Review of "The Wicked Redhead" (The Wicked City #2) by Beatriz Williams

Williams, Beatriz. The Wicked Redhead. New York: William Morrow, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062660312 | 406 pages | Historical Fiction

4 stars

The Wicked Redhead, the long-awaited sequel to a prior Beatriz Williams release, The Wicked City (2017), came out as people were talking about it once again being the Twenties, and while I can do without some of the darker and more tragic elements (both depicted here and not), it is exciting to have a book likely marketed specifically to tap into this heightened excitement, especially one with an already established set of characters.

This time around, the story feels much more cohesive, with the connections between the two arcs being much more obvious, beyond the tenuous one that was established at the outset. Both Ella and Gin are dealing with situations related to expectations of love and domesticity, albeit in different ways: Gin rebels against the idea due to seeing what childbirth did to her mother; Ella resists the idea of having a child conceived with her unfaithful ex-husband.

I enjoying the journey with both leads. Gin’s story takes up more page time, and while I enjoyed seeing her go on her dangerous adventure, I wish there had been more of Ella. She is so much more interesting this time around with the exploration of family dynamics, from the fact that the father who raised her isn’t her biological father to the decisions she is forced to make about Patrick and the baby and Hector, that I coudln’t help but want more from her arc.

I hope we haven’t seen the last of Gin or Ella (the endings of both arcs suggest there’s more to come!), and that it won’t be quite as long of a wait till the next installment. And I recommend this to historical fiction lovers and those who love layeres stories with family drama and adventure.

Review of "The Brilliant Death" by Amy Rose Capetta

Capetta, Amy Rose. The Brilliant Death. 2018. New York: Penguin Books, 2019.

Papeback | $10.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451478467 | 351 pages | YA Fantasy

5 stars

I picked up The Brilliant Death out of interest in reading more of her work after loving Once and Future, which Capetta wrote with their partner, Cori McCarthy. And while all of their books appealed to me in some way, there was something about a gender-fluid, Italian-inspired fantasy that spoke to me.

And it lived up to my expectations. The world, as some critics have pointed out, feels very much like The Godfather, with the protagonist, Teodora, being from a mafia king’s family. And in some ways, it feels reminiscent of historical fiction, with Teo’s chafing against the patriarchal form of inheritance, with the magic correlating to gender fluidity adding further layers to this.

And Teo herself is a truly great protagonist. The environment she was raised in has made her into a cutthroat, but it never feels like it’s just for the sake of her being a “strong female character,” and I like that she has a highly original arc that makes her compelling lead to follow, as she learns to define who she is, including defining herself outside gender binaries.

And Cielo is a great love interest, doubling as a sort of mentor figure as Teo starts discovering her magic. I enjoyed their somewhat roguish nature, and their romance, in the midst of everything else going on, was so sweet!

This is such a fun book, and I CANNOT wait for the sequel. I recommend this book if you love historical fantasy, or are looking for books with awesome queer representation.

Review of "Meg & Jo" by Virginia Kantra

Kantra, Viginia. Meg & Jo. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0593100349 | 390 pages |
Women’s Fiction

4 stars

While I am still a little iffy about the need for another Little Women adaptation, I am glad if that movie played any role in the timing of the publication of the excellent Meg & Jo. While I’m pretty sure there have been literary updates to Little Women in recent years, this is the first one I’ve read and I’m pretty sure it’s the first targeted to adults, so I was excited about it.

And this is one of those retellings that strikes the perfect balance of capturing exactly what readers loved about the March sisters, while also changing things to suit the change in time period and to suit Kantra’s personal style. The heart of the book is the relationship between the sisters, with particular emphasis on the bond between Meg and Jo. While the bond between Kantra’s versions of them may owe just as much to other literary sisters (Jane and Elizabeth Bennet are name-dropped in comparison to them), I still enjoyed seeing how they rely on each other, and getting hints of the larger family bonds, which it seems will be discussed further in the forthcoming Beth & Amy.

One thing I loved about Jo’s POV was the way it provided further insight into why Eric Bhaer is the right match for her in this version, as the Professor was in the original. I like that they establish a connection, and in spite of some of the obstacles, come together and he proves himself to her, in spite of her doubts about love. And the aspect of him challenging her creatively to pursue her true goals is a thread that I love was kept in the most wonderful and surprising way.

I admit I enjoyed Meg and John’s relationship a bit more without the forced sense of female domesticity and her actually seeming to care about him consistently in spite of the fact that there are some cracks, as opposed to constantly wanting to fit in with her vapid friends, coming off as rather selfish at times. It was nice to see the modern version of Meg who was happy as a mother, but also wondered if something was missing, and there being this question of whether she and John should try to incorporate aspects of their old lives into their current one.

My one complaint is that I feel like the dad was made to be horrible for no apparent reason. I can see him being absent in the prologue, as he’s fighting in the war, like his classic counterpart, but it just seemed odd to turn an otherwise decent family man into someone who apparently all but abandoned his wife, especially when she’s sick and in the hospital. Yeah, he does still have some redeeming features, particularly seen from Jo’s perspective, as she’s “Daddy’s girl,”but it just seemed like kind of a downer on the rest of it, which otherwise felt like a nice tribute to such well loved characters.

This is more or less a delightful retelling of Little Women, and one I think fans of the original will enjoy. However, it stands on its own, and I would also recommend it to fans of a good sister-focused story that also has strong romantic elements as their first experience (but hopefully not their last) with this amazing story.

Review of "Realm of Ash" (The Books of Ambha #2) by Tasha Suri

Suri, Tasha. Realm of Ash. New York: Orbit, 2019.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0316449755 | 450 pages | Fantasy

5 stars

Tasha Suri is one of my favorite new discoveries this year, and while I wasn’t massively wowed by her debut, I found it enjoyable as a new romantic fantasy with Indian influences. But with Realm of Ash, while the trajectory is slightly different, given the different characters, I felt much more connected to the story and the world.

I enjoyed seeing a new facet to Ambha through the eyes of the widowed Arwa, given that this status comes with a different set of expectations, as well as the different ways other facets of her identity, like her difference of birth and color of her skin contrasted to Mehr’s experience.

I could also empathize with her character growth from someone who feels compelled to make herself small, and there’s this wonderful growth to finding her strength over the course of the story as she’s thrown into the court intrigue and solving the curse on the Empire.

I also was quicker to warm up to her romance with Zahir than I was with the romance in the last book. There was nothing ultimately wrong with that one in the end and both were gradual, but I liked the development of Zahir as a character and counterpart for Arwa in this one, and that made the story much more convincing.

This is a wonderfully sumptuous fantasy with great world building an complex characters. I recommend it to all romantic fantasy fans.

Review of “Aurora Blazing” (Consortium Rebellion #2) by Jessie Mihalik

Mihalik, Jessie. Aurora Blazing. New York: Harper Voyager, 2019.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062802415 | 381 pages | Science Fiction

4 stars

Aurora Blazing is a good second book, making up for some of book one’s weaknesses, while also continuing the series’ arc of being politically engaging and interesting.

I definitely liked Bianca a little more than Ada, in part because of the extra baggage she has due to her awful political marriage and its dark outcome (which some suspect she had a hand in). And I love that balance between rebuilding herself while also dealing with the crises in the galaxy, the main one this time concerning the whereabouts of one of her brothers. And I admit I prefer the “sit on the sidelines and calculate one’s next move” style that Bianca has, as opposed to Ada’s more combative style.

And the romance is much more understated in this one, although it does linger from the beginning, as there is history between her and Ian due to his role in her family’s employ, and that lends itself to a fun “princess and the bodyguard” dynamic. While he did not necessarily win me over as a hero, he is at least much more likable than Loch in the last book.

This is a good second book, and a sci-fi adventure in its own right. I recommend this someone looking for sci-fi with romantic elements.

Review of “Wives and Daughters” by Elizabeth Gaskell

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Wives and Daughters. 1866. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordworth Editions, Ltd., 2003.

Paperback | $3.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1840224160 | 596 pages | Classics/Romance

4 stars

I was eager to read more Elizabeth Gaskell, and had always had a minor interest in Wives and Daughters, even before I was sure if I was actually planning to read it, but found myself a bit put off by the fact that it was unfinished, although not left in the same fragmented state as say, some of Austen’s unfinished works. But my enjoyment of North and South and the praise for this one finally persuaded me to give it a chance.

And it is a different book, even though it still maintains Gaskell’s easily engaging writing style and her interest in social commentary at various levels of society. And there is a consistent thread of social consciousness, once again focusing on tradition vs. modernism, with the educated and well-traveled Hamley sons expressing different views from their traditinoal father, as the central part of their conflict.

But there’s a lot more of a domestic drama here, and while it is at points engaging, the extended timeline often means the storyline does drag at various points. I spend quite a few pages wondering when something would happen, and then something suddenly would. I guess in some ways the slower pacing made the dramati moments feel earned, but it was annoying nonetheless.

And the characters! These felt Austen-esque in a way I could not completely say about North and South, while also feeling fairy-tale-like at the same time, like the stepmother who’s really a piece of work and fickle Cynthia, with her numerous admirers, past and present, throughout the novel. And really, the only problem with Molly and Roger is that they are essentially flawless…yet I don’t even care, because I was so happy when they finally came together after all that!

Despite its faults, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and will (hopefully) read some of Gaskell’s other work in the future. And I enthusiastically recommend this for people looking for more classic romances to read, especially if they loved Austen and the Brontes.

Review of “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell

Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. 1855. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0140434248 | 449 pages | Classics/Romance

5 stars

I picked up North and South due to the recommendation of BookTuber, Merphy Napier, who read it recently, drawing some comparisons to Pride and Prejudice. And while I can see the similarities, I feel the more accurate comparison to make is that this book is what would happen if you merged Austen’s marriage plot and discourse on the role of women in the 19th century with Charles Dickens’ bleaker social consciousness, which is fitting, given that Dickens served as the book’s editor when it was originally serialized.

And I think part of what makes it distinct, even with this comparison, is the difference in the character dynamics. While still focusing on class conflict, it’s done in a way that’s drastically different from something like P&P, with the self-made hero and the more gently bred heroine, and their disdain for one another more quickly develops into some sort of mutual admiration, even if it isn’t quite love, at least on her part.

I truly felt for Margaret throughout, given the displacement she faces throughout, first in leaving her home, then in losing her parents in quick succession. But I also loved her growing awareness of the wider world and

I finally get the appeal of John Thornton. I thought it was just because female fans are thirsty for Richard Armitage, who plays him in the 2004 miniseries (and that may well be the case for some, given that it revived interest in the book), but he is truly a wonderful hero, and perfectly solidifies why I love self-made men. And the way his constancy in his love for Margaret…swoon. I also love that there’s a twist in his fortunes that I’m sure no modern romance author would dare try today (or at none that I’ve heard of, given the duke/billionaire obsession in Romancelandia), but it just added to the romance of it all for me.

This a wonderfully romantic, emotionally moving book, and one I’m glad to have finally taken the plunge to read. If you love a great classic romance, like Austen, but also want deeper discussion of Victorian social issues a la Dickens, then this is the book for you.

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.

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.