Monday, April 15, 2024

Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith

 

This book made me miss the dystopian boom. I liked the creativeness of the story. It kind of reminds me of both HOLES and the Alex Rider series, but way grungier and creepier. Escape from Furnace is a series about a dystopian society where boys are slapped into a maximum security prison for even the smallest of crimes. But it seems like maybe there aren't enough criminals to fill quota because boys like our main character, Alex, are being framed.

If you like modern-day steampunk horror, like the Bioshock franchise, you'll love this. It definitely feels like a book that's marketed to teen boys first and foremost but I think that there's a lot in here that would appeal to adult readers of horror, too. I know it's the first book in the series but I had SO MANY QUESTIONS that weren't answered, and that was frustrating. Like, I know, I know, first in a series. But give me something! And it ends on a wicked cliffhanger, too. I can't imagine being a teen reading this in 2009 and being like where's the rest.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Follow Me to the Yew Tree by Desirée M. Niccoli

 

FOLLOW ME TO THE YEW TREE is a short, sweet, and surprisingly spicy story about soulmates who are forced to fight for each other against the looming specter of death. I don't want to say too much more, but there's a little bit of death and the maiden, a little bit of a supernatural element, and a little bit of a fairytale twist. I'd highly recommend this book for anyone who read TUCK, EVERLASTING and thought that the heroine made the wrong choice. Eireann is a bad-ass bitch.

Also, side note: the hero of this book has pancolitis, which is an autoimmune disease that affects the colon and appears to result in gastrointestinal distress, bloating, and diarrhea. I saw some reviewers who thought this was gross but I loved seeing it. For years, an undiagnosed food sensitivity caused me to randomly vomit and, yes, shit. A couple times I almost shat my pants. This is something that is frequently played for comedy in movies, but until you have experienced bathroom anxiety and the terror of not knowing when you'll have another flare up, you'll never fully understand how satisfying it is to see someone who gets it.

So I really enjoyed this book and it sold me on the insta-love trope, which isn't usually something I enjoy (most authors can't pull it off, imo). So FOLLOW ME TO THE YEW TREE now joins Shiloh Sloane's LIKE NEON MORNINGS on the very short list of books that have me believing that people can fall in love after only one day.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 13, 2024

BloodAngel by Justine Musk

 

Elon Musk's ex-wife wrote a paranormal romance and nobody is talking about it?! When I found that out, obviously the book went right onto my list. I said when I hit 4,000 followers on Threads, I'd read it, and I did, so I read it. My expectations when I went in were honestly pretty low. I'd read her interview with Marie Claire and she had a great way of words when telling her own story but that doesn't always translate well to fiction.

Let's just say the Poppy Z. Brite blurb on the cover is well-warranted. This is a bizarre multi-POV romance that kind of reminded me of some of those old campy urban fantasy shows you used to see on the Sy-Fy channel. There's road trips, grunge music, tortured artists, slightly creepy age gaps, lots of alt and goth cultural references, and surprising amounts of smut and gore sprinkled into what's honestly a pretty decent goth fantasy story.

This feels like an adult version of Shadowhunters, which means that like Shadowhunters, sometimes there's too much going on and the story gets lost in all the edgy edgeness. But Musk has a great eye for details and morally grey characters, and even the villains have some level of nuance.

Would recommend for fans of Brite, Tanith Lee, and Stephen King (especially The Stand).

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee—The Dark History of the Food Cheats by Bee Wilson

 

SWINDLED is a great book, especially if you're interested in ingredient transparency and food adulteration. As someone with food allergies, accuracy of food labeling is very important to my health. I have gotten very sick when people lied to me about what was in the food (either maliciously or simply negligently). One of the banes of my existence is GRAS, or generally regarded as safe, ingredients, which are sometimes excluded from ingredient lists. This is why sometimes you will just see "spice" or "spice blend" on an ingredient label, as well as "natural vegetable coloring." GRAS allows corporations to have proprietary ingredient blends that don't usually cause health problems and aren't top allergens. Sucks if you happen to have that allergy, though. BYEEE.

I found it fascinating how fraught with food cheats history is/was. But I guess it makes sense. Without regulations in place to penalize fraudsters, there's only conscience standing in the way of unscrupulous people making a quick buck. The horror stories of Victorian/early Industrial age food manufacturing were quite chilling. I learned that people boiled vegetables with brass or copper to make them green, and that lead and mercury were used to dye candy. Even more gross: how people would try to sell spoiled meat and cheese by either layering fresh meat or cheese around the spoiled bits, or pumping the meat with chemicals and basically "cauterizing" the rotten bits at the bone with white-hot iron rods. But lest you think that this sort of behavior was a product of the past, Wilson offers modern examples: the Chinese baby milk scandal where people were selling sugar and starch instead of actual formula, and the counterfeiting of specialty products like Corsican ham and Basmati rice.

