Saturday, December 31, 2022

Locked Box by Eve Dangerfield


DNF @ 13%

This wasn't my thing. Just read ACT YOUR AGE by this author and loved it and I'm currently reading VELVET CRUELTY and getting high off the delicious soap opera drama of it, but LOCKED BOX fell kind of flat for me. It's pretty insta-lusty and I wasn't all that keen on the fact that the hero was still with his wife (even though they're getting divorced). It has all the hallmarks that make Dangerfield a great writer-- STEM heroine, clever banter, dry humor-- but I wasn't feeling the chemistry and the story made me feel bored.

2 out of 5 stars

Double Love by Francine Pascal


Oh, Sweet Valley. You were Young Me's dramatic fix, scratching an itch that wouldn't be scratched until I discovered Asian dramas and bodice-rippers years and years later. There was a point in my life where I tried to wear one purple thing every day, just like Jessica, because I wanted to be an honorary "Unicorn." And even though Jessica was the pretty, popular, fashionable one, Elizabeth was the one I wanted to be friends with, because she wanted to be a writer and loved to read-- just like me.

I recently bought books 1-12 bundled on Kindle for, like, $1.99, which is a pretty sweet deal (maybe even a Sweet Valley deal? LOL). I read a lot of the elementary and middle school-set ones, but DOUBLE LOVE was the only Sweet Valley High book I ever read, maybe because my parents thought they would be too spicy for middle grade me? This book was honestly pretty wild, like a teenage soap opera-- a dangerous older guy who takes minors for underage drinking, a family of drug addicts, and lying about sexual assault to get revenge on guys rejecting you? And people think this series is wholesome and old-fashioned. LOL.

I don't want to say too much about this book because spoilers, and there really isn't a solid plot except for drama, but the gist of this book is: Elizabeth and Todd like each other but aren't going out with each other because of misunderstandings (most of them named Jessica) and the fact that they're both spineless weasels who are afraid of confrontation and that includes confronting each other. The other main plot thread is that Jessica is a sociopath and a pathological liar who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, and those things that she wants mostly include a) whatever her sister has that she doesn't and b) boys, the more the better, especially if they are effusive in their admiration.

Compared to a lot of teen books written by middle-aged ladies, this one felt more "teen" than most, although there is an overuse of the word "terrific" and "golly-gee"-type sentiments, and I was a little surprised that this high school also has sororities (was that a thing?? do high schools have sororities and rush weeks?). I also had an "lol" moment where they go to a burger place for "clams and milkshakes." What is this, New England? Who are these teens going to the malt shop for seafood? Is this burger joint owned by Wolfgang Puck? Sweet Valley seems to be a Santa Monica-inspired town so maybe Wolfgang has a summer home there where he cooks for the Fowlers and the Patmans on weekends, I don't know. But what I do know is that this is glorious trash and it's reinforced why I liked it so much as a kid.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sea of Ruin by Pam Godwin


SEA OF RUIN has been on my radar since it came out because I kind of have a soft spot for old school pirate romances and the cover design had a decidedly retro bent to it, like the author (and the artist, obvi) was trying to pay homage to the bodice-rippers of yore. As someone who loves the bodice-rippers of yore, I was super into that. And the only thing better than reading a modern day throwback is conning several of your friends to read it with you, so thanks to Rebecca, Aaliyah, and Koistyfishy for joining me on this "sea of ruin."

The book is written in first person and has a very melodramatic, breathless style to the narration that reminded me a lot of Natasha Peters's works, a bodice-ripper author from the '70s and '80s who wrote books in the first person that followed a heroine over the years as she grew up and was shaped by the chaotic elements in her life. Specifically, this reminded me of SAVAGE SURRENDER, which also had a bratty heroine who was kind of kick-butt and a toxic romance with a dangerous, obsessive hero who was not to be crossed.

Was this a perfect book? No, but there was a lot to like about it. It seemed really well-researched and I loved the scenery, the fight scenes, the descriptions of the taverns and the ships. All of it was quite nicely done and added a lot to the story. I also liked Bennett, even though she was a bit of a Mary Sue. She suffered as most authors don't let their precious Sues suffer, and I think this kept her from feeling too two-dimensional. There were several scenes in this book that were very hard to read, involving death, torture, tragedy, and rape, which definitely gave this book more of an old skool flavor.

I'm not usually into M/F/M books but I liked that element in this book, too. The idea of a love triangle between a female pirate captain and her pirate husband and a pirate hunter was intriguing to me. They also all had chemistry, which is, I imagine, hard to do. I also liked that the men had distinctly different personalities, even though they were both incredibly dangerous. Priest is fire and impulsivity and filled with animal passions, whereas Ashley is more of a cold and icy type with a frozen maelstrom underneath. They also cracked me up. Priest's orange allergy leads to not one but TWO rather convenient exercises to further the plot, and can we not forget Ashley's midnight self-pleasuring sessions on the balcony of his ship? SO. DRAMATIC. How did the author come up with this stuff?

If you're not into dark romances or the politically incorrect bodice-rippers of olde, I would not recommend SEA OF RUIN. Actually, I would not recommend SEA OF RUIN for a lot of reasons, because I feel like it embodies a lot of the tropes that romance novels of the present day are trying frantically to distance themselves from. But that's kind of messy, because for a lot of people, Kathleen Woodiwiss and Christine Monson and Johanna Lindsey were the authors people cut their teeth on for the first time, so I like the idea of a bodice-ripper Renaissance written for a modern audience, but with all of the chaotic, crazy tropes that created a booming industry with some of the best cover artists around.

You be the judge, though.

P.S. Docking a half star because, like the bodice-ripper predecessors, the sex scenes in this book were too purple and went on for waaaaaay too long. Sex scenes are like red pepper flakes: I love a liberal sprinkling but please, for the love of God, don't serve me an entire PLATE of them.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Succubus Blues by Richelle Mead


Somehow this book escaped me when I was in the middle of my paranormal romance phase in my early twenties. My friend Heather said it was really good and a bit more of a diamond-in-the-rough than her Vampire Academy series, and since we have pretty similar tastes in PNR, that made me really excited to try the Georgina Kincaid series. It's also unique in that, instead of being about the usual vampires and werewolves and witches, it focuses around demons and angels (and, yes, okay, also vampires).

Georgina is a succubus. She was turned into one as punishment for her crimes as a mortal (and also because of a deal she made). She's a bit reluctant about it though and only steals life force from bad men. Life isn't too bad for her, though; she has a circle of friends, an annoying but okay demon boss, an annoying but okay human boss, and a cat. All that changes, though, when someone starts going around killing immortals in Seattle. Because she might just be next if she doesn't find out the killer.

There was so much to love about this book. It's edgier than VA, which makes sense because that was YA and this is for adults. The sex scenes are great and I liked that Georgina had multiple partners. People who don't like cheating might hate that, but come on, she's a succubus. It wouldn't make sense otherwise, and I think her conflict was handled really well. Her two love interests were both appealing in different ways and I could see why she was attracted to each of them: a bumbling artist type and a smooth, charismatic bad boy? Um, why choose?

I'm giving this four stars instead of five because the pacing could be really slow and I felt like there were a lot of random scenes about Georgina just hanging out that didn't really add anything to the story. I liked Georgina and all of the side characters so I didn't mind this too much, but I think the story could have been tighter if it had more romance and smut and the author had focused on the mystery angle. The research into Judeo-Christian theology was fascinating. I had no idea how twisted angels could be, and the passage she quoted from the Book of Enoch was so fascinating that I looked it up to read more about it. She could have Da Vinci Coded us a little more about that stuff and I would have been fascinated. 

That said, it was still really good and I can't wait to read more. Thank goodness I impulsively bought the whole series while it was on sale so I don't have to wait to find out what happens next.

P.S. This book was published when I was still in school, holy fudge.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 30, 2022

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher


I'm not usually into horror novels but I like classic horror that relies less on blood and gore and more on psychological tension and atmosphere, and this book has both of those things in spades. WHAT MOVES THE DEAD is a delightful bundle of tropes: creepy animals, crawling mold, a gothic castle, a family filled with madness, and a dark, dank secret that would chill the blood of men, all told by a dryly witty nonbinary protagonist, Alex, who has come to the House of Usher to aid a childhood friend as she succumbs to a mysterious illness.

I don't know if any of you are familiar with Magic the Gathering lore, but this has very similar vibes to the plane of Innistrad when it was being influenced by Emrakul: picture a quaint 19th century European village being slowly poisoned by toxic and sinister influences. The interactions with the flora and fauna and the palpable terror of the villagers made this feel like an old skool horror movie that could have starred Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. I also liked the comedic elements that came from Alex and the proper Ms. Potter, Beatrix's fictional aunt, and determined female mycologist.

Less is definitely more going into WHAT MOVES THE DEAD because part of the fun is figuring out what's going on. But this is definitely creepy and despite being under 200 pages, the pacing was economical and perfect. If this isn't made into a movie, somebody's not doing their job.

P.S. Don't read this at night.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Honey-Don't List by Christina Lauren


My track record with Christina Lauren is not the best, as I hated-hated-hated BEAUTIFUL BASTARD and felt only lukewarmly towards JOSH AND HAZEL'S GUIDE TO NOT DATING. But when I found this book for, like, twenty cents at a thrift store and saw the blurb, I knew I had to get it, track record be damned. I loved the idea of two used and abused personal assistants falling in love while commiserating over their showboating asshole bosses. Even better, the asshole bosses in this equation are kind of like a cross between Dave and Rachel Hollis and Chip and Joanna Gaines. 

Carey is a PA for Melissa Tripp, CEO and all-around boss babe of her own renovation/home design company, Comb+Honey. Her husband, Rusty, is her #1. Back when they were working out of their house, he built a lot of the furniture in their shop, but now that that's all outsourced, all he really does is mug for the camera and act doofy. They're releasing a book about their perfect marriage and about to launch a new TV show, but all is not well in Trippland. Melissa is becoming angrier and more controlling and Rusty can't keep it in his pants. Their marriage and their careers are both in choppy waters.

James is an engineer but due to a major career mess-up, he's kind of screwed himself into a corner and is essentially Rusty's PA, despite his fancy degrees. He and Carey are often at odds with their employers' conflicting wants, but when they end up on the road for a book tour together, they end up finding not just rapport but also a sort of attraction, too. I liked the romance a lot. It was sweet without being boring. Part of this is because they both are fully fleshed out human beings. They have families, conflicting drives, and lives that exist outside of each other and their careers. Carey is particularly interesting because she has something called dystonia, which is a chronic motor disorder that affects her hands. The authors talk about their own personal experience with this disorder in their family in a touching afterword that's actually worth reading.

I liked this book a lot. I think I liked it more than I would have if it were *just* a romance because of the social commentary. It was done really well and reminded me of that old movie, Best in Show. The portrayal of the hypocrisy and inner-conflict that influencers and celebrities can sometimes demonstrate was really well done and it added a lot of meat to the story. Melissa and Rusty actually eclipsed the narrators at times because their personalities were just so big. In fact, this whole book was like a fictionalized tea channel or reality TV show, so if you're into that kind of big drama, you'll love this.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Switch by Beth O'Leary


I've developed a reputation for being a fan of dark romances but sometimes I like to read something cute. When I found a new copy of THE SWITCH at a thrift store, I was excited because I really enjoyed the author's other book, THE FLATSHARE, despite thinking it would just be pointless fluff. There was an emotional depth to that book and a really strong connection between the two leads that made it so much more than a bookish piece of candy that you forget after one bite. I was excited to see what the author would do in her other books, too.

THE SWITCH kind of has the same premise as those house-swapping shows that were popular in the aughts. Leena and Eileen are granddaughter and grandmother. Leena works a stressful corporate job in London and has just messed up a major presentation by having a panic attack after overworking herself for months. Eileen lives in a small English village; her husband left her and she fills the void of loneliness by looking after her daughter and participating in the Neighborhood Watch Association, which is filled with other nosy, lonely busybodies, like herself.

They end up proposing a swap of each other's houses. Eileen will go to London to take care of things and maybe do some online dating with over-seventies folks, and Leena will rest and convalesce in the English village and take some time to clear her head. It seems like the perfect plan, except in the village, Leena starts to fall for a sweater-wearing teacher who isn't her boyfriend and Eileen finds out that dating isn't quite as simple or easy as she thought it would be, and that her granddaughter's problems go so much deeper than a maybe half-hidden fear of public speaking.

So I'm going to be straight up and say that I didn't like this as much as I did THE FLATSHARE. Namely because it wasn't as romantic or sweet or light-hearted. This one has a pretty heavy subplot involving cancer, like so many other chick-lit books seem to have these days, and it's not mentioned in the blurb, which I know some people find triggering. The heroine has a sister who died of cancer and it put a rift between Leena and her mother, and it's talked about a lot. I appreciate the importance of grief and overcoming it to the point where it becomes manageable even if it never goes away, but I hadn't quite signed up for that. So if you're sensitive to topics like that, take heed.

The romance was also pretty weak. Weirdly, the grandmother gets most of the romance (and the sex scenes!), which is refreshing but also makes the book feel very one-sided. This is more Eileen's book than it is Leena's, which is also not obvious from the cover, as it was designed in the exact same way as THE FLATSHARE, but I feel like FLATSHARE is targeted towards young women in their late-teens to their early thirties, whereas the targeted audience for THE SWITCH feels older. I wish there had been more development between Leena and her love interest. It felt like they went from like to love very quickly, to the point where the epilogue had me going, "Whaaa?"

I also feel like things were never fully resolved with the mother. And the resolution with Leena and her not-nice boyfriend wasn't nearly as satisfying as the one in THE FLATSHARE. THE SWITCH ends up feeling more like chick-lit than a romance because the focus of the story is less on romance than it is on the development of the characters. It actually reminded me a lot of Jane Green's books, only without the mean streak of humor that could make those such difficult reads. Not surprised Marian Keyes blurbed my copy, either, because there's definitely traces of that sort of family hijinks vibe present here, too.

Overall, I'd say that this was fine. I skimmed a little towards the end because I got a little bored but it was cute, and Eileen is the cozy, meddling grandmother that I always secretly wished I had growing up.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, December 26, 2022

WtAFW: Mating with the Mantis by M.J. Edwards


M.J. Edwards is the author of some of those coronavirus erotica that went viral not too long ago but then she kind of fell off the radar. She published a couple follow-ups, including a scatological offering in which a woman takes a shit and then fucks it, but none reached that same initial burst of success. I still think about her books sometimes, though, usually when it's Wednesday and I'm being forced to read something weird for my weekly What the Actual Fuck Wednesday challenge. So for the sake of old times, I popped over to her Goodreads profile to see if she had published anything new.

She had.

Dr. Penningforthly is an oh-so-smart female insectologist with a problem. She would like to fuck a mantis, so much so that she has forced human sex partners to paint themselves green whilst wearing a mantis mask, and has even filled a whole bathtub full of mantises while trying to, you know. The woman actually has a death count of the number of mantises she has killed by trying to fuck them. WTF.

Anyway, one day this insectologist sees some people wheeling an enlargement ray around, because insectology is all about, uh, enlargement. She gets a wicked idea so wicked that it makes her horny and she has to rub one out. Then she runs to the mantis cages and grabs a mantis. She puts him in the ray, but it doesn't just zap him bigger-- it turns her into a mantis as well. They bang but oh no, she forgot that female mantises eat their partners after sex. THE REGRET! Oh, the terrible, terrible-- hmm, lovey kind of tastes good. Time to eat him out-- literally. RIP mantis.

The book ends with Dr. Penningforthly shrinking back to normal mantis size. A scientist finds her and puts her back into the mantis tank. But because he is not a clever insectologist like herself, he doesn't realize she's a girl mantis. He puts her into the boy mantis tank. Dr. Penningforthly does the book character equivalent of sprouting devil horns whilst mugging a smile for the audience. End scene.

This book was cringe even for M.J. Edwards's standards. I don't think I have winced my way through a book like this since WET HOT ALLOSAURUS SUMMER, in which the allosaurus in question tears off and eats the heroine's gangrenous arm during sex before cheating on her. This should provide a Litmus test for you to gauge the levels of gross present in this book. Pass me a bucket, please.

1 out of 5 stars

Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews


Mad Rogan who?

I have been wanting to read this new trilogy about Nevada's younger sister for years, and when the first book went on sale ages ago, I may have screamed. But then I remembered the agony of reading the original series as they came out, and through a truly Herculean effort of will, I forced myself to wait until I was able to binge the entire trilogy all at once before starting SAPPHIRE FLAMES. Which was agony itself, but also HOO-BOY, after that cliffhanger, boy am I glad I waited.

I've seen some of my friends saying that they preferred the original trilogy but I actually think they're equally good in different ways. Catalina is just as vulnerable as Nevada in her own way, but she has a different set of problems. With siren powers that make people fall in love with her, she's always second-guessing whether people really love her for who she is, or if that's even possible. I think that's something a lot of people with anxiety and impostor syndrome relate to, with or without powers, and Catriona is so sheltered that being the new Head of her House comes at such a draining psychological cost that you can really feel the toll it takes on her, and part of the fun of this book is seeing her grow stronger for it.

And I LOVED Alessandro. I loved that his powers work in opposition to hers and that she has a sort of teenage crush on him that she thinks is unrequited. I loved the juxtaposition of his suave European playboy persona against his cold mercenary one. He's more dapper and dashing than Rogan but no less dangerous, and I think the real difference between them is that Rogan is more of a traditional alpha hero whereas Alessandro skews a little more gamma. They're both wonderful love interests, though, and in both subseries, I think that the authors did a great job creating chemistry and sexual tension.

What to say about the plot without spoiling? Well, as with all books, they end up involved in House turf wars, but unlike previous books, House Baylor is past its probationary period and now they're all sitting ducks. There's a truly terrifying villain in this book and evil monsters that wouldn't be out of place in the Kate Daniels universe. I'm honestly truly shocked that these books haven't been picked up for a TV show, yet. Some Netflix exec working for their acquisitions department must be zonked out at his desk because I can't imagine any other reason why someone would be sleeping on the movie rights for these books. I read most of SAPPHIRE FLAMES with my heart in my throat, and if you're thinking that that pretty dress on the cover probably doesn't even make an appearance, THINK AGAIN.

5 out of 5 stars

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad


BUNNY was one of the weirdest books I've ever read so obviously I was curious to check out more of this author's works and see what the rest of them were like. 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A FAT GIRL is a totally different beast. BUNNY was like bizarro dark academia, and this is more of a dark coming-of-age story with some social satire thrown in for laughs. I actually had to double-check the publishing date because it has the voice of an aughts-published book. The heroine, Elizabeth, is an overweight girl who's part of the counterculture and it starts out with her as a disaffected and unmotivated teen and ends with her as an adult with a career who has lost the weight but gained no joy.

I can see why so many people don't like this book. Elizabeth isn't really an aspirational figure and it's not one of those it's-ok-not-to-be-ok books where even if the characters are miserable, it still validates their misery. I think 13 WAYS is commentary on fatness, and the double-standards of beauty for women. I think it also shows how unhappy people often fantasize about external things solving all their problems, but because the source of their happiness is on the inside, getting what they want doesn't make them any more happy or satisfied with life.

I just watched a dark comedy called Pretty Problems that touches upon many of the same themes as this book, except instead of revolving the discussion around fatness and skinny privilege, the movie revolved around wealth and financial privilege. Among other shocking twists in the movie, I would say that the takeaway is that money doesn't make people happier; it just gives their problems a gloss which often takes on the appearance of the illusion of happiness. For Beth, I feel like the book kind of shows that her weight ends up being more of an excuse than a reason for her misery. She's not a likable character and the message is grim so, again, I see why people didn't relate. But I read a lot of these sorts of unlikable female protagonist-type books in the aughts and I've always had a fondness for them.

That said, I think the beginning with Beth as a young woman is leagues better than the parts of her at the end where she's a slimmer adult. I wish this had just centered on her as a heavy teen living her life. The alternative 2000s cultural references were just so good. Loved the London After Midnight shoutout.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Zodiac Academy: The Big A.S.S. Party by Caroline Peckham


Geraldine, like horseradish and '90s Eurodance music, is one of those things that is better in small doses. That said, after the devastation of CURSED FATES, obviously I needed some fluffy flounders in my life, and where better to get that than with some Geraldine/Max action. Which the book totally delivered on by the way.

This book starts with Gerry and Max hooking up during the lunar eclipse and ends with a surprise birthday party for Tory and Darcy. Definitely don't read this until after book five because it contains spoilers for books 3-5 (major ones). The sex is honestly pretty bad with Geraldine narrating but it's interesting to know that she's a dominant. Seeing her tussle with Maxy and his barracuda was pretty entertaining and it's sweet how into her weirdness he is.

Not sure what else to say about this book, tbh. It's short but still delivers on fun bonus content and is a nice reprieve from the angstfest that was CURSED FATES. Geraldine is still the best but man, thank goodness the authors deal her out in small doses.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Cursed Fates by Caroline Peckham


I wasn't expecting the Zodiac Academy series to be so addictive. Seriously, I mostly just picked it up hoping to laugh at it and maybe enjoy it a little bit. Cut to me sinking hundreds of hours reading thousands of pages of these books like a total sucker. Irony, I don't know her. But seriously, these books are pure crack. They have all the fun escapism of the Harry Potter series, only without the TERF guilt. It reminds me of this time I was on a luxe cruise ship pregaming with my friends and drank five glasses of champagne (don't judge me). It felt good going down until it didn't and suddenly, BOOM. Hungover and seasick, leaving in the middle of a surf n' turf dinner to worship at the altar of ultimate regret. The moral here is that bingeing five things in a row probably isn't a good idea, especially if they might be more intense than you fully realize. Case in point: these books.

This book continues where the last one leaves off, with heartbreak and betrayal. The last book ended on such an emotionally wrenching note that I needed a bit of a breather before diving into this one. In this book, CURSED FATES, we learn the full effects of what it means to be Star Crossed, which was kind of foreshadowed in one of the earlier books. Which makes this 800+ page tome a veritable BRICK of angst, where we watch our ill-fated couple bite their nails and fight back lust over their inability to be together. Hard to watch? I THINK SO. (Alexa, play Bishop Briggs's "Never Tear Us Apart.")

I actually think this book is a lot better than the previous one. There's still way too many unnecessary POVs (which I hear gets worse in later books), but I loved the development between the Vega twins and the Heirs. Someone told me that this is when they finally start to work together for the greater good of the kingdom and yeah, I see it. The transition from hatred to wary alliance was really well done, and I liked it. I also liked that we got more insight for Tory's behavior in this book. She's not an easy character to like but I don't hate her as much as other readers do because I think if you read between the lines it's easy to see how circumstances have made her distrustful and leery, and how much she's hurting. There's also a totally hot threesome in this book which I'm normally not into, but it's kind of been foreshadowed/hinted at in previous books and I thought the authors did a good job with it.

Some other random thoughts: Washer is still gross but I think I might hate Professor Highspell even more. It was so satisfying to see Kylie finally get her comeuppance even if it was late in coming, but that's okay because I have Mildred to hate instead. I KNEW the Orion/Darcy ship was getting too cozy and I'm not even surprised that the authors decided to fuck with it to cause me pain. Darkmore prison seems even worse than Azkaban and I'm super excited to read the spin-off series set there. There's some more world-building and twists in this book that were shocking AF, especially that ending. Holy FUCK. Just when I think the book can't hurt me anymore, it finds a new way to twist my arm. Also, Lionel is so gross and needs to DIE. It's been a while since I wished death for a character so badly. Loved the plot twist with Gabriel though, although I swear, that dude is allergic to shirts.

Romantic angst is the primary conflict in this book but I'm excited for the new stakes being delivered to the kingdom of Solaria and how the boys and the girls will band together to stop the threat. Now if you excuse me, I'm going to be nursing this glass of port while moping to Smile Empty Soul (I think I might have just given my age away with that music reference, whoops).

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Splendor by Catherine Hart


When my friend Heather texted me a picture of the gorgeous stepback inside this book, I was like, "OMG, did you buy that? Do you wanna BR?" Because as it turns out, I've been craving a pirate romance for a while and this was just the thing to send me back out onto the literary high seas like a scurvy sea dog setting sail.

SPLENDOR is SUCH a weird book, though. I have read a number of pirate romances and I've never picked up anything like this, for better or for worse. Devlin is a successful and rather feared (albeit gentlemanly) pirate, but one day he and his falcon are struck by St. Elmo's fire in a storm, and faster than you can say "great balls of lightning," he and his bird both turn invisible.

Eden lives with her mother and is being courted by a schemer who wants to use her father's business for ill. He's not afraid to leverage her debts to do it too. But the answer to her problems comes in unexpected form, when pirates arrive to Charles Town, where she lives, and it turns out she's the only human alive who can see the invisible pirate Devlin in the flesh. Also, when she touches him, he briefly turns visible. WHAT.

You can imagine the kinds of shenanigans this turns up, but just in case you can't, it involves late-night schemes, fires, suspicious mothers, nosy maids, and even Blackbeard the pirate himself. It's also a bit of a makeover story because Eden starts out a tall and awkward wallflower heroine, but ends up developing confidence-- not just in her appearance but later, in her sexuality-- which was kind of refreshing because it was her inner changes that ended up making her more beautiful. 

I'm giving this a 2.5 because it went on way too long. About 100 pages too long, actually. It felt like the author was just circling around to bulk up the page count. And even though the banter was cute, eventually it got a little tiresome because it felt like Eden and Devlin didn't really accomplish anything with their bickering. I like romantic fights to be emotionally constructive. This was definitely the most non-rapey pirate romance I've ever read, though. I'd recommend it to people who like happy, cutesy reads. This read like Jude Deveraux or something from the Love Spell imprint from Dorchester. I didn't hate it but it ended up being not too my taste. Don't forget to check out Heather's review, too!

2.5 out of 5 stars

Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer by Rax King


I was so excited about TACKY when I found out about the book because I love camp and kitsch. Whether it's '50s tiki bars or '90s eurodance or '80s bodice-rippers where the cover art looks like somebody's Halloween-themed glamor shots, I'm a firm believer that it's possible to have good taste in bad taste, and the people who curate these things unironically tend to be fun and whimsical and open-minded people with a deep appreciation for cultural artifacts that flies in the face of intellectual snobbery.

Sadly, TACKY wasn't quite that book. As other reviewers have complained, this is more of a memoir of the author's sexual relationships and how various relationships of hers tie into memories of pop-culture. It feels like a podcast or a Netflix show, to be honest. An essay about the Cheesecake Factory is tied into a relationship she was having with a married man who cheated on his wife, and another about The Sims is juxtaposed against her relationship with an abusive husband. I appreciate the personal nature of these essays, but it also wasn't quite as advertised or what I was necessarily looking for.

I didn't hate this collection and there were some things about it that I really liked. Josie and the Pussycats is one of my favorite movies of all time and here, I actually felt like the way she used it to talk about her own sexual awakening really worked because it kind of encapsulated the hyper-sexiness of aughts culture as a whole and how it forced women to aspire to impossible double standard roles. Her ode to vanilla sugar perfumes serves a similar purpose, and so does her essay on Sex and the City.

After Josie, though, I think my two favorite essays were actually the non-sexual ones. First was the one about the band, Creed, because I think it really shows how some people just latch onto and decide certain bands are sell-out poseurs and they become really popular to hate. For emo kids in the aughts, that band was AFI. For metalheads, it was Slipknot. For basically anyone in the 2000s and 2010s, it was Nickelback (SunnyV2 actually has a great video about how they became the world's most hated bands). Back when I still went physically in the office, I used to make everyone groan when it was my turn to control the office playlist, because I'd pile the office playlist with gems like Falco's "Der Kommissar," Los Del Rio's "Macarena," and Ylvis's "What Does the Fox Say?" I'd cackle at my desk while people groaned as Eiffel 65 informed us all that they were blue da ba dee da ba die, and people would tell me that my music privileges should be revoked because I didn't play cool hip-hop or the latest indie hits. But that didn't stop my co-workers from singing along to all the words, no. When we scale artistic taste based on invisible hierarchies of rank that only the in-crowd knows, culture becomes a zero-sum game. I felt like this essay articulated that really well: that at the end of the day, we like what we like, and taste is as subjective as the very forces that draw us like magnets to the things that we enjoy.

My second favorite essay was the one about Jersey Shore. Not because I liked Jersey Shore but because of how the author and her father bonded over it. It was a really sweet and wholesome essay and I wish more of the book had been like that, because I think it shows how often nostalgia has its appeal because of our emotional ties. Campiness becomes almost beautiful if it reminds us of simpler, uncomplicated times, when happiness came more easily. Seeing this tacky and ridiculous show be the glue that helped her hold on to her relationship with his father in the face of physical separations, like college and health issues, was so touching. It actually made me tear up several times.

Overall, I would say TACKY is less an homage to kitsch culture than it is a memoir told through the lens of various objects. The author obviously has a way with words and an insightful way of looking at things, but I think the book and the cover need a rebrand. I was definitely expecting something more culture focused and less personal in nature. So I would actually recommend this book less for pop-culture enthusiasts and more for people who enjoy reading women's essay collections about slice-of-life experiences through a feminist lens.

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, December 24, 2022

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda


Megan Miranda has been on my radar for a while because she seems to write the types of mysteries I love to read: small town setting with flawed female protagonists who have to return to their birthplace after some kind of trauma or tragedy. In this case, Nic is called to take care of her father's house following his dementia, but it ends up becoming a missing persons case that echoes a similar one from her teen years.

One of the interesting elements of this mystery is the nonlinear storyline. It's told in reverse, and I don't think I've ever read a story that was told backwards like this-- unless THIRTEEN REASONS WHY counts. I liked the novelty although it made the mystery itself a little hard to follow. It was like peeling back an onion that becomes progressively more rotten until you find yourself holding a blackened, stinking core. In Cooley Ridge, secrets run deep.

I liked ALL THE MISSING GIRLS but apart from its unusual mode of storytelling, I didn't think it really stood out from other mysteries of this type. The unreliable narration that comes from the storyline is great, and I think the timeline was expertly handled, but I just wanted more emotion and creepiness and maybe some higher stakes. But I would definitely read more from this author.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

What Lies in the Woods by Kate Alice Marshall


WHAT LIES IN THE WOODS has so many of my favorite tropes in it that it felt like this author had written this book with me in mind: Naomi was the survivor of a serial killer's attack, but it left her with facial scars. Now she's a wedding photographer living with a dude who doesn't really appreciate her beyond the value of her story. When she finds out that the serial killer died in prison and her two friends are struggling with a secret that they hid as children, she shoots back home to confront her friends, Cass and Liv, about the past and why it should stay hidden.

Childhood games-turned-dangerous, toxic romance, suspicious and potentially dangerous hot guys, small town dynamics, and big secrets-- these are just some of the tropes in this book. It started out great but then the pacing started to feel a little uneven. There were too many "gotcha" twists at the end, which kind of made the book feel like a really bumpy rollercoaster that didn't have any dramatic or shocking falls. I thought this might have been a debut but I checked the author's backlist and it is not, although it does seem like it might be her debut for adult readers (she's a YA/MG author), which would explain the fade-to-black sex scenes (booo) and the really naive/youthful voice of the narrator.

I liked this book and would read more from this author, but it doesn't have anything that really makes it stand out from other books in the genre. The ending was also more bittersweet than I would have liked. I wanted Naomi to have a kick-ass and smutty happily-ever-after. But maybe that's just the romance reader in me. Anyway, if you like sad girl mystery thrillers a la Gillian Flynn, you'll love this.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 23, 2022

Stuff On My Cat: The Book by Mario Garza


I got this book while thrifting, which made me so happy because I've been wanting to read it for a while. Published in 2006, it definitely smacks of an early aughts image dumping site, and the graininess of the pictures and retro photoshop are totally endearing. This is basically just a compendium of photographs people took with their cats wearing strange outfits or with things on their backs or heads. My personal favorite was one where a plastic He Man action figure toy is riding a cat to victory. There's also a cute one of a cat decked out in jewelry and a tiara. This is a novelty book if there ever was one, but if you're a cat lady like I am and enjoy funny cat memes, I think you'll love this, too.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Act Your Age by Eve Dangerfield


I learned something about myself as a reader somewhat recently, and it's that I don't really like erotica books unless it goes beyond sex. I really need the characters to feel something for each other besides lust, and I want the relationship to evolve them as people, not just a couple. All of my favorite erotica and erotic romance writers do this, and apparently Eve Dangerfield does this as well, so she's well on her way to becoming an auto-buy for me, because ACT YOUR AGE was such a delight.

I actually haven't read a lot of "Daddy kink" romances-- my first one was by Brianna Hale, actually-- and Dangerfield's style seems to be very similar to Hale's: her hero, Ty, is older and dominant in a way that goes beyond the scene, but he also genuinely cares for Kate. And Kate is girlish and silly but she's also allowed to be a mature woman with career ideas and a real sense of self. Femininity is often portrayed as a weakness or a facet of the patriarchy, so it's refreshing to see a woman who is very feminine still be portrayed as whole and strong.

The plot of this book is pretty simple. Ty is Kate's boss. After he saves her from being the victim of a sex crime, they accidentally hook up. It turns out they're sexually compatible in the way that each of them has always dreamed of, but the whole boss/employee thing makes it super awkward. They start seeing each other anyway, and things quickly become complicated. Both of them have interesting but tragic pasts that have made it hard for them to have healthy relationships and connect with others, and as they explore their newfound partners, they also have to learn how to set up and take down boundaries.

I don't want to say much else because I don't want to spoil anything, but I liked that both leads were allowed to be flawed and selfish in a way that a lot of others wouldn't let their characters be seen. At times, it was almost off-putting for me as a reader, but their bad decisions made sense, even if I didn't like them. And both grew from their mistakes. I also liked the STEM heroine, the fact that both hero and heroine had a support network comprised of friends and/or family, and the heroine's roller derby hobby, which showed a tougher side of her that made her a really well rounded character.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Awakening as Told by the Boys by Caroline Peckham


If a man was stranded for a full week in the desert with no food or water, he still wouldn't be as thirsty as these boys. This was hornier than Love Island. THE AWAKENING AS TOLD BY THE BOYS is exactly what it promises to be: it's a retelling of the first book in the Zodiac Academy series retold from the POVs of the four Heirs plus Orion. I guess because that book was exclusively told from Darcy and Tory's POV and in later books, the authors started cramming the other POVs in whether we wanted them or not (hi Seth).

After the events of book four, I was not emotionally ready to continue onward in the series, so I thought it would behoove me to remember how this all began. And to the authors' credits, there were certain scenes I did really enjoy. Finding out the Orion basically scored Darcy a free top-shelf drink (my mans <3), his instant lust for a certain twin's blood while he's hauling their asses into the school, the moment he claims her as a Source, Gabriel arranging things so that he can save Darcy and come to her sister's rescue for big man brownie points. Oh whoops, look, all my favorite moments were about Orion. HOW ABOUT THAT.

That isn't to say that there weren't other scenes I liked. It was fun seeing the Heirs reacting to the Vega twins that first time, and I liked the beginning scene when Darius and Orion are hunting nymphs. I think this book also shows Darius's pain a little more and the protective feelings he has for both Xavier and Orion. I really hated him in the first two books, but then all those feelings transferred to Seth, who can fuck right off any time he wants. I'll even be there to make sure his tail gets slammed in the door on his way out. But seriously, Seth is the worst. :) The only redeeming value he has is that he sort of has a thing going on with Caleb and I like them together. Seth is literally only good when he's with his friends.

Did this book NEED to be written? No. Most of the book is about the guys wandering around with erections while shaking a fist at the sky and shouting VEGAS the way Timmy's dad shouts DINKLEBERG in Fairly Odd Parents. I knew going in that it was probably going to be a lot of thirsting and pining, but I was literally not prepared. This book is pure fan service. I probably would have liked it if it were a bit more subtle and had more scenes that didn't involve 'roid rage-fueled lust, but I know I'm not most people. But it was way too long and reading this just made me realize how much I prefer reading things from the girls' POVs instead of the boys'.

...Except Orion. :)

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

WtAFW: Groped By the Grinch by Groped by the Grinch


I refuse to believe that the hulked-out monstrosity on the cover is the Grinch; it looks like a Runescape goblin. But potato, goblino, am I right? I picked this book up for my What the Actual Fuck Wednesday challenge, a weekly-ish challenge where I ask people to send me the weirdest romance novels and erotica they can find, and then I review them. Because, apparently, I love suffering.

GROPED BY THE GRINCH really isn't that much different from some of the Santa erotica I've read, tbh. The heroine loves Christmas and her name is Holly Jolly, but she lives in a place where people feel more like the Cranks, if you know what I mean. When she sees a green flash zipping around the store, she's obviously wondering what the hell is going on. Well, it turns out it's the grinch and he's both psychic and horny, which is a dangerous combination, indeed.

Not a lot to say about this one since it's erotica of the PWP variety. Highlights include a rotable dick strung with twinkling lights that ejaculates peppermint flavored come. Also, his tongue is really long, so I'm picturing a wet pink tape dispenser. Sexy.

The best thing about this book was looking up the "popular highlights" feature and seeing what perverts who read this before me deemed their favorite parts. Apparently, his flashing dick lit the way into many people's hearts, because 30+ pervos liked it. Oh well, at least it was free on KU.

1 out of 5 stars

Monday, December 19, 2022

Notorious by Kathryn Kramer


DNF @ 63%

I was intrigued by the blackmailed mistress and female highwayman trope. To be clear, this isn't a bad book. The writing is purpley but it's honestly pretty dark for a Zebra romance! The heroine sleeps with the hero to save her father but the pardon is stolen in transit so her father ends up dying anyway(!). The heroine blames the hero and declares him public enemy number one. At one point in the book, she even tries to hang him.

This was much darker than I was expecting but I didn't mind. I actually stan a heroine who's allowed to be cruel-- and she WAS. But I lost interest in the book when they reunite and the heroine was like, I loved him all along. I'm sorry, WHAT? You were literally scouring the countryside looking for this dude so you could end him. Don't give me that.

Writing is pretty cheesy but I didn't mind it. It was honestly kind of endearing and made this book more of a product of its times. I'd read more from this author but this one just wasn't it.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Once a Rake by Rona Sharon


After reading and enjoying this author's other book, MY WICKED PIRATE, I was eager to see what all she had lurking under her writerly sleeves. ONCE A RAKE was particularly enticing to me because it's a beauty and the beast retelling, with elements of Phantom of the Opera, as well (the hero wears a mask throughout half the book and is sort of regarded as a tragic, haunting specter that has fallen from grace).

I ended up falling in love with this story. It's so emotional and angsty and really well done on a technical level. Isabel is a beautiful woman who is very passionate about charity work. After her brother's death in the Napoleonic Wars, and seeing her friends suffer similar losses in their families, she's dedicated herself to finding jobs for war widows, especially those with children. This charity work is what leads her to the door of her late brother's best friend, Ashby, who has isolated himself in his estates after taking a shell explosion to the face.

Ashby is so tortured and has so much guilt; he spends all of his time in his wine cellar doing carpentry and at the beginning of the book he is a broken man. When Isabel knew him, he was a gorgeous rake with a soft spot for her, but his guilt over his burgeoning attraction for her as a teenager propelled him into the arms of a woman who betrayed him as soon as she found out he was injured. He's thirteen years her senior, but now she's in her early twenties and can face up to him as an adult. And she still wants him.

I was almost put off by this story because someone said that halfway through the heroine acts out of selfishness. But what happens is actually more of a clash of personalities and a manifestation of the difference in their station. After mooning over him for so many years, she feels just as vulnerable as he is. Being compromised could ruin her future, especially if he has no interest in marrying her. And even if he did, remaining in seclusion while she continued to go out and fete with her friends really would end up destroying their relationship. So I actually liked that they fought so much, because it was the sort of fighting that led to emotional development and intimacy. They fought because they cared about each other and not because they were idiots. I think that's a difference some people overlook.

As I was reading I waffled between four stars and five. I gave MY WICKED PIRATE a four star rating rounded up and I think this is a better book, so I'm giving five stars rounded up with the caveat that the sex scenes are way more purple than I'd like and I thought it was stupid that the hero named his little Ashby "Mr. Jones." But I couldn't give it anything less than five stars because the hero's lines to the heroine made me swoon so hard, and it was such a beautiful journey of healing and intimacy and finding yourself after being lost, and this book actually made me cry when the hero recounted his time during the war when he saw the heroine's brother die, and I LOVED the heroine's friends, and how they had some fights too and said hurtful things, but ended up stronger for it, as well.

The ending was perfect. Paris Nicholas Ashby has my whole heart. It's such a shame that this author doesn't seem to be writing anymore because she's such a talent and her books were so unique.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Soul Magic by Karen Whiddon


I've wanted to read SOUL MAGIC for years because it's an old skool fantasy romance and those used to be pretty hard to find. Plus, it's a second chance romance about faeries and elves, and that sounded pretty neat, too. It's on Kindle Unlimited, as well, which gave me the perfect excuse to flex my subscription and trim down my to-read list.

SOUL MAGIC is a very strange book-- for multiple reasons. For starters, it's surprisingly dark. Love Spell, the original imprint this was published under which was owned by BMI(?), typically published lighter paranormal romances and fantasy romances, which were often pretty cheesy. But rape is a focal element of this book. Alanna, the heroine, is a rape survivor. She was raped by the hero's uncle just before she and the hero were supposed to get married, and got pregnant from the act. Now, her child has been kidnapped by a fae-turned-bad who is working with the evil uncle, Morfran, to take over the world.

The hero, Darrick, is a warrior who has just come back from the crusades. He's seen lots of his men die, including his brother. When he encounters Alanna, he finds out why she broke up their betrothal and also that his mother is being held prisoner by Morfran along with Alanna's son. Not only that, but Morfran is raping the hero's mother-- who is his SISTER-- while also keeping her in a basement where she's getting chewed on by rats. Holy shit.

There's also some pretty brutal fight scenes in this book. This one dude's heart explodes out of his chest when he's attacked by black magic. There's also dark riders from hell who stink of sulfur that are chasing the heroes around at one point until they banish them by joining hands and releasing magic. Tonally, I feel like the book ends up all over the place as a result, because the children characters are so cute that they verge on precious, and all of the romances are pretty, um, saccharine. The secondary romance actually has more conflict than the main one, as it features another fae woman with Darrick's close friend, an extremely religious man who refuses to believe that fae aren't evil witches.

I ended up reading this to the end, desperate to see what happened, but it was a little disappointing. The ending happens way too fast and isn't very satisfying, and Morfran didn't get punished nearly enough for what he did. Instead of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it meting out of justice, I wanted on-page suffering. I actually didn't mind the repeated references to Alanna's rape because the focus is on her survival of what happened to her, and nobody shames her for it; even though it's not fun to read about, I think it's important for survivors to read stories about other survivors being portrayed as powerful, and getting the love and acceptance they deserve. (Which is all the more reason that Morfran should have suffered, imo.)

Anyway, I'm glad I read this book. Not sure I'll read more into the series but I might. It was cool to see a book set on the Isle of Man and I liked the blend of fantasy and medieval England. I probably would have liked this book more when I was a teenager though. It has an almost dark YA vibe to it.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Shadow Princess by Caroline Peckham


I've been bingeing this series over the last week or so because it's just that addictive. The last time I read something that was this cheesy but emotionally wrenching was during my college manga phase. You think anime is all fun and games until you decide to read the entire Hana Yori Dango series in one summer and find yourself drinking wine by the glass and clawing out your hair in chunks. Then you know pain.

SHADOW PRINCESS is book four in the Zodiac Academy series. Book three, THE RECKONING, was my absolute favorite book in the series so far-- it was action-packed, dramatic, emotional, and stunning, with character development and the answers to questions that had been steadily building over the previous books. SHADOW PRINCESS, on the other hand, is... the weakest? Ah, don't hate me!

But, like, seriously. I've been Tory's staunch defender for the last couple books. I know she has real emotional pain and boy, does this book prove it. And even though she has some of the best lines in these books, she is also such a stubborn fool. Her sleeping around doesn't bother me, but her emotional pigheadedness does, as does her constant need to be a jerk and never change. Darcy has changed a lot over the four books. You can tell that she's on the verge of becoming the powerful woman she'll one day be: she doesn't take any shit, she's nuturing, and there's an emotional maturity to her that Tory really lacks. It makes it really, really hard to like Tory, who doesn't change. She just remains a self-centered asshole who insults everyone to cover up the pain inside.

And don't even get me started on Darius, who is literally the exact same way. They're both Sad Dracos in Leather Pants, I swear to God. Every time I find myself warming to the guy, he does something stupid. Maybe I just don't like him because I was shipping Tory and Caleb and this feels like a reprise of the Rhysand/Tamlin situation that put me off the ACOTAR books. I don't like it when one ship kind of feels like end game, only for the author(s) to play a big switcheroo. That said, the ending legitimately made me tear up and scream, NOOOOOOO. I would hate to be a reader picking these up as they were coming out and wondering what was going to happen next. I mean, really.

So why three stars instead of four? This book started to feel really dialed in. There were too many POVs. I didn't need to see Max mooning over Geraldine. I don't really care about Max. I also don't really care about Seth. In fact, I hate Seth and this book just made me hate him more. I actually preferred it when the books were mostly just in Tory and Darcy's POVs. It was more fun for me when you could only guess at what was going on in the guys'  heads. Subtlety is an underappreciated art form. I found myself skimming chunks of these books and noticing a lot of repetition. The word "growl" and its various iterations are used 175 times and smirk was used 121 times, just to give you a taste. I was pressed to look it up when I noticed the words "I smirked" TWICE on the same page.

Also, Washer doesn't need that many cameos. He's gross. I don't want it. Stahp.

ALSO, why do they celebrate Christmas? Is there a Faerie Jesus?

3 out of 5 stars

Savage Lands by Stacey Marie Brown


DNF @ 15%

One thing I keep in mind while reading books like these is that most of them are meant to appeal to teenagers and people in their twenties, and I am neither of those things. This almost vibes like one of those old school fantasy anime shows, like, the ideas are a little half-baked but the heroine is so whoopass and the premise is so interesting that people can be baited into looking the other way.

For what it's worth, I don't think this is a bad book. The not-like-other-girls stuff grated, yes, and I'm like 99% sure that "Brexley" is not an Eastern-European name, but the world-building was a little interesting and I thought the author created a believably gloomy world. I just wanted more from it, and from the heroine, who felt a little too one-dimensional for my liking.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 16, 2022

Aquicorn Cove by Kay O'Neill


AQUICORN COVE is so precious. The environmental message is a little heavy-handed but that's okay since it's for kids. Beautiful message about doing what you can, even if you feel like your efforts towards change are like small drops in a massive bucket. Also explains climate change and coral reef damage in a way that's easy for kids to understand. Not gonna lie, I teared up. The art is gorgeous.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

The Hidden Power of F*cking Up by The Try Guys


DNF @ 48%

I'm dumb for not realizing that this was a self-help book because if I had done just a tiny bit of research, I would have realized that and NOT bought it because I hate self-help books. I have an adversarial relationship to them, actually, mostly because I really don't like other people telling me how to live my life. Who made YOU an expert, huh? I didn't vote for you.

Well, actually, that's a lie because I kind of did. I love The Try Guys and have been following them since their BuzzFeed days. I actually bought this book after #NedGate, which was maybe a mistake because there is WAY too much Ned in this book and even before the scandal, he was always my least favorite Try Guy (Keith & Eugene basically tie for my day ones, in case you were wondering). And there were things I enjoyed about this book, like the emphasis on mental health and self-care, Eugene's Korean-American background and struggle with his queer identity, and Zach basically being Zach, while Keith serves up cool dad vibes.

What didn't work is that this felt like a pop-psych book coupled with an armchair self-help guide, crossed with a sponsored video. All the cameos from experts they worked with before definitely made this book feel hashtag branded, even if it wasn't. I like the way their videos are formatted, but they tried to do a book in the same way and it didn't quite work. Loved the photos, and I feel like the sentiment behind it is coming from a good place, but I think this was-- at least for me-- a swing and a miss.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison


J.T. Ellison is a pretty popular crime fiction author and when I found out she'd written what I like to call a Fucked-Up Lady Thriller (FULT to you peasants), I was thrilled. Also, it's set in a boarding school awash with secret societies and dark academia vibes-- and hey, that's like three of my favorite tropes, right out of the gate!

Brilliant, beautiful Ash seems like a shoe-in for the Goode School for Girls. She's a piano prodigy, good with computers, and has such a charming British accent. Never mind the fact that her family's dead and she's hiding a secret. Never mind that dead bodies have started to turn up on school campus. Never mind any of that. Seriously, don't.

Less is definitely more with this one but I will say that I felt like this book was too long. 500 pages for a potboiler thriller like this? Part of that was because there were just too many POVs. Ash's narrative was great and gave this book a crisp almost-YA feel that made it really addictive and easy to read. But Ford and the cops' POVs bored me and I felt like they added way too much exposition. Don't be lazy! 

My favorite bits were definitely the secret society stuff and the mean girl hazing/bullying elements. I tried to write a book with these elements myself but this author did it way better. Seriously, I'm jealous. I felt like I was living the elite, privileged pre-college kid lifestyle. There was also some pretty fucked-up shit happening in here, too (gory murders, anyone?). It's an interesting book and I was invested enough to read to the end. I just wish the reveal had been a little less sloppy and the pacing had been tighter.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Like No Other Lover by Julie Anne Long


Julie Anne Long won me over with WHAT I DID FOR THE DUKE, which has become one of my favorite romances-- starring one of my favorite heroes-- so obviously that meant I was eager to devour all of her other regency romances. I was even more excited when I found out that it featured a vain and manipulative heroine because I love books that allow female characters to misbehave. The negative reviews disparaging her character didn't put me off in the least.

As I expected, I loved Cynthia Brightly. She's a beautiful woman who was dealt a bad hand of cards and is playing them as adeptly as she can. Her past is tragic and honestly-- I respected the hustle. She wasn't cruel or mean or anything else that other people were saying she was. At one point, she says that all men are capable of being charming and the hero tells her, no YOU make them charming; and it's true. Even though she is manipulative, it's not done out of malice. It's like she can see what makes people who they are at a glance and brings them out of their shells with their charm. That's why Violet befriended her and Georgina confided in her; she's pretty and charming and people want to absorb that glow. Or at least get to stand in it for a while, lest some of the glitter rub off.

For me, the rub of this book was Miles. I was initially excited when I found out that he was a hot and nerdy scientist who had a grudge against the heroine for a semi-cruel offhand remark that she made about him while he was in earshot. And at first I was kind of on board when he decided to casually torture her just a little bit while she's trying her luck on the man market. But then I lost interest in him pretty quickly: he's patronizing and condescending and-- honestly? Kind of a hypocrite. There is so much OW drama in this book because Miles is trying to woo Georgina because her father has the money and clout to fund more of his expeditions to the tropics (which he loves), and he's also trying to satisfy his needs with a MARRIED WOMAN because obviously he can't do that with Georgina and he's so determined to dislike and stay away from Cynthia that she's not "fair game" either.

Honestly-- at several points in the book, I really, really disliked him. It's shocking but not surprising to me that none of the reviews calling Cynthia the worst woman in the world for playing men off on each other have anything to say about Miles using one woman for her daddy's money while attempting to commit some casual adultery with another. And FYI the only reason he doesn't is because the heroine comes to his room and begs him not to. WOW.

There were parts of this book that were really enjoyable, like the drinking game, Cynthia herself, and the comedy of manors that took place at the manor, but I really didn't care for the romance itself much at all. It's a shame because there's a serious dearth of nerdy hero romances out there. The worst I've read was called NERD IN SHINING ARMOR and the best was called BAD DECISIONS. This book kind of sits in the middle of those two books because there was some redemption and realization of what a cad he was, but to me it didn't really make up for the 300+ pages of shenanigans that came before it.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

The Reckoning by Caroline Peckham


 If you heard a loud YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASS echoing in the distance, that was me. Best book in the series so far? I THINK SO. But I knew it would be, because the title shares the name of one of my favorite songs by Halestorm. #foreshadowing

I began Zodiac Academy on a whim a couple days ago, only to get sucked in. It has everything I love in a story: magic, danger, action, romance, strong heroines, dangerous men, and well-placed humor. Picture Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield fighting their way through Vampire Academy against Hana Yori Dango's Elite Four while using Harry Potter spells, and that's basically the whole premise in a nutshell. Darcy and Tory Vega are the long-lost princesses of the fae kingdom and they're enrolled in school to prove their worth before they can claim their inheritance and their throne. But the four elemental heirs who grasped power in the void aren't willing to give up their legacy. If they can't rule, no one can.

One of the things that makes this so much richer than other bully romances is because of how the sisters fight back. Their acts of revenge are truly brilliant and some of them wreak pretty devastating results on the boys. When one of the boys in this book finds out who was responsible, he FLIPS THE FUCK OUT, and boy is it satisfying to watch. It isn't often that you get to see a female character commit that kind of betrayal, so I loved that. And the Heirs deserve it.

Some of the stand-outs about this book were the introduction of Hell Week: a week of hazing before the students go through The Reckoning, a series of Goblet of Fire-esque challenges to test the mettle of the students and see if they're worthy of enrollment. Also, one of my ships FINALLY banged, and that was royally satisfying on so many levels and didn't disappoint. There's actually a lot of smut in this book, to the point where I might have to start calling it Smut Academy. I know some people don't like Tory for being more promiscuous than Darcy but YOU KNOW??? She should get some, if that's what she wants. The vampire sex games she plays with Caleb were hot. And Darcy and Orion are the MVPs.

Some other random thoughts: Professor Washer and his sex toys literally scarred me for life. Seeing the fae getting all horned up during the lunar eclipse was hilarious. I will never not laugh when Caleb gets mad at people for thinking he has a pegasus fetish. Geraldine and Sofia are the BEST and I love them. Xavier must be protected at all costs. I want to go to a Fairy Fair. AND AND AND we finally get to find out what Darcy and Tory's Order is... and it is PERFECT. Look at me being all good and not spoilering you the way I DESPERATELY, DESPERATELY want to. I'm being good for your sake. So you'll read these books too and be as awed and astounded as I am.

But God. That cliffhanger. Everything has changed now.

Lucky for me, I know my girls won't disappoint.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Between the Duke and the Deep Blue Sea by Sophia Nash


This was a fun and magical journey and I enjoyed almost every moment of it. It starts out Hangover style with the prince and his cadre of dukes assembled, unable to remember the night of debauchery that followed an absinthe bender. As they read over their actions in the following day's scandal sheets, the infuriated prince decides to hand out punishments left and right. Alex is banished to Cornwall and told to settle down and take a wife, and it is here, on his way to his ducal seat, that he meets the heroine, Roxanne.

Roxanne is a countess and the daughter of a wealthy tin miners' daughter. However her husband has tired of her and after nudging her off the edge of the cliff and spending several hours "going for help," she is forced to tackle the unseemly truth that he wanted her death. Luckily, Alex happens to be passing by at that moment and he rescues her.

What happens next is kind of a comedy of errors. Roxanne decides to get revenge on her husband with Alex's help. In the meantime, he lets her stay with him as a distant cousin where she has a ringside seat to all of the local women who want to make a play for Alex's hand. I can see why some readers found this part frustrating because there are a lot of characters to keep track of and some light OW drama, but there's also some wonderful female friendships and conversations about jealousy, feminism, and love that are absolutely wonderful and progressive, while still being period appropriate.

This was almost a five for me but I think it was drawn out for too long and I would have liked more of a dramatic final confrontation with Roxanne's awful husband. But apart from that it was a steamy romance with likable characters and a flighty heroine who is unapologetically herself in a way that kind of reminded me of one of my favorite heroines, Fenella, from my friend Heather Crews's romance, WILDFLOWER HEART. I also thought the ending was quite cute. I own books two and three and wasn't sure about this series, but it managed to balance humor and romance quite deftly, so I'm really excited to read them.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Zodiac Academy: Origins of an Academy Bully by Caroline Peckham


Silly old me picking up this novella thinking it would be a cute piece of fluff about the boys when they were still high school students. WRONG. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. This book, ORIGINS OF AN ACADEMY BULLY, is told in dual POV by Darius Acrux and Lance Orion. Darius is 14 and I think Lance is in his very early 20s. We see Darius learn his affinities and explore the school he'll be going to in four years as part of an orientation sort of thing, which is actually quite cute. But then the book gets dark, fast.

I love the Zodiac Academy series so much. I'm afraid that I've been pretty annoying in my love about it, spamming people with multiple status updates because people have been unfriending me for it. I'm SORRY, okay. I've had to watch people posting updates for ACOTAR for years, to the point where it's literally the only thing in my feed whenever a new book comes out, so I feel like it's my turn to stan something. I'm sorry I'm a thirty-something with trash taste in books. But also-- it's not like I hid it or anything LOL.

FWIW, this series is aggressively addictive. Like, here I am, scampering around for the bonus materials for just another hit. Like it's blood magic or something (WINK). But I just can't help it, you know? Even though the writing is soap opera-y and, yes, objectively trashy reading, the story-telling and world-building are so good that I just HAVE to know more. In this novella, we learn about what really happened to Clara Orion and how Darius and Lance became bonded in a guardian relationship. Both scenes are brutal and chilling and are honestly probably going to give me nightmares. Which makes me feel like maybe this almost should have been a full-length book. I feel like the progression from lalala privileged rich kid heir frolicking in his soon-to-be-new-school to complete and utter despair happened so quickly it gave me whiplash.

Also, poor Lance. All of his dreams-- crushed. My poor little vampire. And the pressure on Darius and Xavier is just truly heartbreaking. You can see why Darius hates Tory and Darcy so much, especially with his father wanting his son to be King Gary Stu. All that training and effort, only to see two totally inexperienced people who are completely more powerful than you without any effort? It went a long way towards explaining his resentment and hatred. I think it also really explained the bond that Darius and Lance have, which I actually really liked. It's rare to see such intense intimacy between male friends in a dark romance book, and I really liked that. It's clear they care a lot about each other, which makes what happens to them that much more devastating.

I think this adds a lot to the series and it packs a surprisingly emotional punch, but it doesn't really feel like a ~complete~ narrative arc either, so for that I'm giving it a three. 

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Making Up by Lucy Parker


DNF @ p.254

Have you ever kept reading a book you weren't into because you liked the author and you were kind of gaslighting yourself while reading? Like, for me, I love Lucy Parker. I think she's an intelligent woman who tackles tough and difficult subjects in her romance novels and she's exceptionally witty and good at banter. But the whole time I was reading, I kept thinking, "I don't know, man, the chemistry's kind of off... maybe it'll get better? It feels like the author is trying too hard to make these two a thing and I'm just really not feeling it... ?"

It's enemies-to-lovers, which I'm a sucker for, and I loved that the hero was African. It's also cool that they have unusual jobs. Trix works as a performer in a stage act that's kind of like the Cirque du Soleil. And the hero, Leo, is a makeup artist. The portrayals of stage makeup and special effects makeup and what it's like doing aerial acrobatics were really neat and probably the best part of this book after the anxiety rep and the way that anxiety can intensify your impostor syndrome and make you really susceptible to emotional abuse and criticism.

But I just didn't feel the chemistry. It felt like they didn't like each other, even after they allegedly made up. And Leo was a huge douche. When I found out what the misunderstanding was between them, I was kind of like, wow. I'd hate you too. He doesn't exactly grovel for it either. IDK, man. I thought these characters were okay and the writing was certainly technically good but where's the passion? The first book in this series was so much better...

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Ruthless Fae by Caroline Peckham


So I started this series expecting not to like it and lo and behold, I finished THE AWAKENING in one day like a total clown, only to immediately dive-bomb into book two. The writing is not the best-- it's not badly written but it does feel "indie" in the sense that the grammar can be sloppy and it's often repetitive in description. If I never see the words "stupidly attractive" or "bulging muscles" again, I'll be happy. But despite its flaws, this series is stupidly charming. It's like a cross between Vampire Academy and Harry Potter, only with more smut than either of those books ever had, and I love how self-indulgently written it is. Reading it makes me feel like I'm a teen on Quizilla again.

RUTHLESS FAE starts where the last book left off. Tory and Darcy have been freshly humiliated and are contemplating leaving the school, but they end up settling for revenge. In between various other things being lobbed at them in this book, the bulk of the plot is about them planning really messed-up things to do to the Heirs-- and honestly?? The punishments are brutal. It's quite satisfying seeing female characters being given the agency to punish men who do them wrong, even when those men are the love interests. Like, yass queen. ACCOUNTABILITY.

The relationships between the characters develop beautifully in this book. I love the friendship between Darcy and Tory and Geraldine and Sofia. You get to meet Geraldine's dad in this book and he is ADORBS. You can totally see where she gets it from. Caleb remains my favorite of the four younger boys and Orion definitely becomes more of a forbidden love interest a la Dimitri from Vampire Academy in this book, not that I'm mad about that. I think my absolute favorite parts of this book were the clusterfuck of a dinner at Casa Acrux and the rumor mill deciding that Caleb likes to fuck winged horses. When the inflatable unicorn sex toy appeared, I spat out my coffee. It was so good. I also like that the authors aren't afraid to send their main characters to some pretty dark places. Even though they are kind of Mary Sue-ish, it's tolerable because they still reap the consequences of their failures and nothing's too easy for them. In fact, usually it's the opposite. I love that.

The ending of this book really comes to a fever-pitch, with allyships being forged and tested. There's a beautifully done fight scene, an intense sports match, and a sort of cliffhanger ending that absolutely means that I need to start the third book immediately. I'm dying to know how the relationships between these characters are going to develop and what Tory and Darcy's order will be. Also, I feel like there's a lot of behind-the-scenes court intrigue stuff happening too, and I WANT TO KNOW EVERYTHING.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, December 10, 2022

The Awakening by Caroline Peckham


This has been on my radar for a while but I've avoided reading it because I thought it was set in a high school (and I don't really like reading romances set in high school) and because the people who were shipping it generally shipped other fantasy authors whose works I didn't like, and contrary to some people's beliefs, I am not a hate-reader. When I pick up a book, it's because I genuinely want to like it. The one-star review is a reflection of my disappointment.

But I kept seeing people picking up this series and loving it and then I found out that it's set in university and not high school, so it felt like the literal stars were conspiring against me, taking away my reasons for not reading this book one by one, and I was like FINE UNIVERSE. I'LL READ YOUR STUPID SMUT GOD. And guess what... I. LOVED. IT. I really fucking loved it. I read book one in one day, in just a few hours. Even though it was almost 500 hundo pages. W H A T.

Here's the thing. When I was a teen-- YES I AM OLD-- there was this magical site called Quizilla. And one of my favorite things to read on that website were harem paranormals where the girl could end up with any one of an entire Pokemon booster pack of men with different supernatural powers. I would stay up until 5am reading those trashy stories and every once in a blue moon, I'll come across something self-published that has that same addictive, cracky qualia of just being impossible to put down, gratuitously self-indulgent, and resplendently fun to read. And for me, THE AWAKENING, was that book.

I almost didn't make it through the beginning because the desperate edginess of their normie setting almost put me off. TWO police chases before the 10% mark??? That seems excessive, MA'AMS. But then Professor Orion barged into the scene and things got really good. I loved the descriptions of Zodiac Academy and the world-building was genuinely amazing. The opulent dorms and dining hall, the enchanted "pegasus" meadow, the classrooms named after planets-- IT WAS SO MUCH FUN. But even though it looks and quacks like a fairytale... it's not. Darcy and Tory Vega find out that they're the heirs to the fae kingdom and even though they have ALL THE POWERS, they don't know how to use them. And people resent them for having the power and for upsetting the status quo, and so basically everyone bullies and fucks with them (except for a small contingent of royalists who stan their family the way people used to stan the Queen of England). Which actually made a lot of sense.

Fuck those interlopers.

The new rulers who have stepped into the void of their fae parents' deaths are called the heirs. There's Darius, the dragon. Seth, the werewolf. Caleb, the vampire. And Max, the siren. Like everyone else in the school, they've each specialized in a single element-- fire, air, earth, and water-- and like everyone else in the school, they have a bone to pick with the interlopers. A lot of the bullying takes the form of sexual harassment, which is typical in bullymances. I personally am not bothered by this-- honestly, if you've read Hana Yori Dango, some of the stuff that happens in that book is way worse-- but it's something to think about if you have triggers. Personally, I liked the distinction about it being all about power; it made sense that the fae would brutalize each other like that to show animal dominance.

As big a part as the romance is when it comes to setting the stage, a lot of the book is also about the sisters struggling to develop and control their powers, while also trying to take in this whole other world they didn't even know about. At first it's disorienting trying to take in all of these names and descriptions, but that translates to the characters' bewilderment as well, and it's really well done. We learn about the world as the characters do and whether that's brilliant writing or a happy accident, I don't even care because I loved it and didn't want it to be over. These classrooms are way more dangerous than the ones in Harry Potter and the teachers are just as cruel as the students. There's also a sort of romance with one of the sisters and their hot vampire professor, Lance Orion. He's actually the love interest I liked the most, because even though he was an asshole, he was an asshole to everyone. This is a man who will crack someone's head against a desk for backtalking him. Although if I'm pressed, I'd say that my favorite of the boys was probably Caleb just because I'm a sucker for vamps.

I ended up really liking Darcy and Tory. I do agree with the criticisms that their POVs are pretty similar and it was easy to confuse them but they ARE twins so I guess it makes sense that they'd be alike?? I also liked how they simped for each other and always had each other's backs. The girl on girl hate was also pretty minimal for a bullymance. I liked how the girls were kind of disgusted when the guys slut-shamed other women and how some of the girls weren't treated as rivals but as friends. Nothing was perfect, but it felt more realistic and less a reliance on gross gender stereotypes, even though the word "alpha" was used in here about twenty times too many, and I began eye-rolling at the mention of a muscled chest (because of course, it happened every time something with a dick walked on stage).

I've developed a bit of a reputation on this site for being a picky snob and that's probably true, but my standards are actually pretty low. All I ask is to be entertained. This book more than served me up in that regard and I've already got book two on standby. I'm wildly jealous of the authors for thinking up this delicious, slutty hodgepodge of Vampire Academy, Harry Potter, and Cruel Prince, and now I guess I have to read thousands and thousands of pages of this self-indulgent fanfiction to find out how it ends.


4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars