Take the Lead by Alexis Daria (Dance Off #1)

35832861Gina Morales wants to win. It’s her fifth season on The Dance Off, a TV celebrity dance competition, and she’s never even made it to the finals. Her latest partner is handsome, rippling with muscles, and stars on the popular reality show Living Wild. With his sexy physique and name recognition she thinks he’s her ticket to the finals—until she realizes they’re being set up.

Stone Nielson hates Los Angeles and the fact that he had to join The Dance Off due to family obligations… but he also can’t deny his growing attraction to his bubbly Puerto Rican dance partner. Neither of them are looking for romantic entanglements, but as they heat up the dance floor it’s only a matter of time until he feels an overwhelming urge to take the lead. When the tabloids catch on to their developing romance the spotlight threatens to ruin not just their relationship, but their careers and their shot at the trophy.

Review:

I’m not a reality television fan but it doesn’t matter, Take the Lead is a fun contemporary romance that charmed me from the beginning.

The good:

  • Own voices romance with a Puerto Rican heroine, huzzah!
  • The story sucked me in, which doesn’t always happen when I read contemporaries.  I like my romances to be a bit separated from normal life and this fits the bill, with two celebrities falling in love while on a competitive tv program.
  • Both Stone and Gina know that tv people are kind of evil so neither one is caught off guard when producers push them into a “showmance”.  I appreciate that one character doesn’t have to school the other on how Hollywood works, keeping the couple on an even footing.
  • I was there for all the dance scenes, despite not being all that into dance.
  • The writing is solid, and I wouldn’t have thought this is a debut.  Well done.

The not-so-good:

  • While I was having fun the show season feels a bit long to me.
  • The story trades in secrets and miscommunication, not my favorite tropes.

I really enjoyed this book despite it not being in my romance wheelhouse.  So if you like celebrity culture, family secrets, competition, and a tiny slice of (fun!) crazy, this is the perfect book for you.

Thanks to Swerve and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

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The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven Cycle #1)

17675462Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.

His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys but she is drawn to Gansey in a way she can’t entirely explain. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

Review:

I am so glad I checked out what my Goodreads friends thought of this book before picking it up.  Among their four and five star reviews I found the line, “it is really slow to start”.  And it is. Very. slow. to. start.

The Raven Boys is character driven and Stiefvater takes her time setting them up.  The plot doesn’t kick into gear until page 100 or so, and even then it rarely does more than amble along.

What saves and makes the book is the characterization.  Each of the boys has a full back story that is only starting to unspool.  Characters have amazing insights about each other that are probably too deep and perceptive for high schoolers but they’re so wonderful you don’t care.  Relationships change and grow, and the multiple points of view let us see how peoples’ perceptions about each other shape their attitudes.  It’s extremely well done.

Do know going in that you’re signing up for a four book series.  While The Raven Boys ends after a significant event it only covers part of a much larger plot.  If I read this book when it first came out I’d be frustrated, but luckily the series is now finished so I can move on to the next one.

An easy recommendation for anyone into character driven urban fantasy… just bring some coffee and an open mind to those first one hundred pages.

A Fare to Remember by Opal Carew

29939400Stevie has given up on love and just wants a simple life driving her taxi. But her plans are turned upside down when gorgeous billionaire Reid Jacobs steps into the back of her cab. Commanding and mysterious, he’s a temptation she can’t resist—and soon their torrid one night stand leads to an intoxicating affair.

In Reid’s strong arms, Stevie finds herself falling harder than she ever imagined. But is she ready to trust again? And when his business partner falls for Stevie, will it change everything? One thing is clear: she’s about to take the ride of her life….

Review:

There are so many problems here but first,

The good-ish:

  • The rich/poor trope gets circumvented, releasing some oh-no-this-can’t-work tension.
  • The writing holds its own.

The not-so-good:

  • Cab driver picks up a hot fare, drives to a deserted alley, and has unprotected sex with him.  In the entirety of the book there isn’t a single mention of condoms, birth control, or health status, even when a third is brought into the relationship.  When a book is set in the modern day real world completely ignoring STDs and pregnancy is at best unreasonable, and at worst irresponsible.  I’m not asking for a lot – a mention of a clean test, a wrapper crinkle – but give me something.
  • Amazing sex equals instant love.  Never mind that getting to know you stuff or talking about your childhood – love is transmitted from the penis to the vagina, apparently.
  • …and not from penis to penis.  A second man is brought in and is sexual with both Stevie and Reid, but his feelings are never considered.  He’s treated like a human sex toy – nice to have around, but not a member of the relationship.  Not cool.
  • BDSM elements are brought in carelessly, without a warning or a safe word.  And not just light bondage – a ball gag, people. No.  No no.
  • While the sex is hot some of it defies physics.  At one point I thought, “no way is all of that fitting in there that easily.”
  • The Big Misunderstanding is a product of the heroine being idiotic.

All in all – grah.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey #2)

192888Rustic old Riddlesdale Lodge was a Wimsey family retreat filled with country pleasures and the thrill of the hunt – until the game turned up human and quite dead. He lay among the chrysanthemums, wore slippers and a dinner jacket and was Lord Peter’s brother-in-law-to-be. His accused murderer was Wimsey’s own brother, and if murder set all in the family wasn’t enough to boggle the unflappable Lord Wimsey, perhaps a few twists of fate would be – a mysterious vanishing midnight letter from Egypt … a grieving fiancée with suitcase in hand … and a bullet destined for one very special Wimsey.

Review:

I loved the first Peter Wimsey book, Whose Body?, and have been doing my best not to blast through the entire series.  I’m saving them for when I need a fun, thinking, comfort read and Clouds of Witness delivers.

This time I went with the audiobook and I have a much better grasp of the characters now that I’ve heard them.  It must be hard to do British narration, having to take into account geographical accents as well as those of class, and Ian Carmichael does a great job.   The scene with a drunk Wimsey is pure gold that left me giggling.

The mystery itself kept me interested and guessing… the latter isn’t a high bar considering this is me, but hey.  I enjoyed the twists as well as the meta comments Sayers puts in here and there.

Here’s the thing, though – I don’t know if I want to continue the series in print, which shows off the writing, or on audiobook, where the characters come to life.  Have you read the Peter Wimsey series?  Do you prefer audio or print?

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

23384972Although it had been mostly deserted since the Voodoo Wars, there hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake for years. Rae Seddon, nicknamed Sunshine, head baker at her family’s busy and popular café in downtown New Arcadia, needed a place to get away from all the noise and confusion—of the clientele and her family. Just for a few hours. Just to be able to hear herself think.

She knew about the Others, of course. Everyone did. And several of her family’s best regular customers were from SOF—Special Other Forces—which had been created to deal with the threat and the danger of the Others.

She drove out to her family’s old lakeside cabin and sat on the porch, swinging her feet and enjoying the silence and the silver moonlight on the water.

She never heard them coming. Of course, you don’t when they’re vampires.

Review:

I love this book so. much.

The good:

  • As much as I love vampires they have been done (and overdone) poorly in the years since Twilight. McKinley builds a believable, gritty world that includes them.  They don’t sparkle or do anything weird.  In fact humans don’t know too much about them because anyone who interacts with a vampire ends up dead.
  • The first person perspective is used to perfection.  Our narrator Sunshine has a defined voice that rambles, but is exact in that rambleyness. She makes me smile and she fleshes out the story in a way that should feel like an info dump but is anything but.

    There are always cats around Charlie’s, but they are usually refugees seeking asylum from the local rat population, and rather desperately friendly.

  • Sunshine goes through a lot of traumatic experiences and her psychological experience feels right on.  I never questioned or doubted her inner life.

    It was easier, saying I didn’t remember.  I walled it all out, including everybody’s insistent, well-meaning concern.  And it turned out to be easy – a little too easy – to burst into tears if anyone tried to go on asking me questions.  Some people are mean drunks: I’m a mean weeper.

  • The plot kept me riveted and pages flew by.  Instead of many small chapters the book is split into only four parts… so I devoured it in four gulps. Yum.
  • Sunshine has a healthy sex life and a grounded view of what she wants from relationships.  There’s no guilt tied up with sex, no apologizing for banging people in college, none of it.  Hey world – more of this, please!
  • The ending is slightly ambiguous, and the lack of a neat-as-a-bow resolution means I can think about Sunshine and Con like they’re still “alive”. What will they do now that this part of their story is over?  What does the future hold for them?  I like thinking about the possibilities.

The not-so-good:

  • In one or two places the awesome rambleyness becomes only so-so rambleyness.
  • That’s pretty much it.

One of my requirements for a five star read is thinking “I can’t wait to reread that” as soon as I close the book.  Sunshine barely misses on that point so I’m giving it an enthusiastic four stars.  Vampire and urban fantasy fans, you’ve found a home.

Blame It on the Duke by Lenora Bell (The Disgraceful Dukes #3)

23434074Nicolas, Lord Hatherly, never intended to marry—nor add to the “mad” Hatherly line—but now he must honor his father’s debt to a social-climbing merchant or lose the family estate.

A notoriously wild marquess, won by her father at a game of cards, is the very last thing Miss Alice Tombs wants. She’s spent the last three seasons repelling suitors in spectacular fashion so she’d be at liberty to explore the world. She’ll just have to drive this one away as well.

Until Nick proposes an utterly tempting arrangement: one summer together to prove the legitimacy of their union, then Alice is free to travel while Nick revels in the time he has left before the Hatherly Madness takes hold.

It will be easy to walk away after a few months of make-believe wedded bliss—won’t it? Alice and Nick are about to find out…one sultry night at a time.

Review:

I discovered Bell shortly after her first book, How the Duke Was Won, and I’m so glad I did.  Her romances are low angst and solidly written, and while the historical detail can be iffy in places I have too much fun to care.  Each book feels like an improvement on the last, and while I’m not ready to award four stars yet I know she’s headed in that direction.

With that in mind, let’s get to the bullet points!

The good:

  • Alice’s reason to travel makes sense.  I love that she doesn’t give up her dream, even when her gender and, in a way, the romance, work against her.
  • The characters are well-drawn with realistic motivations and backgrounds, from the hero and heroine on down.  When a surly, rude butler was introduced I thought, oh no, there’s no explaining this.  But there is a reason and it works.
  • Nick doesn’t want children and Alice does a gut check and realizes that she doesn’t either, and that decision is respected and not used as a plot pawn.  There isn’t a pregnancy scare or an “oops, I’m pregnant and I’m so happy” epilogue.  This is so rare in romance, especially historical, and I really appreciate it.
  • We see how mental illness was handled during the Regency in a way that respects the the view of the times while also trying to make it better.
  • I can’t wait to see Lear get his own book.  A pirate hero with a heart, woo!  The doctor would make an interesting (and POC!) hero, too.

The not-so-good:

  • The historical detail feels off in places, and I had a lot of questions about the manuscript Alice is enamored with.
  • While the first two thirds of the book went fine I was not a fan of the big “fight” in the last third.  I found myself skimming just to get to the end.
  • And there at the end Nick says some stuff that could have gone very, very wrong.  I’m glad it all worked out but if I were Alice I would be so, so mad.

All in all a light, fun, slightly wallpaper-y Regency romance.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

30186905In a surreal, but familiar, vision of modern day Egypt, a centralized authority known as ‘the Gate’ has risen to power in the aftermath of the ‘Disgraceful Events,’ a failed popular uprising. Citizens are required to obtain permission from the Gate in order to take care of even the most basic of their daily affairs, yet the Gate never opens, and the queue in front of it grows longer.

Citizens from all walks of life mix and wait in the sun. Among them is Yehia, a man who was shot during the Events and is waiting for permission from the Gate to remove a bullet that remains lodged in his pelvis. Yehia’s health steadily declines, yet at every turn, officials refuse to assist him, actively denying the very existence of the bullet.

Ultimately it is Tarek, the principled doctor tending to Yehia’s case, who must decide whether to follow protocol as he has always done, or to disobey the law and risk his career to operate on Yehia and save his life.

Review:

Authoritarianism has been on my mind lately and The Queue is a fascinating way to approach it in fiction.  What struck me the most is how people can and do adapt to almost anything.  Need an eye exam?  Wait in this line so you can get a document allowing it.  No, the line is not moving – it will when the Gate opens.  Please wait.

So they do.

It’s a reminder that human resilience is a double edged sword – while it allows us to get through horrific things, we can also put up with far more than we should.

I will admit that I had a hard time getting into the story, probably because I was reading in short bursts.  With longer reading sessions I became more interested, wondering what the heck is going on and how it all will end.

While the setting and circumstances are a far cry from the current situation in the US every now and then a passage startled me, hitting too close to home.

He wrote a hard-hitting and well-researched article about the [boycott] campaign – its grounds and implications, and how many people joined each week – but the newspaper didn’t print it.  Instead, they gave him a stern warning about “fabricating the news.”

I would recommend The Queue if you like literature in translation, dystopia, and don’t mind a healthy dose of uncertainty.  It’s not a breezy read but it has given me a lot to think about.

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.

One Week in Greece by Demi Alex (International Affairs #3)

35426062Bethany Michaels is headed to the sun-bleached island of Mykonos on business, not pleasure. But an unexpected face from the past will introduce her to a brand-new desire . . .

Proving her business acumen to her demanding father is Bethany’s only goal as she boards a ferry for Mykonos—and the beautiful resort she’s determined to acquire for her family’s hotel chain. Gorgeous Greek hunk Paul Lallas stands in her way—alongside his lover, Justin Bentley, who broke Bethany’s heart into a million pieces years ago. When the two men make their very personal interest in her clear, mergers and acquisitions are suddenly the last thing on Bethany’s mind. Could the chance to live out every one of her forbidden fantasies lead to a future more blissful than she ever imagined?

Review:

While some underlying principles are good to see the story is an overall meh.

The good:

  • Pansexual rep via one of the main characters – love to see it.
  • The woman is not the hinge of the triad.  Bethany dated Justin years ago, and now he’s in a committed relationship with Paul.  The dynamics of adding her back in are handled well.
  • The complexities of being serious in a three person relationship are touched on realistically.  Do we want to get married?  What would that look like?  Do we want to have kids, and how would we handle that?  Where do we want to live, and how will we each be able to continue our careers?  In this sense the happily ever after feels solid and earned.

The not-so-good:

  • The book truly takes place over a week, making those realistic life convos feel rushed.  “I just meet you seven days ago and now I’m tying myself to you forever” (in the case of Bethany and Paul) is a bit much.
  • The story arc in general isn’t satisfying.
  • The writing is clunky throughout.  The two guys sound the same, to the point that I had to remind myself which is which, and the sex is merely okay.  Ish.

Good rep, glad to see the foundational ideas are there, but the execution could use some work.