Monday, July 31, 2023

Beginnings: Obsidian & Onyx by Jennifer L. Armentrout


I bought this omnibus of books one and two at a thrift store. My friends and followers have been trying to get me to read this series for ages, although I think I've missed the bus on the book's popularity train. It peaked ages ago; now people are all about her vampire fantasy series (which I definitely did not like). The Lux series honestly isn't too bad for what it is. It's very much a paranormal YA romance cast in the mold of TWILIGHT, but the heroine has a lot more empowerment than most other female characters done in that vein. Katy is a book blogger, she stands up for herself, and she doesn't hate every female character who so much as breathes in the direction of her love interest.

This is basically TWILIGHT with aliens. The Lux are light people, the Arum are shadow people. They are at war and Katy's proximity to them ends up putting her in danger-- multiple times. Daemon, the love interest, is one of the most powerful of his kind, and after reading FOURTH WING, let me tell you that light beings kind of pale in comparison to shadow baes. Also, he's just such a raging asshole. Did I need a TWILIGHT where "Edward" constantly insults and sexually harasses "Bella" while doing a self-defensive light show? No. 

Did I read it anyway? Of course I did.

If you're really into books like FALLEN, TWILIGHT, and HUSH HUSH, you will love this book. Actually, now that I'm saying this, I think Daemon has more in common with Patch than he does with Edward, so maybe that's a better comparison. I probably wouldn't recommend this series to anyone who isn't a die-hard YA paranormal fan, and honestly, the bonus scenes in this book just made me super glad that the books aren't dual POV. I probably won't read more in this series but I don't regret what I did read.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Onyx by Jennifer L. Armentrout


Meh. I didn't love OBSIDIAN but it was pretty good for what it was, even if it was highly derivative of TWILIGHT. Here, in ONYX, Armentrout explores her world in more detail, revealing additional Luxen and Arum powers. I don't think I'll be continuing the series but there's something kind of delightfully nostalgic about this series. It feels like something you could find in one of those cheesy aughts teen series about girls with special powers. It doesn't hurt that the heroine, Katy, is genuinely likable, has an interesting hobby (book blogging), and doesn't hate every female character in the book. Even the romantic rival, Ash, has more of a complicated relationship to Katy than just pure mean girl.

There were some great twists in here and I liked the scene where Daemon "helps" her with her book blogging, but for the most part this felt needlessly long and didn't have the pacing of the first book. I ended up skimming a lot. I just really don't care for Daemon as a love interest and it's hard to read an M/F romance series where you just plain don't like the dude character. It was an interesting ride, though.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Obsidian by Jennifer L. Armentrout


Okay, so the last book I read by this author, I did not like at all. But in my defense, I bought the omnibus edition of this series before I picked up FROM BLOOD AND ASH, and after that book ended up being a huge no for me, I kind of tabled this book and forgot about it... until I was going through my book stash, saw the shimmery cover mocking me from the pile, and thought, Hmm, I should probably give this a go before I sell it back to the store.

First, let's get one thing out of the way. OBSIDIAN is a TWILIGHT knockoff in a long line of TWILIGHT knockoffs. To its credit, I think it's one of the better ones. What can I say? I'm a sucker for a good alien romance, and I loved Katy, the book blogger heroine. Katy brings to the table what Bella did not, and in a lot of ways, she is the saving grace of this book. But there are many TWILIGHT similarities: Katy moves to somewhere rainy (West Virginia) from somewhere sunny and hot (Florida); the not-human guy basically lives in a commune with a bunch of not-human people who everyone is super suspicious about, one of whom is a manic pixie dream girl "sister" and the other, a beautiful ex-rival; he saves her from being run over by a truck and reveals his powers; there are "bad" versions of the not-human guy and one of them lengthily tries to kill her; the not-human guy is referred to as an angel in her half-dead euphoria; Katy and her human friends go shopping for a dance and something creepy happens, etc. etc.

The similarities may be numerous, but Armentrout always puts her own spin on the situation, so it never feels like one of the more blatant copies (not naming names, but I once read a Twiclone that was basically a beat for beat remix of TWILIGHT-- this was definitely not that). Instead, it kind of feels more like an homage: I mean, there's literally a line in here making fun of the "Do I dazzle you?" line. So I feel like Armentrout, to some extent, knew what she was doing. Katy has more of a relationship with her mom in this book than Bella did with either of her parents and I liked the portrayal of what it's like living with a single parent who works all day. Katy stands up for herself and doesn't let Daemon push her around, which is just SO refreshing compared to some of the other heroines in this genre of books who just go total doormat because abs. There's also more of a PG-13 edge to this book, including a shirtless makeout scene, and a rather UST-ridden scene involving a swimming hole.

I do think the lore revolving around the Arum and the Luxen is a little weak, and the "don't say anything or the government will get you" was sooo early aughts Matrix-era paranoia. But when the moment in the story came when I realized why this book was called OBSIDIAN, I was like O.M.G. Honestly, if Daemon wasn't SUCH an immature little shit for 50% of this book, I probably would have given this four or five stars for how compulsively readable it was. But Daemon was such a shit. I don't mind villainous heroes or antiheroes, but I don't like heroes who are just straight up mean to the heroine. He became tolerable after he and the heroine actually had some real conversations, but he was still saying mean shit right up to the end. I know to some extent this is a me thing (I don't really like arrogant heroes and it's rather clear this author does), but man. There's just no escaping it.

Will I be reading the sequel anyway? Oh yeah. Bring on the beta quartz and the creepy shadow men.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Destiny's Captive by Beverly Jenkins


I have mixed thoughts about DESTINY'S CAPTIVE. It's the final book in the Destiny trilogy, which is about the three mixed-race Yates brothers who live on a big California ranch called-- if I recall correctly-- Rancho Destino. Each book is about a different brother and this one in particular is about the youngest, Noah, who used to love the high seas until he was captured by pirates and subjected to physical and sexual abuse. When a female pirate takes his trading ship in Cuba, he vows to find her and get revenge, even if he has to venture to the ends of the earth.*

*Which is ironic, since he finds her in Florida. Which many would consider the ends of the earth, thanks to DeSatan. I mean, DeSantis.

There's a lot to like about this book. First, there aren't a lot of books where the hero is the one that's been sexually abused and is dealing with trauma, and I felt like the author did a good job showing how PTSD can manifest itself when one's guard is down, such as during sleep. I also liked how Noah and Pilar had conversations about it and also set boundaries for her safety, as well as for his own. Plus, Beverly Jenkins always centers Black history in her books, and her worlds are incredibly diverse. The heroine is Cuban with Jamaican and Spanish ancestry, and her hero is mixed-race (but is of Spanish decent).

It's always difficult to end a series because everyone expects all loose ties to be wrapped up into neat little bows. It was fun to see the other couples from previous books living their lives, and I also loved that the hero's mom, Alanza, got remarried and even got a sex scene. Normalize older people having relationships that involve sex. I also loved the cat and mouse scene between Pilar and Noah and how their first encounter results in a sword fight worthy of Zorro. HOT. When he cut the straps off her dress? *insert three flame emojis* I just wish it had gone on for longer, and that Noah hadn't just been like, "She's good with a sword? Grievance forgotten! Marriage time!" I mean, come on dude. Stop thinking with your shortsword. Use your big brain.

That said, this book had some notable flaws. The beginning was great but the middle section dragged. It felt a little too bucolic considering some of the tension between the H and the h. The Spanish in this book was also pretty bad considering that it was published by Avon and I imagine they have access to resources that would allow for a Native speaker to review the translations considering both characters are allegedly native Spanish speakers. There were incorrect pluralizations and feminine/masculine adjective confusion, one of the most notable being that Noah (one of the alleged native speakers) keeps referring to Pilar as his "pequeño pirata," when it should be pequeña since pirata is feminine. Or if he wanted to be extra endearing and cute, piratita would also work (I'm so sad the author didn't use this, as this would have been adorable). The author also made the weird choice not to put tildes over any use of "señor" or "señorita." Oh, and at one point, he refers to "reina guerraras" as the plural of "warrior queen" but this literally translate to queen warriors, as in two nouns. I think if it were correct, it should have been reinas de guerra (literally queens of war). I'm not 100% sure about this one, but I checked my translations and I think I'm right.

Also, when her friend Tomas dies, it's mentioned that his grandmother was sent to jail? Did they ever get her out of jail? Or was it just like, oh too bad granny??? I'm not sure if I missed if they got her out. #JusticeForGrannyTomas One of my friends just did a post about how sad it is when bad-ass heroines give up their life's work as soon as they get married-slash-pregnant and it kind of made me sad that Pilar was just kind of like fuck Cuba, life is sweet, instead of using her husband's money to continue to fight the good fight from afar. I mean, I get it-- war is exhausting and robs people of their lives, but it was SUCH a big part of her life before she met Noah that it kind of felt sad to see her just retire to the farm.

Overall, this was a decent wrap-up to a series that I thoroughly enjoyed, although the first book remains my favorite. This book had some great scenes but it ultimately ended up feeling like a teeny bit of a disappointment.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Witch and Wombat by Carolyn Cushman


I found this book while randomly hopping republished fantasy novels and I found the cover and the premise so charmingly '90s. Basically, this magical world is losing magical power, and in true Peter Pan fashion, one of the ways that magic enters their world is through the power of belief and imagination. The culprit? Television. So this ogre-cum-producer has decided to enlist the region's most powerful witch, Hali, to lead a bunch of Earthlings around their world while convincing them that they're playing a video game. Like I said, so. '90s.

Unfortunately, the premise quickly loses its charm. Apart from Hali, who does a good job playing the grumpy, maliciously complaint witch, all of the characters except Tracy are pretty unlikable. Leo, the overweight character, is fat-shamed throughout the book and he likes food guys, omg. Jamison, the asshole video game critic, is basically like Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park but without any of Goldblum's charm. And Oliver, the fratty gamer guy, is, well. A fratty gamer guy. Tracy is a teenage girl who comes along because she loves games, and of course all the guys mansplain fantasy and games to her at basically any opportunity.

WITCH AND WOMBAT is definitely dated, and this almost makes it charming. But I think what makes it un-fun to read is that it feels so joyless. None of the characters are particularly likable and since most of the book is a journey of them trekking and exploring this world, you're stuck with them. Character-driven stories only really work if the characters are likable or-- at least-- compelling. There are also a HUGE amount of typos in this book. I cut indie publications slack because I get it. That shit costs extra. But this book was once traditionally published. I'm not sure if this happened during the conversion or if this book had to be retypped or what, but the quality of proofreading was very poor.

This was a little like Piers Anthony's KILLOBYTE but better realized. So I think I would only recommend this to people who really, really like campy fantasy, even if it's dated.

2 out of 5 stars

Topaz by Beverly Jenkins


I keep making the joke that it's a shame that TOPAZ was never published by Topaz publishing. Imagine having a copy of TOPAZ with the Topaz Man on the spine! #goals This is Beverly Jenkins's second novel, and while it does show in the sense that it isn't as streamlined as some of her later books, I think it's an incredibly polished sophomore effort.

The book is about Kate, who works for a newspaper and has been courting a man who has been scamming Black people with fraudulent train certificates for a railroad that never came to fruition (think of that Monorail episode from The Simpsons-- that's Rupert). However, it all goes pear-shaped and Rupert doesn't take kindly to being heartbroken or cheated. He has sinister plans for Kate. Very sinister indeed.

Dix Wildhorse is a Black Seminole marshal from the Indian Territories in Oklahoma. In tracking down Kate's father, the con artist Bart Love, he ends up "promised" to Kate, and also acts as her rescuer. The two of them roadtrip it to Oklahoma via wagon, where Kate receives a rather cold reception from the women who see her as competition for Bart.

There are some things I LOVED about Topaz. The beginning was great, high stakes and full of danger. I also liked how they both had topaz jewelry that had been handed down through their families, which kind of made them feel like soulmates. There's also a moment in the book that's an homage to Lysistrata, although it put me off a bit that on the next page, the characters are like, "Hey this is just like Lysistrata." Like, I KNOW. LET ME FIGURE THAT OUT FOR MYSELF. Also, I stan a tall heroine. There are so many petite heroines in the romance genre; it's great to have a tall Amazon of a heroine.

Here's what I didn't like as much. Dix is one of Jenkins's pushier heroes. He reminded me a lot of Raimond, one of the author's other early heroes. There's also a lot of OW drama and for a while, the hero keeps the OW on working as his housekeeper, while the heroine is there. He also said he wouldn't have married her if she wasn't a virgin, and even though that's period-appropriate, it didn't make me love him at all. The sex scenes, as a result, sometimes lacked chemistry, and they were definitely a little cheesily written. I love how they were solely focused on female pleasure, however, and Jenkins is not at all shy about writing from the female gaze, which I liked, but I could do without the honey-filled gates.

Despite the uneven pacing and a few issues I had with the writing style, I enjoyed this book. Beverly Jenkins's books center Black history first and foremost, and it's so fun learning about all of these various historical events from that perspective. Not only are her books fun; they're educational, too. I don't always recommend reading the author's notes after a book, but you should definitely read hers.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Friday, July 28, 2023

The Duke by Gaelen Foley


I've read other books in the Knights Miscellany series, but not the first book, so it was interesting to get in on the lore and find out the story of the Hawkscliffe legacy. The premise is simple-ish: the heroine, Belinda, is about a stone's throw from life on the streets because her father spent all their money on illuminated manuscripts (no, that's not a euphemism for drugs). She's being stalked by this guy who got her fired from her good job and helped send her dad to jail, because he wants to force her to marry him. His name is Dolph and he's basically like evil Gaston on steroids. The other guy she wants to marry is MIA. And then, in case that wasn't enough, she is brutally raped by the prison warden.

The hero, the Duke of Hawkscliffe, is one of two legitimate children borne from a woman known charmingly as the Hawkscliffe Harlot (aka his mom). Because of his mother's many bastards and reputation for scandal, he has lived a life free of any ill-repute, and is generally known as the "Paragon Duke." However, not even he is perfect. He's been secretly and tragically in love with a married woman, Lucy Coldfell, the wife of one of his colleagues. When she dies mysteriously, Coldfell blames-- guess who?-- Dolph, and asks Robert (Hawkscliffe) to get revenge. Heartbroken, Robert savagely agrees.

Long story short, Bel ends up becoming a courtesan and Robert sees having her as his mistress as the path to his revenge. At first, they agree that it's going to be appearances only, meaning no sex, but that doesn't last long. This is probably my favorite part of the book because I love fake dating and fake mistresses is basically like the sexy and taboo version of fake dating. I also liked how being a courtesan accorded Bel a sort of agency that she didn't have while trying to live her life according to society's rules. It also, in a roundabout way, gives her control over her sex life, which has been shaped entirely by trauma until this point. (Also, the portrayal of PTSD is really well done here, too.) 

There was a lot to like about this book and for the most part, I thought Ms. Foley did a really great job with both the hero and the heroine. In some ways, it was kind of like a regency Pretty Woman, replete with the stuffed shirt hero who can't see past the heroine's sex work until it's almost too late. Which is where this gets into what I didn't like about this book. Well into the 90% mark, they were still debating on being with other people. I DON'T LIKE THAT. As a romance reader, I want to know that they are fully in each other's corners. #CarriageRideOrDie, you know? There was a lot of angst and a couple really great standout scenes (like duels and carriage tups), but overall this didn't quite match the hype.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 27, 2023

The Royals Next Door by Karina Halle


Karina Halle can be a hit-or-miss author for me. I've quite enjoyed some of her books and others I have disliked immensely. But I've never picked up one of her books and thought, "OH. <3" Until now. So thank god I'm so stingy with my five-star ratings, because otherwise, how else to showcase how this stands out from all the rest? (Cut to me: defending being a picky bitch.)

But seriously, THE ROYALS NEXT DOOR is a wonderful book and to be honest, I don't think the summary does it justice; it makes it seem like this book is going to be sickly saccharine sweet, when nothing could be farther from the truth. This is not just a romance novel, it's also about right to privacy, mental health, dealing with trauma, and loving romance. In some ways, it feels like a nostalgic throwback to some of my favorite aughts chicklit authors, like Sophie Kinsella and Meg Cabot, where romance novels and chick-lit were often interchangeable and focused on the development of the heroine's personal journey as much as the romance.

Piper is an elementary school teacher who lives on a Canadian island. It's scenic and picturesque and private, so obviously it makes sense that the legally-distinct-from-Meghan-and-Harry English duchess and duke would make it their own private getaway. It also makes sense that they would have a super hot bodyguard who is grumpy and secretly loves baking who kind of dislikes Piper on sight. But only for a little while. And he's never, like, mean about it. Which I think is the best way to do a grumpy sunshine romance. There's a difference between gruff and mean.

I don't want to say too much, but there was so much about this book I enjoyed. I liked the emotional connection between Harrison, the bodyguard, and Piper. I liked that they went on relatable dates (Costco and a lake?). I liked that the author shows the incredible pressure teachers are under to be moral paragons of virtue, to the extent where sometimes even having a hobby can threaten their jobs. I liked the mental health representation and how it ran the gamut from anxiety to PTSD to borderline personality disorder. I also really liked the writing.

With some of Halle's books, I have felt that the pacing could be uneven and the heroine went on really long asides that took away from the story and ended up being really distracting. That was not the case with this book at all. It ended up feeling really clean and polished and perfectly paced, from start to finish, and cinematic and vivid as any film or movie. I don't know if that's due to her personal growth as a writer or a particularly good editing team, but either way it was impressive and added to my enjoyment.

If you love bodyguard romances and are a fan of Meghan and Harry, you will love this book. The ending is perfect, too.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

A Lady's Guide to Gossip and Murder by Dianne Freeman


My mother recommended the Countess of Harleigh series to me and it's become my go-to whenever I need to chill out after a darker read. This second book in the series, A LADY'S GUIDE TO GOSSIP AND MURDER, takes off exactly where the previous one ended. Frances is still kind of in a will she/won't she with George Hazelton and her younger sister, Lily, is practically engaged. The dispute of her finances is mostly settled with her in-laws. It seems like everything is golden.

Until somebody dies.

I don't want to say too much because spoilers, but basically red flags begin waving when one of Franny's matchmaking attempts doesn't go as planned, and when somebody dies, she, her aunt, sister, and cousin are plunged into a world of schemes and scandal sheets, where everyone has got something to hide and one of those things might just be a motive for murder.

The pacing on this one was a lot slower than the previous one and I think that's because it didn't have the same stakes. The first book directly involved Franny and her money, and her relatives played more of a direct role (including her daughter and sister, whose respective safeties were threatened). This book had some exciting portions but a lot of it was just running around and talking in circles. It wasn't nearly as fun (for me).

I skimmed to the end because I wanted to see what happened and I did like the writing and the central mystery. This book just felt like a pale shadow of the previous, and I had been hoping for more. I still love Mr. Hazelton, though. Who doesn't stan a golden retriever love interest? Even if he is a nepo baby.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Shadow and Ice by Gena Showalter



You know it's funny, as I was reading about all the beefy paranormal dudes shit-talking each other like a bunch of frat guys in the middle of their little battle royal, I thought to myself, "This feels like a J.R. Ward novel." GUESS WHOSE BLURB WAS ON THE BACK OF MY BOOK, MY DUDES? And I didn't even see it until after I'd given up. Man, I haven't felt this validated since I said, "This book would appeal to fans of Christine Feehan," only to see that she had blurbed that book on the inside cover. I love being good at this job I don't get paid for. :)

Speaking of not getting paid, I debated on whether I wanted to post a review for this book at all since I didn't get very far and I don't actually like writing negative reviews. Especially not ones. I know they suck, okay? They suck to get and they suck to write. I didn't want to do this. I got lured in with the promise of what I thought would be good cheese. The heroine and her sister are trapped in the Arctic after a wilderness expedition gone wrong? Immortal gods Hunger Gamesing each other for territory disputes in the middle of a super sekrit ice cave? I must be reading too many Love Spell romances because this premise lured me right the fuck in.

I'm going to tell you two things you need to know about this book that will help you decide whether or not you want to read it. (1) The immortal gods read like they were written by someone whose favorite movie is Magic Mike and would probably use the word "shitkickers" unironically because they heard it once on Sons of Anarchy (their favorite TV show). And (2) the heroine is an adult woman who considers "frick" a swear word. Not fuck. Frick.

There you go. I've equipped you with all you need. Sally forth or don't.

1 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

How to Kill Men and Get Away with It by Katy Brent


Me reading this in public:

All men in the area: O_O

YIKES. This book is the posterchild for how illustrated covers can trick people into thinking they're getting a quirky little rom-com, only to end up with something very not that. And one of the top shelves for this book on Goodreads is "romance"? You sick, lying fucks.*

*JK ily, but seriously, definitely NOT a romance**

**In my not-so-humble opinion

Kitty is a social media influencer with family problems up the wazoo. Socialite mother dabbling in the literal blood money (her father was a slaughterhouse magnate). Daddy issues from her cold and aloof father teaching her that the cast of Charlotte's Web makes for good eatin'? No wonder she's a vegan with a major hang-up about men.

Unfortunately that hang-up soon turns deadly when she accidentally kills a man who's harassing her on her way home. Faster than you can say "look what you made me do," she starts not-so-accidentally killing other men who are guilty of everything from ghosting to rape. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and Kitty is planning on serving them up on #sponsored cutlery, with a pinch of vigilante justice.

This reminds me of a much, much darker Katherine St. John work, as KSJ also writes a lot of beach read thrillers. But this one also has a heavy dash of Caroline Kepnes's YOU. Some people have compared it to Dexter and I can see that, but YOU is a better comparison because Kitty has such a dark and wicked sense of humor, seeped in satire and a rather sangfroid despair at the futility of humans to do anything but disappoint her on a deeply personal level. For most of this book, I was thinking this would be a four- or five-star read. But then the ending happened and I thought, hmm, I don't like that.

HOW TO KILL MEN AND GET AWAY WITH IT is an aggressively decent read, but it's heavy on the gore and I don't really think the cover prepares you for that. There's a lot of rather graphic torture and murder scenes, including some of animals. The tonal shifts were rather jarring, although I do think this would translate well to the screen. I kept envisioning it as one of those quirky streaming murder shows, like My Life Is Murder or Ms. Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries. I think it would translate well to screen. It was just a little too much for me and I felt like the ending was a little silly.

Overall, though, I did have a lot of fun reading this. It's a great summery read for the morbidly inclined and I'm excited to check out the author's follow-up.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 24, 2023

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy


This 1980s New Zealand YA is so weird... and apparently in 2017 it was made into a movie with that one actor who was in Purple Hearts and Red, White & Royal Blue. Small world, am I right? THE CHANGEOVER has been on my to-read list for a while because I have a soft spot for old YA and it was on a list of retro paranormal books I was interested.

Laura lives with her single mother, Kate, and her younger brother, Jacko, where the three of them skirt the poverty line. Laura is "sensitive" to paranormal happenings and one day she gets a warning that she shouldn't go out that day. Her mother refuses to heed it, and then Laura and her brother encounter a creepy old man who basically puts a curse on her little brother that will ultimately lead to his death.

There isn't a lot of plot to this beyond "must save brother." There's an older "hot" guy who is an interesting love interest because he is totally disconnected from his emotions, has a stutter, and reads romance novels. In an era that was filled with heroes that were kind of junior Alpha Jerks, it's weird to see a guy who is so calm and in touch with his feminine side. He's also a witch, so that's cool.

This isn't a bad book and it deals with a lot of subjects very maturely: there's themes of coming of age, watching your parents date again, pushing against and establishing boundaries, and vengeance vs. justice. It was a little too weird for me but I mostly enjoyed the story. The writing style was reminiscent of L.J. Smith and Liz Berry. Several times while reading this, I thought of THE CHINA GARDEN.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros


Whenever a book gets this popular, I'm always kind of leery of starting it because I feel like it almost gets to a point where the book will never live up to the standards I've set for it in my mind. My toxic reader trait is that I build things up in my mind until they reach a point where nothing short of god can match them. But after weeks and weeks and weeks of being bombarded with it on Goodreads, TikTok, and Instagram, I finally decided to bite the bullet. I told everyone around me how much I wanted to read the book, and someone picked up the hint and got it for me for my birthday present.

I read it in literally two days.

This book is god.

God of keeping me up at night and forcing me to read about hot shadow men and dragons.

I chose not to perceive most of the reviews for this book because I didn't want to be spoiled, but I did glance at a few spoiler-free ones that were both positive and negative before asking for this book. FOURTH WING is a fantasy book but it's a fantasy book written by a romance author, and in an interview I saw with her on TikTok, she said she wanted to write a book for people who had trouble getting into fantasy. In that regard, I think it succeeds wildly. It was very, very easy to get into this book. Case in point: me finishing it in two days, on very little sleep.

FOURTH WING is basically a cross between Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern, Mercedes Lackey's Joust, DIVERGENT, HUNGER GAMES, and VAMPIRE ACADEMY. Because of this, it feels almost nostalgic, even though it's contemporaneous. The language of the book is very modern so it isn't like a lot of high fantasy books, which tend to use very ornate and convoluted language. It is very easy to read and is written kind of like a young adult book, almost (although I'd put the target age demographic as probably new adult). Which means that it's accessible for young readers, but because the characters are older and the content is actually pretty sexual, older readers can enjoy it too without feeling weird.

I don't want to spoil too much because it's better going in cold, but I actually really loved this book. It's compulsively readable, and even though the heroine is a bit of a Mary Sue (seriously, two-toned hair and, like, super special powers? she's basically the posterchild), I liked that the author gave her real struggles in the form of chronic pain/long-term disability and a very real sense of being out of her element and having to struggle to achieve physical feats when all of her strength lies in book-learning. This rounded her out as a character. It's also a very feminist story. Sometimes the heroine does break the fourth wall (fourth wing, fourth wall, get it?), and it can come off as cheesy, but her perspective serves as a nice counterpoint for the borderline villainous hero, who despite being a couple years older than her, is often put in his place by her, so the relationship doesn't come across as being unequal.

FOURTH WING also subverts a lot of other tired tropes. The heroine isn't a virgin and says several times that she enjoys sex. Her best friend is queer and has an on-page relationship and the author doesn't bury her gays. It's very casual and the heroine teases her about her relationship the same way she teases the straight characters. Also, even though this is a military academy where the students are basically supposed to Hunger Games each other to get control of dragons, none of the violence that Violet faces from her attackers is ever sexual. I don't personally mind that in a story about bullying where it's obviously toxic, but I know it bothers a lot of people, and it's notably absent here.

But the biggest selling point for me? DRAGONS. I am still a ten-year-old girl at heart, okay? If a book has dragons OR unicorns in it, I will come running. As soon as I found out that this was a romantic fantasy book about a girl who bonds with dragons and has an enemies-to-lovers relationship with a morally grey hero, I basically fell over myself adding it to my to-read pile.

On a closing note, I feel like in the book community, there can be an almost hipster mentality where a popular book is seen as "selling out" or "too commercial," and reviewers feel a lot of pressure to hate on it for clout, lest their intellectualism and credibility be called into question. I am not saying that all one-star reviewers all clout-chasers (and I have definitely been the odd one out when it comes to very popular books more times than I can count), but I do definitely see people who seem like they hate on these books precisely because they sell well and maybe aren't as safely literary as other tried-and-true choices in the book blogger canon. I think it's wrong to punish a book for being easy to read though, and I think it's even more wrong to mock or deride reviewers who actually enjoy these books. Is this Tolkien? No. But that's why I like it. Tolkien, to me, is like a chore. Reading books like that feels like an unpleasant mental exercise. This book is like eating an entire bag of potato chips. Addictive. Fun.

So if you have had trouble getting into the fantasy genre and you really enjoy romance novels, this might be the gateway drug that ends up sucking you in for good. I honestly felt so giddy after reading this, the way I did after reading THE HUNGER GAMES for the first time. It was so much fun to post status updates for this book and fangirl over it with other readers who also enjoy it, and to be a part of the hype for a popular book while it's popular, and be excited over the release of the sequel. (WHICH I TOTALLY ALREADY PREORDERED BY THE WAY.) I hope, if you pick this book up, that you feel the same way. Although if you don't like it, I'll also totally understand. (Sort of.)

4.5 out of 5 stars

Flowerheart by Catherine Bakewell


FLOWERHEART made it to my TBR ever since I heard that it was cottagecore fantasy. And while it is that, it's a little bit darker than the blurb or the cover would have you believe (and I think it helps to know that going in, just in case you're not in the mood for heavy content). Thanks to Heather for reading this with me so I can finally check this one off my list.

Clara's magic makes flowers grow; but it's always been wild and out of control, and it whispers sinister, wicked things to her. When it harms someone close to her, she's forced to turn to her childhood friend, Xavier Morwyn, to save her father from dying at her hands. But his help does not come for free, and he has secrets of his own. If they fail, both of them might be stricken from their magic for good.

I don't want to say too much because less is more going in, however I read this book thinking that magic was almost an allegory for mental health and the arts; being neurodivergent can cause you to see the world in an interesting, unique way, but if the symptoms of a psychiatric affliction are left unchecked, it can consume you, and cause you to act in ways that can harm you and those around you. Art should never come at the cost of your health, but a very real fear of neurodivergent creators is that seeking help can cause them to lose their art because their psychological state makes them see the world in a specific way, which generates that art. I felt like the loss of magic in this book felt like a very real parallel to that, so it was surprisingly bittersweet and satisfying to see a character who lost their magic cope and be ok with that.

This book is pretty slow-paced. I was actually a little saddened by some of the reviews saying that the heroine is unlikable, because her negative self-talk so closely mirrors my own when I'm experiencing an anxiety spike, but I understand how people can have a kind of knee-jerk reaction to that. It's hard to listen to someone who is that negative all the time and it can definitely bog you down. I actually liked Clara a lot and I liked that she was impulsive and emotional; it's nice to see heroines who are allowed to be imperfect, to exist while not being neurotypical. They might not be your cup of tea, but if you happen to be that tea, it's really nice to see yourself being represented that way. I personally liked her a lot.

I was less fond of the love interest, even though I liked the is he/isn't he the bad guy angle, and the nod to Bluebeard in the beginning of the book. For a beta hero in a YA book, I thought the author did a good job making him seem awkward and bashful without being too precious. But I also didn't really feel the chemistry between him and the heroine. I also felt like the thing with her mom didn't go as far as it should have; it felt very anticlimactic. The ending was also rushed and felt too neat, because the author had seemingly forgotten about some of the potential plot points she set up. Maybe there's going to be a sequel or a companion book? Either way, the pacing felt kind of weird.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys unusual heroines and beta love interests and casual queer rep (one of the side-characters is non-binary and they're great; and I think it's implied that the heroine might be bi, because she mentions having a crush on an "Ada") and a Hayao Miyazaki vibe that takes cottagecore in a slightly darker, body-horror-ridden direction. Is it a perfect book? No. Is it charming? Yes. If you enjoy reading Charlie Holmberg's books, you'll love this.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Night of the Candles by Patricia Maxwell


A strange and very much not PC gothic, NIGHT OF THE CANDLES takes place just after the Civil War in the South, when the economy is still crumbling and resentment against the North still fans high. The heroine, Amanda, comes to the plantation where her cousin, Amelia, got married, to give her a necklace that's part of her inheritance. But Amelia apparently became sickly and then mysteriously died, and none of her in-laws seem particularly sorry. Especially not the husband. #sus

There were some things I really liked about this book. The descriptions of the house were lush and gorgeous, and I liked the references to Greek/Roman mythology (it always adds a pop of color, you know?). The mystery itself is not very "mysterious," although there are some triggers nonetheless: the dog in this book dies, one of the characters is (I believe) developmentally disabled and everyone is very mean to him, and the KKK makes a surprise cameo appearance (not in a favorable way). I might have rated this higher if the romance had been better, but for most of the book, Amanda is like, I love my fiance, but then when he comes to retrieve her she's like, oh, ew, whatever.

Honestly, by the time I got to the end of the book, I had no idea who she was going to end up with because she didn't have any chemistry with anyone. I will say, though, that this book has one of the best excuses for infidelity I've ever seen. "Sorry I cheated on you with my dead cousin's body, my dead cousin must have become a ghost and possessed me" is gonna live rent-free in my head for a while, along with the phrase "fusillade of balls," which this author used twice. TWICE.

NIGHT OF THE CANDLES has a great title and some interesting scenes, but it ended up feeling just a little too silly to become a favorite.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, July 21, 2023

Heart of Fire by Bec McMaster


Bec McMaster can be hit or miss with me although I do generally like her work. HEART OF FIRE had some great elements but there were also things about it that I really didn't enjoy. First, the good. I loved the writing. I think McMaster has a way with words and some of her passages are truly beautiful. I highlighted some of my favorite passages while posting status updates for this book. Second, the dragons. I love dragons, and it was fun to read about them in a late-nineteenth century Icelandic setting. Third, the hero was pretty hot. I'm not usually into blonde guys, but Rurik, the dragon with a heart of gold was great.

Where this book fails is with its Mary Sue heroine and the insta-love. Freyja has two different colored eyes, unspecified magic powers, and a wise-cracking sense of bravery that often verges on the ludicrous. Of course the hero falls for her at first sight. *eye roll* I actually didn't mind their initial confrontation but I hated how the dragon guy went from being intrigued with her to SHE IS MINE I LOVE HER instantly.

The dragon hunter element was great and I liked the twist with the one guy's "dead" wife, but I ended up skimming a lot of this book.

McMaster sure can write a pretty decent sex scene though. Even if she's a little too fond of the word "male."

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tell Me Lies by Claudia Dain


DNF @ p.32

Bodice-ripper reviews can be hard to gauge because I'm never sure if someone gave it a one star review because it was a bodice-ripper or because it was a bad bodice-ripper. Sadly, I probably should have paid heed to these. It started out good, with the captured heroine tied to the bow of the ship like a witch at the stake, but it goes downhill with the first sex scene, where the hero treats her like a whore.

The writing itself is actually pretty clean and not terrible, so I'm not sure it's a one-star read. I could probably struggle my way through it but life is short and I am bored.

2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Reluctant Masquerade by Henrietta Reid


For about half of this book, I thought this was going to be great. It had a modern feel for something published in the 1960s and I thought the heroine had a nice bit of attitude to her. The premise is super silly, though, and as one reviewer pointed out, it would never work in the age of the chronically online. Basically, the heroine likes to play dress-up in upscale department stores by trying on clothes she can't afford. The hero sees her in her favorite shop and is shocked that she looks like his dead fiancee; so he frames her for shoplifting so he can blackmail her into posing as said fiancee so he can inherit the fiancee's money.

A quick Google search could have fixed that.

I don't care that it's dated. I care that it feels... very unromantic. This is one of those books where the H and the h have zero chemistry. Even twenty pages from the end, Rex still felt incredibly patronizing towards Della. I would probably honestly give this a one for the romance, but I'm boosting a star because of the gothic-adjacent vibes, the Irish castle setting, and the beautiful writing. I love a book that delivers on the weird family drama, as you probably know if you're familiar with my work, and this book had that in spades.

Also, it's the sixties so everyone's smoking left and right LOL.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

The Forest Lord by Susan Krinard


THE FOREST LORD was fantastic. It was exactly the sort of book I wanted to read: a story of magic and revenge and love and second chances, wrapped up in a fairytale-like story about the fae and an enchanted wood. Basically, the heroine's dad is an earl and one of his holdings is a place called Hartsmere, which is steeped in legend and superstition: and one of the superstitions is that no one may hunt there. But guess what daddy does? HE HUNTS. BOO. And then Herne, Lord of the Forest, appears in all his terrible glory and demands an offspring off of Cyrus's daughter.

Anyway, shenanigans ensue, and Herne reveals himself to Eden after they've boinked in an inn on their way to their elopement, and as anyone does when their partner sprouts horns from their forehead, she freaks out and runs away. When she realizes she's pregnant, everyone is horrified, but the baby dies, and Herne is pissed, so he curses the land and goes off into the woods to rage-sleep in a tree (as one does). It's the faerie version of "screw you guys, I'm going home."

Eden marries another guy who's a total abusive asshole and HE tells the heroine that she's actually got a kid THIS WHOLE TIME. Her dad lied to her. So she goes to Hartsmere and her child is there, waiting for her: a cute little kid named Donal who also has a little touch of the fae about him. But she's not the only one who knows about his presence. Herne has spies everywhere, and one of them has just informed him that he's a dad, and that his traitorous wife-would-be is back in town.

All of this literally happens within the first couple chapters, btw. So these aren't even spoilers.

I loved this book so much. Most of it is five-star good. I mean, it made me like SECRET BABY. I literally cannot fucking stand that trope. But it worked here. This book also made me like second-chance and even the big misunderstanding trope (both of which I normally hate). Which I guess just goes to show that in the right hands, even the worst, most irritating, unreadable tropes can work. My favorite parts of the book were the beautiful descriptions of the woods and the changing of the seasons, and I loved all of the pagan holidays. As an Irish girl living in the U.S., I often feel disconnected from my culture, so reading this book filled me with the same wonderful feelings that I get while reading a particularly good fairy legend, or singing Dark Iniseoghain or Moorlough Shore.

The reason this isn't a five-star read is the ending. It was a little ridiculous and I felt like maybe the author did not know how to end her book after stretching it out for a little too long. It was just twist after twist after twist, and I felt like it also maybe jumped the shark (or should I say, the stag?). That said, Eden and Hartley's love story is one that's going to be rent-free in my head for a while, and I've already bought the second book in the series, which is about Donal, all grown up. I think it's hard to write a fantasy romance without coming across as too campy, especially if it also straddles part of the so-called "real world." But this one did such a beautiful job. I can't wait to read more from this author.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

WtAFW: The Prince of Broken Toys by Michelle Deimos


THE PRINCE OF BROKEN TOYS was an impulse buy because my friend Heather (who I BRed this with) had mentioned it to me, and the preorder was 99-cents, and also because I liked the cover. The premise is very difficult to explain. The heroine, Seraphine, is a doll-princess who is considered to be the "sluttier" of the two sisters because she turns to flesh more than her more perfect and correct sister, Frostine, does. The hero, Luxure, is a horse-headed man who had all of the paint scraped off his face by an abusive master, baring him right down to the bone. When they meet, Seraphine takes him in and ends up going from his savior to his student as he indulges and encourages her "racy" dancing.

This book was so weird. Weird and creative. It kind of gave Tim Burton aesthetics, with a dash of The Nutcracker, and that creepy Filmation Pinocchio movie from the late 1980s, Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night. There's a scene in that movie that kind of reminded me of Luxure and his cruel and abusive ringmaster. Creepy. I swear, with movies like this and Rats of NIMH, the 80s seriously gave no fucks about who they traumatized. 

But even though this book has some dark (more abusive and traumatic than gory) content, what it is more than anything is an excuse for some truly weird monsterotica.

I actually wasn't the biggest fan of this one just because I found it a little confusing and heavier on the erotica than the actual story, but I could appreciate the world-building. I also liked how "fleshing," or the process of puppets turning from material to flesh, sort of seemed to be an allegory for the demonstration of sexuality, and how Luxure and Seraphine both used their fleshing in their ways of coping with abuse: Luxure locked down and turned to wood (this felt like an allegory for how some abuse survivors go nonresponsive), whereas Seraphine became oversexualized (another coping mechanism, in an attempt to reclaim one's sexuality). The organic puppet strings, which in this book are sort of extensions for the soul, felt like an allegory for bodily autonomy; having people take your strings without your permission hurts-- on both sides-- but can be beautiful when voluntary.

What this book ultimately feels like is a surreal tale of abuse survivors reclaiming their sense of self and sexuality once more through sex and dance. Seraphine overcomes the slut-shaming of the court and the false dichotomies created for her and her sister to ultimately be her own person and find love on her own terms. It was very weird and had skeleton horse-men and some very light pony play, but I'm not sorry I read it. Not sure this author's style is for me necessarily but I appreciate her creativity and aesthetics. Also, if you read this and end up thinking that you need your puppets in your life (ew, why), watch Pinocchio and the Emperor of Night if you feel like scarring yourself for life.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Panic by Lauren Oliver


For a while I steered clear of this one because I thought it was a YA dystopian and people were saying it was like a bad Hunger Games clone. Now that I've read it, I'm wondering where people got that idea... because apart from a bunch of Fear Factor-like challenges, it's not very similar to THE HUNGER GAMES. If anything, it's like THE CASUAL VACANCY meets RUSH: a portrait of a dying small-town and kids who are willing to push the limits of decency to get out.

There are two main characters in this book: Heather and Dodge. Both of them joined the game for different reasons. Heather joined because she had nothing to lose. Dodge joined because he wanted revenge. Neither of them are very likable but as the story unwraps, you get a better idea of what's driving them, and all of the shades of nuances that make up their personality. And that right there is the difference between a "good" unlikable character and a "bad" one.

I don't want to say too much about this book because less is more going in, but these games aren't nice and safe and people do die. I also think the book jumped the shark (or maybe I should say, the tiger?) at the end, and I never really felt like I got proper closure regarding some of the things Nat did. But overall this was a fast, fun, bingeworthy read that I couldn't put down. Lauren Oliver is still the GOAT.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Lady Secrets: Real, Raw, and Ridiculous Confessions of Womanhood by Keltie Knight


Here's the thing: I am super nosy. I don't know if any of you young people still read fashion magazines, but when I was in my TigerBeat, CosmoGirl, Seventeen, Elle phase, I lived for the sections in these magazines where Real Teen Girls Would Tell Their Real Teen Stories™. Sometimes it would be written out like a Medium article, and sometimes you'd get a section in the back with girls (or maybe guys/nonbinary people, idk, it was anonymous), confessing their totally most cringiest moments, Dear Abby style. I still remember some of my favorites, like this one about a girl who popped out of her tube top like a champagne cork out of a fizzy bottle. Or the girl who decided to let it go in the pool, only for the pool chemicals to turn her urine purple.

This book is basically that, in book form. I don't actually know who the LadyGang is, but I guess they're podcast hosts, and in this collection they have confessed some of their own sins, in addition to crowdsourcing more from their listening audience. I got hooked into this book through the introductory essay, Poopnique, about how Jac apparently sits on her toilet like a gargoyle with her feet on the seat to poop. That set the stage rather nicely for what was to come.

I do agree with the arguments that the podcast hosts were the least interesting in terms of stories. Jac's were usually great and Becca had some good ones, but a lot of Keltie's were just Hollywood humblebrags masked as "oh my god, so embarrassing." Which I wasn't mad about, but it wasn't exactly cringe as, say, the lady who took a laxative pill to unblock herself and ended up on a multi-day poopscapade that ruined $4000 of underwear and linens. Or the crime writer who sent a business card of herself with a photo to a serial killer she wanted to write about in prison, only to find out that he'd, I guess, traded her photos for candy with other inmates who were only too happy to write to her.

There's something very voyeuristic about this collection in a way that kind of reminds me of the PostSecret era of found content. I do agree that women should be able to talk about a lot of the "taboo" subjects in this book and that it isn't fair that so many things are acceptable for men to talk about (pooping, farting) that everyone will shame women for. So I think in that sense, this exercise is rather progressive, and also contains stories that will make people think either "wow, there really are no unique experiences" or "now I don't feel so alone." It was a brisk and interesting read but I didn't get much out of it beyond that. 

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 17, 2023

Wicked Intentions by Elizabeth Hoyt


This book is the epitome of "I cured your sad dick with my magic vajayjay" and if that is triggering in any way to you, you will not enjoy this book.

WICKED INTENTIONS has been on my to-read list for a while and I put off reading it because I started with DUKE OF SIN and none of the other Maiden Lane books I picked up after it could match my love for Val. But I've been on a morally grey historical romance kick lately and a negative review for this book describing it as too dark and too smutty had me thinking that I had better read this asap.*

*Anyone who tells you that negative reviews hurt sales is lying

Lazarus is a lord who is searching the dark streets of London for the man who murdered his mistress. For help, he goes to Temperence Makepeace, who runs a children's home for orphans. After the death of their only benefactor, the home is on its last legs and all of the inhabitants are in danger of returning to the streets, so Lazarus offers to pay Temperance the money she needs for her help with the investigation.


This book is darker than the pastel cover would lead you to expect, which is perhaps another reason why some people don't like this book. It's not quite gothic, but it is gothic-adjacent, and doesn't whitewash the hardscrabble life of the Georgian poor in London. Filthy streets, prostitution, and exploitation of minors. No, this is a historical-romance that did not have me thinking, "Ah, what a delightful escape." So those who prefer their regency romances to be wallpaper historicals set mostly in clean ballrooms and little parlors are going to be pissed off, reading this. Also, the names are SO EXTRA. Temperance. Winter. Lazarus. Mother Heart's-Ease. Silence.


...I think... I like it?

*cue kombucha girl meme*

I also liked the darker elements. I also LOVED the hero, who gives off tortured, dangerous vibes-- in the beginning. About halfway through the book, though, he undergoes a weird character transformation, where suddenly he doesn't provoke Temperance anymore, he just kind of worships her. Mindlessly. Which is totally fun, but also didn't really feel like it suited his character. His emotional disconnect and touch-aversion initially made me think he was a victim of child abuse, but when that did not prove to be the case, I wondered if maybe he was autistic or perhaps alexithymic (like the character in Sohn Won-Pyung's ALMOND). But it's never really revealed what his deal is, and sex with the heroine (and love for the heroine) "cures" him. He even says as much. Talk about restorative powers.

Temperance was a decent heroine. We learn from the beginning of the book that she likes to punish herself out of guilt for something unspecified. It turns out that something unspecified is that she cheated on her husband. It turns out she had a high sex drive and he had a low one, so she cheated on him because he gaslit her about being morally weak for wanting to sleep with him. Which I'm torn about. On the one hand, emotional abuse is super gross and women should be able to ask for sex. On the other hand, I hate cheating, and twenty-first century sex positivity doesn't really fit in Georgian England.

My favorite part of the book was actually between Temperance's sister, Silence, and the pirate guy. The way he sexually humiliated her without even touching her was fucked-up hot, although I felt SO BAD for her and what the outcome of that event was. Actually, I own pirate guy's romance and I was initially not excited for it at all (his name is Mickey lol) but now I kind of am. Kinky pirates, am I right?

So in the end, I ended up torn. The gothic vibes and dreary atmosphere were excellent. It actually had just the right amount of sex scenes for a smutty historical romance, in my opinion, and most of them developed the characters and their relationships. I wish the characters' traumas had been better integrated, though, and I'm still not entirely sure what Lazarus's deal was. It made me think about how psychological trauma is often milked for drama in gothic (or gothic adjacent!) novels but never fully explored. Authors just wiggle their fingers and give their characters symptoms that are easy to cure.*

*But only with monogamous love-sex

Also the fairytale story at the beginning of each chapter was ridiculous. "I loved you from the moment you had your guards drag me up to you and you threatened me with death?" Lmao, what.

I know it sounds like I didn't like this but I actually did. I read it in a single day. Brilliant.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Duke's Return by Malia Martin


Malia Martin is a vastly underrated Avon Romance author. Her medieval romance HER NORMAN CONQUEROR is one of my favorites. Unfortunately, she's only ever published four books (unless she has a penname I don't know about), so I've been putting off reading her backlist because once they're gone, they're gone (which is very toxic of me, I'm a bad reader, clearly). But STILL. You can never read something for the first time ever again, so I wanted to savor the opportunity.

THE DUKE'S RETURN is a very strange book. At first, I went into it thinking it was going to be a four- or five-star read but it ended up being repetitive, drawn-out, and confusing. That's not to say that it's a bad book, but it was kind of all over the place in the narration and the author made some interesting choices. (Not necessarily bad-interesting... just odd.)


So first, the good:

✔️ Older heroine. The heroine is 34 and the hero is 28. That's a six-year age gap between the hero and the heroine, which I really liked because you don't really see that too often, especially not in historical romance. The hero is super into it too. He keeps telling her she reminds him of his old governess and at one point he's like, you want me to see you as a mother? LET ME SUCKLE YOUR NIPS. And I was like, whoa, easy there, tiger. Maybe he was a little too into it. But whatever. I stan a reverse age-gap.
✔️ Heroine is not a virgin. So many authors are fans of those "she's a widow-- but she's still got her V-card because he was too old to get it up!" trope. Not this heroine. She's a widow, who's done the time. She also suffered a child's death and a miscarriage. Her grief about this is not lingered on but feels real. I guess this is a content warning, if you're sensitive to that, but it's not a huge part of the book and she does end up having her rainbow baby, so it ends up feeling like a great HEA for her.
✔️ The hero has dyslexia. I liked the way his disability was presented, too, and how he tried to hide it. A lot of his bad behavior also stemmed from his trying to hide his disability, which I think is also true of kids in school who can't read and are too ashamed to ask for help. I saw a review calling him "slow," and I thought that was mean because you can be very smart in other ways, even if you struggle with reading; it's a disability, for God's sake. I liked seeing that rep in this book.
✔️ Gothic vibes. The heroine is trying to get the hero married because allegedly his estate is under a Romany curse (note: the book does not use the word Romany). So this whole curse is hanging over the estate and all of the townspeople are super weird about it. It's actually not that sinister, but the heroine takes it so seriously that it almost feels like it's a self-parody. Whatever, I think I liked it.
✔️ Surprisingly mature handling of OW drama. There is an OW who was the side-bitch of the heroine's dead husband. They don't like each other but at the end of the book they have a conversation about wanting to do what's best for their kids/the legacy, and I thought it was just a really mature discussion and a rich portrayal of how you can not like someone but still understand where they're coming from. You don't see that a lot in older hist-roms so I wanted to give that a shout-out.

Now the bad:

❌️ The romantic scenes were incredibly repetitive. I'll give you a taste of what they were like. Hero makes an aggressive sexual overture. Heroine gives into it for half a second. "Oh, no, we mustn't!" "I'm the fucking duke, kiss me!" "No, you arrogant swine!" Heroine storms out. Hero hates life. Rinse, repeat. It got to the point where I was like, I SWEAR TO GOD IF THERE'S ANOTHER INTERRUPTION, I'M DUCT-TAPING THEM TOGETHER, CROTCH-FIRST.
❌️ I didn't really get the impression that the hero was all that committed. I just read another book about a reformed fuckboy noble called WHAT ALES THE EARL but at least in that book, the hero was super gung-ho about being a family man. This hero was perfectly willing to marry another woman, right up to the day of the fucking wedding, when she calls it off because she's in love with someone else. He didn't do that. He was gonna marry some other woman for propriety. What a turn-off.
❌️ Way too many side characters I didn't care about. There's having a colorful cast, and then there's letting the colorful cast steal the story. I felt like the latter happened here. There were just way too many frigging characters. Also, there's a sort of villain whose comeuppance is a throwaway line in the epilogue. That isn't very satisfying. Especially when it feels like the story is building up in a way that's going to hint at some last-act conflict.
❌️ The epilogue was so flipping weird. It was like reading one of those weird Jude Deveraux books from her "it's the '90s so what the fuck" phase. She churned out some weird books and this epilogue felt like it was right out of that. It's set in the present day, which is when we learn that the duke commissioned a portrait with his duchess because they were so in love and also, by the way, the bad guy was murdered by pirates because the hero fixed the Romany curse with a "Romany blessing." Ok.

For 50%-60% of this book, I was like YAAASS. And then the last 50%-40%, I skimmed. I still liked it and it did a lot of things right, but it was also super weird. I wish it was more gothic and the hero had been more obviously in love with the heroine (and maybe less with her body) and if maybe about half of those interrupted foreplay scenes were cut out and there was a real fight with the baddie.

Then, this could have easily been a four- or five-star book. YMMV.

3 out of 5 stars

The Duke's Wager by Edith Layton


So I think I can say that this is the first five-star recommendation I've gotten off TikTok! HUZZAH!

THE DUKE'S WAGER is such a good book, and what makes it even more amazing is that it doesn't actually have any sex scenes in it. This is a traditional regency with everything alluded to or off-page, but that doesn't mean it's "clean" in any sense of the word. You couldn't have a clean romance about two dissolute rakes, as we see with the characters of the Marquis of Beccassar and the Duke of Torquay.

Our story opens with the heroine, Regina, accidentally going to the opera on the day that all the courtesans go to see and be seen. Naturally, since no one has ever seen her before, everyone is like, "Ooh, who's that and how much?" The Duke of Torquay is one of these men, and he is intrigued when the girl gets infuriated and flees after he casually propositions her. And by intrigued, I mean, he parks his carriage in front of her house and then tries-- and actually succeeds-- in kidnapping her.

Rather than ending in rape, however, the Duke actually listens to Regina when she begs him not to do whatever he's going to do and ruin her honor. Further. Because in order to make her his, he does some super shady stuff to make her totally isolated and vulnerable to his attentions. But because he's a "sporting" man, he makes her a wager that she has X amount of time to secure an honorable position for herself, either in employment or in marriage, and if she can't, she has to be his mistress.

While this is going on, the Marquis de Beccassar is brooding around, sleeping with woman after woman while secretly hating the Duke he admires/resents in equal breath. I swear, these two have such a Rattigan/Basil dynamic, in that they act like jealous ex-boyfriends. The Marquis is annoyed because he's had to stoop to doing some not-so-honorable things to inflate his estate and prevent his title from just being an empty shell, and those things have actually put him in the prime position to pretend to be a friend to Regina while he also connives to steal her from the Duke before the wager's end.

I don't want to spoil the book but despite being slow to start and having some flowery prose, this is actually a brilliant character portrait about honesty, morality, sanctimony, and redemption. All three characters learn some pretty harsh truths about themselves: the Duke has deep wounds that he covers in sheets of ice; the Marquis has an inferiority complex that he masks with gilt; and Regina has been raised in such a way that she doesn't really fit in with the merchant or noble classes, so doing right is very important to her... until, suddenly, it isn't.

This book reminded me a lot of some of Charlotte Lamb's books. Layton's heroine is a lot like a Charlotte Lamb heroine, and in many ways, this was like a historical fiction version of my favorite CL book, SAVAGE SURRENDER, with a dash of Les Liaisons Dangereuses thrown in for funsies. I would recommend this to anyone who loves a good villain romance where the villain gets a redemption arc.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 15, 2023

The Shepherd Moon by H.M. Hoover


Part of me wants to give this a higher rating just because it was so weird and I have a soft spot for vintage YA, but this was so strange and hard to follow and had such an abrupt ending that I really wasn't all that keen on it.

THE SHEPHERD MOON is a 1980s YA dystopian novel about a futuristic Earth. We learn that Earth built several satellite moons do to overpopulation and some of those moons got up to some weird shit, as we find out when a space pod from one of those moons-- Terra II-- crash-lands on Earth, releasing a mysterious teenage boy who doesn't necessarily have the best intentions.

Merry, the heroine, is the one to find the boy and is also the one to see him do some sus stuff that everyone around her immediately gaslights her about. "You didn't really see that," they say. "That's not possible," they say. Joke's on y'all, I guess, because the next thing you know, people are getting burned alive and suddenly the government's involved.

Read this for the vintage vibes and if you like YA dystopians. Apart from that, I didn't find it too interesting, although there were some pretty poignant lines about the heroine and how she wasn't appreciated by her showy rich parents that I thought were rather touching and sad.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

What Ales the Earl by Sally MacKenzie


WHAT ALES THE EARL is a pretty cute read although the pacing, in my opinion, is uneven. It starts out pretty good. Harry is sent to a small town whose name I've already forgotten but sounds like Puddingtown, to investigate a mysterious amount of payment that is going there. Meanwhile, his old fling, Pen, is living there with her young daughter, Harriet. She's pretended to be a widow but all of that is about to out, which leads to rather disastrous consequences for her current marriage plans.

Enter Harry, the old fling. Who didn't know he had a kid.

I'm not the biggest fan of second chance romance but I think one of the best ways to do it is to have the characters break up when they're young and then come back together as adults who have grown up and are ready to learn from their ways. That's what happens here. Harry is a bit of a doofy playboy who is starting to want to settle down and is enamored with the idea of having a kid of his own. 

I loved the first half of the book but the second half was a major slog. I skimmed over fifty pages until the hilarious last-act conflict with the OW, which was ridiculous but still amused me. After that, though, we were back to disappointment: the ending is incredibly abrupt and there's no epilogue. Which is the author's choice, and I get it. Some people don't like epilogues. I sometimes fall into that camp too but I felt like one was needed here.

If you like Tessa Dare, I think you'll enjoy this book. I appreciated the likable albeit bratty kid character and the way the author handled the romance. The idea of a romance that revolves around a brewery was also pretty interesting and I liked that MacKenzie delved into the class differences more than most authors writing these historical rich guy/poor girl romances do. This didn't quite hit the mark for me but I still appreciated it for what it was.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, July 14, 2023

The Snake Who Loved a Sparrow by Nna Natsuo


This is one of the strangest manga I have ever read. Komazu is a little sparrow who is afraid of snakes, but one day a snake saves him from a stampede. The snake is named Shirato. The two of them have a very strange relationship which ends up causing them to fall in love with each other, but because they are predator and prey, the fear that Shirato might eat Komazu looms over them. Also the author went kind of weird with the animal anatomy so, like, Komazu only has a cloaca and Shirato has a spiky snake-dick?


I had to read this because I just wrote a book that metaphorically involved sparrows, so it felt like fate. And I thought it was cute. A lot of the yaoi/shounen-ai books that were circulating when I was young were kind of rapey, and even though Komazu is maybe a little too aggressively curious about touching, this book didn't feel rapey, and I appreciated that. Fun one-shot if you like shape-shifter vibes that sort of but not really goes into monsterfucking/furry territory, although I will say that it is so damn weird that the HEA involves the snake guy creating a magical peen for the sparrow guy.

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Kiss Thief by L.J. Shen


DNF @ p.55

L.J. Shen is a very hit or miss author with me. Her writing is usually very clean and polished, but her characters, I can take or leave. I hated SPARROW, adored VICIOUS, and feel ambivalent about this book, THE KISS THIEF. I think my problem is that Francesca feels infantilized and Wolfe feels like he's trying too hard to be alpha. This is also a very fluffy mafia book, and personally, when I pick up a mafia book, I want it to be gritty. Edgy.

This isn't a bad book but it is also very much not my thing. I'll be passing it along but I'll still check out some of this author's other books.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Then, Earth Swallowed Ocean by Shiloh Sloane


This was a buddy-read with Heather. I finally finished it even though this book is way darker than I'm usually comfortable with, and I've been in a slump when it comes to dark reads. But I needed the Kindle Unlimited spot so I decided to suck it up buttercup and grin and bear it, because after getting traumatized by R. Lee Smith's COTTONWOOD, I felt like I could take on the world. FYI, this review is going to have some spoilers and discussions of some of the trigger warnings, so maybe don't read this if you don't want to read that kind of stuff.

THEN, EARTH SWALLOWED OCEAN is kind of like if someone took ADDIE LARUE and made it into an omegaverse novel, right down to the deals with the devil and the freckle worship. Sadie (her name even sounds like Addie lol) has something terrible happen to her in the beginning of the book, which should have resulted in her death, but the devil intervenes. Now if she can find an evil soul to replace her own, she can live. WHAT A DEAL.

Enter the werewolf brothers, Wright and Ridge Lindal. Wright served in WWII and is still traumatized from that and the death of his human wife (at his brother's hands no less). Ridge, on the other hand, lives his life according to a code of feral sociopathy. He almost eats-- literally-- Sadie after raping her, but then it turns out that she's his soulmate instead. Even though he's evil.

Throughout the whole book, the reader wonders which-- if either-- of the two brothers is going to die to fulfill the devil's prophecy. Which actually leads me to what is perhaps the biggest plothole in the whole book: WHY THE HELL didn't they take one of those religious serial killers down to the ocean and kill one of them? They were evil AF. But was this ever considered? Noooo lol. They were too busy having blasphemy-sex on top of the church altar (which, hey, you do you, boo, I'm not religious).

The writing is absolutely gorgeous but there's a point where literary repetition starts to feel more like accidental repetition and the author overused a lot of words, like lush, plush, and feral. Sometimes they would be used multiple times per page. She has a truly amazing writing style that is brilliantly evocative and reminded me of both Poppy Z. Brite and Tanith Lee at times, but this felt egregious.

I don't want to spoil the ending but there are triggers for cannibalism, gore, sex with blood, knotting, sex in a church, blasphemous stuff, child abuse (neglect), gun violence, references to Nazis, war violence, and suicidal ideation. Also, there's a TON of sex. I'm not usually one to call that a trigger but this is more erotica than it is a romance and that's the type of thing you have to be in the mood for. I skimmed a lot of chapters because the sex scenes started to feel so repetitive and were absolutely drenched in fluids (which I personally find gross, but some people like the sloppy stuff I guess). Maybe the point of this was to make it feel like they were animals, but it lacked tenderness and emotional intimacy. I think that's the problem with fated mates as a whole: it acts as a shortcut that omits the need for romantic development and trust.

Anyway, Shiloh Sloane is an author to watch. I've read two of her books now and both of them were amazing. I'm excited for the upcoming book set in this world called CRACKED BLUE SKY.

3.5 out of 5 stars

A Lady's Guide to Etiquette and Murder by Dianne Freeman


My mom actually recommended this series to me and I have the first five books in the series loaded up on my Kindle (thanks, KU!), but I haven't really been in the mood for "cozy mystery." Until now.

This series is so cute. It's narrated in first person from the point of view of the Countess of Harleigh, Frances Wynn. Frances, newly widowed, is now a single mother, and the prey of her greedy relations. They've looked down on her for being American and a woman, but they're not too good to take her American money to restore the house.

When Frances puts an end to that by getting a house of her own, to live in with her daughter, Rose, that seems like it will be the end of it. But then her sister, Lily, and Aunt Hetty come, and Lily (who is younger) starts courting some men of potentially dubious intentions and provenance, it falls to Frances to vet her sister's dates.

Which is a daunting enough task without the prospect of murder.

I don't want to say too much because less is more, but I thought the mystery element was really well done. I didn't guess who it was. Maybe I could have if I'd tried harder, but I was mostly just happy to go along with the ride. I loved Frances's voice, and even though she could be PAINFULLY obtuse at times, she had a quick mind and it was fun to read a book about a single mom character with a kid who wasn't bratty (I'm reading another right now where the kid IS bratty and that's okay but still, yikes).

Oh, AND the love interest for Frances is one of those human golden retriever type guys AND he wears glasses. Usually my favorite pairing with the no-nonsense female type in hist-rom is the duke of slut, but apparently I also ship no-nonsenses and golden retrievers, too. AND I've been assured that he's a continued presence in the future books too, HUZZAH.

So my mom was right about this book. It's light and fun and perfect for those days where you want to know "who did the bad thing and with what instrument?" but not worry about the kids or the dog.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Cottonwood by R. Lee Smith


Someone told me this was the "softest" of R. Lee Smith's books and it's a good thing I can't remember who that person was, because I would give them such a talking-to. COTTONWOOD is a brutal book. A lot of Smith's books are, but COTTONWOOD is particularly insidious because it sneaks up on you. With books like THE LAST HOUR OF GANN and SCHOLOMANCE, you already know things are going to be bad. Those books plunge you into darkness and mockingly toss you a flashlight. Not COTTONWOOD. The heroine, Sarah, is so hopeful, so excited to work for an international organization that houses the aliens that came to her planet. She sings and hums like a Disney princess. She basically is a Disney princess. So tell me, what kind of horror do you think a Disney princess would feel if she walked into what she imagined would be a very grand adventure... only to find out that it's basically a concentration camp?

Yeah. That.


Lots of people have compared this to District 9 and I can see that. The author even addresses it in an author's note in the book (apparently she came up with the idea before the movie and then was loath to publish it because of the similarities to the movie). It's similar but also different. COTTONWOOD is a romance. It's a very dark romance, but it is a romance. It's also an allegory for, yes, concentration camps and the cruelty of N*zi scientists, and it's also a look into the differences between performative and true acts of justice. Sarah wants to help, but her ability to actually help changes and grows as she does. By the end of the book, she's a different person. She hasn't lost any of her goodness, but she's gained the ability to stand up for herself and not be so naive.

Parts of this book were beautiful. Sanford/Nk’os’a’knko was a darling. His son, T'aki was so cute. And Sarah is such a likable heroine. Even when she's being a doof. But this book is DARK. Much darker than I signed up for and if I had known how dark it was going to be, I probably wouldn't have signed up to read it at the moment because that's not really what I've been wanting to read. But like I said, COTTONWOOD sneaks up on you. I just read GANN and could handle it. I thought it would be more of the same. But this book did things that GANN didn't that I found really difficult to read. There is a lot of medical gore and medical torture that is described in pretty harsh detail. The dog dies. People close to the heroine die. Aliens are tortured (including children). Sexual abuse is described, including those of underage people. There's a rank callousness here that is hard to deny when we continually see headlines outlining more heinous crimes; R. Lee Smith sees humanity at its best and worst.

I liked this book a lot and think R. Lee Smith is a genius. But man, this book was miserable to read. I also felt the ending dragged. The "epilogue" portion was interesting but made the book feel rushed, and a couple of things happened that felt too neat. But by this point, I was so desperate for a happy ending that I didn't care. JUST GIVE ME MY HEA SO I CAN GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE. 🤡

I'm giving it a high four-star rating because, like I said, it was brilliant. Genius. Loved both the characters. But I didn't really enjoy it as much as I should have because the last 25% was miserable.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

To Bleed a Crystal Bloom by Sarah A. Parker


DNF @ 11%

I've been wanting to read this for a while because the summary sounded intriguing and I loved the cover and the title of the book.

This just isn't working for me, though. The writing style is that ultra-modern and kind of clunky "new adult fantasy" style of writing that's become popular, and I know a lot of people are into that but it's not for me. I'd recommend this to people who liked GILT and Jennifer L. Armentrout, because I think their styles are similar (and I wasn't keen on either of those authors' fantasy books either, unfortunately).

Unlike some readers, I didn't mind the age gap. I like guardian/ward in theory. But I didn't feel much chemistry between the H and the h.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars