Grade: B

All posts in the Grade: B 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: 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.

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

Review: Unbound by Cara McKenna

Published April 20, 2014 by Shannon

Unbound

I have some mixed reactions to what I’ve read of Cara McKenna’s books. I approve of the fact that her books don’t take the conventional paths. I like that her heroines are self-aware and sexually adventurous. Her heroes are always interesting and multi-faceted. And yet, she hasn’t written a book that blows my mind. We’re going to get there someday, she and I, but we haven’t achieved book/reader chemistry just yet.

I came fairly close with Unbound. It’s got a lot of things I love in my romances,–cabin romance, a female dom/male sub role in the BDSM, and a broken hero, and ultimately I enjoyed reading it. I just wish I’d loved it like I wanted to.

Goodreads informs us:

An all-new novel from the author of After Hours.

She set out to find herself, and discovered the darker side of desire.

Merry’s lost a lot recently—first her mother, then close to a hundred pounds. Feeling adrift, she strikes out in search of perspective. A three-week hike through the Scottish Highlands was supposed to challenge her new body and refocus her priorities, but when disaster strikes, she’s forced to seek refuge in the remote home of a brooding, handsome stranger…

Rob exiled himself to the Highlands years ago, desperate to escape his own self-destruction. Haunted by regrets, he avoids human contact at all costs…but when Merry turns up injured, he can’t very well run her off. And as he nurses her back to health, Rob can’t resist his guest’s sweet demeanor—or her flirtatious advances. The igniting passion between them rouses a secret appetite Rob has long struggled to keep hidden. But Merry craves nothing more than to help Rob surrender to his desires, and the journey draws the lovers into an entirely different kind of wilderness.

As I said on Twitter, one of my major hangups with McKenna is that her heroines have the kind of baggage I wish I had. Merry is no exception. Having lost nearly 100 pounds, she’s trying to adjust to her new body and what that means. I enjoyed reading her thoughts on her body and the complicated relationship she has with food. I thought her insecurities were well-realized. And yet. I wanted more of a before. I wanted to get more of her continued struggles. I mean, you don’t go from being a compulsive overeater to a compulsive exerciser and then when you’re done, live your life as normal. (Or maybe you can. I don’t know. I just didn’t quite buy it.)

By comparison, Rob was incredibly vividly drawn, ugly flaws and all. He’s a sexy man, but he’s got a lot of demons, including alcoholism and a sexual fetish that has brought him nothing but shame. His struggles seemed more immediate and pronounced, and maybe that’s the other reason Merry didn’t work for me. When she enters his life, she becomes something of his Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She teaches him that life is worth living and gets him out of his self-imposed exile with her sweetness and charm and kindness. If that’s not a manic pixie dream girl, I’m not sure what is.

That said, I did like this romance far more than I usually like manic pixie dream girl story lines. It builds slowly, but when the two begin having sex, the scenes don’t feel forced or gratuitous. I liked that the couple spends a lot of time talking about what they need, and what they want, even if that conversation doesn’t come easily. I also enjoyed the fact that McKenna writes about kinks that don’t work for me–lots and lots of humiliation play and rope bondage–in a way that made me understand what the characters are getting out of the scenes.

The ending didn’t quite work for me. It’s more of a happy for now than a happily ever after, and even then I thought the HFN was a little tenuous. I’m not sure that McKenna could have ended the story any other way, but I wanted to be assured of just a little more permanence.

I’m not familiar with Lucy Rivers as an audiobook narrator. At first I was somewhat skeptical of her reading, because her voice is a little more breathy than I like. But the Tantor Audio production was no-frills, with no interstitial music or weird soundscapes, so it worked for me. After a while, I even settled into Rivers’ narration. I loved the voice she gave Rob, and the Northern English accent she used sounded authentic to my ear.
This review makes it seem like I didn’t enjoy the book. That’s not true. While I was reading, I was totally invested in the characters. It’s just not a book that holds up well for me upon reflection.

My final grade: Something like a B-.

Review: Special Delivery by Heidi Cullinan

Published April 8, 2014 by Shannon

Special Delivery (Special Delivery, #1)

I bought Special Delivery by Heidi Cullinan because I am anal about reading series books in order. I then proceeded to read Double Blind, the second book in this series, first, because poker and Vegas seemed much more interesting than calgon-take-me-away trucker fantasies. That said, Heidi’s got a new book out, Tough Love which came out today, and I knew I wanted to be caught up with the series before I started it. (Side note: I’m a little scared to read Tough Love, because while I’m sure Cullinan can make me find water sports hot if anyone can, it is one of my hard line “I don’t ever want to go there, even in fantasy” kinks. Also, one of the heroes is named Steve, which is my dad’s name. That said, the other hero looks like a hella fierce drag queen, and I am hoping Chenco can carry the book past my brain’s mad associations with water sports with my dad.)

Anyway, that is neither here nor there. Of Special Delivery, Goodreads tells us:

When your deepest, darkest fantasy shows up, get on board.

Sam Keller knows he’ll never find the excitement he craves in Middleton, Iowa—not while he’s busting his ass in nursing school and paying rent by slaving away in a pharmacy stockroom. Then Sam meets Mitch Tedsoe, an independent, long-haul trucker who makes a delivery to a shop across the alley. Innocent flirting quickly leads to a fling, and when Mitch offers to take him on a road trip west, Sam jumps at the chance for adventure. Mitch is sexy, funny and friendly, but once they embark on their journey, something changes. One minute he’s the star of Sam’s every x-rated fantasy, the next he’s almost too much a perfect gentleman. And when they hit the Las Vegas city limit, Sam has a name to pin on Mitch’s malady: Randy.

For better or for worse, Sam grapples with the meaning of friendship, letting go, growing up—even the meaning of love—because no matter how far he travels, eventually all roads lead home.

Warning: This story contains trucker fantasies, threesomes and kinky consensual sex.

This book has been previously published and has been revised from its original release.

I bought the original, first edition, copy of this book. I don’t know what changes were made between it and the copy that is available now. I don’t love you guys–or Heidi Cullinan–enough to find out. That said, I wonder if my reaction would have been different had I read the revised version.

The thing is, this was fine. I liked Sam. I think Ms. Cullinan writes young men trying to figure out who they are and where they’re going extremely well. I appreciated that she let me get a good handle on Mitch for all that the story is told in Sam’s third-person, limited POV. I liked seeing Randy, the hero of Double Blind in a totally new light. That said, none of the characters, not even Sam, really popped for me. They were perfectly adequate, but I didn’t love them the way I came to love Kelly and Walter or Adam and Denver, or even Frankie and Marcus, from some of Cullinan’s other books. By rights, I should have, but the spark wasn’t there.

I finished Special Delivery with a smile on my face, but also feeling a little tired. Ultimately, I think there was too much sex after a certain point. Once Randy enters the picture, that’s practically all the three of them did, and a lot of the fucking was with the characters’ heads. Which, hey, if that’s your bag, awesome, but it didn’t really work for me.

I do think Ms. Cullinan writes BDSM well. She’s one of the few authors who can make me get past my “Ugh, no, that’s terrible” reaction and let me see what it is the characters are getting out of the encounters, (which is the only reason I am willing to let her take me anywhere involving water sports) but in this book it was all just too much, and particularly too much “this is not my kink at all.”
All that said, I did like that the conflict between Mitch and Sam was about their sexual relationship. Mitch wanted to make sure Sam wasn’t scared off, and Sam wanted to explore his slutty side fully. These two needs, of course, make them bump heads a lot, and they have to negotiate and figure out what is comfortable for both of them. It was a quieter conflict than, say, a big misunderstanding, and I think Cullinan writes those sorts of conflicts really well.
I also have to talk about the premise. One of the reviews I read indicated the reviewer thought Sam read too young for 21. I have to disagree. Sam read like the 21-year-old that I was. At that time, I, too, had fantasies of someone whisking me away from a life where I was spinning my wheels and going nowhere. I did not, however, have a life changing road trip with a hot trucker. Instead, I had an awkward period of about six months that I devoutly wish I could have done differently, even if they did shape the person I became as an adult in pivotal ways. I’m not sure if I would have read Special Delivery if it had been around ten years ago, but I wish I could send the comforting bits I took away–about figuring out who you are and what you deserve–to my past self.

I have to end this review by harping on a tiny thing that propped up a lot. There was a character I didn’t mention who got just about as much screen time as Mitch and Randy. I am, of course, referring to Sam’s iPhone. As an Apple girl myself–writing this on a Macbook Pro–I approve of Sam’s life choice. That said, Sam/his iPhone was my crack ship du jour, and if I wrote fanfic, I would write a silly drabble about Sam’s fickleness toward his faithful iPhone.
My final verdict: I did enjoy Special Delivery. It wasn’t my favorite Cullinan, but I’m eager to see what she does next. As for a grade, I’m wavering between a C+ and a B-. I think I’ll go with the B- because doubtless my various Apple devices would immediately stop working if I graded the book lower.

Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Published April 7, 2014 by Shannon

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I discovered We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler when I was cataloguing books one day. The premise struck me as fascinating, and worthy of book club discussion, so, since I have to lead a book discussion later this month, I decided to choose this book. Also, we are going to read it for the Book Hoarders podcast.

Here’s the description:

Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.

Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man.

And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined.

I did not expect my experiment in random book selection from my work cataloguing would net such interesting results, but I came to really enjoy this book. I don’t want to say much more about the plot, because to do so would ruin one of the major surprises of the book.

What I can say is that this is a story about a fractured family, and it’s a story told in the best ways. Fowler doesn’t demonize her characters. She gives them relatable flaws, and it’s easy for the reader to understand them and sympathize with the choices they make. I could believe families like the Cooks really exist, and I felt their suffering more acutely as a result. The only character I struggled with was Harlowe, a girl Rosemary meets in an unforgettable scene toward the beginning of the book. Unfortunately, while Harlowe was kind of a manic pixie dream girl gone bad, who kept the plot moving, she was a caricature. Given how nuanced Rosemary’s family was, I was disappointed and vaguely annoyed every time Harlowe showed up.

Fowler raises many questions that I think will be particularly interesting to book clubs. She talks about what it means to be human, and there’s a lot of discussion about the way we treat animals. She doesn’t propose solutions to any of these questions, but when they were raised, she did succeed at making me think.

I read the audio version. Orlagh Cassidy is not a narrator I was familiar with, but her narration was easy and smooth. She was the kind of narrator I prefer, one who is a consummate actress but who doesn’t over emote. To me, she became the voice of Rosemary Cook.

I’m not sure how many more of these experiments in finding new reads from library cataloguing there will be, butI’m glad this one turned out well. I’d love to discuss this book with anyone who’s read it, since this review is necessarily vague.

My grade is a B+.

Review: Bone Rider by J Fally

Published April 1, 2014 by Shannon

Bone Rider

I bought J Fally’s debut novel, Bone Rider on the strength of Sunita’s excellent review at Dear Author. I’m not sure I’d have given it a second look without that review, because the premise on its face is pretty ridiculous, but if I’d passed it by, I would have missed one of the most original and cracktastic M/M reads I’ve encountered in a long time.

Goodreads tells us:

Riley Cooper is on the run. Misha Tokarev, the love of his life, turned out to be an assassin for the Russian mob, and when it comes to character flaws, Riley draws the line at premeditated murder. Alien armor system McClane is also on the run, for reasons that include accidentally crashing a space ship into Earth and evading U.S. military custody. A failed prototype, McClane was scheduled for destruction. Sabotaging the ship put an end to that, but McClane is dubbed a bone rider for good reason—he can’t live without a host body. That’s why he first stows away in Riley’s truck and then in Riley himself. Their reluctant partnership soon evolves into something much more powerful—and personal—than either of them could have imagined.

Together, they embark on a road trip from hell, made all the more exciting by the government troops and mob enforcers hot on their trail. Misha is determined to win Riley back and willing to do whatever it takes to keep him safe. When hitman and alien join forces, they discover their impressive combined potential for death and destruction. It will take everything Riley has to steer them through the mess they create.

So, right? Kind of a silly premise. It could be a summer blockbuster, and is one of the most cinematic books I’ve read lately. It wasn’t hard to see where the author was going, and her imagery was lovely. The plot never stops moving, and for the most part, she has a deft hand with suspense.

The characters were also interesting. There’s a large cast, including Riley, our hapless cowboy protagonist who is on the run from the Russian mafia after he discovers that his boyfriend Misha is a hit man. Riley is soon infiltrated by McClane, the alien armor system who crashed their spaceship into Earth, and who develops something of a crush on Bruce Willis (hence the name.) There are the soldiers who are after McClane, including a few POC women who get POV chapters. And of course, there’s Misha, who was just as obsessed with Riley as Riley was with him. And did I mention there are survivalists?

For the most part, Fally handles all these characters skillfully. All of them have reasonable motivations, and none of them are stupid because the plot demands that they be so. All of them are some flavor of bad-ass, and Fally revels in that portrayal.

For the first three quarters of the book, I was hooked. I absolutely adored Riley and McClane, and thought McClane stole every scene he was in. Watching the two of them begin to bond was lovely. There are sexytimes, which were a little weird, but erotic for all that without going into needlessly detailed descriptions. When Misha comes on the scene, things are even more intense, and I appreciated that the two of them were both men and acted like they were.

That all said, the ending was rushed and kind of a mess, which moved this from a book that was coasting high in the A range down to a B grade for me. There are more shootouts, and I thought their inclusion made the character development suffer. I would have liked a chapter or so with Misha getting used to McClane’s presence, and I wanted another chapter or so in one of the boys’ POV at the end, to assure myself that everyone was OK. Instead I got some lines thrown in hastily along the lines of, “Yep, everybody’s fine and we’re adjusting.” Which I appreciated knowing, but considering that Fally thought it necessary to include a couple of extraneous POV chapters from random secondary characters that served even less plot purpose, I was disappointed.

I wouldn’t call this a romance. There’s a strong romantic element, and it ends on a satisfying Happy for Now, (even if I was less satisfied by the ending itself), but it read more like straight pulp sci-fi to me. I know I have a couple of regular readers who aren’t so into the romance, and I’d encourage you to take a look at this one and see what you think. It’s a book that I’m sure will linger in my mind for a while, and I’m on board for whatever Fally offers up next.

My grade: A B.

Review: Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi

Published March 31, 2014 by Shannon

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders

I ended up reading Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi for an upcoming episode of the Book Hoarders podcast. I’d had it on my radar because even though I wasn’t even conceived of during the Manson murders, they’ve entered the cultural zeitgeist, and I wanted to learn why they were so sensational. Believe me, now I know.

Here’s the Goodreads synopsis:

A national bestseller—7 million copies sold.

Prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi held a unique insider’s position in one of the most baffling and horrifying cases of the twentieth century: the cold-blooded Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by Charles Manson and four of his followers. What motivated Manson in his seemingly mindless selection of victims, and what was his hold over the young women who obeyed his orders? Here is the gripping story of this famous and haunting crime. 50 pages of b/w photographs.
Both Helter Skelter and Vincent Bugliosi’s subsequent Till Death Us Do Part won Edgar Allan Poe Awards for best true-crime book of the year. Bugliosi is also the author of Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O. J. Simpson Got Away with Murder (Norton, 1996) and other books. Curt Gentry, an Edgar winner, is the author of J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (available in Norton paperback) and Frame-Up: The Incredible Case of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings.

I haven’t read any true crime, so I didn’t have high expectations going into this book. I expected to be horrified, possibly a little bored, and definitely bogged down in minutia. I was horrified, but Bugliosi’s account is gripping, and I looked forward to my daily commutes so I could get back to the book.

There was a lot I learned from Helter Skelter. I had no idea that Charles Manson was such a frustrated artist. Luckily for all of us, some thoughtful soul has put some of his music up on Youtube, so you can see why it was that nobody was rushing to give the man a recording contract. I also didn’t realize that Sharon Tate, the most famous of the Manson murder victims, was the wife of Roman Polanski, who himself has become something of a problematic figure in Hollywood, to put it mildly.

As for the Manson family, they held a strange fascination for me. I still can’t believe one man could be charismatic enough to persuade four accomplices that the way to start a revolution was to kill random people, and yet, that’s precisely what he did.

With writing that was engaging and enough personal insight to make what could have been the rather tedious proceedings of the investigation and the trial a fascinating read, I’m on board for any of Bugliosi’s other work. I can’t say I’m precisely glad I read this book, because some of the violent and gruesome images will stick in my head for a long time to come, but I certainly learned a lot.

Final Grade: B+

A Couple of Erotic Romances

Published March 30, 2014 by Shannon

To celebrate the fact that this humble blog has been considered porn by one person’s work computers, it’s time to post a couple of quickie reviews of recent smutty reads. Let us never say that I don’t live down to people’s expectations.

His Roommate's Pleasure

His Roommate’s Pleasure by Lana McGregor:

It started with an accidental click…but where will it end?

Desperate to turn in a paper, Adam borrows his roommate’s computer and mistakenly opens a folder that contains Josh’s collection of porn. Adam had no idea that his jock roommate was gay—and into leashes, paddles and domination. And Adam, an inexperienced virgin who’s only ever kissed one guy, is surprised to find himself curious about submitting…

Josh can’t believe that his roommate discovered his spank bank—and he can’t believe that Adam is so turned on by the thought of giving up control to someone. Taking a chance, he offers to look through the photos with Adam…and maybe try acting some of them out.

Night after night, the boys delve into their darkest fantasies of domination and submission. And as lust and experimentation grow into the promise of something deeper, Adam must decide if he’s brave enough to tell Josh how he feels.

This was a pleasant story about two college age boys, one a jock, one a nerd, who find themselves experimenting with BDSM. It’s the kind of story that requires a bit of suspension of disbelief–you’d think that if Josh was so firmly entrenched in the closet he wouldn’t just leave his porn where anyone could access it quickly, but whatever–but I was able to go with it. Mostly this was because McGregor tells the story in Adam’s third person point of view, and I thought Adam was an engaging character with a fun and often funny voice. I liked the way the two boys communicated as they worked their way through negotiating their fledgling BDSM relationship. Josh wasn’t a super dom who could read Adam’s mind and knew exactly what he wanted. For that alone I give McGregor props.

The sex play is relatively mild. I thought the scenes were pleasant enough, although I wasn’t as engaged as I might have liked, because I noticed a few writing tics. (I feel like Adam “started to come” in almost every scene.) There was also a note of didacticism in the descriptions that at times made me feel I was being preached at.

Of course, it says something about how much terrible BDSM is out there that I’d rather have didactic BDSM where the characters communicate clearly than psychic doms who just know that their subs are really craving a bit of figging because they’re that smart. (Yes, I did read that scene. Yes, it was a couple of years ago. Yes, I am still bitter.)

My Grade: I can’t quite decide between a B- and a C+, but I’m feeling generous tonight so we’ll go with the B-.

********************

Grace Under Fire

Grace Under Fire by Jackie Barbosa:

Lady Grace Hannington is the most inaptly named debutante in all of London. Cursed with two left feet, hands that are nothing but thumbs, and a stutter, she’s certain to spend the next five years on the wall and the rest of her life on the shelf. Or so she believes, until her clumsiness pitches her literally into the arms of Lord Colin Fitzgerald and his best friend, Atticus Stilwell.

Colin and Atticus have been inseparable since a shared boyhood tragedy brought them together more than twenty years ago. Though it raises eyebrows, they share everything…including women. This particular quirk has made it all but impossible for Colin, whose title and lands will revert to the crown if he doesn’t have a legitimate heir, to find a respectable lady who’s willing to be his wife.

When a stroke of good fortune—and a little intervention from a well-placed foot—gives the two men a golden opportunity to show the lovely and lonely Lady Grace she’s not quite so gauche as she believes, they play it (and her) for all they’re worth. But once she’s discovered her true talents lie not on the dance floor but in the bedroom, Grace must decide whether a scandalous marriage that’s sure to ruin her reputation is what she really wants.

A couple of weeks ago, Jackie Barbosa’s son was killed in a car accident on his way to school. I can’t even begin to fathom that loss, although I can understand it somewhat, since someone close to my family was killed a couple of years ago in a car accident. The event left us shaken and devastated because it was so sudden. And that person wasn’t even remotely related to me.

In response, Courtney Milan invited people to talk about Jackie Barbosa’s books. It was a good reason to finally read one, even though I have followed Ms. Barbosa on Twitter for a while.

That was quite a lead-in to say that this is exactly the kind of fun and frothy escapist smut I wanted. I am a sucker for a plain Jane heroine, and a woman being courted by two men. There’s a white knight rescue fantasy thing going on, with the men saving Grace from a life of loneliness and being overlooked. Yet, I never felt that Grace was powerless. In fact, the major conflict hinges on her coming to embrace her sexuality, which, given that this is an erotic romance story, she does. The sex scenes were inventive and entertaining. There was even an HEA, which given the last Harlequin Spice Brief story I read was welcome indeed.

That all said, despite the fact that this is totally my catnip, the characters probably won’t stick with me. I wanted more of all of them, especially the motives of the two men for being together. Plus, M/M reader that I am, I was left wondering just how involved the boys were with each other, if you know what I mean. Also, every time a character commented on Grace’s tits and ass, I was thrown out of the story.

I’d definitely read Barbosa again. I’d love to see what she can do with a longer word count and more of a chance to flesh out her characters. As it is, this one also falls in the B range for me.