Monday, May 20, 2024

Lover: The Cruel Dark Companion Novella by Bea Northwick

 

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

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

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

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Jeweled Heart of Rosemont Castle by Clara Wimberly

 

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Return to Mariposa by Anne Stuart

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Song of the Demon Court by Dakotah Gumm

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

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


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

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

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars