Guest Review: The Gender Game by Bella Forrest

Guest Review: The Gender Game by Bella ForrestThe Gender Game by Bella Forrest
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure romance, dystopian, science fiction, young adult
Series: Gender Game #1
Pages: 418
Published by Nightlight Press on November 24, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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A toxic river divides nineteen-year-old Violet Bates's world by gender. Women rule the East. Men rule the West.

Welcome to the lands of Matrus and Patrus.

Ever since the disappearance of her beloved younger brother, Violet's life has been consumed by an anger she struggles to control. Already a prisoner to her own nation, now she has been sentenced to death for her crimes.

But one decision could save her life.

To enter the kingdom of Patrus, where men rule and women submit.

Everything about the patriarchy is dangerous for a rebellious girl like Violet. She cannot break the rules if she wishes to stay alive. But abiding by rules has never been her strong suit, and when she is thrust into more danger than she could have ever predicted, Violet is forced to sacrifice many things in the forbidden kingdom ... including forbidden love.

In a world divided by gender, only the strongest survive...

Guest Review by Amy:

Our story opens with young Violet Bates trying to smuggle her brother across a toxic river in the dead of the night. They’re caught, and Violet’s life is forever changed. Some time in our future, in the devastation of our world, men and women move apart, and try two different ways of running a society. In Patrus, the men rule; in Matrus, the women are in charge. There are some folks who go back and forth, of course, and a few who have stayed on the “wrong” side of the river, for an assortment of reasons.

After much of her youth is spent in prisons, Matrian youngster Violet is recruited for a dangerous mission–go to Patrus, and steal something back that belongs to the Queen!

Escape Rating: B+. Dystopian fiction interests me. There’s a lot of it that is pretty consistent meat-and-taters: downfall of society for some reason or another, utter lawlessness, the fight for survival, the whole Mad Max vibe, you know? But once in a while, an author gives us a new spin, and here we have one. Some of the reviewers have compared this to The Hunger Games, but I don’t think the comparison does either tale justice, really; this story pokes rather firmly at things that most adults have pretty firmly settled in their mind: gender, and how the genders behave.

In The Gender Game, we’re introduced to a society split along gender lines. In Patrus, women are essentially enslaved to their fathers and husbands, and have almost no rights. In Matrus, men are carefully watched for aggressive tendencies, and sent to the mines or killed as soon as they don’t toe the line drawn by the women who run things.

Violet’s story is interesting, growing up jailed, and how she learned to survive in a system that just could not embrace her, after her failure to crack down on her own brother. When she’s whisked away from all that, and offered a deal that she can’t refuse, we’ve got a whole new story to digest.

As I read through The Gender Game, I looked at my e-book reader and saw I was near the end. I thought about not finishing it, because it seemed kind of predictable in the early pages – Violet trains up for the heist, she and her Patrian ally decide who to frame, she interacts with the scapegoat – I don’t really need to go on, do I? But I’m glad I read all the way to the end! We get a plot twist right in the final pages that sets up the second story in this series, The Gender Secret, where (presumably) we’ll explore more of this world that Bella Forrest has created.

It’s that plot twist, in this reviewer’s mind, that saves this book from a lower rating. I liked the story well enough, and Violet was a good enough heroine, with a very realistic set of struggles to go along with the big plot problem, but it just didn’t excite me early on. The strangeness of the Matrus/Patrus setting took a little explaining, so it took a while to ramp up the character development and conflict. It made for a little bit of slow going at first, but this series is now standing at seven books, so I would presume that there’s a bit less exposition about this curious setting in later volumes.

Another problem that I have is…well, let me remind you that I’m a transgender woman. Gender is not binary, not A or B, but a spectrum of in-betweens and even a few folks who eschew it altogether. The Gender Games utterly ignores this, firmly asserting a very heterosexual, very traditional binary gender system. Living in a world like we do, where we are somewhat more liberal-thinking than that, this story feels like a step backward to me, because of that glaring discrepancy.

It’s a good story, though, and I’m strongly considering picking up more of the series, just to see if our heroine manages to be the catalyst for change in this strange society she lives in. If you like dystopian fiction, and want a piece that is outside the norm, it’s certainly worth a look.

 

 

Guest Review: Sleeping with the Fishes by MaryJanice Davidson

Guest Review: Sleeping with the Fishes by MaryJanice DavidsonSleeping with the Fishes by MaryJanice Davidson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback
Genres: paranormal romance
Series: Fred the Mermaid #1
Pages: 284
Published by Berkley Books on November 28th 2006
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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Fred is a mermaid. But stop right there. Whatever image you're thinking of right now, forget it. Fred is not blonde. She's not buxom. And she's definitely not perky. In fact, Fred can be downright cranky. And it doesn't help matters that her hair is blue.

Being a mermaid does help Fred when she volunteers at the New England Aquarium. But, needless to say, it's there that she gets involved in something fishy. Weird levels of toxins have been found in the local seawater. A gorgeous marine biologist wants her help investigating. So does her merperson ruler, the High Prince of the Black Sea. You'd think it would be easy for a mermaid to get to the bottom of things. Think again...

Guest Review by Amy:

Fredrika isn’t what you’re thinking, not even a little. She’s a mermaid–a half-breed, actually–who has lived her whole life among humans. When she gets wet, her legs merge, and scales pop out, and…  well, you know the rest.

But right there is where all connection with most mermaid legends ends. Fred, as she prefers to be called, is pretty, but isn’t breathtakingly gorgeous, because she just doesn’t care; her green/blue hair has split ends all over the place, and she just can’t be bothered. She’s not interested in dating, and hasn’t had a date since that disastrous one six years ago with her boss’s ex-husband. Only her best friend Jonas – whom everyone thinks is gay, apparently – knows that she’s a mermaid.

She’s got a job, of course, as a marine biologist (also of course) at the big aquarium in Boston Harbor. A new guy shows up, concerned about the nastiness of the harbor, and gosh he’s handsome…but then the High Prince of the merfolk swims into town, with the same concern!

Escape Rating: A-: Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for “paranormal romances” that aren’t about vampires or werewolves. Not many are published, so from time to time, I nose around my local used bookstore and see if there’s anything interesting to me. “Oh, hey! Mermaids!” I thought to myself, finding this little book.  “That’s different.”

…little did I know. “Paranormal” fits, because, well, merfolk, but “romance?” I find myself challenged to call it that. The romance just isn’t where you expect it in this story, nor does it follow any of the conventional patterns: Fred does get a bit kissy with these two hunky gents who turn up suddenly in her life, sure, and both of them are intent on catching her, but she’s just not having it right now – our mermaid heroine has a job to do. There is one rather-steamy sex scene in here – but she’s not in it!

The entire action of this story takes place over just a few days, and that adds to the somewhat frenzied feel of this book. Things happen fast here, so pay attention to the details while you’re reading it, or you might miss something important. In addition to Fred’s frustration with two men who are more set on landing her than solving the problem they are ostensibly there to solve, we have Fred’s nosy boss, the frumpy director of the aquarium (who doesn’t know she’s a mermaid, remember?) sniffing around wondering about that huge hunk (The Prince, natch) who has suddenly appeared on the scene, the fish in Main One are on a hunger strike and Fred can’t seem to convince them to eat without blasting Pet Shop Boys on the loudspeakers, the captain of the aquarium’s research boat can’t stand Fred because rather ironically, she gets seasick and panics on boats, the ditzy, chirpy intern, Fred’s shellfish allergy…and on and on. There’s lots to take in here, in a very short space of time, and it took me two reads to catch it all.

Fortunately for me, Sleeping with the Fishes is a hilariously fun read! Author MaryJanice Davidson has packed this book from cover to cover with Fred’s wry humor, outrageous stereotypes, and some of the best wisecracks and one-liners I’ve read in quite a while. If I was a serious reviewer of highbrow fiction, I’d tear this book apart, but I’m not. I’m a reader who likes something silly and unexpected and fun once in a while. If that’s you also, give this story and the series it opens a look.

Guest Review: Her Sweetest Fortune, by Stella Bagwell

Guest Review: Her Sweetest Fortune, by Stella BagwellHer Sweetest Fortune by Stella Bagwell
Format: ebook
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: The Fortunes of Texas: The Secret Fortunes #2
Pages: 224
Published by Harlequin on January 17, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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FRIENDS WITH...BENEFITS?

Sophie Fortune Robinson is on a mission. The word around the office watercooler is that the boss's youngest daughter is intent on landing Mr. Right by Valentine's Day--and that she has her eyes, and heart, set on a certain hunk in Marketing. But when she enlists her longtime pal and coworker Mason Montgomery to teach her how to get a man to notice her, little does she know she's already captured his attention!

Now Mason's in a real bind! He has just a few short weeks to fight his way out of the "friend zone." On his agenda: convincing sweet Sophie that he is the real man of her dreams! Will Fortune smile on true love's venture?

Guest Review by Amy:

Sophie Fortune Robinson has found her man, The One For Her.  He must be! And she’s utterly certain that she’s the right catch for him. Only–well, see, there’s this guy from IT, and he’s been a good friend to her for a while now, and it doesn’t seem to matter to him that she’s part of the stunningly wealthy Fortune clan.

Escape Rating: A-. Stella Bagwell has written over ninety books for Harlequin, and this isn’t her first foray into the sprawling “Fortunes of Texas” arc of stories. Going in, it looks really predictable: it’s the “I Was Here All Along” trope, tried and true. But Bagwell is an experienced author, so I was counting on a surprise.

I had a little trouble understanding where our heroine was coming from, at the outset of this book. We know she’s the boss’s daughter, she’s interested in the flashy dude from marketing, and she’s only-recently been found to be a scion of the massive Fortune clan around which this group of stories revolve. But, to me at least, she came off a little…shallow. Think of Disney’s Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast:

“She’s the one, the lucky girl I’m going to marry!”

“The inventor’s daughter? But she’s…”

“The most beautiful girl in town! And that makes her the best! And don’t I deserve the best?”

The opening sequence of this book feels like a gender-swapped version of that, to me. He’s the hunkiest, and he’s high up in marketing, so he’s The One, and she’s set her cap to get him. Sure, that’s the formula at play here, but Sophie comes off as almost predatory. For me, it was a tiny sour note, right from the outset, but being the stubborn reader that I am, I powered on.

Once we see where this is heading, it’s easy to think that the end will write itself. But not so fast–it turns out that Sophie’s infatuation with the hunk ends much earlier in the book than I expected–she and her pal Mason, the IT guy, hit it off, and things are ticking along marvelously, before we’re even 2/3 of the way through the book. But what about the subplot that got Sophie into this “Fortunes of Texas” arc in the first place? Her father, you see, lived a double life for a long, long time, and it turns out that he’s a Fortune–and he has illegitimate kids here and there, to boot. Sophie’s brothers and sisters have discovered another one, and it’s stressing her. She withholds this from Mason, and also is keeping their relationship on the sly, to avoid gossip. Predictably, Mason’s not okay with this state of affairs for long, and only then do we see where the real ending of the story will be. Bagwell gave us two Harlequins in one, in a way, and it was cleverly done.

Stella Bagwell shows us her expertise as a writer in Her Sweetest Fortune, and it made for a lovely read for me. Like most Harlequins, this is not a book to dwell on and think over; it’s escapism, pure and clean and unadulterated. Other than the minor bobble with the opening, it’s a cute, fun story, and well worth a read.

Guest Review: Outsystem by M. D. Cooper

Guest Review: Outsystem by M. D. CooperOutsystem (The Intrepid Saga #1) by M.D. Cooper
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Series: Intrepid Saga #1
Pages: 350
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on July 9th 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Major Richards needs to get out of the Sol System

Demoted by the military and hung out to dry, the media labels her the Butcher of Toro. Despite her soiled record, Tanis still one of the best military counter-insurgency officers in the Terran Space Force.

And they need her to find the terrorists responsible for trying to destroy the GSS Intrepid, a massive interstellar colony ship in the final phases of construction at the Mars Outer Shipyards.

It’ll be her ticket out of the Sol system, but Tanis discovers she is up against more than mercenaries and assassins. Major corporations and governments have a vested interest in ensuring the Intrepid never leaves Sol, ultimately pitting Tanis against factions inside her own military.

With few friends left, Tanis will need to fight for her life to get outsystem.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Amazon showed me this book at some point, trying to entice me into a Kindle Unlimited subscription; I didn’t buy the subscription, but at 99 cents, the book was a cheap read anyway. When I got to it, I opened it with no expectations at all, other than some geeky sci-fi.

Guest Review by Amy:

It’s the 42nd Century, and Major Tanis Richards is part of a crack counter-insurgency and intel unit, but she’s gotten into trouble; she’s infamous, you see, for some awfulness she did a while back. We’re never told quite what she did, but her fame precedes her. Tanis is ready to leave the Sol system for good, on the greatest colony ship ever built. It’s a new age of colonization, and the Intrepid is the first of its kind: a ship that will carry huge colony ships to another star, then drop them off and return to Earth.  The colonists–and indeed much of the crew–will ride in stasis the whole trip.

Major Richards has gotten a spot on the colony roster; not, we may hope, that her skills as an intel officer will be needed. She’s ready to give up her long career in the military, and just be a colonist, but until Intrepid leaves, she’s in charge of security. And there are villains out there who do not want the mighty ship to ever launch! They quite-rightly see Tanis as the fly in the ointment that will keep them from destroying the giant interstellar vessel.

Escape Rating A+: This is my first foray into author M. D. Cooper’s Aeon 14 universe, and I’m seriously impressed. It’s a rich, solid milleu for the characters’ adventures. While mankind has progressed dramatically in 21 centuries from where we are now, even to having a ring around Mars, we still see the same human problems of greed and hatred, and the same diversity of thought and creativity that we do in our own world. The heroine of our tale, Tanis Richards, is a very, very competent, strong woman, dedicated to her job almost to a fault. She takes her lumps from the villains, but will not be silenced. Her life in the military rings true for anyone who’s been around the military for any length of time (Marines are still Marines, OOOH-RAH!), even down to bureaucratic nonsense getting in the way of the mission. This tale even has a little bit of a love interest, which Tanis must put off for a little bit while all the action happens.

I get it. Hard sci-fi isn’t for everyone, and neither is military fiction. Cooper manages to tell us a hard sci-fi story without swamping us in the details, and tells us a military story without burying us in jargon. Action, good leadership, intrigue, a slight touch of romance–it’s all in here, in a nice pleasant mix. There was one sour note for me: remember how Major Richards is in counter-insurgency and intel? She has to take measures to get some information out of someone–many, many lives are on the line, and she must break them, and quickly. Her methods are…unpleasant. But the scene is mercifully brief, and Richards clearly struggles with the necessity of doing what she does. It’s the only rough patch in what was, for me, a wholeheartedly great read. I’m looking forward to picking up more of M. D. Cooper’s work!

Guest Review: Sovereign by April Daniels

Guest Review: Sovereign by April DanielsSovereign (Nemesis, #2) by April Daniels
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, young adult
Series: Nemesis #2
Pages: 350
Published by Diversion Publishing on July 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Only nine months after her debut as the fourth superhero to fight under the name Dreadnought, Danny Tozer is already a scarred veteran. Protecting a city the size of New Port is a team-sized job and she's doing it alone. Between her newfound celebrity and her demanding cape duties, Dreadnought is stretched thin, and it's only going to get worse.
When she crosses a newly discovered supervillain, Dreadnought comes under attack from all quarters. From her troubled family life to her disintegrating friendship with Calamity, there's no trick too dirty and no lever too cruel for this villain to use against her.
She might be hard to kill, but there's more than one way to destroy a hero. Before the war is over, Dreadnought will be forced to confront parts of herself she never wanted to acknowledge.
And behind it all, an old enemy waits in the wings to unleash a plot that will scar the world forever.

I seem to be developing a pattern here; books that involve LGBTQ+ characters, somehow keep magically appearing in my inbox. I’m not complaining. [Editor’s note: I’ll take that as a sign to keep ’em coming. OK?]

