Thursday, August 31, 2023

Dawn of the Arcana, Vol. 1 by Rei Tōma


Unbelievably short, which is why it's getting a four instead of higher. I had a Kindle credit and wanted some romantasy, so I got myself this book. Dawn of the Arcana is pretty lightly world-built. It's one of those fantasy novels where the focus is more on the relationships between the characters rather than the actual world.

Basically, there are two island kingdoms sandwiched on top of each other: Senan and Belquat. After years of tension and genocide, they decide that the best way to patch things up is a marriage of convenience between Princess Nakaba and Prince Caesar. But Nakaba has red-hair which is considered the mark of a commoner, as all royals have *ahem* silky black tresses. So straight out of the gate, people are like, "That bitch can fuck right off to hell, no questions."

Nakaba is a bit of a Mary Sue but there's a quiet strength to her that I liked. And Caesar is that pretty classic icy-asshole-bad-boy-with-a-soft-spot-for-the-heroine manga hero, which I obviously don't mind. It seems like there's going to be a love triangle, because the heroine has a servant called an "ajin," which is basically a semi-human warrior/servant class that has animal tail and animal ears, and supernatural senses.

The art is pretty and even though this was short AF, we get some kissing scenes, a tournament, and several knives-to-throat moments. I would probably get more from this series when I get more Kindle credits, because I am curious to see what treacherous things are going to happen next.

4 out of 5 stars

Joyland by Stephen King



Most readers-- even the most ardent of King's fans-- will agree that the man has a third act problem. I've read most of what he published before the 2010s, and some of his books are perennial favorites. Others, I like, but not the end. And some are just bad.

JOYLAND was honestly such a fun surprise because it's so different from a lot of what he publishes. This isn't really horror at all, although it has elements that are highly reminiscent of The Shining. Instead, it's more of a melancholy coming-of-age set in the 1970s, with some supernatural and romantic elements thrown in.

The hero, Devin, is SUCH a doll. Honestly, he's one of the best heroes I've read in a while that wasn't written by a female author trying to get me to fall in love with the guy as a love interest. He was just so sweet, and I loved him so much. Seeing the amusement park through his eyes, and seeing how much he genuinely enjoyed working there, really made this book feel larger-than-life and real.

I don't want to say too much else, but the last act was a little rushed. And I was expecting a little bit more of a climax than what I got. But I did like it. Everything was foreshadowed and fit neatly, and King summarized this story up in far fewer words than his books usually end up being. I think the reason I liked JOYLAND so much is because it feels like the grown-up version of the Point Horror novels I devoured so eagerly as a child. If you like that old skool, semi-cozy horror vibe, you'll probably devour this book just as eagerly, too.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

A Splash of Cream at the Alabaster Cafe by Astra Rose


Did you see me reading this book? No, you didn't, actually. It was just a hologram. No, I will not be accepting any questions at this time. Move along.

A SPLASH OF CREAM AT THE ALABASTER CAFE was recommended to me for my What the Actual Fuck Wednesday challenge, a semi-weekly feature where I make it my business to read some of the weirdest romance and erotica on the market. Usually, it's stuff my followers recommend to me, which means I get a lot of "joke" erotica (like the Covid one that trended briefly), monsterfucker erotica (self-explanatory), and extreme/taboo or fetish erotica (hucow).

Remember that time I read MORNING GLORY MILKING FARM and I joked that I kind of wished that it was lactation erotica instead?

This book heard me say that and sprang into existence.

You'd best believe there's about to be spoilers.

Summer is desperately looking for a job. When she applies for this tech company gig, the lady basically strings her along and is like oh, by the way, we're having a hiring freeze right now so no dice, Samantha. Maybe try working at this coffee shop I dragged you to? I hear they pay $25/hr. Rightfully pissed at having her time wasted, Summer is like, thanks, bitch, maybe I will. And the coffee shop, which is the TITular Alabaster Cafe, agrees to see her for an interview.


"Wear white," they say.

And when Summer goes to work the next day, she notices that the employer, Sal, spends a lot of time studying her boobs. And also, all of the girls working at the cafe have really huge boobs.


The other girls tell her not to be silly, but Summer is still suspicious. Men belonging to some super secret "Coffee Club" keep going into the back room with the girls, who then walk out with massive, uh, tips. And then this reporter guy named Jack (who is HOT by the way, this is important), comes in and asks Summer about the Coffee Club, and she's like, idk, I guess I'm not COOL enough.

So the barista girls tell her to ask the creepy boss, who informs her that Alabaster is actually a front for people with a lactation fetish. The girls are all taking an illegal birth control bill that was removed from the market for causing lactation. "But it was their idea," he protests, too loudly. "I just supply them with the premises and look the other way." Yeah, Sal. And a pimp is just a pimp.

Anyway, Summer gulps that pill down faster than you can say maybe don't do that, and her first milking makes her come. So does her second. And the third. Basically all the milkings.

Investigative reporter comes back and is like, hey, remember how I came in and cryptically asked you for information about the Coffee Club? That birth control pill basically turns titties into cocaine-laced Viagra. Guys who drink the Forbidden Milk end up addicted to breastmilk with erections that won't stop. He takes her around back and they go into this secret Sex Lounge attached to the back of the Alabaster Cafe (SERIOUSLY, IS THERE NO FDA?) where women from the cafe put their titties into these, idk, breast stockades called a "slurp ramp" where dudes can just line up and drink assembly style.

Then Summer, Jack, and this gay man named Eric, have a milk-slathered threeway, where Jack jokes, "Also maybe your milk turned me gay." Okay dude.

Summer's takeaway from all of this is that there is NOT enough capitalism in the titty milk industry and she pulls a few strings with her dairy farm parents to get discount milk machines and bottle machines. Jack writes a casual, in-no-way-suspicious blog that somehow manages to hint at the erectile powers of titty milk without tipping off the FDA, and men flock to Club Milk Bar in droves, the grand opening of which Summer shows up to in a dress that shows off the goodies like she's at her own white carpet event to accept a Milky award. At the end of the story, people reverently touch her boobs as she passes, while Jack slips off to have sex with Eric, because Milk Makes You Gay(TM).

I did not know what to make of this book. It reminded me a little of this other hucow book I was forced to read, called ROYALLY MILKED, in that the writing was really good and there was more world-building than was strictly necessary for just porn. But on the other hand, there are some pretty disturbing implications for this book. Like the fact that these women are just quaffing illegal birth control, and working in an unregulated sex industry in the backrooms of a place that makes food. Also, towards the end of the book, when the Milk Bar opens, Summer just watches one of her fellow baristas get reamed in the ass without lube, noting casually that she isn't sure whether the noises she's making are because she wants it or because she's in pain.


This is the literal worst application of gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss that I have ever seen.

Overall, I think SPLASH OF CREAM is one of the better hucow romances I've read because it at least tries to accord some dignity (dignititty?) to the "cows," although idk about those slurp ramps and the gay milk. Let's just say, I've never been more grateful to be lactose intolerant and leave it at that.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Digging Up Love by Chandra Blumberg


If you had polled seven-year-old Nenia and asked what her two favorite things were, she probably would have told you "dinosaurs and cake." So obviously I wasn't about to pass up on a romance novel that features a baker heroine and a paleontologist hero. Especially not with that fossil cake cover that looks straight out of Neopets. Chandra Blumberg clearly wrote this book trying to appeal to all of our inner children... and it WORKED.

That said, after she made the sale... I found this book kind of bland. Initially, I was really surprised by all the mixed reviews because I thought the set-up was great, the food porn was A-MAZING, and I liked that both leads felt parental pressure about their careers. There's a lot of bias when it comes to what a "proper" adult job looks like, and I think people's perspectives on that are still shifting. I also loved that the heroine is biracial and the hero is Black and how their races were both addressed, referenced by other characters, and a part of their identity, but also weren't the total focus of who they were.

Where this book failed for me was the very blatant fan service and pandering, which got old after a while, and so did the conspicuously small town folksy vibes. I know a lot of people love small town romance, but that shit just feels so toxic to me. Part of this is that I'm just not the right audience for this particular book, I think. This feels like a book that was written to cater to BookTok, also. And I think that's a danger of trope-heavy books: sometimes the book becomes more about the tropes than the characters themselves. I'm really torn on how to rate this because the things it did well, it did REALLY well, but the last two acts were such a drag that I just can't really bring myself to round up. I'm sorry.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward


DNF @ 9%

Okay, so here's the thing. I'm very picky about horror. I want mind horror, and I don't want my favorite characters or any cute animals to die. It took me ages as a reader to realize that I actually like the horror genre, in principle; I just don't want to be traumatized while reading. As you can imagine, this has led to both slim pickins and a lot of broken hearts on my end. Sorry for being real.

Catriona Ward is an author who kind of toes the line for me in terms of what I will and won't read. I think she can have a fabulous way with words, case in point SUNDIAL, which was creepy AF and lured me right in with its whispers of culty shenanigans and fucked up family dynamics. Parts of that book were 5-star worthy but I ended up giving it a three because it got weird on me in the final act.

HOUSE ON NEEDLESS, on the other hand, just feels... campy. Campy and mean and bloody. Any book that opens and lingers on a gratuitous bird death scene is probably not going to be a "nice" horror book. I always try to read to at least 15% before reviewing but sometimes, a book asserts itself so well that you really get a sense of whether a book is going to be for you or not right from the beginning. The only character I liked was the cat, although having the cat narrate in a book like this adds a preciousness that is really quite at odds with the dark and disturbing content.

I will not be finishing this book, but I do recommend SUNDIAL if you have the stomach for it. I think I also own her other book, RAWBLOOD, because that sounded amazing (albeit terrifying). 

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 28, 2023

A Vow to Set the Virgin Free by Millie Adams


Hello, and welcome to another episode of Harlequin romances with titles I cannot read aloud to my coworkers-slash-family-members. Today's episode is called A VOW TO SET THE VIRGIN FREE, a Cinderella retelling between a girl named Athena who was, like, raised in a bunker or some shit to be the adoptive replacement of a dead daughter (can you say #issues?) and a guy named Cameron who used to be a male prostitute until he became a big scary billionaire but then he got into a car accident and now he just idles inside his big Smart Mansion.

Here's the thing about Millie Adams romances. She's a good writer and her books are smuttier than most, but she has a thing for anachronistic language and she also does this thing where she forces the H and the h into connecting over one weirdly specific thing, which she will then proceed to reference hundreds of times. Like, in one of her books, the hero bought her candy once, so he's a Good Guy(TM) (note the suspicious overlap between Good Guys(TM) and men who drive Suspicious Vans with Black Out Windows(TM).

Anyway, in this book, the fact that the heroine is named after a War Goddess is referenced over and over again. Which is ironic, because she was specifically the god of tactical war (Ares was the god of being a showboating dick) and wisdom. And the heroine is not particularly tactical, wise, or warlike. In fact, I feel like it would have been better to name her Persephone, because there's definitely a sort of Hades/Persephone dynamic going on between her and the sad scarred isolated billionaire. One thing I did like, though, were the many references to the Beauty and the Beast movie, including the self-sustaining mansion (castle), the yellow dress, and even the phrase "tale as old as time." I might have enjoyed this more if I were a bigger fan of the movie but it's not my favorite Disney film.

Overall, my feelings about this book were pretty meh. It just felt really strange and a little forced, and it lacked the chemistry and sexual connection that other books by this author had. I didn't hate it but it also wasn't her best and I skimmed a lot of it.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 27, 2023

My Ideal Boyfriend Is a Croissant by Laura Dockrill


Wow, the ratings on this book are pretty low for a YA title with plus size rep. I thrifted this book sight unseen because I thought the title and cover were cute, but then when I checked Goodreads for it, I was like wow, people really didn't like this one, huh? After reading MY IDEAL BOYFRIEND IS A CROISSANT, I can kind of see why.

The book starts out with Bluebell at the doctor's with her mom. She's just had an asthma attack that is sort of related to her weight, and after a back and forth with her dramatic mom and a mean nurse, they decide that Bluebell is only permitted the gap year she wants if she: (1) keeps a food diary, (2) signs up with a gym, (3) gets a job apprenticeship.

Each chapter has the name of a food that Bluebell has thoughts on. It reminded me a lot of TOAST by Nigel Slater, only fiction, because he did the same thing with his memoir, which was a series of essays with varying British foods that tied into his childhood. Dockrill does the same thing here, as Bluebell tries to cope with her parents' separation, her pretty and athletic younger sister, her stressful job at the coffee shop, and her growing attraction for one of her coworkers.

About 2/3 of the way through the book, though, something bad happens to Bluebell's younger sister, and the book gets rather dark in tone. Because the title is so light-hearted and cute, I guess I can see why some readers might pick this up and feel cheated. Bluebell is not nice-- she is sarcastic and self-centered and defensive and unhappy. To some extent, I think she's meant to be an unreliable narrator, especially with some revelations that happen at the end, but some people expect all sunshine and light from the books that they read, so if you're one of those, you won't like this. There's also some ableist language when it comes to a family member's injury. There's also some TWs for EDs and purging behavior. I think that's a part of the grieving process/shock, but it might not be fun to read. Anyone who wants positive, happy-go-lucky plus-size rep should probably avoid this book entirely.

Overall, I did enjoy this book but I think it was needlessly long and a bit uneven in tone. Dockrill does capture the teen voice really well, though, and the end result is kind of like a less popular, more unhappy version of the Georgia Nicholson books I enjoyed as a teen myself. Probably wouldn't read it again but I would read more from this author, and I genuinely enjoyed the writing about food.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Your Plantation Prom Is Not Okay by Kelly McWilliams


Plantation weddings are gross, right? I think most of us are in pretty firm agreement that they're gross. Unfortunately, there's a small but visible minority that does not think they're gross; in fact, these people think they are very, very neat. They want to get married while LARP-ing to their Gone with the Wind fanfics while casually forgetting the millions and millions of Black people who suffered under slavery.

So obviously, Harriet Douglass and her father, who run a museum for enslaved persons out of a restored plantation, are less-than-thrilled when the sister plantation next to theirs is purchased by a B-list celebrity for exactly such a purpose. Harriet is especially infuriated because her mother just died from terminal cancer, and before her death, Westwood was basically her life's work. She devoted years of her life to educating people of all races about slavery, using that knowledge gap to bridge people closer together to a place of understanding and compassion.

YOUR PLANTATION PROM IS NOT OKAY is a timely read, for sure. I also found it very interesting from a psychological perspective because like I AM NOT YOUR PERFECT MEXICAN DAUGHTER, it examines what happens when trauma and grief manifest as anger. Harriet has a huge anger problem that actually causes temporary fugues and violent outbursts. As a result, I feel like we're exposed to a lot of different types of anger: self-anger, justified anger, sublimated anger, violent anger, etc. Part of Harriet's journey is learning to curb her violent impulses and also kind of channel her anger into proper outlets, in addition to learning to control it. It doesn't help that she lives on the grounds of a place of immense pain, where she basically acts as a steward to the darkest part of a cultural legacy that her ancestors were made to bear. And then there's additional drama with her mother's death that just adds even more burden onto her already depleted emotional bandwidth. What this ultimately ends up being is a portrait of stressors that teens-- especially teens of color-- can end up being forced to live with, which they often try to hide or endure alone.

This book also examines allyship and racism in a really intense way. Harriet has a lot of friends, who come from a lot of different backgrounds. The newest is actually the daughter of the celebrity racist plantation owner, who is named Layla. Layla is an influencer from LA but she's also socially aware enough to be able to call out microaggresions when she sees them and she and Harriet become close when she's the only one in class to call out a teacher for mixing her up with the only other Black student. But she does this without Harriet's consent or want, and I think consent is also a big part of being an ally; you have to help in a way that is actually helpful and not self-serving. A lot of her friends want to "help" but their motivations for doing so are muddled.

The storyline is great and sucked me right in. Since this is largely character-driven, it's kind of hard to summarize the plot beyond the whole "girl finds out that the plantation next door is a wedding venue and decides to stop it." There are subplots involving a cute romance, friendship drama, parental depression, and medical malpractice, in addition to Harriet's therapy journey for anger management. I personally felt like all of these elements were in pretty good balance and reinforced each other in a way that upheld the structure of the overarching story. I do wish that there had been more closure about the thing with Harriet's mom, though, although I guess it's more realistic that things like that often end up going nowhere. Likewise, Harriet finds out she gets into her dream school... but then chooses not to go because they benefited from slavery. Which on the one hand I get... but on the other hand, why not reap the hell out of the education you wanted and then flip them off as you're walking out the gates? But this sort of decision making was in keeping with her impulsive character, so I just rolled with it.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes YA that touch upon social justice and teens dealing with real and relatable problems. ESPECIALLY if they find themselves frustrated with books that operate with a heavy-hand and as a result, come off as two-dimensional. The best thing about YOUR PLANTATION PROM IS NOT OKAY is how complex all of the characters are, including the secondary ones. This book shares many themes with the other book I read by this author, which was called MIRROR GIRLS, but I think this was even better. I can't wait to read what she writes next.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Hills of Estrella Roja by Ashley Robin Franklin


THE HILLS OF ESTRELLA ROJA is a queer college-age YA graphic novel set in Texas, with supernatural elements. Marisol is forced to return to the mysterious town she hasn't been in since she was a child after the death of her grandmother. Kat, on the other hand, is a paranormal podcaster who receives a mysterious email urging her to go to the same town to investigate something called "devil lights" and various mysterious disappearances.

Estrella Roja, which means red star in Spanish, is creepy right off the bat. They don't get a lot of outsiders, so there's a lot of ominous staring and whispered conversations that the girls clearly aren't meant to hear. Kat ends up approaching Mari because they lock eyes at a diner and she seems the friendliest out of everyone. They end up hitting it off, as two queer girls in a weird situation. When they go to the library, they find old articles hinting at murder and occult phenomena. Mari finds creepy photographs and journals in her aunt's house. Basically, SHIT GETS REALLY WEIRD.

I don't want to spoil anything, but this was a pretty cute read. Even if you don't like horror, nothing too scary happens. (I'm not a fan of horror or gore-- I will be very quick to nope out if heads start rolling.) My ARC was not full-color, but I liked the art in the few sample pages I had. It's done in that minimal, indie style, which is common in imprints like First Second. I also liked that one of the girls was Latina and a lesbian, and the other girl was bisexual and had a non-binary best friend. The diversity felt super casual, and added to the story-- especially with regard to Latinx folklore. Tonally, it reminded me a lot of the '90s Scooby Doo movies, like Zombie Island and Witch's Curse

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

4 out of 5 stars

Witching Hour by Sara Craven


You know I think I might actually like Sara Craven more than I like Charlotte Lamb. She writes the sorts of heroes and stories that I totally would have written if I were around in the 70s and 80s. The WITCHING HOUR is set in Cornwall and deliciously gothic, set just around Halloween. The H and the h have a late-night encounter in the woods and after that he refers to her as little witch and Morgan Le Fay.

As it turns out, the H, Lyall, is a distant bastard cousin and the true heir of the house. Which means that Morgan, the heroine, is about to be disinherited from the house she loves so much. But Lyall has a thing for her and drops salacious hints that he might keep her around if he can sleep with her. Which is so hot but obviously super offensive to her principles (*wink*), so she says no even though she wants the D.

Most of the appeal in this book is the banter between the H and the h, the love square between Morgan and this other rich guy, Rob, and his bitchy sister Elaine, who's after Lyall. The gothic backdrop is also great and the Halloween setting makes this the PERFECT autumn read. There's even a costume party, and y'all know that I'm a sucker for those.

Was this a perfect read? No. Would I recommend this to most people? Probably not. I think a lot of contemporary readers would take issue with the age gap and Lyall's forcefulness. There's also no explicit sex on page. The H and h get pretty close but then are rudely interrupted at the last minute. (Really, SO RUDE.) That said, I'm definitely feeling the urge to pick up the rest of Sara Craven's backlist. So far, I've loved everything I've read by her, without exception.

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Dim Sum of All Things by Kim Wong Keltner


THE DIM SUM OF ALL THINGS was advertised in the back of an old chicklit I thrifted not too long ago. I didn't much care for that chicklit, but I sure perked up when I saw this book. A snarky chicklit about a Chinese heroine unlucky in love in San Francisco? SIGN ME UP. Publishers were so bad about marketing diverse books in the 2000s. I am constantly finding "new" titles that came out 10, 15, 20+ years ago, which were written by authors of color, and so many of them are unbelievably good.

Like this book.

Which you might not believe if you go off the average rating. The reviews for this book are pretty negative but I absolutely adored this book. Lindsey was such a likable heroine. I'm shocked that so many people are saying she isn't. Maybe because she doesn't feel like one of the stereotypically plucky PoC characters that were typical of the aughts, created to be the comic relief or the moral support? Because if you're going into this book expecting stories from a woman who is so grateful to be here, and would gladly be your token Asian friend, Lindsey is not that girl. Lindsey is the opposite of that girl. Lindsey is actually very bitter about the constant fetishization and microaggressions she faces as an Asian woman living in the U.S. at the peak of party culture/raunch culture. She also feels disconnected and embarrassed from her culture, while simultaneously wanting to be more of a part of it, and the biggest part of this book is about Lindsey growing more comfortable with herself and her history-- on her terms.

God, I loved her. Even though this book is written in third person, her narrative is quite colorful and really flavors the prose. If you weren't a party girl, you were going to be pretty bitter and pissed off in the 2000s. So I really related to Lindsey, and loved her for being the bitter bitch that she was. And she's never mean, mind. She's just incredibly cynical. Also, this is honestly one of the most honest and unflinching portrayals of San Francisco that I've ever encountered. The rich history, the gentrification, the diversity, the grossness. I've been to almost all of the places that Lindsey talks about in this book and the descriptions of them were so good. I was not at all surprised to learn that the author lived in the Sunset district. A lot of what she wrote about in this book, I feel like you'd really have to live in the area to know. I thought it was hilarious that Lindsey works for this fake woke vegan newspaper company, and how utterly obnoxious and sanctimonious they were. When she got sent to a diversity meeting at the Palace Hotel just because she's the only Chinese person in her workplace, I guffawed. 

Surprisingly, I also really liked the romance, too. AND IT'S A WORKPLACE ROMANCE! WHAAAAAT. I normally hate those. In my reviews of other aughts chicklits, I have sometimes criticized them for being too dated. And while there are a lot of dated things in this book-- slut-shaming, off-color jokes, the expected aughts fat-phobia-- this book was really progressive in a lot of ways. Even though they play some games of the He's Just Not That Into You variety, Michael is so sweet to her. Their flirting was really cute. HE BUYS HER A HELLO KITTY TOASTER AS A GIFT. Also, I thought it was a clever choice on the author's part to make him of Chinese ancestry but white-passing (he's only a quarter Chinese), because she then discusses, through Lindsey, the privilege that Michael faces as a man who can hide his Asianness, and who can express and identify with his culture solely on his own terms. Lindsey, who very much does not look white, does not have this privilege.

Oh, and the representation of women in this book was also great. Lindsey has a pretty healthy friendship with a Filipinx woman named Mimi. When she goes to this party, there are some "slutty" Asian women with dyed blonde hair that she initially writes off as being snooty and boy crazy, but when Lindsey gets sick at the party and shits her pants, these women take her to the bathroom and CLEAN HER OFF, and are just so nice to her, and it was honestly such a great moment because it was very much a maybe-don't-judge-women-by-how-they-look-and-equate-that-to-their-moral-worth kind of situation. I was kind of afraid that they were going to double-cross her, because the Mean Girl Reverse Uno Card was a frequent plot twist of this time, but nope. They do their good deed and then peace out. Also, I loved that the shitting your pants thing wasn't played for laughs. The 2000s were full of fecal humor, but this was just portrayed as a serious and unfortunate situation.

Lastly, Lindsey at one point goes to China with her grandmother Pau Pau (WHO I LOVED) and this is another really impressive moment in the book because it forces Lindsey to confront some of her own privilege as someone who grew up with relative wealth, which she finds out when she meets her "relatives" and finds out that they have, comparatively, nothing. This is also the portion of the book where she finds out a lot about her grandmother's history, which comes out slowly as they travel across China (good parts and bad), and it was just so beautifully done. Even though Lindsey doesn't like some of the aspects of her trip (like the squatting toilets and some food that doesn't appeal to her finicky tastes), I liked how she appreciated it as a learning experience and grew from it.

I could talk for ages about what I liked about this book but then you might not read it for yourself and I also don't want to spoil any more than I already have. THE DIM SUM OF ALL THINGS is not a perfect book by any means, but it's fun and colorful and real, in a way that a lot of books of this type are not. Even though the ending felt like a little bit of a non-sequitur, I didn't dislike it. I wish this was part of a series because I didn't want to let these characters go. I loved them all. How has this author written so few books? I'm feeling the urge to go out and buy up everything from her backlist. 

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Price of Paradise by Susana López Rubio


WOW. This was an emotionally draining read. It actually reminded me a lot of some of the epic bodice-rippers of the 70s and 80s, like Natasha Peters's SAVAGE SURRENDER, in how it follows the characters from a young age over the course of their entire lives. I wasn't actually sure how I got a copy of this book because I didn't remember buying it, but then I realized that it was a freebie on Kindle during World Book Day a few years ago.

THE PRICE OF PARADISE is set in Cuba during the late 1940s/early 1950s, pre-Castro (during Batista's reign). At this time, they are having a mob problem. The heroine, Gloria, is the beautiful child of two sweet shop owners, but one day she catches the eye of one of said mobsters, a creep named Cesar Valdes. He makes it his business to court her and SHE'S THIRTEEN by the way. When courtship doesn't work, he has people bash up her parents' shop and kills the birds he gifted her. Her parents are shocked into health problems and Gloria ends up becoming his child-bride at fourteen.

The hero, Patricio, is an escapee from Spain. I believe he came to Cuba to escape Francisco Franco during Spain's fascist period. He lives in relative poverty but ends up making friends with two guys who end up becoming his ride-or-dies. After a period of shoe-shining, he comes to work at a luxury department store, which is how he encounters Gloria: while making a delivery of ceramic animals, he accidentally runs into her and smashes the lot.

The rest of the book is a turbulent sea of pining, danger, murder, double-crossing, triple-crossing, and mob shit. People who don't like books where the hero and heroine spend time with other people aren't going to enjoy this, because Patricio ends up with another woman named Nely for a while and, of course, Gloria is married to her horrible husband. One thing I really admired about this book, though, was how nuanced everyone was. Cesar had a tragic history, his sister, Marita, ended up becoming far more complex than the mean girl she was presented as, and both Gloria and Patricio did some pretty garbage things to each other and to others in the name of love.

Actually, in some ways, this reminded me a lot of THE BRONZE HORSEMAN, with how it used a changing political landscape as the backdrop of a doomed-seeming romance. I thought for a while that this book was going to have a majorly downer ending but this is one of those books where you have to trust the process, even when things seem bleak. TRUST THE PROCESS. That said, I think I would consider this more of a love story than a romance, even though people shelved it as a romance, just because so much of the book had the couple separated and focused on other elements instead.

Still, this was an incredibly powerful and unique read and I think I'll be thinking about it for a while.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Always the Bridesmaid by Sarah Webb


DNF @ p.122

There's nothing really wrong with this, I just got really bored. I will say that for a 2000s-era chicklit, it felt more empowered than most. No fat-shaming... or at least not so much that it pulled me out of the narrative enough to notice. But after 100+ pages it was mostly just the heroine being jealous and angry that her friend and sister were getting married and not her, and there was no hint of love interest in sight. The Irish setting was cool and I liked the 2000s references.

2 out of 5 stars

WtAFW: Unhinged by Vera Valentine


Why yes, I did read the book where the heroine of the story decides to fuck her front door. Unhinged is definitely the perfect name for this bizarre erotic romance, and I certainly didn't have horny hardwood on my bingo card for 2023, but you know what? That's what the free space is for.

Every week I try to read at least one erotica or romance that has people going WTF! That is how What the Actual Fuck Wednesday was born. I think I actually read one of this author's other books for that challenge before: if I recall correctly, it was SQUEAK, her erotic short about a woman who becomes sexually entangled with two shape-shifters that can turn into balloon animals (and their come tastes like cinnamon frosting).

This book was way better written and had a better plot. The heroine lives alone, but she has a companion: her front door, who loves her from afar and watches everything she does. Which is why he knows that her landlord is a creep who plans to do terrible things to her. One night, the door has a visit from Zeus who tells the door that he is made from one of his sacred oak trees and if the door can get the heroine to fuck him, he can become a real boy. 

Door convinces the heroine to do this in a dream and she rides his knob which turns him human. Then they have sex with both of them as humans, too. I don't want to say too much else because spoilers, but I thought it was interesting how the door had a praise kink and enjoyed being called a "good door" or a "good boy." The entire book is narrated in door's POV and he gives himbo/golden retriever energy, which is honestly a kind of refreshing change from the heroes I normally read about.

I didn't love this book but I had a lot of fun reading it and it was waaaay better written than her previous book, which I felt was a little dialed in. So I'm giving this a three star rating rounded up from a 2.5. The author did a good job filling out the page count and the premise and execution was just too amusing to give it anything lower than that.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture by Harold Goldberg


ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US is a book that I've been waiting about ten years to read. It covers fifty years of video game history, from the oscilloscope tennis game made by the same guy who worked on the Hiroshima bomb, to modern classics like Bioshock or Bejeweled. In between, it covers various other key points of video game history, like the Atari crash, the console war between Nintendo and Playstation, and the constant race to do what was previously thought impossible by the current limitations posed by speed and graphics.

I thought this book was only okay. It's one of those history books where the narrator clearly has an opinion, and that opinion colors the tone and the commentary of the book. It feels like you're being taught about these subjects by a fratty hipster, and that's okay since I guess, you know, this was written in the late aughts and that was the vibe. But it also makes it come across as kind of dated now. I'm 100% sure this wouldn't be written the same way if it were published today.

My favorite parts of the books were probably the wild wild west of the early Atari days, the creation of Mario and-- much later-- Crash Bandicoot. And surprisingly, I quite enjoyed the parts about Myst and 7th Guest, even though I never played either of those games. The behind-the-scenes of Bioshock was also great because whether you play the game or not, the storyline of it is truly fantastic and I really liked hearing about how it was created. Some of the chapters were so boring that I skipped over them entirely, like the one about EA Games, and others were bland, although I tried to trudge through because I loved the games they were about (this was true for PopCap's Bejeweled and The Sims).

Overall, I probably wouldn't recommend this book to anyone except die-hard video game history buffs.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary by Pamela Dean


DNF @ 51%

There are lots of reasons to DNF a book, okay? Sometimes I will read a book and I will think to myself, "This is a bad book." Sometimes I will read a book and think, "While I personally hated this book, I can see why someone might like it." Ultimately, there is not that much difference in how I will rate these two experiences (a two is a two), but I might actually recommend the latter to someone else if I thought it was a match for their own niche tastes. Because at the end of the day, I am a reader, and I love seeing people find the books that they're looking for even if I didn't enjoy them. 

JUNIPER, GENTIAN, AND ROSEMARY falls into this latter category. This is my second Pamela Dean that I have tried and failed to finish and I think it's just a matter of her writing style not working for me. Her characters are so precious; picture a full-time dark academia girlie who wears peasant dresses and spends all her time reading clothbound editions with sprayed edges of Kierkegaard or Tolstoy, and that is the target audience for this book.

I saw people comparing this book to Madeleine L'Engle and I was like, YES. Because the characters in the book were a lot like the Murray family. I mean, this family literally does table readings of Shakespeare after dinner. I'm sorry, but what? This book is a retelling of a Scottish ballad called "Riddles Widely Expounded." Basically, a suspicious hot guy moves next door to this family with three girls and he seems to have echolalia or something like it, because rather than generating organic speech, all he does his speak in riddles and quotations. That sounds like an interesting premise, but apart from a few sinister foreshadowy moments, NOTHING OF INTEREST HAPPENED UP TO 51%.

The writing in this book is great and the dark academia vibes are immaculate for those who are interested in that aesthetic. But unless you're looking for THE SECRET HISTORY: MY SWEET SIXTEEN EDITION, I'm not sure you'll find this very accessible.

I did like the '90s romantic/alt girl aesthetic though.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Effigies by William K. Wells


EFFIGIES was a book I picked up while thrifting. Even though I don't read the genre as much anymore, I used to be quite the horror girly. It's a shame I didn't keep some of my older ones with the cool cover art because a lot of them are worth pretty serious money now. But look at that cover art. Look at that hand-painted cover and the gothic font. I NEEDED this book.

I'm actually kind of annoyed about this book because it started out really good. There's some great dynamics at play here: people who consider themselves "native" to the town and don't like the way that society is changing and passing them by; rich city people who want to take advantage and basically ruin everything about the town that drew them there in the first place; and hippies who are resented by virtually everyone even though they're doing the least damage just because they're different and don't do things by the book (aka the bible).

Things get weird when this one lady finds a finger in a box left on her doorstep. And then there's talk about Satan and demon children and weird science and everything starts to get quickly out of hand. I lost interest in this book around page 100, when the bad sex scenes started pouring in. This is a dude that does not know how to write good sex scenes, or portray women in a healthy way. The passage where the husband is describing his wife made my eyes roll so far back into my head that I'm going to have to book an appointment with a proctologist to find them again. And if I never see the phrase "rudimentary breasts" again, I will burn some cute bookmarks on an altar of special edition paperbacks to the book gods.

Should have been alarmed when I saw that some horror reviewers I trusted said, "Better give this one a miss," but I like finding things out for myself because I'm stubborn. So I found out myself that I should have given this one a miss. Oh well.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Always a Temp by Jeannie Watt

 I'm currently in the process of going through some of my book collection and seeing what I want to keep and what I want to get rid of. ALWAYS A TEMP came in a box of romance novels that a friend sent me a while ago and since I haven't actually read that many Harlequins, I'm always excited to give a new author a go and see if they click with me.

ALWAYS A TEMP is a contemporary romance set in a small Nevada mining town. The heroine, Callie, is forced to return to Wesley when her foster mother dies, thus requiring her to settle the estate and tidy up the property. She hasn't been in town since skipping out ten years ago, ditching her boyfriend at the time, Nathan, without even a goodbye.

Now Nathan works at a newspaper and has a leg injury from when he tried to go full investigative reporter. He takes a savage pleasure in denying Callie a job, forcing her to join with a temp agency instead. But the pleasure is bittersweet because he's still attracted to her despite himself and deep down, he craves closure he didn't get.

This is how you do a second chance romance. Idiots in love who broke up when they were too young to know what they had, and come together as full grown adults who are now emotionally equipped to discuss their trauma. The small town vibes were done super well, and the fact that everybody was in everybody else's business further cemented my conviction that I would absolutely lose my mind if I was forced to live in a town like this. I also liked how the author made Callie the one who couldn't admit, and how she did a lot of "annoying" things that were a result of unresolved childhood trauma. Even though what she experienced wasn't that bad, from a content warning perspective, it fucked her up in a believable way, and a lot of what she did and felt stemmed from that. It felt realistic.

In terms of spice, this is pretty low. There's one not-so-detailed sex scene with a couple more alluded to. Most of the focus of the book is on the emotional connection between them, and in the background of this is a series of arson-related crimes, small town politics, and sexual harassment. All of these subjects were handled well, and the end result was a really good romance with a surprising amount of depth. I'm definitely going to have to look for more books by this author. This was such a satisfying read.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood


Previous review: Why does that look like Kylo Ren and Rey wearing lab coats tho

I have a reputation for being a harsh reviewer, but honestly-- I'm just immune to hype. If I like a book, I like a book, whether it's popular or not. Usually, I find myself not liking hyped books, so I tend to avoid them, but as someone who works in STEM and did lab research, something about the premise of this book was constantly beckoning me. I NEEDED it.

Now that I have read the book, I have some thoughts.


✔️ The STEM angle. I did get the impression while reading this that the author was on comfortable and familiar territory. I felt that way about reading LOVE ON THE BRAIN, too. It blends into the narrative in a really nice and satisfying way. You get the, "Oh yeah, I'm reading about science! SCIENCE RULES!" vibe, but it never feels inaccessible. You're in on the joke. That's not always easy to do with technical writing, so I admired that in this romance.
✔️Adam. Look, he might have the personality of a sour glass of milk, but do we stan a gentle giant of a consent king? Yes the fuck we do. I'm starting to suspect that Ivy League Professor love interests are basically celebrity romances for stuck-up dark academia girlies. The way people swoon in this man's presence like they're at a Daisy and the Six concert in Daisy and the Six just cracks me up.
✔️The food descriptions. I'm a sucker for a food-friendly romance. And if you're going to have a book set in Palo Alto, you gotta dig in (literally! nom nom nom) to the California food scene. Which this book did. To my appreciation.
✔️ The weird cheap dates. They're students and supposed to be broke. So I don't know, I thought it was kind of cute how one of their dates was a stereotypical coffee date and another was a trip to get their flu shots together. I don't know, it just felt very college. (Plus, pro-vaccine!)
✔️ The sex scenes. Were honestly fine! But BookTok would have you believe that this is Fifty Shades of Science, though, and it is not. On the spice scale, this ranks so low that a Midwestern housewife might actually use it to season her mashed potato casserole. This isn't even a chili. It's black pepper with a kick. Yes, it's open door, but it's very vanilla and pretty brief.


❌️ My sense of disbelief has been thoroughly snapped. The entirety of this book hinges on Olive kissing Adam (not consensually) to trick her friend into thinking she's over a guy. Then they fake date to (1) continue this ruse of lying to her friend and (2) trick Adam's superiors into thinking that he isn't going to move away and get a better job. I haven't read this much pathological-lying-for-fun-and-profit since Sophia Kinsella's Shopaholic series. Lying is not just a cute little misunderstanding. I know people can be nonconfrontational but this really did feel pathological.
❌️ The demisexual(?) rep. Olive appears to be coded as demisexual because at one point she tells Adam that she has a low sex drive and can't really have sex with people unless she feels an emotional connection. But then, ofc, she becomes a total size queen who's horny for Adam... and it starts to feel kind of like she was "cured" by sex. I will not understate the value of a sexual relationship that makes you feel emotionally and psychologically "seen," but if Olive was demisexual, I wish she had used the label and there had been more context for her sexuality, and why she feels the way she does.
❌️ He can fit her whole boob in his mouth. I did not need to know this. But now, alas, I do. Also she's the tiniest smol-smol pixie girl to ever stand at a mighty 5'8" and there's like several mentions of how Adam's monstercock and monsterhands are so BIIIIIIIG that he might, idk, snap her like a wishboner. I rolled my eyes over all of this a lot. I know it's a kink, but it's not mine.
❌️ There's a lot of hate for the sciences in a book that's supposed to be empowering to women. I wouldn't say this if it weren't also present in the other book by the author that I read, but... for a "STEMinist" book, it kind of feels like this book hates women in the sciences. Both this book and LotB had conflicts that revolved around the heroine suffering some HUGE (police-involvement-level) harassment campaigns as a result of her gender that interfered with her work. Both this book and LotB feature heroines who seem almost disillusioned with their work and aren't really sure they're in academia for the right reasons. Both this book and LotB kind of give the impression that it's every girl for herself in the science world, which P.S. sucks by the way, so it ends up giving not-like-other-girls.
❌️ BIG MISUNDERSTANDINGS EVERYWHERE. If you like this trope, you'll be happy. But I'm not a fan of big misunderstandings where both otherwise reasonable characters are deliberately and out-of-characteristically obdurate for the sole purpose of furthering the plot.

So overall, this book was fine. I'm surprised the author gets as much hate as she does for her books because they do what they set out to do. LOVE ON THE BRAIN is definitely a superior work, though, so I'm actually super curious about her most recent releases because she does seem to be improving with each subsequent book. My advice is to go into these expecting an airport chicklit sort of read, except with a hefty seasoning of some easily digestible science facts. 

I know I'm probably forgetting to say more stuff but I think my review more than substantiates the rating.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Bride Enchanted by Edith Layton


After reading THE DUKE'S WAGER by this author, I definitely wanted to check out more of her work. I actually just finished reading Susan Krinard's Fane series, which is a historical romance about immortal beings. When I found out that BRIDE ENCHANTED was also a historical romance about immortal beings, I was excited. There aren't a ton of older fantasy romances out there, and this one hadn't been on any of the lists I usually look at.

BRIDE ENCHANTED starts out super slow and the purple prose makes it so cheesy, but it ends up almost having these gothic Bluebeard vibes. The heroine, Eve, is plain and kind of looked over. So she's shocked when a handsome noble named Aubrey comes to town and appears to be in love with her at first sight. Given her low self-esteem about her looks, Eve is suspicious of this, and puts him off until she reluctantly admits to herself that maybe one oughtn't look a handsome husband in the mouth.

But then things get weirder. Like, he's a little too excited about children and a little too secretive about his past. He's cagey about his family and doesn't want her anywhere near his sister, who leers at Eve like she knows something she doesn't. Eventually, Eve gets super suspicious and goes to the sister, and she learns some really weird stuff about her husband, like that he was married before and didn't choose her for love.

I don't want to say too much more about this book but I did like it. This is pretty wallpaper historical as far as fantasy romances go, but I did like how it followed the typical narrative arc of late-90s/early-2000s paranormal romances. One of the reviewers for this book said it was like Twilight, and I think that's a great comparison. Aubrey is patriarchal and overbearing in his "kindness" to the heroine. I wish there had been more action but it wasn't bad. It's too bad she didn't write anymore paranormals. I kind of wish there were more books set in this world.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Lord of Legends by Susan Krinard


I've been working my way through Susan Krinard's Fane series, and I think it's safe to say that I'm obsessed. You know you're on to something amazing when you find yourself thinking that this is a world you never want to leave. I was honestly kind of disappointed that Cordelia and Donal didn't make an appearance in this book, as I was hoping that maybe this would be about their son or daughter, but hey, I'm down to read about Arion, former king of the unicorns, and his human lover.

This book is very strange and definitely has a sort of LAST UNICORN vibe. Mariah is married to a hunter named Donnington but he abandoned her on their wedding night, leaving it unconsummated. Everyone in town thinks that this is sus on a bus, especially his nosy and cold-hearted mother, Vivian, and his would be lover, Lady Westlake. While exploring the estate one day, Mariah goes into her husband's folly (basically a structure built for amusement/decor), and finds to her horror that there is a man trapped inside in a cage who looks like the photo negative version of her husband.

The cover shows a man with dark hair, but the book repeatedly says that his hair is silver. So obviously I was picturing him as Astarion from Baldur's Gate (he even sort of has a similar name, I mean-- Arion, Astarion... it fits). Anyway, she ends up naming the man Ash and befriending him, while enlisting her brother in law's help to save him from imprisonment. What ensues is really strange. They end up in Prince Albert's circle, staying with him and his set while they party nightly and indulge in some casual adultery. All the while, rumors fly about Mariah's own infidelities and the supposed madness she might have inherited from her asylum-confined mother, as she tries to discover the horrific reason for why her husband would confine another man and then leave him in a cage, half-starved.

I loved the beginning of the book. I thought it had major Bluebeard vibes. The ending left much to be desired, though. I thought LORD OF THE FOREST had a bit of a rushed ending but this one was honestly frankly ridiculous. I ended up leaving the book with even more questions than I had before. I was originally thinking I was going to give this four stars, rounded up from 3.5, but as I'm writing all of this out, I'm realizing how unsatisfied I felt by this book. Also, the sex scenes were... disappointing. Way too much gushing from both parties. I'm not a fan.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sweet Pretence by Jacqueline Gilbert


This was honestly a pretty pleasant surprise. I don't normally like second chance romance novels, but this one was decent. I think it worked because it felt like maybe when they met, they just weren't at a place in their lives where they were right for each other (I think the hero was the heroine's professor). When they meet again, the heroine is actually a TV producer. I'm ok with heroines having traditionally feminine jobs because I know some people get fulfillment from such roles, but it's exciting to see heroines in executive or STEM jobs, as well, and considering that this was published in the 80s, that felt especially noteworthy.

The romance itself is only okay. Neither character felt particularly noteworthy to me. Freddy and Joe worked with each other, but they did feel a little two dimensional. I liked how Freddy was a single mother and had healthy female friendships. This is just a really sweet, one-and-done type romance, which is a better palate cleanser than it is a memorable read, but honestly, there's a time and a place for that kind of book, too. I'd definitely consider reading more from this author.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 14, 2023

Only You by Elizabeth Lowell


Elizabeth Howell's heroes tend to be a lot like Sandra Brown's or Linda Howard. They write alphas-of-the-earth: salty cowboy/rancher types who smoke Marlboros and wear Carhartt jackets, and ho around. It's not my favorite archetype of old skool hero but sometimes I am deceived into reading them anyway and sometimes, I even enjoy them.

ONLY YOU came in a bankers box of books that a friend gave me. The summary really intrigued me because it opens with the heroine using her body as stakes in a poker game. However, this didn't come into fruition the way I'd hoped it would. I thought it was going to end up being a blackmailed mistress romance (my favorite trope) but instead the game ends in a shootout and the hero catches up to the heroine and basically forces her to translate and guide him with this treasure map she has as they Indiana Jones their way across the Old West for Spanish gold.

ONLY YOU has Romancing the Stone vibes in parts, but I didn't like this book as much as I might have because about 300 pages of this book consist of the hero calling the heroine some variant of a scheming, cheating whore. He doesn't believe she's a virgin until he sleeps with her for the first time, and then he's like oop. But even then he's an asshole, because he thinks she'll want to marry him, and he's offended when he finds out otherwise because he wanted the pleasure of refusing her. This piece of work also hates women for wanting comfort and security in their relationships because his ex was a big meany-meanerson who wanted to settle down instead of following him on his adventures, never mind the fact that this dude attracts trouble and stray bullets the way New Twitter collects crypto bros.

The writing in this book was beautiful. I loved the descriptions of nature. There was a passage I quoted in a status update about the mountains being enrobed in trees, and towards the end, sunlit aspens are described as looking like "topaz sentinels." If the hero had been more attractive to me, I might have given this four or even five stars. But no, he's a sexist with a mustache. And to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure whether the unappealing descriptions of his Tom Selleck stache or the slut-shaming bothered me more. (JK, it was obviously the mustache.)*

*Double JK, slut-shaming is wrong and so is describing prostitutes as tainted watering holes

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Lord of the Beasts by Susan Krinard


This book broke my heart and then put it back together about fifty times over the course of my reading this book. LORD OF THE BEASTS is the sequel to THE FOREST LORD, and the hero of this book, Donal, is the son of the hero of the previous book. That doesn't always work, but here it's done magnificently. Donal is half-fae and has the ability to speak to animals. He's kind of like a faerie Dr. Dolittle, and indeed, tells people that he's a veterinarian.

When he meets the heroine, he saves her and her cousin from a rampaging elephant that's escaped from the zoo. Then she goes to his estate, which is basically a farm filled with animals, and realizes that he's also the guardian of the girl who almost robbed her loathsome fiance-to-be, Viscount Inglesham. And seeing his prowess with animals, she ends up having him come to her estate to examine the desolate animals in her menagerie, all of which have been rescued from poachers, in addition to offering a permanent home for his ward, Ivy.

I liked the first book in this series a lot, but it had some notable flaws: uneven pacing, an unbelievable villain, a wishy-washy hero, and a climax that felt a little too, well, pile-on. This book, by contrast, was EVERYTHING I wanted. Donal actually reminded me a lot of Julian Sinclair from DUKE OF SHADOWS: he's noble but so, so lonely, and feels like an outcast from society because of his mixed heritage. He's soft-spoken and soft-hearted, but man, you do not want to fuck with this man or anyone he cares about, because he will END you. That's the stuff of dreams, srsly.

And the heroine in this book, Cordelia Hardcastle, was wonderful. A lot of authors write heroines who are strong and independent, but I liked how Cordelia wouldn't let anyone in and was afraid to let herself feel dependent on anyone. She had such a sad backstory and I loved her so much. I also liked how some of her kindness was selfish, even though it was coming from a good place, and how the author talked about how sometimes we think we're doing good, even though we're really serving ourselves best. There was just so much nuance to her character and she was absolutely perfect for Donal.

There's so much I want to say about this book. Like, how Donal had a teenage ward who was crushing on him and it wasn't creepy at all (seriously the bar is on the floor at this point, but everything about their relationship was handled so deftly). Or how the love for animals in this book was just so wholesome and believable (although there are some animal deaths in here, and talks about animal cruelty). In terms of the environmental messages, there's an almost Ferngully feel to this book at times, but it's done so well that it doesn't feel heavy-handed at all. And sometimes secondary characters take up too much page-time but I loved Ivy and Tod's stories just as much as Donal's and Cordelia's.

Oh, and the VILLAINS. The villains in this book were so good. Especially since the author made them just human enough that you can sort of see where they're coming from (terrifying).

I could ramble on and on but I won't. Just know that this is now a Susan Krinard fan account and I'm probably going to be reading a whole bunch of her other books in the very near future.

5 out of 5 stars

Isabella by Loretta Chase


I recently thrifted ISABELLA for fifty cents and I was excited to give it a whirl, because this book is apparently Loretta Chase's first book, published through the Avon Regency Romance line (which I think is now defunct, sadly). Copies can get pretty pricey. My friend, Courtney McCaskill (who I BR-ed this with!), said in a TikTok that it's not uncommon for copies to go for $35-50!

ISABELLA is the name of the heroine, a spinster who is-- I believe-- 29. There were a lot of characters so I was kind of confused about what was going on, but I believe she comes from a wealthy mercantile family, and moved in with her cousin and their family to be closer to London, in exchange for the cousins getting a bit of that sweet sweet cash for wardrobes and the like for their own debuts.

Anyway, while they're all dress-shopping, Isabella finds a small child crying under a dress in a dress shop. She is the ward of Edward, Earl of Hartleigh, and has run away because he's super starchy and as with a lot of kids, she thinks he's being mean when he's just being stern. When Isabella takes her back to her guardian, he's short with her and kind of yells at her, which he almost immediately feels bad about.

Meanwhile, Edward's cousin, Basil, is being hounded by his creditors, likes the cut of Isabella's jib, and decides that she's not so ugly he couldn't put up with her face for the sake of her money (no, seriously, this is basically how his logic goes). He starts courting her and even tries to compromise her in an attempt to force her into marriage, with a little bit of blackmail thrown in for funsies, all the while Isabella and Edward are falling for each other but both of them are too uptight to admit it.

In some ways this reminded me of a less exciting version of Edith Layton's THE DUKE'S WAGER. Something about the two rival dudes both making a play for the stubborn and proper heroine's hand, you know? However, rather than choosing between the lesser of two morally bankrupt men, ISABELLA is about a noble but uptight man and his grasping and shallow cousin. Initially I was like, wow, Basil is hot. But Chase very quickly made me hate him. Which is a shame because I think he's actually the hero of the next book. How are you going to redeem that clown, I wonder?

For a debut, this is pretty polished and I enjoyed. I do think there were a lot of characters to keep track of for such a short book and they could occasionally bog the narrative down. There were also some formatting issues which, based on other reviews, seem to have made it into the ebook as well: lots of mid-paragraph POV swaps that make it hard to keep track of who is narrating. But honestly, I'm impressed. I wish my first book had been this neat. If you like closed-door regency, you'll like this.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

A Pirate of Her Own by Kinley MacGregor


DNF p.50

I realized something about myself today. I like pirate romances, but I don't like goofy pirate romances. Catherine Hart really tested my patience with SPLENDOR and this one was even worse, because at least SPLENDOR had a curse hanging over the hero's head like the sword of Damocles to sort of draw out the tension and provide some stakes.

Cliff's notes edition of what I did read:

-Hero is a blockade runner who liberates Americans from the Evil British
-Heroine wears glasses but we're told how much prettier she is without them
-Hero drives his ship alllll the way to the U.S. just because he read the Georgian equivalent of a BuzzFeed article talking about, idk, 11 Reasons the Sea Wolf Is the Most Misunderstood Pirate, Actually
-Heroine basically thinks the hero is a pirate strippergram (but make it PG) that her brother sent over to fuck with her

This is too much. I yield. I yield.

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews


When I saw Kristina's review of THE SIREN OF SUSSEX, my interest was piqued. The cover had initially captured my eye because it felt like such a throwback to those retro historicals of the 70s and 80s, with the big, bold marquee-style font, some of which even featured the hero or the heroine (or both) on horseback.

That's where the similarity ends, though. This is a very nuanced book, and totally devoid of spice (RIP, smut). Instead, it is a sensual, relationship-focused book between a horsewoman named Evelyn and a tailor named Ahmad. Evelyn comes from a good family but her reputation is threatened because her sister absconded with their titled neighbor's son, and is now living "in sin" with him in France. She needs to make a marriage of her own to save her own siblings' prospects and reputations but she's hopeless in a ballroom, so she decides the best way to catch the eye of the public is by showing off her equestrienne skills in fine clothes, just like The Pretty Horsebreakers.

Ahmad, on the other hand, is a biracial man of Indian decent who works in a tailor shop. People often mistake him for the help but he's actually next in line to own it. The women who pay for his services take advantage of his precarious situation in society to both sexually harass him and stiff him on the bill, and he puts up with it because he can't afford to alienate any patrons. Which is why he's surprised and delighted when Evelyn comes to him and make her demands. With a partnership of this nature, her being seen and admired will get them both what they want.

This was just such a great book. I know I have some friends who NEED smut in their romance or they're bored, but for me, the emotional connection and intimacy between the characters is way more important than sex. Like, I prefer to have both, but if given the choice between an erotica novel that doesn't have much story or connection, just tons of hot sex, or a romance novel that is entirely emotionally driven and filled with pining, I'll choose the later even if they don't bang. Mimi Matthews made eye contact and hand holding what some authors can't even do with a touch on the thigh, okay? There was PINING. There was CONNECTION. There was ROMANCE.

Ahmad is also just such a great hero. He sewed pockets into her dress for her glasses! He helped her find her missing sister and escorted her through the worst part of London to make sure she didn't get hurt. :') And he was just so perfect for Evelyn, who is my favorite no-nonsense sort of heroine. I also loved that the author gave her a big nose and glasses. When you read book after book with stunningly beautiful heroine, it's fun to encounter characters with less conventional features. I also liked that one of Evelyn's friends has prematurely gray hair. Little things like that just feel so inclusive, you know?

If you're looking for a solid romance with an anti-colonialism narrative, a beautiful love story, and a relatively realistic (I mean, what do I know?) and well-researched historical setting, read this book. It's perfect for the horse girlies out there who grew up with My Little Pony and Misty and thought to themselves, "What next?!"

4 out of 5 stars

Flirting with Forever by Gwyn Cready


The clearance section at one of my favorite used bookstores always has the weirdest shit in it and the last time I went, I found this book in there for $1. Some time travel books can be so ridiculously weird that they basically can only be enjoyed as (good) bad camp, and that's what this book was. How else to explain what is basically fanfic about real life Restoration-era artist, Peter Lely? Move over, Harry Styles. I sense a new AO3 trend on the rise!

Also, you know how this goes. There are going to be SPOILERS. So if you were really, really dying to read FLIRTING WITH FOREVER and want to go in as pure as the driven snow, don't read this review.

Basically, when you die, you are born again (the Buddhists were right), but the afterlife is a big fat bureaucracy and until they can arrange for a new body for you, you have to do favors for the Timey Wimey Society (note: not their actual name, but you know). Peter Lely is heartbroken over the death of his wife and desperate to be reborn, but first he has to stop the heroine, Cam(pbell) (note: no relation) from writing a Behind the Music-esque expose on another famous artist, Van Dyck.

Cam travels back to Amazon by-- and I kid you not-- using the "Look Inside!" feature on Amazon while browsing a historical book about art, and ends up in Lely's studio while he's painting Nell Gwyn. There's like one hundred pages about Cam modelling for him and being super turned on by his hotness which eventually culminates in some sexy stuff. But then Lely sabotages Cam's book and she decides to get revenge... by writing about him and his wife, who he still hasn't gotten over.

There's so much drama in this book. Like, Cam has an ex-boyfriend named Jacket who does mixed-media painting work and who I'm pretty sure was inspired by Russell Brand. Her sister is also her coworker and competitor in all things and is cheating on her with Jacket. The Timey Wimey Society is also running around and being like, "With great time travel comes great responsibility, so don't fuck around and find out with the future!" but obviously this is a time travel romance so the odds of people fucking around and finding out with the feature are pretty much 1000%.

As a romance, this book is kind of a fail because the couple didn't really know each other for that long so it felt more like lust than love. And even if you buy the insta-love connection, Lely was SO obsessed with his wife that it kind of felt like the heroine was just a placeholder for her (especially since they looked so similar). I don't know, it gave me uncomfy vibes. I can be okay with romances where the hero or heroine is moving on from a previous spouse (in fact I encourage the rep!), but their new romance should feel authentic or it just doesn't really end up feeling fair to either character.

There is an HEA but I thought this book was ridiculous so I didn't buy it. That said, I am giving it a three because the dated aughts cultural references (remember when Netflix mailed you DVD rentals? remember AOL?) and the fact that the heroine was able to get two bars on her cell phone IN RESTORATION ENGLAND WHERE THERE ARE NO CELL PHONE TOWERS is just too good.

Look, I may seem like a picky bitch but all I demand is entertainment.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry by Joya Goffney


I read something else by this author and didn't really like it, but EXCUSE ME WHILE I UGLY CRY was amazing. I can't remember the last time I read a YA rom-com that I enjoyed this much. This book is proof that you shouldn't always write an author off just because you didn't like one of their books. Sometimes the one you read after that is the one that surprises you.

The premise is simple but works. Quinn is the daughter of two Black parents with incredibly intimidating jobs: doctor and lawyer. They met in Columbia and want her to go to the same college, but she's been struggling in school and typed up a fake letter of acceptance to trick her parents into thinking she got in... but now graduation's looming and she still hasn't told her parents the truth. She's also estranged from her ex-best friend and catching feelings for her childhood best friend. With no one to confide in, she writes in her journal.

But then she loses the journal.

And someone starts blackmailing her with it, saying that if she doesn't complete one of her lists of goals, every day a new post from her journal will get leaked and everyone in school will be tagged.

In case that premise wasn't juicy enough, she's helped by school photographer, Livvy, and bad boy, Carter, who isn't actually all that bad. It ends up feeling almost like one of those road trip novels even though it's mostly set in the same small town because of all the things Quinn ends up doing, and how going through her goals ends up speeding up her character development from questioning her identity to really solidifying her sense of self. There's also a lot of really great redemption arcs in this book for everyone, and I liked how almost all of the "bad" people were just flawed people trying to figure themselves out, even as they projected their own biases and insecurities onto others.

I don't want to say too much else about this book because I don't want to spoil it, but I do feel like the TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED comparison in this book really works. In addition to being a rom-com, it also explores Black identity and female friendships and first love. I'll honestly be shocked if this doesn't end up as a Netflix TV show within the next five years. It should be.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 3, 2023

WtAFW: Uncommonly Verdant: An Arborous & Amorous Fairy Tale by Daria Vernon


As soon as I heard about UNCOMMONLY VERDANT, I knew I had to read it as one of my What the Actual Fuck Wednesday reads. Woman gets down and dirty with a plant man, with sus culty shenanigans? NEED. Disclaimer: I'm friends with the author but I paid for this book with my own hard-owned money and this is my honest review.

The book starts out pretty sad. Althea, the heroine, wakes up to find out that she was killed by the cultists in her town. They have decided that the portwine birthmark on her face signifies that she will be the destruction of their village, so they stabbed her in the heart and left her as a sacrifice for the forest guardian of the wood surrounding the village.

Silvanus, however, soon realizes that Althea did nothing wrong. Which is why he brought her back to life, stitching the wound over her heart closed and making it bloom with flowers. At first she's horrified by him and by her new state, but she quickly warms to the situation. After all, the forest is beautiful and Silvanus is a gentle soul.*

*Except when he isn't. >:D

I'm happy to crown this a WtAFW success! A lot of these monsterica and niche erotica books aren't well written and are marketed more for the whimsy than they are for the quality of their writing. That is not the case with UNCOMMONLY, which is uncommonly well-written, with beautiful prose in places, and a surprisingly touching relationship for a book that is-- *stifles giggle*-- 69 pages in length.

This is one of the few books where I wish it was actually longer. I would have loved a full-length novel with these characters, showing Althea in the village, her sacrifice, and then maybe more of a courtship between her and Silvanus (who is a total gentleman monster and consent king(TM)). When he says that her birthmark is like a cherry tree after the rain? SWOON. And when he makes her little heart flower bloom with phlox because that's her favorite? DOUBLE SWOON. For what it is, it's wonderful. I'm definitely going to have to check out more of this author's work because this was great.**

**Even though there's no tree-dicks or tree-fucking.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Claimed in the Italian's Castle by Caitlin Crews


Bluebeard is one of my favorite fairytales, so obviously when I found out that one of my favorite Harlequin authors wrote a retelling of my favorite fairytale, I was all over that like white on rice. Set in Italy, this is the story of Angelina and Benedetto. Angelina comes from a rich line of hotel moguls that is now very much down on their luck, mostly thanks to her father. Benedetto, on the other hand, can trace his family back to the fall of the Roman Empire, and is known as the Butcher of Castello Nero because of his sinister appearance and six missing wives.

Angelina's dad is more interested in money than he is for his daughters' safety, so he basically accepts a huge dowry in exchange for one of his three daughters. Petronella and Dorotea are both flighty and flirty and self-absorbed with superficial things, but Angelina is convent-raised and just wants to play piano. I think we know who Benedetto is gonna pick.

Anyway, they have a pretty spicy courtship for a Harlequin novel, and an even spicier wedding night. But then he gives her a key and is like this is the key to the door you must not open. And we all know what's going to happen. She's absolutely going to open that door.

This reminded me a lot of the author's other book, UNDONE BY THE BILLIONAIRE DUKE. It is cheekily anachronistic. In UNDONE, the heroine's first encounter with the hero is while he's on horseback. In this book, he lives in a freaking castle and they dine by candlelight. Not because he doesn't have power, the heroine deliberately points out, but just for the mood. This hero is so extra that his bed sheets are blood-red and have actual rubies sewn on them. He is SO dramatic and over the top that you just know he's gotta be a theater kid. Do we stan? I think we do.

I was 50% there for the spicy scenes I knew were forthcoming and 50% there because I wanted to find out what happened when the heroine opened the door. The reveal was... a little silly. But I wasn't mad. By making the hero so EXTRA, she left herself a lot of wiggle-room. Every time he did something that I would find ridiculous in another hero, I could just nod and be like, "Yeah, that's just a Benedetto thing. He's so extra." If you like gothic romances, you'll love this. When I reached out to this author to rave about her work, and how much I enjoyed the gothic undertones, she said something like how this was the one where she went completely over-the-top. She was not wrong, and I enjoyed it. Gothic overtones, and all.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Draw Down the Moon by Bobby Hutchinson



Officially, I gave up somewhere around page fifty but I did some skimming in the middle and towards the end to see if the book got better. It didn't. This is such a frustrating read because I was initially super excited to find an '80s romance with disability rep. The heroine, Jessie, used to be a ballerina until she suffered an accident. Now she uses a wheelchair but is still living her best life, working as a radio DJ and trying to do marathons to prove to herself that she can still experience bodily autonomy even if in a different way. That is such a GREAT message and I loved the idea of that.

***TW: Ableism***

The hero is apparently a retired hostage negotiator and that sounded potentially interesting as well, since it seems like he probably has emotional baggage (high stress job and early retirement at age 38? Some kind of shit went down). I was all set to like this book. And then I get to the beginning of the story where the hero is like dehumanizing the heroine, calling her "inhuman" and making all these disgusting remarks about how helpless and feminine she looks in her wheelchair. And then, as a "compassionate man in full use of his limbs," he grabs hold of her chair while they're doing the same marathon and pushes her to the finish line-- without her permission-- disqualifying them both.

This was so cringe that I almost DNF-ed right there but I read on, where I was treated to all of the heroine's friends rightfully telling this POS what an invasive creep he is. She shoots down his apology and the hero's response is to GO TO HIS COP FRIEND AND LOOK UP HER ADDRESS WITH HER LICENSE PLATE. And while the cop friend gleefully does this, he joins the ableism party as well, saying that women like her probably don't get married unless they were married before their accident. WOW. And then the hero shows up to her house and is once again confronted by one of her friends, who calls him out, being like, "Oh, you want to apologize? Sounds like you're just trying to make yourself feel better." YES. SAY IT LOUDER FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK. But unfortunately the friend gets suckered into the bro vibes, and is like, "You know, I like the cut of your jib."

I flipped to the back of the book, where the hero introduces the heroine to his nephews, who pepper the heroine with questions like, "Being handicapped means someone always has to take care of you, right?" and "I heard handicapped people can't have kids." The heroine is traumatized and the hero just basically sits on his hands during this conversation. So I'm assuming that the cringe is strong in this one.

Look, I understand that this was the 80s and this book was probably quite progressive for its time. The fact that it exists at all is kind of amazing since I can't think of many other romances featuring heroines with disabilities that were pre-2000s. It's easy to look back with hindsight and be like, "Wow, that is so problematic." Because part of the beauty of living in the modern age is that we have a modern vocabulary and a modern understanding that lets us unpack why things are hurtful and problematic, as well as a means of connecting with people who live these experiences every day and are therefore in a position to not just point out why this sort of representation is wrong (not their jobs, btw), but also to share their own authentic stories for the benefit of people like them, who want to see themselves in the stories that they read.

I don't get the impression that this author meant harm; there are some repudiations of the hero's behavior that read as very modern, coming from both the heroine and her supporters and friends. But this is still an infuriating read and I don't think I'll be finishing it. Yikes.

1 out of 5 stars