I was describing this book to someone as Game of Thrones, only set in a desert where magicians are responsible for bringing the rains and water is the ultimate currency. But honestly, that doesn't quite do this book justice, as it's much better written than Game of Thrones and doesn't quite wallow in the physical and sexual violence like GoT does - not to say that this isn't a brutal MF of a book; it is.
Set in the Quartern, a desert land in which water-sensitive magicians called "Stormlords" are responsible for bringing water, THE LAST STORMLORD is about a land in the middle of political and environmental upheaval. All that magic has brought about climate change and water is becoming scarce in a land that desperately needs it. The last stormlord is dying without a replacement, and hostile factions who have been oppressed by the stormlords are rallying forces to seize powers in the void and resort back to scavenging.
The two main characters are Terelle and Shale, both teenagers. Terelle is a young woman who was sold into a brothel when she was a child by her cruel stepfather, and now lives in dread of reaching puberty and being auctioned off for her virginity like a prize mare. One day she decides to escape, hoping to become a dancer, and instead discovering that she's capable of much more. Shale, on the other hand, lives in the outskirts of the Quartern, called "the Gibber," in a labor camp where people mine for resin. His father is an abusive alcoholic, but freedom comes when Shale realizes that he has the power to detect and manipulate water. Unfortunately, his powers bring him to the attention of very dangerous people on both sides of the water war who will stop at nothing to capture him alive.
Lately, I've found myself reading more and more fantasy by women because for the most part, male fantasy authors don't really deliver what I want: complex, nuanced world-building with a rich tapestry of culture; strong female protagonists who aren't sexualized and whose agency isn't wrapped up with that of the male hero's; and heroes who don't style themselves after the Chuck Norrises or Tyrion Lannisters of the world, punching holes in trucks or laughing drunkenly in the fate of death. THE LAST STORMLORD is set in an original world that deals with poverty, climate change, colorism, racism, sexism, and so much more.
Oh, and this book is brutal. I've seen dudes scoff at female fantasy, but there isn't a whiff of romance in this book yet. Shale is a strong character but also flawed realistically. Terelle has agency and interesting powers, and doesn't need no man in her life to tell her what to do. Taquar Sardonyx was an excellent villain (and does it help that he's brooding and good-looking? But ofc.) It's also a pretty grim world, with mages who can bleed all the water out of people and leave them dried out husks; flesh-eating beetles called "ziggers" that like to burrow into people's eyes or noses and eat them alive; child prostitution and slavery and evil nomads who live by honor and enjoy torture as punishment.
I also loved the machinations of the royal family. There's definite Cersei/Laisa and Joffrey/Senya parallels, which is maybe why I found them such a pleasure to hate. The Lannisters were always my favorite characters in Game of Thrones just because they were so unabashedly evol. There's a lot of heavy thoughts about power and how sometimes you do harm when doing good, and vice-versa. When I saw that the author lives in Malaysia working on rain forest conservation, the climate change messages made a lot of sense. This is no heavy handed Ferngully - it's very nuanced, and very good.
P.S. CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL AND YOU'RE A FUCKING IDIOT IF YOU THINK OTHERWISE. DON'T @ ME.
People, especially conservatives I have noticed, like to make fun of content warnings. They like to say that it's yet another facet on the crystal of over-sensitive, over-entitled "millennial privilege." (Right, because we're the generation that needs to choose between iPhones and health insurance. So privileged.) Speaking as someone who has, historically, gotten panic attacks, let me tell you that for people who do experience anxiety from "triggers," it isn't something that's made up. Your blood pressure plummets, your heart rate picks up, you feel nauseous. It can feel like you're going to faint and have a heart attack at the same time. I no longer get panic attacks, but reading this book was so physically uncomfortable that, for a moment, I remembered with stark clarity what having them was like and how much I used to dread them.
This is because A LITTLE LIFE is the most wretched, depressing book that I have ever read. That is saying something, considering that I have some pretty strong contenders on my "just-tear-my-heart-out-why-dont-you" shelf on Goodreads, which features books such as OUTLANDER, for its gruesome torture and rape scenes, KINDRED for its grim portrayal of slavery in the South, THE BOOK OF YOU for its portrayal of stalking and abuse, and the previous winner of the title for "most depressing book of all time," THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR, an extremely visceral WWII-era book about an American woman who finds out that her husband is a Nazi and experiences severe emotional, physical, and sexual abuse over the course of the novel. I am someone who rarely takes offense to books, and reads bodice-rippers from the 1970s for fun. My tolerance for problematic content is very high.
This is actually my second time attempting to read A LITTLE LIFE. The first time, I received a copy of it as an ARC but ended up DNF-ing it around 80% in and writing a 2-star review for it on Goodreads. It was upsetting me too much to finish, and I actually felt myself becoming physically nauseated from reading about the subject matter. There's a reason most of the reviews are either ultra-positive or ultra-negative, and I think that rating really stems from your mindset on depressing books. At the time, my mindset was, "This book made me feel like crap afterwards, ergo I did not enjoy it," so the two-star rating was an accurate representation of my feelings at the time. This time around, I was more aware of what I was in for, and was able to steel myself going in. The four-star rating I am giving this book this time around is to acknowledge the beauty of the writing, the compelling portraits of the characters inside, and the very on-point portrayals of anxiety and body dysmorphia.
A LITTLE LIFE is about four boys named Willem, Malcolm, Jude, and JB. They are all talented and brimming with potential when we first meet them while they are in college. Willem is an actor, Malcolm is an architect, Jude is talented with numbers and logic and law, and JB is an artist. Willem and Jude forge the closest relationship that ends up growing over the course of the novel, but the four of them retain a closeness that is reminiscent of the cult-like bond of the college-age kids in Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY, especially since the bonds between them are largely defined by secrecy. Specifically, one secret: the history of their friend, Jude, and his secret past.
Jude is essentially the main character of this book. Everything - the events, the characters, their narrations - all revolve around him. He is the best-looking of the bunch but also the most reticent. He is in chronic pain from a childhood accident he refuses to divulge, incredibly private, and has very low self-esteem and poor body image. As the story unfurls, we learn that he was the victim of truly horrific child sexual abuse and physical abuse, and has been able to recover from these events psychologically. To compensate for his physical and mental pain, he self-harms - something that his doctor basically enables by refusing to take action or force him to get help - and at several points in the novel, his self-harm intensifies to such a degree that he is hospitalized.
Willem, his friend and, later, his boyfriend, and Harold, his adoptive father, and Andy, the enabling doctor, are his closest confidantes, but even with them, he has walls that he refuses to lower. Bits and pieces of Jude's story come out, either in his own narrative arcs, or in reluctant admissions that are basically given under duress. He is a truly flawed and pitiable character, and to make it worse, it never stops. His past is bad enough - God, how I ached for him - but his future offers no respite, either. One by one, those in his life leave him - or at least, he perceives them as leaving him - either by choice or reluctantly, and Jude allows his life to spiral out of control. Being in his head is a truly terrible place, because he is so vulnerable and negative and damaged. I can't help but feel that this book takes a highly ableist view of disability, much in the same way that ME BEFORE YOU did. Jude is portrayed as being a fraction of a person, someone who is broken and beyond help.
Even though I enjoyed both this book (ultimately) and ME BEFORE YOU, I can understand the criticisms of both books. Both books portray disability as being an obstacle that cannot be overcome and in both cases, disability is weighed against able bodies as being the desired norm, and any action that cannot be matched against one who is able bodied is considered a depressing short-coming. With the other books on my depressing book shelf, they had some sort of redeeming value or message, but A LITTLE LIFE is so bleak. What is the message, then? That some people are beyond redemption and should be allowed to rot away on their own terms, like a piece of forgotten bread? That was the message I got here, from Jude, and his pointless struggles, and how all effort to live and carry on only resulted in more pain - like he was being punished for trying to live his life as best he could.
I have never done this before, but with A LITTLE LIFE, I slipped a little piece of paper inside the book before donating it that listed out all of the content warnings. I know some people get angry about these and consider them spoilers, but I couldn't bear the thought of someone going in cold and feeling that same icy feeling of dread that I did while reading this the first time. The content warnings in this book run the gamut from child sexual abuse to domestic violence to medical gore to grievous self-harm to anxiety and post-traumatic stress flashbacks and substance abuse, and just about everything else. I hope the next person who gets this book is able to enjoy A LITTLE LIFE for the think-piece that it is, but I would not, in all honesty, recommend this to anyone with an anxiety disorder or a history of abuse, as I think the flashbacks and the content would just be way too much.
P.S. You don't have to use content warnings, and aren't obligated to be responsible for others, but please respect the people who need/want them. Anxiety is not a joke, and it is very unkind to make fun of people who experience it. Consider this my PSA for the day.
Jackie Collins is the literary equivalent of cheap tequila - you know, in principle, that you probably shouldn't do it, but it's such an easy way to have a good time. So you do it. You pick up the Jackie Collins and take a shot - in fact, you take three. Now I'm sitting here, post-Jackie, and reflecting on the garbage I just read. Did I mention that she's very hit or miss? SINNERS almost got a 2-star rating from me because it left such a bad taste in my mouth, whereas AMERICAN STAR just replaced LUCKY as my favorite of hers. Where does HOLLYWOOD HUSBANDS fit in to that ranking? That's actually a tough question...
HOLLYWOOD HUSBANDS is the story of a bunch of famous bros who basically prance around Hollywood with their dongs hanging out of their pants. There's Jack Python (lol), the sexy TV talk show host who also happens to be the brother of a famous star, Silver Anderson. Then there's Howard "I can quit the cocaine anytime I want" Soloman, who is the head of a major movie studio. And lastly, there's Mannon Cable, famous celebrity, who has a hankering for his ex-wife, and screw the current one, who can't do anything right.
This is 600+ pages of these sorry excuses for men basically living up to all of the worst stereotypes about men. The women, I'm sorry to say, aren't much better. Silver is like the quintessential self-absorbed celebrity and she's a mom, but basically only in name; she's jealous of any success her daughter has, and is resentful that having a kid makes her seem older. Clarissa is the dysfunctional TV actress who is constantly chasing after Jack Python, whereas Whitney, who is more established, is a typical primadonna. Heaven, Silver's daughter, makes all the wrong choices, and it's really hard to root for her success when she goes about it so foolishly.
Then, juxtaposed against the Hollywood sex scandals are these incredibly dark back stories, all involving rape or some kind of abuse against an unnamed female character who turns out to be one of the main characters in the storyline. I called these the Dark AF passages. It was pretty jarring, and I was surprised when I found out who the character was. I was also surprised at how disturbing these passages were. One minute, you're reading about a horribly abused character who likes to use arson to murder those who have wronged her; the next, you're at a wedding where one of the love interests breaks up the bride and groom with a helicopter and a rope, literally stealing the bride away from her wedding to an actual lord to become his mistress instead, and she absconds with him gladly. What.
I think this is my fourth or fifth Jackie Collins rodeo and I'm starting to notice some favorite themes of hers. She's a fan of sleaze-bag criminals, like pimps and drug addicts - not a fan of them, personally, I mean, but a fan of putting them into her books. She seems to have believed that all black women are named Aretha, because there was a black Aretha in this book and in AMERICAN STAR. All women of color are described as "exotic" or "exotically beautiful." In virtually each of her books, a vehicle explodes and causes deaths - in LUCKY, it was a plane. In AMERICAN STAR, it was a car. In this book, not to outdo herself, it was a luxury yacht. All of her characters are extremely promiscuous and will go to great lengths to validate their cheating.
I'm also not a huge fan of how she treats her gay characters. She did the gay character in this book some serious kinds of dirty, let me tell you. Not only does this character cheat on his boyfriend, he cheats on his boyfriend with a woman - and I'm not one of those people who thinks, "Oh, if you're gay and you're in a hetero relationship, you're not really queer!" because that is bi-erasure, but the way it was portrayed in this book, it felt to me like the character wasn't bi; it was more like, "Oh, I'm such a sexy bed partner, I have cured you of the gay!" The way all the other characters talked about this gay character was also super offensive, and of course, he dies in the end. I also side-eyed Collins when she has this character's solidly gay ex-boyfriend end up with an AIDS-positive partner who he nurses until he dies, only to start an AIDS hospice in his loving memory. That's his happy ending.
HOLLYWOOD HUSBANDS was definitely not my favorite Jackie Collins book, although it wasn't quite as unpleasant or grating as SINNERS. I enjoyed reading it but it made me feel guiltier than I would have liked, so I'm docking half a star rating. This is a positive rating + review, but I'm frowning a little as I write it, so take that into consideration.
Reading CRAZY RICH ASIANS gave me a hankering for tales of rich people behaving badly, and seeing as how I'd already worked myself through CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND, the only other book I had on had to serve my purposes was by good old Jackie Collins. RIP Ms. Collins. Nobody, and I mean nobody, writes trash like you. I don't believe in heaven, but if I did, I could totally picture Ms. Collins up there writing stories to scandalize the angels as they screwed their way across the clouds with big pie in the sky dreams, only to have success forestalled by drug addiction, sexual abuse, murder, car crashes, plane crashes, adultery, and heartbreak.
AMERICAN STAR is a lot like her other standalone, ROCK STAR, in that it follows a bunch of outcasts from youth to middle age as they hunt down fame, only to find out that success isn't all it's cracked up to be if you aren't with someone you love (re: want to bang until death do you part). Lauren is the good girl next door with a desire to break free from convention and become an actress in New York. Cyndra is a half-black girl with a long history of abuse who wants to sing and be appreciated for who she is and not what she represents to racist jerks who view her as a walking fetish. And Nick is Cyndra's half brother who wants to make something of himself and get out of the trailer park he lives in with his deadbeat father and black stepmother. All of them have dreams, all of them have secrets, all of them want revenge.
Given the publication date of this novel, it probably isn't going to come as a shock to you when I tell you that this book has trigger warnings across the board. AMERICAN STAR has a story to tell, and to hell with anyone who might be offended; it's going to tell that story however it wants. I can't help but respect such candor, but if you are sensitive to such topics as the ones I mentioned in the first paragraph, you'll probably want to give this one a miss. That said, if you enjoy doorstop epics that follow a troupe of characters over the span of their lives and put them through all kinds of hell before reluctantly dropping that HEA in the dust at their feet, then this is the book for you, my friends.
Honestly, I think this is one of the best books I've read by her so far. All of the characters were so compelling, and it had the nuance that ROCK STAR lacked. Say what you like about such trashy books and their target audiences, but I feel like books like this and VALLEY OF THE DOLLS really were quite advanced in some ways for daring to portray women as sexually autonomous beings with agendas of their own, for better or for worse. This isn't feminist literature, exactly, but it could be its second cousin twice-removed.
I think Jackie Collins ranks up there with Tarryn Fisher and Rosemary Rogers in the Hierarchy of Smutty Trash™. These are desert island books, to be sure. I know, I know, everyone says they'd bring Dickens or Baudelaire, but I know who I am and I'm not trying to impress anyone. I love the simple pleasures in life and if you keep me in bad smut, good wine, and great company, I'm happy. So bring on that desert island, and I'm bringing my Jackie.
LUCKY is such an epic wtfest of laudable proportions. If I had to describe it with two words, it would be "80s sleaze." Everyone plays musical beds, everyone does cocaine, everyone teases their hair, Madonna is still the sex symbol, and stretchy synthetic fabrics are in (the stretchier, the better, and bonus points for leopard print).
The characters are even better than the setting, though. Lucky, the titular character, is the daughter of an ex-mobster millionaire playboy who wants to make her own way in the world. She talks dirty and doesn't take any guff from anyone, and despite some of the lurid content in this book, she's basically a total feminist and has a raging comeback for every misogynistic comment hurled her way. The secondary characters are also great. There's her playboy pops, obviously: Gino. Then there's Olympia, the high-strung, slightly overweight heiress who puts the erotic in neurotic. There's Santino, the sadistic mobster. Eden, the hooker with the heart of gold-plated sulfur. Carrie, the reformed hooker with the lawyer son in the middle of an existential crisis. Lennie, the actor-comedian who just wants to find love. Dimitri, the aging billionaire with the high-maintenance French mistress. Brigette, the precocious and annoying child who grows up to be a precocious and annoying sex kitten. And Jess, the good girl in love with the bad boy (who just doesn't know it yet). And Matt, the bad boy who is in love with the good girl and doesn't think he's good enough (it's actually really adorable).
This is a long story, one of those epic sagas that were so popular in the 70s and 80s and then fell out of fashion in the 90s, which makes me sad because nothing makes me happier than finding a really thick and juicy story that you can bite into and savor like a steak. A longer page count, when done well, can really let you become attached to the characters, and by the end of the book you almost don't want to say goodbye to them. That's how I felt with this book. Even though the drama was so over the top that it was pure ridiculousness, it felt just real enough that I thought to myself, "Well, someone's probably done it." I read the Wiki on Jackie Collins and allegedly she drew inspiration from her own life for her books, which, okay - so do all writers. But Jackie Collins is the younger sister of actress Joan Collins, so I have no trouble believing that this teased and rhinestoned queen has rubbed elbows with the rich and famous and lived to tell about it. In fact, I want to believe it, because it makes these characters even more outrageous. Adultery, blackmail, domestic violence, drug addiction, murder, mob hits, kidnapping, inheritance battles, and scandal are all tropes involved in this messy soap opera. The last 100 pages are especially intense and had me sitting up in bed, saying (quietly, in a "whisper-yell" because everyone was asleep), "WHAT?"
If you enjoy fun, trashy books and long, interesting storylines that feature a colorful and large cast of characters, I really think you should give Jackie Collins a try. This is my second book by her and she's just so fun. I always end up fangirling after I finish one of her books. Right now, I'm reading SINNERS and it looks like more of the same: smut, vice, and romance. What more can you ask for?
Usually, I have no trouble at all reviewing books I like but CSARDAS is a different kind of beast. After finishing the book, I felt both a sense of satisfaction (I got through 600 pages of weighty material! I did good!) but also a sense of dread. Sometimes, you pick up a book of such substance that simply reviewing it doesn't quite do the damn thing justice. This is one of those times.
CSARDAS, which according to the book jacket, is pronounced "char-dosh," is a novel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire written just prior to, during, and then immediately after WWII. It chronicles the lives of two families of noble origin, the Ferencs and the Racs-Rassays. The first part of this book is set before WWII, in an idealistic golden age filled with prosperity and affluence. During WWII, there is a sense of fear, desperation, and violence. After the war, when the Communist party forms in the void left by the Nazis, there is a sense of paranoia, hypocrisy, and futility.
The first part of the book was my favorite, because I thought the way Malie and Eva's relationships with their families and their love interests was portrayed was exceptionally well done. None of the characters here are purely good or purely evil, and that morally grey characterization really reminded me of THE BRONZE HORSEMAN, which is set around the same time, only in Russia.
CSARDAS nearly does for Hungary what THE BRONZE HORSEMAN did for Russia, only the last part of the book feels a bit weak in comparison to the first two thirds. It doesn't help that the main characters are either shunted to the side - or SPOILER: killed - meaning that the romance of the third act falls between a character who was previously secondary to the plot, Janos, and Terez. Neither had the depth of character that Eva and Malie did in the beginning, which really disappointed me.
That said, I'm really glad I managed to locate a copy of this out-of-print gem and I really enjoyed learning about WWII from a different angle. I also loved that the handy book jacket (which also included a pronunciation guide for the title), disclosed how long the author spent researching this book - 3 FREAKING YEARS - and the book itself included a detailed bibliography. That was cool.
The only thing better than reading these types of books is reading them with friends. Thank you, Korey, for being my book buddy!
So at this point, I think I'm well on the way to becoming an unofficial Mariana Zapata expert, having read 5 of her books. It's fascinating to me how her style can remain consistent and yet the quality of how she applies it can vary so much. Take KULTI, which is an amazing book and movie-worthy in terms of pacing and plot, and then take LINGUS, which deserves to be blasted into the sun because I think it's unspeakably awful. Calling it a "piece of sh*t" would be generous, because at least sh*t can be used as fertilizer, but this garbage was utterly toxic and I loathed it.
THE WALL OF WINNIPEG AND ME falls squarely between those two extremes. I did not think it was as good as KULTI. I felt like Aiden was much less endearing than Kulti, maybe because Kulti's gruffness made sense, whereas Aiden just kind of looked like a jerk. I also did not like Vanessa as much as I liked Sal. Sal, with her iron backbone, was of no endless source of amusement to me, whereas Vanessa felt much more timid and doormatty.
I guess if I was describing the plot of THE WALL OF WINNIPEG AND ME, I'd say it's one part Devil Wears Prada, one part The Proposal, and one part Muriel's Wedding. Van has been working as Aiden's personal assistant for two years, and both he and his agent have treated her like garbage the whole time. Finally, she's decided that enough is enough and she's going to quit for her own sanity. Aiden asks her to reconsider and then, after that, requests her to marry him so that he can get citizenship and continue to play American football (he's from Canada). Initially, she refuses, but she's several hundred thousand dollars in the hole for her student loans, and when he agrees to sweeten the deal by paying them all off and buying her a house, she decides to agree to his scheme. After all, they only need to be married for five years. That's practically nothing, right?
I have had a lot to say about Zapata's books and how they upset me. Fecal humor and homophobic jokes are not uncommon in her books and I'm not sure why. I think it's because that's how she thinks dudes are like, and maybe some dudes are, but I don't want to read about them in my escape (fluffy romance). Regardless of the reason, they annoy me. Zapata seems to have cottoned on to that because in KULTI there was a marked reduction in this sort of "locker room talk," and in THE WALL OF WINNIPEG AND ME it was totally absent, as was most of the slut-shaming that I've seen in some of her earlier books. I found this very refreshing and it pleased me that Zapata actually seems to be taking the opinions of her readers into account, because this is something that other readers (not just me) complained about as well, especially LINGUS, which was the worst of the lot.
The beginning of the book is good, because I think Zapata really captures that overworked, under-appreciated mindset of personal assistants. No, the biggest setback of THE WALL OF WINNIPEG is that it's slow AF. I know that "slow burn" is kind of her thing, but this was really slow and felt boring as a result. There's almost no romance between the characters until the very end and I don't think they even have sex until 97%. In the meantime, there's a lot of drama about Van working things out with her incredibly abusive family (especially her sister - ugh), Aiden worrying about his possible deportation and basically being a grump on wheels, and bonding between the characters, which can be cute (I liked their Dragonball Z marathon), but sometimes feels almost gruelingly slow.
I think after KULTI, WALL OF WINNIPEG AND ME is Zapata's second-best book that I've read so far, followed by DEAR AARON, and then RHYTHM, CHORD & MALYKHIN, and then LINGUS coming up dead-last. It certainly isn't a bad book but people were hyping it up to me and saying that it was better than KULTI and I disagree. KULTI is her best book by a long shot. THE WALL OF WINNIPEG AND ME is, at best, inoffensive. I don't regret reading it, but it's not great, either.
After doing the first book, SWEET SAVAGE LOVE, as a buddy read extravaganza, with Heather and Korey, Korey joined me for a read of the sequel, DARK FIRES. And can I just say that Rosemary Rogers is swiftly becoming one of my favorite bodice ripper authors? Every subgenre has its own reigning queen, and RR is Queen of the Bodice Rippers the way V.C. Andrews was queen of smutty teen fiction.
That said, this is my least favorite book of hers so far.
SWEET SAVAGE LOVE was almost a five star read for me. I loved the nonstop action, the love-hate relationship between the hero and heroine, the lush descriptions of the American West, and of course, Steve Morgan, who could so, so easily be the cover model for one of those pulpy men's adventure magazines that were popular in the mid 20th century. With his cheating, murderous, rapey ways, he is basically the absolute opposite of what I like in romance heroes, but he just oozes raw masculinity. He may be Satan incarnate but I was picturing him as Scott Eastwood.
(Dear Hollywood: if you ever make this series into a TV show/movie, please cast Scott Eastwood.)
The sequel starts out with nauseating marital bliss, but since this is Steve and Ginny we're talking about, it goes from Good Housekeeping to Apocalypse Now pretty quickly, and it starts to feel like Rosemary Rogers is trying to out-WTF herself in the prequel with a plot that involves the following incidents: rape, duels to the death, opium addiction, blackmail, whipping, torture, carpetbagging, typhus-induced amnesia, cheating, more cheating, still more cheating, wtf still more cheating, public affairs, sadists, secret pregnancies, and scalping. Because Rosemary Rogers has a big vocabulary, but "overkill" doesn't appear to be one of them.
My favorite scene was probably the sword fight duel, because I am trash, and occasionally raw displays of masculine douchery work for me. (Especially in puffy shirts whilst aboard pirate ships.) However, I felt pretty frustrated for most of the book because the hero and heroine are separated for huge portions of it and Steve spends it with like 5+ women who aren't Ginny (and I really, really don't like infidelity in romances, especially not wanton infidelity where the hero has no "off" button). Ginny also lost a lot of her spitfire nature that made her so easy to root for in the first book. I guess maybe it was PTSD after all the horrors she endured in the last act, but still: it made me really sad.
I'm kind of curious where the book is going to go from here. These two are pretty much the last people in the world who should be parents, so obviously, that means the sequels should be interesting.
THE EDEN PASSION is a literary Dementor: it will suck all of the joy out of your life, leaving you feeling empty and desolate inside. I thought, after reading the two previous books in the serious, that I was adequately prepared for the emotional despair of THE EDEN PASSION, but I was sorely mistaken. THIS OTHER EDEN is a dark, Gothic bodice ripper with a few horrific scenes peppered along to spice up the obsessive love story, and THE PRINCE OF EDEN is a tale of doomed love set amidst a backdrop of petty rivalries and greed for land in the vein of Philippa Gregory's Wideacre trilogy.
THE EDEN PASSION is a different beast entirely.
***WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***
There are three parts to this novel, which I'm going to describe as parts I, II, and II in the breakdown to follow. Oh, and for the record, this book isn't a standalone. You need to read the first two books in the series, not just for characters and important background information, but also because each book builds off the former, and sometimes you can't appreciate the gloomy doom and horror properly if you don't have the information provided in the previous books. You will have a nebulous sense that something is wrong, and you might suspect, but you won't know why, with that same level of sinking, open-mouthed horror that you would have if you read the other books.
PART I of the book literally opens with the last chapter of book 2, THE PRINCE OF EDEN. After his father's death, John comes to Eden, broken and bedeviled. The occupants are shocked, obviously, not just because his return is unwelcome (it is), but also because he's the spitting image of his father, Edward, who caused quite a scandal with his affair with his brother's wife, and his rather casual selling of Eden-owned land to fund his schools for the poor and underprivileged in London. At first, he is treated as a servant and forced to shovel manure, pending the authenticity of his claim to Eden ancestry, but Harriet Eden, the current lady Eden, has a change-of-heart, and invites him into the castle. Her motives aren't exactly pure, though, and John's entrance to the castle sparks a dark retelling of Oedipus Rex, in nearly every way, and let me tell you, the author knew what she was doing. She even alludes to it, sneakily, by having one of the children (one of John's half-siblings), refer to Sophocles and one of his plays in the schoolroom. Yeah, I see your game.
When the inevitable tragedy happens, PART II begins. A stunned and traumatized John stumbles from Eden and ends up meeting a manic pixie dreamgirl named Lila, who I'm half-convinced is actually Luna Lovegood in disguise (she's the blonde woman on the original 80s cover). Lila is known for being weird, as she makes up stories and talks to her pet cat, Wolfe, and seems to conceive of herself as being a bit mystical and touched with supernatural powers. John and Lila hit it off, and agree to exchange letters. Meanwhile, John ends up going out to pull himself up like his bootstraps but ends up being enlisted into the Crimean War. After being wounded and recovering in a hospital where Florence Nightingale makes a cameo appearance, he goes to India just in time for the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Another tragedy strikes the Indian woman he meets there, Dhari, also in the form of gruesome mutilation, and he ends up taking both her and her son, Aslam, with him out of guilt. Jeez, at this point, I'm thinking, "Are any of the women in his acquaintance NOT going to have anything bad happen to them? Lila is imprisoned in her room by her overprotective parents and John's foster mother, Elizabeth, is brutally raped and beaten by the villain, King Asshat himself.
Part III brings everything full circle. Elizabeth and John reunite and he forgives her for returning to the Oldest Profession in the World. Dhari smilingly steps back as John marries his new, white wife. King Asshat is whipped and sent home in his carriage in disgrace. All the happy people return to a now impoverished Eden Castle, where the madwoman in the attic awaits their return. It begins as it ends, with John coming home, but both Johns are very different people - for better, or for worse.
THE EDEN PASSION was a really intense read and I actually had to set it aside for a week or two around the 200-page mark because there's a scene of self-mutilation in here that's pretty graphic. Likewise, PART II in India is also pretty hard to swallow. The N-word is bandied around a lot, and the hypocrisy of the Christian missionaries is shown with how they say their prayers even as they take advantage of the locals, and Dhari herself was almost a victim to the practice of Suttee, something the ex-missionary who takes her as he pleases tells the table with relish despite her obvious mortification and shame. The portrayal of British Colonial India is portrayed, naturally, with all of the cultural sensitivity of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There weren't ninja Kali worshipers with scimitars and questionable buffets of leech-filled snakes and monkey brains on ice, but I feel like those could have just as easily been ideas that Marilyn Harris was keeping on the back-burner. You know, just in case all the surprise incest and character tortures weren't enough. I think the last time I read a bodice-ripper that was so dark and so cruel to the characters inside was when I read Parris Afton Bonds's DUST DEVIL. That was another book that also had me needing to set it down, but unlike THE EDEN PASSION, it petered out in the end once the cruel deed was done.
THE EDEN PASSION is not a bad book. It is definitely my least favorite of the three, though (book 2 was my favorite, but I think the first book had the most poetic writing). The quality of the writing and the complexity of the characters pales somewhat here, and I got the impression that Harris was trying to overcompensate for that with more shocking twists and horrific tortures. There's a real Game of Thrones vibe in this book, where the wars and the relationships play a foil to some truly horrific scenes that appear to be done specifically to horrify and scandalize. I couldn't help but wonder what the public at large made of this book when it came out. Was it banned from certain venues? Or, because it was packaged as a romance, did it just end up becoming a best-kept secret that sat on the check-out racks at local grocery stores like a ticking time-bomb of general wtfery?
I don't know, but if you feel like you're too happy in life and want to take yourself down a few pegs, check out the Eden series and enjoy the greatest ritualistic act of literary suffering since embarking upon the Game of Thrones series. Endeavour publishing has been rerelasing these books for Kindle and you can get a fair number of these previously out-of-print books on the cheap, and they don't appear to be censoring out or rewriting the questionable parts like other rereleases, either.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
Bodice rippers have a bad reputation. When people think "bodice ripper," they tend to picture a Technicolor book cover featuring a buxom women swooning in the arms of a shirtless hunk and a plot that contains more cheese than the state of Wisconsin. The book I tricked my romance group into reading certainly fell under that category. But while some of them are awful, there are some genuinely good ones that are either extraordinarily well-researched or else so cracktastic that the anachronisms and politically incorrect terms become, if not amusing then morbidly fascinating. (I encourage anyone interested in exploring bodice rippers for themselves to check out my bodice ripper shelf on Goodreads. Anything 3+ stars is v. good(!), and yes, I do try to discuss trigger warnings.)
The Eden series falls into both the well-researched and the cracktastic camp, which makes them extra special. The series is being rereleased for Kindle (books 1 & 2 are currently free if you have Kindle Unlimited), and Netgalley recently approved me for a copy of book 3 in the series, THE EDEN PASSION. Once I stopped screaming with excitement, I immediately picked up my ***hard cover editions*** of the first two books to binge through. The first book, THIS OTHER EDEN, is more of a traditional bodice ripper, with the hero and heroine coming to blows (literally - and it involves a public whipping) and going through about sixty different kinds of hell, before reuniting in what is more of a satisfactory ending than a truly happy one. It had its flaws, but I loved the detail and the fact that all of the characters are morally grey.
The second book, THE PRINCE OF EDEN, is a family saga - which were quite popular in the 80s, and often turned into the more "unisex" version of bodice rippers. THE PRINCE OF EDEN is about the children of Marianne and Thomas, the main couple in the first book. This book is set several decades later. Thomas is dead, Marianne is an old woman, and their two sons are middle-aged. Edward is a bastard, because despite having the same parents as his brother, he was born before his parents were married due to a technicality (read: marriage!pranks). Out of guilt, Thomas Eden bequeathed to Edward the entire Eden family fortune, as well as the estate. The legitimate son, James, received the title - and that's it. Everything he has is dependent on his brother's good will.
Obviously, there is bad blood about this, and James and his sinister and incestuous servants, the Cranfords (read: Lannisters) are planning a lawsuit with the help of the family lawyer, Sir Claudius. All of them want the Eden money for themselves, and it fills them with Impotent Victorian Rage™ that Edward is going out to the slums of London and using the money to help poor orphans and prostitutes. Edward is an idealist, and, despite seeing the darker side of humanity on a daily basis, painfully naive, cushioned by the wealth and privilege that he takes for granted and gives away freely. When that reality touches him personally with tragedy, he turns to opium for solace, and ends up having an affair with his brother's bride-to-be, Harriet Powels.
There isn't really much in the way of plot in this book, apart from the will-they, won't they matter of the lawsuit. But this book is peopled with such a broad spectrum of intriguing characters that I really didn't care. The Cranfords were so sinister and conniving. James is weak and spineless, but has occasional moments of kindness. Edward wants so desperately to do the right thing but constantly reverts to the sins of the father. Marilyn Harris is really good at making you feel things about her characters, and when bad things happen to them, it hurts. THE PRINCE OF EDEN wasn't as crazy as its prequel, but there were still a few bits of OTT that surfaced, such as baby torture, a woman who "gets off" by riding her horse without underclothes, Mr. and Mrs. Incest, Bad Things Happening in Prisons, and of course, a gritty portrayal of drug addiction, withdrawal, and relapse.
I would have given this five full stars if the ending hadn't disappointed me. I was ready to pump my fist in triumph, but Marilyn Harris yanked away my joy before my outstretched fingers had scarcely brushed it. I can't forgive her for that. I'm a very petty individual, and thieves of joy are the absolute worst criminals in the literary cannon. This is a well known fact.
Apart from that, the Eden series is amazing, and it's on Kindle, so please, please read these books, and tag me in your reviews so I can stalk your updates, because everyone knows that watching your friends read your favorite books is the next-best thing to reading them yourself. :-)
There's something so satisfying about finishing a long book, and NOS4A2 is no exception. At just over 700 pages, NOS4A2 drops you into a dark and scary world, where certain objects have powers that tie into the soul, and children disappear forever into a bright and terrifyingly cheerful place called Christmasland...
While reading, I kept thinking that this book reminded me of something and then it hit me, all at once - Stephen King's IT. Like the children of IT, we follow the heroine, Vic, from a young age. We see her first interaction with Charlie Manx and how she is barely able to escape him, but hurts him in the process. We follow her to adulthood and see how the experience shaped and hardened her, and how she struggles to prepare herself for the second dark showdown that she knows, deep down, she might not survive.
I think Joe Hill registered the similarity, too, because it seemed like some Easter Eggs were tossed in there for the fans. As a child, for example, Vic's bike has magical powers, and she chooses it over a Schwinn (the bike that Bill road in IT). Later on, when she has her magical motorcycle, she says HI-YO, SILVER, which was Stuttering Bill's rallying cry, whenever he road his own somewhat magical bike. I don't think this is a coincidence; I choose to believe that this book was Joe Hill paying homage to his dad's legacy.
That isn't to say that this book doesn't stand on its own. Between Christmasland, the Gasmask Man, The House of Sleep, and Charlie Manx, I didn't sleep all that well last night. In fact, I was pretty freaked out. Sometimes horror novels are too over-the-top ridiculous, but this book does a really good job of tapping into those subconscious fears that we all have (just like IT - sorry). It's also creative and original in a way that a lot of horror novels aren't - no werewolves or monsters in here, just a very creepy man and his very creepy henchman, and an army of terrifying little children.
Also, I loved the heroine, and if there was anything I took issue with, it was the fact that Joe Hill pulled a George R.R. Martin with her and basically tortured her every chance he got. So many bad things happened to Vic in this book, and I was hoping that her ending would be much happier than it was (ditto Maggie). There's just something about a tattooed artist with a magical motorcycle, y'know?
If you enjoy horror, and especially if you enjoyed IT, you should read NOS4A2. The graphic novel is pretty good, too. I received an ARC of it from Netgalley, and that was actually what got me interested in reading the book. The artist really does a great job bringing the book to life.
You would have thought that I'd have learned my lesson after reading THE BRONZE HORSEMAN, but no - apparently this is the year of emotionally wresting Russian love stories. One of the more "heated" debates in my romance group is whether a romance, by definition, must have a happy ending. Most of the people in my group say yes; but I'm a pessimist, and I say no. With ANNA KARENINA, however, I can actually see the merit in reclassifying it as a "love story" and not a romance, because what occurs between these characters is less a romantic interlude than an intrigue of tempestuous thoughts, emotions, and chaos.
Basically, Anna is married to this old dude named Alexei, and ends up having an affair with a much younger man named Vronsky. Her husband finds out and the result is a major fustercluck, where the decision to get a divorce and the matter of custody both become heated debates. Anna selfishly continues to pursue her relationship with Vronsky, and ultimately ends up pushing him away, because Vronsky is just as selfish and doesn't really appear to see people as people so much as abstract concepts that loosely orbit his own desires and sense of self. Juxtaposed against this is the relationship between Stepan and Dolly; Stepan has affairs as well, but because he is a man, his wife must deal. IT IS CRAY.
Like Dickens, Tolstoy's writing still feels very modern because even though the particulars have changed, human nature mostly remains the same. I have a friend who is Russian and she explained some of the concepts of the Russian psyche that Tolstoy was writing about: namely, intense pride and the need to always be right (or at least, to not concede an argument). She also said that this edition is a really good translation, so if you're one of those people who - like me - always wonders whether the translator did their homework, this one apparently did.
Despite that, I couldn't really get into this book. It was way too long and I skimmed the last 100 pages because I'd had enough of these families and their drama. It's also intensely depressing. That last scene with Anna, and the fact that she changed her mind, cut deep. In many ways, ANNA KARENINA reminds me of MADAME BOVARY and THE AWAKENING, in the sense that the wayward woman is punished for wanting more and daring to dream beyond what society allows her. But said woman is also so selfish that the reader has trouble investing in her emotionally. I could appreciate the writing and the characterizations and even the story, but I felt I was missing a lot because I didn't have context for the culture and the history. That's the benefit of learning these types of books in schools; you are literally saturated in context and then, later, tested on your understanding of it. Reading these books independently means being able to enjoy them at my leisure, but then, conversely, also means that I run the risk of missing crucial points or having things go over my head.
I'm glad I read ANNA KARENINA but I don't think that this book is for me. Some classics just aren't "fun" and to me, this is one of them. So, since I rate purely on enjoyment and NOT literary merit, I'm going to give ANNA KARENINA a 2. It wasn't awful and got me through some lengthy jags spent in waiting rooms and bus seats, but it wasn't particularly enjoyable and the ending harshed my mellow.
I recently reread and reviewed OUTLANDER, to see if it would hold up to my initial reading. To my pleasant surprise, it did. I enjoyed the book so much that I immediately launched into the sequel, DRAGONFLY IN AMBER. The book starts out in the present day for Claire - the 1960s. Now she has a daughter in her 20s, and she's returned back to the place where she first disappeared. After a hundred pages or so, the book slips back into the 18th century, to Charles Stuart as he holds court in France, and, of course, to Claire and Jamie's desperate attempts to avert the Battle of Culloden.
Usually time travelers do everything they can not to change the course of history. In fact, it's like a rule: don't touch anything, don't even step on anything, because if you step on a butterfly, even, the Internet might not exist, or the US might be colonized by England. Not Claire, though.Claire comes from the 11/23/63 school of history, in the sense that she doesn't just not try to avoid changing history - she actively dedicates her life to f*cking with events.
For the greater good, of course.
This is a difficult book to rate. It's so long. Longer than it needs to be, I think you could argue. Parts of it were great. I loved the parts set in France - the plotting, the intrigue, the scandals, the violence. There were duels, rape (of course), cults, assassination attempts, poison attempts, potion-making, and, of course, long and gratuitous scenes involving primitive healthcare. Parts of the Battle of Culloden were good, too (I've been to Culloden... it's a beautiful and haunting place). Jack Randall makes an appearance, and he is just as disgusting as he was in the previous book, reminding everyone that he is the Ramsay Bolton of the Outlander universe, and everyone wants him just as dead.
(Spoiler alert: he doesn't die in this book.)
I wasn't too keen on the parts about Roger Wakefield and Brianna. I also felt like there was a lot of wandering around, doing nothing - especially in the last three-hundred pages or so. Even when Claire gets kidnapped by (spoiler), I was just kind of like, "Well, okay, but what now?" Honestly, I feel like I was emotionally exhausted. Jamie and Claire's relationship consumes everything about this novel. When they're not having sex, they're arguing, and when they're not arguing, they're pledging their lives for one another, and when they're not doing that, somebody's trying to kill them, etc.
I did enjoy DRAGONFLY IN AMBER quite a bit, albeit not as much as the first book. There were fewer memorable scenes, but a handful (like the French Court) were just as good, if not better. I'm still interested in continuing this series and reading about my favorite Scottish romance hero.
I can't stop side-eying the condescending blurb on the back jacket, though.
"Diana Gabaldon is light-years ahead of her romance-novelist colleagues." -Daily News (New York), emphasis mine.
I mentioned in OUTLANDER that I came across an article about the book and TV series and how the author resisted the romance category because she apparently felt it would detract from the literary merits of her work. Under the FAQ section of her website, where Gabaldon says some interesting things about DRAGONFLY IN AMBER (my reason for going to her website in the first place), she also has a subheading dedicated to this same topic. I read it. The whole thing has left a sour taste in my mouth. OUTLANDER won a RITA award - although she's quick to point out on her website that non-romance books can win those too (*eye-roll*) and I believe she's a member of the RWA (Romantic Writers of America). I'm a die-hard romance fan, and I guess it makes me sad that a romance novelist whose work I respect and admire seems to be trying so hard to distance herself from the genre in a way that almost seems as though she considers herself to be superior to it.
That aside, the Outlander series has, thus far, caused me to read about 2,000 pages about the same characters without becoming utterly fed-up. Whether you agree that it's a romance or not, it's certainly a compelling and action-packed series with morally grey characters who are forced to confront their mortality and their passions, time and again. I'm looking forward to VOYAGER.
The first time I read this book, I was fourteen. Just a few years older than the kids in IT. I remember it was summer, and as I read about the Losers' Summer of '58 in the Summer of '04, I remember feeling utterly absorbed. I couldn't put the book down and finished it in an entire weekend. I was terrified of using the bathroom at night, half-convinced that a gloved clown hand would come out the back of the tank when I sat down and drag me into the pits of sewer-hell. I gave the shower drain a wide berth. I had a new, respectful fear of balloons and floating.
It was a book that stayed with me over the years.
I tried rereading the book a couple times. but usually ended up giving up around the 900-page mark. This time, with the movie coming out, I told myself I was going to finish. It felt like the perfect time, in a way - I had been a young teenager (almost a preteen) when I started the book. Now, I'm an adult, just a few years younger than the "grown-ups" in this story. And, like the Losers, I returned to face IT a second time, wondering if it would be the way it was when I was a kid.
(Incidentally, the first IT movie was released in 1990, and the 2017 of the reboot is 27 years later. Let that sink in.)
IT is a really great horror story - for the most part, which I'll get to later. The atmosphere, the build-up, the gloomy Gothic vibe of Derry and its apathetic townsfolk: all of these combine to create a pretty menacing environment. And then, of course, there's IT. A killer clown that can also be a leper, a werewolf, or an abuser - whatever you fear the most, except when its Pennywise, leaving balloons like the Joker and his calling cards, and reminding you constantly that down here, everything floats.
The horror aspect is good, but what stuck with me is the coming of age aspect, and the bittersweet nostalgia of childhood when viewed through the lenses of an adult. Most of the story is focused on the relationship between the kids in this book: Mike, Stan, Richie, Eddie, Bill, Beverly, and Ben. Their interactions with each other make this story, and after spending over a thousand pages with these kids, I loved them almost as much as they loved each other - although, more on that, later. It's hard to capture that intensity of the friendship of youth, how quickly it springs, and how eternal it feels... until, one day, it stops, and you find that you can't even remember the last name of the person you would have pledged your undying loyalty to. I had a friend like that, growing up. We were inseparable, and then one day, not. Now I can't remember her last name or even her eye color.
As an adult, what struck me most powerfully this time around was the feeling of nostalgia. I'll be coming up on my ten-year reunion in a few months, and honestly, it freaks me out a little thinking about people who I knew when we were kids being all grown up, some of them with kids of their own now, looking the same but also looking completely different. When the Losers visit Derry as adults and go wandering through some of their old haunts, their wistfulness hit me hard. (And then, of course, sh*t started going down, and nostalgia ceded to "sweet Jesus in a jam jar, get me out of this place").
One thing I love about Stephen King novels is that he really has an ear for how people talk and think. And perhaps one of the most terrifying aspects of Stephen King novels is that, quite often, the real monsters in the book aren't the monsters themselves - but monsters hiding inside human skins. IT features some real doozies in the form of Tom Rogan, Henry Bowers, Mrs. Kaspbrak, and Mr. Marsh. What this means, unfortunately, is that there are some pretty terrible scenes in here involving bigoted slurs, racial violence, physical and sexual abuse, and domestic violence. There are two particularly grim scenes, one homophobic, one anti-black, and both are peppered with slurs and violence. This was upsetting to read, but it does serve to illustrate a point about Derry and the people living in it, and it was always clear to me that the people saying these things were Not Good People. (As for Richie's racist Voice impressions and the constant Jew jokes made at Stan's expense... weeeeeeell...)
So, by this point, you're probably asking yourself why I'm giving it 4-stars instead of 5, since I not only reread the book (which I rarely do), but also enjoyed it in a profound and interesting way. Well, I can give you not one, not two, but three reasons why this book doesn't get 5-stars.
I won't say any more on the matter, because spoilers, but if you've read the book you'll know what I'm talking about. I wasn't thrilled about the deadlights or Chud, either, but those were the main ones.
Here's a picture of my first edition. It was so heavy I damn near gave myself carpal tunnel holding the thing up while trying to read it.
Also, according to this other article I read, people think Pennywise is "hot"? I looked to see if Stephen King had an excellent rejoinder for that one, too, but didn't see one. Perhaps he didn't wish to dignify it with a response. I'm sure there's fanfiction of it, though. That's actually more frightening to me than this book - and considering that I stayed up until 3AM last night, too wound up to sleep after reading some of this terrifying clown nonsense, that says something.
I'm proud to say that I read this book before it became a TV series. I was in college, and checked out the weighty hardcover edition from the stacks on the third floor, along with several Anne Rice books and Sheri S. Teper's BEAUTY. That was about seven years ago, and I found myself thinking about the series again recently because my library recently purchased the entire series in honor of the television show. I wanted to read the others, but couldn't remember anything apart from the fact that Claire was a doctor, something about a witch trial, and the hideous rape/torture scene towards the end that still haunts me all these years later. I'm half-tempted to start a Change.org petition to call for Diana Gabaldon to rewrite OUTLANDER so that a certain someone dies a horrible death. It's even worse in the TV show. I saw a clip, and I don't think I'll be watching that. It's like torture porn. No, thanks.
For the past week I've been reading OUTLANDER, this book has been an emotional blackhole, slowly draining away all my feelings and leaving only despair. It's a very slow start, with Claire and her husband in the Scottish countryside, taking a bit of a break in the terrible aftermath of WWII, which they have both been affected by (especially Claire who, as a nurse, has seen some terrible things). Then, one day, Claire touches a set of standing stones and gets sucked back into 18th century Scotland, just before the battle of Culloden, and ends up encountering a highlander named Jamie Fraser.
***WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW***
Gabaldon tortures her characters with an enthusiasm that you don't really see anymore in romance novels. This is very much like those 1970s bodice rippers, where everything goes to sh*t, and the story is less about love and affection and whimsy than it is about sacrifice and struggles and giving up everything - and I mean everything - to fight tooth and claw for a person who might do terrible things but is your soulmate, for better or for worse. Two similar authors I could name are Rosemary Rogers and George R. R. Martin. Rosemary Rogers has these alpha heroes who might not fit into the modern idea of "perfect man" but are appealing because of their incredible charisma, bravery, and sacrifices that they make of the heroine. The relationships are often fraught with love and hate, and there's almost always some gruesome act of torture in the third act (in two of the books of hers that I've read, these, like OUTLANDER, also involved brutal whippings). And I think the comparison to George R R. Martin should be obvious - even though this is a romance, it's set in a time filled with battles and unrest, so scheming abounds, and ignorance has caused people to rely on superstitions and folklore, as well as a suspicion of foreigners, and especially strange foreign women.
Some of the darker moments are the rape/torture scene towards the end, the story of Jamie's flogging, the scene when Jamie beats Claire with a belt, and of course, the witch trial scene. Interspersed with these moments (they are spaced out, thank God) are lighter scenes. I think my favorite was the wedding scene, when Jamie's all dressed up to the nines and says, all sly, "Your servant, Ma'am." I just about died. Also, when he tells Claire that he's a virgin. That was also super cute. The cute scenes were like salve on the emotional savaging that the other stuff caused. I can definitely understand why some of those darker scenes I mentioned put people off reading this, and I'm surprised that people seem more upset about the belt than the rape. For me, I found that devastating, and felt so, so sorry for Jamie. The beating was not cool, and it was weird that they joked about it later, but it's a sad fact that that was a common way that men interacted with women at the time. That does not make it right, but Jamie was not trying to break Claire when he did it, whereas the rape scene was a deliberate attempt to demean, humiliate, and destroy, which made it so much worse to read about, for me.
I found this article by Vulture called Diana Gabaldon on Why Outlander Isn’t Really a Romance and Writing Her First Episode, and apparently she resisted the romance category because it "will never be reviewed by the New York Times or any other respectable literary venue" and "will cut off the entire male half of my readership," and I am side-eying the hell out of that because (1) So? and (2) SO? Honestly, I'm just about done with all the opinion pieces about What Men Think About X Female Thing. We've been hearing about what men think since thinking first became a public matter, and if *some* men are so terrified of catching cooties from a book jacket that they're willing to forgo an otherwise perfectly good book, well, then, that's their problem, and they can read all the Heinlein and Martin they want. The only thing separating Game of Thrones from a bodice ripper is literally just the packaging and the title. Call it DRAGON'S RAPTURE* and slap on a shirtless Jon Snow cradling a svelte Daenerys Targaryen in a too-tight bodice and ergo, you have a fantasy bodice ripper.
Regardless of what the author says about her book (she's free to say whatever she wants about it - it is her book), I consider this a romance, through and through, because the focus is on the love story of Jamie and Claire, as they fight to be together against all odds. The setting is beautiful, practically a character on its own, and was extra special to me, because I've been to so many places mentioned here: Culloden battlefield, Inverness, Urquhart Castle. I've also gone horseback riding on the Black Isle and been to Fort George in Ardersier. Scotland is incredibly beautiful and feels wild in a way that the U.S. does not. I had the same impression when I went to Japan, and saw Hakone and Meiji forest. They haven't curbed and domesticated their wilderness and paved over history in the same way that us Americans have; it still feels wild and magical and dangerous there, which adds to the appeal. This was a really great epic romance done in the old style and I recommend it to anyone who likes that sort of thing, particularly if you're a fan of the older romance authors like Rosemary Rogers.
*P.S. Somebody with more talent than I have needs to make a mock-up of that DRAGON'S RAPTURE cover. I could use a laugh after having all my feelings demolished.
09/09/17: ANGEL IN SCARLET is on sale again for $1.99 today!
ANGEL IN SCARLET went on sale recently for $1.99 and I figured what better occasion than to do a buddy-read with my dear Goodreads friends, Korey and Vellini. Jennifer Wilde is the pen name of a male author, T.E. Huff, and he's rather infamous for his smutty, purple prose and sex-pot heroines. We're talking trashy fiction of the V.C. Andrews caliber. The only book of his I read before this was LOVE'S TENDER FURY, which is very much a traditional bodice ripper with its themes of slavery, rape, and general wtfery that boggle the rational mind.
ANGEL IN SCARLET is not a bodice ripper. There is no rape (although there are some unconsummated attempts at forced-seduction). Our heroine is named Angela, and she's the daughter of a teacher, and has two step-sisters and a step-mother. The step-mother ends up being a villain later on (madam of a whorehouse), but the two step-sisters are actually pretty chill and one of them, Solonge, intrigued me far more than the heroine did.
Angel is an okay heroine as far as heroines go. She has a lot of moxie. She punches people, bashes would-be rapists over the head with their seduction champagne, flips people the finger, kicks bad men in the testicles, and tells anyone she cares to (namely everyone): "SOD OFF!" It's basically her catchphrase. A woman like Angel is obviously too much for one man, and she sleeps with several over the course of the book - something she shares in common with Marietta Danvers from LOVE'S TENDER FURY. Unlike LOVE'S TENDER FURY, however, these relationships are all basically consensual. There's her childhood love, the bastard son of nobility: Hugh. Then there's the temperamental playwright who sees her as his muse, James ("Jamie"). And lastly, there's Lord Meredith (Clinton), Hugh's half-brother: an entitled, spoiled, selfish, womanizing lord. On top of all this, Angel goes from being lower middle class to working in a gambling den, to becoming an artist's "Gibson Girl", to becoming an accomplished actress, to becoming a lady of the nobility herself.
I wanted to like this book and at first I did, because it was refreshing to read a vintage novel where the heroine wasn't a victim: who was actually quite empowered when it came to seizing life by the balls and doing whatever the hell she wanted. Unfortunately, there were several setbacks that made this book incredibly difficult to get into and really dampened my enjoyment of it.
-: The writing is incredibly repetitive. Wilde repeats the same phrases over and over. All gowns are cut "provocatively low" or "dangerously low" to the point that you can almost see one's "bright pink" nipples. Angel's "chestnut waves" are always dangling into her "violet-gray eyes." There are paragraphs and paragraphs of costume pr0n that are basically cut and pasted reprises of prior descriptions. Hint: embroidered waistcoats, lacy jabots, lace spilling from the sleeves. There are also paragraphs and paragraphs of food pr0n, and while I liked these better, they weren't necessary to the plot. I could really feel the 600 pages of this novel - especially towards the middle, where it began to slog. I think about 200 pages of this could have been cut while still preserving the overall novel.
-: The sex scenes are absolutely awful, some of the worst I've read (and I've read countless ones that have the H/h "soaring off into the heights of ecstasy to romp with an orgy of angels*." These were worse. They honestly read like teen-age fan-fiction. Allow me to provide you with some samples:
And he pounced upon me and we wrestled vigorously and it was joyous and he pinioned me and the match continued and it was delightful and he entered me and I writhed and he bucked and I thrashed and he plunged and it was glorious, glorious, sensations shimmering, soaring, and I fought and he retaliated and I gave and he took and he gave and sensations swelled and shattered... (48%)
...onto me he crawled and into me he plunged, filling me fully, strong, straining. I wrapped my legs around him and he reached out, groping, and got one of the cushions and positioned it under my hips and pulled back and plunged and pounded and repeated and I raised and reared and our movements matched and magic and marvelous sensations besieged us both (55%).
...the room in darkness now, now the warm hardness of him entering slowly, slowly, plunging then to fill, holding for a moment and then slowly withdrawing, so slowly, plunging again, flesh filling flesh, his hard and strong as steel and soft as velvet, my own clutching, clinging, my body arching to meet him, to bring him closer still... (68%)
-: I also couldn't quite pinpoint the exact time period because the author uses some very anachronistic language like "yeah" and "bitchy affection." I think it's mid-Georgian because the author makes several references to plays like She Stoops to Conquer and The Vicar of Wakefield, and if it was Victorian, I'm certain the author would have referred to Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw.
Something that confused me, though (regarding the time period) was the way Angel's acting career was treated by others. She rubs elbows with royalty and is generally well-respected by the town, but in Regency England, acting - especially for women - was seen as an ignoble profession that was pretty much regarded as being as base and derided as a prostitute. Public opinion on that didn't really start to shift until the late 19th century, from what I understand.
I did like the ending, which was unexpectedly bittersweet, and Angel was an interesting character, so I'm rounding this up to 1.5 stars. But this is by no means one of Jennifer Wilde's better efforts, and if you're a first-timer hoping to get in on the bodice ripper craze, I'd urge you to pick up LOVE'S TENDER FURY instead.
🌟 I read this for the Yule Bingo Challenge, for the category of Marauders: book w/ a map. For more info on this challenge, click here. 🌟
I originally had no intention of reading this book. The furor surrounding THE BLACK WITCH was too extra, and I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. However, I'm a woman with opinions, who doesn't like being told what to think, and when I saw people on both sides actively trying to shut one another down, using their thoughts on the book to leverage their various political platforms ("you're a racist!" "no, you're an SJW!"), I began to wonder what the hell was going on. Then the book dropped to $1.99 on Amazon and I thought, "Screw taking the high road."
First, let me be very clear: as a straight, white woman, I fully acknowledge that my familiarity and experience with racism and discrimination are going to be very, very different from others. There are many areas where, to speak frankly, I don't know shit.If reading this book made you feel uncomfortable, then it made you feel uncomfortable, and I am not going to tell you that you are wrong or argue with you about the validity of your experiences felt while reading this book. THE BLACK WITCH is a book whose entire concept revolves around race and discrimination, which is a really painful subject for a lot of people - especially right now, when racial- and ethnic-based discrimination seem to make headlines every day.
However, even if you set the matters of race and discrimination aside, as they pertain to the book, THE BLACK WITCH is still not a very good book.
Here's what I think the author was trying to do. I think Laurie Forest was trying to do with WWII what ANIMAL FARM did with the Communist Revolution in Russia. The Gardnerians are fascists, and in particular, their rise from a terrible oppression from another race (the Kelts, AKA Europe/UK?)and their scapegoating and mass-genocide of the Fae, not to mention the fact that their leader has them wear white armbands, seem to suggest that this society is supposed to serve as an allegory for the rise of the Nazi party during WWII. I do not think that this book is saying that fascism is a good idea, nor do I think that it is saying that Nazis are a good idea: in fact, I think this book is trying very, very hard to say that the opposite is true. As those who have rated the book positively have said, the main character, Elloren, learns the error of her ways when she is sent to a magical school filled with other races, through dialogues and interactions with people who are different than her. She learns the value of different perspectives, and that history is told through a different lens depending on who's telling it. She learns that her country is the bad guy.
That could have been interesting. The problem is that this book is filled with so many mixed messages that the author's intentions are thoroughly muddled. I suspect it's because the author did not want to write an unlikable main character. It's difficult to market an unlikable main character, particularly in young adult books, because teens generally want characters they identify with and parents buying the books want good role models for their kids. So in order to make Elloren sympathetic, all of the other characters pick on and bully her for being Gardnerian. And Elloren uses their anger to rationalize her racism, and is constantly talking about how "pure" her race is. She seeks out one of her professors to inquire about their perspective on history, but then starts looking for loopholes and whining about how hard it is to balance so many perspectives. All I could think about are those idiots on Twitter, who RT every single mainstream news article they can find about social justice and caption it "FAKE NEWS! FAKE NEWS!" I can definitely see why this made people uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable. It felt like a cheap way to get some sympathy for a character I had already decided, from the very beginning of the story, that I did not like.
Being uncomfortable while reading a book can sometimes be a good thing. It can mean that you're confronting facts that aren't easy to listen to but that just means that they're even more important. THE HATE U GIVE made me uncomfortable, but I learned a lot from it, too, and it ended up becoming one of my top reads of 2017. I didn't experience that with THE BLACK WITCH
Elloren is easily one of the most selfish, unlikable, ridiculous main characters I have encountered in a while. She's racist, obviously, and it takes forever for her to change her views. She has to cause multiple people a lot of pain before she realizes, "Hey, maybe I'm not the good guy." She uses her crush, Lukas Grey, to bully others and get revenge on her behalf, including killing the pet of her demon roommate and threatening a small child with deportation and slavery. She cries at the drop of a hat, bawling over petty insults that pale in comparison to the hurts she inflicts on others, and she's cowardly, too, choosing to run away or hide behind Lukas rather than fighting her own battles.
She does so much harm.
And then one of her main turning points is watching another character being bullied and then feeling bad about it. Not doing anything about it or speaking out, but just feeling bad about it. Like we're supposed to credit her for that. Sorry, but no. You're not getting that cookie. In the second half of the book, she finally has some character development, but it feels sudden, because it kind of happens all at once - mostly, I think, for the sake of the plot. Every page, Elloren has a new revelation, and it's just kind of like, "Okay, I get it. All of your previous beliefs are wrong now. Go you."
Then there's the fact that the writing in this book simply is not good. The world building is not well thought-out and there's so many names and races and other details just haphazardly thrown in that it felt impossible to try and keep track of it all. The quality of the writing is not good, with multiple adverbs used, sometimes two or three to a sentence, giving the writing a disjointed, clunky feel. The names are silly. All of the characters are two dimensional. Elloren is a Mary Sue of the highest order (the hot dude literally decides he wants her as soon as he lays eyes on her, which of course drives the resident mean girl up the wall and causes all sorts of bullying and girl-on-girl hate/slut-shaming), and all of the villains are cardboard cut-outs. The descriptions of the characters read like someone's fanfiction, with purple-and-black haired characters with piercings who could just as easily double as Hot Topic models in their downtime. I felt like I was reading Quizilla stories in 2004.
I respect the author for trying to tackle such a difficult subject. It's just a damn shame that it went so badly. Sometimes, attempts to start dialogues don't end well - the book, REVEALING EDEN, is solid proof of that. THE BLACK WITCH doesn't seem to be as tone-deaf as REVEALING EDEN came across as, though. It feels like a less successful attempt at what ILLUSION by Paula Volksy so beautifully accomplished. ILLUSION was an allegory for the French Revolution, and the focus was more on class-discrimination rather than race although it dealt with both. It was a good book because it not only had a well developed world and characters whose motives were not only believable but also chillingly familiar and/or relatable, it also did a good job of writing a heroine who was incredibly privileged, selfish, and entitled, who also had a character arc that involved not being a bigot anymore by making her flawed and selfish and human. Unlike Elloren, however, Eliste was resourceful, clever, and interesting. Those were the traits that ultimately triumphed over her less pleasant attributes.
There were some good elements in this book. Diana's character was great, and anything involving or pertaining to dragons always has my vote. I even appreciated the details the author put into the story to make it work as an allegory - allegories of world history as fantasy and science-fiction are kind of my weakness #HistoryNerd. The problem, I think, is how the message of this book was handled and the fact that it hits just a little too close to home with regard to what's happening in the news every day. Maybe this book just came out at the wrong time. Regardless, I can't recommend it.
Hopefully I managed to explain myself without making a proper mess of my opinions. :-)
It's difficult to explain my love of bodice rippers to people who don't already enjoy them. The distortion of reality that they reflect is not one that I find desirable at all: They are often brutal, politically incorrect (to the point of being offensive), with spoiled immature heroines and heroes who could just as easily double as villains. Oh, and the writing - the over-the-top, adjective-laden writing, with flowery euphemisms for primary sex characteristics and prose so purple that it makes violets look red.
This is bodice-ripper land. Go big, or go home.
At 700 pages (in my edition), SURRENDER TO LOVE is definitely a big book. It was originally published in 1982 and my reprint by Mira was released in 2003. Often when bodice ripper authors rerelease their older works, they will "clean them up" and remove some of the more un-PC references and rewrite blatant acts of rape into more "acceptable" forced seduction scenes. I was curious to see if Rosemary Rogers, who is fairly well known for her unapologetically OTT plots, would do the same. I haven't read the original version, but if this version is anything to go by, I would guess no.
(If you do know for sure, please tell me. I'm very curious.)
I was reading her author bio on Goodreads and part of what makes SURRENDER TO LOVE so fun is that the beginning part of it seems semi-autobiographical. Rogers, like our heroine Alexa, was raised in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in a rich family, and under constant supervision. The descriptions of Ceylon are amazing, not just of the land but of the climate and the people as well. Rogers's exotic setting is part of what makes this book so fun and is reminiscent of titles like Christine Monson's RANGOON (which is set in Burma/Myanmar) and Lane Harris's THE DEVIL'S LOVE (set in the Caribbean). I enjoyed both of these books, but the setting in SURRENDER feels so much more pervasive, and I'm sure that's because Rogers was actually there, and she knew its beauties as well as its disadvantages, and she had seen a lot of the local politics and tensions firsthand.
Alexa is a fairly likable heroine, as far as bodice ripper heroines go. She's feisty and headstrong and sometimes this can make her annoying, but for the most part she is a decent character and I was always (at least halfheartedly) championing her. Nicholas, the hero, is where the fun is really at, though. He's one of those villainish heroes. One who thinks nothing about dub-con (or non-con), who treats women like garbage and goes around whoring and slut-shaming in equal measures. He cheats, multiple times, on multiple people, supposedly murdered his last wife, and appears to think nothing of threatening the lives of the people around him even if they are people he allegedly cares for.
SURRENDER TO LOVE is more of a psychodrama than a romance in the traditional sense, since the characters spend most of the novel - about 680 pages out of 700, in fact - tormenting one another with physical violence, rape, whoring, manipulation, lies, and revenge. For reasons I won't reveal (come on, guys, you have to read it), Alexa wants revenge on Nicholas's family, and her attraction to him becomes just another weapon in her arsenal as she embarks on her vicious quest.
What had she ever done to injure him? Except - the dark demon side of him answered too promptly - except by marrying a very rich man who was too old to please her and finding her pleasure in playing the whore, bitch that she was. Not for the money - that at least would have been halfway excusable - but to satisfy her degraded appetites (380).
"If you had any realization of all the different kinds of pain and degradation and abuse that can be and are inflicted on some human beings by others in the name of 'pleasure,' I do not think you'd have dared indulge your whining, hypocritical little complaints to me of cruelty and the infliction of pain - unless you meant it as a challenge?" (443)
"You can keep your eyes closed or open - it's all the same to me. And you can take off that ugly purple dress you're wearing, and all your damned petticoats and your corset as well - or if you prefer it, I'll rip the clothes off your body myself! But either way, my mermaid, I'll have you naked the way I first saw you; and I meant to use you, my virgin slut, as I should have done then and later. In every way and every fashion I see fit" (474).
Nicholas - such a charmer.
The best way of describing SURRENDER is saying that it's two parts V.C. Andrews and two parts Bertrice Small. It's like V.C. Andrews in the sense of Alexa's father figures have incestuous feelings for her (one of whom has an almost sexual fixation with his own mother), and there's a wicked matriarch type character who runs the scenes and will stop at nothing to have her way no matter how much manipulation it takes. There's also a narrative style that I can only describe as "breathless" - peppered with numerous italics, so you know how important every word is, and how it's emphasized when the characters talk, and many exclamation points so you know it is a dramatic exclamation! It's like Bertrice Small in the sense that Rogers is very cruel to her characters, and has them be very cruel to each other. Someone is raped in a Turkish prison, and decides to inflict that torment on others. The hero is flogged towards the end of the book, and tortured in front of the heroine (something that Rogers apparently does in another one of her books, SWEET SAVAGE LOVE). There's lots of cheating and sexual abuse. The heroine is ambitious and incredibly good at sex, despite her inexperience. Parts of the book take place in a brothel, with some kinky scenes ensuing. This is all classic Small, but Rogers is a much better writer than Small, which makes it even more amusing.
Are these books for everyone? No. But unlike certain romance novels cycling around the popularsphere, SURRENDER TO LOVE doesn't pretend to literary accomplishment. It strives to entertain, instead - and entertain it did. I think this is actually my favorite bodice ripper that I have ever read to date because of the broadness in scope, and the epic journey the characters take across those neverending pages, from hatred to hate-sex to sex-sex to something that's sort of love but probably isn't because relationships like that aren't healthy at all. If you think you're up to tackling the mess, I definitely recommend this book. It will shock, it will disgust, but dammit, it will entertain!
I'm really annoyed at this book. Not because it was terrible, or even because it was bad - no, I'm angry because it could have been AMAZING and instead it was merely okay. Part of that lies with the incredibly misleading summary, which would have you believe that this is a fantasy romance story, possibly with elements of F/F. Instead, what romance there is in here is severely underplayed, with the focus being on politics and court intrigue. Don't get me wrong; I love court intrigue, I thrive on court intrigue, but that summary set me up for something else entirely.
Our narrator, Emras, is only mentioned once in the summary on Goodreads, which would have you think that she's a secondary character and not, you know, the voice driving the narrative. And what an utterly dull voice it is...honestly, it's to this story's credit that BANNER OF THE DAMNED could be as engaging as it was with dull-as-dishwater Emras telling the story.
Emras is a scribe. She's arrogant, sanctimonious, and hypocritical. These things sort of end up almost being her downfall by the end of the book, which actually says some pretty cool things about how power corrupts even when you attempt to use it for good, although it doesn't really come to bite her in the butt as much as it should. After going to scribe school, she's appointed to Princess Lasva to be her royal scribe. Lasva is a Colendi princess. Colend is a fantasy land that borrows heavily from both Japanese and French culture. This shouldn't work, but it does, and what follows is an amazingly detailed description of all the little cuts and secret languages they use to communicate in the very height of courtly fashion. I'm sure this will bore some people to tears, but I found it fascinating.
Lasva is in love with a man named Kaidas...I think he's the son of a baron. Lesser nobility, in any case. They carry on a romance that titillates the court with how secretive it is, and fills the duchess, Carola, with burning, vindictive envy. When Lasva is forced to end her relationship with Kaidas and marry a foreign prince by her Queen sister, you can bet that Carola swoops in to steal her man only to realize that being married doesn't necessitate love. Lasva finds this out too with her husband-to-be, Ivandred. His court, Marloven Hesea, is as sparse and crude as Colend is opulent and courtly. In a territory of unrest, he and his people thrive on strength and honor and war, and even have a secret school that's entirely devoted to making boys into young men, and young men into soldiers.
Lasva, Kaidas, Carola, and Ivandred were my favorite characters. I rooted for Lasva and Kaidas to be together, and my heart broke for them when they were forced to marry elsewhere for political reasons. It took me a while to get over it, and while I never rooted for Kaidas and Carola, I gradually began to ship Ivandred and Lasva. I'm such a sucker for strong men with fragile hearts, and Ivandred has such a tragic backstory. Also, am I the only one who desperately wants an M/M prequel about Invandred and Dandrid's relationship with they were young men? Yes? Yes? I thought not.
While in Marloven, Lasva quickly realizes that the land that's become her new home is fraught with terrible danger. War, fracturing alliances, and dark, dark magic. She also realizes that the men around her are too proud to lose face and sacrifice honor, so she embarks upon a brilliant campaign of sowing fragile seeds of peace through the women with Emras at her side, hoping all the while that her husband and his enemies won't trample them to oblivion or be found out by magical spies.
In one of my status updates, I said that this is pretty much Game of Thrones for women and I stand by that. This world is a world that has evolved beyond rape. War is fought fiercely and brutally but without gratuitous torture and sexual and physical violence. The world is just as developed and the characters are just as flawed and complex, but they're a lot more likable and human-like, even the bad ones. Let's be honest, a lot of the "people" in the Game of Throne series are just monsters in human skin. BANNER OF THE DAMNED has politics, intrigue, war, magic, love, and romance, but it manages to balance all these things and show how the characters change and develop because of these various things, for better or for worse. Also, it does something that Game of Thrones doesn't: it touches upon the many different kinds of love and sexualities. For example, in Marloven Hesea, they have a history of gender fluidity and it shows in the flexibility of the pronouns in their ballads. Colend has several different names for "love" depending on who you're attracted to (those who like men, those who like women, those who like both), or not. Emras, the narrator, is asexual, and the author is careful to point out that while Emars can still feel love and affection - and does - it is only the physical expression, in the sexual sense, that puts her off, although she can still enjoy touch.
The problem is, as I said, that Emras just isn't a very interesting character. I was fascinated with all the side characters orbiting around her like satellites and couldn't figure out how she could be so dull. Even when she's learning magic spells, I could scarcely be bothered to care. She just didn't seem to have much personality and I couldn't quite figure out if that's because her will had been utterly bent towards adhering to the rules of being a scribe (although Birdy and Tiflis went to the same school and had the same training, and they didn't have this boredom issue), or if it's just that the author is stronger at writing in the third person than the first person, and therefore comes across as impersonal as habit because when writing third person you have to be removed to let the characters tell their stories. Regardless of the reason, Emras was this wonderful story's downfall, and I'm pissed at her for it, because the writing and world-building and characterization (of anyone but Emras) are utterly brilliant.
Also, Ivandred: you poor, sad Marloven cinnamon roll. You didn't deserve what happened to you. :(
💙 I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Antebellum/Civil War/Reconstruction Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. 💙
Every time someone says romances are too light, and that they don't have enough action, I want to throw a bodice ripper at them. SWEET SAVAGE LOVE is one of the early bodice rippers, when the authors were still working out the formula, and was published just two years after THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER.
SWEET SAVAGE LOVE is a Western romance set amid the backdrop of the Franco-Mexican War and the American Civil War. Ginny Brandon is the daughter of a Southern senator who has a vested interest in the Confederates beating the Union. After spending her childhood in France, growing up in the lap of luxury, she is now joining her father on his trip to petition the sympathetic French.
Steve Morgan is a Yankee spy, as well as a Juarista (the people who supported Benito Juarez and were very much against Emperor Maximillian's presence in Mexico). He has signed up with Brandon's men under false pretenses, intending to lure them to bandits who will make off with the gold they're planning on using to bribe the French.
If you think these two romantic leads are at odds, oh boy, you have no idea. SWEET SAVAGE LOVE was a 600+ page psychodrama that was less about love than it was about Stockholm syndrome, hate sex, and physical and psychological torture. I thought reading one of her later books, SURRENDER TO LOVE (published in 1982), had adequately prepared me for SWEET SAVAGE LOVE, but I was woefully mistaken. As dark as SURRENDER was, it couldn't hold a candle to SAVAGE.
SWEET SAVAGE LOVE has a bitingly realistic portrayal of war, in the sense that it doesn't shy away from the squalor of living life on the run, in the field, or in prison; the desperation of men in tough situations, and the cruelty they'll inflict when they're either cornered or on a power trip; and the violence (physical and sexual) that occurs in all of the former situations. Steve is party to all of these, and his sexual encounters with the heroine are often unconsensual (in fact, when they first meet, he mistakes her for the prostitute he thought he ordered). He kills without mercy and sleeps with every female character who appears in this book, including the heroine's stepmother(!), his grandfather's servants, and his own godmother. The heroine also has a number of partners who aren't Steve, but, again, a lot of these are unconsensual, and she doesn't really enjoy herself even when they are.
The western setting is truly glorious. I love the detail. The sensory descriptions. This was what won me over in SURRENDER TO LOVE, when Rogers lovingly details what it was like to be in Victorian-era Ceylon. She brought the setting to life, as she does her (albeit to a slightly less vivid and sympathetic extent). SWEET SAVAGE LOVE is very un-PC and if the sex scenes aren't enough to get you, the racist stereotypes and incredibly poor Spanish translations will. Seriously, the Spanish in this book was awful. It's only my second language and I don't speak it too well, but I know enough to know that "mi casa esta su casa" is not correct, that La Caseta does not mean "The Little House" (she meant "La Casita"; La Caseta means "The Booth"), and that it's "abuelo" and not "abielo." How hard would it have been to get someone who speaks Spanish to look this over?
Still, despite everything, until about 75% in, this was going to be a 5-star book. Ginny was a spitfire. Steve was fascinating - in addition to being involved in two wars, he was also affiliated with the Comanche people (and married one at 15), half-Mexican and fluent in Spanish, fluent in French, and the grandson of an incredibly rich and influential plantation owner. The problem comes when Ginny is captured by the French and Steve bursts in to save her and both characters (but especially Steve) are subjected to some of the worst horrors imaginable, and due to a series of incredibly long misunderstandings, each blame the other for their predicaments. For the next 15% of the book or so, the hero and heroine remain apart, wallowing in misery and being tortured emotionally, sexually, and psychologically. It was agonizing, and I could hardly stand it. The last time a romance book brought me to my knees (figuratively) was probably in Patricia Hagan's Coltrane saga, particularly in LOVE AND WAR, where she seemed to delight in torturing her heroine. Rosemary Rogers does the same with Steve and Ginny, in a gigantic misery-fest that finally blows out around the 90% mark.
This book is not for everyone, and it's hardly a traditional love story, but if you're into bodice rippers and edgy reads, SWEET SAVAGE LOVE is a fantastic book. There really is nothing like it and the story is so epic, and Rosemary Rogers makes you suffer and sweat for that HEA. I'm really glad that my friends Korey and Heather joined me in this buddy read; it forced me to endure and keep going!
(Speaking of "keeping going," I happen to have book 2 if anyone wants to join...)
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...
I read a lot of romances, so by now I have a pretty good idea of what I like and what I don't like. I don't tend to like romances about cheaters, hence my scathing review of the trash people in Molly McAdams's cringily-titled SHARING YOU, but sometimes if the story is good, I can make an exception or at least enjoy the story in spite of the cheating, like my favorable review of the trash people in Joan Dial's BELOVED ENEMY.
THE BRONZE HORSEMAN is a polarizing book among my friends and looking at the reviews, I guess what it comes down to is this: can you enjoy a book that's about trash people treating each other like garbage if the story at least is good? If yes, hop on this drama-filled train to Literary No Man's Land, where the heroine buys ice cream and caviar with her family's food money during wartime and the hero dates the sister of the woman he loves to hide their relationship from a man he knows wishes them ill.
THE BRONZE HORSEMAN is set during WII and covers the horrifying Siege of Leningrad, a period of terrible starvation in the middle of a cruel Russian winter that was the result of a German blockade. Tatiana Metanova struggles to survive with her family while also dreaming after the soldier she fell in love with on a summer day - the soldier she found out was seeing her sister: Alexander Belov. The conflict between them hinges on one of the most cowardly displays of passive-aggression I've ever seen, masquerading as selflessness. Tatiana doesn't want to hurt her sister, Dasha, who she knows is head-over-heels for Alexander... so she doesn't allow Alexander to simply break up with Dasha and see her instead. No, they continue seeing each other on the sly, eye-f*ck around her sister, and moon over each other, while Tatiana sort-of-but-not-really sees Alexander's friend, "Dimitri." Someone suggested to me that it would be difficult for Tatiana to live in the house with her family and share her bed with her sister, knowing that they all hated her for breaking up Dasha and Alexander, but that didn't go so well for Tatiana, anyway, did it? Tatiana's bitterness and resentment drove a wedge between her and her sister, anyway, and I felt like the author worked extra hard to make the cheating seem "okay" by making Dasha seem slutty, temperamental, selfish, and lazy.
To Simons's credit, the characters were all very well done, and war time does bring out the worst in people (I'd imagine) - or the best. So we see humanity across the spectrum, sometimes doing unexpected kindnesses, sometimes taking advantage, sometimes being unspeakably cruel. The "romance" aspect was one of the shakier elements to me, because Alexander wasn't my ideal romance hero by any means. He's weak and violent and full of rage, which he attempts to channel into honor. In some ways, he reminded me of Thomas Eden, from THIS OTHER EDEN. Thomas Eden was utterly obsessed with the heroine, had her publicly whipped before his people, and then went to extraordinary lengths to get her to be his by manipulating everyone around him. But he was also weak, and had only his honor to stand behind. That was how I felt about Alexander. He never whipped Tatiana, but he threw things at her, grabbed at her, yelled at her, and wouldn't listen to her when she said "no" or "stop." He had a tragic history because his parents were naive fools, and his manipulations kept him from safety and plunged him into a vicious circle of paranoia and debt.
Tatiana, on the other hand, did have some character development. She was like a pale imitation of Scarlett O'Hara, in the sense that she would survive anything and do what was necessary...but unlike Scarlett, she'd usually only do it for Alexander. (Maybe that makes her more like Melanie, who was selfless and kind of a doormat, but a doormat made out of steel instead of straw.) I liked her more when she became a nurse and started learning English, because that made her more interesting to me than the childlike (very childlike - at one point, Alexander refers to her as a "child-bride") heroine who was always bouncing up and down and clapping her hands like a five-year-old when she wasn't trying to hump Alexander's leg with the enthusiasm of a small poodle hopped up on Viagra (seriously, 200 pages of this book in the middle section are basically just smut). By the end of the book, I was having pleasant flashbacks to my first time reading Patricia Hagan's LOVE AND WAR, a bodice-ripper set in the Civil War with a female doctor as the heroine.
In short, I did like THE BRONZE HORSEMAN, despite its unlikable characters. The setting was great, and so convincing that I half-felt like I ought to perhaps conserve my dinner, too. It definitely made me extra grateful for my warm quilt that night. The antagonist, Dimitri, was also well done, and the shadow he casts over this story line is long and enduring. I didn't like him from the start, and my dislike of him only grew as the story went on. The romance, to me, felt less romantic than... I don't know, a portrait of an utterly dysfunctional and all-consuming passion doomed to end in tragedy, rather like OUTLANDER or ROMEO AND JULIET. This is not a selfless love, or a good love, or a love that ought to be emulated by others: instead, it kind of felt like a love story between two flawed characters trying to fill the holes in their soul with raw, unfiltered passion with such desperation that they didn't care who got hurt, or how they were hurting each other (and they did hurt each other quite a bit). If you don't care about cheating or selfishness or heroes that borderline on abusive, and enjoy watching literary train wrecks in action, then I encourage you - completely without sarcasm, mind - to pick up THE BRONZE HORSEMAN. It's a f*cked up ride with one hell of a view.
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.
I've said over and over that zombie books just aren't for me, so it just figures that R. Lee Smith would be the one to prove me wrong. Smith is a relatively recent discovery for me and quickly became a fast favorite, because honestly, how can you NOT fall in love with an author who can convince you that demons, insect-men, lizard-men, and zombie men can be romantic leads?
LAND OF THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD is a post-apocalyptic book set in a grim world where a man named Azrael has taken over England and raised the dead. Zombies (called Eaters) wander across the landscape, eating the unwary, and providing a living, crawling fortress for the heart of his realm: Haven.
Humanity has all but destroyed itself - and the land, and the sky - in a failed attempt to destroy that which does not die. Our heroine, Lan, has yet another idea. She plans to go to Haven and demand an audience, to persuade Azrael to destroy the Eaters.
She ends up becoming his mistress instead.
LAND OF THE DEAD is a difficult book to rate, because there were things I loved about it and things I didn't. One of the things I loved was the supporting cast. One of Smith's strong points is that she breathes life into ALL of her characters, not just the leads. Batuuli, Solveig, Serafina, Deimos, and Wickham were all wonderful characters, and I liked them a lot more than I did the two main characters, which was unfortunate - especially since at least one of these characters never makes it to end credits.
I also loved the world-building. It felt unfinished - especially since we never fully understand what Azrael is or how humanity crumbled - but it was imaginative and original, just like all of Smith's other works. I saw another reviewer saying that she wished she could live in Smith's head for a day, and I can't help but agree. Her stories are truly unique, and she knows how to turn a phrase. The best way to describe her work is to say that she's like if Stephen King wrote fantasy/horror romances.
Lan was something I felt ambivalent about. Ditto Azrael. Their characters were well fleshed-out but I was so tired of them arguing over and over. Especially since most of these arguments were just repeats of the last arguments. Here's a quick synopsis. Lan: "Kill the Eaters." Azrael: "No." Lan: "Please." Azrael: "No." Lan: "Pretty please." Azrael: "No." Lan: "I hate you." Azrael: "K." Lan: "Let's have sex." Azrael: "K." Lan: "And afterwards, maybe you'll kill the Eaters...?" Azrael: "NO, ME-DAMMIT." *flips table*
By the end of the book, I do think their relationship had evolved past that, but Azrael changed a lot more than Lan did, and he sacrificed far more, in my opinion. His choices actually won me over because they showed how much he had grown from the beginning of the story. Lan, on the other hand...did not. Although I did appreciate the fact that she wasn't beautiful and was also illiterate and crude. That was a refreshing change from the usual line-up of impossibly beautiful and clever heroines that line the fantasy and science-fiction shelves.
The constant arguments and inconsistent pacing make this book feel a lot longer than SCHOLOMANCE or LAST HOUR OF GANN. I found myself wishing I was reading those books instead at several points during this book, because LAND OF THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD felt like a less cleanly executed meld of those two stories. It's a great story, but it's not one I would suggest to readers discovering Smith for the first time and I think people who aren't fans of Smith or her verbose writing style will be frustrated with the rambling length of this massive tome.
I enjoyed LAND OF THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD but I do consider it a step down from some of her previous works. That said, I'm still very interested in reading more of her work, and I hope that her next WIP is just as original and disturbing as all of the other books of hers I've read.