Sunday, April 30, 2023

Must Love Trees: An Unconventional Guide by Tobin Mitnick


I feel like I get most of my followers on Goodreads because the books I read are so weird, that people are like, trying to figure out my system. "Does she read bodice-rippers on Wednesdays and nonfiction on Fridays? WHERE did she hear about an art coffee table book about stuffed Victorian hunting trophies?" I have weird taste in books, okay? I'm not even going to bother defending it; my taste is eclectic and odd, because so am I. But if there's one thing that's basically guaranteed to snag my attention, it's weird nonfiction books about FUN!SCIENCE.

MUST LOVE TREES is a book written by a dude who is a tree aficionado. (Treeficionado?) I think he might be TikTok famous but I'm not sure. What I am sure about is that this man LOVES trees. In addition to some scientific information, he also creates a fake award set for best trees in movies (he calls them the Treemies), talks about going for walks in his neighborhood and taking paths to see his favorite trees, provides lists about most huggable trees, and then even brags about his impeccable taste in Christmas trees, followed by a breakdown by genus.

I like trees but apparently I don't LOVE trees. Not like this guy, anyway. But I appreciate and admire his enthusiasm. I also appreciated and admired the art in this book, which was cartoony and cute. The cover actually doesn't do this book justice, imo. I'm giving this a three because sometimes this book could be too cheesy and it would make you feel how one-note this book is, hard. For what it is, I think it's really fun, and this would probably be a great resource in an elementary school or middle school science lab because I think kids would get a kick out of it. But it's not something I'd pick up again and again. (Although I miiiiiight be obsessed with sweetgum trees now, SO PRETTY.)

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 29, 2023

365 Gays of the Year (Plus 1 for a Leap Year): Discover LGBTQ+ history one day at a time by Lewis Laney


Just in time for Pride Month, 365 GAYS (plus one for leap year) is a comprehensive tome of many famous and inspirational LGBT+ people, spanning as many letters of that alphabet as possible (as well as including a handful of allies who performed exceptional works of allyship, such as Princess Diana, who helped normalize people who were HIV+ in a way that very few were willing to do at the time). The careers shown in here are amazing, from writers (Dorian Gray and Alice Oseman), to YouTubers (Troy Sivan and Jojo Siwa) to actresses (Kristen Stewart and Dan Levy) to politicians, activists, royalty, athletes, artists, scientists, and more. It's racially diverse as well, which is also wonderful, because I have read other books about LGBT+ folks that have, unfortunately, skewed very white. This is just a really great and important collection and the cover and illustrations are beautiful, so it's AAAART, as well.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Two Truths and a Lie by Meg Mitchell Moore


DNF @ 18%

Not me ditching my buddy-read partner HAHAHA. (Sorry, Heather!) 

Here's the thing, and I mean this in the nicest possible way-- I am not the target audience for this book. This is a beach read for women who are just slightly left of center, who are just a little out of touch but also feel just a little superior about it, and who enjoy domestic thrillers that focus on how motherhood is ~hard~. And that is totally valid and fine, but that's not really who I am, or a mindset I particularly identify with, and I don't find motherhood or mother-group books all that interesting.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

The Silver Eyes (Five Nights at Freddy's: the Graphic Novel 1) by Scott Cawthorn


Not me picking up a Five Nights at Freddy's novel even though I KNOW that I can't do robots, dolls, or horror. Man, I am so dumb about this kind of stuff. Why do I do this? WHY? Even though I know that FNaF is well out of my wheelhouse, I am fascinated by the lore and the franchise. It's a video game series filled with jump scares and the evil secrets that can be buried by a small town and quaint Americana. 

THE SILVER EYES is about a girl named Charlie, who is the daughter of the inventor of the animatronics. Struck by nostalgia and the need for answers, she and her friends go to the abandoned mall that was build as a shell around the pizzeria that closed after the infamous murders. And it's creepy and it's weird, and there's a security guard who seems to know too much. Also, did those animatronics move? I'm pretty sure they did. OH MY GOD DID THOSE ANIMATRONICS MOVE? IS IT BEYOND ME? IS? IT? BEHIND? MEEEEEEEEEE? OH GOD I HEAR A MUSIC BOX.

I don't want to say too much because spoilers and all, but this was really creepy and ended up being the perfect blend of a survival horror story, a small town thriller, and, like, an 80s horror throwback. I feel like Stephen King could have written something like this, as it definitely has IT vibes. A lot of people on Amazon didn't like the art but I actually thought it was fine. I guess if you're used to the polished Marvel/DC look, you might be disappointed, but I like the indie look that some of these smaller publishers, as they remind me of the webcomics I read in my teens (specifically Questionable Content, which I LOVED). I do think the story felt a little bare bones and I would have liked more closure, but since this is book one in a three book series, I guess they have to hold out some stuff for the sequels, so I'm tentatively suspending judgement.

Now excuse me while I cry myself to sleep.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Bryony and Roses by T. Kingfisher


DNF @ 49%

Maybe I'm just not in the right mood for this right now, or maybe it's because I've started my quest to read T. Kingfisher's books by starting with her most recent, so everything even slightly flawed and amateurish compares unfairly to her more recent, more polished works. Either way, BRYONY AND ROSES ended up being a disappointment for me. It has all of the hallmarks that make her later works great-- quirky heroine, heartfelt humor, buddy-cop energy, fairytale magic, whimsical horror-- but I just felt so bored. I also feel like this one kind of made girly things the butt of a lot of the jokes, and it gave big 2014 "I like Billie Eilish so I'm not like other girls" energy. I wanted to like this sooooo bad but it's dragging for me. Especially after SEVENTH BRIDE, TWISTED ONES, NETTLE & BONE, and HOLLOW PLACES. I saw another reviewer saying that she seems to be much more comfortable writing horror, and yeah, that's it. That's the Tweet. I think she needs horror to balance out her rambly, endearingly awkward writing style.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 24, 2023

Summer of Secrets by Richie Tankersley Cusick


There aren't a lot of authors where I read their books and am like, "I NEED to be friends with this person," but I feel that way about Richie Tankersley Cusick. She just gets me. Her favorite tropes are my favorite tropes. She knows how to write a horror novel that still serves up on the romance. And that is just so... rare. It honestly kills me that I didn't read more of her books as a kid. I think she would have been right up there for me alongside L.J. Smith and Caroline B. Cooney. #HorrorQueen Also, PLEASE BE MY FRIEND. I'M COOL. <3

SUMMER OF SECRETS is one of the few books in RTC's backlist that hasn't made it to ebook. So I actually tracked down and bought a paperback because I want to read all her books. It's one of the middling ones, not the worst, not the best. Two girls, Stephanie and Gayle, go out to the country to visit Gayle's elderly Aunt Pat. When they get there, though, they get reamed by a truck with its lights off. And then they wander offroad and discover A SEVERED ARM IN A TRASH BAG.

I'm sorry?

This is before even fifty pages have gone by and really sets the tone for when they arrive to Aunt Pat's house and the doors are unlocked and there's no one there. Thinks go bonkers pretty quickly from there: the killer tries to kill someone via food poisoning (LOL), one of the girls literally FALLS ON A KNIFE, and then there's a canoodling session in a haystack that's put to a premature end by pitchforkus interruptus. (Which I was really happy about, because the cover MADE ME PROMISES OKAY.) No joke, I might have deducted a star out of spite if the scene on the cover didn't happen, because that old skool clinch cover, YA style, was, like, 80% of the reason why I bought this book.

There were some things I really loved about SUMMER OF SECRETS. The friendship between the girls, not one not two but THREE hot guys, some surprisingly steamy descriptions of bare chests ('90s YA Thirst Traps have entered the chat), and some pretty creepy scenes and setting of the atmosphere. I'm deducting points because the heroines were SO DUMB. One of them literally fell on a knife. The other was like, okay, I know you might have tried to kill my friend and maybe also me, and I know you keep gaslighting me, but I'm going to lie to the authorities for you TWICE because you're hot uwu.

Honestly, this just made me nostalgic for SILENT STALKER, which was this but better. I'm not mad, though, and because it's by RTC and has the best YA horror cover ever, I'm keeping this one.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Dead Love by Heather Crews


Disclaimer: I did some beta-ing for some drafts of this book and I am the author's friend, but I parted with my coin like an ordinary book simp for this work, THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

I've been waiting for this book for years and it did not disappoint. I'm very happy with the changes the author made because the original was so bleak, and even though I loved how dark it was, I think changing the scope of the narrative to focus on the healing instead of the trauma of a character was a good move. It feels less exploitative and more affirming of the heroine's agency and intrinsic value as a human being.

You cannot really read this as a standalone or discuss this book without spoilers, but the series is soooo good, so I will do my best to give a brief summary without revealing too much. Leila, the heroine, and her friend, Dawn, were kidnapped by vampires who wanted to have sex with them and then kill them, basically. They escaped and now Dawn is a vampire and Leila is a human but still messed up. In DEAD LOVE, she starts to make steps to recovering her sexual and personal agency by getting back into her art and dating a human bartender named Dax. But, of course, this is a 100+ page book and not a 10+ page book because that plan doesn't end up working out so hot.

I liked this book a lot. The writing was great and Leila was a wonderfully complex and flawed character. My only qualm is that the resolution and ending were a bit rushed. I kind of expected a detailed discussion between Dax and Leila about what happened and I don't think there really was one (unless I missed it). I also felt like the douche vampire hunters got off too easy. (And was Megan ever found? Who took her??) But the ending was perfect and builds the promise out for more and I'm so excited to read more books in this world.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 20, 2023

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso


This was a frustrating read because it was really good in some ways, but it ended up falling just short of being truly good... for me. First, I think the author has an amazing talent and building out and developing her world. I loved the Filipinx culture inspo and how the heroine really did feel like someone who could be an insecure warlord queen who barely has her nation in check, let alone her feelings. I saw some people criticizing her for being foolish in love but COME ON. Just because a girl's got a sword and a fondness for cutting off heads, that doesn't mean that she doesn't have a heart. In fact, given all the stresses in her life, I feel like it would make double sense that she would be painfully aware of the void in her life that her husband's absence left. Especially since he abandoned her with their kid. And he was her FIRST.

Taliyen was a complex heroine and I loved her for it, and her journey started off amazing, as she goes to a stand-in for China to meet with her husband after a five-year absence to confront him and find out the future of their nation. After that it becomes a tragic-comedy, with Tali ending up in perilous situation after perilous situation, in a way that really felt delightfully like an old skool bodice-ripper. Especially the part with Yuebek and the part where she's tricked into being a bordello's latest acquisition.

Where this book fell short for me is that it's just TOO LONG. When a book is 500 or more pages, I start thinking, "Did this actually need to be 500 pages?" and usually the answer is no. I see that this started out as self-published and I wondered how much editing was applied to the book when it was picked up to be published mainstream, because I think about one hundred or at least fifty pages probably could have been shaved off, especially the last quarter of the book, where it started to go all dry geopolitics and became less adventure-focused like it was in the beginning, where even though there was a LOT to take in, it was less cerebral and more immersive, which I liked.

I think this author has a lot of talent and I liked most of the book. In some ways, her style actually reminds me a lot of T. Kingfisher because she's a little rambly and her book is more character-driven in focus than a lot of contemporary fantasy novels. I would read more from her but I'm hesitant to continue this series. I'll definitely be thinking about Queen Tali for a while, though.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Elizabeth by Jessica Hamilton


The only reason I knew about this book was because I picked up Grady Hendrix's PAPERBACKS FROM HELL and this was one of the titles that he had offhandedly mentioned that he liked. It also didn't sound like it was going to be super gory, and even though I am the biggest wuss on the planet when it comes to horror, I do like atmospheric horror.

ELIZABETH is the story of a sinister fourteen-year-old girl who starts doing bad things to the people around her under the direction of a ghost named Frances who lives in her mirror. She also ends up adopting a cat familiar at some point who she names Mr. Scratch (and no, he doesn't die-- hooray!). It's written in first person and has the chatty, unreliable narration style that a lot of self-published horror these days has.

I don't want to say too much more because of spoilers, but one of the focal questions about this book is whether Elizabeth is a witch or just a psycho. The ending doesn't really deliver on this, either, so if you're not a fan of vague endings, this might make you made. I personally don't care either way so long as a story is good (I can live with a bit of disappointment), but the story was also... weird.

First, Jessica Hamilton is actually a penname for a dude (as was common in the '70s), so don't pick this one up thinking you're supporting women in horror, as I did. Second, this book is gross. If I had known that huge portions of this book revolve around the underage heroine sleeping with her uncle, I would not have picked it up because that is nasty. It's not, like, endorsed or even particularly fetishized, but it just felt like a cheap way to make the story feel more sensational and gross than it needed to be. Which I guess is maybe why this became a cult horror book, in a way. It definitely has '70s grindhouse vibes.

I'd recommend this book to people who like books that push boundaries and enjoy reading stories with major creep factor. I did read this book to the end, even if I was ew-ing most of the way there, so I'm not going to give it too low of a rating, but I don't think I'd read anything else by this author, either. Yuck. Bonus star because the cat survived though and because Mr. Scratch is a hilarious name.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 15, 2023

His Secretly Pregnant Cinderella by Millie Adams


HIS SECRETLY PREGNANT CINDERELLA is the type of romance book where even if you generally feel comfortable telling someone that you like reading romance novels, if they ask you what you're actually reading right now, you experience a moment of true panic. Or at least, I do, because there's no way I'm telling my boss, my mother, or my casual Instagram moot that I'm reading a book with "secretly pregnant Cinderella" in the title. If you're that bold, I'm jealous of you.

This was a BR with my friend, Heather, who is the person who got me into Millie Adams' books in the first place. I often find the more recent Harlequins to be bland (the old ones were so much more dramatic and fun), but Adams does a good job with somewhat in-depth characterization and I like how she gives all of her characters these (mild) sexual kinks that complement their personalities and even serve to further the storyline and emotional connections between the characters in some way. I even felt like the heroine in this one was sort of implied to have a sort of humiliation kink, but it was buried deep. Maybe they decided that was too racy, I don't know.

This book starts out with the heroine, Morgan, hiding from her long-term boyfriend in lingerie. This is because on the night she finally planned to sleep with him (she's a virgin) after six months of no sex, she finds him cheating on her with another woman. She escapes off the balcony and ends up in the room of the boyfriend's stern and uptight brother, Constantine, who she has always secretly had a crush on. Faster than you can say, "She chose the wrong brother," they're doing it, and X number of weeks later, she's pregnant... with twins!

Normally I hate pregnancy romances, but I feel like this one was done better than most. The heroine doesn't set up a doctor appointment in her ignorance and kind of hates it when it does happen (girl, same). She's VERY nervous about motherhood because her own mother's pregnancy was unplanned, and she spent most of her childhood and adulthood feeling like a burden her mother never wanted. Even though Constantine proposes marriage immediately-- because his family has been hit with tragedy after tragedy and is currently out two children, they are very much Team Baby-- she has real concerns that being in fatherhood for duty's sake alone will cause her kids to feel that same kind of resentment.

I also liked the dialogues about gold-digging wives, and how money does make things comfortable for people, especially if they grew up with less or none, so the shame and the hatred for those types of women doesn't really make sense, because it's dumb to expect people to go into a relationship with money and pretend it doesn't exist or it doesn't make their lives easier. The conversations about filial expectations and responsibility were also surprisingly deep for a romance that had the hero kissing the heroine' stomach and saying "MINE" while comparing her to a fertility goddess, so you know, wow, real emotional stakes and development in a Harley pregnancy romance. I never would have thunk it.

Obviously, since I'm not usually keen on these types of romances, I have thoughts. I've only read Adams's historicals prior to this and I wondered if she was working on this one in between them, because the language she chose was very odd. I kept having to remind myself I wasn't reading a historical with words like "scoundrel" and "delectable" being used, and I think at one point the hero's dad says something like "he should taste of the heroine's beauty." Lol, okay. The heroine also kept trailing off into random elipses and there were multiple stilted phrases in the canned dialogue that just had me rolling my eyes, which is a shame because apart from that, the writing wasn't bad.

If you're not into pregnancy romances, I wouldn't recommend this because it is very much a theme. But if you need to do it for a category challenge or something, this is definitely a lesser evil. I mean, she took a trope that normally wants to make me pour ice on my head and made it almost likable. I'm curious to check out some of her other contemporaries and see if she has the same writing tics or if this was a one-off, but so far I think I like her historicals better. I'll def read more from this author, though.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 10, 2023

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo


2012 really was a great time to be alive in the YA fiction base, because that was when it was overflowing with strong girls who had to save the world but, oh, yeah-- most importantly-- find time for romance. Between VAMPIRE ACADEMY, THE HUNGER GAMES, and SHADOW AND BONE, I don't know how any of us had time for sleep. I read a lot of these girl power-in-love books, but SHADOW AND BONE was one of the few I didn't touch. I think I didn't get into it because the fans seemed so annoying, like they were holding this book up as the lodestone to which all YA should aspire, and using it to shame some of its girlier, more romance-focused counterparts, which I thought was gross. But I want to see the TV show, so I decided to finally bite the bullet and read the books and boy, was I surprised.


The plot of this book does not reinvent the wheel. It's set in Fake Russia, part of which is covered by a Vampire Dementor Quilt. The Vampire Dementor Quilt is threatening Fake China and Fake Finland as well, and people are getting nervous because that VDQ could fuck up them up in a hot minute, just like a Peep in a microwave. Especially since the king and queen are in their castle, acting like the phrase "Let them eat cake" is a rule to live by instead of a cautionary tale, with the queen even keeping her very own Facetune witch on standby (you might think I'm joking, but I'm not-- ask me what a Tailor is, go on, I dare you).

Alina Starkov is a grunt in the army with her childhood best friend and fellow orphan, Mal. She's a shitty mapmaker but hey, it's a living. Until one of the Dementors from the Dementor Quilt attack them and she explodes like a Gusher made of pure sunbeams, and one of the army people narcs on her to Great Value Russian Kylo Ren, aka Daddy Darkling, aka Daddyling, who's like, "Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but I'mma cut you, bleed sunbeams maybe?" And she DOES. Instant promotion. Suddenly, Alina is a witch and treated with all the respect that station deserves (not much apparently).

I don't want to say too much more, but let's just say that the Daddyling is one of those idealists who ends up becoming a despot. There's plenty of allegories for men like him in history, men who will do anything to see out their vision no matter who they hurt, so I won't bother to name names. But his trajectory, and the way Alina's parallels his, is really well done. That scene with the stag almost made me cry, it was so powerful. Buuuuut this book would be dragging itself to the finish line without its villain. All of the hype surrounding this book is because of the villain. Hell, part of the main reason my friend Heather got me to read this in the first place was by telling me it had a hot villain.

So I liked the story and the world building was okay, even though I feel like the YA fantasy genre is now kind of overrun with Fake Russia and Great Value European stand-ins (and I know most of those came after this book became popular, but I didn't read those first and I am fatigued). The book is also pretty slow to get moving and there's a lot of skimmable scenes in the palace. Despite THAT DADDY DARKLING KISS SCENE THO. I loved it. Give me a good kiss scene after a makeover montage and a ball that makes no sense and I'll fall for it every time. #girlythings Was it very cheesy in a Happy Hunger Games sort of way? Yes, but I didn't care. But unfortunately there was also a kiss scene with Mal and I hated Mal. And what pisses me off about Mal even more is that I'm pretty sure he's the end game for the romance and he sucks. 

(Did I mention how much he sucks?)

For most of this book, I was waffling between a three star review and a four, because even though Alina kind of started out as a bland chosen one Mary Sue, I feel like she actually had to make some really difficult and interesting decisions that defined her character in an interesting way. Ultimately, I decided to round up because of the villain romance elements (you knew it), that complete and utter bastard of an ending, and also because of some plot twists that actually made me gasp.

I can't wait to read the next book.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman


🎶 Hollis, it's me, I'm Marchy,
I've come home, I'm so cold,
Let me torture this dog

There's a sketch on SNL called "Barbie Instagram" with Donald Glover, in which he plays a morbid intern who is convinced that Barbie is in the midst of an existential crisis after witnessing the death of one of her friends. While reading this book, I kept thinking about that sketch and picturing Alice Hoffman reading WUTHERING HEIGHTS and thinking, "There goes Cathy. Poor thing. She doesn't know she's a character in a Gothic romance written by a woman who died when she was thirty because she was living on corpse water out there in the misty moors."

I can see why so many people didn't like HERE ON EARTH. I guess if you're a die-hard fan of the original and see it as a love story, you're going to be pissed off when you read this and find out that not only did Alice Hoffman make the already unlikable cast of characters even more unlikable (and animal abusers, to boot!), she also reduced one of the most epic love stories of all time to a Lifetime-worthy saga of an abuser.

And okay, I'm not denying that Heathcliff was trash. But Hollis straight up beat his wife, Belinda, and then he turns on March just as soon as he's "won" and successfully had her leave her husband. Even worse, he's cruel to animals, and when he gets mad at March's daughter, Gwen, he goes out with a gun and threatens to shoot her horse and makes her beg him to spare the horse's life (spoiler: the horse lives, no thanks to him-- he was gonna make the fifteen year old beg and shoot the horse anyway). Not that the Cathy stand-in is much better. She's a dog abuser, locking this poor dog in her care in cold cars and pantries, just so she can sneak away and cheat on her husband by fucking Hollis. Also, the way she makes light of the possibility of Hollis being an abuser when her friend Susie comes to her out of concern is gross. I guess it's realistic, but gross. Fuck March.

So why am I giving this such a high rating? The writing was gorgeous, the New England setting was amazing, and the drama was top-tier. Did I care about any of these characters? No, not particularly, except for Gwen, the dog, and the horse. But was I here for the cheating, the cousin-fucking, and the adultery? Oh yeah. By the way, Gwen hooks up with Heathcliff's foster son who is actually her first cousin, so yeah. Cousin-fucking for the win. And nobody really makes a big deal of it or anything, although considering the other shit going down in Jenkinstown, maybe that's not a shock.

Read this for the drama and the magic realism that makes sex smell like smoke and fire. Don't read it for the authentic WUTHERING HEIGHTS vibes.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 8, 2023

House of Shadows by Darcy Coates


Darcy Coates is a new-to-me authors that I'd heard of but hadn't actually read until my sister gave me a copy of this book, HOUSE OF SHADOWS. As soon as I realized it was a romantic horror novel with themes of marriage of convenience and a haunted house, I was so excited, because those are two of my favorite tropes. Also, I think we can all agree that romantic horror is a sorely under-represented genre.

Sophie Hemlock(!) is the daughter of a merchant (I think?) and when she meets the mysterious Joseph Argenton at an opera and hits it off with him, she's charmed and wary of his intensity. When a marriage proposal follows shortly after her father has a ruinous incident with a shipment, it seems too good to be true. He's provided her with the key to save her family's fortune, but that key might also be her demise.

Things get sus pretty much immediately. Her husband claims he has to race ahead of their coach and leaves her to continue the journey on her own. When she gets to the house, Northwood, her new in-laws are creepy and weird. There's a red door her husband tells her not to go into. She hears weird whispers and phantom music, and her husband's young cousin, Elise, is drawing pictures of a monster that she claims "whispers to her."

What the fuck is going on?

HOUSE OF SHADOWS was a really fun, quick read. The chapters are short, which makes it easy to stop and start. I thought the romance was actually kind of weak, and I think the story would have been a lot better if the author had played up the passion between the leads and maybe included a smutty scene or two. I also would have liked a little more creepiness, although the visceral horror elements in this book were done pretty well (what few there were). It has elements of Bluebeard, Rebecca, and Rose Red, with maybe a dash of The Haunting of Hill House. If you're looking for something creepy and a little romantic and not too scary, this is a great book for you.

I've already bought the sequel. :)

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 7, 2023

Vicious by L.J. Shen


So I was at my therapy session the other day and was like, "You know the problem with being a content creator with a larger platform is that everyone expects you to have an extremely radical opinion on whatever the latest hot take is, and it gets to the point where you start to second-guess your own opinions because you begin to ask yourself, 'is this really what I think or am I just doing this for the clicks?'" And then my therapist was like, "Ma'am, this is just a drive-thru Starbucks, please take your coffee so we can help the next person in line," and I was like, "Well, SOMEONE'S getting a one-star review on Zocdoc."*

*Just kidding, although if you don't think of coffee as therapy, you've obviously never had a double shot blonde espresso oat milk latte.**

**Seriously, just kidding. Coffee is not a substitute for therapy.

I was leery about picking up VICIOUS because literally everyone and their horny granny was hyping it up, and contrary to popular belief, I don't actually sit around here looking for popular books to hate on. I also really didn't like the last L.J. Shen book I read. It was one of her mafia ones and reading it made me angry, and I was like "NEVER AGAIN." So it kind of seemed like me and Ms. Shen just weren't destined to be. And I was fine with that. Really. Things were fine.

But then one of my friends wrote a review saying that this was basically THE CRUEL PRINCE but with a human cast. And it was like one of those children's TV show buzzers went off, where they're like, "Uh oh! You said today's WORD OF THE DAY!!!!!" Because if there was one thing she could have said that would have made me pick up the book, it was that. I fucking love THE CRUEL PRINCE. Enemies to lovers served up hot on a plate. There's seriously no better rush.

Here's the thing about VICIOUS. It's very much like Hana Yori Dango/Meteor Garden in terms of vibes. Except they call themselves the HotHoles, which is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Also the hero's name is Vicious, which I guess he calls himself because he hates being named Baron. But as stupid as the name Baron is, I think his nickname might actually be worse. Also he calls the heroine "Help." Because she's part of the help. It takes a LOT of mental gymnastics to get over the nicknames, but after reading five books of Zodiac Academy and enduring things like "Faebook," my literary suspension of disbelief has stretched like taffy and I find myself willing to tolerate all kinds of ridic as long as it's for the sake of a good story. Maybe you can't get over the name thing. Maybe it's like sandpaper on your brain. But if you can get over the name thing, the story is so worth it.

Look, I get that it's toxic. I don't care. If you come at me with a story that serves up old skool Asian drama vibes, the feminism is going on the shelf for a while. I'm a sucker for the "I hate everyone but you" trope, especially when it's liberally salted with the "touch her and die" trope and the "I've loved you for years" trope. Yes, I know this buys into toxic masculinity and the idea that men only treat women like shit because they like them, and in real life, I would definitely give that a hard no, but in a story, where the characters are obviously meant for each other and you know that everything is guaranteed to turn out all right in the end because this is a redemptive romance and love is the invisible fairy godmother who makes everything all right with a kiss and a magic wand, I SHIP THE FUCK OUT OF IT. The end.

And this was a really great story. I actually really liked Emilia a lot. I liked that she had the agency and witty rejoinders of an old skool Charlotte Lamb heroine. I liked Vicious (ugh) and how he had such a sardonic and cynical outlook on life that was a result of not wanting to be hurt. I thought his backstory was super sad and I thought the revenge story was compelling and added a nice touch of darkness to what could have otherwise been a really saccharine storyline. I liked both timelines, the side characters, and the pacing of the story. When Emilia and Vicious go on their Christmas-in-New-York date I swooned. Actually, this might be the only Christmas romance I've read that didn't feel like it was trying to convert me to the Hallmark channel. It was just so good.

VICIOUS is a really great story. I'm not giving it a full five stars because the pacing was a little bumpy and I didn't particularly like the epilogue (and also the names, omg). But this was so, so close to being a perfect read. I might actually like L.J. Shen after all, oh my God. I can't wait to talk to my "therapist" about this tomorrow when I pick up my latte. (Starbucks staff: NOOOOOOOO***)

***Just kidding

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 6, 2023

If You Could See the Sun by Ann Liang


 DNF @ 28%

The way this jumped my to-read list because of lila's review. (Seriously, if you're torn on whether or not to buy this book still, read hers for comparison; she outlines all the reasons why this book is good.)

I was really excited to read IF YOU COULD SEE THE SUN. I love me some magical realism and it's always awesome to see YA that isn't set in the United States. This book is set in a very exclusive school in Beijing, and Alice, the heroine, isn't going to be able to attend much longer even with her scholarship due to her family's dwindling funds.

There is a lot about this book that is pretty cool. I liked the setting, the morally grey heroine (blackmailing your fellow students for fun and profit?), the academic enemies-to-rivals, the FOOD PORN. But I didn't really like the execution and I felt like the characterization and story-telling felt a little... lackluster. Especially with the romance. I really didn't feel a connection b/w Alice and Henry. Maybe this is a me thing-- it's probably a me thing-- but this book didn't click for me.

I hope it clicks for you!

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Frankly in Love by David Yoon


DNF @ p.114

This is like the Reader's Digest version of a John Green novel. The essence is the same but all of the finer points are filtered out, like the beautiful writing and the attempts to be philosophical. Frank Li isn't a bad hero but he feels way younger than he actually is and he's so quirky he could be a Batman villain named Quirky Man who had a tragic accident involving a vat of melted Judd Apatow tapes.

That's not to say that there isn't anything to like about this book. Most of the secondary characters are great and I think it brings up some really important and valid discussions about identity (especially dual identity involving a hyphen), the racism of some immigrant parents, and the social pressures on what it means to be a kid managing to parental and scholastic expectations. I just didn't particularly like Frank and since it's narrated in first person, that's kind of a deal-breaker. Too bad, since fake-dating is one of my favorite tropes.

2 out of 5 stars

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi


THE HENNA ARTIST reminds me a lot of some of the historical fiction I read when I was a younger woman, back in the days when people didn't care quite as much about being PC. These stories were often filled with trauma and suffering, but the triumph of these stories was the strength of the women they were about, even if the times that they were written constrained how they could express or show that strength. And look, I know this is a sensitive point with a lot of readers who want everything to be black and white, but history and reality aren't like that. Bad people are human beings like the rest of us and they have moments of nuance. It seems irresponsible to condemn people for portraying that IN FICTION. Not every main character has to be an anachronistically ardent crusader for social justice to be considered worthy or strong. (I say this as someone who is very liberal by the way.)

I think people who enjoy historical fiction like IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, SNOWFLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN, and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL will love this, because it does that thing where the author just lets the characters tell their own stories without trying to convey some sort of heavy-handed morality tale and lets the characters be a bunch of bitches if they feel like it (and boy do they). Lakshmi, the heroine, does things that benefit others-- and she has a mostly kind heart-- but she's also in it for herself, and sometimes this makes her cruel, and sometimes this makes her selfish.

Lakshmi, a woman from the Brahmin caste who has become a little disgraced as a henna artist because she touches hands and feet which are considered to be unclean, is a woman who knows what hell looks like. She escaped her abusive husband and turned to henna-ing because she didn't want to sell her body. Against all odds, she succeeded. And the high demand for her art has proven extremely lucrative, especially when her connections put her in the path of the royal family. However, her job is filled with secrets because her side hustle could prove to be ruinous: she provides the husband of one of her clients with prophylactic sachets to help prevent pregnancies (having started out her art in the pleasure districts working for whores). Just in case that wasn't enough drama, Lakshmi also finds herself with a new sister, Radha, that she never knew about after leaving her parents. Radha is spirited and quick to anger, which, of course, ends up providing even more problems when a bitch has such big secrets to hide.

I thought this book was pretty good. It does a great job portraying the nuances of social politics and the concept of saving face. I also liked how all of the characters, including the "bad" ones, were portrayed as complex people with good and bad sides to them. Lakshmi wasn't always likable but you could see how circumstances hardened her and made her willing to do whatever it took to survive. Radha was less likable, and I found her very frustrating towards the end of the book, but she was also a very young character and lived in a fantasy land where she was desperate to be loved, and I could see how the dissonance between her own life and what she wanted could cause problems. This book is set in the mid-1950s in Jaipur so it was also cool to see all the '50s pop-culture references and Western influences juxtaposed against a country recovering from the trauma of British colonization.

Apparently I got this book as an ARC. I thought I had reviewed it because I remember vaguely reading and liking it before, but for whatever reason, I didn't post my review to Goodreads. Sorry about that.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Shadow Sister: A Novel by Lindsay Marcott


SCENE: an unreasonably nice apartment crammed with an equally unreasonable amount of designer clothes for someone on an alleged writer's salary 


Barrie Cadshaw, sitting at her stupidly expensive desk: As I set down SHADOW SISTER, I couldn't help but wonder. Am I revealing my own internalized misogyny by not liking deliberately amoral female characters? Is Harlotte right? Does feminism really mean gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss? Do women just want to fuck shit up like a washing machine with a whole load of dry clean-only French lingerie?

Barrie looks directly into Camera 1 while biting into one of her designer handbags: The world may never know. 

The designer handbag crunches ominously as she chews.


After reading-- and loving!-- Lindsay Marcott's Jane Eyre retelling, MRS. ROCHESTER'S GHOST, I was eager to read literally anything else she wrote next. So you can imagine my delight when that "something else" turned out to be another gothic thriller with some family secrets and romantic elements. Also, my friend Heather buddy-read this with me! Check out her review, she's the best!

The plot of this book is difficult to explain. It's multi-POV, dual timeline. In the present timeline, we're treated to Ava and Sarah. Ava is part of the Holland Blackworth family, storied San Francisco Bay Area royalty. Their mansion has a whole shit-ton of history and it might also be haunted, as she found out one night during the accident that resulted in her brother's injury that left him half-blind. There's also Sarah Ellington, a widowed socialite who meets Ava's brother James at the college he teaches at. The two of them develop a whirlwind romance that quickly starts seeming a little shady as Sarah treats boundaries the way cats treat your belongings (deliberately knocking them over or ignoring them entirely, whichever is going to piss you off more). In the past, in 2006, we're treated to Didi, the poor daughter of a maid who cleans the houses of the rich. She also has 99 problems, and 96 of those are her own doing. The other three she's willing to take care of herself-- at any cost. How past and present tie together is one of the mysteries that slowly gets unraveled over the course of the storyline.

I have a lot of thoughts but I don't want to spoil the book. So I'll try to be brief (and spoiler-free). I guessed one of the major twists about a quarter of the way through the book, so most of the mystery was me just waiting to be proven wrong. I also really hated the Sarah character. There's unlikable and there's "bitch, I hope you're writing me a letter of recommendation to the pearly gates because I'm a saint for putting up with you." She is the latter (in case you couldn't guess). The book was pretty good apart from those two things, well-written and tightly plotted, but it was just a little too melodramatic and I wish the romance had played a more prominent role.

 2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher


This is some of the creepiest stuff I've ever read. It reads kind of like a mash-up between Silent Hill and Narnia. Imagine finding a hole in your place of residence, but instead of leading you to a delightful and whimsical journey of portal fantasy adventure, it plunges you into a foggy nightmare land where islands with doors spread out as far as the eye can see-- like the lighthouses in Bioshock: Infinite-- and something disturbing and unseen lurks in the rasping shadows of willow trees.

So here's the thing. I am a HUGE horror wuss. My siblings both love horror movies-- I can't stand them. I'm a romance reader at heart, okay? I just want everyone and the dog (or cat) to survive at the end and get married and maybe make babies but also not because I'm all about choice. And horror movies-- and books-- have a nasty habit of unaliving the characters it makes me care about. That stinks.

Not T. Kingfisher, though. I've read three of her horror stories at this point and so far, all the animal sidekicks have survived. (Not only that, but they also defend their humans like the very good girls and boys that they are.) Sometimes there's a bit of a romance, sometimes a fromance (friend romance, get it?). But the main character is always a charming blend of cynical and doofy, and there's always some lighthearted humor to take the load off the spine-melting terror. And you know what? I LOVE THAT.

I don't know why I keep coming back to the horror genre when it stresses me out so much. I think it's because I love the VIBES of horror. I grew up with Goosebumps and Scholastic's Point Horror line, so I like the feeling of being scared, I just want an HEA, too. But T. Kingfisher's books deliver on the vibes while (usually) delivering HEAs for those characters you care about. THE HOLLOW PLACES sure pushed all of my limits, though. I don't want to say too much and spoil things, but there was some serious body horror in here and she knew exactly how much to withhold to maintain that cloying sense of uncertainty and terror. Do NOT read this alone in the dark or you will be very sorry.

I'm giving this five stars because I honestly think this is the best and most developed storyline she's come up with after her Bluebeard retelling, THE SEVENTH BRIDE. Her other horror novel, THE TWISTED ONES, was just as creepy, but I felt like the payoff wasn't quite as good. THE HOLLOW PLACES delivered in a way that TWO did not, and man oh man, did I want to return to sender. Instead, I'm keeping this on my Kindle because I think the reread potential is high and I want to have it on hand as a reference of what good horror looks like, in case I ever decide to write horror myself.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

The Girl in the Lake by India Hill Brown


I live near a pretty bustling Little Free Library and I am always trekking over to it with a backpack full of books and offloading my past reads before checking out what's new. The upside of it being so busy is that I'm constantly finding cool things in there that I might not have found or picked up otherwise, like this book: THE GIRL IN THE LAKE. Look at that cover and tell me that you don't feel the slow creep of dread wrapping itself around you like a tattered cloak.

Despite the pretty creepy cover, THE GIRL IN THE LAKE isn't that scary. That said, the cover creeped me out enough that I definitely stored the cover upside-down because I didn't want the demon-eyed little girl watching me while I slept. I'M ONLY HUMAN, OKAY? But the cover is literally the scariest thing about the book. The creeps served up in this book are basically a 1.5 on the Goosebumps scale. I'm still traumatized from WELCOME TO DEAD HOUSE, even as an adult.

Celeste is taken to her grandparents' lakehouse along with her brother, Owen, to hang out with their cousins, Daisy and Capri. Celeste just failed a swim test so the plan seems to be to make her be like, "Oh, swimming is actually fun!" with bougie lake exposure. But the lake actually is not fun, and the house actually seems to be haunted.

Celeste was a decent main character. I liked that the author allowed her to be a little bratty (as little kids are) but she also wanted to be nice and be thought of as nice. The "mystery" of her great-aunt wasn't all that mysterious and I thought it was a little shitty how they kept gaslighting the kids. But as a kid, I remember asking my mom if she would believe me if I told her there was some ghost shit happening in our house and she straight up lied to my face and said, "Yes honey," when we both know it would have been straitjacket o' clock if I started talking about werewolves and ghosts and green slime. Soooo I guess a little bit of suspension of disbelief is required.

If you like Goosebumps, I think you'll love this. It's cheesy but offers some great commentary about the history of racial segregation in the U.S. and I learned some interesting facts about Dorothy Dandridge.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher

 Wow! This is my fourth book by T. Kingfisher, I think, and so far, I don't think I've given a single book of hers anything less than four stars. Her books have the atmosphere of a Hayao Miyazaki movie, in that they are often themed on life, death, and what it means to be human, so even the monsters have human sides, and the humans are often shown to be at least part monster themselves. But they're always saved from being too dark by having a lot of humor and heart. I LOVE THEM.

Marra is the youngest princess in a royal family with three daughters. Both of her older sisters have been married to an evil prince. The first one died and things aren't looking good for the second one, which is why when we meet Marra, she's in a land filled with cannibals and dead things, working her infected fingers to the bone as she makes a pet bone-dog out of bones and wires: the second of three impossible tasks.

I don't want to spoil this book for anyone so I don't want to say too much, but it follows the traditional hero's journey format with multiple fairytale references for those in the know. It's also got a fabulous cast: an aging himbo warrior, a not-so-fairy godmother, a witch of the dead, a demon chicken, and of course, the dog made of bones. Animal sidekicks are hard to pull off without being twee, but Kingfisher is an expert. I loved Bonedog, Finder, and Demon Hen.

There aren't actually a lot of authors out there I would want to sit down and have tea with, but Kingfisher is one of those authors who I think would just be really, really fun in person. I love her gentle wit and the sense of humanity she gives her characters, and her author's notes always kind of remind me of the breathless bonhomie of Ilona and Gordon Andrews. I hope I can meet her some day. But failing that, I'll definitely continue auto-buying her books one after the other, because she's awesome and I stan.

4 out of 5 stars

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas


DNF @ p.62

Once someone sent me a message saying that they went out of their way to five star all the books I don't like and one star all the books I love. Regardless, the author is in luck because it sounds like she has another five star forthcoming then, because I'm giving this book a one.

I found VLADIMIR in a Little Free Library. I'd been thinking about buying it for a while so finding it for free felt like kismet. It had been getting mixed reviews from some of my friends and the idea of a morally grey unlikable heroine who is bitched out about her old age and an apologist for her rapist husband seemed... interesting. If you've been following for a while, you know I have a soft spot for literary fiction that doesn't quite find its niche. I always feel really bad for books with low average ratings. Sometimes it's because they were marketed badly or didn't find their target audience.

I went into this book expecting something like Alissa Nutting's TAMPA. And I sort of got that. But also not. Because at least TAMPA was kind of an exploration of female sex predators and how the same sexism that traps women in a loop of infrastructural sexism also allows such predators to get away scot-free since seeing women as weaker means not seeing women as capable of real harm. But I'm not sure that was the point of VLADIMIR, because the heroine doesn't really do anything. The heroine is what happens when pick mes grow up. She literally opens the book talking about how old men loved her when she was young, and how she basked in their attention because it validated her so much as a sexual an intellectual being. When I washed the taste of vomit from the back of my mouth, I was like, "Okay, interesting. Where is she going with this?"

The narrator/heroine and her husband are both academics. Her husband has gotten in big trouble for sleeping with his students and is in the middle of an investigation. The heroine stands by her man, resentfully but loyally, even as her wandering eye falls on the newest faculty member at the college, Vladimir, who is twenty years her junior. She talks about how gross she is now that she's an old lady (almost sixty), and we watch her convince some well-meaning students who come into her office hours that standing by her husband is a "feminist" choice because feminism is about choice, all the while she's seething with rage, hating on them for being young and pretty and dressing in revealing clothes.

And I thought, "Okay, interesting. WHERE is she going with THIS?"

And then she drugs Vladimir and, like, ties him up in a beach house?


Officially, I stopped reading at page sixty-two but I skipped to the end because I wanted to see how this ended and where the author was going with things. I read about fifty pages of the ending and skimmed the middle, just so I could get a holistic view of the book. Now that I've read it, I'm annoyed. Because I'm not sure that there was a point to this book at all. Maybe not having a point was the point, but that feels like cheating, because while life may be open-ended, books themselves are complete.

Just like how this book was complete. Complete bullshit.

1 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 3, 2023

Blood Countess by Lana Popović


Whoa. I'm honestly kind of shocked that this has such low ratings because it seems like it's a pressure cooker of everything that the YA community claims to love: mature voice, lyrical writing, chaotic sapphic energy, morally grey characters, poison, and court intrigue. Even better yet, I read this hot on the heels of another work of Elizabeth Bathory fanfiction, THE BLOOD CONFESSION, and I actually think this one might be better!

Less is more going in but I'll try to give a brief summary. Anna Darvulia is a midwife's daughter who lives in a home with an abusive father. She and her mother barely scrape enough together to earn a living with the father drinking all his profits, so when she catches the eye of Countess Bathory and earns her favor, it seems too good to be true. Anna and Elizabeth eventually grow close, developing an almost romantic bond. And as Anna falls deeper and deeper under her spell, it seems like there's nothing she won't do to keep her status as Elizabeth's "dove."

The writing in this book is great and I thought the author did a really great job managing that historical tone without being too verbose. Once the book started rolling along, it had me clutching the book with white knuckles, desperate to find out what happened next. It's pretty violent for a YA and the fraught relationship between Anna and Elizabeth reminded me of some of the 1970s bodice-rippers I read, where the "hero" was actually blatantly unapologetically evil, and I think this is the first F/F book I've read that captures that same energy-- although this is not a romance.

I'll definitely be checking out more from this author because this was slipping-off-the-edge-of-my-seat good.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Finale by Stephanie Garber


DNF @ 46%

There are some people on Goodreads who will try to make you feel like a lesser human being for rating books you didn't finish, but our time on this green earth is finite, and why should you spent it slogging through something you didn't enjoy just to be "worthy" of sharing your opinion? Here's the thing. I'm not a hater. I tore through CARAVAL in a day and delighted in how it felt like The Forbidden Game fanfiction. Was it melodramatic and over the top? Yes. Did the random Spanish names for this fantasy world make any sense? Absolutely not. Did I cackle at Maldito Castle? Oh, you bet I did. But I liked the book anyway because it told a fun story and felt like something I would have wanted to read or watch when I was fourteen.

The sequel, LEGENDARY, was not nearly as good but I still sort of enjoyed it, if only because it had echoes of what made CARAVAL so fun. But it also felt like a largely unnecessary sequel and did some ret-conning of the characters that raised my reader hackles and made me go, "WHY?" One of my pet-peeves is when an author tries to take an unlikable character and force the reader to like them by coming up with all of these mental gymnastics to excuse their problematic behavior over the previous books. And that's not being a writer, that's being an enabler: you should let your characters speak for themselves instead of trying to apologize for them.

I was a little loath to read FINALE because LEGENDARY ended on such a sour note. I wonder if the author initially intended to stop at one book and expanded the world because of demand, because the thing about the Fates felt like it came out of nowhere, and things get even weirder here. I also really liked the author's writing style in the first book but in here, it seems like it becomes a parody of itself. Like, at one point, she's talking about the smell of "candied citrine." CITRINE is a rock. Did you mean citron? And what is "tropical ice"? That sounds like a sports drink or a shower gel, but certainly not anything that exists in nature. But it's hard to tell because all of her characters seem to have a major case of synesthesia. They "taste" falsehoods and "smell" heartbreak (yes, these are real examples), and Scarlett has a dress that magically becomes more revealing when it gets excited in the presence of boys.

I stuck it out for 200+ pages but I'm not enjoying myself at all, so I think I'll call it quits here.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

April Fools by Richie Tankersley Cusick


Help! I watched the original 1986 My Little Pony TV show this morning and then followed it up with this 1990 Scholastic publication. My pajamas are tie-dyed and my neighbor is playing rock music that has cowbell in it. WHAT YEAR IS IT???

Okay, but seriously, I am so happy the books from my childhood are making a comeback. There is something so much simpler about these old skool pulpy YAs. Nobody has cell phones and people actually have to talk to each other. It's so refreshing! Plus, the lack of Google on the go makes all of these characters exist in a sort of bubble, which makes for a claustrophobic and isolationist environment. 

Belinda and her two friends, Hildy and Frank, begin this book coming back from an April Fool's party. I've never heard of such a thing but apparently they exist and the three of them are coming back from one, despite one of them being drunk and another one being grounded. Frank has dubbed himself the "king of fools" and decides an excellent prank would be to run the car behind them off the road. Except-- whoops-- he runs them right off a cliff, and then it explodes.

Faster than you can say "I Know What You Did Last Summer," the three of them make a pact swearing themselves to secrecy and that's that. Except it isn't, because Belinda gets hired on for a mysterious tutoring job and the son of her employer is super... uh, weird. He's a disfigured kid who covers all of his mirrors with fabric and lives in the dark, alone with his snakes. Basically, he's a Batman villain in training and about one synapse away from telling Belinda to ask him "how he got his scars."

But Belinda is pretty sure she knows how she got his scars. And she's also pretty sure it's connected to the sinister pranks that someone has started playing on her. The only question is who is doing it and why, because even though Adam "why yes, I do have the Joker as my profile picture" Thorne seems like the obvious candidate, his too-hot-to-be-trusted half-brother, Noel, is also suspicious. So is their stepmom, who casually confides to Belinda that she wishes Adam died in the car wreck that put her husband in the hospital. There's also the butler, Cobbs, who's British and therefore also immediately suspect (British people basically invented the parlor mystery, after all). And let's not forget Frank and Hildy, who seem to think friendship is a free pass for treating someone like a subhuman.

Basically, anyone and everyone in this book is fully capable of evil.

I obviously had to start this book on April Fools' Day since, I mean, it's called APRIL FOOLS. Also, it's written by RTC herself, first of her name, and she is one of my favorite Point Horror novelists. Why? Because her teens actually act like teens, she usually works in a steamy kissing scene or two, the sinister stuff in her book is actually sinister, and there's usually at least two hot but sinister boys. If teen me had gotten her hands on these books back in the day, she would have shipped the villainous boys so hard. RTC knows how to cater to the feminine urge to ship any and all hot villains.

Regarding this book in particular, it was meh. The gothic ambiance was great but Belinda wasn't one of her better heroines. She was kind of TSTL. Also, her friends were awful. Was I actually supposed to care if they made it out alive? Because I was kind of hoping for their demise. They were awful people. The twists were good, though, and I liked the Thorne brothers. Also, Cobbs was the best. (The book actually ends with him telling the heroine he loves her, which I kind of found hilarious. Also, apparently he loves butlering so much he'd do it for free? Did a millionaire write this?)

Not one of RTC's best, but not her worst, either. I stan.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Dark Dominion by Charlotte Lamb


When I finished DARK DOMINION, I actually just sat there for a moment, staring at the closed cover, and thinking, "What the heck did I just read?" I know some of these old skool Harlequin Presents romances have a reputation for being really weird, but Charlotte Lamb in particular seemed to take a particular savage pleasure in pushing the envelope as far as it would go, just to see if it would rip.

Caro, our heroine, is an ex-actress who gave up the theater life for her lawyer husband, James. James is 10+ years older than her and their relationship has been a case of opposites-attract until it suddenly wasn't. Maybe that was because Caro casually stopped taking her birth control without informing James first, which made him angry, which made her angry. Then she had a miscarriage, which was followed by cold silences. She agonizes over what was, and what might have been, until she finds out that he might be cheating on her. Then she flies into the arms of her not-so-platonic friend, Jake, who has been waiting for this moment ever since his purchase of his Nice Guy Survival Handbook™.

This is a love triangle with cheating (emotional and some physical intimacy), which I think is going to put a lot of people off. It helps that all of the characters are total trash people, though. Jake says a bunch of sexist stuff and forces a brutal kiss on the heroine, and James does the same-- and he also hits the heroine (fun). We also find out that the reason he was so angry about the thought of her having a baby was because he was JEALOUS of his own IMAGINED CHILD and didn't want to share Caro with a baby. No, I am not joking. Also, apparently the reason he acts so cold is because he's madly in love with her and has been this whole time, and he was afraid of her finding out. Dude, this isn't Raiders of the Lost Arc. Your face isn't going to melt off if you do some soul-searching to face your own emotional constipation. Try telling this to James, though, who thinks attempted strangulation followed by dub-con is the best way to a woman's heart. But Caro, the fool, eats this up on a silver spoon. When he tells her that they can't be together because he's afraid his passion (read: anger management issues) might LITERALLY kill her, she's like, "Ohhhh, James."

Now, abuse is abuse, sure. But Caro dives into toxic relationships the way Olympic swimmers dive into swimming pools: speedily, and with full knowledge of what she's doing. She is gleeful about the two men fighting over her, comparing herself to a bone being tugged on by two vicious dogs. She tells James that she wants "both of them." Possibly just to provoke him further. Also, there's the whole "whoops-threw-out-my-birth-control-accidentally-on-purpose" thing. She's a psycho, too, in her own special way. By the end of the book, I didn't care who was getting the happily-ever-after. I just wanted to sit here, munching popcorn and laughing at this clown car of a romance novel.

Is it weird that I enjoyed this book? Probably not if you know me. DARK DOMINION has aged like soft cheese in a hot sun, but it's a compelling hot mess, regardless. Charlotte Lamb does "hot mess" quite well, and I will say that I respect her for making her heroines just as awful as the heroes. Sometimes, I feel really bad for the heroines in HPs, because it feels more like Stockholm syndrome than a romance. At least in a Charlotte Lamb "romance," I can rest easier knowing that the hero is going to be doomed to a lifetime of misery when he ends up with a heroine who's just as crazy as he is.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Don’t Ask If I’m Okay by Jessica Kara


I was initially kind of scared when Jess Kara told me that this book was angsty and sad (I can't remember the exact words she used, sorry!), but DON'T ASK IF I'M OKAY ended up being way more empowering and life-affirming than I was expecting. It's a really heartfelt story about overcoming trauma and grief, and how having a solid support group can help with things like mourning and PTSD.

Gage is a teenage boy who should be college-bound but isn't. He's been suffering from pretty bad depression and panic attacks ever since his cousin and best friend, Hunter, died. Cooking for his loved ones gives structure and meaning to his life but it isn't sustainable. Especially when his emotions get out of control and he ends up losing his temper, sometimes in a violent burst of rage.

Depression and grief looks different from everyone and I appreciate seeing books that show it manifesting as anger or numbness. I also liked how Kara showed Gage second-guessing himself in his friendships and romantic relationships, and how accidental microaggressions committed by his friends and family could take root in his psyche and cause lasting damage. It was devastating how a simple word or comment could make him feel so bad, and just goes to show how you never know what anyone's triggers are or where people are coming from, so it pays to take extra care with what you say to people.

I loved how food played a role in this book, and the descriptions made my mouth water. I also liked how Gage's stepfather played such a positive role in his life. Stepfathers are often portrayed as mean or sinister figures in books, so it was nice to see him be such a role model for Gage, especially since he was ex-military and one of his friends with PTSD sort of ended up showing Gage that you can still be a strong and okay person who is going through some shit. Gage's friends were also lovely and I liked all the nerdy pop-culture references. They felt very natural, the same way that the ones in FURRY FAUX PAW did, but I feel like this was aged up for older teens, whereas FURRY felt a little younger.

I've really been impressed with Jessica Kara's writing! This book in particular felt like a throwback to the old skool angsty YA of the 2000s, like Laurie Halse Anderson, and I think if you enjoyed books like TWISTED or SPEAK, you'll love this.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars