Thursday, July 18, 2024

Sanctuary of the Shadow by Aurora Ascher

 

I almost preordered this as soon as they dropped the cover and the gorgeous sprayed edges, because I loved THE FOURTH WING, and I figured that they had gone out and acquired a bunch of really similar stories to chase the smashing success of the dragon romantasy series. Plus, I saw some early reviews comparing this to THE NIGHT CIRCUS meets Avatar: The Last Airbender and someone (a liar, as it turns out) put it on a list of WUTHERING HEIGHTS retellings. So the marketing was marketing, and I was ready to be obsessed...

...Except, for a hyped-up fantasy romance from a BIG publisher with a successful release, this had incredibly mixed advance reviews.

So I didn't preorder and basically was only tangentially aware of this book's existence as a pretty cover in my orbit housing a book that I might or might not want to read-- until one of my friends bought it for me as an early birthday present. Now that I've read it, I'm both surprised and also not surprised that it did so badly with its audience, because this feels like it's trying very hard to emulate Sarah J. Maas: it's got a bat boy shadow daddy, everyone purrs with pleasure and rolls their shoulders, and the smut smuts like a 1980s bodice-ripper that's got Fabio on the cover. SJM might not be my taste, but she's very popular, and I'm kind of surprised her fans weren't more into this, especially the HOUSE OF BREATH AND BLOOD people.

I personally felt like the world-building was way too shallow. I didn't understand how these various Elementals were really tied to their elements and why they looked the way they did, and I felt like the big war between the feuding queens was seriously underplayed, especially since it's partially responsible for the main conflict of the book. Every time there is a big conflict, it's resolved almost instantly, which doesn't feel interesting and didn't leave me feeling very invested. Also, the heroine tells the hero she loves him after five days, two of which he is in a cage, barely talking and suffering from amnesia, and I think the remaining three, they're just banging nonstop (over three fairly long chapters). I was kind of surprised, since it didn't seem like they had much chemistry and I seem to recall that his soul was compared to a child's because it was so pure and empty, so that was weird and a little uncomfy. I feel like the author was trying to subvert the trope of experienced man/naive and childlike woman by reversing the genders, and in that sense, I get what she was trying to do, but I don't like that trope between an EM and N&CW, and I didn't like it with an EW and a N&CM.

Overall, this kind of ended up being a disappointment for me, which makes me sad because I really wanted to love it and be this book's champion, because I often feel like when a book has a Goodreads average rating this low, that usually means they weren't able to find their target audience. That still might be the case, because, like I said, this really had strong HOUSE OF BREATH AND BLOOD vibes, if it were written as one of those fantasy Harlequins, so I think if you read it as a cheesy romance with the understanding that the world-building and fantasy elements are mostly just window dressing, you'll probably like it more than people who picked it up expecting another FOURTH WING.

2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Once Upon a Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber

 

DNF @ p.108

I loved CARAVAL and liked LEGENDARY, so even though I ended up not liking FINALE, I was still excited about the spinoff series about Jacks, Once Upon a Broken Heart. The beginning starts off super promising, with Evangeline making a deal with a Fate to stop her stepsister from marrying the man she thinks she's in love with-- only for it to turn into a Curse of the Monkey's Paw sort of situation where sometimes the resolution is worse than the curse.

Here's the thing about Stephanie Garber: her books feel like the stories we all wrote in our bedrooms when we were sixteen. There will be people with names like Morning Glory and Neptunia, and kisses will taste like vanilla ice cream and all the men will smell like candles. I say this without any malice in my heart because I do think there is a certain charm to this style of writing-- one of my guilty pleasure reads is ENCHANTED PARADISE by Johanna Hailey, which is basically a Sarah J. Maas book if it were written in the 1980s. It worked for me in CARAVAL because I think there was a better danger to whimsy ratio, but here, everything just felt a little too fluffy and frothy for me to take seriously. I got really bored and kept putting it down. I don't think I'll pick it up again.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Wicked and the Willing by Lianyu Tan

 

One totally valid criticism about both dark romance and erotic horror is that they tend to be heteronormative, and finding a sapphic variant of either can be a chore. Therefore, I was super excited to find out that THE WICKED AND THE WILLING is a sapphic work of erotic vampire horror set in Singapore during the roaring twenties.

Our cast of characters are Gean Choo, a young and desperate girl who needs employment to pay off her father's debts; Mrs. Edevane, a British colonialist reaping the benefits of her beauty and privilege while feasting upon the locals; and Po Lam, Mrs. Edevane's gender queer estate manager, who she bought as a slave when she was a child. There are other players but these are the three main ones, who revolve around each other's orbits like toxic little doomed stars.

I really appreciated how vampirism was an allegory for colonialism (and I confirmed this with the author-- it IS canon). Mrs. Edevane literally consumes the locals, and she is blind to their plight or their culture, exotifying her Asian lovers, indulging in casual racism when it suits her, and devouring the people whenever it suits her. She is a destructive force, using a foreign country as her refuge and playground. But, as a woman, she is also a victim to a man who hunts her footsteps. Which shows how someone can be an oppressor but still a victim of infrastructural prejudice, even within a colonial structure. The complexity and nuances were brilliantly done.

This is a very violent book-- sexually, emotionally, and physically-- and I had a hard time reading some of the graphic rapes and torture scenes. It starts out so slow and unsettlingly, but by the end of the book, it's a blood bath. None of the characters are particularly likable and I don't think they're supposed to be, although I loved Po Lam's character and I really empathized with Gean Choo's desperation as the motivator for so many of her actions. Even some of the almost humorous scenes, like Gean Choo fleeing a nest of East Asian folkloric monsters when her period comes during a party, are couched in dread and horror. This is like intellectual grindhouse, which I feel is probably the vibe the author was going for, and I think extreme horror fans will probably like it, especially if they have been hungering for queer and diverse entries in the canon that aren't Eric Larocca.

Interestingly, this story has a "choose your own ending" ending. There are three endings: two are in this book and apparently there's a third ending you can get by signing up for their mailing list. I'm not sure how I feel about this-- I read both endings and I think the author made both work, and suit the characters, but it also felt like a lack of commitment to the story. THE WICKED AND THE WILLING has a very strong beginning and I loved the portrayal of vampires and the gays-behaving-badly themes of the work, as well as the anti-colonialist narrative, but the ending petered out a bit and became far too violent for my own personal tastes, and even though I appreciated the uniqueness of this ending, I didn't really like it. I did ultimately like the book, though, and would definitely read more from this author.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, July 12, 2024

After the Shut Up Ring by Cate C. Wells

 

I'm kind of shocked that this has such mixed reviews because I thought it was fantastic. This is the first time I can remember seeing a romance heroine with herpes represented in a book, and I thought the way the author handled her insecurities, without coming across as insensitive or judgemental in the metatext, was really well done. The research seemed accurate too (although I'm not a doctor, so, like, don't quote me on that). I was just really impressed with this narrative choice.

Angie breaks up with her boyfriend-turned-fiance AT THEIR WEDDING after he reads aloud a series of incredibly humiliating vows that belittle and berate her in front of all their family and friends. Brandon, her childhood friend who has been in love with her for all of these years, witnesses this and it makes him very angry-- but part of him is also pleased, because this is his chance to get Angie for himself. But he doesn't know that Angie has an STD and she's terrified to tell him, even though she knows that it isn't really her fault.

I loved so much about this book. Nobody writes strong simp daddies like Cate C. Wells. I love all of her heroes, they're so dreamy. And the fact that he's been in love with her for years? LOVE TO SEE IT. Angie was also a great character. We love to see a single mom who would do anything for her kids, and I thought her character arc of recovering from her would-be husband's emotional abuse was really done. This isn't usually my go-to genre of romance but I love the way she does characters and how they feel so real, like people I could meet right on the street.

Still an autobuy author, for sure!

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Pregnesia by Carla Cassidy

 

How can you see a book with a title like PREGNESIA and not pick it up IMMEDIATELY? If you tell me you can, you're either a liar, or you're made of stronger stuff than I, lol. I told my followers I would read PREGNESIA if/when I hit 6,000 followers on Threads, and lo and behold, I hit 6,000 followers on Threads and here I am, reading and reviewing this book.

***WARNING: SPOILERS TO COME***

Lucas is an ex-Navy SEAL who does security work now with a team of his guys (who all have their own books, too, I believe). One day, while trying to repossess a Buick, he finds a suspicious pregnant lady sleeping in the back. The pregnant lady has amnesia. He calls her Jane Doe.

Lucas takes Jane back to his sister, who is a nurse, because of her head injury (Jane is adamant that she doesn't want to go to the police). Lucas thinks she might be lying about the amnesia but he's transfixed by her hot pregnant bod. She's not like other pregnant ladies, she's sexy-pregnant. She's very slender, except for her little pregnancy ball (it's described as a ball) and her gigantic pregnancy boobs, which he ogles at least five times in the book.

At one point, when they come out of a store, Jane is nearly dragged away in a van that has an eye inside a triangle on the car (stupid to take the branded vehicle out when you're on a kidnapping sesh). I was hoping so, so hard that the enemy in this book was the Illuminati, because that would have been hilarious and amazing, but sadly that is not the case. It's some made-up org called the Church of Enlightenment, although it's not really clear why they want her.

Here are some more things you need to know:

-There's no banging. Because pregnant ladies aren't allowed to bang. She gives him a handy though, and no, he doesn't reciprocate. Rude.

-The Church of Enlightenment is actually a cult she got involved with when her husband died (mugging). Her husband had nothing to do with the cult, and the husband and wife who took her in want to steal her baby and raise him as the next great prophet.

-Why? Pregnesia, idk.

I thought this book was pretty meh, I'm sorry to say. With a title like PREGNESIA, I was expecting high octane shenanigans, but we didn't even get to find out that much about the cult or see them act scary. I was hoping that at the very least, she would have been MARRIED to the cult leader but no.

The ending was somewhat anticlimactic after all that. I looked at the author's other books, though, and it looks like she has a title called TOOL BELT DEFENDER, which made me laugh really hard, so I'm awarding a bonus half star just for that. Honestly, this book wasn't bad, I think I was just expecting something that was funnier and maybe a little more fleshed out. With a title that self-aware, I was hoping for more tongue-in-cheek story-telling, too.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

A Thing Divine by Rian Adara

 

It's been a while since I read a work of erotic horror that pushed my limits like this, but still made me feel so compelled to continue. So this is what a mouse hypnotized by a serpent feels like. First, a word of warning: the trigger warnings are all the way in the very back and I missed them going in. This is very violent, and graphically so, including disfiguration and what I would consider body horror. One of the triggers, for example, is "destructive fisting."

Ehvy is a medical examiner who is on a tour of an old creepy mansion with friends, when she happens to meet one of the descendants of the house, Will Sandridge. His presence there intrigues her because not only is he incredibly attractive, and they have an instant connection, his family history is highly sordid. Sex parties and murdering of the townsfolk? Naughty, naughty. But Ehvy is very into naughty. She is also very into Will.

I don't want to say too much else but the story becomes a cat and mouse game of sorts between Will and Ehvy. Ehvy is determined to know more about the man who literally haunts her dreams, and Will is... well, eager to continue their relationship in a way that is frightening, once you see what else he gets up to in his free time. Until the very end, I was never 100% completely sure what endgame was.

People who like gothic horror, erotic horror, and vampires who actually act like vampires will enjoy this book. The writing was great, and stylistically, this feels very much in the vein (ha, vein) of authors like Clive Barker and Lucy Taylor. If you read this, expect bloodsplatter.

Thanks to the author for providing me with a copy!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 7, 2024

We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story by Simu Liu

 

This is a great memoir about Asian-Canadian actor, Simu Liu, and his upbringing in both China and Canada. He talks about how he got his big break (and some of the roadblocks leading up to it), as well as the struggles of being an immigrant in a new country, and the child of immigrant parents with sky high expectations whose means of punishment may seem unconventional or even cruel when perceived outside of their cultural contexts.

Simu comes across as very likable in this memoir and part of that, ironically, is that he doesn't slink from his less likable moments. One of my criticisms of the celebrity memoir is that they often feel too glossy, but he admits to coasting and then nearly failing in college, and quotes one of his ex-girlfriends' takedowns of him when he was behaving like a Nice Guy(TM) to give her seemingly callous treatment of him in their relationship the proper context it deserved.

This was just a really honest, really endearing memoir and I liked it a lot. I like the actor a lot and this made me like him more.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Only Say Good Things: Surviving Playboy and Finding Myself by Crystal Hefner

 

Whoa. I've read several of the Bunny Girl memoirs but this is the best one yet. The writing is so poignant and beautiful, and I was really impressed by the amount of introspection Crystal Hefner has about her life. I'll admit that I used to be really judgy. I figured anyone who was a Bunny was probably a bimbo (derogatory), and I'm not proud of that. Especially after reading this books and finding out just how smart some of these women were, and how they were forced to hide it to perpetuate the male fantasy of uncomplicated, fun-loving girls.

This memoir begins prior to her life at the Mansion, talking about the trauma of losing her father to brain cancer (which I really related to-- that's how I lost my dad), losing her first serious boyfriend, and being raped. Like a lot of the other girls, she met Hugh by chance at a club and he picked her because he liked the way she looked. Like a lot of the other girls, she talks about Hefner's narcissism and the way he used his money to control his girlfriends, and how the other girls would often fight or go behind each other's backs to stay in his favor.

Most of those memoirs were written while Hefner was still alive and I did get the impression that some of them were holding back because of that, which is maybe testament to the power he held over their lives. Crystal's memoir, on the other hand, is no holds barred. She repeatedly calls him a narcissist and talks about how he would body-shame the girls in an attempt to get them to lose weight or get cosmetic surgery. Two of Harris's procedures nearly killed her and one ended up causing an autoimmune disorder (which is ironic, because in Izabella St. James's memoir, she talks about how lucky they all were that nobody in the Mansion ever had any complications from their surgery).

It gets grosser. Apparently, Hefner was paid $400,000 per episode of The Girls Next Door and Crystal got nothing. After his proposal, when the show Marrying Hef was being produced, Hefner was getting $800,000 and Crystal got $2,500 for the whole season as a sort of appearances bonus. She claims that he had peep holes in his bedroom that he used to film himself having sex, and based on some discussions she claims to have had with him in this book, it doesn't sound like the people he filmed always knew about it. When he and the girls went out together, he would encourage them to remove clothes or flash the camera and he would take pictures with a disposable camera. Crystal talks about finding the pictures and destroying them, while going through her husband's things.

I think the saddest thing, though, was at the end, when she was going through his scrapbooks and looking at the letters he received from people who liked what he was about. There was one from an 11-year-old girl who loved The Girls Next Door and told him she wanted to be a Playmate when she grew up. She sent him a picture of herself, too (in a school outfit), which he KEPT. There were also letters, she said, from boys thanking him for teaching them how to treat women.

Crystal repeatedly says that she often felt like she didn't have any value beyond her looks, and living at the Mansion only made that worse, because she was living a lifestyle where she was forced to be a prop and was constantly judged by her looks and mocked or commented on as if she didn't have any feelings. So many reviews have questioned why these women didn't just leave, but the prevailing theme in so many of these books seems to be that they didn't feel like they could-- that the ugly side of pretty privilege meant that nobody really took them seriously, so they felt like the Playboy brand was a stepping stone to something achievable, and possibly validating.

This was honestly a pretty devastating read and I felt so sad for her and the other women by the end of the book. She spills even more tea than St. James did and it is scalding and I hope she's doing well in her post-Mansion life, because it honestly sounds like she went through five different kinds of hell.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, July 5, 2024

Bunny Tales by Izabella St. James

 

The first Playboy Bunny memoir I read was Holly Madison's. I didn't realize that there were so many others! (This one came out like nine years earlier.) When I was in high school, there was such a fascination with Playboy. I remember seeing Playboy Bunny necklaces for sale at the store (for teen girls). Hugh Hefner was considered a sex symbol well into his old age, and no small part of that was because of the harem of women he surrounded himself with and partied with. They never really talked much in the interviews though, which always made me wonder: what was it really like?

Izabella St. James defies a lot of stereotypes. The book opens with a history of Poland in WWII and what it was like afterwards, when they were under the Iron Curtain. Her grandparents were both adversely impacted: in fact, her grandfather was sent to Auschwitz for protecting and sheltering Jews. Both of her parents inherited that legacy of pain, and when she and her parents left Poland, it was to escape the lingering shadow of Nazi Germany and Communism.

She is really smart. She went to McGill and then got a law degree from Pepperdine (although she didn't pass the bar). She speaks like four languages. The reason she became a Bunny was because attending college in California put her in close proximity with party culture when it was at its zenith and she, like many women, was curious about what living with Hefner would be like. Like many people, she also had a romanticized vision of the reality, too.

A lot of what she says in here corroborates Holly's memoir, although unlike Holly's memoir, she portrays Holly as a villain. According to Izabella, Holly was controlling and played power games to keep Hefner to herself, hoping to become his next wife or top girlfriend. She seems to have more disdain for Hefner, too, with an entire chapter kind of ridiculing what went on in the bedroom (apparently he liked having his nips sucked and wanted to watch girl on girl before finishing himself off to porn). She also talks about how weirdly cheap he was, sensitive to the fact that he knew girls wanted him for his money, and how he seemed to take pleasure in controlling and denying them that.

I think I liked this book more than DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE because she felt very pragmatic. Some readers seemed put off by her arrogance, but she just struck me as very confident and giving no shits. I do think that one of her quotes about wondering why Hefner would pay for plastic surgery but not her tuition fees is very on the nose: if he truly wanted a care-free party girl, why wouldn't he remove the obstacle of their debt woes? Instead, he seemed to prefer to cultivate insecurity-- or to allow the other girls in the mansion to do that for him, with catty infighting and rivalries. I wouldn't want to live this life and I can't imagine wanting to, but it sure is an interesting story.

St. James seems to have kind of dropped from public eye after all of this blew over. I looked her up and the last big thing she did was a 2015 Polish reality show and a pug dog rescue foundation. Hope that whatever she's up to now, she's doing well. But it's interesting that she seems to have lost her taste for fame, when so many of the Playmates have chosen to remain in the public eye.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 4, 2024

When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey

 

WHEN WE WERE MAGIC is kind of like The Craft meets Lisa Frankenstein, but delightfully queer and strangely surreal. The book literally opens with the heroine, Alexis, accidentally murdering a guy during a hookup by making his dick explode with magic. Desperate, she calls in her squad of five friends to help her. They're all kinda sorta witches, and their original plan is to bring him back to life with magic. Instead, they separate his body into pieces, including his heart.

There's a little bit of The Telltale Heart with this book, too, as the pieces of the boy haunt each girl as they're forced to dispose of the body, while also reckoning with how his disappearance/murder impacts the community, their relationships, and their magic. I think the beginning was stronger than the middle and the end, which felt a little unsatisfying to me. Especially since I know Gailey can do better. I'm reading one of their adult novels right now, JUST LIKE HOME, and it positively drips atmosphere and character development.

One of my friends said that this would make a better movie than it would a book and I see what she means. It would be a good visually arresting artsy horror movie, like Lisa Frankenstein or Velvet Buzzsaw. Not bad, though.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

How It's Done by Christine Kole MacLean

 

I'm kind of sad that this author never wrote any more YA books after this one, because this was fantastic. Despite being published in 2006, it really doesn't feel dated. Reviews for this one are mixed, but weirdly, people seem to be taking issue with the exact things I loved about it. HOW IT'S DONE is one of those cautionary sorts of stories, about a sheltered girl with religious trauma, who escapes from her fundie parents by running right into the arms of a sophisticated older man.

I remember reading this as a teen and thinking Michael, the college professor, seemed hot. Now, reading this as a middle-aged woman, I just thought he was gross. The way he gaslit Grace and was constantly trying to Pygmalion her into being what he wanted was so brilliantly done, but it was also really hard to read. Grace also has a toxic relationship with her friend, Liv, who is poorer and desperate to escape her abusive family situation. They were close when they were younger but their diverging paths have created rifts in their relationship that have led to resentment, jealousy, and even a little cruelty.

HOW IT'S DONE never shies from its difficult subjects, and the writing is spare and beautiful and emotional. I know some people criticized the heroine for being too naive, but a fundie girl in the 2000s with the internet still in its infancy, and her only real knowledge of relationships coming from pilfered bodice-rippers? Yeah, I think her naivete makes sense. Just like how it also made sense that her strict religious upbringing and home environment ended up creating the perfect storm of self-blame and internalized misogyny that unfortunately made her so vulnerable to a predatory older man.

This is not an easy read but it is a good one, and I loved it as a coming of age story as well as a teen girl's ultimate triumph over her own oppression.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

The Other Half by Charlotte Vassell

 

Easiest five star review I've written in a while. Has the same fun vibes as a murder mystery show, like My Life Is Murder or Midsomer Murders, but plunges into the toxic and half-rotten corruption of the British upper-class like THE SECRET HISTORY. At times, I definitely got almost-Donna Tartt vibes from this book.

Caius Beauchamp is a half-Jamaican millennial detective who just got dumped by his hot French girlfriend. In the middle of yass-ifying himself post breakup, with skincare routines and bread making, he gets put on a case for a society princess-cum-influencer who was found dead in a park, wearing a flower crown. Actually, he's the one who found her. While jogging as part of his self-improvement regimen.

As he looks into the dead woman's circle of friends, who is named Clemmie btw, Caius learns about a birthday party at McDonalds with top-shelf champagne and cocaine, an art gallery that doesn't actually seem to move much art, and a beautiful and slightly pathetic sociopath named Rupert, who was dating Clemmie but had eyes for a manic pixie dreamgirl of a woman named Nell.

Nothing in this book is as it seems and even fifty pages from the end, I wasn't totally sure what was going on. I'm surprised that the ratings for this book are so mixed because I thought it was fantastic. I am so glad that it's the first in a series because I didn't really want to let any of these characters go, even when I'd finished the book.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, June 28, 2024

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

 

I've never read a book about synesthesia before. One of my psychology professors recommended this book in a cognition class a long, long time ago, and the concept sounded so fresh and exciting that the title of the book (which is a great title) stayed in my head rent-free all these years. I thrifted this book, which ended up being an additional joy, because my copy was annotated by the teen who read it before I did, and they were funny AF. I started keeping an eye out for their little notes in the margins because they were always on point. It felt like we were having a buddy-read.

Also, speaking of, I got to buddy-read this book with my friend, Ari!

Now that I've finished the book, I'm a little disappointed. I can tell the book did a lot of research into synesthesia, but I'm not sure how much of it is still true or relevant. For example, in this book, the heroine, Mia, can "see" other people's emotions and sense their pheromones as a color trail (why does that give me the ick). When I Googled this, the first thing that came up was the author's website, and the second was some kind of new age-looking website. I was immediately leery of this, because I feel like a lot of pseudoscience hypes up pheromones, and while it's been a while since my introductory neuroscience class, I remember my professor telling us that in most animals, chemoreception is done through the vomeronasal organ, which is considered a "vestigial" organ in humans (I seem to remember most people don't even have one).

Synesthesia in this book is also treated like a disability, with Mia's parents asking about cures and how it will affect her study. She gets bullied for it at at school and talks a lot about how it makes it difficult to function in certain situations from sensory overstimulation. I was looking through the reviews and it seems like synesthetes and neurodivergents took issue with this representation. (So did the little annotator of my book). This book came out in the aughts and a lot of these "single issue" YA and MG books were written like afterschool specials, not written so much for representation so much as to inform a normative audience (sometimes with unfortunate and now-dated stereotyping) that this reputation exists. When I think about some of the aughts era books with trans rep that I read, for example, it was always clear that the audience wasn't trans kids so much as cisgendered kids, because usually these stories were written from the perspective of a cisgendered kid who needed to learn that "trans kids, they're just like us." Synesthetes: when they're not stabbing themselves with acupuncture needles to experience a color high, they're just like us (oh yeah, THAT happened).

Also, this book is really sad. All the adults are mean helicopter parents who are like BUT SEEING COLORS WILL KEEP MY KID FROM GETTING INTO YALE, Mia's friends are pretty unsupportive, the cute boy with synesthesia that she meets only wants her for bad reasons (and she's THIRTEEN, ugh), and both animals in this book die in pretty traumatically descriptive scenes. I cried both times, for the dog and the cat. Two animal deaths feels excessive for a middle grade book that was supposed to be a fun journey about a kid who sees colors with words, numbers, and sounds.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

 

I have historically had very mixed thoughts about Green's work, most of it not favorable, but I'd heard the anxiety rep in TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN was fantastic and that made me really want to read it... and it did not disappoint! Honestly, this is the first time that I have ever felt so seen with my crazy. The invasive thoughts, people thinking you're unlikable because you bring down the vibe, the spirals and the obsession and the despair. It was brilliantly done, I loved it. He either has firsthand experience with anxiety disorders or he did a fuckton of research. It was so validating. Also we love a book that shows the benefits of therapy to teens.

***MILD SPOILERS TO FOLLOW***

The premise of this story is pretty bonkers, though. Aza, still mourning the death of her dad, and dealing with her intense anxiety, finds out that her childhood billionaire friend, Davis, has a missing dad. He skipped town after doing bad stuff and there's a $100,000 reward for information that leads to his arrest. Aza's friend, Daisy, wants that money, and tells Aza that she should rekindle her friendship with Davis to get closer to him to see if they can get any information that might help them tip off the police (Daisy is kind of gross).

As the story goes on, and Aza starts talking to Davis, we learn that his billionaire dad is a huge asshole. He's a crazy biohacker who has left all of his money to his possibly illicitly-obtained pet tuatara, convinced that the long-lifed living fossil will be the ticket to his immortal life. SO Davis actually isn't all that keen on his dad and would probably be first in line to tip off the police... if he knew anything. But to Aza's pleasant surprise, Davis is actually a super chill softboi and she and him start hanging out.

I was a little torn on how to rate this because I loved the rep, and excuse me, a SHOUT-OUT for Jupiter Ascending, one of my favorite and much-maligned movies? HELL YES I WOULD. But this book also had some of the things that put me off Green's books sometimes, too, like unrealistically pretentious beleaguered-academic-style dialogue between the teens (why do all his characters sound like grumpy old European men arguing in a coffee shop?) and a romance that lacked chemistry. I also thought Daisy was a TERRIBLE friend. When I found out that she turned Aza into a character in her fanfic exaggerating her mental illness for rage bait and comedy, which she and her thousands of fans then basically made fun of together, I felt sick. It was believable mean girl behavior, but honestly, what wasn't believable was that they stayed friends. After all that? I mean, REALLY. That's yeet-to-the-moon behavior, right there. Daisy was also pretty terrible for using Aza to exploit Davis for one hundred grand, and it really bothered me that Aza was basically forced to apologize for not paying enough attention to Daisy and her problems while she is literally drinking hand sanitizer until she gets physically ill because she thinks that she needs to kill the bacteria mutating in her stomach.

After reading out all my thoughts, and being like, "Well, the rep and the fangirl culture and the lizard inheritance were great, but the romance and ultimate resolution of the mental health stuff were eh," I'm going with a three-star rating. I did like this book, and I didn't hate anything about it, but for a book where romance was so integral to the core story, I wanted more emotional connection. I also wanted more Daisy punishments. It is definitely very true that mental illness can make people self-centered in their pain, so that is a valid call out, but some things are definitely unforgivable.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Sun Sets in Singapore by Kehinde Fadipe

 

Choo! Choo! All aboard the Unlikable Heroine Express(TM). Color me shocked-but-not-really that this has an average rating of 3.39, because it's basically CRAZY RICH ASIANS but with posh Nigerian expatriates living in Singapore and being messy AF. THE SUN SETS IN SINGAPORE revolves around three women specifically: Lillian, an ex-pianist with marital problems; Dora, a cutthroat lawyer determined to make partner, who is now forced to compete against another Nigerian: a man; and Amaka, a bastard who lives under the shadow of her dubious parentage, who compensates for every anxiety in her life with her shopping addiction... although now, she's ready to jilt her fiance and go running into the arms of the wrong man.

THE SUN SETS IN SINGAPORE was like a literary soap opera and I ate it up like it was on a silver spoon. I found this in a little free library, which felt like serendipity because I almost bought this when it was a Kindle Daily Deal but still wasn't 100% sold on the concept. Now, I totally am. I loved this book so much and even though all of the women were fully capable of being awful, they were also SO real, and the Singapore/expatriate setting and details were fascinating.

4 out of 5 stars

The Dark Queen's Apothecary by Cassandra L. Thompson

 

I follow this author on Threads and quite like her posts. When I saw that she had a gothic erotic horror novella out about vampires, I knew I had to have it. I mean, just LOOK at that cover! THE DARK QUEEN'S APOTHECARY is set in medieval Eastern Europe. At first, it starts out feeling very much like an episode of Castlevania, with Andrei, an apothecary, being summoned to the queen to perform a task that defies the rules of life itself at the behest of a sinister Queen.

Viorica was such an interesting and dynamic character. She reminds me a lot of the heroines in Tanith Lee novels: she is a selfish creature of passion, flawed and a little sadistic, but very insecure and flawed, in a way that makes her fascinating rather than unlikable. Her sort of relationship with Andrei after he (SPOILER) becomes a vampire like her was really interesting to read. The way their roles warped and changed as they did was quite well done, and there are callbacks to numerous other gothic works in the storyline, whether it be Island of Doctor Moreau, Frankenstein, or the legend of Lizabet Bathory.

Fun read and quite dark but not overly so. Mind the TWs.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 24, 2024

He Used to Love Me by Dorothy Brown-Newton

 

I thrifted this on impulse and it was just like a soap opera! It opens with a murder and everyone is cheating on everyone. There are multiple POVs, although the main one is Jakiyah, a woman who lives in New York but comes down south to be with her family after the death of her sister. Other narrators are Qua, her high school ex-boyfriend, German, her most recent ex-boyfriend who left her for Tamia (who is crazy and has an even crazier sister), and Tyhiem, Jakiyah's brother, who has a long term girlfriend he refuses to tie the knot with and is also German's best friend.

At first I thought this was going to be a romantic suspense but the mystery wasn't much of a mystery and they figure things out halfway through the book. HE USED TO LOVE ME kind of defies genre category, because it's a little bit of everything but it doesn't really commit to anything. In some ways, it feels a lot like one of those 80s potboilers-- kind of like a Jackie Collins novel, but with all Black characters. I'm not usually into cheating romances at all but this one was pretty entertaining and there was even a hair-pulling fight which is a plus. If you're going to serve up drama, commit to the dish.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Food For Thought by Ariana Ferrante

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT is a sapphic Greek myth about Limos, the goddess of famine, and Demeter, the goddess of harvest. Long ago, the Fates decreed that they should never meet, because their powers were great enough, and diametrically opposed enough, that they could be responsible for one another's destruction.

Limos is obsessed with the specter Demeter plays in her life. When people approach her to bargain, she is always second best. When a poor farmer has a poor harvest, he turns to Limos to spite his competitors. She is used as a weapon against people, an instrument of suffering. One day, Demeter comes to her, asking her to do the same.

I thought this was a great tale of obsession, with two morally grey women who are too powerful to be controlled. It really did feel like one of the Greek myth stories I used to read in my copy of D'Aulaires as a kid, especially with what happened to the king who was foolish enough to kill one of Demeter's favorites in this book. Truly chilling.

What a great short story. I hope she writes a novel.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Merchant's Daughter by Rebecca Hardy

 

This was a buddy-read with my friend, lacy! We actually started it a while ago but then I had a death in the family and forgot I was reading it. Oops. I picked up THE MERCHANT'S DAUGHTER because I loved the first book I read by this author, THE HOUSE OF LOST WIVES, a book I would describe as Bluebeard meets Mediator.

THE MERCHANT'S DAUGHTER has a similar gloomy atmosphere as its predecessor, and even has a few shared character cameos, but it didn't grab me the way LOST WIVES did. It recycles some plot points from LOST but doesn't have the same level of suspense. I thought both characters were likable but there wasn't enough background conflict to add tension, since they weren't really getting that in their relationship apart from the fact that Erasmus is clearly hiding something.

Beautifully written but just not a particularly interesting story to me, personally. I would definitely read more from this author, though.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Mourning of Leone Manor by A.M. Davis

 

I bought this because I saw a video about it on TikTok and it looked really fun. I just can't say no to gothic romances, especially not if they have my favorite trope: is the house actually haunted or are we just slowly going mad? ALSO, the author failed to disclose that this is basically a stepmother x stepson romance because the heroine was actually married to the hero's father, which I think was a HUGE mistake, because there are people who are VERY into that (like me). Marketing, marketing, marketing. :p

Anyway, before she married his dad, Remi was in love with Ben. They were childhood friends on the cusp of becoming more, but her uncle kind of pressed her to marry Edgar. Then Edgar dies and things get weird, because his death might be connected to a couple other deaths that all seem to revolve mysteriously around Leone Manor. Ben is also a little bit of a fuckboy, which was giving Bridgerton Boy vibes. In some ways, this book is like Bridgerton if Bridgerton was having a goth phrase. Which you might be into.

The prologue and beginning were AMAZING. However, I really wish the pacing and atmosphere had been a little more intense. There were some fantastically creepy scenes scenes in here but I personally wanted more, although I did love how unlike traditional gothic romances, this one is very much open door. I wouldn't call it spicy but there is descriptive sex.

The ending was great and made up for some of the saggy middle. Like I said, the premise was awesome and reeled me right in and I happen to love this publisher a lot. It was just a bit cozier than I was expecting, based on the summary and the reviews, which made it feel blander than it probably would have felt if I were in the right mood for it. I would recommend this book to people who are fans of cozy horror/gothic authors like Chasity Bowlin and Darcy Coates.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Fake It Till You Bake It by Jamie Wesley

 

Oh my gosh, how have I not read anything by this author before?! I don't read a lot of romcoms because I am so picky about them, but FAKE IT TILL YOU BAKE IT delivered on all counts. It's a romance between Donovan, an NFL player who bakes (I knoooow) and Jada, a reality TV star and fuck up who made the public had her when she said no to the bachelor who wanted to give her her happily-ever-after.

She literally meets the hero when she's shit-talking his cupcake business to her friend in his hearing. So it's enemies to lovers, but like, in a funny way, because they're both stubborn fools who can't be wrong. Then she ends up working for him because her grandmother actually manages his team, so it's forced proximity, too. And THEN, they end up fake-dating, so she can be a little less hated and he can get the PR that he needs to keep his business firmly in the black. So it's fake dating, but like, the reasoning actually works.

If you were a little intimidated by the sports romance angle, sports is barely mentioned at all. And I loved the refreshing idea of a guy in a macho career having a domestic side hustle. We love our grumpy little spreadsheet daddy Donovan. I also loved how the heroine was dyslexic, and how we got to see her struggles with that. I also liked that she was actively seeing a therapist (therapy rep ftw). This is also a Black romance, with mostly Black characters, and it's set in San Diego (which is SO FUN). I've been to a lot of the places they mention in here. I love books that feel like they're set practically in my backyard. (Or my vacay backyard.)

Definitely recommend this to romcom lovers as it ticks all the boxes and it's pretty fun, even when it's being silly. People who love messy and difficult heroines will love Jada, and Donovan has the vibes of a stern Daddy hero but without the actual "call me Daddy" elements. HOT.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 15, 2024

I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are by Rachel Bloom

 

I thrifted this and was pretty excited to see it because I loved the title and I'm kind of a sucker for celebrity memoirs. I saw someone call this "a memoir that isn't a memoir" and now that I've read it, I can see what they were talking about. I WANT TO BE WHERE THE NORMAL PEOPLE ARE has some great elements-- like her dealing with bullying, her crush on a mean boy who ditched her when people thought they were "together," and her anxiety whilst doing Famous Person Things(TM). But then there was also a lot of really strange and not-so-interesting things, like her adolescent poetry and old fanfiction.

I would probably only recommend this to die-hard fans of Rachel Bloom. It was a little too out there and self-indulgent for me.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Last Tale of the Flower Bride by Roshani Chokshi

 

THE LAST TALE OF THE FLOWER BRIDE is such a bizarre and surreal story, like an Angela Carter tale: the beauty of the prose masks darkness and biting social commentary that gnaws at the reader like the gouge of teeth on bone. I actually didn't care for the last book I read by this author, but this gender-reverse fairytale is marvelous and the things that it did well, it did phenomenally well. 

Basically, a man meets a woman named Indigo while on vacation and ends up falling in love with her. They get married, but in return, he must never ask about her secrets. In this other narrative thread, we meet Azure, Indigo's childhood friend, who falls under the same seductive spell that our narrative bridegroom has. We are unsure if either of them escaped the spider-like snare of their shared seductress, however, although the numerous analogies to Bluebeard, The Robber Bridegroom, and Melusine hint at tragedy, despair, and doom.

For the first half of this book, I was really into it. I thought the weaving of the fairytale mythos into the magic-realism elements was great, I loved the diverse characters, and I'm also a huge fan of a good female villain. I do feel like the second half was a little confusing, and not necessarily in a good way. However, I was still invested enough in the writing and the story that I didn't care too much.

Despite the three-star rating, I highly recommend this to anyone who loves gothic horror, magic-realism, and fairytales. I'll definitely have to check out more of Chokshi's work. This book is hard proof that even if you really didn't like a book by an author, sometimes, they totally deserve that second chance.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 10, 2024

Honor Bound by Brenda Novak

 

After reading and five-starring THROUGH THE SMOKE by this author, I knew I had to give her other books a try. As before, this was a buddy-read with my friend Sarah.

THROUGH THE SMOKE was a traditional gothic romance told in the mode of Jane Eyre (in fact the author lists it as an inspiration in her foreword). By contrast, HONOR BOUND feels like one of those 90s bodice-rippers. The author's style actually kind of reminded me of a cross between Danelle Harmon and Meredith Duran in this, so I think if you enjoy either of those authors, you'll like this a lot.

The story starts out with a wedding, as Jeanette is to be wedded to an older member of British aristocracy to provide money for her titled but land poor family after fleeing the Revolution. However, as she waits for her wedding night, Jeanette learns that her husband is an impotent creep who plans to have his friends gang-r*pe her on the wedding night. And as if that weren't awful enough, they plan to place bets on who will successfully impregnate her! UGH.

She runs away, which is how she meets the hero, Treynor, who is a lieutenant aboard a ship. He and his men are at port and preparing to sail away. They have their meet-cute in an inn where he at first mistakes her for a prostitute when she accidentally ends up in his room, which I thought was a great homage to the bodice-rippers where this was a surprisingly common trope (SWEET SAVAGE LOVE definitely had this!). Unlike the bodice-rippers, he doesn't succeed: she knees him in the balls.

The bulk of this story takes place aboard the ship with Jeanette in drag. This part of the story seems to have bored a lot of readers but it reminded me of one of my favorite books, THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE. I can't imagine how much research the author poured into this book to make the nautical setting so vivid and larger than life. She did the same thing with her coal mining community in THROUGH THE SMOKE and I am just amazed. It made me an instant fan and I'm happy to report that this second effort from her did not disappoint.

Only nitpicky things I can nitpick about are that the pacing wasn't quite as good as THROUGH THE SMOKE, especially towards the end, where it dragged a little, only to end up kind of abruptly. I really wish there was an epilogue even though I don't think the ending dissuited the story. I loved Jeanette and Treynor was a great hero, but I also wanted more from him. He sometimes felt like a somewhat stereotypical tortured bastard hero who hates the rich/titled folk for being what he's not, etc., although I will say that I liked how the book ended with him making amends with his estranged mom.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Angel's Kiss by Jessica Mason

 

The author was kind enough to gift me books two and three in her Phantom Saga series after my father was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. It was such a wonderful present and a great pick-me-up, but I've been so slow in reading anything that isn't easy because I've been so depressed. Anyway, I finally finished ANGEL'S KISS and I'm happy to report that it is a wonderful sequel to the phantom. 

ANGEL'S MASK was more of a straightforward retelling of the Phantom story we know and love, but ANGEL'S KISS takes more liberties with the story. What happens when the Persian Daroga continues to dog Erik's every step in an attempt to avenge the Shah he worked for? What happens when Christine begins to make it big and endures the jealousy of La Carlotta and the suspicions of those who believe in the curse of the Ghost? And how does Erik reconcile his jealousy and obsession with learning to treat Christine as a person?

There was a little bit of second book syndrome with this book, as most of it is character and relationship building. It has a little less action and suspense than the first book, which was a lot of will they/won't they with Christine discovering the identity of the man seducing her through the mirror. However, what this book lacks in tension, it makes up for in atmosphere and smut and exquisitely researched depictions of Paris and its opera house. It is also delightfully gay, with Erik and Raoul being canonically pan/bi, and several queer side characters. Also Christine gets her femdom on! Girl, you RIDE that phantom D.

I'm excited to read ANGEL'S FALL. Hopefully it doesn't take me as long to get through as this one did but they say genius can't be rushed, so if I have to take my time fangirling over my obsessive masked strangle king, then so be it.

Thanks to the author/publisher for sending me a copy!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 9, 2024

You Shouldn't Have Come Here by Jeneva Rose

 

My dad is in his last few weeks of a terminal illness and finding things to read has been a struggle. I don't want anything too happy and I also don't want anything too sad, so I've kind of just been starting and stopping books before leaving them in TBR limbo.

YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE COME HERE is the first book I've read in a while that I zipped through. I finished it in less than a day. It's dual-POV the story of Grace and Calvin. Grace is going to an AirBnB in rural Wyoming, looking for a little bit of a getaway. Calvin is attracted to her at first sight and doesn't think that the week she's booked is going to be long enough considering his instantaneous attraction. But both of them are hiding secrets, and neither of them are what they appear to be.

Did I guess the twist 10% in? Yes. Did I care? No. The vibes were vibing and there was a fun, almost borderline-sense of comedic timing that would crop up every now and then, making me smile in amusement. The idea of going to an AirBnB with no wi-fi where the male owner lives on the property really is a horror story and it's no surprise to me at all that a female author came up with that premise.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Bigger is Better: Real-Life Wisdom from the No-Drama Mama by Big Ang

 

BIGGER IS BETTER is a fascinating read written by the late Big Ang, of Mob Wives fame. I've never actually watched the show, but it was basically a reality TV show about a group of women who were famous for being related to the Genovese crime family. So basically, "The Real Housewives of the Mob." Apparently a lot of them have memoirs out, and several of them are on KU. This was one of them.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this one and it was much odder than I expected. It actually, bizarrely, has a fairly similar format to THE RULES ACCORDING TO JWOWW, in that it's like a combination of recipes, life advice, memoir, and random observations. Kind of like an R-rated version of Seventeen magazine.

She was a very interesting woman and if you get this book for one reason, get it for the anecdote about the bat that flew into her 36JJ boobs and immediately died on impact.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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