You'll need a strong stomach to get through parts of this book and at times it can be a little dull, but this is one of the most informative, relevant, and interesting nonfiction books I've read in a while and I would honestly recommend it to anyone as an example of why it's so important to know what's in your food, where it comes from, and how it was really made.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 12, 2024

Strange Unearthly Things by Kelly Creagh

 

DNF @ 28%

I'm on a quest to read all the JANE EYRE retellings because that is one of my favorite books! I got to buddy read this one with my friend Allison, which was exciting! Unfortunately that was the most exciting thing about this book. This is a YA book but the teens in this book feel very inauthentic. Fake swearing, stilted dialogue, and too much internal narration clutter up a premise that had the potential to be really interesting. Some of this is on me as a reader so definitely take my opinion with a grain of salt. I do wish I'd listened to my friends and checked out some of the other reviews before buying a copy. Read the sample and see if you like the writing style before buying.

1 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 11, 2024

In Session: A Dark Romance Novella by Vivi Sloane

 

I'm kind of surprised this doesn't have way more reviews because it's so good. This is like the dark romance version of B.G. Harlen's BREAK HER, in the sense that it takes a Hannibal/Clarice dynamic and turns it into erotica, but whereas BREAK HER is just erotica (which borders on horror and torture porn), IN SESSION is more of a very dark and taboo erotic romance that examines its characters in psychological depth.

Avery is a psychiatrist who sometimes handles court-ordered patients. Her newest one is a man named Nash Wyatt, a convinced serial killer. He immediately starts pushing boundaries and trying to get into her head and Avery is a little alarmed at how she responds to him-- with disgust, yes, but also in ways that go beyond clinical fascination.

Even though this is a novella, it feels like slow-burn because not much happens until the end. It's so worth it, though. From the very beginning I was fascinated with these characters and had to know how the story would end. Some of the dirty talk wasn't my cup of tea (like when he tells princess to make her asshole "wink" lol), but 99% of it, I was toooootally on board with. If you're into books with CNC, this is right up there with WILLING VICTIM and ASKING FOR IT. I'd read anything else this author writes.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Her Drag Barbarian by Kate Raven

 

You've heard of the "gay for you" trope, now let me introduce you to the first "bi for you" I've ever read.

HER DRAG BARBARIAN is about a woman named Elowyn who is an archaeologist but has a dad who's into a business conflict/rep management type of business. He doesn't think Elowyn's future as an archaeologist is all that promising and has strongarmed her into taking on one of his clients: a drag business called Heavenly Lights.

Most of the problems-- sexual misconduct, hostile work environment, things involving fire-- are being caused by Je Sweet, the drag persona of a 6'4" French man named Beau, who is basically chaos in gaff tape and too-tight shorts. 

Unfortunately for him, Elowyn is just as unhinged and psychotic as he is, and sees no problem threatening him with bodily harm or shoving his head into a table if it means keeping him from destroying the business that her very HONOR now dictates (or dicktates) that she save.

The comedy and banter in this book were honestly top-tier. I actually liked this book a lot more than THE CATCHER even though they had similar plots because it didn't feel like the heroine was as much of a victim and the breeding element made a little more sense here. I also liked that there was a little bit of a mystery, and how the pronouns of Je changed depending on whether or not she was in drag. Also, both the FMC and MMCs are chaotic bisexuals, which is a fun change in a genre where everyone tends to be so rigidly on one end of the Kinsey scale that it feels very y=mx+c y = m x + c m, if you know what I mean (did anyone else take Geometry? Lmfao).

3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 8, 2024

Moonshine Savage by Kate Raven

 

The next time I see someone asking for a cozy non-con rec, I'm suggesting them this. Did I know that non-con could even be cozy before I read MOONSHINE SAVAGE? Nope. Surprise, surprise.

Saoirse is on her way to a librarian interview that ends up going nowhere when her car breaks down. She's almost assaulted by a bunch of gang members, but luckily she's rescued by a tall blonde backwoods god of a man named Jake. Not so luckily for her, he's absolutely unhinged, horny and feral AF, and determined to make her his wife whether or not she's amenable to that.

This feels like one of those 70s pulps but in a fun, non-cringe way. Mostly because the heroine gets some licks in of her own and because it's absolutely hilarious, the lengths Jake will go to make Saoirse his woman. $1 million dollar wedding rings and tattooing her car's license plate on his arm? There's nothing this crazy man won't do. He even buys her a BLT before ripping her underwear off. Such a gentleman.

Also, she gets pie from his mom. :)

This book was insane and I liked it.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Sun Damage by Sabine Durant

 

My favorite kind of thriller! This was so much fun, kind of like a cross between Mr. Ripley and Apples Never Fall. Ali, the heroine, is part of a two-person con artist duo. But when a plan involving a rich British socialite goes terribly wrong, Ali steals her identity and runs away to a French chalet, where she ends up playing chef to a family of expatriates hoping to get away on holiday.

I love a morally grey "unlikable" FMC and I thought Durant did a really good job showing how a con artist could be morally flexible and still guilty, while also rationalizing their crimes. The family was also really interesting and I liked how the story peeled back the fabric of their lives to reveal some of their dark and twisty secrets. 

I will say that the build-up of this one is so slow, which I wasn't expecting because the beginning of this book moves so fast. I never wanted to put the book down because the writing was so good, but pacing did feel like it was an issue. Especially because, ultimately, the family didn't really seem all that relevant to the plot by the end?

Regardless, I really enjoyed SUN DAMAGE and wouldn't be surprised if it ends up becoming a TV mini series. I read it after reading THE CLIFF HOUSE and I think I've realized that my favorite genre of thriller is "fucked up lady goes on vacation and revels in her fucked upedness."

P.S. Thank you for actually having the heroine bang the hot, hairy-chested suspicious guy.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 6, 2024

The Catcher by Kate Raven

 

I don't normally like breeding or sports romances, and even though this was both of those things, I really enjoyed it. The premise is great. Emrys is a PR agent turned art therapy teacher who is called in for one last big project: Tanner Courtenay is dragging his team down to the dirt with bad press due to poor conduct and criminal behavior. If she can redeem his image, she'll get the motherlode of all bonuses.

Tanner is one of the most unhinged heroes I've ever read. When he meets the heroine, he bashes out the lights with his emotional support baseball bat, covering her in broken glass. He literally has a business meeting with the heroine while he's getting blown by another woman; he gives zero shits. By the time he gets into a relationship of sorts with the heroine, he gets even crazier. He buys a microscope to see if she's ovulating (SCIENCE) and when he fucks up, he gets her some apology tortoises.

I understand that this is an erotic fantasy novella, so we're supposed to suspend our disbelief, but I was a little confused about why the hero suddenly got so into ~breeding~ and how/when the heroine fell in love with him. I love a toxic "I can fix him!" moment as much as the next girlie, but I wish there had been a little more development there. This was also marketed as being a grovel romance and it didn't really have a grovel. He was just a gloriously unapologetic asshole and she sort of went along with it, which is fine, but a totally different kink.

If you enjoy old skool Harlequin romance novels with brutal and crazy heroes, you will enjoy this book. Very similar vibe, but with a lot more sex. I'm probably going to hell for laughing at this as much as I did. Emrys is a soft and passive heroine but she manages to push back against Tanner in a way that was really satisfying, and I thought her name was so pretty.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 4, 2024

A Friend in the Dark by Samantha M. Bailey

 

This is a strange, short, faced-paced thriller that kind of reminded me of some of the erotic thrillers from the 90s. Especially with the whole, "ooooh, BDSM is so fringe and weird" subplot that entered briefly.

I liked the writing style a lot. Eden and Olivia were both distinct narrators with flaws and quirks. I thought Eden was better rounded than Olivia, who fell into a literary stereotype trap that was a little hard to swallow. The first half of this book was great and one twist actually made me gasp out loud, although it didn't pan out the way I had hoped it would.

The second half of the book was a bit anticlimactic by comparison. I thought I knew what was going to happen and then when what I thought was going to happen didn't happen, I realized that I didn't like the actual ending better lol. It almost felt like the author wasn't sure how she wanted to end this book and drew random endings out of a hat.

I would read more from this author but man, this family needs a TON of therapy.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Through the Smoke by Brenda Novak

 

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

So obviously I loved it.

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

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

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

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

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 22, 2024

The Cliff House by Chris Brookmyre

 

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

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

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

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 11, 2024

Walk of the Spirits by Richie Tankersley Cusick

 

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

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

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

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

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

 

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

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

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

So here are some bulleted thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 9, 2024

14 Ways to Die by Vincent Ralph

 

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Powerless by Lauren Roberts

 

DNF @ p.131

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

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Cinderalla by Junko Mizuno

 

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

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

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

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

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

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Moth Keeper by Kay O'Neill

 

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 1, 2024

Starlings by Amanda Linsmeier

 

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

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

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Besieged by Charlotte Lamb

 

Charlotte Lamb is one of my favorite Harlequin romance authors but sometimes she churns out a miss rather than a hit. BESIEGED is the first book in the Barbary Wharf series, which seems to be about the contested ownership of a popular newspaper and its adjoining property. Gina, the heroine of this book, is the daughter-in-law of the current owner, but is now newly widowed. Nick, the hero, is a sort of corporate raider who would like to ownership of the paper/building by force, if necessary. And since this is an older Harlequin, that's his approach to courtship, as well.

There were some things I enjoyed about this book. I'm a toxic sucker for forceful kisses and "little fools!" in romance, and Nick is definitely an old skool kind of hero. You have to read these books pretending you wouldn't know exactly who they'd vote for in a political election and whether or not they have a not-so-dusty copy of Ayn Rand on their bookshelf, though. The kissing/steamy scenes were hot, although they don't actually get to banging. In fact the book ends on a cliffhanger.

The set up of this series is actually weird because unlike series where each book leads you to another couple, it appears that Gina and Nick continue to have their relationship evolve in each subsequent book, but their relationship becomes the secondary romance, as each new couple in the series spins out in the foreground. Points for creativity, I guess, but it was a little distracting. Especially since the secondary characters in this book, Piet and Hazel, were not that likeable and didn't have much chemistry. They were kind of thrown in as an afterthought.

For a workplace romance, this is great, though. Lamb does a good job making romances feel businessy without bogging down the plot. And y'all know I have a soft spot for heroes named Nick. I didn't love it and I probably won't read further into the series but it was an interesting (if slow) ride. Thanks so much to Heather for buddy-reading this with me. I'm sorry I took forever to finish it!

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill

 

Monster fucking but make it literary??

THE CRANE HUSBAND is such a bizarre book. When I was young, I had a book of fairytales from all over the world and this story could have been ripped from its pages. Even though it's set in contemporary times, there's something chillingly timeless and old-fashioned about it, outside of those modern references. It seems to float in its own bubble.

The story is about a small family: a teenage girl and her younger brother, who both live with their self-absorbed artist mother on a farm. Their dad is dead and their bohemian mother has entertained affairs with people of all genders, but one day, she brings home a crane. And the crane is kind of a huge douchebag. All of the farm animals are afraid of him, and when he and the mom spend the night together, she comes down the stairs covered in blood. Obviously, the crane has to go.

But the mother insists she loves him.

I feel like this is an allegory for how abuse transforms people, and how people who commit violence against others are like animals. I have read other stories that turn abuse into metaphor, which simultaneously makes it more chilling and more palatable. Fantasy can be a vehicle to explore trauma with a remove that makes it feel safer, psychologically. I feel like THE CRANE HUSBAND does this.

The story was a little too weird and disjointed for me to fully love it, and the anachronism was tonally jarring, but I thought the writing was gorgeous and I really appreciated what the author was trying to do. At times, it almost gave me a Boy and the Heron vibe. If you like Angela Carter, you'll probably enjoy this. I'll definitely be checking out more of her work.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 26, 2024

It Takes Monsters by Mandy McHugh

 

There's a Little Free Library near me that, I kid you not, is owned by someone with the best taste in books. I'll go there a couple times a week to do drop offs of my own cast-offs, and I'll find some really amazing thrillers and romance novels in there to take home. IT TAKES MONSTERS is one of those.

The premise intrigued me-- because who doesn't love the revenge fantasy of a fed-up woman who decides her husband must die for taking away her agency and turning her into a baby-maker-- and the cover seemed to promise some sort of sexy menage action... or maybe another man or woman, who maybe, idk, helps the heroine hide the body? (Or bodies? *wiggles eyebrows*) But no.

I don't want to say too much about this book because less is definitely more and I also don't want to spoil the ending (which I TOTALLY predicted, by the way, ugh). So first, here's what the book did well. This had a fun, almost retro, 90s horror/thriller vibe to it, and I liked that. The banter was also fun and sometimes quotable, and you know me, I love a female antiheroine (even if she's pretty stupid and is a little too attached to her emotional support murder tarp). Victoria was hilarious and fun.

IT TAKES MONSTERS didn't work for me in a couple ways. I feel like the premise and the cover promise smut, or at least some spice. This book had no spice. What KILLS me is that it would have been so easy to include some too, since one of the scenes literally takes place at a masked sex party, which the heroine goes to and does not have sex. RUDE. I also felt like the motive for the murders didn't make sense, and for me, that's the whole point of a murder mystery. Having it make sense.

This wasn't a bad book by any means and even though I kinda sorta skimmed the end a little bit, I would read more from this author. It's too gory to be a cozy mystery but if you are looking for thrillers that don't have spice or romance, but do feature female protagonists and a bit of a scare, this will definitely be your cup of tea. Thanks so much to Corvina for reading it with me! <3

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Eclipse Ritual: A Taboo Cult Romance by Kate Rivenhall

 

This book was absolutely insane, like FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC meets Midsommar. I wasn't expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, because this is some of the most depraved shit I've read in a while. Without going into spoilers, THE ECLIPSE RITUAL is the story of Obedience and Ronan, and a society that oppresses women and forces them to be brides against their will if they are chosen.

I liked Obedience's gradual questioning of her faith. I thought it was really well done and appropriately terrifying. Any book where one of the bad guys gets a piece of his dick nailed to a wall is going to be pretty fucked up. I also liked that all of the characters were 18+ and that as psychotic as the hero was, he had his own internal logic that he was following to try to prove his twisted love to the heroine.

Aspirational this is fucking NOT, but I loved it.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 18, 2024

For Your Consideration: Keanu Reeves by Larissa Zageris

 

Well, the book certainly lives up to the title in the sense that it made me consider Keanu Reeves. I had actually forgotten how many movies he was in, including offbeat titles like Dangerous Liaisons and Little Buddha. This is sort of a biography (a very lite one), but it's also a fan letter to Reeves as an actor and a human being.

I enjoyed this book but parts of it were too silly. At times it felt like the authors knew they were running out of material and were scrambling for more filler, case in point: the quizzes, and the bizarre little Keanu fanfiction short story they randomly crammed in here.

Would recommend this to fans of Keanu Reeves, but anyone else probably shouldn't read this book. At the very least, it might prompt you to revisit some cheesy old movies, though.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 16, 2024

The Crow: Special Edition by James O'Barr

 

I'm not crying, you're crying.

If you're unfamiliar with the premise of THE CROW, it's the story of a young man named Eric who defies the laws of death itself for the sake of his vengeance, hunting down the criminals who murdered him, and then SA'd and murdered his fiancee as well. It's pretty horrifying, and very violent, and the story is incredibly dark and bleak.

Apparently the author's own fiancee was killed by a drunk driver when he was very young (eighteen, I think), and this graphic novel was an attempt to channel his feelings into a cathartic medium. You can really feel the raw anguish and hatred seeping through the pages, and at times, that can be very hard. The criminals are also horrible people who do horrible things, and we see them do some of them, which is also hard to read. Reading THE CROW gives you the idea that the world is a rather joyless and terrible place, where happiness is only fleeting, and evil basically runs rampantly unchecked.

It's hard not to fall in love with Eric, though. Even though he's pretentious and weird and violent, he's a 6'5" undead goth who is nice to cats and children and simps hard for his wife. So what if he wears bullets in his hair and carves a crown of thorns in his own chest? The only people who fall victim to his murder-sprees are Bad People Who Are Not Good(TM). He's better than most dark romance heroes.

I think the movie was better than the comic book, but the comic book isn't bad. If you're into gritty-looking art and very dark noir with goth overtones, you'll really enjoy THE CROW.

3.5 out of 5 stars

For Holly by Tanya Byrne

 

After reading and loving FOLLOW ME DOWN by this author, I knew I immediately had to read more of her books. What better to start with, I thought, than FOR HOLLY? If you know me, you know I love step-drama (haha, boy do I), and a sort of thriller about a troubled messy girl who hates her stepmother and is willing to punish her over some kind of sinister (is it sinister???) secret sounded too good to pass up.

Full disclosure, I only read to about 40-50% before skipping ahead to the last couple chapters, which had a promised twist. I wanted to see if the twist made wading through the book worth it. It did not. FOR HOLLY is beautifully written and really brings Paris to life. I also thought the character of Lola, the French-Barbadian heroine, was really well done. She's "unlikable" but in a way that feels relatable rather than entirely off-putting. The problem is that there isn't really enough story or drama to make wading through the (lack of) narrative worth it for me. FOLLOW ME DOWN gripped me from the get-go because of the dual timeline that made it clear that something terrible had happened.

FOR HOLLY tries to do the same (and actually employs a similar "gotcha" kind of twist) but I don't think the author teased enough details to make this as suspenseful as she could have done. Maybe this would work for readers who can happily enjoy a story whose focus is less on plot and story and more on character development and setting, but that is not of particular interest to me. I want drama, suspense, and sordid affairs. I'm sorry to say that I agree with the other reviewers who seem to think that this is the weakest of Ms. Byrne's books. 

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Follow Me Down by Tanya Byrne

 

I'd recommend this to the dark academia girlies who are fans of Donna Tartt's SECRET HISTORY and Kate Moretti's THE SPIRES, as it kind of reads like a YA version of that. Set in an English boarding school, this is about Adamma, a Nigerian student, and her close and somewhat toxic friendship with the school golden girl, Scarlett. It's told in dual timeline, starting from Adamma's first day at school and ending after their friendship does... and something terrible happens.

I don't want to say too much about this book because less is more going in (I feel like I say this a lot??) but it's so full of surprises. Tonally, it's quite dark for a YA and deals with a lot of unsavory and mature topics. I actually like it when I find YA that is clearly meant to appeal to the college-age and/or college-bound youths, because I think there should be books for every maturity level of teens. Byrne always knew when to pull back and not provide too much detail, but this is definitely sensual and terrifying by turns, and often left me feeling desolate and hollow.

Loved the Nigerian protagonist and the little snippets of her culture. I also think that this author did the best job depicting the intimate push-pull relationship of vicious teen girl relationships in a way that puts her on par with Megan Abbott (who's famously good at it). The ending made me gasp, and was appropriately gutting. I feel like maybe part of the reason this book doesn't have more of a following is because it's ridiculously slow burn for a thriller. The character portraits are just as important if not more so than who did the bad things. That said, I'm absolutely obsessed. Do I wish the ending was happier and the pacing had been a little neater? Yes. But I'm still gonna read everything she writes.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Vampire Academy: The Graphic Novel by Richelle Mead

 

This was purely an impulse buy but I still think it's the best Vampire Academy adaptation out there, based on the original books. They managed to cram the entire first novel into a comic book that's under 200 pages, and they honestly did a pretty decent job. I mean, it's still basically the Reader's Digest of a YA novel, but I liked it.

Also, every time Dimitri tells Rose he'd throw himself in front of her during a Strigoi attack instead of Lissa, I swoon a little.

It hits just the same in this graphic novel.

(Though gosh, I forgot how edgelord 2000s this book was-- cutting and self-harm, slut-shaming, mean girls, and everyone obsessed with who's sleeping with whom. I loved it. It was toxic BUT I LOVED IT. I was still a teenager myself when I was reading these books, okay?? Everyone needs a YA 'ho phase.)

Also this is literally the only student x teacher romance I'll allow.

Don't read this if you don't love the original series, but if you love the original series, this will basically cement your love for it even further, I think. Just, you know, don't get *too* attached. Apparently they stopped making the graphic novels after book three because they weren't selling well. I guess other people didn't find the uncanny valley manga look of these comics as charming as I did. But some people just don't have taste.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Erik's Tale by Jessica Mason

 

I have been going through some shit lately, and haven't wanted to read anything too dark or disturbing. Which hurts me in my soul because I am a dark romance girlie at heart, and dark romance novels and thrillers are basically my favorite things to read. ERIK'S TALE was the perfect antidote to my quandary because even though it's dark (very dark), it's the prequel to a book I already read, so I know everything turns out OK. (And trust me, with a book like this, you're going to want that guarantee.)

This book chronicles Erik's very dark past as a child who was the product of rape, and who grew up in a highly abusive home with a mentally ill mother who literally tried to cut his face off, and an alcoholic father (not the rapist in question, FYI) who resented his "cold" wife and bastard/disfigured son. This whole portion was very hard to read and I basically wanted to give Erik the biggest hug. The circus/freak show portion is also very hard to read, but these two sections are the worst (in terms of content) parts of the book. Once you get past them, you'll be good to go for the rest of the story.

That's because from here, the book basically catapults into the globe-trotting WTFest of one of those old skool 70s bodice-rippers, where the protagonist is hurdled towards misfortune after misfortune, somehow managing to survive despite all odds. I thought specifically of Natasha Peters's DANGEROUS OBSESSION and SAVAGE SURRENDER. Especially with the role Erik played in various royal courts, and his wandering journeys with the Roma people. The retro vibes of this book played quite well with the many references to the original Leroux story (which I've read). One of my favorite OTT elements of the original book was Erik's nightmare torture forest made of metal. So many retellings omit this detail (and I've always wondered if the Nome king's metal forest in the Oz series was inspired by Phantom!). It's such a cool detail and I'm glad Ms. Mason made use of it.

I really enjoyed ERIK'S TALE and that says a lot about me because I'm notoriously not a fan of novellas. I feel like it takes a talented author to make a story come full circle in a limited amount of pages, and usually characterization and story suffer. Neither of those things is the case in this book. I also loved how beautifully queer it was, with asexual, trans, gay, and sapphic characters all given representation. Also, I stan our Strangle King-- some of the people he murdered were in defense of said trans character. We love a spicy cinnamon roll vigilante, don't we? Also it's written in first person, so you really get a feel for all of his arrogance, vulnerabilities, and intelligence, all firsthand. (Hey guys, welcome back to my YouTube channel...)

My only real qualm is that everything was moving so fast that sometimes it felt very boom-boom-boom and I almost wished it was bodice-ripper saga length just so we could have time to soak into some of these settings. There were also more typos in here than in ANGEL'S MASK, but apparently I have a first edition (collectible! SUCK IT BITCHES) so I'm guessing some of these have been fixed (this didn't factor into my rating, btw, but some people get weird about typos-- w/e it's indie). It's also my understanding that this author has started putting TWs into her books. This edition didn't have one inside, but I believe she has them on her website if you're nervous about anything specific.

Overall, though, this was a win, and exactly the thing to get me out of a pretty bad funk. And I'm very grateful for that. Can't wait to read the next in the series. :)

Thanks to the author for sending me a review copy!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars 

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Moshi Moshi: A Travelogue: A Colorful Journey of Japan through Culture, Food, Fashion, and More by Winnie Liu

 

I bought this impulsively because it was on sale. MOSHI MOSHI is absolutely adorable. Winnie Liu is an illustrator who was lucky enough to have the chance to study abroad in Japan when she was in college. In this heavily illustrated travelogue and memoir(?) she details some of her adventures, gives recommendations, and spotlights a few of the many cultural differences between Japan and other parts of the world.

I was lucky enough to go to Japan a few years ago and I've been to several of the places she talked about here. It made me incredibly nostalgic for my trip. Would definitely recommend this to anyone who is looking for vacation ideas. Especially if they love cute art.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The Deep by Rivers Solomon

 

The comps for this book are a little off, imo, because this doesn't really have much in common with Black Panther at all. To me, it kind of feels like Octavia Butler decided to do her own take on The Giver, except with mermaid-like creatures who are descended from slaves.

THE DEEP is a highly speculative and experimental work. I interpreted it as an allegory for how Black people still carry the legacy of pain inflicted upon them during slavery, and the emotional burden that comes from being oppressed by that same societal infrastructure, not to mention being forced to continually justify their existence as well as explain their history to the ignorant-- either to teach, or to further that justification.

Reading this reminded me a lot of my experience reading Akwaeke Emezi's FRESHWATER, another book where I liked the premise more than I liked the actual execution, and which I felt got buried by its experimental nature. AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS and SORROWLAND seem more up my alley by this author, because I really did like their writing if not the story (it felt more focused on the allegorical nature of the story than the world-building or plot). But if you're into stories that are all about the vibes, you might enjoy this more than I did!

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Shadow Sister by Lily Meade

 

THE SHADOW SISTER is one of those "trust the process" books because it takes a while to get going, and until about 10% from the end, I had no idea how it was going to end. If you're a fan of YA folk horror, and books like LOVELY BONES and HOUSE OF HOLLOW, you're going to love SHADOW SISTER, plain and simple.

This story is about two sisters, Sutton and Casey. Sutton is the pretty, popular sister. Casey is the weird, introverted, prickly sister. One day, Sutton goes missing and it basically tears their little family apart, especially since Sutton was her mother's not-so-secret favorite. Casey feels torn about her sister's disappearance because their relationship was so fraught-- Sutton terrorized her and basically treated her like shit, in the way that sisters sometimes do, so she's not exactly sorry that she's gone, even though she still loves her at some level.

It's a shock to everyone when Sutton comes back, but when she does, she's not exactly the same. She's lost all her memories, the family dog is suspicious of her, and she is fucking obsessed with Casey in a way that she never was before, to the extent that she wants to be around her all the time. Casey is suspicious that it's all just a clever ruse. But it might actually be worse.

This is a great book. It rocks at being a thriller, horror, and magical-realism, but it also offers great commentary on slavery, biraciality, family favoritism, colorism, religious abuse, and the bias in the way that police investigate the disappearances of white girls versus black girls. Despite all these pretty heavy topics, it doesn't feel oppressive, and I thought the author did a fantastic job writing about such dark content so delicately. Also, we stan morally grey characters who get a redemption arc. I even teared up a little at the end (although if you pressed me on it, I'd never admit it).

I seem to be in my YA folk horror era and I don't think I want to leave anytime soon.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 5, 2024

Wild, Beautiful, and Free by Sophfronia Scott

 

I have an ongoing project where I try to read every Jane Eyre retelling I can get my hands on. WILD, BEAUTIFUL, AND FREE is a very unique retelling as it is set in the antebellum South and the heroine is the biracial daughter of a slave and a plantation owner, whose doting father has left her a parcel of land as her inheritance. However, his wife doesn't truck with this, and sells the heroine, Jeannette, into slavery, where she is sent first to a plantation and then, when she escapes, to a school devoted to setting Black women up for employment, which is how she meets the intense Mr. Colchester.

WILD, BEAUTIFUL, AND FREE is a very empowering story that instills all of its flawed female characters with agency. I didn't feel like it took any easy ways out, and I feel like I learned a lot of interesting historical facts about the Civil War. As a Jane Eyre retelling, I thought this was very artfully done, although the characters of Blanche and Bertha have been combined into one person, and the antagonistic "wife in the attic" has been relegated to an entirely separate role.

This is more historical fiction than it is romance, although it has elements of both. I was also happy that in this adaptation, the author made the choice not to scar and injure "Rochester," and Jane is given a reason other than infidelity/adultery for fleeing. I love the original but both of those things were very hard for me to read, so this retelling felt way "safer" in that regard.

Overall, I really enjoyed this Jane Eyre retelling with a cast of mostly Black characters and I would say that it's a great pick for both Black History Month and for fans of Jane Eyre.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 4, 2024

When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole

 

Whoa. This was great. There seems to be a challenge to compare every Black horror and Black thriller novel to Get Out but this is one of the few cases where the comparison is totally on point. Sydney lives in a small Brooklyn neighborhood filled with beautiful brownstones that is slowly becoming gentrified. Her newer white neighbors are the yuppies you love to hate, and a biotech company is buying up property, ostensibly to be used as campuses for their employees.

Sydney, who grew up in this neighborhood, is suspicious of this so-called progress. Especially when long-time residents of the area begin to sell their homes in a panic and/or disappear. Theo, a white man in a tempestuous relationship with his not-quite wife, is one of the new buyers. However the house and his girlfriend are both proving to be unexpected nightmares, especially when he learns that Kim is a little too comfortable wearing her privilege like it's a new Anthropologie sweater. He's way more interested in Sydney, who is down to earth and real in a way that his girlfriend never was. When she asks for his help on a Black tourism project, it seems innocent.

But something dark is lurking in their small, idyllic neighborhood.

I don't want to say too much else, but I REALLY enjoyed WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING a lot. The plotting is tight, the suspense is amazing, and it tells you so much about Black American history and redlining that really aren't taught in schools. Also, while not explicitly stated, there are certain events in this book that seem to be a direct reference to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. I know I saw some critics saying that the white people seemed too evil but honestly, I didn't think so. History says otherwise.

Get Out examined the literal commodification of Black bodies for coolness and clout. The Other Black Girl examined tokenism in the workplace and the weaponization of white guilt and "diversity" hires. NO ONE IS WATCHING, meanwhile, is an intense, no-holds barred call-out of gentrification and the literal erasure of Black people in history, both recent and distant.

I've been reading Cole's books since she was doing indie stuff and I just knew she was going to be big. She might actually be even better at thrillers than she is at romance, and when I saw that she had a gothic murder mystery as her up and coming effort, I nearly screamed.

This was so, so good.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 3, 2024

The Adults by Alison Espach

 

DNF @ p.200

Okay, so if there's one element in this book that will tell you whether or not this book is for you, it's this: there's a scene in a biology class where the kids are ruthlessly bullying this girl for her big nose, so she hops on the lab table and dares one of the boys to give her a nose job with a scalpel, and he makes the first cut until the heroine suffers a pang of conscience for being a passive observer to all this and sets the guy on fire with the scalpel.

THE ADULTS was on a list of books for people who liked MY DARK VANESSA and it certainly has the fucked-up girl getting predated on by older men themes right, as well as the fucked-up coming of age story elements. I was prepared for both of those things. I think the problem is that it felt like the author didn't really know where she was going with all of this bad stuff. The whole book felt like a big trauma dump with one thing happening after another, and it also felt like neither I nor the main character were given any time to process any of it.

The writing is not bad and in fact the beginning of the book is very good, but I did not like the story and all of the characters were kind of awful, and reading this book just gave me a very terrible, claustrophobic feeling that was not at all engaging or fun. If that was the purpose of this book, to whip the tablecloth off the ugliness of a small New England town, she achieved her purpose. But I think a closer comparison for this book would be Rick Moody's THE ICE STORM than MY DARK VANESSA, or PREP and ELECTION, as the two latter were comped in the blurb.

2 out of 5 stars

The Night in Question: A Novel by Nic Joseph

 

The moment I heard the hook for this book, I knew I had to have it. It's told in dual POV. The first is Paula, a woman who blackmails a pop star for the return of his cell phone after finding out that he's having an affair. The second is Claire, a cop investigating a murder that occurs at a party where both Paula and the other woman were present.

Who died? And why??? The answer may surprise you.

So THE NIGHT IN QUESTION was super fun. I didn't guess whodunnit right away and I liked the two timelines. It was artfully done and kept me in suspense, wanting to find out what happened. The juciness of the murder and adultery plots was also quite fun. This had the vibes of a limited series, and I really enjoyed that.

Points off for a little bit of a lackluster ending and characters who occasionally fell flat. But overall, I'd say that if you like "beach read" style mysteries and morally gray FMCs, you'll probably love this!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 2, 2024

Quietly Hostile: Essays by Samantha Irby

 

DNF @ 27%

Ugh, I have historically really enjoyed Samantha Irby's work but this one was such a disappointment. It kind of felt like she was just writing about whatever and it didn't have the level of humor or care that I was expecting based on her previous books.

I will say that I did love her "I like it" essay and I will 100% be using that to flip the bird to the haters. I also liked her description of herself as "quietly hostile," because same. But this was a disappointment.

2 out of 5 stars

Degrees of Control by Eve Dangerfield

 

Eve does it again! She's fast becoming one of my favorite erotic romance authors because I love the focus she places on her heroines. One of the criticisms that a lot of romance novels face is that the heroine often feels like a placeholder for the reader and doesn't have a lot of personality, but hers always do, and I love that.

Charlie is a yoga teacher who just got out of an emotionally abusive relationship with an ex-boyfriend. Her friends want to hook her up with a rebound, especially since the ex was very vanilla and Charlie thinks she might be looking for a guy who can be dominant and a little mean (but only in bed).

Enter James: a Southern corporate pencil-pusher and a sadist. When he and Charlie talk, sparks fly (and so do other things heehee). But then a misunderstanding results in them both going home alone. James isn't able to get her out of his system, though, and is desperate to see her again, and when they hammer out the terms for their relationship of convenience, it seems like it's just gonna be a quick and easy thing.

But this is a romance novel so OBVIOUSLY it is neither of those things.

I really enjoyed this book. The banter was top-tier and I loved how Charlie was portrayed as soft and feminine, but also, you know, capable of setting boundaries and standing up for herself. She was flawed and multi-dimensional and I thought she was really funny and sweet. It's always fun for me to see a heroine at work, who loves what she does, and I felt like her passion for yoga really shone through. Also, yay, a vegan character who isn't an asshole about being vegan *stares in Ali Hazelwood*.

James was a pretty solid hero too, although not really my type. (1) he's blonde and (2) he's kinda a bit caveman-y, although at least he's self-aware enough to know it. I do appreciate Dangerfield for writing a fuckboy character who doesn't come across as too toxic or assholish, though. Sometimes, I see characters like these and I'm like, "What do people see in him?" but here, it's definitely easy to see what the appeal is. Also, his backstory made my heart hurt and was handled so well. Poor guy.

I guess my only qualms about this book is that it felt like Dangerfield was setting the book up with some last act drama that never happened. Like, James had that pushy woman in his office who was constantly needling him for sex, and there was that creep who kept hitting on Charlie. I kept expecting them to have to work together against some dick who wanted to keep them apart, which would have solidified their relationship for a long haul, but no. So that definitely made this book feel like maybe it leaned more towards erotica than romance, just because it felt like its goal was more on creating a fantasy than being a fully-rounded story that wrapped up all of its loose ends.

Still, this was a debut (can you BELIEVE it?) and I think a lot can be forgiven in a debut. Having read some of her later books (ACT YOUR AGE is the bestttt), I can confirm that Dangerfield has only gotten better at fleshing out her stories and writing sexy characters exploring their desires sexily.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Run Posy Run by Cate C. Wells

 

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

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

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

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

 

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

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

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite

 

DNF @ 49%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Modelland by Tyra Banks

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Elixir by Hilary Duff

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars