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I've been hearing about Rose Lerner for a while, but I didn't particularly enjoy the first book of hers that I read (A Lily Among Thorns), so I didn't try any of her others until now. (I have been marathoning Parks and Recreation and wanted something that felt like the main romance in the show, and suddenly remembered Lerner!)

Her specialties so far seem to be: nice people who genuinely like each other, heroes who are decidedly not jerks, class issues, local life and politics, sibling dynamics, the weight of parental expectations, and protagonists who have a very difficult time knowing and/or expressing what they want because they have sublimated their desires, frequently out of the desire to be nice and get along with society. And the last bit seems very evenly split between the men and the women, which I very much appreciated.

So far, there has been more diversity around the protagonists rather than embodied by the protagonists, but like Courtney Milan, my sense is that she is pushing at a lot of those boundaries. There are secondary characters who are POC and gay and lesbian—I am using these terms as a shortcut, since they don't quite match up with Regency categories/ways of thinking—and her latest hero is Jewish! And it looks like the protagonists of her next book are in the servant class, which is nice.

In for a Penny - Lord Nevinstoke's father dies, leaving his family deep in debt, and thus Nev proposes to Penelope Brown, who comes with a substantial dowry courtesy of her father's success in trade. Together, they attempt to restore his family estate and prevent a peasant uprising! The couple is probably the most traditional in terms of romance norms, and I find them absolutely adorable. It also helps that "socially inept heroine who is good at spreadsheets + hero who is not the best with numbers but great with people" is something that hits rather close to home. The book tends to fall a bit into the "wealthy titled people rescue impoverished workers" thing, and the villain and final conflict feels over-the-top compared to the rest of the story, but I liked it a lot.

A Lily Among Thorns - I bounced off this one the first time because I wanted an icier heroine, but on rereading it and knowing better what to expect, I liked it better. Lady Serena, former courtesan and current innkeeper, wants to help Solomon Hathaway find heirloom earrings, as he's the one who gave her the money to buy herself out years and years ago. And then there are French spies and threats from Serena's father and the plot is a bit over the top still. Solomon the tailor (or rather, master dyer) is very cute, but I didn't fully buy that Serena was able to terrorize the London underworld. Good, but I think it's the weakest of Lerner's work.

Sweet Disorder - Nick Dymond goes to the town of Lively St. Lemeston, where his brother is running for office, in order to convince widow Phoebe Sparks to marry a Whig so that her husband gets her inherited vote. I love that Phoebe is middle class and worries about having to wear the same dress to parties and can't afford mustard. Also, she is fat and the narrative is fine with it, and the hero needs a cane due to wartime injuries. I think this is my favorite of Lerner's books so far, and I particularly love one sex scene that manages to be hot while also advancing characterization AND tying up the hero. Bonus points for many loving descriptions of Regency era sweets.

True Pretenses - Ash and his little brother Rafe are con men, but Rafe wants to get out, so Ash comes up with one last con to get Rafe married to an heiress so she can get her money and Rafe can get money for a commission. Despite his secret hopes that Rafe and Lydia (aforementioned heiress) will fall in love, Ash somehow ends up engaged to her himself. They bond over the difficulty of raising younger siblings while also wanting to give them everything and how conning people and being a gentlewoman call on a similar set of skills. I especially like how being Jewish is integral to the characterization of both Ash and Rafe. On the other hand, I didn't like this as much as I had anticipated because both Ash and Lydia are rather overbearing older siblings and I ended up sympathizing with Rafe a lot. That and I wasn't entirely confident about the happily ever after, not because I didn't like the characters together, but because I still stressed about how Ash's past could still be dug up. Still, I think this is probably Lerner's best and chewiest book to date. Also, I love that Lydia is a Tory while the main characters in the previous book are Whigs and that she doesn't get converted and still doesn't like them.
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Zoya Singh Solanki was born the exact moment India won the Cricket World Cup in 1983. Her next fateful encounter with cricket happens when she is assigned to work with India's cricket team for a Zing! ad for her agency, and soon, the team begins to win whenever she eats breakfast with them. Before she knows it, she is annoying the handsome captain of the team, getting a free ride to Australia for the World Cup, and being hailed as a cricket goddess by some people.

I don't usually read chick lit all that often because of the frequent focus on things like brand names and shopping, and because while I can deal with annoying gender roles in historical romances, it's much more difficult to brush them aside in contemporary romances. This book does have some of the things that annoy me—Zoya's initial stint in the ad company is obviously very conscious of brands—but it wasn't too bad. Also, you can tell where my priorities lie: I was incredibly annoyed at Nikhil Koda, the love interest, until he and Zoya went to a street market and had food. As Nikhil was a fan of the food, I decided I liked him a lot more.

I thought I would actually be more bored by the cricket than I was, seeing as how I am not a big sports person, but all the snippets from the articles from India and the overall excitement reminded me a lot of being in Asia during South Korea's run in the 2002 World Cup. By the end, I was enjoying the cricket bits more than the romance bits.

Unfortunately, the book is at least 100 pages or so too long; in order to stretch the story out, Chauhan basically has a ton of Not-Too-Big Misunderstandings get in the way of Zoya and Nikhil's happy ending. Zoya had decides to ignore Nikhil based on suspicions from gossip rags, her brother's speculations, her own doubts, and various other things that might have made sense the first two or three times, but have gotten incredibly boring the ninth or so time around.

That said, I do actually like Zoya and Nikhil, and I particularly like Zoya's family and friends. And I laughed so hard at Zoya wondering how on earth monolingual white Australians got by with only one language (what do they do when they are in a different mood?), along with the weirdness of being in a place so full of white people. I so sympathize. And there's just something really fun about Chauhan's narrative voice, from the toinnnnngggg commercial to the two sports announcers and the assorted excerpts from gossip magazines.

Anyway, it's definitely uneven, especially when it comes to the romance, but it felt a lot more familiar than almost all chick lit and/or contemporary romances I read, which is usually split between glamorous big city or small-town (very white) America. So, looking forward to reading her next two books, especially since it sounds like they have plot elements and/or settings that differ even more from standard chick lit/contemporary romance.

- reviews from the Anuja Chauhan reading club (also, thanks to [personal profile] deepad for setting it up in the first place!)

Reading Wednesday

Wed, Aug. 28th, 2013 01:31 pm
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Woe, it's been a while since I've had a Reading Wednesday post.

What I've read: I thought I had already made a post about reading Meljean Brook's Guardian Demon, but apparently not! Anyway, I'm hoping to write this one up in more detail. Like many of the other books in the Guardian series, I don't completely buy the romance and the plot doesn't always make sense, but somehow the books are greater than the sum of their parts. Possibly it's Brook's clear affection for worldbuilding along with romance. And of course, after I finished, I went on to reread bits and pieces of various other Guardian books.

I did not read for another week or so after that, but then I got the Kobo Aura HD, and I have now resumed reading 7 Seeds (currently in the middle of volume 14? 13?). It continues to be awesome, and I am especially glad to see certain characters reappearing.

I also caught up on the latest Skip Beat chapters! I think I am withholding judgement until I see what happens next. Also, the translation for some of them is terrible.

And I skimmed The Mammoth Book of Hot Romance, most of which I cannot remember, save the Victoria Janssen short story that I liked a lot. POC hero AND heroine! And a relatively unused romance time period (for the genre, not for the author) with a lot of period detail.

What I'm reading now: Finally found my places again in Spillover and Feed after uploading them to the new ereader, but I haven't made much progress in either. Also in the middle of a 7 Seeds volume. Also I am a few pages into Samit Basu's Gameworld trilogy book 1, but I don't count that as officially reading it yet.

Random book-shaped space: I miss reading manga! Being able to do it on the ereader is awesome, and the new one's larger screen makes them so much more legible. Anyway, I got Silver Spoon and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou to read, but I feel like I'm completely behind on stuff, especially shoujo manga. Any good new shoujo series around?

... also, I should grab whatever Yuki Kaori is working on now.

Reading Wednesday

Wed, Jul. 31st, 2013 11:09 am
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What I've read: Woe, didn't manage to finish anything this week. At least it was mostly because I was being social!

I did forget to note that I read Sampson Davis' Living and Dying in Brick City: An E.R. Doctor Returns Home. I really wanted to read about the medical cases intermixed with personal knowledge of the intersections of health and race and poverty. In the end, the book was too didactic for me. Each chapter is about a specific thing (HIV, obesity, drugs, history of medical experiments on black people, etc.), and each ends with a list of resources. I'm sure it is helpful for people, but I wanted something much more complicated than an introduction to the myriad problems of the US healthcare system and/or personal health issues and what to do about them. I was especially put off by the PSA on obesity, where he focuses on a woman he portrays as grotesquely obese (examples of how she can't be strapped to the gurney, fungus growing in folds of flesh, etc.). This is too bad, because the bits on his own life and history in Newark and how they intersect with his doctoring were really interesting, especially since he was one of the few doctors there who had grown up in and still lived in Newark, as opposed to commuting there from another, more affluent town.

I also forgot to mention Carolyn Jewel's novella Moonlight last week. It unfortunately is not particularly notable. There is some emotional stuff going on there re: a younger man in love with the slightly older women he grew up with and trying to not be seen as a goofy younger brother, but most of it focuses on the sex without tying it in to the conflict.

And I forgot Courtney Milan's A Kiss for Midwinter. Wow, I read a lot the week before. Anyway, I don't dislike it to the same extent [personal profile] coffeeandink does, but the noted discrepancy between what people say about Lydia's cheerful disposition and what we actually read on the page is very disconcerting. I also thought Jonas never quite gelled as a character to me; he read more as a collection of traits—blunt and socially awkward doctor who shows compassion to underserved populations—than an actual person. Definitely not one of Milan's better works.

What I'm reading: I still haven't finished Spillover. So of course I started Mira Grant's Feed, which is one of those "everyone was talking about it when it came out and I am only now getting around to reading it" books. So far, it is entertaining and easy to read—too easy, given how I lost track of time at bedtime! I'm not terribly caught up in the characters yet; they are very snarky and capable, but there's no real emotional hook for me to grab on to. Also, it is interesting reading this in 2013 when the presumed zombie apocalypse is in 2014 (the book was published in 2010). I'm not sure I would have fully bought into Grant's projection of how blogging grows increasingly important even back then, but now it's even odder to compare to what has actually been happening.

What I'm reading next: Er, hopefully Hiromi Goto's Half World, because I keep meaning to read it and then forgetting that I do when it comes time to select a book.

Reading Wednesday

Wed, Jul. 24th, 2013 10:50 am
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What I've read: Amazingly, I have actually read a fair amount this week. The bad thing is that I suspect it is because I have been not feeling great lately. Hopefully the reading will continue and the feeling bad won't...

Blazed through several Sarah Mayberry books, though none of them were as good as Her Best Worst Mistake, which I also reread. I also finished and even managed to write up Grace Lin's Starry River of the Sky, which I enjoyed.

And I finished Courtney Milan's new book The Heiress Effect, which I need to write up. I went a little into some of my uneasiness with it, though overall I did enjoy it. That said, while I liked reading about Jane's empowerment, things just felt a little bit too smooth. This was especially obvious when compared to Cecilia Grant's A Woman Entangled, which has a similar conflict of "I love her but she does not want or fit the deeply cherished lifestyle I want."

I also read Meljean Brook's Iron Seas novella Wrecked, which is better than the one I previously tried! No implausible misunderstandings! It does still have the somewhat unbelievable "he is in love with her even though she is afraid of him" thing that has been in other Iron Seas novellas, but at least this one doesn't involve him actively deceiving her. I also just like the "two people on the run together" storyline much more. And now that there are small spoilers ) in the world, who knows what will come next!!

What I'm reading: I started Rob Jolles' How to Change Minds: The Art of Influence without Manipulation, which is an easy read, but not something I was particularly into. I do like the overall premise though. I also started Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, except I really do not like the author's voice. He keeps saying things and not supporting them, and then saying that there is no point in finding supporting evidence because the most important evidence is the stuff you don't know. Mostly it reads as very self important without having anything to really say.

I am also in the middle of David Quammen's Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. It's not quite as easy a read as Siddhartha Mukherjee's book on cancer—I know that sounds odd, but The Emperor of All Maladies is really a page turner—but it is fairly engaging and only lost me while going into the variants of HIV and etc. It's got the thing where there's a fair amount of focus on more rural "foreign" regions that a lot of books on pandemics and parasites do. Quammen overall tries to avoid the lurid "Haha see what these people eat?" thing, but he does slip into it a few times.

What I'm reading next: No idea... hopefully something comforting and engaging?

Reading Wednesday

Wed, Jul. 17th, 2013 09:46 am
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OMG I read stuff! I suspect this is largely because I am out of playable content on Here Be Monsters and have run out of suitably addicting puzzles on my phone.

What I've read: I finished the new Cecilia Grant, A Woman Entangled, and even managed to write it up. Overall, it has a lot of the things I've been liking about Grant's books so far: lack of noblepeople, believable conflict, an awareness of money, and things that aren't resolved too neatly. I think my favorite of hers so far is still her second book, but I do like this one for the hero and heroine's desire to climb up socially, which isn't condemned.

I also finished (two books! I finished two books yay!) Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald's Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, which I will hopefully write up in more depth. Anyway, Greenwald was the person who developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT), and since then, he and Banaji have conducted many experiments on unconscious prejudice and biases. As the subtitle indicates, Banaji and Greenwald are very careful to not assign blame or motive, which would probably make this very good for 101 stuff. Anyway, it's a quick read in plain and simple language, and after taking (and retaking) some IATs, it's interesting to see what's changed with me since 2006.

AND I finished Courtney Milan's novella, The Lady Always Wins. Like most of Milan's books, the hero and heroine actually talk to each other instead of the hero going through with his planned deception, but it felt like the denouement of one of her novels rather than a complete work in itself. There's not quite enough in the beginning to make the bulk of the payoff worth it, imo. Then again, that's how I feel about most romance novellas—there's either not enough set up or not enough payoff.

What I'm reading: I, er, of course haven't continued anything I was in the middle of last week. Instead, I started Bee Wilson's Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, which is exactly what the title says, if by "we" the author actually means "people like her and not me." In other words, it's the standard "A History of Everything!" that follows a (primarily Western) European history through to the US, with bits and pieces of other cultures thrown in every so often to look diverse. I sound more bitter than I am; I am mostly used to this and pretty much expected it going in, given the title.

I'm also in the middle of Meljean Brook's Iron Seas novella Salvage. Unfortunately, the Iron Seas novellas overall have not been very satisfactory, and this one is no exception. At least there's no eyebrow-raising consent scenarios, unlike some of the others, but the central conflict is a Big Misunderstanding that could have been cleared up if the hero and heroine had actually bothered to sit down and talk for five minutes instead of running off on an assumption based off a single sentence. My eyes roll forever. Spoilers? For the assumption at least )

What I'm reading next: Uh. Hopefully a book.
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Yay, I finished a book! Boo, I stayed up way to late to do it!

Kate Westbrook is relying on her stunning beauty to marry someone titled to lift her family and herself into the class they should have been in all along, had her father not married her actress mother and gotten disowned.

Meanwhile, in other family scandals, Nick Blackshear's brother ran off and married a Cyprian in A Gentleman Undone, and since then, Nick the barrister has seen a drop in clients and a similar decline of his social ambitions to become a politician.

When Kate manages to secure a few party invitations, she's sure she finally has the chance to achieve all her dreams. Her father asks his protege and family friend Nick to keep an eye on her, and naturally, the two are drawn to each other, despite both knowing that they are completely wrong for each other.

I like Grant for giving her characters dilemmas that aren't easily resolved by the end of the book: Will and Lydia's happy ending in book 2 doesn't magically make everyone accept them, and here, both Nick and Kate have to make a hard decision about how far they are willing to go to achieve their dreams and ambitions. The parts I like best are actually the ones in which Kate and Nick are talking (often to each other) about their ambitions, or watching how much they will bend their ethics for their goals.

I wasn't entirely convinced by the sudden onslaught of sexy times, particularly near the end, and I think the denouement was too fast. That said, I very much liked that the two were believable as friends. I also appreciate Grant including several female characters, and for the gentle poking at Kate's sister Viola and her strident feminist ways without making her into a Straw Feminist.

Enjoyable, if not as gripping as the second Blackshear book.

Reading Wednesday

Wed, Apr. 10th, 2013 09:42 am
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What I've read: I finished Alison Bechdel's Fun Home after seeing her at a City Arts & Lectures event. The event itself was great; Bechdel herself isn't all too talkative, but there was a short video clip of her creating a comic page and discussion of her process, which I hadn't been expecting and was really interesting. I don't have much to say about Fun Home yet, especially since I'm still in the middle of her next memoir about her mother, but it's definitely worth reading, and I kind of wish I had read her stuff before going to see her. Oh well! At least it was incentive to get some of her books!

I also finished Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London, which I like, but possibly not as much as everyone else. As most people have said, the voice is fantastic, as is the sense of place, but every time I was getting into it, more murder mystery details showed up and I would promptly lose track of what was going on. Clearly plot brain has disappeared again.

A lot of Meljean Brook )

What I'm reading now: I'm still in the middle of Bechdel's Are You My Mother, which is an interesting experience because it has therapy and mothers, but Bechdel's relationship to her mother, problematic as it is, is very different from mine with my mother. (Me: I WISH my mom would not talk to me!) I also started Aaronovitch's Moon over Soho because I wanted to see how a few dangling threads at the end of Rivers of London were resolved, but now the mystery has hit and, predictably and sadly, I have lost interest.

What I'm reading next: Who knows! I feel like a fantasy + romance fun blend but don't like most paranormals and their more dominant than you heroes, but I can't really think of anything. I should also read vol. 2 of Wandering Son before it's due back at the library.

Reading Wednesday

Wed, Apr. 3rd, 2013 11:07 am
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What I've read: So sad, I don't think I finished anything this week, aside from rereading bits of Skip Beat. Oh wait, no! I read Sarah Mayberry's Her Best Worst Mistake, since it was pretty highly recced on Dear Author. I've tried getting into some of Mayberry's stuff in the past because DA has liked her other books, but I bounced off most of them due to the gimmick-y professions feel. I.e. famous movie star and celebrity chef he hires fall in love! Or: agents have to go undercover in a BDSM club! The contemporary setting makes it so much harder for me to suspend my disbelief, particular when power dynamics are in play.

Anyway, I really liked this one, which is about a woman who sleeps with her best friend's ex-fiance (the best friend breaks up with said fiance in a previous book). There's the Big Secret of when she will tell her best friend, but done in a way that's very convincing. Violet knows she should tell Elizabeth, Martin (the hero) wants her to tell Elizabeth, the readers want her to, but the reasons why she can't get herself to are really the crux of the book and of Violet's character development. I love how much weight is given to Violet's development, and I really like how Violet and Elizabeth's friendship is one of the driving forces of the book. All the relationships feel like real people interacting, which isn't always the case for contemporaries for me.

What I'm reading now: I started up the Ben Aaronovitch again! Hopefully I will make more progress. I also started Mayberry's She's Got It Bad after liking Her Best Worst Mistake, but I fell out of romance mood again. Also, I don't like the hero nearly as much, and it's got the gimmick-y profession thing.

Also, I don't know how if I should count this, but I've also started playing Samsara, an interactive fiction piece set in 1757 Bengal. You're a dreamwalker who is supposedly working for the Nawab of Bengal, but both British and French forces are threats on the horizon. It's based on the same engine that does Fallen London, but the chunks of text are much longer, which helps me follow the storyline more. The gameplay is also more directed and there's less grind, which again helps, and the story has been unfolding fairly quickly. Right now there are only two chapters up—each chapter took me a few hours to explore—but I really want more.

What I'm reading next: Hopefully starting back on Tokyo Demons again.
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What I've just read: Finally finished Cecilia Grant's first book and read the second (interesting new author, see review), which lead to a bit of a romance spree. Went through Sherry Thomas' Tempting the Bride, which I liked due to longing and unrequitedness and amnesia, though tbh, didn't really buy the hero's sudden non-taunting of the heroine even though I love it due to aforementioned angst. Read Meredith Duran's That Scandalous Summer (like the heroine, bleh for the hero, got really disinterested toward the middle and end) and her novella, Your Wicked Heart, which has a heroine who reminds me a great deal of Olympia from Laura Kinsale's Seize the Fire. Also, I think it has the hero I've liked best out of her books so far... I love Duran's prose and I love her heroines, but I frequently want to brain the heroes and get really lost during her plots. Then Rose Lerner's A Lily Among Thorns, which has an adorkable tailor hero who asks about clothes and fashion and can cook. Couldn't completely get into it, though, I think because the dialogue sounded too modern for me? (Then again, I know zero about Regency outside of romance novels.)

Finally finished Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, which I had been reading for so long that I forgot to include it on my "currently reading list" for the past few Wednesdays.

Also read Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince, which I REALLY liked. The reviews on Goodreads seem to be very love it or hate it, though. Also, I rolled my eyes at the ones that were all "There's so much sex in this! Homosexuality and bisexuality is no big deal?!" and reviews complaining about too many original terms ("waka," "grande," etc.). I suspect I have very different expectations compared to the current YA SF audience?

...the length of this section correlates inversely with how much sleep I have been getting. orz

What I'm reading now: Still in the middle of Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London. Probably something else I started months ago and promptly forgot?

What I'm reading next: Er, hopefully the book I'm reviewing for my Con or Bust offer. More realistically, probably a ton more romance novels.
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I am definitely keeping an eye out for this author, because she seems to be doing interesting things with genre tropes, particularly for historicals.

A Lady Awakened

In order to secure her household's maids from her rapey brother-in-law's management, Martha Russell decides to conceive a fake heir to keep the property. Theophilius Mirkwood is the guy she chooses. The pairing is fairly typical for romances: Martha is uptight, very moral, and doesn't think much of sex, while Theo is the rake who's been exiled to the country. Normally, Theo would seduce Martha into enjoying her own sexuality while she imparts a greater sense of responsibility on him. The latter happens, but though Theo has his mind set on the former, Martha has other ideas.

The sex in this book is remarkably unsexy. Martha rolls her eyes at Theo's compliments and his attempts to please her, and... he really never manages to seduce her. Instead, after the chore of trying to conceive is over, they gradually get to know each other by talking about dairies, treatment of tenants, and various agricultural things.

I don't have the best impression of the book, since I basically would read one chapter, put it down for a few weeks, and then read a bit more. That said, I like that Grant lets Martha be unaffectionate and practical and cold and that the sex never really becomes the Most! Best! Thing! Ever!, as it usually does when uptight widows and pleasure-loving rakes are involved. I also enjoyed the prose a lot.

A Gentleman Undone

I can't tell if I liked this more because it pinged my buttons more, or if it's partly due to reading it in a single chunk.

Will Blackshear (brother of the previous book's heroine) has returned home from the Napoleonic Wars with PTSD and a lot of obligations he feels he should meet. Lydia Slaughter is someone else's mistress who is extremely good at counting cards. Together, they decide to go gambling together so Will can meet his obligations and Lydia can set herself up as an independent woman.

The book is actually much darker than the summary sounds; Lydia and Will both have dark things in their pasts. I particularly love Lydia, who detests feelings and tenderness and likes sex very, very much. Throughout most of the book, Lydia remains with her protector while Will deals with the guilt of wanting another man's mistress, and thankfully, the book doesn't do the usual "courtesan finds sex with the hero to be the Best! Sex! Ever!"

The book is paced oddly, and though Lydia's card-counting skills are emphasized a lot in the first few chapters, that thread is dropped for a bit for a drama-filled house party and then taken up on the last page of the book, where it felt atonal and out of place.

Other things I like: Lydia isn't punished for enjoying sex and gets a lot of agency in the sex scenes (though at some points, I was a bit concerned about consent issues in terms of her pressuring Will). No miracle baby + couple being okay with not having kids. Will's family is clearly not evil, but the majority of his siblings disapprove of him and Lydia and there doesn't seem to be an overall reconciliation by the end of the book. (I also like that Martha's marriage from the previous book still isn't completely okay by the family as well.)

Read if you like a lot of angst re: PTSD, honor, and trust.
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(This covers The Iron Duke, Heart of Steel, Riveted, and two novellas in Burning Up and Wild & Steamy. I was going to put in individual write ups here as well, but the post is already monstrously long as is.)

Since several people praised the Ben Aaronovitch books and I am not in the mood for romance, I went for ...a tear through steampunk romance. My brain, I do not understand it either.

Five hundred years ago, the Mongolian Horde conquered most of the Eurasian continent via nanotechnology and war machines. When the series begins, the Horde's empire has begun to decline, and England has been freed from Horde rule nine years ago, when the Iron Duke blew up the tower that controlled people via the nanoagents they are all infected with.

Unsurprisingly, I had some serious issues with this premise. That said, I liked how much worldbuilding there was in The Iron Duke, though I didn't necessarily like the worldbuilding itself. The next two books have been exploring much more about the world and expanding it. I still find some of the things in the world nidgy, but there's been enough interesting stuff to balance it out so far.

