Review of “A Curse So Dark and Lonely” by Brigid Kemmerer

Kemmerer, Brigid. A Curse So Dark and Lonely. New York: Bloomsbury, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1681195087 | 484 pages | YA Fantasy

5 stars

I had no idea what to expect with A Curse So Dark and Lonely, except that it promised to be a Beauty and the Beast retelling that was a “different” from others. And indeed it was. I found myself impressed with the way it kept the bare bones of the original story intact, while adding a new and fresh take.

One of the standout aspects is the positive disability representation. I love the way Harper’s cerebral palsy figures into her character, but isn’t something that dominates her character to the point of being stereotypical. She’s very much a strong character whose disability is a part of who she is, but doesn’t overshadow the fact that she is also someone who is very family oriented and loving.

Rhen’s character also intrigued me, as I like how Kemmerer not only brought a different take to the “Beast” aspect of himself, but also made him someone to root for, regardless of what form he takes, whereas other interpretations put so much effort into developing the Beast that the Prince almost feels like a stranger. He has some of the arrogance born of being a prince, but at heart, he truly is a good person who does want to do the right thing, especially given the fateful mistake that led to the curse being put in place.

I also like that this is very much a story in its own right, in that the central immediate conflict does conclude, with an ending that sets up the sequel. I’m also happy that, as much as Harper and the guardsman Grey built up a camaraderie in this book, there appear to be no plans to for a pointless love triangle, at least according to the current blurb for book two on Goodreads. It’s wonderful to see a YA fantasy book where it’s recognized that a girl can end up in a committed relationship with someone and also have a platonic friendship with someone else, and not have it devolve into a love triangle.

This was such a beautiful book, and I am excited to see where the story goes next, especially given what has been set up in this one. I would recommend this to those looking for an original take on Beauty and the Beast.

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Review of “Once Ghosted, Twice Shy” (Renegade Royals 2.5) by Alyssa Cole

Cole, Alyssa. Once Ghosted, Twice Shy. New York: Avon Impulse, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $4.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062931870 | 144 pages | Contemporary Romance

4 stars

Despite not being massively wowed by the Reluctant Royals series to date, I was super excited for the release of this novella, in part because I really enjoyed Likotsi’s character, but also because I was happy to see more f/f romance from a traditional publisher. And I was truly blown away. While I could definitely see ways that this story could have been fleshed out to be a bit longer (and definitely wanted it, because Fab and Likotsi’s relationship is amazing), I did like that it portrayed a beautiful love story between two black queer women, providing some intersectionality as well.

While I was initially skeptical when I saw the dual timeline setup, given that I had seen this attempted in novellas before (and even full novels) with mixed results, I really liked it in this one, getting a sense for how their past fling had potential and the reason it ended in the past, and seeing them reunite and address their lingering feelings and the reason Fab ended up breaking it off in the present. Both of them are incredibly sympathetic, and I enjoyed that they had a dynamic where, even though things did end on a bad note, when they reunited, they did not try to deny the feelings that still existed between them.

And while it is more subtle, I did like how the story touched on some of the issues facing black people today, through the explanation of Fab’s family situation. And I found it wonderful that Likotsi offered to help, regardless of how things worked out between them in the end.

This was a delightful palate cleansing novella, and one that has me anticipating more in the series. I would recommend this book to fans of black and/or queer romance.

Review of “Now I Rise” (The Conqueror’s Saga #2) by Kiersten White

White, Kiersten. Now I Rise. New York: Delacorte Press, 2017. 

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0553522358 | 470 pages | YA Historical Fiction

5 stars

Despite my conflicting feelings regarding historical and cultural/linguistic accuracy in And I Darken, I still had a lingering desire to continue on with this series, especially since the characters and their complex, if toxic, relationships continued to mystify me. And I’m now glad I gave Now I Rise a shot, as I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would, given that I now went in knowing a little more about what to expect.

The troubled sibling dynamic between Lada and Radu remains at the forefront, and I was intrigued at seeing how the rift between them started to grow wider, in large part due to their contrasting natures and choices. Despite the fact that Lada is very much a brutal, merciless warrior character in this one, she is written in such a way where I feel like her motivations are still easy to understand, even without having been in that specific set of circumstances.

I also love seeing Radu’s conflict throughout these political maneuverings on both Lada’s side and Mehmed’s, in terms of the conquest of Constantinople. Despite the fact that the historical fact of who won out is known, the way he has to examine his loyalties in this matter is a truly touching one, especially given his difficult relationship with his sister and forbidden feelings for Mehmed.

This was in general a wonderful sequel that outdid the first in its storyline and characterizations. I would recommend this to other fans of unique takes on historical fiction.

Review of “To Woo a Wicked Widow” (The Widows’ Club #1) by Jenna Jaxon

Jaxon, Jenna. To Woo a Wicked Widow. New York: Kensington, 2018. 

Mass Market Paperback | $4.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1516103250 | 363 pages | Regency Romance

3.5 stars

To Woo a Wicked Widow was a promising story, with a great premise, and while it fell a little short of expectations, it was a decent book overall. What captured my attention was the blurb and how it characterized that the heroine Charlotte had been through some difficult experiences that shaped her world view, while the hero, Nash, was marriage-minded and very much interested in a long-term commitment with Charlotte, which makes a nice change to the traditional tropes.

And for the most part, I really like the way Charlotte was executed as a character. She made a rash choice for love, and paid for it by being trapped in a loveless, passionless marriage to an older man, and even now that her husband is dead, she is continually bullied by her stepson and her husband’s heir. I loved the nuances of her wanting to experience passion for the first time, since it was denied her, while being reluctant to trust another man by marrying again.

Nash was…fine. He definitely did exactly what the blurb promised, in terms of being interested in Charlotte, and I did come to warm up to them as a couple eventually, but initially, I did find myself questioning what it was that made him so interested in marrying her right away. And while he is definitely a nice guy and someone I wouldn’t mind encountering in real life, I did find him a little lacking in the depth that made Charlotte so compelling.

And while I did find myself overwhelmed with the many characters being introduced, I did really like the dynamic between Charlotte and Jane as friends, and did find the concept of a club for widows quite an engaging concept for the series overall.

I may read the other books in the series to see how things develop. But it didn’t necessarily “wow” me. However, I do think fans who are interested in historical romance may enjoy this, given that many others have rated this one relatively favorably, so if you’re interested, pick this one up.

#CopyPasteCris and the Amazon Algorithm

It’s been a while since I posted about book community drama and issues, and while I could have posed about #CockyGate or The Blood Heir, or some of the other controversies that have come up in the past year, I resisted, out of a sense of either not knowing the subject well enough, feeling it was explained better by others, or just not knowing what my voice contributed to the matter. But while those two aforementioned scandals were rather single-minded, if a bit divisive (particularly in the second case), this one is multilayered in a way I did not expect it to be, bringing to light issues that have long lurked in the underbelly of the book world.  

Context

By now, you’ve probably heard about #copypastecris from other sources, whether it be when it trended on Twitter, when author Courtney Milan posted about it on her blog, or when Nora Roberts made three killer blog posts of her own. But in case you have not, in summary, a person calling themselves Cristiane Serruya (it’s debatable whether it’s one person working alone or part of a larger group of scammers, or whether she is who she claims she is), publicly lauded as a USA Today Bestselling author, has been revealed to have copied and pasted passages from a multitude of sources, with the current totals adding up to fifty-one books by thirty-four authors (Milan and Roberts having multiple titles among this number, with other prominent names including Tessa Dare, Christi Caldwell, and, most recently, Julia Quinn and Diana Gabaldon), three articles from web and magazine sources (including one called, quite ironically, “Law, Grace and Redemption in Les Miserables”), two recipes, a Wikipedia article, and a Wattpad story across her backlist, all of which were compiled into a growing list by the amazing @CaffeinatedFae on Twitter on the #copypastecrislist hashtag as more and more are uncovered.

In short, the fact that she copied and pasted passages from others should make this an easy, black-and-white situation with little to debate upon. However, in the last several days, more and more layers have been brought to light about the issue, which has made it more complex and divisive.

The first is the use of ghostwriters when writing fiction. This came about when Serruya, in a tweet on her now-deleted Twitter account, cast the blame on a ghostwriter she hired on Fiverr (it should be noted, for those few that are unfamiliar with the story, that this came out when only a few authors, such as Milan and Tessa Dare, were revealed to have been plagiarized and the only work of Serruya’s in question at the time was Royal Love, so this tweet was written in the context of it being a one-time thing that she could blame on a shoddy ghostwriter). However, two ghostwriters subsequently reached out to Milan, independent of one another, stating that they were given bits and pieces by Serruya for them to rework, thus making them at worst only irresponsible for not confirming the words not plagiarized.

However, in reaction to Serruya, many authors began to post the affirmation that they “write their own books.” And I don’t disagree with this response, given the way that many in the community, some of whom are legitimately fast writers and put out a book every few months, or even a book a month because of their writing speed, get shamed and subjected to false accusations.

But it does also feed into this anti-ghostwriter narrative. And while I do feel that, much like any other profession, if you can’t write fiction, you probably shouldn’t do it, I also see where ghostwriters are coming from when they talk about the reasons they ghostwrite, like it pays the bills, or they don’t want to deal with the business aspects of writing. But there should be some acknowledgment of the contributor’s hard work, whether it be on the cover, as is often the case with many works “co-authored” by James Patterson, or at least a mention of them within the acknowledgments. More transparency is needed to ensure readers aren’t being duped, especially as readers today crave that connection to their favorite authors, and the feeling that they are real people they can connect with. That, does, of course, bring about its own issues, meaning authors need to be mindful of the personas they curate online, but that is another topic for another post. Now, onto the most polarizing aspect of the issue that gradually has come to be discussed more frankly.

The Readers, the Authors, and the Algorithms

Another issue that has come up is one concerning Amazon’s broken algorithms. I have numerous issues with Amazon, like the way they’re a huge conglomerate and authors depend on reviews for promotional purposes, yet limit those who can post reviews of their products to those who make purchases of $50 or more with a credit or debit card, thus making it impossible for people who don’t have consistent access to that to help their favorites in this way, among other reasons I may go into later.

Admittedly, because of my lack of experience with Amazon, I’m a little out of my depth in terms of describing the specific scams some readers have been discussing, both in this case, and in previous cases, like #CockyGate, but I do understand the implications of something like a click farm could be used to game the already imperfect Kindle Unlimited program, thus meaning that scammers gain more money from the “pot” allotted to be distributed among authors with books in the program.

And it’s also an issue of the reader’s perspective, and what they are willing to pay for a book, especially by an author that’s new to them. Several people took issue with a statement in Roberts’ second blog post:

“And to readers, those of you who keep pushing for more and cheaper books, just stop it. Writing, real writing, is work, it takes time and talent and effort. By snapping up a book just because it’s ninety-nine cents on line, you’re encouraging this. The creator and the content they work so hard to produce is devalued.

Pay the artist, for God’s sake, or the artist can’t create. What you end up with is rushed from a desperate writer struggling to keep up to pay the bills. Or mass-produced crap thrown together by scammers.”

I had mixed feelings upon reading this passage. I could understand why people were a little hurt, as the way she worded it felt like she was putting part of the blame for this on the readers, believing all they care about is free books, and not considering they may not always have the money to purchase a book, because it’s often either that or the basic necessities. There was also an argument that Roberts was a hypocrite, due to the fact that her publisher advertised some of her early “In Death” titles for $1.99, never mind that this, like many an eBook sale, was done for promotional reasons, and might entice readers to shell out more on future titles.

Bit I could also see where she was coming from, as an injured party in this awful mess. And I understand, from what she states elsewhere, both in this post and her previous one, that she understands her place of privilege as a bestselling author who has not only a lengthy backlist, but funds and clout enough to defend not only herself, but can take on the fight for others who may not as well.

And readers do have the power of choice of authors to invest their time in, and I believe that is why Roberts puts so much responsibility at their door. There is a difference between promoting a quality product through a sale with hopes of hooking the reader, which is the intent of a legitimate author or publisher’s goal in marking down a book’s price either temporarily or permanently, and there is enticing the reader purely through the price point to consume cheap crap, which is usually the domain of a scammer so they can profit off it. And if all a legit author, whether it be Nora Roberts or Courtney Milan or anyone else,  cared about was making more money, why would so many authors promote libraries, with many of them that I’ve spoken to being excited to see their work represented in library collections? In fact, the library came up as a valid, legal alternative to purchasing books in the comments section of this blog post, including from Roberts herself, when responding to a commenter of the mindset to clap back at her for criticizing people who pick up books for free or on sale, and essentially that because Roberts has a “fortune,” it should not be something she should lecture readers about, especially if they are on a budget, among other claims, which Roberts refuted splendidly. Given that this is also a sore spot for her, with readers taking issue with the prices of her books (something she does not control, as she works with a publisher), I can understand her outrage here, regardless of any initial (albeit slight) agreement I may have had with the opposing arguments without thinking about it within the context of this situation.

And this sense of entitlement feeds it to the bigger issue in our Internet-saturated culture that has allowed scammy, illegal behavior to thrive. When watching all this play out, I could not help but be reminded of Taylor Swift taking issue with streaming services, who I also recall being criticized for being overly money-grubbing in spite of her vast fortune when she pulled her catalog from Spotify. In both cases, there was a sense of entitlement on the part of the consumer, that because they were on a fixed budget, they should not be obliged support the creators they enjoyed in a fair and legitimate way, essentially devaluing the art the creators create. And while yes, both Roberts and Swift are successful in their respective fields, this entitlement creates an problems for the struggling up-and-coming author or musician, who genuinely loves to write or perform, and would love to make a full-time career of it, but is denied this dream due to the fact that their career isn’t profitable.

Roberts then made a third blog post earlier today as of this writing, confirming all of my suppositions that I posited earlier and shutting down her detractors in the best way. Unfortunately, in subsequent keyword searches on Twitter for people talking about “Nora Roberts,” I saw that the post either did not alter their opinion that books should have value, or they did not bother to read it.

“Trashy Books?”: The Widening Debate Between Quality and Quantity

Upon reflection, however, I did find this a strange conversation to come to light in the romance community, especially when so many readers and authors are champions for the genre and its place as equally important to any other work of fiction. This debate around the idea of “quality” is at the root of several romance aficionados’ forays into academic studies of the genre. Author Maya Rodale wrote of the long history of the dismissal of romance novels in her book, Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. She  spoke about the romance industry as being very focused as being a system where “high volume = low cost = less risk,” (71) writing of the promotional tactics of a series, hooking a reader with book one at lower price, thus making it more likely they may buy the second (and the third and so on), which is a very familiar model that has already been discussed, and unfortunately, exploited, in this discussion on cheap books. But the argument for cheap books dismisses Rodale’s other claim of the close bond formed between an author and a reader, as well as the ways the genre has been dismissed to no avail throughout history due to its presentation, in a similar way that these readers are ironically devaluing a genre they claim to love.  

The lack of perceived lasting value of romance novels in society is one that other scholars have also confronted, like Australian Library and Information Science (LIS) scholar Vassiliki Veros. In an article, “A Matter of Meta: Category Romance Fiction and the Interplay of Paratext and Library Metadata” (2015), Veros wrote about the contrasting values of libraries and librarians toward books with cultural capital (which also can be symbolized by any intellectual romance detractor who views romance as “trash”) and the vast economic capital generated in the romance industry. While her argument pertains more specifically to the way in which libraries devalue romance novels, especially category romance, and don’t catalog them correctly, the general gist of her explanation surrounding economic vs. cultural capital is how I assumed it stood prior to the explosion of this scandal. But to have people so firmly in the economic capital camp that they think of books of any type as disposable and not worth paying for at any point is crazy to me, especially since scamming has become such a prevalent thing in the book industry.

Final Thoughts

As this situation continues to develop on all sides of the issue, I don’t know what the outcome will be, or if it’s possible for their to be one that will end peacefully for everyone who’s since gotten involved. The main hope that I hope to see materialize is that Cristiane Serruya is fully taken down and the lengthy list of authors, both notable and unknown, get some recompense for this. But as many have noted it’s not just a problem of just one scammer messing with the system, but many who are taking advantage of algorithms to get ahead and crush legitimate authors, many of whom are working hard for little reward. Contrary to what some readers believe, we can and should do better to stop this and show that this won’t be tolerated. And hopefully, if all our voices are loud enough, Amazon may finally listen.

Sources:

#copypastecris and #copypastecrislist on Twitter (special shout-out to @CaffeinatedFae)

Various tweets and Twitter threads

Courtney Milan’s blog post: http://www.courtneymilan.com/ramblings/2019/02/18/cristiane-serruya-is-a-copyright-infringer-a-plagiarist-and-an-idiot/

Nora’s first blog post: http://fallintothestory.com/plagiarism-then-and-now/

Nora’s second blog post: http://fallintothestory.com/not-a-rant-but-a-promise/

Nora’s third blog post: http://fallintothestory.com/let-me-address-this/

Article on Taylor Swift and streaming services for context: https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/9/15767986/taylor-swift-apple-music-spotify-statements-timeline

Maya Rodale, Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained (2015)

Vassiliki Veros, “A Matter of Meta: Category Romance Fiction and the Interplay of Paratext and Library Metadata,” In the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, 5.1 (2015), 1-13

Review of “Skyward” (Skyward #1) by Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson, Brandon. Skyward. New York: Delacorte Press, 2018. 

Hardcover | $19.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0399555770 | 513 pages | YA Science Fiction

5 stars

Skyward is a book that was recommended to my by a classmate last semester, and having since started watching BookTubers like Merphy Napier and Elliot Brooks who love Brandon Sanderson’s work, I wanted to start with something relatively easy and fun before challenging myself with his Cosmere books.

And I found this is an enjoyable read, and exceeded my expectations. While there isn’t a lot in the way of world building, given that the setting is still very much our world, albeit a futuristic version of it, I still found myself intrigued by their society and the intricacies of how it worked, with problems that are recognizable as being part of our own world, without taking away from the story’s value primarily to entertain.

Spensa is also a fabulously written character, who is determined to pursue this dream she has of being a pilot, in spite of the societal obstacles put in her way. And given that this is YA, I loved that it focused on her coming-of-age through this intense experience.

I also was oddly happy the book did not try to push a romance into the plot, especially since she has a male rival who she develops a friendship with over the course of the book. I loved that she developed these great relationships with the different characters, like Jorgen and Nedd that can work merely as good friends that have been through this intense experience.

All that being said, I would recommend this to fans of young adult sci-fi and fantasy who maybe want something a little different than what’s commonly being marketed to them. Although I’ve not read any of the Cosmere books, from combing through reviews and looking at opinions from other Sanderson fans, this suggests that it might mainly appeal to you if you read YA as well as adult books, given the generally “meh” opinions shared by these readers.

Review of “A Hope Divided” (Loyal League #2) by Alyssa Cole

Cole, Alyssa. A Hope Divided. New York: Kensington, 2017.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1496707468 | 266 pages | Historical Romance 

4.5 stars

A Hope Divided is another utterly delightful installment in the Loyal League series, and I’m now even more excited for the release of book three in just a few days. I love how Alyssa Cole is once again stripping back the layers of what we know about the Civil War, and focusing on the roles people played as spies for the Union.

Marlie and Ewan are such wonderful characters. I love how the precarious position of a free black woman during this time period was conveyed through Marlie, as well as Ewan’s compassion for those who are enslaved. I loved that, even though there were dangers to them being together, what bonded them was their shared love of science and philosophy, and their dedication to the Union Cause.

My one complaint that it was a bit too short, and I felt like the ending could have been fleshed out a bit more. I also just really wanted more story, because I was sad when it was over, because I basically devoured the book.

I would definitely recommend this to someone who wants something a little different in terms of historical romance. Rich in historical detail and with compelling, relatable characters, it is truly a great read.

Review of “Brave New Earl” (The Way to a Lord’s Heart #1) by Jane Ashford

Ashford, Jane. Brave New Earl. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2018.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1492663355 | 352 pages | Regency Romance

3 stars

Brave New Earl is a fun, fluffy Regency romance, even if it did feel a bit too light given the issues the characters claim to tackle. However, having read several of Ashford’s reprinted Traditional Regencies with plans to get to more of her newer titles one day, I was glad to see that her style still feels very similar to those, even in a market that does favor the more sensual stories.

For at least the first half, the characters and their development were engaging, and the setup was great, even if it does demand some suspension of disbelief. I found Benjamin and Jean very likable and their motivations incredibly solid, in addition to the tension between them feeling believable.

However, as the story went on, it did start to feel a little tedious in terms of the pacing, and I didn’t really find the backstories of either Jean or Benjamin were written in a way that had any emotional weight, and I ended the book feeling the story lacked something, and that things ended a bit too quickly.

I did quite like the initial setup for what I assume will be further books in the series, with Benjamin’s uncle setting up a sort of grief counseling group of noblemen, and even if some other elements of this book felt a little lackluster, I am still curious as to how each man’s story will play out, and may check out further installments.

Generally, this was an ok Regency romance, and while it’s not among the best I’ve read, it’s definitely still something I would recommend to an avid Regency romance fan.

Review of “Searching for You” (Orphan Train #3) by Jody Hedlund

Hedlund, Jody. Searching For You. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2018.

Hardcover | $25.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0764232749 | 341 pages | Historical Romance/Christian Fiction

4 stars

For the most part, enjoyed Searching for You as a conclusion to the Orphan Train series. While I did initially feel it was a little slow in developing, especially with Reinhold and Sophie not interacting in the book until over a hundred pages in, although their prior acquaintance keeps the relationship from feeling too rushed.

And once I did get past the slow bits, I could appreciate what it did in terms of further establishing who they were beyond what I knew about them from prior books. Both Reinhold and Sophie are flawed, and have made mistakes in their past, including the one that was the inciting incident on Sophie’s part, but their hearts are both in the right place, and I loved seeing them find out that the right paths for each of them might not be what they initially anticipated. I also very much enjoyed seeing Elise and Marianne again and getting an update on them as well to close out the series.

And, as has consistently been the case with this series, I love how the story touches on aspects of a historical movement I knew very little about, this time focusing very heavily on the orphan’s perspective. This shined through the portrayal of various characters, including Sophie, as well as Nicholas and Olivia, the children she has helped to raise.

I am quite sad to see this series come to a close, but quite satisfied that with the way it turned out. I would recommend this to other fans of well-researched historical fiction/romance.

Review of “Breathless” (Old West #2) by Beverly Jenkins

Jenkins, Beverly. Breathless. New York: Avon Books, 2017. 

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062389022 |376 pages | Historical Romance

3 stars

Breathless was something of a disappointment in comparison to its predecessor. However, it does still have a few high points. The main one is the characters. Kent and Portia are both well-written, likable characters. I like the way Portia’s backstory was developed, with her reluctance to trust men due to her upbringing with her mother. And Kent was a great hero who has made a few mistakes in life, but has grown as a person and I loved how he worked to prove himself a worthy partner for Portia.

And while the historical issues were a bit less pronounced, I did like the allusions to historical figures and events which helped to build the rich atmosphere of the period in my mind.

However, the story lacked any real conflict. While there is nothing wrong with a fluffier story, there was nothing standing in the way of Portia and Kent being together other than her own reticence, and that did not provide a strong enough plot to keep me engaged.

Despite this one being a bit of a disappointment, it does set up what I hope will be a promising third installment for Regan. And I would still recommend this to fans of diverse historicals.