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Review: Internet Famous

There’s a reason this blog went quiet for a while. You see, I was in a directionless rut, not really reading, not really crafting, just work, home, half-heartedly try to do something relaxing, sleep. Rinse and repeat. And if I wasn’t crafting, and I wasn’t reading–the two things that run deeper through my core of self than any professional affiliation–well, then who was I?

It never quite got to existential levels, but it did leave me in a funk.

It passed, gradually. A small project here, a modular hexagon for my scrap crochet afghan there, pick up a book and read the first few chapters… Gradually, I started coming back around to myself.

Reading mojo took a bit longer to get back. I tried different genres, started lots of books without finishing them, and stared at my checked-out library book shelf at home, just not “feeling” any of them. Until I brought home Danika Stone’s Internet Famous.

I adored All the Feels (as previously squeed over here), and this one promised to deliver more of the things I’ve come to expect from Stone–fandom, a sweet romance, and general nerd positivity–so I sat down to read.

internet famousFor the first time in months, I picked up a book that grabbed me and didn’t let go. This story follows Madi, a high school student enrolled in online coursework and maintaining a popular blog that serves as both community and revenue. Through that community, she has a supportive group of online friends who help her deal with her life, which is complicated by a mother who isn’t around much and a younger sister with special needs that tend to consume a lot of energy and focus at home. Through this community, Madi finds flirtation and romance with cute French exchange student Laurent… and a troll whose tactics escalate and get more personal as she and Laurent’s online flirtation takes off.

While Internet Famous does stand alone from All the Feels, there are some fun little peripheral nods to its predecessor, enough to wink to returning readers without requiring background knowledge for newcomers. And it does have several things in common with Feels, namely the significant role of fandom, internet community, and sweet, nerdy love stories, fitting together nicely thematically.

This one deals more with the downside of anonymity in those communities, but that is not at the expense of the genuine friendships and relationships that develop out of that community. A cautionary tale this is not, and as someone whose network of friends includes people from fan communities over a decade old, I appreciated the balanced depiction. Madi’s online friends feel as real and sometimes flawed (oh, Brian…) and supportive as any fandom community currently in existence.

The romance in Internet Famous was charming. Danika Stone writes lovely, genuinely sweet nerd book boyfriends. Laurent’s long-distance “dates” with Madi via messaging apps and photos gave me what I’m certain was a dopey grin on my face as I read. The relationship feels like one that grows out of friendship and blossoms into something deeper, which is apparently one of my bits of romance catnip. There were a few cheesy moments, but they read as a delightful homage to the ’80s teen movies Madi reviewed on her blog, and I ate it right up. This heart of the story is what kept me reading and what I apparently needed to break my reading drought.

If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that the villains are pretty thin. I don’t expect them to be as fully rounded as the protagonists, but the rule-stickler teacher whose rigidity helps the bully make Madi’s life difficult particularly stretches believability. I’ll give that a pass, though, as the seemingly oblivious adults in Madi’s life step up where it counts. I got my happy ending out of it, which is exactly why I picked up this book and exactly why it was so satisfying.

I’ll still keep coming back to Stone’s writing for the sweet, nerd-positive romances I adore.

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Review: Breaking Cat News

Have you ever been woken up in the middle of the night by cat crazies? Been yowled at in concern when you’ve dared to be on the other side of a door from your cat(s)? Had the entertainment of watching cats go flying to various hiding spaces when the vacuum comes out?

If any of these scenarios sound remotely familiar, get thee to a bookstore and go buy Georgia Dunn’s Breaking Cat News. Collecting some of the best panels from the web comic of the same name, Breaking Cat News depicts the news-worthy events in the household of cats Lupin, Puck, and Elvis. While each cat has a distinct purrsonality—lead anchor Lupin always first to report happenings, easily excitable Elvis, and sensitive Puck—their news reports will resonate with both cats and the humans they deign to share their lives with.

Cover art for Breaking Cat News

Breaking Cat News, by Georgia Dunn

The sense of perspective in these comics is utterly charming. While we humans know well why we shut ourselves in the bathroom with the door closed, our intrepid reporters simply must know what’s happening (“Ma’am? Ma’am?”). We humans might wonder at the reasoning behind nighttime crazies, but our reports demonstrate the route (beginning on the kitchen counter and making a circuitous path through the home) and lay out the rules (a lamp must be knocked over for a competitor to qualify). Our intrepid repurrtors are baffled by the witchcraft that lets the Man appear on the other side of the glass, confused why their sick Woman doesn’t just find herself a nice bit of carpet to throw up on, intrigued by the system of cabinet caves in the kitchen, and determined to unravel the mystery of the red dot. It’s these scenarios humans see from the outside, given feline insiders’ purrspective.

Not all web comics make the transition to book smoothly (How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You comes to mind), but Breaking Cat News makes the transition nicely, with enough self-contained strips to be entertaining and a broad story arc that perceptive humans can see before the cats understand what’s happening (like the transition from YAY BOX FORT to trapped in cages in the car to SCARY NEW PLACE) as well as a few other developments.

My copy of Breaking Cat News was provided free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, but I now want to pick up a copy for every cat person I know. And maybe one for the coffee table for myself. In short, cat lovers, this is a must-have.

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Review: Gemini Cell

Military science fiction and fantasy aren’t generally my subgenres of choice, but I was intrigued enough by Myke Cole’s Gemini Cell to give it a chance. My following of the author on Twitter, combined with its inclusion on this list of unconventional love stories tipped my hand from the “eh, maybe someday” list to the “sure, I’ll read it now” list.

Cover art for Gemini Cell

Gemini Cell, Myke Cole

As the story opened with Navy SEAL Jim Schweitzer trying to be a supportive husband to his wife Sarah but being pulled away to deal with terrorists, I had my doubts as to whether this would be my cuppa. And yet, I kept reading, devouring it in large chunks, a bit here before bed, a bit there before work, and before I knew it, I accidentally the whole thing, intrigued enough to place its forthcoming sequel on hold at the library as well. Military fiction may not be my thing, but a world with newly awoken magic and creepy reanimation of corpses into killing machines had my attention, particularly if said corpse retains enough humanity to ask questions and challenge his handlers when they withhold important information.

There’s plenty in here to keep the pages turning. I was intrigued by the dynamic between Jim and Ninip, the demon who shares his reanimated body, watching them struggle for control for their shared vessel. Ninip toes the lines well between appalling monster, spirit maddened by centuries of torment, and petulant warrior in a world that has changed since he last walked upon it. Jim too was a compelling character, a good guy in a world of terrorists and superiors with agendas not in his best interest. My only real criticism in characterization is the depiction of Jim’s wife, Sarah, who felt very much like a man’s depiction of an ideal woman (the emphasis on her being not like other women was particularly telling), but on the whole, I’m not going to complain too loudly about a character who tries to hold her own against terrorists with a canvas knife when terrorists target her home.

Of course, there’s also action aplenty, with an almost cinematic quality to some of the fights. It was a bit like reading an action movie, albeit one with more plot than many contemporary offerings. Intense fights, interesting visuals, and characters at the center of it all that you come to care about – it’s a good formula for a movie, and it works here as well too.

I have not read any of the other Shadow Ops books, but I was able to easily jump into this one without prior knowledge, and as mentioned, I plan on reading its sequel when it comes out. I’m not particularly versed in this subgenre to know how it stacks up to others, but as a reader new to it, I’m intrigued enough to give others a try now.

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Review: The Raven Boys

I am not, by and large, a cynical reader—I dive into most books with an expectation of being reasonably entertained, and generally, I am. Occasionally, a book blows me away—Code Name Verity is the last book that I recall that did—but now I can add Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys to that list. When the last page was done, I just sat back and basked in the ride it took me on. By blurb alone, I probably would not have picked this book up, but people I trust kept saying I should, and I’m thankful for them. Continue reading

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Review: The Clockwork Dagger

It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for a steampunk romp. Sort of. I adore the subculture but often find the literature lackluster. I had high hopes for Beth Cato’s The Clockwork Dagger but have come away from it with very mixed feelings.

Cover art for The Clockwork DaggerAll the requisite trappings are present here—a spunky heroine, airships, an alternate universe where scientific progress exists alongside older magic. Heroine Octavia is a medician, a Druidic doctor of sorts whose connection with The Lady (a healing goddess of sorts) is particularly strong. This leaves her the target of assassins, or Clockwork Daggers, as they are known, as she sets off to take a post in a city traumatized by plague and war. Her traveling companions include Mrs. Stout, a writer of lurid pulp tales with a few secrets of her own, and the enticing Alonzo Garrett, a hottie with one mechanical leg and an irresistible attraction to her.

Assassination attempts, first love, and in the backdrop, war—these should make for an appealing tale, and to some extent, they do. The most intriguing part of the story, to me, was the backdrop, by parts bustling industrial cities and in other parts of the world, post-apocalyptic wastelands. Octavia has tended to soldiers at the front and seen firsthand the horrors of war and what it does to people, which is a dynamic I haven’t seen a lot in steampunk. The different magic systems were also fascinating—while her own magic is of the healing variety, Octavia also encounters “infernals,” mages who can wield fire (naturally, they are among the ranks of the villains, a pity, since what little was revealed of them would have indicated some intriguing cultural attitudes had they not been filtered through Octavia’s biased lens).

Unfortunately, Octavia is the crux of my problems with this story. In my fanfiction days, she is what would have been called a Mary Sue—here is a gifted young woman who remains blissfully unaware that the power she wields is so spectacularly beyond what others of her rank can accomplish. Don’t get me wrong—I love a strong heroine. But by the end of the book, readers wonder if there is anything Octavia can’t do. Perhaps those are matters for another tale.

The Clockwork Dagger is clearly the setup for a series, and while this first volume didn’t overwhelm me, it is one I would follow for at least the worldbuilding.

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Review: A Week to be Wicked

My foray into the world of historical romances continues, this time with Tessa Dare and her Spindle Cove series. I enjoyed the first one, A Night to Surrender, but I adored second book A Week to be Wicked.

The pairing of outspoken bluestocking Miranda and roguish Colin was broadcast loud and clear at the end of the first book, but they are absolutely delightful in their own installment. Continue reading

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Review: The Riyria Chronicles

Fantasy has been one of my long-time favorite genres. Eh, probably my favorite one, actually. If I see a book with mysterious hooded figures wielding swords on the front, I generally will at least pick it up and read the synopsis. Such was the case with Theft of Swords, the first installment of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations, a completed fantasy series. It was rapidly followed by Rise of Empire and concluded with Heir of Novron. Each book is actually a compilation of two volumes within the series, originally published as ebooks and later picked up in print, and as I read them collected this way, I shall touch upon them accordingly.

Theft of Swords cover artTheft of Swords is very much a first book in its introduction to the cast of characters… and in its somewhat clunky presentation of exposition. But the snappy banter of protagonists Hadrian and Royce, a pair of mercenary thieves was enough to make me realize this series had something to it. The arc of this story, a framing for murder and subsequent quest to clear their names and free a captive wizard, is an action-packed one, and in spite of the length of the volume, my husband and I read the whole thing aloud, devouring pages as the pace picked up to its satisfying conclusion.

Rise of Empire brings a previously background plot point, the corruption of the Church of Novron to the forefront as war begins and many of the beloved characters face often painful and difficult character growth. One of the female characters, Arista, from the first book, goes through a particularly satisfying arc from spoiled princess to capably wielding her skills until—well, no spoilers here except to say that in mid-trilogy fashion, the tale ends on a note of “how are they all going to make it out of their respective hard places?”

The finale, Heir of Novron, wraps everything up fairly neatly, but also in a satisfying manner. I was at the point where I would come home from work and bury my nose in it for 200 pages at a stretch. By the end, readers care enough about the characters to want everything to turn out happily, and as fantasy is generally pretty good vs. evil, it works. I had predicted some of the twists, but not all of them, which I can respect. The final paragraph was a delightful nod to a folk story that had woven its way through the story (and by the way, it is incredibly frustrating to delight in a detail like that and not have anyone around to share that with. It can be explained, but not succinctly enough to convey why it is so satisfying), and it left me throwing my head back with a laugh at the cleverness.

Is this the most nuanced and heavily world-built of fantasy series out there? No, but that was kind of its charm—the trappings of fantasy with the adrenaline pace of a thriller. Some fantasy forces a reader to figure out what’s going on as the story unfolds, but the straightforward nature of the Riyria Revelations was just what I needed this year.

And I’m a sucker for snappy banter, especially dialogue that feels natural. Hadrian and Royce balance each other out well, a mercenary with a do-go streak and his cynical and dangerous counterpart, and to my delight, several well-developed female characters also form the principal cast, including a princess, a broken girl who would become empress, and a kitchen girl who went on to wield considerable influence in her own right. Occasionally, some of them were in peril, but no more frequently than their male protagonists. I lost count, but I’m pretty sure everyone, male and female, was in some form of captivity during the story, and some of them ended up rescuing themselves. It’s not a feminist text, but it had enough components to keep this feminist reader happy.

While I do love some of the dark, gritty fantasy out there, I really enjoyed the lighter tone of The Riyria Revelations and will probably re-read them sometime down the road when I need some good old-fashioned swashbuckling.

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Review: Ain’t She Sweet

Few of us look back with fondness on our high school years. With too much drama and insecurity packed into four years, it’s a wonder people manage to become functioning adults. For the most part, though, once it’s over, those days are behind us.

For Sugar Beth Carey, protagonist of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Ain’t She Sweet, high school is about to catch up with her. Forced to return to her small Southern town where she ruled high school as the spoiled-rotten and gorgeous queen bee who made everyone else’s lives miserable, she comes face to face with her former victims, and the reunion is not a joyous one. Among them are her half-sister Winnie and Colin Byrne, whose teaching career she ruined with false accusations of inappropriate behavior. A big helping of humble pie is on the menu, but of course, so is romance.

I’ll say this upfront: Ain’t She Sweet requires a healthy dose of suspended disbelief to accept the premise that virtually an entire town has remained pettily invested in comeuppance of a high school bully. Once that hurdle is crossed, it actually makes a very entertaining read, with snappy banter and some decent character development.

Sugar Beth herself is the antidote to previous contemporary romance heroines I’ve encountered (Bridget Jones, I’m lookin’ at you). She’s a woman who has made some poor life choices and has had to live with and learn from those mistakes. The result is a strong-willed and self-deprecating woman who would rather piss people off and maintain what’s left of her pride than show a moment’s weakness. She’s trying to be a better person, but sometimes self-defeating habits get in the way—in short, while the premise of the story may be contrived, the protagonist herself reads as a fairly realistic person. The supporting cast of characters is developed to varying degrees, but the main ones at least are developed enough to keep the story going. One of the cute subplots involves the relationship between Sugar Beth and her half-sister’s daughter, a teenager going through the throes of, well, being a teenager and looking to her infamous aunt for guidance.

Overall, this was a fun, fast read. I think Susan Elizabeth Phillips is an author I may revisit when I’m looking for something fluffy to read.

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Review: A Lady Awakened

I blame my readers advisory class for a recent trend in my reading habits: I have been devouring historical romances like popcorn this summer. Between better understanding the romance genre and its expectations and having coworkers with solid recommendations, I’ve been enjoying what I’ve encountered so far.

Both my boss and coworker recommended Lisa Kleypas’ Wallflowers and Hathaways series, which I would liken to cotton candy—sweet, light, and fluffy. Per my friend and coworker’s recommendation, though, I recently devoured the romance equivalent of a multi-course meal in Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened.

It’s really really hard to describe the plots and contrivances of a romance novel without getting awkward and defensive because truly they can be silly, but I’m working on it. So here goes: A Lady Awakened is about widow Martha Russell and her bold plan to secure her late husband’s estate, a plan that involves paying neighbor and rake Theo Mirkwood to help her produce an heir within a month, a strictly business matter with pleasure nowhere in the calculations. Ridiculous? Of course. But entertaining as hell—and more than that.

Once again, I find that it all hinges in the character development. Martha and Theo are well-developed characters with glaring weaknesses and redeeming qualities that could be overdone but are instead gradually revealed. Martha is an uptight do-gooder who sees marriage and mating as strictly contractual matters, while Theo is an indolent young man of means who has been banished to the family estate as punishment for debauchery in London. The novel could easily have been a comedic series of awkward sexual encounters with several token turning points, and while it does certainly begin with some highly entertaining bedroom scenes, a large part of the novel ends up taking place on their respective estates as they interact with staff, tenants whom they both want to help live better lives, and in friendships with neighbors (rest assured, the requisite sizzling scenes are present as well, but they don’t occur until much later). Martha and Theo’s relationship actually seems to bloom outside the bedroom, rather than precipitating solely from the events therein.

Some readers may find the slow pace of the tale off-putting, but it allows Grant to make a convincing depiction of two people slowly learning to love—and more importantly, respect—one another. It does end with a ‘happily ever after,’ of course, but a couple twists toward the end lead to somewhat unexpected outcomes. Along the way, there are laugh-out-loud moments (so glad no one was in the break room when I reading this over lunch break… there is no context in which “recalcitrant nipples” is an appropriate phrase for the workplace), hopeful moments, infuriating ones, and even a few suspenseful spells—a full course setting of emotional catharsis for the discerning romance reader.

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Review: Sparrow Hill Road

Highways and biways are part and parcel of the American consciousness, and alongside those miles of blacktop, dozens of urban legends have popped up, telling stories of a phantom hitchhiker. Rose Marshall has heard them all—and then some: this protagonist of Seanan McGuire’s Sparrow Hill Road is none other than the Phantom Prom Date herself, the Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Continue reading

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