Well Met by Jen DeLuca (Well Met #1)

43189874._SY475_Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

Review:

I was excited to read this book after hearing some wonderful reviews, but I have to admit, for the first 40% I was wondering what the fuss was about.

The beginning is all first book awkwardness, the scaffolding of an enemies-to-lovers romance bare and hanging in the wind. Simon is shown as an arse early and often, and other plot elements are predictable. The love triangle fake out dude, the reason Simon’s brother left – all incredibly obvious, at least to me.

But once the Ren Faire starts, look out! Simon’s character, a swashbuckling pirate, is out to woo Emily’s character, a tavern wrench. Sparks fly, but as soon as they get out of their costumes it’s back to the bickering status quo.

These two have plenty of stuff happening in their real lives – Emily was recently dumped in an ugly way by her near-fiancee, and Simon feels like his life has been set into motion for him with no choice but to go with the flow. The Faire lets them shed the baggage, but the real trick is working through that emotional load once the festival is over.

There’s a lot to like – competence porn, fun secondary characters, grand gestures, and good grovel when it’s required. Hot sex, dramatic human chess match scenes, and people talking through their problems? All here.

I wasn’t a fan of Emily’s thinking near the end, though. She’s suddenly riddled with misgivings, questioning and misinterpreting every little thing that’s said to her by both Simon and others. I’ve encountered this in several romances recently so I may be more sensitive to it, but I’m not a fan of driving conflict by having the heroine think, ‘he doesn’t love me after all’ after a single stray comment. The women are strong until they get buried in self-doubt. Gah.

Still, this is a strong showing for a debut. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series – several of the secondary characters are due their own Happily Ever Afters, methinks.

Thanks to Berkley and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

43092891Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. Another item? Do something bad. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.

Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior…

Review:

Trigger warning for discussion of a previous abusive relationship.

How I love this book. Let me count the ways.

The good:

  • First and foremost is the rep. Some of it is own voices (both Hibbert and the heroine are Black British women with chronic pain) but every single bit feels well considered and empathetic and full of love. Other rep includes fibromyalgia, migraines, fat rep, positive depictions of therapy, and other stuff I’m surely missing. There are some great reviews by own voices folks, which gives me even more confidence, and just seeing the way she handles wearing glasses made me, as a useless-without-my-specs person, feel seen.
  • The book is British without screaming it. The spelling is American (I’m going to guess that was the publisher’s call) but there’s much more emphasis on class differences than you find in American romance, or even Britain-set romances written by Americans. It felt real and not the least bit stereotypical.
  • Their relationship is a slow burn in the way I like – getting to know the other person, and finding them more attractive the more you know.
  • Red is a-ma-zing. He expertly walks a line of being considerate of Chloe and her limitations without being mothering or infantilizing her. His consent is first rate and the respect and love he feels are all over the page.
  • There is a cat and it’s actually important to the plot, not forgotten as the romance heats up. Huzzah!
  • The banter is good, but the communication is better. There’s a bit of foot-in-mouth syndrome going on, but after the initial anger passes they get together to talk things out like adults. I am not a fan of Big Miscommunications, so the way romance has been evolving away from it has been amazing.
  • Do you need a warm hug right now? Of course you do. This book is that warm hug, full of love.

I inhaled Get a Life, Chloe Brown during a 24 hour readathon and have no regrets on the binge. It’s an easy recommendation for almost any romance fan, as well as for those who are thinking about getting into the genre.

Thanks to Avon and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

873920Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe’s capitals, part swan…or all fake?

Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.

Review:

I know this is a well-loved book but man, I couldn’t get into it and ended up hate reading near the end. My only consolation was that my buddy reader Cara agreed with me!

The setup and the underlying question are interesting – is Fevvers actually a woman with wings, or simply a sideshow fraud? My interest was quickly worn away as journalist Walser joins the circus in order to find out. The plot jumps the rails (literally), and by Part Three I ceased caring about the mystery – I just wanted it to be over.

Now and again there are beautiful images and nice turns of phrase, but most of the time it feels like Carter is trying to be clever, waving and pointing at her sentences as she does so. “Look at this! Isn’t it great?” Sometimes it is, but most of the of the time I’m nonplussed.

One and a half stars rounded up to two – not for me at. all.

Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

37969723._SY475_The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. Briseis was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war, all of them erased by history. Pat Barker offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations.

Review:

This was my first read for the Booktube Prize finals and I gotta say, my expectations were pretty low. I’m not a fan of Greek mythology, though I have been pleasantly surprised in the past (see: The Rose). And while the book is obviously good enough to make it through to the finals, I haven’t heard anything in reviews that made me want to pick it up.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed myself, following the actions of Achilles and the Greeks as they try to take Troy. The plot is solidly put together and I kept getting drawn back to the page in spite of myself.

I’m lukewarm on the writing because it doesn’t stick to a historical tone, throwing in modern idioms and speech. On one level this may be a good thing, making the text more accessible, but it pulled me out of the setting.

The hype around this book stresses that it focuses on the women, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s a re-framing of the myth, but not a reclaiming. Achilles is very much the hero and the protagonist, and hearing the tale from Briseis, standing in the corner, doesn’t change that. Everyone once in a while, though, a passage shines:

As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body, he says: “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”

This ended up being a book that I’m glad I read as it was an interesting introduction to The Iliad. I put The Song of Achilles on my TBR as soon as I finished because the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was one of my favorite parts of the myth. Not amazing enough to rise to the top of my ranking, but enjoyable all the same.

Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson (The Sacred Dark #1)

43689541._SY475_Stop me. Please.

Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.

But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.

Review:

Content warnings for fantasy violence, suicide, mind control, and homophobia.

What a ride!

The good:

  • We have nonbinary protagonist Mio (he/him pronouns) and immortal Rhodry (male) together as a couple, written by a nonbinary author.  Hell yes.
  • There’s a major power imbalance between the two, but it’s handled with care. Rhodry checks in with Mio often, makes sure he doesn’t feel forced in any way, and backs out of some situations where he fears consent may be freely given, even if only in part.
  • The relationship is incredibly sweet overall. I’m a fan of these two.
  • There’s more than the romance, though – a lot of plot is going on. The world is vaguely European and teeming with fantasy elements. There are mages and moon souls, ghosts and bear shifters. Political machinations? Yup. Family drama? You bet. A pivotal scene that takes place at an opera house? Check!
  • The happy for now ending satisfies and excitement looms on the horizon.

The not-so-good:

  • Worldbuilding is easier, I think, when you start with a small scene and expand out in the world. Here the world starts kinda big and focuses down on events in a single house over time. It’s jumping in the deep end, and I’m not sure it’s the most successful.
  • The fantasy elements feel like a hodge podge that don’t quite gel together, at least not in this first book. I can see it working on a series level, but having so many supernatural beasties from the start is a lot to take in.
  • There’s a bit of talk about dying to be with someone, which makes sense in a world where ghosts are real, I guess, but it may still rub you wrong if you’re not into it.

It took me a while to wrap my head around the plot and characters, but once I was immersed I couldn’t put the book down. I’m super curious to see where Peterson takes the story next now that the worldbuilding and important relationships have been fleshed out.

Thanks to Carina Press and Netgalley for providing a review copy.

Kingdom of Exiles by Maxym M. Martineau (The Beast Charmer #1)

42366222Exiled beast charmer Leena Edenfrell is in deep trouble. Empty pockets forced her to sell her beloved magical beasts on the black market—an offense punishable by death—and now there’s a price on her head. With the realm’s most talented murderer-for-hire nipping at her heels, Leena makes him an offer he can’t refuse: powerful mythical creatures in exchange for her life.

If only it were that simple. Unbeknownst to Leena, the undying ones are bound by magic to complete their contracts, and Noc cannot risk his brotherhood of assassins…not even to save the woman he can no longer live without.

Review:

Content warning for physical and emotional torture.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a fantasy and this one delivers.

The good:

  • The characters make this novel. They’re complex and shaped by their pasts in real and meaningful ways. Hangups are spun out slowly, both to other characters and to the reader, and motivation and character arcs ring true.
  • In that vein, people keep their secrets for as long as makes sense and no longer. This is big for me, as I’m not a fan of secrets in general, but it works here.
  • There are heaps and heaps of plot once the story gets going, which is the escapism I wanted while stuck inside during a windy typhoon.
  • Themes include found family, finding home, redemption and forgiveness, and how to take care of those we love. Love itself is explored on many dimensions – romantic of course, but also platonic, material, familial, and love for those you are responsible for.
  • Side characters have pasts that are hinted at, and make me excited for more. It appears to be a Happily Ever After For Now for the main couple, with other couples coming together in future books.
  • Noc has the best cover for being an emotionally stunted man that I’ve seen in a long time. It makes for a slow burn and thoroughly confuses Leena.
  • Queerness is natural and a given – stated as fact and not commented on beyond that. When Leena turns on her charm both men and women get starry eyed. While some characters seem to prefer a particular gender for romantic partners, several others are attracted to more than one.
  • And speaking of sex, Leena is given the same latitude a male hero would get. She enjoys casual sex and isn’t above considering it as a means to an end. She’s experienced, enjoys her sexuality, and doesn’t apologize or feel guilty for her desires. Most excellent.
  • Similarly, Leena proves her self as equal to, if not better than, the guys early on. There are a couple of moments where she takes action without giving them warning because she knows better, something men do all.the.time in fantasy. It’s challenged and connects to a couple of character arcs, but it isn’t framed as something wrong, mean, or awful. She has to get shit done, yo.
  • The more that I think about it, gender differences are minimized overall. The immediate bad guy is indeed a guy, but the Big Bad is a woman. When the group stops at an inn she isn’t given a separate room “because she’s a girl” – everyone shares one room or gets their own as circumstances dictate.
  • The ending strikes a nice balance between wrapping things up (the romance and main conflict) and unresolved storylines (the Big Bad, several characters’ mysterious pasts).

The less-than-good:

  • There are some first novel wobbles where details don’t come together or quite make sense.
  • The worldbuilding is good but not perfect. It took a while for me to get my head around the world.
  • The healing nature of some beasts leads to convenient deus ex machina moments. Big stuff comes with a hefty price, which helps.
  • There’s an index of all the beasts mentioned but beware using it as a reference while reading – many spoilers are contained within.

I ended up giving Kingdom of Exiles 3.5 stars, and I can’t wait to see how the story develops from here!

Better Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Vampire Sorority Sisters #1)

10161265It’s rush but college freshman Ginger Carmichael more has important things on her mind, like maintaining her perfect GPA. No matter how much she can’t stand the idea of the cliques and the matching colors, there’s something about the girls of Alpha Beta Omega—their beauty, confidence, and unapologetic sexuality—that draws Ginger in. But once initiation begins, Ginger finds that her pledge is more than a bond of sisterhood, it’s a lifelong pact to serve six bloodthirsty demons with a lot more than nutritional needs.

Despite her fears, Ginger falls hard for the immortal queen of this nest, and as the semester draws to a close, she sees that protecting her family from the secret of her forbidden love is much harder than studying for finals.

Review:

I love Weatherspoon but her next book is half a year away (gah!) so I’ve decided to dip into her backlist. Better Off Red, a paranormal erotic romance, is her first book.

The good:

  • Huzzah for own voices queer romance! And if you’re looking for hot sapphic sex, we have lots of it here.
  • The plot is built around an interesting idea – that vampires would use a somewhat secretive institution, like a sorority, to recruit people to feed on. The world building in general is deeper and more well thought out than I was expecting in a debut.
  • I didn’t even think about rushing a sorority, so I like the look and observations about a corner of college life I know little about.
  • I’m a fan of the vampire mythology and ethos. Humans aren’t used merely as food – they’re carefully selected and protected for their entire life. It’s a loving relationship, both in feeling and deed.

The not-so-good:

  • There are some typical debut wobbles. The plot gallops a bit at the end, and I’m not sure I buy everything that happened.

Not amazing, but enough for me to pick up the next book in the series.

Tentacle by Rita Indiana

translated by Achy Obejas

40679930._SY475_Plucked from her life on the streets of post-apocalyptic Santo Domingo, young maid Acilde Figueroa finds herself at the heart of a Santería prophecy: only she can travel back in time and save the ocean – and humanity – from disaster. But first she must become the man she always was – with the help of a sacred anemone. Tentacle is an electric novel with a big appetite and a brave vision, plunging headfirst into questions of climate change, technology, Yoruba ritual, queer politics, poverty, sex, colonialism and contemporary art. Bursting with punk energy and lyricism, it’s a restless, addictive trip: The Tempest meets the telenovela.

Review:

Tentacle is hard to explain. It’s queer. Some sections are science fictional, others historical. There’s time travel. It touches on the health of our oceans, climate change, politics, indigenous culture, colonialism, and the art world. All in 160 pages.

While I enjoyed the book it’s not exactly a satisfying read. First of all, I recommend that you read it in a day or two, in long bursts. There’s a lot going on here – two disparate story lines in three different historical eras that end up uniting by the end. Character names change several times. The fresher the details are, the better. I ended up reading it in long spurts but over a week, and I found myself flipping back and forth to double check names, relationships, and places.

I may have gotten more out of this book if I were familiar with Dominican politics and history. I get the feeling Indiana is touching on broader issues that I don’t know about and am having trouble identifying. And I want to mention that one main character is racist and misogynist and uses slurs against people of color and women on the regular.  It gave me pause because I’m not sure it had a point other than to show how awful he is, and that’s obvious even without the slurs. Which reminds me, content warning for an animal being killed to spite someone. Sigh.

The ending leaves the reader hanging out to dry. It’s not vague, but it feels odd and left me with a lot of questions. I had a moment of, ‘but then why did I read this?’ I think Indiana is making a point about how humans are (ineptly) dealing with climate change, and how current comfort can affect our thinking more than vague, long-term consequences.

Tentacle was a mind-bending trip and while I’m glad I read it, I’m not sure it’s a book for me.

Kitty Takes a Holiday by Carrie Vaughn (Kitty Norville #3)

7850602._SY475_After getting caught turning wolf on national television, Kitty retreats to a mountain cabin to recover and write her memoirs. But this is Kitty, so trouble is never far behind, and instead of Walden Pond, she gets Evil Dead. When werewolf hunter Cormac shows up with an injured Ben O’Farrell, Kitty’s lawyer, slung over his shoulder, and a wolf-like creature with glowing red eyes starts sniffing around the cabin, Kitty wonders if any of them will get out of these woods alive…

Review:

After everything that happened in book two Kitty needs to get away from it all and repairs to a cabin in the woods to take a break and maybe write her memoirs. While this is a good thing for her it minimizes my favorite aspect of the series – the wonderful conversations that Vaughn writes, especially when Kitty is hosting her radio show.

The first two thirds is your usual urban fantasy. Kitty is helping someone who was recently turned into a werewolf while figuring out who is leaving curses and dead animals outside her front door. The last third, though, concentrates on a trial where the action stops dead. It feels like two different stories grafted together.

My overall impression was mediocre, and not helped by the depiction of a skinwalker, which is a figure from Navajo tradition. A quick look at the wikipedia page shows that Dené folk would rather white people not appropriate the idea. The issue came to the fore when J.K. Rowling did just that, which put it on my radar. Kitty Takes a Holiday was written before the hullabaloo so I’m willing to overlook it to a point, but I’m not sure about the quality of the Native rep, period, and I’ve yet to find an own voices review.

The grafted stories, rep I’m not sure about, and miasma of meh did not work well for me. I’ll be pushing though to the next book soon in hopes that things get better.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

37789271._SY475_A Place for Us unfolds the lives of an Indian-American Muslim family, gathered together in their Californian hometown to celebrate the eldest daughter, Hadia’s, wedding – a match of love rather than tradition. It is here, on this momentous day, that Amar, the youngest of the siblings, reunites with his family for the first time in three years. Rafiq and Layla must now contend with the choices and betrayals that lead to their son’s estrangement – the reckoning of parents who strove to pass on their cultures and traditions to their children; and of children who in turn struggle to balance authenticity in themselves with loyalty to the home they came from.

Review:

Trigger warning for drug abuse.

This is exactly the kind of book I was hoping to read for the Booktube Prize – something that I’m interested in, but probably wouldn’t have picked up anytime soon. A Place for Us is a multi-generational family saga of sorts, which originally made me wary, but I ended up liking it. A bunch.

What makes the entire book for me, on top of great writing and character work, is the structure. The first major section is told from the perspective of the three children. We watch them grow up – moments between them, how they interact with the community, major events that shape their lives, even though they may not look significant to start. We bounce around in time, which made me nervous at first, but once we learn a couple of milestones (the eldest going to college, a particular birthday party or conversation) the timeline becomes easy to keep track of. Based on the kids’ stories we form some ideas why Amar is no longer part of the family.

The second section is from the point of view of their mother, and while some parts overlap she adds more information and another way of looking at things. We learn about conversations the kids had no idea about as well as the thoughts behind her actions, and it both interleaves a layer of story and changes our ideas and who is most wrong.

The father gets his say in the last section in a note written directly to Amir. He explains what he did and why, and realizes he may have gone wrong somewhere but isn’t sure how. The overall affect is a story that is told both straightforwardly as well as intricately.

The way everything is woven together is masterful and a bunch of interesting themes are explored – growing up as a brown person in the US during 9/11, how each person approaches their Muslim faith differently, the roles different children are expected to fill and why. I love that the religious elements are both so important and not explained in a Islam 101 manner. We aren’t spoon fed info about the faith, and I think the book is stronger for it.

All in all it’s hard to believe this is a debut. I actually enjoyed a multi-generational family story of sorts… I don’t think that I’m coming around to the sub-genre, necessarily, but this book is an outstanding example of it.