Monday, October 23, 2023

Dukes of Ruin by Angel Lawson


I just looked at my reviews and apparently I haven't posted one since *checks notes* October 4th? WHOOPS. 

I BR-ed this with the lovely Briana and I'm so glad she was with me through this adventure because I'm not sure I could have finished this book on my own. For context, I loved the original trilogy. The first book was not my favorite since it starts with a pretty graphic sexual scene when the heroine is underage and she felt very passive, but Story's emotional development, along with the three Lords, was honestly one of the best things of the first trilogy. It was dark and edgy but not darker or edgier than it had to be, and I ended up really loving the direction the authors took the story in (bar the fact that the last book had two too many epilogues and too much back to back sex).

By contrast, this new trilogy is very different, both tonally and also in terms of writing style. It opens with a graphic non-con scene that was very hard for me to read (and this is not something that normally bothers me). The Dukes are also way less likable. There's Nick, who's been Lavinia's handler and obsessing over her the whole time; then there's Sy, Nick's brother, and relevant incel, whose personality can basically be summed up as has-a-big-dick-and-is-mad-about-it; and Remy, a tattoo artist who seems to be coded as having Bipolar II (mania with psychosis).

Lavinia was hard to like but I didn't hate her as much as some readers because she has had an incredibly shitty life and I feel like most people would probably be bitter and defensive in her position, and I come from the camp where women don't have to be "likable" to be interesting. I did like Story better as a heroine because she had more control over her narrative; it's harder to be engaged with a heroine who basically just has (bad) things happen to her throughout the book. My opinions about the guys fluctuated a lot while reading. At first Nick was my favorite, and Sy my least favorite, but Briana actually got way ahead of me and was like haha fuck Nick, Remy for life, and I did NOT get it. Until about 92% in, when I was suddenly like, okay, yeah, actually. Fuck this guy.

These guys are just so awful. Sy and Nick did things that were just completely unforgivable, imo. I can take a lot of abuse from the heroes in a dark romance, but there has to be some sort of emotional connection, and when that doesn't happen, I just feel completely turned off. Remy was actually the most interesting and developed character, and during that tower scene, I felt genuinely bad for him. The only emotionally intimate scenes happened between Lavinia and Remy, and it almost felt like this would have been a better book if it weren't a Why Choose? and Nick and Sy stayed the antagonists, because I would have totally bought a ride-or-die bond between Lavinia and Remy. Their fucked-upedness was complementary, even if it was toxic. Not so much with Sy and Nick. I also really hated that the Dukes called their women "cutsluts."

More things I did like: the fight scene, the introduction of more Royal "lore," a few cameos from the original cast, and Sy having a little bit of a redemption arc in the last act of the book. I don't think this was a bad book, but the sex to plot ratio felt off to me and a lot of things were overexplained without much actually happening. Books one to three in this series had a ton of action and it felt like there was a clear antagonist for the characters to sort of unite against. I spent most of book two, for example, with my heart in my throat, white-knuckling my Kindle. I spent most of this book skimming. I'm not sure I'll be reading more from this series, although I will be checking out this author's cult book, since I love cults.

Also, this is completely random, but at one point one of the dudes penetrates the heroine with a marker. I have never read a romance book that did that before and it amused me so much I posted a status update about that, which actually made some people go ADDING IMMEDIATELY.

So I thought I'd mention that here, since that seems to be a selling point with some people.

Don't worry, I won't judge.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

A Taste of Sage by Yaffa S. Santos


Happy Hispanic Heritage Month! While you should ideally read diversely year-round, I'm trying to supporting Hispanic/Latinx authors by reading all of the Hispanic/Latinx-authored books on my Kindle that I couldn't get to throughout the rest of the year.

A TASTE OF SAGE was an impulse buy for me (aren't they always?). I'm a sucker for food-themed books, and the idea of an enemies-to-lovers romance between two rival chefs who both favor the cuisines of their childhood really spoke to me. Also, it's a bit of a workplace romance, too, because when Lumi's business goes under forcing her to job hunt, she ends up being forced to work for Julien.

I was shocked at how low the ratings were for this book... until I got to the halfway mark. You see, throughout this book, recipes are interspersed at key points so you can make the food the characters are talking about-- which is a great touch. Or it was, until one of the characters gets grievously injured in a kitchen and this horrendous accident is followed by... you guessed it. Another recipe.

Talk about tonal whiplash.

I think books like these are actually the perfect examples of situations where illustrated covers don't work. I saw a TikTok (I believe it was by chels_ebooks) that talked about how old skool romance covers were usually a pretty good indicator of the spice level (although not always). If the lady looked prim and dainty on the cover, it was a likely bet that it was going to be a "clean" regency romance. And if the lady was bursting out of her top in the aggressive embrace of the hero, the likelihood of spice (and probably dub-con) goes up in the mind of the person looking at the cover, and they can make their purchase accordingly.

When people look at illustrated covers, they picture light and sweet, so when a book has a cutesy cover but actually has really dark and depressing moments, readers can feel consciously or subconsciously cheated. I feel like a better cover for this book would have been a wooden table with photographs of food, and the table could be covered with chopped herbs. Maybe a picture of a knife in the foreground. I think that would have hinted at the food, the magic-realism, the homeyness, and also a little hint of menace (subconsciously) because of the knife. The illustrated cover here really does not work.

I actually really liked both characters and loved the recipes. I don't think this book is as bad as everyone says it is, but the tonal shift was definitely a game-changer that impacted my overall enjoyment of the book as a whole. But ultimately, the magic-realism, the ode to Dominican fusion, and the premise of two flawed and headstrong characters falling in love ended up saving the book for me. Just go into this book knowing that it gets a little miserable for a while halfway through, and if you or someone you know recently suffered from a bad burn, this could potentially be triggering.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 1, 2023

The Wife Upstairs by Frieda McFadden


This showed up on a list of Jane Eyre retellings. I've said in other reviews that the original Jane Eyre was kind of half-romance, half-thriller, so retellings tend to go either way since most authors can't capture the gothic ambiance of the original... and that's fine. I'm not a purist and I'll happily read either iteration of one of my classic faves.

THE WIFE UPSTAIRS is about Sylvia. The book opens with her saving a woman from choking in a restaurant... but the woman is a scammer who then threatens to sue her for saving her life. A man witnesses the whole thing, stands up for Sylvia, and then they get to talking. He finds out she's looking for a job and guess what? He's hiring. He's a famous novelist looking for a companion for his wife, who was in a terrible accident. She spends all day in the attic room, alone, receiving drugs and food through a tube. Isolated, except for her nurse and the housekeeper.

Sylvia agrees and receives free room and board in the couple's remote estate in Montauk. And right away, things seem fishy. Sylvia finds a notebook in the wife, Victoria's room, which turns out to be Victoria's journal. And what she finds in the journal doesn't quite add up with the account that she's received from the husband, Adam. Worse, it paints a rather dark picture.

Because Victoria might be lying too.

This book was pretty hard to read for a lot of reasons. I just read DRAGONWYCK by Anya Seton and talked about how it had a lot of fat-shaming. This book, THE WIFE UPSTAIRS, has a similar problem, in that it has a lot of ableism. The way that Sylvia talks about Victoria, and the language she uses, is pretty dehumanizing and awful. There's a lot of talk about how pathetic she is, and how she's a shadow of her former self, and how "lucky" she is that Adam didn't "stuff" her in a home. None of these characters are supposed to be particularly likable, so I'm sure that was a deliberate choice to show what assholes the characters are, but it's still jarring to read, and I thought I'd mention it here just in case someone doesn't want to read that, coming from the protagonist.

As for the story itself... it was fine. Other people have said this was a lot like VERITY and I agree that they had a lot of the same tropes. The core stories are different, though, and so are the endings. I personally thought VERITY was a little better and did the whole suspense thing a little better. I found myself skipping THE WIFE UPSTAIRS a lot. Some of the twists are the same, too, so I think if you read VERITY, you probably won't be as impressed with THE WIFE UPSTAIRS. I found myself guessing what was going to happen pretty early in the book. It wasn't exact but it was close enough.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars