Because Spindle Cove is by the sea, and near France (I guess??) it seems like a place that would be good to seize control of. But when they get there, they find their path blocked by sheep, which they immediately try to bomb out of the way because men.

This is not realistic historical romance. The little village kind of reads like a Disneyland attraction as created by someone who is a feminist and likes to LARP. And I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing. Actually, the village was one of the things I liked most about the book, whether it was the blacksmith who makes pretty lockets, the tea shop called The Blushing Pansy (gasp!) that sells little lavender tarts, or the idea of a whole bunch of women who are the black sheep of society and must bond together, in a village surrounded by literal sheep, enjoying the freedom of their independence.

Which brings me to the romance. I actually didn't really like any of the guys in this book (except the blacksmith and the vicar). Bram comes across as a jerk (although Colin was way worse). I liked Susanna a lot and the village, and it felt like Bram (metaphorically) just beat both into coming around to his preferences and way of thinking. There are a lot of sex scenes-- and the sex scenes are pretty good-- but I never really got the impression that they had much of an emotional connection, or even really much in common besides being stubborn and traumatized by medical professionals.

I loved the first half but skimmed a lot of the second half. Not super excited to read Colin's book, but Thorne and the blacksmith's have me rubbing my hands in gleeful anticipation.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 27, 2022

My Favorite Thief by Karyn Monk


I've only read one other book by this author, which was a medieval romance called THE WITCH AND THE WARRIOR. It's one of those non-rapey medieval romances that doesn't come across as too fluffy, and as someone with food sensitivities, I really appreciated seeing the food sensitivity rep in the book, and having it identified through an elimination diet. That was really neat.

MY FAVORITE THIEF is a totally different book. It's set in Victorian times and opens with a jewel thief trying to steal a necklace at a party. Weirdly, the heroine, Charlotte, helps him and encourages him to take her hostage to make his escape. Which is pretty weird, but I guess when you learn a bit more about her background it kind of makes sense.

Anyway, after she and her friends heal him, he gets away, but she's able to figure out who he is when she sees him flinch from an injury he got at the robbery during a ball: and of course, surprise, surprise, he's a dashing earl. And, surprise surprise, the heroine decides to blackmail him because she desperately needs money to pay off her evil abuser of a father.

That's a lot of the story so I don't want to say too much else because spoilers. So I'm going to talk about some of the tropes instead. There are a lot of tropes in here that I really enjoy: jewel thief characters (a trope I didn't even think I liked until I was wooed by books like  Liz Carlyle's THE DEVIL TO PAY and Meagan McKinney's MOONLIGHT BECOMES HER), found family, heroine with a dark history, hurt/comfort, and tormented/haunted hero. There's also disability rep in this book. The hero suffers from what I believe are severe migraines (his father committed suicide because of them) and the heroine has a limp because of a badly-set broken leg from a childhood beating (triggers).

There are a lot of triggers in this book for basically everything and some of the stuff happens on page and some doesn't. I felt like the author made good choices determining what to show and what to hint at. I was also really relieved that Charlotte wasn't actually sold into prostitution as a nine-year-old child (although I think it's hinted that she ended up selling herself later in life, like teens). Her father was the actual worst and I felt like he got off way too easily at the end, which was disappointing. I also felt like there was too much insta-love between the hero and the heroine. They really don't have that many scenes together, and while I liked the mystery and the thieving elements enough to continue, I wouldn't say that this is a particularly good romance, nor did the characters have much sexual chemistry.

Overall, this was a fun, quick read. I bought the first book in the series because I want to read more books set in this universe, but it's not as good as THE WITCH AND THE WARRIOR.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Just the Sexiest Man Alive by Julie James


Reading this book was a rollercoaster of emotions because I started out thinking I was going to really enjoy it and ended with kind of a sour taste in my mouth. In my review of Meg Cabot's SIZE 12 IS NOT FAT, I talk a little about how some of these aughts contemporary romance novels end up being a hard sell in the present day because they have so many, uh, less than ideal messages embedded in the text. On the one hand, I get it, product of the times, yadda yadda. On the other hand, eek.

So the premise of this book is actually really great. The heroine, Taylor, is a lawyer at her firm-- a very good one who apparently has never lost a case (sure_jan.gif)-- and right now, she's in the middle of a sexual harassment lawsuit she's pretty sure she's going to win. Unfortunately, her boss has a favor to ask. And by favor, I mean, she's been voluntold to let some celebrity follow her around as he brushes up on his new role.

The celebrity is a guy named Jason Andrews who is, as far as I can tell, a sort of Brad Pitt/Ryan Reynolds megastar.

It starts out with Taylor basically hating him on sight. Which made sense-- he's an arrogant asshole who wastes her time and expects her to let him just because he smiled at her. I actually laughed a couple times because of how she got him back for some of this shit. But then... the book never really graduates from that. Jason decides he likes her because she's Not Like Other Girls. She doesn't want him, which means he wants her, which feels like a toxic page ripped fresh out of He's Just Not That Into You. You also definitely get the sense that Taylor is a Pick Me girl. She thinks she's empowered, but she says and thinks pretty unflattering things about other women, and she's a lawyer who literally spends all her time defending men on sexual harassment charges and there's, like, NO cognitive dissonance. How?? I mean, towards the end, we're treated to a scene where she's essentially telling this woman "how do you know my client's sexist remarks are what offended you? you're getting a divorce and you're mentally unstable." Wow, Taylor. Why was that scene even necessary? Are we supposed to applaud?

One of the worst moments, though, is when Taylor gets a concussion and she wakes up, thinking that she and Jason might have done something. And one of the excuses she comes up with to tell him, to defend herself, is "I'm a ho." No. If someone does something sexual to you while you are passed out from a concussion, you are not loose or easy. You are a victim of a rapist who took advantage of you. And the jokey way that this was just sort of mentioned was really icky, especially considering her work. It really made the character feel like an internalized misogynist who upheld men over women, and after what happened today with abortion rights in America especially, that was a pretty big yuck.

This was written over a decade ago, so that's why it feels so dated. A lot of chick-lit from the aughts was like this-- it talked a lot about weight (BTW, Taylor is a size two who has skinny Splenda lattes for breakfast and everyone in the book thinks she's a model because no way could she be hot AND smart). Romance novels didn't used to be known for rocking the boat, so a lot of them kind of just ended up being reflections of the values that society at large deemed acceptable at the time. Sometimes I can swallow my feminist pride and sort of enjoy the story, but the insta-love between the characters and the fact that Jason never really changed, made this book a really hard sell for me. I loved the lawyer stuff (it made me wonder if the author was a lawyer herself?? it felt pretty authentic) and at first I really liked Taylor's character, but it was bogged down by aughts douchery that I would rather forget.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

From the Mists of Wolf Creek by Rebecca Brandewyne


DNF @ p.50

This is one of the stupid books I think I've read in a while. The heroine is such a moron. After a tantalizingly gothic prologue, we're treated to Hallie Moredumb-- sorry, Hallie Muldoon-- who is returning to her family ranch after the death of her grandmother. I guess she grew up there but was then taken away after her mother died. Now she's back to find her family secrets. But OH NO! There's a wolf in the road! And it... it... it LOOKED at her.

She slams on the brakes and then sits there in her WORKING car, trying to figure out what to do. Is the glass wolf-proof? Can it get her? Why is it looking at her? WHY IS IT SO BIG? Instead of waiting it out or, I don't know, DRIVING AWAY in her WORKING CAR, she grabs the Life Hammer (that thing you break open windows with if you, like, drive into a lake) and contemplates breaking the windshield open to SCARE THE WOLF AWAY. *

Never mind the fact that it's pouring rain.

By page 40-something, she still hasn't left the car, and we're still listening to her talk about how scary that wolf is and how golly-gee, she hopes she doesn't get lost-- there might be wolves out there. And at this point, I'm like, bitch, I hope a wolf does get you and bites your too-dumb-to-live head off. By page fifty she finally makes it to the family estate. There's a boring flashback and then she starts talking to herself and putzing around the house and I'm like OH MY GOD.

Rebecca Brandewyne is actually a pretty well-known bodice-ripper authors and I actually have enjoyed her retro works. So it's not like I'm a hate-reader. I bought this book because I liked the author and I'm actually shocked that this was so bloody awful, since it didn't read like her usual style at all. Not sure if it's the publisher to blame, or if she was using a ghostwriter, but this freaking sucked. Boo.

*Fun fact: I have lived in a rural area, and one time I had to tell my boss that I was late for work because I got blocked on a single lane road by an angry turkey. In case you have never seen a wild turkey before, those motherfuckers are huge. It was big enough to peer right over the hood of my car and into my windshield with its angry little turkey eyes, and it gave me such a gobbling that I can only assume it was cussing me out like a New Yorker at a tourist who wasn't aware that they were walking here. The turkey was apparently trying to impress its turkey ladyfriend, who was waiting coquettishly in the bushes as her man unleashed chaos in backwoods California. I've also had a bunch of prowling coyotes outside my car-- and coyotes are basically the Kirkland Signature version of wolves. And no, they could not get at me through the windows, nor did I need to reach for my Life Hammer.

1 out of 5 stars

Moonlight Becomes Her by Meagan McKinney


It's no secret that Meagan McKinney is one of my favorite authors of all time. Sadly, only about half of her books are in print right now. About half of her backlist isn't. Cut to me casually hunting them down one by one like an addict trying to get their next fix. When I got my hands on MOONLIGHT BECOMES HER, I was really excited, because the summary reminded me of one of my other favorite romances, Liz Carlyle's THE DEVIL TO PAY. Also, my friend Heather managed to finagle a copy, so I got to buddy-read it with someone! YAY

The book opens with our heroine, Lady Moonlight/Mystere, robbing the hero, Rafe, at gunpoint with the help of her accomplices. She then makes him strip naked, putting a cherry on his humiliation sundae. Obviously, he swears revenge-- and Rafe is the type of dude who makes revenge his hobby. Despite being part of the rich, he blames the upper-crust of society for his parents' ruin and subsequent humiliation, so hunting down the beautiful thief who left him naked by the roadside is just par for the course.

Mystere is not without sympathy, though. She's working for a crime boss posting as her uncle, and he beats her if she doesn't do what he tells her to. So she's stuck in his house, working as his servant with the rest of his household, until the next time that he trots her out to steal. There's sort of a wicked Cinderella bent to this part of the plot, which I really liked. She also is looking for her missing brother and trying to figure out who her missing family is because of a super secret letter she got from her mother. Which I guess maybe is a little more Anastasia than it is Cinderella, but whatever, I still dug it.

When she encounters Rafe at a party, he's pretty sure she's Lady M. Some reviewers seemed to find that unrealistic but to me it seemed kind of like the Clark Kent/Superman phenomenon, where people see what they expect to see, and it's easier to dupe people who aren't suspecting. Rafe, however, is definitely suspecting. Here, the book enters a sort of cat and mouse situation, which leads to some really spicy and steamy scenes. I think that the banter game between the H and the h in this book is almost as sexy as the riposting between Lyssa and Ivan from WHEN ANGELS FALL (my favorite McKinney book out of all the McKinney books, which I recently bought in paperback).

This was SO close to being a five-star read for me, but there were just a few things that kept it from being perfect. I loved the banter between the characters but I do think they fell "in love" both too late and too quickly. Rafe is pretty cruel to Mystere and even though he does redeem himself, I would have liked to have more scenes leading up to that, showing his shifting feelings. I also really didn't like the ending. It was way too abrupt. Like, when I got to the end, I was like, "Wait, is there more?" The whole book dangles Mystere's history over the reader throughout the whole book like there's going to be some kind of dramatic reveal and then... nothing. Also the final scenes with the villains felt kind of anticlimactic. I WANTED A DUEL.

That said, I still loved this book and there were parts where I LITERALLY could not take it from my hands. It was like it had been superglued to them by my own sheer will. I either love or hate McKinney's books, because she seems to be one of those authors who either dials it in or gives it her all. I've given her three two-star reviews and three five-star reviews and I believe one three. This is my first four-star review of her work, which I think is fair, because it was amazing but not the glittering perfection of which I know she is capable. It's still staying on the keeper shelf for those spicy scenes, though.

God, I wish this one had a stepback.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist by Franchesca Ramsey


I bought this memoir on impulse, not making the connection that Ramsey was a popular YouTuber whose videos I actually watched prior to reading this memoir. So that was kind of an unexpected bonus to what was already a pretty awesome read.

WELL, THAT ESCALATED QUICKLY reminded me a lot of essayists like Quinta Brunson and Lindy West, who also talk about their experiences being famous women on the internet, what it means to go viral, how to deal with trolls, how to own up to your own mistakes, and what sorts of language to use in order to tackle whatever sort of goals you might want to accomplish on the path to being a good ally or getting involved in activism.

Franchesca Ramsey is so likable. You can tell right away why she went viral because she just has that ability to spin a narrative that makes you want to find out what happens next. My absolute favorite section in this book was when she talks about how to consume problematic media, and what sorts of choices you might factor in to your decision to either boycott the artist/director/author, or whether you enjoy but also consume it critically and not cut it slack just because you like it. She calls this being a "critical fan," and I think that's a really good term to use because our faves should not get a pass just because we like them, but it's also important to distinguish between problematic content vs. problematic individual.

I also really enjoyed her discussions about virality and what it was like being on the cusp of fame. She talks about some of the mistakes she made when she first entered the limelight, and I appreciated her comments about what it was like dealing with criticism from both a Black and a white audience (obviously, people chewed her out for different things, some valid, some not). She also talks about interracial marriage, and what her own experience like that was like. There's also a great section on cutting toxic people out of your life, and another about practicing self-care in a way that doesn't really tie in to the #branded version influencers like to sell. There's also a glossary in the back about words pertaining to activism and progressivism, so you can start your own toolbox.

I'm not sure what else to say about this book. It's relatable, it's eye-opening, and it's funny. She talks about some things I've never seen other famous people talk about (like the awkwardness of running into someone you've trash-talked on social media at an IRL event), and I feel like she's coming from a really good place, and you can tell that by how she addresses her past mistakes. I guess you could say WELL, THAT ESCALATED QUICKLY, because I went from knowing nothing about this book to loving it.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Lady of Seven Emeralds by Clara Wimberly


So as you may or may not know, I am a retro romance blogger, and one of my great loves is the gothic romance novel. Maybe it's my inner goth kid screaming and crying to get out, but something about haunted castles and bats in the belfry just get my little emo heart going asdflksdjfsjkl;.

LADY OF SEVEN EMERALDS is from the Zebra Gothic line, a now defunct line that I believe ran from the 80s-90s. Most of the books in the line were pretty tame and obviously inspired by Victoria Holt, but there were a few odd ducks in the line that ended up being pretty WTF (see my review for BLACKMADDIE). 

In this book, the heroine-- who is named Rebecca-- is adrift after the Civil War. After whining about how much she misses her Scarlett O'Hara dresses, and how much it sucks that all her slaves ran away, we find out that she had a grandma who was blind and working with the grandma made her an expert in Braille. With her family dead, there's nothing better for this Georgia peach to do than to hightail it to Florida: specifically, to the beachside town of St. Augustine where there is a school for the blind.

Standing adjacent to this school is a castle on the cliffs, presumably airlifted from Spain. There, the Menendez family lives, a noble Spanish family tarnished by scandal and ruin. Ramon, the heir apparent to his line, is one of the students at the blind school. He went blind on the night his wife was murdered. Did he kill her? Maybe. Or maybe not. All the heroine knows is that he rings every single one of her bells and she wants to tap that ass. Because, you know, nothing turns a woman on like seeing a man brutalize his servants and then throwing his cane out the window in a fit of rage (true story).

I don't really feel like summarizing this book anymore so let's play GOTHIC ROMANCE BINGO.

πŸ¦‡ The book is set in a creepy castle that is overlooking the cliffs. (Bonus points awarded if the castle is located in a place that, historically, was not known for building castles. Like, say, coastal Florida.)
πŸ¦‡ There's a creepy matriarch/patriarch who seems weirdly concerned with preserving the family line.
πŸ¦‡ The castle has a weird torture dungeon or orgy room and nobody wants to talk about it, but everyone is very quick to show it off.
πŸ¦‡ Family curse. That's all. That's the bingo.
πŸ¦‡ Someone gets poisoned and thinks it's because they're actually drunk.
πŸ¦‡ Someone gets pushed down the stairs.
πŸ¦‡ A room gets ransacked.
πŸ¦‡ The hero is an overgrown manchild who is prone to having temper tantrums.
πŸ¦‡ The heroine doesn't think she's pretty, despite having multiple men obsessed with her who swear they would burn down Rome if they could get inside her virginal panties.
πŸ¦‡ Blink-and-you'll-miss-it racism.
πŸ¦‡ There's a servant who either has a hunchback, dwarfism, albinism or some other condition or syndrome which really shouldn't be maligned, but because these books are based off of Victorian times when people were famously tolerant of those who were different... well..
πŸ¦‡ Hero has a jealous relative who is DTF the heroine (and maybe he's the murderer, idk).
πŸ¦‡ There's a jealous other woman who is DTF the hero (and maybe she's the murderer, idk).
πŸ¦‡ The hero probably killed his late wife. I mean, statistically speaking.
πŸ¦‡ Oh no, something gets set on fire.

What's that? You got bingo FIVE times? Well, duh. This is a gothic novel. They all have these tropes. Congratulations, you win the void. Because when you look into the void, the void looks back.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Other Man by Farhad J. Dadyburjor


Well, it's Pride Month, and even though we should all be reading diversely year-round, I try to up the ante in June and make books by and about the LGBT+ my primary focus. I think I picked up THE OTHER MAN during Amazon's World Book Day, but I hadn't read it until now. The illustrated cover makes it look like it's going to be one of those fluffy rom-com books... but it isn't really that. There's not a lot that's fluffy about this book, actually, and there is a lot of cheating, so if that is something that bothers you, you might want to give this a pass.

One thing to keep in mind while reading this book is that it is set in India, prior to the overruling of Section 377, which made homosexuality illegal in India. The hero, Ved(u), is a closeted gay man who is afraid to come out because it is literally illegal and he doesn't want to shame his parents because he knows that they have expectations for him-- expectations that involve marrying a woman.

Ved is a workaholic and an executive of his father's company. But he lives a double-life. He uses Grindr to hook up and have anonymous sex with other men. It's not really wants for himself, but after getting hurt by another man years ago (11 years his senior, secretly engaged), he doesn't really have a lot of emotional availability left. When he meets a Brazilian-American named Carlos who's in India on business, though, the man seems like he's his perfect match: emotionally available, affectionate, interesting, and open to new experiences. But this time, Ved has a dark secret of his own. He's engaged to be married, too.

I can see why some people took issue with this book. The cheating is a lot to stomach-- and what makes it even harder is that both of the people he's cheating on, Carlos and his fiancee, Disha, are really likable people. Ved comes across as incredibly wishy-washy and kind of a user, but considering his position and the weight on his shoulders, I could understand why he had such an internal struggle.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Size 12 Is Not Fat by Meg Cabot


So I was a teenager in the aughts, and whenever I revisit chicklit from that era, I am always categorically shocked at how much toxic shit young me devoured in the form of fiction. Like, there was SO much sexism and fatphobia and internalized misogyny, you guys. I talk about this a little bit in my review of another aughts chick-lit called THE NEXT BIG THING, which is a reality TV show where fat women are supposed to lose weight and are basically treated like subhumans. This is another weight-themed chick-lit where, despite the seemingly well-meaning title, actually has some messages in it that are Not The Best.

Heather Wells, our heroine, was a pop singer (think 90s female solo artist, like Jessica Simpson or Britney) until she put on weight and discovered her fiancee and fellow teenybopper idol getting a blowie from her biggest rival. Also, she wanted to go indie and her record label, owned by her now ex-fiancee's dad, was like LOL fuck you Liz Phair, you fucking sadgirl bitch. And when he finished jerking off to his Men's Rights Activist pamphlet, he booted her ass out.

Now she works in a dorm as Assistant to the Regional Director, job duties including: checking pulses in cases of alcohol poisoning, telling those damn kids to stop elevator surfing, and answering Concerned Parental Phone Calls. Unfortunately, it's the elevator surfing that's the real doozy. A girl just fell to her death trying to hang ten on the tenth floor, or whatever. And I'm sure this is A Real Thing That Kids Actually Do Just Like Lipstick Parties and Trading Sex Favors for Jelly Bracelets(TM) and not just something Lifetime made up. Anyway, Heather is convinced that foul play is afoot because "Girls Don't Elevator Surf" (sounds like a Weezer album, tbh). And she beats this Girls Are Way Too Chill to Behave in Life-Threatening Ways drum incessantly, because TikTok hasn't been invented yet.

Also, she will remind you at every opportunity how Size 12 Is NOT Fat(TM) and how annoying skinny people are. No way is anyone naturally skinny, according to nature. The book literally opens with her comparing a girl who is a size two to a chipmunk and being like "lol what's smaller than a size zero, do you, like NOT exist?" First of all, don't dehumanize that girl, Heather, you bitch. Second of all, skinny shaming is a thing. Third of all, for a book that is allegedly supposed to be all 'yo go girl' about the way the MC looks, there is so much obsessing over how fat and disgusting everyone thinks being size twelve is. I think Heather is insulted about her weight at least ten times, and someone says that she's "let herself go" because she went from being a size eight to a size twelve.

I just think this is so toxic. Especially since, according to the MC, size twelve is the size of the average American woman (although this was pubbed almost twenty years ago, and I think the average has moved up to 14). At the time that I read this book, I was a size 12 and I remembered thinking, "Wait, am I fat?" A lot of chick-lit and romance novels do this-- I'm not just singling out Cabot-- but I think it's important to talk about how this cultural mindset was so deeply entrenched that it seeped into the psyches of so many female characters in fiction. I mean, gosh, I just read a Harlequin romance novel from the aughts where there's a throwaway line about how the heroine could stand to lose ten pounds.

Despite all that, I AM giving this book a four-star (rounded up) review because it was a lot of fun to read. I rate purely based on entertainment and sometimes problematic shit is entertaining. That doesn't excuse the fact that it is problematic, nor does it discredit the ratings of people who choose to rate based on how problematic something is, but I personally found the mystery pretty well done (although I have SERIOUS qualms about the motives and treatment of the baddie). I loved the college town vibe, the New York setting, and the author's actual attempt to make New York City diverse. Several of the students are black and Asian, the author talks about racism, several of the employees are Latinx (including her Dominican friend, Magda), and while I'm sure some of these portrayals are-- ahem-- questionable, it's way more than what I remember so many of these other authors doing.

Also, the love interest? He's a hot private detective who loved his gay grandpa and he's good with dogs. Who looks good in a tux. And has black hair and blue eyes. I probably wouldn't rec this to most people now but it's what I grew up reading and it's hard to hate it, even if I probably sort of should. YOLO!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Rules for Being a Girl by Candace Bushnell


This book is a vicious tour de force that tackles #MeToo and also what it means to be a girl in a society that pretends to be post-sexism but still infrastructurally suppresses women and people of color. Candace Bushnell and Katie Cotugno demonstrate this through their teenage heroine, Marin. Marin is a good student with a good boyfriend and she thinks her English teacher, Mr. Beckett is great, because he gets her. He calls her an old soul and treats her like an equal and not as a kid. But what he's actually doing is grooming her, and when he finally makes a move, it distresses her and eventually leads her to report him to the school principal, who doesn't do anything. And the teacher then retaliates.

While trying to grasp onto her sanity and sense of self, and other kids bullying her for making much ado about nothing (INCLUDING her own alleged best friend), Marin starts a feminist book club at the urging of another young teacher, one Ms. Klein. And the group ends up attracting boys and girls in school who are looking for more out of society, including school bad boy and resident "slut," Gray, who ends up being so much more than what the rumors about him suggest. And as Marin fights against the administration and looks for her own justice, she starts to confront some of her own internalized misconceptions-- not just about sexism, but about a lot of isms. Including some of her own.

This is just such a great book. I think the last book that made me rage cry and then joyously fist slam the book at the end was Suzanne Young's ALL IN PIECES (another vastly underrated gem that also features a bad boy with a heart of gold and a girl who challenges the system). In some ways, this reminded me of some of my favorite books from my own teen years: edgy, gritty books that didn't talk down to the readers and dealt with subjects like sex, discrimination, injustice, and uneasiness. When I was a teenager, I was bullied pretty badly, so books like these where the heroines faced horrible things and ended up okay were both relatable and validating. I needed that, and I think I would have loved this book in particular, especially for the literature-loving heroine. Every time someone tries to apologize for a YA book's bad writing by saying the reader was just "too old" to get it, I want to shove books like these in their face, that show that the best YA books can really be enjoyed by anyone because they have layers and meaning and a timeless quality that will resonate for many years to come.

Also fuck Bex. Seriously, what a skeeze. Student/teacher romance is one of the few taboo romances that makes me nope out, so as other readers have said of this book, it's satisfying to read a book that is like, "Actually, uh, this is gross and wrong and don't do this." Juxtaposing him against Ms. Klein who's "down with the kids" in a healthy way that actually involves setting boundaries was a brilliant move.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

King of Flesh and Bone by Liv Zander


DNF @ 25%

I was really not keen on this book, which is a shame because I can see what it was trying to do and it had some interesting world-building. The problem is that it deep-dives into the sex way too fast and it's not all that sexy. The word "seed" is used 26 times, and the heroine calls her clit her "nymph" (which is mentioned 17 times-- that's 17 too many). I also, as other readers have complained, really wasn't feeling the chemistry between the h and the H. As far as I can tell, he was only into Ada because she was warm and hot.

This book is set in a world filled with death. Ada is dragged into Enosh's realm by a mule and is horrified by the evil King of Flesh and Bone who can transmogrify the dead and the living. Kind of like a cross between a necromancer and a blood mage. There's also a bit of Handmaids' Tale misogyny incorporated into the world, where woman who are infertile are called "unwomen" and sold as whores, because what else are they good for?

This could have been a better book if the misogyny had more grounds and was challenged a bit more (I'm thinking of the book, THE DEMON OF DARKLING REACH). I also think that it would have been better if there was more sexual tension between the leads before they consummated the relationship. I feel like BookTok tends to hype up books that don't have any delaying of gratification. They seem to praise books that dive right into the sex and have edgy scenes that can be summed up as buzz words. And if that's what you're into, that's cool. But I will sink hours into a 700 pages book where the H and the h don't even meet for several chapters and maybe don't even bang until page 300 if I love the characters and the world-building and the writing, and I sadly can't say that here.

P.S. I'm not rating this low for the dub-con. So don't even try. It's the writing and the characterization I took issue with here.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian


DNF @ 23%

Okay, so take this review with a grain of salt because I know this author is super popular, and I think she'll appeal to readers who like hist-rom authors like Sarah Maclean, Olivia Waite, and Erica Ridley. I've tried to like all of these authors because they seem like incredibly nice people who do good things for the romance community, but their books are just too, well, nice. I like romances that have some sort of conflict, either external or internal. Maybe because I'm a person who has a lot of conflicts, both external and internal, and it's validating to read about characters who go through hell and still have that happy ending.

I actually tried reading this book a couple years ago and I stalled in the same spot I'm stuck in now. There's a lot to appreciate in this book. For starters, the hero is bisexual/pan (on page) and he talks a little about that struggle. He's also uptight and very posh and he wears glasses(!) and is old enough to be going slightly grey. I liked Alistair a lot and his struggle with his happiness versus his need to be correct for the marquessate was pretty well done.

The other lead, Charity, is non-binary, and I thought that dynamic was interesting-- but it's also not immediately clear. I had no idea she (she uses "she" pronouns in the narrative at all times when not dressing up like a man) was non-binary. It's not super clear from the text, except maybe where it's implied by how she feels more comfortable in a man's clothes. If I hadn't known from other reviews that the NMC was non-binary, I would have just thought that this was a book with a heroine who was super into gender-bending for the agency that it gave her and who was maybe questioning her own sexual/gender identity. I'm not non-binary so I couldn't tell you if this rep is accurate, but given when it's set, I guess it also makes sense that the non-binary protagonist wouldn't use they/them pronouns and might have a lot of confusion about what non-binary meant to them in a time where society was pretty violently against anything that didn't fit neatly into the cis-heteronormative construct.

So yeah, this book wasn't for me. But a lot of my friends liked it, so it might be for you. 

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, June 17, 2022

Blackmaddie by Jean Innes


Duuuuuude, this is one of the craziest gothic romance novels I've ever read. What makes it extra notable is that it's published by Zebra, and their gothic imprint was usually pretty tame (think Victoria Holt), but this was more like something Rachel Cosgrove Payes would write under the Playboy Press imprint. It was that bonkers.

Charlotte Brodie is half-Scottish, half-English. She works as a teacher, where she is having an affair with one of the other teachers, but she also helps out her seamstress mother. One day the two of them find out that her grandfather is calling all of his relatives to him like he's collecting Pokemon cards as he nears his final moments, to his castle known as Blackmaddie. Charlotte hems and haws but decides to agree to it because her mother wants to go, but they won't let the mother go unless Charlotte is there to accompany her. Unfortunately, Charlotte's mum dies when she's run over by a carriage, and then she is sexually assaulted by the landlord WHILE her dead mum's corpse is in the room.

From there, the book only gets weirder. Her relatives all despise her, citing the Scottish hatred of the English because of the Battle of Culloden (admittedly, a valid reason). But all of her step-cousins seem to be lusting after her, she has a cousin-cousin who despises her for being The Prettier Woman That All The Boys Like More. And the grandfather seems to be mistaking her for one of her cousins(?) who died, Katrina, who was the spitting image herself of the castle's name sake, Black Maddie, of whom there is a salacious portrait hanging in one of the upstairs rooms.

It doesn't take long for the accidents to start happening, whether it's a shove down the stairs or a near-escape from a vicious attack hawk. There's multiple sex scenes, some graphic, and two pretty graphically depicted sexual assaults (which, as other readers have pointed out, don't do much to further the narrative apart from making Charlotte question her traitorous passions). There's also a pretty disgusting scene where, when her cousins find out about her first assault, begin interrogating her about it extremely inappropriately, asking her what it felt like and whether she enjoyed it. WOW.

BLACKMADDIE truly is a bodice-ripper of the days of olde, which makes the 90s publication date even more amusing. The book takes a VERY long time to get moving considering this book is only 300 pages. I think by page sixty, Charlotte still hasn't gotten to the castle. I thought the cast of creepy family members was probably the best part, and the occult twists, while classic components of most of these sensationalist gothics, were really done well here. Questions over inheritance and family secrets are also always entertaining to me, and I thought Innes had some particularly memorable scenes in here.

Did I love this book? No. But was it fun and ridiculous as all get out? Yes.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Trouble Girls by Julia Lynn Rubin


UGH. Okay, so first things first-- despite the low ratings for TROUBLE GIRLS, it is not a bad book. I would even go so far as to say it is a very good book. It is just very unsatisfying. As a reader, I look for closure-- especially in a book that deals so heavily in trauma. And while it is ultimately up to the author to decide how they end their work, and while it is true that not all stories have happy endings or even endings at all, from a reader perspective that kind of sucks.

I pushed through TROUBLE GIRLS because I was desperate to see what happened. Lux and Trixie are from the Rust Belt and a night of assault puts them on the move to escape the consequences of their actions, because who will believe their story? And what should have been a fun summer road trip ends up turning into them both running through their lives, taking refuge in diners, motels, and even strange hippie communes, sometimes joined by other enigmatic and equally tragic figures.

At the same time, their disappearance triggers a nationwide discussion about #MeToo and the expectations for women when it comes to victimhood. Should there really be a "right" way to be a victim? And how do we frame discussions about assault in a way that doesn't assign blame? This book tackles all of those subjects in the background of a friends-to-lovers romance between two desperate, haunted girls, and it's beautifully tragic.

I just wanted more closure after getting so invested in their stories. This was like Courtney Summers's SADIE all over again.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 13, 2022

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver


DNF @ 20%

I remember when I WISH YOU ALL THE BEST first came out, there was a lot of hype surrounding it because Deaver had been so open about their publishing journey (I think they were originally calling this book #EnbyLovestory) and their excitement about getting the book deal was very much a community event. I remember being really excited for them too and was so happy when I finally got my hands on a copy. I've actually tried two other times to start this book and both times, I ended up setting it down. This time, I told myself I was going to stick with it, but I'm just not feeling I WISH YOU ALL THE BEST.

I actually like THE GHOSTS WE KEEP, which is weird, because in my review I was like, "Ben is the better protagonist." Which is true. Liam was definitely harsh and unlikable but Ben isn't. The problem is that Ben is also just sort of there. As a narrator, they felt very bland to me. Which was strange because the plot is very emotional. The book literally starts with them getting kicked out of their house after coming out, which is awful and incredibly triggering but also-- sadly-- something that still happens not irregularly in places and homes that are hostile to the LGBT+.

Ben goes to live with their sister, Hannah, who was also kicked out, and her husband, Thomas. They are such a sweet couple and I liked how hard they worked to make a place for Ben, setting them up in their home, trying to find creative ways to use the right pronouns even when they were in places that they weren't out (my heart melted with Thomas just kept referring to them as Ben so as not to misgender), and even sending them to a specialty therapist who worked with LGBT+ people. But Ben didn't seem to care that much about their sister, and I was never sure if that standoffishness came from a point of being afraid to open up (my guess), or just a shallow narrator who wasn't very fleshed out.

I can appreciate what this book represents to the LGBT+ canon since it is a book about a nonbinary character, authored by a nonbinary author, and it has some wonderful points about what it means to be nonbinary, as well as "out," but I do think that the author's follow-up was a better book. Even though the narrator was unlikable, they made me feel things and I had a connection with them. I didn't really feel that with this book.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Mansions by Whitney Bianca


I keep telling myself that I need to read more indie authors but then I never do. I'm always afraid that I won't like the book-- and even though that's a risk with any book being published, I feel worse giving a bad review to a book that was written by someone who doesn't have a major publishing house to back their PR. And I'm not going to lie. But one of my friends recommended MANSIONS to me on my Instagram and told me that it was a gothic romance, which is basically my love language, and when I looked into it further, it looked like it was also going to be toxic and intense, which sounded super fun. Especially since I've been on a lil' gothic romance kick lately.

MANSIONS starts out intense and then gets really, really dark. Unlike a lot of dark romances, it doesn't do this by gratuitous gore or other shock tactics. Most of the darkness comes from the toxic relationship, and the hero and heroine going down some very dark spirals. The hero, Dorian, is a sociopath and also a sadist, and the heroine, Adrienne, is a masochist with severe emotional issues. Childhood trauma has made her quick to run at the first sign of trouble, and she works as a photographer in war zones for the adrenaline kick, as well as to make a difference. When Dorian aggressively hits on her at a gala and demands that she come to his hotel to hookup, she's terrified by how much she wants him and immediately flees. But then something terrible happens, and when Adrienne comes back to the United States, she's been severely maimed.

From here, the book just gets even more toxic. The heroine is suffering severe depression and PTSD. The hero is manipulative and awful, but what keeps him from being totally unlikable is his scary devotion to the heroine. It's so fanatical, it's almost religious. He's been obsessed with her since an encounter from when they were children, and since then she's kind of become the One Thing He Could Never Have. And even though she's really vulnerable, she keeps coming up with ways to thwart him. So even though she kind of isn't exactly the flawless vase he thought he put on the pedestal, he kind of ends up liking her more for all of those cracks. At one point, he even says that he's not in love with his fantasy ideal of her, but who she actually is when she's in front of him, and I really liked that.

Some things that will probably upset readers: both characters are legitimately, melodramatically crazy in a way that you really don't see anymore outside of a gothic throwback or a soap opera. There is medical gore (light) from the heroine's accident. There is drug use. The hero has a mistress and a wife who he is sort of seeing in addition to Adrienne, but most of his interactions with them are off-page and it's clear that she is the favored one in this scenario. There are references to suicide and suicidal ideation, on and off-page. At a couple points, it got so heavy that I stepped back to work on a puzzle and think about the book to prepare myself mentally before continuing further.

At some points, this came very close to being a five-star read for me, but it had a ton of typos and it also felt a little too short. The story is fully realized, which is utterly impressive given the length, but I wished there were more scenes between the two of them when they were young and then over the years before they met up again as adults. I think it would have made this book even more emotionally devastating. Still, I think MANSIONS will stick with me for a while. What a gloomy, intense read. Eat your hearts out, Catherine and Heathcliff, lol.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Silver Tears by Camilla LΓ€ckberg


DNF @ 44%

I loved how the first book in this series felt like a nod to the revengesploitation films of the 70s, but from a sort of feminist lens. SILVER TEARS, on the other hand, felt like a major backslide. To me, it kind of feels like the same sort of situation as those unnecessary romantic comedy sequels, where the writers break up the hard-won couple with drama and the plot basically repeats itself. Sometimes, it's better to just have the happy ending and leave a story alone, imo. I think Faye has suffered enough. The writing is good but this ended up just being a really hard and unpleasant read for me. I've been struggling with it for months and decided I don't really want to continue anymore.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Legendary by Stephanie Garber


As I will tell anyone who doesn't want to listen, I'm very picky when it comes to YA. I feel like a lot of it is very standard-issue these days, so it's exciting to find something that goes the extra mile, even if it doesn't exactly break the mold or rewrite the genre. CARAVAL was like that for me. The writing was gorgeous and the plot was addictive, and the perfect blend of adventure and romance. In a way, it really reminded me of the stories I enjoyed as a young girl, so I was able to overlook some of the flaws that made it a tough sell for other readers.

LEGENDARY, on the other hand, is totally different-- and not in a good way. If the characters' names hadn't been the same, it would have felt like a different book in a different universe. With CARAVAL, it really did feel like a game with real stakes and consequences, until the unpopular ending where everything gets weird. With LEGENDARY, it feels like a fever dream. Even when Scarlett and Tella end up playing the game a second time (as with L.J. Smith's Forbidden Game trilogy), it ends up feeling more like a fetch quest than it did like an immersive, fully sustained fantasy. Also, apparently there are gods now, because of course there are. Let's make this a literal deus ex machina.

I was already kind of predisposed to not like LEGENDARY because the annoying sister, Tella, is the narrator of this book. I am not really a fan of authors swapping out narrators mid-series, especially if I really liked the first narrator. Tella is a difficult heroine, which could have made her interesting, if the author didn't seem so afraid of having a difficult heroine in the first place. She actually does with Tella what SJM did with Rhysand, finding all these unbelievable ways to make her more "likable." She manipulates and lies to people because she really does care about them, really. She flirts with boys, but it's actually an act, guys, really-- she doesn't, like, go all the way, unlike what we were led to believe in CARAVAL. Oh, and did you know she's been seriously betrayed? That emotional baggage, though. Here's the thing; I love antiheroes and unlikable characters, but I don't like when their behavior is totally excused or given a pass as an excuse to make them seem "good." This reworking of Tella actually made her more repulsive, and I was incredibly annoyed to see at the end that the author seemed to miss having an "annoying" sister to stir up drama, so she came for Scarlett's character next. GIRL.

I loved Julian as the hero in the first book. I didn't really care for Dante as much in this one, and the "twists" surrounding his character failed to impress me. It felt so anticlimactic, whereas in the first book, I learned things about Julian that made me literally gasp. As with the previous book, the author throws in a motley cast of hot guys and costume fan service, but the hot guys in this book weren't all that impressive. I hated Jacks, and the fact that he was always eating apples kind of felt like a weird Apple Jacks pun that didn't really make sense. Maybe that vampire business could have been more interesting in a darker book, but this book was never allowed to be as dark or ominous as the first book. 

I'm not very excited for the final book in this trilogy anymore, but I'm probably still going to read it.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Caraval by Stephanie Garber


So I've known about CARAVAL for a while but for some reason it had migrated into the "do not read" section of my brain because it was getting hyped up alongside books I didn't like and a lot of my friends whose opinions I usually trust had given it negative reviews. When the entire series went on sale recently, though, I was intrigued. Even though books about circuses and performers usually aren't my things, it was giving off Labyrinth/The Forbidden Game vibes, and hot and dangerous guys forcing women to play lethal puzzle games is apparently my kink, so I was like OKAY YES I WILL DO IT FOR THE VIBES.

I actually ended up really, really enjoying CARAVAL, and part of that enjoyment was because of the reasons so many people hated it. The purple prose-- while cheesy at times, was incredibly evocative and had some really compelling imagery that I felt lent a lot to the fantasy setting. The endless parade of hot boys and fan service-- also yes, but it had the self-indulgent steaminess of a 90s Zebra romance, where even though it's so over the top that you half-expect to see a Fabio in a puffy shirt gracing the book jacket somewhere, it also offers fan service from the female gaze, a truckload of pretty dresses, and some pretty solid romance.

And honestly, I love a good fantasy romance. I grew up with authors like Gail Carson Levine, Vivian Vande Velde, and Diana Wynne Jones, and in the age of the Triple Barrelled Fantasy Women's Canon™, the kidlit crew knew that what girls wanted to read was girls going out into the world, kicking butt and maybe also falling in love. I feel like a lot of fantasy authors try to capture that same magic these days, but they either go too dry and don't have any romance because they're trying to be Taken More Seriously™, or they go full ham on the romance, to the point where they kind of forget about what makes fantasy so much fun in the first place: the immersion and the wonder and the adventure.

The plot of CARAVAL is, at heart, pretty simple. Scarlett and Donatella live on a colonized island in a world where everything, inexplicably, has Spanish names. And side note: I found it hilarious that everything had Spanish names because (FUN FACT), I speak Spanish, and some of the translations were interesting. Like Castillo Maldito (which can be interpreted several ways, one of which is incredibly funny), or Del Ojos Beach, which should just be Playa Del Ojos probably. ANYWAY, everything is Spanish and life in Spanishland sucks. Because the girls' father is super abusive, in a way that is actually probably going to be triggering for a lot of people. Scarlett is in an arranged marriage with a man she has never met, and she's hoping to use him to take her and her sister away forever. But fate yields other plans: specifically, in the form of three magical tickets to Caraval, a traveling circus/carnival where people have to basically complete an obstacle course to win a prize.

Knowing their father will be furious if she goes, Scarlett intends on getting rid of the tickets and sticking with the marriage, because she is boring and safe and predictable. But Donatella is an impulsive, selfish jerk, and her plan involves kidnapping her sister and forcing her to go to Carnival Island. Only that doesn't really go that well-- because GUESS WHAT. Donatella is the prize of this year's obstacle course, and Scarlett has to find her to win. And if she doesn't find her, bad things might happen. What is real? What is the Matrix? What is Inception? WHAT IS CARAVAL? Also, there's a hot but potentially dangerous sailor named Julian to help her on her quest, and in addition to Julian "Why Can't My Shirt Stay On For More Than Five Minutes™" McSailor, there's about four or five other hot but potentially dangerous hot guys, who will either help or hinder with their hotness. Woohoo.

I actually liked the world-building a lot. I felt like it had the same fun-with-a-dark-underside vibes as things like Coraline or MirrorMask. I actually wish it had been just a little more sinister and fantastical, but for what it was, I thought it was a lot of fun. I did not see THE MAGIC CIRCUS similarities at all. Labyrinth, yes. Forbidden Game, yes (I mean the hero's name is even Julian). It was even a little reminiscent of WHAT DREAMS DESCEND, although that was a book I really had to struggle through and they had roughly the same page count. Without spoilers, I will agree that the last 20% of the book and especially the last 10% were a little "what, huh?" It felt like the author really scrambled to wrap the book up in a risk-free way, but it didn't really work. The prologue is also clear sequel-baiting, which is not a big deal to me since I already own the full trilogy, but I bet it was frustrating to get through 400+ pages of book when this first came out and still have the majority of one's questions either not answered, or deflected in a way that it basically felt like the same thing.

But despite all that, I DID enjoy the book-- a lot. And I am definitely going to be reading those sequels. There are a lot of YA adaptations where I'm like, "Why did this need to be on the big screen?" But a movie of this book, I would actually watch and probably really enjoy. Because I love trash.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr


It's Pride Month and I've been trying to read all of the LGBT+ books on my Kindle that I wasn't able to get to during the rest of the year. MY HEARTBEAT was an exciting choice for me because it's actually a book that I'm revisiting-- when I read it for the first time, I was a teenager myself. For many years, this was one of my favorite books, and I remember having a huge crush on the love interest, James.

So first, a disclaimer. I feel like a lot of LGBT+ books from the aughts were written with straight/cis people in mind as the primary audience, because often, a straight/cis person is the main character in these books. They aren't questioning their identities or having something happen to them that changes the concept of their own gradually forming identity; usually, in these books, they are questioning an LGBT+ person's identity or the LGBT+ person is something that "happens" to them. Which, admittedly, is hugely problematic. MY HEARTBEAT does this to some extent, but it ages less poorly than books like WHAT HAPPENED TO LANI GARVER and LUNA, in which the leads in both cases are bigots and their relationship with the LGBT+ person is meant to be educational.

MY HEARTBEAT is a short book and the plot is pretty simple. Ellen is the daughter of a WASP-y East Coast family, the sort of family where the kids go to private schools and the dad reads thick books in German for fun. He called Jane Eyre "romantic drivel," so obviously I hated him. Ellen has an older brother named Link, who's a math genius, and the "smart kid" in the family that her parents are pinning all their hopes on. Link has a close friend named James that he does everything with. James is a year older than Link. He's an artist who smokes cigarettes and is given large amounts of money by his absentee family and he basically lives alone. When I was a kid, teen me thought James was living the dream. Anyway, one day, James and Link have a fight, and Ellen starts to question whether James and Link are just friends. When she confronts them about it, they have a bigger fight, and Link ends up storming off in a huff.

The whole thing kind of starts a chain reaction that has everything coming down like a house of cards. Link starts slacking off in classes and basically having a mental breakdown. It turns out that the snobby father wasn't just pressuring Link to do well at math and go to Yale, he also tried to bribe him with "be straight" money, which upsets the mom and Ellen. James comes out to Ellen and says that he likes men and women (the label "bisexual" isn't really used), although he has never had sex with women before. Ellen goes to the library to research "gayness" and learns a lot about Michaelangelo. By the way, this is New York in 2002, but at least the one gay bookstore in New York has a "woke ally" discount (and no, I'm not joking about this-- it's 15%, in case you were wondering). She and James start dating, while Link conspicuously dates a girl and continues fighting with his parents. Eventually, things resolve.

Sort of.

Okay, so I loved this book when I was a kid, and honestly, compared to some of the other LGBT+ books from that era, you can tell this one is trying to be really inoffensive. But it has some problems, and it's been so long since this book came out, I can't tell whether they're a product of the era or just bad writing. First off, the term questioning isn't really used or explored, which I think is what Link is. He loves his friend but is afraid of it being sexual, and that fear is couched in the societal rejection that Ellen doesn't seem to understand still exists. Her rallying cry of "but things are fine now!" is straight privilege, plain and simple. Also, this is 2002. Gay people literally still couldn't get married. The second problem is the way James is portrayed. I still love him, the pretentious cinnamon roll of my youth, but I feel like the author turned him into a manic pixie dream boy. His role in this book is literally to educate Ellen-- not just about gay people, but also to indoctrinate her into a sexual relationship as well, and he's eighteen and she's fourteen, which feels a little weird. His identity is also questionably portrayed. He's been with men and one of them was one of his father's law partners while he was still underage (so problematic), and all three of the men he slept with were to make Ellen's brother jealous. James casually mentions that this was because he knew Link wouldn't get jealous of a girl, which also wasn't explored and felt nearly biphobic to me-- like, he was assuming that because James was gay, any relationship he had with a girl wouldn't be "real." Ellen is kind of like that, but the opposite: she makes a big deal of being the first girl that James slept with, to the point where it almost feels like an extension of the fantasy that some women have of "turning" a gay man straight. Lastly, it's mentioned at some point that James needs to take an AIDS test before sleeping with Ellen, but this is a throwaway comment as well, and we never really hear about that again, although apparently James examines Ellen's hands for papercuts before they do anything, which felt... squicky, like it is underhandedly implying that bisexual/gay equals unclean. that didn't sit right with me.

The writing in this book is incredibly beautiful and wistful and I loved all the literary references. Ellen trying to appear smarter and more sophisticated than she is is one of the most realistic parts of this coming of age memoir, and I thought it was cool how she and James would go places on their dates and just people watch and make up stories about people for their art. Stylistically, it reminds me a lot of Sarah Dessen, and how her heroines always sounded like world-weary bar waitresses instead of teen girls. MY HEARTBEAT is the same way. Ellen does not sound fourteen. The book is easy to read anyway, but in hindsight, it feels more aspirational than age-appropriate. It's also very, very intellectually snobby (which is maybe why I liked it). As others have said, the length is part of the problem. It's under 200 pages long and it felt like every time the author hit on a potentially important talking point, she'd pivot away and go back to the teen romance. Part of me desperately wants to give it a five star rating just because of nostalgia, but it has so many problems that I'm taking off a star.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Stay Gold by Tobly McSmith


I bought STAY GOLD a while ago and was really excited to read it after one of my friends gave it a very high review. As others have said, though, I don't think the blurb really sets you up for how intense and angsty this read is going to be. The cover and blurb make it sound like it's going to be a fluffy, feel-good romance book, but it's actually loaded with some pretty devastating scenes, everything from physical assault to misgendering to use of slurs, and there's a scene at the end that is reminiscent of Boys Don't Cry, only not quite as bad.

The story is basically this. Pony is the son of an active military dude and moves around a lot. At his last school, he was out as trans and that basically became his sole identity-- he was sick of the positive and negative attention surrounding that. At his newest Texas high school, he's decided he's going to go about incognito. Which seems simple enough until he sort of catches romantic feelings for one of the cheerleaders and she likes him back. He has to tell her, right?

STAY GOLD is told in dual POV, narrated by both Pony and Georgia. Both of them are dealing with things outside of their primary relationship conflict. Obviously, Pony is hiding his identity, but he's also working a part-time job with a retired golden age movie actor named Ted London in order to pay for his own top surgery, but the actor has secrets of his own. Georgia, on the other hand, is recovering from a bad breakup and trying to find herself. She anonymously writes columns for the school newspaper because she wants to be a journo, but that doesn't fit in with the popular and pretty vibe that she's been cultivating for herself as a cheerleader.

As far as YA books go, I feel like this is geared towards a slightly older audience. It doesn't talk down to its readers and it deals with some pretty serious subject matter. I can see why some trans readers took issue with the book because it does deal with some pretty heavy stuff before slapping on a happy ending that almost feels too easy. But on the other hand, I think that stories like these can be valuable because they end up almost being hurt/comfort-like, showing that someone can triumph over suffering (even though it sucks that the suffering ends up being the catalyst to the triumph). I never really fully warmed to Georgia though, because of how she hurt and strung Pony along. I guess she sort of redeemed herself in the end, but this wasn't one of my favorite YA romances. Pony was great, though.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 6, 2022

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics


DNF @ 21%

Not too long ago, I tried to watch a sapphic movie on Netflix and I can't even remember what it was called, but it was clearly very high production value and it felt very posh. There were lots of close-up shots of hands grasping at things wistfully and stares from across the room and I WAS SO BORED. It was like being seven again and thrown into an itchy dress before being dragged somewhere unfun and warned, only, "BEHAVE."

This is basically the book equivalent of that. Lucy is a young aspiring astronomer who has just watched her female lover marry a man to better fit into society and reap the benefits of a heteronormative relationship. When her father dies, and the Countess of Moth makes an enquiry into who can replace her father's work, she shows up in person (basically uninvited) to claim that position for herself. And rather than let the little idiot go off unchaperoned, Catherine lets Lucy stay with her.

The writing is very nice but the romance was much slower than I'd like. To be fair, I'm not interested in women, but I think even if this is M/F I'd be bored, because I've had this issue with other books in Avon's more recent line of acquisitions, where the romance is too fluffy and just doesn't have that combustible, ever-so-slightly-toxic chemistry that I love so much.

I kept seeing this book on Bookstagram so I really wanted to love it, but this wasn't really my thing.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore


THE MIRROR SEASON was one of my Pride Month picks (the heroine is pansexual), but I didn't know much about it except that it was a loose retelling of The Snow Queen, which is one of my favorite faerie tales of all time. It is that, but it is also so much more. The premise revolves around the heroine, Ciela, realizing that she and the new boy, Lock, were both sexually assaulted at the same party. The culprits are some of the most powerful kids in their private school, whereas she and Lock are incredibly low on the tier. The assault leaves its mark on them, inside and out. Ciela finds that she has lost her gift to predict the pastries people want at her family's pasteleria, and Lock has lost his quiet gentleness, and has instead become a fount of anger.

I don't want to say too much about this book because ~spoilers~, but I basically devoured it in a sitting. Some of this author's other works were too fluffy/light for me to pick up, but this is the best kind of hurt/comfort romance that has two people taking solace in one another while trying to move on from past trauma. The relationship between Ciela and Lock had so much depth, and even though third-act breakups usually make me roll my eyes, this one actually made sense.

I could go on and on about the visuals-- the way faerie tales are used as a motif to express danger and trauma in safe, childlike mode expression; the birds that symbolize happiness and freedom; the use of ice and glass to represent freezing over trauma and shutting down emotionally. I loved the focus on food as a point of comfort, and the love that Ciela and Lock both had with their families. I also liked that healing was a central part of this book's storyline, and how the author represented healing not as a linear path but one that moves you forward and backward, sometimes not equally.

I don't normally read the author's notes at the end, but I recommend reading this one. They wrote this story from their own experience as a survivor, including an incident that mirrors that of the characters in this book. It's a beautiful, heartbreaking story with a happy, hopeful ending. Picture SPEAK or I AM NOT YOUR PERFECT MEXICAN DAUGHTER, but way more lyrical and intense.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 5, 2022

King of the Rising by Kacen Callender


DNF @ 23%

I have been looking forward to KING OF THE RISING since I first finished and loved QUEEN OF THE CONQUERED back in 2019. I really enjoyed QotC because it does so many things I enjoy-- non-Western fantasy setting, morally ambiguous main character, and challenging, real-world concepts that are basically reworked as moral thought experiments with no cheap or easy answers.

KING OF THE RISING takes off exactly where QotC ends, post-coup, with Sigourney imprisoned post-rebellion. The new narrator is now Loren, who was Sigourney's slave until the uprising, and now he's one of the lead architects in furthering the revolution and getting himself and the other native islanders outside assistance from off the island. But it's not easy. His proximity to the white colonists, as well as to Sigourney, make him suspect, and his idealism is tainted by his own anger, and there is no room for such neat and clean outcomes in a world that has been sharpened by blood and oppression.

I wanted to like this book but right off the bat, I had difficulty getting into KING OF THE RISING. Loren just isn't as compelling a character as Signourney, and everything felt so slow-paced compared to the first, which had the brilliant set-up, the cutthroat tension, and the surprising twists. Also, love her or hate her, Sigourney is a one-woman powerhouse with incredibly conflicting motivations and that made her really interesting to read about. I'm not saying Loren doesn't have conflicts, but his don't stand out the way Signourney's did, and it's not all that interesting to watch people stage a rebellion only to have it flounder and fail (even if maybe that's realistic). I read spoilers for the book because I was curious to see if I wanted to move forward, and I don't think I do. I know authors don't owe us a happy ending in fiction, but as a reader, I can choose how deeply I want to venture out into misery.

2 out of 5 stars

Beyond the Ruby Veil by Mara Fitzgerald


I bought BEYOND THE RUBY VEIL on impulse a couple months ago when it went on sale, not realizing it was dystopian or sapphic. I'm a simple woman-- show me a fantasy novel with a gorgeous cover, and I willingly part with my cash like a sucker. I decided to make this one of my Pride Month picks and color me shocked when, despite rather mixed and unenthusiastic feedback from some of my friends, this ended up rocketing up my favorites list when I finished it in a day.

The plot of it sounds super cheesy. It's one of those water wars-type books, where the premise revolves around scarcity of resources. The heroine, Emanuela, lives in a pseudo-Renaissance Italy setting called Occhia, where water is obtained by a blood sorceress called the watercrea who takes people away when they get these mysterious lesions called "omens" and then drains them dry of blood.

On the day of Emanuela's wedding to her closeted best friend, she gets a lesion and is taken away by the watercrea. But Emanuela, who is a ruthless sociopath who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, is not about to let some old woman determine when she will die. She kills the watercrea, thus putting an end to her city's dwindling water source. And they aren't happy about it.

I don't want to say too much about this book, but it ended up going in a direction I wasn't expecting, and towards the end it gets very, very dark. Like, why-did-I-read-this-while-eating dark. In some ways, this reminded a bit of Kerri Maniscalco's KINGDOM OF THE WICKED crossed with Claire Eliza Bartlett's THE WINTER DUKE, but it's much darker than either of those two books, and the heroine is way more ruthless. Also, those books were a little more focused on the romance, and while there is gay yearning in BEYOND THE RUBY VEIL, and two potential LGBT+ relationships are kind of set up here, nothing is set in stone by the end of the book. So in that way, it's kind of more like Crystal Smith's BLOODLEAF, a YA book that took some serious risks with world-building and consequences.

I can't wait to get my hands on the sequel. I want to learn more about the cities and the mysterious aerial veil that shrouds the city and I want to see who Emanuela is going to torment next (probably everyone).

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson


So it's Pride Month and even though you should read diversely year-round, I don't think there's anything wrong in taking particular pride (DID YOU SEE, DID YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE) in celebrating LGBT+ authors during Pride Month. I try to read diversely year-round BUT I CAN'T GET TO EVERYTHING, so every June, I try to shine a spotlight on what I couldn't get to during the rest of the year.

NIMONA has been on my radar for a while-- especially since buzz went around that it was picked up as an animated series for Netflix (UM, YES). And as a fan of graphic-novels who LOVES fantasy, it seemed like exactly my cup of tea. The style is pretty minimal but it works for the story, which manages to be both wholesome, touching, and intense. Reading this book was like going on a rollercoaster of feels and my body was NOT prepared.

Basically, Nimona is a shapeshifter who is obsessed with the main character, Ballister Blackheart, a villain who used to be a knight until his arm was blown off by his love interest/archnemesis. Now he lives to thwart the ableist Institution who was like "we don't hire people with disabilities," which is way lame. Who's the villain here? Obviously not Blackheart, despite his unfortunate name. At first Blackheart is like, ugh, a CHILD get it away, but when he sees what she can do, he immediately understands the potential.

As the story goes on, we meet the arm-blowing-off-archnemsis, Ambrosious Goldenloin (LMAO) and the rather sinister organization he works for. It ends up having buddy cop vibes (if the cops were evil) with a classic hero's journey arc, and I love how the story kind of picks apart the threads of traditional fantasy roles, questioning what is good and what is evil. Everyone in this book is some shade of morally grey and I kind of loved that. This is what I was hoping Matt Groening's Disenchanted would be like, so it was an unexpected surprise to find that here.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Balance by Lucia Franco


I don't know if the book community realizes this, but when they "cancel" a book for being problematic, they're essentially just boosting it in the algorithm and informing people who didn't know that it existed that, well, it exists. Even if the buzz trends negative, the book will still spike in sales. Take me, I had no idea this book existed until I saw people talking about it on Twitter. And the part of me that internally stomps its foot and goes NO when people tell me not to do something I didn't even really want to do in the first place suddenly went, "Hmm, I kind of want to read this book now."

BALANCE was actually pulled from Amazon and reworked, based on what I've seen in other reviews. In the original, it looks like the heroine, Adrianna, was fifteen. Now most concrete references to her age have been removed, except mentions that she's still "underage." I'm not sure she's still fifteen in this version. It seems like the author might have implicitly aged her up, but it's not clear. I thought she was sixteen or seventeen, based on some of the things she said, but she doesn't have her license, which does point younger (although I got mine late). IDK, the vagueness makes it even weirder.

I have a lot of thoughts on this book after finishing, so as with all of my conflicted reviews, I will be doing bullet points.


πŸ‘ All of the details about gymnastics. The physicality of the sport really comes through here, and it was so sensory that I actually looked up the author to see if she was a gymnast. Apparently she was, as well as a cheerleader, for ten years. Some sports romances gloss over the hard work and the training, but this one does not, and I really liked that about BALANCE. It was my favorite part.
πŸ‘ Adrianna actually acted her age. Apart from her uncomfortable level of interest in sex, she felt like an authentic teenager. The things she thought and did felt realistic. She could be a bit bratty, but considering her rich and kind of aloof family, and her privilege, this made sense, too. I liked how hard she worked and how passionate she was about her sport.
πŸ‘ Hayden. What a sweetie. I hate that this book is a love triangle taboo romance, actually, because I wanted her to end up with the nice boy her own age (I sound like such a mom, omg). I mean, he watched movies with her and helped drain her blisters. He's a keeper, babes.
πŸ‘ Heroine gets a UTI from unprotected sex. Maybe this would be in someone else's dislike column, but I actually like seeing STD/UTI rep in fiction because it is a real thing that happens and I don't think people should be shamed for it. Kova acted like the morning after pill was good enough protection (ha-- jerk), but pregnancy isn't the only bad thing that can happen from not having protection, especially if your partner is with other partners (or vice-versa). So even though that scene was super hard to read (and made me take a super long and grateful pee afterwards), I appreciated it a lot.


πŸ‘Ž The sex in here was so awkward. It made me uncomfortable. Not a lot makes me uncomfortable but adults taking advantage of loco parentis roles really does. And I felt like the author tried to comp for it by making Adrianna really precocious in that area, but she was also a virgin. At one point she asks her friend what an orgasm feels like? But then on the other hand she is talking about how to get off and it's just so sexual. The only other book I can think of that was like this weird blend of experienced/innocent was Penelope Douglas's CREDENCE, and I didn't really like that, either. For the same reasons.
πŸ‘Ž Kova is a huge jerk. I couldn't stand this hero at all. He wasn't good for the heroine and, imo, he wasn't good enough for her. I thought it was skeevy how he calls his girlfriend (YES, he has a girlfriend) by the same nickname that he calls Adrianna. I hate how he was sidelining his girlfriend and she was written as needy when she just seemed really concerned and upset at being gaslit and potentially deported. I hated how he tried to frame the relationship as being the heroine's fault, like she was the one who was supposed to be setting boundaries. I hated how he portrayed rough sex as some huge sin that he would be tainting an innocent with, and that the (presumably) impure girlfriend had to be the vessel for this lasciviousness. And I really hated how he threw a wrench in her career just to make her hate him enough not to be with him, because he STILL didn't have the spine to stay away. That sort of retaliation is exactly why rules are in place to keep relationships like this from happening.

Overall, I thought this book was pretty good. It was shockingly long, but I got through it in about two days. There were a number of typos and clunky sentence structures, but that's pretty common in most indie works and it didn't bother me too much. My biggest beef with this book is the fact that the hero is honestly so undesirable. I don't really feel like this is a romance at all, so much as a sort of dramatic tragedy and maybe a fascinating character study of two very flawed people. I didn't find it sexy at all.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars