Tuesday, January 31, 2023

WtAFW: Conquered by Clippy: An Erotic Short Story by Leonard Delaney


So I have a "weekly" feature called What the Actual Fuck Wednesday where I make an effort to read some of the weirdest shit the internet has to offer and then write reviews about it. CONQUERED BY CLIPPY was going to be last week's feature but then I got busy so that's why this is a "weekly" feature and not a weekly feature. Luckily, I had a couple hours to spare this week and was able to get this done. (Just like the heroine and her, uh, assistant.)

Christine, the heroine from the last book, has recovered from her fucking at the hands (er, blocks?) of Tetris pieces. It left such an impression on her that she wrote a blog post about it, which was read by tech CEO Phil Gates, who was really impressed by her ability to "communicate using words." A+ for patronizing compliments. He invites her down to Silicon Valley to investigate an alien artifact in a remote area. Doesn't seem sus at all, and no need to do a Google search or anything. Just hop on a plane and meet this dude in a totally deserted area. YEAH THAT SEEMS LEGIT AS SHIT.

Once there, they are immediately hit by silicon geysers and crash into a pit so hard that it makes Christine's boobs jiggle (priorities). Phil continuously hits on Christine while they examine the various artifacts uncovered while mining, which is also where they encounter Clippy. Phil gets his brain bashed in by machine parts and Clippy and Christine both agree that's how he definitely would have wanted to die. That same cave-in also gives Clippy the horny, and then his cold rod becomes a hot rod, if you know what I mean. A hot rod that Christine can spread her "lady butter" all over as he "assists her with orgasm" by doing "butt stuff," after "plugging into her lady-socket."

I'm old enough that I've used Microsoft Word with Clippy on it, and if you didn't hate him already, this book is going to make you despise the horny metal shit. NO ONE WANTS YOUR ASSISTANCE CLIPPY. Funnily enough, reading this "book" made me go to Wikipedia for some research and to my surprise, CONQUERED BY CLIPPY is actually mentioned on the Wikipedia page for this book under the section about cultural references, which I found hilarious. Even more hilarious, though, is that apparently Microsoft employees found him just as intolerable and apparently referred to him internally as TFC (the C stood for "clown" and I bet you can guess what the TF stands for).

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Ill Wind by Rachel Caine


I used to have to thrift all my books, so I would often end up reading series out of order, because I would only read what the stores had. One of those series was the Weather Warden. I think I had books one, three, and five, and I remember being totally obsessed with them the first time I read them but wondering what happened in between all those gaps. It was like the worst recap ever, you know? So I decided to treat myself by buying up the full series because what better time for a reread?

ILL WIND is the first book and one of the things I loved about these books that made it stick out in my mind after all this time, despite the paranormal romance genre being such a saturated market, is that it had such a fun and unusual premise. In this world, some people are gifted with affinities to elemental magic: earth, wind, fire, and air. Air and water are co-occuring and people who have these abilities are referred to as Weather Wardens. The others are Earth and Fire Wardens. They're tested and brought into a bureaucratic industry that magically lobotomizes people who don't come into the fold. For their own good, of course.

Jo is currently on the run from exactly this fate because she's been accused of killing one of the most powerful Wardens, her old boss. Also she's been infected by a demon that's slowly consuming her. There's a mystery behind both of these situations that you find out later, but I won't spoil it. To save herself, she's looking for THE literal most powerful Warden, a man named Lewis, who was her first love. But he's on the run too, after going rogue and stealing some of the djinn that the Wardens use as living resonance crystals to amplify their powers. But how do you find the most powerful man in the world if he doesn't want to be found? The answer to that might be in the mysterious hitchhiker she picks up: a skinny guy with cute glasses and nerdy shirts named David who isn't what he seems.

This is definitely dated and you can really feel the 2003 publication date-- jokes about sexual harassment, flip phones being peak technology (I lol'd), spring BREAAAAAAAAAK. But in most regards, it actually holds up pretty well. Joanne borders on Mary Sue at times, but she makes some bad decisions and reckless choices that humanize her. I also liked that she was pretty comfortable with her sexuality and her femininity and didn't go around slut-shaming other female characters or disparaging girly things like so many of the other urban fantasy "kick-ass" heroines did. I only learned about what "pick me" girls are pretty recently, but learning the definition made me realize why so many UF romances struck a sour chord with me: the so-called strength of these heroines came at the cost of other women, and embodying the traits that would make people admire a male action hero. I don't like that.

You know what I did like? This book. The heroine literally gets her clothes shredded in a storm and is like YOLO while people stare at her in fear, and she's literally just as comfortable on the beach in a bikini. Now that is bad-ass. Also the love interest is a beta hero who has pretty eyes and deadly powers, and that is an awesome combo. Actually, Lewis was great, too. And the way that their relationship was portrayed as shifting from lovers to friendship was quite well done. So if you are looking for actual feminist fantasy romance that won't come at the cost of other girls, pick up these books. They're great.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Dead Romantics by Ashley Poston


DNF @ 24%

If I had taken the time to do an ounce more research and realized that the author of this book also wrote the Once Upon a Con series, I would not have bought this book. Because I really didn't like that series and it ended up having a lot of the same flaws that turned me off of this book. Contrary to what some might think, I don't actually enjoy writing negative reviews. I used to be a little more cavalier about it but now I really try to only buy books I'm sure about. And on paper, THE DEAD ROMANTICS sounded wonderful-- a ghost love story, a venture into the publishing world, lots of ANGST.

To be fair, THE DEAD ROMANTICS wasn't a bad book. It just pandered. A lot. I think Christina Lauren was mentioned like three times before the 24% mark. The main character tries just a little too hard to assure you, the reader, that she loves books. She doesn't have time to read them but she loves them and she'll be sure to tell you that constantly. She's also grossly incompetent and really twee. I try to be sympathetic towards heroines because I feel like SO MANY OF THEM get criticized for things that heroes would get a free pass for, but this one was genuinely unlikable. She's the "tiny" brand of heroine where she's made that her personality and complains constantly about people finding her cute. She's also really immature, to the point where she feels like she's in high school. And she's supposed to be good at her job? Uhh...

The plot is a little similar to Emily Henry's BEACH READ, in that it's about a heroine who writes romance novels who has given up on writing romance novels because she's given up on love, but BEACH READ was able to sell me on that a little better than this one did (even if it was also, dare I say it, a little too "I wear rompers and eat cake for breakfast and Zooey Deschanel is my patronus" twee).

But I'm a grumpy person who is very picky about chick-lit and contemporary rom-coms, so if you're super into that and you loooooooved BEACH READ and want more, more, MORE, you might love this. Thanks to Anniek for trying to BR this with me (I'm sorry you called it quitsies, too).

2 out of 5 stars

Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews


Is anyone actually surprised I enjoyed this book? Probably not. I have a reputation on here for curating some of the best/worst vintage books out there. I have a pretty high bar for not getting squicked out by books, but FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC really tested me because, well, if you know you know. It's gross as fuck. And SO UNCOMFORTABLE.

I was late to the V.C. Andrews game. My mother didn't keep books like this in the house, so I missed out on being traumatized by The Flame and the Flower and Flowers in the Attic at thirteen or fourteen-years-old like some of my peers. The first V.C. Andrews book I read was actually written by her ghostwriter, and if you're asking, "Well, what's the difference?" think about New Coke versus Coca-Cola Classic. One kinda sorta follows the formula, but it's clearly Pepsi in a red can, and nobody wants that. V.C. Andrews-written-as-Andrew-Neiderman has bubbles and is brown and comes in a can, but it's missing that je ne sais quoi that makes it a Classic.

The first time I read Flowers, I was in my twenties. And I liked it then, too. Sort of? I think you need to know going in that this is basically a bodice-ripper with preteens/teenagers as the characters. Child abuse is a predominant theme. Who can forget the story of the cute little nuclear family that's disrupted when the father is grotesquely burned beyond recognition in a car accident? With no one else to pay the bills (women working? Ha, this is the FIFTIES), the mother writes pleading letters to her parents, begging them for money. Which is something that many college students and college graduates still do to this day. The only difference? Your parents probably didn't disinherit you for your incest marriage and whip you for your sins. That's right, it turns out mother and father were actually niece and uncle. WHOOPS.

I'm not tagging that as a spoiler because you find it out pretty early on. But some major spoilers are coming, so hold on to your hats and get your pearl clutchers ready, because shit is about to get real.

Chris, Cathy, Carrie, and Cory (who are they? the Cardashians???) are all locked up in an attic until the mother can convince the grandfather to love her again and put her back in this will. He's on death's door, she assures them, so it shouldn't take long. In the meantime, they're at the mercy of the abusive grandmother, who seems strangely preoccupied with what kinds of sins they might get up to in the attic space she's locked them in. At first, things are basically Diet Suck. They aren't happy but they still think their mother loves them and guilt propels her to make their stay as comfortable as possible. This is what is known as the honeymoon period and don't worry, it won't last long.

It doesn't take long for things to get gross. Cathy and Chris end up wrist deep in shit and piss, cleaning up soiled sheets and backed-up toilets. When the grandmother catches Cathy studying herself naked in a mirror while Chris watches (and yes, they're both still underage at this point), Cathy gets whipped and then the grandmother drugs her and paints her hair with tar, forcing her brother to cut off all her hair for their vanity (after starving them). They get starved again at some point and Chris actually cuts his wrist and forces them to drink his blood for nourishment. Cathy gets raped by her brother after he thinks she's fantasizing about someone else, and then he's like, "Didn't mean to rape you, sorry," and she's like, "I could have stopped you if I wanted to, and also I asked for it by wearing slutty clothes." Also, pretty sure that since their parents are already related, that makes this incest-plus. Somebody gets poisoned by arsenic. There are an uncomfortable amount of passages describing young kids wearing lingerie or underwear (the youngest kid, I guess, likes to show off her fancy panties, which she also shits multiple times, forcing her older sister to wash them-- ew, ew, ew). Oh, and Cathy goes out to the roof, determined to throw herself off of it, but backs down at the last second. Yay.

Basically, anything that's there to be triggered by is in this book. I can say with certainty that there is no way something like this could get written today. Someone would 100% take the author by the hand and say, "Maybe don't do that." As they should, because there are some things that should just be hinted at in a puberty book and not used as fodder for the world's best worst soap opera, you know? The only way you can get through this book is by saying, "Oh, it was the seventies. Of COURSE it was the seventies. That was the decade that came out with Love's Baby Soft, anything written by Bertrice Small, and Brooke Shields's Calvin Klein jeans ad (okay, technically that was 1980, but that's still basically the seventies and also she was FIFTEEN, wtf). 

The best parts of the book are the intense psychology of the characters. Cathy is a sympathetic and believable gothic heroine, which is drilled into us by the books she reads (Wuthering Heights, Lorna Doone, Jane Eyre). Through her eyes, we witness the disintegration of her belief that the world is just and loving and good, first with the death of her father, then with their inability to sway the grandmother's affections through obedience, and finally, in the gradual crumbling of their mother's morality and compassion; she has been corrupted by the house and in the end, she has become as cold and callous as the grandmother. The transformation-- and the lesson-- is a brutal one.

So yeah, hopefully this arms you with what you need before going in-- if you decide to read this book at all (and if you don't, I seriously don't blame you). I for one am excited to read the sequel, which follows Cathy's life as an older teen/adult, once she manages to escape the house and get her revenge. YAAASS.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

The China Garden by Liz Berry


When I was living in the UK, I remember watching this really bad TV mini series called Children of the Stones, a horror/gothic about a town being held in thrall to a stone circle of megaliths. It was cheesy, but also kind of endearing as well, because on our weekend day trips, we saw so many small towns that had these megaliths and standing stones, and even though they were years and years in the past, the people in these towns still had so much respect for them.

THE CHINA GARDEN brought back all of those memories. It's a story about a girl named Clare and her mother, Frances. Frances is a nurse but it turns out that she lied a lot about her past. She came from a place called Stoke Raven, with a beautiful and ancient property called Ravensmere, where she was descended from one of the two great families who live there: they Aylwards and then Kenwards. Now that her grandfather is dying, she wants to go back and make things right, but she's reluctant to bring Clare for some reason. Clare, being a teenager, insists on going and is enchanted and disturbed by the mysterious old town and its secretive people.

I don't want to say too much about this book because less is definitely more going in. You don't see too many books being written like this these days: it opens up very slowly and takes its time setting the scenery and introducing you to all the townspeople. I don't think the heroine even really speaks to the love interest until about 30-40% into the book. That kind of slow-burn pacing is basically unheard of these days, with the love interests often kissing well into the first five chapters. Despite that, THE CHINA GARDEN ended up being a surprisingly spicy and steamy read for a YA. I was kind of surprised but also not because Liz Berry also wrote EASY CONNECTIONS and its sequel, which were basically bodice-rippers for teens (replete with dub-con). It just seems to be her style.

THE CHINA GARDEN is beautifully written, subtly magical, and has so many of my favorite tropes: dangerous and slightly unpredictable love interest, a headstrong and difficult-to-deal-with heroine, a small town with big gothic secrets, and a little whisper of magic. Not going to lie, I actually had chills at the end. It was that good. If you enjoy love stories with themes of redemption and inheritance, I think you'll love this book. It's even more magical if you've actually been to one of those small towns with standing stones and mazes. The only reason this isn't five stars is because it took a while to get moving, even for me, and ended up feeling quite front-heavy as a result.

4 to 4.5 stars

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Part of Your World by Abby Jimenez


It's so hard for me to find contemporary romances I actually enjoy because so many of them end up feeling really bland to me because they lack emotional stakes and conflict. I need some kind of driving force involving external conflict or inner turmoil to keep me turning pages, and that seems to be something that more and more authors are afraid to include these days. Maybe that's because, these days, any semi-flawed or unlikable character or situation involving any kind of nuance ends up getting you cancelled on TikTok.

PART OF YOUR WORLD, however, is that one book in one hundred that actually manages to write a successful rom-com that doesn't feel patronizing, unrealistic, or-- worse-- pandering. It includes so many of my favorite tropes that it felt like it was written for me: small town vibes, reverse age gap, class differences, STEM heroine (she's a doctor!), cute animals, strong female friendships, and loads and loads of family d(tr)auma to unpack and dread and scream over.

Alexis meets Daniel when her car gets stuck in a ditch. He helps tow her and then they meet again when she stops at the local bar for a bite. They end up hitting it off but she's a little put off by how young he is, and how their lives are totally different. (Read: she's loaded.) But they end up deciding to be a sort of exclusive-friends-with-benefits thing, which I wouldn't have minded if ALL THE SEX SCENES WEREN'T FADE TO BLACK (rude), but obviously they both catch feelings and obviously, both of them have extenuating factors that come into conflict with their budding romance. Daniel is about to lose his family house because his drug-addicted mother owns it and she wants to sell it all to run off with some guy. And Alexis is being put under incredible pressure by her manipulative and uptight family and her emotionally abusive ex.

The conflict drives the story and keeps up the tension, adding edge to what would otherwise be a pretty sugary-sweet insta-love romance wish fulfillment fantasy. Not that there's anything wrong with that. While I was composing my review in my head, I was actually going to talk about how *some* fluffy books manage to sell that fantasy without being too annoying. But then all that other stuff in the book came into play and I ended up being even more impressed than I already was. I only really have three complaints: (1) if you're going to tell me this dude is the Alexander the Great of having sex, you have to give us SOMETHING. Otherwise it feels like a taunt. (2) It kind of felt like the whole thing with Daniel's mom was just kind of resolved off-page, which was weird, because it felt like the book was playing her up to do something awful. (3) Could have done with 90% fewer Princess Bride references.

But overall, this was a lovely book. Just as good as the last book by this author that I read and thank goodness I have two more of hers on Kindle to read. PLUS, the next book in this series is going to be about Bri and she is absolutely the coolest and I can't wait for her story.

Thanks to FLINN and Anniek for reading this with me! Make sure to check out their reviews! :)

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

WtAFW: Polled Hard: Ravished by the Voting Machine by Fannie Tucker


Getting fucked by the system. It's the American way. 🇺🇸

So in case you're new to my reviews, I have a weekly reading feature called "What the Actual Fuck Wednesday," where followers send me the weirdest romance or erotica books they can find and then I review them here, on the blog. Today's read was suggested to me by West Coast Justin, and I'd say thank you but... actually, I won't. Because this was baaaaaaad.

Fannie Tucker is a repeat guest in this feature. She's the female Chuck Tingle, the yin to his yang. I'd say that they should do a collab, but then someone would probably force me to read it, and I would have to, so please, don't actually do that. But anyway, Fannie Tucker is one of those troll erotica authors who write really ridiculous twenty-page stories where some heroine (or hero) gets banged by something weird, to the point where it actually becomes its own viral marketing.


In POLLED HARD, jaded Julia takes a ho-hum approach to voting day. She lives in a swing state so her vote might actually make a difference, but she's not excited about either candidate. A dictator or a crony career man, she thinks. WHAT A CHOICE. But the poll machine doesn't take too kindly to her lack of enthusiasm and decides to take matters into its own hands. Er, I mean, lever. Which, if you live in the U.S. of A., you know isn't the first time that someone's been fucked while voting. (Note: this joke in my pre-review about voter suppression lost me friends but it was too good not to keep in the update.)

Anyway, two uncomfortable jokes about government figures abusing power to have sex later, poll machine offers a sweaty and exhausted Julia a choice: anal pounding or vibrating massage? She chooses vibrating massage but the machine is like LOL guess what, it's disenfranchisement time, toots. You're getting pounded because them's the breaks and that's the system. Which is RUDE because that is literally the exact same joke I made. First you came for my coin, then you came for my jokes!

The voting machine feels sorry for Julia and does give her that massage, but she also still gets fucked. Because that's what happens in a two party system. She slinks out of the booth, past the kindly, deaf old lady volunteer who's in charge. She starts to tell the lady what happened but then decides, meh. And this, my friends, is what is called "voter apathy." Which is the most realistic element of the book.

I did not like POLLED HARD. Some of Fannie Tucker's books have me laughing at how ridiculous and over the top they are, and TAKEN BY THE JUNGLE by this author legit had the bones of being an actually decent monster fucker romance. But the humor in this one just felt mean.

Moral of the story: if the voting booth's a-rocking, don't come a-knocking.

1 out of 5 stars

The Quarry Girls by Jess Lourey


All of Jess Lourey's books are basically variations on the same premise: facets gleaming on the dark crystal of girlhood and what it means to come of age in a time and place that doesn't value women. Some people criticize authors for turning to the same theme again and again but honestly? If it works, it works. Lourey has developed a solid formula and each of her books keeps getting better. She could write an endless amount of fucked-up coming of age stories set in Minnesota and I guarantee you, I would come back for more, again and again. When I found out about this book last year, I slammed it on my to-read list IMMEDIATELY. And when I finally slated some time to read it, I was hyped. Even better, I got to buddy-read this with one of my favorite people to read mysteries with, Heather. Make sure you check out her review, too.

QUARRY GIRLS is the latest iteration and it is so good. The heroine, Heather, is sixteen years old and in a girl band with her two best friends, Maureen and Brenda. It's 1977 and everyone knows everyone in their tiny community. They live in a housing complex connected by tunnels, which they use in the harsh winters to visit basement to basement. The kids play tag down there. It seems folksy and cute. Until a local waitress goes missing. And Heather and her friends discover firsthand how some predators wear the skins of men.

I don't want to say more but the atmosphere and creepiness in this book was so good. I loved all of the small details Lourey wove in to make this book really feel like it was set in the '70s. The pop-culture references and even the stores-- like Zayre-- where so well done. My anxiety definitely spiked from 1 to 100 towards the end, and stayed in the red until the very end of the book. And the ending? *chef's kiss* Reading this book made me realize that some of Lourey's other books' endings weren't quite as satisfying as this one. I got full closure, and a little gleam of hope in the darkness.

My one qualm is that Jess Lourey ALWAYS puts these spoilerific introductions in the beginnings of her books that will SPOIL the story for you because they tell you about the true crime story(s) that inspired her to write her latest mystery. I value that info, but it should really go in the BACK of the book because what if some unwitting reader wants to go in cold and ends up having the small town mystery totally explained for them? Heather saved me from this fate in LITANI (where the introduction removes all doubt about what's really going on) and I returned the favor in THE QUARRY GIRLS, because even though I skipped the introduction, I was tricked by a follow-up section called Killer #2, which was actually more introduction under a sneaky new name! How DARE you, Ms. Lourey. Rude.

Spoilers aside, I highly recommend Ms. Lourey's work and THE QUARRY GIRLS especially is everything I love in an atmospheric coming-of-age thriller. Just, you know, do yourself a favor and skip the intro.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

American Cheese: An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World by Joe Berkowitz


This book was really great until I got bored and started to skim. (Skim like... milk???) There's nothing wrong with the book objectively-- it's one of those documentary-style books, and the author definitely does exactly what the subtitle promises: he goes on a very self-indulgent journey through the cheese world and tells us allllll about it. To the point where if the book was a passenger on a bus, I might have changed seats.

The problem is that it's just a little too long for what it accomplishes. There are only so many times I can take a "Wow, this cheese is SO artisinal!" (How artisinal IS it?) call-and-response type format before I start to lose my mind. I think part of the problem is that it straddles the line between being informational and being anecdotal. If it were more informational, it might have helped if this book were organized into sections about various manufacturers or cheese types, so all the info was in one place and wasn't repeated throughout the book. If he were going for a more anecdotal route, I would have liked it if he focused more on the action and the senses and the tastes and less on some of his personal musings and ramblings.

Here are some of my takeaways: Jasper Hill and Cowgirl Creamery are amazing and it was a delight to see them get so much love in this book. YAAAASS cheese science! Even gross facts like knowing that some cheese smells like feet because they contain bacteria that really do grow on feet (ew). I now know that there is a museum out there that has a secret cheese parties that's like the Finer Things Club from The Office but with cheese and if this doesn't make you think that museum curators are the coolest, you're beyond salvation, I'm sorry. And did I really just read a description of two people who have a secret handshake where they pretend to "milk" each other's fingers like cow udders?? NO THANKS. Also, I really need someone to take me to a cheese ball, okay. And no, not the snack. An actual gala where cheese is served. PLEASE AND THANK YOU.

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman


If you take one thing away from THE ICE QUEEN, I really want it to be that the heroine and one of her love interests have both been struck by lighting, and one of them has turned cold inside, and the other is hot (so hot his touch literally burns), and when they have sex, they have to do it in a cold bath tub. And EVEN THEN, his dick is so hot that the first time, she goes to his freezer and sticks ice UP THERE. For relief. Honestly, at least 50% of the entertainment value of this book (at least for me) was trying to figure out the rules of this weird, freaky-deaky magic-realism sex the author thought up.

Apart from that, this is a strange, surreal story that kind of reads like an adult fairytale. The heroine (who I don't think has a name) believes she has the ability to speak wishes and make them truths because when she told her mother she didn't want her to come back, her mother died. And when she said she wanted to be struck by lightning, she got struck by lightening. After those two very traumatic events, she mostly stopped talking much, but the effects of the lightening live on her blood, turning her cold, taking away her ability to see red, and leaving her with strange sensations in her head and heart.

When she ends up in a lightening strike victim study, she hears about this dude who became a total hermit after the lightning strike. This is Mr. Fire Cock, as I like to call him. He and the heroine have instant lust, although because this is ~literary fiction~ and not romance, they wait until the second meeting before having wild and screwy elemental sex, the likes of which causes water in the bathtub to literally boil and requires sticking your hands in the freezer before foreplay. Honestly, if the book was mostly about this, I would have enjoyed it SO much more. But there's a reason that this is a love story and a romance, although when people say it's unhappy, it's probably not for the reasons you think.

The last act kind of goes off the rails. This went from being a poignant, morbidly dreamy book to a depressing mess. Someone (not the love interest) dies. We learn about someone's incredibly traumatic (physical trauma from an accident, not abusive) backstory. and someone chops off their hands with a hatchet(!!!!!). Also, there's several animal deaths, small animals killed by a cat (although one of them could have been saved but the heroine didn't know that and also DO WE REALLY NEED so many gratuitous descriptions of withered animal corpses, she asked). I think I would have liked this more as a teenager when I was all about that edgy depressed emo kid life. In fact, this even came out when that subculture was nearing its peak in 2005, so maybe the author was living her edgy, depressed emo kid life, too. That said, I still actually enjoyed this book more than I did PRACTICAL MAGIC.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Our Shadows Have Claws: 15 Latin American Monster Stories by Yamile Saied Méndez

 I have mixed feelings about anthologies. I like the idea of them in theory but the overall quality hinges on not just the quality of the individual stories but also how they fit and work together. In past collections I've read, there's always one or two stories where I'm like, "Did you NOT understand the assignment?" Happily, that was not the case with this book-- it's one of the few where everything feels cohesive. Gothy, gloomy Addams family-aesthetic Latinx stories? Uhhhh let me go ahead and slam down that YAAAAASS button.

So here are my jotted thoughts and feelings about each individual story, with a respective rating.

The Nightmare and the Lark: ☆☆☆
Chantel Acevedo

This is a Romeo and Juliet retelling with monster hunters and monster sympathizers, replete with a twist. I can see why it was chosen to kick off the collection because it sets the overall theme and tone of the stories to come and hooks you in with a lil' bit of romance, but I found it just okay.


Donde Esta el Duende?: ☆☆☆
Jenny Torres Sanchez

I thought this one was also just okay, although it's a very different story than the first. Apparently a "duende" is a sort of monster elf creature (and not a cuddly rosy-cheeked one, either!). This has more of a classic horror movie vibe to it, like a 1950s pulp. It also kind of gave me Troll 2 vibes.


El Viejo de la Bolsa: ☆☆
Alexandra Villasante

I didn't care for this one much at all. It's a very strange story revolving around an entity that kidnaps and eats children who don't finish their meals. The ending was weird and didn't really make sense to me. I get the purpose of vague, open-ended endings but if they're not executed well, they just feel lazy.


Beware the Empty Subway Car: ☆☆½
Maika and Maritza Moulite

This was almost a good story. I've actually read a book by these authors before and it had similar problems: it tried to get a little too fancy for a story that didn't quite have enough substance to carry it off. I liked the premise-- a lougaru living in New York-- and it had '90s grunge vibes. But I didn't like it.


Dismembered: ☆☆☆☆
Ann Davila Cardinal

This story was actually really sweet. It's about a girl who inherits her grandmother's house after she is killed in a gruesome car crash. On a completely UNRELATED note (*cough*) she learns that so many people die on the road where her grandmother had the accident that an urban legend has surfaced about the dismembros, body parts that just blob around, searching for their missing pieces. *shudder*


Blood Kin: ☆☆☆
Ari Tison

This is a story about revenge for the indigenous people of Costa Rica and it involves, strangely enough, panther shape-shifters. Or the legend of them, anyway. *wink* I thought this one was only okay. It kind of felt like it could have been a Captain Planet episode. I just don't think the story was long enough to do its thing. Not a bad book-- again, it was okay plus-- but it could have been better.


La Boca del Loba: ☆☆☆
M. Garcia Pena

I thought this one was fine. It's an Angela Carter-like story about female rage that becomes carnivorous in its fury. Surreal and very magic-realism-y, but I rolled with it. And I did kind of like it.


Bloodstained Hands Like Yours:
Gabriela Martins

There's always ONE. This is the story in the book that I really didn't like. It didn't offend me or make me angry or anything like that, I just didn't feel like it made sense (even if I liked the idea of a mummy story where the mummy is targeting this one girl for ~reasons~).


The Boy from Hell: ☆☆☆☆
Amparo Ortiz

So satisfying. Almost five stars. I want to see this one played out in a full book. Latinx vampires and a kickbutt female vampire huntress who seeks them out with the help of her chaotic good granny? YAS


La Patasola: ☆☆☆☆☆
Racquel Marie

This is more of a five-star rating in terms of the overall collection than something that really had me obsessing, but it was an excellent short story. I guess it's a feminist spin on a Colombian story of a woman who, after being murdered by her jealous fiance, becomes a flesh-eating monster. So good and it's set in a camp and talks about biphobia and bisexual erasure. SO GOOD.


The Other Side of the Mountains: ☆½
Claribel A. Ortega

This one was confusing and weird and I feel like it was going for a maybe Tim Burton sort of vibe and it almost succeeded but wasn't quite there. It's about a boy looking for the witch who took his sister into the mountains. Creative but confusing and also kind of depressing.


La Madrina: ☆☆½
Yamile Saied Mendez

This is a story about a girl who ends up encountering the woman who guides the dead to their final place. I rounded up a bit because I liked the ending, but I wanted more from it.


Sugary Deaths: ☆☆☆☆☆
Lilliam Rivera

I was obsessed with this one and clearly need to check out more of this author's works. 80s nostalgia! Tough girl heroine! Pac-Man! Arcades! Also the premise revolves around a girl getting revenge on a privileged older guy who's taking advantage of her friends. SO GOOD. Love love love.


Leave no Tracks: ☆☆½
Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez is such a big name in Latinx fiction that I went in with really high expectations but this story felt pretty dialed in. I liked the environmental theme and the supernatural element but this one didn't really impress me much. Sadness.


The Hour of the Wolf: ☆☆☆
Courtney Alameda

I have heard so many good things about this author and even own some of her books (but haven't read them yet). Clearly I need to because this book was pretty good. It served up old school Goosebumps-style horror with skulls and altars and a vengeful wolf. Plus, a strong heroine in her own right.


So overall this collection was a little bit hit, a little bit miss, and a whole lot of okay. I did discover some new authors I'm pretty excited to read more from, though, so that's something! Also the editors put together a super cohesive collection that was the best of any anthology I've read, so go them on that. I'm honestly super impressed. Would make a great gift for the horror aesthete in your life.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Career Glow Up: How to Own Your Ambition and Create the Career of Your Dreams by Jennifer Brick


I definitely cringed a little when I saw the title of this self-help/guided journal, but I wanted a resource that would help me prepare for my annual performance review and the description of this journal seemed pretty helpful. To my surprise, it was! Even though the sparkly cover looks like something a teen girl might keep under her pillow, this is a valuable resource packed with some really great tips and suggestions for not just how to get a job, but also how to develop and grow in the one you have, which is solid proof (not that you needed any) that good things can come in sparkly packages.

For example, it lists some sites for you to look up salaries for a job you might want and then provides a space for you to average out the low, medium, and high salary ranges for the position (which is usually based on experience and tenure). Which seems like common sense, but I definitely know people who didn't get jobs because they went in with little to no experience expecting to be paid on the high end of the scale right out of the gate. It also underscores the importance of building your brand, which I think is even more important in this day and age, as social media becomes more prevalent and relied-upon. It seems common sense, but packaging yourself as someone who is authentic, interesting, professional, and not unkind is key to career growth (taller order, I know, yikes). The fact of the matter is, businesses want people who will put in the work and make them look good.

There are also spaces for planning out your career goals, outlining strengths and weaknesses, and suggestions on how to advocate for yourself without being too braggy. I liked the section about networking and planning out potential connections because, as an introvert, this is something I'm very bad at. It helps to go in with a plan (and I liked the reminder that people are more than just a means to an end and that you really ought to remember that success goes both ways, and that you should compliment other people and not infringe upon their accomplishments or spaces, which, again, seems common sense, until you take a look around you and realize that there are definitely people out there that don't do this). Probably the sweetest section is a little space for planning out a LinkedIn photo, what to wear, where to take it, etc. Yet another thing someone who is established might overlook but could be important for a new grad or someone who is just starting out on their first job.

The age group this is targeting is definitely millennials and zoomers, but I think that's okay. Job seeking can be so stressful and I appreciate the author's attempt to make it seem achievable and fun. This book will definitely be more helpful for college kids, new grads, and people who are just starting out in the workforce, but even someone like me, who has been in their industry for close to a decade, can get a lot of use out of this, because the graphs and guided sections allow you to structure your career goals in a way that makes them seem more tangible and less nebulous. Definitely using this for my annual performance review.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

All That It Ever Meant by Blessing Musariri


I'm honestly shocked that ALL IT EVER MEANT has so few reviews because even though it's not a perfect book, it hits on so many tropes that are popular with the YA crowd that it seems like somebody didn't do their due marketing diligence. I mean, you have a story that explores how a family dynamic is affected with the loss of a parent. Mati, the middle child, ends up sort-of-but-not-really-coping by talking to a nonbinary entity named Meticais who might be a spirit or a ghost or a whatever, telling her story to them since she can't with her family. Chichi, the eldest daughter, starts acting out in every way she can, whether it's with substances or boys. And the youngest child, Tana, becomes clingy and anxious and needy. Eventually the dad is like, maybe ENGLAND is the problem (spoiler: England is always the problem) and he uplifts them all to return to his homeland in Zimbabwe, where they take a road trip, go on safari, and sleep in the car, before eventually attending school there.

There are some things that don't quite work. While I LOVE (love, love, love) dual timeline, here, it didn't quite work. I wish the author had marked them with "before" and "now" tags or something like that to make the transitions a little more clear-cut, because the way it was done, it was a little choppy and hard to follow and something like that might have eased the reader into things. Also-- not a lot is happening. This book is, first and foremost, a character-driven journey. There are some mysteries, like what Meticais is and why they're there, and what some of the precipitating events were that made the siblings act how they are now, but if you don't really care about the characters, I'm not sure it's enough to hook the reader.

Overall, I thought ALL THAT IT EVER MEANT was a really good debut. I enjoyed the unusual setting, the glimpse into what it is like being the child of immigrants in England, and the sometimes-toxic and not-so-healthy ways that people can deal with grief. CRYING IN H MART did this too and I really appreciated that, the normalization of people not taking death of a loved one well. Sometimes people do go off the rails. Trauma is hard. The magic-realism element also added a rather unique element to the story and I even had an "I'm not crying, YOU'RE crying" moment at the end.

Would recommend this book to people who enjoy Akwaeke Emezi and Rimma Onoseta.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 13, 2023

Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service by Tajja Isen


SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS was an impulse buy. I love reading nonfiction; it's a fun way to break up other reads while also keeping myself informed about issues I care about. It's a collection of essays written by a woman who has worked as a voice actor, writer, and lawyer, and the topics revolve around her own issues and thoughts about these fields.

I always look at the negative reviews before buying a book and some people complained that the tone was off with this book. I wasn't sure what that meant, at first, because I was so taken in with the first essay about voice work, the problems with white people voicing people of character, and the bleak history of racism in classic cartoons (see the "Censored Eleven"). But a few essays in, I began to see what people meant. When Isen is writing about personal experiences or things that are clearly passions for her, she has an intoxicating, compelling pop-fiction sort of tone that is light but concrete, making ideas both thought-provoking, accessible, and fun to read.

But when she's having more of a "teaching moment," and talking about data and statistics, the writing gets very dry. Textbook dry. It's an odd shift and sometimes these tonal jags occur multiple times within essays, which makes them difficult to process and hard to read. I understand why she might have done this: maybe it feels disrespectful to talk about things like discrimination and infrastructural racism in a light, poppy tone. But it also didn't quite make the book gel for me. I'm not saying that what she did was "wrong," from a technical or a moral standpoint, but for me, it made the book not quite work.

That said, there were some essays in here that I absolutely loved (in fact, I'd say I loved most of them). My favorites were, as I mentioned, the one on voice work. I also loved the essays criticizing the centering of white male voices in the lit-fic cannon; the voyeuristic consumption of traumatic essays; the lack of diversity in publishing (and how some of these problems are encapsulated in books like AMERICAN DIRT and THE OTHER BLACK GIRL)-- loved this essay SO much; and then, last, but certainly not least, the way Canada is portrayed as a "better" America while glossing over its own problems.

Overall, this was a good essay collection and it's honestly worth reading for the great essays alone, and even the weaker essays, like her disenchantment with law and white feminism, are worth reading, although for people who are already informed about these issues, they don't really offer much new to the table. Her pop-culture commentary is where her strengths lie and I hope she writes another collection, because I love her writing style and the way she talks about the funhouse mirror that pop-culture can be and how the view changes depending on your privilege and race.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

WtAFW: Taken by the Jungle by Fannie Tucker


Who had "vegan tentacle hentai" on their 2023 bingo card? But okay, SERIOUSLY... I actually kind of almost liked this book. I know. I KNOW. Maybe I've been reading too many M.J. Edwards, where people kiss like they're "sloshing microwaved fish in their mouths" or get fucked like a "combine harvester in a field of wheat," but I actually appreciated the clean writing and-- actually-- pretty solid sex scenes. This wasn't quite sexy but it was in the same zip code. I'm not going to be looking for any double-dicked plant men with flowers for eyes, but I could see why someone might, you know?

Jenn is majoring in Indiana Jonesology with a mini minor in cultural appropriation, and her research has taken her to the Yucatan peninsula in search of a lost temple. While on their journey, she hears one of the locals talk about something that sounds like "fuck-vine" in Yucatec (and if anyone can actually speak Yucatec/Mayan, I am DYING to know if the language in here is actually accurate, because if so, I might have to award a bonus star for someone going to that level of research for a mere twenty pages of sex vine fuckery).

Because-- oh whoops, SPOILERS. Jenn stumbles into the lost temple completely by accident and the sexy hieroglyphs on the wall seem to show a virgin being sacrificed not by having her heart ripped out, but by having her ass tapped by THOSE VINES. And then-- oh whoops, she realized that she's chosen said sacrificial altar of Little Shop of Horrors lovin' as a perch for her hieroglyph perusal. Faster than you can say "Feed me, Seymour," she's out of there. Or at least, she WOULD be out of there, if the vines didn't causally block off her path like it's the 1960s and someone called for some beaded curtains and an LSD trip.

I actually thought the vine-man was pretty inventive and creepy. Also there's the two dicks, as I mentioned. The main event has a hard avocado-like tip (help) and the smaller one is for butt stuff and has a little pink flower on it. The pink flower matches the ones that vine man has instead of eyes (EEK). Also, apparently he's kind of hollow because Jenn says that he looks like the musculature diagrams in textbooks, so I'm just picturing a super ropy and hulked out '90s Batman villain-looking guy, only, you know, ribbed for her pleasure.

Fannie Tucker has written some really bad books, but there's always a fun, whimsical edge to them that a lot of these other erotica shorts lack. Sometimes they have me cringing and laughing but this one almost worked. With a little bit of retooling (goodnight, everybody) and a bit more world development, I think this could be one that the monster-fuckers out there would seriously enjoy.

P.S. I'd say I'm surprised that people want to fuck plants but when I was a kid in the wooly mammoth days of the interwebs, I accidentally ventured onto the NSFW section of Deviantart and learned-- to my detriment-- that there's people out there who have caught serious feelings for the piranha plants in Mario. And those feelings involve big, bulbous, spiny dicks.


2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Spin Me Right Round by David Valdes


I'm frequently at odds with popular opinion on this site, for better or for worse (usually for worse). It's not that I'm intentionally contrary, mostly; it's more that I happen to be a big fan of camp and irony, and "mainstream" things aren't really written for people like me, AKA awkward dorks who evolved from precocious to pretentious the way Charmander inevitably becomes a Charizard, but who also aren't quite pretentious enough to throw out their Joel Schumacher movies or tattered V.C. Andrews paperbacks. It's why I like books like, say, I MARRIED THE LIZARD MAN but don't like books like FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. One is a glorious homage to the pulpy 1950s horror films with a dash of Harvest Moon dating sim and the other masturbates harder to the upwardly mobile aspirations of the bourgeoisie than it does the BDSM sex it supposedly (and problematically, I might add) espouses.

Anyway, that's why when I find books like SPIN ME RIGHT ROUND that have low ratings on Goodreads, part of me is like, "You fools! Are we but mere swines turning up our snouts at the  pearls that lie before us?" And part of me is like, "Actually, maybe I'm the weird one here, and also, let those that live in pig houses cast not the first pearl." Or something like that. Because SPIN ME RIGHT ROUND is not a perfect read. The time travel is purely whimsical and doesn't really have a lot of scientific bases. And while it touches upon racism and bigotry in the '80s more than books like ELEANOR AND PARK did (i.e. not at all, except when convenient), there's still a sort of whitewashed gloss to the book that never really goes there. Which I think, on the one hand, is actually fine. We read books for escapism and this is YA, so we probably shouldn't traumatize the kiddos with brutal depictions of what bigotry in action could look like in history. And this light hand, for SPIN ME RIGHT ROUND, actually works, because the author manages to get his point across and he does so in a way that feels temporally acceptable, if not necessarily accurate.

The plot revolves around a flamboyantly gay boy named Luis who is going to a Christian school. It's pretty progressive for a Christian school but it still doesn't allow gay kids to go to the dance as couples and Luis is campaigning hard against that, because he wants to attend with his boyfriend, Cheng. He also has a nonbinary best friend named Nix, who tries to reign him in because they have a rather tragic understanding of the limits of what the school will and will not allow. Especially since, back in the 1980s a young gay Black man named Chaz died at the school and basically became a cautionary tale that the teachers decided to use as a fallback for their gussied up "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Anyway, after a failed attempt at subterfuge involving the prom invites (whoops, did I forgot to add pronouns to the invites, thus creating a legal loophole? SILLY ME), he ends up whacked on the head in the drama department (curse you, plywood!), which sends him back to the 1980s. 1985, specifically. Which I might be more skeptical about if 80% of my Timeswept historical romances didn't end the same way. I literally shared one today on Instagram where a female stuntwoman ends up int he middle of an 1800s bank robbery because of some faulty pyrotechnics. A few weeks ago, it was one where this woman bonked her head while falling out of a tree. Head bonkings are the leading cause of time travel, IN CASE YOU DIDN'T KNOW.

Anyway, Luis ends up meeting his favorite teacher (who is in her twenties in this timeline, omg so SWEET), and she believes him about the whole time travel thing because Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is her favorite book, so hooray. She decides that the best thing to do is to grandfather him into the school by pretending he's her tragically orphaned nephew, and it works because nobody has Google to look that shit up (looking that shit up on Google fixes 99% of falsified nephew shenanigans). Since his personality is big and brash, he decides to just be his best gay self while hanging out with the fringe crowd at this school, which includes HIS MOM(!), an artsy girl named Leeza, an adorable dork named Ernie, and the soon-to-be-doomed Chaz(!).

I don't want to say too much about this book because spoilers are foilers, people. But it's actually adorable in the way that some of those low budget YA movies of the '90s were adorable, where even if the story is far-fetched, it's so earnest and enjoyable that you end up coming back to it over and over. This book manages to capture all of the nostalgia of what made the '80s live on in so many young people's imaginations: the thrill of being in the moment, without phones; the over the top catchy beats of '80s songs (I appreciate The Cars shoutout); Tiger Beat; '80s clothes involving ruffles; CHESS KING; bomber jackets; big hair, etc. But it also doesn't ignore what made the '80s kind of awful, and it hammers home, in a really subtle and kind of quietly tragic way, how so many kids of the '80s and '90s had to wait a very long time to grow up and come out, in order to get to be their true, authentic selves.

The ending is beautiful and perfect and the scenes with Luis discovering his mom as a teen and seeing so much of himself in her actually made me tear up. I think it's easy for kids-- especially teens-- to forget their parents are people with actual hopes and dreams, and seeing his mom before she grew up, and seeing so much of himself in her, was such a powerful, beautiful moment. Luis is everything I love in a narrator-- he's willful and difficult, but he's also very funny, and even though he's shallow and a little selfish, he's not an inherently bad person and part of the story is watching him grow, as well. This is another cool thing about the book because a lot of the times, when an author writes a queer book, I think that there's an expectation that the queer character has to be flawless, acting as a sort of ambassador for whatever color block on the Pride flag they're representing, so seeing a queer character who gets to be imperfect and who gets to do so in a really fun way is fun and exciting and actually ended up making him feel really well rounded and interesting. I liked that he could be a bitch. I can be a bitch, too, so that made me really relate to Luis. I also liked the fact that he was Cuban, and how the author touches upon some of the inherent misogyny that can appear in some Latinx households, and how working past that (in the case of Luis's mother) can take a lot of effort and introspection.

Is this book for everyone? No. But if you like camp and catty narrators and John Hughes movies, I think you're going to love this book. I know I did. It's also a clever subversion of the bury-your-gays trope. Netflix seriously needs to make this into a movie for the promposal and the "Drive" scenes alone.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Dark King by Gina L. Maxwell


DNF @ 26%

Thanks to the lovely Ro for buddy-reading this with me. Unfortunately, neither of us really got into it. I was excited to read THE DARK KING because it seemed to be being pitched as NEON GODS meets A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES meets FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, which, if you were a cynical reader, might make you feel even more cynical. But I'm not a cynical person and convinced myself that this was going to be awesome: fated mates, marriage of inconvenience, kinky fun times? I was totally on board. Plus, I've kind of been on a faerie kick lately thanks to Zodiac Academy.

I liked the beginning of the book where Caiden is kicking this corrupt manager's butt for demeaning sex workers and disrespecting him. There's a lot of tell-and-not-show when it comes to how big and bad the big and bad is, so it was nice to actually see an on-page demo. I even politely looked the other way when Caiden kept winking at the audience (aka, me) to tell me how hardcore he was. Boy, I know. You just whaled on this dude, literal claws out. Go at it, already.

Things started to get shaky when Bryn, the heroine, walks on stage. She was kind of aggressively bland, in the same way that Anastasia Steel and Bella Swan were. Her only personality trait is sassing Caiden and lusting after him. The descriptions of the Vegas Strip were interesting, I guess, and to be honest, I kind of liked the idea of a bunch of excommunicated fae jadedly starting their own clubbing empire. It felt very True Blood, but, like, in a good way. The problem is that the heroine doesn't really have any personality or hobbies, and the author forges an instant connection with them that has no emotional basis, which makes it really hard to care about or even root for them as a couple.

Also, my boy Caiden, aka side-of-the-road-Rhysand, clearly sees himself as a feminist, but every time Bryn misbehaves, he threatens her with a spanking. What is this, the 1950s? Okay, actually maybe it is for this dude since he's immortal and the 1950s probably feel modern to him, but STILL. I didn't like that. I'm okay with kinky stuff but the way it was broached in this book was super weird and kind of uncomfy for me. I'm okay with good guy love interests and bad guy love interests, but don't try to sell me on a guy as a good guy love interest but then make him act like one of those pick-up artists from the 2000s who dressed like a leather daddy wizard and called himself "Enigma."

I think for people who like quick, smutty reads, this will be a fun escapist read-- and there's nothing wrong with that. But if you're going into this expecting world-building and emotional connections and strong characters, you'll be disappointed. Props to the author for actually trying to inject some real faerie lore into this book-- I liked that a lot and wish she'd done it more-- but everything else about this was a sort of miss for me. 

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 9, 2023

The Summer We Buried by Jody Gehrman


I was so excited to buddy read this with my friend, Heather, because we both really enjoy thrillers that feature messy women confronting their messy pasts. It is literally the best kind of book when done well, and that is LAW. (Although, you know, don't try to enforce it or anything.) After reading and enjoying this author's other female-fronted thriller, THE GIRLS WEEKEND, I was dying to read this one.

The heroine, Tansy, is a guidance counselor at a college. She lives an unassuming life renting an apartment from her ex-husband, whom she used to be in a rock band with. She seems like any other thirty-year-old lady living her best life and coming to terms with mediocrity, but she harbors a very-much-NOT-mediocre secret. And that secret comes in the form of Selene, a woman who she was friends with when she was young until tragedy and a dark secret separated them for good. Selene leverages that secret to force Tansy to spy on her daughter, Jupiter, who she suspects is being abused by her boyfriend.

It's difficult to say more without spoilers, because most of the "mystery" elements are reveals. I would say that the bulk of the story is about the tensions between various characters, and their questionable mental states. It feels like one of those dramatic Netflix mini-series, where you watch the characters fight and fight and fight, until something finally gives. Books like these are hard to write because none of that really matters if you don't feel personally invested in the characters and it took me until about 33% of the book to feel invested before I cared about these people. Because of the title and the premise, I was expecting more twists and surprises, you know, something really dark. Like ROANOKE GIRLS. I ended up feeling kind of disappointed during most of the "twists" because I'd already predicted them and assumed they were distractions from an even grander reveal.

I liked the sort-of romance between Tansy and Zack and it features a smutty scene in a planetarium that was surprisingly romantic... until it was fade to black. While we were talking about this book, Heather mentioned that a lot of the important or interesting scenes happened "off page," and I think that was another failing. Having the author merely alluding to dark and or sensual scenes only made me wish that they'd been left in instead because of how much better the book would have been with them. THE SUMMER WE BURIED wasn't a bad book but it left me wanting a lot more than I got.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Pretty Mess by Erika Jayne


I was kind of surprised when my sister gave me this book because I don't like Real Housewives. Something about the idea of watching a bunch of ladies who are too rich to function throwing wine at each other while screaming obscenities never really appealed to me. I figured their memoirs would basically be more of the same, and I'm not about that life. But I'm also nosy as fuck, and the idea of being able to peer into a life that I am totally not about did have a bit of masochistic appeal. Plus, there were a bunch of full color photographs in the middle and I LOVE it when memoirs do that.

To my surprise, I actually really enjoyed PRETTY MESS. Well, most of it. The book starts out with her upbringing in Georgia as a lower middle class girl from an unconventional family (divorce before divorce was cool, absentee dad, hot mess mother). From there, she talks about her love of the stage, and all the different forms "the stage" took for her: bit roles on Hollywood TV show, exotic dance clubs, Vegas performances, working at a restaurant in Beverly Hills, etc.

I think my favorite parts of this book were the descriptions of New York's seedy club scene in the '80s and her rationale for getting married to a many thirty-three years her senior. She talks about the judgement she gets for that, but how looks fade, and beautiful guys can be hard to be in a relationship with, and how much she loves being with a man who is intellectual, stable, and has a real zest for life. And yes, who also has enough money that she doesn't really have to give a fuck about the things that most normal mortals who aren't married to high-powered lawyers do. I get it-- she had a kid, and she'd already been through one shitty marriage that forced her through a revolving door of shitty jobs to keep herself afloat. The descriptions of her husband made it sound like she really does love him and that they're in the relationship as equals, with boundaries, and I think this is the first memoir I've read that really talks about the mechanics of a marriage with a big age gap, so I really appreciated that.

Overall, PRETTY MESS was a pretty decent read. She lost me a little with her descriptions of her current projects and dancing and her very odd religious views, but I guess it was necessary to kind of wrap up her journey and talk about where she ended up. I'd probably even recommend this book to people who aren't fans of Real Housewives if they enjoy memoirs written by women because Erika Jayne is surprisingly grounded and has such a larger-than-life personality. I think it would be so fun to have a drink with her and pick her mind.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Bully by Penelope Douglas


DNF @ 20%

Here's the thing about Penelope Douglas-- I think you either love or hate their books. They have a very distinctive style that's very soap opera-y and edgy and kind of feels like a bird's eye view into what it's like living in a small midwestern town. I bought a whole bunch of their books when they went on sale because I remembered actually liking CORRUPT, but now I'm wondering if that was a false memory because I haven't liked CREDENCE, BIRTHDAY GIRL, or PUNK 57. It's not even that I hate their books; they just make me uncomfortable and kind of squick me out. I know some people like that feeling because they enjoy reading books that push their boundaries and sometimes I do, too, because that's how you think about human behavior and what makes people tick. But all of their books are narrated in first person and their heroines kind of embrace internalized misogyny just a little too much for me to fully get on board. Tate, as a heroine, feels like the kind of girl who pulls up the rope ladder behind her because her girl power comes at the expense of other women. Respect for this being, like, the first major popular bully romance but I just couldn't get into it.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Archer's Voice by Mia Sheridan


ARCHER'S VOICE is a romance I'd been hearing a lot about and it topped so many best romance lists that I was curious to see what all the hype is about. Thanks to Lover of Romance for buddy-reading this with me. Lately, I've been feeling so unmotivated to read at times that I feel like I need other people around to hold me accountable. Now that I've read the book, I have some very mixed feelings, because while there were some things it did really well, there were some other things that left me with kind of a sour taste in my mouth.

Bree is a college graduate who has come to the small town of Pelion to find peace. It's a small town that she visited with her dad and she has good memories there, and she hopes to make more as she embarks on a path of healing. In Pelion, she meets Archer, a mute twenty-three year old man who lives as a hermit in his isolated cabin. It's basically lust for both of them at first sight, and his silence and trauma intrigues Bree, as she alternately treats him like a sexual object and a puzzle that she must figure out.

Here's the thing. I do see why this book is popular and it's an entertaining story. But I think it mostly will appeal to people for the same reasons that they like Colleen Hoover: it doesn't really challenge the status quo and it plays upon the readers' emotions to get you to care about the characters. I really wish there had been more depth to Archer as a human being. This book doesn't quite feel like savior porn but it certainly feels like it maybe shares the same zip code at times. Would Bree still feel the same attraction to Archer if he didn't look like a Greek god? Is he a project for her to fix? Does his silence just allow her to think of him as a tabula rasa, where she can project her own needs and interpretations on him? At one point, she says that the world would be a better place if more people were quiet like Archer, because of the focus on needing to hear THEIR voices, but in all of their interactions, Bree is the dominant voice, so this sort of sentiment ends up feeling a little hypocritical and problematic.

Bree has trauma as well and her backstory is very sad. I thought that it was interesting that her father was deaf and that because of this, she is able to sign with Archer. Some people didn't like this coincidence but I think it sort of worked and I guess it provided the author an out from having to come up with other ways for them to communicate. One thing I didn't like, however, is that her PTSD is immediately "cured" the first time she and Archer have sex. She used to associate storms with her father's murder and her own near-rape but after having sex with Archer in a storm, she's just like, "Wow, now I'll only think of you during storms." That felt way too easy and I didn't like that. I also felt like it was reprehensibly irresponsible of Bree to tell Archer, "Oh, I'm on the pill so we don't need condoms," because yeah, that protects against pregnancy but not STDs. She thinks she won't get anything from Archer because he's a virgin but SHE could give HIM something. So irresponsible. Ugh.

Now that I've gotten all of my dislikes out of the way, I will say that the small town setting was really well done. It gave me a fix for an itch that started for me by reading books like AIN'T SHE SWEET? and BAD DECISIONS. I think it adds a lot of tension, having people embark on a relationship in a place where everyone wants to be in your business-- especially if one of the people has a bad reputation. I also thought that Archer's back story was super sad and interesting. I would be willing to read a prequel book that showed the battle over Alyssa, even if it tore my heart out. And Tori was SUCH a great villain. I hated her so much. Travis was awful too, although the author sort of tried to redeem him at the end. Supposedly there's another book about him? Maybe that's why.

Overall, ARCHER'S VOICE was not a bad book. If you like CoHo and weepy new adult stories, I think you'll like this. It's certainly one of the better books I've read in this genre, which is not a genre I usually enjoy, so the fact that I liked it speaks highly in its favor. Could it have been better? Yes. Did it have its problems? Yes. But it passed the time and it tried to deliver some good messages about giving people second chances and looking beneath the (admittedly beautiful) surface, so I mean, it tried. I'm not going to kick it while it's down for that. Not a bad book at all but not entirely worth the hype for me, either.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Succubus On Top by Richelle Mead


I really enjoyed SUCCUBUS BLUES and was excited to pick up the next book in the series, SUCCUBUS ON TOP. The first book had a really likable heroine who handled the succubus thing in a pretty believably conflicted way, given that she started out human. There was also a fun murder mystery element that kept the plot moving and added tension, and I really liked the mythology/theology elements.

SUCCUBUS ON TOP was... a disappointment, actually. I feel like Georgina was a lot less likable in this book, mostly because she didn't really grow as a character. I understand that real people don't evolve in a linear fashion and sometimes they make mistakes, but this book was like all mistake. I also really didn't like her relationship with Seth and didn't feel like they had chemistry. There were some great sex scenes in the first book but this one was distinctly unsexy.

There are two major plot threads in this book: Georgina's incubus friend, Bastien, comes to town and wants Georgina to help him publicly humiliate a conservative commentator type character who kind of feels like an analogue for Ann Coulter or similar. The next thread involves drug dealing and a shady character who might just be supernatural in nature. Both of these plot threads had potential but left me wanting and the way they were resolved just weren't satisfying.

Also: I'm never really fond of forced outings (with regard to sexuality) in books. Here, it was kind of supposed to show the hypocrisy of a character, I guess (an anti-gay character was revealed to be gay), and while I do think the pointing out of that hypocrisy is valid, I didn't really like the way this book handled it. Granted, this was published a while ago and I doubt the author would have handled the subject the same way NOW, but anyone who gets really upset by stuff like that probably shouldn't read this book because it's used as punishment here and kind of treated like a funny/satisfying outcome.

I hope the third book in the series is better! I love Richelle Mead and think she has an addictive writing style but this book in particular felt like a dud.

2 out of 5 stars

WtAFW: Penetrated by the President's Twitter Feed by M.J. Edwards


I don't think I need to tell anyone what my politics are, because it should be pretty obvious by now-- so let's just say that PENETRATED BY THE PRESIDENT'S TWITTER FEED was the M.J. Edwards book I was looking forward to the least. Every week, I make a point of reading a weird romance or erotica "book" for a challenge I like to call What the Actual Fuck Wednesday. In this challenge, I've read books about people fucking everything from El Nino to the coronavirus to balloon animals. It's honestly kind of amazing how people have Rule 34'd the erotica genre.

PENETRATED BY THE PRESIDENT'S TWITTER FEED is about Bethanie Boiker, a very smart AI coder who is sleeping with her best friend's husband. She feels like she is entitled to very good sex, as such a smart AI coder with huge, "luxurious" boobs, so it really pisses her off that she has to settle for her best friend's husband, who is, in fact, not very sexy at all and has a dick "like raw Cumberland sausage tied up with wet string," and fondles her boobs so inexpertly that the nipples remain as soft as "recently boiled beans." You can't make this stuff up, folks.

Anyway, one day while "pushing his love wand inside of her cave of desires," Beth pulls a Paris Hilton and takes her phone out during sex. She starts scrolling through Twitter and comes across a certain ex-president's Twitter feed, and his racism and xenophobia are so hot to her that she comes IMMEDIATELY. From there, her feverish obsession mounts and she begins to read his vitriol obsessively in her quest to get off, until his feed becomes a physical manifestation that kind of looks like the president only sexy and blue and then they fuck and she thinks it's the BEST. And I was just sitting there in absolute horror, trying not to yark, because I thought it was the WORST.

Idk, I saw the humor in the coronavirus erotica and even, sort of, in the mantis erotica, but apparently my line is heroines who think that hate and treason is sexy. Granted, this was published before the January 6th insurrection and Trump's subsequent suspension from Twitter, but man oh man, does it NOT age well. I was going to make a joke while reading this about how Trump doesn't even have a Twitter account anymore, but a certain other asshole billionaire recently reinstated him so I can't even enjoy that. Boo.

1 out of 5 stars

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware


Maybe it's because of all the Point Horror novels I read as a teen, but nothing gets my blood singing like a thriller about a murderous party. So it delights me that the successes of books like THE GUEST LIST have popularized this subgenre of thrillers for adults again. Who doesn't like a good locked room mystery? You might say no, but you're secretly lying. I know you've watched Glass Onion and Knives Out.

My previous experience with this author was pretty mediocre as I loved the idea of THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 but then I felt like it kind of jumped the shark. But how could I say no to a bachelorette party that ends in bloodshed? I can't. Obviously. So I decided to swallow my reservations as if they were a shot of tequila and forge ahead.

IN A DARK, DARK WOOD starts out OK. Nora receives a questionable invite to a "hen-do" from an estranged friend and decides reluctantly to go at the last minute because another one of her friends, Nina, will be there. The destination is a beautiful cabin in the middle of the woods and it's snowing and it's CREEPY. The other guests are Tom, Flo, Melanie, Nina, and of course, the bride to be herself, Clare.

It doesn't take long for tensions to seep in. IN A DARK, DARK WOOD is told in dual timeline and through the "present" and flashbacks, we learn that something at the party went wrong and that there were tensions between some of the guests. I thought the cattiness and weirdness was really well done but as soon as the book started to get to the end, I could feel a shift-- just like THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10. And then the book-- it kind of got weird. And predictable.

This wasn't a bad book but it didn't really bring a lot to the table, either. I ended up skimming because I just wanted to get closure and find out what happened so I could hang up my hat. Maybe if I hadn't read THE GIRLS WEEKEND by Judy Gurhman, which has a similar plot but is better done, I would have liked this more. But THE GIRLS WEEKEND was way better-- and smuttier!-- so this book ended up falling short by comparison. I do think people who enjoy THE GUEST LIST will probably like this book and it certainly passes the time, but after two meh reads from this author, I'm not sure I'll read more (although I've said that before and read more anyway, so make a liar out of me, Ms. Ware, I DARE YOU).

2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Emerald Blaze by Ilona Andrews



Me after reading this book: ROGAN WHO

My first five star rating of 2023?? HECK YES. And well deserved. Oh my GOD. So EMERALD BLAZE kicks off where SAPPHIRE FLAMES ended, with Catalina fulfilling her new duties as Warden and boy are they tricky. Shady shenanigans are happening in a place called the Pit, a swampy sinkhole where a Prime has just been murdered. Catalina has been charged with finding out the culprit and playing Cluedo with the suspects, to see who did it, in the swamp, with the flamethrower-- all with Count Sagredo's help, of course.

I have so much envy for these authors. They churn out book after amazing book, creating a world that is addictive and compelling. As a young girl I loved superhero movies but I didn't love the lack of strong female characters that weren't just there to be eye candy. Nevada and, now, Catalina, are such amazing heroines. They're strong but a big part of both their arcs is learning how to grow and develop their powers as they grow and develop as people and grow and develop their relationships. ALSO, all the side characters are great: they have a big, lovable family, there are memorable and frightening villains, and the love interests are SO SWOONWORTHY.

I think I might love Alessandro even more than I loved Rogan-- although I loved Rogan a lot. There's just something about the icy playboy with a heart of gold that melts for only one woman that does it for me. He's perfect for Catalina, and she for him. Although that said, I loved the Rogan cameos in this, and how they reminded me that he and Nevada were perfect together, too. Also, I love that he just floats his coffee alongside him as he walks around. Laziness + power display? Classic Rogan. He'll make the perfect brother in law for Alessandro, hee hee. I want to say more about how great this book is, but I'll just be fangirling even more than I already have. That cliffhanger was WICKED and thank god I already own book three because otherwise I'd be pulling my hair out and crying.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 2, 2023

I Choose Darkness by Jenny Lawson


I CHOOSE DARKNESS is a very short essay about why Halloween is better than Christmas. In typical Jenny fashion, she meanders from topic to topic, before eventually settling on what Halloween was like for her as a kid in her rural religious community. There's a description (and photographs!) of some of the costumes her mother made for her (or that she made for herself), and a sort of taste of what the fall fair was like, which was probably the best part.

This is VERY short but I think if you enjoy reading comedic memoir-essays and also enjoy Halloween (and not Christmas), you'll like this, too.

3 out of 5 stars

Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella

 I'm doing an audit of my bookshelves as part of my New Year's Resolution and trying to read and get rid of some of my physical copies. TWENTIES GIRL is actually a reread. I read it for the first time when I was pretty young and I believe I gave it five stars because somehow it ended up in my "keepers" box. I wanted to give it a reread and see if I felt the same way about it now as I did then and... sadly I did not. It was still a good read but couldn't quite hold up to the test of time.

Sophie Kinsella does this thing I don't really like where she makes all of her heroines pathological liars. It's supposed to be cute and quirky but instead all it does is make her heroines look like little psychopaths. SHOPAHOLIC, for me, was the worst, as it portrayed someone with a very serious and concerning problem as lighthearted and fun. For years, SHOPAHOLIC put me off Kinsella because of how much I hated that heroine. That trope is present in TWENTIES GIRL as well, albeit to a slightly lesser extent and to be honest, it makes a little more sense in TWENTIES because the premise is so ridiculous.

When Lara goes to the funeral of her great aunt Sadie, whom she never met, it's a bit underwhelming. Nobody's there, there's no flowers or food or music. Everyone feels very begrudging about their wasted time, including Lara's rich uncle, a social media influencer-cum-coffee mogul who lords his wealth over the rest of the family. Just before the cremation, however, Lara is haunted by a vision of Sadie as a girl in her twenties, who screams at her to stop the ceremony because SHE NEEDS HER NECKLACE, and after lots of screaming and heckling, Lara does the only thing she can think of: lies to everyone that there's been a murder and that Sadie's nursing home must have been responsible.

With Sadie watching her every move, Lara halfheartedly does a search for the necklace, and the ghostly hijinks result in various shenanigans like mind-raping her ex-boyfriend into going out with her again and telling her he's still in love with her, sneaking into an office building and asking out a man that Sadie fancies looks like Rudolph Valentino, and going to a thrift store and buying used flapper clothes and-- cringe-- 1920s makeup for a fancy dinner date. None of this stuff aged very well and I found Lara a very hard heroine to like for most of the book (and Sadie was just as bad). But even with the weird ghost stuff, I liked the mystery of the necklace and the rom-com elements and I found myself thinking that this would make a nice movie. It also has a lovely ending that sort of made me tear up.

So I'd say that TWENTIES GIRL is an okay read. Not really Kinsella's best but not her worst either, and Lara grows from her experience and learns how to be a better person and to let people make their own choices while living life on their terms. 

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Wicked and the Wallflower by Sarah MacLean


So there's a thing I've noticed with Sarah MacLean novels and me. I'm completely on board for 25%-40% of the book, and then something happens and suddenly I'm like, WHAT AM I READING. I noticed this with ELEVEN SCANDALS TO START TO WIN A DUKE'S HEART, where at first I loved the intrigue and banter with the hero, but got disenchanted by the heroine being the other woman and spending an uncomfortable amount of time fat-shaming the hero's intended (calling her "the grape"). And I noticed it in this one where at first I loved the intrigue and the banter with the hero, but got disenchanted by the heroine acting a little too MODERN for a historical romance, not to mention being the first to pick the "unpickable" lock and basically having nothing to really cement her attraction to the hero besides, well, banter.

I love Sarah MacLean's social media presence and her passion for libraries and history is obvious. I also think that she's a genuinely good writer. Her books always rope me in; they just don't keep me. A hero who transports ice for a living is different and novel, but I could NOT get over the fact that he felt like a Walmart version of Derek Craven. And a heroine who used to be a bitch until all her friends abandoned her and she slowly starts to realize her privilege is a laudable concept-- when done well. But when I mentally turned the amount of times the hero said the heroine's full name-- "Felicity Faircloth"-- into a drinking game and realized absolutely no one should play this game or they'd be dead of alcohol poisoning, I had to come to terms with the fact that the glow of the novel had worn off and we were now at odds.

I did like that this appears to be a Rumpelstiltskin retelling (asking him for favors, the gold dress, jokes about taking her firstborn-- is it just me??) and I think Ewan was my favorite character because he felt like a tragic antihero. The idea of three bastard brothers teaming up against the true heir could have been so good. SO GOOD. But the author didn't really do anything with the drama. Also, getting to second base in a room full of ice and NOT engaging in ice play?? Is this even a romance novel? At least it has a pretty stepback. I think I'll probably gift this novel to one of my friends who likes Tessa Dare and Eloisa James. I tend to be the black sheep when it comes to my IRL reading circles, anyway.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars