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.

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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.

The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya

translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda

38643164A housewife takes up bodybuilding and sees radical changes to her physique–which her workaholic husband fails to notice. A boy waits at a bus stop, mocking businessmen struggling to keep their umbrellas open in a typhoon–until an old man shows him that they hold the secret to flying. A woman working in a clothing boutique waits endlessly on a customer who won’t come out of the fitting room–and who may or may not be human. A newlywed notices that her husband’s features are beginning to slide around his face–to match her own.

In these eleven stories, the individuals who lift the curtains of their orderly homes and workplaces are confronted with the bizarre, the grotesque, the fantastic, the alien–and, through it, find a way to liberation.

Review:

These surreal yet grounded stories are exactly my kind of thing.

Many start in the mundane – a happy or unhappy marriage, a scene at work. One strange but believable thing happens, then something slightly more outrageous, until Motoya leads you down a path to the absolutely absurd.  It’s ridiculous, but you can’t imagine the story spinning out any other way.

Themes include knowing yourself, how we are changed by contact with other people, and the place of women in Japanese society.  Even more so than in the West, Japanese women are expected to be wives and mothers first, putting husbands and children before themselves. These women are the protagonists and navigate their way through a world where many things don’t go as planned.

The centerpiece, and one of my favorite stories, is the novella An Exotic Marriage.  A wife realizes that she and her husband look more similar as time goes on. At first she thinks it’s learned mannerisms or maybe sharing a taste in clothes, but one day she looks in the mirror and sees that her features have slipped slightly out of place, closer to those of her husband.  As soon as she notices they jump back into position, like kids caught doing something they shouldn’t, and the story spins on from there.

I was worried the longer length would mean absurdities would pile up to the point of being unbearable, but instead they’re more nuanced and layered. The page count is a strength, giving Motoya more room to develop characters and sub-plots and draw us into the world.  An Exotic Marriage won the Akutagawa Prize, arguably the highest literary honor in Japan, and it’s easy to see why.

Yoneda is an accomplished translator and her skill is well applied here.  I am in the unusual position of being able to read in both the source and target languages, but I never felt the Japanese poke through nor the need to back-translate. The reader is in good hands.

All in all I immensely enjoyed The Lonesome Bodybuilder. It’s perfect for when you want to read something delightfully different.

Thanks to Soft Skull Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Picture Perfect Cowboy by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #10)

39092063Jason “Still” Waters’ life looks perfect from the outside—money, fame, and the words “World Champion Bull-Rider” after his name. But Jason has a secret, one he never planned on telling anybody…until he meets Simone. She’s the kinky girl of his dreams…and his conservative family’s worst nightmare.

Review:

A new release by Reisz, especially one in the Original Sinners universe, is always a reason to cheer.  Here she returns with some of her favorite elements – BDSM (of course), horses, and beloved series regulars – in a contemporary erotic romance.

The good:

  • Bi (as well as maybe pan) rep by an own voices author ❤️🌈
  • Zee tropes, zey are flipped.  Instead of a baby sub, endemic in the genre, we have a baby dom who is guided by a professional submissive.
  • The couple’s romance and emotional journey is well paced and thought out… until the end.
  • Reisz is always explicitly sex positive and guilt negative, and it’s a joy to read.
    “This is what I think,” she said. “If you’re enjoying it and I’m enjoying it, then we’re doing it right.”
  • There are cameo appearances by Nora and Soren – yum.  That being said the story stands on its own, even if you’ve never read an Original Sinners book.
  • It’s small and random, but I love that speaking two languages isn’t presented as weird.  No “wow!” or “you’re so smart!” or cultural stereotyping, just the fact that the hero knows Spanish (and the heroine has a passing knowledge, as well).  This bilingual appreciates it.

The oh-so-close:

  • The final conflict hinges on a misunderstanding. It’s not a Big Mis, and it makes sense, but the category length (~200 pages) means it comes up and is resolved very quickly, with a facile epilogue.  All the emotional beats are there, though, so yea for that.
  • Reisz gravitates to shorter page counts but I like her at novel length, damn it.  The characterization is so wonderful that I want to see more of everyone.  Here the best friends, Luke especially, would have benefited from fleshing out.
  • I love that the story is low angst… but that started giving me angst.  “What’s the end conflict going to be?  Groupies discovering the girlfriend?  A sexy video or text getting hacked?  What if he forgets the condom ahhhhhh” (He doesn’t, by the way.  Perfect gentleman.)  This is a me thing, though, and you’ll probably be fine. 😅

Three cheers for Reisz in the mode I like her best.  It’s also a good entry point into her work if the summary and shorter length appeal to you.  If you’d rather skip the BDSM try Her Halloween Treat instead.

Thanks to 8th Circle Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

31203000Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. For her part, in the convenience store she finds a predictable world mandated by the store manual, which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say, and she copies her coworkers’ style of dress and speech patterns so that she can play the part of a normal person. However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life, but is aware that she is not living up to society’s expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko’s contented stasis—but will it be for the better?

Review:

I didn’t do the best job reading this book, and it’s my own fault.  Knowing how popular and lauded it is – they don’t give the Akutagawa Prize to just anything! – I decided to tackle it in the original Japanese.  Luckily the text is pretty straight forward, and while I had to look up rare kanji or readings it wasn’t too difficult.  That being said I read more slowly in my second language than my first, meaning I was marinating in the text for quite a while.

And the middle of this novel is not something you want to marinate in.

36605525Furukawa has to deal with all kinds of crap from her family, friends, and society in general.  It set my teeth on edge because this is stuff I’ve seen or experienced here in Japan, verbatim.  Coworkers are gossipy and while it may look like they’re concerned about your well being, often they’re more interested in a juicy story to pass around.  Those who jump the expected track of college, full-time job, marriage, and kids have a lot to explain to friends and family, especially if they’re a woman. And even when you follow the plan you can be punished. My friend didn’t tell her employer about her marriage because she knew it would ruin her chances for a promotion.  Why would you give more responsibility to someone who’s going to have a baby and quit soon, anyway?

So yeah, lots of anger on my part.  If I were reading this in English, as probably should have, I would have been able to get through it quickly enough.  My slower Japanese reading, though, made the middle part almost unbearable.  The crap that one guy spews towards Furukawa made me particularly rage-y, and now and then I had to stop to look up a word, dragging out the ickyness.  “Shady character.” “To be bored to death.” “Rail at.” Sigh.

That’s all on me, though.  It’s a great book and deserving of all its praise, including in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s English translation. Just do yourself a favor and gulp it down in one or two sittings instead of dragging it out like I did.

Acting on Impulse by Mia Sosa (Love on Cue #1)

33783458After a very public breakup with a media-hungry politician, fitness trainer Tori Alvarez escapes to Aruba for rest and relaxation. She vows to keep her vacation a man-free zone but when a cute guy is seated next to her on the plane, Tori can’t resist a little harmless flirting.

Hollywood heartthrob Carter Stone underwent a dramatic physical transformation for his latest role and it’s clear his stunning seat mate doesn’t recognize the man beneath the shaggy beard and extra lean frame. Now Carter needs help rebuilding his buff physique and Tori is perfect for the job.

Sparks are flying, until a pesky paparazzo reveals Carter’s identity. Tori is hurt and pissed. Can Carter convince Tori he’s worth the threat to her privacy that comes with dating a famous actor, or will Tori chisel him down to nothing before he even gets the chance?

Review:

I picked this book up for a readathon and I am so, so glad I did.  It’s a perfect “me” contemporary romance – low-stress, great plot, all kinds of rep, and so much fun.

The good:

  • The heroine is Puerto Rican and the author is an Afro-Latinx woman from Puerto Rico – huzzah own voices!
  • The entire cast is diverse racially and in terms of physical ability, and as far as I can tell the only white character of note is the hero.
  • The competence porn is on point.  Tori is a wonderful trainer, Carter is a good actor, the family restaurant is doing well, the gym is well-managed, and more.  People may have varying degrees of confidence and there are setbacks, but everyone rocks at what they do and supports each other.
  • Tori’s roommate and best friend Eva is a joy.  Their relationship reminds me of one of my best friends and they always put each other first, before the men in their lives.
  • Other supporting characters are fully developed and I can’t wait to read their happily ever afters, too.
  • Stereotypes are casually subverted and I am so here for it.

    A flight attendant taking drink orders hovers in the vicinity.  I pull down my tray table and ask him for a cup of coffee.

    “Him”!  Yes!

  • Spanish is used throughout and while it’s italicized it isn’t translated every time, a huge plus in my book.
  • Difficult or potentially problematic situations are dealt with in beautiful ways.  Tori calls Carter out immediately when he says something shitty and he apologizes genuinely and on the spot.  He never forces her to do anything and asks for consent every step of the way.  Even throw away lines are recast.  For example, there’s a scene where a typical alpha-hole hero would tell the heroine that he doesn’t ‘take no for an answer’.  Here’s what Carter says instead:

    “Yeah, I understand. You should know this, though – I will always take no for an answer, but the minute you say otherwise, you’re mine, and I won’t hold anything back.”

    All of the alpha, none of the hole.  I love to see this on the page and it warmed my heart.

  • While there are stressful moments they’re resolved quickly.  ‘Oh no, a paparazzo took a picture!’ is on one page and is handled deftly on the next.  This kept the romance low-stress for me, and while there is angst it was well within what I can handle.  It was much appreciated in a week where the real world news was beyond the pale.
  • The plot is intricately crafted and well-paced, with the pieces fitting together perfectly.  It’s a slow burn but when they do get to the sex?  ~fans herself~

The not-so-good:

  • There are shades of instalust in the beginning but it’s non-creepy and didn’t bother me. That’s it!

I can’t wait to read more of Sosa’s books, and am so grateful that Latinx-a-thon introduced me to her work.  Yea finding a new author to love!

Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #2)

35564582New York City socialite and perpetual hot mess Portia Hobbs is tired of disappointing her family, friends, and—most importantly—herself. An apprenticeship with a struggling swordmaker in Scotland is a chance to use her expertise and discover what she’s capable of. Turns out she excels at aggravating her gruff silver fox boss…when she’s not having inappropriate fantasies about his sexy Scottish burr.

Tavish McKenzie doesn’t need a rich, spoiled American telling him how to run his armory…even if she is infuriatingly good at it. Tav tries to rebuff his apprentice, and his attraction to her, but when Portia accidentally discovers that he’s the secret son of a duke, rough-around-the-edges Tav becomes her newest makeover project.

Forging metal into weapons and armor is one thing, but when desire burns out of control and the media spotlight gets too hot to bear, can a commoner turned duke and his posh apprentice find lasting love?

Review:

Disclaimer off the bat: I’m not the biggest contemporary romance person and I wasn’t able to finish the previous book in the series, A Princess in Theory.  The entitled prince buying people off wasn’t quite my thing.  I still picked up this book, though, because I wanted to see what #swordbae was all about.

The good:

  • All kinds of rep here, including a black woman and bi-racial guy in an interracial relationship, and ADHD.  There’s also representation for someone who is giving up alcohol because they want to, damn it, and someone who is not interested in marriage.  Own voice reviewers on Goodreads have given the ADHD rep particular praise, which makes me happy.
  • There’s careful, considered handling of issues all around.  For example, this is an off comment:

    “There are already stories circulating that Johan and I are sharing you, which would be fine if any of us were into that, but that’s not the healthy setup being spread around.”

  • I like that Cole uses totally believable but not real company names.  SuperLift (ride sharing) and InstaPhoto (social media) for the win.
  • Mini flipped trope – she buys him clothes. Yea!

Duke by DefaultThe not-so-good:

  • It took me a while to get into the story, and I didn’t feel fully connected until the halfway point or so.

I can’t think of any other big negatives, just that contemporaries are not my usual so while I liked this book well enough it didn’t immediately become a favorite.

All that being said I am on board with the next book, which will feature a playboy prince with a heart of gold.  He pops into this story for a bit and I got some Devil in Winter vibes – sold.  Also looking forward to the next historical Cole writes, as those are exactly my thing!