Friday, March 31, 2023

Kris Jenner . . . And All Things Kardashian by Kris Jenner


No, your eyes aren't deceiving you. I just gave Kris Jenner's memoir a whole four stars. I just couldn't help myself, okay? Even though I'm not a fan of the Kardashian family and I've never been able to bring myself to watch a full episode of their show, it truly is amazing how they built up their empire and basically turned the influencer lifestyle into an extremely lucrative, full-time job. I wish someone would fly me around on private plans to do brand deals and escort me into Coco Chanel's personal Parisian suite for a private tour. I'm fucking jealous.

Kris Jenner's memoir starts out with a cringey prologue about her and Kim going to Paris to see the aforementioned suite. But then it drops back about four decades, to her modest upbringing in San Diego/Oxnard. We learn about her alcoholic father, her alcoholic stepfather, her hatred of all things abalone due to her stepfather's abalone job (I didn't know abalone burgers were a thing but apparently Kris hates them), and then, her mother's humble candle business. To make matters worse, her stepdad's business partner ran off with like $12,000, which was a seriously fuck you amount of money back then.

It's obvious she always had some money coming in, and through her boyfriends and marriages, she quickly began rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. I had no idea that she and Robert Kardashians were such close friends with O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson. A huge portion of this memoir is actually about that relationship, the domestic violence she thought she witnessed, and her absolute horror and despair following the murder and the trial. This was actually one of the more interesting parts of the book because it portrayed such a human side of her. I saw a couple reviews saying that she was milking it but I really didn't get that impression at all. She seemed conflicted, guilty, and horrified. Especially at how she "failed" her friend by missing red flags that seemed all too obvious in retrospect.

I was surprised that Kim Kardashian's sex tape wasn't mentioned at all (nor did she pay lip service to Ray J). A lot of people credit that tape for causing the interest in the Kardashian show so it was interesting that it was omitted here. Likewise, she mentions her anger at finding out that Kim Kardashian married her first husband as a teenager-- in secret-- as a teen and she basically had to Google it to find out. I looked him up and apparently his name was Damon Thomas (he's not mentioned by name here, rather pointedly). This actually made me wonder if Kris Jenner was super pissed with these guys (I mean I would be) and if this omission was a sort of "no clicks for you" middle finger. Especially since she talks about Kim's middle school boyfriend, TJ Jackson (Michael Jackson's nephew) quite a bit. Apparently she was a big fan of that guy.

Other things I found interesting: 

-Her openness about cheating on Robert Kardashian with a guy ten years younger than she was (apparently she was looking for passion, like something out of The Thorn Birds specifically-- rookie mistake, Kris).
-O.J. flipped out about her cheating and told her she should have just bought a vibrator. Then he called up the guy she was cheating with and yelled at him.
-Kourtney was not Bruce Jenner's fan when they first got engaged and made a point of wearing all black whenever he came over, like she was in mourning or something. Hilarious.
-Kourtney and Kim caused a bomb scare on a plane when they were teens after a bombing of a nearby stadium freaked them out, and they got the plane turned around.
-If you give Kris something and she finds it emotionally meaningful, apparently she will keep it literally forever. This includes the transistor radio her father gave her when she had leg cancer as a kid, the lingerie set she received from Anna Nicole Brown, and Lalique glass she purchased with her late husband.
-If you want a hit reality show, it helps to have Ryan Seacrest on speed dial.

The book ends with her neck surgery (anti-aging not because of anything wrong) and her family gathered around her like she's a sacrifice laid out on a bier, and she talks about how happy she is to have everything she has and her understanding that this is a privilege-- even though she worked for it, dammit. It was simultaneously everything I expected and also so much more. I guess I wasn't expecting to like Kris Jenner so much. Bar the well-I'm-actually-so-rich-I-may-as-well-exist-in-a-different-reality-from-thou moments, she comes across as halfway likable. Even though she does the thing where she kind of paints this I-hoisted-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps mythos that a lot of the nouveau riche do to convince the public that they deserve their newly gotten wealth, she's self-aware enough of her own bullshit that it doesn't come across as offensive as people who wholeheartedly consume their own bullshit (like Donald Trump).

If you're curious about Kris Jenner and, especially, if you like the show, I think you'll enjoy the book. The O.J. section is long and painful to read but I thought she portrayed it in a really somber and respectful way, which is in stark contrast to her obvious glee at managing Bruce Jenner's brand and comeback in the '90s and the surging popularity of her TV show in the aughts. This was very well written and I checked in the acknowledgements and she had the help of a "collaborator." Not sure if that means a ghostwriter or just a really hands-on editor, but either way, Mr. Mark Seal did a great job making this memoir highly readable with neat transitions and compelling pacing. This was almost a five star read for me and I'm still kind of mentally blown away by that.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

These Women by Ivy Pochoda


DNF @ 20%

This was a buddy-read with my friend, Heather. I bought this book ages ago because it sounded kind of like Marie Rutkoski's REAL EASY, a flawed book that I nevertheless liked because it kind of shone a light on adult entertainment and how the industry leaves some women prone. I wasn't expecting this book to be so stream-of-conscious style, or to feel so surreal. So many of my friends rated it highly and I went in expecting a more traditional style of gritty thriller, and instead got something that was... odd.

Odd can work, but it also makes the book a little more niche because it has to be your kind of odd for you to enjoy it. This was not my kind of odd and I found it quite boring and frustrating, so I will give it a pass.

2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse by Jayme Lynn Blaschke


I kind of went into this expecting something different than what I got. I thought it would be more like this book I picked up about the history of Mustang Ranch, where it focused on the girls there and what the day-to-day was like of the prostitutes working the brothel. This book was more like an intro to Texas history with some random whorehouse trivia thrown in. I liked all the pictures and you could tell that this was a passion project for the author, but it was the most boring book about hos that I've ever read.

2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Full Disclosure by Stormy Daniels


A moment of appreciation for this queen: she knew people were going to be swarming this memoir for tea about the porn and the hush money and used it as a platform to talk about how much she loves horses and heavy metal bands.

No, but seriously.

FULL DISCLOSURE is one book in a sea of books written by people who thought to themselves "Fuck Trump" whilst riding the Cash-In Train, but unlike some of those books, she comes across as funny, sympathetic, and likable. I'm actually shocked that this book has such low ratings-- but on the other hand, no I'm not. 🀑

The memoir starts out with Stormy talking about her childhood in Louisiana, which involves her parents splitting, her mother's emotional abuse, and a rather awful and uncomfortable portion about her and a childhood friend being sexually molested by a neighbor as kids. She uses this as an opportunity to point out how people often say adult entertainment workers must have been abused to get into the jobs they're in, and how people don't believe victims (they didn't believe her). It's probably going to be triggering to some but she doesn't go into too much detail and I'm glad she got to tell her story, in her words, to such great purpose.

After that, there's a wild and chaotic journey through her venture and then stay in the adult entertainment industry. She started out stripping while still in high school and then a friend got her into porn (she started out with girl on girl and did her first M/F scene with a famous male porn actor who liked her and took her under his wing). Not only did she act, she also started writing and directing. I liked her descriptions of working on the set. I feel like some porn actresses seem to have regrets about their work, like Linda Lovelace and Jenna Jameson. But Stormy Daniels seems to come from the Asa Akira school of porn memoirs: she is enthusiastic and unapologetic about what she does.

The section I'm sure everyone came here for is in here, too: the hush money payout and the description of Donald Trump's wang. She describes his peen as looking like that mushroom headed thing "from Mario Kart" and said his pubes looked like the "Yeti." He also apparently had a thing about calling her "honey bunch." Excuse me, but no. Even grosser than the sex (WHY) is how he kept stringing her along by leveraging a guest spot on The Apprentice because-- I can only assume-- he saw that she was a professional and would be hungry for a spot that would land her into mainstream fame (HA THE IRONY). Which just goes to show how gross and sleazy and manipulative he is.

The payout/hush money part is even scarier because she was LITERALLY in fear for her LIFE. People were threatening to kill her (man showed up in a parking lot, saying what a "shame" it would be if "something happened to her" in front of her daughter) and her previous lawyer seemed to be in cahoots with Cohen, according to her, and was a shitty advocate. Her lawyer from the trial, Michael Avenatti, ended up being her ultimate representation and apparently you need a Discount Daniel Craig, Esquire, to see you through-- ahem-- "stormy weather" when it comes to legal woes. 

I loved this book a lot. I liked her Southernisms and her sense of humor and her love of horses (which are worked in at every opportunity). She mentions biting a horse on the ear because it wouldn't stop biting her, and recounts how this see-how-you-like-it moment was a come-to-Jesus moment for the both of them. Holy animal cruelty, Batman. But it was the '90s and she was a kid and God, how she loved that horse. I think I can give her a pass for the ear biting since I think we can all agree that she's bitten off so much worse (note: she did NOT bite off the ear). Her roadie life with various late-90s/early-2000s metal bands was also super entertaining and her nightmare pregnancy is going to have me manifesting brain bleach for months to come, although did I cackle when she panicked at the thought of giving birth in a popcorn bowl in the back of a mini-van? Yes.

The discussions of child sexual abuse she endured as a kid and the intimidation she experienced as an adult are anxiety-inducing, and her relationship struggles in love and her mother's racists rants are troubling to read about, but every passage in this book feels weighted by her honesty. It's well-written and entertaining and I ended up tearing through this in a day (staying up half the night to finish, to boot). And it's all thanks to Trump lying about the hush money in the news again, because it made me remember Stormy existed and also that she had a memoir that I never got around to reading. Also, psssssst... it's free on KU, and I hear that every time you read it, the orange man has a nightmare about Shark Week (iykyk).

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Death of a Hollow Man by Caroline Graham


DNF @ 20%

Man, so here's the thing. I LOVE Midsomer Murders, but not all murders are created equal. When you read seventy pages into a three-hundred page murder mystery and nobody gets murdered, it's a bit of a disappointment. Not even Daddy Barnaby could save this one (have I talked about his love of watercolors and how much he LOVES his wife???). DEATH OF A HOLLOW MAN gave me flashbacks to how irritating the theater kids were in my high school, so if you were a theater kid or hated the theater kids (or both! it's not mutually exclusive), you might enjoy this. 

So far my favorite book in this series is THE KILLING'S AT BADGER'S DRIFT, which I gave five stars. The way she portrayed the intricate psychology of the village and how all of the characters interacted with each other was SO GOOD. This lacked that nuance.

2 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 27, 2023

When Daddy Fosters Tally by Cherry BonΓ©t


DNF @ 32%

So I actually really like Daddy kink and I thought the cover of this book was really cool. Even though some of the quotes I was seeing were kind of cringe, I saw people saying that it was supposed to be satire, and I thought, okay, so it's going to be Fannie Tucker but for relationship taboos? That sounds like it could be funny. I decided to ignore the references to "sweet peaches" in the blurb that I'm pretty sure don't actually refer to fruit, and forge ahead because my friends are big meanies who pestered me into reading this book because they like seeing me stray far from God's light.

So first, the good things. I liked the cover, as I said. And the writing is... okay. And there's a playlist in the beginning that's pretty good.


That's it.

I hated everything else.

I actually called it quits at a graphic scene where the heroine is thirteen and fantasizing about her foster dad. It made me SO uncomfy that I could not continue. (I was already pretty uneasy when I found out the heroine is 17 at the beginning of the book and the hero is, like, 36.) I'm not exactly sure how this is satire, because satire is supposed to make fun of things, and this just feels like any other erotic short I've read except maybe it basks in its ridiculousness a little more. But satire is not a free pass from criticism, and if this was meant to be satire, I'm afraid it's bad satire.

1 out of 5 stars

The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher


Okay, so let me start off this review by saying that I am the BIGGEST horror wuss, so if you're an aficionado take this review with a grain of salt. (Maybe the whole jar, actually.) I like gothic tales and ghost stories but I don't like graphic violence or books where the pets or the love interests die, so as you can imagine, reading horror is usually an especially fraught experience for me. I love the aesthetics, I just hate the misery-- and I get super, super anxious while reading.

T. Kingfisher understands the desperate need among the anxious for vibes and aesthetics but no Super Bad Things in horror. Between this book and WHAT MOVES THE DEAD, I ended up both charmed, amused, and scared out of my pants, but both had satisfying endings that were bittersweet (bonus in this one: the dog doesn't die). I think people reading this expecting, I dunno, Stephen King, might be mad, but man, what an amazing story. Apparently it's a sort of expansion/homage to Arthur Machen's "The White People." I've never read that story but I'm sure the author did a great job (God bless the public domain).

This story is about a woman named Mouse who is tasked with cleaning out her grandmother's house when she dies. But her grandmother was a hoarder-- and her step-grandfather was apparently harboring some pretty insane delusions about people he calls "the twisted ones." Mouse finds a journal in his bedroom detailing some of his ramblings, with references to a manuscript and something he calls The Green Book. The more she reads, the weirder it gets. But then Mouse starts to see things in the wood: creatures that shouldn't exist and places that should be there. And then she starts to wonder if maybe her step-grandfather wasn't really delusional after all.

I don't want to say anything else because some people are out there giving way too many spoilers in their reviews and less is definitely more, but I LOVED this book. I loved Bongo the Hound. I loved the people Mouse encounters who help her on her journey: Enid the Goth barista, Foxy the hippie, and Tomas and Skip, people living at the commune (one of them is bipolar and the rep is so casual). I loved how creative and creepy this world that the author built felt. I've seen people calling it folk horror and after thinking about this, apparently that's the kind of horror I like. Cozy horror with vibes. If you enjoyed this experience, books with similar themes are YOU LET ME IN, THE CHINA GARDEN, and THE STRANGER. I loved all of these books so apparently creepy rocks and creepy trees are my thing. Go figure. Either way, T. Kingfisher is the only person out there who I trust to scare me properly and politely.

The only reason this isn't getting a full five stars is because I wanted to find out what was really going on with the grandmother and get more closure with the book. I feel like a lot of things were left to the reader's imagination or whatever, and sometimes that feels like cheating. I'm not mad, though.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid


THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO was one of my favorite books of all time and I wasn't even expecting to like it. I think I'd be even more intimidated to start it now that TikTok has rocketed its readership into the millions, but if you go into it expecting juicy historical fiction and not anything life-changing, you'll probably enjoy it, too. All I wanted from MALIBU RISING was more of the same: juicy historical fiction-- although, excuse me. Who decided that the 1980s were historical fiction? I just want to talk-- signed, A Relic.

This is a tough book to talk about because there were some things I liked about it and some things I really didn't. It's kind of like a Jackie Collins novel, but without the sleaze that makes Jackie Collins so much fun to read. I liked the story of June and Mick a lot more than I enjoyed reading about their children: Nina, Hud, Jay, and Kit. The past section is about their parents' doomed love story and the present story is set over twenty-four hours as they prepare for a big party that ends up unveiling some pretty buzz-killing tragedies.

I liked the drama but the author introduced way too many characters at the end, almost like she was trying to bulk up the page count. I thought the party was boring-- it felt like a scene that had been expanded to fill a whole book. Surfing just isn't interesting to me. I did like the portrayal of California beach/party culture in the 1980s and the sort of beach party/rockabilly culture of the 1950s and 60s, but that wasn't really enough to carry the whole book. I considered DNF-ing this pretty strongly several times but it was like I was being held hostage-- I wanted closure, and I didn't even really get that.

2.5 out of 5 stars

There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura


I was so excited to buddy-read this book with s.penkevich. I've admired their literary-fiction reviews for a while and thought the idea of checking out this surreal work of Japanese literature with such a book friend was really fun. Especially since the listlessness and ennui of the heroine can be overwhelming at times.

Our heroine is a thirty-six-year-old woman with burnout who repeatedly goes to the same employment agency over the course of the novel to request more jobs. She wants something close to home with no reading or writing involved and, ideally, very little thinking.

Her jobs get progressively weirder and weirder. Her first job is in video surveillance, watching a man who may be in unknowing league with a contrabander. Her second job is working for an advertising agency for a bus company. Her third job is writing trivia that go on the packets of fried rice snacks. Her fourth job is putting up environmental awareness posters in a small community. And her fifth job is manning the cabin in the middle of a man-made park filled with fruit trees.

THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS AN EASY JOB is such a strange book. It's so strange that several times, I would set the book down and think, "Do I really like this book?" I considered DNF-ing even, but was unable to stop reading. There's an almost supernatural bent to some of her jobs, which can sometimes make them feel creepy (especially in the case of the bus advertisements and poster jobs), but it's never outright scary or anything, just in a way that makes the reader feel uneasy.

For once, I think the comparisons in the blurb of this book are on the mark. This really is like a cross between MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION and CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN. The comparisons are rarely that apt, so I'm actually impressed, because that's how I probably would have described this book, too. It's a book about how our jobs shape us and vice-versa, a criticism (I think?) about hustle/gig culture, and just a really interesting story about a disaffected woman trying to live her life as best she can. For people who enjoy character-driven stories, this will be quite the treat.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 24, 2023

Claimed for the Highlander's Revenge by Millie Adams


I was so excited when Heather suggested we BR this book because she was the person who pointed me towards a later book in this series, THE DUKE'S FORBIDDEN WARD, which I adored. The heroine of this book, Penelope, was the original fiancee of the aforementioned duke of the third book, but she "jilted" him (although we find out in this book that this was not quite the case). Word of warning: I still recommend reading book three first because Hugh, the hero, does not come across as very likable at all in this book and I'm not sure I'd have wanted to continue the series if I had started with this one.

Penny, the heroine, has a jerk father who has gotten himself into debt. She is engaged to be married to Lachlan, who used to work for her father but was never paid for his efforts. Now, her marriage to him will be part of his weird revenge plan against the English before he returns to Scotland and collects the estate and the lands that are part of his due.

At first I really liked this book, but then I started to get really frustrated by it. Penny is too precious for my liking and I didn't like her very much by the end of the book, especially since she does one of my least favorite romance tropes of all time: forcing the hero, who does not want a baby, to have a baby. I'm sorry, but I had my fill of that in Bridgerton and seeing it happen makes me see red. Her reasons for wanting children are purely selfish, too; the idea of a baby makes her feel as if she is loved by her dead mother.

They also have this bird connecting them: apparently the hero helped her save a wounded bird when she was a child. The bird is brought up about 31 times (I did a search in my Kindle for "bird"). So I suppose you could turn that into a drinking game if you're feeling like succumbing to alcohol poisoning on your evening in. The heroine also throws a fit over not being able to eat toast in Scotland, which, of course, ends up being the set-up for an emotional moment later when the hero makes her toast in bed.

The book wasn't all bad. I liked Isla, the servant who Penny ends up befriending, and it was interesting to see how cold Hugh looked to anyone who wasn't already heads-over-heels in love with him. The sex scenes were also spicy here, as they were in FORBIDDEN WARD, although this book lacked the kinky factor that made that book so much fun. Lachlan was also a decent hero. I just really disliked Penny by the end of the book. Her quirkiness needed to be dialed down by a factor of ten and I thought the author made her just a little too childish to be fun to read about as a romance heroine.

So overall, this was a miss for me. Too bad. I'll still read more from this author, though.

2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Killings at Badger's Drift by Caroline Graham


What does it say about me that a TV show about quaint little English villagers murdering each other is my ultimate comfort watch? Regardless of what it does-- or doesn't-- say about me, I absolutely adore Midsomer Murders. I've watched it through two Barnabys and God only knows how many sergeants, and it's never gotten old. It was so much fun to see the show evolve from wide-shot low-budget BBC drama to a rather sophisticated police procedural. And while I normally don't like police procedurals, for both personal and political reasons, the one exception I'll always make is for Daddy Barnaby. I mean, he loves to paint watercolors, enjoys gardening, and worships his hilariously bad cook of a wife, Joyce. I LOVE HIM.

When I found out that my favorite TV show of all time was based off of a book series, I bought, like, I don't know. The first four or five, all sight unseen. I figured anything that good had to come from good source material, and after reading THE KILLINGS AT BADGER'S DRIFT, I'm thinking I was totally right. Oh my gosh, what a RIDE. It starts out with two little old ladies engaged in a friendly competition to see who can find a sprouting orchid first. But then one of them Cold Comfort Farms it and spots something nasty. She doesn't know how to deal with what she saw, so she calls a trauma hotline, but before she can make like a Brit and pour the tea, someone offs her.

Daddy Barnaby enters the scene with his uptight and intolerant sergeant, Troy. The more they talk to the people of Badger's Drift, the more it starts to look like she didn't just mysteriously "fall over and die." There's a creepy mother and son duo, a suspicious trophy wife and her incompetent doctor husband, a moody artist, a May December wedding, and, of course, murder most foul. By the time you get to the end of the book, you'll be sweating secrets out of every pore, because it turns out that literally everyone in this not-so-adorable English village has something to hide. But you can't hide anything from Barnaby.

So obviously, I loved this book. I loved the episode that Anthony Horowitz adapted from this book and I loved John Nettles in it, but I loved the source material too. They did SUCH a job finding the perfect cast for these colorful descriptions, and I really loved the tongue-in-cheek wit and the picturesque descriptions of rural country life and tasty English teas. You could literally spend pages describing puddings and sandwiches to me and I would sit there and be delighted (and lest you call me a liar, I've read two of Nigel Slater's books, and both of them were exactly this). I also loved how wicked and brutal this book could be. Except for the absence of computers and cell phones, it feels very modern. Caroline Graham was clearly very forward thinking in her time. This book doesn't feel dated at all.

I don't want to say too much else because with this book, less is more going in. But it is pretty dark for a so called "cozy" mystery and I would say that if you are put off by descriptive passages about gore or abusive family/relationship dynamics, you may want to avoid this book. 

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Blood Confession by Alisa M. Libby


Even though this was originally marketed as a YA title, I think this book will appeal to adults who enjoyed books such as A DOWRY OF BLOOD. It's written in the same lush, gothic style, and has a story driven by the development of the characters it contains rather than any real semblance of plot. Erzebet Bizecka is an imaginary stand-in for Elizabeth Bathory, although the author takes a lot of liberties with her character-- in this book, Erzebet doesn't marry or give birth and I believe, historically, Bathory did.

THE BLOOD CONFESSION is a slow tale of corruption and madness. Erzebet grows up neglected by both her parents: her mother is vain and mad, her father is a corrupt and indifferent philanderer. While roaming around the castle, Erzebet encounters strange and supernatural happenings, and witnesses an innate cruelty in the land and its people that warps her ideas of youth, womanhood, and spiritualism. When she inevitably starts attacking the peasant girls of Hungary, it feels almost inevitable.

As a gothic tale, I think this is a decent story. It certainly would have appealed to my 2000s-era goth girly aesthetics, when I spent most of my days camped out on Quizilla reading Anne Rice fanfics riddled with frilly lace shirts and pick-me girls. I'm actually surprised it hasn't seen a revival, since Erzebet's sapphic inclinations, the 16th century murder shenanigans, and all of that ornate writing, really fit the trend for what I've seen trickling out of BookTok. Plus, there's a hot supernatural dude named Sinestra who might or might not be in her imagination. The only reason I'm not giving it a higher rating is because it takes a while to get moving and then it takes a while to end.

P.S. She spends way too much time fantasizing about a statue she calls "Athenus," because she thinks it's a male version of Athena. When she's not lusting after the statue, she's pining over her straight best friend, and thinking of ways to DIY blood facials and blood cosmetics. The wtfery in this book is honestly worth a read alone. How did the author come up with this stuff? I LOVE HER.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 20, 2023

The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel

I treated myself to a copy of THE FAMILIAR DARK after reading and loving ROANOKE GIRLS by this author. She just has such talent when it comes to creating a true Southern Gothic, where secrets are buried as deep as bones, and the children bear the sins of their forefathers. It's so rare to find an author who can create that sort of depth of atmosphere and characterization, and I knew when I finished ROANOKE GIRLS that this was an author I wanted to watch.

THE FAMILIAR DARK is a little bit different than ROANOKE. ROANOKE was a coming of age story, but FAMILIAR DARK is more of a traditional gritty murder story. When Eve finds out her twelve-year-old daughter has been murdered, it takes her to the sort of feral mindset that she's tried to distance herself from since escaping from her mother's abusive home. She swore she would be the person her daughter deserved rather than the person she feared she might be because of her mother, and ironically, it's her mother who might end up becoming her solace when all other ends yield stone walls.

I saw other reviews saying the twist was predictable. Maybe I'm a dummy, then, because I didn't see it coming. I'm not sure I liked it but at least I could sort of understand it. Part of the fun reading this book is Eve, who is allowed to be desperate, flawed, and raw. I liked how her grief manifested as anger, and she didn't bother mourning the "correct" way. I liked how there were feminist themes in this book, and how the author showed-- with subtlety-- how hard it is to implement change in places that don't want to be changed, and how a woman's strength might manifest differently, and maybe even in a warped way, when she isn't allowed to be powerful on her own terms. It felt like a very powerful message.

This is a sad book and the ending is, at best, just bittersweet (and maybe not even that). But I can't really give it less than five stars because of how much it made me feel, and how fascinated I was with the characters and the setting. Thank GOD Amy Engel has a new book coming out soon (I've been waiting!) because I've been putting off reading her YA duology just so I can have something else of hers to look forward to. Ms. Engel truly is a talent and I recommend her to anyone looking to scratch that Gillian Flynn itch.

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker


Have you ever read a book and thought to yourself, "That was good, but let's never do this again?" That was me with THE HELLBOUND HEART. When I bought the book, I actually had no idea that it was the inspiration for Hellraiser, or, indeed, that Clive Barker had been involved with the production. I knew Barker from his more whimsical offerings: ABARAT and THE THIEF OF ALWAYS. Still horrifying, yes, but in the far more palatable mode of Tim Burton or Neil Gaiman.

Oh my God, this was so not that.

THE HELLBOUND HEART is beautifully written, just like Barker's fantasy, and it has the same cruel streak of dry, ironic humor, but the similarities end there. This is a gruesome, grisly book populated by twisted, unlikable characters. Frank, our first main character, is a morally bankrupt man who has grown weary of what life has to offer him. He has heard that there are imaginable pleasures to be found if one unlocks the puzzles of Lemarchand's box and uses it to summon the interdimensional hedonists: the cenobites. So he unlocks the box and the cenobites come... and Frank has, shall we say, regrets.

While Frank is having his... regrets... we cut to the second main character, Julia. Julia is married to Frank's brother, Rory, and she also has regrets. Namely that she could never get over the impassioned affair she had with Frank before her wedding (they did it on her veil, ffs). They have just moved to the house that the brother's used to share before Frank went missing and Rory thinks it's going to be a new step in their relationship and Julia does too, but she's thinking backwards and Rory is thinking rocking chairs on the porch. Watching this go down is main character number three, Kirsty, Julia and Rory's sort-of friend. She is attracted to Rory and resentful of Julia, and when things start going down, she begins to suspect that Julia is having an affair. Ha, she wishes it was just an affair, because Kirsty is about to have some regrets, too. No character in this book shall go without suffering. I mean, pleasure. Because-- as irony would have it-- the cenobites think the two affairs are virtually one and the same.

Now, I am not a horror fan, but after 30+ years of reading and 10+ years of book-blogging, I know a master craftsman when I see one. This is a good story. I mean, obviously. Imagine writing a short story and then having ti become a booming horror franchise right up there with Nightmare on Elm St. and Friday the 13th. My man is living the dream. The writing is both spare and evocative, and rather than falling into the trap that plagues so many horror writers (especially the splatterpunk ones), Barker never overdescribes. He knows when to leave things to the readers' imaginations-- which is both better and worse for the reader. Now, did I like it? That's a tough question, and while thinking on the rating scale, I'd have to say that it was good, but just a little too awful for me to say that I truly enjoyed it. All the characters are not very nice people, and the story is carried out with this casual sense of inevitability and apathy that just makes what's happening, paradoxically, that much more immediate and horrific.

So yes, HELLBOUND HEART was a compelling, propelling read that had me finishing it-- on a worknight-- in just a couple hours. But now I can't sleep and I'm creeped out and I really don't think I'll ever be revisiting this nightmare of a book again (or watching the movie, because yikes, pins).

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Love Invents Us by Amy Bloom


Sometimes I love to post constant updates about my thoughts on a book while I'm reading, but sometimes I like to keep my thoughts close to my heart until I finish the book. LOVE INVENTS US was the latter for me because it is such an intense and personal read. I found it on a list of books for people who wanted similar stories to MY DARK VANESSA and LOVE INVENTS US, with its anxious Jewish heroine who struggles with her weight and kleptomania, definitely screams damaged girl lit. 

The first and third parts of the book are narrated in first person and the middle is narrated in omniscient third person. The first part of the book makes up about half of the book and is the best part, tricking me into thinking that this was going to be a four-star read for the longest time. I felt really bad for Elizabeth, and how her cold and distant parents made her vulnerable to older men who predated on her vulnerability and took advantage of her. Even when she finally gets involved with a guy her own age, it goes tail-up, because she doesn't know what she's doing. The only positive role model in her life is a half-blind Black woman named Mrs. Hill, and when Mrs. Hill tells her creepy English teacher to stay away from her if he knows what's good for him, I wanted to cheer. Not that he listens.

The second part of the book is about Elizabeth as an adult, still not happy, still in messy relationships. Max, her teacher, has never gotten over what he considers the real love in his life (so much for his wife lol), and Huddie, Elizabeth's Black boyfriend who was sent away after their relationship became known, is married but also pining after Elizabeth. It's a messy tragedy where no one wins and reminded me a lot of Emily Maguire's TAMING THE BEAST, although not quite as miserable-- thank God. After reading part two and the concluding act in part three, I found myself wondering what the point was. In a coming of age story-- even a miserable one-- the point is showing the character growing up and finding themselves and even if bad stuff happens, the story usually ends on a note of hope. But when the author fills in those blanks for you and is like, nope, they grew up miserable and alone, WHAT is the POINT?

Amy Bloom is a very talented writer and was not afraid to portray her characters as gross and foolish human beings, no matter how unflattering the portrait, so kudos to her for that. But this is not a story I think I would like to revisit because I'm still not sure why Elizabeth got the sort of ending that she did. I would read more from this author, though. Edgy messy litfic is basically the only kind that I like, and it's hard to find people willing to go there. Even if it isn't the destination I had in mind.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Black Ambrosia by Elizabeth Engstrom


DNF @ 12%

I LOVE that all of these vintage horror novels are getting the reprints they deserve. Seriously. As someone in the vintage romance community, I really empathize with the horror aficionados trying to track down prized copies of cult classics. I despair of ever getting my hands on a copy of THE SILVER DEVIL, so I feel you. That's why I was so excited when I found out that Grady Hendrix's PAPERBACKS FROM HELL led to a publisher acquiring the rights to and then republishing some of the best of the best of previously out-of-print classics. Under a Paperbacks from Hell series via Valencourt! GENIUS. Someone please do this for romance.

At first I was kind of into BLACK AMBROSIA. It's narrated in first person, which I love, and the heroine is kind of a weird creepy Wednesday Addams type of girl, with a lot of unpleasantness in her life. But the pacing is very slow and kind of plodding. I think it's more character-driven than I typically like my horror novels to be and the take on vampirism is very unusual and strange and I wasn't sure I liked it. The author also does a mixed media style of format, through oral history, where the end of every chapter has an interview with one of the side characters about how they met the heroine. It's unusual and different, and I liked that, but after a while, it also wore thin.

I'd actually recommend this book to people who really enjoyed A DOWRY OF BLOOD, because I feel like they have similar styles. I wouldn't be surprised if the author of ADoB actually came across a copy of this book long ago and was inspired by it, because I feel like this book walked so other female-fronted vampire books could fly. It's well written but just not particularly interesting to me. I got bored.

2 out of 5 stars

A Furry Faux Paw by Jessica Kara


I was so happy when Jessica Kara reached out and offered me a copy of her book to review because the plot of A FURRY FAUX PAW intrigued me so much. I don't think I've ever seen a book about furries before, and especially not one geared towards YA. I was so curious how this subject would be handled because-- and I'm sorry to say this-- furries are often treated as the laughing stocks of fandom culture and most people think of fursuits as a freaky sexual kink. I was curious how that could be made YA-friendly.

After reading this book, I had to kind of just set it aside and take a breath because it was totally unlike what I expected-- in a good way. The heroine, Maeve, lives with her mother, who is an extreme hoarder (the kind that gets the fire marshal called to your house). She's also an artist and an introvert who envisions herself as a sprightly pink cat. Maeve's "fursona" isn't sexual at all (in fact, she seems to be aro or ace); instead, it almost seems, for her, to be that sort of drag queen persona, where it allows her to access parts of herself that she doesn't feel comfortable expressing under her own name. As a pink cat, she can be bubbly and cute and happy, which she can't do as Maeve. One of her dreams is to be seen as an artist and validated as a cat. Her parents both know but neither of them really get, and her mother is the worse of the two at acceptance.

There isn't really a lot of plot to this story. It's mostly just Maeve dealing with her mom and going to Furlympia (a furry con in Olympia) for the first time, thanks to her dad. While at the con, she tries to deal with her guilt over her mom and her anxiety over being in an unfamiliar environment. I went to an anime con for the first time a couple years ago and I remember feeling the same blend of overwhelmed and wondrous. When you've grown up relating to a subculture that isn't mainstream, it can honestly feel so freeing to see so many people who share your interests, and to see what is possible when people are allowed to be their creative selves to the fullest. The author also brings up how to be safe at mixed events with both teens and adults, the importance of boundaries when interacting with people in costumes, and the overwhelming sense of impostor syndrome that artists and creators can have.

What really won me over, though, was the anxiety rep and the portrayal of what it's like to live with a hoarder. First, I thought that Maeve's panic attacks were really well done (I've had them; it really is like fainting). Everything can become SO overwhelming when your mental bandwidth is draining away by the second. Second, I have lived with a hoarder (and have some hoarding tendencies myself) and it's honestly so hard, especially when you're younger; you can't have people over and you don't want to tell them why, so you just lie, which is damaging to relationships and to your social life. It also captures the pleading, begging, and anger that happens when you try to tell the hoarder to stop hoarding or to please clean up, and how frustrating it is when the hoarding begins to intrude into your own spaces, so you feel almost suffocated by the presence of all that stuff. It was so well done here and it honestly made me feel seen.

Not sure what else to say about this book except that it took a concept I wasn't sure I'd be able to relate to and made it very relatable and accessible, with some surprising emotional twists and turns. The con is also very diverse and it was fun to see Maeve meet her online friends in person for the first time (I've gotten to do that and it's such a joyous experience). Even the role-play bits, which I normally find quite off-putting, were really well done and not cringe at all. (Maybe I've spent too much time on r/creepyasterisks). So if you, like me, were wondering if this was going to be a sex thing, it really isn't. It's actually super wholesome and very important and I'm shocked that it doesn't have more reviews.

I'd definitely read more from this author.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Belladonna by Adalyn Grace


ALL THE STARS AND TEETH was overly written and felt like the work of an author who was trying to prove herself. BELLADONNA, on the other hand, feels like the work of an author who knows that she doesn't have to. That she is, in fact, it. I can't think of many authors where I gave one of their books a one star review only to come back and give one of their later ones a five, but Adalyn Grace is that rare case and she pried all five of those stars from my stingy little fingers with BELLADONNA.

This is everything I never knew I wanted in YA fantasy and I honestly don't think the reviews do it justice. I mean, with YA fantasy being a dime a dozen these days, and everyone off to the races to write The Next Big Thing, what makes this one stand out? What is it like? Well, BELLADONNA is beautifully written and features an awkward, sort of Tim Burton-y heroine, like a female counterpart to Victor Van Dort from Corpse Bride. The writing is beautiful and ornate without being overdone and it has a wonderfully Gothic pseudo-Victorian setting replete with ghosts, poison, and murder. There's a very cinematic feel to both the writing and the story-telling and it's darkly whimsical and utterly addicting, because even though it doesn't really do anything different, the characters and the setting are all so vivid that they seem to come alive.

Signa has changed hands multiple times every since her mother was Red Wedding'd at a baby shower. Signa was the only survivor but Death left his mark on her and now she can consume poison without succumbing to it and people around her have the disconcerting habit of dropping dead. When her aunt dies, Signa taken in by her uncle as ward, where she will live with her cousins, Blythe and Percy. Just one problem, their mother was recently Red Wedding'd herself and Blythe, with her mysterious illness, appears close to death herself. And instead of living out the days to her inheritance peacefully in the countryside, Signa ends up involved in a dastardly murder plot where she, and everyone she holds dear, may be in danger. Also, the family is in-fighting over petty and non-petty dramas, and the uncle, mad with grief (or guilt?) is hosting elaborate parties like he thinks he's Jay Gatsby, or something.

So let's talk about why this book was great. The writing was good. The setting was wonderful-- creepy and atmospheric, with body horror and real stakes. Honestly, there were some moments in this book that made me glad I wasn't reading it at night. The heroine was delightfully awkward and it wasn't portrayed as too quirky or twee. I could sense her inability to fit in and her loneliness, and the author showed us instead of telling us. Part of the book is watching Signa grow and blossom, like a dark orchid, in a hothouse full of society people who don't quite know how to deal with her. 

There's also a love triangle, of sorts, and some genuinely sensual scenes. Sometimes sex in YA can be yuck, but the heroine is older (19) and the author did such a good job making things romantic and vague, rather than explicit. I think the last YA book I read that managed this balance so well was Holly Black's CRUEL PRINCE. I just love me a really good romance, okay? Especially if it makes me swoon and the hero is just the tiny bit dangerous. Which is maybe why this just kind of feels like a love ode to goth girl media. There's elements of Labyrinth, Tim Burton, Secret Garden, classic fairytales... basically everything I loved as a kid but grown up and wearing a fancy dress and falling in love for the first time.

Someone needs to make this a movie. And also give me the sequel. Not necessarily in that order.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Reviving the Hawthorn Sisters by Emily Carpenter


Emily Carpenter is one of the go-to authors for Heather and I to buddy-read, so I was really excited when she suggested we do a read of REVIVING THE HAWTHORN SISTERS, which I believe is her newest book. Told in dual timeline, it's the story of two women: one a faith healer, Ruth, who was born a bastard orphan in an insane asylum; the other, her granddaughter, Eve, who ends up tangled up in some of the dark secrets of Ruth's past come to light.

Carpenter has been a little hit or miss with me so far. Two of her books are my all-time faves and one I didn't like at all. This one kind of falls into the middle. There were some gloriously WTF-y scenes in this book (most of them having to do with a certain antagonist named Singley) and I liked Ruth's sordid past and how she overcame all of the adversity in her life. Actually, I liked the past chapters more than I liked the present chapters, which is a fun surprise because usually it's the opposite. But Eve just wasn't a very compelling protagonist compared to some of the morally ambiguous heroines Carpenter has churned out in the past... and let's face it, Ruth/Dove stole the show.

I will say that the ending was good and super intense, I thought the villain was the perfect amount of cringe, and I also liked that there's a lil' teasey bit of smut and romance in this book because I think we can all agree that thrillers are better with a little bit of smut and romance thrown in. It's what makes a FULT a FULT (aka, Fucked Up Lady Thriller, which is what Heather and I call these books). If the present chapters had been more interesting, I would have liked this more, but I ended up skimming a LOT. This wasn't a bad book but it also wasn't my fave by this author.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Albatross by Josie Bloss


A moment of appreciation for that early-2010s cover. It is beautifully cheesy and I love how terribad it is. I'm not even being mean. Seeing those badly Photoshopped covers fills me with so much nostalgia for the YA I greedily consumed as a teen because oh my GOD, have you seen what early-2000s YA covers looked like? I rest my case.

ALBATROSS was a book I'd never heard of before, but I'd just read FAKING FAITH by this author and while perusing my friends' reviews, I happened to notice that my GR friend, Donna, had mentioned that this book was even better in her review of FF. When I went to check out her review, I was SOLD. A realistic and gritty portrayal of an emotionally abusive relationship where the heroine is allowed to sometimes be a bad person? That sounds kind of amazing.

And this book IS amazing. Tess is a teenage girl whose life has been badly uprooted. She and her mom have just left her emotionally abusive dad and both of them are still kind of reeling from it, still unsure about what to do without the tight leash of his control. Tess is lonely and isolated: she has band, but misses her Chicago friends, and nobody in her new school has the kind of connection that years and years of friendship can give.

When she sees Micah, she's intrigued because he's a loner boy and a bit of an emo, and everyone in the school seems to think he's a bad person. Everyone except Daisy, his manic pixie dreamgirl girlfriend, who is regarded kindly by the rest of the student body as school slut. But when Tess starts talking with Micah, she learns that he doesn't really care all that much for Daisy, either. Even though he says he plans on marrying her one day, he refers to her, charmingly, as his "albatross."

Tess gets involved with Micah despite his girlfriend and she starts to really hate Daisy, even though Micah is the one who leaves her off-balance and emotionally reeling from his surprisingly cruel remarks. In fact, the way that he makes her feel is uncomfortably similar to how her dad's abusive tirades used to... and there's a voice in her head, getting louder all the while, telling her that she should get away.

I knew right from the beginning I was going to love this book. There's something super angsty about aughts-era YA. Maybe because we were all super miserable back then? I know I was. And the baby internet that existed back then left us all feeling way more isolated (although I don't know if that's better than the fishbowl that TikTok has plunged today's teens into). Like the heroine, I was also in band, and music was one of the few ways that I, as a super awkward teen, really felt like I was allowed to shine. I was also in a relationship that was kind of like the one she had with Micah (although nowhere near as bad), and I remember all the second-guessing and obsessing and hating of the other girl I did. So not feminist.

I'm giving this five stars because it did some amazing things. First, Tess's growth is just such a personal and deep read, and so uniquely tailored to her as a character, that I couldn't help but love it. Second, Tess does not end up with a boy, and the boy friend she does have does not act as her savior from Micah. The girl saves herself in this one-- and then, she saves somebody else. Third, she has some AMAZING lines. By the end of the book, I wanted to stand up in some bleachers, football game style, and scream into a megaphone "GO TESS." It was such a cathartic and satisfying moment.

It makes me sad that this author isn't getting more attention because she has such a knack for writing flawed and believable female characters, and boy, can she serve up the drama. Most of her books are either super cheap or on KU, too, so there's really no excuse for not checking them out.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Mad as Hell by Hannah McBride


MAD AS HELL was such an emotional rollercoaster, and it dipped and dove to places that I didn't even expect. Keep your arms and your legs inside the cart, kids, because on this ride, they might just get cut off. The world of the rich and infamous is dangerous indeed, as Madison found out personally when the Faustian bargain she struck with her twin sister to trade places like they were in Parent Trap ended up feeling more like a mouse trap instead.

I don't want to say too much because I don't want to spoil anything, but I have a LOT of thoughts. First, I loved the bullying element at the beginning of the book (and also the way that Ryan got revenge on Brylee). So many bully books either don't go there, or end up feeling way too over the top. I thought McBride did a good job picking out humiliating punishments that felt like something a privileged high school or college asshole might select for their enemies.

This is also one of the more feminist-friendly dark romances I've read. Madison is a great character and she stands up for herself in a way that a lot of heroines in books of this genre don't. That's not to say that it plays the PC card or anything like that, but it does have some diversity (hero has a neurodivergent younger sister, heroine has a Black friend, etc.), the heroine stands up for her principles, and she has a really healthy and awesome friendship with another girl named Bex. I loved that, and how it felt effortless.

Also, HOLY SHIT. The twists. Every time I thought I knew where this book was going, it veered away and left me speechless. I wasn't expecting this to take a sort of mafia twist, but it did. Kind of like The Royals of Forsyth, but better thought out, because this kind of nailed the unscrupulous sociopathy of the jaded billionaire elite in a way that those books did not (even though I enjoyed them). The ending literally had me panicking and THANK GOD book three is out because otherwise I could not even.

I don't have a lot of criticisms for this book, actually, because it was so well done and I loved the development of Madison as a character, and also as a love interest pairing for Ryan. All of the characters have really interesting narrative ARCs and I appreciated that a lot as a reader. My only qualms were that this book just felt a little bit too long, and a lot of that felt like maybe it was because it was padded out with too many sex scenes. I love a good sex scene but the second half felt like it was basically nonstop. Also, this is not technically a college romance the way it is advertised as on Amazon because the heroine herself is in high school (albeit, a high school senior). Her boyfriend is, though.

So overall, this was a pretty amazing read. I think it's right up there with Royals of Forsyth and Zodiac Academy in terms of being pure delicious brain candy, and it's very well written with some very clever dialogue and some memorable characters who make me care about them even when I want to strangle them (except for Gary; Gary needs to be run over by a semi). I'm soooo excited for book three in this universe and hope the author has some other books under her studded belt, because I NEED MORE.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

God Themselves by Jae Nichelle


I love poetry that tells a story, and there were some really solid ones in here that painted such vivid scenes. Like, there's one about the simple act of making soup and how hard it is when you're feeling depressed. And there's another about comparing skin to sin. I also really liked some of the risky and interesting choices the author took, like prayers made out of predictive text or using footnotes to break up the meter of a poem. Not all of the poems were to my tastes but poetry is a personal experience. This was still a really great collection, though, with some truly noteworthy pieces.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding


CAUSE CELEB is kind of like if someone thought, I want another CATCH-22, but I want it to be about refugee camps instead of war, and also, make it chick-lit. And to that effect, it's actually a pretty decent book. In some ways, it actually ages better than BRIDGET JONES because of the author's prescience about celebrity endorsements and influencer culture. She brutally satirizes virtue-signaling and the rather callous way that people view impoverished countries (if I don't personally see the starving children on my TV set, then suffering doesn't exist to me, etc.) and people's need to be recognized for giving.

There are a couple things that date this book-- an off-the-cuff insult about lesbians and a reference to President Reagan and Michael Jackson-- but for the most part, everything the author says in this book could probably still hold true today. How sad is that?

P.S. Speaking of sad, the way I welled up when the heroine saw all those starving people huddled by the mountain was just-- brutal.

3 out of 5 stars

Faking Faith by Josie Bloss


Alternate title for this book: Catfishing for Jesus. FAKING FAITH was wild. It's about a girl named Dylan who ends up being the pariah of her school after she has a bad breakup with a popular boy, which results in her bashing his car in with a golf club and him distributing compromising pictures of her to everyone in the student body. After this goes down, Dylan spends a lot of time sulking at home alone while her two workaholic lawyer parents do long shifts. She ends up, as so many of us do, trawling the internet rabbit hole. Which is how she discovers the 2000s equivalent of christian influencer culture: blogs.

Eventually, Dylan becomes so obsessed with these fundamentalist girls that she decides to create her own fake online persona: Faith. She spends a lot of time researching rural life so she can describe the chores she does, and how she practices living her best life (all for God, ofc). Eventually, she ends up sort of befriending one of the Queen Bees in this group of bloggers, a girl named Abigail. So it seems inevitable that Abigail eventually reaches out and invites "Faith" to fellowship with her by staying on at their farmhouse as a guest of honor.

I don't want to spoil too much but this book was honestly so addictive, in the way reality TV is addictive. You know what's happening is going to be bad and you might even really disapprove, but you can't look away. FAKING FAITH is proof that a heroine doesn't have to be likable to be interesting and a story can be pretty messed up and still be good. I also liked how Josie Bloss made a concerted effort to try to portray a nuanced take on Dylan's culture shock, and how Christianity can be toxic but also still has some values that are admirable and maybe even worth emulating. I'm not religious so I'm not sure how offensive someone who is Christian might find this book, because the group that Dylan becomes obsessed with is VERY extreme (no opposite sex contact, for one). But it sure was intense.

Ending was a little disappointing, which is why I'm giving four stars instead of five. Dylan seriously lied to her parents and also stole money from them to visit her friend, and I thought it was ridiculous how their take was WHAT AN INTERESTING SOCIAL EXPERIMENT. In what universe? Also I got way too emotionally invested in Abigail and Asher, and was hoping that their stories would be wrapped up with a slightly more obvious bow. But still-- kudos to the author for such a daring and original concept.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 13, 2023

Melting Fire by Anne Mather


DNF @ 24%

I've just recently discovered these old school Harlequin Presents books. My mom never read romance novels, or kept them in the house, so I never got the exposure to these that so many of my friends got. I was especially intrigued by this one because it's a retro stepbrother romance and I actually really enjoyed the one I just read by Sara Craven (DARK SUMMER DAWN), so my hopes were high for this one.

Sadly, it and I just didn't vibe. The antiquated language and ridiculous romance just didn't work for me. She's just sunbathing topless while he watches and then, later, he licks her tears? Maybe this is your kink but it's not mine lol.

1 out of 5 stars

Dark Summer Dawn by Sara Craven


Did you know that there are retro stepbrother romances? With the vast proliferation of such offerings in today's market, this obviously piqued my interest. What were the stepbrother romances of yesterday like? Would they be any good? Sara Craven is a particularly famous retro romance author, too, often mentioned in the same breath as Charlotte Lamb. And since I've read and enjoyed some of the manga adaptations of Craven's old Harlequin Presents titles, I was excited to see her take on the keeping-it-in-the-family trope.

Lisa is a famous model known as the "Amber Girl." She's pretty successful and has quite the devoted following, but she never lets anyone get too close. All that changes when she receives a wedding invitation from her flighty stepsister, Julie, asking for her immediate return; an invitation followed up by a surprise and unwanted visit from her older stepbrother, Dane. Once she's back in the gloomy mansion, she's overtaken by memoirs of her childhood crush on Dane and how it culminated in a betrayal that she's never been able to forget. And as she's torn between the simmering embers of that old passion and the sharp wounds of regret, she also has to navigate the drama of Julie's nuptials.

So I was kind of surprised that this still feels like something that could have been published today. It follows the same formula: stepsister attracts emotionally constipated stepbrother, stepbrother can't deal, stepbrother takes advantage of stepsister in fit of passion, regret and angst. Dane is SUCH a jerk. I bought this book because there were a lot of reviews saying this book was dark-- and while it wasn't quite as bad as what I was expecting, he definitely rapes her and he's not all that contrite. What made this a really tough read for me was how the heroine was such a doormat. She takes all of the blame for Julie's bad behavior and never stands up for herself, and apparently she still loves Dane after all this time and has sort of-- I don't know-- put his abuse of her on a sort of pedestal???

I liked DARK SUMMER DAWN because it was well written and I thought Sara Craven did a really good job serving up the drama. I also liked that Lisa did have a few good moments, like confronting the creepy (and possibly incestuous) neighbors who have been letting Julie go to their bad-girl parties, and the scene where she tries to seduce Dane and he's hanging on by a mere thread. But I wish the author had given her more backbone and agency; I kept thinking of the Charlotte Lamb romance I read, SAVAGE SURRENDER, and how so much of what made that book fun for me was the sharp-tongued heroine who (mostly) gave as good as she got.

Anyone who is a fan of dark romances, and especially dark stepbrother romances, will probably enjoy this one, even if they're just in it for the angst and the drama. I'm probably going to keep this one but it would have been a five if the heroine had been allowed to stand up for herself or if I got more from the hero other than the charming sentiments that "sluts don't get to choose" (paraphrasing) or that the heroine has "the face of an angel and the soul of a whore." Yeeeeeeesh.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 12, 2023

I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness: A Novel by Claire Vaye Watkins


DNF @ 59%

I'm a sucker for books with low ratings. To me, nothing is sadder than a book that just didn't happen to find its niche and I desperately would love to be that niche for the right book, especially if it's getting slammed for being unusual or "unlikable." Claire Vaye Watkins is apparently the daughter of Paul Watkins, one of Manson's collaborators, who helped provide him with girls. So in that sense, I kind of wondered if I LOVE YOU BUT I'VE CHOSEN DARKNESS is cathartic autofiction because it's about the (fictional) daughter of Paul Watkins, who's also dealing with her Gen-Y existential dread and postpartum depression, as well as the grim legacy left behind by her dad.

I think the best parts, for me, were actually the descriptions of the Nevada desert and the way she slips into omniscient narrator perspective talking about the Manson family cult. It gets kind of weird-- like FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS weird-- where the heroine (author?) starts talking about these teeth tumors she has in her vagina that are vestiges of her baby's DNA (what), and waxing on about her dead high school boyfriend.

I'm sad to be giving this a low ratings because I appreciated what it was trying to do-- gonzo autofiction, maybe in the vein of Hunter S. Thompson?-- and one of the things I've criticized the publishing industry for is how social media marketing has led to the "same-ification" of the book market, with fewer people taking risks as they all race to do what's popular. I personally like it when an author takes risks with the narrative and story, but this just didn't work here.

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint


DNF @ 9%

 I'm sure it's super annoying as an author writing into a genre you love and having everyone comparing your work to That One Author Who Owns The Genre and Has Made It Their Thing, but Madeline Miller does kind of have a major corner on the Greek mythology retelling market right now, and as much as I understand the hatred of such comparisons, it does feel like Saint is trying to emulate Miller's style here (and the cover sure plays into this). To her credit, her writing is beautiful and it does come across as Miller lite (no, not the beer), but the story lacks the soul and the heart that I expect from Madeline Miller's books. Her stories about Circe and Achilles both made me cry. This book just had me nodding along and going, "Well, that would be a nice quote for Pinterest." I've been reading this for the last two hours and keep getting bored, so I think I'll be calling it quits here.

2 out of 5 stars

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger


This was one of the favorite books of my high school English teacher, a man who condemned Jane Austen as an "insipid romance writer" and regaled us with tales about pissing in people's mailboxes as a youth. He also told me that I was a terrible writer, and that I should be in remedial English because my grasp of the written word was "subpar."

I think that tells you basically everything you need to know about the man and this book. If you go around seeking out phonies, you might want to start with a mirror.

P.S. As if that weren't enough torture, I had to read this book AGAIN and the second teacher who made me suffer through this was Catholic and made us say "gee-dee" instead of goddamn every time it appeared on the page, and we had to skip any chapters that she deemed "inappropriate."

P.P.S. No, I didn't go to a Catholic school.

1 out of 5 stars

A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson


I've had A DOWRY OF BLOOD on my to-read list for a while but I'd heard it was a densely atmospheric read and I have to be in the right mood for those, so it's been sitting patiently on my Kindle for months. Finally, after reading a string of creepy and gothic reads, I decided I was ready to top off my Halloween-in-March sundae with this blood-dark cherry of a book: a confessional, and a toxic love story, depicting Dracula and his not-so-willing brides (and bridegroom).

When Constanta first meets Dracula, she is dying: a casualty to a war. Her family was burned alive while she lay broken and bleeding. Dracula meets her and offers her a chance for new life and revenge. In her innocence, she takes it, not realizing what kind of bargain she's struck. Because as his bride, he has full control: of her, of everything. And he is only pleased with her while she's dancing to his tune.

As the story progresses, he takes on two more "brides": a scheming Spanish noble named Magdalena and a penniless artist named Alexi. Both are far more mercurially tempered than Constanta, who basically lives up to her name, and she often feels pale in their light. But neither Alexi or Magdalena are fully happy either, and their willfulness is causing tensions in this not-so-happy household.

I often lose patience with books that are written with a deliberate ornateness, and I did not have that happen here. If you're going to write a book with dense and flowery prose, this is how you do it. I can totally see why this book was snapped up from its indie publication and published traditionally so quickly: the writing is literary and philosophical, and I liked how Dracula was both a product of his times and also an abuser, and how he likely perpetuated cycles of abuse that he probably experienced from his master while living as a slave in Athens. I also liked how his control was so insidious, and how it was because he loved them that made it so hard to leave. Seeing that kind of nuance in books is rare.

The downside is that because this book was so flowery, it often felt like the plot was a vehicle for the prose, rather than vice-versa. Large spans of the book were just waiting for things to happen, and a lot of the "story" is spent residing in Constanta's head, hearing her story, and experiencing her small world from her eyes. Even though the book is just over 200 pages, it felt a lot longer, and I did find myself skimming a little at times. Despite that, A DOWRY OF BLOOD is still a very good book and it looks like now it's going to be book one in a series? So I'm very curious to see what happens next.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 10, 2023

Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood


The woman, the myth, the legend: Ali Hazelwood is one of those authors that, like Colleen Hoover and Sarah J. Maas, people either love or hate. With passion. Which obviously makes me wonder what the heck she was putting in her books to make people solidly Team Yuck or Team Yum. With passion. Finally, one of her books went on sale-- and, of course, it wasn't THE book, THE LOVE HYPOTHESIS. No, it was this other book: LOVE ON THE BRAIN.*

*Note: I actually thought that the guy on this cover was the same guy as the guy on the first cover, and that he'd ditched the heroine from the first book and moved on to some purple haired wench and I was like, WELL, THAT'S GUTSY. But no. Different guy.

After finishing this book, I have a LOT of THOUGHTS. And as I do with a lot of hyped books, I've decided to bullet point my likes and dislikes because I am nothing if not organized (JK, this is a lie) and it helps me substantiate my already wishy-washy rating system.

πŸ‘ Heroines in STEM.
As someone who works in STEM, it's honestly so great to see more female characters-- especially in romance novels-- with jobs that they feel passionately about, which were (and still are!) typically thought of as careers for men. Ask someone to draw a doctor, and they usually draw you a dude. But I feel like having media like this throws a wrench in the infrastructural sexism gears, and also inspires women and young girls to pursue careers in math, science, tech, and engineering.
πŸ‘ We stan a beta cinnamon roll hero of a man. Levi was actually really sweet. Well, once you got to know him. In the beginning of the book, I was like HOW ARE YOU GOING TO REDEEM THIS FOOL? But the author then proceeded to do a lot of legwork doing exactly that, and I was like, "Well, okay, I guess I'll allow this."  If Disney had a vegan doctor as a prince, Levi would be that prince.
πŸ‘ All that neuroscience stuff.
I majored in psychology, which is basically neuroscience's lazy older sister. I even took some intro neuroanatomy and neuroscience courses as part of my upper division requirements (and I worked in a research lab-- briefly!). So this was fun.
πŸ‘ The writing was actually, mostly, decent?
I don't know, based on what some people were saying, I was expecting Fifty Shades of Wattpad. But this was pretty breezy and easy to read. I finished it in just a few hours, even though it's almost 400 pages.

πŸ‘ Rocio and Kay.
Who knew that I'd ship Wednesday Addams and Elle Woods together as a sapphic couple? Not me. But it totally works.

The size kink. I did not need to hear how ridiculously-big-huge-too-freakishly-tall-for-space Levi was and how teeny-tiny-carry-her-in-your-pocket-smol Bee was every other page. Every time she sees him, she's just like HUGE. It was honestly ridiculous. I think part of the reason this sort of fetishizing annoys me is that it's skewed towards small/petite women only, and feels like it's propagating the stereotype that women have to be small and dainty and feminine to be worthy or beautiful. To illustrate how ridiculous this sort of pairing is, visually, I'm almost six feet tall. So I'd have to be with a dude who's like 7ft taller or higher to achieve this vibe.
πŸ‘Ž Bee is like a walking Tumblr meme after it's had three Red Bulls. Look, I'm feminist, I'm liberal, I care about social issues. I'm a bit of a walking stereotype. But OH MY GOD. Bee IS the stereotype, wearing dyed pink hair. She felt like a meme of a person. Like a Meg Cabot character if it had gone to UC Berkeley. She was just too twee and it was way too much. Also, WHY are her only hobbies fangirling about Marie Curie, hating on men for not letting women science, and being vegan? She's obnoxious about all three of these things, btw. Especially the vegan one. Yikes.
πŸ‘Ž La Llorona. I'm still not sure what the deal with this was.
πŸ‘Ž Everything sucks and is on fire when you're a woman in STEM. It's so weird that these books are being branded as STEMinist and hailed for being uplifting because literally all the dudes in this book were SO AWFUL to Bee except Levi (and even he was awful at first). The lab did not feel at all fun and I feel like Bee's passion for neuroscience was often obscured by the frustration she felt at her work environment and co-workers. Which is valid but also kind of miserable.

As for the things that I feel neutral about: the ending. It was fine. I saw a lot of people hating on it but I didn't see the twist coming so that was neat. I also liked the cats. I thought Bee's fainting disorder was a little weirdly portrayed, and felt like another way she was kind of hyper-feminized (she's petite AND she swoons, what is she, a Victorian waif?), but since I don't have this condition, I can't say how accurate it was. I'm also not really sure how I felt about Levi's family being portrayed as this military-obsessed cult, but I guess it makes sense for why he is the way he is. Still weird but I didn't care. Also, that three-page GRE rant was definitely soap-boxing and it felt kind of weird to see it just thrown into this romance novel, like someone trying to reach the word count on a last-minute essay. I'm okay with a little bit of soap-boxing but this felt really preachy and contrived, and I didn't really like that, because the dialogue didn't really fit into the context of what was going on, and therefore felt forced.

In conclusion, I feel like Ali Hazelwood is a perfectly acceptable, perfectly average romance author who seems to get a disproportionate amount of hate for what she sets out to do. I'm not really in love with her writing despite being in the target audiences, and boy, does her self-insert main have a lot of utterly annoying quirks, but as a romance, I've read way worse-- this, at least, didn't leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. It turns out gratuitous cats can buy a lot of goodwill on my end.

That doesn't mean I'm not still picturing Levi as a big tree trunk of a man with hams for hands, though.

 2.5 out of 5 stars

You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce


I remember when this first came out, my friend Heather got an ARC and she was telling me about how creepy this was, and how it was like a thriller but also a fantasy-- maybe. Maybe? MAYBE? I had to check it out. And now that I've read it, I can definitely see the "maybe" element to the fantasy. This kind of reads like an R-rated version of John Connolly's THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS, where it's a mystery wrapped in alternating layers of fantasy and reality, to the point where you're no longer sure what is real and what isn't.

Cassandra Tipp was a famous romance novelist who made tons of money off her Harlequin-esque publications. But before that, she was a girl in a house, with two siblings, and two parents... and a faerie friend named the Pepper-Man. As Cassandra grows older, Pepper-Man and the surrounding faeries insert themselves into her life, in unpleasant and increasingly disturbing ways. ACOTAR, this is not. These are the faeries of ancient myth: the ones who will steal your soul and eat your heart, and grant you a wish that feels more like a curse.

The story is narrated in second person, by Cassandra, to her two heirs: her niece and nephew, Penelope and Janus. In order to inherit, they have to read her story and find the secret code that she's buried in the pages. Then and only then can they claim the money. But Cassandra's story is horrific, and the only thing scarier than faeries is the idea that maybe they don't exist at all. I haven't read many stories in the second person-- just Caroline Kepnes's YOU and Laura Fraser's ITALIAN AFFAIR. It's a narrative style that can come off as twee, but I actually really liked it here. I also liked the unreliable narrator: another device that can be twee in the wrong hands, but was done masterfully here.

I'm not really sure how to rate this. It wasn't quite as disturbing as I'd braced myself for it to be and much of the violence is couched in ornate fairytale style language that mitigates the overall effect. I'm not usually a fan of stories that are open-ended but I think it kind of works here, even if it did leave me thinking, UM, ANSWERS, PLEASE. But as frustrating as it could be at times, I found myself morbidly fascinated by this story and reading between the lines, looking for answers, just like Janus and Penelope. I read it in just a few hours and couldn't stop thinking about it until I'd finished, so I feel like if a story grips you like that and holds you in its thrall, then it kind of just HAS to be a five.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 9, 2023

NSFW by Isabel Kaplan


A book with a title like NSFW is practically daring you to read it, especially at work. YOLO. But NSFW is more than a book with a buzzy title; it's also an incredibly ambitious and timely novel about rape culture, and what working in Hollywood was like prior to the widespread progression of the #MeToo movement in 2017 following the Harvey Weinstein allegations.

The heroine in NSFW is never named, but she's a young Jewish girl living in Hollywood. Her mother was a feminist lawyer famous for taking on rape cases and empowering women to confront their attackers, but now she's having an existential crisis, hover parenting her adult daughter while self-medicating with expensive beauty treatments and questionably prescribed medications. She is good for one thing, though: her connections. She's old friends with a higher-up at a production studio and is able to finagle our protagonist a job.

Our heroine quickly proves herself competent and a little cut-throat. She's insecure but willing to do what needs to be done, and she knows who her allies are. Which is why it's so shocking to her when quiet whispers begin to circulate about certain men in the studio taking advantage of their power to get what they want from the women who work there. She feels valued, and respected (mostly), so surely those other women can't be right? Maybe they did something or maybe they misunderstood the situation. Those are the lies we tell ourselves to believe that we're safe. But in a culture that discourages victims from speaking out and places the burden of proof and the brunt of the blame on the wronged, nobody is ever really safe.

I LOVED this book, okay? I can't believe people aren't talking about it. Or that the ratings are so low! No, this isn't a book with a neat and tidy ending, and often it feels bleak, but the way it captures workplace culture and the so-called post-sexism culture of the early 2010s, when people felt way too optimistic about the all too grim future, is pitch-perfect. The heroine is believably flawed, and I feel like her struggle to come to terms with her own internalized misogyny and the way that she labors under her mother's mixed messages and emotional abuse are so well done. Feminism isn't a set of clear-cut principles and it's a constant journey of self-betterment, so I love seeing books that tackle the process of going through that legwork. It's also just a really good and gossipy story that's hard to put down. In some ways, it reminded me a lot of another "flawed feminist" book I just read, POST-TRAUMATIC.

P.S. The blurb says that this is a debut work, but it isn't. The author published a previous book in 2007, also set in LA. After reading this one, I may have to buy it. It's YA but it looks like it's on the more mature end of the YA spectrum.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars