Review: Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean

Trigger Warning: Discussion of child abuse, body image and weight talk that could be triggering for people who have a history of eating disorders

Guys this book blew my tits off it was so good. I am not even sure where to begin.

A basic premise: Hattie is a 29 year old spinster (because Victorian England) who has decided she will take charge of her future by getting control of her father’s company over her good for nothing brother and the first step towards that is ensuring she cannot marry. She goes to a brothel for ladies to be Ruined.

(Side Note: This book made me look at Ruination in a new light. I reject the sexist concept of a woman’s worth being tied to her virginity but also if a man I was attracted to told me he would gladly Ruin me I would perhaps die.)

Her plans are interrupted by finding a Tom Hardy type hero (aka Beast aka Whit aka Saviour aka bae) tied up in her carriage. Guys, if anyone is trying to get me a belated Christmas present, consider this wishlisted. It turns out he was tied up by her brother because her brother has been stealing from him and there’s a whole hullabaloo about revenge and fairness and reputation and Bareknuckle Bastards and yadda yadda yadda but what I care about is the tension between Hattie and Beast.

These characters are presented as clear equals from the jump. Hattie’s sexual inexperience is never used to infantilize her or give him the upper hand. They’re both smart, stubborn, and determined. They both have similar values and the conflict between them was understandable and I never felt like one of them was clearly right and the other wrong. The tension between them was so excellently written that it takes literally 70% of the book to pass before they have full, penetrative sex and I did not feel cheated or annoyed because the whole process getting there was still incredibly hot.

I didn’t yadda yadda past the plot because I was bored by it, I was actually able to read the whole thing on my trip home for Christmas. I just yadda’d because the heat between the characters hit me like a ton of bricks. I also all caps messaged a friend of mine to yell at her for not warning me that there is a scene where the hero asks the heroine to tie him to the mast of a ship and have her way with him.

Please read this book.

Review: The Beauty Bride by Claire Delacroix

Trigger Warning: Attempted sexual assault

I read The Beauty Bride to check the Medieval romance box in the Reading Embrace. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It started pretty strong, I like the banter between siblings, but I’m still just kinda…. hmm.

The general synopsis, thanks to Amazon, is:
“Lady Madeline’s heart is not for sale…especially not to a notorious outlaw like Rhys FitzHenry. Yet Madeline’s hand has been sold, to none other than this battle-weary warrior with a price on his head. A more dutiful maiden might cede to the Laird’s command and meekly accept her fate, but Madeline has never been obedient. She decides to run away, though she never dreams that Rhys will pursue her. She does not expect this taciturn man to woo her with fanciful stories, much less that each of his enthralling tales will reveal a scar upon his shielded soul. She never imagines that a man like Rhys could imperil her own heart while revealing so little of his own feelings. When Rhys’s past threatens his future, Madeline takes a leap of faith. She dares to believe him innocent
— and risks her own life to pursue a passion more priceless than the rarest gem.”

So a couple of things came up for me while reading this book. First, everyone gets real chill with Alexander auctioning off his sister real quick. By the end of it everyone is like ‘aw shucks Alex you tried a thing’ and I was still very much Team What The Hell Dude Don’t Auction Your Sister. Similarly, the hero tells the heroine, after they get married and have sex, that if she can’t produce a male heir he’ll just hire a prostitute and do it that way just like his dad did. This is also never rescinded and we’re just kinda meant to go ‘aw shucks Rhys you heir happy sonofagun’ and be fine with that. Also, I’m all for his mother not being presented in a terrible light because sex work is valid work, but they did turn his stepmom (his dad’s wife) into a literal villain and I feel like her anger (if not her actions) are incredibly valid. So that was complicated for me.

The pacing was rough. The hero kept telling stories to Madeline that enthralled her but bored the everloving fuck out of me. It was a little history happy and the fairy character felt thoroughly unnecessary and gimmicky. Wow as I write this I guess I really didn’t like it that much, huh. I think the problem is that I wanted to like it so much and like I said it started pretty strong but it sure did sink pretty quickly. I don’t feel compelled to read the rest of the series even though some of the premises sound interesting because fool me once, shame on you fool me twice, still shame on you, write better books.

That might be unfair. The book wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t for me.

Review: Time Out by Jill Shalvis

Trigger Warning: Discussions of domestic violence

Quick note – if you look at the initial Reading Embrace post I made about what books I was going to read and notice that 75% of them are not what I ended up reading, please know that it doesn’t mean I started and DNF’d all of them. It just means I lost the plot somewhere in the middle of the year and didn’t read anything for the Embrace for a long time and suddenly had to start scarfing some down and chose quicker reads.

I read Time Out to fill the Sportsball category in the Reading Embrace. This was my first sports romance and my first Jill Shalvis book and will probably be my last for both.

Amazon Synopsis:
“NHL coach Mark Diego’s plan to spend his off-season volunteering in his hometown goes awry when he learns that not only is he coaching teenage girls, but that the program is coordinated by energetic (and five feet two inches of trouble) coordinator Rainey Saunders, his childhood friend—and the woman he could never stand to see dating any other guy….
When their tempers flare, Mark and Rainey discover their fireworks don’t just burn angry—they burn very, very hot! But that’ll just sweeten the victory. Because Mark always plays to win. And with Rainey, he’s planning on playing very dirty, too…”

Here’s the thing, I love baseball. I’ve been rooting for the Mariners since I was a little girl in the 90s watching games on TV with my grandpa. One of the highlights of the decade was finally going to a Mariners game. But even with my love of the sport, the only time in this book I wasn’t annoyed was when the people were having well written sex and even then sometimes I rolled my eyes.

I didn’t really care about or like the characters. And my mandatory reporting self was enraged by the clumsy mishandling of the domestic violence subplot where a student is very clearly being abused and the heroine decides that the way to handle it is to THREATEN the abuser with reporting which, shock and awe, only increases the violence. They get an HEA but I wasn’t happy about it. Bah humbug.

Review: The Fairy Bride by Tess Mallory

This is the last Mallory work I’ll review here and it’s going to be quick because it was a novella. Mallory wrote The Fairy Bride with the intent to possibly go back and flesh it out to become a full length novel. At this point I don’t believe she’s done this but you can tell that she was writing something she loved when you read this story.

The prose is very reminiscent of a fanfic story you write in high school and that is not an insult. High school fanfic writers are as varied in talent as any grown up, published author. What they have that sometimes gets lost over time is a deep love of what they’re writing that translates from page to reader. Mallory is clearly dipping into a world that’s been on her mind for awhile and I really appreciated getting that sense from her which was nostalgic for me. Unfortunately, that’s about all I can say for the story.

It’s a simple tale of a fairy king who has to marry or his country will be invaded (there’s bloodline stuff involved in this) and there is a soulmate for him to find and once he does they will both be in love. He is sent to where his soulmate is and there she is, a human who is engaged to a dick of a man (a trend in Mallory’s writing). She ends up leaving him, she falls instantly in love with the fairy king as he does with her, and they thwart an evil plan to overthrow the kingdom and everything ends happily.

It don’t have any specific complaints here as I did in the last works by this author. It just didn’t grab me and I found some of the worldbuilding hurried and a bit complicated. If she did write this series I don’t think I’d read it simply because fairies aren’t typically my jam and how they are in this series isn’t bad but definitely doesn’t speak to me. If you enjoy fairies and felt things as a child while watching Thumbelina (and to be honest I did too but then Dmitri happened) you should give it a read. It’s not a huge time investment and it may spark the desire to go back to doing some fanfiction writing yourself.

Real Murders by Charlaine Harris

I came to this series from a really roundabout way.

I was introduced to Charlaine Harris around the time the True Blood series started and it was one of the first series I ever tracked and bought every book from and even though things went off the rails towards the end and had issues throughout, I was hooked. I occasionally saw the Aurora Teagarden series mentioned on her website but never looked into it. When I saw those books at the library I noticed a lack of vampires and walked on by.

Fast forward a few years and I’m looking for something from the Hallmark channel to watch online because sometimes you just need something that will be ok in the end no matter what happens. I watched the first Hallmark adaptation of Real Murders and kept watching them because they were just the right amount of ridiculous to put on in the background while I baked or cleaned the kitchen.

Fast forward again to this year when I decided it was time to try reading the books. I don’t think I regret it but also I wasn’t missing much.

Harris’s trademark slut shaming and judgmental heroine combo comes through full force with Aurora Teagarden, whose name conjures images of embroidered pillows and tea cozies. This is the character who has an opinion about everything, is pursued by everyone, and gets in everyone’s business. She’s a Sookie Stackhouse prototype if I’ve ever read one. The book has some cringey moments where it really showed its 1990 sensibilities regarding race and sexuality. The concept of having a true crime friend group was interesting, especially when you look at the time period which was pre-My Favorite Murder or Netflix docs making serial killers a topic of interest people casually announce without fearing judgment. I don’t feel compelled to continue the series because I don’t really care about Aurora in the way I somehow did care about Sookie. But if you want to read some classic Harris with interesting crimes, this is a series for you.

Review: The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith

It’s time for another book club book review! We read The Department of Sensitive Crimes in September for our Humor genre. I was the only one who liked it but I don’t begrudge my fellow book club members for not enjoying it. It was, for all intents and purposes, a hard book to get a grasp on in a lot of ways.

Let’s start at the start with a quick synopsis. The book focuses on a Swedish team of investigators who look into Sensitive Crimes (aka weird and of no huge consequence but can’t be ignored crimes). The main character is Ulf Varg (Wolf Wolf)(Not a werewolf)(Wasted opportunity? Je pense oui) and he is our primary perspective throughout the novel as he and his team investigate who stabbed a man in the back of the knee, the mysterious disappearance of a girl’s boyfriend, and werewolves(?).

Going into the book I anticipated it to be a bit of a Law & Order satire but that isn’t really what happened. It sort of felt like The Office mixed with a Cozy Mystery mixed with a very dry British comedy except instead of British they are Swedish and there are fish jokes. There was an almost-romance subplot between Ulf and his married cohort Anna which I dreaded. It never came to fruition but it feels like something that’s going to happen eventually and he’s just drawing it out. I could write an entire post about my hatred of investigation partners having sex and catching feelings (and how it ruined my reading of Tana French’s In The Woods) but this is not the post for that.

Maybe what I loved most about this book, other than laughing at some of the absurd but lowkey things that happen throughout, was the therapist character.

Guys, it is so hard to see a therapist depicted well in media. In movies and shows they’re either lampooned or just throwing out Deep Sincere Buy-it-on-a-LOOKHUMAN-mug quotes or they’re screwing their patients which is nausea inducing to me, a therapist. This therapist puts his foot in his mouth a bit. He doesn’t have all the right answers. He does offer new perspectives. He also has this bit about wondering about what his clients lives are like when they leave his office which hit me right in the middle of my (at the time) nearing graduation and terminating with all of my clients heart. We only see this character at the beginning and ending of the book but I adored him.

I also liked the book because I didn’t know how to feel about it. I couldn’t settle into a certain mindset or tone with it because I hadn’t read a book like this before. For most of my book club members I think this was unsettling and contributed to their dislike of it, but for me it was exciting and I embraced it. I want to read the next in the series when it comes out next April, The Talented Mr. Varg, to see if I still enjoy it and if it feels different reading it now that I have context.

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: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

This was another book club read! July’s genre was Cyberpunk and of the options presented we chose Autonomous by Annalee Newitz.

This was the first (and so far only) cyberpunk novel I’ve read and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m still not sure how I feel about the novel but I’ll do my best to suss it out as I go here. Another quick note is that this is also the first novel by a nonbinary author I’ve ever read (to the best of my knowledge). I mention that here because representation is important and so no one tries to correct my use of “they” when I reference the author.

Falling back on the Amazon synopsis for this one:

“Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?”

The overall genre has never interested me but this synopsis did because the question of autonomy, what is it and who can have it, etc., is one that intrigues the moody philosopher in me. I also enjoy a Robin Hood angle anytime, in space or earth. The book takes on some very big concepts beyond autonomy.

One prevalent issue is that of patents and freedom of information. I appreciated the way Newitz recognized this topic’s nuances. It would have been easy for them to push Jack as an uncomplicated hero and being anti-patent as a clear, moral victory. However, they acknowledge the issues that can come from unchecked patent freedom including the costs if medications aren’t peer reviewed and checked for side effects. A distinct difference between Jack and the anti-patent people and the patent companies is that Jack feels remorse and tries to make things better whereas the patent companies are truly soulless, faceless corporations that don’t care about human cost as much as literal, financial cost. I also appreciated the discussion of productivity and quality of life. I think pretty much everyone in the book club was concerned by how wistful we were at the idea of a medication that makes you incredibly productive and happy about it. But that also isn’t something we could easily discount as evil because there will always be people who have to take on these jobs no one else wants and if there is something that can make it easier for them, is it cruel to deprive them of it? Then again, if they are always content, won’t that lead to further human rights violations because there won’t even be the pressure of people raising issues over the conditions they work in.

As I said, Newitz does a great job of presenting these issues without pushing the reader too hard in either direction. They just present a set of societal concerns and let their characters work in this world, their choices shaped by their unique values and goals.

At times, perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the genre, I felt that the language grew needlessly complicated and “techy” as though the author were trying to really hammer home that this is a Sci Fi Futuristic Setting. At the same time the actual changes or signs of futurism in the novel were fairly realistic.

Perhaps the true main character is the robot Paladin. The discussion surrounding gender identity was just as prevalent as the discussion surrounding autonomy with this character. Newitz makes it clear that robots are genderless and that even the gender or sex of the brain that is used in their development does not implant a gender on the robot themselves. Paladin is very clear about this with their partner, Eliasz, and yet when Paladin discovers that their brain was from a woman, Eliasz uses this information as a justification for the sexual feelings he is having for Paladin. Paladin chooses to use female pronouns at this point because she sees that it helps Eliasz feel better and she feels drawn to Eliasz so she is willing to live with that label. This is an especially poignant and somewhat distressing choice based on the gender identity of the author. I wondered as I read it if the author was sharing some real life experience there from past relationships and what was expected from them.

The relationship between Paladin and Eliasz is a difficult one. First of all it’s difficult because Eliasz is a bigoted prick whose tragic backstory is some children saw him on his knees by a robot and accused him of being a “f****t” and now he is hyper afraid of people thinking he’s gay.

Side Note: I took real issue with the use of the F-slur. Both because it’s an ugly word but also because surely in the future there would be a slur specific to fucking robots.

The relationship between Eliasz and Paladin is very much the story of one man projecting desire and even gender identity onto a character so it fulfills his needs and justifies his choices. Paladin never rejects the advances or the identity, but they also very clearly go along with it for Eliasz’s sake. In their very relationship, Paladin is stripped of autonomy. In the end Eliasz buys Paladin to set her/them free but I couldn’t help but read this as a man buying his partner for himself. This might be too harsh but I just couldn’t get on board with the relationship, nor could I decide where Newitz landed on it.

There is a lot of interesting plot material in here including run-ins with other robots who have very strong, clear opinions on autonomy and Jack’s plotline is also interesting. In the end, as I write this review, I think I enjoyed the book more than I realized at the time. I appreciate that it still has me thinking about it and that Newitz was able to avoid infodumping which would have been easy based on the worldbuilding they developed alone. There is also a couple of side characters I find fascinating and would have read an entire book about but I hope you’ll find out more about them if you pick up the book yourself.

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve been planning on starting a book club since I was in undergrad and am so proud to announce that this year I finally jumped in and started one! I tried googling to find advice about how to run a book club but didn’t find much that was helpful so I ended up making something that has worked so far for us. Each month, going in alphabetical order, someone gets to choose the genre for the month and then everyone can submit choices of novels for us to read in that genre. We then vote for the book we want to read and whichever one wins, we read. The only set rule is that the books have to be no more than 300 pages to accommodate people’s schedules. It’s an imperfect system but we’re seven months in and it’s going ok! The genre for our first book club was Fantasy and the book we ended up reading was The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

This was the second of Ishiguro’s works I’ve read, having been introduced to him in undergrad when we read The Remains of the Day. This is a very different novel, however, and I think I ended up liking this one better than the other.

Though it is genuinely a fantasy novel it is not the typical dragons and swords book that comes to mind (though both a dragon and swords are in this novel). It is set post-Arthurian Britain and the main characters in the novel are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who find themselves losing their memories at an alarming rate and choose to try and go in search of their son who they can hardly remember and have been filling in the gaps with their own projected desires or beliefs. There is a mist that has spread throughout Britain complicating matters and we follow the couple as they journey to find answers and companions on their quest including a former Knight for King Arthur and a boy determined to find and save his mother.

This book left me feeling deeply, deeply, sad. But not in a bad way. In a reflective way that sort of feels good in its own strange, aching way. I related to Axl a great deal and his quest to make everything be ok and fight hard to refuse change. The novel also brings into question what being a hero is and who you can trust, including yourself, in times of chaos. I enjoyed the choice Ishiguro made to have the main characters be elderly because so often, especially in fantasy, the protagonists are in their prime and at the start of their journey, looking forward more than they look back.

Not everyone was affected by The Buried Giant in the same way I was though it still caused a good conversation and everyone took something away from it.

Review: The Rose by Tiffany Reisz

Y’all.

This book.

Tiffany Reisz truly never disappoints.

The Rose is a sequel to The Red though in this instance it takes its inspiration from Greek mythology instead of classic art. The basic premise is that the daughter of the heroine from The Rose, Lia, is all grown up and is gifted an artifact, a Rose Kylix, which one of the guests at her party, August, informs her is a sacred relic that will make her life out her deepest fantasies if she drinks from it. Lia (obviously) chooses to try it, not believing it will work, and finds herself throughout the course of the novel living through various erotic fantasies based in and around Greek mythology with August by her side. There is also a really great friendship and lady love based subplot as well as a getting closure on a shitty ex subplot.

As with The Rose, I appreciated the sheer creativity and quality of storytelling in this novel. There was the risk of the heroine being overshadowed by the presence of her parents but Reisz does a great job of incorporating the former characters to provide context while also giving this heroine a unique journey of her own. She also gives her unique sexual encounters similar to (though perhaps tamer than) the first novel. The book felt like a much quicker read than its 400 pages so if you’re looking for a quick read, don’t be turned off by the page count. As with all of Reisz’s works I’ve read so far, I found it creative, well-written, and over with far too soon.