Little x by Elna Holst (A Tinsel and Spruce Needles Romance #2)

42835577Malmö, Sweden, 1996

Sofie Andersson is a dyslectic born under the star sign Aries, who drives the local buses for a living. Her hobbies include knitting terrible hats and intermittent lesbianism. This December she is on the point of moving into her first flat of her own, figuring out her place in the world, when an instant attraction to a handsome stranger leads her to question everything she’s taken for granted.

Review:

I picked up this story because it’s from a LGBTQIA+ publisher that I love and because it’s an f/nb romance. How often do you see that? It’s a short story so I won’t say much beyond the blurb.

The good:

  • The author is LGBTQIA+, and I think this is the first romance I’ve read with an intersex protagonist.
  • Roz is misgendered often, being addressed as he when they use they/them pronouns, but it’s usually corrected quickly on the page.
  • The story is set in Sweden in 1996, something I haven’t seen before.

The not-so-good:

  • The writing and plot are confusing. We’re introduced to lots of people quickly and given the barest of connections between them – mother, best friend, older sister.
  • Some past events are alluded to but glossed over.  It turns out this is the second in a series but I didn’t realize that until after I finished.
  • Little attention is paid to the where. Conversations feel like they’re floating, not anchored to a space. I started assuming location – the best friend is a fellow bus driver, so they must be at the depot, I guess. And so on.
  • The conflict, which revolves around Roz having to go back to America at the end of the semester, is sloppily handled.

A quick read thanks to its length, and I love seeing a f/nb relationship on the page, but it could have been much better.

Thanks to Nine Star Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

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The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark (Fairwick Chronicles #1)

11436723Since accepting a teaching position at remote Fairwick College in upstate New York, Callie McFay has experienced the same disturbingly sensual dream every night. Callie’s lifelong passion is the intersection of lurid fairy tales and Gothic literature—which is why she’s found herself at Fairwick’s renowned folklore department, living in a once-stately Victorian house that, at first sight, seemed to call her name.

But Callie soon realizes that her dreams are alarmingly real. She has a demon lover—an incubus—and he will seduce her, pleasure her, and eventually suck the very life from her. Then Callie makes another startling discovery: Her incubus is not the only mythical creature in Fairwick.

Review:

When life gets crazy and migraines threaten I turn to paranormal romance.  I’m not looking for a mind-blowing read, necessarily, just something to take my mind off the pain while being entertaining.  The Demon Lover was more urban fantasy than romance, kind of entertaining but also full of faults.

The good:

  • The story takes place in upstate New York and the author nails the ambience and setting.  I’m happy to see she lives in the area – she gets it.
  • At its core the book has an interesting story that may get better through the later books.  The execution, though….

The not-so-good:

  • The author goes for a lot of meta and it’s heavy-handed.  Look, our protagonist writes about Gothic novels, then finds herself in one!  Let’s point out every way the story mirrors elements found in Jane Eyre! Let’s have asides like:

    Great, now I was becoming like one of the heroines of the books I wrote about, jumping at noises and imagining faces in the mist.

    And:

    “I’m just pointing out that you always had the setup to turn into the heroine of one of those Gothic romances you’re always reading… and now you have.”

  • The worldbuilding is haphazard and unsatisfying.  Many different creatures are thrown at us and we’re not given a chance to get to know or feel comfortable with them.
  • Likewise, a lot of characters are introduced quickly and in bunches.  They are rather flat, often serving one key purpose and fading into the background after that.  If there were a hierarchy of some sort, with minor characters staying minor, it may have been fine, but all are given equal weight, muddying the narrative.
  • Callie doesn’t make many decisions, more often than not they’re made for her and she goes along.  It probably fits well into the classic Gothic romance theme but it happens so often I got annoyed.
  • As a professor Callie interacts with students and she gives them Sage Advice about Life ~eye roll~ that doesn’t ring true.
  • The plot is segmented and broken into pieces, leaving this reader unsatisfied.

Overall Demon Lover was a disappointing read.  There’s a chance things will pick up in the following books now that the world has been introduced, but I’m not sticking around to find out.

The Seduction Hypothesis by Delphine Dryden (Science of Temptation #2)

17825418Wildlife biologist Lindsey thought attending a fan convention with her new boyfriend Ben was a great idea—until their relationship fizzled. Lindsey still lusts after her ex—but if he wants her, he’s going to have to prove it.

Ben will do anything to win Lindsey back, and when he sees her in her skimpy black vinyl convention get-up, he realizes what she’s been craving all along. And he is inspired to finally give in to his own dark desire to take complete sexual control…

Lindsey is surprised by her reaction to Ben’s kinky new seduction techniques, and suddenly sees him in a different light. After several erotic encounters she’s falling for Ben all over again. And wondering if the intimate connection will last once they head home…

Review:

I didn’t like this one anywhere near as much as the previous but I’m a little conflicted.  First, this tweet was rolling around in my head:

Ben is a baby Dom and has no clue what he’s doing.  He’s super possessive and an alpha-hole to any guy that enters Lindsey’s orbit.  Ivan, the hero from the previous book, is more in line with the tweet – respectful and a normal, nice guy outside of the bedroom.  Another Dom side character sticks up for Lindsey in a gentlemanly way.  I liked these guys better than the hero.

Both characters know very little about the practical side of BDSM and jump in after a dollop of research and a trip to the sex toy store.  This bothered me, not in a ‘you’re doing it wrong’ way but in a ‘eeep someone may get hurt’ way.  After finishing I checked out the reviews on Goodreads and someone* made a good point – a lot of couples get into the lifestyle this way.  They see something they like and jump in with both feet, whether they’re ready for it or not.  By the end of the book Lindsey and Ben are planning to go to a club and get their learning on but it was too late for me.  During the sex scenes I was more worried than anything else. (‘Why are you using rough rope? Do you know what you’re doing?!’)

Not bad, necessarily, but definitely not my thing.  Here’s hoping the third book is better.


*I’m not sure if her reviews are private so I’m going to avoid linking without permission

Undiscovered by Sara Humphreys (Amoveo Rising #1)

30612657Review:

I downloaded this on a whim after a stressful day at work – dragon romance where the hero and heroine meet in their dreams? Yes, please.

It’s a good thing I gulped Undiscovered down in 24 hours because the more you think about it the less sense it makes.  Zander and Zed are identical twins and dragon shifters who were cursed 500 years ago.  Zander, cursed to be immortal and human, is running up against a hard deadline to free Zed, cursed to remain a dragon hibernating deep in the earth.  Zander and heroine Rena meet in the dreamrealm and he realizes she is Zed’s fated mate.  Zander takes it upon himself to take her to the cave he’s sleeping in to break the curse, but ends up falling in love along the way.

In general it makes sense but the details don’t add up.  In chapter one we’re told that the curse can only be broken by “an act of pure, unselfish love” but there isn’t one.  Some things that happen in the dreamrealm carry over to the real world directly but others, like Rena dreaming she’s in a fiery inferno each night, don’t.  And the big problem that we’re told will happen when Zed awakens… doesn’t.  He literally can’t remember what happened right before the curse was placed so no harm, no foul yay.

~eye roll~

Characterization is thin on the ground, as well.  For example, I wondered why a bunch of shapeshifters at the ranch are assumed to be a completely benevolent bunch.  We don’t know these guys from Adam and Zander doesn’t trust them, so why does Rena fall in so easily?  After I finished I found out that these are HEA couples from Humphreys’ Amoveo Legend series, so I guess she didn’t feel the need to explain who they are.  It’s annoying if, like me, you’re coming at the series fresh.

So while Undiscovered was a quick, diverting read it irks the more I think about it.  It’s the only book in the series for now but I can’t imagine continuing.

 

Caressed by Ice by Nalini Singh (Psy-Changeling #3)

458034As an Arrow, an elite soldier in the Psy Council ranks, Judd Lauren was forced to do terrible things in the name of his people. Now he is a defector, and his dark abilities have made him the most deadly of assassins – cold, pitiless, unfeeling. Until he meets Brenna…

Brenna Shane Kincaid was an innocent before she was abducted – and had her mind violated – by a serial killer. Her sense of evil runs so deep, she fears she could become a killer herself. Then the first dead body is found, victim of a familiar madness. Judd is her only hope, yet her sensual changeling side rebels against the inhuman chill of his personality, even as desire explodes between them. Shocking and raw, their passion is a danger that threatens not only their hearts, but their very lives…

Review:

When the world gets tough, the tough read romance.  I turned to the Psy-Changing series because I wanted to escape with paranormal in a well-thought out universe, but sadly the tropes worked against me.

Both our hero and heroine are damaged – Brenna after being abducted and abused by an Evil Dude, and Judd as part of his Psy upbringing.  I don’t often read romance where the trauma comes from both directions and it’s not really my thing.  I never completely bought the romance between the two and the thought that Judd was being hurt (like, blood dripping out of his ear hurt) when he felt love for Brenna doesn’t do it for me.

I would have given up a third of the way through but I don’t want to give up on the series yet.  There’s an overarching plot through all the books and I hate the idea of missing something so I plowed on.  Here’s hoping the next book is more my thing.

The Star King by Susan Grant (Star #1)

35805990Years ago, Air Force pilot Jas Boswell believed she met the love of her life. She shared a mesmerizing encounter with a stranger after a terrible crash. As soon as rescuers arrived, the mysterious golden-eyed man disappeared. She has spent the last two decades trying to convince herself it was all a dream…

Once heir to a galactic kingdom, Rom B’kah is captain of a starship of derelicts and smugglers. He remains haunted by the memory of the “saving angel” he met during wartime and who vanished without a trace. His loyal crew thinks he has pined for this fantasy woman long enough. Then Jas suddenly returns to him and sets their lives on a collision course with destiny…

Review:

I was hooked early on but as the story developed I lost interest and got more and more annoyed.

The good:

  • The world building early on is well done and kept me curious about what this Earth was like and who the aliens who want to visit are. The story is contained and moves at a good pace.
  • At the beginning Jas’ development as a character is realistic and interesting.  She works hard to learn an alien language from scratch and while she’s a quick study Grant lets her grasp for words and speak awkwardly.  As someone who lives and interprets in a second language learned as an adult I can totally relate.

The not-so-good:

  • Once the action moves off Earth and into space the tightness of the world and plot fall apart.  The setting is expanded tenfold with all kinds of planets and peoples and things to take in, losing what groundedness it had.
  • Jas gets an case of being too stupid to live.  Rom leaves her to wait in a hotel with all kinds of warnings – keep your hood up so people don’t realize you’re from Earth, don’t stray far, oh and here’s a bodyguard to keep you safe.  So of course Jas immediately talks to random people and accepts their invitation to go up to a remote mountain retreat because, something.  And when they give her a necklace that freaks the hell out of birds she doesn’t get suspicious, just thinks ‘ah, silly birds, scared of a benign piece of jewelry.’ Gah.
  • While early on Jas’ language acquisition is within the realm of suspendable belief later she’s all, ‘I’m picking up this completely different alien tongue just by eavesdropping on conversations for a few days’.  Maybe if she was with three year olds or something, but high-level political conversations when you don’t know the grammar or how to read it?  I call bull.
  • The hero and heroine have sex on the top of a giant snail.  For real.  It’s the sort of thing that could be amazing in a crazy way if done right but I’m not even sure why the scene is there.

If the second half were as good as the first this would be an amazing read but alas, I don’t even think I’m going to pick up the next in the series.

Kokoro Button (Love Button) #1 by Maki Usami

9533185I finally stopped in a used bookstore I pass on my commute and, oh my.  Every hardcover is less than four dollars US, some paperbacks are less than a buck, and the manga.  My goodness, the manga – full sets impeccably shelved, calling to me.  And it was 10% off day.

~ded~

I browsed for an hour and settled on a nonfiction book by a 911-esque dispatcher (old habits die hard) and the first volume of Kokoro Button (ココロボタン).  In it a guy (Koga) and a girl (Kasuga) meet at high school orientation – she is smitten, but he is not looking for a relationship with anyone.  She says how about a trial period to see if we could like each other?  His reply:

You don’t know much about me yet… are you sure?

It turns out Koga-kun is a “little bit S”, or a little bit sadistic, so she doesn’t realize how loaded the question is.  She says she’s sure, and the series is off and running.

Fear not, there is no BDSM in this high school manga; in fact, it’s purely PG.  This “little bit S” is the reason I picked up the book – what does that look like?

Well, it’s basically teasing in the form of misdirection.  He’d tell her one thing, she’d get worried or upset, and he’d enjoy that reaction (there’s the S).  Then he’d say no, actually it’s this other thing, and turn into a sweet boyfriend until it was time to tease her again.  It’s hurt/comfort, but with both parts from the same person.

I can see this working if Kasuga-san a) realizes what’s going on or b) gives as good as she gets, but she worries and laments about every little thing.  For example, one night Koga-kun doesn’t call and she’s reduced to a sobbing catatonic mess.  I’m okay with not-strong heroines (huzzah variety!) but this is a little much for me.

20171124_080951.jpgEven so it was a quick read.  The style is typical shojo with lots of white space and wispy lines, and while the art is average some frames stick out as particularly well framed or comical.  I love Kasuga’s reaction when Koga sees a beetle in her hair:

When I freak out I shout in squiggles, too.

All in all I’m not a fan, and can only recommend Kokoro Button if a “little bit S” is your sort of thing.


This is my first manga review on Always Doing, yea!  If you’d like to see more reviews like this let me know in the comments, and if you’d rather I didn’t review books I read in Japanese let me know that, too.  I feel bad that this series isn’t available in English (at least officially…) but my thoughts were overflowing and I couldn’t resist.

 

In Bed with a Stranger by Mary Wine (McJames #1)

Synopsis:

6025739Brodick McJames is an earl in name only. To secure his clan’s future he needs an English wife. Mary Stanford, daughter of the Earl of Warwickshire, will suit perfectly. He’s never met her, but what matter? She’ll grace his bed eventually, and once she bears his child he need see her no more.

Anne Copper looks just like her noble half-sister, but she was born illegitimate, and can never forget it. The best she can hope for is to stay a serving girl in her own father’s house. But when Lady Mary finds herself betrothed to a Scot, it seems there’s a use for Anne after all . . .

The woman who arrives in Alcaon is not what Brodick expects, and the passion that grows between them promises far more than a marriage of convenience. When fate draws two together, it may take more than a noblewoman’s plot to part them…

Review:

This book is so wrong for me.

First – you can’t tell from the description but it takes place during medieval times. Don’t let the talk of titles make you think it’s a Georgian/Regency/Victorian novel, like I did.

Second – it’s basically a Cinderella retelling complete with evil stepmom, evil stepsister, and a prince (er, Earl) that whisks her away. While of noble blood she keeps doing servant-level stuff. She even has to leave the castle before a certain time comes because… reasons. ~cough~

Third – instalust. Several times the heroine decides to say or do something next time she sees the Earl, but as soon as he walks in the room her mouth goes dry and hubba hubba music starts playing. (They had porntastic music back then, right?)

Third and a half – there were several scenes that went like this:

“Hey, your wife is hot.”
“I know! …you’re not getting any ideas, are you?”
“Nope. But she’s hot. Bet you’re looking forward to tonight.” ~winkwink~
“Am I!”~nudgenudge~

Say no more. -_-

Fourth – it takes someone the better part of a day to die from hemlock poisoning, when it should have taken hours at most. I mean, they didn’t give Socrates his tea, have dinner, sleep a bit, and then watch him die, you know? Even if the poison was weak it would have gone into effect fairly quickly.

Fifth – romances where the girl has zero agency are not my thing. She goes to the Earl in a proxy marriage, she’s pulled this way and that by others, but the only thing she gets to decide for herself is whether she’ll treat the blind girl nicely. (No brainer.)

While completely not a “me” book it somehow managed not to make me mad, so there you are.

The Truth About Love and Dukes by Laura Lee Guhrke (Dear Lady Truelove #1)

30653952Henry, Duke of Torquil, wouldn’t be caught reading the wildly popular “Dear Lady Truelove” column, but when its advice causes his mother to embark on a scandalous elopement, an outraged Henry decides the author of this tripe must be stopped before she can ruin any more lives. Though Lady Truelove’s identity is a closely guarded secret, Henry has reason to suspect the publisher of the notorious column, beautiful and provoking Irene Deverill, is also its author.

For Irene, it’s easy to advise others to surrender to passion, but when she meets the Duke of Torquil, she soon learns that passion comes at a price. When one impulsive, spur-of-the-moment kiss pulls her into a scorching affair with Henry, it could destroy her beloved newspaper, her career, and her independence. But in the duke’s arms, surrender is so, so sweet . . .

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book – the good parts were good, but the parts that annoyed me really annoyed me.  Let’s break it down, shall we?

The good:

  • The internal conflict is thick and delicious.  There isn’t a lot of external, moving around plot, but the inner lives of our couple keeps the story moving nicely.
  • There are two instances where love crosses class lines, each different in their own way.
  • Guhrke obviously researched the 1890s and revels in the slang and phrasing of the period.  It’s a breath of fresh air for those of us who usually read in Regency-land.
  • Irene is a strong woman and is involved in issues of the day, first and foremost getting women the vote.

The not-so-good:

  • Irene’s views match our modern views almost perfectly, to the point that she feels like she’s parachuted in to re-legislate the Victorian era in long discussions with Henry.  Women should get able to go to university, become doctors, vote, run a newspaper, have sex outside of marriage… I’m sure I’m forgetting something.  Oh, and high society can go hang.  I’m for every single one of these things, but Irene talks of little else.  It grates.
  • Henry pushes back as well as he can, pointing out how this or that social norm exists for a reason.  Irene is uncompromising, though, and…
  • …the resolution boils down to Henry agreeing with Irene in every way and rearranging his entire mindset and worldview to match hers. I would have liked more of a compromise – “I guess I’ll learn how to be a dutchess” doesn’t count.
  • The way they finally get together for sex is more finagling than anything else.  I didn’t feel the love.

While I’m disappointed by the characters the writing is solid so I can see myself picking up another book by Guhrke.  This was my first – can you recommend a better place to start?

The Weaver by Emmi Itäranta

26198181Eliana is a model citizen of the island, a weaver in the prestigious House of Webs. She also harbors a dangerous secret—she can dream, an ability forbidden by the island’s elusive council of elders. No one talks about the dreamers, the undesirables ostracized from society.

But the web of protection Eliana has woven around herself begins to unravel when a young girl is found lying unconscious in a pool of blood on the stones outside the house. Robbed of speech by her attackers, the only clue to her identity is one word tattooed in invisible ink across her palm: Eliana. Why does this mysterious girl bear her name? What links her to the weaver—and how can she hold Eliana’s fate in her hand?

Review:

I picked up The Weaver thinking it was perfect for Women in Translation Month… but it looks like the author rewrote her own book in English, so I don’t think it counts.

Things starts off great – an interesting world doled out in manageable chunks!  An easy-to-like character that’s caught up in Happenings!  A mystery with a sure to be gruesome villain!

But as much as I like the beginning the book stalls.  It’s not the plot, exactly, or the character development, but the lack of love given to the world they’re inhabiting.  The what is lovingly explained, but Eliana’s lack of interest in the why means we don’t get many answers.  Who are the people who came to this island, and what drove them to make such segregated groups?  Why does the council have such power, and where did that power come from?  Ships travel between the island and other places, so what holds the inhabitants here?  And so on.  The ground level world building is solid enough, but there’s little added to that foundation.

I like that there’s a main female/female relationship and the fact that it’s f/f doesn’t raise any eyebrows. A side character is gender queer/fluid/trans, perhaps, but it’s barely examined so I don’t want label them.

While the set up and idea are interesting when more depth is required we find ourselves stuck in an ill-woven web.