Review: His Naughty Waitress by Bella Love-Wins

I read His Naughty Waitress by Bella Love-Wins for the “I’m a Waitress!” category of the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace.

This is a very, very short read, only 69 (*snicker*) pages. The premise is simple; a billionaire and his friends stop by a diner on their way to their annual hedonist retreat. There they meet the heroine, a waitress stuck in a small town in a dead-end job. The hero and the heroine hook up in the bathroom and then he invites her over where they hook up again and she agrees to go back to New York with him and they are in love. It’s most contemporary romance novels just ramped up on speed to hit the required page limit and not go too far over while still giving the reader an HEA and a minimum of two sex scenes. Both were written well. I don’t read many billionaire novels (this may have been my first actually) but he was the right balance of cocky without being an arrogant dick head which is the way I feel most billionaires skew. If you want a breezy read, pick this up. It’s one in a series I probably won’t be reading but it’s still good fun.

Review: Ronit & Jamil by Pamela L. Laskin

I read Ronit & Jamil by Pamela L. Laskin for the Book Riot Reader Harder Challenge’s “Read an audiobook of poetry” category. It is a contemporary, poetic retelling of Romeo and Juliet about an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy living in modern Palestine. With the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the trope of star-crossed lovers becomes more understandable and heartbreaking.

I am a defender of Romeo & Juliet, both the characters and the play. Yes, they were kids. Yes, they were rash. But suicide is always in some element tragic, especially when it is young people who feel driven to commit the act in the face of overwhelming despair. It is easy for adults (or cynical teens) to scoff and look at all of the life left for these two but I wonder how many of them remember what it feels like to be a teen and to have these feelings for the first time. You don’t exist in a timeline when you’re young, you’re far more focused in the moment and if the ones you trust and have been told to follow are forcing you into a future you can’t stand, it’s normal to feel trapped. The big miscommunications are hard for modern audiences to understand when we can reach out and talk to someone in an instant instead of sending letters that can be mixed up or delayed. And when you break down the primary catalysts for catastrophe it is more about the meddling and influence of adults trying to guide and push Romeo & Juliet, regardless of theri intent, rather than just spontaneity or stupidity on the protagonists’ part. All of that being said, I was open to a modern take on a much lampooned story and I was not disappointed in the slightest.

The language of Ronit & Jamil is beautiful and I felt it was fairly easy to navigate. I did feel, much like when I read The Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish, that I would have gained more by being more educated about the conflict as well as the culture of both Israel and Palestine. I am very glad I had read Darwish’s work before so I had some level of familiarity with the topic overall. That being said, I don’t feel that anything I didn’t understand impeded my enjoyment of the work. As I said the language is beautiful and the stakes are much clearer and higher, which may help people who don’t like Romeo & Juliet to still enjoy this work. The author also provides a space for fathers of Ronit & Jamil to monologue about their inner thoughts and fears for their children which helps humanize the parents and validate their concerns.

The author makes an interesting choice to give Ronit & Jamil an open-ended but decidedly happier ending than the original play. It does not end in their mutual suicides but instead with them going over their plans to run away to America with the help of distant family members, mourning the losses they must bear and trying to give each other hope with thoughts of the future they may have together. It is possible to view the ending as just as tragic as the original with the couple doomed to the same fate as the original pair they represent. But I think that Laskin was making a choice to give these two some peace. In the play Romeo & Juliet’s lives, while fraught with interfamily conflict, is still a fairly privileged one. They’re both financially and socially well off and while their lives are not without challenges they have a much better prospect than most. Ronit & Jamil grow up in an area fraught with conflict far beyond anything Romeo & Juliet faced and their prospects are much more dire. I liked Laskin providing this chance at happiness for Ronit & Jamil, while leaving the ending open enough for the reader to consider and decide what they thought may happen on their own. And the reader knows that the life they try to have in America will be rife with new challenges and obstacles such as xenophobia, racism, and a struggle to survive. But they will have a chance and I think that a chance is the best anyone can hope for in the end.

Review: Tomorrow’s Journal by Dominick Cancilla

Trigger Warnings: Mutilation of an infant (off screen but result described), violence throughout, suicide, mention of rape

I read Tomorrow’s Journal by Dominick Cancilla for the “horror book published by an indie press” category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. As I mentioned in my last review, Furnace, I am not a regular consumer of the horror genre. I generally stay in a literary fiction/cozy mystery/romance bubble and I don’t think any of those genres prep you very well for a horror story so I’m going into this at a disadvantage.

Basic premise: A teenage girl finds a journal in her bedroom that can communicate with her and enlists her help in preventing a terrible future. Her primary obstacle is her own disbelief and feeling of powerlessness in the face of impending doom.

I’m not sure how I felt about this story. Most of the time I was just incredibly aggravated by the protagonist, which was absolutely intentional as the reader is supposed to feel what they’re feeling. And they definitely succeeded! But I don’t really enjoy reading something where the main person is just irritating. You can be evil, manipulative, even cowardly but if you’re irritating and boring I just don’t get invested. The premise was interesting but also paced weirdly in reveals? It’s hard to do worldbuilding in an epistolary work but definitely not impossible and I think it would have helped if there had been a bit more context provided as it went even without revealing the Big Twists.

I wanted to like the story but ultimately it’s just a book that fulfilled a challenge purpose but didn’t really interest me in going further in the genre. I’m determined to find horror out there I can get into, some of the classics definitely have and The Girl in the Well was interesting, but I think I’m still looking for a contemporary work I really get into.

 

Review: Furnace by Livia Llewellyn

Trigger warnings: Graphic, violent sexual assault in the last three stories, grotesque imagery, graphic violence

Second book club review of the year! We read Furnace by Livia Llewellyn with our February genre of Horror.

I feel so torn about this book.

When I read the reviews for it I feel like I’m just not the right audience or maybe I just didn’t “get it” because I tried really hard but for the most part I’m left… meh.

The book is a series of horror vignettes with no solid throughline except that most of them are set in the Pacific Northwest.

My experience through 75% of this book was reading, feeling like I understood what was going on, paying attention carefully, and then the ending things would happen and I would be left feeling like I was waiting for something to happen. But it never did. I mean, things most certainly happened, but they didn’t impact me much. I felt horror at times but never fear and I know those are two separate feelings but it still surprised me that at no point was I scared or even uneasy.

The author’s writing is fucking gorgeous. Her talent for writing is undeniable.

But.

I am a firm believer that if you are going to depict sexual assault or make that a major point of focus in your work, you need to justify the hell out of it. Both the choice to include it and the choice to depict the scene graphically on the page. In the first story that really went for it with using it as a major plot point it is an epistolary vignette from the perspective of a young teen girl. It isn’t even written in a way that feels fearful, it just felt like it was trying to shock the reader by how awful it all was. It was a cheap shot at shocking people and I was thoroughly disgusted by it. The second story also featured a rape. A very graphic, violent rape enacted by a demon who has been stalking this woman since she was a child. I get it, demons do evil shit, if this had been the only or maybe even the first story to depict assault I would have been a bit more resigned with it but it was right after that other one and I felt a firm strike two had been struck. The third and final story was the third, and perhaps most damning, strike. A woman is fucked hard and rough and even though she tells him repeatedly to slow down and that he’s hurting her his only response is “make me” and then later he treats her gently before another rough fucking and she decides to stay with him. This was horrific in its clear depiction of, I felt, a domestic abuse relationship but I don’t know if that is what the author intended. By this time the book was done and I was left feeling bitterly disappointed.

Maybe I just need to read more horror, maybe this just isn’t a genre for me, or maybe this just isn’t the right author for me. I really tried to enjoy it. I did enjoy a few of the stories. But when it came to those last few were rape was used so cheaply and without any warning anywhere in the copy or reviews, I felt soured on the whole experience.

Review: A Kiss for Solstice by Elizabeth Allyn-Dean

Trucking along with the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace we have A Kiss for Solstice by Elizabeth Allyn-Dean to fulfill the “HB Author” requirement! That’s right, this author is a member of the Heaving Bosoms listenership but I will write an unbiased review.

The plot is a little convoluted but let me do my best to get down to the nitty gritty. Zelda is a witch whose younger sister is being held hostage by their coven leader/evil stepmother who has Zelda use her unique necromancy gifts to do her bidding. One of the ways the coven leader makes money is by using the local werepack to do underground fighting. One night a human, Dax, wins and later stumbles into the girl who’s been taken hostage which seals his fate. He is killed by the werewolves and left for dead. Zelda brings him back to life, binding their souls in the process, and asks for his help in freeing her sister. Complicating this is his transformation into a werewolf and their hot, hot chemistry.

The book is written well. I felt that there was a lot of worldbuilding that could have been fleshed out a bit more because it was a little confusing to enter in media res. I didn’t feel anything with the sex scenes. They were hot but also because it’s a shorter story everything has to be turned up a bit hotter to cook quicker and I didn’t get the tension that usually makes a sex scene impactful for me. It was two hot people finding each other hot and having hot sex. Not a bad thing, not a thing that left much of an impression. The ending also felt a bit hurried and easy but again, short story, turn up the heat. I didn’t feel invested in the relationship but I’m also not a big paranormal reader so that may be impacting my interest or lack thereof.

If you like witch x werewolf pairings and good writing, this is a good bet for you!

Review: Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning

Trigger Warning: Attempted sexual assault, some graphic violence

Sorry for the unexpected week off, life got a little busy but that did not stop me from reading so you’ll get caught up here pretty quickly.

I read Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning for the “Fae is Bae” category in the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace.

It got big Sookie Stackhouse vibes from this heroine. Blond, gorgeous, desired by all who see her, and also gives very detailed descriptions of her “super cute” outfits. The outfits were so 2006 that I actually really enjoyed this part and made me wonder why we stopped caring what characters wore. It gives an interesting insight into the character and also, while aging the book, gives the reader a fun blast from the past. Anyway, I should give a synopsis first.

Mackayla (Mac) is a modern day southern belle who lives with her parents and is eagerly awaiting the return of her big sister and best friend who went to study abroad in Ireland. Her picture perfect world gets shattered when she receives word that her sister was brutally murdered and no one can say how it happened or why. Despite her parent’s protests, Mac goes to Ireland on a one-way ticket determined to discover her sister’s murderer. While there she discovers that she is a sidhe-seer, one who can see the fae. She is taken in by mysterious shop owner Jericho Barrons who also knows of the fae and is seeking the sinsar dubh, a powerful and dangerous book only Mac can help him find.

There are some things this author did that I really enjoyed. First of all, the fae are powerful and manipulative and many of them are evil. Usually we see typically monstrous creatures turned romantic but this time she took typically (in modern media) beautiful, romanticized creatures and took them back to their more monstrous origins. Even the “good” fae represented is a character whose power is making people instantly, overwhelmingly horny and attempts to take advantage of that more than once. The fae are complex creatures that do not adhere to mortal moral codes and that’s an interesting thing we don’t see played with often. Or at least I don’t in the admittedly limited fae reading I’ve done.

The heroine is also unapologetically feminine and feels no shame about it which I also appreciated. She also does not put up with Barrons being condescending or treating her like shit (which he does often). She makes some rookie mistakes but she is a rookie so I’m more than ok with that. The author also does a good job of depicting grief. Mac does not discover the fae are real and suddenly that’s all that matters. Her sister’s death and trying to cope with that and do the basic tasks that are often forgotten, like cleaning up their home and choosing which items to keep or give away, is an equally important, difficult part of her new reality.

There were a couple of things that rankled. The issue of adoption is handled in a way I felt a bit… shitty? Mac discovers her and her sister were adopted by her parents and she falls into a “I have no real family left cuz my sister is dead” spiral which I felt was unfair and honestly gross. Both of my parents were adopted into their families and my older brother is technically my half-brother. It was always important to my family, and to me, that adoption be viewed as an equally valid and legitimate form of creating a family. I never felt that my grandparents weren’t “really” my family, even when I was old enough to understand what adoption meant. Then again, these facts weren’t treated as secrets growing up and it is possible I would have felt differently if I had been the one adopted or if I had found out when I was an adult. This is probably just a personal peeve but I felt it should be mentioned in case others also struggle with adoption plots for whatever reason.

I am interested in where the story goes. My only real big issue is that I genuinely did not like the hero who is clearly going to be the love interest for the heroine. He’s an asshole who gaslights her, threatens her, roughs her up, and gives zero fucks about how he treats her. I’d say he’s an alphahole but I don’t read that kind of hero so I can’t confidently say that he is but if you like heroes who are gorgeous assholes, here’s your man. And listen, no judgment, it’s a type and I salute you and your thirst.

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: 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: The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

Trigger Warning: Child murder, torture, gruesome descriptions of violence, a mother attempts repeatedly to kill her child, mental institution setting, and repeated descriptions of corpse mutilation

Last week I completed the “retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, or myth by an author of color” category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge by reading The Girl from the Well by Chinese Filipino author Rin Chupeco.

Those who have watched either Ju-On or the American remake The Grudge will be familiar with the protagonist of this story, Okiku. Okiku is the vengeful spirit of a murdered young woman who now goes after murderers of children and kills them in gruesome ways. The iconic horror figure of the dead woman with long hair who makes creepy gurgling sounds is the reader’s POV throughout the novel. I’ve never read a young adult horror novel or a novel where the protagonist and viewpoint of the book is the ghoulish anti-hero. The author presents Okiku’s vicious acts, and her own feelings about her acts, as matter of fact without remorse. I love a remorseless anti-hero, particularly one who is seeking vengeance on behalf of herself and other victims of injustice.

The main plot surrounds Okiku’s interactions with a boy named Tark, his father, and his cousin Cassie. Tark and his father have moved to be closer to his mother who is a patient at a mental institution since she tried to murder the teenager. Okiku is drawn to Tark because she can tell there is another entity attached to him, something dark. As the secret behind Tark’s strange, sigil-like tattoos and what they’ve bound to him is revealed, Okiku and Cassie become Tark’s allies in saving himself and many others.

As I said earlier, this is the first book of its kind that I’ve read so it already has my interest and appreciation. I’ve read criticisms of the book not being scary but I don’t expect horror to be scary necessarily. It is horrifying, the actions described are graphic and haunting, but the figure that is doing most of these actions is one whose head you’re in so you understand the reasoning. I didn’t find the lack of scariness a bad thing by any means. It was a genuinely entertaining read and I was invested in the characters and how the issues would be resolved.

I am not a fan of the use of the mental institution in this story, but I’m torn about this as well. If someone tries to murder their child while screaming that they have to do it to save them and acting in delusional ways, they would probably be hospitalized. But the description of the hospital is very archaic asylum Ken Kesey-esque except even Ken Kesey acknowledged that mental illness doesn’t mean you’re always acting out in outrageous, spooky scary ways. In the brief tours we get of the mental hospital here every mentally ill person is a caricature of insanity. And I don’t say that meaning that the way characters behave aren’t ways that real people can behave with certain conditions, I just felt that Chupeco was relying a little too much on the stigma and stereotype of the mentally ill patient to do the grunt work of setting the scary tone. I also always grow a little wary of plotlines where the “insane” person is actually right and it’s the world that just doesn’t understand. It feels dangerous to me. The history of mental healthcare is, to say the least, fraught with issues and unjust hospitalizations and cruel, inhumane acts. But there are times a person needs to be hospitalized for their own safety. I don’t know you guys, it just didn’ts well with me. I know I have my personal biases and issues with this topic that others may not have. Also, Chupeco doesn’t really present Tark’s mother as someone who should be out of the hospital as she is clearly a danger to herself and others. So I have to give her that.

Overall, I would recommend this book to people who enjoy YA horror and aren’t troubled by descriptions of graphic violence or child murder/endangerment. It’s a compelling story and a new take on a classic figure in horror. I can’t speak to the accuracy or care of the setting or the belief system represented in Japan and would be interested in perspectives on this part of the book. I may pick up the second book in the series, The Suffering, but it won’t be for a bit because I do need a palate cleanser after this one.

Review: A Midwinter’s Wedding by Melanie Cellier

I read A Midwinter’s Wedding by Melanie Cellier to fulfill the “Frog” category of the HB Reading Embrace. I DNF’d at least two, if not three, books to get to this one. We could say that I had to “kiss a few frogs” to find my prince of a book but even I will not go that far with puns. I will say that I’m happy I ended up landing on this one because I was almost to the point where I was going to just read a novelization of The Princess and The Frog and call it good but here we are!

For those who may not know the story of the Frog Prince, a Brothers’ Grimm fairytale, I’ll offer a quick rundown. A princess drops a gold ball she is playing with in a pond and a frog tells her that he will retrieve it for her in return for a kiss. She agrees, they kiss, and he transforms back into a handsome prince. In this retelling the princess is one of seven children (oof), Cordelia, who is going to a midwinter wedding between her older brother Rafe and his bride. Before she leaves she is given a gold ball by her younger sister who tells her it is a godmother’s gift and will help their brother find his true love. Cordelia accidentally drops the gold ball into an icy pond and Captain Ferdinand, “Ferdy” to friends, retrieves it for her. He’s a froglike looking man with bulbous eyes and bent knees and at first Cordelia is startled by his appearance. As they spend time together and work to stop an evil plot against the royals they grow closer and Cordelia looks past his appearance and finds that she loves him. Since it’s based on a fairytale I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that she ends up kissing him and he transforms into a handsome prince and they live happily ever after.

This is the 3.5th book in a series so there was definitely context I was missing that would have made the other characters matter. I liked the heroine and was curious about the “curse” she kept talking about related to her younger sister. I also liked the hero of the story and the way the author paced their relationship and gave them plenty of opportunities to get to know each other and bond before they were in love. Obviously it’s still a speedy romance because it’s a novella and it has to get to an HEA ASAP but it didn’t feel ridiculously hurried. That might in part be due to the fact that she isn’t attracted to him initially. The traditional romance formula I’ve found is two people identify each other as attractive and then feelings stem from there. It’s a formula that works, you want the characters to be attracted to each other, but I liked that their relationship was based on more substantial things from the start. Granted, the hero is attracted to Cordelia even though she frets that she isn’t THE most beautiful princess in her land, but even still you could see the reasons he fell for her beyond her beauty.

This is a brief read but Cellier still provides good worldbuilding and though the major conflict was resolved pretty briskly, I can’t fault her for that because, again, novella. I enjoyed this story and might check out the rest of the series. The only reason it isn’t a definite yes is because with seven siblings it’s likely a long series and I’m trying to stay on track with my reading challenges. But we shall see!