stuff I read

Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones

Summary from Goodreads: Stephen Graham Jones returns with Night of the Mannequins, a contemporary horror story where a teen prank goes very wrong and all hell breaks loose: is there a supernatural cause, a psychopath on the loose, or both?

Praise for Night of the Mannequins

“Stephen Graham Jones’ has one of the most gripping, stream-of-consciousness voices in horror fiction. Night of the Mannequins is propulsive and poignant, capturing the mundane terror of adolescence, and adding that ever-so-essential dab of killer mannequin. You won’t put it down.” —Sarah Langan

I’ve never read Stephen Graham Jones before but he kept coming across my radar as a really good horror writer. Small wrinkle: Melissas don’t like horror novels. (Hey, I like to sleep at night. I had to put Geek Love, which is NOT a horror novel, in the freezer FOR REALZ because I was convinced that circus geeks were going to steal my toes in the middle of the night.) But in the interests of diversifying my reading – both in terms of genre and author diversity – I decided to give Jones’s new novella a read.

Night of the Mannequins is a wry psychological horror novella with a teen slasher (ish? but no actual slashing) vibe. The book opens with Sawyer narrating from the future. Apparently, he and his friends once found a mannequin in the woods and carried it around and used it to play pranks for years. They play one last prank on a friend at a movie theatre….and then everything goes wrong. People start dying. Maybe there’s a rogue mannequin. Maybe not? And then the plot takes a bit of a turn. Saying more is a spoiler but I will say that I got a whiff of the black comedy of Heathers and some of the goofier teen slasher movies from the 1980s.

Night of the Mannequins is out Tuesday, September 1, just in time for the weather to (maybe) start growing cooler.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Like Lovers Do by Tracy Livesay (Girls Trip #2)

Summary from Goodreads: Tracey Livesay continues her fun-filled Girls Trip series with this romance that will tug at your heartstrings.

Sometimes faking it can lead to the real thing…

Driven and focused, Dr. Nicole Allen is an accomplished surgeon. With a tough past, Nic’s gone above and beyond everyone’s expectations. But when she disciplines an intern—a powerful donor’s son—a prestigious fellowship she’s awaiting is placed in jeopardy. 

Coming from a successful family who runs a medical business empire, Benjamin Reed Van Mont is the black sheep, having chosen to start his own business instead. Though he’s not ready to settle down, he knows when the time comes it definitely won’t be with a workaholic doctor like his friend Nic—even if she’s had him re-examining his edict…more than once. 

When Ben’s status-climbing ex-girlfriend finds her way back into his orbit, Nic proposes a swap of services. She’ll spend the week with Ben on Martha’s Vineyard, pretending to be his girlfriend—but only if he’ll have his family intervene on her behalf so she won’t lose her fellowship. How hard can the charade be? 

But as they’re about to discover, they’ve sorely underestimated their true feelings for each other…

For my 140th read of 2020 (which completes my Goodreads reading goal in August, woo!) I present: mind-blowing hammock sex.

That’s it. That’s the review.

Jk. But the first time Nic and Ben have sexytimes they do it in a goddamn hammock and this is the “can you have sex while on horseback” question of 2020 contemporary romance. It’s amazing. Tracy Livesay is a queen.

Ok, for realz, Nic is a rockstar chief resident in orthopedic surgery headed to a prestigious sports medicine fellowship and Ben has been her landlord and best friend for three years. Nic is career-driven and avoids long-term relationships, preferring short hook-ups, and Ben is balls-deep in love with Nic but doesn’t want a career-driven partner because his parents were awful about putting him second to their careers. Near the end of Nic’s residency, she reprimands a new resident (intern?) – rightly – for blowing off a Black man with health problems and a septic joint to go watch a [sexy] spinal-fusion surgery. However, Racist Bro Surgeon goes whining off to his daddy, who is a major donor to the hospital, and Daddy threatens not only the end of Nic’s residency but also her fellowship placement. Nic doesn’t have a lot of ammunition at her disposal to fight back – she’s a woman, she comes from a less-advantaged background, she doesn’t have a prestigious family name, and she’s Black. She’s a tiny, tiny minority in a very dude-heavy, dick-swinging surgical specialty.

She does, however, have an ace up her sleeve. Ben’s family the Van Monts have generational clout in medicine from generations of doctors. When Nic tells Ben what happened, he offers to ask his parents to put in a good word for her. It’s what friends do, after all, despite the fact that he a) refused to go into the medical profession and b) walked away from working for the family foundation to start his own financial advising firm. When Nic hears that Ben’s ex Tinsley has invited herself to a friend vacation with plans to get Ben back in her clutches – which Ben definitely does not want – Nic offers to accompany Ben as his girlfriend. [Note: I want to make clear – as Ben does in the book – that this is not a quid pro quo situation and that Nic is not obligated to fake date Ben so he’ll call his mom for her.] But while they’re on Martha’s Vineyard, fake dating leads to realistic kissing to maybe something so much more.

I love it.

Nic is amazing and smart and strong – and a much more communicative orthopedic surgeon than I’ve ever encountered because we’re working with some of them on a couple of projects and they’re all allergic to checking their email – and Ben is such a cinnamon roll. The trope at play might be Friends to Lovers but there’s really no thunderblot “wow, Friendo is hot now!” moment. It’s this slow realization that the love between Ben and Nic has existed quietly for some time and they have to take the risk that being intimate and opening up is worth it.

Around the developing romance are two really good examinations about family and relationships. First, through the elitist and racist actions of Tinsley toward Nic, Ben starts to examine his own blind-spots and unintentional microaggressions about race. It leads to him developing a better relationship with Nic and also with a new client at his firm (I kinda hope, given the way Livesay wrote a few scenes with this character, that he’s being set up for a future book because we aren’t given many details about him and I’d really like to know more). Second, both Ben and Nic have built their lives and careers in reaction to perceived choices made by each of their parents. So they, separately, have to clear up some misconceptions with the older generation before they realize they can make a life together.

Did I mention that I love it?

Content warning: Ben’s obnoxious ex-fiance Tinsley is the Spoiled Racist Barbie among the cast of characters in Martha’s Vinyard but you definitely don’t sympathize with her and wish the rest of the characters would just murder her and put her body in the Sound. Also Spoiled Racist Bro Surgeon, but he’s on the page less. [Spoiler: the racists get their comeuppance.]

Like Lovers Do is out now! Even though it’s a book 2, you can definitely read it out of order, because I have book 1 but haven’t read it yet (SORRYYYY) but definitely need to go read it now! And look at that pretty cover.

Dear FTC: I read a digital copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

Deal with the Devil by Kit Rocha (Mercenary Librarians #1)

Deal with the Devil is Orphan Black meets the post-apocalyptic Avengers by USA Today and New York Times bestselling author duo Kit Rocha.

Nina is an information broker with a mission–she and her team of mercenary librarians use their knowledge to save the hopeless in a crumbling America.

Knox is the bitter, battle-weary captain of the Silver Devils. His squad of supersoldiers went AWOL to avoid slaughtering innocents, and now he’s fighting to survive.

They’re on a deadly collision course, and the passion that flares between them only makes it more dangerous. They could burn down the world, destroying each other in the process…

Or they could do the impossible: team up.

This is the first book in a near-future science fiction series with elements of romance.

I follow the two authors who write as Kit Rocha on Twitter so I was pretty intrigued by the premise and world of Deal with the Devil as they were promoting it.

Post-apocalyptic, near-future, super-soldier, found family road-trip romantic suspense novel? SURE. (Also the start of a series. Sweeeeet.)

When the novel opens, Nina is returning from an errand when she’s accosted by several….ne’er do wells, shall we say, in a dangerous section of Atlanta in this post-Flare near-future setting. Nina, a genetically enhanced super-soldier, wastes them with nary a hair out of place on her head. She is secretly observed by Knox, the leader of the Silver Devils TechCorps squad – technologically advanced super-soldiers – who a) have apparently recently gone rogue and b) are being blackmailed into kidnapping Nina and her crew. So Knox sets up a fake heist to tempt Nina into helping the Silver Devils raid a library vault (post-Flare, books are almost like currency and Nina has a printing operation) and get her out into the wilds of what used to be Tennessee (?) to make the trade for his biochem tech.

What no one counted on was that Knox and Nina would have buh-nanas sexual chemistry with each other and that the Silver Devils really start to like and respect Nina and her teammates Dani and Maya, who are also genetically enhanced, and their Robin Hood-like mission in their neighborhood. So the plan begins to go awry on the road and everyone’s secrets start coming out. There’s a Mad Max-like roadside ambush, a rural super-soldier cage match, the rescue of a rural town from gangsters in a chapter worthy of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and, if you were wondering, super steamy scenes between Knox and Nina. A little something for everyone.

Now, the promotion for Deal with the Devil puts this book more on the Sci-Fi genre side, but it REALLY punched a lot of solid Romance genre buttons for me. Nina and Knox are SUPER into each other from the jump and their romance arc is a major driver of the plot of the book (and it’s an actual HEA/HFN so definitely could fit into the romance genre). But there are also a lot of perspectives from other members of Nina’s and Knox’s teams as well as insertions about what the evil tech corporations did to each of the characters in the past to make them the super-soldiers they are so the world-building is also part of the plot and that weights it to that SF side. I’m not quite sure how the rest of the series is going to play out – will other members of the teams partner up or find partners or will some of the future books center more on bringing down the tech corps? The characters who make up the two strike teams are pretty diverse so it could go in all sorts of directions. Something to look forward to. Since this is the first book in the series, I felt like the world-building set-up did get in the way of plot on a few occasions and drag just a bit but it was such a fun read on the whole.

I could easily see the Mercenary Librarians series being adapted into a Netflix series – who wouldn’t want to watch sexy super-soldiers who also have a little bit of a Robin Hood penchant on the side take down an evil corporation? Look at how much traction The Old Guard got.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this novel from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Legal Affair by Nisha Sharma (The Singh Family #2)

Summary from Goodreads:

Rajneet Hothi built her empire with sweat, blood, and information. She knows everything there is to know about Ajay Singh, the future CEO of Bharat, Inc., as well as how crucial he is in securing her future. But she didn’t expect the passion that burst between them the first time they went head-to-head. She’d never felt anything like it before, especially during her marriage to her soon-to-be-ex-husband. When her company is blamed for her ex’s dirty dealings with Bharat, she’s forced to prove that Ajay is no match for her in the art of business or seduction.

Ajay shouldn’t trust Raj or her company. He’s on the verge of losing everything his family has worked to achieve, but he can’t stop thinking about the breathtaking way Raj opens her mind, body and heart to him. Throwing his infamous caution to the wind, he tempts the gorgeous CEO into his bedroom and boardroom. He soon realizes he wants Raj by his side and he’s willing to fight the people he’s always protected to be with her.

When Raj and Ajay discover the source behind Bharat’s leak, they must trust each other and work together to defy the odds and save the Singh legacy. 

I have been WAITING for the followup to Nisha Sharma’s The Takeover Effect. *eeeeeeeee*

Small spoiler: The opening chapter of The Legal Affair hangs on whether you remember what happened in the “foiling the hostile takeover of Bharat by this REAL trash company who got inside help from garbage family members” denouement of The Takeover Effect. So while you can read The Legal Affair without having read Takeover, however, go read Takeover because HAWT lawyers doing lawyer stuff and also having bananas-hot sex. You’re welcome.

Beginning aside, once I refreshed my memory Legal hits hot, fast, and hard. Raj’s company is in the information business; she was the one who provided the information about what was happening during the Bharat takeover. Ajay is set to take over Bharat as CEO from his father when the Board makes its formal vote to approve his appointment at their next meeting. However, a movement inside the Board, seemingly caused by an IP leak that traces back to Raj’s company and her garbage soon-to-be-ex-husband, calls into question Ajay’s ability to lead the company. Relationships within the Singh family start to fray under the stress while Raj faces the risk of her past coming to light if she fights her ex. What no one expected was for Ajay and Raj to have incredible chemistry in the boardroom as well as the bedroom…and for them to become an almost unstoppable force together.

Despite the heady Manhattan setting and feel that the characters are self-made business royalty, the books in the Singh Trilogy are also very much about the family relationships. The relationships that support us, but can also hurt us at the same time. Sharma expertly uses these webs to underpin the plot. If corporate espionage and arguments about intellectual property rights get you going plus incredible hot-but-tender sexual chemistry – and one very, very adorable tiny Chihuahua puppy who will melt your heart – get yourself a copy of The Legal Affair. (Did I mention it was hot? Ajay and Raj are serious dirty talkers. Also, I would totally watch a Netflix series adaptation of these books and we don’t even have book 3 yet!)

The Legal Affair is out August 18 from Avon Impulse!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read · YA all the way

Don’t Read the Comments by Eric Smith

Divya Sharma is a queen. Or she is when she’s playing Reclaim the Sun, the year’s hottest online game. Divya—better known as popular streaming gamer D1V—regularly leads her #AngstArmada on quests through the game’s vast and gorgeous virtual universe. But for Divya, this is more than just a game. Out in the real world, she’s trading her rising-star status for sponsorships to help her struggling single mom pay the rent.

Gaming is basically Aaron Jericho’s entire life. Much to his mother’s frustration, Aaron has zero interest in becoming a doctor like her, and spends his free time writing games for a local developer. At least he can escape into Reclaim the Sun—and with a trillion worlds to explore, disappearing should be easy. But to his surprise, he somehow ends up on the same remote planet as celebrity gamer D1V.

At home, Divya and Aaron grapple with their problems alone, but in the game, they have each other to face infinite new worlds…and the growing legion of trolls populating them. Soon the virtual harassment seeps into reality when a group called the Vox Populi begin launching real-world doxxing campaigns, threatening Aaron’s dreams and Divya’s actual life. The online trolls think they can drive her out of the game, but everything and everyone Divya cares about is on the line…

And she isn’t going down without a fight.

I’ve followed Eric Smith’s career for a while so I was really tickled to see Don’t Read the Comments (which originally had a different title) out in the world. Took me a bit to read the galley – because life – but I plopped down last night and read the whole thing start to finish. This is a really great YA fiction about a professional gamer girl who is targeted by an organized troll squad (why the industry even entertains these bozos is beyond me) because she’s female and brown who meets a non-pro gamer boy who wants to write stories for video games and runs into problems with an indie game-maker who takes advantage of him. Divya and Aaron have really cute chat interactions but also great interactions with their IRL friends, Rebekah and Ryan. They also have some real-world problems to deal with as teens. Divya’s dad has walked out on her and her mom and it’s her sponsorships and sale of gaming gear she’s been comped that are helping pay the bills. Aaron’s parents are really pushing for him to be pre-med to take over the family practice and low-key threatening to not pay for college if he doesn’t follow that path. The one thing I wish this book did was have Divya and Aaron bonding a bit more over non-gaming stuff, because I feel like the parents and how the teens deal with the parent stuff isn’t quite as developed as the gaming plot. It’s a minor thing because the rest of the book is really good.

Eric very explicitly lays out the problems of sexual harassment, racism, abuse, trolling, doxxing, toxic dudes, IP and copyright infringement, and gatekeeping which are rampant in the industry. There are some really scary moments – such as when Divya’s mom is attacked by trolls at her place of work – and some bros pull the “I was nice to you why won’t you put out” at a pizza parlor. There’s also some description of Rebekah’s previous assault that happened before the book opens, but is used by the trolls to terrorize her. So just a brief content warning that Eric doesn’t soft-ball the scary bits, he just doesn’t describe them graphically.

Now, I’m not a gamer – the last actual video game I played was Myst III…or IV? Which one was Riven? on a PC running Windows 98, I’m an Old, lol – so it took me a little bit to adjust to the descriptions of in-game play for the MMORPG that Divya streams on the “Glitch” platform. But I got into it after a while and Angst Armada that has Divya’s back really sounds like fun, so don’t worry if you’re not a gamer. And, not gonna lie, I did a little squeal when Desi Geek Girls – a rad podcast run by Preeti Chhibber and Swapna Krishna – got name-checked late in the book.

Now I’m going to have a minor spoiler here, so if you want to stop reading here, heyo, Don’t Read the Comments is out now, you can buy it! Thanks for reading!








OK. The resolutions to the troll plot and trash game developer plot are both well-done (although if we actually got to see some real fallout for the bad actors in those plots in the form of lost jobs, lost investors, etc that would have been A+ but overall, yes, good plot climaxes). However, in the falling action of the book Divya decides to stop gaming professionally. She gives up her sponsorships, sells a lot of her gear, and so on so she and her mom are good for the financial short-term. And that made me a little sad. That even though she stood up to the trolls and “won,” the fun that she and Rebekah had with the Angst Armada has been ruined – what the trolls couldn’t stand was that Divya was engaging to fans because she had fun playing the game and made sure that others were having fun, too, and god forbid people love something unironically – and she and Rebekah are really going to have to rebuild their security and their peace-of-mind. It’s a very real-world outcome to this story. Don’t Read the Comments is not a fantasy where the Bad Guys are caught, Divya finds a Cute Guy, and every thing magically returns to normal like it had before the trolls and the doxxing. We are left with an “everyone is doing OK for now” where everyone is processing their trauma and doing their best. I think it really takes some bravery to write an ending like this, where it is not completely satisfying, because we readers do so want good things for characters we root for. And we root so hard for Divya and Aaron to dominate the bad guys so completely that they have to use dial-up to get on the Internet for the rest of their lives. So hats off to Eric for taking the risk with this ending. (And yes, I’m making a hat joke because he’s rarely without his flat cap, haha.)

