Review: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Trigger Warning: Non-explicit sexual assault, death of children, racism, homophobia, representation of dementia, depictions of the refugee asylum process that may be especially difficult for those impacted by family separation through deportation

I read The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen to fulfill the “read a book about a refugee” category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge.

This novel is comprised of a series of vignettes featuring characters whose lives were impacted by the Vietnam war. There is little I can say about the book without spoiling it but I can say that it is incredibly well written and heartwrenching. Nguyen gives the reader glimpses into the lives of different characters who live in varying degrees of separation from the Vietnam war. Some characters are Americans who served, some are direct refugees from the conflict, some are second generation Vietnamese Americans trying to grapple with the ghosts of their past. Nguyen himself is a refugee and the two essays at the end of the novel provide excellent context for the novel itself and I highly encourage you to read them though they are not directly connected to the novel itself.

This book is important to read even years past the Vietnam war because it is easy to draw a pattern in how America reacts to refugees. America is quick to create or join a conflict that suits its needs but the fallout from those conflicts, namely human lives, is left to others. I remember studying how America has treated immigrants in the past and this maltreatment is always treated like a sin we’ve atoned for and moved away from instead of a continued policy we weaponize against people of color. Vietnam refugees, like the characters in this book, are facing a backlash as are Syrian and Mexican refugees. There is no doubt in my mind that these actions will one day be taught with the same detached criticism that our treatment of Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century are today. But it is not enough to look back and be regretful. The only genuine apology is changed behavior and if the US does not change its inhumane treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers we will continue to be a shameful mockery of the values we claim to represent. Worse, more and more human lives will be traumatized and lost.

Review: The Governess Game by Tessa Dare

I read The Governess Game by Tessa Dare to fulfill the “romance about a single parent” category of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. This is the second book in the Girl Meets Duke series, I reviewed book one, “The Duchess Deal” last year and really enjoyed it. This book continues that trend and also furthers my love of Tessa Dare.

The premise: Chase Reynard is a rake who has been tasked with two young wards – 10 year old Rosamund and 7 year old Daisy – after he jumps from being fourth in line to the heir apparent. Desperate to find a nanny until he can send the girls to a boarding school he turns to Alexandra Mountbatten, a woman he literally ran into months ago at a bookshop who has shown up to set his clocks (not a euphemism). After she gives him a scathing takedown for his poor taste in creating a Cave of Carnality (complete with mirrors and nude portraits) he insists she is the right one for the job. She accepts the position for the money but quickly learns that there are depths to this scoundrel and that his posturing and attempts to but distance between himself and those around him speaks to a depth of feeling that he fears after past heartbreak.

One thing that I loved about this novel was that both characters have clear, well-paced growth. Chase doesn’t just fall in love and suddenly lose all of his fears surrounding attachment and Alexandra doesn’t magically get over her terror of being on boats just because he’s there. Love is not treated like a magic cure all, it just shows how choosing to accept the love you feel for others can help give you support to face down your fears and grow through them. Dare also does an excellent job showing how children can react to trauma and grief, one growing rigidly practical and the other falling into the continued roleplaying of funerals. The girls also grow in the novel and the reader is left knowing that they will be ok and this will mostly be because they will be allowed to grieve and be loved unconditionally instead of them just suddenly being “happy” or “ok.”

Despite its take on many painful issues, the novel made me laugh repeatedly and balanced its poignant and humorous moments well. In my opinion, Chase is the quintessential rake. He has a healthy sexual appetite and makes no bones (lol) about feeding it. He is a generous lover and a conscientious one as well. He is talented through practice and just the right amount of cocky. And, most importantly, he has that wonderful quality of being roguishly unaffected on the outside with a soft, creamy, marshmallowy inside of affection. Alexandra is also a great heroine and they make an excellent match. While (spoiler alert) their epilogue does include a reveal of the fact that she is pregnant, I didn’t get the sense that this baby is what would make them a family. Chase, Alexandra, Rosamund, and Daisy are already a complete and happy family and the baby would only grow what is already there. That’s not common in romance, particularly historical romance, and as the daughter of two people who were adopted into their families, I really appreciated this respect given to the legitimacy of a family created through nontraditional means.

I will be reading book three, The Wallflower Wager, coming up sometime but in the meantime I am going to be reading Darkfever and A Kiss for Solstice so keep an eye out for those reviews.

Review: More Than a Mistress by Mary Balogh

Continuing with the Reading Embrace I read More Than a Mistress by Mary Balogh for the “Dueling, Bring It Back” category. This might be a bit of a meander-y post because honestly you guys I’m still not sure how I feel about this book.

This is my second Balogh read. Before this I read Someone To Love which I also felt confused about. Like that one, I really liked the heroine and I thought the side characters were compelling and endearing, but I hated the hero. In both books the hero was a haughty, arrogant dick who intimidates everyone with a squint through his quizzing glass.

Please go with me on this quizzing glass journey because guys, I’m lost.

This is a quizzing glass:

quizzing-glass-closeup

I always called it a monocle but here we are. Maybe if I did more research I would understand why a man looking through his quizzing glass at you could be intimidating but reader, I do not understand. If a man raised his quizzing glass and peered at me like a grumpy owl I would simply laugh. And be a little embarassed for him. But this is the second time Balogh has used The Quizzing Glass as a tool of intimidation so it clearly is A Thing for someone or the period or etc.

Let’s get the plot out of the way though and I am going to use the synopsis on Goodreads because I tried explaining it to my boyfriend last night and there was so much I kept forgetting.

“An arrogant duke does the unthinkable-he falls in love with his mistress.
She raced onto the green, desperate to stop a duel. In the melee, Jocelyn Dudley, Duke of Tresham, was shot. To his astonishment, Tresham found himself hiring the servant as his nurse. Jane Ingleby was far too bold for her own good. Her blue eyes were the sort a man could drown in-were it not for her impudence. She questioned his every move, breached his secrets, touched his soul. When he offered to set her up in his London town house, love was the last thing on his mind….
Jane tried to pretend it was strictly business, an arrangement she was forced to accept in order to conceal a dangerous secret. Surely there was nothing more perilous than being the lover of such a man. Yet as she got past his devilish facade and saw the noble heart within, she knew the greatest jeopardy of all, a passion that drove her to risk everything on one perfect month with the improper gentleman who thought love was for fools.”

I liked that the heroine refused to be cowed and was doing what she needed to be safe. I liked some of the banter between the main characters. I loved Tresham’s sister and brother, both very lively and funny characters that I would happily read more about. I liked the loyalty his friends showed even if they were kinda gross when they talked about women. I like that the hero does genuinely apologize at one point. I like that this book was chock-o-block full of dueling to more than hit the requirement for this category. That might be where what I like ends.

I did not like the hero who was an emotionally stunted prick with a Tragic Backstory that is supposed to excuse his behavior. I did not like the relationship as a whole. The author didn’t seem to know how she felt about it either based on how between “I’m pregnant so I’m forced to marry you” and “we’re married guys surprise and also we are in love” there is absolutely nothing to segue the parts. The characters bounce between being angry with each other (and having people say that’s proof of their love, which – ugh DON’T) and confessing their deep love and back to the fighting. I didn’t see growth from either character. He learns how to express emotions which is good but he was still by and large an ass. Also, the dueling is genuinely stupid and I know Jane is there to be that voice going “hey maybe don’t almost die or murder a person because of Honor” but it’s never taken seriously and he sure seems down to duel still at the end.

I struggle because I want to like Balogh’s work. There’s always some stuff in them that I like that keeps me wanting to return and try something else. But so far (and admittedly, only two books out of her catalogue isn’t a huge sample) the heroes seem very similar and very obnoxious. Also the descriptions and language around sex is ludicrously flowery. There was a lot of talk about Becoming One and Mounting and Making Love when I mostly wanted to know where was what and what impact was that having on people beyond a metaphysical sense of Bonding and Togetherness.

I don’t know, you guys. Maybe I will try another Balogh next year but I think one a year is a good rate of sampling for me unless one of you has a rec for one you think I’ll enjoy.

Review: Texts From Jane Eyre by Daniel M. Lavery

I read Texts From Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters by Daniel M. Lavery (Goodreads needs to update his name on their site) to fulfill the Debut novel by an LGBT author category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge.

I knew I was going to love this book because I have loved Ortberg’s works for years. For those of you who may not know them, they current write at The Shatner Chatner and co-founded The Toast. They also run the Dear Prudence advice column at Slate.

Reading Lavery’s works always make me so angry because I want what he has. He is a goddamn genius with words. He’s also brilliant and more well read than I shall ever be. He’s also hilarious. He’s the total writing package and it’s a package God could have delivered to me but did not and I will never be over it. Except for the fact that I get to read it so, at the end of the day, I cannot be too mad forever.

Or can I?

In any case, I loved this book. It’s what it says on the tin, a bunch of text conversations between various literary characters ranging as far back as literature itself goes up to more modern works. The pieces are quick and hilarious. Of the books I’ve read so far this year, this is the first I’ve known I need to get a physical copy for my home library. I may actually get it as a present for my boyfriend because I know he’ll love it as much as I did if not more because he actually did most of the assigned reading in college.

If you were an english major or have just read a lot of sparknotes of classic works or just appreciate funny things, please do yourself a favor and read this book and check out Lavery’s other works.

Review: Snow White and the Seven Murders by Amorette Anderson

Trigger Warning: A character has cancer, repeated discussions about diets

The process getting to this book was a comedy of errors.

First, I was reading Enchanted which I DNF’d (Did Not Finish) because I just wasn’t feeling it. Then I thought ok, fairytale retelling, let’s do this, absolutely forgetting that I wasn’t reading Enchanted for a fairytale retelling. No, I was reading Enchanted to fulfill the “Frog” category of the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace which I decided to interpret as a “Frog Prince” retelling. I didn’t realize this until 30% into this short read and decided to just see it through. Hopefully the next review you’ll see here will be for “Frog” though I won’t lie, it’s hard for me to find one that interests me so far.

Snow White and the Seven Murders is a “romantic cozy novella” that takes the Snow White characters and story and gives it a modern twist. In this story, Sara White writes articles for the business column of a paper with her friend Cinda (yes, last name Rella). Her stepmother hates her because they both competed in a beauty contest and Sara took first. I don’t know if this means that her stepmother is around her age or if it was just a broad age range competition, the author leaves it up to the reader to decide. In any case, her stepmother made her life so difficult she chose to leave and move into a room rental at a cottage where seven older blue collar workers live.

Quick note: Would read a novella about Snow White and seven mature men who make a living with their hands. Just throwing that out there.

The novella is quickly paced but not so much that I felt like I was missing important information. Sara covers a story about the acquisition of a rare earth elements mine that has been bought by a new company, owned by the dashing and handsome Prince Amir Malick of Qu’abar. The company was up for sale because the owner died suddenly and as Sara does research she finds that all six rare earth element mines that have been snatched up by Prince Amir’s competition also died before being bought. She fears Prince Amir is in danger and senses that her business story is much bigger than it seems and pursues the clues.

As I said, I enjoyed the pacing of the story. It didn’t lag in any places and I felt that the reader touched on the major hallmarks of the Snow White story. I enjoyed the twist that Sara was the one saving the Prince. There was some stuff that felt a little confusing, like the beauty contest angle and the fact that Sara’s big secret that her stepmother threatens to expose is that she didn’t finish school so she doesn’t have a degree. This is only an issue because technically I think she’s not qualified to do the job she has at the paper and only has it because her dad is the editor. And while I understand that blackmail sucks, I have to admit all I could think was she genuinely wasn’t qualified so if she had to go back and get her degree that seems fair? Also in the end she’s offered a scholarship so clearly the news about her lack of degree comes out anyway.

The choice to make the Prince a person of color was well-intentioned but the language and choices around his characterization felt a little off. Sara stresses over how to pronounce his name which I somewhat understand because you don’t want to insult someone but also… Amir Malick is not hard to pronounce. That just felt a bit like unintentionally reinforcing the way white people view names that aren’t Germanic by going “ooh it’s so Different and Exotic how to pronounce??” Also she talks about how she expects he gets around via camel and holds a bunch of really unfortunate stereotypes about what she expects the Egyptian prince’s life to be like. I will warrant that maybe the author was trying to acknowledge these stereotypes most Western people have, and the prince does correct her, but it still rankled a little. Especially since she aspires to be a newspaper editor and you would think she might have an interest in familiarizing herself with global affairs. Also, and this is a small thing that I may be blowing out of proportion, he is described as a handsome Egyptian man with dark hair and “caramel skin” (not cool – do not describe people of color as foods) and then he takes off his sunglasses and he has striking blue eyes. And I know that no eye color is specific to one region or race, but we so rarely get appreciation and representation for brown eyed protagonists and it felt like a real missed opportunity to describe and appreciate eyes that aren’t the classic Princely Blue.

Another quite note about something that I felt was an odd choice that took me out of it a bit was Cinda’s consistent talk about the diets she’s on. When it starts she’s doing Paleo and somewhere in the middle she talks about possibly switching to another diet. It felt oddly out of place and inconsistent with the character. It might have just been done to help the reader really understand that these are Modern Women with Modern Women Issues but maybe let’s not have the main personality trait of a character be that she’s always on a diet. Maybe let’s leave that in the 90s.

Overall it was an alright read. I don’t feel compelled to keep reading in the series but I did like the twist on the classic story. Also the cover and descriptor of the novel as a romance felt a little bit mismatched. The characters definitely flirt with each other and share a kiss but the romance felt very second tier in importance. Granted that might have just been my bias reading it because I was more interested in the story and newspaper aspect of things. It was also a quick read so if you’re looking for something light and quick, this is probably a good choice.

Review: Once Burned by Jeaniene Frost

Trigger Warning: References to a suicide attempt, depictions of torture

It’s the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace time again folks!

The first category for the embrace is “Abs, Abs, Abs, Dick!” which I interpreted as finding a book where the hero on the cover is all abs and a hint ‘o dick (aka it fades away but you Know he is naked). To fulfill this category I read Once Burned by Jeaniene Frost.

This read reminded me of why I love doing embraces/challenges/setting reading goals. I would never in a thousand years have read a book that had Vlad Tepes as the hero if it hadn’t fit the embrace description so perfectly. Dracula by Bram Stoker is one of my favorite novels and I have a longstanding anger towards depictions of him as a romantic figure and went into this book just trying to keep the two works separate, a tactic aided by the author’s own acknowledgement of that work and the hero’s derision for it because of how incorrectly it describes him. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Leila, or “Frankie”, works with some sideshow performers with her death defying gymnast acts. Also, she has a massive scar running down her face and arm and can electrocute people with her right hand and see people’s worst sins/past/sometimes future when she touches them. She’s had this power (no pun intended) since she was a young teen and got electrocuted. It’s basically a superhero origin story except the superhero is more of a Rogue from X-Men superhero in that she can’t not hurt people and it’s made her lead a very sheltered life. She lives with a dwarf vampire named Marty who has been her surrogate father due to her estranged relationship with her biological father and the fact that he can handle her occasional, accidental shocks better than humans. Everything in Leila’s life goes along about as normal as it can when acting as a carny and living with a vampire when she is kidnapped by other, much meaner vampires. These vampires force her to help them locate Vlad and once he is in her life, he doesn’t leave. He saves her from the kidnappers, takes her back to his home, and they begin to work together to track down who is trying to kill him. He also informs her that there is a connection between them (a Sexy connection) and he is correct.

A lot of this could have gone very wrong for me and somehow it never went there.

Frost makes a point of referencing the character being in her mid-twenties so even though there is clearly an age difference between Leila and Vlad, it wasn’t as squicky for me as it is when it’s a teenager. Also, Vlad’s actions never read as him being an Alphahole. He’s just a very old, very powerful vampire who genuinely does not have a connection with his humanity for the most part. He has no problem torturing people and is thoroughly confused and annoyed by her anger over it. He never lays a hand on her but he also isn’t lovesick and swayed by her pleas to be less vicious. In fact he establishes from the start that the word please means nothing to him. And this could have meant he ignored consent but this vampire overlord is actually very much about consent and does not do anything the heroine isn’t clearly, verbally, enthusiastically on board with. He never glamors her to seduce her. Hell, he barely seduces her. By the time they do anything she’s already decided that it’s going to happen and she’s up for it.

I also appreciate how the author did her best to portray Vlad as clearly being more powerful but not taking away Leila’s power or agency in the process. Also, Vlad has as romantic past and has had ex-girlfriends and lovers and Leila doesn’t get weirdly jealous about it. Leila has no sexual history but that makes sense based on her power and Vlad does make a gross comment about her virginity being a special gift but it’s just one sentence, not a consistent theme which it can be in some books. Vlad remains Vlad throughout the novel. He never suddenly becomes a new or “better” person, he doesn’t really soften a ton, and he never says I love you. The two characters are clearly having feelings for each other but there isn’t some emotionally fraught confession. His actions show his feelings for her in small but important ways and often in ways she doesn’t realize until she reads his mind.

Another thing that could have gone wrong but was handled well is that the characters can read each other’s minds/communicate telepathically. This is actually helpful in many cases and neither character really tries to abuse this. Vlad can just do it and can’t really help it but Leila is taught a way to block out people reading her mind if she wants that privacy so again she is given some agency without taking away Vlad’s abilities.

The sex scenes were… ok. Not bad! There was some terminology that took me out of them like reference to his “hot honey” and mentions of fangs grazing parts of the body I am not comfortable grazing but they were well paced and well placed in the novel.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book and will be continuing the series after I get a bit more of the challenges under my belt. If you enjoy powerful but non-asshole vampire lords and powerful, processing-her-trauma heroines, you will probably enjoy this book.