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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: 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: Into the Arms of Morpheus by Jessica Nichols

Published October 3, 2014 by Shannon

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

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

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

Into the Arms of Morpheus

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

Here’s the blurb:

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

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

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

The Not so good:

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

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

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

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

My grade: A C.

Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling

Published May 15, 2014 by Shannon

Dies the Fire (Emberverse, #1)

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

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

The synopsis goes:

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

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

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

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

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

Now I’m on to the second book.

Final Grade: A squeeful A.

Some thoughts on Lover Awakened by J. R. Ward

Published May 5, 2014 by Shannon

Lover Awakened (Black Dagger Brotherhood, #3)

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

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

About this book, Goodreads says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Promises to Keep by Charles de Lint

Published April 25, 2014 by Shannon

Promises to Keep (Newford, #21)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My grade: a B.

Review: A Hint of Frost by Hailey Edwards

Published April 24, 2014 by Shannon

A Hint of Frost (Araneae Nation, #1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Grade: B

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

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+.