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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: Grabbed by Vicious by Lolita Lopez

Published July 17, 2014 by Shannon

Grabbed by Vicious (Grabbed, #1)

There’s something that captivates me about alien captive romances. They appeal to me in a visceral way that I know is extremely problematic. Nine times out of ten, I will read a book with this premise, and either give up in disgust (Hello, Sharon Green, with your book that had an exchange like, “[Warrior dude] rolled me over and raped me. Then we ate breakfast.”) or I read to the bitter end and deeply, deeply regret doing so.
So when I learned that one of my trusted reader friends read and loved all of the Grabbed series by Lolita Lopez, I was cautiously optimistic. My friend and I had a Twitter exchange that went something like:

Me: “Should I read these?

Her: “Totally. The first book is as nonconsensual as it gets. And there are female friendships.”

So, because I am nothing if not a sucker for cracky ebooks, I bought the first one, Grabbed by Vicious and started it with some misgivings.

Here’s the blurb:

Hallie has never run so fast in her life. One of the frightening sky warriors from the warship Valiant is hot on her heels and intent on capturing her as his bride. He takes her down, places his collar around her neck. With one word, he claims her.

Mine.

Born and bred for the military, Vicious has spent years rising through the ranks. Hallie is his reward, the beautiful sprite ensnaring him with a glance.

Despite her fear of Vicious, Hallie surrenders under his skillful hands and mouth. If she’ll submit, he promises pleasure and comfort. After a lifetime of hardship, his offer tempts her greatly.

One night with Hallie and Vicious feels his protective instincts flaring. He’ll do anything to make her happy and keep her safe, even if that means surrendering his heart. Though he intended to master her, Vicious realizes it may be his sweet Hallie who masters him.

Inside Scoop: Our heroine endures trials and violence with strength equal to that of her warrior mate. (She also witnesses F/F play, and endures a collar and light BDSM. Fortunately she likes that part.)

After that huge setup, it will not surprise you if I tell you that I loved this book. It’s not perfect (the pace slows down a lot and I’m not sure it needed to be quite so long), but I feel like it was meant for a reader like me.

First of all, this is a heroine-centric story. In many ways, Vicious is less interesting than Hallie. He’s got a typical romance-hero past, and is basically a giant teddy bear. He is a walking male fantasy, a care-giving alpha who protects Hallie and wants to make sure she’s always happy. A few side characters remark that he’s awfully whipped, and he kind of is. But he’s the kind of female fantasy that works for me, even with the J. R. Ward-esque name.

Hallie, though? She reacts the way heroines usually don’t in this kind of book. Oh, she tries to avoid being captured, but once it happens, she tries to make the best of it. She’s on a giant space ship. It’s not like she can go anywhere, and after Vicious seduces her, she quickly learns he won’t harm her. There were no ham-handed attempts to escape, nor were there shrieking hysterics. Also, her reaction mirrored mine when she learns Vicious’s name. She actually has the “… huh? WTF,dude?” reaction that I experience every time I read a speculative romance with silly names.

Hallie’s a sweet, domestic goddess sort of woman. She also has a past that is much more colorful than Vicious’s. And she’s interested in social justice. She wants to make life better for the women that have also been captured by Vicious’s people. I love that the times she actually gets herself into trouble were because she did something for other people.

There is BDSM play in this book, although not much of it. The first few scenes do flirt a little with dubious consent, but by the time Hallie has her first orgasm, it’s made explicit in the text that she wants everything to happen. I never got hit with the whiplash of wondering where the hell her enjoyment was coming from. I was never made uncomfortable by the text, and I thought Lopez explored some interesting dynamics in the bedroom.

This is the kind of story where the heroine may be submissive in the bedroom, but outside of it she has her own agency. She and Vicious are also fairly vanilla, with a little kinkier play thrown in to spice things up every now and then. The next book plays with more explicit BDSM themes, and as I’m reading it now I’m appreciating that Lopez is writing about very different people with very different kinks. At least this way I know the formula won’t be dull or repetitive.

As I said, the book isn’t perfect. The writing feels very contemporary, and some of the phrasing is repetitive, and Lopez loves to make sure lots of verbs have their little adverb friends to play with. There’s also a big misunderstanding that occurs toward the end of the book that made me sigh and roll my eyes. Mostly, I thought the romantic conflict was over too quickly as well, though I don’t really know what I’d have wanted instead.

For all that, though, this is some delicious book crack. It worked extremely well for me, and I was sad to see the book ending. I’ve begun reading the second book in the series, and it’s started out very well. If things continue, Lolita Lopez is definitely going to be an author to watch.

Final Grade: B

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: Tyler by C. H. Admirand

Published August 7, 2012 by Shannon

Tyler (The Secret Life of Cowboys, #1)

Title: Tyler
Author: C H Admirand
Genre: contemporary romance
Series: The Secret Lives of Cowboys
Read on: July 29, 2012
Synopsis via goodreads:

Desperate times call for desperate measures… When Tyler Garahan said he’d do anything to save his family’s ranch, he never thought that would include taking a job as a stripper at a local ladies’ club. But the club’s fiery redheaded bookkeeper captures Tyler’s attention, and for her, he’ll swallow his pride… And one good turn deserves another… Emily Langley feels for the gorgeous cowboy. It’s obvious that he’s the real deal and wouldn’t be caught dead in a ladies’ revue if he wasn’t in big trouble. And when he looks at her like that, she’ll do anything to help… Working days on the ranch and nights at the ladies’ club, Tyler is plumb exhausted. But could it be that his beautiful boss needs him just as much as he needs her…

Whoo doggie! I read in the acknowledgements page of this here book that the author done thanked a coupla real nice young fillies that reviewed her other books by puttin’ ’em in as characters in this one. Now, I reckon I cain’t tell the future, but I sure don’t think there’ll be any fashion coaches named Shannon at any of them there strip clubs Ms. Admirand might write about in future.

I gotta start out by sayin’ that the whole notion of strippin’ to save the ranch might be the plumb funniest premise I’ve encountered in a durn long time. It’s right up there with havin’ sex to save the world. That’s why I read this book. I figured it’d either be incredibly stupid or rip-roarin’ campy fun, and I was hopin’ for the latter. It was, though it was also kind of a mess.

Tyler’s a cowboy. A real honest-to-God cowboy. Living in Texas, y’all. Naturally, he has the ridiculous Texas accent to go with it. I live in the Midwest, which is nowhere near Texas, but my part of the country has rural areas, and I know folks don’t talk like Jed Clampit’s less literate hillbilly cousins here. I’m assuming that’s true in Texas, too. What I’m saying is, Tyler’s cowboy accent was laid on a bit too thick, and when he referred to Emily, our heroine, as a “fractious filly” I just couldn’t take him seriously as a character.

There are elements of an interesting man in Tyler. I believed in his love for his ranch and for his brothers, and I felt for him as he endured the humiliation of stripping, even though I was wondering why there were no McDonalds’ in Pleasure, Texas. (Yes, really.) Sure, stripping would pay a lot better, but at least his manly pride wouldn’t have been wounded, you know?

As for Emily, she belongs to the feisty heroine section of central casting. Which means that while she has moments of sweetness, she has more moments of childlike stupidity. She’s not quite too stupid to live, but she’s certainly more blasé than she should have been when people start vandalizing the club. I liked her friendship with Jolene, the club’s owner, but mostly she was just annoying.

The romance comes about without much conflict, and I thought that some of the choices Ms. Admirand made to prolong sexual tension were silly and nonsensical. (Emily needs to trust Tyler before she lets him go down on her… which, OK, I can see that, but it wasn’t like he was wanting to do anything Lorelei James would have included in her books as a matter of course.) In fact, I didn’t really get much out of the sex scenes, mostly because there were way too many references to food in conjunction with how Emily tasted.

The suspense plot was laughable. The villain was a one-note stock character, and I never understood his motivation beyond “Bwahahaha, I need more power! I will now take over this town.”

I did enjoy the dynamic between Tyler and his brothers. I thought some of the secondary characters had potential to be interesting, but none of the ones I particularly wanted to read about seem like they’re destined for books of their own.
I read this as campy romance brain candy. At that, it succeeds, and I could see it being a bit of a guilty pleasure read. However, after I finished this book, I began Dylan, the next book in the series, and DNFed it pretty quickly. Though I giggled at there being a mention of fractious fillies on page 1, I couldn’t get past the fact that the heroine of that book has a family curse… She’ll meet up with an Irishman and have twins. This is seriously an impediment to her happiness? OK then. I have a family curse, too. It’s that every time I drink sugary soft drinks, I get cavities. This does not stop me from drinking copious amounts of Dr Pepper.

Though Tyler’s book worked for me as silly crack about which nothing could be taken seriously, Dylan’s left me cold and I DNFed it. I will probably not read Jesse’s book.

Final Grade: C-

Up next: A fascinating thriller that I loved which is one of my favorite reads of 2012.