The Cynster series appears alongside a lot of other series I like, such as The Gamblers and Wallflowers series, so I've been meaning to get my hands on one of Stephanie Laurens books for a long time. When ALL ABOUT PASSION showed up at the local thrift store for 50¢, it seemed like the time had dawned for me to start living in Cyn(ster). That was a terrible joke and I'm sorry. But in a way that is actually perfect, because this was a pretty terrible book.
The plot is convoluted and I did not take notes, but basically it goes like this: Gyles Rawlings, Earl of Chillingsworth (heir to Dickensian surname), needs to take a bride, and what better bride than the woman whose inheritance is the property adjoining his estate? When he goes to seek her hand, he addresses not her but her uncle(?), and makes it clear that theirs is to be a loveless marriage where all he expects of her is an heir. When he spies a pretty blonde woman in the distance sitting quietly, whom her aunt calls "Franni", he naturally assumes that this is Francesca, the woman who is to be his bride. So naturally, when he crashes into a curvaceous buxom woman on his way out, he has no idea who she is, only that he wants her - immediately. He calls her "the gypsy," and waxes poetic on how his loins simply cannot even. I began to imagine him as Frollo, from Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, singing about raven hair and blazing out of all control.
It is literally that dramatic.
***SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS TO FOLLOW YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED***
Guess what. Francesca and Frances (Franni) are cousins. If you think that this ridiculous coincidence is the pretense for a very long case of mistaken identity, you are correct. Francesca thinks that Gyles wants to marry her. So does Franni. Gyles thinks he's going to marry Franni, his biddable wife, and that Francesca is some random strumpet who is eager to lie in bed with him and plans to make her his mistress after just making the proposal of marriage to who he thinks is Francesca. If you think this is cheek, yes, yes it is. This results in 100+ pages of drahma, culminating in the wedding, where Gyles, who by ridiculous coincidence, has managed to avoid meeting his bride in any formal circumstances where someone could have corrected his error, realizes who he is marrying. Francesca, of course, figured it out when he had sex with her and referred to his bride to be in third person. She is outraged, but keeps having sex with him instead of correcting him and/or walking away. Rather than admit to his mistake, he and Francesca go forward with the wedding. They've already had sex by this point and continue to do so every other chapter (oh my God), but Gyles keeps insisting that their marriage is to be loveless. They basically torment each other for another 200 pages while Francesca succeeds in charming every member of the house staff, all of Gyles's male and female acquaintances, and every single eligible man within radius of the castle. They make each other jealous, talk about entertaining other lovers for their loveless marriage, and generally just petty the pet out of pettiness.
In the last quarter of the book, Laurens pulls a Lisa Kleypas and introduces a murder plot. Someone is trying to kill Francesca! They spend ages figuring it out when it is literally so obvious who it is that I knew from the moment the first suspicious goings-on began happening. Who is it? Franni! Why? Because she is mentally ill and has created this elaborate delusion that she and Gyles are in love, and he's only marrying Francesca for money, and he secretly wants Franni to kill Francesca for him.
It's getting late over here, so let me sum up some of the key issues I took with this book.
Gyles is an idiot asslord. His reason for wanting a loveless marriage is some sob story where he got hurt (his dad died when he was a child), and he decides loving hurts so he's not going to do it again. So he chooses this super selfish route of marrying one woman and then deciding to take a mistress immediately after making a wedding a proposal.
He's also a rapey asslord. Check out this swoon-worthy line:
If he'd taken her to the ground, no power on earth would have stopped him from taking her - passionately, violently, regardless of the pain he would have caused her (58).
This is after running her down through the woods on his horse. You know, like Frollo does in Hunchback of Notre Dame. (Is Gyles actually Frollo? Is his middle name Claude? I began to seriously wonder.)
Oh, but that's not the end of his charms. My no. He slut-shames, too. Check out this line:
"If you thought [Franni] was me, who did you think I was?"
"I thought" - the words were bitten off - "that you were a gypsy. Too consciously well endowed and far too bold to be a young lady." He took a prowling step toward her. "I thought you a bold and eager companion" (125).
Despite Francesca's boldness, she's still a virgin (or was), but the hero is blown away at how amazingly good at sex Francesca is. Unlike many other authors, Laurens attempts to provide an explanation for the heroine's knowledge. Which would be admirable, were it not this reason:
"They taught you?"
"No. I watched....I was an only child....When I was young, my bedroom connected to theirs. They always left the door open, so they would hear if I called. I used to wake and go in...sometimes they didn't...notice. After a while, I'd go back to my bed. I didn't understand, not until later, but I remember" (142).
Congratulations, book. I think that is one of the creepiest things I've read in a romance in a while. And this is coming from someone who can't stay away from 70s bodice rippers, so that says something.
Later, they come back to this topic again, like it's an inside joke.
"Didn't you ever watch your parents?"
"Good God, no!"
"You've led a sheltered life, my lord" (176).
Hmm, I think I have to side with the asslord on this. That's not sheltered. That's just not watching your freaking parents have sex like it's the regency version of Skinemax. Staaaahp.
Then there's the treatment of Franni in this book. She has some sort of mental illness that is unspecified. At first, I thought she was developmentally disabled because everyone made an (annoying) point of talking about how simple and childlike she was (cringe). But then, later, they also say that she has delusions and makes up fantasies that are only half-rooted in reality. And then at the end of the book, it's revealed that this runs in her family: it's a hereditary illness that only affects the women in the family and usually only after they turn twenty. It must be deusexmachinitus.
Anyway, whatever she has, the way it was portrayed did not really sit well with me. Gyles calls her biddable when he thinks she's Francesca, and says she's the perfect "cipher." Which I just looked up, and it appears to mean "nonentity." So he's basically saying that she's this inconsequential thing who will not impede upon his ambitions. Francesca is no better, talking down to her cousin like a child, always describing her as childlike and blank.
Then we get lines like this:
She was neither cloying nor snide; she displayed none of the usual behaviors he deplored. His aversion was primitive, instinctive - not easy to explain (249).
"I'd be tempted to say she's softheaded, or to use a vulgar but appropriate term, dicked in the nob, yet that's not quite it. She's perfectly lucid if a bit simple..." (262)
Since this is, what, the seventh book in the series, I thought that maybe I just caught the series on the downward trend. It's hard to keep a book series going strong, especially once you get past book #4 or so. But then I checked out reviews of the first book and happened to see my friend Daniella's review of the first book, DEVIL'S BRIDE. So many of the things I took issue with, like a crazy amount of sex scenes, inconsistent characterization, and yes, even adultery (or cheating, I suppose, since it wasn't technically adultery yet at this point) are all present in her review.
I was not a fan of ALL ABOUT PASSION. The mistaken identity thing was done fairly poorly, but I was still on board for all the love-to-hate-you UST until they started going at it nonstop and all their relationship tension started to come from "to have adultery or to not have adultery?"-type dilemmas. I was also not really happy with how Franni was portrayed, nor that she was mentally ill and that her being mentally ill was the premise for her wanting to kill the heroine Hand that Rocks the Cradle-style. She even hires some men to take Francesca away, where it is implied that Francesca will probably be held in captivity and raped until her baby is born (forgot to mention she's pregnant at this point), at which point the baby will be brought to Franni to raise (since her aunt told her she isn't allowed to have children because she's mentally ill) with Gyles. I thought that was really messed-up (and also inconsistent because if Franni is too "simple" to walk around by herself, how the hell would she think to go out and hire a bunch of criminals, trick Francesca into meeting her, and execute this plan?), and it didn't mesh well with all the other stuff was going on. Also, making the villains mentally ill is a trope that has been done to death, and really ought to stop. I thought about giving this book a one-star review, but I managed to read it in just under two days. It was so hypnotically bad that I was unable to put it down. I had to see what happened next. That ought to count for something.
Oh, Various. You are prolific, aren't you? You've written about everything from Irish folklore to books about the best jokes, the most beautiful jokes, fantastic jokes. Obviously, when I saw that this prolific author had published a book making fun of Trump, I had to have it. I blew off watching Archer to read MAD ABOUT TRUMP, that's how thrilled I was. Archer. The new one.
First, a disclaimer. This is not going to be a pro-Trump review. Imagine that. A woman with a Women's March picture as her Goodreads profile photo (the SF one, no less) and the tagline "flagrant liberal" in her username reading a book that's making fun of Trump not being pro-Trump. It seems intuitive, I know, but I actually had someone accusing me of having an "agenda" a few months ago, and I had to laugh at that, because agenda usually implies that you're trying to hide your sinister schemes under some other sort of pretense and Blue's Clues is more subtle than that.
You know what they say. Sometimes the cigar is actually a d*ck pick.
MAD ABOUT TRUMP is a bit of a mixed bag. There are some genuinely funny passages in here, and some passages like Living Dead apprentice that just made me roll my eyes and scoff. I must say that I was impressed by the range. There's everything from movie poster art to comic panels to magazine pages to fake advertisements to poems and pretty much everything in between. The humor level ranges from sophisticated to low-brow (which is typical of MAD), so in a way, that's nice, because it almost guarantees that there is something in here for everyone, no matter your tastes.
Some of my favorites were the conservative Christmas carols for post-Trump election x-mas; the new presidential seal (replace the bald eagle with the bird from Twitter); a GQ mock-up featuring the cabinet picks that gets salty AF; a pretty brilliant Family Circus parody; an equally brilliant Suicide Squad Parody called "Donald Trump's Moral Slide Squad" (featuring Kellyann Conway as "Hardly Coherent"); a fake Shopkins advert called Trumpkins; and probably my personal favorite of the collection: an Undercover Boss Parody called "Undercover Boob."
Also, to whomever formatted this book: at first my heart sank when I realized that it was basically just scanned pages of the comic book as it would be read in hard copy form with both pages spread - but bless you for having the text on each page stand alone on each page, instead of forcing me to flip back and forth. It was very readable in e-book format, so that's something to keep in mind, as well.
Honestly, with what's been going on in the world lately, I needed this collection to make me laugh. And it did, a little. Enough to count. The beginning of the collection is a tad uneven, but it gets a lot better as you get closer to the end. (For some reason, they put a lot of the cheap laughs up front.) I was afraid it would be silly, but I actually ended up enjoying this comic book quite a bit! If you're tired AF of seeing BS on the news, and are currently between episodes of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Late Night with Seth Meyers, pick this book up when it comes out in June.
To quote Indra Devi: "Laughter drives shouting away."
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
A lot of people say that certain books make them cry, but when I pick up that book, I feel nothing. It's like trying to squeeze a rock to get water; I just don't tend to cry when I read. Well, THE HATE U GIVE made me cry. It also made me laugh. It made me smile. It made me so angry that at times I was literally shaking. It made me uncomfortable, it made me reflective, and - perhaps most importantly of all - it made me think.
Starr Carter lives in what she calls "the ghetto," AKA Garden Heights. After she watched a childhood friend shot in the street, her mother enrolled her in a prestigious private school. Now, she lives her life with a foot in two very different worlds. By day, she's with her non-black friends and her white boyfriend in a school filled with kids who think nothing of their privilege. By night, she lives in a cramped house in a bad neighborhood where gunfire is common and gang activity is a viable source of income.
She resigns herself to the fact that she doesn't really fit into either "niche" and changes the way she acts and speaks depending on which group she's with at the time. Friends and family are a delicate balancing act, but she's happy, and she's loved, and she has friends both at school and at home. Then she drives home with a friend and gets pulled over by a cop & sees him killed before her eyes.
What follows is an incredibly powerful story that follows Starr as her friend's death ripples through the news and gains widespread attention. It becomes an allegory for the very real problem of prejudice that exists in our society, and raises important questions about racism. That racism can be internalized, or expressed by people we care about. That it can be accidental or premeditated. That it can be institutionalized. That it isn't limited by color or gender. That no matter the form or the medium, it is harmful, and has devastating consequences when it is allowed to fester and grow.
I loved Starr's voice. She is an incredibly likable character. She has hobbies, she works hard in school, and she struggles to find her voice as the adult she will one day become. I loved her interactions with her family, especially her parents and uncle. Her friends, Maya, Jess, and Kenya, were great. I side-eyed her relationship with Chris at first, but he redeemed himself, and by the end of the book I was so impressed by how their relationship developed. He was a different person by the end of the book. Because of Starr. This is a heroine with agency, who is independent and flawed but kind and compassionate. By the end of the book, I was so invested in her story. She felt so real.
THUG is an important book because it mirrors many actual real events that have happened, and serves as a sort of call to action for people to examine their own thoughts and attitudes and the effects that their actions can have on others. It also shows the importance of speaking up and being heard, and how that isn't always easy as others say it is, especially in the wake of a traumatic event (much like Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK).
I want to say so much more about this book, but I don't want to spoil anything or express myself poorly, so let me just say that this should be required reading and whether you love it or hate it, THUG is one of those books that is so different and so powerful and so raw that it will change the way you see the world.
You know when you're ordering a really strong drink from a bar, and it's got a lot more alcohol in it than you thought, to the point that you can almost taste the hangover over the rum and artificial fruit, and you think to yourself, "This is a bad idea" but then drink it anyway, and order another because YOLO? That's me every time I pick up a new adult book. I tell myself, "Nenia, you're going to regret this, don't do it, you're not going to like it."
But trashy erotica novels, like booze, are easy to do to excess.
This is my second book by Penelope Douglas. The first I've read from her was CORRUPT, and that was lent to me by a kind GR friend via Kindle. I thought CORRUPT was okay, with reservations. I don't normally go in for erotica, especially erotica that reads like straight-up porn. All the men in that book were misogynistic and rapey, too, which added another level of nope. But the plot was decent and she was good at setting a decent pace, so I sort of half-enjoyed, half-wtf'd my way through the thing and at the end of the book, I wasn't mad. It was a flawed but decent read.
PUNK 57 I bought myself, which already means that I'm going to be an eensy bit more critical of it because I'm spending my hard-earned money on the book and judging it accordingly. PUNK 57 was our book of the month in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group for April, and as someone who had read her work previously, I was interested in seeing how it had changed from CORRUPT.
***WARNING: SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT***
PUNK 57 is about two characters, Misha and Ryen, who are both in high school. They are also pen pals, although they have never met face to face before. Misha is punk and in a band and has piercings. Ryen is a cheerleader and preppy and into things like TWILIGHT and HARRY POTTER. After a tragedy happens in his life, Misha ends up going to Ryen's school under the name Masen for reasons that don't actually have anything to do with Ryen. When he realizes that she's not what he built her up to be on his imaginary pedestal, he gets angry and embarks on a mission to make her life hell. This, I actually didn't mind so much. It reminded me of Hana Yori Dango. A-hole heroes are actually a weakness of mine provided that a) the heroine reacts to this behavior accordingly and b) it takes a heck of a lot of groveling before the characters finally end up together.
This does not happen in PUNK 57. Ryen is attracted to this mean behavior, despite herself, and the two of them have several sex scenes that have this really uncomfortable element that was also present in CORRUPT that is neither healthy nor entirely consensual (at least, that's how it felt to me). And it wasn't the fact that it wasn't 100% consensual at times that bothered me so much as the fact that Ryen seemed to be embracing this behavior as natural and something she needed. Example: at one point Misha/Masen breaks into her house while she's sleeping and catches her in bed naked. He assumes, naturally, that any woman who is naked must be entertaining male company, and makes an effort of looking around for that Other Man. When he realizes that she was actually masturbating, he asks her if she was thinking of him. Me, I'd be on the phone with the cops well before that point, but she lets him watch. Ew. He's also constantly getting physical with her and making her feel bad about herself, whether it's berating her for being fake or criticizing her clothes for being too sexy - because how dare she bring male attention upon herself. Like it's her fault for them looking or some BS. In keeping with this "me man, woman mine" caveman attitude, the sex is always big man alpha sex, of the cervix-slamming variety (you know the kind I mean) and I know some people enjoy this, and that's fine, but that isn't my cup of tea at all. I rolled my eyes a lot. Especially when they try anal - without lube - and all she feels is a tiny burn. Ha! Woman must have Superman's butthole if he can go in dry and not cause her any pain, that's all I'm going to say.
I will say that the twist at the end with Misha's mom took me off-guard. I wasn't expecting that, although in hindsight it explains a lot. Like I said before, with CORRUPT, plotting isn't a weakness of Ms. Douglas's. But the confrontation and the way it was carried out left a similarly bad taste in my mouth, because it was a perfect mirror of his behavior towards Ryen and how it was actually pretty abusive. Misha is one of those guys who expects women to behave in certain ways, and if they violate that way at all, they are automatically bad. Ryen failed to live up to his sweet nerdy girl fantasy, so she becomes the whore in his eyes. Misha's mom couldn't take motherhood, so she becomes the horrible bitch who is responsible for all the problems in his life. It's the Madonna/whore complex, and I hate the Madonna/whore complex. Also, I'm realizing that I kind of hate Misha. I didn't want him to have an HEA with the heroine, because in my opinion, he never redeemed himself. He played the "Baby, I'm damaged" card and she completely bought it, final sale.
Two things I did like (so this review ends on a positive note): I like how the author incorporates music into her stories. That was something I liked about CORRUPT as well, especially since her taste in music is pretty similar to mine. I also liked how she had characters from CORRUPT cameo in PUNK 57, even if it was the creeps. Am I surprised that Misha knows/is friends with those creeps? No. He's a creep, too. Creeps of a feather flock together. (No, bad Nenia - stay positive!)
I didn't hate this book. I was afraid I would, but I didn't. Bar a few typos, it was fairly well written and had an interesting story. As much as I gripe, I must admit that I wasn't bored while reading it. It also has a Colleen Hoover-esque title whose meaning becomes clear at some point in the story, which is cool. Like Colleen Hoover, I think this author is capable of writing something some day that I will really enjoy. I like dark fiction, and I like suspense novels. She just needs to fine-tune the way she writes her heroes and sex scenes, and then we'll be golden.
I have to say, it feels weird reading a romance about Christmas in April. Kind of like if you were to go to the grocery store, looking for adorable chocolate eggs for the kiddies, and happened upon a dusty red-and-green package of candy canes. You can't help asking yourself, "How long have these been here? Is it even any good?"
I've only read one book by Meredith Duran. It was FOOL ME TWICE. I really enjoyed that book, because it employed one of my guilty pleasure tropes (Byronic hero falls in love with his servant). I couldn't wait to start SWEETEST REGRET. My expectations were incredibly high. I know they say not to judge a book by its cover, but how could a book with a cover like that possibly be bad?
SWEETEST REGRET is not a full-length book, which I could have found out more quickly if I had bothered to look up the book beforehand. I did not. The story revolves around "Georgie," the daughter of a British diplomat. He's hosting a number of European guests for the holidays but is called away to Constantinople last minute on business. In his absence, he gives Georgie the task of searching through the guests' rooms for a letter of the utmost importance, which he claims that one of them has in all likelihood stolen.
Also tasked with The Purloined Letter Caper is Georgie's father's protegee, Lucas Godwin. Awkwardly enough, Lucas and Georgie have a history together. They were very much involved two years ago until Lucas abruptly ceased all contact with her, thereby breaking her heart.
This is a second-chance romance with a "twist" ending that's reminiscent of THE NOTEBOOK and made me think that Georgie's father was an arse weasel. For a foreign diplomat to do what he did, well, that's just asking for an international incident, don't you think? It was difficult to be too angry, though. The story is much too short for the reader to get very emotionally involved in Georgie and Lucas's affairs. Short stories are difficult to pull off. Even authors I like, like Alyssa Cole, can't always pull them off. Courtney Milan is one of the few romance authors whose short stories truly excel, and yet even she has her misses as well. And Duran is no Milan when it comes to short stories.
SWEETEST REGRET is a harmless, fluffy romance with a bizarre plot that traverses the line between nonsensical and amusing. The Christmas theme makes it ideal for romance challenges like the one I am currently participating in, and the length ensures that even if it is not an enjoyable read, it will at least be a quick one. I have read worse, though, and both of these characters were decent and likable, despite their blandness. If you're looking for something short and sweet, you could certainly do far worse. Do check out FOOL ME TWICE, though. It's much, much better than this!