Friday, May 31, 2024

How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale by Jenna Jameson


I wonder how many people were taken in by that title and then shocked by how jaded and disillusioned Jenna Jameson was about her industry. HOW TO MAKE LOVE LIKE A PORN STAR is such an odd book because, as others have pointed out, the tone is all over the place. The book starts out pretty grim, with the death of her mother from terminal cancer, her getting mixed up with an emotionally closed off tattoo guy whose biker friend rapes her, and then, later, she finds her murdered best friend who was also getting raped by the biker guy (who was her dad, also, YIKES). After that, it gets into her sex work, which started with stripping and gradually became movies.

What makes HOW TO MAKE LOVE LIKE A PORN STAR such an odd book is that it's like an oral history of Jenna Jameson and the porn industry. On my Kindle this book is a whopping 700+ pages long and I don't think it really needed to be. A lot of that page count is photos, many of which are NSFW, and some of them are placed in weird spots. Like, she'll be describing a hardcore scene and then there will be a picture of her as a kid with her family. Or when she was talking about her rape and its effects on her, there might be a topless glamor shot.

I thought the memoir parts were interesting but then the second half of the book took a mixed media route, and they incorporated things like her old journal entries (which weren't scanned well), interviews between her and her dad and her brother, and passages written from people she worked with. There's also comic book pages based on her life and tongue-in-cheek snippets, like one where she talks about the answers she might give in an interview when she's in a good mood versus a bad one.

Overall this was a pretty interesting read and not my usual fare but it was interesting to read another take about a women who used to work in porn. However, if you want a book that goes the "Yay, porn! I love my job!" route, I think I'd read Asa Akira's memoir over this one.

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross


Bought this ages ago back when most of what I read was YA, found it in a box and decided to read before keeping or giving away. Here's the thing, BELLE EPOQUE is shallow and superficial, but part of that is the point: it takes place in Parisian society and the heroine is a girl who unknowingly contracts with a semi-secret agency that hires girls to be "repoussoirs," or repulsers, basically. Ugly girls who hang out as hired companions with plain girls to make them look pretty.

Basically, it's a DUFF escort service.

The heroine is appalled by this. Not out of any sense of feminism, but because she doesn't think she's ugly-- unlike the other girls at the agency, who she kind of feels deserve to be there. I thought this was hilarious and it is exactly how an outraged teenage girl would think. That said, I don't think the author really explored the "girl power" element of this quasi-dystopian as well as she could have, and it ends up giving a lot of mixed signals. Like, it's hard to swallow this message of a girl's value coming from within when the endgame is the girl feeling like she's pretty and being validated by a dude, even if she also thwarts the system. It feels very "white feminism circa 2011," if you know what I mean.

If you're a younger reader who enjoys Bridgerton and the reality TV-like vibes of books like THE SELECTION, you will probably enjoy this, even if your enjoyment of the two aforementioned things is "ironic." I didn't hate this or think it was badly written, but I've read books that explore this sort of concept and time period that I've enjoyed more, and comparison is the thief of joy, as they say.

I would read more by this author, however.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Lucille: A Bluebeard Retelling by Dakotah Gumm


LUCILLE is a pretty solid gothic novella. It's a Bluebeard telling with vampires and vampire hunters, set in France. The historical details were great and I thought the author managed to capture the Victorian "style" with her narrator, Lucille, who, even though she is often TSTL, is very young and sheltered, so I could sort of tell myself that her behavior made sense. After all, she doesn't have TikTok and fake news to make her skeptical and jaded before her time.

Bluebeard is probably one of my favorite fairytales of all time so I'm always a little picky when it comes to retellings. This is a good one, although the pacing felt off. Lucille decides she loves Jakob very quickly. So quickly that when she said she did, I was like, "What?!" The ending also felt super abrupt, especially the climax, which felt like it should have been drawn out a little more to give the reader time to both dread what was happening and process going on.

Based on the blurb, this is also being branded as a dark fantasy romance, but this doesn't really feel like a dark fantasy or a romance. It feels more erotic horror or gothic paranormal. I thought maybe you could argue that it was possibly an HFN since there is a sequel but then I realized that the sequel is about another couple, so there isn't going to be a whole lot more development between these two, since it ends on a note of tragedy and manipulation. 

Overall, this was pretty solid and I do think that readers of gothic and horror fiction will enjoy it. Her follow-up novel, SONG OF THE DEMON COURT, was a lot better, so it was nice to see where she started and how much she improved-- especially when it comes to world-building details and character development.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Rebels: City of Indra: The Story of Lex and Livia by Kendall Jenner

DNF @ p.138

Hey, did you know Kendall and Kylie Jenner wrote a book? Me either, until a couple years ago, when I was trawling a list of books called "Worst Books Ever" and happened upon this title, which was jostling for top spot with Justin Bieber's autobiography, Snooki's A SHORE THING, and Tyra Banks's MODELLAND.

I read weird celebrity books every time I hit a milestone on various social media channels, and I promised that when I hit 5,000 followers on Threads, I would read and review Kendall and Kylie Jenner's dystopian effort, REBELS: CITY OF INDRA. This book is interesting because I've never seen them promote it and it has not one, but two ghost writers (one of them was their creative director, and the other was a YA author they apparently hired for the effort).

The writing is actually not too bad, which I fully credit to the ghost writer, but the story feels empty and kind of soulless. It's set in this weird dystopian society where the rich live in these sky islands and the poor live on the ground. Lex is the poor one and Livia is the rich one, and this book is just so... bizarre?? Like, Lex is bullied for being an orphan, and for some reason, the ghost writers (or the authors???) decided that the term for getting booted out of the orphanage is called "bottoming out"? People also bully her for being a smelly orphan, which is so weird, because Tyra Banks also had this happen in her YA dystopian, too.

Livia is a rich society princess living in a pseudo Giver-via-French-Revolution society where she refers to people by their roles (Governess = Governess). She's about to debut, marry, and cohabitate, which is a big deal, but she's having second thoughts. Maybe there's more to life than being rich and really, really ridiculously good-looking?

I really tried to read this book but apart from the accidental hilarity, it really wasn't that interesting-- not even in a hate-read sort of way. Like, I was able to get through all of MODELLAND because even though it was an objectively bad book, it was creative and interesting, and you still could hear Tyra Banks's "voice" throughout the narrative. It felt like she'd lent a heavy-hand to it. Conversely, there's nothing of the Jenners in this book at all. It just feels like a very derivative and uninteresting attempt to cash in on the post-Hunger Games dystopian boom. Which is not very interesting or fun to read.

1 out of 5 stars

White Oleander by Janet Fitch


Gen Xers read FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC when they were in middle school. I read WHITE OLEANDER when I was thirteen. Should I have? Probably not, but it was one of the first literary fiction books I read outside of school, which taught me that a book can be written for literary merit and still be fun and entertaining to read. Whenever I see one of those "list a book that defines you" lists, I really want to put this one, but I feel like people will see that and be like, "Dear god, what happened to YOU" when really, it's not so much the story or the plot that I relate to (thank god) so much as the writing, the use of art as solace, and the feeling of helplessness and loneliness. 

This is one of my desert island books. Every time I read it, I get something new out of it, notice something different.

WHITE OLEANDER's writing is gorgeous and the callbacks, motifs, and metaphors are incredible, even outside of the context of the story, which is also amazing. Like, this is the sort of story that I would like to write one day: big, intense, epic, beautiful, heartbreaking, powerful, EVERYTHING. I'm always shocked when I meet someone who hasn't read it. If you can get past the trigger warnings, it feels like one of those stories that everyone could talk about, even if they didn't enjoy it. It's got a flavor. You either like it or you don't.

At its core, this is the story of a girl who is the daughter of a sociopath who commits a crime, who then wanders through the foster care system, ending up in a series of terrible homes, all awful in their own way. It's also an intimate character study and coming of age tale. Astrid is a very passive character at first, and the way that she is shaped and molded by her environment and the people she comes into contact with is subtle and well done. She is such a dynamic character, even when she lacks agency.

The child abuse is so hard to read, and I don't think there's a character outside of Jude from A LITTLE LIFE who was in such desperate need of a hug. But the story is just as amazing as I remember and these characters will haunt me for life. I love this book so much.

5 out of 5 stars

Brutal Serpent: A Dark Regency Romance by Kate Raven


This book was absolutely insane, which makes me happy because that's exactly what I was hoping for. BRUTAL SERPENT is the story of Viscount St. Erth, who has very good reason to hate the Wendover family. He also has plans to get revenge on them, which involve marrying their only daughter and getting her pregnant. How does this revenge work, you might ask? Wait and see.

This is definitely more erotica than it is a romance because I would venture to say that the sex and the fantasy that it sells are more of a focus than the romance/relationship development. That's the case with most of this author's books, but one of the reason I like them is because the plots are so unique and the heroes are literally insane. St. Erth does many crazy things like threaten to feed his wife to pigs, take her to the doctor for leeches (for fertility!) and blood letting (also for fertility!), and shove a snake down her blouse to keep her from talking. Also, he puts her PERIOD BLOOD into his WINE.

I would love to vacation in Kate's mind for a day just to see what it's like to have all of these wildly unhinged ideas. While reading, I kept trying to figure out what BRUTAL SERPENT reminded me of, and then it hit me: 60s and 70s erotic pulp. There's a definite bodice-ripper vibe to this book, especially since the hero literally gives no fucks and never stops being evil.

Viscount Erth is probably my favorite chaos goblin after Je Sweet.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 20, 2024

A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt


I found this while cleaning and must have bought it ages ago when I was still in my YA phase because I don't remember getting it at all. A BRIEF CHAPTER IN MY IMPOSSIBLE LIFE is a 2000s-era YA about a girl whose parents are both very into politics: her mother is a lawyer for the ACLU and her father is a political cartoonist. One day, they drop a huge bombshell: Simone's parents aren't her biological parents at all. She's the adopted daughter of a Hasidic Jewish woman who gave her up for adoption at sixteen.

For the time this was written, this tackles a lot of interesting subjects. The heroine and her family are non-religious (agnostics, I believe). Her biological mother is dying from terminal ovarian cancer. It talks about the realities of what it means to be pro-choice, and how the decisions to give up a child you can't take care of are never easy. It also discusses sex in a fairly non-judgmental way for the time. Simone's best friend Cleo is very sexually active and more developed, and Simone is jealous but not super shamey, which I liked.

There wasn't a lot of interesting conflict in this book and it was pretty sad, even though I would say the ending is more life-affirming than tragic. It also captures the way people talked in the 2000s pretty well, which means that sometimes the language is un-PC, like Simone jokingly calls her gay best friend a "h*mo." I probably wouldn't recommend this to most people, unless they were looking for a YA that does a really good job with current issues, but man, what a brave and daring debut.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Lover: The Cruel Dark Companion Novella by Bea Northwick


Look, 9 times out of 10 when an author decides to rewrite their book from the male love interest's perspective, it's not interesting and feels wholly unnecessary. LOVER is that 1 book out of 10 that really adds something to the story, and it's also basically a masterclass in how to write a gentlemanly simp who is respectfully obsessive. HAWT.

Do NOT read this book if you haven't already read THE CRUEL DARK because it contains major spoilers for the book. Before I dive into my review, I will say that these two books are set during the roaring twenties, and are a lushly written gothic saga about a girl with a tragic past coming to help a hot and tormented professor with his research, only to discover that the house that they're working in harbors dark secrets that inextricably twine with both of their own sordid histories.

Callum is such a great hero. He had some of the best lines in this book ever, and the spicy scenes were both elegant and hot. A Michelin starred dish of spice, if you will. I also loved seeing Millie through his eyes. I loved her a lot in her own book, and getting to see the hero falling in love with her, being in love with her, was a real treat.

Does this book do much for the plot? No. But it advances the story emotionally and is actually a very thoughtful and complex piece of fan service that goes beyond a mere smuttening, so I am happy.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran


It's been ages since I read anything by Meredith Duran and I forgot what a fantastic writer she is. Nobody turns a phrase like she does, and I honestly think that she's right up there with Lisa Kleypas and Julia Quinn in the costume fiction pantheon. BOUND BY THE HEART was a particularly exciting one for me to read because one of my favorite romance pairings is the rake and the bluestocking.

Lydia is the daughter of an Egyptologist who is hyperfixated on his studies, to the point that he often neglects his three daughters. The book opens with a heartbreaking scene in which Lydia, who has been courted by a man for weeks, finds out that he's been after her sister all along, and the two of them have basically been laughing behind her back.

In the present day, she has thrown herself entirely into her studies, and is giving a talk on the subject when a rakehell named James Sanburne barges into the lecture waving a stela-- which she identifies, publicly, and to his disgrace-- in front of his father no less-- as a fake.

He gets very angry with her and the book takes a delicious hellbent-on-revenge approach, which I loved. The enemies to lovers was GIVING and I was eating it up on a silver spoon. For a while, it felt like this might even verge into dark romance territory but then it turns out that James is, gasp, nice... and misunderstood. Which makes this a very different sort of romance than I was expecting, but I was still kind of into it (although RIP hate-sex).

Where this book fell flat to me was that it had a little bit of a pacing problem in the middle. I felt like the mystery about the forgery dragged a little, and the stakes and the danger could have been higher. I say this with my reading of DUKE OF SHADOWS fresh in my mind, because that book was basically the gold ring of dark romance with nice hero who could turn hellhound if he wanted to. This book flirted with that line a little, but it was mostly a redemption arc for a man who really didn't need to be redeemed so much as he needed to be saved from himself.

Cast of side characters was great, as always. Loved Mrs. Chudderly (can't wait to get to HER book), and thought Phin was an equally great and damaged BFF for James. I HATED Sophia and wanted to pump my fist when Lydia finally told her off as she deserved. (Still kind of hoped that she'd get punched in the face by the end but this book was way too nice for that lol.) 

Overall, this was another solid addition to the Meredith Duran canon and I'm glad I read it.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Jeweled Heart of Rosemont Castle by Clara Wimberly


I buddy-read this book with my IG buddy, usedbookin. This is the second vintage gothic we've read together and the first one that I really adored. The Zebra gothic line could be hit or miss but this one has everything: lost birthrights, family secrets, hot stepbrothers, mysterious heirloom jewelry, and a fucking albino witch with a pet white wolf. DAMN.

When Annie's father is on his deathbed, he reveals to Annie that he's not actually her father: she was given to him to care for and she's actually the long-lost daughter of a rich winemaker family who lives in a castle. But when she writes to the family, the lawyer basically writes back and is like, "OUR CONDOLENCES BUT NO. XOXO."

Annie isn't about to take that shit, so she goes to the family to deal with them in person, and is almost turned away by the hot stepbrother, Christian, but the man who might be her father intervenes. He's half-mad and has never gotten over his first wife (Annie's supposed mother), despite his new wife literally BEING RIGHT THERE, but he is the one who decides that Annie simply must stay.

Weird shit starts happening pretty quickly. Christian makes a point of letting her know he thinks she's a fraud and calls her the G-slur literally dozens of times. His cousin isn't a fan of her either. Henri, a friend of the family, is a little *too* friendly, and the servants intimate that maybe her mother's disappearance was more sinister than mere flightiness. But honestly, who knows?

I thought this was a lot of fun. There were some great chilling scenes, it was extra without being too extra, and the novelty of a historical stepbrother romance was too good to miss. This reminded me a lot of BLACKMADDIE but more consistent in pacing. A must for anyone who loves vintage gothics.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Return to Mariposa by Anne Stuart


Anne Stuart is one of my favorite authors, so when I found out completely by accident that she had released a new book (very quietly, apparently, and with zero fanfare), I was SHOOKETH. Especially since she appeared to be going back to grassroots by making this a first person gothic (whaaaaat??) and it has the most Colleen Hoover-looking cover I've ever seen that wasn't slapped on a Colleen Hoover book.

RETURN TO MARIPOSA is about a woman named Kitty, who has the most bizarre chain of degrees I've ever seen: BA in English, Master's in contemporary Spanish lit, and then 3/4 of a PhD in, I kid you not, "plant eugenics" with "an emphasis in olive trees." She tells us, the readers, that she got this degree because she comes from a super rich family that lives as expatriates in Spain on a massive estate called Mariposa, with an adjoining and successful olive tree farm.

But for some reason, Kitty is ostracized from the family. It's not super clear why except her mother made her leave early one summer and apparently her grandfather decided to Take That Personally(TM). Every year through her cousin, Bella, Kitty has asked to come back and every year (through Bella), she is told no. In addition to Bella, she also has two adoptive stepcousins, both brothers, named Ian and Marcus. When they were young, Kitty had crushes on both of them, but they didn't like her because she was chubby. Instead, they called her "Podge" because she was pudgy, and treated her like shit. What assholes.

Anyway, now the grandfather is dying and Bella gets the BRILLIANT idea that they should Parent Trap the shit out of their dying grandfather as a chance for Kitty to make amends and get closure while incognito. This plan is ridiculous, but Kitty, longing for home, doesn't question it. But almost immediately, her return starts to feel super sus. Apparently Bella was dating a mobster, and grandfather maybe doesn't hate Kitty as much as everyone thought, and both of the stepcousins are still very hot. Also, someone might be trying to kill her for reasons. HUZZAH!

This book takes a while to get rolling and it is BIZARRE. First of all, no way is this woman twenty-eight. This woman who uses words like "blandishments" and "sobriquet" and has apparently had sex but never been kissed with tongue??? (As an adult, she is SHOCKED to be Frenched; like, girl, you're acting like a dick sprouted from his mouth Alien-style and beejed you???). She is also SO resistant to the idea that she might be in danger. At one point, she says "no one is trying to kill me!" after a stranger at a bar literally takes her aside and tells her he wants to kill her AND someone tampers with the brakes of her car. People are so quick to call heroines TSTL, and throw the term around like rice at a wedding, but I'm afraid that Kitty might actually be a whole-ass onigiri. 

That said, this was addictive to read and so cheesy that I couldn't put it down. Is it plausible? NO. Did I read it anyway because my fave wrote it? Yes. Ian is douchier than a lot of her other heroes and I didn't really like him all that much, but he has a lot of the hallmarks of a classic Anne Stuart Hero(TM). The sex scenes were also more descriptive than the usual Anne Stuart novel and I thought Stuart did a good job showing the angst of crushing on a guy who was unattainable and treated you like garbage when you were young. (Honestly, first crush might be a favorite trope of mine.) I also thought there was some halfway decent foreshadowing and some interesting plot points that felt like nostalgic throwbacks to old school gothic romances.

I wouldn't recommend this to people who are new to this author, but if you like her books already and enjoy a classic old skool romp, then you'll probably find this as entertaining as I did.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Song of the Demon Court by Dakotah Gumm


I bought this book because of a teaser I saw the author post on Threads that made me think this was going to be a really twisted dark romance with dub con (MY FAVORITE). It wasn't quite that, but I loved it anyway. SONG OF THE DEMON COURT ended up being an examination of personal faith, an enemies to lovers romance with high stakes, and a pretty interesting character portrait of two flawed and damaged people slowly learning to trust each other-- all with a Jareth-coded hero framed within an erotic pied piper retelling. WHAT.

Annika lives in what I believe is medieval Bavaria. The children in town are dying of a plague and the council have called upon a mythic race (kind of like demon elves?) called the pipers to cure the children with enchanted song. However, they cannot afford to pay the price and they know it. But because The Men(TM) are stupid and stubborn, they go ahead with the plan anyway, and the pipers decide to take the children away as punishment.

Annika alone goes to the kingdom of Laute to get the children back. Instead of forking them over, Loic, the son of the king, agrees that she can look them over as a sort of nanny in exchange for being his plaything. Disgusted, Annika agrees, and is then surprised when he proceeds to mostly not touch her. She came to this kingdom playing a game of her own, but it seems like Loic is playing one, too. And the stakes have never been higher.

So this was a really fun read. I loved that Annika was a single mom and her body wasn't perfect. She was brave but made stupid decisions, which, don't we all. I never disagreed with or failed to understand anything that she did, though. Loic on the other hand is a true morally grey character. He reminds me a lot of some of Anne Stuart's heroes, particularly the one in PRINCE OF MAGIC. Towards the end, he did a lot of things that were hard to like, since he wasn't truly a villain character, but you know what they say: hurt people hurt people. He was basically the fantasy equivalent of that. AND OH MY GOD, the author makes him suffer. This is a man who is put through hell for his cruelty, and has to really grovel to get his HEA. I actually felt so sorry for him by the end.

The world building was SO detailed and creative and I thought the writing was beautiful. I was surprised by the heavy religious themes. I'm not religious at all but I thought they added to the medieval setting in a really rich and authentic way. THE LAST HOUR OF GANN was similar, especially in how the hero's faith was tested and challenged, and I loved that book as well. I think it's thematically relevant to a lot of people. But the way the heroine is judged and internalizes some of her teachings to her own detriment might be hard to read for people who have experienced religious abuse/trauma.

ALSO I loved how sign language was so casually and cleverly integrated into the plot. That rep is unusual and shouldn't be, so it was especially great to see here.

Apparently there's a sequel coming out and I will definitely be first in line for it!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore


MAGIC UNDER GLASS was on a list of Jane Eyre retellings, which I was a little skeptical about at first because when I read the summary, it didn't sound very Jane Eyre-y.

This is the story of a girl named Nimira, who comes from a Pan Asian-inspired country that mostly seems to be Indian-inspired but has flavors from some other countries, too. She is a dancer, and even though dancing is well respected where she comes from, it's considered pretty base and deplorable in the England-inspired asshole country where she resides now.

One day, a man steals her away from her low-paying job with the offer of a more private performance. He has an automaton that his previous dancing girls thought was haunted and wants a living human girl to perform alongside it at parties. In exchange, she also gets room and board. It seems like a pretty sweet deal and obviously she takes it, because the boss that she has now is a total creep.

But as soon as she gets to the house, she starts noticing weird stuff. The servant girls are oddly frightened, and there's strange rumors about her new employer, Hollin's, dead wife. And the automaton that she's supposed to dance with seems like it might be alive after all... and in desperate need of help.

Reviews for this book are mixed, which both surprises me and not. The original cover for this book made it seem like this was going to be a very light romantasy for girls, when actually, this book has a lot of really dark themes like colonialism, orientalism, racism, political corruption, and capitalist greed. Most of these themes are actually handled pretty well, including the orientalism + racism, although I am guessing that maybe some readers looking for lighter fare got pissed that the subjects got so heavy.

This also really isn't a romance in the usual sense. Nimira is very strong but all the men around her are very weak: morally, in their convictions, or physically. She is the savior, and even the nicest love interest (who is very cinnamon roll-like) isn't able to protect her or court her in the usual way. Nimira plays the active role that is normally reserved for the hero, and people looking for traditional fantasy gender roles in their romances with "strong, swoonworthy heroes" probably wouldn't like this.

As for me, I like it when a story takes risks. This is more Jane Eyre-inspired than it is a direct retelling, but the gothic adjacent vibes are definitely there, and I liked that, too. I'd recommend this to readers of Gail Carson Levine and Diana Wynne Jones (the book comped itself to Libba Bray and Charlotte Bronte, but I think that was another mistake-- it's not really like either).

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture by Euny Hong

 Bought on a whim and it did not disappoint! THE BIRTH OF KOREAN COOL is a fascinating look at S. Korea's international success when it comes to tech, pop music, food, and entertainment. Euny Hong, who went to school in Gangnam, infuses the pop history narrative with stories from her own time growing up in Korea, discussing how it started out as a relatively poor country with a GDP that was exceeded by places like N. Korea and Ghana.

This was honestly the perfect read for AAPI month because it offers such a fun insight into a country that often dominates the entertainment headlines now. I loved the narrative voice of Hong as she talked about everything from Psy's surprise success, to Samsung's glowup, to the popularity of once-scorned food like kimchi.

I hope she writes a follow-up because this was so entertaining. Only reason it didn't get a full five is because the tech portions were a little boring and I skimmed (eek). Apart from that, SOLID BOOK.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thicker Than Water by Kathryn Harrison


I got this off of a list of transgressive women's fiction that pushes boundaries and explores uncomfortable topics. When I bought this book, I was wondering why the author's name sounded familiar, and when I looked her up, I realized she was the same author who wrote a memoir about having an affair with her dad. Or at least, that's how the Goodreads reviews for that book frame it. But considering this book, and how it is allegedly THE KISS's semi-autobiographical predecessor, it's looking more like that the author was probably the victim of abuse-- from both her parents-- and these works of fiction and nonfiction are her way of reclaiming what happened to her.

THICKER THAN WATER reminded me a lot of WHITE OLEANDER. It has the same dreamy, disconnected prose that reads like someone trying to put distance between themselves and what is happening on the page. Isabel is the daughter of a mother who probably has either borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder; she is self-absorbed, jealous, possessive, and utterly uninterested in her daughter, though these interludes hint that she might have sexually abused her daughter as a baby.

This is a coming of age story set in an abusive household. The mother character's abuse is different from the father's, but both are heartbreaking, and both take their toll on Isabel, who doesn't feel at all comfortable with her body, or who she is as a person, or how she interacts with other people. By the end of the book, I felt really sad for her. This book is mostly set in the 70s and I think the author really captures that changing zeitgeist perfectly, where progress and social justice clash against infrastructural sexism and so-called traditional beliefs. It's a fascinating, but depressing read. However, if you enjoyed WHITE OLEANDER a lot, the subject matter is similar, though it lacks the poetry.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 13, 2024

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong


DNF @ 18%

My dad is currently undergoing treatment for brain cancer. His tumor, surgery, and treatments have caused symptoms that mirror dementia and it has been hard to watch him deteriorate when he used to pride himself on his intelligence, much like the father of the heroine in this book. I think GOODBYE, VITAMIN handled that element of the book really well, capturing the pain of what it's like to see a loved one change into a stranger. But the writing style and the tweeness of the story didn't work for me at all. The narrative hopped around too much and felt disjointed as a result, even though it's supposed to be like a diary entry. I could see this REALLY working for someone else but despite having a beginning that hooked me, I decided not to finish.

2 out of 5 stars

The Year of the Crocodile by Courtney Milan


Read this hot on the heels of TRADE ME. Blake and Tina are now in an established relationship and are planning to celebrate Chinese New Year with Tina's family-- but Blake wants his dad involved too, and his dad is a raging megalomaniac and a little bit of an asshole. Also he works with China and Tina's family was forced to flee China for practicing Falun Gong (considered a cult). No way this can end well.

I thought this story was really funny and cute. Tina is still helping Blake manage the recovery of his ED. Hong Mei is fucking hilarious. And we actually get some of Blake's dad's POV, Adam, which makes me sad because one of the unpublished books in this series is supposed to be about him and his love story, and if what I think happened happened, that book would probably make me ugly cry.

I'm sad that I've officially worked my way through all of the books in this series that are out. I'm guessing Milan dropped it because it wasn't doing as well as she hoped it would, but it's SUCH an amazing story set in Berkeley, CA about adults in their 20s working in tech.

Hopefully she picks it up again someday.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Trade Me by Courtney Milan


If you're tired of alpha billionaires who like to dom their meek partners and want a soft boi billionaire who gets bulldozed by his outspoken and socially conscious opposite check out TRADE ME by Courtney Milan (and then check out PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT by Heather Guerre-- I read them back to back and I highly recommend it).

Blake and Tina go to the same college, but she's struggling to make ends meet and supporting her immigrant family and he's the son of one of the richest tech magnates in the world. When she shuts him down in class by calling him out on his privilege, rather than losing his shit, he offers to trade lives to show that he wants to understand what it's like and also bring her on board to help him with some of his company's secret software, given her STEM background and intelligence.

You really have to suspend your belief with the plot of this one, but honestly the characters make it. The author captures what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck, and presents a pretty realistic portrayal of the vast chasm that separates the haves from our have nots in a society where wealth disparity is constantly widening in the face of an increasingly ruthless capitalistic economy. ALSO, when have you ever read a romance novel where the male character has an eating disorder? Loved seeing that representation normalized here, and handled so sympathetically. The way another character's drug addiction was handled was also really well done. Just A-pluses all around.

I saw a lot of people saying that Tina was a bitch but I have a soft spot for prickly heroines. Especially if they're totally justified. I personally liked the sequel, HOLD ME, more, because Maria and Jay were my absolute FAVORITES, but this one was really good too. The way Milan writes about the Bay Area shows everything about what's good-- and bad-- here. I really hope she ends up continuing this series someday.

P.S. Get you a guy who goes down for cocaine possession to get you out of jail

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 12, 2024

The House of Lost Wives by Rebecca Hardy


THE HOUSE OF LOST WIVES was an impulse buy. I thought the cover was beautiful and the blurb sounded very Bluebeard-y. Then I checked out the sample and thought it looked awesome. Better yet, my friend lacy agreed to buddy-read this with me, because the only thing better than a gothic read is a gothic read with friends.

Lizzie is the daughter of a gambler/alcoholic and an enabler in Victorian England. She's gently-raised but her father's shittiness with money has steered her a little too close to the crime- and poverty-stricken parts of Victorian England, as we see right at the beginning when she and her sister cower in the face of shady repo men who take some of their family heirlooms after roughing up their dad.

Now an adult woman, Lizzie is about to be married off to the same man that her sister married... before she died mysteriously and suspiciously. Her parents don't care, though, because Lord Blountford has agreed to forgive her dad's gambling debts if he can marry her and that's too good of a deal to resist.

We follow Lizzie in her new soon-to-be-married life as she navigates the mansion and realizes that her husband had FOUR other wives. Also, she can talk to them... because she can see and hear ghosts. Which sounds like it should be twee, but it actually makes this feel like a fun grown-up version of Meg Cabot's Mediator series that really adds to the gothic vibe of the story.

As far as gothics go, this is a pretty gentle one. But it's really fun. The mystery kept me turning pages, there's a bit of a romance (several, actually), and the heroine's SA is handled BEAUTIFULLY. I really appreciated that it was off page and how realistic her PTSD was. It was handled very delicately and I thought that was great and wanted to make a point of calling that out.

I can't wait to read her other book.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Preferential Treatment by Heather Guerre


That might be one of the easiest five star ratings I've ever given out, which is funny because I didn't think femdom was even my kink. Apparently it is. Look at me, learning something new about myself today. God, I LOVE THE INTERNET.

Kate works at a tech company owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Volkov. One day, he tries to take a paper off her desk while she's on the phone. Not realizing who he is, she slaps his hand away and snaps at him. Then, she has one of the biggest "oh shit" moments of her life. When he calls her into his office, she thinks he's going to fire her. Instead, he tells her flat-out that he's a submissive who wants her to Dom him and that he really likes her style. Likes it about a $5000 a week amount, actually.

Sure, it's basically against all HR policies, but a girl's got bills to pay.

I loved PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT so much. I'm actually surprised how many people seemed to hate Kate (lmfao, jk, no I'm not) because she was the perfect inversion of the alpha with issues who has a heart of gold stereotype. Her upbringing and insecurity around money made her reluctance and attraction to this relationship totally understandable, and I liked how she took care never to push her hot Russian paypig too far (also the fact that she made him donate to charities to punish him? HILARIOUS).

Chemistry was off the charts, Mikhail was super hot, and it has one of the best grovel scenes ever. Covers everything from aftercare to discussions about expectations and feelings, and Kate was a super likable and lovable character with very relatable problems. What's not to like? I might have to buy this in physical because I adored it so much I want to have a copy with me always.

5 out of 5 stars

The Baker and the Body by Jesse Leigh Murray


I love this author's horror and gothic novels, so I was excited to check out her cozy mystery series, even though I don't read too many of those. THE BAKER AND THE BODY is honestly the perfect palate cleansing read, because the sunshine heroine is so likable (I want her to be my friend and bake me cakes!) and the characters of the Blythe River inhabitants are so carefully thought out. 

The book starts off with a punch with the heroine being tasked to make a wedding cake for the woman who her ex-boyfriend left her for (drama!). It only escalates from there, when someone dies at the wedding. Maddie, the heroine, ends up looking into the murder, partially because she's nosy just like everyone else in town, and partially because she and her friends are going to look like the guilty parties because they have so much to lose.

I thought this was really cute but I wish there had been more tension and atmosphere to keep me compulsively turning pages. I know that's not the point of a cozy necessarily, but it felt like something was missing from this book. That said, there was one line in here about what it's like to deal with someone who has a deteriorating disease that makes them feel like a shell of their former selves that just absolutely gutted me and made me feel so seen. So despite its bland moments, it still had a lot of heart, and I think people looking for a gentle, low stakes read will eat this up like, well, cake.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 10, 2024

Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance by Jayne Ann Krentz


Maggie Shayne recommended this book to me before Twitter became the bad place, and I bought it immediately and then put off reading it until I was watching TikToks and saw chels_ebooks quote Anne Stuart's essay from this very collection and basically fell in love.

DANGEROUS MEN AND ADVENTUROUS WOMEN is a very dated collection of essays. It's from the early 90s, and as other readers have pointed out, it's both heteronormative and white. And yet, despite all of that, it's very interesting how many of the gripes that plague Romancelandia as hot takes now were still as hotly debated twenty-plus years ago: romance makes big money but isn't taken seriously, people don't realize that the rape elements of bodice-rippers and romances with forced seductions are a form of CNC because the act of reading is itself consensual, and perhaps most infuriatingly, outsiders to the genre refuse to understand the genre conventions or what makes the books appealing. I also thought it was interesting how many of these authors claimed that the heroines really didn't matter as much as the hero, because based on many criticisms I've seen of contemporary romances now, that seems to be true. Readers are far more likely to write off the heroine as irrelevant; it's the hero's actions that drive an MF romance.

Anne Stuart's essay was an easy five stars. It made me realize that I would happily read an entire collection of essays from that woman herself. She, more than any contemporary author I've read, understands the appeal of the villain and what drives women to want to tame the seductive menace of a man who really doesn't mean them any good. Some of the essays I liked less, although I found it interesting how important virginity is to these authors (and their readers). One of the authors said that when she started writing non-virgin heroines, one of her readers actually took the time to write into her and complain. I also found it interesting how against "the feminists" some of these authors were, because it mirrors the hostility that so many dark and spicy romance authors and readers have now towards "the purists," who are busily shaming people for reading and enjoying spice as if it were some sort of moral deficit. According to some of these authors, feminists are doing the same. I guess it just goes to show about how "tHeY'rE rUiNiNg ThE gEnRe" is always going to be the rallying cry whenever there's change, and how sexism itself is far more insidious and long-lasting than most people would probably be willing to admit.

P.S. Anne Stuart, please write a collection of essays about romance. I would buy the shit out of it.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Truly, Darkly, Deeply by Victoria Selman


I found this in a little free library near my house. I loved the title and premise. TRULY DARKLY DEEPLY is about a mother and daughter who end up becoming enamored with her new boyfriend, the perfect man by all accounts: handsome, charming, and seemingly in love with them both. But then young women start dying in sinister and awful ways and it seems like the perfect boyfriend might be the killer.

The bare bones of this story were great but the execution left me wanting. I like mixed media when it's incorporated into a book, but here it felt more like filler rather than adding to the story in a significant and meaningful way. The confrontation that's talked about on the back of the book is dragged out, so the reader is forced to read to the bitter end, and while I did appreciate the twist... I also saw it coming. Which is partly due to good foreshadowing but also partly due to predictability and lack of any real red herrings.

I don't think this book is bad at all but it definitely gives airport thriller vibes in that it's something I'd read in an hour or two and then put aside and probably not remember later.

2.5 out of 5 stars

So Far From Home: the Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1847 by Barry Denenberg


I'm going through all of my books and trying to decide what to keep and what to get rid of. SO FAR FROM HOME was an old fave when I was a kid. My mom had gotten it for me because it's about an Irish girl who leaves Cork County for America because of the potato famine, and she ends up working as a mill girl in Massachusetts. Now that I've read it, I have a lot of big feelings, and those feelings involve spoilers, so BE FOREWARNED.


This book lingered on in my consciousness for a while because I was traumatized by the scene in this book where one of the other girls is fatally scalped when her hair gets caught in the machine. And then they just drag her dead body out and start everything up again, whaaaaat. Also a little boy loses a finger.

Mills were no joke.

Apart from the fatal-to-children accidents, the book also touches upon the discrimination that the Irish faced in the 1800s, with "you're not like other Irish" remarks, people getting hated on for being Irish, the NINA (no Irish need apply) signs, and various other forms of anti-Irish sentiment. Which makes it sound like this book is super crazy, but it's actually pretty boring. Also, the author works double-time trying to make everything sound super Irish by injecting a 'twill, 'twould, or 'tis literally at least once per page. This was almost as traumatic as the mill scalping.

But the WORST thing about this book is the epilogue when the author is like "lolz, guess what bitches? two years later, that heroine you were rooting for dies of cholera." I'm getting flashbacks to the fucking Divergent series all over again lol. When I read this book as a kid, I remember thinking, WTF. On the one hand, I admire the ballsiness. But on the other, wow, what a bummer for the readers.

Some of the books in the Diaries series still hold up, but this isn't one of them imo.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Deep and Dark and Dangerous by Mary Downing Hahn


DEEP AND DARK AND DANGEROUS is a fantastic middle grade gothic ghost story about a girl who goes to the lake for the summer, only to find out that her mother and her aunt are harboring a dark and terrible secret. It all starts when Ali finds a picture in one of her mother's old books of three girls: her mother, her aunt, and a mysterious girl whose face has mostly been torn away.

When she asks her mother about it, she shuts down. So she wants until her aunt comes to visit and her aunt acts just as strange. With the persistence only a kid can summon, she manages to convince her aunt to take her to the lake for the summer along with her small young cousin, Emma. And at first, it's beautiful and picturesque, but the lake creates its own foggy weather and all of the locals have warnings about how dark and deep it is. A body could get lost down there.

Maybe a body already has.

If you like the vibe of those old 70s gothics, you'll love Hahn's work. She basically writes the kid versions of them, and she does a great job. Some middle grade feels like you're being sat down and taught a lesson, but Hahn writes her kids in all of their bratty precocious glory, and I love that about her work. I honestly think the kids reading this will, too. Kids are a lot smarter than adults give them credit for. They know when they're being patronized.

This haunting, beautiful, creepy story is going to be living rent-free in my head for a while. Thank goodness I don't have any creepy lakes or creepy little girls in my backyard.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Tender Is the Storm by Johanna Lindsey


I know Johanna Lindsey is a lot of people's favorite romance author, but her work has always been kind of hit or miss with me. TENDER IS THE STORM was a book that I bought purely for the cover because I was lucky enough to find an uncensored version of the Robert McGinnis clinch cover for twenty-five cents at a thrift store (it often sells for $50).

I buddy-read this book with my friend, Larissa, from Goodreads. It's a Western mail order bride romance, so buckle up and brace in for spoilers, because I have THOUGHTS.


Sharisse and Stephanie are two society princesses living with their overprotective father in New York. Sharisse is supposed to marry Joel, the rich son from another family, but Stephanie, the younger sister, is in love with him. She thinks he's in love with her too but he's not man enough to stand up to their fathers and is more than willing to go ahead with the marriage (which says a LOT imo). 

Stephanie decides that if she can't have Joel, she's going to run away and sends out a response to be a mail order bride. But her friend suggests that maybe she can persuade Sharisse to leave instead. And Sharisse agrees because Stephanie is a manipulative little sociopath who not only sends her sister packing but ALSO steals all of her sister's jewels just to ensure that she won't have the money to come back (royally fucking her over in the process, because Western life is bare bones when it comes to amenities).

Exhausted Sharisse comes to the Arizona territories and finds out her husband to be is actually hot. He's also tall and-- Freudianly-- reminds her of her father. Weird, but ok. I actually liked the hero, Lucas, a lot because he is so unhinged but he's also cheerful about it too. So many bodice-ripper heroes are brooding, which I like, so it was fun to find an alpha hero who took such great joy in being a psycho. And don't be fooled by his "nice" persona, this dude is DEVIOUS.

We think he's part of a twin pairing-- Lucas and Slade. Lucas is the nice twin and Slade is the rapey one who's always trying to force himself on Sharisse. BUT IT TURNS OUT THEY'RE BOTH THE SAME PERSON. Lucas is actually dead and Slade has been pretending to be both of them, and he thought that if Sharisse thought that if she were in danger from his Slade persona, she would cozy up to the Lucas one for protection. WHAT A PSYCHOPATH HAHAHA. You gotta admire the hustle.

There's some OW drama and Lucslade wants revenge on the guy who murdered people to get his father's gold mine, but most of the book is just Sharisse and Lucas and Slade fighting. I did like the fact that Slade took the trouble to beat up the French guy who was Sharisse's first love until he took advantage of her, and the shenanigans he did to "win" her back when she ran away were funny. Probably would have rated this higher if Stephanie had been punished for being a bitch and the ending didn't feel so incomplete but honestly, I had a good time reading this crazysauce-drenched nonsense.

Maybe I am a JL girlie after all, idk.

3 out of 5 stars

The Safety of Unknown Cities by Lucy Taylor


THE SAFETY OF UNKNOWN CITIES was recommended in this erotic horror thread I sometimes hang out in. The comparisons to Clive Barker both intrigued and terrified me because Barker is a fantastic author, but his stuff definitely pushes the limits of what I can handle. This book is a lot like the Hellraiser series, especially with the hedonistic sex addict heroine, Val, who fucks the way other people do hits of morphine; she needs greater and greater extremes to get the same highs, but it's never enough.

That's why she's searching for this place called The City. It's a place so terrifying that some people would rather blind themselves than see it-- unless you're a pervy weirdo, and then it's heaven on earth, where no sex act, no matter how depraved, is disallowed. Val goes all the way to the middle east with an intersex man who is also her lover, who holds the secret to The City over her head to toy with her.

But Val isn't the only one looking for The City. Breen, Val's ex lover and a serial killer-slash-sadist, is now looking for it, too.

I knew this book was going to be hardcore because it literally opens up with a graphic eye-gouging scene. It only goes downhill from there. I felt really uncomfortable reading this book and as with other readers, it made me feel a little physically ill. I found myself comparing it to THE HELLBOUND HEART, which was also about pleasure taken to wildly horrific extremes, but in that book, Barker left a lot of the horror to the reader's imagination. Here, Taylor feels the need to lay it all out, and the end result of that is that all of the body horror just gets stacked up on top of each other, until by the end of the book, you're asking yourself both what the point of it all was, and when it would end.

I skimmed to the end because I wanted to see if the characters made it out okay. None of them were particularly likable but with a book like this, it's kind of nice to know who-- if anyone-- makes it out alive. One of my favorite characters in the book got a pretty raw deal, so that was a bit of a bummer. Not sure I'd recommend this to anyone but readers of the extreme horror genre.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

The Cruel Dark by Bea Northwick


This was an impulse download because I kept seeing it being suggested to me every time I went on Amazon. On a whim, I downloaded THE CRUEL DARK and ended up completely obsessed. It's kind of like a threeway cross between Gothikana, Jane Eyre, and RoseRed, but set in the 1920s with a headstrong heroine who has come to a remote and supposedly haunted mansion named Willowfield to help a hot and standoffish professor with his research, only to realize that nothing about the house-- or the man-- is truly as it seems.

The lush writing and rich setting are good enough for those who read their gothics for the vibes, but the characterizations and SPICE are also top tier. Spice does nothing for me if there's no emotional element to it, so I was delighted that the chemistry between Callum and Millie basically set the pages on fire. They're so good together, and the dangerous edge to Callum's character makes it even better.

I was thinking this was going to be a four star read for a while because there were a few niggling things that weren't my fave, but then that TWIST flew out of nowhere and everything suddenly flew neatly into place, and I was like holy shitteth, there is no way that anything that made me gasp out loud like that is getting anything less than the full five stars. I don't make the rules. (JK, I do.)

If you're a fan of Keri Lake, you need to read this book.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 5, 2024

The Shadowed Heart by Nina Beaumont


THE SHADOWED HEART is an underrated historical classic set in Venice in the 1700s. It's also almost everything I want out of a romance, with echos of tension and danger that at times make it feel like a dark romance. The two main characters are Chiara, a half-Romani girl with noble lineage, and Luca, a noble son from a patrician family.

Chiara wants to kill Luca because she thinks he's the man who assaulted her sister at their camp in Padua. But the man who did that had an aura of evil (btw, the heroine is psychic) and was also a coward (the author makes a point of telling us that he screamed girlishly when she tried to stab him lol). This man reminds her of a predatory Lucifer and as much as she hates him, she's strangely attracted to him too, and that, I think we can all agree, is the absolute best kind of hate in a romance novel.

I loved the Venetian setting and how in-depth the author went into all the history and politics for such a short novel. There was also tons of intrigue and action, and even though I'm not usually into psychic characters in books, like, at all, the author made me not mind it. Although I did personally think it was cheesy and made a lot of things way too neat that otherwise would have been difficult to resolve or explain.

This book fell a little short with me with regards to the ending. I felt like Luca fell into TSTL territory, and since we were let to believe he was actually quite calculating and scheming, this felt extremely out of character for him. So did his huge blindspot regarding his psychopath brother who he knew was a psychopath because he personally had him jailed for SA-ing and murdering the woman he loved. I also liked his character more as the suave and dangerous playboy, and felt like he had become too nice by the end of the book (and I love a nice hero, and all, but that's not the Luca I married in my head!).

Overall, though, THE SHADOWED HEART was absolutely wonderful and I will be reading other books from this author for sure because I am in love with her ability to weave a metaphor.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Stormcrow Castle by Amanda Grange


Note: this book has been rereleased as CASTLE OF SECRETS but I personally like the older title and cover better.

Amanda Grange is a new-to-me author. I actually found one of her books at a thrift shop and it had been critically panned. Bad average ratings don't usually scare me off, though, and when I had finished reading MR. DARCY, VAMPYRE, I actually found that I had had an incredibly good time, 2.89 average rating or no. I found out that a lot of her backlist is actually on KU, so I started downloading her books one after the other, and each was better than the last!

STORMCROW CASTLE is an absolutely fantastic book, which hits all the notes you would expect in a gothic romance. It's very Jane Eyre in nature, minus the governess bit, so if you enjoy books that have the Jane vibe, you will eat this up on a silver spoon.

Helena is engaged to this guy she's kind of ambivalent about, but when she goes to the castle where her aunt works, she finds out that her aunt has mysteriously disappeared-- to visit a "sick sister," except Helena, being her niece, knows that her aunt doesn't have a sister. Disturbed, she gets the brilliant idea to pretend to be the new housekeeper so she can infiltrate the house and get the intel on her aunt's whereabouts.

Lord Torkrow (doesn't his name sound like a Pokemon???) is the man who owns the castle, although everyone in town refers to him and his family as stormcrows, which seems to be a bird of ill-omens. Strange cries come from the attic, there's a rumor that he was in love with his brother's wife and caused both their untimely deaths, and now, with the missing aunt, Helena soon wonders if maybe Torkrow is a serial murderer-- and if maybe he might plan to do away with her, too.

I just had so much fun with this book. There's sinister graveyard shenanigans, secret rooms, masquerade parties, beautiful writing, longing looks, and, in tradition of Jane Eyre, a hero who is described as ugly at a first glance, which is very Edward Rochester. I seem to recall that the heroine was plain as well(?), and I really enjoyed that. Especially since, with all her detective work and banter, Helena gives the hero plenty of reasons to respect her beyond wanting to bang her because she's hot. (Not that that isn't sometimes the vibe, too.) I'm honestly shocked this author isn't more popular.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Mr. Darcy, Vampyre by Amanda Grange


Amanda Grange is officially a new autobuy author of mine and she's woefully underrated. I actually bought this book because it had a 2.89 average rating on Goodreads and I was dying to know why it had been panned. I honestly don't know why it was, though. It's a fun cross between Twilight, Dracula, and Pride and Prejudice, and I had such a good time reading it. My best guess is that because this author mostly writes Jane Austen fanfic, her primary audience was people who want traditional Jane Austen fanfic and didn't appreciate the high camp.

This book is a direct AU sequel to Pride and Prejudice that starts with Jane and Elizabeth's joint wedding and then jumps into action when Elizabeth and Darcy go on their European honeymoon. Elizabeth is slightly worried that Darcy won't consummate their marriage, and even as she is awed by their trip to first Paris and then Venice, she is disturbed by his relatives and acquaintances, and all the sly little hints they keep dropping about his dark secrets.

The title is definitely a bit of a spoiler but there were still tons of fun surprises. I loved Elizabeth's character and Darcy definitely gave off Edward Cullen vibes, which weirdly works because of course, Smeyer based Edward on so many Byronic and Byronic-adjacent heroes, like Darcy, Rochester, and Heathcliff. I'd recommend this to that very niche audience of people who enjoy both literature and camp, because it contains elements of both.

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Six-Month Marriage by Amanda Grange


THE SIX-MONTH MARRIAGE was mostly excellent but I also had some frustrations with it. The premise is fantastic, though, and sure to appeal to readers who enjoy high stakes marriages of convenience, such as BEAST OF BESWICK. Madeline is under her abusive uncle's thumb and he's about to marry her to an even crueler and more abusive man to assuage his gambling debts (as Madeline has a 10,000 pound dowry).

Instead of going along with this, Madeline runs away and ends up encountering a handsome scarred man who saves her from some would-be assaulters. When he talks with her and finds out the extent of her desperation, he decides that she would be the perfect candidate for his own trumped-up marriage proposal. He planned to marry a woman named Letitia to have as his countess because he thinks women are stupid and annoying, and at least she is a familiar enemy (lmao), but his father didn't agree with his choice and threatened to disinherit him posthumously from the Earldom if Philip married Letitia.

So Philip's new and ingenious plan is to marry Madeline for six months and then have the marriage annulled. Letitia gets the countesship, Madeline is freed from her uncle, and the uncle gets the dowry in exchange for leaving them all alone. It seems like the perfect plan, but obviously, since this book is more than twenty pages long, it is NOT.

For most of this book, I felt like it was going to be a five-star read. I liked the high stakes and the danger, and there was even a spy element at play that I liked (and I'm not normally into spies). It doesn't really go anywhere though and has the last ditch drama vibes that some of Lisa Kleypas's third act murder attempt subplots do, though. I liked all the characters and I thought the marriage of convenience was marriage-of-conveniencing quite nicely, but THEN Philip had to drop a skeazy line about how Madeline's trauma made her so much more mature and interesting than the vapid ladies of his acquaintance and that made me hate him a little, ngl. It's giving "I'm jealous you had a traumatic childhood because now you have GREAT material for a memoir!" energy. Yuck.

Madeline and Philip also made some INCREDIBLY stupid decisions in the third act and the use of the miscommunication trope in this book made me want to stick my head in gravel. Pro tip: if your romantic rival says, "Hey, let's meet up on this rickety bridge and talk terms" say NO. The end.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Ironskin by Tina Connolly

 Oh man! I have so many THOUGHTS about this book and thank god I didn't have to go through it alone. My friend, Regina Sage, read it with me and I'm glad she did because she warned me about some pretty major triggers that happened towards the end (TW for body horror, including people getting their faces ripped off). I was not expecting a fantasy romance with a prom dress cover to be so DARK.

First of all, I don't think the 3.33 average rating is deserved. But before ACOTAR, I am not really sure people knew what to do with fae romances. Elizabeth May posted about how her Falconer series kind of flopped, because it came out before fae was popular and now it's experiencing a resurgence because people can't get enough faerie smut. I feel like this book falls into the same boat. A romance retelling of Jane Eyre involving the fae, with curses, masks, Tam Lin vibes, and a war of humans versus fae? Sounds very ACOTAR-ish. Except this came out all the way back in 2012.

That said, I can kind of see why people weren't sure what to make of it. It's a very slow burn story. It's one of those stories that's more vibes than it is plot. Jane comes to be a governess to a single dad who has a child who might be part fae. Jane has been cursed by the fae and has to wear an iron mask, because her curse is one of anger, and the mask keeps the magic from lashing out. This experience with fae magic puts her in a unique position to tutor Dorie, but it might also put her in danger. Because as she explores Edward Rochart's castle, she encounters many sinister mysteries that suggest that the castle, and Edward himself, might not be all that they seem.

Until maybe about 60% in, I was all set to give this five stars. I felt like the end petered out a little bit and relied on too much violence to get to the conclusion. How many times does a face have to get ripped off in this book? Because I swear it was at least five. That's like at least four times too many. At least, it was for me. And possibly for the other people who picked this up thinking it was going to be a fun and frothy fantasy romance and instead encountered some Tanith Lee levels of horror.

Actually, I would highly recommend this book to fans of Tanith Lee, because I feel like she also traversed the boundary of whimsical and horrific in her works, too. Like, this isn't dark enough to be outright horror or grimdark but it has many of those elements, just as how even though it's incredibly angsty and has some romantic scenes, it's a little too dark and light on relationship development to be a true fantasy romance. I would argue that the ending is an HFN at best and the story probably could have benefited from a conclusion because after all the horror, it feels way too abrupt.

But I did like this book. I would read more from this author in a heartbeat. It was interesting and unique. I just could have done with like 80% less face-ripping.

3.5 out of 5 stars