Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Run Posy Run by Cate C. Wells


I'm kind of kicking myself for not reading this sooner. This was everything I love in a mafia romance: complex characters, just the right amount of "realism," and excellent banter. The story begins with Posy getting called into her mafia fiance's office. He looks displeased with her: someone has circulated a video of her having sex with another man to every single one of his associates. Despite her protests that this is from when she was in her late teens, Dario kicks her out of his office and tells her to leave town, or he'll make sure her life is ended.

Almost immediately after she leaves, though, Dario realizes that letting her walk was a mistake. He craves control like nothing else, and letting her slip free only to have her potentially be killed by one of his rivals isn't exactly his idea of tying off all loose threads. He hunts her down, she taunts him: who knows what will happen when he finally gets her back?

Posy was just the right blend of vulnerable and funny. Dario was the perfect morally black character, holding back just enough to make it feel like he really did care about Posy at least a little. I'd rank this on a level with Danielle Lori's books, although I think I actually liked this one a little better. The only thing I didn't like was the use of the word cream in the sex scenes. It's, like, literally my least fave.

Apart from that, RUN POSY RUN was a surprising success! I can't wait to read NICKY THE DRIVER.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Dressing Barbie: A Celebration of the Clothes That Made America's Favorite Doll and the Incredible Woman Behind Them by Carol Spencer


If you loved the Barbie movie, then you need to read this book. Carol Spencer was one of the head designers of some of Barbie's most iconic outfits, having worked at the company from the 60s all the way through the 90s. Part memoir, part Barbie fashion catalogue, this book follows Spencer through her childhood and college years, into her work for Mattel. She talks about working in Asia for two years, where she partnered with people in Malaysia, Japan, and China, and also how the oil embargo of the 70s impacted the production of Barbie clothes.

A lot of these Barbies predate me, but the late 80s, early 90s ones brought back so many fond memories! I also loved how feminist and inspiring this book was. I guess Spencer was engaged to this dude who was under the impression that she would work to pay for his med school, and when she got accepted into the college of her dreams and told him that she was planning to pay for her own schooling and that he should do the same, he DUMPED her. #TakeThatManOutToTheCurb

I just loved this book so much and there's tons of amazing photographs of Barbies, some of them quite rare, most of them from the author's private collection. My eyes welled up a little when I found out that she got a Barbie of herself for her retirement, holding a little bouquet of flowers. I want a Nenia Barbie. :( It just goes to show that for all the criticism Barbie gets, she has been inspiring to so many girls and women. She certainly was for me.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite


DNF @ 49%

Quick note, Poppy Z. Brite is a trans man named Billy Martin, but his books are still marketed under the Brite "brand," so I will be using the name/brand he uses to sell his books but with the correct pronouns. 

I was not expecting to dislike this book more than DRAWING BLOOD because vampires are kind of my thing. But DRAWING BLOOD had two sympathetic (if violent and seriously messed up) protagonists, who I could still root for, whereas LOST SOULS has a cast of people who seem to all be jockeying for the position of Absolute Worst.

There's Nothing, who's half-human/half-vampire, posterchild for the disaffected youth. Then there's Steve and Ghost. They're in a band. Steve's girlfriend just broke up with him because he raped her and Ghost is psychic and kind of in love with Steve (and possibly vice-versa). Then there's the vampires, Molocahi, Zillah, and Twig. They feel very Lost Boys-esque, and basically drive around getting drunk and killing people.

As one does, as an immortal child of the night.

There's not really a story, just lots of road tripping and drugs and sex and violence. Which I would normally be okay with in a vampire book, except it also comes with douchebaggery and incest and self-harming and suicide and underage sex, and those are things that I do not like reading about. They're dropped so casually too, and in the case of the incest, it comes completely without warning.

Brite is not a bad writer. He has an ability to viscerally convey a scene that is AMAZING. Like, it's cinematic, and in the case of DRAWING BLOOD, it managed to bring a visual medium to life; I absolutely loved the way he talked about art and drawing and the way artists pour their souls into their work (to the extent that perhaps their art robs them of it). That level of writing was present here, too, but with such awful characters, it was like looking at the beautiful setting of a move you hate.

I will say, though, that this was an excellent snapshot of the '90s goth scene. SO much Bauhaus.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Modelland by Tyra Banks


One thing you need to know about me is that I am very committed to the bit. So when I told my Threads followers that I would read a celebrity fiction book of their choice and basically ended up with a tie, I bought copies of Tyra Banks's MODELLAND and Hilary Duff's ELIXIR. I read ELIXIR first and despite being a pretty obvious Twilight + L.J. Smith knockoff, it was actually okay. Which made me wonder if maybe MODELLAND would be okay. I'd seen a lot of YouTubers talking about it but none of them actually did any in-depth reviews, except to quote the summary and make fun of the heroine's name (Tookie de la Creme), so I thought, okay, maybe it will be good.

But friends, this book was not good. This book was insane. And I use the words "book" and "insane" both loosely here. MODELLAND is kind of like if you put THE HUNGER GAMES, HARRY POTTER, and America's Next Top Model in a blender and hit "puree." Heroine's weird name aside, this entire world revolves around a global fashion industry that is powered by ~magic~ where everyone aspires to get into the magical school of bitchcraft and smizery, Modelland. Like the back cover says, "beauty is in the SMIZE of the beholder." Oh, boy.

Tookie lives with her mean brother and sister, and her even meaner mother and father. (Side note: her dad his a retired circus performer who gouged out his eye on a sword.) Everyone assumes that her sister, Myrracle, is going to be the next "intoxibella" (a graduate of Modelland), especially when Tookie finds a "SMIZE" in their kitchen sink and her mom forces her to give it to her sister. (Side note: a SMIZE is a magical fashion artifact that basically turns you into a magical girl.) On T-DOD, aka "The Day of Discovery," all girls stop, drop, and walk in place, it doesn't matter if you're in the grocery store or on the toilet, you stop what you're doing and walk because the magical scouts can scout you at any time, anywhere in the world, and whisk you away in their magical sacks to the gates of Modelland.

What's that, you ask? Did I say "magical sack"? Yes, I did. #SackIsWack

We're told multiple times that Tookie is ugly because she has two different colored eyes and a big forehead, but she ends up getting picked to go to Modelland. (Side note: did I mention that she also speaks twenty-eight languages?) Also in Tookie's graduating class are a girl named Shiraz from Libarian, an albino girl named Piper from SansColor, and a girl whose name I've already forgotten who comes from a grocery store country named Bou-BIG-tique, who is plus-size. At Modelland, they're quickly whipped into shape by sadistic teachers and students. Spotlights shine on them all night as they sleep (called Lumiere, the different kind of light you get reflects your personality). There's a disordered eating class called Mastication class where the classroom is made out of food that electroshocks you if you try to lick it. The girls eat their favorite food out of vats, and then afterwards they're graded in front of everyone on both their eating habits and their nutrition. There's also a field day x Hunger Games event called ManAttack where they are paired against students from the all-male boarding school, Bestosterone, in their underwear (girls wear lingerie and boys wear assless boxer shorts). As they compete in events, the judges objectify them and pass scathing judgement.

If you don't follow the rules of Modelland, there are punishments. A statue of the school leader sings at you (kind of like the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter, but bitchier and more annoying). There's a jail where you can self-flagellate if you want (and one of the most famous models, a woman named Ci~L, does exactly that, like she's watched Da Vinci Code maybe one too many times). Girls who are catty to their companions are turned into cats with human faces and forced to live in the Catwalk Corridor, where they attack and pee on trespassers. And if you really fuck up, you might actually be killed or sacrificed. Hey, in a magical school for models in the sky, ANYTHING goes, you know?

I wish I could say I hated this book, but it was actually so bad, I found myself almost addicted. Like, I would think, "There's no way it can possibly get any worse than this," and then Tyra would say, "And then sentient bats made out of fake jerky started flying through the classroom and the teacher caught it with a pair of chopsticks and ate it," and I would just find myself nodding and thinking, Hmm, sure, makes sense. (Side note: yes, there are jerky bats.) The book is very cruel and does so on the premise of liberation, because being an intoxibella is supposed to be about embracing your inner power, but of course, it's rooted in gender norms and capitalism so how liberating can it really be? Especially since when the intoxibellas make their public appearance on T-TOD, there are STILL men shouting objectifying things at them. Um, excuse me, what is even the point of being a fashionista magical girl if I still have to deal with creepy men, I ask you. ALSO, for some reason Tyra sort of made this a direct parallel to our world but named all the countries to hilariously offensive stereotypes, so Italy = Cappuccina, India = Chakra, Australia = Didgeridoo, Fuji = Japan, and France = Tres Jolie. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway aren't cool enough to be separate countries, though. They're lumped into NorDenSwee. And all of Africa has been reduced to one country, Kwaito. 

The best thing about this book, though, is that being a student at Modelland means no periods. They don't want to deal with you whining about cramps and potentially missing a show or bleeding through your designer threads, so (without your consent), you're just magically period free. (But still fertile, the creepy teacher takes pains to inform them, ew.) Like, I'm not sure about the jerky bats or the cat bitch hallway, but no more periods? No more cramps? I might be down.

I'm not sure I can forgive her for the phrase "mouth pee-pee" though, to refer to drool. What the fuck, Tyra? Things were going SO well (side note: no they weren't).

Oh, but the best thing though? The ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. I thought they were so hilarious. They're five pages long and she actually shrank the font down so she had more room to thank everyone. The first two pages are Tyra referencing every hotel, retreat, and cafe that she wrote this book at, by NAME. She also thanks Stephen King for writing the book, ON WRITING, claiming that it helped her write this book (side note: I think I just heard a man weeping quietly in Maine). Harvard Business School also gets a shoutout (#stayhumble) and so does her mom, for taking her author pic (actually this is cute). She also does something I've never seen an author do before, and thanks the artist who did her ENDPAPERS (which are really cool grafitti illustrations), and that artist is Hebru Brantley.

So overall, this book was fucking weird. The cover and the writing style reminded me a lot of the really trippy shit I consumed as a kid that came out of the 70s, like Yellow Submarine, The Raggedy Ann and Andy movie, and of course, basically anything V.C. Andrews. Honestly if you just sent me a snap of the cover, and asked me to guess when it was published, I would have guessed 1985-87. I am SHOCKED that it was published in the 2010s. I am also very much not shocked that it has less than 3,000 ratings on Goodreads, as well as a rather grim and unforgiving 2.92 review average. This was 500+ pages of hot mess (and apparently she did have a ghostwriter helping her so, like, what the actual).

Still, this was imaginative and weird and unintentionally funny, so I regret nothing.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Elixir by Hilary Duff


Was Sage a serial killer? Some kind of timeless, ageless serial killer who didn't choose multiple victims, but instead just one . . . and killed her-- killed me-- over and over again? (178)

Raise your hand if you're just sick enough to find that hot. 

I said that if I got to 3,000 followers on Threads, I'd read a trashy book from a celebrity and then I got to 3,000 followers and put up a poll and ELIXIR by Hilary Duff and MODELLAND by Tyra Banks basically tied. ELIXIR was shorter and just barely squeaked ahead, so I decided to read that one first. 

This is basically TWILIGHT with reincarnation and the fountain of youth. Clea is clubbing in Paris when there's a fire and as she's looking through her photos, she realizes that the same guy is in the frame of every picture (including the ones she shot in her bedroom). That person is Sage, the man who haunts her dreams, when she imagines herself in the bodies of other women lost to time.

If you're familiar with TWILIGHT, I won't summarize the plot for you. Two dudes-- toxic best friend, Ben, hot and unattainable guy, Sage. Love triangle. "I love you but I might get you killed." Absentee and doofy parents. I think the only physical interaction Clea actually has with her mom is at some rich diplomatic house party. Her dad is a weird biohacky scientist and her mom is-- idk. A political figure? She's filthy stinking rich and her best friend Rayna is the daughter of the "horse nanny" and they got jet-setting from Paris to Rio to Shibuya, like it's no big thing.

ELIXIR does actually have a leg-up on TWILIGHT in some regards. Like, Sage actually seems legit dangerous. When Clea goes to his house, there's, like, paintings of her past selves. Not just chill little portraits, but also gruesome pictures of them as they were being killed. And then since irises are kind of all their things, each of them had an iris charm necklace hanging on a hook, plus one empty one. Like he was just waiting for hers. Oh shiiiiit. I got the chills dot com. I also liked how Clea actually had hobbies (photography, dancing) and agency. She's not afraid to tell people off, and I liked that.

Overall, this wasn't the torture fest I was expecting. In the acknowledgements, Duff credits her collaborator, Elise Allen, who I am guessing was the ghost writer. Oh, to be a fly on the wall during their pitch sessions, as I'm very curious how much of this story actually came from Duff. All the richy-rich stuff, and the "travel is NBD," and "people don't take me seriously because I'm privileged and rich" stuff was probably Duff, I'm guessing, but honestly, it didn't come across as obnoxious. Maybe oblivious, but not malicious, which isn't surprising since in literally every interview I've seen with her, she comes across as a genuinely nice person. I think what was most shocking to me about this book was, according to the acknowledgements, she had not one, but TWO literary agents.


So honestly, if you like TWILIGHT and L.J. Smith and cheesy aughts-era paranormals, this actually wasn't that bad. I was prepared to hate it and ended up enjoying myself instead. Woo-hoo.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Everybody's Favorite: Tales from the World's Worst Perfectionist by Lillian Stone


Did I buy this book just because of the gel pens on the cover? Yes.

EVERYBODY'S FAVORITE is a fun, nostalgia-laced memoir of growing up in the Ozarks in the early 00s. Crammed in with all the boy band fangirling and glittery jelly shoes, however, is a lot of serious stuff: overcoming religious trauma, dealing with health problems, misogyny: both external and internal, and a lot of pretty intense oversharing (e.g. streaking, uncomfortably horny dogs).

I thought most of these essays were great but some of them felt a little like afterthoughts, especially the ones that felt like skits and the more blatant attempts at forced humor. However, I can't give anything a bad rating that made me soooo nostalgic, and honestly, if you want a real aughts-stamped slice of life, this is for you, especially if you're a fan of essayists like Mia Mercado or Sloane Crosley.

2.5 out of 5 stars

A History of the Vampire in Popular Culture: Love at First Bite by Violet Fenn


A HISTORY OF THE VAMPIRE IN POPULAR CULTURE is a beautifully chaotic mess that deep-dives into the vampire mythos, tying it to actual science (rare diseases and processes of decomposition that "mimic" vampirism), goth culture, queer culture, and even actual historical figures who were slandered posthumously (most notably and infamously, Elizabeth Bathory). This is also an analysis of pop-cultural phenomena, starting from the gothic lit of the early Victorian era and ending with modern-day Dracula movies.

I thought this was wonderfully fun. The interviews with famous goths about their thoughts on vampires was quite entertaining-- she actually managed to track down and interview one of Bram Stoker's living relatives! Is it cohesive? No, but the wandering narrative is part of its charm. So many times while reading this, I found myself taking notes and thinking that Fenn seemed like the type of person that I would just love to be friends with. It was especially fun seeing vampires being discussed from the Gen-X goth lens, since vampires are goth in every sense of the word.

I'm a little surprised that she didn't bring up Fright Night (either of them) or Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, though. I feel like Fright Night marries the horror and sex elements of the vampire quite nicely (well, in the original), and I think it's an even better vampire movie than Lost Boys. Likewise, Chelsea Quinn Yabro's St. Germain is a long-suffering, good-hearted vampire, who kind of feels like a direct response to the flamboyant deviancies of Lestat. They were contemporaries, too, and-- I imagine-- just as crucial in shaping vampires as mainstream, romantic figures. I definitely felt like there was a Dracula bias in this book, because it seemed like this author was curating vampires based on what she enjoyed, and while that's fine, people who are hoping for a more broad and impartial scope may be disappointed.

Overall, though, this was amazing. I'll definitely be keeping this for reference. :F

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 22, 2024

The Worst Woman in London: A Victorian Romance by Julia Bennet


After falling in love with the author's Harcastle series, I obviously had to read everything she wrote. THE WORST WOMAN IN LONDON is quite a bit different than her more gothic side series, though. This is an angsty, friends-to-lovers romance about a woman who is in the process of divorcing from her unfaithful husband and ends up falling for their mutual male friend when he is sent to spy on her.

It's tough to say how I feel about this book because there were some things it did really, really well. Fran is a wonderful character, and I really liked the penultimate interaction she had with her husband's mistress. It was also really interesting to see the drawn-out process of what divorce looked like in the late Victorian period, and how many hoops a woman had to jump through for her freedom (not to mention the unfair standards for men versus women).

I felt rather "eh" regarding the love interest, James. Their friendship felt more like an acquaintanceship than it did a true friendship; he felt much closer to Edward than he did Fran. It also kind of bothered me that for a significant portion of the book, he was still entertaining the idea of pursing other women as wives instead of Fran. I know this is realistic but dammit, I'm a romantic, and I like it when the hero is utterly OBSESSED with the heroine and will have no other in his heart.

The worst part of the book, for me, was Edward. He is a very convincing villain and I hated him, which is why it felt odd to me that the secondary romance in this book would be his. It's a daring choice to make readers despise a character and then expect them to root for his HEA. Bennet even addresses that in the author's note, admitting that he probably didn't get the ending readers wanted (e.g. a bad one).

Overall, this felt like a really interesting and well researched premise that taught me a lot about Victorian divorce, but maybe a not-so-great romance that didn't really have me rooting for anyone except Fran (although I am awarding a bonus half-star for James's grovel at the end).

P.S. For those who were searching for her Hardcastle series, the author just got the rights back and is planning on republishing them with new covers... with a third on the way! Huzzah!

2.5 out of 5 stars

Mirror, Mirror by Ann Aguirre


Perfection, thy name is Ann Aguirre. MIRROR, MIRROR is a spicy feminist fairytale that turns the wicked stepmother trope on its head. Trude has been in love with Viggo since they were children, and he used to love her too, until he fell for their friend, Lisabet, instead, and the other cruel, beautiful little girl stole him away for good.

But when Lisabet dies, Viggo marries Trude. And when she comes home to the man she has been in love with her whole life and his beautiful lonely young daughter, it seems as if she's finally getting the family she has always longed for. Dreams really do come true.

Except... Viggo holds her at a distance, sleeping with her-- sometimes using her roughly-- but never telling her that he loves her. And Albie, the daughter, is babyish and cunning, affectionate one minute and oddly cruel the next. And then, the mirror arrives...

I just loved this book from start to finish. The lush prose, the slow pacing, the build-up of the household and how it was expanded into a claustrophobic, creepy little world, and the quiet, loving strength of the heroine. It was all magnificently done. I read the first book in this series of standalones, BITTERBURN, and liked it, but didn't love it. That book walked so this book could fucking fly, and the little call-out to the previous book was so well done.

Honestly, no notes. Between this and THE THIRD MRS. DURST, Aguirre kills it at fairytale retellings and gothic romances. It looks like there was supposed to be a third book in this trilogy, a standalone Bluebeard retelling (gender-swapped! OMG!) but it seems as if it might have been dropped. That's heartbreaking if true. I know that her witchy books are her best-sellers right now, so I get why she's attending to those, but I'm also praying to every god I know that she'll write another fairytale.

Jesus, this was good.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Unmissing by Minka Kent


I fell in love with this author's Jane Eyre retelling, THE SILENT WIFE, and immediately added a ton of her books to my TBR. Thank God most of them are on KU. UNMISSING sounded like the perfect book to launch into next: it's about a married couple whose lives are disrupted when the husband's missing wife, previously thought dead, returns unexpectedly one cool night.

Merritt and Luca have the perfect bougie life in Coastal Oregon. Until Lydia returns, after being held in captivity by a man she refers to as The Monster for nine years. But instead of going to the police, she gets a job with a crunchy new age woman and her crystal shop before confronting the husband and wife team directly.

This was a really fun story. It kind of felt like a soap opera. Was it the best written thriller I've ever read? No. But I really enjoyed it, and even though the twists didn't exactly surprise me (maybe I've read too many mysteries??) I really appreciated all of them.

Can't wait to read more from this author.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Catch Her When She Falls by Allison Buccola


 DNF @ 20%

As soon as I heard the premise of CATCH HER WHEN SHE FALLS, I was hooked. Did I care that the Goodreads rating was low? Absolutely not. Fuck the haters, I thought, YOLO-ing my way to the 'Zon. I went into this book expecting something kind of like JAR OF HEARTS, but that was definitely not what I got. Which is 100% not this book's fault. The problem is, I'm not really sure what I got.

The hook of this book is that Micah is still haunted by the events that went down in her high school ten years ago when she found out that her boyfriend, Alex, was cheating on her with her BFF, Emily, only to kill her and end up in jail for it. Now an adult, she is returning to the town of Calvary after her mother's death, and when she's there, she finds out that there are people who believe Alex was innocent.

I personally found this book unreadable because it was so difficult to follow all of the converging timelines. There's parts that take place ten years in the past, but the present often wanders. Sometimes we get Micah in her car, on a roadtrip to somewhere. Sometimes it's in the present, but slightly more in the past, and nested within that are even more flashbacks. Each chapter is a different timeline but there are timelines within timelines.

I wonder if maybe this book was too clever for its own good. Like, maybe the author was doing what Megan Miranda did in that one book that's actually written backwards, where these dissociative POVs are supposed to reflect Micah's "unhinged" mental state (per the book summary). If so, I appreciate the artistry of that, but it really did not work for me as a reader the way it was done. That said, there were clever little pockets of writing in here that make me think this author could write a follow-up that I'd love, this one just wasn't it for me.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Book of Ivy by Amy Engel


I've loved every single one of Amy Engel's adult books so I was curious to read her YA, even though it's a genre I typically don't like (post-apoc). The premise of this one is pretty interesting. It takes place in a sort of strongholded society following a nuclear holocaust. There's two opposing "sides" within the compound, and they maintain peace by marrying girls and boys from each side to one another in a sort of government-approved teen marriage contract.

Ivy, the heroine, is the daughter of the founding families of the "losing" side of the historic compound war, and she's engaged to the son of the president of the winning side, Bishop. But this time, things are going to be different. Her older sister and father plan to have him and his entire family assassinated and they want Ivy to help him do it. Too bad he's a lot nicer than she was told he'd be.

Even worse that she starts to fall for him.

So this kind of felt like a cross between THE HUNGER GAMES and THE SELECTION, peppered with tropes that you'll recognize from about half a dozen other dystopians that were popular at the time of the boom. For what it's worth, it's better than THE SELECTION. The characterization really makes up for a lot of the shallow world-building. Ivy is a vivid character and so many scenes in this book had me feeling so emotional.

I also LOVED her relationship with Bishop. This is a marriage of convenience that manages to portray the initial awkwardness and the slow bond of getting to know someone intimately as a person. There was also a moment in here where Bishop pushes a man off a roof for abusing his wife, and I don't know about you but one of my favorite microtropes is when a nice guy reveals that maybe sometimes he's a not-so-nice-guy when someone he cares about is in danger. HOT.

After reading THE BOOK OF IVY, I think I still prefer her adult fiction to her YA, but this was still pretty fun. I might read the sequel, we'll see.

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Hushed by Kelley York


HUSHED has been on my Kindle for a while but I wasn't in the right mental state to read it. Now that I've finished, I'm glad I waited, because this is one of those risk-taking books that kind of challenges the constraints of the genre its written in, and it does it for the best.

Archer is a stoic and damaged young man who is just starting college. He's incredibly withdrawn and depressed, and reads a little like an incel but without the sexism that goes hand in hand with that. He's desperately in love with his childhood friend, Vivian, an emotionally manipulative young woman who keeps getting into bad relationships where Archer ends up sidelined until she drops the guy and decides she needs him again. This is the forever cycle the two of them are locked into until Archer meets another guy named Evan.

This love triangle from hell would be toxic enough if Archer weren't also a murderer. Because he and Vivian basically grew up as brother and sister, and when they were still both kids, Archer saw Vivian's brother and all his friends sexually assault Viv. Now he's been slowly killing them off, one by one. And if Vivian-- or Evan-- ever finds out what he's been doing, there might be hell to pay.

HUSHED is a great book. It's one of the darker YA books I've ever read, which keeps the content from being darker than it probably would have been if it were an adult novel. The psychological elements are really well done and I was really impressed at how all of the characters were drawn. The whole thing is plotted like a movie, and I'm honestly shocked it doesn't have more ratings than it does. Any of the dark romance girlies who are also into M/M are going to LOVE this book. It has all the same beats.

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Hungry Deep by J.L. Murray


THE HUNGRY DEEP was such a pleasant surprise. It has the same vibes as a retro work of gothic horror, like something by Ira Levin, but the themes are more similar to the classic canon of gothic novel: rigid societal structures that breed harmful traditions, toxic masculinity, a bleak and accepting terror of the unknown, and female rage.

Told in multiple POVS, THE HUNGRY DEEP starts out like any other Rebecca or Jane Eyre retelling: a woman comes to a worn-down estate deep in the country with her new husband, only to find out that all of the people in town are wary of him and-- surprise-- he's been married before.The folksy twist is that the husband seems to think some kind of eldritch horrors lurk in the wood... and the townsfolk are either enabling him out of fear, in on it out of necessity, or something else far more horrifying. What really lurks in those chattering woods?

Obviously I liked this book a lot. I like atmospheric horror more than I like blood and guts, and it's really hard for me to read books that linger on suffering. THE HUNGRY DEEP has its share of gore, but I felt like it was tastefully done, and the other definitely spent more time building up her lore and the personalities of the narrators than she did trying to shock the reader.

On that note, I am very impressed about how each POV was so distinct. Tom, Eleanor, Rachel, Gus, etc. all felt very different. They had different motives and thought about what was going on in different ways. Rachel and Eleanor were particularly good characters because both of them are flawed but likable and neither of them are what they initially appear. I LOVE that-- especially in horror, which has a tendency to fridge women who are too unlikable or too sexual. This is a very feminist work, and could be taught in a comparative lit class alongside authors like Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson.

Thanks to Corvina for BR-ing this with me!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 19, 2024

Spare by Prince Harry


So in my pre-review for this book, I talked about how shocked I was that SPARE was so slow to gain steam (and it was, at first, before it became one of the nonfiction darlings of the year). I also talked about how heartbreaking I thought the title was, because I said I felt like it showed a lot about how he probably viewed himself, and how awful it must have been to spend your whole life having your sorrow and your mistakes picked apart under a microscope, while reporters mine your personal tragedies and adolescent faux pas for clicks.

Reading this book basically cemented all of my previous thoughts. I do believe Harry is a good person, fundamentally. And I love his wife, Meghan Markle. I don't think it's fair how much hate she gets in the media, and if you have any doubts that she's being treated differently than Kate is, go find one of those many (MANY) side-by-side comparisons of various The Sun articles reporting on them doing the same things, whether it's how they hold their baby bump or the eating of avocados during pregnancy.

SPARE is a really great book and I think it captures Harry's voice perfectly. It starts from childhood, where Harry talks about losing his mother and the effect it had on him, as well as his unhappiness and difficulty in school. These are great portions and I think anyone who has ever struggled in school will really relate to these chapters. For me personally, I thought the military section of the book was slow and a little dull, but it's obvious Harry really loved his work in the military and enjoyed working with his colleagues (who he seemed to consider friends and equals), and I understand why it was put into this book, to give context to who he is in his person and how it shaped his life.

By and far, though, the best part of this book-- and probably what most of us bought it for let's be honest-- is the part where he met Meghan and all of the drama that came from that. Now, I am a woman who loves hearing dudes simp about their wives. It makes me happy. And Harry is a simp of the finest order. The way he talks about Meghan is just seriously #goals. It's clear how much he loves her and just as clear how infuriated he was by the reception she got from some die-hard British monarchists, as well as some members of his own family. He doesn't give as much dirt as he probably could have, but what he does share kind of makes Charles and William look like huge dicks. It seems like a pretty toxic family dynamic, which was probably made worse by all that power and entitlement, so the end result is just a hot mess that any normal person (e.g. Meghan and subsequently Harry) would want to leave.

It was honestly sad how many of Harry's girlfriends couldn't take the pressure. But also totally real. He doesn't talk shit about any of his exes and it's clear he had a lot of affection especially for Chelsy. In this book you really get a sense of the stakes of being a major political figure, and the dangers that lurk beneath the glamorous facade. Ultimately, it does have a happy ending and I hope that Harry and Meghan end up being very happy with the life that they end up forging together with their kids.

P.S. I didn't know Tyler Perry was a Princess Diana fan but he ends up having a sweet cameo in this book where he plays the role of unexpected savior.

 4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alice Rumfitt


What if the literal concept of bigotry became self-conscious?

TELL ME I'M WORTHLESS is probably the darkest, most disturbing book I've read in a while. It's actually probably a good thing I read it now, when I'm actually feeling pretty good, because I could see this being a two or a one-star read if I were in the wrong state of mind to read it. It is a bleak, depressing, disturbing book, filled with hateful imagery and symbolism. It is a book that takes the idea of the power of anger becoming a transcending force that permeates the physical forces of reality like a cancer or a rot, bringing with it supernatural powers that can haunt a place like a ghost. It is like The Grudge, but fueled by whole generations of fascism, discrimination, and hate.


There are three narrators in this book: Ila, Alice, and the House. Ila seems to be coded as a closeted transman who self-identifies with female pronouns and is an active TERF. She is also a predator, participating in the same behaviors that she uses to condemn and deligitimize trans people and their existence, despite also being marginalized herself (Jewish/Middle Eastern and, ofc, queer-coded). Alice is a transwoman who cam girls, emasculating men for money. She lives in an apartment that is haunted and believes that tendrils of The House of seeped into her very existence, hungering for her even now. She also suffers from serious gender dysphoria, and cam girling is her way of projecting this dysphoria onto a masochistic audience that craves humiliation and emasculation for sexual gratification.

And then there's The House, steeped in history. The House where three girls entered but only two left. The House has seen terrible things and reveled in them. It's almost a fairytale-like figure, except when all the paint and panels have been stripped away, you'll find visceral gore and horror. Here, haunting almost seems to represent the process of radicalization. People who come to the House might seem innocent, but they have the seeds of fascism burning inside them already: the House, with its strange powers, makes them grow. And even if they manage to escape, those seeds will still blossom.

I felt so much anxiety reading this book. It really does have TWs for literally everything, including things like antisemitism, graphic transphobia with violent language, and eugenics. Despite all that, it's a compelling story. It reminded me a lot of the countercultural, transgressive horror of the 90s, penned by authors such as Tannith Lee, Poppy Z. Brite, and Kathe Koja. In fact, I think if you enjoyed those authors, you'll probably enjoy this book. It shares a lot of the same themes as those books. I'm not sure I'd read this again and I'd be careful who I recommended it to, but the concept of imperfect and viciously flawed queer people populating a horror novel like this made me think of what chels_ebooks said in their review of GAYWYCK, "the first gay novel," about how GAYWYCK's characters weren't meant to be aspirational: instead the book aimed to just titillate gay readers with the same salacious thrills and chills as the "straight" gothic novels, just gay. I feel like in some ways, TELL ME I'M WORTHLESS does that for genderqueer individuals, too. It's messed up shock horror with queer characters who do messed up things in very messed up situations.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Astray by Poppy Fitzgerald


I went into this not really knowing what to expect, except that it was a stalker romance. It starts out in a pretty ordinary fashion, with our heroine, Eloise, being a little disillusioned about her twelve-year-long marriage. She and her husband are losing a little of that spark because Caleb, said husband, is constantly working late hours and going on trips, shunting her to the side again and again to rake in the brownie points.

Eloise, who is an X-ray tech, works long hours, too. And at the end of the day or during a rare weekend, instead of being with the man she loves, she finds herself either going out with her friends, commiserating with her sister, or reading the spicy romance books that she loves.

One day, after her friend ditches her for a bar date, Eloise goes to the bar alone. She meets a hot guy who looks just like Jason Momoa who comes onto her pretty aggressively and then kisses her. But she's married.

She goes home in a panic, AND THEN THINGS GET WEIRD.

ASTRAY has several really great twists that I don't want to spoil. At first, I was a little skeptical wondering how this was going to be a dark romance... but it does get very dark. I also liked that the heroine was older and married, with a stable career, and that she had such relatable problems. When you root for a character, you get scared for them when they're in trouble. By the last act of this book, I was white-knuckling my reading device in terror wondering what would happen next.

ASTRAY feels like one of those old Lifetime movies in the best way possible lol. If you often find yourself feeling nostalgic for those, I'd highly recommend this book!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Big Sky: A Dark Contemporary Standalone by Kitty Thomas


Kitty Thomas is one of my autobuy authors but I don't always love her work. BIG SKY is a tough book to rate because there were some things about it that I liked but it also has some really out-there kinks that I wasn't into and wasn't warned about, and the hero is kind of a jerk (and not in the usual morally black, "you are mine or else" way).

The book actually has a similar format to a Hallmark movie, hilariously enough. Veronica is a big city girl with a six figure job but she's being evicted from her home due to a mountain of credit card debt. At a diner, she sees this hot 6'5" cowboy who ends up offering a suspicious job at his "ranch" and Ronnie obviously says how about no, creep.

Mr. Cowboy thinks no is like Santa Claus: it doesn't exist. Not for him.

Spoiler: Ronnie ends up kidnapped and taken to the ranch anyway.


I have no problem with captivity romances when done well, which this one does, and Thomas is excellent at plunging into the psychology of the characters. But this book goes so much further than I was prepared for in a dark romance. It's basically like tradwife meets hucow. The heroine has to wear sundresses and be submissive to the hero in all ways, BUT he also brands her on her ass like his cows and then injects her with hormones so she lactates, and he and all his ranchers feed on her every morning and also there's a milking machine that, you know, doubles as a sex device.

Even that wasn't *too* much of a shock since I actually read a couple other hucow books for a dare, but the hero doesn't really seem all that into Ronnie. He's still in love with his ex-wife. He uses his ex-wife to guilt Ronnie into performing these humiliating acts "because his wife would have done it." Even by the end of the book, it doesn't really feel like a true HEA. That was really disappointing to me because in books like THE GAME MAKER and THE MONSTER KEEPS ME SAFE, which I loved, I bought those happy endings, even though they were fucked up. Because in those books, the hero did things for his woman that were exceptions he wouldn't grant anyone else. I so did not get that vibe here.

This was an interesting story and not a badly written one but it kind of left me feeling disappointed and sad.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Strip Tees: A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles by Kate Flannery


Oh man, I remember American Apparel. I never shopped there, though. At my high school, it was what the "slutty hipsters" wore and I did not listen to nearly enough Arcade Fire to be able to shop there. I do remember seeing the ads for the shops, though, and being like, "Huh. Awk." There's actually an opinion piece from some reputable magazine that compared their ads to softcore porn.

In STRIP TEES, Kate Flannery, an ex-spokesmodel for the company, talks about living in LA in her late teens and early twenties, working for the infamous teen clothing brand. She compares it to a cult, and I think she may be on to something, because the complicit silences and closing of ranks that happen in a toxic workplace environment really can appear similar to the mass-brainwashing of a pseudo religion.

I LOVED this book. If you told me one of my favorite memoirs of the year was going to be about a clothing brand from my childhood that I never wore, I would have lol'd. But here I am, spitting facts: this is a snapshot of a bygone era and a #MeToo story, as well as a voyeuristic insight into the rise and fall of a once-powerful company.

So good.

5 out of 5 stars

A Wind in Cairo by Judith Tarr


DNF @ 35%

Initially, I really liked this book a lot, although it's definitely not going to be for everyone. Hasan is the spoiled and jaded son of a sultan, too used to being able to do whatever he wants like a drunken frat boy. But when he gambles away his father's harem, this proves to be the last straw. He plans to send Hasan away to live with rural tribesmen, in the hopes that some rough living will teach him to behave better.

Hasan being Hasan runs away, and ends up taking refuge with some rich and good natured old guy who has a beautiful lady hanging around his house. Hasan being Hasan, well, he rapes her. And it turns out good natured old guy is actually a wizard and the beautiful lady was his daughter. Good natured old guy is not so good natured when his daughter is violated and turns Hasan into a horse before casually sending him off to be gelded. As one does.

Hasan escapes his gelding and ends up in the possession of a young boy who is actually a girl in drag named Zamaniyah. Zamaniyah is the only surviving child of a sultan who is actually Hasan's father's rival, and her father is basically like, "if I can't have a son, I will have a girl-son." Hasan basically becomes her plaything and she renames him Khamsin, confiding to him in the stables while going with her father on Official State Business(TM).

This kind of felt like an R-rated Emperor's New Groove for a while, but then the story just kind of petered out and I got really bored. The writing is also a very dreamy and disconnected sort of narrative style that I feel was more popular in the way back when and not so much in the here and now. I didn't hate this book, I just feel like the story wasn't as strong as it could have been. 

For those who have concerns about the content, the Muslim culture and representation seemed to have been thoughtfully done. Not sure how accurate it is but the way that it was written did not (to me) feel deliberately malicious or stereotypical. It's set during the Crusades, so they're not exactly warm-hearted towards Christians but, like, I mean, vice-versa, so that seems fair. I saw more reviews that were concerned about how this book is basically about the redemption of a rapist, and yeah, it is. But man, is he punished for it. Khamsin/Hasan has all of his agency and freedom stripped from him as a horse, and is constantly under threat of gelding, so while this does not excuse his crime, he definitely pays for it.

Really interesting story and moral fable, but not for me.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 15, 2024

The True Purpose of Vines by Giovanna Siniscalchi


This was a Stuff Your Kindle Day pick. Siniscalchi is a new-to-me author but as soon as I found out that this book was about wine-making in Portugal, I knew I had to have it. And in that vein, THE TRUE PURPOSE OF VINES does not disappoint. Julia is a Portuguese wine-maker and single mother. As if that weren't difficult enough, an English man named Croft is threatening to take away her winery, and her grapes are under threat from the phylloxera louse.

The hero, Griffin, is actually engaged to Croft's daughter (IIRC), and is supposed to chase Julia down as a wayward debtor. To his surprise, she's female, hot, and supremely capable... of turning his crank. For most of the book, though, he only reluctantly respects her. He is very much a realistic portrayal of an English for his time: he doesn't like or appreciate foreign food or culture, he doesn't think that English people should marry outside their race, and he basically thinks that Julia should fall over herself in gratitude that he's into her.

I appreciated the richly researched story and realism of the culture, but it also made it difficult to read this as a straight romance because Griffin was a highly unlikable character and for most of the book, I was more interested in the chaotically unhinged Pedro as a love interest (thank goodness he has a future book). Griffin does redeem himself and the last act has him groveling like mad, but I was not really attracted to him at all. HOWEVER, I do really appreciate the author's bravery in telling a story that feels realistic for its time and doesn't step to unrealistic and modern conventions to be more "palatable."

Three stars for the setting, the wine history (OH, the wine history), and a completely bad-ass heroine who probably deserved better than what she got, but hey, at least her story ended happily. :)

I will definitely be checking out more from this author.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village by Maureen Johnson


Okay, so I'm not sure how funny this will actually be to people who don't watch shows like Midsomer Murder or Agatha Raisin, but if you do watch British murder mysteries, this book is going to feel like one big, gigantic inside joke that you get to be a part of. 

An English Murder Village looks just like any other English village, except, of course, for its spectacularly high body count an inordinate number of vats, secret passages, and body dumping sites. Travel at your own peril and follow the instructions to avoid getting unalived and you just might make it without being red-shirted.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay


I think this is the fourth book of Gay's I've read and as always, she doesn't disappoint. Her books always feel so raw and emotional, but they're written as if you're looking at her words through the other side of a clear glass wall: removed, but with a full view of whatever terrible or beautiful thing she decides she wants to show you.

This book removes that barrier.

HUNGER is probably her hardest book to read, although it's a close call with UNTAMED STATE. This is a memoir about the body: what it means to take up space (especially as a tall, "super plus-size" Black woman), what it means to hunger-- for food as well as acceptance, and how in our desire to fill up the emptiness inside us we sometimes turn to darkness. In this book she also discloses her rape, and the lasting effect it had on both her mind and her body, and how it shaped her sexual relationships in an irreversible way.

She says at several points that she doesn't want to be defined by what happened to her and I fully understand that. When I think of Gay, I think of an honest book reviewer and a phenomenal writer. But sometimes, with celebrity figures, we forget that there's a man (or person) behind the curtain with very real flaws and insecurities. I admire Gay for her bravery in sharing what it means to be a human who has gone through terrible things, and hearing her thoughts on how society contributes to structures that continue to facilitate these inequalities and injustices. 

I hope this memoir brings other people comfort and makes them feel less alone.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Enter the Black Oak by Monique Edenwood


I buddy-read ENTER THE BLACK OAK with my friend, Caro. I've been excited to pick up this book ever since my friend Meredith raved about it in her review. Secret sex cults and unlikable female characters are kind of my kryptonite, so when I found out that this book incorporated both of those elements here, I was super excited.

The beginning of the book is great, as it opens with Jess finding out that her husband cheated and it feels very emotional. I liked the way she went to her friends for support and thought through all her options. Even her ambivalence about breaking things off made sense because when you've invested that much time and effort in a partnership, sometimes the instinct is to salvage what you've lost rather than cut off someone you love like they're deadweight.

What made this a frustrating read for me is that the entire lengthy middle section is the heroine, Jess, getting strung around by Jack, her husband. When he's not treating her like absolute garbage, we're forced to listen to how hot he is (and she is) ad nauseum, and while you could argue that this is the unrealiable narration from a woman who is just as desperate to convince us readers as she is herself, it's not fun to read. At all.

Around 75%, the book finally gets interesting again as Jess explores the mysterious Black Oak Society for real. It actually reminded me a lot of that sex club scene in the TV show, The Fall of the House of Usher (which came after this book did, I'm not accusing the author of copying), and since that's one of my favorite shows of all time, that's a pretty big compliment. It made me wish that the rest of the book was like that: tense, suspenseful, sexy, with a slight edge of danger.

I ended up feeling frustrated because parts of this book were like a dark romance version of Jackie Collins, who wrote trashy soap opera type stuff, but she wrote it well, which made all her books compulsively readable even if they weren't what the lit-snobs would consider "high brow." I really liked those parts of the book. But the parts where men just consistently told Jess how much better she is than the other desperate sluts of New York, and her agreeing with them in between worshipping the bodies of men who treated her like garbage, were a lot harder to stomach.

I read the afterward by the author where she talks about why she decided to write Jess the way she did and I do like her points about writing a character who other people might not like, but would be able to relate to. I could see this book working more for people who are in or have been in relationships that left them feeling conflicted and angry. But this book was mostly a miss for me. I might pick up book two, though, because my friend Clarice has assured me that Sebastian is one of the best villains she's ever read and given my love of villain romances, that was enough to pique my interest.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

House of Shadows by Chastity Bowlin


HOUSE OF SHADOWS is title-twinning with another one of my favorite recent gothic novels involving a sinister marriage of convenience, one by Darcy Coates! This one is slightly steamier though, and I feel like the horror element is slightly better done here, just because everything is so much vaguer and suspicious.

Adelaide nearly died while traveling with her father by ship. Worse still: in that same wreck, she saw him disappear between the waves. Though no body ever turned up, he's been presumed dead, and now she lives with her emotionally abusive stepmother, Muriel, who basically tells Adelaide that she can marry and get out, or be evicted with a bootstamp on her behind, as Muriel inherited everything but a small allowance and a dowry accorded to Adelaide.

Not wanting to be homeless, Adelaide turns to one of her father's business partners, Eldren, who is also a Welsh lord. He's got an asshole family of his own but they're even worse: his mother, who goes into violent fits that have harmed the staff, and who blames him for the death of his older brother and refuses to call him by name. He also lives with his alcoholic brother, Warren, and his sister in law, Frances, who is just as cruel and vain as Muriel, and encourages his brother to drink because it amuses her to see him tear himself apart. Bitch!

As if ALL THAT wasn't enough, the house might be haunted. People of Llewelyn blood hear voices before they end their own lives or those of their so-called loved ones. It all comes down to a terrible curse that lies soaked in the moors like old blood. And by marrying Eldren, Adelaide might just have made herself vulnerable to it... and to Eldren as well.

So this book was pretty good although the blurb is a little misleading in the sense that the author says that this is the first in a series "but each book is complete on its own." This is really not true, and going off some of the reviews, it seems like others have gotten upset by this as well. What I think the author means is that there's no cliffhanger ending, which is sort of true. She closes off the main story arc but there are a number of glaringly unresolved threads that are going to be addressed in books two and three. I personally think it would have been better if these 100-something installments had been combined into one book for readability purposes, because I do think it does the story a disfavor, chopping it up and ruining what is honestly some pretty smooth plotting.

Adelaide is a likable heroine and Eldren is charmingly brooding. The scares were well done and highly atmospheric, and I love how this checks off all the main tropes of a classic gothic romance. HOUSE OF SHADOWS is not an erotic work by any means, though it does have some steam. It reminds me of a Victoria Holt novel, but sexier. I just wish it was all one book.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Broken Dolls by Kitty Thomas


I didn't realize this was the sequel to GUILTY PLEASURES because if I had, I wouldn't have gotten it. But maybe that's a good thing because I actually enjoyed BROKEN DOLLS. This is the story of Mina, who has been horribly abused by all her Doms and now has scars all over her body. Her shady therapist, Dr. Lindsay, claims that he knows how to fix her (red flag): by selling her to a good Dom who will respect her.

Spoiler: Dr. Lindsay is actually kind of fucked up. When he's not therapisting, he's selling women as full-time slaves to other Doms, and living his best life in a compound called the Dome, which is where the hero, Brian, works. Brian is also the victim of abuse and every woman he "punishes" for Dr. Lindsay is a proxy for the one who hurt him most. But when he lays eyes on Mina and sees that he's as damaged as he is, for the first time in his life, he wants to put something back together instead of destroying it-- and that fucking terrifies him.

So I liked this book. It's not my favorite kind of story (I'm not personally a big fan of slavefic), but I think Kitty Thomas told it better than like 99% of any other author could. Also, a solid star is because this dude went after her abusers and brought them back in trash bags. That's the kind of unhinged chaos that I read dark romance for. Nobody does morally black like Kitty. The ending was a little abrupt but the core story was good. Yay for fucked up HEAs.

If you liked Zsadist from Black Dagger Brotherhood but wished he'd been a little more psychotic and cruel, you'll enjoy BROKEN DOLLS.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

WtAFW: Stiff: An Inanimate Object Shifter Romance by Thea Masen


This was gross and funny and sweet and weird, all at once. But before I get into this book, hi, I'm Nenia. I have a "weekly" (read: NOT weekly) challenge where I find and review the weirdest romance and erotica novels out there. You can even recommend them to me! 

I found STIFF on Threads when my friend, Dana, reviewed it. And right away, I knew it was going to be different. Richard is a medieval man, cursed by a witch to be a dildo after years of using women and leaving them unfinished. Now, his fate is to be a passive object doomed to constantly be horny but only allowed to give pleasure. The only way to break the curse is if someone puts the dildo in their mouth.

Enter Felicity, sex toy author. She's about to write a book about the history of sex toys but she's stuck on the Elizabethan period. To "inspire" her, her publisher is sending her replicas of classic historical sex toys, including a Victorian hand-crank masturbator and... Richard.

Anyway, Felicity puts Richard in her mouth and he becomes human... but the witch isn't finished with him yet. He has to get to know Felicity as an actual human being and treat her respectfully, or she'll turn him into something even worse. 

STIFF was pretty entertaining. I liked it more than I have liked most books I've picked up for this challenge and I thought all of the trivia about sex toys the author included as epigrams for each chapter were fascinating. The ending actually made me tear up a little... almost. I'm embarrassed to say that this book was as heartwarming as it was cringe. This truly was a What the Actual Fuck Wednesday for the ages.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Bad Girls with Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten


"Everyone loves a pretty dead girl, and to be reminded of what happens to girls who aren't careful."

BAD GIRLS WITH PERFECT FACES isn't just an edgy YA title; it could also be the name for my favorite genre of books. Fucked up lady thrillers, AKA FULTS. Our cast of doomed characters is a trio of edgy, bitter alternative teens. Sasha is a loner who is in love with her best friend. Xavier, her best friend, has depression that he is self-medicating for. He's also in love with a bitter and mean-spirited manic pixie dreamgirl named Ivy. After watching Ivy jerk Xavier around, Sasha decides to catfish her. But it doesn't work out the way she thought it would. Nothing does.

I'm not surprised that this book has low ratings, even though it's totally undeserved. BAD GIRLS has all of the things that make the pearl-clutchers wring their hands nervously. There's teen sex, drug use, alcohol use, girls being very mean to each other, and people being imperfect fucked up versions of themselves. You know, just like real life.

This is a sad and miserable confection of a book but I did really enjoy it. In as much as you can enjoy something like this. If you're reading this book, just make sure you're in the right headspace for it. But if you're a fan of books like 13 REASONS WHY or BEFORE I FALL, you'll like this a lot.

4 out of 5 stars

Lust for Tomorrow by Dana Sweeney


LUST FOR TOMORROW almost feels like a nostalgic read because it's so reminiscent of the military sci-fi classics of the 70s and 80s, like STARSHIP TROOPERS or ENDER'S GAME. I remember trying so hard to get into books like that in my early twenties and walking away feeling so disillusioned, because the worlds those books described were entirely men's worlds, and seemed to deliberately exclude women from being a part of the fantasy (at least, on their own terms).

This book feels like a direct response to the sexist male gazey sci-fi canon, both in homage and also as a critique. The heroine, Nina, is a foot soldier in a futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopian hellscape where zombies have ravaged the cities, forcing people to a life of scavenging or, if they're "lucky," military service. In the Stronghold, which used to be a fancy hotel and now serves as barracks, Nina lives on the outskirts of a sort of gated community, where she alternates between performing various duties in the Stronghold and going on raids led by Helmets.

Helmets are the commanders who lead the raids. Some of them take the helmets off after the battle is over, but some of them really have a hard-on for the helmets and wear them all the time like it's some kind of kink. (YAAAASS.) The people in the stronghold refer to these individuals as "helmet heads," pejoratively. But Nina, who is forced to hide so much of who she used to be to function in what remains of society, is fascinated by these people who seem to glory in hiding themselves so completely. Especially when a new Helmet joins the Stronghold and she finds herself utterly hypnotized by his voice. Most people don't like him and call him Alpha, but Nina wants to fuck him.

This is because Nina is smart.

I was really impressed by this book. For a debut, it is nearly perfect. I really liked the world building, which surprised me, because post-apoc is not a genre I gravitate to at all (I think the last one I read was, like, two years ago and I believe I gave it a two). The mask kink is hot and very on-trend. Why is nobody talking about the Reylo to mask kink dark romance pipeline? If you watched The Force Awakens and thought to yourself, "I want to fuck Kylo Ren," this book is for you. Especially if it was qualified by "But only when he's nice to me while domming the complete and utter shit out of me."

The sex in this book was great. It manages to convey a pretty compelling BDSM relationship with a Dom who does active care and fucks up sometimes but admits it. There were a couple scenes that weren't to my personal taste, but 90% of them were exactly my thing and all of them were well-written and contributed to the emotional development of the characters. I also liked that the heroine initiated the relationship between them and that the consent was mostly implied. I feel like too often, erotica writers are so conscious of making sure there's consent that they sometimes end up sounding like afterschool specials for How to Sex Without Being Rapey 101 and it ends up feeling artificial. This did not.

I personally cannot fully get on board with a romance unless there's an emotional connection and all the little moments between Tom/Alpha and Nina really made such a difference. There's people on TikTok who do videos about toxic couples where they make jokes about how they'd break up or divorce after the fact, but these two feel like a couple you could really root for. Which is why it kind of surprised me when, after Nina sees Tom's face for the first time, it feels almost anticlimactic. His face is never really described much at all. Maybe this was intentional, because his face was never what she was attracted to, but given the mutual simpage, I thought she'd wax a little more over (in Tom's own words) his "handsome face."

I only had a handful of qualms for this book. There's a jump where Nina and Alpha go from sleeping together to her waking up injured and I had to reread that scene several times because I didn't realize that there was a battle scene that happened off page. I think it's supposed to convey amnesia, like an actual blank space (kind of like those empty pages in Stephenie Meyer's New Moon), but it was really confusing to me. I was also a little confused about how the zombie outbreak happened in the first place (unless I was really dumb and I missed the explanation), and also about what Threshers were. There's also a really sinister undertone to the Stronghold which is only really hinted at here (and I'm sure will be explored in more detail in later books) but I really wanted to know more about what it is like post-apocalypse, and what these super sus military people are actually hiding (LOTS, probably).

Apparently the next book is going to be about the himbo of the Stronghold, Demetri. I really liked his character, and I'm excited to read more in this series. It's been a while since I picked up a sci-fi romance I really liked, and hats off to the author for writing a world that is sinister but not stomach-wrenchingly bleak. My poor little wuss soul wouldn't be able to take it. :)

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

North of Beautiful by Justina Chen


NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL has been on my to-read list for a while but I've never picked it up until now. God, I wish I'd read it when I was a teen. Where was the soft goth boy of my dreams then, I ask you?

Terra is a beautiful teenage girl with a port-wine birthmark on her face. She feels incredibly insecure about it and is always going to treatments for it, which her mother sneaks her to around her disapproving dad, who begrudges the extra expenses. She also lives in a dysfunctional home: her father is emotionally abusive, and both of her brothers have withdrawn (emotionally and/or geographically). Her mother, when she isn't treating Terra's face like a passion project, turns to food as comfort, emotionally eating to compensate for the abuse.

When Terra meets Jacob after an unpleasant circumstance, they end up becoming friends. And then-- after an unexpected trip to China-- more than friends. In China, Terra is finally free from her dad and the expectations of the society that she identifies with. Culture shock ends up being the impetus that frees her from fear and its constraints.

So this was really, really well done. There are so many things this book does that make it way ahead of its time and if you ask me, it desperately needs a rerelease. First, it's great to see a heroine with a birthmark and how the author shows the bullying and negative attention she gets from that (even from friends and family). I saw some people saying that the reactions she got seemed overboard; they aren't. Kids are cruel. I also liked how she was dating a guy who wasn't the best for her (but wasn't abusive) and didn't break up with him, even when she started exploring things with Jacob. I saw reviews shaming her for this, too, but c'mon. She's a teen. Teens do shit like that. Dating isn't a marriage. Lots of kids play fast and loose with relationships. This actually made it feel way more realistic.

I think the best part of this book, though, was the China trip. I learned so much about how adoption works in China, some of the places of interest, and even a little bit about the culture. I also loved how the love interest was a Chinese American who did not speak Chinese and experienced this kind of weird dissociation from being perceived as "other" in the U.S. by some people but also "other" in China by others since he couldn't speak the language and didn't look local. This isn't something that ever got discussed much in aughts YA, which is a shame, and it's honestly so great that this book did. Also, the heroine doesn't fetishize Jacob at all. She acts as an ally for him when she needs to be and likes him for who he is, goth eyeshadow and all. Their friends to lovers relationship was quite convincing.

So overall, NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL ended up being really fun. The pacing was a little uneven at times because the book was so long, but I enjoyed the journey. It gave me nostalgia for books like Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti wrote: edgy YA with flawed and compelling protagonists who let you into their lives one wistful slice at a time. I own another book by this author and I will be bumping it up the priority list after reading and loving this one so much. Definitely read this if you love realistic YA.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Small Favors by Erin A. Craig


I just know this is going to end up as one of my favorite books of 2024. It is fantastic. I felt lukewarm about her earlier book, HOUSE OF SALT AND SORROW, but SMALL FAVORS takes everything I did like about that book and heightens it: strong and flawed heroine, culty and claustrophobic small town, folk horror, fairytale retellings, feminism, and the seductive lure of evil and danger.

In the town of Amity Falls, people live like frontier men and women, harvesting based on the season and going by wagon when they need bulk supplies. But something in the surrounding woods has changed. Animals come out and they don't look right. And there are whispers of creatures with silvery eyes.

Ellerie, our narrator, stands at the forefront of this tale. And when tragedy strikes, she finds herself forced not just as protector for her siblings but possibly bearing the burden of saving the entire town. If they even want to be saved, that is.

Evil is, after all, a most seductive mistress.

I am just blown away by how good this was. It's easy, I think, as an author to feel the need to handhold your younger audience when you write YA. But this book doesn't do that. I'm glad it wasn't an adult story because it was so intense that I think it would have actually been too much if it were more graphic. Craig deftly handles serious and disturbing themes that are probably, unfortunately, relatable to some members of her young audience: sexism, emotional abuse, religious abuse, gaslighting, hard choices regarding right vs. wrong, and the perils of first love. Ellerie is allowed to be selfish and flawed but it's clear from the get-go that she's a good person. I loved her so much and her growth over the book is as much as a coming of age tale as it is a hero's journey.

My only qualm is that I wish there had been an epilogue or something because the ending felt the teensiest bit abrupt and I was curious what ended up happening with the parents/baby.

But apart from that, bra-fucking-va.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 8, 2024

Berserker by Kitty Thomas

 This is one of those books where I think I liked the idea of it better than the execution. BERSERKER is a very short book, under 100 pages long. It is also dark erotica with very dubious consent. One thing that makes BERSERKER stand out is its Norse mythology influence. The heroine is a Valkyrie and only Valkyries have the ability to calm berserkers, which are basically possessed warriors fueled by rage and blood-lust.

On a flight to France, she runs into one of these on the brink of murdering everyone and manages to stop any "incidents." Unfortunately she gets marked in the process, and this particular bersekrer is very possessive and enjoys the thrill of the hunt.

I think this book is way too short to do what needs to be done. I just read another one of her books, THE MONSTER KEEPS ME SAFE, which was great. It was also about 100 pages longer. There's a very anticlimactic ending to this book and not enough time to develop the relationship that Thomas tries to create between these characters. The world-building was so interesting that it feels kind of like a waste to just use it as trimmings.

The Bane fangirls and Omegaverse girlies will probably be into the unhinged violence of the hero-- and the sex *is* pretty hot if you don't mind dub-con-- but I ended up skimming through them just because I was hoping for a little more in the way of story.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 7, 2024

The Monster Keeps Me Safe by Kitty Thomas


THE MONSTER KEEPS ME SAFE was really good, and kind of wild. I don't actually want to say too much because part of the fun is going in cold and not having any idea what the fuck is happening. This book was originally titled Tabula Rasa and apparently the author added in the prologue and the epilogue. I actually wish she hadn't added in the prologue because I think it spoils too much. I think the twist that happens about a quarter through the book would have been too meaningful without Shannon's POV to clue you in.

All I'll say is that this is a dark romance between Elodie and Shannon. But first, she's with a man named Trevor. None of these people are what they appear to be and part of the fun is finding out who they really are and the secrets they're hiding. The title is appropriate because the monster does keep Elodie safe but safety comes at a terrible cost.

Kitty Thomas's books can be hit or miss with me but this is one of her best. It's unique and weird and sexy and disturbing, and I basically read it in less than a day because I couldn't wait to find out what happened next.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 6, 2024

The Missing Marquess of Althorn by Chastity Bowlin


I discovered this author through Stuff Your Kindle Day with her title, THE LOST LORD OF CASTLE BLACK. I was obsessed with it. The second book in the series, however, was incredibly mid and had a cliffhanger ending that was not resolved in this book (Mary's book and resolution happens later in the series). However, THE MISSING MARQUESS OF ALTHORN delivers on the drama that I had come to expect from the first book and was almost-- almost-- as good.

Jane and Marcus have been betrothed by their grasping, conniving fathers since childhood. However, the seven year age gap between them disturbs Marcus, who at 21, tells his father that he doesn't want a 14-year-old bride. Jane overhears some of the argument, but only the damning parts, and their engagement ends up in limbo when he goes off to fight in the Napoleonic war, only to be presumed dead.

Spoiler: Marcus is not dead and returns to find that Jane is all grown up and beautiful now, at twenty-two years of age, laboring under the thumb of her overbearing father and his spoiled young wife who constantly emotionally abuses Jane and calls her fat. His cousin, Charles, has also been coveting the marquesate and is less than happy to see him return.

This book didn't have the gothic vibes that made LOST LORD such a hit, but there were shadows of it here. I love drama revolving around affairs and inheritance, and this book had that in spades. There were also some really good villains who had solid motives and added a good amount of stakes to the book. I liked the villains in book one more but these villains were perfectly odious. I also really liked the relationship between Marcus and Jane, and how the trust between them blossomed as they were forced to work together-- rather the way a married couple would.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 5, 2024

Willing Prey: A Primal Romance Novella by Allie Oleander


WILLING PREY was the primal kink book I've book looking for all my life. Shane, a socially awkward lawyer, pays Claire, a schoolteacher divorcee, $30,000 to hunt her for 30 days. The catch is that she has to make it difficult by putting up a fight. He doesn't like easy hunts.

I liked this book a lot. The sex scenes were great and I loved how sweet Shane was (when he wasn't hunting lol). Where do I find a hot lawyer to make cardio fun? Even though there isn't much in the way of conflict, I thought the X-rated games of tag and hide and seek really added a lot of suspense. I did expect more of a third act conflict than what I got, though. Since Claire is a school teacher and the U.S. is such a dick when it comes to morality clauses, I was expecting someone (maybe her douche ex?) to blackmail her, or something like that that would force them to unite as a couple against a common enemy.

But overall, WILLING PREY was great. I thought it was interesting that the author decided to make Shane a switch. At first I wasn't sure how I felt about that, but since "hunting" was so new to him and he was questioning his sexuality in such an open and thoughtful way, I guess it made sense to his character, after all. And Claire seemed super into it, so I loved that for her.

Definitely can't wait to read more from this author.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 4, 2024

The Vanishing of Lord Vale by Chastity Bowlin

 The first half of this book was great! But then it quickly got weird. And not good weird, but WTF are you doing weird. 

Benedict was the son of a wealthy family until he was kidnapped by a bunch of sinister men who ran in the debauched circles of his father. Years later, Benedict resurfaces as the owner of a gambling hell who is searching for his missing foster sister, Mary, who was kidnapped just as he was almost fifteen years ago.

The heroine, Elizabeth, is a paid companion to Benedict's mother, Lady Vale. Vale has gone mad with grief and her brother in law has sought someone out to keep an eye on her so she doesn't keep looking for her missing son in the faces of strangers. But when she and Elizabeth are rescued outside a shady fortune teller's parlor by a man who looks exactly like her missing son, Lady Vale is sure it's him.

Every book in this series is about a nobleman who's had his legacy ripped forcibly away and must fight for its return. It has the same gothic-adjacent vibes as Elizabeth Hoyt's Maiden Lane series, which I really enjoyed, so I was excited to find another book series that has the same vibes. 

I loved book one in this series: it was passionate, the characters had great chemistry, and the pacing was excellent. This book, on the other hand, felt way less polished. The weird quasi-supernatural element, the constant filler of the fortune teller and her boy toy, the lack of chemistry between Benedict and Elizabeth, the lack of a satisfying showdown, and a very rushed and ultimately inconclusive and dissatisfying ending, all made this a very disappointing installment.

The next book in this series sounds REALLY good so I'll be checking that one out before I decide to call it quits, but I really was not a fan of the ending of this book at all. :/

2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Lost Lord of Castle Black by Chastity Bowlin


I got this from Stuff Your Kindle day because the title sounded deliciously gothic and I think it's my favorite selection so far. THE LOST LORD OF CASTLE BLACK has everything I love in a historical romance: a sexy and dangerous hero, hidden identity, childhood friends to lovers, gothic vibes, murder subplots, and a headstrong and likable heroine.

Agatha and Nicholas were a wealthy married couple on business in Europe when Agatha cheated on her husband with a potential spy. On their way home, in disgrace, their ship suffered catastrophic damage and they were separated from their young son, Graham.

Now, years later, Graham has returned to Castle Black to take what is his. Only his mother has survived all these years, and his cousin, Edmund, has taken over the estate, acting as regent for his half-brother, Christopher. Also living at the estate is Beatrice, Nicholas's ward, who grew up with Edmund, Christopher, and Nicholas. Once, the four of them were close, but life at the castle under its new corrupt ownership has inextricably tainted them all.

This was so good, OMG. There was steam, there were scary villains, there was ROMANCE. I wouldn't exactly call this a gothic romance but man, it sure was gothic-infused. The danger gave the budding relationship between Graham and Beatrice some much-needed stakes, and even though it verged a little on insta-love, I thought it was pretty clever to make them childhood friends as a way of explaining some of that instantaneous trust and fondness. Graham was such a dreamboat too. When he told her she was HIS? And that nobody else could touch her? Swoon City: population me.

Brb, downloading the rest of the series.

5 out of 5 stars