The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

30288282It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

Review:

Content warning for suicide and alcoholism.

The Immortalists was my second read for The Booktube Prize and right from the start I liked it better than the first.

The good:

  • The writing is punchier than White Houses and I needed that. It’s not amazing – I only highlighted a line or two – but it works.
  • The main thematic thrust of the book, pitting fate against self-fulfilling prophecy, is interesting.
  • You can tell when Benjamin writes about a place she knows because it pops off the page. I may be biased because I’ve also lived in San Francisco, but she brought me right back in an almost bodily way.
  • The character work is good. Everyone is well rounded and flawed, down to the secondary characters. Maybe it’s because they don’t have much time on the page but they ended up being some of my favorites. (Robert! 💕)
  • The author did a ton of research and it shows, both in the writing and the lengthy acknowledgements. It all rang right for me, even the medical stuff. Well done.

The not-so-good:

  • I felt trepidation picking up this book because fate! Ack! Don’t mess with it! And the beginning chapters only made it worse – the first character’s story arc is dead predictable, and the second character’s story filled me with dread.
  • At the start the fate/self-fulfilling prophecy thing was wonderfully blurry and interesting to think about, but that sense of mystery is ruined as more and more characters confront it. By the time we get to the end there isn’t much left to ponder.
  • I was hoping for more fabulist elements, but the whole thing is quite grounded in reality.
  • The only character that carries through the entire book in a meaningful way is the mother, and I would have liked to see her recognized as a constant in their lives. We get bits and pieces of her life but she is usually off to the side, and a less important presence to many of the kids than their father.

Overall the book is uneven, with some chapters I dreaded reading and others that I couldn’t put down. It ended up being an okay read, but not as amazing as all the hype I’ve heard.

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The Submission Gift by Solace Ames (LA Doms #2)

20733698Newlyweds Jay and Adriana had a happy marriage and a spectacular sex life—until tragedy struck. Jay spent a year recuperating while Adriana worked as a chef to pay their bills. Though he’s made nearly a full recovery, some aspects of their intimate play will never be the same. It’s a small price to pay, all things considered.

When a long struggle with the insurance company results in an overdue payout Jay has a plan. He’ll take some of it and hire a high-end rent boy who specializes in sexual dominance as a gift for Adriana.

Paul is the handsome stranger they choose…and the one who changes everything.

Review:

Watching Jay, Adriana, and Paul fall in love is awesome but when the shit hits the fan, look out.

The good:

  • Protagonists of color written by a woman of color, which I am forever and will always be here for.
  • Paul is white while Jay and Adriana are Latinx and it’s a cross-cultural reality without becoming a focus or sticking point.  There are other people of color represented, and Jay and Paul are bisexual.
  • Man, the sex is hot.  If you like domination, bondage, and people pushing their boundaries this is for you.
  • All of the main characters relationships are well developed and rang true for me.  Jay and Adriana are married and solid, Jay and Paul are attracted to each other but Paul has to be careful not to go full Dom on him, and Paul and Adrianna have a more classic Dom/sub relationship.  All three of these pairings get scenes of their own, as well as the triad as a whole.
  • I thought that Paul’s work as an escort might squick me out but he is professional and has thought through all the pros, cons, and risks in such a way that I can nod my head and think, ‘yup, makes sense, works for him, alright’.
  • While I’m no expert it looks like Ames has done her research, portraying on social work, life as a sous chef, and the legal/practical challenges of becoming a triad in believable ways.

This gets you through the first two-thirds or so, and I was really digging it.  But then.

The not-so-good:

  • When the shit hits the fan it keeps going.  In the extended synopsis it’s hinted that Paul’s past would catch up with him, and it does.  It’s not pretty, but I’m okay with it.  But then another character gets in a situation and comes to bodily harm.  Like, you need to go to the hospital for surgery and there’s going to be a court case bodily harm.  It was too much for me, and I’m not sure the story needed that much conflict to get where it was going.  I still have a bit of whiplash from it.

If you’re into triads and BDSM this is an easy recommend, just know that ending will get worse – much worse – before it gets better.

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.

Fit by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Fit #1)

21801485Violet Ryan loves the delicious food she gets to eat on the reality shows she produces for The Food Channel. What she hates is her expanding waistline. Determined to drop the pounds, Violet hatches a plan to kick start a fitness regimen. She knows she needs a new approach and possibly a new trainer—one with a lighter touch.

Grant Gibson has always managed to mix business with pleasure, but now this trainer by day, and Dominant by night, is bored. Even though he owns one of L.A.’s hottest private gyms, his personal life is sorely lacking. He’s in no hurry to take a new lover under his wing. Not until the voluptuous Violet falls into his lap.

She may be wary of his unorthodox approach of using sexual gratification as a reward, but even before her initial weigh-in Violet can’t seem to stay away from the sexy fitness god. She may have to let Grant show her there’s more than one way to get in shape…

Review:

The perfect one-sitting read for an insomniac night.

The good:

  • Yea for interracial relationships written by a Queer woman of color! Violet is Chinese-American and Grant is white.
  • Violet is fat and is aiming to get fit, not skinny. She wants some of the weight to come off, of course, but being healthy comes first, not getting down to a certain dress size.
  • Grant makes a big blunder when they first meet and the way Violet handles it is real and funny.
  • Without getting spoilery, I like that Grant acknowledges that there are good and bad reasons to miss a workout. Once in a lifetime experience? Sure. Third girls’ night out of the week? Maybe not.
  • The BDSM is gentle and fun and full of consent. Yea happy D/s!
  • I’m a fan of Weatherspoon’s writing and I wasn’t let down.
  • The story fits the page length and there’s even a small B-plot, which is a hard thing to do when the book is only 80 pages. It works out great.

The not-so-good:

  • The beginning was info dumpy but soon forgiven.

I’m so glad I had this on my e-reader – time to pick up the next book in the series for my next insomniac emergency!

Set Me Up by Kat Alexis

20104544Indigo Larsen can finally live her dreams of exploring the world. Her first stop is Ireland, where on a dare she accepts the Tongue of Truth liquor. The sex that follows is passionate and more exotic than anything she’s ever imagined. Waking up the next morning `on Aedan Ciaran’s naked lap with his hard cock inside her is more than disconcerting. Convinced the liquor is the cause of her predicament, Indigo tries to leave.What’s a leprechaun to do? Why, bring out all the luck he can find in hopes of loving his way into Indigo’s heart.

Review:

Sometimes in the mood for something completely off the wall and I hunt down the most out-there erotic romance I can find. An American who falls in love with a guy who turns out to be a leprechaun? Sure!

Thank goodness it’s short, though. A woman heads to Ireland to stretch her wings and accepts a drink from a bartender at a pub. The next thing she knows she’s having sex with that bartender and it’s amazing.

Yea great se but where was her choice in this, and what’s with the sudden fated mate stuff? Taking away the heroine’s agency, strike one. Meh sex scenes where orgasm quantity beats all else, strike two. The idea of a sexy, handsome (and tall, thank you) leprechaun is interesting, but the execution is not there. 1.5 stars because it didn’t outright piss me off and the writing was only half awful. And who doesn’t want to have sex on a rainbow?

Dance All Night by Alexis Daria (Dance Off #2.5)

42379549Broadway hotshot Nik Kovalenko is a confirmed bachelor. Ballroom champion Jess Davenport is a bona fide Scrooge. Last year, they shared a midnight kiss at a New Year’s Eve party that made both of them believe—briefly—in the magic of the holiday season. The magic was cut short when Nik went on tour the next day, but he never stopped thinking about that kiss—or Jess.

When the holidays roll back around, Nik runs into Jess again. He doesn’t want to spend another year pining for the Scrooge who got away, so he tells Jess he’ll stay if she’ll give him a shot at being her Christmas Present.

Jess thinks he’s full of it, but she agrees to three dates. If Nik can make her believe in holiday magic in a place as un-wintery as Los Angeles—and convince her that he’s ready to stick around—she’ll give him a chance. But he won’t know until New Year’s Eve. If she kisses him at midnight, he’ll have his answer…

Review:

This book is exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it.  Work has been rough lately and being able to escape into this book on the train ride home was just the thing.

The good:

  • Women of color written by a woman of color – excellent. (The author is Latinx.) The heroine has curly hair and it comes up several times in the plot, as in, ‘Hey, I’m coming over to sleep tonight and I’m bringing my satin pillowcase.’
  • Nik is probably the sweetest hero I’ve ever read. Not calculating sweet, or saccharine sweet, but – he thought of and did that because his freakin’ soul is just sweet. I’d give examples but I don’t want to spoil anything because:
  • The book is novella length and perfectly fits its pages. It’s all A plot, no subplot, and the story doesn’t feel stretched out or rushed. All of the emotional beats are here.
  • There’s a nice dose of holiday spirit, from sweater parties to family dinners. Nik’s family immigrated to the US from Ukraine and I enjoyed learning about Eastern Orthodox holiday traditions.
  • The Dance Off isn’t filming but there is still dancing, yea! Nik is a Broadway dancer more than a singer/actor, and the scenes where they dance as a couple are lovely.

The not-so-good:

  • The only thing I can think of is that Nik may be a little too perfect, but it’s not a thought that crossed my mind while reading. He’s the right kind of perfect for me.

A wonderful read to heal your heart and get into the holiday spirit, and the perfect book at the perfect time for me. I’m excited for the next book in the series, slated to come out in 2019, yea!

Thanks to NYLA and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Crudo by Oliva Laing

36638609Kathy is a writer. Kathy is getting married. It’s the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart.

A Goodbye to Berlin for the twenty-first century, Crudo charts in real time what it was like to live and love in the horrifying summer of 2017, from the perspective of a commitment-phobic peripatetic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker.

From a Tuscan hotel for the super-rich to a Brexit-paralysed UK, Kathy spends the first summer of her forties trying to adjust to making a lifelong commitment as Trump is tweeting the world into nuclear war. But it’s not only Kathy who’s changing. Political, social and natural landscapes are all in peril. Fascism is on the rise, truth is dead and the planet is hotting up. Is it really worth learning to love when the end of the world is nigh? And how do you make art, let alone a life, when one rogue tweet could end it all?

Review:

I picked up this book because it was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, one of my favorite literary awards.  I had already tried and put down a Cusk book (her writing just isn’t for me) so this was my second try at finally reading a winner (alas, that didn’t happen, either).

It took me a while to get used to this book and the writing.  I was on high alert, looking for all kinds of Prizeworthy! things, but I should have let myself sink into prose and not worry so much.  When I was finally able to do that, aided by a big fuzzy blanket and a hot water bottle, the pages flew by.

CrudoThe main draw here is the writing, and there’s just barely enough plot to keep me interested.  We follow the narrator through the summer of 2017 as the book acts as a snapshot of that scary, uncertain time. (We are still in scary, uncertain times, but it’s nice to think at least some of it is past us, don’t you think?)  It brought back some vivid memories for me, worded more beautifully than I could ever manage.

I see why Crudo was shortlisted and why so many people love it.  I was able to enjoy it once I got used to the writing style, and holy cow what writing, but not enough to tip it into four stars.

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

36237289In Denmark, Professor Kristian Larsen, an urbane man of facts, has lost his wife and his hopes for the future. On an isolated English farm, Tina Hopgood is trapped in a life she doesn’t remember choosing. Both believe their love stories are over.

Brought together by a shared fascination with the Tollund Man, subject of Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, they begin writing letters to one another. And from their vastly different worlds, they find they have more in common than they could have imagined. As they open up to one another about their lives, an unexpected friendship blooms. But then Tina’s letters stop coming, and Kristian is thrown into despair. How far are they willing to go to write a new story for themselves?

Review:

I read this cover to cover during the most recent Dewey’s 24-hour Readathon.  I did a vlog of the experience, if you’d like to see my thoughts while I was reading.

The good:

  • Epistolary novel!  I love epistolary novels!  Woooo! 🙂
  • It’s a debut but doesn’t feel like one.  The writing is always believable as letters.  Some authors stray off, writing novel scenes in the middle of missives, but no such problem here.
  • Youngson is a retiree and her age proximity to the protagonists only adds to the authentic feel.
  • I like how they arrange to exchange letters – after sending a few through the mail they decide to continue to write longhand, but scan and send them as email attachments.  They also promise to print out each letter before reading it, to preserve the analog feel.
  • I liked learning about the characters and the plot kept me interested.  It wasn’t hard to read it within a day.

The not-so-good:

  • I feel bad bringing this up because it’s a problem with the whole of literature more than this one particular book, but… why can’t a guy and a gal just be friends?  I want more books with platonic friendships, free of “will they/won’t they” overtones and insinuations of romance.  The first three quarters of this book got my hopes up, but sadly platonic love just doesn’t seem to be a thing.

That’s just my hangup, though.  Otherwise it’s a pleasant read and an easy recommend to any and all epistolary fans.

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.

Unbuttoning the CEO by Mia Sosa (The Suits Undone #1)

27477568As the CEO of a large tech company and a semi-reformed bad boy, Ethan Hill is used to calling the shots. But when he’s sentenced to work two hundred hours of community service-for reckless driving, of all things-this chief executive needs to keep his real identity under wraps. Which gets increasingly difficult when he can’t stop thinking about his sexy new (temporary) boss.

The moment Graciela Ramirez meets Ethan, she’s tempted to throw all professionalism out the window. She can’t afford to get emotionally involved, but after a steamy session behind office doors, a no-strings-attached fling might be exactly what they need. He’ll protect his secret. She’ll protect her heart. What could possibly go wrong?

Review:

I loved Sosa’s Acting on Impulse and wanted some breathing room before picking up the next book so I jumped to this series instead.  It turns out Unbuttoning the CEO is Sosa’s first novel, and it feels like it.  Not bad – it won a Golden Heart award after all – but uneven plot and character motivations as well as a lack of communication annoyed me.

I was surprised to find the basic setup is exactly the same as Impulse – a powerful/rich guy who goes by his middle name in business uses his first name for Reasons, and meets a beautiful lady under these barely false pretenses.

Acting on Impulse uses the tropes well – when the guy is “outed” the hero and heroine get around to talking and working through it.  Here Ethan keeps his secret much longer while having a ‘no strings’ relationship with Gracie, and neither is all that interested in communicating.  They do things to provoke reactions in each other and read too deeply into the results.  Gracie in particular does things that make little sense, like dropping a bunch of cash on a birthday present for her no-strings lover.

I’m glad I didn’t read this book first.  It reminds me that a so-so first novel can easily lead to great reads down the line, something always worth remembering.