Saturday, September 30, 2023

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton


The fact that this is shelved as a romance by so many people shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how romance novels work. DRAGONWYCK is a genre-crossing gothic with romantic elements, but I'd say it's closer to a dark love story with a nontraditional HEA. People coming to this book expecting gothic romance in the vein of Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart are going to be incredibly disappointed.

I picked this up as part of my Jane Eyre derivatives challenge that I'm doing. I would say that this is more derivative than straight-up retelling, because it's more of a collection of the same tropes that were in Jane, but Seton makes the novel completely her own. Miranda is the beautiful, idealistic daughter of a farmer, who looks down on her family and envisions a fairytale sort of life for herself (as all teens do). When her rich Dutch cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn, sends for her to be a governess/nanny for his child, it feels like a dream come true. Of course, her religious father is against it, but she ends up tricking him by thumbing to a bible passage at their family reading that makes it seem like it is her God-given destiny to go.

Once she is at Dragonwyck, things are immediately sus. First off, a caveat: there is so much fat-shaming in this book. Nicholas is married to a heavy woman named Johanna, and the narrative wastes no time in immediately portraying her as a sickening human being. Which is doubly awful because it's clear from the story that she is suffering postpartum depression and emotional abuse, and has turned to food as comfort. She is ruthlessly shamed for it, by the narrative, by Nicholas, by Miranda, and virtually everyone else who looks at her. Her young daughter, Katrine, who is plump, is also repeatedly fat-shamed. It was honestly hard to read, and a little infuriating, so I think people who are sensitive to this shouldn't read this book at all. I was honestly surprised more people weren't discussing this, tbh. I had to comb through the negative reviews before I found someone mentioning it. So be forewarned.

Right away, Nicholas begins flirting with his cousin, and Miranda is only too happy to flaunt their relationship in the face of his wife, because she thinks Johanna is pathetic and doesn't love Nicholas the way she would. When Johanna dies suddenly and conveniently, Nicholas tells her literally the next day that he'll marry her instead, and gives her a betrothal ring before sending her home. For a year, Miranda angsts and sulks, and drives her family crazy with her selfishness and her new airs, wondering if he's actually going to marry her, or if she was just yet another thing that he became interested in before exchanging for a new and shiny bauble. But send for her he does, and that's when shit gets weird.

Nicholas is basically a straight-up sociopath and Miranda is very vain and self-centered, so if this is a Jane Eyre retelling, it's a retelling that explores the dynamic if it occurred within a vacuum of moral bankruptcy. That dynamic is interesting but not particularly romantic. Which is why I feel like this is less a romance than it is a morality play. Seton comments on a lot of things in the metatext, like the hypocrisy of the rich, the double standards of decency for rich versus poor, people's reluctance to overthrow systems of oppression even when it would benefit them because the fear of change and flouting tradition is worse than the abstract pain they receive from it now, and the soul-crushing emptiness of a sociopath's inner-workings when they run out of things to live for.

It's a chilling book, and an interesting one, but I had to set it down halfway through because it was just so frustrating. I think most contemporary readers would find this work off-putting, and even people who enjoy vintage romance might not like this because, as I said, it's HEA is definitely non-traditional. This honestly reminded me of a happier version of Marilyn Harris's BLEDDING SORROW, another gothic tragedy that shows a doomed family in all of its deterministic horror.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, September 28, 2023

The Madness of Miss Grey by Julia Bennet


It's so hard to find historical romances coming out that don't feel like literal cut and pastes, but THE MADNESS OF MISS GREY is it. Set in a Victorian asylum, it is a romance between a patient and her doctor, and if that sounds toxic... well, that's because it kind of is. But romance is about fantasy, and who hasn't wished for someone in a position of authority to whisk them away from their unhappiness during their darkest times?

Helen has been confined to a private hospital by an unknown man with lots of power. In the hospital, she is subject to sadistic treatments by people who seem to enjoy their power over a lot more than they should. Her doctor is kind of like Claude Frollo, and his chief nurse definitely gives Nurse Ratched vibes. When a new doctor interferes with her escape, and ends up treating her for hypothermia, she mocks him for his "common" accent. That's because Dr. Carter grew up as the son of the help before getting his degree.

He's fascinated by Helen, who is the daughter of an actress, and adept at manipulating people to get her own way. Even though he knows he's being manipulated, he can't help but marvel at the sheer level of desperation she must feel to work her wiles on someone who poses such a potential threat. So in spite of his best interests, with the fate of his own career hanging over his head, he decides to help her, and find out who locked her away here-- and why.

The gothic atmosphere of this book was EVERYTHING. Also, the angst? *chef's kiss* It gives hurt/comfort fanfic vibes. There's just something so satisfying about seeing two characters in peril clinging to each other like sailors to a mast. Also I loved how Helen was so strong and simultaneously so vulnerable. It was refreshing to see a heroine who was manipulative and realistically flawed, and I loved that she wasn't a virgin. On that same note, I loved the author's decision to make Dr. Carter kind of ugly-- or at least, you know, super plain. He's self-conscious about his looks and his station (we find out he used to have sex with his late wife with the lights off D':), and the way Helen comes to idolize him for his goodness, and his strength, is just so, so sweet.

Anyone who likes dark romance but is tired of alpha heroes will love this romance, because in THE MADNESS OF MISS GREY, Julia Bennet has gift-wrapped for us a beta hero who simps hard for his woman and would tread through the very rivers of hell to bring her back from the dead.


4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Midsummer Night by Freda Warrington


Whoa. Even though this was 200 pages shorter than ELFLAND, it felt twice as long. I think part of that beefiness is because ELFLAND is a more accessible story: beneath all the fantasy trappings and trimmings, it's a story of family drama, and an enemies-to-lovers story spun out over decades. MIDSUMMER NIGHT has some of that, too, but it's more bitter in terms of execution, and I feel like the author was reaching more, to make her concepts bigger, and larger-than-life.

In this book, we're again met with a pretty large cast of characters. Gill is a half-Indian/half-English woman who used to be a champion runner until she suffered an injury that left her with chronic, debilitating pain. She ends up going to an artist's commune for secret reasons, which is run by a woman named Dame Juliana, who makes these impressive, mythical mixed-media sculptures that are eerie and seem to be alive. A lot of other artists live with her and worship at her feet, including the mysterious Peta, who makes masks that are similarly alarming-looking.

The plot-- what little there is-- kicks off when Gill discovers a secret path into a township that shouldn't exist. A man she meets there escapes from it and ends up at the commune, causing a stir because he looks like a man who disappeared long ago. His appearance kicks up all this old dust about family secrets and feuds, the governing of magic, and-- of course-- the question as to whether the man desperately and ruthlessly searching for him is his concerned brother... or an ancient evil.

I liked MIDSUMMER NIGHT a lot but I think it's harder to like because it doesn't have the romance of the first book. There is romance in this book but it's few and far between and isn't always satisfying, so people seeking that out are going to be bitterly disappointed. I also feel like this book didn't always feel like it knew where it was going or what it wanted to be, hence why the pacing felt so off. Warrington is unquestionably a brilliant storyteller, though, and she especially likes to use colors to set or convey a scene, which works especially well in a book like this, where one of the motifs is expression of art.

I'm not sure whether I loved or hated some of the characters in here; all I know is I'll be picking this one out of my teeth for a while. It's definitely a book that stays with you, and causes a little bit of discomfort and anguish even after you have the satisfaction of finishing it in its entirety.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

A House with Good Bones by T. Kingfisher


I hate to say it since T. Kingfisher is one of my favorite authors and usually I can't get enough of what she writes, but this honestly would have been better as a short story. A HOUSE WITH GOOD BONES is the story of Sam, who goes to her mother's house in rural North Carolina after her brother calls her up and tells her that she seems "off." Almost immediately, Sam can see what she means. The changes they've made to the place after Sam's grandmother's death are all gone. The racist Confederate painting is back in its place of pride, the walls have been painted ghastly colors, and the rose bushes are flourishing.

Something is very wrong with the house... and with Sam's mom.

...But what?

So one thing I really like about T. Kingfisher is that she's great about writing REALLY creepy stories that end up feeling almost cozy. I don't know how to describe it, except that reading them gives me the same safe-but-scared feeling that I got from reading Point Horror and Goosebumps as a kid. Maybe it's because her heroines are always plucky and affably anxious, and maybe it's because the animal sidekicks almost never die, but even though I'm a wuss when it comes to most gore and horror, I can always pick up her books, no problem.

Usually, the atmosphere-to-cozy ratio is perfect but in this book it felt off. The story felt dragged out and silly, and while there were "good bones" for a story in this book, the execution really wasn't that great. I loved the fat rep and the fact that the heroine was a bug archaeologist (super neat), and there were a couple ghastly scenes that were worth writing home about, but I left the book feeling pretty disappointed. So far, THE HOLLOW PLACES reigns supreme, followed closely by THE TWISTED ONES. Here's hoping that this was a one-off and that she hasn't lost her magic.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Jillian Dare: A Modern Retelling of Jane Eyre by Melanie M. Jeschke


DNF @ 51%

This was actually quite well written, it was the story itself that beggars belief. The author made the odd choice of setting this in 2008, and yet writing it as if it were still historical. The end result is stilted and painfully anachronistic, and underscores something I had never really noticed in christian romance before, or at least never been quite able to put my finger on: so many of them portray close-mindedness as a virtue. The heroine in this book, Jillian, grew up without a TV. She doesn't know who Colin Firth is, can barely recognize a British accent, and refuses to drink in countries where she is the legal drinking age because she's not the American legal drinking age. She thinks "Marta" is hard to remember and hard to pronounce, and sits quietly with her little salad while the men around her talk over their steaks.

I honestly feel like this would have been better if it had been set in the 1950s or earlier. Part of the problem with modernizing classic works of literature is keeping the spirit of the characters while making them believable in the modern times. Jeschke made her hero a billionaire telecom/movie producer guy, but she gave him the lifestyle of an uptight christian man. She made her heroine a fresh-out-of-college twenty-year-old but she feels like she escaped from a doomsday bunker.

It's not bad, it's just boring. I'd recommend this to people who like Pure Flix movies.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Abigail Jones by Grace Callaway

 WOW. This is everything I want out of a dark gothic romance: strong heroine, tortured hero, vibes for days, moral ambiguity, just the tiniest bit of dub-con and a little bit of kink, and a little bit of the paranormal. I'm honestly shocked Grace Callaway wrote this, to be honest, because her newer stuff seems like it's for the fluffies, but this was DARK. Also, it's a Jane Eyre retelling?

I loved it.

Abigail Jones works as a maid in the Earl of Huxton's house. She's bookish and quiet and keeps to herself, but beneath the prudish exterior lies a dark secret: her mother was a prostitute who died in an asylum having fucked-up visions, and Abigail fears she'll end up exactly the same. She has nightmares constantly, and sometimes, during the day, she sees things that terrify her... and excite her.

After an encounter with the Earl in the library (ahem), he promotes her to the role of secretary, entrusting her as his confidant. But the closer she gets to him, the less she really knows. What's the deal with the painting of the creepy but beautiful woman in his library? What about the mysterious death of his late wife and his older brother? Where does he go all day and why does he sleep with so many women? The questions keep piling up, and the more there are, the less sure Abby is that she wants to know the answer. This doesn't even really scrape at the surface of what the book is REALLY about but I don't want to spoil things.

No, seriously. That WTF pivot in the middle is priceless.

I just loved this book so much, okay? It showed up on a list of JANE EYRE retellings and since this was one of the few that seemed to be taking the tried and true gothic route, I was immediately intrigued. The way that the author wove the foundational bits into her story while still making it absolutely her own was ingenious. This is one of those books where after I finished it, I walked away thinking, "I wish I'd thought of that." Even when things got kind of weird, I was still into it... because it was my brand of weird. The atmosphere was just as good as the romance, and the writing was simply luscious.

I'm surprised this book has such low ratings but I think part of the problem is how it was probably marketed. The contemporary historical romance crowd tends to prefer lighter fare, so if this was marketed with them in mind as an audience, I think many of them would be disgusted or put off. In terms of theme, I feel like this would actually be a better match for most dark romance readers: the gore, depravity, and morally gray antihero just fit in really neatly with what they tend to want.

Anyone who enjoys historical romances on the darker side will love this book.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 25, 2023

Music of the Night by Angela J. Ford


MUSIC OF THE NIGHT has been on my to-read list forever because I heard it was a Phantom of the Opera retelling, and I'm fucking obsessed with that whole franchise, but I kept putting it off and putting it off, and to be honest, the Goodreads reviews were a little daunting. When it showed up as a freebie on Stuff Your Kindle Day, it felt like kismet.

The writing in this book is great and it reads like it was professionally edited (even if it wasn't). I also really liked the cover, although the cover makes it look like it's YA and it does contain explicit sex scenes. This feels more like a new adult title, kind of like ACOTAR, rather than something that is for younger teens. I mean, it uses the words "cock" and "cum."

I actually think it's better than the ratings would indicate. The atmosphere is broody and alluring, and I loved the idea of a small kingdom built around a haunted tower shrouded in mist where bad things happened years ago. The problem comes with the heroine, who feels like a Mary Sue and lacks adequate motivations for the things she does. In her haste to get the heroine to meet the hero, Ford employs some very questionable decision making. Instead of having her drive the plot, the plot drives her, and it shows, because none of what she does really makes rational sense.

The hero, Uriah, was fine. I'm not a fan of his name but we stan a morally gray man in a mask with dubious motives who's good in bed. I wish his character had been fleshed out a little more, too. If you're going to hint and tease at the potential for betrayal and then not deliver, that's pretty frustrating. What this ultimately ends up feeling like is a dark romance for people who want the fancy trappings but hate the core of what dark romance actually represents.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 24, 2023

He's Not My Boyfriend by Jackie Lau


Jackie Lau is one of my favorite romance authors. I love how her heroines always have some realistic flaw, whether it's fear of commitment or clinical depression. And her heroes are the exact same way. Her books aren't about perfect people falling in love, but about people with relatable problems finding people who accept them as they are while also complementing their strengths.

HE'S NOT MY BOYFRIEND is about Iris and Alex. Iris is a structural engineer by day, party girl by night. The latest guy who receives the favors of her inner fuckgirl is Alex, a construction worker (at one of the sites she manages, no less). Iris doesn't believe in commitment, in part because of the tremendous pressure she gets from the rest of her family to settle down. Alex, on the other hand, is kind of emotionally withdrawn because he hasn't gotten over his mother's death. She always tried to matchmake for him, and since she's gone, he's started to avoid things that remind him of her.

I wasn't really prepared for how emotional this read was. It contains one of the funniest scenes I have ever read in a romance novel (I was seriously dying), but it's also gut-wrenching as well, with pretty forthright discussions about getting older, mortality, and grief. The humorous and heartfelt moments lessened the angst-factor, but if you've recently lost a parent or loved one, I could see this book being pretty triggering or traumatic.

The star of the show is definitely Iris's grandmother, Ngin Ngin. She's the best character in this book and stole every scene she appeared in. I would literally read an entire series starring this nosy, meddling, mahjong-playing, smutty Harlequin romance-reading hero of a granny. Characters like her are honestly so satisfying to someone like me, who never really had any grandparents she was close to. It's like getting to enjoy vicariously what I never had.

HE'S NOT MY BOYFRIEND would have been a five-star reading if it weren't for the 80% mark breakup that this author always does, whether it fits the story or not (thanks, I hate it), and something else really sad that happened, which I would have liked more closure on. But apart from that, I absolutely loved this book to pieces and will be reading more from this author in the future.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Other Mistress by Shanora Williams


Shanora Williams is an auto-buy author for me. I love her female antiheroes and how all of her thrillers end up being self-referential. It's like an MCU of high-functioning borderline sociopathic women. THE OTHER WOMAN feels like more of a thriller-thriller than the two other books of hers I've read. It's about a woman named Adira, who is a girl boss and entrepreneur, with everything she could possibly want at the tips of her manicured fingertips, including a handsome husband.

Until she finds out that said husband is cheating on her with not one, but two mistresses. The first one, Jocelyn, ends up offering to help Adira spy on the third mistress, Julianna, to gather enough intel to break them apart and drive her away. Adira reluctantly goes along with this plan but inside, she's wondering: why would Jocelyn help her? They're strangers? And the reader is wondering: why is Adira so determined to hold on to a man who doesn't want her?

I guessed the twist in this book from the very beginning but I thought the author did a really good job carrying it out. That said, it definitely took some of the suspense out of the book for me. As with other books by Williams, the characterization is top-notch. She's really good at writing women who are dramatic hot messes, who are terrifying but relatable (which makes them more terrifying still). There's also usually some well-placed cynical humor that keep the books from being too dark. THE OTHER MISTRESS is probably her darkest book, yet, though. There are major triggers for child abuse and CSA. Read cautiously.

3 out of 5 stars

A Bird in the Oven by Kata Čuić

 This is one of the strangest romance novels I have ever read that wasn't for my What the Actual Fuck Wednesday challenge. Basically, it's rom-com with a breeding kink. Olivia and Ollie are childhood friends and live in a condo next to each other with a shared wall. Both of them have been secretly in love with each other since forever, but neither of them have ever actually confessed. Their relationship, however, swiftly changes course when Ollie's Italian mother is visiting and he accidentally tells her that Olivia is pregnant.

With his baby.

Which is not true, by the way.

Ollie is autistic and has been having a lot of relationship trouble with women. He knows how to follow a script and he's dominant in bed, but he's so insecure about his neurodivergence that he's never allowed anyone to get closed. While his mother interrogates him about his lack of a date and kind of makes an effort to push him away from Olivia, to get him to focus on romantic relationships, he panics. Family, he knows, is something his mother desperately wants and understands. But unfortunately, it's something Olivia desperately wants as well.

Olivia also has major relationship problems: right now, it's that she has none, and at thirty (omg, she's so olllllld *rolls eyes*) she feels the ticking of her biological clock and desperately wants to get pregnant. When she's not Googling "Sperm banks near me" and looking at porn, she's hating on Ollie's girlfriends, who are attracted to his money and his looks, but always seem to love and leave him. At first, his lie to his mother seems unspeakably cruel but eventually she starts to see the sense of it. She would know who the baby's father would be and she already feels safe with him. Why shouldn't they fuck like rabbits so he can impregnate her by Thanksgiving? Nothing about this could possibly go wrong, right?

I hate breeding kink so if I had known what this book was actually about, I would have jumped ship and then left. By the time I realized what was actually going on, I was in too deep to leave. I felt committed to the cause. But honestly... this book was entertaining. I felt like I was held hostage. Part of what makes this book good is that it's just SUCH A WEIRD PLOT that I felt invested in what happened. It's like when someone behind you on the bus is having a dramatic phone call and you kind of find yourself following along, like, "What, your sister in law cheated on her husband and now Kelly wants to bring her love-child to your family cookout? AND HER HUSBAND'S GONNA BE THERE?" I had to find out how this absolutely insane fake-dating/baby-making scheme would go.

There are lots of lines in this book that are incredibly unsexy. I would say 70% of it is phrases I would like to never see again, and 30% of it were some surprisingly hot and kinky dialogues. I did like how they communicated every aspect of their relationship and how consent played a premium in their negotiations. I also liked how, unlike some other neurotypical/neurodivergent pairings I've read, Olivia never tries to "fix" Ollie and she unflinchingly goes to bat for him when other people seem to be trying to use him or put him down. Her acceptance of him for who he was was really well done, and while I'm not sure how good the rep is for Ollie (I didn't see any self-proclaimed #ownvoices reviews for this book), he felt like a caricature at worst but not overtly problematic, and at best, I would argue that he's a great example of how neurodivergence can be neutral or even beneficial in many areas of one's life as long as someone is allowed to live in a way that makes them feel comfortable and useful.

I'm not sure I'll read more books in this series but this author took a trope I normally hate and made me read it until the end, so that speaks pretty highly in her favor.

3 out of 5 stars

Mr. October by Bethany Weaver


As someone who loves October but hates being scared, I related to Sabrina so hard. When you're a scaredy-cat it's like some people just make it their life's mission to terrorize you. Like, dude. Where's the challenge? Where's the honor? Pick on someone who's hard to scare.

MR. OCTOBER is a very short and very sweet novellette(?) that is just under one hundred pages. It's a small town romance set during Halloween, with a prologue that shows how the H and h met to sort of cement their friendship. When Adam scares her during her movie night, it's the last straw. She decides she wants to get revenge on the whole town for scaring her... and to her surprise, he offers to help.

Like other reviewers, I wish this was longer. I think this would have made a great novel-length book, where each chapter could have been a different prank. They actually had decent chemistry together and more build-up before the sex scene would have been nice, especially with an epilogue that showed them as bf and gf, doing things outside of sex.

But for what it was, it was very cute. Seriously. Short stories are so hard to pull off and I was impressed at the finesse of this one. I definitely want to check out one of her full-length novels now.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Dark Companion by Marta Acosta


DNF @ 13%

I'm surprised this was published in 2012, it feels like it was published ten years earlier. There's an emo vibe to this book that is such a perfect fit with the alt-girl aesthetics of the early 2000s. I wish I'd liked it more but the characterization of Jane was so odd. I love the idea of an underprivileged girl getting a scholarship to a weird and creepy school where people have gone missing or dead. But this book was all vibes and no explanation. Like, there's a portion where Jane is translating Latin she sees to herself... where did she learn Latin if she grew up in the "ghetto" surrounded by pimps and drug-dealers? So many things like this, that just were glossed over.

2 out of 5 stars

Antiques, Artifacts & Alibis by Sally Bayless


I'm pretty new to cozy mysteries. I tend to lean more towards dark romance and edgy thrillers, but I've been really stressed out lately and have been trying to buffer my harder reads with relaxed and low-key ones. ANTIQUES, ARTIFACTS & ALIBIS recently showed up as an offering for Stuff Your Kindle Day, and as someone who loves antiquing and animals, the idea of a cozy revolving around a museum director in a small town (with a pet golden retriever) was too good to miss.

Libby is newly divorced and gave up her sweet job at a larger museum because her ex-husband still worked there. Dogwood Springs is the home of her childhood, and her family there was practically royalty since they were one of the founding families. She is excited to work there, see her old family home, and regain her bearings. Which are obviously shaken when on her first day on the job, she finds a dead woman in what is supposed to be her office.

If you go into this expecting Agatha Christie, you're going to be disappointed. The murder isn't super complicated and it's not gritty at all. But I loved the descriptions of the town, and her interactions with the people there. It's also nice to read a mystery with an older heroine, and her love interest, a retired tech mogul who became a professor, is the perfect beta hero for anyone who's tired of alpha shenanigans. Also, we can't forget Bella the Dog.

I'll probably read more from this series when I'm in the mood for it. This is basically the chicken soup of mysteries. Good for when you're feeling sick or tired or defeated, and are wanting something gently invigorating and comfortingly bland.

3.5 out of 5 stars

His Other Wife by Nicole Trope


While reading the summary for this book I thought it might have been Jane Eyre-inspired but if anything, it's more like Rebecca. Charlotte is a forty-year-old interior decorator who has just married a man named Gideon, who has a young daughter, named Emily. For a woman who has always wanted a family, this feels like a dream come true. There's just one catch: Gideon's first wife, Sarah, is still in the picture. Sarah, his first love, and mother to his child. Sarah, who was the perfect wife... until she started hearing voices and being unable to sleep.

Sarah has only just recently gotten out of a psychiatric facility and everyone has agreed that she should still be a part of Emily's life. But Charlotte is resentful of this. She feels like Sarah is trying to steal her husband away and thinks it would be a lot better if Sarah went back to the hospital. Or better yet... if she died. Leaving her alone with Emily and Gideon forever. When Sarah begins slipping again, Charlotte is exhilarated. But what if... Sarah's not imagining her fears?

Or worse: what if she IS?

I don't read a lot of domestic suspense because a lot of it revolves around motherhood and that is something that just isn't very interesting to me. Case in point: Charlotte is close to my age, but she can think of nothing but babies and being the perfect mother and biological clocks. Women in these books tend to define themselves by nothing but motherhood and children, and that's fine, but that's not who I am or even something I'm really interested in, so I tend to avoid books like these as a matter of fact. But the psychological element really roped me in, and so did the tension between the two wives. I do feel like this was probably inspired by REBECCA, but whatever you think is happening, it probably isn't what you think. I was surprised by the ending. I think it worked.

But oh my God, all of these characters were awful. The little girl, Emily, was sweet, and I felt bad and worried about Sarah. But Gideon, Charlotte, and her mother? Hate, hate, hate, loathe entirely. And there were a bunch of other total trash people in this book as well, who I'm not going to talk about because spoilers. This is not one of those thrillers where you read the book rooting for or relating with the protagonists involved. I basically hate-read my way to the end, grimly demanding justice. This was honestly such a stressful, nail-biting experience. But did it keep me hooked? Also yes.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 22, 2023

The Plant Nanny by Teresa Yea


I was browsing rom-coms randomly when I happened upon this book and saw the words "Rochester Farms." That, paired with the historical-looking cover, made me gasp out loud: "IS THIS A JANE EYRE RETELLING?" In case you didn't know, I'm currently in the middle of a project where I have made it my business to read every Jane Eyre retelling or Jane Eyre-inspired work I can easily get my hands on. Most of them have been recommended to me, or pulled from list, but I keep coming across others that I'd never even heard of before!

THE PLANT NANNY is set in Seattle. The heroine, Lena, was studying to be a botanist when she realized that her Master's wouldn't actually get her a career, so now she's a drop-out working at a plant shop that's about to go out of business. One of her acquaintances tells her about a spiffy job at a place called Rochester Farms, where the billionaire, Andrew Keene, is looking for someone to watch his rare collection of orchids full time and is willing to pay in both room and board.

It seems too good to be true. And it is.

Because not only is Andrew Keene rich enough to hire full-time plant nannies, he's also hot AF.

So this was originally going to be a four or five star read because the beginning was SO good. It made me laugh out loud several times. And even though the heroine is kind of a compulsive liar, and that's always kind of put me off because sociopathic lying-as-adorkable-awkwardness has ground my gears since my Sophie Kinsella Shopaholic days, I could sort of buy it for this character because she was portrayed as being so panicked and awkward. I also loved that she wore really thick prescription glasses, and how the author made a point of talking about how annoying it is to wear glasses when it's foggy or raining.

The problems started coming in towards the second half of the book. There's a scene where Lena kicks Andrew in the balls and then hits him in the face, and it totally came out of left field because Andrew hadn't really done anything to warrant that. And then she tries to attack him again later in the book! I always hate when women-on-men violence is played off as cute because it comes across as saying that women can't actually hurt men because they're so weak and cute. There's another scene which also put me off where Andrew lies about being a veteran and gets a military discount. I think that scene is actually going to offend a lot of readers, and here, it's just played for laughs.

There were still things I did love about this book, which is why it's still getting a three. It feels like a love ode to the PNW, and especially Seattle. The food descriptions were amazing and it's clear that the author really loves Jane Eyre. I'm kind of getting the impression that every book in this series of hers is loosely inspired by one of her favorite novels and I think that's a really cute idea. I also loved how on one of their dates-that-isn't-a-date, Andrew buys the heroine a nice pair of prescription glasses.

I'm not sure how I felt about the ending. It really felt like it jumped the shark to me and the ending felt a little too hasty and neat considering some of the ups and downs of these characters. Overall, I think I'd give the first 50% 4 stars and the second 50% 2 stars, which rounds out to about a three. I'll definitely be reading more from this author, though. I do like her writing style and she has a good sense for comedic timing, even if her characters sometimes go a little too chaotic OTT.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, September 21, 2023

By Any Other Name by Erin Cotter


I was so excited to get a copy of this book. One of my favorite historical fiction (and fantasy, let's be honest) tropes is court intrigue, and the prospect of a gay romance filled with spymasters, assassins, and Shakespearean plays really tickled my fancy. Mostly because I'd read a book before with that exact blend of tropes, called AN ASSASSIN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND TREASON, and loved it. I fully expected to become just as obsessed as this one. Which is maybe not fair to the book, but it's a fact of the world that if you read something in a genre that blows you away, that's going to frame how you approach similar books going forward.

BY ANY OTHER NAME is an okay book. Honestly, it felt like more of a 2, 2.5 book but I'm rounding up a little because the writing was great and it was fun having a shallow, self-absorbed hero as the protagonist. He's an actor and he, well, acts like it. Which made him more fun than the stoic, super macho heroes that seem to be en vogue nowadays. I like a hero who's lax with his masculinity. He has a sad backstory too: he was nearly sold into slavery and only barely escaped, and now lives on the fringes of society with revenge in his heart, as he plays females on stage to survive.

When his voice starts cracking, though, that throws a wrench in his plans and through a series of unfortunate circumstances, he ends up working for one of the lords of society that he hates so much, trying to stop Queen Elizabeth from being assassinated. DON'T read the summary/blurb for this book by the way. It has major spoilers, including something that I assumed would happen right from the beginning but is actually gradually foreshadowed and built up to in the narrative. I think it's supposed to be a shock in the book, but because it's mentioned IN THE SUMMARY, it was not a surprise at all. Publishing houses, I'M BEGGING YOU. Don't do this.

I'm giving this a mid rating because it felt much, much longer than it needed to be. The pacing is not great and the book takes ages to build up to where it's going. It's also less about court intrigue than it is about one of those SIX OF CROWS-ish heist gang sort of plots, and had I known that, I wouldn't have applied for this book, because I don't like SoC or heists. I also didn't really feel the chemistry between Will and James. They felt very platonic, more like friends than love interests. I wish their relationship had been developed more, maybe with pining or, you know, some sort of emotional understanding. Just because you have your characters physically get together, that doesn't mean you're selling it.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

WtAFW: Seduced by the Pumpkin Spice Latte by Evelyn Cloves


So I have a "weekly" challenge called What the Actual Fuck Wednesday, where I read and review the weirdest romance and erotica people send my way. I can't remember who sent me SEDUCED BY THE PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE but as soon as I saw it, I knew it had to be one of my fall picks. Even more surprising? Somehow it's been out since 2015 and it seems like it's been largely undiscovered.

Melissa is obsessed with floaty scarves, layered tees, braids she found on the internet, Taylor Swift... and PSLs. Oh, how she loves PSLs. They practically make her horny. Despite the short length of this book, Pumpkin Spice Latte is mentioned 50 times, and Starbucks 17 times. Which is honestly pretty ballsy of this author to do. Or was this a guerilla marketing attempt like KFC's ill-fated TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE? Either way, it takes product placement to dangerous and potentially hospital-inducing levels.

When Melissa buys her drink, the Starbucks employees are suspiciously hot and her drink is suspiciously sensual. After masturbating in public with the PSL cup, she finds the two employees watching her, which is when they tell her that she's a *checks notes* "pumpkin spice-sexual," and invite her to join a threesome WHILST STILL IN THE STORE. OSHA violations, I see you.

There's not a lot to say about this book. It's bad, it knows it's bad, and it doesn't care.

I've never been so glad to be lactose intolerant.

1 out of 5 stars

His Happy Place by Zakiya Dalila Harris


I've been watching The Other Black Girl on Hulu and it reminded me of how much I loved reading the book when I bought it, so I moseyed on over to the author's Goodreads page to see if she'd been working on anything new and found this Kindle Unlimited-eligible short story that she had apparently written. OMG!

HIS HAPPY PLACE is this weird and creepy little short story about a Black woman who is dating a Korean man. They've been dating for about four months and they're taking their relationship to the next level by going to a remote little cabin in his woods where he feels the most like himself, according to him. Because nothing says, "I love you, please don't kill me," like isolating yourself with a man.*

*Bad joke but you know, THE FEAR IS REAL.

Anyway, they get there and la la la, nature is beautiful but toilets w/ plumbing are iconic, and apart from the hatred of camping (same), the heroine, Ama, sort of gets into it. She and Nathan have some heart to hearts and he seems like he really wants to let her get to know the real him. Which is when things start getting REALLY FUCKING WEIRD.

Harris is so good at building tension and creating atmosphere. I noticed right away that this had the same vibes that I loved so much in THE OTHER BLACK GIRL. Also like THE OTHER BLACK GIRL, though... I didn't like the ending. Here, the author does something unusual and kind of risky: she starts the beginning of the book with the end of the book, so you already know what's going to happen as you're reading. Well, sort of. I figured if she was going to lead with an expose, she was going to take us somewhere shocking on the journey... but the whole thing just comes full circle with no closure.

I'm not going to give spoilers but if you read it, you'll see what I mean.

I will definitely be reading more from Zakiya Dalila Harris, but based on the two books of hers I've read, she seems to have a bit of a third act problem.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Christmas at Ferndean Manor by Joanna Campbell Slan


DNF @ 60%

I adored the first two books in this series. JANE EYRE is one of my favorite books and I've currently been snapping up as many of the retellings that I could find so I can read them and compare them... not so much in terms of how they compare to the original, but more as how they stand as individual artistic creations. In my not-so-humble opinion, the best retellings aren't carbon copies of their original source material, but instead place their own unique spin on a story to truly make it their own.

DEATH OF A SCHOOLGIRL and DEATH OF A DOWAGER were both so fun. One had a grim dark academia vibe that I absolutely loved, and the other was like a dark spin on comedy of manners, with everything from the cut sublime(!) to royal intrigue.

CHRISTMAS AT FERNDEAN MANOR was less entertaining. It literally starts out with Jane scurrying around in the woods, gathering nuts and berries like a squirrel. From there, it takes multiple detours, like conkers and the history of using them in games, Rochester being sad about having to sell his horse, and angst about Christmas because when Jane was a young orphan, she didn't really have one.

There's a Christmas special feel to this book, which I personally am not usually a fan of, since I don't like Christmas (bah, humbug). I kept thinking about that one Beauty and the Beast movie, Beauty and the Beast and the Enchanted Christmas. You know the one that kind of disrupted canon and made everything weird in its quest to show why Christmas is the Most Important Holiday to Ever Important?

I do think this author has a lot of talent and, like I said, I LOVED books one and two. I'm not sure if I'll check out the fourth one now. At least it has "death" in the title, unlike this one.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Death of a Dowager by Joanna Campbell Slan


So I did not like this book as much as I enjoyed DEATH OF A SCHOOLGIRL but it was still pretty good. Slan has created an interesting set of characters to complement the ones from the original book, and one of my favorite things about the Jane Eyre Chronicles is Jane's friendship with Lucy, a divorced(?) woman who lives with her dog and, in this book, agrees to adopt her ex-husband's bastard child.

I think there's a major tone difference between this book and the previous one. DEATH OF A SCHOOLGIRL had a dark academia setting and was very dark from the get-go. DEATH OF A DOWAGER, on the other hand, takes forever to get moving and nobody dies until halfway through the book. After this, the book moves very slowly and feels more like a comedy of errors, replete with court intrigue and a mystery involving poison. Because of that, this book felt SO MUCH LONGER even though it was basically the same page count as the previous book.

I thought it was very clever making Blanche Ingram and her family the antagonists of this book. Blanche was high key awful in the original Jane book, so it's fun to have a character you love to hate. Jane's relationship with Edward really feels more fleshed out here, too, and I really enjoyed the interactions between them. I especially liked how the author kept his injuries from the previous book and how there were dialogues about mobility and blindness. At one point, Edward is given hemp/weed to smoke for his eye injury and I thought that was funny because a lot of Bronte heroes probably would have been more mellow if they sat down and smoked a doobie.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Death of a Schoolgirl by Joanna Campbell Slan


So I'm doing this project where I'm reading every Jane Eyre retelling I can find (that is in my budget), and when I found this cozy mystery Jane Eyre retelling on Kindle Unlimited, I dropped everything and picked it right the fuck up. Here's what I'm learning about this project: I'm not a purist. I know how the original story goes because I've read the original story and when I pick up a retelling, I'm not expecting a reprise. All I want is something that pays homage to the original but has its own special take on the characters I know and love.

That said, DEATH OF A SCHOOLGIRL does all that and more. It's more of a direct sequel than others I have read. Jane has just given birth to her and Edward's birth son and they're wondering how Adele is going to take not being their only child, because she's been strange and uncommunicative in her letters from boarding school. Then, one day, they get a letter from her begging them to save her, which contains strange threats written in someone else's hand.

Obviously, that freaks them out and after some discussion, Jane leaves Edward and her new baby behind to go to London and find out what's going on with Adele. On the way she's robbed, and due to a series of unforeseen circumstances, she kind of accidentally-on-purpose lets the headmistress think that she's the girls' new German teacher, because right away, it's clear that the vibe of the school is O F F. Why? Because someone was just murdered.

I saw some reviewers saying that the killer was obvious. Call me a dunce, because I did not guess. I wasn't really trying to guess, though. Mostly I was just along for the vibes. After so many retellings that turned Edward into a bad person, it was fun to read one where his passion and intensity remained, but he was softened by his relationship with Jane and his entree into fatherhood. I also liked how Jane had full agency in this book and got to play at being a detective for two weeks. She was very self-contained and clever in the original, so it actually made sense to see her apply those skills towards assisting in a murder investigation. After watching A Haunting in Venice, I wanted more period piece murders, so this was literally EXACTLY what my mood-reading self wanted.

Was this book perfect? No. But it was incredibly fun and was a nice piece of public domain fanfiction to read and enjoy, and I thought it did a great job staying true to the original characters.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 15, 2023

The Forbidden Wife by Sharon Kendrick


I'm shocked that this was published as late as 2011 because it felt like the hero was one glass of scotch away from calling the heroine a "little fool" and demanding that she bring him his slippers. In this Jane Eyre retelling, Jane is "Ashley," an eighteen-year-old woman who grew up in an orphanage and is now doing temp work to pay for her poor person life. When we meet her, she's on the way to be the writing assistant of a dude who writes crusty old military novels, named Jack Marchant. He almost runs her over with his horse while gallivanting around his charmingly anachronistic gothic mansion. Take THAT, solicitors!


This is kind of like what I imagine Lifetime would churn out if they decided to make a modern-day Jane Eyre. Kendrick made the decision to remove Adele from the book, and instead of being crazy, the previous wife is a total spoiled bitch. She's in a coma instead of being locked in the attic, and we learn that she got her injury because she was slapping the hero and being like, "Why won't you give me more alimony?" just before he accidentally crashed his car into a palm tree.

Parts of this book were pretty well done, but I think the ending felt really messy and relied too much on coincidence. Especially the climax with the wife and how Marchant gets blinded. It was so stupid and UGH. JANE EYRE's climax was tragic, but Jane left because she was trying to preserve her dignity and do the right thing, and Edward was stubborn and arrogant, which led to his own ruin. Here, these characters are just foolish and don't communicate, so Ashley comes across as feeling very TSTL and so does Jack, who gets blinded b/c he couldn't let the firemen do their jobs and got booped in the face with a flaming plank.

I would actually probably read more from this author because I thought the gothic atmosphere was entertaining, but I wanted way more from it, and way less condescension from the hero. And also, infinitely less stupidity from everyone.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman by Kristen R. Lee


I bought this book impulsively when it went on sale because I thought the cover was really cute (her space buns!) and thought it would be about banned books. It is not about banned books. The required reading refers to-- I believe-- this Gossip Girl like network of this made-up Ivy League college where students anonymously discuss campus life, including some of the very real inequalities of the school.

There was a lot I liked about REQUIRED READING but in many ways, it felt like an imperfect book-- to me. For the subjects it discusses, it comes across as heavy-handed as an after school special, but it doesn't have the satisfying ending that those specials have. I actually thought the message of this book was kind of bleak. And maybe that speaks to how fed up some Black people are about dealing with white people's shit in places where white people make up the majority. I understand that, if so. But it honestly felt like a pretty demoralizing ending to give Savannah, in my opinion. 

Ultimately, this ended up feeling like a cross between THE HATE U GIVE and ACE OF SPADES, both of which I enjoyed significantly more than this book. I think some of this book's flaws stem from it being a college-age YA for an adult audience, as the modular, cliquish nature of the student body felt very high school. College and high school are very different environments, and writing about college for younger teens is difficult to do, because there are things you can talk about with college students that you can't really do with high school students. This kind of contributed to the over-simplified vibe of the book.

REQUIRED READING isn't a bad book and does a lot of things well, but it wasn't a fave of mine.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 11, 2023

Falling for Her Captor by Elisabeth Hobbes


I think this is the third Elisabeth Hobbes medieval romance I've read. It was okay. A little mid. FALLING FOR HER CAPTOR starts out pretty well: the heroine is the sole heir to this big tract of land called the Five Territories, and she has to get married so her grandfather can have the security of knowing who is heirs will be amidst all these feuding lords.

But then, girlfriend gets herself kidnapped.

And her kidnapper decides to garnish his wages with a little rape.

...Until he is hauled off her and murdered by yet another kidnapper, a man with piercing blue eyes who wears all black.

This man is Hugh, cousin to the evil and sadistic Duke, Stephen, who ordered her kidnapping to force her to marry him and take all that sweet, sweet land for himself. It's hinted that Stephen suffered a blow to his prefrontal cortex, which impaired his judgment and emotional regulation, but since it's a medieval romance, they just say "he fell on his head and wasn't right." Must be all those demons that need expunging.

Anyway, suddenly Aline is trapped in this Duke's castle, while he gloats over all the things he's going to do to her as soon as her grandfather signs the papers. And to make matters worse, he knows that Hugh's attracted to her, and she to him, and he takes no shortage of joy in informing her what the punishment for adultery is, which he will absolutely enforce (dude gets blinded and castrated, girl gets a branding iron to the face). Gee, ISN'T MEDIEVAL TIMES FUN, YOU GUYS?

As with the last two books I read, I thought there was a good story under all of this drama. The author is a decent writer, and parts of this book felt like they were hearkening to the bodice-rippers of yore, except Stephen would be the psychotic hero in the 1980s and now he's just the guy who showboats until you hate him enough that you cheer when the hero stabs him to death with a sword. This book had two problems, though: (1) Aline's inconsistent characterization. At first I really liked her. She seemed reasonable and smart. I thought it was cool that she stopped the hero from getting attacked by a wolf with a bow and arrow, channeling her inner Merida. But then she starts acting really stupid. Believing the demonstrably psychotic guy's lies about the guy you like? WHY would you do that? Even Hugh is like, SERIOUSLY? And I'm with him: SERIOUSLY?! It felt like the plot was driving Aline's actions, rather than vice-versa. And (2) this book felt way too long. About one hundred pages too long, actually. A lot of Harlequin novels are at or just under 200 pages and this was like 275. I felt every one of those 275 pages towards the end. The page count felt really dragged out, as did the conclusion.

FALLING FOR HER CAPTOR is a relatively quick and easy read, and falls somewhere in the middle on the How Realistically Awful Is This Portrayal of Medieval Times, where 1 is a Disney movie and 10 is Katherine Deauxville's BLOOD RED ROSES. The heroine might not be wading her way through pillages and plague, but it's clear there are real stakes here, and I appreciated that. 

2.5 out of 5 stars

Taken for Revenge, Bedded for Pleasure by India Grey


Despite the ridiculous-sounding title, this book is great. Our players are Olivier and Bella, two people from two families that dislike each other because of the doomed liaison between his father and her grandmother. Because of it, Olivier is determined to get his sexy revenge on the family for the same and ruination they caused his own: banging. Also, he basically became rich just to spite her fam, so there's a little bit of The Great Gatsby about TAKEN FOR REVENGE, BEDDED FOR PLEASURE, too.

I liked a lot about this book. The author's writing style reminded me a lot of Caitlin Crews's because of the gothic elements and the multiple sex scenes. Normandy countryside and forbidden boathouse trysts? YAS. I liked that the heroine wasn't a virgin and had a truly traumatic relationship history that led to some psychological issues (including attempted suicide). When she talks about it, on her terms, it felt like it was handled very sympathetically, and it wasn't lingered on. 

I also thought that the family history element was really well done and I could see why Olivier hated her family. I also loved that the heroine wasn't a virgin, and that neither the narrative nor the hero shamed her for it. The focus on art was also wonderful. Also, the sex scenes? *chef's kiss* He cuts up his back while having sex with her on the floor where some glass broke, because stopping would have hurt more than the glass.  

That's determination.

That said, this wasn't a perfect book. The villain came out of nowhere and so did the OW drama. I also really wished that Bella's grandmother had gotten her own HEA. It kind of felt like she was left behind in the narrative just as soon as she wasn't useful to the plot anymore. There should have been more foreshadowing; I think this would have made the third-act drama feel less spontaneous, especially if it had been tied up with Genevieve getting together with her old flame. Also, the dated technology references (Blackberries) were hilarious, and so is the scene when the hero massages the heroine's lips on their museum date, like blppblppblpp, to make it look like she's wearing lipstick. I actually had to stop reading when I got to that part because I was giggling so hard.

Silliness and qualms aside, though, the banter game in TAKEN is on-point. If you like Millie Adams and Caitlin Crews, you'll love India Grey. I'm so glad I bought a ton of her books when they were on sale. If they are all like this one in terms of quality, I'm about to have a lot of fun, indeed.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker


So you may have noticed I've been reading a ton of JANE EYRE retellings. Why? I don't know. I felt like it.

I'm coming to the conclusion that there are two ways of doing a Jane Eyre retelling: you either make it a romance or a thriller. Some authors don't want to choose, though, and they try to straddle both sides just like the original did. That doesn't always end well, but hey, props for trying. I'm rooting for you.

MR. ROCHESTER sort of tries to do both things. It's a lot of things. It's a coming of age story, it's an intimate character portrait of a flawed man, it's pseudo-literary, it's a romance (sort of), it's Jane Eyre...

...from Rochester's POV.

Some of the books I've been reading are character assassinations of Rochester. THE OTHER WIFE and READER, I MURDERED HIM are probably the worst portrayals of Edward (worst in terms of morality, not quality of the book). This book, even though I think it's meant to be humanistic, is also not very Edward-friendly. It made me feel bad for him more than it made me think, "God, he's hot." And I think part of the "God, he's hot" vibes come from the fact that in the original, he's this mysterious and enigmatic figure we only really see through Jane's eyes.


The problem with Edward (in this interpretation) is that he's a selfish, awkward, highly anxious man who is uptight but also passionate. He is a man of many contradictions, which makes him feel realistic in a way that makes him incredibly frustrating. We follow him as a young child with a distant father and an abusive brother to his unconventional boarding school, followed by an apprenticeship in a mill before ending up in Jamaica to run things for his father while his hated brother inherits Thornfield-Hall, the only thing Edward (at this point) loves.

His relationship to Bertha is interesting because in the beginning he treats her like a manic pixie dreamgirl, and being the pillar of strength that she's forced to lean on seems to invigorate him... as long as she's playing by his rules. But once her madness transcends the part where it allows her to be useful to him, he resents and then actively hates her. And by the way, this section definitely does have him being a slave-owner on his dad's sugar plantation, so Rochester, Slave Owner, whilst realistic, isn't exactly the stuff that dreams are made of (and TWs for that).

We then see his affair with the actress that ends up producing his ward and possible daughter, Adele, and the cycle continues anew with him falling in love with the actress... until she flouts convention and he catches her with another man laughing about how pathetic he is. There's a duel, Edward wins, and returns to his house where Bertha is now driving him insane. Enter Jane.

Btw, in this Jane Eyre retelling, Jane herself does not appear until 70%.

I actually thought the book slowed significantly in terms of pacing around this point. I loved the earlier sections of Edward's fucked up life, but the Jane segments just felt rather pale and lackluster in comparison to his two other relationships. Maybe that speaks to her stability; the other women he dated were both beautiful and flashy, but Jane herself is plain and stable. Something he thinks he could build a solid foundation on. I guess what killed the romance for me (apart from the slave-owning and the way he treated his "mad" wife), is that we've seen this dude enter and then spectacularly fail at two relationships, so it doesn't really feel like an HEA is in the cards. In this interpretation, I left the book feeling that Jane would do something that would end up making Rochester disenchanted with her, too.

As a character portrait, I think this is a brilliant one. The writing in this book is good and feels very old skool, like those big pulpy bodice-ripper sagas from the 70s that are so very near and dear to my heart. It's clear that the author did a lot of research and cross-referencing while working on this, and it really does feel like a passion project. I think this does for Rochester what WIDE SARGASSO SEA did for Bertha, in that it kind of provides unnecessary expose into characters who were intentionally created as nebulous figures in the original. Fleshing their characters out is like fun fan fiction for people who enjoy JANE EYRE (like myself) but aren't really necessary and kind of end up spoiling what the original intended if you're a purist. Which makes me sound like I didn't like it. I did. I'm just confused about what the purpose of this book is and who its intended audience is, because I think its ideal reader is someone who loves Jane Eyre but also won't die on the Jane Eyre Is Perfect As Is hill.

That's me. Possibly it's you, too.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn by Shannon Hale


Sarcastic shout-out to Katy, Texas for halting access to new library books because some fool with a megaphone and a soap box decided that this was transgender propaganda (and, like, even if it was-- literally, so what?). I didn't realize the World's Biggest Clown Awards were airing already, but it sounds like there's going to be some major contenders. 

I heard about this book on TikTok and it is one of the cutest books I've read in ages. It made me cry. It's not even explicitly about gender, although it can be interpreted that way. The core of the story is a kitty who wants to be a unicorn but her two friends keep telling her she isn't and crushing her little dreams. Then she meets a unicorn who wishes he was a cat, and they decide to be kitty-corns together.

The end.

I think the beauty of stories like these is that everyone can probably relate to being told they can't like something or be something because of how they were born or what they look like. And while this could apply to kids who are trans, I think it also applies to things like boys wanting to wear pink or purple, or girls wanting to play with trucks. Kitty ends up ditching her negative friends and befriending a new friend who supports her, shares her interest/identity, and ends up making her feel seen (the book actually uses that language, that she feels seen).

How anyone could take issue with this sweet fluffy ball of a book is beyond me.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Isabel: Jewel of Castilla, Spain, 1466 by Carolyn Meyer


The Royal Diaries were a spin-off of the America Diaries, and featured the fictional journals of various real royal figures as they were young adults. This particular journal is about Isabel of Castilla, who grew up to be the Isabel of the Isabel and Ferdinand duo that basically gave Columbus leave to go the West Indies (thus unleashing a wave of colonialist terrors, so... uh).

The premise of this book is that Isabel was given a book by her confessor to write all of her Seven Deadly Sins infractions in, but she, being a teenager, uses it as a burn book to chronicle the sins of everyone around her too, including her slutty sister-in-law, Queen Juana, who she HATES. Every time Juana wears a low-cut gown, Isabel makes sure we hear about it. She powdered her breasts like two plump doves, she says at one point, properly scandalized. Also, she's likely being adulterous, too, THE WHORE. Cheating on her ugly husband with a hot grandee, her daughter's probably not even legitimate. Damn, burn book!

When she's not Juana-hating, she's speculating on the authority war between her two brothers, Enrique and Alfonso, or meditating on whether her friend Catalina-- one of the conversos who converted to Catholicism from Judaism to avoid, you know, persecution-- is still a secret Jew. At one point, she's like, isn't it fascinating how Catalina is more devout than me, but I'm still a better Catholic because I was born a Catholic, of Catholic parents? And I'm like, yep, that's antisemitism for you, Isabel.

Other topics of interest are: all the ugly guys she might have to marry and the black death.

ISABEL: JEWEL OF CASTILLA, SPAIN, reminds me of CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY at times, but Catherine was way more fun. Even though these are both set during medieval times, Isabel feels more like a stick-in-the-mud narc, which is probably historically accurate. Also probably historically accurate? The antisemitism and slut-shaming. Both of these things feel like deliberate inclusions to show how much the middle ages sucked, which, again, they totally did. But I could see how people might want to forget about that. Which is probably-- again-- why they shouldn't.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife


THE RAVENMASTER was an impulse boy for me. I'd been wanting to read it for a while because I've been to the Tower of London and seen the ravens and the Yeoman Warders in person, and it seemed like such an interesting job, taking care of royal ravens for a living.

Christopher Skaife talks about his childhood as a "bad boy," before joining the army, and then, after that, becoming ravenmaster. There are several ravens who live in the tower and their care is not easy. Sometimes they play tricks on people (including their handlers), sometimes they run away. And sometimes it's the tourists who are to blame, whether it's asking silly questions with obvious answers or being careless around what are, essentially, still wild animals.

I enjoyed this memoir a lot. You get to learn a bit about London history and also a ton of raven facts. I didn't know that ravens' mouths darken as they get older, or that their feathers get more iridescent with age!

I would recommend this to people who enjoy "cozy" memoirs with interesting jobs. The only TW I can think of is this sad, on-page scene where he describes in detail how one raven died by falling from a tower. But that section is pretty brief in what is otherwise a pretty joyful and contented memoir written by a man who obviously loves his job.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

A Breath of Eyre by Eve Marie Mont


DNF @ 15%

I really didn't like this. I'm currently binge-reading all the Jane Eyre retellings on my Kindle and this is the fourth and so far, my least favorite one. I loved the cover and I thought the title was cute and clever, but that was where my compliments towards this book ended. It has a very bland, very generic 2010s aughts YA vibe to it. Having the heroine be a not-like-other-girls obsessed with classics had me rolling my eyes. She's also not very smart. The book literally opens with her drowning in the ocean, and yet she still has time to describe the waterdrops captured in her eyelashes. *eye roll*

1 out of 5 stars

Reader, I Murdered Him by Betsy Cornwell


GODDAMN. This book is everything I want out of the YA genre. Richly atmospheric, darkly feminist, with a sexy queer romance between two girls who are tired of men being shits. READER, I MURDERED HIM is a Jane Eyre retelling told from the POV of Jane and Edward's adopted daughter, Adele, and it's an interpretation I've never seen before and didn't know I needed.

Adele in this book is the daughter of a prostitute. When she comes to Thornfield, she is haunted by the ghostly appearance of Bertha, and the sickly, miasmic influence of the house's sinister influence. When she's shipped off to an all girls' boarding school, that's when she comes into her own and learns not just the value of female friendship, but also the harsh truths of inequality in the world, and how men use and abuse their privilege to take advantage of vulnerable women. Obviously, this means triggers for everything from SA to homophobia, but I thought the author handled everything really well, and Adele always had agency.

And that twist at the end, OH MY GOD.

I had chills.

This is a vigilante story but it's a really good one. The story isn't as heavy-handed as I first feared it might be (I thought it was going to be edgy-for-the-sake-of-edgy). There were so many passages that I wanted to highlight the shit out of. If you like dark coming-of-age stories, chaotic queer women, and strong female protagonists, you'll love this book. I'm honestly shocked that this has such low ratings, because the writing and story were everything. This is the third Jane Eyre retelling that I've read this week and as much as I love the source material, I loved this interpretation.

My only qualm is that the epigrams with lyrics from modern pop songs are so cheesy and really ruin the atmosphere of the book. As much as I love the artists, Brandi Carlile, Beyonce, and Kate Bush have no business being in a Victorian novel.

I'll be recommending this book to everyone I know, and you can bet I'll be checking out this author's other books.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 4, 2023

The Other Wife by Juliet Bell


When you find out you have six Jane Eyre retellings or spinoffs on your Kindle, is there any other recourse but to binge-read them all? 

I was telling a friend on Goodreads when you're writing a Jane Eyre retelling you basically have two options: crime drama or romance. Gothics can really be adapted either way and I don't think either of them is wrong, even though the romance reader in me will be screaming and slamming fists if I don't get my HEA.

In THE OTHER WIFE, Juliet Bell (brilliant pseudonym btw, iykyk) opts for the former. Set in the 80s, in the Australian Outback, she made the interesting choice to tell the story in dual POV. In one telling, you have Jane: a closeted queer woman who grew up on a hippie commune, only to be sent to live with an abusive aunt and cousins before being shipped off to a British christian boarding school where she has an F/F romance that ends in tragedy. In the other telling, you have Elizabeth/Betty, Edward's first wife: a half-Black orphan, who learns that sexuality is the only agency she has... until she discovers fire.

This is the second book I've read by these authors (Juliet Bell is the pseudonym of two British romance authors writing together). The first one was a WUTHERING HEIGHTS retelling set during the coal miners' strike in the 80s, which was not just a retelling but also an allegory for how the breaking down of the working class causes communities to crumble into ruin. I feel like THE OTHER WIFE is more of a social commentary than it is a romance, because it shows the homophobia of the 80s, the way religion can be used to degrade and abuse, as well as the Aboriginal land-rights movement and anti-Black racism. These are all very sensitive subjects, which end up making this a pretty dark book, but I felt like the authors made an effort to handle the material with care. That said, I would highly urge people to check the TWs and not read this if you are sensitive to SA, racism, or homophobia.

I really liked this book a lot but I'm not sure I'll be rereading it. I'm more team romance than I am team crime drama when it comes to Jane Eyre retellings, but the haunting ending of this book really fit the story the authors told and I'm sure I'll be thinking about it for a while.

"Reader, we let it burn."

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Private Property by Skye Warren


If you heard an outraged pterodactyl-sounding screech of rage, that was me when I got to the cliffhanger at the end of this book. I probably shouldn't be surprised, though. Having read other series by this author, I can definitely confirm that this is 100% her thing.

I'll try not to be mad.

Keyword: try.

I'm actually really impressed with how polished this book is compared to some of this author's other works. In PRIVATE PROPERTY, she has really honed her writing style into something dark and richly atmospheric, with slow-burn sexual attraction and, of course, lots of smut. I think going into this book expecting it to be a carbon copy of JANE EYRE is a mistake, since that's obviously not what the author is trying to do. This is one of those books that feels more like an homage than a straightforward retelling-- even if there's a wicked cliffhanger.

Jane Mendoza is a biracial nanny who is moving from Texas to Maine to take care of a girl named Paige, the niece of the tortured and very imposing Beau Rochester. I think the author did a good job capturing what a manipulative dick Rochester was, and how he basically did it for his own amusement, and because he knew he could get away with it. Some of the stand-offs between Jane and Beau felt very much in keeping with the source material and more than a couple of them made me smile.

