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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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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 Lawrence Browne Affair

The Lawrence Browne Affair, Historical MM Romance by Cat Sebastian

Series: The Turner Series #2

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

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Three stars can either feel exactly right as a symbol of “I liked it” or it can be damning with faint praise. In this case, it’s the latter. This book feels like an exercise in mediocrity. Romance boiled down to instruction and formula, as if it had come in a flatpack from Ikea. The setting is just historically accurate enough to not trigger potato rage. But since most of it takes place indoors in Cornwall, that isn’t asking for much. The writing is probably better than good enough, but it gets lost in a sea of checked boxes and familiar tropes. Both of the main characters are an example of the latter.

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We’re told that Georgie Turner is a con artist who’s growing a conscience, despite his best efforts to quell it. Consequences for failure to fight that nascent conscience are already in play before the story begins. I say, “we’re told” because his behaviour doesn’t bear it out. He’s sentimental and squishy from the word go. There isn’t a character arc, he just eventually stops denying his squishiness.

Lawrence is an earl with scientific leanings, and he also thinks he’s mad. There seems to have been some attempt to imply the autism spectrum to a modern reader. These attempts fell flat for me, largely because the author seemed to forget about it. By the last third, madness was suddenly okay to joke about (because that isn’t insensitive) and his condition was flanderised into “he only eats ham and apples.”

I’m not kidding.

The romance has high points. For all that the initial attraction deserves the term ‘instalust’ they are genuinely into each other. They also develop a friendship first, and it’s lovely to see how they get to know each other through both caring observation and questions.

Unfortunately, the sex is pretty basic. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s suitably sexy, but I had to make myself go back and read some scenes after skimming because nothing happens other than sex. Sex scenes should be an opportunity for the characters to discover things about each other, themselves, or at least to show that their relationship is something special. Maybe not every sex scene should be ~something more~ but at least one should. These felt interchangeable, like factory add-ons. They could have been between any two men so inclined. Ugh. It’s fine. The sex is fine.

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There’s too much plot, yet it doesn’t do anything but show up. A gangster has it in for Georgie, Lawrence’s voltaic piles, fear-mongering rumours about Lawrence, an eight-year-old son comes home for the holiday, smugglers because Cornwall. It feels like a laundry list. Some things are resolved, although not all of them need to be addressed in the manner they were addressed. Contrivance is rife. Other things simply fall by the wayside. Yet it all comes to a nominally satisfying conclusion. Everyone lives happily ever after, and I believe they will be happy.

Honestly, there is only one real problem with this perfectly competent novel. It has no substance. I feel like that’s why I had so many minor details to quibble over: there is nothing seriously wrong with this except that it doesn’t do anything special. Many people like or love it, and I can’t help thinking that it’s more due to the reader than the book. If you bring a slice of cake to an empty table, you get to eat cake and it doesn’t matter that the table didn’t actually give you cake. I don’t love tables for their correlation to cake.

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Review – The Starlit Wood

The Starlit Wood, an Anthology of Fairy Tale Retellings edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Trigger warnings for rape and drug use.

This is probably the first multi author anthology I have read without skipping any of the stories. I didn’t like all of them equally, and I don’t believe I liked any two of them in the same way. However, they all manage to be exactly what I hoped—new fairy tales.

While there is obviously variation in tone, all of the stories adhere to the smokey baseline of mystical wonder. Even the tragic and the horrifying. Not everything mystical is something a body might want to encounter.

Some of the fairy tales used as inspiration are obvious, either right away or near the end. Others are either subtle or vague. It was kind of fun to guess while reading. There were only one or two fairy tales I didn’t know in their original form.

The writing styles run a range of poetic to humorous, with some fever dream wackiness that I admit could get dull or annoying. The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest was charming if silly, while Even the Crumbs were Delicious just reminds me of Kissing the Buddha’s Feet minus the fun of playing a game. And with less engaging characters.

This collection is worth at least a trip to the library for the truly standout stories. In the Desert Like a Bone, Seasons of Glass and Iron, Giants in the Sky, Reflected, and Spinning Silver. There are others that were good, but these struck me as the best, each in a different way. I heard somewhere that Spinning Silver might be extended or adapted into a full-length novel, but I could be misremembering. It’d be cool, though. Giants in the Sky made me laugh aloud, which was a desperately needed rhythm. It comes in not long after Some Wait, an upsetting take on The Pied Piper.

How I even came to read this book is a story in itself. I’m enrolled in my local library’s “Library at Your Door” program. Disabled library patrons request materials using the library’s website (or have them chosen by liaison) and receive them by post. I don’t remember requesting this book, and I’ve never had my books picked out for me. Yet one day it came in a purple post bag along with The Glass Town Game.

Spooky, I thought. And that’s the perfect sort of atmosphere in which to read this. A little unsure, questioning one’s memories. It’s a good book to read in the dark with a torch.

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Review – The Tiger’s Daughter

The Tiger’s Daughter, a Historical LGBTQ Romance by K Arsenault Rivera

Series: Their Bright Ascendancy #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Using a star rating system for this book is problematic. Due to the insensitivity of treating East Asian cultures as interchangeably exotic or fantastic as purely fabricated cultures–and the specifically cringe-inducing derision of the naginata as a “coward’s” weapon–I feel compelled to go with one star and feel sad and disappointed. Indeed, if I’d come across this book after publication rather than being lucky enough to receive an ARC, I probably would have marked it as DNF when the first bizarre honorific kerfuffle appeared.

I’m sure the general response will be, “Oh, it’s a fantasy world, it doesn’t have to be historically accurate!” Maybe not, but it should have to actually understand the borrowed elements from the real world. Some of the names are real, but then some will be made up. Some world-building details are based on fallacies that could have been cleared up by a quick Google search, never mind a good non-fiction source book.

As to the story and overall execution, both are quite good! Is it well-written? I believe so. There are some first-time quirks that I can see improving over time. The writing itself is great, well-suited to historical fantasy. It can linger a little longer after making a point sometimes, though. The book could be shorter and not suffer. But that’s not uncommon. To some Fantasy readers, it might even be a point in its favour. Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a very long and flowery book.

The major draw is the lesbian romance. My mind is split on whether it is particularly well done. I always love to see a romance survive family disapproval and terrible odds of every kind. Like many first-time romances I’ve seen, the initial attraction is pretty much a sort of destined love at first sight thing for both of them. They experience some turmoil, a sexual encounter of questionable timing, and then they are so in love that mountains tremble at the mention of their names. It didn’t really draw me in. I saw a lot of admiration and declarations of love, but actual feeling never really seemed to shine through. I loved how they fought to stay together in the most bitter conflict, when death was on the line. But by then, if it was earned, it was by attrition rather than having drawn an emotional investment from me.

Most of the book is supposed to be a letter from one of the lovers to the other, who is an empress. By “most of the book” I honestly mean 80-90% of it. I think it’s realistically a large bound volume, and it covers their entire lifelong relationship, very very loosely held inside a framing device of the empress’s unhappy life as it is in the Now. Personally, I would have been happier if it could have just been a memoir or something, as it’s always jarring to me when dialogue scenes are written as normal/traditional prose inside what is supposed to be a letter–this character isn’t even meant to have an exceptional memory. But that’s a pretty minor quibble. It’s an interesting format idea and it’s executed fairly, despite my preference. I would have liked more from the framing device, as that would have helped the ending to feel less rushed. But it all wraps up nicely, and I don’t think I’d ask for more than that.

Let’s say 3 stars for good writing, decent romance, and some lovely characters, tempered by problems with the setting.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – Mask of Shadows

Mask of Shadows, YA Fantasy by Linsey Miller

Series: Mask of Shadows #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is the best book I’ve read this year!

If I were speaking aloud, I’d have to leave it at that. Because if I were speaking, anything further would just be gibbering happiness, the ultimate in Good Book Noises.

Luckily, I’m typing. I was sold on the premise alone, and it helps that the cover is gorgeous. A gender fluid thief competing to become an elite assassin in order to mete out revenge on behalf of their entire country? I may have literally shouted, “Sign me up!” When I was approved for a NetGalley ARC, there was a preview of the gibbering happiness. So here’s my honest review.

Sal is an amazing character. Not only a wonderful representation of a woefully underrepresented character type, but also one of the most complex vengeance-seeking characters of any I’ve seen. Growing up gender fluid myself, I wish I’d had a character like Sal to look to back then. (Mostly happy with “she” now, but I lost count of the times I whispered, “I know that feel,” to myself.) Sal is also awesomely intelligent and capable. It’s a joy to see them think through each conflict and triumph despite, at times, insane odds.

The supporting cast of characters is also quite good. I loved Maud, the servant assigned to Sal during the auditions, and Lady Elise is fun as both a teacher and a love interest. The rest of the elite assassins, the Left Hand, managed to be distinct without losing any of their mystique. Most impressively, the other auditioners didn’t just blend together. I’ve read the Hunger Games and some of Battle Royale, and neither of those books made the faceless competitors even seem like stand-ins for people. In Mask of Shadows, everyone is somebody, even if they don’t survive.

A lot of characters don’t survive. But every death has weight, and Sal isn’t indifferent to them.

The world-building in this book is tremendous and also effective. There’s internal logic and consistency. Magic was drained from the world to stop deadly shadows, and magic does not mysteriously/suspiciously return or work sporadically. It’s gone, so it’s gone. Although the world is expansive and complex, there are no eye-rolling info dumps. There is a timeline/history at the back of the book. Even that has some story weight.

This book seriously has a little bit of everything. There’s sorrow, ambition, death, clever manoeuvring, friendships, careful joy, love, political intrigue, personal agendas, fighting for one’s right to personal expression, sultry writing of poetry ink on skin, and hope.

I honestly can’t see anything else I read this year topping this book. I rarely reread anymore–not with 50 books on my To Be Read Before August list–but this book will be the exception.

(As I said in the review, I received an ARC through NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – Tash Hearts Tolstoy

Tash Hearts Tolstoy, Contemporary YA by Kathryn Ormsbee

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Give me more main characters who love a dead Russian author to the degree of counting him as a boyfriend! That was what initially intrigued me (by design, one might safely assume) and it mostly held up. I loved the way it informed Tash’s romantic asexuality. She’s so easy to identify/empathise with, that I still don’t know if that even reflects on me or if she’s just a well-written teen who is basically cool and decent. Flawed, obviously, but that’s part of the point of the story–she grows up and improves as a person by the end.

For the sake of context, I read this book in the long hours of pre labour. Breathing through increasingly painful contractions isn’t exactly a picnic, so I was glad to have this to ameliorate the stress.

Tash is a fairly sheltered young woman who takes a lot for granted. Her friends are always there for her (including her online crush), she knows where she’s going to school after graduation and what she’ll be studying, and her family is a strong support system. She and one of her best friends produce a Youtube serial adaptation of Anna Karenina called Unhappy Families, which gains an insane boost in popularity when an established Youtuber gives them some positive press.

Her negative reactions to sudden fame are a bit predictable, but they’re also understandable and realistic. I struggled a bit as her bad behaviour clashed with her perception of herself. For someone who professed to be so close to her friends and grateful for the closeness of her relationship with both friends and family, Tash does an awful lot of lying by omission, and generally withholds information to her detriment. While this is certainly part of her character arc and addressed in the text, I couldn’t help thinking that she must have been a pretty shitty friend for a long time if she was so unaware of how to communicate.

Also, for clearly personal reasons, I wasn’t terribly thrilled with her treatment of her mother after the announcement of an unexpected pregnancy. Despite repeated mentions that the pregnancy was unplanned, Tash and her sister both questioned their mother’s reasons for having a baby. How does one have reasons for something completely unplanned? Is this an implication that they think she’s making a choice by not having an abortion? She also gets maligned for “keeping it secret” which is stupid, because especially with a pregnancy at that age, one does not announce it until about the second trimester because of the chance of miscarriage in the first. I get that Tash felt displaced, but I didn’t sympathise.

Although I have to admit that I don’t think I would like Tash’s web series if it were a real thing, the portrayal of the work involved in the production, especially the rough bits like stuff that can ruin a day’s shooting, was wonderful. The young actors run the gamut from Casual and always late to Overly “Professional” and insufferable but suffered because of Talent. The latter character actually surprised me in the end, which was awesome.

There’s some great representation for marginalised teens in this book. Not only is Tash herself asexual, but one of the actors in Unhappy Families is gay, and another is bisexual. It’s all very easygoing and natural, without too much underlining.

Although she is the main character, Tash still manages to take up more narrative real estate than necessary, which has the effect of leaving all of the other characters feeling underdeveloped and some go sidelined overlong because Tash is too wrapped up in herself. It’s brilliantly meta, as it ties directly in to her character arc.

The romance is about as predictable as the Youtube Stardom main plot, but once again, it’s done well enough that I wouldn’t really count that as a mark against the book. Tash’s relationship with her online crush develops slowly, and she gets to enjoy it as one of the things going well for her, but it’s also a major point of stress thanks to her not being out and not having a clue how to come out to basically anyone.

This is a great read overall, but particularly effective if you’re looking for something satisfying and not too twisty or demanding.