Friday, April 24, 2015

Now You See Him by Anne Stuart

Anne Stuart is one of my auto-buy authors but she doesn't always hit the mark. NOW YOU SEE HIM is one of these latter affairs, which is unfortunate because it had the potential to be quite good.

The book starts off hastily, right in the middle of the scene. I have to admit it took me off-guard and made me wonder if this was a sequel, or if I was missing some pages. Frances Neeley is at a parade, filled with horror, as she realizes that her charming Irish boyfriend is actually a member of the IRA and plans to assassinate a political official. She watches as he is gunned down to death, and his 'cousin' (who isn't really his cousin) is hit by a car.

Anyone would find this traumatic, and Frances is no exception. She ends up staying at a semi-tropical resort run by her cousin called Belle Reste. Also staying at Belle Rest is a man named Michael Dowd. He believes that Frances had more involvement with the IRA than she admitted, and plans to do anything he can to find out more.

Anyyyyythiiiiiing. *wink*

Some users have drawn comparisons to Stuart's Ice series, and yes, I think it's fully possible that Michael Dowd served as the prototype for some of the gamma leads in the Ice series. NOW YOU SEE HIM isn't even close to being half as good as the Ice books, though. Which isn't really surprising, considering that this book was a lesser-known Silhouette title published in the 90s. Just look at this trashy cover and blurb!

I prefer my romantic-suspense to be more suspense than action, and there was a little too much pining in NOW YOU SEE HIM for my taste. Insta-love, a TSTL female lead, a bland hero, and cardboard cutout villains who manage to fulfill almost every homophobic/misogynistic stereotype you can imagine, and yeah, you can see why NOW YOU SEE HIM had me skimming huge chunks of the book at a time. Snore.

But that's okay. I'll still devour Anne Stuart books like cheese and crackers.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars.

The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch

Hello blurb from Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games!

I feel like after the success of the HUNGER GAMES series, people took that T.S. Eliot poem to heart and started asking themselves, "How can we make the world end with bangs and whimpers, and all that jazz?" The authors found a way.

And one of them wrote this book.

THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE, as you might imagine, has the world ending from a plague. I BET YOU WEREN'T EXPECTING THAT! But it is true, my friends. The world got into a war with China, and after we nuked them, China was like, HOW DO YOU LIKE THESE APPLES? Except instead of apples, it was a super flu called P11H3.

Stephen Quinn is a scavenger who trades the remains of humanity along with his dad. His abusive grandpa used to travel with them, too, but then he died, and Stephen is sad but also kind of relieved because yay! No more beatings! Which was an odd twist to this already very grim book. I mean, this is a Scholastic imprint, and those are usually marketed to very young children, and biological warfare and abusive grandpas is pretty gritty for the kiddies.

You know what else is gritty? A narrator who's such an asshole, he borders on antihero.

I spent most of the novel wanting to punch Stephen in his little scowly face. He's so mean. He treats his dad like a child, and steals and thinks only in terms of "what can I get for this?" which makes sense, because he is a scavenger/trader and his life depends on it. But it doesn't make him a likable character, and it's hard to root for a character you don't like.

Anyway, one day Stephen and his dad run into slavers (guess what they do?) and are chased right off a cliff face into a gorge. Stephen's dad goes into a coma and then he runs into more people who he thinks are slavers, and they hit him unconscious with a gun. When he wakes up, he's on his way to a place called Settler's Landing, a post-apocalyptic community that reminded me of the Mayor's city in Walking Dead (oooooh, foreshadowing).

Stephen's greedy little eyes get all big at all the things there are to steal. Oh boy! Medicine! Weapons! Books! And he's also mad, because how come these people deserve all this shit? On the other hand, this is civilized society -- something he's never experienced -- and Thanksgivings, baseball, and blueberry pie all have their appeal. Plus, there's this girl (of course there's a girl) who is also an outsider (of course) because she's Chinese, and they are the Enemy! (Okay, seriously, people. Did the Japanese internment camps of WWII teach you nothing?)

This girl, whose name is Jenny, also has a bone to pick with society (i.e. Society) and after becoming dysfunctional friendos, she has an idea to get back at the people who made them feel like Outsiders.

What a puzzler this book was. The world building was kind of half-assed, and I feel like Hirsch left the option open for a sequel, but maybe changed his mind, so now there's just this very vague and frustrating book that could have been more than it was. I've read so many apocalyptic books, it's kind of hard to impress me anymore, and there's just way too many copycats or clingers-on in this book.

Also Stephen -- he was such a jerk. I really hated his character, and he doesn't really come very far in terms of development. I'd even go so far as to say that he's a Gary Stu, because despite being a total asshole, and treating people like shit, and stealing, everyone welcomes him into the community and wants to be his bff even though he waves around a knife at every opportunity. Ha, no thanks, psycho.

I'm with karen as well: that last line was very cheesy.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Don't Stay Up Late by R.L. Stine

Are there any 90s children who didn't grow up reading the Goosebumps books? If there are, I haven't met them.

In addition to the Goosebumps books, Stine wrote a middle grade/teen-targeted series called the Fear Street series. They were horror/psychological novels, and while some of them were quite twisted, for the most part they weren't too scary. Fear Street was horror with a signed permission slip from Mom.

When I found out that R.L. Stine was writing a reprise, I was really excited. There's a new Goosebumps movie coming out starring Jack Black and now another one of my childhood favorites is coming back? Nostalgia Jackpot!

Well...sort of.

DON'T STAY UP LATE was kind of lame.

The thing I liked about the Fear Street series is that most of them weren't supernatural (and the ones that were were like L.J. Smith's NIGHT WORLD urban fantasy, very fun). They were about teenagers going crazy and murdering each other for petty (or not so petty) vendettas.

In DON'T STAY UP LATE, Lisa is a teenage girl. One day she sneaks out to have dinner with her friends. Her parents find out, drive down there, and take her home...but on the way back, they get into an accident and her father dies in the car crash.

After the crash, Lisa keeps having these hallucinations. Scary demons running around, breaking into homes, and possibly committing murder. She sees them so clearly, but nobody else does, not even her friends, and her psychiatrist is making thinly veiled threats to send her to an institution. 51-50, bitch.

To help ground Lisa, her psychiatrist suggests that she babysit a little boy who lives on Fear Street with his mom. But there are all kinds of stories about what happens on Fear Street...and Lisa can't help but wonder if Fear Street might just provide a focus point for her "personal demons" (did you see what I did there? Did you?).

DON'T STAY UP LATE took a lot of time to get started. The set-up was a significant portion of the book, and left the book feeling "beginning heavy" in terms of pacing.

I also feel like this reboot falls in ambiguous category. Fear Street was pretty clearly teen, and most of the books hold up well. Goosebumps was obviously for children, and most of the books hold up less well, because they are more fanciful, more in line with a child's line of thought. Fear Street Relaunch, based on this book, is a bizarre blend of the two that (I think) attempts to appeal to both age groups, but will really end up isolating them because the characters are teens doing teen things and aren't very childlike, and yet the writing itself is very juvenile, and very childlike.

I didn't really like that.

I also didn't like the twist. I've been reading a lot of psychological thrillers with mindfuck endings, so maybe I set the book up for failure that way, but even so, the ending was pretty lame.

Also, it feels so weird to me to see R.L. Stine mentioning iPhones and "swiping" and Facetime. I still remember how inconvenient it was traveling anywhere without cell phones. God forbid if you deviated from the plan and got separated from your group. That was part of what made the original Fear Street books so scary, in my opinion. That sense of isolation. 21st technology just makes everything much less scary.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

5 to 1 by Holly Bodger

5 TO 1 is set in 2054, Koyanagar, India. Men outnumber women five to one, and women are a valuable commodity. But they are no longer treated as second-class citizens. In Koyanagar, women rule, because they provide children, and men scrape and serve for a chance to leave behind their lives of poverty and debasement.

In a weird cross between The Hunger Games and the Bachelorette, five men compete for the opportunity to become a husband.

Sudasa, however, is not enjoying her challenge. Especially when she finds out that her grandmother, the president of Koyanagar, may have done some subtle manipulations to influence the outcome.

When I found out that parts of this story were written in verse, I lost some enthusiasm for this book. I really don't like poetry, especially not free verse. Something about it is so pretentious.

Bodger has a way with words, though, and luckily, Kiran's POV is not written in verse. It was interesting comparing the two characters, seeing how similar they were in spite of the differences between their stations. Sudasa is a bird in a gilded cage, and Kiran is a dirty chicken trussed up for the chopping block. But both of them are unhappy, and might just be each other's salvation.

I also have to say that it was nice to read a book set in a foreign country with foreign characters that didn't smack of appropriation.

5 TO 1 is a pretty good book. Not a great one, and not particularly memorable, but okay.

3 out of 5 stars.

Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel

Look at that font on the cover. Doesn't that scream GONE GIRL to you? This is not a coincidence. CHARLIE, PRESUMED DEAD presumes to be a YA version of GONE GIRL. In fact, you could just as easily shorten the book's title to GONE BOY.

Does it live up to its aspirations?

No. No, it does not.

Aubrey is the portrait of teen girl grief when her rich boyfriend Charlie dies in a plane crash. When Aubrey goes to Charlie's funeral, she gets another horrible shock: she wasn't Charlie's only girlfriend.

He was dating another girl named Lena at the same time.

When the two girls talk, they find out that his relationship status wasn't the only thing he'd been lying about. Likes, dislikes, hobbies, allergies -- the Charlie each of them knew is like a totally different person. And then they find out more information.

Information that suggests he might still be alive.

But why would he lie? And if he's not really did, where is he? And what is he doing now?

I had a lot of problems with GONE BOY. One of the biggest ones was that, like many readers, I didn't understand how quickly Aubrey and Lena bonded. If I found out my boyfriend had been cheating on me with another girl -- a girl he'd been sleeping with -- I wouldn't be so quick to trust this other girl. I'd wonder what her motives were, trying to get all close and buddy-buddy. #Dafuq101

Second, there's a lot of jet-setting around. Lena and Aubrey go to India, to Thailand. They're so painfully oblivious and ignorant that you wonder why they didn't get shanked for their rich girl pocket money, because they were so dumb.

The best chapters were the one's from Charlie's POV, even though I don't really like POVs written in the second person. But these were frustratingly few and far between, and incredibly vague.

Because, despite the interesting premise -- I will give this book some credit, it had a very interesting idea -- not much happened. Mostly, it's just the two girls bitching about Charlie. There's this meta moment the book tries to have where they talk about the Bechdel test (even though for whatever reason, they don't mention it by name) and joke about how until the moment that they actually discussed the Bechdel test itself, they wouldn't have passed it because all they do is bitch about Charlie. I'm not sure if that was supposed to be meaningful or funny, or what, but it wasn't.

Because it was too true to be funny. Too infuriatingly, mind-numbingly true.

I also felt that there wasn't a whole lot of closure in the ending. I stuck it out to the very end even though I put this book down for a spell because I just got so bored. And that ending was a cop-out. I have my suspicions about what might have happened, especially considering what we knew about Dana and Charlie's tendencies to copy people he found interesting, but I don't know for sure. And in books like these, where finding out the mystery is the main thing keeping people reading, that's not just cruel, that's lazy writing.

I would probably read another book by this author just to see if she got better at pacing and endings, because she wasn't bad, but I couldn't honestly recommend this book to someone with the expectation that they would like it.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars.

The Companion Contract by Solace Ames

A year ago, I was approved to read Asa Akira's memoir on Netgalley. The book was called PORN - A LOVE STORY. Akira's memoir was fantastic because it deconstructed so many taboos and stereotypes and presented a lot of really interesting, relevant, and, yes, dangerous questions about sex, women, and feminism that often get ignored in mainstream media.

Questions like: what is it like working in the adult entertainment industry? Does sleeping with the same sex necessarily mean that you're gay? Is porn star interchangeable with slut? And, perhaps most relevant of all: why is so society so uncomfortable with a woman taking charge of her own sexual gratification, especially in a non-monogamous, non-binary context?

I bring up Asa Akira's memoir because THE COMPANION CONTRACT touched upon a lot of the same issues, and it did so with the same amount of succinct nonchalance. I can't help but wonder if Solace Ames was even inspired by Asa Akira's memoir and films when creating the character of Amy Mendoza, because their stories and personalities were so similar.

It was uncanny.

Amy Mendoza works in porn, although she wants to quit. Not because she feels any shame, but because she knows she's getting older, and out of her prime, and she wants to leave before the industry leaves an indelible mark on her. One night, she goes to a party with her lesbian friend, Chiho, and encounters an albino Colombian named Emanuel, whose supernatural appearance freaks out her friend (who is high on drugs).

Emanuel recognizes her and makes Amy an interesting proposition. He is the lead guitarist of the band Avert, whose singer, Miles Davis, just got out of rehab again. He wants to pay her to be a "sober companion" to Miles, distracting him from the temptations of drugs with sex, providing emotional (and sexual) support, while also keeping an eye on him.

After a lengthy interview, Amy accepts. There are a lot of perks. Obviously, getting paid to fuck a hot rock star is one of them. But she also gets to live in a beautiful beach house with the band (and a crazy ocelot(!) named Gabriel). She gets to go to their parties, their rehearsals. And she gets to spend a lot of time around Emanuel, too, with whom she feels a very intense connection.

There were so many things about this book that I loved.

The diversity.

Amy is Japanese-Filipino. Emanuel is a Colombian albino. Xiomara is Colombian. There are two bisexual characters, a lesbian character, and a transgender character (MtF). Sexism and racism are discussed a lot, as well as the consequences, but not in a way that sounds preachy.

The sex.

With a female lead who is active in the porn industry, it would be difficult to write a book that didn't have any sex. This book has a lot of sex, in a lot of different ways. I loved how the D/s relationship in this book was played out, and how the author showed the difference between submission in the bedroom versus constant submission in all life choices a la "you must obey me in all ways, Ms. Steele." Emanuel was very respectful about boundaries and made sure they stayed clear-cut.

Ames also shows the darker side to the porn industry (again without being preachy -- and many of her points mirrored those of Asa Akira in her memoir). She shows safe sex, even without condoms (STD tests! Printed out and shared with the participating parties! yes!). She shows how open relationships do not equal infidelity, if there is consent. She shows how fluid sexuality is, and how labels can sometimes do more harm than good when it comes to choosing sexual partners.

And the sex is not only hot, but well written. There is some good dirty talk in here.

The story.

This is a story about rock stars, and there are a lot of those. Too many, IMHO, not that you care. But Ames manages to bring something fresh to the genre. The sexuality, the drug addiction, and the struggles to maintain a normal life in addition to the fame life really gave THE COMPANION CONTRACT a real "behind the music" feel that so many of these other books lack. THE COMPANION CONTRACT is actually a pretty dark story, about broken people with gritty issues who try to resolve them in the best way for them (even if it isn't the most PC, or the most tasteful).

Two of my friends who normally abhor erotic novels gave this book a very high rating, and after reading it for myself I can see why. Easily. Ames fearlessly tackles subjects that would send most writers running for the hills, and she does it in a way that is not only authentic, but also interesting. I came into THE COMPANION CONTRACT fully set up for disappointment, and instead I found a very good character driven novel about what it means to find happiness, love, and sexual gratification (and not necessarily in any particular order).

I would definitely read more by this author!

4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Spelled by Betsy Schow

When I saw this book on Netgalley, I was so excited. That cover. That blurb. That concept. When I found out I was approved, I squealed a little. I wanted to like this. I really did.

But I couldn't even finish the damn thing.

SPELLED is a Wizard of Oz retelling smooshed in together with fairytale retellings. All the characters use these in-world pseudo-curses that are cute at first -- until you realize that they're going to be used twenty times a page. Mother of Grimm, that's too pixing much, what the spell are you doing? I mean, hex.*

*These are actual pseudo-curses

Dorothea, our main character, is probably one of the most irritating narrators I've been forced to endure in a while. She's every negative stereotype crammed into one: childish whining masquerading as snark and wit, Mary Sue with super speshul magic powers she doesn't appreciate, selfish, idiotic, misguidedly sanctimonious, obsessed with clothes and sparkles, etc.

If you don't want to murder her yet, don't worry, you will. Several times over.

When Dorothea finds out that she's going to be engaged to a prince, she throws a fit. When she realizes that the prince isn't going to tolerate her bitchery, she throws an even bigger fit.This fit ends up creating a massive curse that makes her parents disappear and turns the prince (aka the voice of reason) into a mute dragon-puppy thing. Which fucking sucks, because he was the only character who had anything of value to say, which seemed to be symbolic for the direction this book was heading, i.e. nowhere good.

The nonstop description of clothes, Dorothea's constant petty insults, the outlandish plot, the childish writing, and the never-ending psuedo-cursing wore my patience so thin I wasn't able to finish. Maybe Dorothea redeems herself in the end. I won't be sticking around to find out. I gave this book the old college try of 100 pages and I'm completely unwilling to stick around for 200 more.


1 out of 5 stars.