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Review – Kingdom of Exiles

Kingdom of Exiles, Fantasy by Maxym M Martineau

Series: The Beast Charmer #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

My review:

I’ve seen a lot of positive reviews for this book, and I was excited for it too. But I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review, and I honestly did not like it. Structurally, it’s like a Jenga puzzle mid-game, the main characters’ personalities as told are the polar opposite of how they speak and act, and the internal logic sent me off on long rants.

Problems appear almost immediately. There are too many proper nouns and concepts introduced at a dizzying speed. Leena is a charmer, a sort of beast tamer. She sells beasts, and that’s against the law. Noc is the leader of a guild of undead assassins. Also she’s exiled. Also he’s cursed. Also they have to work together. Also he has to kill her. Also she needs his blood as part of her redemption plan. Also they’re attracted to each other practically on sight in spite of having less than zero reason to feel that way.

Everything happens too quickly. The romance is forced, which exposes the problem of telling vs showing that is prevalent throughout.

The characters are frustrating. Noc is too emotionally squeamish to be a believable assassin. Leena’s choices never make any sense. She could use the beasts’ abilities to make money and survive while not breaking the law, but nah. She exists in a constant state of open emotional vulnerability, which is irritating and baffling. But more frustrating than the characters’ actual actions are the way the narrative tries to strong-arm events or developments.

I was told “Fantastic Beasts meets Assassin’s Creed” but the assassins were nothing like AC and the beasts… The blurb promises Fantastic Beasts, but the book delivers something much more akin to Pokemon fanfiction. Leena keeps her beasts in an extradimensional space, and they’re described using video game terms like B-Class. She also thinks of them exclusively in terms of either their abilities or classifications.

How are beasts classified? By who? To what purpose? Real fauna have Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. Why do beasts get graded A-E? Even pokemon have types and stuff. Why does she keep the beasts in pokeballs—I mean, the beast realm? I guess Fantastic Beasts has the briefcase, but that isn’t remotely the same thing.

The entire enterprise is too off-key to even be dumb fun. It’s a shame, because there are a lot fun ideas in here. The beasts are cool, and the locations were creative as hell. The ideas simply aren’t organised well, and the characters need a “kill your darlings” pass. Better pacing in later books might draw me back in.

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Review – Once Ghosted, Twice Shy

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy; Contemporary Romance by Alyssa Cole (LGBT+)

Series: Reluctant Royals #2.5

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Although I am still obviously in a reading slump, this was a quick read and I love Alyssa Cole’s books in general and this series in particular. It’s indicative of a slump that I had a slightly difficult time with this one.

Likotsi is awesome as ever, beginning the book with a practical plan to forget Fab, the woman whom she met in the first book and enjoyed a behind the scenes romance with. But by chance, they meet on the subway—and it’s a cute af—and Fab is back in her life as lovely and enticing as before. As much as Likotsi wants to know why Fab cut her off so suddenly, Likotsi also can’t ignore the fact that her feelings have not changed.

There’s a bit of a giant canyon gap for Fab to overcome here. Likotsi is the known character for those who have read the first book, and being the one who did the leaving in a second chance romance tends to mean having more work to win over the reader. Such was the case with me. I couldn’t help thinking that Fab was selfish pretty much of the time.

Maybe it was my bad mood and slump working against it, but I didn’t like how mysterious she acted instead of just coming out and answering Likotsi when they’re meeting months later and this woman quite reasonably asks why you gotta do me like that. The reason was serious, relatable, and empathetic, but I don’t know if I’d say it was a good reason. Actually dumping Likotsi was impulsive and selfish. Not actually justified by what happened. Fab just let her emotions drive the bus and screw whoever fell under it, which…no thanks.

AND YET I LOVED FAB. I loved her spark and her flightiness and her being a jewellery-making accountant. I loved her with Likotsi. Even when I was annoyed and making faces, I enjoyed myself immensely. This is the sweetest romance, and it gives love at first sight the fairest shake.

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Ghosts and Goblins

When I was a kid, Ghostbusters was a Thing. I got into the cartoon—both of them—and the movie. I wrote ghost stories and read far more than was healthy. One book, I remember, I had to physically get rid of because the cover carried so much residual horror after I read it. I’m 95% certain that I was initially interested in Supernatural because of Extreme Ghostbusters.

The name is stupid, but it had an awesome cast. I will still fight people in the street over how great that show was.

Anyway. There are many reasons I grew out of Ghostbusters. The first cartoon was of that kind of 80s/90s quality that does not age well. The jokes are bad and/or tired, mostly puns, and it accidentally teaches some upsetting moral lessons. There also aren’t actually that many ghosts in it.

From the very first episode, you can see that whoever was in charge, they did not know what to do with the property. The voice cast is phenomenal, but the character designs are cosmically confusing when you know what the actors look like, and the ghosts are so not ghosts. They never resemble anything living, they’re garishly colored, and they behave like corporeal beings. The first episode has some goofy decisions, like an obese ghost getting stuck in a pipe and the ghosts using the terminology that the Ghostbusters made up like “Level 5 apparition.”

Often, they were expressly dealing with things that were not ghosts. The Grendel, trolls (bridge trolls in New York, seriously), a leprechaun at least once. Demons and goblins.

Goblins are an interesting “thing” in mythology. Outside of places where the meaning of the word has been thoroughly codified, like Dungeons and Dragons, there’s not really a set appearance, although it carries connotations of being vaguely humanoid and usually ugly. Culturally, goblins tend to live in the dark, be cunning or tricksy, and are not the nicest creatures.

This is one of the reasons why 쓸쓸하고 찬란하신 – 도깨비, which was originally translated as The Lonely and Great God—Goblin saw a mid-broadcast name change to Guardian: The Lonely and Great God. The titular 도깨비 was more of a benevolent force in the world than a grimacing trickster.

Goblins are a better choice for children’s television than ghosts. Goblins are more readily dynamic in how they can affect the world than ghosts. They don’t have an implied history. Nor do they necessarily have feelings or agency. They can just be nasty things that need to be hunted down and contained. They don’t need a reason to exist or to do any of the things they do. Just like bugs.

Ghosts have the problem of questionable visibility and tangibility. They’re usually lacking in one or both to some degree or entirely and that is what makes them ghosts. Also being the lingering spirits of a thing that was once living. Usually a human.

Put that context on the ghosts in an episode of The Real Ghostbusters and it just gets uncomfortable.

everettpeck

[Everett Peck’s stock ghosts for the show]

The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is a construct created by a malevolent god. So. Not a ghost. But what was that pink thing with the blue crest and antennae in life?

Goblins, demons, or monsters fit better. The first has the most palatable parent-friendly name.

I’m not sure if I have some kind of conclusion other than that the ghosts in The Real Ghostbusters were usually not ghosts any more than I am a block of cheese.

[post requested by dither]

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Review- Smitten by the Brit

Smitten by the Brit, a Contemporary Romance by Melonie Johnson

Series: Sometimes in Love #2

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

Bonnie Blythe has a lot to be anxious about. Her best friend is getting married after a brief courtship, which thing Bonnie cannot help comparing to her longtime engagement to her high school sweetheart. Her troublesome crush on a British man she met on a trip to Europe notwithstanding. Until she discovers her fiancé is cheating on her, just when her crush is in town.

Said British crush, Theo Wharton, has his own problems. He is another in a long tradition of titled people lacking funds. Not to mention his unfortunate crush on an unavailable American.

You see where this is going.

In all fairness, I should have figured that I would not care for a book with a twee title that uses the word “Brit” as though it isn’t borderline archaic. I should have known that “Britishness” would be fetishised and reduced to tourism while Theo talks as if he is either quite old or using a list obtained from a Google search for “British slang.” At one point, there’s an attempt to describe someone’s accent when he had only said “sorry,” and I spent ten minutes trying to recreate it using the description as instructions. I just ended up saying 서리 over and over. It got very cold. …Pardon the pun, I had to.

However. The publisher sent me an ARC through NetGalley (thank you) and it sounded like a movie. Also I was in the mood for cute.

It delivers on cute. Bonnie is almost unbearably cute at times. I liked her nerding out over things she liked, and she was generally sweet. But she was also aggressively pure. I don’t care what a heroine’s level of sexual experience is, but Bonnie’s attitude toward sex grated on me. The kind of nervous innocence that drives an adult woman to use the phrase “one of those” to refer to a prospective lover’s penis. Just… uh, no to that, actually. The sex scenes suffered for it. Neither party seemed terribly comfortable—although enthusiasm was not a problem?—and there were so many little things that felt off. I found myself over-analysing what was going on and why I didn’t care for it. At my worst, I was giving them tips.

One aspect of the book which I absolutely adored was all of the women. There are so many people in this book for what it’s trying to do, and most of them are women. They’re varied, nuanced characters who all have positive relationships with one another. My favourite scene was when Bonnie’s friends drop everything to deliver an impromptu object lesson on how to give a blowjob using ice pops and fruit snacks.

As women’s fiction, I would say this is decent. It has the sort of emotional payoff one might expect from a story primarily about a woman dealing with the fallout of one relationship and beginning another. Bonnie’s friends support her, she gets a job opportunity that takes her out of the country, and she rediscovers a love of writing.

But as a romance, it leaves something to be desired. Theo isn’t a bad character, but his story is less compelling. Bonnie and Theo already like each other before the story even begins and once she’s single, the only things keeping them apart are Bonnie’s hang-ups. And some of those are difficult to understand in a narrative sense.

It’s funny and pays off in some places and wobbly and awkward in others. Ultimately, I disliked more than I liked about it. Ah well. There’s an audience for it, I’m sure.

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Review – Red, White & Royal Blue

Red, White & Royal Blue, a gay Romance by Casey McQuiston

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

As FSOTUS, Alex Claremont-Diaz has a lot of social expectations to live up to, and in general, he navigates his position with ease. Except for one specific point of international diplomacy: he cannot stand His Royal Highness, Prince Henry. This dislike is long and storied. But when it results in a public altercation, the two have to make nice to restore their images.

In spending quality time together, they come to like each other a great deal better than expected.

My feelings on this book are so complicated, I had to unpack them.

I did not like the main character. Alex never has to answer for crappy things he does. However, I liked Henry quite a bit. Throughout the entire book, I wished for Henry’s perspective. He’s a wonderful example of a quiet, introverted character with emotional trauma which he has survived. I loved every time he unearthed an uncomfortable memory to share it with Alex. This is an incredible show of trust, and one of my favorite ways in which they connect. Henry described his psychological defense mechanism of visualizing painful memories as rooms in Buckingham Palace which he could lock. He felt like a complex, complete character, despite being represented by Alex’s POV in a primarily sexual way. Henry has a character arc. He begins the story lonely, unhappy, stand-offish, and afraid. At the end of the story, he’s opened up and confronted his fears to come out on the other side.

Alex…does none of that. He starts and ends the book confident, socially insular, impulsive, ambitious, unforgiving, judgmental, and selfish. While there are plenty of arguments to be made for protagonists with no arc, in Romance, it’s something of an expectation. Two people becoming better and conquering their problem together. Not one person who thinks he’s already perfect fixing his partner.

The writing style is generally fun and whimsical. I liked the secondary characters. There are some interesting personalities in the cast, and the parents are pretty funny. Alex’s mom is fabulous. And I certainly felt for Zahra.

The romance is a fun enemies to lovers story with a lot of positive family support for Alex. The dialogue is cute, often very funny, and while he didn’t face consequences or undergo more change than a bisexual awakening, he was ever called on his shit.

I do possess some bias in sharing the political views expressed and being, like Alex, a queer half-Mexican. The premise is my catnip as well. I think it’s a refreshing book that I’m glad I read. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I was lucky to receive an ARC through NetGalley, and I felt pretty sad whenever I came across something that I wasn’t thrilled about. I’m sure the majority of this book’s audience will love it to the point of gushing, though.

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Review – The Ultimate Pi Day Party

The Ultimate Pi Day Party, Contemporary Romance by Jackie Lau

Series: Baldwin Village #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

After a teenage indiscretion, Josh Yu has been fighting for his father’s approval, facing silence and estrangement, for nearly two decades. Then he gets the idea to throw a Pi Day party and invite his parents.

Sarah Winters has her own share of parental disapproval. Her mother was against her moving from their small town to start a pie-centred bakery in Toronto. But Sarah’s doing quite well, aside from having too little romance and not enough friends.

I have feelings about this book, which is cool. I love the use of food. It’s not insanely decadent, but it’s comfortable and kind of like a background character. Both of the mains’ issues with their parents hit me as real. Especially Sarah’s, even though it was never as dramatic as Josh’s with his dad.

The romance is super cute. They had running jokes, which felt natural and suits Lau’s writing style well. Some of the jokes were built upon, too. Marshmallow dicks is my favourite dumb inside joke. Especially since it was an in-joke for both the romantic leads and Sarah and her friends.

I do have to admit that the first person present tense was an impediment for me when I was first getting into it. It felt young and claustrophobic, even overly clear. (Is that a thing?) But once I got into the story and I was able to get myself invested in the characters, it ceased to be a problem.

For such a short and sweet book, I was surprised at the complexity in the execution of the parent/child relationships theme. Seventeen years is a long time to go without speaking to your child, and there really isn’t a good reason to do that. But people definitely do things like that, and as sad as it is, it worked, narratively.

I could probably check out more of this series, now I’m over the POV-tense issue.

(Thanks to the author for the ARC!)

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Things We Lost in the Fire

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Efren had been cold and wet for so long, his skin had forgotten every other sensation. Standing vigil outside the burnt, soggy remains of the garden shed. Just in case something came out.

The old man had been… a lot of things. He’d been a lot of things. A piece of work. An accomplished, bitter shit-talker. In possession of a mean temper and a right hook to match.

Who knew the bastard could have been sad too?

A body-wracking shiver coursed through Efren’s skinny body. He hadn’t dressed for the weather when he’d gone out early that afternoon—it had only been cold then—and when the rain hit, he’d figured he deserved it.

Fingers traced the tender flesh around his left eye. Blinking madly as fat raindrops rolled down his brow and into both eyes. Nothing was coming out. He couldn’t bring himself to go in. Nor to call whatever authority he ought to have called an hour ago.

Most of the streetlights in the neighborhood had gone. Victims of rocks and indifference. But his eyes had adjusted enough that he could still see a charred once-white undershirt. Light from somewhere glinted off broken glass. Maybe the moon?

Who was Efren supposed to call? The police? What would they do? Nothing he’d like, he assumed. The fire was long out. Did one call firefighters after the fire had been drowned?

Then it struck him. He didn’t have to call anyone. He could just… go.

So he did.