Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Scandal Becomes Her by Shirlee Busbee



Shirlee Busbee was pretty famous back in the day for writing crazy bodice rippers, most notably LADY VIXEN and GYPSY LADY (which I own). I love bodice rippers, so I was curious about her work, and when I saw SCANDAL on the shelf of my local used bookstore for a buck, I grabbed it.

SCANDAL is a very odd book, and, unfortunately, not a very good one. I think part of the problem is that the hero and heroine are married very early on in the story, which takes away a lot of the sexual tension romance novels use to propel interest in what happens to the characters, and emotional investment in their continued well being (they have to fuck, dammit! #OTP).

It also combines a metric fuckload of tropes into one bloated volume, and...and it's too much.

Nell Anslowe is a Lady of Quality but nobody wants to marry her because she's crippled. This happened when she fell from a horse as a young girl. She went over a cliff (killing her horse) and banged up her head, and ended up in a coma for several weeks. Her fiance at the time didn't want to marry a crip, so he decided to spread rumors that the fall had addled her brains, making her a candidate for Bedlam. (What a gentleman, eh, ladies?) Because of this, and insecurity about her unfortunate handicap, Nell has been on the shelf for all these years.

There's a bastard named Tyndale, though, who's neck-deep in vowels, and he is more than willing to marry Nell for her money. Unfortunately, he's not very good at masking his intentions and Nell refuses him. But "NO" is just white noise to this man, who decides to sneak into her room and kidnap her on a dark and stormy night, intending to spirit her away to Gretna Green, forcibly consummate the marriage, and then enjoy her fortune at the risk of her ruination. What a bastard. Nell manages to fight him off, though, and runs away to an abandoned cabin to take shelter.

At the same time, a man named Julian is chasing after his step-sister, who he believes has eloped with a handsome soldier. When he sees Tyndale's abandoned curricle, he thinks his sister and her eloper were also caught in the storm, and also finds himself in the cabin. Imagine his surprise when he sees not his sister, but a hot, wet woman in a scanty nightdress...OH THE TRAITOROUS CHILLS!

They get married, blah blah blah. Nell doesn't let him sleep with her for a while because she didn't want to get married, and she wants some time to get used to him. Which was interesting, because usually in these types of books, the hero insists on a wedding night and then the heroine (who starts out reluctant) has the orgasm of her life and realizes that this is teh luuuuuurve.

I started out liking Nell quite a bit because it was cool to read about a heroine with a handicap who had learned to deal with her difficulties and didn't define herself by them, but by the middle of the book I found myself increasingly frustrated with her. Even though it's obvious--obvious--that her husband loves her, she's convinced that he's holding a torch for his dead wife. The minute after they have sex for the first time, she interrogates him about her(!) and then seems surprised and put out(!!!) that he doesn't want to discuss his previous marriage in the marriage bed of his current wife.

There's also a murder plot. Nell has psychic powers(!!?!?!) for some reason, and has these prophetic dreams about a man in shadow who kills women in graphic and unpleasant ways in the depths of a hidden dungeon. At first she thinks these are just horrible nightmares, but later on in the story, evidence arises that suggests that these murders are actually happening. No excuse is given as to why Nell has these visions, except that maybe her falling and hitting her head precipitated it?

I don't know, guys. I think this was too cheesy and over-the-top even for me. I wish the hero and heroine hadn't gotten married so soon, and that the story had been darker to fit with the murders: some of the sleuthing scenes in this book had me humming the Scooby Doo theme because of how ridiculous they were. I half-expected to see a painting with moving eyes or a bookshelf housing a hidden door. The secondary characters were excellent, though, and the murder was suspenseful enough that I read to the end in order to find out whodunnit.

SCANDAL BECOMES HER is about as trashy as it is possible for a book to be while also still being somewhat readable. I would recommend it for long and boring car trips, and for plane rides after the flight attendant has ordered that all electronic devices be turned-off.

2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver



It makes me sad to give this such a low rating because until now I have loved everything that I've read of Lauren Oliver's work.

VANISHING GIRLS is about two sisters, Dara and Nick. They used to be inseparable, even as they began to grow apart. But then Dara gets into a terrible accident that disfigures her face, their parents get divorced, and nothing is the same since.

Nick is trying to reach out to Dara to repair what used to be between them, and it almost seems to be working. Until Dara disappears. It might seem like a game, but there's another girl who disappeared recently too, named Madeline Snow, and Nick can't help but wonder if maybe the two disappearances are linked.

There are a lot of stories told in this mold, and half of them are told by Jessica Warman. VANISHING GIRLS, unfortunately, brings nothing new to the table, coming across instead as a rehashing of all the cliches that are typical to this genre. Troubled girls? Check. Small town secrets? Check. Illicit sex? Check. Boy issues? Check. It reads more like a shopping list of tropes than a book.

I did read VANISHING GIRLS to the end because I was invested enough in the mystery portion of the book that I wanted to see it through to the end, even though I had to do a lot of skimming to get there, but I wasn't overly pleased by the ending. It seemed...contrived. I know that's a terrible thing to say, since all books are contrived to some extent, but in this case, there was no foreshadowing or anything that made me sit up and say, "IT ALL MAKES SENSE!" It seemed abrupt.

There is a love story squeezed into this book, but it doesn't contribute much either. None of the characters had any sort of personality or anything. I almost have difficulty believing this is the same Lauren Oliver who wrote BEFORE I FALL, one of the handful of books that has made me cry.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen



QUEEN OF THE TEARLING came out a few years ago. It had all this hype attached with its release, and there was a lot of excitement and speculation...until ARCs started making their way through the blogger community, and reviewers started going, "Dafuq?!" Even though I'm late--a few years late--to the cool kids' party, that was pretty much my reaction during the entire book.

DAFUQ?!?!?!?!?

Kelsea has been in hiding for nineteen with her two guardians. She is plain, bookish, and pretty much unremarkable except for a sapphire necklace and a mysterious scar. Guess what? It turns out she's the Queen! Not just any queen, but the long-lost heir to Tearling that people, good and bad, have been searching for all these years. And now it's time for her ascension.

Let's begin with Kelsea. The first thing you need to know about her is that she is very, very plain. The second thing you need to know about her is that she really likes books. That's it. That's all you need to know about Kelsea. But Kelsea thinks you are an idiot, because she will be constantly reminding you about these two things over the course of the book, in many pointless, and often excruciatingly uncomfortable ways.

For example, there is this character called the Fetch. I actually kind of liked his character, even though he's pretty stock as far as the ambiguously amoral but useful ally trope goes. Anyway, towards the beginning of the book he kidnaps Kelsea but then tells her that she doesn't need to worry about being raped because she's "too plain" for him. Something Kelsea finds disappointing. In fact, when meditating on her plainness later, this incident comes up several times--to her regret.

Later, Kelsea meets another woman her own age named Marguerite, her Uncle's ex-sex-slave. Marguerite is beautiful, but she tells Kelsea that beauty isn't all it's cracked up to be pretty much because it makes men want to rape you. Keslea thinks that Marguerite is just exaggerating (even though, hello, RAPEY UNCLE'S SEX SLAVE) because surely being beautiful would be better! At one point, she secretly wishes that her guards would sexually harass Marguerite after she catches them looking at her appreciatively because she wants an excuse to yell at them 'cause she's jelus.


Let's get to Kelsea's royal policies. This book has been billed as being like Game of Thrones. Well, if monarchy is a game, GoT would be chess. Queen of the Tearling would be Hungry Hungry Hippos. Kelsea isn't in the kingdom for a week before she starts turning everything on its head. She ends the slave trade that is supposedly the only thing keeping the peace between her kingdom and Mort, even though her army is totally unequipped for war or retaliation. She deposes her uncle as Regent, takes away his favorite slave girl, and humiliates him before all her guards. Oh, and then she starts fucking with the Church, and campaigning to steal all their books...because she wants them.

The world-building makes even less sense. At first, QUEEN OF THE TEARLING seems like a pretty stock medieval European fantasy setting. Which is not my favorite genre, because it's been done so, so much and all too often the characters have the depth of a D&D Dungeon Master's character portfolio. Less, even, because there's no knocking a good DM. But then...

Kelsea mentions pennies with a stately bearded man on them. Abraham Lincoln? You mean Abraham Lincoln? Surely not, no, this must be another bearded man-- And then she explicitly mentions America and England, as well as some other things like The Hobbit and The Brothers Grimm. This is not a medieval fantasy book, this is a post-apocalyptic dystopian that takes place in our future.

THIS IS THE FUTURE.

This just raises so many questions that I cannot. First off, how did we get from here to there? I'm guessing this is going to be answered in later stories but can we at least have a hint? All that we know is that there was something called The Crossing and Tearling was founded by some dude named William Tear who apparently didn't know shit about how politics or governing a people worked. Secondly, if this is a dystopian, why is there magic? Is it actually magic, or is it just another example of how backwards these people are? Is this an alternate universe? WHAT IS GOING ON? Britain and America were (fairly) forward thinking countries in their heydey so why the fuck are there "antisodomy squads" roaming around making sure nobody gets up to anything gay, and how did the church manage to wrest control again--especially when the country's founder was apparently an atheist? Where are all the books? And if there aren't any books, why can people still read? When Kelsea started lending her books out, she didn't need to teach the people she gave them to how to read, so why, if books are no longer common or even considered useful, why does this population still know how to read? Why are doctors so scarce? If doctors are scarce, why is it apparently not super uncommon for women to get cosmetic surgery? Do psychics exist in this world? If not, why did Kelsea start having prophetic dreams all of a sudden? Who the fuck is that guy who sucks the eyeballs out of children? How did the slave trade become the backbone of the Mort economy? What happened to the rest of the world--like China and Russia and India, for example. Are they watching us on their futuristic monitors and laughing at us for being the medieval fucktards that we are?

Now let's talk about the villain. She's an evil queen. Of course. She's been looking for Kelsea for nineteen years to keep her from reclaiming the throne. Of course. She failed. Of course. What you need to know about the queen is that she's probably a sorceress of some kind since she's old as hell but still looks young, and that she is evil. When she finds out one of her sex slaves snores, she orders his tongue and uvula cut out as punishment. To quote Electric Light Orchestra, Eeeevil woman. Ironically, she's one of the more interesting and conflicted characters in the book, as is Kelsea's Uncle Thomas. I would much rather read about them than fucking Kelsea over here.

Because there's a lot of double-standards. Kelsea does a lot of cruel and insensitive things. She humiliates her enemies. Enemies that she makes because she doesn't think about making allies. All she thinks about is her plainness and obtaining more books. You might think plainness would make her a more forgiving and empathetic person but you would be wrong. She envies beautiful women (while also wishing bad things would happen to them) and mocks older or ugly women for attempting to beautiful themselves. Pretty much all the female characters who aren't Kelsea in this book are painted as a) evil queens, b) victims, c) jealous hags/bitches.

And despite wanting to be beautiful, Kelsea seems to really hate women and femininity. She's described one point as being "mannish" simply because she walks like she knows where she's going. In the beginning of the book, she takes violent offense to the notion that she might at one point have played with dolls or worn dresses. There's a quote in this book saying that women scream at any kind of pain, but men scream only when they're being killed. Which begs the question: in a world that has not one, but two powerful queens, why is there so much gender stereotyping and misogyny?

And why does Kelsea buy into it? She has all those books. She ought to know that things should be--and can be--different. (I'm also wondering what those books were about. She mentions the Hobbit and the Brothers Grimm but nothing more modern. And these books mostly seem to serve as a crutch (a very weak crutch) to explain how Kelsea seems to know everything about things she ought to know absolutely nothing about--like doctors, and plastic surgeons, and recessive genes, and about a million other things.) Her guardians didn't think to give her a copy of Sun Tzu or The Prince?

I was wondering where the Hunger Games similarities would come in and it didn't take me long to figure that out. The slave trade is determined by a lottery (oh boy), and IIRC, the 'winner's' family is exempt from taking part in lotteries for a period of time. WHAT A GREAT PRIZE. You know, I think the Hunger Games wins on this one. Yeah, they were sending children to their deaths, but at least it was only a few dozen kids and not cages and cages of hundreds of babies, adults, and children who were going to get raped, tortured, have their eyeballs sucked out and then murdered, etc. Plus, entering got you food and the winners' families got a lifetime supply of food. So yeah, excuse me if I say, well, at least the HG people managed to make it look at least a little appealing.

Whenever I looked at my friends' page for QUEEN OF THE TEARLING, the schism was always what I noticed right away. 80% of my friends loathed, loathed, loathed this book, and 20% adored it, no questions asked. There was no middle ground. They all either loved it or hate it.

Now that I've read QUEEN OF THE TEARLING for myself, I'm planting my flag firmly in the "hated it" camp. I found the book very lazily written and plotted, too reliant on cliches and shoddy world building to make up for what proved to be a decidedly uninteresting and unoriginal storyline.

1 out of 5 stars.

The Sleeping Dragon by Miyuki Miyabe



I've seen this author around before, and for some reason (wishful dyslexia?) I always thought her name was Miyuki Maybe, which I thought was a delightfully quirky and existential name for a mystery author to have. Whodunnit? Whowroteit? But then I found out that her name was actually Miyabe, and I was sad.

Even though I tend to not like sweeping generalizations, one thing I have noticed about Japanese novels is that they often start out with the main character meeting a stranger who then impacts their lives. There is often such a sense of isolation in these books, and a feeling of disconnection--I'm not sure if this is because of the translations or a reflection of how the authors themselves feel in this society, but it is interesting and recurring.

Kosaka, the main character in this book, is a journalist for a mediocre periodical firm called The Arrow. One night in a bad storm he comes across the teenaged Shinji. As they are driving, they find an open hole in the street where a manhole cover has been removed. Shortly afterwards, an old man passes, looking for his missing grandson. Shinji goes pale--out of guilt, Kosaka thinks, until Shinji reveals to him that he is, in fact, a psychic and he has seen that the little boy is dead.

THE SLEEPING DRAGON is a reference to the sleeping psychic powers that are inside Shinji and another mysterious man named Naoya, and how, if treated recklessly, or if not channeled properly, they have the power to consume you or destroy you. It's an interesting premise, but wasn't really explored to its fullest potential. The main plot is Kosaka trying to figure out a) whether Shinji and Naoya really are psychic, or just delusional or conspiratorial, and b) who is sending him mysterious and threatening letters at work, and why.

I read the book to the end because I wanted to figure out what happened, but it was not a satisfying ending. Sometimes books are driven by character motivations, and things make sense in hindsight because of foreshadowing by the author. And other times, things happen, and you think, "Well, that was random. Did the author pull that out of their butt?" I am sorry to say that this was one of those latter instances. I put this book down feeling more puzzled and dissatisfied than anything else.

Miyuki Miyabe had some good ideas in this book, but I'm wondering if maybe she was trying to fuse together too many different concepts and whether this was why the book failed. I'd be willing to try a few more of her works to see if they agreed with me better, but this isn't one I would recommend.

2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense by Julia Heaberlin



Here are some pressing questions I bet you have.

Is this another book trying to rip off the success of GONE GIRL?

Yes, probably.

Does it feature female characters acting in unconventional ways with an unreliable female narrator?

Yes.

Does it have a twist that won't be revealed until the very end, cleverly tricking you into reading the whole thing regardless of whether you love it or hate it?

YES.

Is it a bad book?

...No, not at all, actually.

When she was a teenager, Tessa Cartwright was found in a field of black-eyed susans, lying on top of the bones of other girls. She was the only survivor of the Black-Eye Susan killer, the "lucky" one.

Somehow, she doesn't feel very lucky.

Now a middle-aged woman with a teenager of her own, Tessa is still haunted by the other Susans. She hears their voices sometimes, whispering. The voices have gotten louder because a lawyer has contacted her, hoping that she will be able to help: they believe the man they convicted for the killings, a black man named Terrell, was innocent.

But that would confirm what Tessa had feared all these years...that her killer is still out there. Waiting to finish what he started.

Tessa is an interesting protagonist. I like seeing characters who suffer from their traumas in realistic ways, and in addition to PTSD, Tessa at one point suffers from conversion disorder, which until now, I have never actually seen portrayed in fiction. So that was really neat.

The mystery of the killer is done well, and so was the twist. I didn't see it coming, anyway. I had lots of theories, but none of them were correct. The dual POV works well to reveal and conceal information, although if I do have one complaint about this it is that I felt that her killer and his actions were not really detailed enough for me to get a sense of how terrible he was. If the author had gone that extra mile in edge, this probably would have gotten a five-star rating.

BLACK-EYED SUSANS was a decent read, very much like Gillian Flynn in terms of style and tone. The author makes a lot of interesting references and writes pretty good flawed protagonists, so if you are a Flynn fan you can probably make the transition over to Heaberlin easily. I would read more by this author in a heartbeat. I hope she decides to stay in this genre for a while...

4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Royal Cup by Bastien Vivès



Book #1 in this series is called THE STRANGER, and I liked it quite a bit. Even though this is a graphic-novel, it has a fighter anime flavor to it, with a royal fighting tournament comprised of both magic and combat that wouldn't be out of place in a fantasy rendition of The Hunger Games.

This book starts where the last one left off. Richard Aldana and Adrian Velba are in the championships of the tournament. They have a lot of rivals to deal with, and for some of the rivals, it's personal and they won't hesitate to cheat or use emotional manipulation in order to get what they want.

Adrian's mom and Richard finally do something about that sexual tension, and it ends up scarring Adrian for life. Although I have to say that they way they approached the little boy about it was quite sweet, and actually developed the storyline and their characters quite a bit. You don't often see adult characters explaining sex to a child in young adult books, especially not in graphic novels.

I finished this book in about twenty minutes. I think it's even better than the first in terms of what it sets out to accomplish, and the suspense is great. There's court intrigue, deception, and all sorts of complicated relationships that I'm hoping will play out in interesting ways (although Master Jensen seems to have disappeared in this one...what about his obsession with Adrian's mom?).

I will definitely be reading book 3!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Consequences by Aleatha Romig



The product information on the side of douche boxes is more illuminating and contributes more to society than this useless piece of dreck. CONSEQUENCES was a terrible book, perhaps the worst I've read this year. When it wasn't being offensive, it was being boring, and when it wasn't boring, it was moronic.

CONSEQUENCES was on my to-read list for a while because people kept recommending it to me. When this book appeared for free on Amazon, it seemed like a boon. It was really a curse.

Here's the thing. Rape in books does not bother me. Neither does non-con, dub-con, or sexual abuse. I read bodice rippers, for fuck's sake, and they're called bodice rippers precisely because the hero, in a fit of passion, rips off the heroine's bodice for a dubiously consensual romp. What I do take issue with is when rape is treated insensitively, or romanticized, or, worse, normalized.

CONSEQUENCES does all three.

On Goodreads, it is shelved as "romance" by over 200 users. Some of the Listopia lists it appears on are "Controlling/Sexy/Possessive Men" (#44), -*Beautiful Dark Romances*- (#1),  All Time Dominant-Alpha Romance Heroes (#3) (emphasis mine). And then, more disturbingly, these lists as well: Swoon Worthy Men (#77),  Best Love Story (#294), Panty Droppers (#215), and, most sickeningly of all, Best Book Boyfriends (#1,427). Even if it was not the author's intention, this book is being shelved as a romance, and marketed as a romance, spoken of in the same breath as FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and IF I WERE YOU.

But do you know what this book is actually about?

***WARNING: SPOILERS, TRIGGER WARNINGS***

Claire was a bartender living a normal life. Then one day she wakes up in a fancy room, bruised and beaten in a way that suggests that she was raped, and then physically attacked. This would be the work of Tony, our "love interest" who has decided that Claire owes him a debt because of a blank cocktail napkin that Claire signed as a joke. Apparently signing blank cocktail napkins means that you are signing away your right to call non-consensual sex rape, so ladies, under no circumstances must you ever sign any napkins, ever. In fact, just in case, you better stop signing anything, period.

The reason Tony kidnapped her isn't clear, but his intentions for her are. Oh, yes. He keeps her locked up in her room, doesn't allow her to wear underwear of any kind, and rapes her whenever he feels like it. When she upsets him, he beats her, sometimes until she goes unconscious. He calls these instances "glitches" and blames her for it. He calls her going unconscious from her beatings "accidents" and blames her for those, too. Tony is the master of abusive relationship euphemisms. He probably calls pushing women down the stairs "hugs" and vaginal fistulas "cupcakes." He is such a fucker.

This has some promise. I was hoping, from the summary, that Claire would be a feisty, inquisitive heroine, who would fight back--passively or actively--while trying to seek out a way to get away from her captor. But in the 50% of the book I read, Claire never once attempts to escape (unless you count trying a locked door and then immediately giving up afterward "attempting to escape"). Instead, she seems to actively reject any and all escape attempts that come her way, turning to her captor for permission or protection from the Scary Outside World Full of People Who Want to Save Her. But then, what would you expect from a book that lends more text space to name-dropping expensive clothing brands than the psychological turmoil of a woman's rape and abuse?

This is the biggest issue I took with the book. Claire is a victim of rape and abuse, and she passively accepts it all from the get-go. In fact, you could even say she embraces it. She signs away her freedom and her dignity for the price of a couple Dior dresses and an outdoor pool, and marries her fucking rapist/abductor because...well, he must love her so much, right? Even though he beats her and hits her. Even though he rapes her. Even though he keeps her locked up as a prisoner. Even though he videotapes them having sex so he can use the footage to criticize her performance later. Even though he employs an entire household of people who think absolutely nothing of the fact that he rapes and abuses and beats this woman that he has obtained from God knows where.

Claire is a victim, and yet--I hate to say it, but oh God--she brought it all upon herself. Female characters like Claire are the reason women are blamed for their abuse. It is an oversimplification of abusive relationships masquerading as a Disney fairytale where the abused but faithful woman manages to change her man by doing abso-fucking-lutely nothing. She just stays, and endures the rapes, and the beatings, waiting for something better, hoping that her "prince" will change.

Let me just add that even though I didn't finish the book, I read the spoilers, and I was not impressed. That mind-fuck twist? Not a mind-fuck. It's a last-ditch attempt to inject this story with some semblance of plot, and it so did not work. CONSEQUENCES is a terrible book in terms of story, characterization, and moral value. I honestly do not understand why this book is so lauded, or why so many women are Team Tony and claiming that they want him as a book boyfriend or that he makes their panties wet. This is not romance. This is fucking sick.

0 out of 5 stars.