I love historical romance, specifically historical romance that takes place in Regency and Victorian times. I enjoy the language, the costume porn, the odd customs, the strange romance of it. But I would never, ever want to live there. We have a tendency to romanticize the past, and focus on the feel-goodsy aspects of it that make for good films and A+ school dioramas when the truth is, it's the past for a reason.
In UNMENTIONABLE, Oneill discusses all manner of R-rated factoids about the Victorian era that you most likely didn't learn in school. For example, did you know that those beautiful corsets crushed women's rib cages and moved their organs around (and also stank to high heaven)? Did you know that foundation was a heavy "enamel" made of lead? That soap contained arsenic? That strychnine and tapeworms were handy diet tools? That doctors had electric masturbation machines to treat women with hysteria? That underwear was crotchless?
I knew some of these facts because I read a lot of historical fiction, but others were new to me. And the tone they're delivered in is also very enjoyable. Oneill's writing style kind of reminds me of Gail Carriger's - affected, airy, light, and fun. It comes and goes at times, though, which can make the narrative seem off-balance. One moment, you're listening to the Mrs. Bennett from hell telling you gleefully why the heavy frippery of Victorian accoutrements made crotchless underwear a necessity for 19th century bathroom breaks, the next you're faced with a rather dry examination of food handling and hysteria. I can understand why the author might want to treat more serious subjects with more gravity, but it does leave the overall "mood" of the book feeling slightly off balance.
UNMENTIONABLE is a great book if you're interested at all in feminism, history, or Victoriana. I'm interested in all three, so it was a delight to receive this book from Netgalley for review. I enjoyed every chapter and learned a lot of interesting and disturbing facts that will make me look at my favorite romances differently (or perhaps not so differently in the case of my bodice rippers). I sincerely look forward to this author's future projects! Maybe 18th century France?
One of the chief complaints about the YA genre - especially the books being targeted and marketed toward young women - is that they are becoming increasingly derivative, and seem to focus only on the romance. BLACK CITY is a perfect example of that: it's a book that can be neatly summed up by asking "what happens when you smush together DIVERGENT and TWILIGHT?"
I haven't given a one-star rating in a while, and to be honest - it feels weird. It's been so long since I read a book that I thought was bad, that I forgot what the actual experience was like. The incredulity. The frustration. The boredom. What really annoyed me was how much I wanted to like BLACK CITY in the first place, because vampires are awesome, and a dystopian society involving vampires should also be awesome, because vampires and oppression. Plus, that cover. That's a cover to take home to mama.
The problem starts with the world-building. The author employs a lot of really clunky terminology, like "Darklings" for vampires, "twin-bloods" for half-breeds, "Sight" for vampiric thralls, and "the v-gene" for...a special gene that lets you 'sense' vampires, I guess. There's also different classes of vampires, with different colored hair and eyes, and some have wings, and then there's this degenerative necrosis-inducing disease that only affects vampires that's called Wrath, which makes their skin rot away. Got all that? But wait, there's more -
They call the trance-like state humans go into "Haze", which is confusing because Haze can also be sold in a bottle in drug form, and sometimes it is especially potent, which is called Golden Haze. And then there's these creatures called "Bastets" which appear to be shape-shifter leopards who have venom in their teeth. Trackers hunt the Darklings after curfew, protecting the Sentry, or the ruling government class, from Workboots (the poor) and the Legion (vampire revolutionaries). Violating the various laws that are in place to fraternize with a Darkling makes you a "race traitor."
The world all of this terms are used in isn't much clearer. I think it's supposed to be an alternate version of our world, except for some reason all of the states in the U.S. have been split into nine megastates with lame names like "Emerald State", but it's never really explained. Also, why are we a fascist, cultish dictatorship with a fascist, cultish leader? What happened? I never voted for this guy!
By the end of the book, I mostly had a handle on all the terminology, although I was still eying the world skeptically (what happened to the rest of the world? This is exactly what happened in DIVERGENT - Future Chicago went to heck in a hand basket, but was that an isolated incident? A reality TV show that the rest of the world just watched in amusement while shaking their head and going, "Oh, Chicago, you silly little cinnamon rolls, what will you think of next?") Also, why are the vampires allowing this to happen in the first place? They have literal "opium dens" for the Haze users. If their strength and their wings failed them, it wouldn't take much effort to just get all the humans hooked on Haze for a hostile takeover. But I might still have been able to enjoy the book in spite of all these plot holes and vocabulary words if it weren't for the two main characters - Ash and Natalie. Ash is a twin-blood (half-breed) and Natalie is a Sentry (ruling class). Twin-bloods don't have beating hearts for some reason (they're vestigial, I guess), but when Natalie touches him on accident - his heart actually starts beating because, and I kid you not, she's his soul mate, and your heart only beats as a twin-blood once you find the One.
They talk about how special and unique their love is before they've even really exchanged much more than a few paragraphs of conversation and by the time that they agree to go out with each other, before they've even gone on a single date, they're already ready to sacrifice all of their friendships and family ties and even their lives for each other. Even Romeo and Juliet would be side-eying these two. They're also just not very nice characters. Natalie is especially helpless, biting her lip, blushing, and staring in horror whenever something unpleasant happens. She tries to brush all of the bad things under the carpet, including the horrible acts that her mother and father have done to the vampires. Ash isn't much better. He helps get his "best friend" hooked on drugs and does some pretty sketchy things to women who aren't Natalie. It's hard to root for characters you don't like - particularly when you know that you are supposed to like those characters, and relate to them, and see yourself in them.
I do own the sequel to this book, BLACK PHOENIX, which I will be reading soon. I'd like to see if the author improves over time, and is capable of doing that lovely, lovely cover justice. There were some things in this book I didn't expect, but they were minor plot twists and overshadowed by the epically unconvincing love story. I can understand why so many reviewers were disappointed by BLACK CITY. I was, too.
I went through this period where if a book looked even remotely interesting, I'd buy it/request it from Netgalley/borrow it from the library. As you can imagine, this was problematic for several reasons - book clutter, for one. It also resulted in some very serious buyer's remorse. Take JACK KNIFE.Two government agents go into Victorian England to collect a rogue scientist who is hell-bent on reenacting the plot of Tomorrow Never Dies? Please.
I brought this book along with me to read while on a very long bus ride, so maybe it's the fact that I was essentially a captive audience, but I didn't dislike this book merely enough as I felt I ought to have. The writing quality was on the poor side - pulpy - and the characters of Sara and David, the government agents, were two-dimensional. David is your typical tough army guy with the heart of gold and Sara is the ball-busting feminist who everyone is attracted to, in spite of (because of?) the fact that she can kick their butts.
Sara and David find out that Jack the Ripper is running rampant, but for whatever reason, he's killing way more and far more bloodily than he ever did in their time. On the case is detective Jonas Robb, who is the son of a duke when he's not a cop, and who is also very attracted to Sara. He's suspicious of them, though, and he knows enough to know that something about their alibis doesn't match up.
I found JACK KNIFE entertaining, but it's a throwaway read. Not something I'd ever pick up again, unless I were marooned on a long bus ride and had no other reading materials present. There were a lot of plot holes and things left unexplained at the end, and I didn't really care for the characterization of any of the people in here. Or the use of science. Honestly, it seems like the more the characters stress how essential it is to preserve the timeline, the more they do their best to f*ck it up.
I'm a die-hard Labyrinth fan-girl, okay? I grew up with that movie, and fell in love with the cheap, glitter-spackled set, with David Bowie with his hair metal mullet and Seinfeld-esque puffy shirt - creepy puppets and ambiguous target audience, and all. So you can imagine the double-take I did, then, when I was perusing the titles across Netgalley and saw the title & cover of this book.
"That looks like...no way, it can't be...what is that?"
Ladies and gentle-goblins, I give you...Labyrinth - in sonnet form. You know, in case you're a die-hard fan-girl like me, and have been dying to hear your favorite movie summarized in iambic-pentameter. No, wait, come back - it's actually...decent.
I admit, I sneered a little at the idea of hearing a movie recounted to me in poetry format. It sounds like something out of a gong show or a high school curriculum. Look, I can come up with something right now. See - "And then, poor Frodo into the lava / did cast the One Ring back from whence it came / but found its power over him was great/ and to resist the Ring might be in vain."
But the writing was actually really great. I loved the words the author chose, and I swear she borrowed a few phrases from Shakespeare to sound extra authentic. The Star Wars sonnets that Quirk did a while ago didn't really work for me, but LABYRINTH actually left me smiling and feeling fondly nostalgic.
Here's one of my favorite bits:
His pallor was reflected in his clothes.
His cloak of night had changed to feathers pale,
and shades of grey were now his shirt, gloves hose -
I bought this book without reading the summary because at the time it was on sale for $1.99 down from $4.99. Later, when I was trying to decide which Kindle book I wanted to read next, I really took a look at the summary and my heart sank a little when I saw that it was - gasp, cringe - "women's fiction."
To my surprise, I actually really enjoyed SOY SAUCE FOR BEGINNERS. Part of that is the heroine herself. I wasn't sure how well I'd be able to relate to a Singaporean woman caught between two very different cultures. She was born in Singapore but is the heir to an old and reputable soy sauce company. She's separated from her husband, who cheated on her with a college student, and experiencing a lot of distress over what she wants to do with her life and where her loyalties and energies should lie.
Gretchen starts off very childish and petty, but over the course of the novel, she grows into herself. I really enjoyed watching her take ownership for her mistakes. I loved her relationship with her family - her mother, her father, her uncle. It was clear how much she loved them, and how much they loved her, and ordinarily relationship-driven books make me roll my eyes because they tend to be corny, but Gretchen's love for her family reminded me of the love I have for mine. I especially appreciated the emphasis on forgiveness & duty. They helped her become a better person, and vice versa.
Also, the food descriptions in this book are off-the-charts:
An avant-garde chef in Chicago had infused the soy sauce into butter. The resulting concoction was spread on bite-sized brioche, topped with tobiko caviar, and served as the AMUSE BOUCHE to his seventeen-course tasting menu (35%).
...our entire table was covered in food: an earthenware ramekin of pearly-pink prawns bathed in garlic butter; translucent, paper-thin slices of cured ham fanned out on the plate; tortilla espanola with nuggets of potato and sweet onion; candy-stripe beets studded with goat cheese and almond slivers; slow-cooked short ribs almost silky in their tenderness; thick chorizo stew (38%).
...crispy eel in sweet sauce, smoked duck two ways, hand-pulled noodles with crab roe...squirrel-shaped Mandarin fish, eight treasure rice, four happiness pork (68%).
CRAFTING WITH FEMINISM caters to the demographic that identifies with traits of the oft-sneered at "Tumblr feminism." I'm not 100% sure what Tumblr feminism is, to be honest, but it seems to involve a lot of masturbation talk and Joss Whedon fanfics (not usually in tamdem, but it's Tumblr, so you never really know). There isn't anything wrong with this necessarily, but I can see why some of the people who received copies of this book are so upset. If you actually lived through the civil rights era and had to fight for respect and the right to choose and equal pay, it's probably pretty upsetting to see "feminism" paired with "Queen Bitch" merit badges and vagina Christmas tree ornaments. Oh yes. Vagina Christmas tree ornaments. Don't worry, we'll be getting to those.
I was lucky enough to receive a copy of CRAFTING WITH FEMINISM from Netgalley. It was published by Quirk, a publisher I often picture introducing itself in a Troy McClure voice ("Hi, I'm Quirk Publishing. You might remember me from titles such as PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, THE JERSEY SHORE COOKBOOK, and MY BEST FRIEND'S EXORCISM").
Yes, I side-eyed that title pretty hard, but let's be honest - this is Quirk. The name of their publishing company alone should give you a clue what they're all about. Even in the introduction, the writer talks about the importance of not taking yourself too seriously and creating a warm, empowering sisterhood of glitter-wielding feminist Pinterest crafters smashing the patriarchy one sequined pipe-cleaner at a time (to embellish and paraphrase loosely). I think that's true - feminism should be about supporting and empowering women; but you also have to be able to have a sense of humor about it, too, or you'll get frustrated or angry or potentially lose sight of your original goal.
Regarding the quality of the crafts in here - they're a mixed bag. I agree with some of the nay-sayers. A lot of the crafts in here are tacky. We're talking, relegated to the back of the hall-closet to be regifted to Satan's in-laws tacky. That uterus body pillow looks like a prop from a bad 80s exploitation horror film, and the vagina Christmas tree ornaments are just...well, vagina Christmas tree ornaments. They were only slightly less horrible than the tampon dolls.
To be fair, some of the crafts really are cute. I liked the plates and the nope necklace. I would wear the nope necklace. I also thought the tea candle and the girl band cassette tape business card holder were really neat ideas, too - I'd use the business card holder, as well. Even some of the crafts that annoyed me could be worked into something less tacky. But even after reading this book, I don't really see how any of these things are related to feminism, apart from slinging around various buzzwords and really hoping that they catch on. It also makes an effort to score some authenticity points by interspersing feminist song hits, reading lists, and various quotes among the material. They're actually pretty decent...I was pleasantly surprised to see Meredith Brooks's "Bitch" included among the songs, as that is one of my pick-me-up songs for when I need a boost.
CRAFTING WITH FEMINISM was a fun, interesting idea. BUST beat them to the punch, unfortunately, but Burton attempts to put a unique spin on the idea of feminist crafting by being cheeky and crude, appealing to the modern day gal who doesn't hide her tampons in that purse within her purse and goes into sex shops with pride, because vibrator = empowerment. I'm not sure there's enough meat to this book for me to consider buying it for myself, but I think it would be a great gag gift for a woman or man in possession of a certain temperament, or even something fun for a group of friends to do at a bachelorette party or while drinking wine & watching Bridget Jones.
CRUEL BEAUTY was our October book of the month in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group - in fact, it won by a massive landslide. Not that I was surprised. CRUEL BEAUTY made quite a stir when it was first released; it seemed like everybody was singing its praises and mooning over Ignifex. On the surface, it sounded like a great story - love and death, revenge, magic, fairy-tales, demon lovers. That's Nenia to a T. But it was also YA. And I've been burned by the YA genre more times than I care to count. My heart couldn't take any more disappointment. So anyway, we started reading CRUEL BEAUTY in URR, and I was defensive and hopeful all at once as I prepared myself for the inevitable let-down...
Only to fall in love with the book.
I couldn't put it down. I think I read 40% of the book the first day. I finished it as soon as I got home from work the next day. Nyx isn't like other heroines. She isn't perfect and good - she's angry and vengeful and bitter, and rightfully so. Her family sucks, man. Because of a bargain her father made with some demons, her mother died in childbirth and he selected her to be the sacrifice so he can keep the sister who resembles the mom while boinking the aunt under their own roof. How messed up is that?
But Nyx doesn't just have the responsibility of avenging her family. She lives in this Greco-Roman city called Arcadia that's been frozen in time for almost 1,000 years because of a curse. They have a parchment sky and a demon lord, called the Gentle Lord, who makes Faustian bargains that always end in curses and tragedy. To fulfill the bargain made by her father, she has to marry him. To fulfill the prophecy handed down by their alchemists through centuries, she has to kill him.
There's a lot of Roman mythology in here, but it also borrows heavily from European fairy tales and folklore, notably Bluebeard's Castle (one of my favorites), Faust, Rumpelstiltskin, and, of course, Beauty and the Beast. It should have felt clunky, but I felt that the author blended everything seamlessly. I liked the alchemic magic system and how it fit into the world. The descriptions of Ignifex's magic house were amazing - I could easily picture the Heart of Water and the Heart of Air, but I'd like to see it on the big-screen. Maybe not even by actors...maybe animated, by Studio Ghibli, like they did with HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE. That would be appropriate, I think. Especially since there's more than just a dash of HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE in here, too.
And can we talk about the feels?
"I suppose gods as well as men become stupid when they have a chance to get everything they want."
Oh, yes. CRUEL BEAUTY is a stunning, beautiful book that definitely lives up to the hype.
Vampire novels actually used to be pretty difficult to find before TWILIGHT came out and renewed everyone's interest in vampires. I remember combing the shelves for them at various used bookstores and only coming across three in as many years of searching: PEEPS by Scott Westerfeld, MIDNIGHT PREDATOR by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, and WRIT IN BLOOD by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. All three are good books, but PEEPS and MIDNIGHT are both young adult books, whereas WRIT IN BLOOD is a bloated historical epic set just before WWI. As a teenager, reading a book like that feels more like work than pleasure, especially given the lengthy details and advanced vocabulary that would make someone who aced the SAT weep.
The books follow a pretty basic formula. It's a reinterpretation of the history of the Comte of Saint-Germain, a historical figure who reputedly claimed to be 500 years old. Yarbro ran with that concept and made him a vampire instead, placing him at various points of historical interest in our timeline. We see him interact with the people in these places as a foreigner, with his lovers, his enemies, and his friends, as he attempts to grasp a political foothold without actually becoming overly involved. The last book I read in this series, THE PALACE, took place in Renaissance Italy, with the Medicis and the Borgias and the terrifying Savonarola. This book takes a total U-turn in the timeline, going back to Nero's Rome, with gladiators and emperors.
In BLOOD GAMES, Saint-Germain is living in a palazzo on the outskirts of Rome. He's well-liked by those in power because of his contributions to the venatio, the events where Roman gladiators and imprisoned victims were forced to battle wild beasts to thte death. If you're curious, you should read the Wikipedia article - I referenced it several times while reading this book just to be sure that I understood all of the vocabulary words, because I am that dedicated.
At a party held by the hedonistic Petronius, a friend to Saint-Germain, he sees an impossibly sad looking woman sitting all by herself. He learns that she is Atta Olivia Clemens, the wife of a powerful Roman senator, Cornelius Justus Silius. Be prepared to hate Justus like no other character you have ever encountered before. He makes Jeoffrey from Game of Thrones look like a member of the Brady Bunch. He sends for the most brutal gladiators under his wife's own name, forcing her to submit as they rape her while he watches before he takes a turn himself. Because if she doesn't, he says, he will call upon all his debts and disgrace her impoverished family before the eyes of Rome. When that isn't enough, he threatens to kill them, sends her slaves to fight to the death in the arena, and exiles her sickly mother to a distant estate where he destroys all her attempts to contact her daughter - he doesn't even tell Olivia when she dies.
BLOOD GAMES has all the features of the Saint-Germain series that I don't really care for - excessive descriptions of costumes, long letters written in very small cursive font, and political intrigue that wears on for just too long to be entertaining. But it's also got some new things that actually surprised me. Saint-Germaine seems a lot more impulsive and impassioned in this book. Yes, the King of the Gary Stus actually loses his temper and makes mistakes that result in the deaths of people he holds dear. At one point, he suffers grievous injuries. Since he's about six hundred years younger here than he was in the previous book, it makes sense that he'd feel younger, and he does. He's much more sexual (although still no peen action) and much more hot-tempered.
I also really enjoyed the focus on the Circus Maximus and how the gladiatorial arena was used for power, vengeance, and political ambitions, frequently in a single sweep. It felt like Yarbro did a lot of research into the games, and the participants who worked both behind the scenes and in the spotlight (either voluntarily or against their will), and considering that this book was written years before the internet was a thing, that makes the attention to detail that much more impressive and daunting. I wasn't expecting the brutality or the blood-shed, of which there is tons, and because of Olivia's barbaric treatment, there are unpleasant descriptions of rape, as well. Yarbro shows how Rome could be ahead of its time in some ways and yet utterly barbaric in other ways.
BLOOD GAMES may actually be my favorite book by her so far. I'm a sucker for Ancient Rome.
First, a disclaimer - Heather Crews is my friend, and one of my favorite people on Goodreads. As an additional caveat, she gave me an advanced copy of this years ago for review, and I'm only just now getting around to it. However, if you think that has any affect on my review of her work, you would be wrong. Friends have not been, and are still not, exempt from negative reviews. In fact, I'm apt to be a little harder on you just to make absolutely sure that I am compensating for any biases I may have.
I initially picked up PRINCE OF MISERY to satisfy the "vampire romance" category in my Halloween 2016 Reading Challenge. (I'm painfully behind, and attempting to binge-read this weekend to play catch up.) But then, as I was reading the book, we get this creepy masquerade scene - and I was thrilled, because conveniently, I also needed a book to fulfill the "a romance with a masquerade/costume party" category, as well, and that seemed like it was going to be infinitely more difficult to find a book for!
PRINCE OF MISERY starts off with a narration from Theron Vansauvage, a vampire with problems. He's vain (he would like to have rough, passionate sex with his own reflection, and often thinks of himself while, um, "feeling himself"); he's cruel (he enjoys hurting people, and feels no guilt); and he's become distanced from society and the world around him (he lives in an enchanted castle somewhere near Alaska, sequestered away from the world with the power of magic). This is because Theron is a vampire, who lives with a handful of vampire valets and all of his human slaves.
Our heroine, Iris, is a black woman with vitiligo. Theron is fascinated by her skin condition, because he has marks on his face, as well. Marks from where one of his past lovers tried to kill him. He likes the taste of Iris's blood and finds her defiance amusing. What better way to utilize that than to turn her into his own personal blood-slash-sex slave? But before he can put this dubious plan into fruition, one of his valets escapes, taking Iris with him, out of the magic curtain and back into the real world.
Heather reads a lot of vintage romances, including vintage vampire books, and you can see their influence in PRINCE OF MISERY. The vampires here are dark, brooding, and obsessive. They're not afraid to get down and dirty if that's required, and they certainly do not sparkle or attend prom. I also liked how Seth and Theron, the two main vampires in this story, have a morality that transcends that of humans - considering how long they live and that they come from another planet(!), it made sense to me that what they consider right and wrong wouldn't really jibe with what I do.
There is also dubious consent in here, as well as descriptions of rape, and of course, since it's about vampires, killing and maiming and torture. I have to give Heather props for that masquerade scene. Not only did it get me through my Halloween Reading Challenge, it was also one of the more gruesome scenes I've encountered in a paranormal fantasy novel of late. And that ending - man, that ending was brutal. I did not see that coming. Quite frankly, I didn't think she dared.
I'd recommend PRINCE OF MISERY to people who enjoy vintage vampire romance novels, particularly from the 80s and 90s. She captures the style perfectly, and it made me nostalgic for the novels I read as a young adult when I was just getting into vampires for the first time.
I love challenges, and that's why the mods and I at Unapologetic Romance Readers came up with the Halloween 2016 Reading Challenge. We're shining the light on the darker side of romance and seeing what horrible, creepy things come a-crawling out. I picked SHADES OF TWILIGHT to satisfy the "romance involving a murder" category, and boy, did it satisfy on that end.
SHADES OF TWILIGHT features Roanna Davenport, one of the heirs to a wealthy Alabama family. When her parents and aunt die in a tragic accident, both she and her cousin Jessie are left orphans, and forced to live at the intimidating Davencourt mansion with the stern family matriarch, Lucinda, for whom honor is everything.
Jessie is beautiful, cold, and cruel - and even though she always gets whatever she wants, she hates Roanna for some reason and isn't afraid to show it every chance she gets. Heaping on abuse, making nasty comments, showing petty slights; Jessie isn't above anything to put Roanna down. For some reason, the other family members tolerate - or even encourage - this emotional abuse. The only person in Roanna's corner is the handsome Webb, her second cousin who is seven years older than she is. Roanna has a huge crush on him, and she's upset that even though he shows her affection, he is attracted to Jessie like everyone else and plans to marry her.
When Roanna is seventeen, Davencourt is stuffed full of Davenports and Tallants. She can't do any right, and seeks refuge with her horses - and with Webb, who is now married to Jessie. Roanna wants Webb more than ever and is secretly happy that their marriage is failing. Then, one day, she catches Jessie sleeping with a man who isn't her husband, and later forces herself on Webb. Jessie catches them kissing and raises a scene that brings all the family members running. A major fight breaks out. And then, later that night, Jessie turns up dead. Death by fire poker. Natural causes, obviously. Just kidding, it's murder and everyone assumes Webb does it, which is why he skips town. Roanna doesn't lay eyes on him again for another ten years when her grandmother Lucinda employs her to seek him out and find him and bring him back to Davencourt to assume his role as rightful heir.
With its bad sex, family drama, and sexist hero themes, this is 90s cheese at its cheesiest and normally I spread that on crackers and snarf it down like there's no tomorrow, but I took a lot of issues with SHADES OF TWILIGHT and I just couldn't put them aside.
Problem #1: The incest. I don't know what it is about this week, you guys, but this is the third book I've picked up this week that had incest in it. I thought COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE couldn't be topped in grossness, but I was wrong. So, so wrong.
Problem #2: The characters. Everyone in this book actively takes their vitamin D-bag supplements; there isn't a single likable character to be found within these pages. If the person in question isn't an outright psycho or b*tch, they're an emotionally insensitive, self-centered puckerhole, with the sensitivity of a lead pipe. Even the characters I was supposed to like, like Webb and Roanna, annoyed me. Webb is one of those overbearing alpha cavemen who tell the heroine how and well to eat and get so caught up in their passions that they "accidentally" forget to wear condoms. Roanna was awful because she's the definition of a doormat. In fact, if you look hard, you can still sort of make out the faded "welcome" on her forehead. All she does is cry and mope. Her character flaws are that she sleepwalks and that she doesn't eat when she's upset - which is all the freaking time.
Problem #3: The way eating disorders are broached in this book. It's hinted that Roanna might have anorexia. At the very least, she has an emotional-related eating disorder, because whenever she's anxious, upset, or guilty, she doesn't eat. Her attitude toward food really made me uncomfortable in this book. We're constantly told how skinny Roanna is and not necessarily in a bad way - she's compared to dolls or called child-like. Webb marvels that seventeen year old Roanna seems to weigh the same amount as seven year old Roanna. At one point in the story she gets so upset that she stops eating entirely and goes down to 80lbs (at 5'7"), and nearly dies. She calls eating a "chore" several times, and the hero admires her narrow hips, small breasts, and flat stomach on several occasions. We're told, several times, exactly how much weight Roanna can stand to gain (15lbs). When Webb actually gets romantically involved with her (and even before then), he starts trying to control her diet. This felt so unnecessary to the storyline and yet was such an integral part of it, that it felt odd. I'm not against skinny women and I do think it's important to raise awareness of eating disorders in fiction, but the way it was presented in this book created a lot of uncomfortable mixed signals.
Problem #4: The way sex is broached in this book. It's the 90s. Romance novels then were a very different animal from the ones in today's market place. Men had mats of chest hair and women were always virginal. But the slut-shaming is strong in this one. It's very important that Webb compare the differences between Jessie and Roanna once he starts sleeping with Roanna. It's important that Roanna have "uncomplicated sensuality" (or something like that) and that she doesn't use sex for power or manipulation. At one point he marvels at her virginal virginity, saying that if she didn't go horseback riding, he probably wouldn't have even been able to get a finger in her. I'm sorry, but at what point did the female anatomy become tantamount to a Chinese fingertrap? Vaginas do not work that way. Here, I'm not even going to say anymore on this. I'm just going to direct you to this awesome movie done by Adam Connover called "The Truth About Hymens and Sex."
But as much as this book annoyed me, I didn't hate SHADES OF TWILIGHT. The first 100 pages were excellent and made me think that I had a 4-star read on my hand. The problem was that in her quest to make Roanna a sympathetic character, the author made her an utterly unlikable one, because she lacked any sort of goals or internal conflict apart from "But I want Webb to like me!" It's a shame because I really liked the setup and I'm usually a sucker for small-town intrigues like these. Take this book from Sandra Brown's backlist, SLOW HEAT IN HEAVEN. It follows a very similar formula, but the mystery is more engaging and the heroine is a little less...sad. When the hero and heroine butt heads in SLOW HEAT, it feels less like victimization and more like a fight between equals.
With Halloween on the horizon, the books I've been reading have definitely taken a dark turn. SOFT APOCALYPSE was a book I added years ago but only purchased fairly recently. I liked the idea of the world ending not quickly and all at once over a single event, but slowly wasting away as we carelessly burn through our resources. Actually - on second thought, maybe liked is the wrong word. Let's say intrigued by, instead.
I read McIntosh's newest effort, BURNING MIDNIGHT, earlier this year and thought it was quite creative, but suffered towards the end. I checked through spoiler-laden reviews of that book and noticed that one common complaint was that people really did not like the climax. Funny, that's how I felt about this book! BURNING MIDNIGHT was okay - maybe that's because it was geared towards a younger audience, more fantastical, and altogether less grim - but SOFT APOCALYPSE went from being fascinating to tedious in a drastically short period of time.
Our hero, Jasper, is part of the problem. When we first meet him, he's a youngin' just out of his teens. By the end of the book, he's a middle-aged man.He keeps making the same mistakes, over and over. Mostly - especially - with women. He cheats with married women, has friends-with-benefits sex with convenient women. Guilty but wrong sex with sociopathic women. Then he finds the love-of-his-wife woman, only to get her killed. But it's okay, spare love-of-his-wife woman just walks in.
I also really had to work to suspend my disbelief with some of the things happening in this book. In the beginning, everything was fine. The scarcity for resources, the conspicuous consumption of those who had energy and food to burn, and the racism/in-groups biases occurring because people were looking for a scapegoat were all well done. I had problems with the constant biowarfare and the Evil Government stereotypes. Some of those viruses were just ridiculous. I mean, Doctor Happy? Plus, it was hard to take the government seriously and with fear if they didn't even appear in person to show up and start oppressing people.
My two chief peeves in this book were probably a) that the focus of the book seemed to be more on the character's bad relationships with women rather than the dying world he was lost in and b) the multiple time skips in the book. Chapters were not linear. Time would jump ahead by weeks, months, or even years! It was very disorienting and while I get that it was probably done in the interest of time, I think a more cohesively written book wouldn't have needed all those skips - or at least, had them happen more gradually over the course of a longer, better developed novel.
SOFT APOCALYPSE was a disappointment. It isn't a terrible book but it won't be making any of my top ten lists either, and I didn't think it contributed to the genre in a fresh and interesting way.
We're doing a Halloween 2016 Reading Challenge in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group and one of the categories is a romance novel with blood on the cover. This proved surprisingly difficult, because while 80s and 90s vampire romance novels were content to own up to their gothic horror roots and splatter their covers with blood, modern day vampire romance novels are much more coy and more likely to feature a woman in a prom dress being coddled by a brooding heartthrob than, well, a bleeding heart.
Luckily, being the old soul that I am, I have a conveniently large horde of retro romance novels to dip into for precisely these kinds of occasions. COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE is not a romance so I'm technically cheating, but given that the summary of the book speaks of seductive caresses and the hero's intense love for his wife and child, I figured that this was going to be a case of blurred genres.
I could not have been more wrong. This is a horror novel in every sense of the word. I actually considered putting it down at one point, because it's just awful. There's incest and necrophilia, creepy vampire foreplay, and really unpleasant torture scenes that are described in gory detail although not, thankfully, put into practice. At least not in this volume - I noticed that there are sequels. Perhaps the author is saving those delightful little nuggets for laterz.
COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE is about Arkady Tsepesh, a descendant of Vlad the Impaler. He lives in England, with his English wife, Mary, who is pregnant with their unborn son. When he is summoned by his uncle, to care for him in his failing health, his return to Romania is swift. An imposing castle greets him, run by superstitious and resentful servants. Vlad is effusive when he receives the couple and seems genuinely glad for their presence but there is something creepy about him. Mary, especially, finds him off-putting, but can't exactly put her finger on why.
Things get worse as Arkady's sister, Zsusanna, begins to sicken. Various people affiliated with Vlad and his family in some tangential way disappear. One of the servants shows up wearing one of these missing men's watch fobs and rings with blood on his wrist. And, of course, Vlad continues being creepy. Arkady takes a hit as well, with powerful headaches that come and go without warning, and lapses in memory that he is unable to explain. Mary and Arkady are starting to suspect that Vlad's servants' inexplicable terror and loathing of their master are perhaps not so inexplicable, after all.
To be fair to the book, it is a faithful reimagining of Bram Stoker's original DRACULA. Like the original, this book is written in epistolary format from multiple POVs, and the build-up is slow, gradual, and atmospheric. Many retellings often just focus on Dracula, and I appreciated how this book incorporated Romanian folklore about strigoi, as well as vampires' servants and brides.
My problem with this book is that it was just too gross. A lot of the random scenes in this book felt like they were included for shock value. I'm not averse to gore and violence necessarily, but I do think it should serve some purpose. George R.R. Martin, for all his faults, can be excellent at using horrible acts correctly: to show the effects of extreme terror or loathing, or as acts of power by someone who is attempting to curry favor or fear. I did not get that same impression here.
The diary entries also did not work for me. All the characters sounded very similar - bland and disconnected. I thought the story was interesting and liked the twist at the end, but I felt like it was told in a very poor way and that the medium in which the story was delivered was a huge contributing factor in this.
As far as COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE goes, I am not a fan. I love vampire stories but I did not like this one at all and will probably not be pursuing the sequels. Oh, and yeah, I was wrong - it's not a romance. (Whatever, I'm still counting it towards the challenge.)
I grew up saturated in 80s pop culture, so I was initially very excited when I saw a copy of THE IMPOSSIBLE FORTRESS available for request on Netgalley. The cover and premise sounded like READY PLAYER ONE, which is one of my favorite books of all time. However, THE IMPOSSIBLE FORTRESS isn't about a dystopian future with a fully immersible MMORPG - it's about teen game coders and a heist involving pornographic magazines.
Billy Marvin is failing school because he spends all his time programming things for his Commodore 64. His only friends are "losers" like him - Clark, who has syndactyl, and Alf, who's weird for a reason I forgot. Maybe he's just weird. Anyway, the three of them come up with the *brilliant* idea to steal the issues of Playboy featuring nude Vanna White from the local drug store. The problem is, the rooftop entrance is difficult to get into and the front entrance is alarmed.
Well, that's easy, they think - all they have to do is seduce the shopkeeper's fat daughter, because obviously she's lonely and desperate for attention! Billy's already interested in her anyway because he finds out that she's a coder like him, so he volunteers for the mission as an excuse to talk to the only other teen he knows who likes coding just as much as him. You can see how this might be a problem...
I almost, almost, was able to enjoy THE IMPOSSIBLE FORTRESS in spite of all the fat shaming - and there is a ton of fat shaming, from so many people, it's awful - because I told myself, "Fat shaming and bullying were common in the 80s because people didn't realize how harmful bullying was back then psychologically. Maybe the author is making a point here." And I liked how the girl, Mary, was so clever and smart and how Billy began to see her for the person she was, and appreciate her both romantically and intellectually. I even began rooting for them to get together.
But then Mary turns him down. And Billy does something unforgivable. I was so upset, because it seemed to go against his character. The narrative had been building him up as a better person, and then suddenly - that. There's this section of the book where everything gets very unpleasant around 80% in, and then we learn something about Mary that felt like it was an attempt to put some of the blame on her. Like, oh, what Billy did was bad, but Mary is bad too, so everyone's a bad person here!
Then the book ends on a happy note, totally glossing over all the consequences.
It's a shame, because as a nerd, I want to support authentic nerdy books in the YA and NA cannon. That's one of the reasons I loved READY PLAYER ONE so much - it embraces all the things I grew up loving. I did programming in high school, so I really thought it was cool to see the vintage 80s code at the beginning of each chapter, and compare it to the more complex codes of today, like watching a language evolve. The Vanna White Playboy heist just seemed like such an unnecessary secondary plot, detracting from the coding aspects, and I didn't understand why Billy and Mary had to do such horrible things to each other and to other people. Can't we just be geeks in love?
We've decided to do a Halloween 2016 Reading Challenge in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group, which means spooky themed romance reads for October. Gothic romance was kind of a shoo-in for me, because I have several of these gorgeous, retro beauties just floating around my bedroom. MISTRESS OF THE MOOR actually came to me for free, as one of those so-obscure-and-so-old-even-the-library-doesn't-want-it-type deals.
MISTRESS OF THE MOOR is set in Edwardian England. Emma Waldon is a typist, who is summoned back to the Goathlands by her uncle, the baronet, for some unspecified but top-secret purpose. It turns out that he has been badly disfigured in a fire and is working on building an airplane with the help of the darkly handsome Roger. He wants Emma to type up their plans because yay, free labor.
Right away, however, strange things start happening at Goathlands and Emma starts to suspect that there is someone there who might have reason to scare her away - or maybe even kill her. But who is that nefarious person? Is it Roger? Her uncle's female physician? Her cousin? Or could it be her maliciously compliant servant?
A lot of these old-timey gothics are hit-or-miss with me. The only ones that I've consistently liked are by Victoria Holt, and even she's written some stinkers. MISTRESS OF THE MOOR was bad, though, even by my standards. Think Phyllis Whitney at her worst. The story line is tedious and dull, and the book's most sinister moments are laughable. At one point, the villain actually tries to intimidate Emma by cutting up her childhood teddy bear and spelling out her name with its fur on her wall. I'm sorry, but that's a Pinterest project gone wrong, and not a viable scare tactic. For shame.
Like most American children, Disney's Peter Pan was a part of my video library (we watched it on VHS, and waiting for the tape to rewind is an exercise in patience that few children these days know). Because my mother was a firm believer in reading, we also had the book, as well - a lovely illustrated edition of J.M. Barrie's classic tale. They're very different stories, though. Even as a child, I remember picking up the book and thinking to myself, "this is wrong" as I flipped through it. That's because 9 times out of 10, you know that all of your favorite characters are going to be safe and sound in the Disney movie (with a few notable exceptions), but in Barrie's book, death was very much present and very much real, and the morality of the characters is far more ambiguous.
Brom wrote THE CHILD THIEF with this initial version of the story in mind. Peter Pan is kind of creepy when you think about him too hard. I mean, he floats around outside nurseries, waiting for the parents to go to sleep before sneaking in and seducing children away and he has a markedly cavalier attitude when it comes to rules and the well being of himself and his lost boys.
THE CHILD THIEF opens in New York. We're introduced to a handful of children who have been forced to grow up before their time, either because of sexual abuse, drugs, crime, or neglect. Peter looks for these children specifically, because these are the children who are willing to leave their old lives behind and risk everything to follow him into the Mist to Avalon. One of these boys is Nick, who is facing persecution from a drug gang because he tried to make off with their stash when he ran away. Peter saves him from a slow and painful death and takes him through the Mist...but "Neverland" isn't like the stories, at all. It's actually incredibly dangerous...and terrifying.
I wasn't really prepared for the sexual and physical violence, the language, and the viciousness of the children and monsters in this story. It reads kind of like LORD OF THE FLIES, in the sense that the children gradually become more and more "wild" as the magic of Avalon infects them and they lose sight of their old lives in their blind following of Peter and his mission. Psychologically, it's very interesting, but it doesn't make for comfortable reading, either. I was expecting something along the lines of Clive Barker's ABARAT, I think - dark and brutal, but also fanciful and charming and morally sound. As convoluted as it can sometimes be, you can still recognize "good" in Barker's work. Here, "good" is much more ambiguous.
Despite all that, I was still mostly on board with Brom's reimagining of Peter Pan. Yes, it was darker and a bit bleaker than I'd anticipated, but it was an interesting story, and the use of Celtic folklore to explain both Peter's origins and the world he came from was inspired. The problem happens in the third act, when THE CHILD THIEF jumps the shark. There's too many things going on at once, with fight scenes that go on for way too long, and then a couple things happen that had me squinting at the book and going, "Wait, did that really happen?" And I started having flashbacks to the first, traumatic time that I watched the Super Mario Bros. movie and found out that the Mushroom Kingdom is actually a dystopian world forcibly torn from ours by the same comet that killed the dinosaurs.
I only paid $1.99 for this ebook, so I'm not as annoyed as I would have been had I paid the full $12.99 for it. For $1.99 it was solidly entertaining. I did enjoy the author's art, too. His style reminded me of the art work you see on old Magic: The Gathering trading cards. I also liked the idea behind the story and the use of Celtic mythology. The story did not live up to my expectations, however, and I thought the pacing and writing quality were both way off, with some passages being beautifully written and others reminiscent of the trashy indie pulp sci-fi serials that go for $0.99 a chapter. Some tighter editing could have made a huge difference. Ultimately, given the choice between ABARAT and CHILD THIEF, I'd pick ABARAT every time, although just between you and me, I like Brom's illustrations better. Maybe the two of them can work together on a new book. I'd definitely buy that...
How do I even begin to sing the praises of this marvelous book? ILLUSION - the title and cover might make you think that you're embarking on some farcical, fanciful, Dungeons & Dragons-like fantasy adventure filled with cheese and nonsense. You would be wrong. ILLUSION is a rich tapestry of lyrical prose, inventive world-building, and social commentary you can cut your teeth on. It is - and I am not speaking in hyperbole - one of the best fantasy novels I have ever read. If you, like me, have started to become weary and jaded with all these half-assed fantasy novels whose scantily-created worlds are just wispy pretenses for adolescent romance, hightail it to Amazon, order a copy of this book, and then stop by your nearest Papyrus store to get me a thank you card.
ILLUSION is set in the world of Vonahr. In Vonahr, a class division separates the privileged, magical Exalteds from the working class and serfs. Eliste vo Derrivale is the daughter of a provincial landowner, and oozes privilege from every pore, treating her servants as if they were little better than accessories, and just as quick to swap them out if they displease her. Her father, however, is a cruel man, who takes this objectification a step further - he conducts medical experiments on his servants, and is quick to lash, maim, or draw blood if they wrong him in any way because that is his right. Such cruelty is too much, even for Eliste, and when he turns his wrath on her childhood friend, she risks punishment by helping him escape.
She is later summoned by her grandmother to the city, to act as lady-in-waiting for Queen Lallazy. He grandmother, Zeralenn, is horrified by her rough-edged grand-daughter and immediately sets about getting her the right jewels, the right clothes, and the right conduct. Her cousin, Aurelie, uses these occasions as an excuse to obtain more worldly possessions for herself, and comes across as laughably selfish and empty-headed - which given Eliste's shallow personality, says something. The juxtaposition between the two girls is actually interesting because it highlights the fact that Eliste, despite her many flaws and her privilege and indifference to the suffering and plights of the lower class, really isn't a bad person. We see this when she helps a servant escape, the way she treats her own maid (who is really more like a friend), and the way she scorns the superficial courtship of men who are only interested in her beauty and her money.
Unfortunately for Eliste, the city of Sherreen is in the midst of massive political upheaval, stirred up by the political writer, Nirienne. An opportunistic despot named Whiss v'Aleur takes advantage of the displeasure of the lower classes, using the anger and frustration of the populace as a foothold to depose all ruling members of the Exalted class and start the "Reparation" movement. The revolution mirrors that of Russia and France in a pitch-perfect way that rivals - or, I would argue, surpasses - that of ANIMAL FARM. The emotions captured in this book are so convincing that I frequently found myself gripping the cover so hard my knuckles were white, as my stomach churned in either disbelief or disgust. Volsky portrays both sides without favoritism, and I found myself sympathizing with people of both sides, all the while loathing the despicable villain for being the scum of the earth that he is. Oh, and did I mention the evil robots? There's a steampunk element to this story in the form of four sentient robots - NuNu, ZaZa, Boomette, and Kokotte - who Whiss uses to carry out arrests, torture, crowd suppression, and public execution.
As if it weren't enough to provide an excellent re-imagining of two horrific civil wars, replete with evil sentient robots and a despot who resembles several real-world historical counterparts, Volsky's work, ILLUSION, is also evocative of many classics, including LES MISERABLES, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, ANIMAL FARM, and THE SCARLET PIMPERNELL. Really, though, this isn't surprising in the least. ILLUSION is written like literature, with complex syntax, beautiful writing, and a tightly controlled plot with character development arcs that spin out gradually, and copious use of foreshadowing. It kills me that this book appears to be out of print, as it isn't just a decent story that everyone should read and that should also be made into a movie; it deserves to be taught - or at least alluded to - alongside ANIMAL FARM.
I burned through the last 300 pages with feverish determination and ended up staying up until almost 3AM. My eyes were burning by the time I got to the final page of the book, but I was satisfied. ILLUSION was such a good book - I almost didn't want it to end, but at the same time, I did, because I needed to find out what happened to my characters after so many days of reading. Now, after looking through Volsky's other works (because my next plan of action is to purchase her entire back list), it looks as though she's written a follow-up to this work that takes place in the same world...
There's a magical formula you may have noticed. It's been going on all around you and has been for years. I call it "The Twenty Years Formula." That's how long it takes for things to become popular again, through the warm, pleasantly fuzzy lenses of nostalgia. When that happens, marketers, TV producers, and writers all sit up and take notice. That's when you start geting reboots, relaunches reproductions...and, of course, READY PLAYER ONE.
I think it's pretty obvious that I'm a nerd, so I'm not going to pretentiously reel off my "nerd cred." But READY PLAYER ONE was written for people like me, who were born in the 70s and 80s and grew up in the 80s and 90s, and who like nerdy, retro things. One of my favorite movies (Ladyhawke) and one of my favorite bands (The Alan Parsons Project) are mentioned in here, as well as a whole host of other things I really like.
When I'm describing READY PLAYER ONE to people, I tell them that it's a love story to the 80s with a big heaping dash of "Willy Wonka and the Video Game Factory." The story is set in the near future, in 2044. We're in pretty dire straits, with overcrowding and limited resources. An eccentric gamer named James Halliday created a place where people could take a break from their horrible reality, a fully immersive MMORPG called OASIS, which is completely free to use after you pay a simple 25-cent sign-up fee (bar any in-game purchases, of course).
One of the best things about this book is how OASIS is structured. Cline does a really great job of showing how appealing this world is. Poor Wade doesn't have any money of his own, so he spends all his time stuck on the noob world or the world where he goes to school, but plenty of third party developers have created code within the world for planets based on books, video games, and various other themes, where players can do anything from buy valuable items in-game to playerkilling to taking virtual tours of real or fictional places in an elaborate virtual landscape. Doesn't that sound amazing? I want to link in to OASIS. It sounds pretty freaking amazing.
But the game's creator eventually dies, and he isn't content to go quietly. In a viral video will, he announces that he's leaving his vast fortune, as well as the deed to OASIS itself, to anyone who can solve a series of incredibly complex puzzles, riddles, and games all revolving around 80s pop culture. At first, everyone goes crazy. People create clans to seek out the treasure in teams, and a nefarious government enterprise called IOI creates a division dedicated to finding the answers to the riddles themselves so they can privatize and monetize OASIS, forcing players to pay to stay.Years go by without a winner, however, and gradually the public loses interest as everyone assumes that Halliday was either mad or just trying to get a final laugh in at everyone else's expense.
And then, one day, Wade figures out the answer to the first riddle - and nothing is the same.
I read READY PLAYER ONE about four years ago, after checking it out from the library. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy and immediately read it again, this time paying more attention to all of the pop cultural references and looking up various facts, songs, or details that I found interesting. This is my third time reading the book, and I got to be more introspective this time, because I'm reading it for a book club, with people who are just now reading it for the first time, and I want to think about why READY PLAYER ONE resonated so strongly with me so I can explain that magic to everyone else. The book appeals to our nostalgic memories of childhood and our desire for wish fulfillment on a chillingly efficient level, to the point where it's really hard not to root for the main character or put yourself in his shoes. He wants his passions to make him special, and he wants a way to "check out" from the terrible things happening around him. Who doesn't relate to that?
I enjoyed READY PLAYER ONE almost as much as I did the first time, although this time, I did notice a few minor things that kind of annoyed me. Somehow, I didn't notice how selfish Wade was the first time around. When they're talking about what they plan on doing with their winnings, Art3mis says she wants to give a lot to charity, to help give food to people who have none. Wade seems incredulous at this, and when pushed, says that he supposes he'd charter a spaceship and create a new planet somewhere else. This struck me as a very selfish, defeatist way of thinking. I guess it makes sense that growing up in OASIS might make him very used to instant gratification, since planets are easily coded and terraforming isn't an issue at all, but it was still interesting. I found myself wondering if he would really squander all of his money away on a spaceship if he won. Personally, I think if you have more money than you could ever conceivably spend in a lifetime - such as the billions up for stake here - you have a social and moral obligation to give back to society. Certainly, that seems to have been James Halliday's intent here. He created a game that he could have charged anything for, and instead made it free, and then gave away all his money, too. It made me think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original one) when Willy Wonka gives Charlie that one final test to make sure he has the moral fiber, the character, that he desires for the person who continues his legacy. The lack of parallelism here was really striking in that regard, especially considering the many other similarities to Willy Wonka that were left intact here. We're shown how evil the IOI is with their capitalistic agenda and greed, but apathy can be just as cruel, and just as devastating to a society.
The other thing that bothered me was the ending. It felt anticlimactic. If you've read the book, I'm talking about that final scene when the outcome is revealed. I was expecting a huge standoff with the IOI, or at least with Nolan Sorrento. A kind of "gotcha!" at gunpoint moment.
Those two peeves aside, though, I really enjoyed READY PLAYER ONE. It's a great story, with decent characters, and a fascinating world that I could happily explore for hours. (Really, A Song of Ice and Fire has five books out and this is a standalone? I'll take OASIS over Westeros any day). I'd even go so far as to say that it's worth reading for the pop cultural references alone. It's a love story for the 80s and an ode to geeks everywhere. I relate to both those things, so of course, I adored it.
So disclaimer, I got A RIGHT HONORABLE GENTLEMAN for free from the author because I subscribed to her newsletter (I think a "neener, neener, neener" is in order). I was looking forward to this book a lot, but then life got in the way, and I lost the email with my free copy (!) and several weeks after the fact, I'm only just now getting around to it because I am a bad person.
I don't think it's exactly a secret that I like Courtney Milan's work. She's an author - a romance author - who takes a lot of risks. I like that she's working to write historical romances about men and women of color, to tell the sides of stories that are often overlooked or white-washed. I like that she tries to include LGBT characters in her historical fiction, for the same reasons; the status quo writes history, and everything else tends to be...well, erased.
A RIGHT HONORABLE GENTLEMAN doesn't have any PoCs in it, but I'm bringing that up because I want to talk about why Milan is a favorite of mine, and why I was so excited to read this book. Another thing she does well are her short stories. I think the last story I read that was under thirty pages was THE INITIATION by Jena Cryer - don't ask (it was a different time, okay - there was loads of free erotica to be had, and I was bored, and my followers are terrible enablers). Honestly, with most other authors, I would have passed, but given what I knew Milan could do in a short time, I said, "Okay, bring it, short-stuff!"
This book is a romance between a governess and the head of the household (I believe he's Chancellor of the Exchequer?). He's a hard-ass, for lack of a better word, living a severe life, ruling his household with an iron hand, and sending his help scurrying for the shadows from the moment he darkens the front step in a cloud of ill-humor. Even though Cat's duties are primarily with his son, she isn't afraid to keep his father in line, either, reminding him with a kind but stern word that he should ease up on the staff and make sure his son learns how to treat those who are in his employ right.
As stories like this go, the two feel more for each other than an employer and an employee should, and Cat decides, for the sake of honor, that it's best for her to leave in a state of grace. Edward does not like that one bit, and thinks he can cow her into obeying him the way he does his staff. But he is wrong. And when he realizes why he's wrong, he panics, because he thinks he's driven her away forever with his harsh and stubborn ways.
A RIGHT HONORABLE GENTLEMAN is a very sweet story, and romantic despite the utter lack of sexual content. I said before that I'm impressed with what Milan can do in a short amount of pages, and that sentiment holds true here, too. That said, I feel like this story was too short, even for me, even for Milan. It felt like I was reading the last chapter of a very long (but good) story, and it left me wondering, "What happened before? Where's the character development? The gradual dawning awareness of love?" Looking through the reviews, I noticed that I was not the only person who felt this way. I'm a sucker for a good governess story. I would have loved this as a novel!
This wasn't a bad book, but she has so many better books under her belt that I really can't rate it anything higher than a two because of how it compares to her other works. I'm a bit biased because I got this book for free. I think if I shelled out money for a book just shy of 30 pages and ended up with A RIGHT HONORABLE GENTLEMAN, I'd be very disappointed, so I kept that in mind, as well.
I've heard about the "polarizing" event in the previous book that caused so many people to hate Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. I also agree with what others are saying; that despite all the other characters in the book telling the readers, repeatedly, what a villain he is, he sure doesn't walk the walk (apart from that one incident). If I'm going to suck it up and read a book about a rake and a virgin, then by God, I want a man who is in desperate need of reformation. That's one of the reasons I liked Elizabeth Hoyt's DUKE OF SIN so much. Valentine Napier played every single jerk card in his hand.
Our story kicks off with Evangeline Jenner demanding an audience with notorious rake, St. Vincent. She has an offer he can't refuse. Her father is on his deathbed, and plans to leave her all the money from his gaming den, Jenner's. Knowing this, her greedy relations have been keeping her prisoner, starving and beating her, and refusing to let her visit him. Their plan is to force her to marry her cousin so that her inheritance will be in his control, and then, Evie suspects that their plan is to arrange her death in some way so that they can spend the money freely.
The only way to escape this fate is by elopement. She proposes a marriage of convenience. In exchange for her money, St. Vincent will grant her freedom - freedom from her relatives, freedom to visit her father, freedom to live with the protection of his title. Obviously - it's not a love match.
Lisa Kleypas can be hit or miss with me. I like her writing style a lot - it's very clean and spare, she really has a sense for how much description to give and how to balance dialogue and narrative. The problems are her characters. Sometimes her "strong" heroines are just plain bitchy, and sometimes her "sweet" heroines are just spineless doormats that people use for sh*t-sticking practice. Also, her alpha heroes are sometimes just Grade-A jerks who make me hate them. Irredeemably so.
Evie was an okay heroine. Nothing too special. She's a stammering virgin - literally - who ends up redeeming a rake with her meekness and her humility and her innocence. *cue eye roll here* Been there, done that, gotten the t-shirt, honey. What else you got? She has a couple more vertebrae than other heroines cast in her mold, and I did like that she at least tried to stick up for herself and for the most part, spoke her mind when it counted. Evie won't be topping any of my favorites lists by any means, but she isn't on my sh*t list, either. Let's just say that she's...inoffensive.
My feelings about St. Vincent are a little more complicated. I don't really like that he's hanging out in alpha limbo. He's a bit too...courtly to be straight up gamma/alpha, but he's way too rapey and chauvinistic for me to accept him as a "nice" hero. His constant bragging about his prowess definitely garnered an eye-roll or two from me. That said, he had some great lines. Sexy lines. He's the perfect example of a character who you might find sexually attractive but would make a sh*tty boyfriend.
On that note, the romance is pretty slow-burn, although the sex happens early on in the story (instead of that magical 3/4s point that so many books insist on adhering to). Towards the end, I found it hilarious, the lengths that St. Vincent would go to deny his attraction to Evie. They bickered too much, though, and when their arguments started getting redundant, I began to eye the page count.
Also, what's with Kleypas and her fondness for attempted murder subplots? >_>
DEVIL IN WINTER is a decent romance. It kind of reminded me of The Gamblers duology (which is appropriate in more ways than one, because she makes reference to Craven's in here, which made me happy). In particular, DEVIL reminded me of DREAMING OF YOU, because St. Vincent is like a "well-bred" version of Derek Craven - and both of them are just as stubborn as mules when it comes to dragging their heels about admitting their feelings. Nothing will surpass the love I feel for THEN CAME YOU, though: Alex, Lord Wolverton is the OG of Lisa Kleypas love interests. #SorryNotSorry
I keep picking up these memoirs written by my favorite female comedians expecting them to be funny, and then the memoir inevitably turns out to be a "I may be a funny person for a living, but I'm so much more - let me list out the innermost details of my psyche for your pleasure so you can understand my soul" type of deal. Which is fine. I can totally understand why comedians would want to do that. I'm sure you have off days where you don't want to be funny, where the last thing you want to do is laugh, where you'd like to talk politics seriously without being expected to toss out a Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump joke. But on the other hand, that's exactly why people are suckered into these memoirs.
People like me.
Even when she's in "funny mode", Amy Schumer is one of those celebrities you will likely love or hate. She's brassy and bold, and outspoken about sex and girl power. Her comedy sketches push the line on the things that it's acceptable for women to talk about, and her movie, Trainwreck, is basically a gender-flipped take on the Judd Apatow "foul-mouthed slacker gets the girl" trope. I've heard pro-Amy and anti-Amy spiels, and I can understand both camps to a degree. She's controversial. She's assertive. She's in-your-face. But hey, it certainly gets her noticed.
Going back to this memoir, Amy decides to turn "funny mode" down a few bars. She still tries to be funny, but she also tries to tell us about the woman behind the humor. She talks about her childhood, her adolescence, her struggle to get her foot in the door. This is a pretty typical arc for celebrity memoirs, so I'm sure you expected all this. I was. What I didn't expect were some very odd digressions in this collection of essays. Essays about Amy's horror carnival collection of stuffed animals. Excerpts from Amy's childhood and teenage diaries, replete with footnotes and analyses from adult Amy. An essay about the difference between Old Money and New Money. Lists about things that annoy Amy. Lists about things that Amy loves. A two chapter long instruction guide for what Amy wants at her funeral. I'm sorry, what does any of this have to do with anything?
There are a few good essays, but for every good essay there's at least one bad one. I was expecting THE GIRL WITH THE LOWER BACK TATTOO to be controversial or provocative, but what I wasn't expecting it to be was boring. The second half is disproportionately variable in terms of the quality of content, so I found myself skimming over the last 50% of the book, especially the self-promo bits. I liked the photographs at the back, and thought it was nice that she paid homage to the women who were shot at one of the showings of Trainwreck, but I had zero interest in seeing Amy's analysis of her favorite things and what kind of eulogy she wants.
Like her or hate her, Amy does bring attention to feminism. She might not always go about it in the most PC or ideal of ways, but PC doesn't always grab the spotlight in the same way. Some of her sketches are really funny, especially the Last F*ckable Day and the Makeup one. This book, however, was not, and I can't really say that I'd recommend it to Amy Schumer fans, feminists, or celebrity memoir aficionados. Maybe if the collection had been better curated, and funnier, it could have been a decent read. But the way it is now, I could barely make it through the pages without glazing over.
I applied for an advance copy of THE MANY on a whim. The idea of a woman going crazy after hooking up with a strange, too-good-to-be true kind of guy on a dating site seemed like the perfect formula for a horror story. I'm a sucker for the malicious stranger trope, you guys. Just wave a book under my nose that promises doom and destruction delivered by a sinister out-of-towner, and I swear to you, I will fall over myself trying to grab it.
At first, THE MANY is pretty decent. We're introduced to the stories of two women, Isobel and Stacey, and their families. At first, their stories seem totally unrelated. Isobel is a lesbian who lives with her teenage daughter. Stacey is a vivacious twenty-something who lives with her down-on-his-luck brother. The two have pretty much nothing in common, except for the fact that they both had dates with people who seemed way out of their league...and they both came back from their dates NOT QUITE RIGHT.
The build-up is great. If Field does one thing right, it's how he holds the mystery above the reader's head until the very end. Even when the third act began to crumble around the story and I began to lose interest, it was the mystery that kept me turning the pages, desperate to get closure. It was a good mystery. I was leaning towards something out of Disturbing Behavior, which is probably my favorite "bad" horror movie. I love that movie, plot holes and all. I was hoping THE MANY would be just as unapologetically cruel and cunning in its execution, but the execution was something out of an episode of The Twilight Zone. A bad episode of The Twilight Zone. It was just way too cheesy.
This is the second disappointing thriller I've picked up this year. First it was I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS. Now it's THE MANY. Neither book was awful, mind - both had some genuinely creepy moments and great suspense to keep their respective plots moving. The problems came from bad plotting, terrible third acts, and some questionable character motives. But at the risk of spoiling the ending, I'll just say that it's the kind of book you need to pick up and read for yourself to see if it's right for you. If the beginning doesn't rope you in, it'll only be downhill from there.
When I wrote my review of the last book, I called GAME OF THRONES "an epic doorstop" and compared it to bodice rippers because of the violence, rape, and OTT plot lines that occur. If you follow me, you probably know that I am a fan of bodice rippers. (An understatement: friends and fans sometimes call me Queen of the Bodice Rippers - a title I gladly accept.) I enjoyed the book more this time around than I did the first time I read it, but I did have some complaints. 1) There are a lot of characters, and I didn't care about most of them at all. 2) The pacing is wildly uneven (possibly because of 1), and you'll have these long, draining portions where nothing at all happens interspersed with short, exciting portions where all sorts of wild events transpire.
My problems with A CLASH OF KINGS are the exact same problems I had with GAME OF THRONES, except more so. The book is a lot longer, and yet a lot less happens. Yes, there's scheming and Machiavellian (Lannisterian?) politics going on, and there are some battles, but nothing happens. The plot stonewalls as everyone - everyone - schemes, all the while telling us about their incredible schemes in mind-numbing detail. For example, let's look at Sansa's story arc. You'll remember that in book one, she was a spoiled little sh*t who wanted to twirl around in the flowers and listen to poetry all day, i.e. marry Joffrey, and she pretty much sold out her family to do this. Now, Sansa realizes that this was a mistake, and she doesn't want to marry Joffrey any more. Her whole story line is how much she doesn't want to marry Joffrey, and how much she fears Cersei, and how desperate she is to escape. Misery, misery, misery, with no resolution of any kind on sight until the very end, and even then it's open-ended, with hints of even more misery on the horizon. I almost felt sorry for her by that point, and she's one of my least favorite characters in this book.
As for the characters I don't like: Arya continues to be a Tamora Pierce reject, although her escape is a pretty great scene. She has potential. I want to like Arya, but she's so freaking annoying. She reminds me of those "plucky" bodice ripper heroines who feel the need to assert how they are good as any man to anyone who will listen (i.e. no one). Jagen H'ghar was cool, though. Catelyn is still on my sh*t list. I'm not sure how I feel about Brienne - in my head, she's "grown-up Arya." They're pretty much the same character. Jon was more boring in this book. He's in the woods, okay, I get it, the woods are cold and dangerous. There's not much mention of the evil creatures in this book, whereas in the first book they were a very real and looming threat that was quite frightening. Theon is probably one of my new least favorite characters of the love-to-hate variety. Honestly, Joffrey amuses me, because he's such a spoiled brat...exactly what you'd expect to see if you put a rich, spiteful preteen on the throne. Yes, that's right GoT fans, I think Theon is worse than Joffrey. Bran is still boring AF. I'm not sure Martin is capable of redeeming his story arc for me - he's so boring.
And the characters I do like: Davos. He's a new addition, and a member of Stannis's court. I'm not quite sure what his role is. Advisor? Whatever he is, I like him. He's torn between the old and the new, and between his loyalty to his king and his desire to do right. He kind of reminds me of Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed by King Henry II. Beckett became more devoted to his job than to his king, which led to a falling out and, eventually, a huge conflict. I can see Davos encountering a similar conflict down the road, especially with Melisandre running interference. (I was bummed that we didn't get to see more of her in this book; she was so cool in the prologue.) You all already know that I love Daenerys. Her narratives are few and far between, but she does the most exciting this in this book, traveling to exotic, far-off lands in her quest to draw up an army large enough to challenge and defeat Westeros and regain her lost legacy, involving sinister marriage proposals, magical trials, and assassination attempts. Tyrion is also an amazing character - he's so clever. And witty. And unapologetic. He gets how life works and tries to spin that to his advantage. You know he's not exactly a good guy, but he's human enough at least, human enough to root for him in any case. Finally, Cersei. Cersei is probably one of the strongest women in this book. She will do anything to come out as number one. And drunk Cersei is 100% about that salty life. You don't know shade until you've dined at Casa Lanister and had the (poisoned) tea spilled, that's what's up.
The problem is that my favorite narrators are the least frequent (with the exception of Tyrion) & the boring characters bog up the story line. I appreciate the world building, but I don't really need long blocky paragraphs describing all the characters' armor, the food they're eating, how they're eating it, all their titles and the names they enjoy being called, police sketch-artist-level descriptions of their appearances, and what their favorite color is on a Tuesday afternoon. Plus, a lot of the characters who Martin introduced in this book, who made me sit up and go, "Oh! That person would make a great villain!" or "Oh! That person seems like someone I could really root for" die. That's right. A CLASH OF KINGS is the book in which Martin introduces new characters for the sole purpose of making them cannon fodder. You could just as well call this REDSHIRTS (oh wait, that book exists already).
I'm still going to read the sequel because I want to know more about Melisandre, and what happens to poor Tyrion, and of course, see the infamous Red Wedding (which trusted sources have assured me happens midway through A STORM OF SWORDS), but I think I'll take a break first.
You know, after reading A GAME OF THRONES, I am shocked at how many male readers are quick to demean "bodice rippers" and yet tout this book around like it's the second coming of Fantasy Jesus. This is exactly what good bodice rippers are like - epic doorstops of character drama, over the top violence, rape, depraved villains, only-slightly-less-villainous heroes, and drawn-out journeys to far-off lands. The only differences between the two are a) GAME OF THRONES is a fantasy novel loosely based on actual historical events (as to historical novels loosely based on historical events) and b) GAME OF THRONES is a book that is really marketed towards men, whereas bodice rippers, as we all know, are marketed to housewives with too many cats.
I first read GAME OF THRONES six years ago, during my junior year of college, and I was not impressed. I thought the story and the battle scenes and the world were interesting, but the multiple POV format didn't work for me. The temptation to skip ahead was far too great. Oh, Bran's speaking again? Time to skip ahead to Daenerys or Tyrion or Jon. Eff you, Catelyn. No one likes you, anyway. Arya, stop trying to imitate Tamora Pierce's heroines - you're not good at it. Sansa, please stahp. Just stahp. Oh my God, Catelyn - Catelyn - SHUT UP CATELYN.
I wrote my review a few years after the fact, and was amazed at how many rude people felt the need to tell me that my three star review (fairly generous, I thought, considering how little I actually enjoyed the book at the time) was wrong, how I'd read the book wrong, how I clearly didn't understand that GAME OF THRONES had plenty of strong women, and also, what did I consider "good" fantasy? TWILIGHT? Sneer, sneer, sneer. TWILIGHT aside (yes, I like TWILIGHT, but it's not really a "fantasy" novel, and I wouldn't consider Bella the paragon of heroism in a million years), the viciousness of this series fans astounded me. Especially since I'd said that I "liked" the book (I just didn't "love" it). What were people saying to those who'd truly hated it? Well, I took a look, and I wish I hadn't - rabid GoT fans have a tendency to pull a "Joffrey" on negative reviews of this series.
STOP BEING JOFFREYS, GUYS. BE JONS.YOU'RE RUINING IT FOR EVERYONE.
Six years later, I found the first three books as part of a three for $3 deal at a used bookshop. 3,000 pages for $3 seemed more than fair. But since I couldn't remember all the events that happened in book one, I decided to read it from the beginning so I could just dive right into books two and three if I decided it was worth the effort. To my surprise, I found that I enjoyed the story a little more than I did before. Maybe because I'm older, so I could sympathize with the adults more and what their motivations were for doing some of the things they did. I still liked Daenerys and Tyrion and Jon the best, although Cersei amused me more this time around, and Joffrey wasn't as evil as I remembered - I mean, he was, but Robert, Lysa, and Catelyn were worse. I still don't think that there are very many good female characters in this book. Most of them are wives or daughters or whores. There's nothing wrong with being any of those things, but it's still frustrating to see such an array of male characters spouting agency, being featured in a wide variety of complex and interesting roles, while the women either stand firmly behind the throne...or under it. You could argue that Cersei is a complicated female character, and she is, but as with most willful female characters in male-written fantasy and science-fiction, she's a villain. Daenerys is strong, too, but she's not particularly complicated, and as much as I enjoyed seeing her transform from Oppressed Sister/Child Bride into Daenerys Stormborn, Queen of the Dragons, she's pretty much a Mary Sue. I still enjoy her, but she could be more.
A GAME OF THRONES is also uneven in terms of how the pacing goes. Some parts of the book move very quickly, whereas others - like those written from Bran's point of view - seem bogged down and bloat the book with unnecessary pages. Call it blasphemy if you want, but I feel like a couple hundred pages could have been shaved off, while still preserving the heart of the book, making it a tighter and stronger story as a result. I don't think it's a coincidence that the best narratives are often spaced out, book-ended by much weaker narratives. For example, I'm reading CLASH OF KINGS right now and even though the book ends with Daenerys, she doesn't make an appearance until almost page 200 in the sequel...about 20% of the story! And Jon doesn't make an appearance until 10%. Doesn't sound like a lot? The sequel is over 1,000 pages, so it actually kind of is...
But despite the dark content, lack of adequate female representation, and uneven pacing, I really did enjoy this story. It was like a medieval soap opera (or bodice ripper) - light and just complicated enough to keep me turning the pages without feeling like I was dropping IQ points. The battle scenes are great, and Martin is really choice at coming up with inventive deaths for characters he knows you care a lot about. I also could appreciate the amount of time creating the world of Westeros. There were some great descriptions and details - the crests, the armors, the landscape. Some of the scenes on the Wall gave me the chills - both because of the cold and the terror. But it has flaws, too.
If you take away any messages from this review, it's that:
1. GAME OF THRONES is not for everyone - and that's okay. What's not okay is to belittle or attack those who don't (or do) like the book on their personal review spaces. Write your own damn review!
2. GAME OF THRONES is the perfect gateway book for HR lovers who want to get into fantasy - or, for fantasy lovers who want to get into romances. Seriously, why aren't you all reading bodice rippers, yet? Patricia Hagan's Coltrane saga and Marilyn Harris's Eden saga would be perfect for you.
This isn't my first Sabrina Jeffries rodeo. That honor belongs to STORMSWEPT, a rerelease penned under her Deborah Martin name. When I was given an advance copy of this to review on Netgalley, I looked forward to the chance of seeing how her style had evolved. STORMSWEPT was written in the 90s, and while the heroine was likable, none of the male leads were at all. I'd hoped THE WIDOW'S AUCTION would be different, but as with the first one I found myself saying, "I liked parts of this book, but..."
THE WIDOW'S AUCTION is about a widow - surprise - named Isobel Lamberton. She's leader of a board of directors, basically, who all make decisions about what happens to her late husband's school. She and this man, Justin Antony, find themselves viciously at odds, so obviously she loathes him.
At the same time, Isobel's friend persuades her that she ought to join a WIDOW'S AUCTION because she "just needs to get laid." Or whatever the 19th century equivalent of that phrase is. So Isobel goes to a fancy gentlemen's club, with a mask and revealing gown, and has men bid on who will get to spend the night with her.
I will give you three guesses to figure out who wins.
THE WIDOW'S AUCTION does have some things in its favor. The heroine points out the irony of men being able to sleep with whomever they like, whereas women's value is only in their innocence. Her backstory was interesting, as well - I liked the Pygmalion reference. I'm a sucker for that (Audrey Hepburn), although I thought that particular trope might have benefited a longer book more (so you could see the transformation from start to end in an epic fashion).
What really kills this book is the length. It spends so much time on the sex that, given the length, it feels like one of those erotic shorts. Except there isn't really enough sex in it to classify for erotica in my opinion, so what you end up with is this bizarrely short story that changes track multiple times, far too quickly that any of the storylines inside were resolved to any satisfaction. I mean, am I to believe that all their disputes and conflicting ideals totally flew out the window after sex? I certainly don't buy that the two of them fell in love after a single night. That's just ridiculous, given their history.
I was not a fan of WIDOW'S AUCTION. I'm not writing this author off, but I think I'll stick with her novels over her novellas. The pacing's just better, there.
While I enjoy historical fiction, I prefer reading about time periods I know at least something about so reading doesn't turn into information overload, but I know next to nothing about King David, apart from the fact that he defeated Goliath. THE SECRET CHORD is a book about the life of King David, from valorous beginning to tragic end, told by Nathan the Prophet. I'm going to be honest with you here - if my book club hadn't chosen this as the pick of the month, I never would have bothered to finish THE SECRET CHORD. But hey, try new things, right? Maybe it'll work out.
Spoiler alert: it didn't work out. I really had to force myself to stick with this one, and ended up skimming pages towards the end because I just no longer cared about the story. If this hadn't been for book club, I wouldn't have finished - it would have been chucked into the donation bin and deleted from my GR shelves.
But alas. Fate had conspired to burden us with the other's enduring presence.
I put off writing this review because I wanted to think about why THE SECRET CHORD didn't work for me. It's a slow book. The beginning takes a while to gather steam, and the book doesn't reach momentum until about twenty or thirty pages in, only to fall flat at several points in the narrative. Part of the reason was Nathan. I don't really like stories where the "hero" or "heroine" is actually the passive mouthpiece for the voices of others. After a while, that just makes me feel like I'm being talked at. I understand that he is a prophet and a huge part of his life is making these important prophecies that will dictate the lives of others, but oh my gee, it was so boring to read about.
Ironically (considering what I just said in the previous paragraph about mouthpieces), one of the more interesting parts in the book is when Nathan is sent by King David to hear stories about him from lovers, family members and enemies. Why? Because it was interesting to see that darker side to King David. I glanced through the Wiki article before reading this, and King David was a pretty gnarly dude - he was bisexual, committed adultery, slaughtered his enemies, and killed people when it was convenient. Brooks doesn't skimp on the detail, either. Which surprised me and at the same time, didn't, because her other book - YEAR OF WONDERS - is about the plague, and I remember being really grossed out by some of the details in there, too, even though it was a much better story.
THE SECRET CHORD was not badly written, but it wasn't a good story either - at least not for me. The passivity of the hero combined with a very dull storytelling made this book feel ten times longer than it should have been. It's a shame, because the subject matter is quite fascinating and has all the makings of a sensationalist bodice ripper trussed in the garbs of literature - but it would appear that lack of entertainment value is a requisite for literary merit. Boo. Hiss.
P.S. What do you guys do when you dislike your book club's pick? Inquiring minds want to know. ;)
When reading Yarbro's work, it's hard not to compare her with Anne Rice (even though I'm sure she tires of such comparisons). Both are best known for their vampire-themed historical fiction and the series debuted remarkably close together, with The Vampire Chronicles being published in 1976 and Saint-Germain being published in 1978. (Which surprised me. For some reason I'd been under the impression that Yarbro's work came first (and this is why you should look at original publication dates and not go by what your late-80s mass paperback tells you, JSYK).)
I've read selections from both series, and I have to say that Saint-Germain is the (most consistently) better of the two. Oh, Saint-Germaine gets off to a rough start with HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, which has uneven pacing, some uncomfortable situations, and a wince-inducingly perfect hero capable of garnering a perfect score on the Gary Stu litmus test, but the series really gains strength as it goes on, and despite being over three decades old, the newer books are still good, if not better, than the earlier books.
Saint-Germain's character is based off the historical figure, The Comte of St. Germain, which is fascinating because he apparently claimed that he was 500 years old. Yarbro runs with that, making Francesco Ragoczy (Count St. Germain) a vampire who dates his origin back to the times of Ancient Rome. Like his historical counterpart, this Ragoczy also dabbles in the occult and alchemy, and Yarbro makes good use of vampire lore - he walks around in shoes filled with his native earth which protects him from the sun and allows him to cross running water; he can only be killed by fire, beheading, or crushed spine; he can create others of his kind by the sharing of blood, etc.
Each Ragoczy novel can be read as a standalone, as they jump around in the timeline and apart from sharing the same mythos, don't have a linear format. I've read books that took place during WWII, WWI, early Italian Renaissance, and mid-Italian Renaissance (she really seems to like Renaissance Italy), and the next one I have takes place in "Nero's Rome." This is a really appealing system, because I don't have to worry about series order, and I can read the books in the order I acquire them without crying over missing or skipped books. Compare that to the lunacy that is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders series, where it isn't enough to read chronologically - there's a wonky series order that matters if you want to have the correctly executed Pern experience. No thanks!
THE PALACE takes place in mid-Renaissance Italy, in the late 15th century. A Borgia is Pope, and Savonarola is stirring up Florence with his religious fervor, inducing people to make bonfires of the vanities, burning art, sculpture, and books; heading religious-inquisitions; and helping to put a stop to the courtly grace and aesthetic beauty of Medici Florence. I tell you, when they burned Boticelli's paintings, it hurt on a spiritual level. There's a great quote in here that Ragoczy says about art:
"[Destroying art]...[is] worse than killing children, because children at least can defend themselves. But art, art goes into the world unarmed, vulnerable to every quirk of fate, and it must survive only by its power to move men not to destroy it" (273).
I wouldn't call these novels romances - I wouldn't call them "horror", either, despite the tagline "a historical horror novel" on my gloriously bad edition from the 70s - but they often feature romance. Ragoczy, being a man eternal, has a couple "kept" women he's turned over the years, but they are independent and their relationships with R usually turn platonic after they become vampires as well. Ragoczy can't have sex the normal way - that is, no peen action. He does other stuff, instead, which is sometimes frustrating for his lovers, but he insists. I've read four of these books now and I'm still not 100% sure why - although I suspect it's because he has a magical peen that turns people into vampires. He has two lovers in this book: one crazy, one sane. I'll let you figure out which is which.
THE PALACE was a slow read for me. Yarbro has a tendency to describe everything, especially food and what Ragoczy is wearing. If you're a fan of historical fashion, you are going to love this book because of the clothes-porn alone. I can only imagine how many hours of research went into this book for the author to describe the ensembles in such meticulous detail, but Hollywood fashion reporters can only read this and weep in envy and awe as Yarbro fluffs these piffling details into long paragraphs with detail and flair, somehow without making it seem utterly boring, too.
The Saint-Germain series is not really light reading because there are a lot of characters and details to follow, and the history parts of the books can be dense. Also, Ragoczy likes writing letters and receiving letters a lot, so a significant portion of the book is written in epistolary format, which only adds to the challenge. That said, if you're willing to put in the effort of diving in and enjoy vampires (and history), I think you'll really appreciate this author. She clearly has a passion for her work, and I can honestly say that I have yet to find a vampire series that matches this one in scope.
I am honestly surprised by how few of my friends enjoyed this book, because I thought it was exemplary. Like CHOCOLAT and WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, in DELICIOUS, Thomas captures the sensuality and headiness of food, tying it into both sex and love. Verity, the cook heroine, is such an amazing conjurer of food that her culinary creations have people remembering both their worst and fondest memories with a deepness that often shocks their Victorian sensibilities into speechlessness. She has several secrets though, which seem to have doomed her from finding love.
Except, since this is a romance novel, you know that's totally not true!
I should note that Sherry Thomas is not a new author to me. I've read THE HIDDEN BLADE, which is an even better book than this. (Seriously, read it - I cannot recommend it enough.) When I read a book I really enjoy I'm sometimes reluctant to pursue a second book by that author, out of fear that it will be a let-down. I needn't have worried. The things that appealed to me in HIDDEN were present in DELICIOUS, too: beautiful writing, strong heroines, good characterization, interesting twists...they were all here, much to my delight!
DELICIOUS is also a retelling of the Cinderella fairytale, although this is one of the book's weaker points. This relationship was pushed a bit too hard, and I thought the little quirks of fate that kept Stuart from seeing Verity's face were too convenient. I was more interested in how pride kept the characters from being happy - either because it caused them to chase a dream beyond their reach, hurt the people they loved because of their prejudice, or become utterly enslaved by convention. There are elements of PERSUASION in here, as well, which I think a lot of people will really like.
There's also a secondary romance, but I actually liked it. Normally, secondary romances feel like filler to me, but this one worked. In some ways, they had better chemistry than the main couple. The only thing that was frustrating was that I had hoped that the secondary hero was bisexual. I was so excited, because the only ones I've encountered in mainstream historical fiction (as a love interest) were Courtney Milan's HER EVERY WISH and Elizabeth Hoyt's DUKE OF SIN.
DELICIOUS is a really great historical romance that takes tropes from Cinderella and PERSUASION and blends them with excellent characters and a fairly engaging plot. I'd recommend this to fans of Victorian romance and especially to fans of Sherry Thomas.
I just read Amy Schumer's GIRL WITH THE LOWER BACK TATTOO, and if you follow me, you'll remember that I had some complaints. Mainly that comedians, for whatever reason, write unfunny memoirs that are either a) self-promotional, b) long, shopping lists of gratitude, or c) boring & dry. It's like they have to prove a point - that they're not just the funny man or woman, they can be serious, just you watch. But...that's not why people are going to buy your memoirs. It's not why I buy your memoirs.
Phoebe Robinson's memoir is not like that at all. It opens with the history and the politics of "natural" hair and why it's rude to ask to touch it. Robinson discusses how different hairstyles can make a statement if you're a woman of color, the hours and effort that go into maintaining natural hair, and the frustration she and other women feel when they are othered based on their appearance.
After this, as a bit of a wind down, she discusses some of the famous (black) celebrities who contributed to the pop cultural lexicon of black hairstyles. This section includes pictures and commentary, and I really enjoyed seeing the evolving looks.
The middle section is a bit about Phoebe herself, and some of the things she loves, as a sort of belated meet-cute before she gets into the heavy stuff. Try not falling for this woman, I dare you. She's so charming, and funny, and self-effacing. She drops pop culture references and slang like a pro, and her voice is so strong that you really get the feeling that you're having a dialogue with her - right now.It can be surprisingly difficult to capture a "voice" on paper, and she does it really, really well.
After the meet-cute, Phoebe gets into the Deep Stuff. Race. Stereotypes. Bigotry. Guilt. Othering. Coded language. Privilege. The stuff that will send a small population running for the hills (or their laptops), screaming about rabid SJWs. But Phoebe discusses these topics in a really great way, supporting her points with examples that help give you an idea of what she feels and why when people use insensitive words like "exotic", "urban", or "uppity", or why she got so angry when a woman burst into tears after Phoebe was forced to read aloud and then later criticized her offensive lesbian master/slave love story and claimed that she - a white college student - felt "picked on."
Phoebe gets right to the point. Even now, decades after the civil rights movement and about a century after the end of slavery, we are still pretty damn discriminatory as a society. And discrimination doesn't have to be overt. You don't have to say the N-word to discriminate. Discrimination can be as implicit as designing camera film for white skin, treating your black friend like they're the ambassador for all people of color, or only carrying lighter shades of foundation at a drug store. Buzzfeed did a few role reversal videos (1, 2) that help illustrate what things look like from the outside the privilege zone, but the fact that it feels so ridiculous just goes to show how heavily integrated such stereotypes are within the structure of society, and why we still need change.
The book ends with Phoebe writing a series of letters to her young niece about what it means to be black, biracial, and a woman, and the importance of being an authentic, compassionate individual who is open to new experiences but also not afraid to stand up for her principles. She brings up some more great points, too, but after the previous section, it feels a bit anticlimactic. I can see why Phoebe chose to end her book this way, though. You don't want to leave your readers on a note of moral outrage (for better, or for worse), and it helps bring the memoir full circle, as Phoebe starts out talking about the politics of the parts of the individual, and ends with the politics of the whole article.
This is probably one of my top 5 favorite female memoirs, ranking right up there with Felicia Day's YOU'RE NEVER WEIRD ON THE INTERNET and Tina Fey's BOSSYPANTS. It made me cry out, "I relate to that!" "I am interested in that!" "I am outraged by that!" and "I want to be your friend!" by turns. I love memoirs that are passionate, and political, and energized, and this book was all of those things. It was also thought-provoking, and honest in a way that a lot of memoirs these days aren't (I think you've probably heard me complain that too many celebrity memoirs are too "nice"; nice is nice, but it isn't controversial and it doesn't make a statement and it doesn't get you talking, either).
I loved that. And I love Phoebe. (And now I'm off to check out her comedy and stalk her on Twitter.)
I've read a lot of regency romances, and I'm always excited to find something that isn't directly cast from the Pride and Prejudice mold and LORD OF ICE is that. A guardian/ward romance at heart, it also features several other tropes that I enjoy, and does them well enough that I didn't find them *too* cliche.
Miranda FitzHubert is the bastard daughter of a nobleman who perished in an accident with his actress mistress. After their untimely deaths, she was given to a guardian, a battle-scarred war hero who drank to forget the horrors of what he'd done. When he's murdered (God, this girl is playing a hideous game of musical guardians), she's given to yet another keeper, another veteran, Damien Knight, the PTSD-ridden Earl of Winterley.
His name is appropriate, because he really is as cold as ice. Damien pushes everyone - especially Miranda - away, because he's afraid of what will happen when anyone gets too close to him, especially at night. Miranda's ex-guardian, Jason, was a close friend of his, and after fighting in war, and getting a taste for it, he's repelled by death, and also by himself for causing so much of it, and not feeling as guilty about killing as he should. His night terrors add a further block between him and Miranda, because he lashes out in his sleep.
Plus, she's his ward and that goes against his sense of honor, of course. Which is horribly ironic, because he meets her when she's performing on stage (she runs away from her school in the evening to pursue her dreams of acting), assumes she's game for a quick fling, and comes perilously close to forcing himself on her. This was not the best introduction for the hero and made me dislike him a lot. I liked him more later, after his character was developed more and he repented his actions, but his treatment of women he considered inferior left a lot to be desired. He doesn't cheat, though, although at one point he considers it...but thankfully, he reconsiders at the last minute (sigh).
There were many great scenes in here. The opening of this book was five-star-worthy. So was Miranda's stint in her Dickensian boarding school with the sinister Mr. Reed. There were deadly chases, near escapes, acts of seduction and treachery, and pretty much anything else you could ask for in a regency era soap like this. If I had any complaints, it's that the side characters weren't really explored to their full potential, and were more like wallpaper or backdrops than actual people, just popping in occasionally to drive the plot or keep the scene moving, rather than displaying any agency.
The villain was decent, and appropriately sneaky and horrible, but I felt like he could have been fleshed out more, too - especially towards the end, when we learn something about him that simultaneously seems more sinister...and yet also comes from way out of left field. It's not really a spoiler to say this, since we're introduced to the villain in chapter one, but because we're given the name of our antagonist so early on I felt the author should have worked harder to make us fear him.
Finally, at the end of the book, right where I expected things to wrap up, the author throws in a last-minute conflict - the Napoleonic Wars - and has the characters have a big fight over it right after they're married. This felt like an unnecessary attempt to bulk up the page count, and annoyed me. Had it gone on for any longer than it did, I would have deducted a star rating because it was totally pointless. The situation is eventually resolved and a happily ever is tacked on, but it left a bitter taint to the story it wouldn't otherwise have had, because it makes Miranda look like a bitch and undermines her vows to support him and give him everything he needs for closure.
These are little nitpicky details, though - the irony is that when everything else in a story is good, you can afford to look a little deeper and discuss the things that would make it a perfect (or close to perfect) read, rather than just a tolerable one (as in the case with bad books). LORD OF ICE is very well written, has a rather strong and enterprising female protagonist, and a pretty icy hero who despite his gruff and tortured exterior, desperately wants to be redeemed. In spite of my reservations, I enjoyed LORD OF ICE quite a bit and would definitely read another book by Gaelen Foley.
When I received a copy of this for review, I was interested to see the author trying her hand at older contemporary. I always like to try and give an author a second chance. Her new adult novels didn't work for me, so I was hoping a book with more mature characters would.
The idea of a lifestyle blogger MC was what hooked me in the blurb. Most of us on Goodreads blog, and for me, it's something I'm really passionate about. I was really excited to see it portrayed in a book, especially since it was apparently an integral enough part of the story that it warranted a mention in the blurb!
...Well, no. Annie's blogging is actually a pretty tiny part of the story. And even though she's supposed to be a Big Deal, even gaining top hits in search results for pertinent topics, her blogs really aren't that good or noteworthy. Plus, she's not really a lifestyle blogger, she's a mommy blogger...something the blurb fails to mention. You say lifestyle, and I think home decor, not child-rearing 101.
Despite her blogging presence, Annie is surprisingly naive. I didn't really like her much. She's one of those childlike MCs who falls apart at the slightest conflict, more teenager than adult. There's a subplot where one of her commentors on her blog leaves her "mean" comments that basically sum up to, "you're not all that." And Annie is seriously torn up by this HORRIBLE comment that she isn't all that lamenting that she never meant to become so popular. That is hardly mean- but guess what? It turns out that the commentor is someone who hates her in real life, which is a neat and strange way of explaining away mean comments on the internet. You need a thick skin to blog, and sometimes people can decide to hate you without even knowing you...it doesn't always have to be personal, as in the case here. She's also rife with hormones, practically orgasming every time the hero so much as takes a drink of water.
I also didn't really care for Sawyer, the aforementioned hero. I thought the misunderstanding between them that resulted in their falling out was lame (but I think that about most falling outs - why don't people ever talk?). Sawyer isn't really an alpha jerk, and I found myself wanting to like him, but his character was just so bland. He's a stepford boyfriend, basically - it's like he's reading off a script to tell women exactly what they want to hear "I'll wait for you as long as you need" "your stretchmarks are beautiful" "I think your child is awesome." I'm not ripping on nice guys - I do think it is important to say variants of these things and mean them, because communication and affection in relationship is important, but this was pretty much all that came out of Sawyer's mouth, these perfect boyfriend one-liners delivered with perfect sincerity right before sexually intimate scenes. How convenient.
I also didn't like how Sawyer tried to bully and guilt Annie into staying in Brightwater. I thought that was a really nasty thing to do, especially since everyone who lives there seems to hate her still. Are you seriously going to make the woman you claim to love live in a place where everyone is ready to label her as a traitor to American life just for sitting in a cafe with an espresso? Did they teach you that in your perfect stepford boyfriend classes? Also, the whole Kooky Carson thing was just plain ridiculous. Just because her dad is a photographer, eats quinoa, and listens to 70s music, that makes him a hippie? I am skeptical, Brightwater.
Finally, with regard to the writing style, I feel like the writing was decent at a technical level. There weren't any typos and everything was grammatically correct. But stylistically, this story was ridden with tropes and cliches, so cheesy that I began to wonder if this book was maybe set in Wisconsin, not California. LAST FIRST KISS was a disappointment. I don't think I'll be reading any of the other books in the series.