Death Angel by Linda Howard

Death Angel by Linda Howard
Ballantine, 2008

I read Death Angel about three weeks ago, and I immediately wanted to review it because it’s such a terrible book. It’s the worst Linda Howard I’ve ever read.

(One of my best friends keeps saying, “But what about the rapey one?” and I’m like, “lol which one, gurl?” If you’re into that, check out her book Raintree: Inferno (Silhouette Nocturne, 2007) for super borderline consent issues: mind control!)

Our heroine is the girlfriend of the head of a drug cartel who plays dumb as much as she can while she plans to steal all his money from him. One day he owes a debt to an assassin, so he gives the girlfriend to the assassin as a gift for a few hours. The girlfriend and the assassin actually have a really good time, and it devastates the girlfriend — which triggers something in the head of the cartel, who realizes he actually loves her. He loves her, and he’s never loved anyone before. While he’s having this life-changing realization, she steals all his money, changes her look, and runs away.

The head of the cartel hires the assassin to get her back.

He chases her down, they have a terrible car crash, she’s impaled by a tree, and the assassin — also in love with her — stays with her until she dies.

Except she’s not dead. She has a death experience and is brought back to life by … the afterlife. She’s been dead for an hour, but she comes back to life, and everyone thinks she’s dead, so she’s … safe.

This is the first third of the book.

Let me tell you something: you think it’s a wild ride? It is sadly not. It’s actually kind of boring and tedious. It’s not even morally exciting. We don’t even get to know who the girlfriend really is or what she really wants. Dying and coming back doesn’t really change her because there was nothing there to really change. Everything about this book is empty.

Spoiler: at the end, the girl and the assassin end up together and don’t keep the money she stole from the cartel boyfriend.

This book tries to do so much and ends up doing nothing at all.

While I read it (it was so painful), I kept thinking of the first romance novel I ever read and thought to myself, “I like this, I want more” — not just reading because it was there, or because I inherited my great-grandmother’s collections of Harlequin Presents. I picked the book out at a drugstore because I liked the back cover copy; I read it as quickly as I could because I loved everything about it; I searched out more books by the author because I thought it was amazing; when the author transitioned to hardcover I spent hard-earned money that I could not afford buying those hardbacks. My entire career as a romance editor basically started with this book — before this book, I read 80% science fiction and fantasy and it was hard to sway me from those shelves.

That book was Shades of Twilight by Linda Howard and I was fifteen, or maybe I’d just turned sixteen when I found it, and I haven’t read it in a good fifteen years or so, but I can’t believe these two books were written by the same person.

I admit that I don’t think Linda Howard has written a truly good book since the 90s (Now You See Her — her first hardcover, 1998, so good), but I also admit I’ve kind of stopped reading her books and Death Angel is a perfect example of why. Life is too short.

Although writing this all down makes me want to go buy myself a copy of Son of the Morning and settle in for some time traveling Templars.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Orbit, 2015

I will start out by saying that I thought The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was terrible, and I hated it, and I hated so much of what the author had to say about it that I actually actively avoided this author on the internet for (*checks old blog*) almost seven years.

I actually had a lot to say about why I hated The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the author’s commentary on it at my mostly defunct Dreamwidth blog back in 2010.

The thing is, of course, that I love books about the end of the world, and this book is not just about people dying out — it’s about the world dying. The very first page:

When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.
But this is the way the world ends.
The is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.

I was immediately into it!

By the middle of the book, I was done with it. I finished it to finish it, but . . . no thanks. The sentences are fine, the prose is okay, but the book is dreary. Every character was either awful or boring or both. Long chunks of the narrative are in second person — yep, it’s your book and you can do anything you want, but second person? That’s where you choose to go? Okay. The most frustrating of all for me was the fact that the book was so much wonderful worldbuilding and no wonderful characters to go along.

Or, as I mentioned to Twitter:

  • As just a plain old reader I really don’t like The Fifth Season. So much second person bleh.
  • Forced sex, forced pregnancy, child death and murder, child abuse, on and on, I get it, it’s the end of the world and everyone is awful.
  • This is my problem with all her writing, I just want one single interesting decent person to care about.
  • I just want one single interesting decent person to care about.

    Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett

    Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett
    Aqueduct Press, 2014 | buy from Aqueduct

    I dove into this book on the recommendation of Autostraddle: 8 Black Lesbian Speculative Fiction Books To Read Right Now. They basically described it as “something distinctly queer is going on” and that is so true on every level.

    When you first begin the book, it is like short stories about characters who morph with each short story, so that each short story is connected, but not quite in the same universe. They are all alternate universes of each other. As you slowly get through the stories, you begin to realize what’s going on: something has happened to Earth, some kind of alien invasion, and the people in the short stories who keep showing up, they are definitely the center of it, but what? About 2/3 of the way through, you figure out the twist (which, if you click on the Aqueduct link, is laid out for you right there — spoiler!), and it’s pretty delightful.

    Each character takes a turn being lover, sister, brother, parent, child.

    Each character takes a turn being a little crazy and seeing a little too much of what’s going on.

    I will say, my one big critique is that when we met the aliens, it was a little too Ender’s Game for my taste, but it didn’t ruin the book or anything. I’m not saying no other book can ever have insect aliens that are called by an insect name, but … I am kind of saying that.

    Something to definitely enjoy: The apocalypse is fantastic and includes my favorite, a terrible sickness and some wonderful body horror/transformation. There are several scenes around the apocalypse and around the sickness, and what happens after, and there is a spaceship. I was thrilled! It was really really well done, especially because the book did not let up with the swiftly changing characters and scenes throughout.

    Something to look out for: A couple of scenes set in a prison camp in which humans are being kept for being human and alive. Very well done, so a little upsetting.

    Recommended especially if you like your science fiction toeing the line of experimental.

    Blackmail by Anna James Watson

    Blackmail by Anna James Watson
    self-published, 2017 | buy on Amazon

    Hoo boy. This book is erotic romance. It’s 90% sex. The author is very up front at the beginning of the book that she expects the reader to jerk off while reading this book. (Full disclosure: I did not, nor was I at all moved to.)

    This book is really well-written, the sex is really well done, and if you are so moved to masturbate while reading erotica, this would be a great pick.

    Mia is in college. She picks a hidden place to study and accidentally ends up spying on her hot TA, Julian, and another student, Tristan, getting down. At first she thinks Tristan is being coerced, so she films it so he’ll have proof — but Tristan and Julian catch her, explain what’s going on, and (in a totally ridiculous twist), tell her they need film of her fucking them so they have blackmail material on her.

    Is it just me, or are erotica novel setups totally hilarious?

    I was really not into the story part of this book. It revolves around getting into a secret society, and people caring very deeply about that, and it bored me to tears. It was so well done, but I still didn’t care about it at all. Hashtag rich people tears.

    What I was not expecting was that this book is not just part of a series, but that the book has kind of a cliffhanger ending, and you absolutely have to read the next book in the series to find out what happens, both plotwise and romantically. That’s not something I expect from a romance or erotica series at all. (Is this a new thing?)

    Also, again, the age of the characters (I think Mia is 20 or 21?) makes me think New Adult, not romance novel, and despite all the fanfic I have read about Harry Potter characters, I still feel a little awkward reading explicit erotica about a 21 year old.

    Recommended if you’re up for it, feel like tackling a series, and dig really hot m/m/f scenes.

    Roller Girl by Vanessa North

    Roller Girl by Vanessa North
    Riptide Publishing, 2016 | Buy from Riptide

    Oh my gosh. Y’all. Tina is a trans woman just trying to make it in this world, a little unsteady, and Joanna “Call me Joe” the butch lesbian plumber comes into her life to fix her washing machine, seduces her dog with dog biscuits and pets, asks her out on a date, and then asks her to be a roller derby girl. After, of course, having the dream conversation where they talk about pronouns and Joe is like, respecting your pronouns is the bare minimum of courtesy, and doesn’t have a problem with Tina being trans.

    (Okay, I’ve had that conversation in real life, and I will confess that even people I didn’t go on a second date with have been cool about pronouns, because Millennials Are Killing Gender I Fucking Hope, so their conversation actually rang pretty true to me, even though it’s really went like a total dream “coming out” conversation.)

    But then: Joe says she thinks they shouldn’t date if they’re going to be on the same derby team and my heart is crushed.

    Throughout the book, the stuff about derby is so fascinating, but it never overwhelms the growing romance between Tina and Joe. Even though Joe’s not sure that they should be together because of the drama it might cause on the derby team, she can’t resist Tina, and Tina can’t resist her. They have a spark between them, they have really hot sex, and they have a lot of great respect for each other.

    Tina also struggles with her life before she came out as trans conflicting with her life now in a very real, visceral way that is easy to relate to, even for readers who are not trans. The author does an amazing job of making Tina very three-dimensional and real for the reader; it’s so easy to empathize with Tina’s fears and anxieties — and even when she confesses how she feels she’s done things wrong (or maybe especially then), this reader’s heart went out to her. Haven’t we all made the wrong decisions when we were trying to make the right ones?

    I love the way this author describes kissing, and I can’t recommend this book enough for its tenderness. (I will also note: the sex scenes are actually sexy!) I also love that Tina has a group of friends she hangs out with who are also queer — and so does Joe. We get to see them interact with people who are not each other! It’s so great! The author also balances perfectly having Tina and Joe grow as people in part because of their relationship and in part just because living life means growing as a person — it’s really hard to do that well and without it seeming contrived, but Vanessa North pulled it off to my great satisfaction.

    I will note that there’s a lot of trans stuff in here that I’m not qualified to critique. I’ve got the privilege to go “This seems a little weird, but okay!” and enjoy the book anyway. I’d be interested in reading a transwoman’s review, since this book takes some aspects of the trans experience so seriously and seems to handwave other parts.

    High recommend, though, for great romance, great everything.

    The Red by Tiffany Reisz

    The Red by Tiffany Reisz
    8th Circle Press/self published | Buy through the author’s website

    Warning: this review will contain major spoilers for the book.

    So let’s get this out of the way: this book has what I would consider two major content warnings. One is “dubious consent” — that is, a scene that seems like sexual assault the whole time, but turns out it’s not. The other is incest: a grandfather and his grandson have a threesome with the main character of this novel. The grandfather and grandson don’t play grabass with each other (because it is a boring “straight person” threesome) but to me this is still incest and I was still pretty . . . squicked by it. Too bad I was not reading on Archive of Our Own — I would have gone straight to the report button to ask for more tags to be added to this fic!

    How do they have this threesome, you’re wondering now? (Or maybe you have clicked away already! Bye!) This book’s back cover copy says it is a work of “erotic fantasy” and it is probably the only book of erotica to mean that literally.

    Mona, our heroine, is grieving for her mother, who asked on her deathbed that Mona do anything to save their art gallery, The Red. Appear from nowhere a dashing man who promises to save the gallery if Mona will be his whore for one year. “I very much wish to fuck you,” he tells her. And his favorite type of woman? “Elegant prostitutes.” And he tells her it’s “foolishness” to want to be appreciated for her brain —

    The brain is an organ of the body. Whether i use you for your mind or use you for your cunt, I’m still using you for an organ of your body.

    This actually makes perfect sense to Mona, somehow? She literally thinks to herself, She could hardly argue his logic. Uh, what?

    Okay, nevermind, let’s move on. Obviously she agrees to this because she finds him charming and handsome and wants to fuck him and, of course, promised her mother she’d do anything to save the art gallery. ???

    Throughout the book, their assignations (one per month) become more and more wild. At one point she accuses him of drugging her to make her see things, and he tells her she only sees what she wants to see. She is furious and hates him, but can’t live without his cock because the sex is magical. (The sex is frequently boring for the reader; the mystery man’s eternal degrading of Mona is also boring, although Mona seems to really get off on it — Your Kink Is Not My Kink But Your Kink Is Okay.)

    At the end (yes, let’s skip to the end for a moment), Mona learns: her mystery man is dead, and has been dead for a while, and she wasn’t having assignations with him, but realistic dreams. And one dream (the threesome) she shared with his grandson. Who comes looking for her because she found some Art hidden in a bed, including a Picasso and a picture of the mystery man, and the grandson wants the picture of his grandfather. Since she refuses to sell it, the grandson just takes it, and then tosses her over his shoulder, brings her to his car (kidnapping), and says:

    Would you rather be married in Scotland or America? I’ll let you make that decision. Marriage, I hear, is all about compromise.

    He continues to insist they are getting married and she will be his countess (he’s an earl, you see), and sexually assaults her, all while she insists to be let go, that she wants to call the police, that she wants to go back to her art gallery, etc. Then he repeats to her the same thing he said to her in the dream threesome, and she orgasms, and decides she wants to be married in Scotland.

    The prose of this book is decent. I think it’s bizarre that it is put to such a use as this. There’s no connection to Mona at all throughout the book — why on earth are we supposed to care about her? She is a one-dimensional sock puppet of a character, thin as a piece of paper, only as good as the man she’s fucking. She has no friends, no relatives, and in the entire book consults only one colleague — whom she fucks, and disgusts with her salacious sexual appetite. She’s supposedly 26, but does not use a computer (no Tumblr, no Facebook, no Twitter), and does not seem to have a cell phone (no Snapchat, no Tinder, no Bumble, no Candy Crush); she deliberately isolates herself, but doesn’t even get pedicures — doesn’t even go to a salon to get waxed when she wants a wax. Is it actually because she’s this isolated, or is it because the author can’t write more than one character at a time? I’m suspicious, especially because in “group sex” scenes (there is one with nymphs…?, where Mona watches each nymph fuck her mystery man one at a time), the dialogue and action verge on children’s book storytelling.

    More to the point, Mona, who has made this gallery, The Red, her life, is willing to throw it all away to go to Scotland to marry a British earl at first orgasm. Why? How did Mona go from feeling ashamed of being called a whore to loving it? How did Mona go from resenting her mystery man to loving him? She went from resenting him to literally begging for his child — how did that happen? That’s not in the book.

    It’s a disappointment because I see that this book could have been so much better if it had dipped under the surface, and instead it just let me down.

    Hard no.

    Old School Discipline by Misha Horne

    Old School Discipline by Misha Horne
    self-published through Amazon, 2016 | buy here for $3.99

    Alex Fox is a teenage delinquent. He’s 19. Instead of sending him to jail for his crimes, he’s sent to reform school — an all-boys university where corporal punishment rules the day. In his first five minutes there, he’s sent to the Dean of Students for a spanking because he brought marijuana onto campus. Meanwhile, he spends a lot of time telling the reader that he’s a total badass, and that he doesn’t care that nobody cares about him. He also makes sure the reader knows: everyone wants to fuck him.

    The first time I read this book, I thought this was hilarious. I mean, I still think it’s hilarious, and I’ve read it almost three times (I re-read a lot of it to write this review). It’s a ridiculous porn setup that is impossible to take seriously. But the book is called Old School Discipline; I did not buy it because I thought I was going to be taking it seriously. I bought it because I really wanted some good kinky romance to read.

    It did not disappoint, my friends.

    Alex Fox is thoroughly 19 years old. He doesn’t know who he is or what he really wants. He absolutely sabotages himself at every turn. He’s put into a room with a guy named Baxter, and Baxter is supposed to take care of him: Alex immediately tries to sabotage this relationship, because Alex doesn’t want anyone to take care of him (Alex desperately wants someone to take care of him). Baxter warns him: step out of line and it’s Baxter’s job as the senior roommate to whale on him. Alex immediately tests this boundary by smoking a joint he snuck into the school in his sock — despite having just been spanked by the dean for trying to sneak pot in through his suitcase.

    There are so many spanking scenes in this book, and in every single scene, Alex learns something new about himself and what he wants. He learns something new about his own head, and about what he needs from other people.

    (There is, not very surprisingly, not a lot of wrestling with going to school, getting grades, any kind of actual college scenario — just roll with it.)

    Alex’s parents rub it in that they don’t care about him, and Alex acts out, but Baxter is there to spank him (and, at one point, give him a cheeseburger). Alex makes friends and goes to the mall, where he and his friend shoplift . . . but Baxter is there to spank him. Alex tries to sabotage his relationship with Baxter by going to the dean and getting Baxter spanked by the dean — and Baxter is there to spank Alex even harder than the dean did.

    Baxter is no prince, though. He’s a self-proclaimed asshole, and yes, he’s kind of an asshole. He gets into fights, is kind of a dick, pushes Alex around, doesn’t deal well with feelings, and is, throughout the book, coming to some realizations about himself that are pretty tough for a kid. (Okay, he’s like 21? I think? Still a kid.)

    By the end of the book, I was definitely rooting for Baxter and Alex to get together, spank each other (oh yes), and have a happily ever after (until they grow up and grow apart because jeez they are just babies), and when they finally confessed their love in a kind of wry, painful, kinky scene, my heart grew at least one size.

    The “enemies to lovers” theme here was really great, as was a careful, excellent way that Misha Horne set it up so that each scene, whether it was spanking or just Alex talking to one of his new friends, moved the action and characterization along. The author marked this as erotica, but I can’t help thinking of this book as erotic New Adult, because the characters are the right age, and also in a semi-college setting, and this ticked off all the New Adult boxes for me. I also really loved that the POV was first person and didn’t jump around at all — it was really well done, and we got to stay in Alex’s head for the whole 100,000+ words.

    Highly recommended for pervs who are not squicked out by reading erotica about a 19-yr-old.