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Review – Dirty-Talking Cowboy

Dirty-Talking Cowboy, Contemporary Romance by Stacey Kennedy

Series: Kinky Spurs #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

(I received an invitation to review this book from the publisher through NetGalley.)

Emma Monroe is dealing with a lot of heartache. Her grandmother recently died, and her boyfriend of a year broke her heart. Thanks to the legacy left to her, Emma has moved to River Rock to take care of rescued animals on Grams’s farm. Emma also works part-time at a bar called Kinky Spurs, where she meets Shep.

For the most part, Shep has it all together. He built his own house on his own land and runs a survival-training company. He rescues Emma from the start, and in turn, she ends up enriching his life and hers.

This is overall quite a sweet romance. In spite of the fact that Emma and Shep get into a physical relationship early on, they balance it out by being genuinely interested in one another as people and respectful of each other’s space. They see and admire traits in one another that have nothing to do with sex. That said, the spice level is impressively high, so I do recommend it to people who see the word ‘kinky’ in the series title and reach for their wallets. Their happy ending wraps up everything nicely and I could picture them being together forever.

Unfortunately, I can’t personally give this more than three stars. It’s too uneven. Most of the external conflict comes from Shep’s problems while all of the internal conflict is Emma’s. This robs Shep of a character arc. The writing style is often unwieldy, especially when it comes to the dialogue. Too much time is spent setting up characters for other books, which makes it seems as if there wasn’t enough going on in the romance in this book. That didn’t help my occasional impressions that their relationship was too heavily based on infatuation.

Although the story is pretty short, there’s a lot of drama to be had, particularly in the last 25% of the book. It never gets too angsty, and stays on the light and sexy side. The best balance is struck by Emma and Shep’s relationship. They’ve got attraction, sexual compatibility, fondness, and mutual understanding. And if one can say that the best part of a Romance novel is the relationship, then I would say it’s a successful Romance.

I could comfortably recommend this book to people who love Western category romance, especially if they don’t mind some old school elements like possessive alphas and nosy families.

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Review – Spectacle Vol 1

Spectacle Vol 1, Paranormal Mystery Graphic Novel by Megan Rose Gedris

Series: Spectacle, first volume

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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

Although her true talent lies in interpreting the data processed by the difference engine she built, Anna works as a fortune-teller in a circus. Her twin sister Kat also works in the circus, as a knife-thrower. The circus is a visual accomplishment, both in the art–which shows the reality more than the spectacle, which is fun–and the depiction of the community. People bicker, put together church services, gossip, and come together in crises. One such crisis is Kat’s sudden murder.

Anna finds the body, as well as Kat’s ghost. The two work together to catch the murderer without disrupting the circus, hoping that resolving the mystery will allow Kat to move on.

I loved all of the characters and their relationships. Anna is not a social butterfly. She’s awkward, accidentally insults people, and has difficulty accepting kindness at her sister’s funeral. In contrast (because they’re twins I guess), Kat is brash yet forges emotional connections with others. An interesting difference between the two of them is that Kat is the forgiving one. My impression was that Anna was less so because she doesn’t ‘get’ people the same way.

Art downfalls, the stupid belch, cliffhanger sudden stop

For the most part, the art is great. The chapter covers are stunning and really show the time and care taken with them. Sometimes there are things that look strange or don’t quite work. Sometimes the blood looks like finger-paint, I think because the colour saturation in those instances is too high. The text is easy to read, except when it’s white and written directly over the art.

The biggest downside to this book is the sudden jerking stop at the end. There’s no denouement, no To Be Continued caption box in the corner, not even a blank white page. Calling it a cliffhanger would be missing the mark. It looked unfinished.

There is a satisfying story arc, though. After a mysterious event gives the local acting sheriff a dubious reason to lock up the ringmaster, the performers band together to earn as much money as possible to make his $500 bail. When Anna tries to gain access to the ringmaster to get his advice on her own ghost/murder problem, she discovers the acting sheriff is corrupt and dangerous. It’s a slow burn arc, but as I said, ultimately satisfying.

I love ghosts and murder mysteries, and this combined them very well. To be fair, the abrupt ending does offer a culmination of a few very subtle clues throughout the book. There are a lot of unanswered questions, so I’m looking forward to the next volume!

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What to do with an unused idea?

Those who write novels will be familiar with this part of the pre- and early writing process. Even pantsers keep copious notes. Sometimes entire project gets sidelined, either for a different project, or due to life in general.

In my case, I hoard just about everything I write. I don’t always back it up, and this dubious treasure trove is scattered across various methods of storage and almost as many devices. But it’s all still there. Just in case I want to go back to it.

This time, I had two possible fantasy worlds. It was difficult to separate everything. Some of my ideas were intrinsically linked to one world idea or the other. Some elements would work in either world with minimal to no reworking. But the most important thing was that each of these settings is tonally distinct. In some ways, total opposites.

I got hung up on it, unable to choose. I liked both settings. There was no way to merge them, not without too much sidetracking. Worse, I couldn’t continue making notes while sitting at this crossroads, so I started to stick on more and more elements of the story. The size of the cast grew or shrank according to the setting I leaned further towards. Certain characters’ introductions changed or were moved.

How did I solve this? In the most childish way possible. I asked someone else to pick one. Like flipping a coin. This person was removed from my mire of procrastinating non decisions. Either would work, and I just needed a push forward.

But I have kept everything that belongs to the other setting. Maybe I’ll have a use for it someday.

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Review – The Blackthorn Key

The Blackthorn Key, Middle Grade Historical Fiction by Kevin Sands

Series: The Blackthorn Key #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I saw Kevin Sands speak with a couple of other authors at a local event (got to speak with him for a bit too) and decided to check out his books because he seemed like such a great guy. He is a great guy who writes excellent books.

Christopher Rowe lives a rather happy life apprenticed to the apothecary Blackthorn. It’s hard work, but Christopher is quite good at it and enjoys it. His master never strikes him and they share a mutual respect for one another. But when rumors of a mysterious cult assassinating apothecaries prove to have some weight, Christopher must use all of the skills Blackthorn has taught him in both chemistry and cryptography.

This book is really hard to talk about without spoilers. That’s part of its charm. It’s an eminently recommendable book. There’s something for everybody. As historical fiction, it reminded me of the research and joyful passion of GM Fraser, although without Fraser’s humorous intentions. This largely comes from the way Sands depicted the life and work of an apothecary. He has an impressive commitment to detail without overloading the book with anything unnecessary or unwanted. The codes are intriguing and fun, and a sufficiently motivated reader could figure them out along with Christopher.

Admittedly, the beginning is a little wobbly. It’s a grabbing start that involves a cannon, but I felt like it teetered somewhat in establishing a few of the characters’ personalities. That ceased to be a problem rather quickly, though.

It’s exciting and unafraid of depicting violent threats realistically. So probably be careful gifting the book to precocious younger readers. I highly recommend it for older readers and mature members of the target audience.

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Review – The Rogue Knight

The Rogue Knight, Middle Grade Fantasy by Brandon Mull

Series: Five Kingdoms #2

My rating: ⭐⭐

I hate that I read this after sharing with a friend how much we both loved the Fablehaven series. The Rogue Knight was such a chore to get through that I started to hate reading anything and couldn’t even take refuge in a better book. It feels uncomfortable to dislike so passionately something as popular as Mull’s books. I know many people who love all of his work indiscriminately and I thought I was in that camp too. But it’s impossible to ignore the entitled perspective just to try to enjoy a book that is a tedious retread of the first book–which was itself dangerously close to outright boring.

After noticing a few problematic elements in the first book, I was apprehensive starting this one. They got much, much worse. Credit where it’s due, it looks like Mull did his best to mitigate and not be sizeist. The depiction of a dwarf knight still felt sizeist to me. And the sexism is twice as bad as in the first book. It is sinister and pervasive. Cole encounters two kids he knew in Mesa, a girl named Jill and his friend Dalton. They are in the same job in different parts of the kingdom. Cole finds them individually at different times and in different places. In both cases, he offers to rescue them. It feels like a comparison is very deliberately drawn between them to imply the conclusion that Jill, a girl, is too afraid to fight for her freedom and instead accepts literal slavery, while Dalton, a boy, exhibits the courage necessary to escape his situation easily and with no visible qualms. This is not unlike when a girl was the one to rat out Cole and get him captured in this first book. It hurts to see casual, thoughtless sexism from the person who gave us Kendra in Fablehaven.

Just as casually, we get a case of a pointlessly antagonistic female character pitted against another female character, in Skye’s mother. Despite the fact that Elloweer is a created world that doesn’t share the real world’s history, she is a sneering, judgmental mother who has money and social position reminiscent of English aristocracy.

“She inherited most of her fortune,” Skye said. “Father worked with a local bank. He passed away more than ten years ago. My great-grandfather was a well-regarded alderman. He accomplished a lot of good for Merriston and for Elloweer. Mother keeps a busy calendar, but doesn’t really do much. She knows everyone, though.”

(emphasis mine) I could break down all of the ways this one paragraph demonises her and shits on women, but I’m just too tired and sad.

Women and girls are largely absent otherwise. Positively portrayed female characters are rare on the ground and tend to be kidnapped or killed. Mira lacks agency and personality when this really ought to be her story. I don’t know why Cole is even there, let alone the hero. He does a better job of not completely forgetting about his enslaved friends this time, but the bar for that was pretty low. Even Jace makes more sense as the main character. Cole is just there to force a fish out of water story that doesn’t work. He doesn’t miss his home or family–he doesn’t even seem to have feelings. He only exists so that people can explain things to him all the time. He gets special powers and everything revolves around him, but it feels nonsensical.

Maybe Mull didn’t know how to present a magical world without having a stock audience proxy who isn’t from the world. He certainly seems to have had trouble crafting the magical world in this book. At a certain point near the end, the illusory magic of Elloweer seems to mimic the matter creation/manipulation of Sambria, when it’s expressly meant to be different.

This series just isn’t as good as Fablehaven. The books are overwritten, the style is clunky and overly dependent on telling, and the characters are boring. There could have been a sense of wonder or noble heroic impulse, but most of that is killed by the unnecessary enslaved friends subplot and the depressingly dull main character. My saddest realisation reading this was that Mull isn’t actually a skilled writer. He has fun ideas and in Fablehaven he proved to be a good storyteller. But in this series, he seems to have focused on just the fun ideas. The best parts of the book are set pieces divorced from character and plot. I don’t even know if he had fun writing this, as the climax of the second book is basically the same as the climax of the second book.

I have the rest of the books and I hate to leave a series unfinished. But I’m just going to shelve it for now.

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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.