Review of “Singapore Fling” (Carpe Diem Chronicles #2) by Maida Malby

Malby, Maida. Singapore Fling. [United States]: EOT Publications, 2019.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0999543238 | 261 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

Having enjoyed book one in the Carpe Diem Chronicles, I made sure I snagged a copy of Singapore Fling recently, when an opportunity presented itself. And once it arrived in the mail, I dove in almost immediately, reveling in all the feels and feeling upset once I reached the final pages and I once again had to say goodbye to this world.

One of Malby’s strengths is, of course, her gift with recreating the atmosphere of the places she sets her books, from the locations to the food. I now am desperate to make a trip to Singapore for the food alone. Word of caution: Do not read on an empty stomach!

And while Maddie and Aidan were introduced in Boracay Vows, I didn’t know what to expect of either of them, except perhaps that Aidan is a bit more arrogant than Blake. But while some characters may call him “Alphahole Aidan,” giving me a bit of pause initially, given the way I attach the term to some more loathsome heroes, I can’t help but feel like the nickname is undeserved. He’s a bit more on the brooding side, but I could truly empathize with his dedication to his work, especially when his relationship with Maddie led to a possible conflict of interest and him having to make a tough choice.

And Maddie is also a wonderful character. I love how her relationships with people are explored, delving into the fact that she didn’t have a conventional family upbringing leading to her valuing the family and friends she does have and keeping them close. It forms a compelling contrast to Aidan’s more conventional family and further informs the conflict between them in a wonderful way.

Once again, Malby delivers a colorful, sumptuous read, and one that leaves me waiting with baited breath for the next. I enthusiastically recommend this to fans of sexy, fun multicultural contemporary romances.

Review of “Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay

Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist: Essays. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062282712 | 320 pages | Nonfiction-Essays

5 stars

I don’t remember how I first heard about Bad Feminist, but it’s been on my radar for a while, and I finally picked it up. As a feminist, I admit I also find myself sharing some of Gay’s views about the loaded nature of the word, even if I don’t know if I would term either of us as “bad” feminists, especially not her, as between the introduction and conclusion, where she makes these declarations, she profoundly discusses some of the racial and gender issues, both in media representation and the world at large, in a way that I feel is incredibly nuanced and with an understanding of the wide variety of topics covered.

While the subheading “essays” suggests all the pieces can be read independently, certain ideas overlap over the course of the collection, especially when it comes to the concept of diverse representation in film and television. From discussing the whiteness of Girls to the obsession with fetishizing black people’s oppression in films like The Help and 12 Years a Slave, to a critique of Tyler Perry’s portrayal of black women in particular, she demonstrates how damaging some of these stereotypes can be.

There are also some discussions of topics not inherently tied to race, by tied to gender, that I particularly enjoyed, including several essays on the issue of consent and how rape and domestic violence are romanticized in pop culture, a topic I remain confounded by. My favorite in this regard is “The Trouble With Prince Charming, or He Who Trespassed Against Us.” In addition to briefly pointing out the heteronormative nature of the fairy-tale narrative, she pokes further holes in it through discussing the issue that it often involves a “sacrifice” on the female character’s part, through the discussion of the Fifty Shades series. While recognizing the appeal, and described her “amusement” with the books several times in the essay, she, like many other critics of the series, came to the conclusion it depicts abuse. She states,” When considering the overwhelming popularity of the trilogy, we cannot simply dismiss the flaws because the books are fun and the sex is hot. The damaging tone has too broad a reach. That tone reinforces pervasive cultural messages women are already swallowing about what they should tolerate to be loved by their Prince Charming.”(Gay, 204)

And despite the passage of a five years since its publication, it’s remarkable how little has changed in what she’s talked about on the political side of things, whether it be the fight for reproductive rights or the police violence against blacks. This book’s continuing relevance and the way it easily conveys social issues makes it recommended reading for anyone remotely interested in feminism and intersectionality.

Review of “Capturing the Devil” (Stalking Jack the Ripper #4) by Kerri Maniscalco

Maniscalco, Kerri. Capturing the Devil. New York: Jimmy Patterson Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0316485548 | 452 pages | YA Historical Mystery

3 stars

Capturing the Devil is the weakest in the series–not by much, but the mystery plot in particular is the most underwhelming. On the one hand, I do like the attempt to tie together the series’ mysteries in away not many others do, as far as I’m aware, but by revealing key elements of the identity of the killer in the blurb and some of the promotional material makes the ultimate reveal feel underwhelming.

But while I don’t personally feel the “Holmes is the Ripper” theory holds a lot of wieght, I do feel that the story itself , as a work of pure fiction, it’s fairly solid in terms of how it does use the forensic facts of the murders attributed to each of the killers of make a case for their connectedness.

I found the final solidifying of Audrey Rose and Thomas’ relationship to be the highlight of the book, and it was great to see them get not only some romantic moments, but the happy ending they deserved. However, it was a bit odd to me that out of nowhere his father the duke is mentioned, and some arranged marriage comes out of nowhere. Those things feel like they should have been mentioned earlier, perhaps in book two at the latest when his sister was introduced and his connection to Dracula explored.

On the whole, I finished it feeling more mixed than blown away, but not completely hating it. I would still recommend giving it to a teen reader or someone who isn’t fully aware of the identity of H.H. Holmes yet, because I feel this book could serve as a fun introduction to the case, compete with providing resources for further exploration in the author’s note.

Review of “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” by Sherry Thomas

Thomas, Sherry. The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan. New York: Tu Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $19.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1620148044 | 348 pages | YA Historical Fiction

4 stars

I was incredibly excited for The Magnolia Sword, in part because Mulan is one of my favorite Disney Princesses, for all the reasons listed in this video and more, and because I loved hearing about the unique journey Sherry Thomas went on finding out about the original tale and the time period in which it’s believed to be set in, which went beyond even her scope of knowledge as a Chinese immigrant, which she documented during the writing process on social media, also touching on briefly in her author’s note.

And ultimately, her work pays off, sending readers on a similar journey to hers with these book as she presents a story not inspired not only by the “original” Mulan, but also capturing the era of fifth century China in all of its political complexity in an easily digestible way that also pays respect to the historical period, while also making it very much her own with her sensuous and evocative writing style.

I loved delving into Mulan as a character and her place in relation to the familial and gender politics, which play a role in the story. It’s great to see her as a genuinely good fighter from the start, in keeping with the original, yet she also feels like a real person with real flaws, which makes her easy to root for.

While the romance wasn’t the main element, I found myself rather underwhelmed by the “princeling” character. His “secrets” do leave an impact for the broader story, but I just didn’t care for him as a romantic interest, and as much as I love a good romance, I think it would be great for Mulan, of all folktale characters, to end up alone in certain iterations…or at least give her a more interesting love interest, if you must have romance.

This is a wonderful retelling of Mulan, for the most part, and one I recommend to all Mulan fans, whether their entry point was the Disney movie, the original retelling, or something else.

Review of “The Secret of Aaron Burr” by Susan Holloway Scott

Scott, Susan Holloway. The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr. New York: Kensington, 2019.

Paperback | $16.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1496719188 | 500 pages | Historical Fiction

5 stars

The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr seems to have drawn some minor controversy (defined purely by the book’s status as more mid-list than runaway bestseller, and the fact that, unlike other books with greater notoriety, it did not draw headlines in major news outlets), for good reason.

One is the issue of the apparent romanticizing of a relationship between Mary and Burr, which grows more apparent in the latter half of the book. Huge content warning here: the book not only deals with the realities of slavery, but it includes a pretty intense depiction of sexual asault that turns into a semi-consensual relationship.

But this is where I feel like the context of the power dynamic is well done, and even when there is a inkling of some romantic feelings, there is always also a semse that, even when she is freed, serving as a paid employee to Burr, Mary is still in Burr’s power, due both to their past, the resulting children and her desire to care for them, and the years of trained subservience. I even did some research into the modern stories of women who chose to continue “consensual” relationships with their rapists, and, of course, then, as now, what began as an act of power between a superior and subordinate, remains so, even if the subordinate “chooses” to continue the relationship.

Which brings me to the second issue that some readers have: is it really historical fiction if not much is know about Mary? Her children’s lives and family connection to Burr are known, but she is a mystery, so anything directly involving her is fabricated. But as Scott says in her author’s note, her experience as depicted in the nove reflects the experience of many slaves as at the time, including Sally Hemings, whose “relationship” with Jefferson is also getting a lot of new analysis, While it’s likely not a fully accurate depiction of Mary’s life, it does faithfully depict the struggles of the enslaved at the time and the complexity of the choices they had to make in a world that was against them.

And if anything, it makes me admire this iteration of Mary, fictional it may be. She went through a lot, and I could empathize with her almsot every step of the way.

But Aaron Burr…I feel nothing but more loathing for the man. His support for (white) women’s rights is great, compared to some of his contemporaries who did not, but reading this, on top of the evidence of his connection to Mary’s children and the regrettable actions he took in regards to the other slaves he owned when he apparently feared his own life would be taken in the infamous duel with Hamilton, further make me hate him. I do believe it was Scott’s intent to at least depict some ambiguity in his character, given that he is already reviled anyway, so I do think she succeeded.

However, despite being faithful to Mary’s obviously limited role in social and political life, I did enjoy that it offered some balance to the party disputes depicted in I, Eliza Hamilton, with some discussion of Burr and the Democratic-Republicans’ side of things. If nothing else, it is fascinating to get further insights into early American party politics and the in-fighting between the notable politicians of the time.

This is an incredibly moving and educational novel, and while I would urge anyone who is triggered by the aforementioned difficult topics to avoid this book, I would also recommend even the most ardent “history purist” to broaden their horizons to give this book a try. The narrative of the enslaved is one that is not still not told often, although that is improving through the efforts of the curation of plantation tours (like Monticello) to include the discussion of slavery, and I respect Scott’s care in handling the topic with compassion.

Review of “The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae” by Stephanie Butland

Butland. Stephanie. 2018. The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019.

Paperback | $17.99 | ISBN-13: 978-1250217011 | 416 pages | Women’s Fiction

I received an ARC through a Goodreads Giveaway. I have chosen to voluntarily post a review. All opinions are my own.

4 stars

The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae is not something I would ordinariy pick up, but it sounded interesting, so I’m glad I got the chance to read an ARC. While I can’t say it’s made a massive impact on my personal choices regarding the subject at hand, it did give me an intimate picture of what it’s like to be the recipient of an organ, on a couple of different levels, and how it can help in shifting one’s personal worldview.

Ailsa is a compelling and relatable heroine. I too had health issues growing up that required surgery to correct, although they weren’t to the degree where I needed a transplant like she did. However, I could relate to her post-transplant arc as she begins to document her life, carefully analyzing many of her major choices. I also rooted for her as she began to be more spontaneous, not overthinking every choice, which is something that played a role in the current state of her family dynamic.

There was also a great exploration of her love life, both her past with her now deceased former lover, Lennox (mostly through flashbacks) and her current one with Sebastian, an actor and major tabloid fixture, who also happens to have gotten a transplant, in his case his cornea. The flashbacks themselves are well done, and I liked how it highlighted her growth in a relationship as she pursues one with Seb.

The one thing I did want to see a bit better handled was the issue of her weight, particularly in regards to Sebastian’s (apparently) evolving opinions about fat women. For the most part, her weight issues resulting from the steroids she’s taking are handled in a realistic way, but with all the buildup in the tabloid articles that mention her, culminating in a scandalous revelation of Seb’s past expression of opinions on fat women, I felt this is where I could have used more in terms of him atoning, aside from the implication that he’s grown from it.

But otherwise, this is a great book that tackles tough topics in a way that doesn’t feel too heavy handed. I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a hard-hitting contemporary.

Review of “Polaris Rising” (Consortium Rebellion #1) by Jessie Mihalik

Mihalik, Jessie. Polaris Rising. New York: Harper Voyager, 2019.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062802385 | 431 pages | Sci-Fi Romance

3 stars

I picked up Polaris Rising with one of my genre goals in mind, to read more sci-fi (beyond Star Wars), and, seeing it raved about by some romance readers as a great cross-genre read, I was interested.

And when it comes to the sci-fi elements, Mihalik delivers. The book (and, it appears, the overall series) is set in an intriguing futuristic Earth, with a combination of high-tech and historic-feeling class systems. And the overall premise with the patriarchal society demanding an arranged marriage from its princess, and her fight back, is well-done.

Ada is a sympathetic heroine, and I like that, while she’s competent in the situation she’s in, with her resourcefulness. I could at least become inveted in her situation, even if I wanted so much more for her than what she got.

Which brings me to the romance…cringe. My initial problem is that the hero, Loch, is just the standard cardboard cut-out rogue, except you don’t get the sense he has much depth, because you don’t get his POV (not that I wanted it, if it was going to also be in first person). Not to mention, he “knows his way around a women’s undergarments,” but still gets possessive and jealous when Ada is interacting with someone she doesn’t even have romantic feelings for?

And the sex scenes? They lacked any real chemistry outside the bedroom, but this perfectly exemplifies why I sometimes can’t stand sex scenes, because they just further exacerbate the lack of chemistry and make me hate the character I already dislike even more.

But as I said before, the world politics seems interesting, and the best part for me was toward the end when she was reunited with her siblings, who, it seems, based on the blurb for the next one at least, will be protagonists of future books. That, along with what I heard about a slightly different dynamic for the second one romance wise, keep me interested in the series.

That said, I think fans of romantic sci-fi/sci-fi romance might enjoy this, as it’s gotten great reviews from romance readers, but people coming in from the sci-fi genre might have different expectations. Either way, if Mihalik figures out the right balance of sci-fi/romance elements in future books, I can see her doing well, as this book does have a lot of promise.

Review of “My Fake Rake” (The Union of Rakes #1) by Eva Leigh

Leigh, Eva. My Fake Rake. New York: Avon Books, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062932402 | 384 pages | Regency Romance

4 stars

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Fake Rake further solidifies my love for Eva Leigh. I knew I was win for a treat with this one from the moment I read the blurb, what with the hero with social anxiety and the intelligent heroine giving him a makeover to entice another man.

And it more or less delivers, mostly with Sebastian. I deal with social anxiety and I could empathize with his thought process, while also rooting for him as he made strides in becoming the confident rake-about-town. And the way he cares for Grace, but would never impose on her given she never showed indications of feelings in return, is so sweet and relatable.

However, it did lead to me having some quibbles on Grace’s end. I’m all for stories with the heroine having some growing up to do, and in this regard, it’s wonderful, especially when she sees the irony of the whole situation. But I could not help but roll my eyes a little at the slightly melodramatic turn things took, due to actions on her part. Maybe it’s my inexperience talking, but I continue to be flummoxed by people who sleep together, leading them to feel things, but don’t bother to address them in the moment, so the little problem grows bigger and bigger due to their miscommunication. However, it culminated in the most wonderful Grand Gesture, so it is ultimately worth it, wherever you stand on this issue.

This book is wonderful, in spite of my subjective quibbles. I recommend this to anyone who loved Leigh’s previous work or “modern” historical romance in general.

Am I Falling Out of Love With Romance?

Disclaimer: While this is something I’ve thought about in some form for a while, and it finally hit a breaking point. It’s also purely an opinion piece meant to vent my frustration, and not meant to disparage anyone or the romance genre as a whole in any way. 

“In some ways, portraying a healthy relationship in literature is the most revolutionary thing you can do.” Julia Quinn said this in an interview, and while I do see her as something of a problematic fave for other reasons I won’t get into here but have been discussed to death in certain sections of social media, I love her for this reason: her relationships feel realistic and something I as a feminist could believe in. I also loved the way authors like Maya Rodale unpacked the radical nature of romance novels, discussing how it always was about women and them negotiating their agency, even in the 1970s when dubious consent and full-on rape were features of the plots (for info on this contradiction, check out her book, Dangerous Books for Girls). 

But between the comments I’ve seen online that such books were more “historically accurate” due to being published pre-political correctness (the only thing they’re not is respectful of cultural diversity, given the plethora of sheikh and Native American romances at worst, and the constant erasure of the actually accurate presence of minorities at best) to the contrary protests against detractors of romance calling them “unrealistic” (among other, more derogatory, terms) juxtaposed against the defense that “it’s fiction” to defend the perpetuation of troubling tropes, I honestly wonder if the romance community, one I thought was loving, welcoming, and progressive (although still flawed) is really any of those things.

 I mean, writers continue to show their true colors daily. From the people who speak out about plagiarism but are silent, dismissive, or complicit in the racist actions of others in the community, it’s easy to lose faith as more and more bad actors come out. But even that just affirmed that most of the authors I read are great, even if, like JQ, they do have their blind spots. With each yearly Ripped Bodice survey of diversity in publishing, there is outrage. And most on Twitter reacted with fury at the announcement of a recent book acquisition dealing with “romance across the partisan divide.”
But why, then, have I read way more books than any previous year, and statistically romance is still my main genre, but I feel like I’ve been falling out of love with the genre, or at the very least, the community, or small sectors of it? 

Part of it seems to be the weird double standards. It’s touted as “by women for women” but for the most part, they clearly mean “by cishet women for cishet women,” because, aside from the fact that there are non-binary authors and readers, f/f is underrepresented compared to m/m, with the former being called “gross” by cishet female readers who don’t mind fetishizing m/m (not to mention sexy men in general) and some not considering gay men as a legitimate audience for romance.
And that brings me to my main source of frustration. #MeToo apparently rocked the romance world when it first became a headline, with authors like Sarah MacLean, Lisa Kleypas, and many others talking about how it (and/or the election of Trunp) impacted their writing process. However, there does still appear to be a market for the more problematic elements. I’m not talking consensual BDSM, as a tweet states that there is a clear difference between accurate depictions of the lifestyle and Fifty Shades-esque inaccurate portrayals masking abuse, better suited for an episode of Law and Order: SVU. But from the rise of new subgenres like “bully romance” in the indie scene to the publication of an old shoe of a romance book like Bringing Down the Duke, that actually doesn’t add anything new to the genre like it claims to and just feels like an Old School 80s romance in a way that will appeal to new readers, predatory male-in-power behavior and all, it’s clear the community still loves a “good” misogynistic, abusive alphahole. It’s fine if the author can add some nuance to the stereotype to make him sympathetic, as Kerrigan Byrne does with her latest, How to Love a Duke in Ten Days, completely going against her typical setup of taming the often unlikable heroes by having a hero who is more less likable, while still creating a strong and emotionally compelling alpha male character who can realistically change in the space of 300-ish pasges. But when the book hinges on it all being a “fantasy” that he will reform, that’s when I check out and prefer to imagine the book ends with the “hero” dying from a fall off a cliff, and as shown in my interaction with Nicola Davidson, I am not alone in this opinion. 

And them describing the“fantasy” of it also makes me laugh. Romance gets pegged as “unrealistic,” and while I understand you interact differently with romance readers than you might detractors, due to one being conceivably viewed as a safe haven, as a budding writer, I’ve heard there should be a certain element of realism or plausibility, even in fiction. Obviously, romance is somewhat unique in that it glosses over some elements, like no one ever smells bad or is missing teeth in historicals, but it seems pretty crappy to gloss over the reality of abuse with the belief that “anyone can be redeemed!”

And then, when I really started to think about these romance community disparities, especially in the aftermath of the wider #DeleteFacebook movement, I began to notice the difference between Romance Twitter and Romance Facebook. Romance Twitter is where all the activists are; that’s not to say there aren’t bad actors there, but that’s where I heard about the outrage over the partisan divide book, for example, and while publishing news is less plentiful in Romance Facebook, I did expect more outrage than I got when I shared it in a thread.And even the people who are or were on both platforms feel they can be freer with their opinions, as demonstrated by the greater advocacy on many an author’s Twitter feed, whereas they tend to be more circumspect on Facebook.

And the overall demographics of the people who use Twitter vs Facebook become more apparent when it comes to their opinions on news items and public figures. Lately, I’ve seen a ton of tweets defending Harry and Meghan in the aftermath of the release of their new documentary and war with the press. And, perhaps illustrating why their feelings are what they are, you can’t open a comments section for any Harry/Meghan article without seeing awful comments from trolls saying she should suck it up, she married into it, or otherwise showing no sympathy for her whatsoever. And why Ellen DeGeneres defended her friendship with George W.  Bush, it was the Twitter users who pointed out why her “be kind to everyone” message was so privileged and ignorant. 

And I’m sick of it. A lot of the problems in romance come from privilege and ignorance. Some readers and writers do go into books with problematic content and unapologetically enjoy them, and I feel nothing but respect for them, even if we disagree. But the exhausted excuses, the way it’s hampered inclusion of much else besides white alpha cishet masculine broody “heroes,” to the exclusion of everyone else? They say there’s romances for everyone, and that is still true, but it doesn’t the perpetuation of these tropes  less concerning from a personal standpoint.  

Review of “The Lady Rogue” by Jenn Bennett

Bennett, Jenn. The Lady Rogue. New York: Simon Pulse, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1534431997 | 372 pages | YA Historical Fantasy

4 stars

While I’ve never been into the modern romantic trend of vampires, I have a fascination with Dracula and his historical inspiration, Vlad the Impaler, so I was excited to see The Lady Rogue was another book (along with a couple of other recent-ish YA favorites The Conqueror’s Saga by Kiersten White and Hunting Prince Dracula by Kerri Maniscalco) released out in recent years tapping into a combination of both the history and the mythos of Dracula. Not the seredipity of reading it on October 20, the birthday of Bela Lugosi, the original actor who played Dracula, who is name dropped in this book.

And the development of the lore and the overall quest plot is the best part of the book. I enjoyed learing about the history of the Order of the Dragon and finding out about the legendary ring and its connection to Theo and her family. Despite being fictionalized to accommodate the fantastical elements, it all feels plausible.

Theo is a fun heroine. While there are elements of her that do feel like it would probably resonate more with a younger reader, I did enjoy her strength and determination. However, the romance left me feeling a little cold, which is odd, Bennett’s author bio states she also writes adult historical romance, so I would assume she can write a good romance. But while friends to lovers/second chance can often be a winning setup for me, I just never felt chemistry between Theo and Huck.

This is a fun, fast-paced book, that, in spite of any flaws, is still an enjoyable read. I recommend it to other fans of YA historical fantasy.