Thursday, March 28, 2024

Through the Smoke by Brenda Novak


This was literally EVERYTHING I want in a Gothic novel. Rich in atmosphere, strong heroine and swoon-worthy but dangerous hero, class politics, gritty history, dark secrets, and muuuuurduuurrr.

So obviously I loved it.

THROUGH THE SMOKE has an incredibly convoluted plot for a historical romance novel, which tend to be more relationship focused, but that's part of what I loved so much about it. Rachel is a bookseller's daughter. In the beginning of the book, she goes against her mother's wishes to avoid the earl in order to get her a doctor. The earl has been coming around to her place (their first meeting in the book, he catches her itching her boob when she thought she was alone! LOL) looking for information about the mysterious death of his wife in the fire that almost killed him, too. Rachel knows that her father was approached by someone with money to start the fire, but she's reluctant to part with the information. 

Anyway, tragedy happens and her mother dies anyway, and due to some sinister plots, she ends up drugged and naked in the earl's bed (and no, he didn't do it). There's a bit of somno for those who are into that, but Rachel ends up deciding she likes it (and not in a no! no! yes! way, either, she is down and dirty for the man). The enemies to lovers relationship becomes a lovers to lovers relationship, but their forbidden love becomes treacherous and even deadly amidst a backdrop of fomenting rebellion in the coal mines, a conspiracy to destroy the earl, and town secrets and politics that are even darker and blacker in deed than the mines that provide the town's money.

When I read Sheilla Holland's WOMAN OF IRON, I was expecting something more like this-- a dark and forbidden romance that really sells the passion, as well as the politics. This was beautifully written and a joy to read and I loved literally every moment of it. If you enjoyed books like DUKE OF SHADOWS and WHEN ANGELS FALL, where the authors take a hard and serious look at the effects of class politics on relationships, you'll love this. I can't wait to read more from this author. Holy wow.

P.S. Thanks to Sarah Beth for buddy reading this with me! I had so much fun!

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 22, 2024

The Cliff House by Chris Brookmyre


Whoa. The next time someone asks me for a book rec of a dude who actually does a good job writing female characters, I'm sending them this. THE CLIFF HOUSE by Chris Brookmyre is fast-paced trashy fun, about a group of women who go to an isolated venue in the Hebrides for a bachelorette weekend only for someone to be murdered. But there's a twist on the usual "oh no, murder party!" plot: every single one of these ladies has a dark and glaring secret.

This book was a little silly but the characters were amazing and the tension was SO well done. There were several twists that literally had me shocked, and I admired how everything came together full circle. It's been a while since I read a book that hooked me from the beginning, and had me engaged from start to finish, but this was it.

I'll have to check out more books by this author because this one basically ticked all of my boxes. Except the smut box. But honestly, there was enough scandalous behavior in here to make up for it.

Thanks so much to my friend Corvina for buddy-reading with me!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 11, 2024

Walk of the Spirits by Richie Tankersley Cusick


This was a buddy-read with my friend Corvina. WALK OF THE SPIRITS has been on my TBR for a while because Richie Tankersley Cusick is one of my favorite horror/thriller books of all time. Most of her books are YA but she has two adult titles. Her adult titles are among her best work, I think because she had to dial stuff way down for her YA publishers. Even so, her older stuff tends to be wilder than her newer books. WALK OF THE SPIRITS is so mild that it could probably be on the Disney channel.

There's a lot about this book I did like, though. Nobody does atmosphere like this author. I also thought the heroine was bland but fine (surprised by how many people were calling her obnoxious in the reviews; she's almost ridiculously inoffensive). Also, one of the other girls talks about how she's had casual sex and the heroine is super unjudgemental about it, which is a rarity for the 00s. I also liked the Louisiana ghost culture elements and the fact that one of the love interests was a hot, dangerous Cajun guy.

Where this book fell apart was that it foreshadowed creepy stuff but then it didn't pay off. I had an idea of how this book would end and when I wasn't even close, I was mad, because I liked my idea better. The ending was ridiculous. Apparently, there's a sequel, so some of the open-endedness made sense, but my issues with the main storyline remain.

I still love this author but I won't be recommending WALK OF THE SPIRITS to anyone.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Medici Giraffe and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power by Marina Belozerskaya


I bought this like ten years ago, back when I was SUPER obsessed with nonfiction. I still like nonfiction but now it feels like a chore to read and I have to be in the mood for it, unless it's a memoir or one of those really poppy books about science. 

THE MEDICI GIRAFFE is a book that sets out to explore how animals have, historically, been used as displays of power. It starts out with Alexander the Great's fascination with elephants and their potential for use in his armies and ends with William Randolph Hearst's private zoo, plus an epilogue that sort of skirts around China's use of pandas in global diplomacy.

This book's biggest flaw is that the topics are not cohesive. Apart from the chapters being about rich, powerful people who kept animals (or slaves-- more on that in a mo'), the people they talk about are pretty different and it didn't feel like there was a unifying theme.

So here are some bulleted thoughts.

Alexander the Great's chapter was one of the best because I loved the idea of this dude creating a two hundred strong herd of elephants that he then couldn't be fucked to train. Elephants scared horses and also men, so the armies that had them, had to have handlers who got the horses used to them and were adept at managing the elephants. But Alexander had so much conquering to do that he didn't take the time. They were basically useless. The Ptolemaic dynasty kind of feels anticlimactic after the elephant hilarity, but I did get a kick out of Ptolemy's younger son literally having a name that means sister-fucker because he married his sister. Loooooool. The Greeks apparently hated that and thought that was super gross (lots of gossip about "unholy holes"). I think he's also the guy who put statues of his mistresses everywhere. HILARIOUS. I love that kind of gossip.

Did not care at all about the Roman chapter that followed. Booooring.

Lorenzo de Medici's chapter was mildly interesting. Basically, he was like "fuck you, I'm a Medici, I own a giraffe." 

There was a guy from Europe who owned a lion named Rudolph but apparently lions weren't as cool. I wished the side note about the Chinese emperor who told people to stop giving him lions as presents because he had too many was the main chapter. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in ancient China when the emperor was telling everyone that lions are totally last season, you guys. 11/10 would watch.

Josephine Bonaparte was apparently a crazy bird lady. She had so many birds. She had a lot of other animals too but then Napoleon got pissed off and told her to cut it out. The fact that she cheated on her asshole husband and had a ton of spite-birds made me like her more than I already did. After Alexander the Great's chapter, Josephine and her black swan army was the best chapter.

William Randolph Hearst's chapter was weird. The tone almost felt fangirly in parts but this guy was not a nice person. Also, his zoo animals seemed to be pretty badly treated, so that made me sad. I don't want to read about how he didn't listen to the zoo employee he hired to evaluate the health and comfort of his diseased and anxious animals (spoiler: he wasn't sliving for protection against animal cruelty) or how zoo visitors and zoo EMPLOYEES tortured the animals for fun. The only thing about this chapter that I liked was the fact that Charlie Chaplin apparently got a goofy grin while looking at zoos. YES.

The chapter that made me most uncomfy, however, was the "Human Animals" chapter, which was about Hernan Cortez and his colonization of indigenous Mexicans. I don't know, guys, something about writing about human slavery and sticking it in a chapter in a book about animals being used for power gives me the ick. Cortez was an asshole. The only good thing about this chapter was that it made me want to rewatch The Road to El Dorado, which is an excellent movie.

The epilogue about China's panda diplomacy was OK. Vox has a video about it which is way better. I don't think we like pandas because they remind us of ourselves. I think we like pandas because they look like black and white teddy bears who eat leaves.

Overall, this book was OK. I'm not going to keep it but I learned a lot of interesting things that I never learned in my history classes back in school. BRB, adding Road to El Dorado to my watch queue.

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 9, 2024

14 Ways to Die by Vincent Ralph


I loved the idea behind this: a girl leveraging social media to find the serial killer who murdered her mother? I'm happy to report that the execution was good, too. 

Jess's mother was murdered by the Magpie Man when she was just seven years old, creating a wound that never healed. When the opportunity to be on a reality TV show with vlogs shows up, she thinks it might be a way to provoke the killer into doing something stupid and outing himself once and for all. Or, at the very least, a way to reach someone who knows something.

I liked this book a lot. It was fast-paced and tightly plotted. There wasn't a ton of substance to it but I was engaged the whole time. If they played up the romance a little more this would make a great CW TV show lol. There's even a bit of "is he the bad guy or just a hot man who's into me?" which is always my favorite trope.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Powerless by Lauren Roberts


DNF @ p.131

Not for me. I couldn't get into the writing style and I'm not really a fan of the insta-love trope. Story-wise, this feels like a three-way cross between FOURTH WING, HUNGER GAMES, and Ilona Andrews's Hidden Legacy series, with a sprinkling of Rhysand's "darling" thrown in for good fun. I can see why this is popular because it is basically catering to every popular trope in the YA/NA fantasy market. It just feels a little... flat, for me, personally. 

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Cinderalla by Junko Mizuno


I remember seeing an ad for this in the back of one of my Viz comics like twenty years ago, and obviously it made an impression because I couldn't stop thinking about it for all these years. Finally, I decided to buy myself a copy and holy shit, this is one of the most insane things I've ever read. The back of my copy compares this to "Powerpuff Girls on acid" and has a blurb from VICE magazine that calls her the "cruelest" cartoon artist in Japan.

CINDERELLA is a truly bizarre Cinderella retelling that feels like what you'd get if Rob Zombie was into anime. When Cinderella's father dies from overeating, he comes back to life as a zombie. Cinderella is overjoyed because this means that they can continue to run their yakitori shop together. But then her dad comes back with a demanding zombie bride and two zombie stepsisters, and all they do is make Cinderella cook, clean, and sew bras for them.

The prince in this book is a chronically ill stage performer who died and then came back as a zombie. Also there's fairies, everyone walks around topless (even while cleaning??) and there's plenty of blood and guts for the discerning splatterpunk aficionado. All drawn in an overly cute style.

So like I said, this book was insane. It was not my thing and definitely not for children, but I appreciated the sheer fucking bizarreness of it. Also, there's a great interview with the author in the back of the book where she talks about her history as an artist and how she launched her career. There's also an ad for an exclusive doll from these comics at a store in California that I am very tempted to send money to, just to see if they would send me a pity prize (note: won't be doing that, though lolol).

Recommended for fellow weirdos and people who like irony in art.

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Moth Keeper by Kay O'Neill


I freaking love Kay O'Neill but this just didn't feel as good as Tea Dragon Society or Aquicorn Cove. The art is gorgeous (it always is) and the core messages of their comic books are always so important and good-hearted, but this one felt poorly developed compared to some of their other graphic-novels. At least, it did to me.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 1, 2024

Starlings by Amanda Linsmeier


Rosemont is an idealistic little town that looks like it could have come out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and is famous for its "eternal roses." But when Kit goes there with her mother to visit the paternal grandmother her father never told her existed, a pall hangs over the town. Everyone stares at her, whispering her name. She hears a strange man's voice in the middle of the night. And what's this about a festival?

STARLINGS is a pretty solid YA gothic novel with some genuinely creepy scenes and an empowered bisexual heroine and, of course, the hawt and sinister villain. I honestly wasn't expecting this to be as sensual as it was, and there were some excellent body horror scenes and implied grotesqueness that made me squirm.

Points off because it got a little weird in the third act and there wasn't as much build-up with the love interests (who weren't really love interests) as I would have liked. But if you're into vibes and atmosphere, and love folk horror, this is your jam. I recommend this particularly to fans of Ann Fraistat's WHAT WE HARVEST.

3.5 out of 5 stars