book reviews

All posts in the book reviews category

Some quick reviews

Published November 1, 2016 by Shannon

I figured I’d post a few mini reviews over here so I can get some books off my NetGalley wall of shame, since, well, there’s something up on NetGalley that I want erather badly. So here we go.

Montana Rescue by Kim Law:

I liked this one a lot. It features an adrenaline junkie heroine and a hero who had a crush on her from childhood. She was always the unattainable woman he could never have, and as they get to know each other better, he realizes the adult version has scars.

I didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did. Both the characters were a little messed up, and I liked that neither was so perfect they had to fix the other. My only real gripe was that the sequel-baiting was pretty intense with the rest of the hero’s messed up family. Overall, though, the romance was quite good, and I’d give it a solid B.

The Queen and the Homo Jock King by TJ Klune:

I listened to this one on audio. I adored the prequel to this book, Tell Me It’s Real. Unfortunately, as is the case with every TJ Klune book, what could have been a truly great book was marred by a lack of editing. The book was seriously 17 hours long. It didn’t need to be. And while I get that men pining over each other from a distance and never speaking about it is TJ’s thing, I was annoyed that Sandy, our first-person narrator, couldn’t stop being a drama queen long enough to have the five-minute conversation with Darren, the other hero, that would have made the book significantly shorter. Not that there weren’t funny books. Sandy’s friend Paul’s grandmother is especially hysterical as she tries to remain hip to the younger generation, and to explain things no one needed to know about the BDSM lifestyle. But too often, what should have been a bunch of snappy dialogue ended up going on. and on. and on. Much like this review. It would have been a solid B but for the pacing, but I was annoyed enough by the end that it got pulled down to a C.

Too Wild to Tame by Tessa Bailey:

I really like this series. The Clarksons are a messed up family, and I enjoy their dynamics. So much so that I’m not sure what I’m going to do when we get to Belmont’s book and he doesn’t have the rest of them to liven things up. But this was Aaron’s book, and I liked the story of how the charmer and politician falls for a free-spirited senator’s daughter. For some reason, the insta-lust worked for me, probably because it messed with Aaron’s head so much. Grace was a bit of a manic pixie dream girl, and I never quite bought her as a real person I could actually meet, but I liked that there was tragedy in her backstory as well. I’m still on board with the rest of the series, and am hoping the next one will finally be an A for me. As it was, B to B+ isn’t that bad.

Review: Cara’s Twelve by Chantel Seabrook

Published July 11, 2016 by Shannon

Cara's Twelve

This was the first NetGalley book I was able to download and read on my own, despite being a member for years. So, yay for some accessibility improvements, I guess, although the process isn’t nearly as painless as it would be, say, if I were sighted.

Anyway, Cara’s Twelve by Chantel Seabrook isn’t a bad book. It’s not super amazing, and I wanted it to be more than it was, but for my virgin Net Galley attempt, I could have done worse.

The blurb:

“Highly recommended.” -Jack Magnus, Readers’ Favorite-

Raised in the backwater province of Crowthorne, Cara finds her fate bound to a system she despises and a goddess she no longer believes in. When it becomes
clear that the heir to the Elbian throne has found disfavor in the eyes of the goddess, Cara is ordained by blood to take her cousin’s place as heir apparent.

One man from each twelve provinces are chosen by the royal council to pledge their lives and swords as champions and consorts of the future queen. From
these men, Cara must choose the future king of Elbia. Before she is able to take her place on the throne, Cara and her Twelve must visit each province
and perform a sacred ceremony, one that will make Cara question everything she thought was real.

Cara soon realizes that not all of the men who swore to protect her are what they seem, and that there are those who would use her as a tool to gain power.

Cara’s Twelve is a refreshingly different, romantic fantasy story of fair maidens and fearless warriors in a medieval land.

I was drawn to this book because I liked the notion of one woman having to choose from among twelve potential consorts, Bachelorette style. I might have also been hoping for a reverse harem situation, like In this recent read. Alas for me, that was not what happened. Instead, Cara’s choices are laid out fairly clearly in the beginning. Most of her Twelve, in fact, get very little character development, and by about the halfway point, it was clear I wasn’t getting a love dodecahedron. It was going to be a standard love triangle between the broody one with the tragic past and the sweet but overprotective one with whom Cara develops insta-lust. For me, this marred the pacing of the book. When it became clear that most of the Twelve were unnecessary, I stopped caring about them.

That’s not to say the book is all horrible. I liked the world that Ms. Seabrook has created, and I liked watching Cara grow into a formidable ruler, even if at times she was a bit shrill. I also appreciated that Ms. Seabrook didn’t sugar coat the violence. There were some dark scenes in this book, and I liked that Cara found them distressing and didn’t just shrug them off like, “Oh well.”

Unfortunately, since the romance got sapped of anything interesting fairly quickly, my enjoyment of the book suffered. I thought the ending in particular was a shade too bittersweet for romance readers. (It’s an HEA, but not a terribly satisfactory one for me.)

I feel like I’m ragging on this book more than I mean to. It’s competently written. I appreciated that there was a strong female friendship throughout that sustained Cara, because I was not expecting that would be the case at all. And though the men we did get to see weren’t well-developed, I didn’t hate any of them.

My first NetGalley book gets graded a C. I’d probably seek out more by this author, but not right away.

June book bingo!

Published July 1, 2016 by Shannon

I had a pretty good month with the shallowreader bingo. I’m so glad she’s agreed to make the cards accessible so I can play! And this time I almost filled in everything. Bwahaha. Recurring themes include books that are objectively terrible, but I read them anyway.

Naked: Some Kind of Magic by R Cooper. Werewolf cop realizes flighty half-fairy profiler is his mate. He spends six hours in audio not doing anything but suffering stoically in silence. I got extremely irritated with both characters, and even though R Cooper writes the sort of M/M I should theoretically like, her complete lack of an editor means I probably won’t read her again until she gets a better publisher than Dreamspinner.

A Child’s Grief: Nope.

June: Thomas by Grace Burrowes. I’ve read this Burrowes before, when it was called Douglas, with the competent heroine managing an estate until the hero shows up. I didn’t quite buy Thomas’s sudden elevation to baron, because he wasn’t titled in previous books, and I thought he was a bit condescending to the capable amazon heroine, but dammit I can’t stay mad at these books for long. I put this here because it was set in summer, which I thought was close enough.

Dust: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. This was a book club read. I liked it more than a lot of the people in my book club did, but it sort of… ended, which I wasn’t a fan of. I put it here because of all the vivid descriptions of bombed-out London during the blitz.

Delusion: Broke, USA by Gary Rivlin. A very angry-making look at the poverty industry–payday loans, instant tax refund services, and even pawn shops. The fact that these people think they’re actually doing good for the working poor is the delusional part.

Au Revoir: Beautiful Bitch by Christina Lauren: The couple takes a trip to France. Not much happens in this novella, but I liked the first book a lot, and appreciated the glimpse into Chloe and Bennett as they got more serious about each other.

Interrupted Intimacy: Barbarian’s Touch by Ruby Dixon. Another addition to a series of books that probably in the main aren’t very good, but I love them. When the hero and heroine plan on getting intimate, the heroine’s sister is there to ruin it.

I have to add that what I love about this particular installment of the series is that Leila, our heroine, is deaf, and even though it would be easy for Ms. Dixon to tack on a deus ex machina ending that restored her hearing, she didn’t. (The books are about earth women stranded on a planet where, in order to survive, they must take on a symbiont that keeps them healthy and able to survive in the, well, icy planet’s atmosphere. It has cured brain tumors, so hearing loss shouldn’t have been a problem.) Instead, we get Leila being competent in the way disabled people seldom are, and Rokan, her mate, deciding that learning to communicate with her was his problem, not hers. I can even forgive the fact that linguistics don’t work the way they do in the book, because he was always very much in her corner, and I loved that.

Mini: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: This one was 5 hours long on audio, hence why I put it here. It may be a slim book, but it packs a hell of a punch, and I’m still not entirely sure I have an explanation for what went on that satisfied me. I liked it a lot, though, and would like to seek out more of his work.

Gratitude: Can’t Hold Back by Serena Bell. Gratitude was actually a running theme in this book. The heroine is worried that the hero’s feelings about her are mostly gratitude over the fact that she helped relieve his war-inflicted pain. I like Serena Bell’s writing, and I enjoy this series, which is angsty but not over the top. I did think, however, that the heroine was a bit of a martyr.

Just the Tip: Lassoing the Virgin Mail Order Bride by Alexa Riley. Not all of Riley’s books work for me. This one did, though, and it’s appropriate because the hero, Cash, wonders if he can get further inside the heroine’s tight virgin body than the tip of his penis.

I’m So Sorry: Never Sweeter by Charlotte Stein: This book is one extended grovel scene. I loved it, and reviewed it here.

Beautiful All Along: Introductions by C L Stone. Gah. These books. Sang is a ridiculous Mary Sue. She has nine love interests, and end game looks like she’ll get with all of them and they’ll share her. I didn’t know I was into this until I started reading it. And I am kind of ashamed.

Gold Star: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell: They couldn’t agree on much after the end of the Revolutionary War, but people in the US seemed to agree that Lafayette was the best. As for me, the book was engaging if not terribly substantive.

Gesticulate: Revival by Stephen King. A quieter sort of horror novel than I’m used to, although it doesn’t really stick out much in my head. However, there was a lot of carnie showmanship going on from Charles Jacobs, the piece’s eventual villain.

Broken Pedistal: David by Grace Burrowes. Letty is hired to become the madam of a brothel that David owns. Of course, she’s a historical romance heroine, so her fall from grace wasn’t entirely her fault. And her brother also finds out that his wife is a terrible shrew and not just the misguided snarky woman he thought she was. It wasn’t a terribly great Burrowes, but it hit the spot when I was reading.

Solstice: Changeling by Yasmine Galenorn. The book closes on a Yule celebration. I liked it a lot, though again, this is not a terribly substantial
series. But the sister dynamics are great, and I’m enjoying watching the different ways they navigate interesting relationship dynamics.

Mary Sue: First Days by C L Stone. Because literally all the boys at Ashley Waters High want to be with Sang. Why? I have no idea. It’s bad enough she has her harem of nine.

White Man’s Burden: Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi. I put this here because there aren’t really any white characters to speak of. This isn’t a bad thing. It was lovely to read about disabled queer characters of color in space being awesome. The only sour note I found is that one of the characters is an otherkin, and I thought the rest of the crew were a little hard on our protagonist for thinking something mildly judgey about him. Because dammit, I was feeling mildly judgey, too.

With Pleasure: The Best Kind of Trouble by Lauren Dane. Paddy Hurley is definitely a hedonist, which makes him a great foil for Natalie, who’s a bit of a control freak. I loved all the female friendship in this one, and I adored the rest of the Hurley family. Also, Kate Turnbull was an excellent narrator.

For Your Own Good: Kneel, Mr. President by Lauren Gallagher: I still love that the President of the United States is kinky and poly in this book. I reviewed it here.

Shipping: Once a Soldier by Mary Jo Putney: There was a lot of talk both about how to transport wine out of the country in which the book was set, and about how both the main couple and the secondary couple were just perfect for each other. I reviewed it here.

Pride: Beautiful Bastard by Christina Lauren: Both Bennett and Chloe have pride in spades. Also, they’re both kind of awful people to each other, but their awfulness was endearing.

I ended up reading this one because someone showed up in my Twitter mentions to finger wag about the author’s ethics, but since they aren’t hiding the fact that this used to be Twilight fanfic, I don’t see the problem? Especially since none of the rest of the books they’ve written appear to be.

Pretty in Pink: Friends vs. Family by C L Stone: Naturally, Sang’s favorite color is pink. Because of course it is.

Hero is a Mountain: Forgiveness and Permission by C L Stone: My favorite of Sang’s harem is the gentle giant Silas. Who is supposedly Greek, which makes me wonder if maybe I should give some of those tycoons a try.

100: Nope.

Also read: Drop of Doubt by C L Stone, where we meet Volto, who points out how fucked up everything in this setting is.
Push and Shove by C L Stone: In which one of her boys is kind of a manipulative little pill, but it had a legitimately hot scene in it, so I’ll forgive that.

PS: You’re Mine by Alexa Riley: Soldier writes letters to a schoolteacher. They meet when he’s deployed, and, well, it’s an Alexa Riley book so you can probably predict what happens. It was a cute bit of fluff.

Review: Introductions: The Academy, book 1 by C L Stone

Published June 25, 2016 by Shannon

Introductions (The Ghost Bird, #1)

I don’t know how to categorize Introductions by C L Stone. As someone who works in a library, cataloguing is a thing I do on a daily basis, and if I can’t make something fit in certain boxes, I have to do the best I can.

There’s not much to the book. It is the first part of a series that is 10 books long and has a 5-book spin-off series that’s apparently got more sexytimes in it. When it ends, it’s not exactly on a cliffhanger, but the reader is left with more questions than answers.

Sang Sorensen lives with an abusive mother, a neglectful father, and an older sister who I can’t pin down yet, but who is basically awful as well. Her mother is an agoraphobe who is convinced that rapists are around every corner, so one night Sang sneaks out of the house to explore the neighborhood, just to say she did. She suffers from a debilitating case of YA heroine clumsiness, so when a dog runs her down, she freaks out until she’s rescued by the dog’s owner, a hot guy. Thus begins the rest of the book, where Sang inexplicably finds herself in very intimate situations with Kota, Victor, Silas, Gabriel, Nathan, Luke, and North. Yes, there are seven guys, one for every day of the week, and they are hot. There’s the hot nerd (Kota), the rich one (Victor), the gentle giant (Silas), the athlete (Nathan), the please-just-let-him-be-openly-bi one (Gabriel), the broody one (North), and the dreamer (Luke.)

Despite the wacko bananas premise, I was completely charmed. It’s clear to me that C L Stone isn’t taking herself too seriously, and she doesn’t seem to expect the reader to, either. Her characters all comment on what a weird name Sang is, which charms me because YA and romance are full of inexplicably weird names for no apparent reason and nobody ever seems to notice in the stories themselves. There’s no real attempt to justify the fact that there are these seven dudes inexplicably drawn to the one girl. It just is, and if you’re not on board for that type of fantasy, then this isn’t going to work for you.

If I’m going to be made to accept this reverse harem premise, I have to like the main character, and I liked Sang. Admittedly, she is painfully naive, and I worry about her ability to, say, do two complex tasks like walking and chewing gum at the same time without having an aneurism. She is awkward and shy, but she seems to bring out the best in the members of her harem, and I loved seeing these boys through her eyes. Also, she won me over because she really had a lot of crap on her plate. Her parents aren’t benignly neglectful the way parents are in a lot of YA books I’ve read, and yet she is still sweet-natured and kind. The boys bring out the best in her, too, and I can’t wait to watch her grow into her own.

The boys are still ciphers at this point. I do trust that with 10 books in the series, there will be room for character growth. I did appreciate that they weren’t the same basic flavor of hot, though. I loved Kota’s nerdiness, and Silas’s bumbling awkwardness, and I wanted more of Gabriel and his not-exactly-gender-conforming ways. (And again, I hope he actually gets to come out in due course as bi or pan or some flavor of not-straight, because that would be lovely, but I’m not holding my breath.) North was a bit too much the stereotypical bad boy I’ve read about before, and I didn’t get enough of a sense of Luke or Nathan to form an opinion. Oh, and there are two teachers who I think may show up in the harem somehow… which is a little oogey for me, but I’m tentatively going to trust the author to stay on the right side of good taste.

What this most strongly reminds me of is fanfic. In fact, though I have done no research on this topic whatsoever, I wouldn’t be surprised if C L Stone has some fics out there on the Interwebs somewhere. On one hand, this isn’t a compliment. I do think that readers who actually, you know, read for plot will be disappointed that this is some 200 pages of pure setup. On the other hand, if you’re a reader who likes to have a lot of feels, Ms. Stone is good at delivering those. There’s a huge helping of hurt/comfort in almost every chapter, owing to Sang’s Bella Swan disease and the fact that everyone evil really, really wants to hurt the poor girl. There’s also something lovely about an author writing a whole buffet of male archetypes for the reader’s titillation.

I could also see this book appealing to actual teens. I read somewhere (probably on Twitter) that one of the reasons authors embrace love triangles is that they allow the teenage heroine to try on different types of boys to see if she can make an informed choice about what’s important to her. They may drive me nuts, but I can understand the mindset. In this series, though, what I didn’t feel was a push and pull from any of the guys. They all get cozy with her in various moments of the book, but they never seem to be directly competing against each other for her affections. They seem to be a solid group of friends, and if anything, I wanted to see more of that dynamic in play.

What I found most fascinating (though, apparently, hard to articulate) is how much Sang is allowed to explore without things turning overtly sexual. She shares a room with Kota not once but twice. Gabriel insists on washing and styling her hair. All the guys feel her up on the pretext of checking out her Bella-Swan-disease-caused bruises. A lot of these scenes are sensual, and meant to titillate, but overtly, they are chaste.

In short, C L Stone isn’t pretending she’s not writing teenage girl wish fulfillment fantasy. Is it realistic? No. I don’t actually think there would be seven guys who would flirt so openly and yet be completely not jealous of each other and undemanding of any reciprocal attentions from a girl. But it’s not like there are scads of hot twenty-somethings who can’t wait to hook up with schlubby middle-aged men in real life, either, and that has certainly never stopped male authors. I’m on board for this wish-fulfillment train, and I’m going to grab the next audiobook right away.

The narration is a lot better than I was expecting, although I found it a bit distracting. There is one narrator who reads the female characters, and another who reads the men. The male dialogue is inserted into the book so that it feels something like a full-cast recording, and the male narrator had a lot of work for him distinguishing seven voices. Mostly, I thought he pulled it off, although I do wish he’d eased off on all the Southern accents.

I do have to put a couple of content warnings on the book, though. There’s a horrific scene of abuse about a third of the way through that I found hard to stomach. And the vice-principal is a skeezy, skeezy man whose one scene made me uncomfortable, although nothing awful happens.

Final Grade: B+

Don’t want to take my word on it? Heroes and Heartbreakers did a lovely write-up that tipped me over the edge into trying the book.

A Failed Experiment with Twilight profic: Gabriel’s Inferno by Sylvain Reynard

Published October 28, 2014 by Shannon

Gabriel's Inferno (Gabriel's Inferno, #1)

My first experiment to see if Twilight pulled-to-publish stories actually worked as original fiction failed. Not because the story doesn’t–I think it probably does–but it was so far from being my cup of tea that I gave up around the chapter 11 mark. I refer, of course, to Gabriel’s Inferno by Sylvain Reynard.

The Premise: Gabriel is a sinful, sinful man who sins a lot. He is also a Dante scholar who for some reason has more money than God. Julia is one of his students. They have a past connection that he doesn’t remember. He is rude and boorish, even while he decides that Julia is a delicate little wilting flower who blooms under kindness. The Jacob character is a perfectly nice guy named Paul who deserves to be in a story where he will not be the third wheel of this creepy, creepy love triangle.

At first I rather enjoyed this book. It was over the top and full of ridiculous amounts of cheese. If I stopped thinking of these people as even remotely realistic and started thinking of them as archetypes who lived on some other planet, I could get through it. Also there were manly tears in the first few chapters, and overwrought prose, and I felt a little like I was reading a bodice ripper of yore.

Then the Dante stuff started getting dropped in, and it’s not subtle at all. I read The Inferno once in high school and again in college. It was fairly easy to see where Reynard’s parallels were coming from, because a master of subtlety he is not. Clearly Julia/Bella was an analog for Beatrice, Gabriel/Edward was the Dante analog, and Paul/Jacob was the Virgil. And once we had our Beatrice, Reynard never failed to bring up how pure she was. Julia is a virgin. For some reason, this matters to everyone much more than I think it would in the real world. To put it another way, Julia is the very definition of a purity sue. And to no one’s surprise, along with that, there’s a whole host of slut-shaming.

Ultimately, it was the weird virgin/whore dichotomy that made this book unreadable. I could deal with over the top earnest crack. I was made uncomfortable for Julia, though, whose purity caused literally every man she encounters, up to and including the waiter at a restaurant, to put her on a pedestal. When I stepped away from the book, I found myself wondering what Gabriel would do after they inevitably got together and he discovered that pure, innocent and perfect Julia poops like everyone else.

Maybe it’s unfair to say this, but I was even more bothered by the benevolent sexism on display here because Reynard is a man. I think I could have put up a bit more with the purity nonsense if the book had been written by a woman. Then I could take it as female fantasy. But since the writer is male, it made the white knight in tarnished armor thing creepy rather than hot.

So yeah. I know this trilogy did well enough for itself, and I might see what Reynard is capable of if he ever gets ahold of a better editor, but I think I need to read a book where the heroine is allowed to get down and dirty without needing to put up with a guy who runs hot and cold and also puts her up on a pedestal.

Grade: DNF

Review: Into the Arms of Morpheus by Jessica Nichols

Published October 3, 2014 by Shannon

So yes. I do exist. And my good intentions about writing a blog post explaining about how this summer the inspiration to blog wasn’t there went out the window.

I did, however, agree to participate in a blog tour. They will probably never ask me again, but hey, I’m posting!

Just a caveat: The editor of this book is actually a friend. In case that makes a difference. She does know I’m writing an honest review, though.

Into the Arms of Morpheus

I’m not sure that I would have picked up Into the Arms of Morpheus by Jessica Nichols on my own. After having read it, I’m still not entirely sure how I’d classify the experience.

Here’s the blurb:

Sylvia has always harboured a solitary obsession with Morpheus, the Greek God of Dreams. She’s brought it with her from her adolescence in a village of Northern England where she grew up, to the university in Manchester where she now studies.
Nyx is the Goddess of Night, and has spent the centuries stewing in an ancient, unrequited love. Not easily pleased, her attention is drawn to a voice chanting its devotion and desire for her, and she seeks the source of it.
She is not the only god playing in the realms of men, however. When the God of Death and Morpheus himself become aware of this new devotee, the stage is set for the gods to secure their worship, or for a mortal to become one of them.

The Good: If Jessica Nichols hasn’t spent quite a bit of time in Manchester, I certainly wouldn’t know it. I found the description of the setting evocative. This isn’t the sort of story that you could transplant to somewhere else and have it work out. It’s always refreshing to read a book that is so centered in its sense of place.

The plot also goes in a direction I didn’t expect. I really thought, based on the blurb, that I had the book pegged. Sylvia would be our good-girl heroine, and Nyx, being a female with power and also the goddess of night, would be a slutty bitch. We would be supposed to root for Sylvia’s sweet, angelic purity to triumph over Nyx’s slutty girl with power. That’s not what happens. In fact, Nyx is easily the most fascinating character in the book, and I admit to waiting eagerly for her POV. I also thought there was genuine chemistry between Nyx and Sylvia, and I was really hoping something would come of it.
The writing style also works well for the book. It’s dreamlike, and I felt as if I was glimpsing images rather than really understanding what was going on. At first, this bothered me. (Ask me my thoughts on the virtues of linear storytelling… I’ll tell you at great length.) But as I read further, I’m not entirely sure she could have told the story any other way.

The Not so good:

I never got a sense of the characters, and particularly Sylvia. As I’d feared, she comes across as something of a Mary Sue, and people are drawn to her because of her incorruptible pure pureness. In fact, cleansing and purity are always associated with her. This makes her, quite frankly, a little boring. Also, being mortal, she’s not very proactive. Everything that happens to Sylvia is a direct result of someone else’s actions. Plus, she’s devoted to Morpheus because… I was never clear on that, but my impression was that she thought he was cool. Of course, Morpheus being the god of dreams, she practices her devotion by… sleeping a lot. Which is exactly as exciting as you think it is.

Naturally, though the slut-shaming didn’t take the form I expected it to, it was still somewhat pervasive. Nyx and Sylvia are forgiven much by the text, but every other woman is shown to be weak. The one male POV we get regularly is quite the misogynist asshole, although of course Sylvia’s pure pureness is totally different from all those other slutty whores. Honestly, seeing this sort of thing written by a female author makes me incredibly sad. Why must we denigrate all other women who aren’t the designated protagonist? What did those other women do to deserve that?

My other major quibble with the book is that there is dreamlike and then there’s simply unclear. I’m still not sure, as I said, that I could tell you exactly what happens in the course of the novel. I know it basically ends happily, with Sylvia being less bisexual than I would have liked, but if I were to write a book report for a grade in which I summarized the whole story, I’m not sure I could. Which is troubling, because it’s not that long.

I’m not sure who I’d recommend this to. It’s a fairly short read, though I’d argue it’s not all that quick. It’s a different take on dark fantasy than I’ve encountered before. I’d probably read something else from this author. (Preferably something with more smut, because I bet her erotica is awesome.) This book isn’t to my particular taste, but it might appeal to a reader willing to delve deeper into the text than I was, and whose inner feminist is less loud than mine.

My grade: A C.

Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling

Published May 15, 2014 by Shannon

Dies the Fire (Emberverse, #1)

I’ve been doing a lot of rereading lately. This is going to fuck my usual track record of reading more women than men to hell and gone by the end of the month, but sometimes you do just need to visit familiar characters and pick up on the nuances you’ve missed.

S. M. Stirling has an impressive body of work. He writes several different alternate history series, but the Emberverse seems to be the one that’s the longest-running. Naturally, I haven’t finished it. But I did start rereading Dies the Fire, the first in the series.

The synopsis goes:

The Change occurred when an electrical storm centered over the island of Nantucket produced a blinding white flash that rendered all electronic devices and fuels inoperable. What follows is the most terrible global catastrophe in the history of the human race-and a Dark Age more universal and complete than could possibly be imagined.

“Dies the Fire kept me reading till five in the morning so I could finish at one great gulp…”—New York Times bestselling author Harry Turtledove.

As Goodreads says, this is a post-apocalypse story in which the world abruptly changes when all technology ceases to function. Our primary protagonists are Mike Havel, a former Marine who is flying the Larsson family to their ranch in Montana, and Juniper McKenzie, a Wiccan folk singer who should appropriately be voiced by Heather Alexander. The major criticism of Dies the Fire is that both of these people are incredibly lucky. Rather than panic, they each take steps to improve their situation as well as the situations of those around them, and they do keep meeting exactly the right people at the right time.
What appeals to me about these books is that Stirling’s vision of humanity isn’t bleak. Oh, it’s hard. Millions die in his universe. But the ones that are left find it in themselves to be compassionate. They’re realistic about it, but they try, and to me, reading a book that is ultimately optimistic about human nature is a more rewarding experience than reading one that is terribly bleak.

I do recognize that Dies the Fire has flaws. None of the characters ever transcend their broad outlines. Occasionally, I do have to wonder if people would really behave that way. I find myself amused that in this world, it’s the people who are into renaissance fairs and the Society for Creative Anachronisms who’d survive. It makes logical sense, but still feels like something of a “Take that” against all the people who don’t find those pursuits useful. I don’t know if Stirling quite manages to represent Wiccans the way they might like, although I wasn’t bothered. And this time through, I noticed the window dressing of the harem slave girls in the brief sections from the point of view of the series villain. (I really wanted answers as to how progressive feminist types would have been so easily cowed into that role, but I guess that is what fanfic is for.)

There are a lot more things I think he does get right, though. For one, the cast is diverse. A prominent character survives at least the trilogy being a black man who doesn’t bite it in the end. LGBT people become important characters in later novels. The women are written as competent, and a lot of them get to be bad-ass fighters. The book even passes the Bechtel Test. It is also compulsively readable. Even on this reread, when I meant to savor it slowly, I dove in quickly and didn’t come up for air unless I absolutely had to. I find myself wanting to explore the nooks and crannies of this world. It’s a world that cries out for fanfic, and I wish I could write some of it.

Now I’m on to the second book.

Final Grade: A squeeful A.

Some thoughts on Lover Awakened by J. R. Ward

Published May 5, 2014 by Shannon

Lover Awakened (Black Dagger Brotherhood, #3)

I have complicated feelings about J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series. Mostly, I think the books are terrible, and there are many problematic tropes that she employs in each one, particularly with regard to her treatment of women, but there’s something that compels me about her writing. I feel like there are more interesting stories to be told around the edges of her worlds, stories that don’t feature vampires with ridiculous names like Wrath, Phury, Zsadist, or Gastohn. (Yes, dear reader, I know I just made that last one up, but come on, he’d totally fit with the BDB universe.)

Anyway, every time a new book comes out I keep reading reviews because I’m curious to see where Ward takes things. This is what compelled me to reread Lover Awakened,the third book in the series for the second time. I have some vague notions about going through and reading every one of the books, but as compelling as I find the world-building, I suspect it will be a long process.

About this book, Goodreads says:

In the shadows of the night in Caldwell, New York, there’s a deadly war raging between vampires and their slayers. And there exists a secret band of brothers like no other – six vampire warriors, defenders of their race. Of these, Zsadist is the most terrifying member of the Black Dagger Brotherhood.

A former blood slave, the vampire Zsadist still bears the scars from a past filled with suffering and humiliation. Renowned for his unquenchable fury and sinister deeds, he is a savage feared by humans and vampires alike. Anger is his only companion, and terror is his only passion—until he rescues a beautiful aristocrat from the evil Lessening Society.

Bella is instantly entranced by the seething power Zsadist possesses. But even as their desire for one another begins to overtake them both, Zsadist’s thirst for vengeance against Bella’s tormentors drives him to the brink of madness. Now, Bella must help her lover overcome the wounds of his tortured past, and find a future with her…

I had planned to write up several long posts about this book, but I find that I don’t really have the energy to do that. Instead I will tackle my thoughts on this reread in the form of bullet points. I’ll probably spoil the hell out of the book, though, so keep that in mind. I’m also not going to provide much context, since this is the third book in the series and I didn’t review the first two. Sorry about that!

  • Bella is fairly boring. I could argue that Beth in the first book might not have had much of a personality, but at least she had some agency. Bella is there to be obsessed over by three different men with varying levels of sociopathy, one of which is the hero.
  • Bella was also held captive by one of the villains for six weeks, during which time he fucked with her head. Yet it’s Zsadist’s tortured past the text dwells on. Bella got over her issues awfully quickly so she could nurse Z through his trauma.
  • There is only one way to be manly in the Black Daggerverse. John Matthew’s storyline in this book is all about how he wants to reach that level of manliness, but he can’t yet. I suspect that when I reach his book, or even the point at which he transitions into a real vampire, I will find him markedly less interesting.
  • This is the book where a woman got fridged so that one of the other brothers–the one who was relatively stable and didn’t have a whole bucket full of mangst could get some in a hurry. I remember being annoyed by that plot decision at the time but feeling it was inevitable. Now it just seems like such a waste because Welsey had a personality, and given Ward’s track record with female characters, replacing her with a wet blanket seems needlessly cruel.
  • Oh, Phury. He’s such a Nice Guy. And he whined a lot. I am already retitling his book Lover Enwhined.
  • This is the book where Rehvenge shows up. You know he’s going to join the BDB because of his epic amounts of man pain. And the fact that he’s a douche. I can’t wait.
  • Why couldn’t JR Ward make the BDB black men? All their attitudes and speech code as urban to me, and not making them black feels really appropriative and makes me uncomfortable.
  • I love hurt/comfort as much as the next girl, but I really wish the trope of “He is broken unless I fix him” would die in a fire. I think it’s actively harmful. (Not that women will read these books and then go find abusive assholes who spin sob stories about their man pain, but I do think books that make that sort of relationship OK tacitly approve of it, and that’s not cool.) I mean, basically, none of the brothers is that great a catch, and I’m not sure I’d want any of them even in my fantasies until they all went through a fuckload of therapy.

So yeah. I guess it seems like I didn’t like this book very much. I did have a lot of problems with it, but as I read, i found it to be easy to slip into. Unfortunately for me, it was also incredibly easy to put down.

It’ll probably take me a few months to get around to Lover Revealed. This is probably for the best. In the meantime, I plan to concentrate on reading something better for my blood pressure.

Review: Promises to Keep by Charles de Lint

Published April 25, 2014 by Shannon

Promises to Keep (Newford, #21)

One of the reasons I began reading fantasy in earnest in my teens is that I love when a good fantasy novel invokes my sense of wonder. I want to be taken to a world where, even if you live in a cupboard under the stairs, maybe you’ll get a letter inviting you to wizard school, where you can shout a bunch of Latin and do cool stuff and have adventures with your best friends and help save the world. I want to feel like I could stand on the hot Hatching sands and know that as soon as the eggs hatched, there might be a dragon who would come for me and develop a close bond that would help us save the world. I want to imagine that, because I am a good-hearted person, I might one day be swepp up by a white horse with magical powers and taken to a city of people that are Just Like Me, and together with our horses, we could be a force for good in the world. And I want to think that somewhere, if I just look hard enough, I might stumble accidentally into another world.

This is why I read Charles de Lint. I discovered his books in my teens, starting with the fabulous The Little Country, which I have read in Braille at least three times. (I feel like we may be about to embark on time number four, because I see that the library here at work has it.) I then went on to glom a lot of his works, including many of the books in his Newford series.

I suppose you’d call the Newford books urban fantasy, but it’s not like the urban fantasy that’s proliferating a lot these days. There are strong, tough female characters, but generally they aren’t hardened and snarky, and they’re not trying to choose between the sweet but ultimately lame guy and the bad boy who may or may not really be evil. In de Lint’s books, setting is as important as character, and the settings are familiar. Newford seems like the sort of place you might actually find somewhere, ordinary but for the small glimpses of magic his characters stumble across.

“OK, Shannon,” you may be saying. “It’s fabulous that you have written a long-winded introduction to this book, but don’t you think you should get on with the review? Especially since you haven’t even provided a handy Amazon link to the book in question.”

I suppose I should. First, let’s start with the description:

After Widdershins, I thought I wouldn’t write at length about Jilly again. I’d promised one more short story about her for Bill at Subterranean Press, but that would be it. Having left her in a good place at the end of Widdershins, I didn’t want to complicate her life yet again, so I planned to set the story earlier in her life, during her first year as a student at Butler University. Except the story grew. I was having too much fun visiting with this younger Jilly, so I asked Bill if I could expand it to a short novel. He agreed, so now I m busily working away on this as-yet-untitled novella. It takes place in 1972 and begins with Jilly getting a surprise visit from an old friend–her only friend–from her runaway days. Interspersed with the main story that leads off from that meeting are flashbacks to pivotal moments in her life: time spent in the Home for Wayward Girls, her life on the street, meeting and working with the Grasso Street Angel, the first time she meets various familiar faces (Geordie, Sophie, etc.), and chronicles how the messed-up street kid she was grew a social conscience, and became the cheerful character we know from later stories. Although the book does deal with some serious subjects, the tone isn’t all doom and gloom. And while I hope that those of you familiar with these characters will enjoy this visit with their younger selves, I’m also trying to make it a friendly entry into Newford for new readers. Lastly, I’m delighted to say that Mike Dringenberg–an artist I ve wanted to work with for ages–will be doing the cover. – Charles de Lint

The story is simple. Jilly Coppercorn, one of de Lint’s most iconic Newford characters, runs across someone she was friends with back in her teenage runaway days. These days, Jilly’s an art student with a steady job and lots of friends and a relentlessly cheerful outlook on life. She wasn’t always like that, though. When she reconnects with Donna Birch, a girl she knew from her time in the Home for Wayward Girls, , Donna tells her she plays in a band and Jilly should come see them. From there, Jilly finds herself transported to a utopian city, where everyone, except for her, turns out to be dead. Everything is easy in this city, and Jilly has to come to a decision: should she stay here, where life is easy and she can have anything she wants, or should she return to the life she’s created for herself, where her happiness is something she works hard to earn.

What I loved about this book was how dark it wasn’t. De Lint explores Jilly’s past, though not to the extent that he has in previous books in the series, and that past is difficult. (Anyone who was a junkie and a prostitute is not going to have had an easy time of it.) But under the darkness, there is a current of hope. A lot of it comes from other people—Jilly ends up attracting several eccentric people who become her friends—but a lot of it also has to come from Jilly herself. This book is very much about Jilly’s struggle to figure out what’s important to her and what she wants to do with herself. It also talks a lot about the power of friendship in a way that was lovely and not overly cloying and saccharine.

The other thing I loved was that there were no real antagonists. Jilly has to battle some inner demons, but everyone else has some understandable motivations, and they’re all sympathetic and interesting characters, even the one overtly supernatural creature that shows up.

Here’s what didn’t work for me. The conflict comes up fairly quickly in the course of the book, but it’s pretty clear how it’s going to be resolved, given the fact that Jilly is going to star in several other adventures during the course of her life. This took all the air out of what might have been a suspenseful story. I knew exactly how it had to end, and there was a lot of the main story that I ended up powering through to get there. There were lots of interesting set pieces along the way, and there always are in a de Lint novel, but I wanted a little more uncertainty to keep things from stagnating. I pretty much read this in one sitting, and I suspect that if I hadn’t, I might have found the book to be not as easy to pick up again.

I do think this book stands alone well, but I suspect a new reader would be a trifle annoyed by the style, which is one part stuff that happens in the present day and one part flashbacks to Jilly’s past. The flashbacks introduce the reader to all of her friends, many of which are well-beloved Newford characters in other books. If you’re not invested in those characters, you might not find their inclusion necessary. But at least a new reader will appreciate their importance to Jilly.

This book is easily one you could polish off in an afternoon. It’ll give you warm happy feelings, and a sense of wonder. At least, that’s what it gave me. De Lint is one of my quintessential comfort authors, and this story was no exception. Maybe the conflict is a little flat, but the journey is well worth taking.

My grade: a B.

Review: A Hint of Frost by Hailey Edwards

Published April 24, 2014 by Shannon

A Hint of Frost (Araneae Nation, #1)

Fantasy romance is really, really hard to do well. Skimp on the world-building and it’s hard to buy the fantasy. Skimp on the love story and you piss off the romance readers, who, if they wanted to read some straight up fantasy, would have bought the Wheel of Time series. I think this is true for other sub genres of romance as well, but fantasy romance is one of my favorites, so it’s near and dear to my heart, and I am more critical.

When I began reading A Hint of Frost by Hailey Edwards, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that Bree was a friend of hers, and Bree likes her some fantasy romance, too. I’m even sure she was the one who recced the book to me in the first place. I started reading with no knowledge of what I was getting, and found myself utterly delighted.
From Amazon:

When her mother is murdered in her nest, Lourdes has one choice: she must marry before her own nest is seized. All she needs is a warrior fierce enough to protect her city and safeguard her clansmen. Such a male is Rhys the Cold.

Rhys’s clan is starving, but their taste for the Araneaean flesh makes them unwelcome dinner guests. Yet Lourdes threatens to melt the cold encasing his heart. When her sister is captured, they pursue their enemies, where she will discover if she’s worth her silk or if she’s spun the thread by which her clan will hang.

If I’d gone into this book knowing the protagonists were spider people, I would not have taken it seriously. Because, yeah. The characters are human, but they have spider-like abilities. Each of the clans has various traits of different spiders. In a lesser author’s hands, the result would have been laughable. However, Ms. Edwards is matter-of-fact about it. When I realized I was literally reading about a character who could spin silk so strong it could withstand metal and could do so naturally, I was enchanted.

Lourdes is an awesome heroine. She’s strong-minded, not afraid to get her hands dirty, and trying to do the best she could under difficult circumstances. I liked her a lot, and I loved the pairing with Rhys. I got the sense that even from the beginning, Lourdes found him swoon-worthy, and, well, I did, too.

Rhys is one of my favorite hero archetypes. I don’t like protective alphas when they are more alpha than protective, and Rhys landed on the protective side of that line. (In fact, sometimes I wondered if Lourdes was going to forget how to walk what with all the times Rhys scoops her up.) He generally let Lourdes have her own agency, though, and respected her own strengths and abilities. When he didn’t, he learned that was a bad idea. He was also a real sweetheart, earnest and totally devoted to Lourdes.

The plot starts out simply. We have a marriage of convenience between the peaceful but wealthy clan of Lourdes and Rhys’s impoverished clan who are also cannibals. (No, literally. It was disgusting, but since Rhys never eats anybody, I thought the notion was awesome.) Immediately after the marriage, though, the book becomes a road romance, which allows Ms. Edwards to introduce her world building in a way that felt organic to the plot. The result is that by the end of the book, Rhys and Lourdes’s romance is resolved, but Ms. Edwards has laid the foundation for other stories and a continuing arc.

I have to mention one other thing about the romance. There really isn’t a lot of sex. The sexual tension is off the charts, but there were no moments of taking a break so the characters could make out. I loved this, because the one love scene we are given is made all the sweeter for my having to wait.

There were a few things that didn’t quite work for me. I was never quite sure about the passage of time. There were smaller moments I would have liked to have had expanded. (At one point Lourdes tells us she made clothes for Rhys, and I was thrown out of the story wondering when she would have had time to do all that, and then I was disappointed I didn’t get to witness Rhys’s delight at the gifts firsthand.)

All that aside, I did buy the second novel in this series, A Feast of Souls, and am looking forward to returning to this world.

Final Grade: B