Even though this is smut, it is Smut with Plot(TM) which makes a world of difference because it allows for an emotional connection between the two leads that fuels all their scenes together. I liked how Jane talked about how when her Latinx father died, she felt as if her connection to her culture was severed. The way that grief was approached in this book was also really well done. The author shows, rather than tells, us how disillusioned Beau has become with the wealthy set he used to party with, and Jane's abusive and grief-stricken past allow her to forge a connection with his defiant and grieving niece, who is about to flunk out of the first grade because she is refusing to do her school work.

I will say that the second half is a bit weaker than the first half, just because it felt like the author stopped caring as much about the atmosphere and tension once Jane and Beau started hooking up, but I devoured this so eagerly that I really can't give it less than five stars. It's one of my favorite Jane Eyre retellings that I've read, and now I'm feeling the urge to binge-read some more, all thanks to this book.

Thanks to Emily Kestrel for BR-ing this with me. :)

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller


DNF @ 17%

This book is one of TikTok's darlings and I can absolutely see the hype. That said, I didn't enjoy this book. The heroine is very much one of those brash, arrogant, not-like-other-girls heroines, popularized by authors such as Sarah J. Maas. Books like these used to make me feel annoyed but now I get that it's just a matter of personal preference and taste. The writing is very clean and flows pretty smoothly in a way that suggests that the author knows her craft. Some YA titles are bogged down by overly ornate purple prose; this one is not. I don't hate this book, I just kept setting it down and getting bored while reading it. If you enjoy Sarah J. Maas and FOURTH WING, you'll probably love this.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Elfland by Freda Warrington


ELFLAND is like a cross between Sidney Sheldon's MASTER OF THE GAME, Liz Berry's CHINA GARDEN, and Holly Black's THE CRUEL PRINCE. Which doesn't sound like it should work... but it does. I've had this book sitting on my Kindle for years because the page length intimidated me. On Goodreads, it says it's only 400-something pages. That must be for the hardcover or else completely incorrect, because my ebook edition was almost 700 pages long.

But I picked up the book and was immediately sucked in from the first chapter. The story is set in a British town called Cloudcroft which is adjacent to gates that open up into the land of faerie. Except here, faeries are called Aetherials. The ones who live on the other side of the gates are called Aelyr, where the land is divided according to each of the four elements (plus spirit), and they're ruled over by a Spiral Court. On earth, which they call Vaeth, Aetherials are called Vaethyr. But they have a number of pagan celebrations that involve the gatekeeper opening the gates, so they can replenishing their powers in their homeland and keep their spirit strong.

Which sounds all well and good, until one day the gatekeeper, Lawrence, is just like, "I'm not opening the gates anymore, SORRY" right in the middle of one of their parties. Because it's DANGEROUS. Which nearly starts a riot, but when he calls their bluff and says, "Ok, I'll open the gates one last time and you can go inside but then I'm LOCKING YOU IN THERE" they all back down real quick.

We're quickly introduced to the rest of the characters. Lawrence has a human wife named Sapphire, who is obsessed with Aetherials for reasons that may or may not be sinister. Before Sapphire, he had an Aetherial wife named Ginny, who disappeared. With Ginny, he had two sons: Sam and Jon. Sam is the token bad boy, icy and sneering and dismissive. Jon is a long-haired dreamy poet. Both of them are beautiful and neither of them are really what they appear. On the other side of the road, there's another rich Aetherial family, which is headed by Auberon, who's friends with Lawrence. He has a wife named Jessica, and three children: Matthew, the eldest and the bossiest; and then Lucas and Rosie (who I think are close to the same age). The focus of this story is more on the children of these two families, and how they grow up denied access to their faerie heritage... and what happens when tragedy strikes.

This really is a lot like a fantasy version of MASTER OF THE GAME. That book was about a family who got rich from South African diamond mines. This book even has a stone mine, too. Lawrence became super rich from mining a stone from the other world called albinite, which changes colors when in the presence of magic, and otherwise looks like white ice. The focus of the story is less on magic than it is on the way these characters interact with each other and create drama. If you like soap operas, you'll love this book-- HOWEVER, it does have a ton of triggers for everything from incest to grooming to animal murder (mostly off-page/referenced to) to spousal abuse.

I loved this book because it was so different and unique. I loved how it married Norse and Celtic legends, and how the author did so in a completely original way. Holly Black really popularized that, I think, with the success of her Folk of the Air trilogy, but ELFLAND shows how it's possible to borrow from the same pool of mythology and not seem derivative at all (I know ELFLAND came out before CRUEL PRINCE did, but my point is that even though they use the same blend of mythology, they feel very different). The idea of different realms hovering over ours in layers was chilling, especially the Dusklands and the demon realm, Dummanios, I also loved that the core romance in this book is a near-endless will they/won't they that reads like Dramione fanfiction. I'm sorry, but I am a sucker for the icy bad boy love interest and I will 100% unapologetically stan that toxic shit every time.

I might have bought every book in her Aetherial and her Jewelfire series just from reading this book. So that ought to tell you something about this author and how good she is.

P.S. Almost every character in this book is pretty awful, so if you don't like unlikable heroines or people behaving like utter trash to one another, you will not like this. I, for one, was vastly entertained.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 1, 2023

Warrior's Prize by Patricia Williams


Wow. After reading this, I kind of want to read more romances set in Africa. Especially historical ones. Does anyone have any recommendations?

Patricia Williams is a new-to-me author that I bought after seeing Rebekah Weatherspoon's TikTok about the history of Black romances and how they've been around a lot longer than (white) people give them credit for. She briefly flashed on another book by this author, called FREEDOM'S SONG, and when I looked that-- and then this-- up, I immediately bought both of the author's books so I could read them, because as a retro romance collector, there's nothing more exciting than finding a new author that you haven't read yet.

WARRIOR'S SONG is set in South Africa/Zululand in the 1800s. The heroine, Monase, is the daughter of an ironsmith. She isn't married because she's too headstrong and too tall: the bane of any historical romance heroine. Cira, the hero, is a warrior in another tribe who is very respected but not married... yet. He also has emotional baggage that will get unpacked later on in the book, that explains his icy demeanor. When they meet, the hero is bathing in a river and the heroine decides to watch (an act he repays later on in the book while she's bathing, we love some sexy reciprocity).


There's not really a lot of plot to this book. Most of the plot is just big misunderstandings. Cira thinks that Monase is in love with her tribe's medicine doctor, a man who the author takes care to remind us SEVERAL times is unattractive, old, "fat" (her words), and also SMEARS HIMSELF IN POOP. No, I'm not kidding. Poop. There's some sort of religious significance to it, I guess, but it seems to be discretionary because the heroine thinks he's gross and weird, too. But Cira is actually super jealous of Jama/Poop Man, which makes him resent Monsae for being a status-chasing gold digger.

Anyway, Cira basically annexes Monase's people, and Monase's little sister is given to Cira's friend (who's a nice teddybear sort of guy, we stan). Cira's chief sees that Cira is into Monase and IIRC, decides to give her to him as a wife. They bonk before the wedding night though, and she gets pregnant and then OH NO, Monase gets sick/chilled and has a fever nightmare about Jama and while muttering his name, Cira is like, "Fuck, she's still in love with that other guy I HATE THIS WOMAN."

There's a battle where they fight YET ANOTHER TRIBE and Cira almost dies. Monase saves his ass and they go to YET ANOTHER TRIBE, where Cira is hit on by every woman there, and Monase gets a marriage proposal from another medicine doctor (this one is hot). They're both drowning in jealousy but because they told the tribe that they're brother and sister, it's not like they can just, you know, kiss and make up lol. But eventually they realize that they're being stupid, and they end up back with their own people and Cira is like, "Hey, actually I love you so much, you're the only wife for me." (Which is a major compliment since warriors can have multiple wives.

I loved the setting and the beginning of this book. You really do get the feeling that Williams did a shit-ton of research, and it shows. I also liked all of the interpersonal interactions within the tribal settings. Where the book lost me a little is the willful extension of the big misunderstanding, the complete lack of communication, and the author choosing to gloss over any and all action scenes. There's a dangerous animal? It just looks at them and walks away. There's a battle? Most of it is going to be off-page. There's OW/OM drama? Okay, but be quick. There's big misunderstandings to linger over.

I do recommend this book if you can find it because it's so unique and I've never seen another romance like it. I also LOVE the cover. It's embossed so the beadwork on the front actually feels like real beading when you run your fingers over it. That was such a neat touch.

3 out of 5 stars