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.

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Branded by Fire by Nalini Singh (Psy-Changeling #6)

 

5628753Though DarkRiver sentinel Mercy is feeling the pressure to mate, she savagely resists when Riley Kincaid, a lieutenant from the SnowDancer pack, tries to possess her. The problem is not simply that he pushes her buttons; the problem is that he’s a wolf, she’s a cat, and they’re both used to being on top.

But when a brilliant changeling researcher is kidnapped from DarkRiver territory, Mercy and Riley must work together to track the young man – before his shadowy captors decide he’s no longer useful. Along the way, the two dominants may find that submitting to one another uncovers not just a deadly conspiracy, but a passion so raw that it’ll leave them both branded by fire…

Review:

This book, the sixth in the series, has the first same “species” pairing but I wasn’t sold on it.

The good:

  • Singh got this far because she’s a good writer, and the basics are taken care of here.
  • The world building continues, and the overall story arc is advanced some.

The neither here-nor-there:

  • There are so many characters, and I waited too long to read this after the last book. There are five HEA couples (and I’m pretty sure they all make cameo appearances), as well as heaps of other people. I had to give up remembering people perfectly, but hints in the text ensure that everything makes sense.
  • The cast expands out even more, probably to seed future installments. The heroine has three brothers, and two super hot guys from South America come to visit. How convenient.

The not-so-good:

  • The plot felt like a rehash of previous books, retreading the same tropes and themes. Terrorists are trying to hurt people, a changeling child is put in harm’s way, and two people with major differences end up falling in love.
  • But are they really all that different? Both Riley and Mercy hold similar leadership and enforcement positions in their packs. They’re both dominant, and Mercy especially has trouble walking the line of “I want someone strong, but not too strong.” Her leopard doesn’t watch a slouch, but neither does it want to give an inch.
  • This, along with Riley being a wolf, provides most of the relationship conflict. Sure, they’re from different packs, but they’re alliance partners so I didn’t buy this obstacle to their love.
  • Then, at 76%, the real difficulty is dropped and it makes perfect sense. Why didn’t Singh mention this important fact earlier? I would have been much more interested and invested.

Compared to the other books in the series Branded by Fire fell flat. The quickly expanding world feels like it’s only to justify more books, and the plot was nothing new. A meh installment, but I’m still invested enough to read on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.