Guest review by Amy:

A few months ago, Marlene sent me Dreadnought, the first work in this series, and I was impressed by author April Daniels’ debut book. Sovereign picks up at some time not-to-far in the future from the end of Dreadnought: our heroine Danielle is still a minor, and still wrestling in court with her parents for her emancipation. Meanwhile, the “cape” community of metahuman superheroes has begun to accept her, as she’s pulled off some pretty heroic saves for her community of New Port, with some help from the android Doctor Impossible, and her friend Calamity. But there is a looming threat out there in space, headed for Earth, which threatens to upset the normal order of things, and if someone tries to harness that threat, think of the damage they could do…

Escape Rating A: April Daniels continues to develop her chops as a writer, and her deeper exploration of Danielle and her friends is a strong point for her. In my review of Dreadnought, I called it a “rollicking adventure,” and this tale continues the tradition–there are a lot of subplots going on here, and keeping track can be a bit of a challenge if you’re not paying attention.

One of the high spots for me was Danielle’s relationship with Calamity. Our heroine has had the hots for her for a while, which was hinted at in the prior work, but Danielle was quite certain her feelings weren’t reciprocated, and as a result, she missed some useful clues. The ah-hah moment for her–and what follows–is really beautiful and tastefully done.

Another strong spot, in my mind, is in our cast of villains. There’s a stretch of time where it’s kind of unclear who or what our story’s antagonist is; the problem isn’t, of course, quite what it seems to be at first glance, and it’s only as things begin to unravel toward the end of the story, that you realize what’s really going on. The chief villains are appropriately nasty and fanatical, and when given the opportunity, treat Danielle with enough savagery that there’s no chance whatever they’ll be redeemable to the reader. As a mostly-invulnerable “tank,” Dreadnought is hard to harm, physically, at least in a permanent sense. Instead, they find a way to attack her that prods at the core of who she is. Reading that section of the story was particularly stress-inducing for me, as they were pushing a button that affects me, as well. I was pleased to see how Dreadnought escaped the villain’s clutches!

In the end, we have a “Chekhov’s Gun” situation:  That thing this villain said, while they were doing this and that? It’s important, and when you put all the pieces together near the end, that’s when you realize just how important. This level of foreshadowing is a step up for author April Daniels, as I didn’t notice that in the last book. In a book 70-ish pages longer than the last one, she’s managed to fit in a lot more story, and it’s wrapped up nice and neat at the end, with no leftover story to tell.

I’ll be watching for more great stories from April Daniels, either in Dreadnought’s world, or whatever new worlds she may choose to create for us.  Sovereign is a fantastic second effort from her, well worth a read.

Guest Review: Kith and Kin by Kris Ripper

Guest Review: Kith and Kin by Kris RipperKith and Kin by Kris Ripper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: family saga, M/M romance
Pages: 438
Published by Brain Mill Press on June 20th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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What does it mean to have a family?
Singer and Lisa Thurman did everything right for their entire childhood. Their mother wanted a perfect life, and they knew how to fit that vision. Then they grew up. Singer came out of the closet and Lisa joined a cult. Singer and his partner are adopting a son. Unfortunately, all that practice being the perfect child didn't prepare Singer to be a merely adequate father. Lisa's just trying to get through the day. After three years in a cult, it’s almost impossible to leave her bedroom, so redemption is going to have to wait.
What does it mean to be a family?
When their mother shows up and attempts to reclaim the illusion of her perfect family,  old lives clash with new ones. Recovering from perfection is messy, complicated, and fraught, but the riotous clan that rises from the ashes is full of joy—and the best kind of trouble. A groundbreaking, honest, and provocative novel, Kith and Kin is contemporary family drama that grafts an entirely new species of family tree.
Family is what you make of it.

Guest review by Amy:

Singer Thurman and his long-time partner, Jake Derrie, have been looking to adopt a child for a while. This isn’t as easy for a gay couple, even in California, where they live, as it is for straight couples, but they’re making progress. Singer, who grew up in a very ordinary, mom-and-dad-and-two-kids family, is still adjusting to life with the Derrie clan, a boisterous and diverse bunch. Our tale opens with a knock on the door: Singer’s sister, Lisa. Having recently left a cult, Lisa is not in any kind of normal head space, and Singer immediately offers her the guest bedroom, for as long as she needs it.

Then Social Services calls; they have a foster placement that could easily become permanent.

Then Singer’s too-helpful, too-obtrusive mother shows up.

Escape Rating: A+. I want to be able to wax poetic about how this couple overcomes great hardship in some fashion to be able to adopt a child and forge a family out of the crucible of great tribulations. I’d love to be able to say how cool it is that we’ve got this book with so much diversity baked into it–an asexual heteroromantic, a gay white couple who adopt an African-American child and start going to a church with the baby’s grandmother, an older empty-nest couple rediscovering themselves and starting over. I’d be thrilled to tell you about the inspiring, uplifting moments in this book, the moments that show love winning over all adversity in the end. And Kith and Kin has all that, or I wouldn’t mention it. That kind of writing makes for exciting reviews, and makes everyone feel good.

The thing is, when I read this story, all of the people that author Kris Ripper shows us are…normal. Ordinary humans, with fears and wants and loves and desires just like the rest of us. Yeah, there’s a boisterous asexual woman who splutters around when she comes out to her friends, and our story focuses on a gay couple, but this doesn’t feel like “LGBTQ+ fiction” to me, at all. This is a story of a diverse group of family and friends, (some of whom are in the LGBTQ+ space) who are dealing with the struggles in their lives, and trying to make things better.

Jake and Singer struggle with their relationship dynamic when a new baby comes into the family, they fret about how to help Lisa, they’re exasperated by Mrs. Thurman’s self-centered antics, everything you’d expect. From cover to cover, once you figure out the big framework, this is a “slice-of-life” story, utterly predictable to the very end. Is that a bad thing? Quite the opposite.

In its ordinary-ness lies the great strength of Kith and Kin; it’s a tale we can “belong” in, a story that could just as easily be mine, or yours, or Marlene’s, or anyone else’s. This is a story about the struggles of real people. Watching Singer, who has always been so confident in so many ways, falling apart with all the stressors he suddenly faces, is such a familiar thing for me that I cried with him. When I watched him struggle to try to make sense of things, I struggled with him. When I saw Frankie trying to sort out her own asexuality, I blustered with her as she tried to explain it to friends and family. When Emery was trying to explain his kinkiness to Lisa, and trying not to scare her away from a relationship with him, I could feel his tension about it. The ending, of course, sees them all making progress, and solving things, just like you and I do, and the tale ends on a strong up-note. What makes this story great is that, almost certainly, you’ll find something in these pages that you identify with, even in the smallest way, and suddenly you become a fly-on-the-wall of a life that could just as easily be your own.

Here’s an example. Singer’s friend Kara (who has adopted multiple children with her husband, Vic) gives him a snippet of advice not too unlike the speech that my own mother gave me when my oldest daughter was small, and I felt overwhelmed and under-qualified:

But then I realized we’re all the same. All of us. The parents who have no problems conceiving, the parents who have their kids taken away, the parents who voluntarily surrender, the parents who are grandparents and aunts and uncles, and the parents who adopt. We’re all equally unqualified, and our kids need us anyway. Do the job. There’s no glory in it, most of the time, but I wouldn’t give up this family for any family I could have had in a different way, Singer, no matter how hard it was, how many tears I cried, how many times I hated myself, or hated Vic, or god help me, hated my kids…That’s the speech I wish someone had given me, in the black moments, when I felt like we were at a dead end.

See what I mean? Kith and Kin is overflowing with such moments; people talking to each other–or themselves–and working through the normal chaos of being an adult human, with the help of their loved ones. There are no amazing heroes here, no evil villains, no grand adventure, no impressive magic, no geeky science, no great mystery to solve. Just…people. People who could be any of us. For that reason, I give this book the strongest possible recommendation.

Guest Review: Tender Wings of Desire by Harland Sanders

Guest Review: Tender Wings of Desire by Harland SandersTender Wings of Desire by Harland Sanders
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Pages: 96
Published by Amazon Digital Services on May 2, 2017
Amazon
Goodreads

When Lady Madeline Parker runs away from Parker Manor and a loveless betrothal, she finally feels like she is in control of her life. But what happens when she realizes she can’t control how she feels? When she finds herself swept into the arms of Harland, a handsome sailor with a mysterious past, Madeline realizes she must choose between a life of order and a man of passion. Can love overcome lies? What happens in the embrace of destiny, on the Tender Wings of Desire?

When this book was released last week, I was in a fowl, er, foul mood. I couldn’t pinpoint eggs-actly why that was so, I’d just been in a funk for a few weeks. This book brought up nuggets of inspiration that I really didn’t know I had waiting in the wings. So, let’s get right to it.

Guest Review by Amy:

To be fair to this work, we really need to spend some time on this cover image; like most historical romances, the cover art has little-to-nothing to do with the actual content of the book, and here we have an extreme case: Harland Sanders (1890-1980), in his later white-haired years, yet still obviously muscular, carrying a woman wearing “mom jeans” circa 1980s…on the cover of a Regency novel, circa 1811-1820. The art itself was so amusing when it popped up on my Kindle that I had to show my husband, who also laughed himself into a fit. The masterstroke, for both of us, was having her holding a piece of chicken (in her right hand). Let’s not forget the white linen suit with the sleeves cut off–showing off those breathtakingly muscular arms on the…er…handsome Colonel.

Fortunately, perhaps, for us all, the content of the book just doesn’t give us that image of Sanders. What it does deliver is a sharp lampooning of Every. Regency. Ever. Written. I was telling my best friend about this book the morning after reading it, and I likened it to The Rocky Horror Picture Show: campy on its own, but crammed full of inside jokes and jabs at the thing it is lampooning, just as RHPS is full of jabs at the classic cinema. If you don’t understand those jabs, it’s hilarious, but if you do, it’s even funnier.

Lady Madeline Parker is old enough to marry–though, as the book points out, we modern people would not think so. She considers herself a bit of an ugly duckling, of course, though she and her younger sister Victoria both have “the same pale, dewy skin, the same bright green eyes and heart-shaped faces.” Madeline’s hair is dark brown and in unruly curls, while Victoria has long, blonde hair. Madeline’s other problem is that she’s really not interested in marrying, certainly not merely for position, as her parents are working to arrange. If she’s to marry, she wants it to be for love, and only then after she’s had a while to roam about and see the world.

For her groom-to-be’s part, he’s quite a dashing gent: Reginald Lewis, the Duke of Sainsbury. He’s not terribly older than Madeline, which she’s grateful for, but he just doesn’t move her. Little sister Victoria claims he “looks like a fairy-tale prince,” of course, but Madeline isn’t impressed. He’s nice enough, and not ugly, but nothing about him grabs her attention or her interest. “He looks like a vanilla biscuit,” she asserts privately to her sister. Her older brother, Oxford student Winston, is the only person who really gets her, it seems.

Ugly Duckling Who Isn’t, Girl Wants To Break The Pattern, Arranged Marriage, Troublesome Younger Sibling, Wise Older Brother…the only Regency trope we’re missing is the dashing rake who actually does win her affections, at this point.

Madeline must, of course, run away. On the night before her wedding. So, she does. She and her horse, cleverly named Persephone, spend one uncomfortable night in a forest, then one night in a run-down inn, and end up by the sea. Please take note: when you live on an island, all directions will lead you to the sea sooner or later.

She finds a small fishing town. She rides into town, bold as brass, hitches her horse outside a tavern, and strolls in, asking for a job. The head barkeep is, as she surely must be, a non-local; a redheaded, dark-eyed Irish lass named “Caoimhe”. Please don’t ask me how to pronounce it, for I haven’t a clue. But ponder the worldly-wise Caoimhe a moment – how many Irish redheads do you know with dark eyes? Yeah, me either. When asked, she tells Madeline where she wound up: the village is named Mistle-Thrush-by-the-Sea. I kid you not.

The tavern itself, The Admiral’s Arms, is described two different ways in the course of about a page and a half. Madeline enters “a dim place, lit only by the occasional lantern or two, with wooden tables and a fireplace that was currently bare,” but a couple of hours later, as she is learning her job, she’s enjoying a spectacular view, which the tavern exploited “for all it was worth by installing giant windows that showed a view of the harbor and the sea beyond.” This and other glaring continuity errors are peppered throughout, and they just add to the fun.

On her first night there, Madeline must of course meet…Harland Sanders. The most handsome man she’d ever seen, naturally. He was “tall, dressed like a sailor,” with light and fair hair, “framing his head in airy curls, and the eyes that stared back and her were almost the exact color of the sea.” Oh, please! This younger avatar of the famously-curmudgeonish Sanders is, of course, Not Who He Appears To Be (yet another great trope). I won’t spoil it by giving you the ending, but serious readers of Regencies could write the rest of this tale easily. At only 96 pages, this tale moves fast, and the utterly-predictable denouement comes at you like a runaway locomotive.

I didn’t expect to enjoy this. YUM Brands, the owner of KFC, is releasing this novella as a marketing gimmick, not even as a serious work. There are a number of breathtaking flaws, like the continuity errors I pointed out, the needless wealth of outdated adjectives, and the tired old tropes–but were these errors deliberate? When I look at the piece as a whole, I can’t help but wonder. Will it win a “Pullet-zer” prize? Not a chance. But it was cheep…er, cheap – you’ll shell out at most a dollar for this ebook – and to me, it was a fun, silly read, and a mood-booster that I just didn’t see coming. Don’t take it too seriously; it’s way too campy for that. But if campy is your thing – Tender Wings of Desire might be a sleeper hit for you. Chick lit? Absolutely. But worth crossing the road for, in my opinion.

Escape Rating: Extra Crispy

Editor’s Note: When this book showed up on my Facebook feed I was too chicken to read it, so Amy graciously leapt into the breach. Or bucket. I’m very glad she did. I expected the hilarious yet thoughtful review, but had no idea it would also snap her out of a reading slump. And I’m so grateful that Amy was willing to go where no wings have flown before, so that the rest of us don’t have to. I am also grateful that the rating for this one was NOT spicy, because my mind still won’t go there.

For anyone dying of curiosity, this is a real book, and KFC, admittedly with tongue firmly in cheek, released it for a real reason – Mothers’ Day is one of their busiest days of the year. There seem to be nearly 400,000 families who think that the easiest way to give a hard working mother (and they are all hard-working) a night off is to pick up a bucket of chicken from KFC. And I bet there will be even more this year, as people who can’t believe this is a real thing go to KFC to discover if this is a real thing. Which it is, this weekend, free with every $20 Fill-Up Meal. Or for 99 cents at Amazon.

Me, I’m still back at OMG I’m too chicken to read this. Thanks Amy!

Guest Review: Dreadnought by April Daniels

Guest Review: Dreadnought by April DanielsDreadnought (Nemesis, #1) by April Daniels
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, young adult
Series: Nemesis #1
Pages: 276
Published by Diversion Publishing on January 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Danny Tozer has a problem: she just inherited the powers of the world's greatest superhero. Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, she was trying to keep people from finding out she's transgender. But then her second-hand superpowers transformed her body into what she's always thought it should be. Now there's no hiding that she's a girl.
It should be the happiest time of her life, but between her father's dangerous obsession with curing her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he's entitled to date her, and the classmate who is secretly a masked vigilante, Danny's first weeks living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined.
She doesn't have much time to adjust. Dreadnought's murderer, a cyborg named Utopia, still haunts the streets of New Port City. If Danny can't sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.

A few weeks ago, Marlene happened into my message box with a brief “I have a book you might like.” When she told me it was a young-adult transgender superhero story, well, that was that. Off to the races. She knows darn well I can’t turn away a story with a transgender character!

Guest review by Amy:

Trans teens who feel they have to hide it–for any reason–have it tough, both in our present, and in the world author April Daniels builds for us. Danny Tozer has been hiding it for some time; her parents think she’s a boy, but she’s not. Her one guilty pleasure is painted toenails, and one fine afternoon she’s painting her toenails in a hidey-hole near the mall, when a superhero battle happens nearby. One of the finest heroes of his time, Dreadnought, is slain, and falls to the ground near Danny, and his mantle passes to her. She wakes soon after, stunned to find herself with the body she’s always dreamed of living in.

What follows is a fun, engaging adventure story, complete with all the bells and whistles: a suitably nasty villain, a newfound sidekick friend, a well-organized “cape” community taken aback by this upstart youngster, and a little bit of almost-comic treatment of our heroine’s parents, who simply cannot accept that their child has been suddenly placed in a young woman’s body, and could possibly be happy about it. She has to sneak away from them to spend time exploring her new powers and body, and spends time being heroic with her new sidekick Calamity, who turns out to be a classmate of hers from high school. Soon, they are hot on the trail of the previous Dreadnought’s killer, and discover that her nefarious grand plan must be stopped!

Escape Rating: A-. Underneath the rollicking adventure, of course, is a coming-into-your-own story for our young heroine, now calling herself Danielle. She has to cope with parents who blindly cannot accept what is right in front of their faces, insisting that they want to help her set things “right,” to become the man she’s supposed to be. If her abusive father’s rantings weren’t such a one-note song, it would be almost comic. But there’s a very un-funny part to this, too. For many trans youth, this kind of treatment is an unfortunate reality, and transkids in our universe don’t have superhero work to fall back on!

Danielle also has to cope with the Legion Pacifica, the organization of superheroes in New Port City. They must come to grips with the loss of their friend, who was a great hero, and at the same time, help this newcomer who holds his mantle understand her powers, and learn to use them for good. One member is simply unaccepting of Danielle’s transgender status, and insists on calling her by her old name and pronouns. Again, here we have a case of art imitating life, as transpeople in our universe have to deal with the same thing just about all the time.

Author April Daniels gives us a peek into the life of a trans youth that rings completely true, so I was unsurprised to discover that she is herself a transwoman. This authenticity is something I find too-often missing in fiction about transgender people, so Daniels’ work is a refreshing, beautiful change. She handles Danielle’s gender transition, and her coming into herself as a lesbian, with a straightforward, simple style without being lurid in any way. The story is completely appropriate for any YA reader, and I would give it a strong recommendation for any LGBTQ youth in your own life, as it shows a teen who is more like them, dealing with some of the same struggles they are–while still giving us a just-plain-fun power-up fantasy.

One down note for me was the treatment of Danielle’s struggle with her parents. I would have liked to see some closure to that. At the end of the book, there’s still something left hanging there–she’s not reconciled to them, nor have they completely shut her out. Perhaps that story will be completed in the upcoming sequel, which I’m looking forward to seeing!

Guest Review: Hold Me, Cowboy by Maisey Yates

Guest Review: Hold Me, Cowboy by Maisey YatesHold Me, Cowboy (Copper Ridge: Desire #2) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance
Series: Copper Ridge: Desire #2
Pages: 224
Published by Harlequin on November 8th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Stranded with a cowboy for Christmas…from
New York Times
bestselling author Maisey Yates! 
Oil and water have nothing on Sam McCormack and Madison West. The wealthy rancher has never met a haughtier—or more appealing—woman in his life. And when they're snowed in, he's forced to admit this ice queen can scorch him with one touch… 
Madison had plans for the weekend! Instead she's stranded with a man who drives her wild. A night of no-strings fun leaves both of them wanting more when they return to Copper Ridge. His proposal: twelve days of hot sex before Christmas! But will it ever be enough?

Guest review by Amy:

Madison West just needs to get laid. It’s been a decade, because, well, reasons, and she’s determined it’s about time to shake off the cobwebs. She’s arranged to have a fling with a friendly traveling salesman (I kid you not!) at a nearby rental cabin, up in the mountains. As a snowstorm rolls in, the power goes out. Maddy can see another cabin close by, and their lights are on, so she goes to knock, and finds… Sam.

Sam McCormack, whom she’s been difficult and downright bitchy with for years and years. She calls her fling, only to discover that he can’t get up the mountain. Sam can’t fix the power in her cabin easily, so they’re stuck together for the night. So Maddy fulfills her plan with Sam, who conveniently has been a little hard up in the romantic department for a while, too. They walk away after their fun weekend together, with no strings attached.

It’s not that easy, of course; it never is, or Hold Me, Cowboy would be a really short book. Our lovers see that they got away with their fling slick as a pickpocket. After a dose of their long-practiced sniping at each other, they decide to have more fun. Sam is a farrier and artist, with most of his business savvy coming from his brother Chase; Maddy is part of the aristocracy of Copper Ridge, a horse trainer on her father’s ranch.

Conventional spoiled-rich-girl-falls-for-hired-hand romance, right? Not so fast.

Escape Rating: A-. Over the course of their affair, we learn why Madison had gone so long alone–as a 17-year-old, she’d had a crush on, and been badly treated by, her dressage instructor, and her father and pretty much the whole town had sided against her in the matter. It’s a classic case of victim-blaming, when they were discovered. It’s a frustrating case of art echoing life, as author Maisey Yates shows us the inside of Maddy’s thoughts, and the long-term impact this too-common problem can have on women. She’s understandably gun-shy about getting in a relationship with Sam, fearing the same abandonment will happen again.

For Sam’s part, he’s had a tragedy in his life too: a former lover, who had dumped him, then died of a hemorrhage from an ectopic pregnancy with his child. She’d called out for him, and he’d rushed to the hospital, but her family was not having him near her, and then she was gone. Sam has not allowed himself to grieve; he seems stuck on the fact that her family lost so much more than he did, and that means he hasn’t the right to grieve his own loss.

Over the course of their falling for each other, both of them reveal this–for the first time–to each other, and they give each other much-needed comfort, and permission to let down the guards of fear and loss that they have both held up for so long. In the denouement, this lets Sam free himself as an artist, and not do just the to-him boring works he’d been turning out, but art that expresses what is going on in his heart.

I enjoyed this story thoroughly; it’s an easy read, with a well-executed sense of place and time, and believable characters that I could really identify with. Hold Me, Cowboy explores the headspace of two very broken individuals, who manage to find the peace they need, not just in (very) plentiful wicked sex, but in each other’s hearts. There was one slightly sour note for me, in the unfinished business between Maddy and her father; Nathan West clearly needs a good talking-to, and he never gets it, nor is it alluded to that Sam is intending to help her settle that lingering stress in her life. It’s the only downbeat I can give an otherwise fantastic story. I strongly recommend this book and intend to hunt up other of Yates’ works for my reading list.

Guest Review: Documenting Light by EE Ottoman

Guest Review:  Documenting Light by EE OttomanDocumenting Light by EE Ottoman
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Pages: 150
Published by Brain Mill Press LLC on August 31, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

If you look for yourself in the past and see nothing, how do you know who you are? How do you know that you are supposed to be here?

When Wyatt brings an unidentified photograph to the local historical society, he hopes staff historian Grayson will tell him more about the people in the picture. The subjects in the mysterious photograph sit side by side, their hands close but not touching. One is dark, the other fair. Both wear men’s suits.

Were they friends? Lovers? Business partners? Curiosity drives Grayson and Wyatt to dig deep for information, and the more they learn, the more they begin to wonder — about the photograph, and about themselves.

Guest Review by Amy:

Wyatt is moving his mother into an apartment, as her Alzheimer’s has made it difficult for her to continue running the family farm. While putting some of her things in the attic, he finds an old photograph of two men, and it makes him curious…

Grayson works at the local county historical society, and enjoys the puzzle Wyatt has brought to him. In researching the photograph, the two people learn more about each other–and themselves–than they bargained for.

When Marlene gave me this book for my attention, I was immediately interested; as a transgender woman myself, I can attest that well-crafted stories with transgender characters are a bit scarce. So as I started reading, I was unsurprised to see which of our characters is a transman–Grayson, with his dapper suit and bowtie, fits the bill quite nicely. Wyatt…now, here’s where it gets tricky, so stick with me a moment. For the first part of the book, Wyatt is referred to as “he”, but they’re hiding something from their family and friends–they’re transgender, too, a feminine-expressing genderqueer person who prefers they/them pronouns. Once this is revealed, Ottoman uniformly refers to Wyatt using those pronouns, and their gender identity is not ever at issue after that.

The two people go on a date, after finding out some significant facts about the photograph. The first date doesn’t go well, as both are somewhat afraid of being out with their partner, and have had bad experiences. There’s some internal back-and-forth, and they give it another shot…and what follows is, in this reviewer’s eyes, a truly, truly beautiful thing. The growing relationship between Wyatt and Grayson proceeds very naturally, with the only hiccup being that Wyatt’s family still thinks of him as a gay man, and Grayson’s family is mostly not talking to him at all.  Ottoman, who is themself a student of history as well as an accomplished author, speaks to us through Grayson about the erasure of non-heterosexual, non-gender-binary people in history–how, so often, we must see solid evidence before we can accept anything but the default cisgendered, heterosexual identity.

Grayson is speaking of the study of history, particularly through photographs and other non-textual evidence, but it raises the question, for me, if the same could be said for literary works. In my previous read, The Heart Of Aces, one of the short stories, “Out of the Dead Land,” alludes to this, as one of the characters asserts in an academic paper that a character from a classic film is asexual. Allowing for non-default gender identities and sexualities, when it is not directly referenced in the story, allows for a much broader interpretation of characters and stories. It’s truly complicated, but it’s something I’m going to think about in my own reading moving forward.

Escape Rating: A+:  I could gush on and on and on about this story, seriously. Ottoman has given us two protagonists who are very “real;” we’re firmly entrenched in their heads, and can see the world through their eyes. The internal cringe and stress that Grayson feels when he is misgendered by his boss is almost palpable, as is Wyatt’s discomfort at their mother’s deteriorating mental state, and the fact that their family does not know about their being genderqueer.  Scenery and problems are detailed enough so that we know what the problem-to-overcome is about, without burdening the point needlessly. We know, very quickly, what our character’s stressors are, and the puzzle of the photograph keeps us interested, as a common thread that binds the discoveries together.

One of the high-water marks for me in this tale is when, on a road trip out of town, our newfound friends end up sharing a motel room. They did it for purely pragmatic reasons–neither of them has much money, really, another factor that plays heavily into the path this story takes–so it only makes sense. But the romantic tension has been building for a while, and what happens, happens. It’s a little bit of a predictable moment, but I shan’t complain, and here’s why:

I’ve found that, way too often, scenes depicting queer sexualities come off as…well, smutty, and othering, like it’s something really titillating that they’re different. This is off-putting to me in a lot of ways, as it’s quite inconsistent with my own experiences as a transwoman. Grayson cannot afford surgery–we’re not told if he’s even on hormones yet!–and early in the book grouses to himself about his D-cup breasts being hard to hide. Knowing my own dysphoric experiences during that time in my transition, I can grasp a bit what he is going through. Wyatt, for their part, seems happy enough in their skin; the disconnect for them is that they express as feminine, and aren’t out to much of anyone except Grayson.

Sex, for people who are not conforming to gender binaries, is a tricky business; there are all kinds of possibilities for hangups and traumas and things that just don’t feel good. But our two lovers do what has to be done to make it work–they communicate. The communication, while brief, tells them–and us–what will and won’t work, and expresses enthusiastic consent. The two scenes in this book that are shown are explicit, but not at all smutty. Quite the contrary: you have two beautiful, complicated people loving each other, and enjoying it.

By the end of the book, it’s obvious that Grayson and Wyatt are loving each other both in and out of bed. There are problems yet to overcome, but they’ve committed to dealing with them together. And that, my friend, is what romance is all about, to this reviewer.  I give this book the strongest possible recommendation.