Grade: C

All posts in the Grade: C 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.

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.

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: The Mane Event by Shelly Laurenston

Published April 10, 2014 by Shannon

The Mane Event (Pride, #1)

Last weekend, my friend Meka came to my house and hung out. During that time, she was reading a book that made her laugh and laugh, loud, exuberant guffaws of laughter. When I asked what she was reading, she told me it was The Mane Event by Shelly Laurenston. I’d read Ms. Laurenston’s books written under the name G A Aiken, so when I was looking for something to read, it wasn’t much of a struggle to dredge it up from Mt. TBR.

Goodreads informs us:

One of the hottest new voices in paranormal romance, Shelly Laurenston knows how to do it all, delivering tales that are wickedly funny, action-packed, and scorch-your-fingers sexy. With The Mane Event, she proves just how delicious love can be once you unleash your inner beast…
Christmas Pride

How come all the good-looking ones are insane?
That’s what runs through NYPD cop Desiree “Dez” MacDermot’s mind the minute she hooks up again with her childhood buddy, Mace Llewellyn. It isn’t just the way he stares at her with those too-sexy gold eyes―as if he could devour her on the spot. Or the six-four, built-like-a-Navy Seal bod-o-death. It isn’t even that he sniffs her neck and purrs, making her entire body tingle. It’s more about that disconcerting, shifting-from-man-to-lion thing that unhinges her…and makes her want more.

Mace likes making Dez crazy. In fact, he likes her any way he can get her―in bed, on the desk, here, now, again. Together, they’d always been trouble, but Dez has no idea just how good trouble can feel…

Shaw’s Tail

Brendon Shaw, hotel owner and lion shifter, has seen better days. He’s been beaten, had a gun to the back of his head, and had to be rescued by a Pack of shape-shifting wolves. He didn’t think he’d survive the night, much less find the woman of his dreams. And he never thought the woman of his dreams would have a Tennessee accent and wear cowboy boots. Once he sets his sights on her, the predator in him is ready to pounce and never let go.

Ronnie Lee Reed is ready to change her life, and New York City is the place where any girl―even one who runs with a Pack―can redefine herself. First order of business: find a mate, settle down, and stop using men for sex. Even big, gorgeous, lion-shifting, oh-my-what-big-um-paws-you-have men. Then again…

I knew what to expect having read Laurenston’s dragon books. She’d give me a funny, over the top ride, with tons of characters and women who were possibly even crazier than their men. Sometimes I like that. I love that Laurenston is an example of someone writing very woman-positive romances. All of her heroines own their sexuality and aren’t afraid to go after what they want. There are strong friendships between various women in her books, and though the men are alpha, they invariably have to prove themselves to the heroines rather than vice versa.

That said, in this particular book, there was pretty much no substance to the stories. Sometimes that’s OK. I like fluff as well as the next girl, and sometimes you just need a book that you can read without thinking too deeply about. In another mood, it would have been exactly what I wanted, but I wasn’t in that mood and I found it… pretty much just OK.

My problem with the book was that both stories featured heroines who are basically cut from the same cloth. I’m not sure exactly what differentiated Dez from Ronnie Lee except for their stereotypical traits–Dez is a Bronx girl through and through, and Ronnie Lee comes from Tennessee, and pretty much any cliche you can think about involving rednecks and New Yorkers makes an appearance. The men don’t fare much better. They’re both lion shifters. They both have difficult relationships with their sisters. That’s pretty much it. That said, the second book features one of Ronnie Lee’s pack members, Bobby Ray Smith, so yay. I have more redneck stereotypes to look forward to.

As to the plots, I didn’t find either memorable. There was stuff going on around both sets of protagonists, but there was also a lot of butting heads followed by sex that was plentiful even if not all that engaging for me. I suppose no one else would put up with either set of protagonists, so both couples deserve each other, but by the time I was done I pretty much felt like the heroes spent all their time wearing the heroines down until they gave in.

I know some of the dragon books have had crazy sauce plots that have begun to detract from the romances. Honestly, I could use a little more of that, because neither romance did it for me in this book. I did have a few chuckles, and I admire an author who doesn’t seem to take her characters too seriously, but I wanted a little more substance than I got.

I listened to this one on Audible. I can’t seem to find something that will corroborate this, but the narrator is listed as Charlotte Kane, but she sounds exactly like Angela Dawe. I know I’ve encountered narrators using a pseudonym for their more erotic readings, so i wondered if that’s what happened here. I thought Kane’s performance was quite good, and I suspect that I would have found some of the stereotypes and cliches that passed for characterization much more grating had I read the text rather than listened to it.
Final Grade: C

Recent Reads: Books that Make Me Happy Edition

Published March 23, 2014 by Shannon

Having realized I was super behind on writing reviews, I’ve decided to just do quickie thoughts about a bunch of books and call the slate clean.

  1. The Blue Castle by L M Montgomery:

    Why I Read it: Because the Anne of Green Gables books are absolutely delightful and I wanted to try more Montgomery.

    Synopsis: Valancy, a timid spinster, decides to live life to the fullest after she’s been told she has a year to live, with results beyond her imagining.
    What I Liked: Valancy was a delight. I ended up identifying very strongly with her, and rooting for her success. Montgomery’s wry humor is very much in evidence, and the love interest was swoon worthy.

    What I Didn’t Like: Besides Valancy, most of the characters don’t rise far from stereotypes and general flat characterization. I couldn’t really take any of them seriously.

    Should you Read It: We all know I like sweet and whimsical. That’s what this book has in spades. Some of the themes–about living life to its fullest and taking risks–are universal and still very much applicable. If you’ve not read Montgomery, this would be a good place to figure out if she’s for you. For me, this gets an A.

  2. Ask the Passengers by A S King:

    Why I Read it: It’s the March pick for the Forever Young Adult book club.

    Synopsis: Astrid lives in small-town America and is dealing with questions of her sexuality.

    What I Liked: Astrid’s voice is snarky and self-aware, but not without a little whimsy. I love that one of the things she does is send her love up to passengers in planes as they fly overhead. There’s a great relationship between Astrid and her sister Ellis.

    What didn’t Work for Me: I thought Astrid could have done better than her love interest. I was satisfied with how that arc resolved itself at the end, but I didn’t feel the swoon.

    Should You Read It: If you like smart, self-aware YA that handles complicated topics with a light touch without making them trivial, then yes. I had fun with this one, and am hoping for a good discussion at the book club. For me, this rates a B.

  3. One True Thing by Piper Vaughn and M. J. O’Shea:

    Why I Read it: The previous book in this duology, One Small Thing was the perfect sort of comfort reading M/M that I like, so I was delighted there was a sequel.

    Synopsis: Dusty falls in insta-lust with a cute boy on his first day in California, but it turns out the cute boy has an identical twin brother. Wacky hijinks ensue.

    What I Liked: Despite that flippant summary, there’s a lot of heart in this story. Dusty and Asher spend a lot of time circling around each other, and when they get together, it is sweet, though not always smooth sailing. I also loved the presence of Eric and Rue from the previous book. The authors deal with questions of family in ways that indicate that sometimes family is just complicated. The fact that not everything is fine with everyone in both protagonists’ families was a nice touch of realism.
    What Didn’t Work: I think the pacing could have been a little tighter. The boys circle around each other far too long, considering their instant connection. That instant connection was cheesy, too, and I’m not quite sure what I think of the final resolution of the major conflict.

    Should You Read It: If you like your M/M on the cheesy side, then by all means, pick this one up. It gave me all the feels for the afternoon that I read it, and both authors have substantial backlists, a lot of which are free, so I’m glad I rediscovered them. This one rates an A.

  4. An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler:

    Why I Read It: I think this one got on my TBR pile because of my friend Lauren. (The sci-fi geek Lauren, as opposed to the Lauren who writes long, involved fanfic about shows I don’t watch and who reads similar YA to me).) Sometimes I like reading food writing because it allows me to dream that one day I will finally be like, “Yes! Cooking is magical!” and then I’ll want to do it more.

    Synopsis: The author asserts that even you can learn to cook well.
    What I Liked: The author’s voice seems gentle and reassuring. She did make everything sound easy.

    What Didn’t Work for Me: The likelihood that I will try anything from this cookbook is infinitesimal. But that’s on me, not the book.

    Should you Read It: If you like cookbooks, you might enjoy this one. It never made me terribly excited about cooking, so it gets a C.

  5. Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon:

    Why I Read It: Rachel Simon has been on my radar for a while, but I think it was one of my fellow Shannons who recommended this one.

    Synopsis: Workaholic Rachel takes a year to ride the city buses with her mentally disabled sister, Beth, and learns life lessons.

    What I Liked: This was a feel-good read with some elements of realism. Rachel’s relationship with Beth isn’t always easy, and I appreciated her honesty about that. Also, I’m glad she learned about self-determination and discussed its importance even while she acknowledges its pitfalls.
    What Didn’t Work for Me: I mean, it’s still a narrative about what the disabled can teach normal people. There’s no way that can be made not problematic for a disabled reader. That said, I never felt like Rachel was condescending about her sister.

    Should You Read It: It was engrossing for me, and I like “Person stops to do unusual stuff” memoirs. I pretty much devoured it in a single sitting, and I suspect that my non-disabled readers can probably get past the niggling, “Oh, man, another disabled person being inspiring” reaction. For me this rates a B.

  6. His Kind of Woman by Nona Raines:
    Why I Read It: It was a nominee in this year’s Dabwaha tournament. Seeing that it had a trans* character as one of the leads made it a guaranteed sale.

    Synopsis: Roy wants to make amends to one of the people his brother Travis bullied in high school, but it turns out that Victor is now Venetia.

    What I Liked: This was another sweet novella. Both Roy and Venetia were likable characters, and they had to do a lot of talking before they could reach a satisfactory ending. I also liked that the ending didn’t wrap everything up in a neat and tidy bow of forgiveness, and that the author dealt with bullying in a sensitive and thoughtful manner.

    What Didn’t Work for Me: It was a little didactic in places. I guess that’s to be expected, but the preachiness was there. Also, of course Venetia had all her surgeries. It must be nice to be able to pay for such expensive procedures.I know that’s kind of a silly complaint because fictional characters being privileged is kind of par for the course, but I found myself wondering if this was a way to have a trans character without squicking people out about the thought of reading about a woman with a penis.

    Should You Read It: It’ll take an hour of your life. It’s a sweet story, and I’m glad to see something a little different. Also yay trans characters. For me, this rates a B.

  7. Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson:

    Why I Read It: This book got a lot of buzz when it first came out, and has been languishing in obscurity in my TBR for years.

    Synopsis: Scarlett Martin lives with her family in a historic hotel in New York City. When Mrs. Amberson, a former starlet, moves into the hotel, Scarlett is tasked with being her assistant. Mrs. Amberson becomes the manic pixie dream girl that causes wacky hijinks in the lives of all the Martins.

    What I Liked: Johnson is doubtless funny, and the third-person narration was witty and smart, and the screwball comedy aspects of the book were a pleasure. I loved the relationships between Scarlett and her family, particularly between Scarlett and her older brother Spencer.

    What I Didn’t Like: Another YA where the romantic interest didn’t bring the swoon. In the end, that conflict just petered out. Also, the Martin parents were too of the most useless adults I’ve encountered in YA in quite a while.

    Should You Read It: If you like screwball comedies, and interesting settings, this won’t take you long. It’s funny, and the bits with Scarlett’s family have a lot of heart. Just don’t read for the romance. For me, this rates a B.

  8. Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Teresa Weir:

    Why I Read It: Another Dabwaha nominee. Also, it featured a beta guy, and that is my crack.

    Synopsis: Shy Emerson works at a music repair shop and is totally hot for Lola. He only gets up the courage to make a move on her after he rescues a stray cat named Sam.

    What I Liked: Shy hero. Heroine who’d been burned by love. These two were adorable. I read the novella with a smile on my face the entire time.

    What didn’t Work: The cat veered into cutesy way too often. I wanted Lola to realize Emerson didn’t, like, randomly turn into an asshole, but, “Oh, he’s really socially awkward” never really seems to cross her mind.

    Should You Read It: Again, it’ll take an hour or so. The romance is sweet, and you’ll enjoy it if you’re a cat person. For me, it’s another B.

Review: Dreams of Dark and Light by Tanith Lee

Published February 16, 2014 by Shannon

Dreams of Dark and Light: The Great Short Fiction

Back when I was a wee small fan of science fiction and fantasy, someone turned me onto the Women of Wonder anthologies edited by Pamela Sargent. (The link goes to a review of the one I read. I was having a hard time tracking down a link to the version I read on Amazon. Anyway, that anthology introduced me to several female authors of SF, including Tanith Lee, who it turns out has written a metric fuckton of books. (That’s a technical term.) Relatively few of these are accessible, which makes me sad, but one that I did read as a teenager was Dreams of Dark and Light. On a lark, I recently decided to revisit this collection. Goodreads says of it:

Publication of The Birthgrave in 1975 heralded a new and brilliant luminary in the firmament of modem fantasy. Ostensibly a sword-and-sorcery epic in the tradition of Robert E. Howard, this novel about a youthful heroine with incipient psychic powers astounded readers with its striking originality and intense emotional impact. Tanith Lee today is one of the most versatile and respected writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and DREAMS OF DARK AND LIGHT represents a massive midcareer retrospective of her achievements over the previous decade.
Here are unforgettable tales of werewolves that prowl chateaux, an Earthwoman in exile on a distant planet, demons that inhabit bodies of the living dead, a race of vampiric creatures who prey upon a cursed castle, and many other works of exotic vision, mythic science fiction, and contemporary horror. Also included are two stories that have received the World Fantasy Award, “Elle est Trois, (La Mort)” and “The Gorgon,” making DREAMS OF DARK AND LIGHT a distinguished one volume library of myth-weaving at its most eloquent and evocative.
Although acclaimed as the “Princess Royal of Heroic Fantasy,” Tanith Lee has long since transcended genre conventions to create a body of work of remarkable psychological depth and artistic distinction. In her imaginative sympathy with characters, human or otherwise, Lee remains unexcelled in the portrayal of deeply felt emotions. Her stories explore many of the most significant themes in twentieth-century literature – life and death, coming of age, the nature of good and evil, love in all its manifestations. And she remains, above all, one of the great natural storytellers working in the English language … Tanith Lee truly has become the Scheherazade of our time.

I wrote brief impressions of each of the stories as I read. I don’t really know how to make this review more cohesive, so it will be rambling and disjointed… like most things on the blog. C’est la vie, I suppose.

I hated Rosemary Jarman’s foreword to this anthology. It boils down to: “Tanith Lee writes smartly, unlike all those hack writers.” She does write smartly, and her stories do require a close reading, but I could have done without bait of blatant literary snobbishness in a collection that contains a lot of genre work. I felt insulted, so I’m just saying it’s a good thing I didn’t actually read this collection for the author of the foreword. Plus, when there are stories that are totally works of style over substance, being labeled a “smart writer” translates in my head to a pretentious one.

“Because Our Skins Are Finer” reminded me of The Brides of Rollrock Island. A seal hunter receives a visit from one of the Shealce (selkies, obviously) who forces him to empathize with her people. I really liked the poetic language, and the evocativeness of the setting. A fairy tale with a kernel of darkness, but still plenty that was sweet.

“Bite-Me-Not, or Fleur de Fur”: I actually remembered quite a bit of this one. It’s another fairy tale, and at first it seems like it might be a Cinderella or possibly a Rapunzel story, but it’s neither. A castle has been under siege by winged vampires for years, and the duke is said to be cursed because of the loss of his daughter. Meanwhile, a scullery maid longs for something more than this provincial life. The darkly compelling and primal winged vampires were the most interesting part, and certainly were what stuck in my teenaged head. Also, this one wins at feminism because the scullery maid heroine rejects the life of a princess in order to pursue yet another path. Granted, that path is with a vampire whom she falls in love with, but it’s all her idea. Also this is the second story with the theme of love as a subversive element.

“Black as Ink” is largely forgettable. It has more of a magical realism element than the other two stories, which were pure fantasy. Magic realism can be done really well or really badly. It often feels extraneous, and if I’m left to ponder whether or not I’m missing something, the story ceases to entertain. I was not entertained. Also, the protagonist is a whiny, privileged little shit. I have no doubt I wasn’t meant to find him all that sympathetic, but there wasn’t really enough in his story to compel me, either. Also this begins a running theme of an evil yet compelling woman forcing a man to do stupid things. If this were a drinking game, you’d definitely take a shot every time an evil seductress shows up in this anthology, and this is where you’d start.

“Bright Burning Tiger”: Another story with a magical realism bent. The more I think about it, the more I like its style. It has a very old-fashioned flare, with the narrator being an observer and not the protagonist. It’s about a man who hunts tigers. There’s another bit of supernatural that might be real or it might be the product of an unreliable narrator. Unfortunately, it’s also about British colonialism, and the India portrayed is a savage place, and the Indians were shown as superstitious natives. I could have done without that bit of racism, and I was not sufficiently entertained. But there is no evil seductress so there’s that.

“Cyrion in Wax”: I remember enough of this one that I was excited to read it again. I loved the idea of a courtesan as a protagonist,. and I used the name Mareme (the name of the courtesan in this story) in RP for a long time. Unfortunately, though this was a fine swashbuckling adventure tale, Mareme herself was pretty useless. Also, the homoerotic subtext was strong in this one, which I mostly appreciate, but dammit, I wanted Mareme the whore to have more to do.

“A Day in the Skin; Or, the Century We Were Out of Them”: After the last couple of duds, this was refreshing. I think real SF fans would call this a post-human story. It’s all about how an accident on a planet humans want to settle on forces the survivors to go into a stasis outside their bodies until they can artificially construct android bodies to replace the ones the accident damaged. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but it’s the kind of measure I could see a greedy corporation taking as a means of cost-saving. Our protagonist, Scay, has a day out in the body of a woman (he is male). He meets and talks to an old friend, and not much happens, but not much needs to. It’s a story about a bunch of cool ideas, and Lee plays with them well. It’s also a lovely story about friendship. I wish the idea had been expanded on some more.

“The Dry Season” is another winner. Set in an alternate Rome, it’s about a garrison commander who sees a girl, tries to save her from her own people’s religion, and bad things ensue. I’m beginning to sense a theme: dude sees girl. Bad shit goes down. That is what has happened in several of these stories. That said, I loved how anti-colonialist this story was, in comparison with “Burning Bright”, and again, we have a protagonist who isn’t very likable, but who is nonetheless interesting. The seductress wasn’t evil, but the protagonist did start waving his dick around (metaphorically speaking) when she showed up, so feel free to take a drink.

“Elle Est Troi (La Mort)” apparently won a World Fantasy Award. I am not sure why it’s so well-regarded. It left me rather cold. It’s about three artists in Paris who each encounter death in various forms. The horror element didn’t work for me. It was too… magical-realism-ish, and if you took away that element, you’d get a story about people who navel gaze a lot and whose lives don’t mean anything. Which, OK, if that’s your thing, that’s awesome. It’s not mine, though. I actively hated it, and think I hate it more because I don’t know why it got the accolades it did.

“Foreign Skins” gets us back to stories I liked. We’ve got another story set in India. The unattainable woman is here, this time in the form of a wanderer who arrives at the house of a British government worker and his wife. The man and his son are both fascinated by her, but it’s the son who gets an interesting coming-of-age tale. This is Lee at her best, with a cast of characters I find sympathetic even if I don’t always like them very much. This has the feel of a fairy tale, and the fantasy element is decidedly present, not ambiguous. Also the seductress isn’t evil, per se, but even though I liked it, I still think she counts. Drink up.

“The Gorgon” seems, from what I can tell on Goodreads, to be universal favorite among reviewers. Allow me, then, to be the voice of the fun police when I tell you I hated it. The plot centers around a writer who ends up on a Greek island. There’s a smaller island nearby, which the locals are silent about. Predictably, he swims over there, and encounters a masked woman. Who, it turns out, (spoiler spoiler spoiler look away now!) wears the mask due to facial paralysis. And despite this grueling disability, she pretty much disdains the man’s pity. He leaves the island and now can’t write anything, because… I’m not clear. Either way, we get a narrative about a disabled person that isn’t really her story. It’s the story of how she affected an able-bodied person, and, just… ugh. STFU, Tanith Lee. Also, drink. Because the woman hiding behind the mask was soooooooo evil and she ruined the writer’s muse.

“La Reine Blanche” is not one of the best stories in the collection, but after the awfulness that was “The Gorgon” I’ll take a bland, inoffensive dark fairy tale over something that makes me outraged. This one actually has a heroine, a queen shut up in a tower. Why she is there, and what her destiny is revealed to be, is interesting. I loved the imagery, and loved that for once the vaguely unlikeable protagonist also got to be the unattainable woman. That’s why you can skip drinking on this one.

“A Lynx with Lions” is set in the same world as “The Dry Season” and “Cyrion in Wax.” Cyrion is back with another swashbuckling adventure tale, a tale of swordsmanship, demons, and vengeance. It’s frothy and fun, which I can’t say for a lot of these stories. There was no evil seductress woman either, which is a bonus. I could have done without Cyrion the white savior, but we can’t have everything.

“Magritte’s Secret Agent” is another story that’s just fun. It doesn’t hang together particularly well, but I liked it. We have a female unnamed protagonist who becomes rather obsessed with Daniel, a beautiful man who is confined to a wheelchair. Beautiful, silent men will show up in other tales, too, so equal billing for unattainable members of your gender of choice for everyone! She insinuates herself into the life of the young man and his mother and in the end changes both irrevocably. I liked that this wasn’t nearly as grossly ableist as “The Gorgon”, because the protagonist totally owned her uncomfortable feelings around Daniel’s disability. But I still didn’t understand Daniel’s mom’s motivations. She was, to me, the most interesting character, so I wish she’d made a little more sense.

“Medra” is science fiction, and it’s pretty good. It’s a slice of life story about a young woman who was the last survivor of a planetary evacuation and the swashbuckling man who finds her. There’s no overwrought evil woman doing evil things here, and while the titular Medra seems to be a little silly, there’s more to her than meets the eye and I found her fascinating. Definitely one of the better offerings.

“Nunc Dimittis” is a darkly romantic tale of a vampire and the man who is her thrall. It’s also a story about dying, and rebirth. It’s a bit on the dark side, but it’s also incredibly sweet.

“Odds Against the Gods” was my favorite of the stories in this collection when I was a teenager. I still love it. It’s a swashbuckling tale of a former religious initiate turned thief who singlehandedly (and with the help of a friend she meets along the way) destroys several gods. It’s told in the cadence of a fairy tale, and the heroine is unapologetically bisexual and not slut-shamed. Her name is Truth and she lies like a rug. I adored this story and it left me with a huge smile.

“A Room With a Vie” is straight-up horror. A woman checks into a vacation flat and discovers that the room she’s rented is actually alive. There’s some serious Freudian imagery in this one, and it was pleasantly creepy. The ending is ambiguous, which is not a thing I’m generallycomfortable with. I liked it though. Definitely one of the more memorable pieces in the anthology.

“Siriamnus”: Hello, Dr. Freud. Hello, evil seductress woman. Take a drink. I hadn’t missed the evil seductress, but she’s still here to make me rage. I’m pretty sure Lee doesn’t feel the overt misogyny of her character, Tohmet, a slave in a Greek household where the young man of the family is taken with an exotic female (and African) slave who, naturally, causes all the trouble to everyone because she’s exotic and dark-skinned and a woman, but that being the case it is my personal preference never to read anything where the moral is, “Yup. Women be castrating bitches.” Especially when that’s literally my take-away.

“Southern Lights” was another horror story. This time the “vaguely evil seductress” thing is played with, because our protagonist is a woman. I love that this is a queer story. It’s also dark fantasy, and even a little steampunk-ish. A traveler finds herself staying the night with an alchemist and his daughter. It is not nearly as fun for her as it was for, say, Janet.

“Tamastara” was just weird. It seems to be a science fiction story about the Hindi faith and reincarnation, and there were fascinating things under the surface, I’m sure. Sadly, I don’t know what they were because I spent the whole time being bored. I couldn’t even really tell you what it was about. I do know there was no evil seductress, though, so props for that.

“When The Clock Strikes” is another clear winner. It’s an inverted Cinderella story, which turns every aspect of the tale, from the cinder wench (TM Andrew Lang) herself to the stepmother to the prince and the glass slipper on its head. I liked it, despite the evil seductress. It’s dark and angry, and not too long. Lee is clearly at her best when writing these dark fairy tales.

“Wolfland” is Tanith Lee doing gothic. And also there are werewolves. The heroine is basically a hapless damsel while also being incredibly hard to like. Bitches be materialistic and money-hungry, emirite? I did think the story worked, though, and it was nice to see werewolves in their traditional, actually-scary rather than paranormal sexy, incarnations.

“Written in Water” rounds out the anthology and lets it end on a relatively positive note. Lee’s evil seductress is sort of inverted in that she’s actually the protagonist, and she doesn’t start out that way. Basically, a man falls from the sky and a woman takes him in, finding that he is her perfect helpmeet. Then it turns out that at some point she must have read this post because apparently she is the last woman on earth and she’s not having that helpmeet bullshit, and while I admire the sentiment it felt random. I think I was supposed to see her as an unreliable narrator, but then it turns out she’s right about everything? And… I don’t know. Also the heroine is a dried-up spinster at 35, which as a 32-year-old spinster lady didn’t give me happy feels at all. It was entertaining and disjointed and I liked the setup a lot more when it was called Starman.

***********

Overall, a mixed bag. When the stories were good, they were awesome. When they were bad, they were overblown and verbose and there were too many evil seductresses. I’m not sorry that I reread this anthology, but I’m not nearly in so much of a hurry to rediscover the rest of Tanith Lee’s books.

Final grade: C

Review: The J. Alfred Prufrock Murders by Corinne Holt Sawyer

Published February 9, 2014 by Shannon

J. Alfred Prufrock Murders

We are discussing The J. Alfred Prufrock Murders on the next episode of the Book Hoarders Podcast. The episode gets recorded tomorrow, so this will be quick.

Goodreads says:

Here is a rousing whodunnit that delights with its full-blooded portraits of septuagenarians run amok in a California retirement community, their once passive acceptance of life’s injustices changed to indignation when a murderer is discovered lurking in their midst. — A quartet of oldsters, all women, are moved to surprising action when one of their own, a not-so-sweet busybody named “Sweetie,” winds up face-down on the beach, her body covered with tiny puncture wounds. The four not-so-gentle ladies realize what the young investigating officer has trouble accepting–that even the most seemingly docile among them may be provoked into taking a life, even a series of lives, if the pleasure of the time they have left is threatened. Armed with such insight, they shrug off their infirmities and take to the investigative trail, complete with shocking revelations.

More than a lighthearted tale of irrepressible grande dames who choose to drink one last time from the fountain of youth, The J. Alfred Prufrock Murders provides an image of exuberant youth refracted into “old” age. Steadfastly refusing to be “cute” in her depiction of “golden girls” revivified, Corinne Holt Sawyer achieves a rare blend of comedy, pathos and taut suspense.

What I Liked: The tone is lighthearted without being slapstick. There’s just a bit of snark in Sawyer’s tone, but I never got the sense she was laughing at her characters, or expecting us to laugh at them. The old ladies themselves were colorful and interesting, although I suspect none will linger in my mind long enough to remember details about their personality traits. I also appreciated that Sawyer asks a lot of tough questions about what it means to forgive people, and what friendship is worth. She doesn’t provide easy answers, and that was a pleasant surprise.

What didn’t work: I should have guessed the murderer long before I did. In fact, when I figured it out, my reaction was a dismayed, “She isn’t going to go there, is she?” I don’t want to spoil the identity of the killer, but I felt like my genre expectations were disappointed. And I know that’s not fair, because “You didn’t write the book I wanted you to write” is never a valid criticism. But she didn’t. Furthermore, the real murderer was a tacked-on bit of cliche that I could have skipped.

Who Might Like it: Fans of cozy mysteries. The violence is present, but it’s glossed over. If you like for your frothy humor to have a couple of interesting ideas to chew on, this is a good pick for that.

Final Assessment: It was an easy read. I liked the characters and the writing style, and would read other books if there are more, even though the actual solution to the mystery didn’t work for me. This is the kind of book where a C grade isn’t a bad thing, so that is what I’m giving it.

Review: Plain Kate by Erin Bow

Published January 22, 2014 by Shannon

Plain Kate

A debut novel that’s as sharp as a knife’s point.

Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. As the wood-carver’s daughter, Kate held a carving knife before a spoon, and her wooden charms are so fine that some even call her “witch-blade” — a dangerous nickname in a town where witches are hunted and burned in the square.

There is a lot to love about Plain Kate , the YA debut by author Erin Bow. The author’s background as a poet shines through in the story she weaves of a young girl who is persecuted for a witch but who grows in strength of character throughout her adventures. The writing is lush and dreamlike, and it was a pleasure to listen to it read aloud. There’s a fairy tale quality to the tale, with its talk of selling shadows and magic cats, and I think that’s perfect for Bow’s style of writing.

The characters were a mixed bag. I never connected to Kate. She spends so much of the novel never quite catching a break, and while I certainly don’t think every female character needs to kick ass and take names, there was something extremely reactive about Kate’s narrative. Things happen to her; until the very end, she does not make things happen.

That said, I appreciated what Bow did with her supporting cast. None of them are purely good or purely evil. The antagonist was one of the most compelling villains I’ve read about in a long time, because his motivation rang true and I found his story touchingly tragic. And, of course, I can’t write about the secondary characters without writing about Kate’s companion, Taggle, a cat who is granted the ability to speak. He is absolutely perfect in his felinity, and he provided some much needed heart for the book. There is also a lovely friendship between two girls, which still feels like a rare and precious thing that I can’t get enough of. The friendship is nicely not complicated by any sort of romantic interest, and I adored the fact that it was so important to Kate’s development.

Plain Kate is a surprisingly dark middle grade novel. It is beautifully written, and I’d recommend it for someone who wants to linger over particular turns of phrase. I wish I had connected to it better, but I would try Bow again.

Final Grade: C.

[ETA: Hit send too soon.

Review: Tonight, My Love by Tracy Somers

Published January 13, 2014 by Shannon

Tonight, My Love

Woo. A YA and an erotica review going up on the same day. I hope there is some young person lurking among my readership who can be corrupted by all of these shenanigans.

“Tonight, my love, the choice is yours,” Andrew Campbell tells Isabelle as they ride through the streets of Whitechapel to select a prostitute to join them in bed. Her choice: Franny, a pretty young girl hesitant to go with the genteel couple with Jack the Ripper on the loose.

Yet the lure of money and food is too strong for Franny. Before long, she is in their bed…with Andrew and Isabelle fulfilling their promise to take Franny to the height of sexual ecstasy.

But once their pleasure is complete, Andrew and Isabelle have another surprise in store for her…

I ran across Tonight, My Love on Bookshare a while back. I thought the premise sounded intriguing, but that was three years ago, when I was completely averse to the idea of short stories sold as ebooks. However, this afternoon, I ran across Jill Sorenson’s review on Loving Venus, Loving Mars. and was like, “Oh yeah, this one. Rescue fantasy plus M/F/F action equals something I would adore and probably give me all the feels at the end.” It was still on Bookshare, so I read it, and now I will probably spend more time writing a blog post about the book than I did reading it.
The Good: It’s reasonably well-written erotica. It also takes about 15 minutes to read. This isn’t one of those stories you read when you are looking for well-drawn characters and deep thinking. For what it does, its performance was satisfactory.

The Bad: I did not call this erotic romance. For some reason, I assumed that because this was a Harlequin Spice title, it would have an “optimistic and emotionally satisfying ending”. Um. No. I know it’s not fair to judge an author for not writing the book I wanted her to write, but I hated the twist ending, because it was dumb. That’s why I’m taking the time to write about it here. In fact, I will spoilt for you so you can decide for yourself if you want to invest in this sort of thing for your PWP needs. If you want to avoid spoilers, you might want to stop now.

OK so it turns out the couple are married demons who lure prostitutes in and kill them Jack the Ripper style. There are hints of this early on, and I came to expect a paranormal element. Our prostitute du jour is not exempted from this fate. However, the marketing led me to believe that the ending wouldn’t involve her being dismembered.

Really, the paranormal element seemed to be there for shock value and I wish the author hadn’t gone there at all.

Final Assessment: I’ll probably skip the last few pages and pretend they never happened, if I ever decide to reread. This one was riding steady at a B until that ending, which was a D, so we’ll split the difference and call it a C.