Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Bodyguard by Katherine Center

 THE BODYGUARD piqued my interest ever since I found out that it was a gender-reversed bodyguard romance. I love books that play with and subvert gender norms, and I thought the idea of a romance novel where the woman is protecting the man was super neat. But I was also a little leery because sometimes these super cutesy illustrated cover romance novels have me banging my head against the wall because they lack substance.

But this book surprised me in the best way.

Hannah Brooks is shocked when she's tasked with protecting famous film actor Jack Stapleton. For one, they don't normally "do" celebrities in her protection agency. For another, he's famous. For yet another still, she's been having the worst month ever. Her boyfriend, who works with her, dumped her the day after her mother's funeral, and she's been sleeping on the floor of her closet. Work has been her coping mechanism and her slightly sadistic boss has had enough. So he's peeled her off her dream assignment and slapped her onto this.

I thought the romance itself was pretty decent. It's not quite enemies to lovers although it has some elements of that. Both the FMC and the MMC have believable traumas that they end up working through together. There's a bunch of tropes that I really like (there was only one bed, found family, reverse grumpy sunshine, fake dating). And the banter could be really good. But there were some things that kept me from rating it higher, too. The last act felt a little weird and rushed. Sometimes the "banter" got repetitive and a little annoying. You also really have to suspend your disbelief with this book. It kind of has aughts-era Meg Cabot vibes. It's cheesy but fun enough that you roll with it.

Ergo, I liked this book but didn't love it, and probably wouldn't reread it (although will I attempt to get my hands on other books by this author? Hard yes).

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith


I'm honestly kind of shocked that this was in the cruise ship library because it was as depressing as all get out and actually left me in a little bit of a funk. I have a hard time envisioning this as someone's beach read, you know? But that said, it was still an amazingly good read. The comparisons to SPEAK are on point, although I think it's a more mature work in some ways because of how morally ambiguous Eden is. It takes a lot of skill to make an unlikable heroine so sympathetic, and even though Eden does demonstrate a lot of toxic behaviors and can be quite cruel, you can definitely see where she's coming from.

When Eden was just fourteen, she was raped by her older brother's friend. He sneaked into her bed and told her he'd kill her if she told. After that, she's never quite the same. She can't tell anyone what happened, so she ends up internalizing it and trying to grab control wherever she can. She quits band, she starts acting like a control freak in her book club, and she starts changing her appearance. Then she starts hooking up with guys, becoming quite promiscuous. Almost like she's trying to play out what happened, but with full control.

The book is carved into four parts: freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year. In these sections, Eden makes new friends and loses them, and complicates all of her relationships with her trauma. Because she never tells anyone what happened to her, people don't know why she's acting the way she does, and sometimes the effects are heartbreaking. I honestly had a tightness in my chest when I finished because I was so worried about the outcome, but it ended up being kind of bittersweet. That's why I think this is a book for older teens as opposed to younger ones: the heroine isn't as likable as heroines of other rape-focused books, like JUST LISTEN or SPEAK, and the morality isn't quite as clear-cut, nor is the ending quite as satisfying.

That said, I think books like these are very important because there really is no right way to be a victim, and even if you wear revealing clothes or sleep around, rape is still rape. Painting people as "ideal victims" contributes to rape culture and makes it easier to write off testimony. So I'm really glad that books like this exist, which explore what trauma looks like in more muddied waters. Bless the morbid and gloomy person who brought this book onto the cruise ship so that I could read it, too.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Family of Liars by E. Lockhart


After reading and being unimpressed by WE WERE LIARS, I thought I probably wouldn't continue with the Taft-Sinclair family and their WASP-y adventures.  There's something a little tedious about watching a rich, white, entitled American family get away with successfully covering up their crimes. I DON'T KNOW WHY OR ANYTHING.

Anyway, I found a copy of this book in the cruise ship library and decided to eat my words. The heroine of this book is the mother of one of the kids in WE WERE LIARS, only it's historical fiction because it takes place in the '80s (doesn't that make you shudder even more than the crime stuff did??). Caroline is the oldest, plainest Taft-Sinclair child. She has two younger sisters, Bess and Penny, who are way more attractive and liked.

As they spend their summer on the island, and gradually come of age, they meet a group of boys that are brought over by their cousin Yardley, and her boyfriend, George. This ends up being the first sign of doom, although nobody knows it then. Also, there's ghosts and stuff, because the girls previously had another sister, the youngest, Rosemary, who drowned in the ocean about a year or so before. And nobody talks about it.

I ended up liking this book a lot more than WE WERE LIARS. I'm a sucker for unlikable, flawed heroines, and Caroline with her lying, her need to make herself the heroine in her own twisted story, and her codeine addiction, really ticks all the boxes. She acts exactly the way you'd expect a privileged, entitled, and troubled girl to act. I also liked that it didn't rely on the cheap tactics of memory loss and amnesia to keep info from the reader, even though that's a trope I actually enjoy; I just feel like it's become a little too overdone over the last couple years. This book ended up having a much more haunting, melancholy feel to it, and I really enjoyed that.

I don't want to say too much else because spoilers but this is definitely a more mature work than WE WERE LIARS and I enjoyed it a lot.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner


DNF @ p.89

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

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

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

Sorry, book. :(

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, November 25, 2022

Sugaring Off by Gillian French


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

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

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

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

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Duke in Question by Amalie Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Monday, November 21, 2022

How You Grow Wings by Rimma Onoseta


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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Enchanted Paradise by Johanna Hailey


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 13, 2022

I'll Be You by Janelle Brown


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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 out of 5 stars