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Review – Eight Simple Rules for Dating a Dragon

Eight Simple Rules for Dating a Dragon, Romantic Fantasy by Kerrelyn Sparks

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

I thought this would be a fun, quirky story with light-hearted romance, and Fantasy is almost always a good fit for me. Unfortunately, this was very not for me. Not because it’s the third in a series. It can be read as a standalone, as is often the case in Romance series.

Gwennore is an intimate of the previous two heroines. While at a massive birthday party (seriously, the way the Embraced get their magic means that everyone has the same birthday), she and her friend’s three-year-old daughter are abducted by dragons. Gwennore fights for the child’s return and in doing so makes a bargain to help General “Gorgeous” Silas Dravenko investigate the madness and intrigue infesting his kingdom’s court.

The romance is refreshingly based on mutual admiration and time spent together as well as lust. To be fair, the time they spend together isn’t nominally very much because the pacing is such that the entire story takes place over a short time and they do need to be in love by the end. A great deal of the novel harkens back to Old School Romance. The heroine is virginal, has a youthful lack of self esteem despite a strong support system of other women, and there is a strong focus on purity, easily scandalised society, and marriage and children. The Fantasy elements are also rooted in older tropes.

That was the first of my two problems. This book does not work very hard to be Fantasy. There are basic cookie cutter ideas like elves with pointy ears, murderous trolls, dragons that breathe fire, and royal courts based on the most rudimentary understanding of a Western monarchy. None of these things meld together well, nor do they hold up under logic or examination.

Sad to say, my second problem was with the writing. The voice is oddly juvenile. With the sexual references removed, this could easily be for a younger audience. The vocabulary is limited, overly modern for a Fantasy setting with Western historical influences, and childish. For example, iterations of the phrase “fall for” appear twenty times, and the curse is referred to as “so-called curse” fourteen times. This phrase is also the only use of the word “so-called” in the text. A great deal of time is wasted in repetition and perpetuating misunderstandings or deceit that a child could see through. Ironically, the child character in the beginning doesn’t behave or speak like a real child.

I like this genre. I love Mark of the Tala and the other books in that series. I’ve read a lot more of it in YA, and I’ve liked most of that too. I suppose I just want better commitment to and execution of the Fantasy elements. The romance is fine. He convinces her that she was Beautiful All Along and their banter over the rules for dating dragons is quite cute. And the madness subplot was interesting. It simply wasn’t enough to engage me.

Less picky readers will enjoy the banter between the two romantic leads, the large cast is a lot of fun (I loved Dimitri), and Gwennore’s innocence can be charming.

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

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Review – The Bollywood Bride

The Bollywood Bride, Contemporary Romance by Sonali Dev

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

I can’t remember the last time I’ve had such a hard time reading a book. Not because of density of language or being bored. The emotions in this one hit me incredibly hard, for personal reasons.

Ria is a Bollywood actress of significant fame and an abundance of painful secrets. She’s forced to go home to Chicago and face some of her past when her beloved cousin Nikhil begs her to come to his wedding. When she faces her first, failed loved Vikram, she’s caught up in a storm of constant emotional onslaught.

Hot damn does Ria have the feels. She has to be the single most passionate character I have ever seen. Unfortunately for her, it isn’t the kind of passion that people use to sell romance novels and art supplies. It’s the biblical rent your garments kind of passion. She feels so much and so intensely that I wonder if someone ought to have warned me. I’m in a vulnerable place right now.

I love it and hate it at the same time. Ria is terrified of hereditary insanity, to the degree that she’s helplessly self-destructive. Helplessness defines a goodly portion of her character. I don’t mean that she’s passive and badly written. I mean she is like a genuinely real person struggling with helplessness that ruins her life.

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Always Kinda Emo by paperbeatsscissors on DeviantArt

As a romance, it takes steamy to a new level–maybe a bit further than some people like–and it’s definitely heartfelt. However, her love for Vikram is one of the millstones she collects about her neck. Hell, it comes in a matching set of related issues. This is more the story of Ria learning to be okay than it is a romance, and yet it’s romantic and their relationship is absolutely key to most of what’s going on.

Of course, there is a large supportive family whom I adored, as well as lots of description of food and wedding traditions. Sonali Dev has a gift for supporting characters. They’re varied and full of life. Nikhil and Jen, the happy couple planning their wedding, are sketched with such loving detail that I want to read the book about how they met. There’s so much hope and many kinds of love in Dev’s books.

But if you’re going through a bad patch, maybe read this for a cathartic cry or wait until you’re feeling better. It’s powerful.

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Review – Those Endearing Young Charms

Those Endearing Young Charms, Regency Romance by MC Beaton writing as Marion Chesney

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

“It was in the evening, when what little light there was began to fade, that London became a magic place with carriages rolling over the cobbles and houses ablaze with lights. Then the shops came into their own, with many thousands of candles lighting up silverware, engravings, books, clocks, glass, pewter, paintings, women’s finery, gold and precious stones, and endless coffee houses and lottery offices. Each street looked as if it were lit up for a fair. The apothecaries harlequinned the streets with the light from their display glasses filled with spirits, purple, yellow, and verdigris-green. Most dazzling of all were the confectioners with their candelabra and their hanging festoons and Spanish grapes and pineapples, their pyramids of apples and oranges, their rich cakes and tarts, all served by exceptionally pretty girls with silk caps and white arms.”

While other prolific writers have their charms, there is something incredibly comfort-food-like about MC Beaton under any name that will draw me inexorably back forevermore. Her books are like cupcakes. They may not be nutritious, some may not even taste that great. But I consume them in bulk because CUPCAKES.

This particular cupcake has rather a nice fresh beginning. Mary and Emily are sisters who get along. Mary is awaiting the arrival of her husband to be, once poor Captain Tracey now Earl of Devenham. Her parents disapproved his first proposal ten years previous, and see nothing gauche or vulgar about accepting the same man now that he’s received an unexpected title. To be fair, they’re not the worst parents a Chesney heroine has had.

Unfortunately for Mary, ten years is long enough for the flames of young love to snuff out, and she finds herself returning the ardent regard of the local vicar. In a bid to save her sister from a dutiful marriage she doesn’t want, Emily drugs Mary’s chocolate and marries the earl herself. It’s intimated that Emily reads too many novels.

After the marriage, miscommunication delays consummation. This is much more Emily’s story than Devenham’s. She has the most characterisation, his grievances are downplayed while she is admired as a martyr to his bad behaviour by other characters. Also, she gets a kitten and he is a beast about it. Clearly, she is the superior protagonist.

This book went by in a haze of frosting and sweet prose. I recommend it the same way I have always recommended all MC Beaton books. Get this and five others, have a cup of tea and an evening in.

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Review – At the Stroke of Midnight

At the Stroke of Midnight, Contemporary Romance by Tara Sivec

Series: Naughty Princess Club #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

What a wild ride.

Cynthia is at rather a low point in her life. Her husband has left her and their thirteen-year-old daughter with nothing. Unable to cope, Cynthia is desperately trying to carry on as though nothing is wrong, but she can’t keep the facade up in the face of her loud-mouthed neighbour Ariel cutting through the bullshit.

Their unlikely friendship song with another neighbour, a librarian named Belle, and mutually fire financial straits lead them to an intriguing commercial enterprise: a princess-themed stripper service. And who better to help them get started than the incredibly hot owner of a local strip club?

Small confession: I don’t generally enjoy crass humour. I don’t think I’m above it somehow, nor do I have a problem with swearing or sex. I simply don’t find it all that funny. At the Stroke of Midnight relies very strongly on that type of humour. So if that’s your thing, you’ll laugh until you’re sick. If it isn’t your thing, you should still give the book a fair shot. Once I was invested in the characters and substance alongside the humour, I was onboard for the whole thing. Warts and all. This book might well be my gateway drug to enjoying crass humour. It’s definitely my gateway drug for loving Tara Sivec.

I seriously loved this book. Cynthia is amazing. Even in the throes of Stepford Syndrome, she is vulnerable and relatable. Years of an unfulfilling and oppressive marriage haven’t managed to snuff out her strength or determination. She deals with a lot of shit from basically everyone, including Ariel, and one of the best things about Cynthia is that she always comes to a point where she confronts it. This is beautiful every time. Cathartic as fuck. Her blowups spoke to me on a personal level. Even though I haven’t been through the same kind of shit, being fed up is a universal thing.

At the beginning, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get into this. I loved Cynthia, but sometimes I couldn’t help thinking Ariel was a shitty friend and PJ as a love interest worried me because he was pushy and rude. Then something magical happened. Ariel apologised for something. PJ apologised and explained his actions like a mature adult. I was over the moon. Things that bothered me were acknowledged and unpacked in the narrative. This is a book about adults, not only because they swear and have sex. They communicate and take responsibility for their actions. People who don’t do those things are villains.

I can’t wait for Belle’s book.

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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 – A Thousand Words for Stranger

A Thousand Words for Stranger, Science Fiction by Julie E Czerneda

Series: Trade Pact Universe

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

It feels funny to say this 20 years after the fact, but this was an impressive debut. The writing and some of the world building are so good that they mask some of the amateur mistakes.

This is a setup I’ve seen before: amnesiac protagonist Sira is lost and pursued by danger she doesn’t understand. She takes up with a spaceship captain, Jason Morgan, and the two work together to find out what’s going on and who she was.

Ugh, that oversimplification doesn’t cover it at all. I feel like this is one of those books that I can’t really explain unless I over-summarise or compare it to another book. Unfortunately, the closest I can think of is Nine Princes in Amber, to which A Thousand Words for Stranger can only pale in comparison. Of course, it is a different story with different themes and intentions. The amnesia lasts for most of the book, Sira resists attempts to recall her former self, and she doesn’t have anything like the agency or motivation of Corwin. This is more of a small-scale space romance. And that’s fine.

For people who like telepaths in their Science Fiction, I would put this up there with the later Acorna novels. The Clan are a race of humanoids who breed for psionic power and the rest of their society and culture revolve around it. That part of the world building is faithfully and logically portrayed. There are many alien races that come in bite-sized pieces, enough to add interesting diversity. It reminded me of reading Star Wars novels as a kid. That’s probably enough to recommend it on its own.

It is still noticeably an early book in Czerneda’s career. The pacing is muddy and character development woefully uneven. More than one subplot seems to accomplish nothing more than taking up time, while some threads are dropped soon after being brought up to introduce something else. What actually bothered me was how inconsistent the characters are. Most notably, antagonist characters are never well established, either before being introduced or revealed to be antagonistic. I’ve read way more awkward examples of this, though. If I had been reading with a less intent eye for detail and structure, I might have just liked it without any qualifiers.

I’ve been wanting to check out Czerneda’s books for a few years, so I thought I’d start at the beginning. It’s a bit rocky, but I did enjoy it. I’m looking forward to reading more. Not just in the Trade Pact Universe.

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Review – Collision Point

Collision Point, Romantic Suspense by Lora Leigh

Series: Brute Force #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This isn’t my usual stomping grounds even as far as Romance subgenres go, but I’ve been wanting to give Lora Leigh a try and I liked the description. A force of nature grade badass and the fiery woman he can’t get out of his head? Yes please!

As a badass, Riordan Malone is larger than life. His perspective reminded me of a music teacher who was forever enthusing about playing with feeling. If this is your catnip, buy this book now. He is a perfect match for feisty Amara, who I quite liked. She was strong even when she was vulnerable, and she didn’t hesitate to call out any of the arrogant men in her life on their bullshit.

It’s an easy book to recommend–or not to. You have to know the reader. I don’t think it would be a good gateway book for Romantic Suspense, for precisely the same reason it’s an excellent pick for someone who reads a lot of that subgenre. The tension is always taut as a bowstring about to launch an attack. Drama and tempers run at a constant high. Strong emotion directs everything from action scenes to dialogue.

The steaminess is so intense that I actually found myself wondering if I have a “steam tolerance.” There’s a sexy encounter right away, all clashing personality and high emotion. “High emotion” characterises most of the book, which is one of the reasons I find myself on the fence, ratings-wise. For readers who like to be swept along by a torrent of ardor, it’s a perfect ride. For more aloof readers, it’s rather exhausting. Sadly, I tend towards aloof.