For one, it is an incredibly thorough alternate timeline. Paranormal romances from around twenty years ago used to read as though the magic was only in there to further along the romance, what's now called urban fantasy has definitely improved on that, but this is a series I would actually give to someone who wanted worldbuilding detail. I particularly like how Brook has extrapolated how different cultures in her world work: the English are much more comfortable with sex and mechanical prosthetics, given that they didn't have much choice with either under Horde rule, whereas the New World, populated by refugees from Europe and Africa, tends to much more closely resemble historical mores. The New World, on the other hand, is extremely multiracial. Brook is also taking a lot of time to explore bits of it; having each book be an individual adventure instead of part of an overall arc means that they can cover a lot more of the world. It is still very Europe-focused though.

I'm still not sure what I think about the treatment of Native peoples. I couldn't tell what had happened to various indigenous communities when European and African refugees flooded in after zombies basically took over Europe and Africa, and so far, the books focus more on New World communities established by the refugees, particularly ones that speak European languages and correspond to European countries. We know that Portugal and Spain and France and England have carved out little portions, but I wanted to know about various African empires and kingdoms as well. I know from her online guide to the world that actually, the vast majority of the Americas is under the control of assorted Native confederacies, but it's not something that has so far showed up in the text itself. (Also, annoyed at "New World" terminology, though I suppose it makes sense given that it's all European people in the books talking about it.)

I wasn't sure how aware Brook was of things like imperialism and colonization and how intertwined they can be with steampunk—the very beginning of The Iron Duke mentions that the people in England almost all refuse to drink tea or eat anything with sugar, because the Horde used tea and sugar to hide the nanoagents used to infect and then conquer England centuries ago. On reading this, I didn't feel sorry at all for the English and more thought, "Ha, serves you guys right!" given real-world history of how tea and sugar trade went hand in hand with colonization (I am also curious how the Horde got all that sugar, given that there aren't sugar plantations in the Americas. SE Asia is my guess?). I think now that Brook was actually aware of this and meant for it to be ironic, but without much context, I gave it a lot of sideeye when I first read about it.

I also find the worldbuilding really interesting because Brook is obviously using it to explore issues around disability (mostly the social model of disability, I think, so far), gay and lesbian rights, women's rights, and race. Sometimes it's been heavy handed, or it doesn't quite feel right to me, or I roll my eyes, but it's substantively more than most paranormal romances and urban fantasies do, and actually more than a fair amount of sf/f does.

That said, I'd advise pretty much everyone to skip The Iron Duke, which is the book I want to throw against a wall (heroine: awesome. hero: HATE HATE I HATE HIM SO MUCH). Heart of Steel features the cutthroat Arabic pirate airship captain and the Indiana Jones-type guy she throws off her ship the second time they meet. Riveted has POC in the roles of hero AND heroine (this may actually be a first for me in non-African-American romance), along with minor spoiler that I think will convince people to try this. )
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I've been reading and rereading a lot of Courtney Milan's books lately, and I think she is a new favorite romance author. Most of her romances focus heavily on the heroine's journey and growth, and although not all her heroes are to my taste, she so far has had a relatively small amount of annoying alpha males. I also like that several of her books have featured non-neurotypicalness, particularly since she does so in a way that doesn't make me want to throw things.

Also, she has shown a willingness to write about non-lords, which is extremely welcome in duke-heavy Romanceland. Now that she is self publishing, I'm very much hoping that there will be more of class politics and gender dynamics, especially since what I've read so far of her seems to be feminist and looks at class in ways that also don't make me want to throw things.

Sometimes I find her resolutions overly optimistic, but I like her characters (esp. the heroines) so much that I don't mind. Also, it helps that people tend to behave like adults and use their words. I find the most interesting parts of her books to be the second half, after people have circumvented the Big Secret or Big Misunderstanding by talking to each other; the characters actually have to work together and communicate and own up to their own weaknesses to make things work out. Since I enjoy reading about functional romantic relationships, this is particularly nice.

Unveiled )

Unlocked )

Unclaimed )

Unraveled )
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Nicholas St. Croix is trying to track down the demon who killed then impersonated his mother; royally screwed up his psyche; and killed Rachel, the woman who loved him. Ash doesn't know who she is, although Nicholas tells her she looks exactly Rachel. All she knows is that she has absolutely no memory from before three years ago, that sometimes her eyes glow eerily, that she frightens all the nurses, and that she doesn't need to sleep.

I like Ash, especially when she's trying to figure out how to survive with human beings and their strange emotions. I was much less fond of Nicholas, who lives for revenge and doesn't trust anyone. That said, Meljean Brook was trying to break the mold a bit; several times in the book, she mentions that thankfully Nicholas isn't a misogynist due to his evil mother-who-was-a-demon-in-disguise. I also like that there is no illusion about Nicholas being a nice guy. He's a jerk a fair amount of the time, and that's actually what Ash likes about him. Er. That sounds off-putting, but I feel it makes much more sense when your heroine is part demon.

The other thing I really like about the Guardian series so far is how prominent the women are. The first few books definitely feel like "Now meet the hot heroes of books #2-8!" But I was glad to see that several female characters from previous books continue to play a large role in the plot. I think it's more in the last three Guardian books, due to spoilery events, and the final Guardian book is focused on the biggest baddest Guardian guy (of course), but I will take what I can get in this genre. More details under the cut.

Spoilers for previous books )

My main issue with the book is that the plot resolution and the romance resolution aren't paired up, so after the main plot is resolved, you still have to wait around a bit for the romance, which makes it feel anticlimactic. And then there's a bit more plot thrown in to set up the next book, which also feels a bit anticlimactic when it really shouldn't.

Other than that, I am glad Brook seems to have more interest in awesome heroines who may not like each other but work together. I always want more, but I figure it's a nice departure for the paranormals I've been reading of late.
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Tessa Dare has been getting a fair amount of press from romance blogs (afaict?), probably helped by the fact that she is releasing a trilogy a year.

I mildly liked her debut, Goddess of the Hunt, which has some funny bits, and I was going to say I read some of the first book of the Stud Club trilogy but was too bored to finish, except my handy book database says I actually did finish.

... uh. Yeah. That right there tells you how I enjoyed the book.

I like the idea of the trilogy: Dare thought a club called "The Stud Club" would be funny, decided the members should be based on random chance as opposed to the many family connections of other romance novel series, and then went with horses for the "stud." As such, although the protagonists of previous books show up in the next few, it's much less annoying because they are very decidedly not bosom buddies. Leo, the founder of the Stud Club and owner of prize horse Osiris, has been killed, and his friend Julian wants to find out why.

One Dance with the Duke - Spencer DuMarque, Duke of Morland, only dances at midnight with one lady, and then disappears. Amelia d'Orsay ends up being this lady one night, except instead of disappearing, the two end up getting married. I like that Amelia is not conventionally attractive and that Spencer is basically a jerk to the other two Stud Club members, but other than that, I remember next to nothing about the romance, save that Amelia is a homebody and likes embroidering, which made me like her. There is a sweet scene in which Spencer values her for who she is, but since I have read many other "gruff people with hearts of marshmallows ostensibly yelling at loved ones" scenes from manga, it did not impress me quite as much as, say, Sanzo.

Three Nights with a Scoundrel - Julian Bellamy was Leo's best friend, and now that Leo's dead, he wants to avenge what he thinks was murder. At the same time, he wants to protect Leo's deaf twin sister Lily by marrying her off. Only Lily doesn't so much want to be protected, she's rather annoyed at Julian's "I am a bastard and therefore not worthy" attitude, and really, she doesn't see why she can't just be happy with Julian. This has the two people in love from afar button for me, which automatically gives it a leg up. I also like how Dare deals with Lily's deafness—it's very much a part of her life, but she's not inspirational or noble, and a lot of the book is about how Julian keeps wanting to protect her from a world she's not actually very afraid of. I especially like how she tells Julian that yes, deafness makes certain situations difficult, but if he'd listen to her and help instead of insisting he knew best, those situations would be much easier for her. Also, bonus points for looking at Deaf communities during the time. I don't know how historically accurate it is, because I don't know much about the subject, so YMMV, but I liked the acknowledgement of Deafness vs. deafness.

I wish I could talk more about how the book handles class, except I don't remember it very well, save that it didn't make me want to throw things. I don't think it was exceptionally awesome, but on the other hand, romances that deal with class and don't make me want to throw things = yay!

Julian's manpain is one of the drawbacks of the book, but on the other hand, I very much like that Dare is dealing with it as manpain, and that Lily has extremely little patience for it. (skip spoiler)

I especially like how Dare deals with the non-plot of Leo's murder. I think it works here because the actual tension is between Julian and Lily, as opposed to other romances I've read where the plot turns out to be a non-plot and there's nothing else to take the plot's place. Instead, the plot becomes a symbol of Julian's inability to let go and accept things, and a commentary on how he has to take his manpain and make it larger than it actually is as a way of coping.

I also vaguely remember bits about Leo being gay, but I mostly remember being "Huh" instead of being very happy with the storyline. I do think his lover isn't evil, which, yay! On the other hand, the more I read, the more annoyed I get with gay romances being sidelined or used as plot points in romances.

In conclusion: first book is very skippable, and the third isn't the best romance ever, but it has enough interesting elements in it for me to keep it around for a reread.
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Jenny Jameson found a silver boy with a tail on the beach the summer she was twelve, and she's never forgotten him. Ever since then, she's been on the hunt for supernatural beings for her family's corporation, and finally, Perrin resurfaces. Unfortunately, this only complicates matters, as Jenny's family is none other than the evil Consortium that has been the long-running villain through the Dirk & Steele series.

Adventure, narrow escapes, angst, UST, betrayal, and plot twists ensue. Alas, I read this almost two months ago, and of course I have forgotten everything.

Most of what I can recall is that I was a bit disappointed that there aren't more POC showing up in the Dirk & Steele series. I think there's about the same number throughout the series, since there aren't any intra-POC relationships AFAIK, and while I don't read the gargoyles and mermaids and shapeshifters and etc. as white, I am not sure if I should be reading them as POC either.

I'm never sure if I'm disappointed in the direction D&S is going or not. On the one hand, I love that the universe continues to expand and that we're not just limited to the usual sequel bait. On the other hand, I actually liked some of the D&S characters and have been waiting for their books for a while (EDDIE!). So... YMMV? I do wish the mythology were a bit more coherent, but then again, the everything-and-the-kitchen approach is also part of the series' charm.

Not one of the best D&S books for me, though I liked getting more of a look into the Consortium and the enemies of D&S, but not one of the worst either.
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I have recently been extremely annoyed by the pervasive narrative of sex and sexuality in USian mainstream culture, particularly as represented by romance novels. Lest people think I am bashing romance novels, I suspect much of this narrative is in a lot of USian mainstream culture, particularly mainstream porn; I focus on romances since that's where I get the bulk of my sex narratives as of the past few years.

Thanks to the OKCupid experiment, I looked up dating advice on the Internet, which brought up site after site after site on how men can tell if a woman will hook up with him, how women can secretly signal their willingness to have sex without ever saying so, how having sex or not having sex after date #[x] means [y] about you or your partner, how to flirt, how to dress, and etc. All the advice basically seems aimed toward cis het monogamous 20- to 30-somethings, and the most annoying thing is that all the advice is the same. I'm not actually surprised by this; I've read enough Cosmopolitan and GQ magazine to have seen all the advice before, but it was disappointing to realize that despite all my qualms with romance novels, they actually model better sexual relationships than these stupid articles. At least in romances, there are different characters who like different things and do different things for different reasons.

Even so, I hate the dominant narrative of non-communication, the assumption that your perfect sex partner (or partners, although usually it's singular) will magically know exactly how to get you off and bring you to orgasm. I've seen very few examples of negotiation in the romances I've read, and very few examples of sex that deviate from the kissing -> touching breasts -> touching vagina/clitoris -> oral sex performed on the woman -> penis-in-vagina sex. Not only is there nearly no acknowledgement of trans people, gender fluidity, queerness, kink, poly, disabled people, people of different ages and orientations, or different levels of sexuality, there isn't even a lot of room for het cis couples to deviate. I've literally seen one heroine in a romance novel saying having her nipples touched did nil for her (Lydia Joyce, The Veil of Night, for the record).

I haven't read fic for a long time, so I don't know how much the narrative changes there. What I do remember from fic is a greater openness to OT#, male and female slash, some gender fluidity, and a fair amount of kink, but I still get frustrated that it often goes from kissing to touching to oral sex to some sort of penile penetration. I haven't read as much femslash, so I don't know if a lot of it ends with vaginal penetration? And the sex is almost always magically mind blowing, orgasms happen regularly, and people don't suddenly get hand cramps or lose their arousal or accidentally elbow someone or get hair stuck in awkward places. I think there is actually more of that in the fic I've read, but the focus on amazing sex and orgasms still annoys me. I do think the fantasy sex is a nice fantasy, where everything goes off perfectly and is awesome and there are spouting geysers and fireworks and whatnot, and believe me, I am especially grateful to have that type of narrative by and for the female gaze. So while I don't want to reduce that type of sexual narrative, I also want alternatives, because I've found that while sites like Scarleteen have great advice, it's still really hard to implement said advice unless you've seen and read and ingested many many many permutations of said advice. And a lot of how I personally do that is via fiction. (I could also talk about how taboos of talking about sex result in getting more of this from fiction than from friends and family.)

And even though I am feminist and firmly believe in consent and saying "no" and figuring out boundaries, it was scary realizing how difficult it was putting theory into practice. A friend linked me to No and no and no and yes (non-explicit descriptions of kink, consent boundaries, and restraints), and I was just, "YES. YES THAT."

So if anyone else has recommendations, either fictional or non-fictional, for sexual narratives that involve negotiating consent and boundaries and figuring out what you like and don't like and are kind of meh about but will try or hate the idea of and awkwardness during sex, I will love you forever! I've been going through The Pervocracy, but really, I'd love more to read, especially real-life applications of the above. As in, Scarleteen and Our Bodies Ourselves are helpful, but I think what I really want are ways to see theory put into practice, fictional or non-fictional, to get a better idea of ranges and methods and just... options. I am a cis het Asian woman in a monogamous relationship that isn't particularly kinky, but honestly, anything that has the negotiation and learning about sexuality especially would be great. Double plus bonus points for things that reference mental illness and dealing with heteronormative gender expectations and being girly and feminist. Also, normally in these cases, I am all "Who cares about the mens?!" but in this case, if there is stuff for cis het men who read as more stereotypically feminine than masculine, that would be awesome. (FWIW, aforementioned guy is Asian.)
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General overview for books 1-6 on race and gender and etc.

Can I just say that these book titles are terrible? I can't keep half of them apart. Also, assume spoilers in each cut for the book being discussed and for prior books in the series.

Out of Control (2002) )

Into the Night (2002) )

Gone Too Far (2003) )

Into the Night and Gone Too Far are romance recs for doing some really interesting things with the tropes, despite the inclusion of things in there that I don't like.

- [personal profile] kate_nepveu's reviews of Out of Control, Into the Night and Gone Too Far
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General overview for books 1-6 on race and gender and other stuff.

Each write up contains spoilers for the books.

The Unsung Hero (2000) )

The Defiant Hero (2000) )

Over the Edge (2001) )

I feel the romances in the second and third book all suffer from the surfeit of thriller plot, but I liked the first book a lot.

- [personal profile] rushthatspeaks' review of Unsung Hero
- [personal profile] kate_nepveu's reviews of Unsung Hero and Defiant Hero and Over the Edge


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