White Houses by Amy Bloom

35876524Lorena Hickok meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign. Having grown up worse than poor in South Dakota and reinvented herself as the most prominent woman reporter in America, “Hick,” as she’s known to her friends and admirers, is not quite instantly charmed by the idealistic, patrician Eleanor. But then, as her connection with the future first lady deepens into intimacy, what begins as a powerful passion matures into a lasting love, and a life that Hick never expected to have. She moves into the White House, where her status as “first friend” is an open secret, as are FDR’s own lovers. After she takes a job in the Roosevelt administration, promoting and protecting both Roosevelts, she comes to know Franklin not only as a great president but as a complicated rival and an irresistible friend, capable of changing lives even after his death. Through it all, even as Hick’s bond with Eleanor is tested by forces both extraordinary and common, and as she grows as a woman and a writer, she never loses sight of the love of her life.

Review:

Content warning for abuse, rape, and animal cruelty.

This was my first read for the Booktube Prize, and while it wasn’t on my radar at all the description drew me in – a historical f/f relationship! A look at Eleanor and FDR’s open marriage! And written by an lgbtqia+ author to boot. I was happy to pick it up.

Thing is, the book started slow and stayed slow. The narrative is hung on the days after Franklin’s death, when Hickok and Eleanor meet in New York City for the first time in a long time. Some incident is remembered or a letter arrives, and the narrative jumps to a flashback from Hickok’s point of view. Then we move forward a few hours in the NYC timeline and start again.

The narrative centers squarely on Hick (as she is known) and Eleanor’s relationship. After diving into Hick’s past we see how they meet, their “honeymoon” phase, Hickok moving to the White House and becoming known as the First Friend, and the uncertain times that follow.

I only knew the most basic facts about their relationship and very little about FDR’s own affairs so I was glad to learn more. As a whole, though, the book left me underwhelmed. There’s no drive to the plot so we just float along from flashback to flashback, and if I weren’t reading this book on deadline I’m not sure I would have made it to the end. The characters are fine and some, especially those in Hick’s childhood, are memorable, but we don’t see much of them. Historical context is also lacking, and I would have liked to see the characters placed in more concrete moment of time. The plot floats, the relationship floats, the setting floats, and the writing is capable but forgettable. I only marked a line or two in the 300+ pages.

So not a great start to my Booktube Prize reading. As I write this I have a hard time imagining it will be one of the three books I put forward for advancement to the next round. Meh on top of meh.

Indigo by Beverly Jenkins

13255416As a child Hester Wyatt escaped slavery, but now the dark skinned beauty is a dedicated member of Michigan’s Underground railroad, offering other runaways a chance at the freedom she has learned to love. One of her fellow conductors brings her an injured man to hide, the great conductor known as the “Black Daniel”, but Hester finds him so rude and arrogant she begins to question her vow to hide him.

When the injured and beaten Galen Vachon awakens in Hester’s cellar he is unprepared for the feisty young conductor providing his care. As a member of one of the wealthiest free Black families in New Orleans, Galen has turned his back on the lavish living he is accustomed to in order to provide freedom to those enslaved in the south. However, as he heals he cannot turn his back on Hester Wyatt.

Review:

This is one of Jenkins’ best loved historical romances for a reason – it starts off with a bang and I was hooked from the start. In the last third I started losing interest, but that probably has more to do with me than the book.

The good:

  • I was all in from the start. Hester’s life story riveting, and I love the look at the abolitionist movement in Michigan.
  • Everything is well researched and there’s tons of history here. I learned so much about not only what life was like in this particular time and place, but the laws and events that shaped the era.
  • Racism is a big topic, of course, but Jenkins also dives into prejudice within the Black community at the time and a bunch of other spoilery complexities.
  • There are lots of side characters that we get to know and love, from servants and neighbors to random people in town.
  • The writing is solid, and I would expect nothing less from Jenkins.
  • Hester is a strong woman with a sharp tongue and it’s wonderful watching her do her thing, from helping someone break out of jail to bantering with the hero.
  • Galen is awesome with for consent… until he isn’t.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • This book reminded me of Night Hawk in that the plot isn’t a solid arc. There’s one concern with a slave catcher that drives most of the conflict but it’s forgotten for chapters at a time so people can move from place to place or hold a fundraising fair. It’s not bad, but go in expecting episodic narrative interspersed in the main plot.

The not-so-good:

  • As the romance evolved it got into some not-for-me tropes. There’s the virgin who has sex not knowing it may make her pregnant, and the hero who showers the heroine in luxurious gifts that she doesn’t want and fill up entire rooms.
  • And the claim that he was able to have dozens of dresses made because he’s felt her up enough to figure out her measurements? I’m not buying it.
  • Late in the book Galen takes away Hester’s agency in a very public way that she is unable to fight against. All the side characters are like, “I’m so mad for you! I can’t believe he did that! You must be so mad!” which helps, but she forgives him in less than 24 hours because love, I guess.

If you’re interested in reading Indigo I urge you to check out Wendy the Super Librarian’s review. She talks about it way more intelligently than I can manage at the moment and makes some amazing points about the loose-ish plotting not being a fault because Jenkins is writing what she calls a “community based romance”. Her insight has given me a lot of food for thought so go read that review to soak it in.

All in all a gangbusters beginning fell flat at the end for me but there is still so, so much to recommend this book. 3.5 stars.

Sleeping Together by Kitty Cook (Perfect Drug #1)

44082618Vanessa Brown is having nightmares ever since her husband, Pete, mentioned he wanted to start a family. So when she catches her slacker-cool coworker, Altan Young, stealing sleeping medication from the pharmaceutical company they both work for, she decides to try the pilfered pills to finally find some rest.

But side effects of Morpheum include possible mind melding—a fact Ness and Altan stumble upon when they share the same freaky sex dream. (Awkward.)

With the stress of being caught between the men of her literal and figurative dreams (not to mention her nightmare of a boss), Ness starts to enjoy snoozing more than being conscious—and the company of her work husband more than her real one. If she doesn’t wake up and smell the coffee soon, her dreamy escape could become a dirt nap in this feisty debut novel about the dark side of dreams’ coming true.

Review:

Trigger warnings for rape, sexual assault, addiction, and infidelity

I picked up this book because it was listed as “Romance/Women’s Fiction” on NetGalley but has decisively unromantic jacket copy. I’ve seen left-my-husband-for-a-better-guy story lines work before, usually because the husband is awful and undeserving of his lovely wife, and I was curious to see how it would be handled here with a science fiction twist.

Vanessa and her lawyer husband are going through a rough patch because he wants to have kids and she doesn’t for reasons connected with being gang raped in college. She hasn’t told him this, though, so he becomes understandably frustrated with her elliptical reasoning.

She’s stressed so when she catches her kinda handsome coworker Alton stealing experimental sleeping pills from work she takes some, hoping she’ll find peace. Instead Vanessa and Alton end up having hot, sexy, shared dreams.

Up to this point I’m not thrilled, but I’m mostly okay. Vanessa desperately needs to see a professional to work through past trauma, but I get that she may not be ready or able to do that. She has a loving husband who is doing his best to meet her in the middle, and there’s one episode of dream sex before Alton and Vanessa realize the dreams are shared, but then they stop. We’re still in romance territory, even if it’s a bit darker than my usual.

But after that things pile up plot-wise. It ends up being a story of addiction, full stop. Vanessa spends more and more time asleep, traversing dreamscapes with Alton while ignoring her sweet, reasonable husband at every turn. Her boss makes work a living hell complete with sexual assault, she cannot function without taking the drug every night, and it becomes a story of adultery and being tempted by a young, unproven guy over the husband who has treated her amazingly well and whom she still feels a deep love for.

One common definition of a romance is that it’s a story where people form a loving relationship while overcoming difficulties. This, however, is a woman falling into the dark pit of addiction and finding a somewhat handsome guy at the bottom. She needs all kinds of help, help that her husband is ready to find and provide, but running off with the guy who for all intents and purposes is her drug dealer is more appealing.

I feel like Cook is trying for a hopeful, happily-ever-after-for-now ending but I don’t buy it. Vanessa doesn’t learn anything and runs away from problems without solving them. She still needs to get clean and doesn’t have much desire to do so. She throws away one of the few good things in her life… and this is the uplifting ending. GAH.

Those are the plot problems, but I have more. I am not a fan of the writing. Cook drops similes all over the place and they’re weird and distracting rather than insightful. Characters quoting movie lines at each other is seen as the highest form of humor. It’d make sense in YA, maybe, but not here.

The cast of characters is small considering the page length, and even so the only one that’s fully developed is Vanessa. Alton turns from an annoying, coarse, “slacker cool” guy in real life into the sweetest guy in her dreams (literally). There’s no trigger for this change other than the fact that it’s more socially acceptable to flirt with a married woman in dreams than reality. It calls to mind the YA trope of guys being borderline mean to girls because they “like her so much”, which is kind of toxic and definitely not my thing. Also, his entire personality can be summed up in three simple traits, which isn’t a good look for a main character.

On top of all this the end of the book ignores a whole bunch of stuff. Questions are left unanswered, relationships are tossed up in the air, and narrative threads are dropped never to be picked up again. This is the first in a series but the teaser for book two hints that it’ll be with different characters, so I’m not sure what the end game is here.

All of that being said, there is some good stuff here, especially in the first couple of chapters. I appreciate Cook examining the dynamic of a relationship where one partner wants kids and the other doesn’t. She also explores the differences in how men and women approach the world with regard to their personal safety. It was a bit too on-the-nose by the end for me, but some of the beginning parts are well done.

Overall I’m mad this was in the romance section because it’s not a romance, but putting that aside I don’t consider it a successful work of general fiction, either. Only pick it up if it’s exactly your thing and you can get along with the trigger warnings.

Thanks to Brass Anvil Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

The Wicked Wallflower by Maya Rodale (Bad Boys & Wallflowers #1)

Synopsis:

17331378Lady Emma Avery has accidentally announced her engagement—to the most eligible man in England. As soon as it’s discovered that Emma has never actually met the infamously attractive Duke of Ashbrooke, she’ll no longer be a wallflower; she’ll be a laughingstock. And then Ashbrooke does something Emma never expected. He plays along with her charade.

A temporary betrothal to the irreproachable Lady Avery could be just the thing to repair Ashbrooke’s tattered reputation. Seducing her is simply a bonus. And then Emma does what he never expected: she refuses his advances. It’s unprecedented. Inconceivable. Quite damnably alluring.

London’s Least Likely to Misbehave has aroused the curiosity—among other things—of London’s most notorious rogue. Now nothing will suffice but to uncover Emma’s wanton side and prove there’s nothing so satisfying as two perfect strangers…being perfectly scandalous together.

Review:

A 24-hour read can’t be bad! It was also exactly what I needed after two (awesome, but long) weeks of heavy non-fiction.

The good:

  • Our hero is strong, but not an ass. He lets Emma make her own decisions and never forces her to do anything. (Except for that once, but he repents.)
  • Our heroine is smart, witty, and pragmatic. All of her decisions make sense, for the most part.
  • The banter is ample, sharp, and above all fun. Rodale plays up the comedic value almost to the point of absurdity but reins things in just in time. It may be too much for some but I love romances that don’t take themselves too seriously.
  • The ending. Obviously I’m not going to give that away here but I found it very fitting.

The not-so-good:

  • I didn’t like the twists and turns leading up to the very end. After a fun, straightforward story it felt like I was thrown down a twisty slide.

The group of wallflowers reminded me of Kleypas’ Wallflowers, and while this book doesn’t quite reach that mark it is still very good. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in this series, and more from Rodale.

All That Remains: A Renowned Forensic Scientist on Death, Mortality, and Solving Crimes by Sue Black

9781948924276_23ebfDame Sue Black is an internationally renowned forensic anthropologist and human anatomist. She has lived her life eye to eye with the Grim Reaper, and she writes vividly about it in this book, which is part primer on the basics of identifying human remains, part frank memoir of a woman whose first paying job as a schoolgirl was to apprentice in a butcher shop, and part no-nonsense but deeply humane introduction to the reality of death in our lives.

She recounts her first dissection; her own first acquaintance with a loved one’s death; the mortal remains in her lab and at burial sites as well as scenes of violence, murder, and criminal dismemberment; and about investigating mass fatalities due to war, accident, or natural disaster, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. She uses key cases to reveal how forensic science has developed and what her work has taught her about human nature.

Review:

As is probably well established by now I love medical nonfiction so I was excited to pick this book up, especially because the publisher compares Black’s writing to Caitlin Doughty and Mary Roach. When I think of Doughty and Roach the first word that pops into mind is “funny”.

It’s unfortunate because while this book is many things, it’s not funny.

From the beginning it’s clear that Black is not a forensic pathologist, determining causes of death via autopsy, nor an overly science-y person all together. Her first job was at a butcher shop and she carried the experience forward, studying anatomy in college and becoming a forensic anthropologist concentrating on the bones of the deceased.

The first third of the book reads like a memoir. In addition to telling us about her start in the field Black muses on the nature of death, the meaning of identity, and discusses the last days of three family members in great detail. There’s nothing wrong with this per ce, but it’s a hundred pages in the front that’s completely separated from what I thought I was getting – crime! Analyzing bones! Maybe some gory stuff! If you don’t know what’s coming you may be tempted to give up here.

Around a third of the way in we finally get into some cases and the narrative takes off. A lot of Black’s work revolves around disaster victim identification, or DVI. She has gone all around the world to help return those killed in war or disaster to their loved ones, from Kosovo to Thailand. As you can guess she sees the aftermath of horrific events, and the stories are quite touching (as well as possibly triggering, fair warning). I love that she talks about the cognitive and emotional difficulties of the job and the strategies she uses for her own mental health.

Luckily not every case is heartbreaking in the here and now. Black was on a BBC show where, along with a team of fellow scientists, they examined remains of people who lived hundreds of years ago in an effort to figure out who they were and how they died. She speaks of the interesting people she meets as part of her work in a university anatomy department, and delicate but not awful experiences like giving a potential full body donor a tour of the cadaver lab in use. And there are some stories from court, including the surreal experience of giving testimony and having no idea what to expect from either the prosecution or the defense.

I admire the work that Black has done over the years, from teaching to disaster response, from the BBC show to founding an anatomy lab.  She also gets love because she shouts out the interpreters her team worked in with Kosovo and recognizes to the mental and emotional toll of communicating the words of those who have been through such horrors.

But when it comes down to it the book is split into two parts – memoir and philosophy in the first 100 pages, and your standard forensic nonfiction in the rest.  The accounts of her parents’ deaths can be skipped over completely with no loss, so I wonder why they’re given so many pages in the first place.

The last two thirds make for a solid, but not outstanding, addition to a shelf about death. Just know that you can gloss over the aforementioned sections and you won’t miss a thing.

Thanks to Arcade and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals, #2.5)

42128976While her boss the prince was busy wooing his betrothed, Likotsi had her own love affair after swiping right on a dating app. But her romance had ended in heartbreak, and now, back in NYC again, she’s determined to rediscover her joy—so of course she runs into the woman who broke her heart.

When Likotsi and Fabiola meet again on a stalled subway train months later, Fab asks for just one cup of tea. Likotsi, hoping to know why she was unceremoniously dumped, agrees. Tea and food soon leads to them exploring the city together, and their past, with Fab slowly revealing why she let Likotsi go, and both of them wondering if they can turn this second chance into a happily ever after.

Review:

Man, Cole’s contemporaries are not quite my thing. This novella should have been everything I love, but it wasn’t.

The good:

  • Yeaaa f/f romance in what, to this point, has been a heterosexual romance series!
  • If you’re into second chance romance, this is that.
  • There’s a great look at immigration policy that I was not expecting.
  • The characterization is good, and everyone’s reasons make sense.

The not-so-good:

  • I came in nearly blind, having DNFed Princess in Theory early on. As a result Likotsi’s almost mechanical way of thinking was a shock, and it took a while to understand and get into her character. Just as I managed to do that the book was over. :/
  • The story bounces between two timelines, and while that isn’t a bad thing I kept thinking, “No, go back!” each time it did.

Overall it was more lackluster than I was hoping. I’m going to give Cole one more chance with Prince on Paper because I’m intrigued by the hero’s story, but if that doesn’t go well I may have to stick to her historicals.