Serena’s Review: “Sin & Chocolate”

Book: “Sin & Chocolate” by K.F. Breene

Publishing Info: Hazy Dawn Press, Inc, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Some people are ordained for greatness…

Those people usually have a lot of drama in their life. Drama I happily do without. I live in a forgotten corner of nowhere for a reason: there is safety in anonymity. I have enough problems just trying to get by.

But when Kieran, a sinfully sexy demigod at the pinnacle of power, crashes into my life, suddenly my whole world is turned upside down.

He’s harboring a deadly secret, one that could destroy all he holds dear. He thinks I’m the key to his salvation, and he wants me to help him claim vengeance.

He also wants me with a passion that burns my body from the inside out.

To ignore him is impossible, but to give in to my desires, even for a night, would thrust me into danger I might not survive.

Can I resist the temptation?

Review: So, I started reading this book under a bit of a false pretense. Mostly, that I thought it fell fairly purely under the subgenre “urban fantasy.” I typically only have a few urban fantasy series that I follow, and now that a few of them have ended and few other have become disappointments, I was hankering for a new series. And this title appeared on a few lists, so I thought, let’s give it a shot! And it’s not bad, by any means. But I’d definitely have went in with different expectations if I had seen this cover when I picked it up (or, frankly, read the description above):

Yeaaaah, definitely looks more like a romance novel cover than an urban fantasy cover!

Existing between worlds, that is between the magical and the “normal” world, is both the most dangerous place to be but also one of the few places where one can fully disappear. This is where Lexie exists, trying to keep her head down and provide for her two wards, each with their own unique needs. But her quiet existence is rudely interrupted by Kieran, a powerful magical being who very much does not exist in the shadows. And in Lexie he sees someone much more powerful than she claims or suspects.

I think my confusion about this book is also kind of fair. A lot of romance “series” are books linked by a shared world/group of people but focus on different main characters and couples in each. Urban fantasy, on the other hand, usually follows one or two main characters over the course of a series, similar to other fantasy genres. So, while this one does have the romance novel cover and a lot of the romance novel plot/language, it also fits into the urban fantasy genre.

For one thing, this book is clearly the first book in a series and as such spends much of its time developing the world in which Lexie and Kieran exist. There were a lot of interesting elements involved in this world where magic and magical beings have been living out in the open for quite a while. We see the political nature of it, with various groups coming down as either supportive or discriminatory towards magical beings. There’s also the pull and push of the power players on both sides of the magical and nonmagical line. And with this struggle comes the cracks that the vulnerable fall into. Through Lexie’s eyes, we see how both the magical and nonmagical communities have let down those who they don’t see as important. It’s a narrative that is very easy to take out of the fantasy genre and apply to the world around us.

That said, this focus on world-building, while interesting enough on its own, also very much slows down the pace of the story. That was probably my biggest problem with the book: the pace. I struggled to maintain interest, even within a book that was introducing what should be exciting new fantasy elements every which way. But for some reason, the plot itself felt plodding. There were witty conversations, but much of it felt like it wasn’t really leading to anything or illuminating anything new about the characters themselves.

I felt like I knew who these characters were the moment I met them, and that was also a bit disappointing. Lexie was ok, but I also feel like I’ve read variations of her a million times before and I, personally, can’t relate to some of her fixations with shopping and other things. Not that those are not worthy hobbies or interests, they’re just not really my thing so I couldn’t really invest in some of her fixations there. And Kieran was your typical arrogant, powerful hero who also has a heart of gold towards the woman he briefly meets and immediately becomes intrigued with.

In the end, this was just ok. It didn’t blow me away, but it was also solid enough for what it was trying to do. I do think that if I had had it in mind as more heavily focused on the romance side of things before I started I would have at least been in the right mindset. However, I’m still left looking for another urban fantasy series to get started on!

Rating 7: This book walks a strange line between romance novel and urban fantasy but doesn’t quite fit in either category.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sin & Chocolate” is on these Goodreads lists: Under the Radar Page-Turners and NEW ADULT fantasy & paranormal romance.

Find “Sin & Chocolate” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “Take A Hint, Dani Brown”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Romance”, in which we each picked a book that is a romance, or has elements that fit romance tropes to a T. For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” by Talia Hibbert

Publishing Info: Avon, June 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Romance Trope: Fake Dating.

Book Description: Danika Brown knows what she wants: professional success, academic renown, and an occasional roll in the hay to relieve all that career-driven tension. But romance? Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt. Romantic partners, whatever their gender, are a distraction at best and a drain at worst. So Dani asks the universe for the perfect friend-with-benefits—someone who knows the score and knows their way around the bedroom.

When brooding security guard Zafir Ansari rescues Dani from a workplace fire drill gone wrong, it’s an obvious sign: PhD student Dani and ex-rugby player Zaf are destined to sleep together. But before she can explain that fact, a video of the heroic rescue goes viral. Now half the internet is shipping #DrRugbae—and Zaf is begging Dani to play along. Turns out, his sports charity for kids could really use the publicity. Lying to help children? Who on earth would refuse?

Dani’s plan is simple: fake a relationship in public, seduce Zaf behind the scenes. The trouble is, grumpy Zaf’s secretly a hopeless romantic—and he’s determined to corrupt Dani’s stone-cold realism. Before long, he’s tackling her fears into the dirt. But the former sports star has issues of his own, and the walls around his heart are as thick as his… um, thighs.

Suddenly, the easy lay Dani dreamed of is more complex than her thesis. Has her wish backfired? Is her focus being tested? Or is the universe just waiting for her to take a hint?

Serena’s Thoughts

This is going to be a good bookclub theme for me, I think. Because, while I do read a decent amount of romance fiction, it’s usually within some greater genre preference, like historical fiction or fantasy fiction. So this, as a contemporary romantic novel was fairly out of my wheelhouse. That being the case, this wasn’t my favorite book out there, but I can also see the general appeal to readers who do like contemporary romcoms.

For the most part, I liked both of our main characters. I really liked how the author played with gender roles, especially Zaf’s love of reading romance novels. It was very meta as well as nicely representing that romance is by no means only the domain of women. It takes two to form a romantic pair, so naturally both have an interest in romance in general. But for some reason, enjoying romance novels or movies is seen as purely a feminine pursuit and one that people are judged for enjoying, even women but especially men. I also really liked Dani’s initial, unapologetic commitment to noncommitment. Again, something that we usually see from the hero in these romantic pairings but gender swapped here.

However, I did have a hard time really connecting to either of these main characters. My biggest problems with contemporary stories like this is my inability to really buy into the idea that people like this would walk about in our every day world. I mean, who is naturally this quippy? Who really talks like this? It’s a fairly minor point overall, but it’s something that I personally always struggle with in contemporary fiction. So this is definitely a subjective critique and something that will hold varying levels of water depending on your own preferences.

Overall, I thought the story was fun enough, but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I think the author did some creative things with her character building, but I couldn’t ever fully invest myself into Dani and Raf’s lives.

Kate’s Thoughts

I admit that by the end of 2021, I had gathered SO MANY romance novels for my book pile that by the time I’d worked my way through, I was a little burned out on the genre. I was happy to give romance more of a chance in 2021, and overall I found a lot of books I liked. But there is, in fact, a reason that I tend to limit my consumption of it. Maybe that doesn’t bode super well for our Book Club theme, but I’m going to work through it (and I think so long as I just stick to romance for book club I’ll be good). And it’s good that “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” was the first selection of the cycle, because while I’m burned out on romance, this one was meta enough that I thought it was fun enough.

Like Serena said above, I liked that Hibbert toyed with our expectations of the genre and gave Zaf the more stereotypically feminine role (being romantic at heart, interested in love over lust, etc), and Dani the more stereotypically masculine role (not into commitment in any way shape or form). I also liked that we explored themes of trauma and loss through Zaf, as his brother and father were killed tragically a few years before the events in this book, and how we got to see a realistic examination of grief and PTSD through his character. Honestly I just really liked Zaf. He’s snarky and adorable and vulnerable and funny as heck. Dani was pretty good too, and much like Serena I liked how flippant she is about romance and love at first. Quippy for sure. I don’t have as big an issue with that (I do love me a good quippy banter), though I think that maybe Zaf got a little more understandable vulnerability than Dani.

And I’m always interested in seeing how the sexy moments in romance novels happen. I’ve found myself very particular about how these things unfold and are portrayed when it comes to the smut and romance (but to each their own obviously!), and “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” was basically the kind of build up and pay off that I liked: a nice slow build of tension followed by very satisfying, uh, climaxes… if you will. There was a bit of a weird rushed factor to make conflict after a bit of this, but that was really the only glaringly clunky thing for me. Overall, it’s steamy and fun.

“Take A Hint, Dani Brown” is enjoyable and cute. I’m a bit worn out on the romance page, but this one held my interest enough that I wasn’t feeling like it dragged.

Serena’s Rating 7: Not really my thing, but a fun romcom for fans of this sort of contemporary romance story.

Kate’s Rating 7: I’m feeling a little burnt out on romance, but “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” had enjoyable characters and some good moments of steaminess.

Book Club Questions

  1. In this book the ‘fake dating trope’ is taken on in a very self aware and meta way. Did you think that it was a good send up? Why or why not?
  2. What did you think of the supporting cast? Did you have any favorite side characters?
  3. What did you think of the progression of the romance between Dani and Zaf? Do you think that it would last in a real world setting?
  4. What were your thoughts on the way the book tackled anxiety and grief? Did these themes feel well explored?
  5. Would you read the other books in the series?

Reader’s Advisory

“Take a Hint, Dani Brown” is included on the Goodreads lists “Radical Romance”, and “Contemporary Romance by Black Authors”.

Find “Take a Hint, Dani Brown” at your library using WorldCat, at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “From Blood and Ash” by Jennifer Armentrout

Kate’s Review: “The Love Hypothesis”

Book: “The Love Hypothesis” by Ali Hazelwood

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: As a third-year Ph.D. candidate, Olive Smith doesn’t believe in lasting romantic relationships–but her best friend does, and that’s what got her into this situation. Convincing Anh that Olive is dating and well on her way to a happily ever after was always going to take more than hand-wavy Jedi mind tricks: Scientists require proof. So, like any self-respecting biologist, Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees.

That man is none other than Adam Carlsen, a young hotshot professor–and well-known ass. Which is why Olive is positively floored when Stanford’s reigning lab tyrant agrees to keep her charade a secret and be her fake boyfriend. But when a big science conference goes haywire, putting Olive’s career on the Bunsen burner, Adam surprises her again with his unyielding support and even more unyielding… six-pack abs.

Suddenly their little experiment feels dangerously close to combustion. And Olive discovers that the only thing more complicated than a hypothesis on love is putting her own heart under the microscope.

Review: So this is a bit of a surprise! I’m sure you are thinking ‘now wait a minute, usually Serena is doing reviews of romance, not Kate! What is going on lately?!’ Well, I had to review this one. I just had to. I know that I’ve mentioned on here that I’ve been doing my fair share of romance reading this year (you saw last week’s review of “The Ex Hex”, which wasn’t representative of my overall positive experience of romance reading), and let me tell you, do I have a treat for you all. I am here to review “The Love Hypothesis” by Ali Hazelwood. A steamy and STEM-y romance that I just LOVED, with an unexpected “Star Wars” connection. Yep. This is repurposed Reylo fan fiction, everyone!

As someone who only saw the first two movies in the new trilogy once, and never bothered with ROS, this is out of context for me but also kinda really hot? (source)

So for those who don’t know, “The Love Hypothesis” was originally an AU Reylo fanfic that put the characters into an academia setting. Now they are Olive, an ambitious and driven graduate student in biology, and Adam, a greatly feared professor within the program, and they are both well formed and conceived characters on their own, “Star Wars” inspirations noticeable but certainly not constraining. In an act of desperation, Olive kisses Adam in hopes of convincing her best friend Rose Anh that she has moved on from the man she had been dating previously, and whom Anh has a huge thing for. Olive and Adam eventually cut a deal to fake date each other, as it’s mutually beneficial (Olive can keep Anh feeling secure in her feelings, and Adam can convince Stanford that he isn’t considering leaving and therefore stopping the institution from freezing his research funds). It’s the perfect set up for a fake dating trope, and Hazelwood makes Olive and Adam so likable it’s impossible not to root for them in their perpetual optimism (Olive) and reserved grouchiness (Adam). There are silly misunderstandings, witty banter, and a slow burn build up to some really sexy scenes, and I have found that all of this is EVERYTHING I NEED IN A ROMANCE NOVEL. But Hazelwood also tackles some pretty hefty issues, like sexual harassment in academia, abusive mentors, and trauma and loss, and does it all in a way that feels genuine and not just to keep a plot going. We also get to know all these characters (albeit through Olive’s perspective for the most part) and really find something to like about almost all of them, from Olive and Adam (boy do I love Adam) to their various friends and foils. I especially loved Adam’s bestie Dr. Rodriguez, a sarcastic and devil may care professor who is almost assuredly the Poe Dameron analog from the original fan fiction. Everyone is just so darn lovely.

And the sexiness. I mentioned how it’s a slow burn progression, and as I said, that’s just how I like it. But let me tell you, the sweet sweet build up in this book makes for a very satisfying pay off, and when it pays off, IT PAYS OFF. I lent my copy to my dear friend and fellow “It” reviewer Laura (who is as big an Adam Driver fan girl as I am), and in a video chat she said, ‘this is good, but when does it get GOOD?’ Well, the next day I got a text that just said ‘IT GOT GOOD’. For someone who loves a slow burn and wrote some pretty salacious fan fic in her own time (I’m not telling which fandom it was for), even I was clutching my pearls a bit by how graphic it was once it finally came to a simmering head. In the best way. There is also some really solid and realistic demisexual representation in this book, which I always love to see. Sometimes I encounter romance novels that (for me) lay the horniness on a little too thick, and then there are others that are a bit too chaste. “The Love Hypothesis” meets in the middle.

Hoo boy, I am not used to reviewing romance novels. All I can say is that I LOVED “The Love Hypothesis”. I know that there are lots of opinions about Reylos on the Internet, but I gotta say, Ali Hazelwood has written an awesome romance, and I can’t wait to see what she has in store next! Olive and Adam forever!

Rating 10: Just hook this up to my veins whenever I need a pick me up. SO DAMN ADORABLE.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Love Hypothesis” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Grumpy Sunshine Romances”, and “Romance Novels With STEM Heroines”.

Find “The Love Hypothesis” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Ex Hex”

Book: “The Ex Hex” by Erin Sterling

Publishing Info: Avon, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: New York Times bestselling author Rachel Hawkins, writing as Erin Sterling, casts a spell with a spine-tingling romance full of wishes, witches, and hexes gone wrong.

Nine years ago, Vivienne Jones nursed her broken heart like any young witch would: vodka, weepy music, bubble baths…and a curse on the horrible boyfriend. Sure, Vivi knows she shouldn’t use her magic this way, but with only an “orchard hayride” scented candle on hand, she isn’t worried it will cause him anything more than a bad hair day or two.

That is until Rhys Penhallow, descendent of the town’s ancestors, breaker of hearts, and annoyingly just as gorgeous as he always was, returns to Graves Glen, Georgia. What should be a quick trip to recharge the town’s ley lines and make an appearance at the annual fall festival turns disastrously wrong. With one calamity after another striking Rhys, Vivi realizes her silly little Ex Hex may not have been so harmless after all.

Suddenly, Graves Glen is under attack from murderous wind-up toys, a pissed off ghost, and a talking cat with some interesting things to say. Vivi and Rhys have to ignore their off the charts chemistry to work together to save the town and find a way to break the break-up curse before it’s too late.

Review: Though on this blog I’m known as the resident horror, thriller, and graphic novel reviewer (with non fiction on occasion), Serena is fully the romance reader in terms of blog content. But this past year I’ve been reading more romance, if only because of the pure escapist good feeling vibes it has. I mean, during these past couple of years we could all use as many good vibes as we can get, right? So I told myself that I should review at least ONE romance book for the blog, especially if it could fall into the parameters of my other genres. Enter “The Ex Hex” by Erin Sterling, a romance about witches, hexes, lost love, and talking cats. I got it from Book of the Month Club, feeling like it would be a good fit for the month of October, and finally sat down to read it recently. I had made up my mind that it would be a good way to combine my recent genre adventures with the old reliables, so that I would review it on the blog. After all, witches, right? Well…. the results were mixed.

Solidly meh. (source)

But I will start with the good. Because I like to start on positive notes most of the time. “The Ex Hex” is absolutely cute, and has a fun premise that I just ate up. The idea of a broken hearted witch half seriously casting a hex on a man who broke her heart, and therein cursing him and causing havoc that they have to solve together is a solid premise. I also liked Vivi, said broken hearted witch, as she is plucky, and relatable, and comes from the typical supportive and kooky but ultimately powerful witch family that consists of sarcastic cousin Gwyn and wise aunt Elaine. I also liked Gwyn as a banter-y side character, as her cousinly relationship with Vivi is fun to read about, mostly because Gwyn is clearly the bad girl of the two. I would probably be super into a spin off book with Gwyn, as I see a lot of potential with her. And once the magic in the town of Graves Glen starts to go awry, there are some genuinely entertaining fall out consequences, like a cat that can now talk bust mostly just screams ‘TREATS!’. Because of course that’s exactly what a cat would do if it could talk.

But I think that the rest of the book didn’t really click with me as well. For one, the other half of our romance, Rhys, wasn’t nearly as endearing as Vivi. Like, he was fine as a character, but he was pretty darn boring in my opinion. We have the usual ‘he broke her heart but had no choice and didn’t really want to’ trope, and that’s fine, but it means that the reunification of the two characters really needs to pay off. And this one didn’t. One reason it didn’t bounce back is because I didn’t feel like Rhys did enough apologizing for the way he treated Vivi back in the day, in which they had a very intense romance and he neglected to tell her that he was betrothed to someone else (hence the broken heart and hex). The other reason is that I didn’t really feel the chemistry between the two of them. We are told that they were deeply, deeply into each other, and yes, there are sexy moments and scenes to convince us of this, but I wasn’t ever really into the two of them as a couple, as there weren’t enough little moments of romantic build up for me, or moments of actual resolution of their past issues that felt real and productive. On top of that, I think that the magic aspects of the book probably could have used some more fleshing out, but I mean at the same time we all know that my grasp on fantasy elements can be tenuous as best. But it all just seemed cobbled together to be magical without much thought into how it would actually need to work.

Honestly I feel a little bad, because while “The Ex Hex” didn’t really move beyond the ‘meh’ for me in the romance department, I’ve read some really good romances this year! And also, don’t let my general ambivalence towards this book deter you! It has cute moments and a fun premise. I mean, who doesn’t like witches going on misadventures with sexy results? This could be a good holiday read if that sounds fun, even if the holiday it best matches was over two months ago.

Rating 5: Cute for the most part, but not the highest tier romance I’ve read this year, “The Ex Hex” brings witches into a rom com setting with some mixed results.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ex Hex” is included on the Goodreads lists “All Hallows Reads”, and “Feel Good Rom Coms”.

Find “The Ex Hex” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Our Violent Ends”

Book: “Our Violent Ends” by Chloe Gong

Publishing Info: Margaret K McElderry Books, November 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley

Book Description: Shanghai is under siege in this captivating and searingly romantic sequel to These Violent Delights, which New York Times bestselling author Natasha Ngan calls “deliciously dark.”

The year is 1927, and Shanghai teeters on the edge of revolution. After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrong move, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir. The only way to save the boy she loves from the wrath of the Scarlets is to have him want her dead for murdering his best friend in cold blood. If Juliette were actually guilty of the crime Roma believes she committed, his rejection might sting less.

Roma is still reeling from Marshall’s death, and his cousin Benedikt will barely speak to him. Roma knows it’s his fault for letting the ruthless Juliette back into his life, and he’s determined to set things right—even if that means killing the girl he hates and loves with equal measure.

Then a new monstrous danger emerges in the city, and though secrets keep them apart, Juliette must secure Roma’s cooperation if they are to end this threat once and for all. Shanghai is already at a boiling point: The Nationalists are marching in, whispers of civil war brew louder every day, and gangster rule faces complete annihilation. Roma and Juliette must put aside their differences to combat monsters and politics, but they aren’t prepared for the biggest threat of all: protecting their hearts from each other.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Last year I took a bit of a chance on the book “These Violent Delights”, Chloe Gong’s historical fiction fantasy romance thriller retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”. That’s a true mouthful for a genre description, but it’s the only way to truly describe the wide breadth that this book had. I ended up enjoying it, and found myself waiting anxiously to find out what happened next. Well great news! The conclusion, “Our Violent Ends”, has been released, and let me tell you, the year long wait was worth it. Juliette and Roma are back, and I happily dove into the sweet, sweet agony that was sure to follow.

Me fully ready to watch things go horribly south for all my favorite characters in 1920s Shanghai. (source)

Just as a quick additional refresher, this “Romeo and Juliet” retelling takes place in 1920s Shanghai, as two rival gangs, the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers, have a blood feud that has led to constant tension and violence. Juliette is the heir to the Scarlet Gang, Roma is the heir to the White Flowers, they had a passionate love affair and in the last book teamed up to try and stop a monster from wreaking pure havoc on the city they love. When we finished the first book, Juliette had just killed Roma’s best friend Marshall, though she hadn’t REALLY killed him, it was all a ruse to keep Roma safe vis a vis his hatred of her.

Plot wise, Gong balances the source material with a lot of new themes and plot points, as well as an update to the time and place that the story takes place. There are still threats from monsters in this one, which makes the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers have an uneasy truce/team up in hopes that Juliette and Roma can find the vaccine that is rumored to stop the monsters (and of course the tension is off the charts in all kinds of ways). But there are also threats of the time period, like the simmering tensions between the Nationalists and the rising Communists. And we are still dealing with the two gangs having conflicts, which could be ceasing due to a common enemy of the monsters, but is always on the precipice. It’s a lot to cram in there, and while sometimes it felt like it was a little too much (and that we’d gloss over aspects of the plot because of it), overall Gong still managed to have a clear connection to the original play through things that would happen in the story. Even when she would twist some things around to better fit the story that she was telling. These moments were done in such a way that usually felt more true to the circumstances, however, and never like she was just trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

It is still the characters, however, that are the books greatest strengths. While the original cast of “Romeo and Juliet” has a kind of charisma to a degree (I mean, I don’t like the play but I recognize the appeal of the characters), Gong continues to draw far more complexity from her versions of the players. With Roma you have a brooding and brokenhearted Romeo, who is mourning the supposed death of his friend Marshall at the hand of his former lover. With Juliette you have a woman who is being torn up by her feeling of duty to her family as the heir to the Scarlet Gang, as well as her deep love for a man that she had to pretend to betray. And oh how I continued to love this version of Juliette. She gets shit done and isn’t given ANY credit for it, and I loved her inner turmoil even as she has to hold EVERYTHING together to be the strongest player in the whole damn story. It gives both the main characters FAR more pathos than the play did, and I really enjoyed how Gong gave both of them a lot more agency, smarts, and will than their inspirations were ever given. I was actively rooting for both of them, but especially Juliette, who is constantly trying to prove herself as worthy, though as a woman she is never going to be seen as such (and her psychopathic cousin Tyler is given more glory than she ever gets). But it’s also side players that are highly enjoyable, be it Juliette’s cousins Kathleen and Rosalind, or Roma’s younger sister Alisa. For me, though, I LOVED Marshall and Benedikt, the two lovers who have been separated due to Marshall faking his death, and Benedikt’s agony over it. Oh these two. You cannot help but root for them.

“Our Violent Ends” finished out the duology on a perhaps expected but still satisfying high note. Chloe Gong made me into a “Romeo and Juliet” fan, at least the way she tells it, and I definitely recommend checking it out if you want to see a really unique twist on the original tale!

Rating 8: A complex and satisfying end to a truly unique Shakespeare retelling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Our Violent Ends” is new and not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Rewriting Shakespeare (YA Edition)”, and “YA Fiction Set in the 1920s”.

Find “Our Violent Ends” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: “These Violent Delights”.

Serena’s Review: “The Duchess War”

Book: “The Duchess War” by Courtney Milan

Publishing Info: Createspace, December 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Miss Minerva Lane is a quiet, bespectacled wallflower, and she wants to keep it that way. After all, the last time she was the center of attention, it ended badly-so badly that she changed her name to escape her scandalous past. Wallflowers may not be the prettiest of blooms, but at least they don’t get trampled. So when a handsome duke comes to town, the last thing she wants is his attention. But that is precisely what she gets. Because Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clermont, is not fooled. When Minnie figures out what he’s up to, he realizes there is more to her than her spectacles and her quiet ways. And he’s determined to lay her every secret bare before she can discover his. But this time, one shy miss may prove to be more than his match…

Review: There have been a few articles circulating in readers’ circles noting the increased interest in romance as a genre throughout the pandemic. I think the reasons are probably fairly self-explanatory, so I won’t get into them myself. But I’ll definitely note that this point really hit home when fairly spontaneously at our last bookclub, we all seemed to realize we were all reading significantly more in the genre, so much so that we decided to make romance the theme of our entire next round! My reviews here on the blog don’t necessarily reflect this increase, but that’s largely due to the challenges of writing about book in a genre that by necessity are often fairly similar in structure. But I do want to throw reviews out there every once in a while when a particular one stands out. Hence, “The Duchess War.”

Minerva Lane understands the strategy of being a wallflower. Unnoticed, she can quietly observe everyone and make her subtle maneuvers with little attention drawn to herself. And, while her choices are very limited, at least they will be hers. But her carefully laid plans are upended when a Duke arrives on the scene. Minnie quickly realizes that Robert Blaisdell is more than he seems. Unfortunately, he, too, takes notice of her and before she can protest, begins pulling her inevitably out from her quiet corners and back into the center of attention. But will their own smarts be each of their own down falling? Or do they each desperately need the recognition that only the other can give.

When I logged on to Goodreads to mark this book as read, I realized that I must have read the second book in this series sometime in the past. And, judging by my low star rating, I didn’t like it much (honestly, I have zero memory of reading that book, even after looking at the description). Thank goodness I didn’t spot that before picking this one up, as I really enjoyed this historical romance!

There were several things that stood out to me as unique about this romance novel as compared other similar titles. For one thing, while most “historical romances” are set somewhere in the Regency or Victorian period, other than a few mentions of the current monarch or a particular style of dress (empire waste or bustles), there are often few historical markers to be found. It’s all very general, upper-class, social entertainments from end to end. This book, however, dove into some of the political and culture undercurrents moving at the time. In particular, there was a focus on the working conditions for the common man and the uneven wealth distribution at the heart of British society. Yes, it’s still a romance novel at heart so all of this is only lightly touched upon, but the fact that it all plays a rather key role to the story is fairly unique as a whole.

I also really liked our main two characters and their backstories. Their histories were slow to unfold, but once we fully understood the lives they had lead up to this point, it really help ground each character in the decisions they made going forward. I was particularly pleased to see strong aspects of their characters remain true even throughout the typical upheavals found near the end of romance novels. The conflicts that arose came through believable choices that each character would make, and, refreshingly, neither one of them completely loses their head. I was particularly pleased with Minnie, as in many ways she became the force of reason that held these two together in the end.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a perfect blend of wish-fulfillment on the romance side as well as an increased dedication to including interesting elements on the historical side. Fans of historical romances are sure to enjoy this and should definitely add it to their TBR lists!

Rating 8: Romantic and funny, everything I want from a feel-good story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Duchess War” is on this Goodreads list: 1st Book in Historical Romance Series.

Find “The Duchess War” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Given”

Book: “Given” by Nandi Taylor

Publishing Info: Wattpad Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As a princess of the Yirba, Yenni is all-but-engaged to the prince of a neighboring tribe. She knows it’s her duty to ensure peace for her people, but as her father’s stubborn illness steadily worsens, she sets out on a sacred journey to the empire of Cresh, determined to find a way to save him at any cost, even though failure could mean the wrath of her gods and ruin for her people. One further complication? On the day she arrives at the Prevan Academy for Battle and Magical Arts, she meets an arrogant dragon-shifter named Weysh who claims she’s his “Given”, or destined mate. Muscular, beautiful (and completely infuriating), he’s exactly the kind of distraction Yenni can’t afford while her father’s life hangs in the balance.

But while Yenni would like nothing more than to toss Weysh the man into the nearest river, Weysh the dragon quickly becomes a much-needed friend in the confusing northern empire. Yet when her affection for the dragon starts to transfer to the man, Yenni must decide what is more important: her duty to her tribe, or the call of her own heart.

Review: This book had two things going for it immediately: first, the cover is so cool! There was an alternative cover that was much less compelling, but the one I highlighted here was the one I saw and the one that initially drew me in. And second, it’s a book about dragons. Lump me in with all the other unoriginal fantasy fans who love dragons, I don’t care! A good dragon story will always be right up my alley. A bad dragon story, however….

Yenni has always grown up with duty at the heart of her life. But when her father falls prey to a mysterious illness, this duty takes on a new form. Not only must she travel to a distant academy to follow through on her next steps to queendom, but while there, she desperately hopes to find a cure for her beloved father. The last thing she needs is distractions. Especially not distractions that show up in the form of infuriating, handsome, young men. And frankly, the only thing in this particular young man’s favor is his dragon form whom Yenni forms a close relationship. Sadly, one comes with the other. But as Yenni finds herself growing closer to man and dragon, the choices before her and the duties that call to her begin to blend and meld.

I probably should have known from the description that this probably wasn’t going to be a winner for me. YA books that describe their romantic heroes as “infuriating” and “arrogant” are almost always underselling it, with the terms “demeaning” and “borderline-abusive” often being the words I would substitute. Alas, so was the case here.

There were so many cringe-worthy lines (also to be expected from most fantasy romances that center around some sort of “mate bond”…can we just stop with this entire idea??). And what was worse was how quickly Yenni ultimately got over her first impression made by some of these rude interactions. Her initial reaction of dislike is completely justified. Her 180-turn like five pages later was….less so. And that’s all without touching the utter lack of romance involved in an insta-love connection. Or any of the other trope-ridden high school romance boxes that were dutifully checked off as the story progressed. All the worse in that these were supposedly more adult characters! Sadly, every aspect of this romance didn’t work for me and pretty much ruined my experience.

Perhaps it’s for the best, then, that I also didn’t feel like there was overly much to ruin in the first place. The writing was strong enough, but wasn’t accomplishing anything truly note-worthy. There was an over-reliance on the author telling readers how they should feel about things, rather than creating situations and dialogue that would resonate with readers and do the showing for her. And the world-building and magical school were incredibly predictable and unoriginal feeling. Sure, one can say that with “Harry Potter” looming large, it’s almost impossible to write a magical school book that doesn’t feel like either a straight-up copy attempt or a pale comparison. But in response, I will point you to Naomi Novik’s “A Deadly Education” and leave it at that. It definitely can be done. This one just doesn’t manage it.

Ultimately, I was really disappointed by this book. Not only did it not live up to the awesome, bad-ass heroine who seemed to be depicted on the cover, but it fell into every negative romance trope you can think of in recent years. I really wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. There are better dragon stories out there. Better leading ladies. Better worlds. In a word, better books.

Rating 4: Not only did it not bring anything new to the table, but it highlighted another unhealthy romantic dynamic as some sort of wish-fulfillment.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Given” is on these Goodreads lists: 2020 Fantasy and Science Fiction Books by Black Authors and Fantasy That Isn’t Fantastic Straight White Men Doing Epic Things….

Find “Given” at your local library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “The Right Swipe”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Right Swipe” by Alisha Rai

Publishing Info: Avon, August 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: I own it.

Genre/Format: Romance

Book Description: Alisha Rai returns with the first book in her sizzling new Modern Love series, in which two rival dating app creators find themselves at odds in the boardroom but in sync in the bedroom.

Rhiannon Hunter may have revolutionized romance in the digital world, but in real life she only swipes right on her career—and the occasional hookup. The cynical dating app creator controls her love life with a few key rules:

– Nude pics are by invitation only

– If someone stands you up, block them with extreme prejudice

– Protect your heart

Only there aren’t any rules to govern her attraction to her newest match, former pro-football player Samson Lima. The sexy and seemingly sweet hunk woos her one magical night… and disappears. Rhi thought she’d buried her hurt over Samson ghosting her, until he suddenly surfaces months later, still big, still beautiful—and in league with a business rival. He says he won’t fumble their second chance, but she’s wary. A temporary physical partnership is one thing, but a merger of hearts? Surely that’s too high a risk…

Kate’s Thoughts

Though I tend to stick to a few genres that I tackle on this blog, in my overall reading habits I try to be varied and open minded when it comes to what book I decide to pick up. But like most people, I do have my blind spots in genres. My goal this year is to try and read more romance because of this. So the fates were lining up when I decided to take on the Outside the Genre Box book for February. After all, our book club meeting was going to be on Galentine’s Day, the day before Valentine’s Day. Obviously picking a romance was going to happen. I decided on “The Right Swipe” by Alisha Rai for a couple of reasons. 1) It had some good reviews and solid hype. 2) I saw that it had a diverse cast of characters, and 3) I’m not quite ready to jump into Regency era bodice rippers, so something contemporary felt just right.

And I really enjoyed “The Right Swipe”. I liked our main characters, Rhiannon and Samson, whose one night stand could have turned into something more, had Samson not ghosted on Rhiannon before their second date. It’s a pretty typical premise, and I was expecting it to be fairly obvious in execution of the plot (they meet again, it’s frosty at first, then it gets hot, then it gets cold, then it ends up okay in the end). But that may have just been my preconceived notions of the genre, because it didn’t go in ways that were expected for me. I liked both Rhiannon and Samson as characters, as they both had their flaws and their strengths, and all of that felt realistic. Their chemistry is palpable, and it’s very easy to root for them because they are both good people who clearly are right for each other. But you also understand why Rhiannon is reluctant to give him another chance with her past relationship traumas, and why Samson has his own insecurities and hurt from past experiences. They just click, but aren’t perfect, nor melodramatic.

But what really struck me was that Rai brings in some really relevant and meaty social issues into this story that both Rhiannon and Samson have to deal with. For Rhiannon, it’s the fact that she is a social media mogul on the rise, but has to work twice as hard and be twice and brilliant because she is a Black woman in a white dominated industry, and has an unearned difficult reputation because of a vindictive white man whom she used to be involved with. You see her drive and her hunger, as well as the emotional labor and pain that comes with the constant roadblocks because of her race and her gender. For Samson, his history of being a professional football player from a family of football greats is darkened by the very real issue of CTE. While he himself doesn’t have it, people he cared about suffered and deteriorated because of it, and while Rai doesn’t overtly call out the NFL for how it has ‘handled’ the issue, the commentary is very much there.

And yeah, it’s definitely steamy. It lives up to all my expectations of the genre in that regard, and that is a compliment to be sure.

I really liked “The Right Swipe”, and I am definitely going to continue on in Rai’s series. I’m expanding my literary horizons, people, and it feels good!

Kate’s Rating 8: A cute and steamy romance with some really good social commentary, “The Right Swipe” is a fun read, and a great place to begin if you want to check out the romance genre with little experience within it.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of Rhiannon and Samson’s relationship? Healthy? Unhealthy?
  2. What were your thoughts on Rhi’s personal rules for dating? Did you find the rules too stringent? Not stringent enough?
  3. Both Rhi and Samson have some pretty significant back stories. What did you think of them? Did you like one more than the other?
  4. What were your opinions on the CTE subplot? How aware were you of CTE before this book?
  5. Rhi has a number of roadblocks she has to deal with being a Black woman in the dating app industry. Did you think that Rai did a good job balancing these themes with the plot?
  6. This is the first in a series. Assuming the next books are going to follow side characters, whose story would you like to hear in the coming books?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Right Swipe” is included on the Goodreads lists “Radical Romance”, and “2019 Romance Books by Authors of Color”.

Find “The Right Swipe” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Red at the Bone” by Jacqueline Woodson

My Year with Jane Austen: “Death Comes to Pemberley”

I could probably continue on an entire extra year reviewing various adaptations and interpretations of Jane Austen’s works. There are plays, spin-off books, modern adaptations, the list goes on and on. Every year it seems there is a new version coming out in some form or another and this last year was no exception. Not only did we get a new feature film of “Emma” but the BBC also released an 8-part mini series of Austen’s unfinished work “Sanditon.” So I wanted to briefly touch on my thoughts of both those and to add in one other adaptation that has been a favorite of mine for quite a while, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” both the book and the 3-part mini series.

Mini Series: “Death Comes to Pemberley”

I’ve read the book this was based on as well (same title and written by P.D. James), but I wanted to focus on the mini series adaptation here as, ultimately, I enjoyed it the most of the two. The book was a solid “Pride and Prejudice” sequel; frankly, it’s probably the best, and only, sequel I’d recommend to people. So the fact that I liked the mini series more is in no way a ding against the book itself. I only read it the one time, so I also wouldn’t bet against my not remembering it well enough to give it the credit it deserves. But on to the mini series itself!

As I mentioned above, this story is a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice.” It takes place mostly at Pemberley and occurs 5 or so years after the book (Darcy and Elizabeth have a 4-ish son, so I’m just guessing, if they mentioned it in the movie/book, I don’t remember). The story is a murder mystery at its heart, revolving around Wickham (who else!) who has been accused of killing his dear friend Denny while in Pemberley woods. The show is a three part mini series that slowly follows Elizabeth and Darcy as they try to put together the clues as to what really happened and whether or not Wickham is innocent or guilty. Along the way, we meet a cast a familiar faces and are given extra information about their histories that wasn’t provided in the original story. We also meet a few new characters, but it’s mostly a returning cast, though the focus is more on characters who played only small roles in the original book, like Georgiana and Colonel Fitzwilliam.

This mini series succeeds at both of its main goals: It is a worthy (and believable!) sequel to a beloved story that ended in such a way that a sequel would typically feel completely unnecessary; and it holds up as a compelling murder mystery in its own right. Had this story been almost exactly the same but with original characters, it would likely be almost just as good (though more fleshing out for characters would obviously be necessary since you couldn’t count on general familiarity and previous knowledge). That is a truly extraordinary feat.

Obviously, much of this comes down to James’ heavy lifting with her book. But I’d wager that of all of the Jane Austen adaptations, “Pride and Prejudice” is the only one with a film/mini series that is almost as beloved and the book itself. Just like James’ had an uphill battle in writing a sequel to the book, this mini series was attempting to re-cast and continue the stories of characters whom many thought couldn’t be improved upon from Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle’s version. Both Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin perfectly balance carrying forward characters who have already been seen on screen several times while keeping them familiar as well as bringing their own twists and mannerisms.

I really liked the mystery itself, too. There are plenty of red herrings and possible scenarios that can lead viewers down false trails. Even better, every aspect reveals new layers to Pemberley, its family, and the people that have lived on the estate for generations. I particularly liked the exploration of Darcy and Georgiana’s feelings towards stewardship and Pemberley. It’s an interesting topic, especially when contrasted with Elizabeth’s experience of life, that while they generally see eye to eye on many things, this is simply something that she can’t really understand. This feeling of responsibility to a place, its people, and one’s own history.

I also really liked the brief moments that showed us some of the challenges that Elizabeth faced (faces) as the new lady of Pemberley. It’s obvious that she’s not the lady of the house that anyone would have expected and with that would come its own set of trials. We also get a look into the insecurities and doubts that both Darcy and Elizabeth still struggle with. Yes, the ending of “Pride and Prejudice” was happily ever after, but marriage has its own set of challenges and one’s personal demons don’t simply disappear when one’s true love shows up.

The only ding I have against this adaptation is its depiction of Colonel Fitzwilliam (again, this was following the book’s lead so it’s not unique to the mini series itself). Personally, I really like what they do with the character here. So my quibble is more about continuality and what feels like a pretty thorough character re-write from what we’re given in the original novel. True, the novel really doesn’t show us much, but we have Darcy’s own esteem for the Colonel and his duel role in bringing up Georgiana to speak to his general good character. But unless you’re a die-hard Fitzwilliam fan, the changes shouldn’t be that distracting.

I really enjoy this mini series, and it’s my regular rotation of Jane Austen re-watches. Like I said, it’s the only worthy sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” I’ve come across, and it also checks all the boxes as a good historical mystery, another favorite of mine. If you haven’t read the book or watched this adaptation, I definitely recommend it for all Jane Austen fans!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Sanditon” [2019]

I could probably continue on an entire extra year reviewing various adaptations and interpretations of Jane Austen’s works. There are plays, spin-off books, modern adaptations, the list goes on and on. Every year it seems there is a new version coming out in some form or another and this last year was no exception. Not only did we get a new feature film of “Emma” but the BBC also released an 8-part mini series of Austen’s unfinished work “Sanditon.” So I wanted to briefly touch on my thoughts of both those and to add in one other adaptation that has been a favorite of mine for quite a while, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” both the book and the 3-part mini series.

Mini-Series: “Sanditon”

I promise I’ll leave a positive review for one of these “extra” Jane Austen reviews that I’m doing in January. Alas, like “Emma” [2020], this is not one of them. Unlike “Emma,” however, I am more in-line with the general reception of this mini series. All and all, I think most Jane Austen fans were supremely disappointed by it, not least because of how it ends. Let’s dive into my complaints, shall we?

(NOTE: There will be spoilers in this review.)

The whole thing starts from a false premise: that there’s even a story here to adapt. Austen had only written eleven chapters of this story before her death. For reference, Emma has fifty-five chapters, so by comparison, eleven chapters is only scratching the surface of whatever story Austen had in mind. All we really get from these opening chapters is the introduction of our heroine, Charlotte, her relocation to an up-and-coming beach town called “Sanditon,” and the arrival of a potential love interest in the form of the fashionable Sidney Parker. Story-wise, it’s not much. There are the typical cast of side characters as well, but not much as far as clues to Austen’s overarching plot or themes. In most ways, she’s just finished setting the scene and not much else. It was always going to be a fool’s errand to try to expand that out into a mini series and to call it a “Jane Austen adaptation” is really pushing the limits of that term.

Perhaps in the right hands a compelling story could have been made. But sadly, this mini series ain’t that. It falls into too many traps that many modern adaptations risk and, at its heart, seems to miss the overall tone and heart that makes up all Jane Austen stories. To most fans’ chagrin, the story succumbs to the inane need of modern series to be “gritty” and “push the limits.” There are overtly sexual scenes in the very first episode (some of them even bizarrely going a very “Game of Thrones” route, none the less…). And many, if not most, of the characters introduced are supremely unlikable. For some reason, it seems that many directors and screenwriters often confuse writing a character with layers and depth with just writing supreme jerks, and we see plenty examples of it here. The romantic interest is immediately an a-hole to Charlotte, and not in the endearing, prideful “Darcy-esque” way that is the only acceptable form of this behavior in an Austen story.

Gone is the joy. Gone is the wit. And, worst of all, gone is the happy ending. It seems as if the director intentionally ended the series this way in a fit of over-confidence that the series would be picked up for a second season. Indeed, this is the only acceptable reason for ending an Austen story this way. There are plenty of historical fiction stories to be told where the happy, romantic conclusion is not a given. But those are not the stories that Austen wrote. She even said it herself, “let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”

Every Austen fan who went into this series happily hoping to get one last shot at a new Austen story would have had this one, simple expectation: that the hero and heroine would end up together and happy at the end. Whatever happened from the start to the finish was open for exploration and interpretation. But this ending was a must. Instead, the series not only denies our hero and heroine this happiness, but it essentially resets the story by sending Charlotte back home where her future is once again limited and likely dull. I’ll be blunt: this ending is inexcusable for a Jane Austen adaption and, apart from any other stumbling blocks (of which there were many) would be enough to write this entire thing off on its own.

Unlike “Emma,” which I think I disliked for fairly subjective reasons but is sure to please many fans, this mini series really has nothing to recommend it, as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps for general historical fiction fans it would be an ok watch. But any fan of Jane Austen should simply steer clear, as “Jane Austen” this is not.