Review: Night of the Wolves by Shannon Drake

First things first – Night of the Wolves sounds like it should be a werewolf book but it is in fact a vampire hunting book. In its defense, the series is literally called “Vampire Hunters” but if you’re going to present yourself as a paranormal romance and put wolf in the title there are going to be hopes raised. Ok, now that’s out of the way.

This is a hybrid of books I rarely read: paranormal romance and western times romance. This is actually perhaps my first western romance book (though I don’t feel I’ll have had a good intro to the subgenre til I get a purely western romance under my belt) so there were a lot of things to complicate this reading for me. But let’s start with a synopsis.

Alexandra Gordon, the heroine, has visions that lead her back to her father’s home in Victory, Texas to hunt for his murderer. There she meets mysterious and sexy lawman Cody Fox, a veteran of the Civil War. Vampires attack, all is not what it seems, yadda yadda you get where this is going.

Folks, this book has Problems. First of all, the Native American characters are staggeringly stereotypical complete with feathers. I got real Tigerlily a la Peter Pan vibes from their portrayal in the book and it was squicky. Also the black caretaker of Alexandra’s place gives off a real “Mammy” archetype vibe in how she is written which was rough. Also rough is the discussion of the Civil War talking about how it was the most heinous thing ever and no one should ever get beyond their disagreements to that extent.

You know what’s worse than the Civil War?

Slavery.

No punchline, just facts.

I wasn’t invested in the romance but part of that was because I kept getting distracted looking for werewolves and wincing over the more problematic aspects of the book. Also it was published in 2009 so for those who may be believers in defending a book with Product of Its Time (I am not one of them – a post for another day), this book doesn’t get that pass either.

I kind of appreciated that vampires were (mostly) villains in the book because while I was an enthusiastic participant in the mid to late 00’s vampire craze, Dracula is one of my favorite books and I sometimes miss vampires being bad guys instead of just sexy sad people. In the end, I could have gone without reading this book and don’t intend to continue the series. It did make me want to read an example of a good western romance and a good paranormal romance, either combined or in separate genres, so if anyone has good recommendations please let me know!

Review: The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare

Tessa Dare was an author I approached cautiously. Not because I had heard bad things, the opposite in fact. I had heard her praises sung so loudly for so long that I didn’t know where to begin in her catalog and had that tiny fear that for some reason her work wouldn’t resonate for me and I would be the odd one out. I can’t speak for everyone who will read her, but this did not turn out to be the case for me.

The Duchess Deal is the first of her Girl Meets Duke series. A quick snapshot of the synopsis is a Duke (Ash, short for Ashbury) comes back from war horribly scarred and self-conscious and he has to marry to secure an heir. He has been recently spurned by his former fiancee so time is of the essence. Enter Emma Gladstone, wearing the wedding dress she crafted for his fiancee, demanding payment. He offers her a marriage instead and, spurred by her own financial need and the desire to help protect her unmarried pregnant friend, she accepts.

The story is some parts Beauty and the Beast, some parts the Phantom of the Opera, all parts good. Dare has a talent for creating interesting side characters, in this novel this not only includes the staff at the manor who are desperately trying to make the two fall in love, but also the small group of ladies who take Emma into their fold. Each of them have quirks and talents that are charming and I would read books based on each of their lives, romantic or not.

Ash is a broodier hero than I tend to enjoy but Dare wrote him in a way that it worked for me, especially when he goes to lengths such as blindfolds to keep his wife from seeing his scars which he is sure will make her fall out of love with him. I think part of what works for Dare is she presents common conflicts but gives them enough background and development that they’re understandable. In another book if a character’s sole hangup was that their spouse would hate their scars I would be a little annoyed because at a certain point you have to just face that. Dare provides Ash with some background that makes that fear very reasonable.

Also, neither of the protagonists are virgins, which I appreciated. I have no problem with a virgin hero (see my review of The Duchess War), but I find it a little easy and played out when a heroine is automatically a virgin in a romance. People have been having sex in or out of marriage since the dawn of time and I just like that being recognized.

I haven’t read the other two in the series yet but I think I will add them to my 2020 reading goal next to Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean and Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel.

Review: The Adventure Zone Murder on the Rockport Limited by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Travis McElroy, Justin McElroy, and Carey Pietsch

This is the sequel to The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins graphic novel. This series takes the reader through the arcs from the Balance campaign in The Adventure Zone podcast.

Quick review cuz it’s kind of a gimme that I would love this one. Murder on the Rockport Limited was my favorite Balance arc and I enjoyed how they translated it from podcast to graphic novel. The characters look right, the dialogue is fun, and it hit the moments I remembered and loved. Special shoutout for the introduction of Angus, Boy Detective.

If you’re interested in picking it up I’d start with the first because it gives important background information but then definitely go ahead and read this one as well. I eagerly look forward to the third in the series, Petals to the Metal, and plan to preorder it soon.

Review: The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

Trigger Warning: Rape

Oh hey, the Brothers Sinister! What a surprise!

The Governess Affair is actually the prequel novella that provides background on book two’s hero, Oliver’s parents. Robert (from The Duchess War) has a half-brother named Oliver whose biological father was Robert’s odious father (also Robert but henceforth referred to as The Duke ) and Serena Barton, a governess he sexually assaulted. Oliver’s true father, Hugo Marshall, originally works for The Duke in cleaning up problems. Serena becomes a problem for The Duke when she begins to show up, visibly pregnant, and sit by his offices until her demands are met to provide for their child. Hugo is tasked with getting rid of her (nonviolently – this is romance, not true crime) but struggles with his own ambitions and this woman who has been grievously injured.

Milan is able to take on a very difficult subject and still craft a love story that feels real and well-deserved for both. Even better, it sets up a relationship that will give the child resulting in this assault a family that genuinely loves him. Although Oliver’s birthright (or lack thereof) is a source of conflict for the character going forward what is never in conflict is whether he was loved or appreciated. Oliver was able to grow up in a family that loved him, devoid of resentment.

I also appreciate that Milan did not just use sexual assault as a throwaway tragic backstory for her hero. She gave the character who was assaulted an identity and her own agency and happiness. That is done very rarely despite the fairly prevalent use of sexual assault in entertainment nowadays and was very refreshing.

Big surprise, if it won’t be triggering for you, I think you guys should read this book! I believe this is the last Brothers Sinister book review I have this year so if you’ve been getting tired of them, don’t worry. We move onto other things now, for better and worse.

Review: A Broom of One’s Own by Nancy Peacock

I think I picked up A Broom of One’s Own at a library or local bookstore sale because it sounded interesting and was short and at this point in the year I was very far behind in my reading challenge for the year and needed something quick. The book is a brief memoir by author Nancy Peacock on what it’s like to publish a book, have it go over well, and then still end up needing to get a job to maintain your life. It’s an interesting perspective from a voice we don’t get often – the voice of the published but not prolific author.

Peacock’s profession is also interesting as she works as a housecleaner, a profession which gave her quite a few stories just from her experiences cleaning people’s homes. She also talks about some personal losses that occurred through this period of time.

I won’t lie to you all, I don’t remember it incredibly well but I do remember feeling an odd sense of melancholy. Maybe because of the different human experiences she shares. Maybe because of the reality that publishing a novel doesn’t change your life like the fairytale Cinderella stories make you want to believe. Maybe because it kept reminding me how messy my house is and how much I should clean it.

In any case, it was an interesting read and helped kickstart me back into reading after a slump. I haven’t checked out any of Peacock’s works yet. Maybe that will be a goal for next year.

Review: I’ll Cry Tomorrow by Lillian Roth, Gerold Frank, and Mike Connolly

Trigger Warning: Alcoholism, child sexual abuse, adult sexual abuse, domestic violence, anti-semitism

 

I read this memoir by 1920s film star Lillian Roth for my final paper in my class on Addiction. This was not an easy read for content but the pacing was excellent and the story engrossing. At the time she wrote I’ll Cry Tomorrow, in 1954, Lillian Roth had been out of the spotlight for years and was only recently reentering the business though to a much different extent than before. She was 44 was it was published and through her book we’re given a new look into the life of the pre-code era in Hollywood.

She recounts her youth with her parents who desperately wanted her and her sister to be stars. She discusses her father’s alcoholism from the distance that time affords though with no less pain or poginancy than you would expect. Roth’s life was filled with trauma from youth from being molested to the sudden death of her first fiance who ended up being one of two men in her life who did not abuse her in some way. From a mental health perspective I found it especially interesting tracking her descent into alcoholism as it was thrust on her to shut her emotions down in lieu of actually supporting her. She also takes the reader through the expected social aspect of being a celebrity which also included a significant amount of drinking.

Roth’s many marriages and significant relationships are overshadowed by abuse, her growing dependence on alcohol, and her struggle to conceive or adopt a child. She suffers other losses including her career and her father and nearly her own life by the time she is admitted to rehab. In many stories rehab is where it ends but Roth also provides the perspective of someone who went through rehab, graduated out, and then relapsed and ended up working with an AA program. She credits the AA program as a driving force for her recovery and became involved in helping others who struggled with addiction. She also married and had a healthy relationship with a man after years of harrowing violence from partners.

When looking at clips of Roth in movies in the 20s and 30s, it’s hard to reconcile the peppy and professional dancer with dimples and all of the coquettish allure of the iconic flapper with the accounts she gives of her grief, trauma, and struggle with addiction. This is one of the reasons I think this book is so important. It highlights the fact that we cannot know what is going on beneath the surface and that the lifestyle that comes with celebrity is often rife with loss and pain. It was also powerful reading her account of how she did finally manage her addiction and enjoy sustained recovery.

Due to the troubling subject matters discussed in the book, I would advise that if any of those topics are triggers, especially the domestic violence, you skip this one. If you can manage reading this topics and have any interest in the impact of addiction and behind the scenes of Hollywood in this era, I highly recommend this book.

Lillian Roth
circa 1930: Lillian Roth, the Hollywood film actress, dancer and singer who appeared in ‘The Vagabond King, the Paramount picture. (Photo by Otto Dyar/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Review: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

The book that launched my love of romance is finally here!

I originally read this book last year after the episode from Heaving Bosoms. I had been listening to the podcast as an amused observer without actually reading romance, not out of a sense of superiority but mostly because I felt intimidated. Romance is such a big genre with so many possible ways to start and I didn’t feel like I could navigate it on my own so I just enjoyed their recaps until this episode where I thought the book sounded good enough that I had to read it for myself.

The Duchess War is set in Victorian England and the first in the Brothers Sinister series. Robert Blaisdell is a handsome Duke who runs into Minnie Lane, a faux wallflower, while hiding out from a social event. Robert has been anonymously spreading seditious handbills encouraging workers to unionize because he is desperately trying to clean up the horrible mess his father left. Minnie is trying to escape her past with a new identity and stands accused of passing out the handbills. The two face off and as secrets are revealed and motives come out, the characters fall in love.

One of the things that I appreciate about Milan’s work is her brilliant use of banter between characters. Robert and Minnie sass each other in ways that are amusing but never mean-spirited. The respect the characters feel for each other are evident throughout. They both accept each other where they are but also encourage and help each other to grow. Neither character is perfect but even as mistakes are made you root for them instead of just getting aggravated at them. Also, top notch sex scenes and *drumroll* A VIRGIN DUKE!

After years of rapscallion, wanton dukes we get a virgin duke! And a believable (and not comedically cringy) first time! Followed by communication and improvement!

*chef’s kiss*

When I said that Milan is the author I recommend without reservations, this is the specific book because it is the start of the series and a genuinely good story on its own.

Review: Sunstone by Stjepan Sejic

This is going to be pretty brief because guys, I did not like this graphic novel one bit.

The premise of Sunstone (as written by a straight dude) is two (new) lesbians in the BDSM community meet up after months of chatting online to hookup and see if their chemistry in person is the same as online.

Part of my bias is that this book was selected for my book club’s  August genre, Romance. This book mocks romance literally from page one.

The whole book reads like a young straight guy’s porn based lesbian fantasies that dares to pretend to be the voice of women. This graphic novel doesn’t show the male gaze, it shows the male leer, making these women posture and pose in straight from Playboy positions to tantalize the (almost certainly) male reader of the graphic novel.

Also, for a graphic novel which is a visual medium, it was stunningly and confusingly filled with telling instead of showing. The formula is teasing, almost-dirty-talk, fade to black, and then “oh wow that was the most intense sex ever” thought bubbles. He literally refers to orgasms (female orgasms in particular here) as overdone and boring.

Prayer circle for his wife.

Even visually this story is just bland. The art is uninspiring and the color palette is red, brown, and black. The whole thing feels like a gross pretense of sexiness fumbled by a grown man who did not consult a single lesbian. I also do not know his relationship with the BDSM community and don’t mean to speak for them but a lot of his representation of this also felt… off.

Anyway, I actively advise avoiding this if you’re looking for romance, erotica, good writing, interesting characters, or truly anything I look for in books.

If you are looking for eerily identically bodied (and pubic haired – wut?) bodies and wanna jerk it to some ladies almost doing sex, have at it.

I think I would have felt less sour about this read if it hadn’t been misrepresented. It’s not a romance, not every story with sex and two characters who enjoy each other’s bodies (and presumably brains) has to be one. It also has a real “I’m Not Like Most Girls” vibe which, if you read the Slouch Witch review, you know I hate. It felt especially sinister and gross coming from a man voicing a woman.

Oof.

Anyway, I’m going to wrap up here and move onto better things.

Review: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

This is another third book in a series and another series that I collect!

The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan is a beautiful story of a rake and a scientist and growing beyond the facades you build to protect yourself.

Sebastian Malheur is a rakish playboy and, more scandalously, a scientist who specializes in genetics. In the Victorian era this is considered especially brazen because it references reproduction. If there’s one thing worse than a male scientist it is a female scientist which is why Sebastian actually a front for his childhood friend Violet’s research. In truth she is the scientist and he is just the way for her to communicate her findings. It’s an intriguing twist on a nom de plume and offers an interesting conflict for the characters when Sebastian announces that he will no longer play along with her charade. His reasons are understandable, as is her anger and fear over his choice. I always feel that the best conflicts are ones where there’s no one clear right or wrong person but rather a situation where both people are responding reasonably based on their experience and circumstances and finding a way through it will require growth and courage on both people’s parts.

Another conflict is that Sebastian, for all of his philandering and raking about, has been in love with Violet for years. Meanwhile Violet, believing herself undesirable and also just plain too busy with her work, has survived a horrible marriage and has sworn off romantic relationships with people both for her heart and her body’s safety.

Quick note – If you may be triggered by discussions of domestic violence and miscarriage, please skip past this book or make sure you’re in a good place mentally before reading. It isn’t gratuitous by any means but Violet’s experiences are treated with the correct amount of solemnity and her grief may be especially hard for people who can relate to her circumstance.

The challenges these characters have faced, in their personal lives and with each other, makes their Happily Ever After all the more satisfying. I also appreciated that the HEA for Violet includes recognition and professional happiness just as much as romantic happiness. Milan does a brilliant job of ensuring that each of her characters have lives outside of their relationships while still making the romance a driving force of the plot. Every book in this series would be interesting enough to read without the romance just based on the characters and their challenges, but the romance doesn’t feel unnecessary or forced. Courtney Milan is an author whose books have yet to disappoint and is one of the few authors I automatically and without reservations recommend when people are dipping into the Romance genre.

I will be writing a review for two more of the books in this series (including the first one) coming up so look for more Milan gushing then!

Review: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart

This book is actually the third in the Kopp Sisters series of historical fiction based on an actual person. Amy Stewart’s series starts with Girl Waits With Gun and follows the life of Constance Kopp, the first female Sheriff in the United States of America.

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The basic premise is that Constance Kopp stood up to people no one else would, won the respect of the Sheriff of New Jersey and began working with him despite objections from many, many people and society in 1914 in general. This book, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, is a bit different from the first two.

In this book, Stewart brings in the issue of sexist policies in early 20th century laws. Kopp is brought in to help with two different young women who are arrested for, essentially, being “unladylike” aka sleeping with men while unmarried, being accused to staying out too late and dancing, etc. There are two different kinds of women who Kopp helps. The first is legitimately a “good girl” even by society’s standards. The second is guilty of all the things she is accused of and Kopp struggles to help her avoid a life in a sanitarium for troubled girls.

Quick note – I’m calling them women but if memory serves (I read this book sometime in August I think), they are technically teenagers, but I believe legal adults. In any case they were in that odd stage of womanhood where they could be infantilized and/or sexualized and/or just married off to make babies.

While Constance deals with the sexism she faces systemically and professionally, we get more of her younger sister Fleurette’s life as she runs off to join a traveling dance troupe. This character has shown a lot of growth without sacrificing the parts of her that make her a unique voice that stands out from her more stoic and hardened sisters. The middle Kopp sister, Norma, is still more of a background character but I hope to hear more about her in the future books.

It’s not very common for me to start a series and then commit to buying every book in the series that comes out but when I see that a new one has been published it’s an automatic buy, or at the very least an automatic add to wishlist. I love a good historical fiction, especially when featuring a female historical figure I hadn’t heard of before, and this series is two for two.