The Queen’s Gambit (Rogue Queen #1) by Jessie Mihalik

The Queen's Gambit (Rogue Queen, #1)

Rating: ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Date read: January 19 to February 19, 2019

This novella is fine for a short, self-published sci-fi romance that’s light on the romance and heavy on the shooting. A bit like a direct-to-video version of Star Wars, which could be fun when you’re in the mood for it. The prose, however, is too clunky and awkward in too many places for me, and the ending felt too abrupt. Also, I don’t get the whole kings and queens in outer space either.

But the biggest hurdle for me was the awkwardness. There were too many times during the read that the writing reminded me that it needed an editor’s touch. But overall, this was a fast, jaunty read–a good way to kill an hour or two. Took me a whole month to finish because I was reading it in between a few other books, otherwise I would have been done weeks ago.

An example of the awkwardness

I wore a stretchy black stealth suit that would help me slip past any perimeter security that Jax missed. My braided black hair disappeared in the dark and most of my light brown skin was hidden by the stealth suit. My uncovered face would be visible in low light, but it was a liability I had learned to mitigate because I hated camouflage paint. Soft leather boots hugged my calves and protected my feet but kept my footsteps light. A belt around my waist secured a holstered electroshock pistol, an extra magazine of stun rounds, and a sheathed ceramic knife. I would’ve preferred more weapons, but tonight I traveled light in the name of stealth.

The rest of the novella gets a little better with each chapter, but there are moments like this passage sprinkled throughout.

I was looking forward to Jessie Mihalik’s first traditionally published novel, another space opera romance adventure called Polaris Rising, but after reading this little story, my interest in the other one is waning.

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Warrior’s Woman (Ly-San-Ter Family #1) by Johanna Lindsey

Image result for warrior's woman johanna lindsey

Rating: ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: 2005 or 2006

Oh, this book… totally forgot I read it, and for good reason too.

My first reaction upon finishing was the fuck did I just read and then it was followed by how did I even finish.

I distinctly remember there were two factors that saved this book from a DNF:
1) it was a page turner in that sickly “car crash on the side of the road” way,
2) I was stuck at an airport waiting for a connecting flight home.
(I do my best reading at airports and while trapped inside during snowstorms obviously…)

The premise, if I remember correctly, is an officer, from a technologically advanced world currently in the middle of a civil war, crash lands her ship on a backwater, primitive planet where the population has barely advanced past the bronze age. So a battle of the sexes; so far so good. It’s a place where men are men and women are property (and everyone is heterosexual), and so she gets captured by a warlord and brought back to his stronghold as a prisoner. Sure, okay, moving on.

For a woman from an advanced society where there’s equal rights and few gender barriers, she gets the shock of her life. YIKES.

I think in the end she somehow manages to get back to her own world, end the civil war with the warlord’s help, and they live happily ever after, but I’ve forgotten how. Pretty sure it was face-palm-y though.

The next book in the series is about the couple’s daughter having an adventure of her own similar to her mother’s so I guess they also somehow manage to stay together and establish a connection between their worlds. Needless to say, I did not continue reading this series.

But this book… by itself… was really something. I would not have remembered reading it if it hadn’t been for Goodreads’ huge blog post dedicated to romance novels for Valentine’s Day a few weeks ago.

In the days before GR and twitter, my book choices were really–suspect?–terrible. I didn’t have any recommendations to help me sort and there weren’t friends’ ratings or reviews to read to get an idea what the books were actually about. It was a blind selection. So glad those days are over.

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Just saw the other cover art for this book and… sure, why not. I’m not even a little bit surprised.

Warrior's Woman (Ly-San-Ter, #1)

The Duchess War (Brothers Sinister #1) by Courtney Milan

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: August 5 to 10, 2018

A well deserved 3.5 stars rating and perhaps one of the few books that surprised me this year. Looking forward to reading the rest of these books. Maybe not back-to-back because that would be too much, but in between longer reads.

“If Downton Abbey was a book series…” should be the hook for this series to reel potential readers in.

This book is a nice book in which the main characters are good people trying to do good things and be good people, all the while pushing against a social order that cements them into their “proper” place. They all have issues of their own and a dark, unsavory past looming over their lives and they each have to overcome those things before they can find their happily-ever-afters, and they do achieve that in the course of the book. The stakes are low: no one dies and there are no murders, kidnapping, wars, uprisings, mysteries, or supernatural things out to get anyone. The only danger here is loss of reputation and being shunned from society forever. Like I said, low stakes. But despite it all, I enjoyed the read. I even enjoyed the mostly boring parts of the plot in which nothing seemed to be happening. Most of all though, I enjoy the writing.

Incorporating sedition and the beginning of unions and setting the story in 1863 Leicester is an interesting touch. But since the story is told from a duke’s and genteel young woman’s points of view, we only get to see how the upper classes are almost affected by these things. This is not a critique, just an observation. The author, Courtney Milan, seems very aware of the social revolutions relevant to the time periods of her stories, and I like that she wrote them into the romance plot. It makes for a better, deeper, richer reading experience and it’s a constant reminder of the setting and time period.

I’m always weary of historical romances that feature huge ball gowns on the cover because it usually means the books are either really smutty in the classic bodice-ripper sense or really uptight in the classic Victorian sense, and so I was weary of this book long before starting it. I’m still weary of huge ball gowns on the cover, but no longer of Courtney Milan.

Iron & Velvet (Kate Kane #1) by Alexis Hall

Iron & Velvet by Alexis  Hall

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: June 25 to 29, 2018

Kate Kane is a revised version of Sam Spade for our modern times. She’s a private eye living in urban fantasy London and she investigates cases involving vampires, werewolves, the fae, and other otherworldly creatures. The case this time is the murder of a werewolf outside a nightclub, and Kate is asked to look into it by an alluring vampire. She couldn’t resist.

This is a paranormal romance with a lesbian character at the center, and there’s more focus on the romance than the paranormal. Normally this wouldn’t interest me, but Kate is an interesting subject, so I didn’t mind following her around even when the investigation took various detours through her sex life.

The writing style is hardboiled and done very well, and I say that as someone who’s not a fan of hardboiled mysteries. But since I had heard lots of good things about the author, Alexis Hall, there were some expectations. Fortunately, they were met.

Since hardboiled is not my preferred genre, the writing was a little hard to get into at the beginning. I didn’t really get into the rhythm of the narrative or Kate’s voice until more than half the book was over, but by the end, it was an enjoyable read. A little too romance-heavy at times, but not a big deal.

What is a big deal is Alexis Hall not continuing this series. I think there’s a good thing here, and I was hoping there would be more. Oh well.

What stood out the most to me is the queer female detective angle, which I don’t see much in urban fantasy or mysteries in general, and I appreciate the work the author put into this character to make her seem real and not another tough-acting, hardboiled caricature.

Slave to Sensation (Psy-Changeling #1) by Nalini Singh

Slave to Sensation by Nalini Singh

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: May 25 to 28, 2018

A quick, unencumbered read and not bad for paranormal romance. Personally I think Nalini Singh is one of the few better (readable) authors in this genre. If you like PNR, there’s a good chance you’ll like her books, and you’ll have a long back list to enjoy. Her style is very consistent and predictable.

I’ve read 4 books from her Archangel series and thought the first 3 were fine–the 4th was awful but that’s another thing altogether. They’re a bit long and too romance-focused for my liking, but fine overall. She builds unique worlds very well and populates them with striking, beautiful, otherworldly creatures who are as beautiful as they are violent and vengeful, and she adds interesting alternate histories to these worlds and characters. The romance can always be counted on to be hot and heavy and instantaneous, if that’s what you’re looking for. If not, it can be suffocating.

The writing is almost always too focused on the romance for my liking, and I find it weird and awkward whenever it shows up in the middle of intense action scenes, like right in the middle of a chase scene. They’re easily overlooked, though, if you don’t mind these kind of things in your paranormal romances. I, however, do–there’s a time and a place for the sexy times. Not in the middle of a investigation or kidnapping is all that I ask for. How is this so difficult to NOT write…

Anyhow. This book is no different than any of the other books by this author because her writing, themes, and content are very consistent. Only major difference is it leans more towards sci-fi than fantasy and features shifters and characters with mind powers instead if angels and vampires. There are factions and conflicts, an enemies-to-lovers story line, various urban settings, and lots of action and sexual tension as usual. And also as usual, there are a lot of explanations. Every character’s motive and background is explained, as is every thought and feeling they have toward each other; this is another trait of this author’s writing style. You never have to wonder why. Everything is laid out in the open. No sense of mystery anymore; hence the 2-star rating.

DNF: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible (The Austen Project, #4)

Date read: May 28 to 30, 2018

This book has been called the modern Pride & Prejudice all over the bookish blogosphere, and that was the first thing that got me interested in reading it. That is until I actually read it and found it to be… ridiculous.

But maybe I should explain further. I personally don’t think it’s possible to rewrite a P&P suitable for our modern times because the social and economic consequences of marrying outside one’s class no longer carry the same stigma (at least not in most Western societies), and so a modern tale about the Bennet sisters’ plight would not have nearly the same impact as the original. It wouldn’t have any impact at all tbh. That whole “want of proprietary” thing and having mortifying parents wouldn’t work at all either.

Plus, this book is a collection of first-world problems and I could not get through more than 10% before wanting to set it on fire.

I mean…

Liz is a writer for a magazine, and Jane is a yoga instructor; both currently living in New York.

After their father falls ill, they return to their hometown Cincinnati only to find the family a mess–mother still high-strung, younger sisters still ridiculous–and their childhood home falling down around them.

Since Jane is single and approaching 40–OH THE HUMANITY–their mother has to get her married off soon or else… I have no idea what “or else” means. This isn’t Victorian England, and the family estate isn’t entailed. Perhaps a yoga instructor’s salary isn’t as comfortable as one would hope, but it isn’t quite destitution either. So I really don’t get the desperate picture the author is trying to paint here.

But anyhow, back to the story.

Enters two wealthy eligible bachelors.

Bingley is a handsome, charming, easy-going doctor who just moved to town, AND he’s got an equally handsome and bankable (bangable?) best friend. But Darcy is a curmudgeon. More than that though, he’s a neurosurgeon. And this was precisely where I stopped reading. Couldn’t take it anymore.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s modern updates to this classic are surprisingly shallow. I was expecting more, maybe something clever or poignant with a little humor, because of all the praise this book has gotten. But really, it’s like any other contemporary romance out there, and the prose itself is nothing special. I honestly don’t see what everyone sees in this book.

The Governess Affair (Brothers Sinister, #0.5) by Courtney Milan

The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: May 5 to 6, 2018

Currently available for free on all ebook sites.

This novella is a good start to the series, and I regret letting it sit on my e-shelf for the past couple of years and forgetting about it. Found it again in a bout of spring cleaning, and after the wild ride that was Altered Carbon, I needed something light and happy to take the edge off.

Not expecting much, I went into this book with some reluctance expecting to see the same old regency romance set-up (scandalous aristocrats and nobility, rogues/rakes, strong-willed governesses, “compromised” virtue, various mentions of class and marriage and marrying out of one’s class), and it does have those things. However, it surpassed my expectations by actually being well written and I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would for a few reasons:
1) it’s better written than most of the regency romances that I’ve read (and/or abandoned)
2) it’s smarter than I expected
3) it has self-awareness of its own genre and the tropes/pitfalls of its forerunners
4) it actually addresses some of these tropes and pitfalls.

At only a 100 pages, it’s not long enough to address all those things, but it does a decent job of getting me interested in this series and Courtney Milan’s writing. I’m hoping the rest of the series will be just as good or even better.

Angels Fall by Nora Roberts

Angels Fall

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: April 18 to 26, 2018

Not bad, but also not good either.

I mean, there are good parts, but they’re offset by little things I find annoying and there were a lot of these little things which accumulated at the end. So it was a bumpy read. The Montana setting and vivid descriptions of a small town sitting at the foot of the Grand Tetons were a nice touch though, and the main character was sympathetic. Easily my favorite part of the whole book was the setting. Everything else was mostly filler.

A couple of weeks ago my neighbor got a new job out of state and I “inherited” her library. Normally this would be exciting–I love sorting through books–but this time, not so much. She and I don’t have much in common book-wise, and her collection consists of fiction, lots of mysteries and thrillers and quite a few romances. All contemporaries and not a single sci-fi or fantasy in the bunch. All huge door-stoppers too. Majority of these will go to charity because I have my own pile of similar fiction that I still haven’t been able to chip at no matter how much I avoid it try.

Anyhow. I now have a huge stash of Nora Roberts books and it’s been a real–chore?–experience sorting through them.

I went into this book expecting–well, hoping–it’s like The Witness which was a pleasant surprise and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. This book has a similar set-up: small town, picturesque backdrop, lots of wilderness, nosy busy-body townsfolk, protagonist with a traumatic past who is on her own, and a murder mystery plot in the background. What’s different from The Witness is the uneven pacing and utterly unlikable love interest who is actually quite an ass. This turned out to be the sticking point with me because I could not get over how much of an ass he was. Moreover, I could not see what she saw in him, and so I couldn’t get into the story whenever he appeared, being all ass-like.

More on this book in particular when I get home.

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I’m home now, but still don’t have much to say about this book. Maybe with a little more time it’ll come to me. For now though, all I can say is this book makes me angry, and not in a good way, because the set-up is good and there is so much potential for the rest of the book to be good. But unfortunately Nora Roberts had to go and be all Nora Roberts all over the damn book. I wouldn’t say she ruined it, because I’ve read worse, but she got very close. So much potential, all wasted.

*angry muttering*

It could have been SO GOOD.

The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke, #1) by Tessa Dare

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: August 27 to 31, 2017

First of all, a big thank-you to the publisher Avon and GR’s giveaway program for sending me an ARC. Without them, I would have most likely bought this book and then regretted it afterward. More on that later.

Tessa Dare is probably my favorite strictly romance author and one I turn to for a break in reading, especially when I’m in the mood for vaguely historical, regency-esque, bodice-ripping romances that aren’t simpering or dull. The writing is usually fun, the characters are funny, and the stories are short and sweet, easily contained in one book and great as palate cleansers in between longer reads.

There are tropes, of course, like dashing love interests and young plucky main characters and happily ever-afters, and the stories are told from both POVs, but what makes Dare’s writing stand out from the overcrowded bodice-ripping shelf is her way of bringing modern sensibilities to her characters and stories, which jarred me at first, but I got used to them after a couple of books and then came to appreciate them later on.

I like that, although you get both POVs, Dare doesn’t spend too much time over-explaining motives and feelings or go on and on about each character’s insecurities. Instead, the focus is on the funny moments between the characters. There’s a sweetness to the writing, and once in awhile, it’s nice to read a book that I know will have a happy ending.

This book, however, is not like any of her other books that I’ve read so far. It’s actually more in line with those other “classic” bodice-rippers. I should have known by the cover.

The plot is a duke returns from war after being severely wounded in an explosion that left him physically scarred, and he returns to find his entire estate neglected by an idiot cousin he had left in temporary charge. And then his fiancee left him. Shortly thereafter, he becomes a recluse, shunning society and all who comes calling. That is, until one day, a seamstress bursts into his library demanding payment for the ex-fiancee’s wedding dress.

She’s desperate and in need of money; he needs an heir to secure his estate, so he makes her a deal. After some hesitation and a lot of convincing, she accepts the offer. They sign the contracts and proceed to have a pretend marriage.

By the way, all of this happens within the first 30 pages, so this book gets down to business quickly which was odd for Tessa Dare. I later learned why. It was because she needed the rest of the book to make the characters fall in love and heal their wounds. And there was definitely a lot of falling and healing. And a lot of it dragged on and on.

So yeah, I had some reservation early on, but since this was Tessa Dare, I thought she could pull through. Unfortunately, she couldn’t and the story dragged.

Making the main character a seamstress with a shadowed past was really interesting, and in Tessa Dare fashion, she gave her a group of equally interesting friends for support and comfort. That was fun, but too much attention was paid to the duke’s various insecurities and the seamstress’s haunted past and self-doubt, none of which did anything for me. This is such an over-used trope and basically the backbone of most, if not all, regency romances, and I was disappointed to see it rehashed here.

Also in Tessa Dare fashion, there were quite a few funny moments sprinkled throughout the story, but not enough to lighten the dragged-on feeling or make reading less of a chore. It wasn’t all a downer though. One scene in particular did leave me laughing out loud, and that was when the duke visited the seamstress’s father, who is vicar of a small village, to scare him in the middle of the night.

“A demon has come to drag you to Hell, you miserable wretch.”

“To Hell? M-me?”

“Yes, you. You crusty botch of nature. You poisonous bunch-backed toad. Sitting in this weaselly little house full to the reeking with betrayal and…” He waved at the nearest shelf. “And ghastly curtains.”

“What’s wrong with the curtains?”

“Everything!” he roared.

[…]

“Once you arrive in the eternal furnace, there are sinful debts to be settled. ‘Hell to pay’ is not merely a saying. Then there are the endless papers to be signed and filed.”

Papers to be filed?”

“Naturally there are papers. It should surprise no one to learn that Hell is a vast, inefficient bureaucracy.”

[…]

“Doesn’t your Holy Bible have something to say about forgiveness?”

The man covered in silence.

“No, truly. I’m asking. Doesn’t it? I’m a demon. I don’t read the thing.”

Still makes me laugh.

So this book isn’t a disappointment exactly, but it is a break from what I’m used to seeing from this author.

White Hot (Hidden Legacy #2) by Ilona Andrews

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date read: July 18 to 21, 2017

So this book.

It’s actually much better than the first one… but I kinda hated the first one, so that’s a very low bar to pass.

Good things first though, before I move onto the unsavory things.

Fast pacing, lots of action, interesting mix of sci-fi and fantasy, that comic-book feel from the first book is still here, and plenty of humor.

Imagine Kate Daniels in an alternate universe, one in which she had a normal, uneventful upbringing and has grown up to be a well-adjusted person who runs a private detective agency with some help from her family. Imagine Kate, but with parents, younger sisters, cousins, and a spunky grandmother who love her. That’s what I think this book is doing–imagining Kate in a world that’s more fun and with a lot less darkness.

Think of it as Kate without her past and burdan, running around Houston, having adventures, and saving people from megalomaniacs intent on destroying the world. Something like this should have appealed to me because I like Kate and I’m all for fun worlds, but somehow the execution doesn’t work here. Although I find this book much better overall than the first one, that’s not really an improvement because there’s this thing. I feel it hanging over every scene between the two leads, and it knocks all the fun right out. Maybe it’s just me though because loads of people seem to enjoy the writing just fine.

Another thing is the main character, Nevada Baylor, comes off as too young, and her gaggle of sisters and cousins are younger still, so you have extended periods in which the writing becomes too YA, filled with talks of high school, infatuation, dating, trends, social media, and the list goes on. This was too much for me, but you know, personal preference, your mileage may vary, and so on and so forth.

If any of that sounds mildly interesting, you might want to give this series a try.

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* * * * spoilers abound * * * *

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