Don’t Read the Comments has been out since January, you can pick it up wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I read a galley of this book we got at my store from the publisher.

stuff I read

On the Corner of Hope and Main by Beverly Jenkins (Blessings #10)

Citizens of Henry Adams, Kansas, know there’s never a dull moment in their small town… Trent July has been the mayor of this historic town for the past four years, but now he’s ready to let someone else take up the mantle. Barrett Payne, a former Marine, decides he wants the job. But when a surprise candidate also enters the ring, the town has opinions on who would be the best candidate. And of course that’s not the only drama…

As the residents of Henry Adams have learned, life will throw obstacles their way, but it’s how they come together and rise above these challenges that keep the bonds of their close-knit community strong.

I whoopsed up slightly when I requested On the Corner of Hope and Main from William Morrow. They were up front about it being the tenth entry in the Blessings series but I was thinking “series” like Ms. Bev’s Destiny or Old West romance series. In those series there’s a bit more separation between the couples’ stories so they can read more as linked stand-alones. But the Blessings series is true serialized storytelling, much like a soap opera, where the “main character” is the population of the town. The individual characters move forward and back in prominence depending on whether their subplot needs to come to the fore.

So if you’ve been reading Ms. Bev’s Blessing series, this is a really solid, entertaining continuation of the lives and happenings and shenanigans of the population of Henry Adams, KS. There’s an election for mayor that doesn’t go NEARLY as anyone planned, Bernardine’s trash ex-husband shows up to cause problems, and a certain felonious porcine character makes a reappearance.

However, if you, like me, had not read any of the previous books you might be at sea for a bit until you catch up. Which took me about 100 pages. I kept backing up to re-read so I could keep the many characters and their relationships straight. But it was a fun read once I had everyone straightened out. Ms. Bev really lets her sarcastic side fly at times and she’s created some really gorgeous blended families. Plus, this small town that has blossomed with the infusion of Bernardine’s money and love is really compelling. Someday, I’ll back up and pickup the earlier books.

On the Corner of Hope and Main is out now!

Dear FTC: I read a finished copy I received from the publisher.

stuff I read

You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria

RITA® Award Winning author Alexis Daria brings readers an unforgettable, hilarious rom-com set in the drama-filled world of telenovelas—perfect for fans of Jane the Virgin and The Kiss Quotient.

Leading Ladies do not end up on tabloid covers.

After a messy public breakup, soap opera darling Jasmine Lin Rodriguez finds her face splashed across the tabloids. When she returns to her hometown of New York City to film the starring role in a bilingual romantic comedy for the number one streaming service in the country, Jasmine figures her new “Leading Lady Plan” should be easy enough to follow—until a casting shake-up pairs her with telenovela hunk Ashton Suárez. 

Leading Ladies don’t need a man to be happy

After his last telenovela character was killed off, Ashton is worried his career is dead as well. Joining this new cast as a last-minute addition will give him the chance to show off his acting chops to American audiences and ping the radar of Hollywood casting agents. To make it work, he’ll need to generate smoking-hot on-screen chemistry with Jasmine. Easier said than done, especially when a disastrous first impression smothers the embers of whatever sexual heat they might have had. 

Leading Ladies do not rebound with their new costars.

With their careers on the line, Jasmine and Ashton agree to rehearse in private. But rehearsal leads to kissing, and kissing leads to a behind-the-scenes romance worthy of a soap opera. While their on-screen performance improves, the media spotlight on Jasmine soon threatens to destroy her new image and expose Ashton’s most closely guarded secret.

You Had Me at Hola is Alexis Daria’s Avon debut (I love her Take the Lead, set behind the scenes of a “Dancing with the Stars”-type show). It is a fun, entertaining, and steamy romance set behind the scenes of a new telenovela filming for a “major streaming service” (and check out that awesome cover). In between chapters of Jasmine and Ashton “in real life” are fun insertions of scenes in the show as they are shot where Jasmine’s and Ashton’s characters overlap with their real-life selves. Daria hits it out of the park in creating the show Carmen in Charge – I would totally watch it and cheer on its amazing, diverse creative team if it were real! Daria really knows her way around the entertainment industry (look, if you haven’t read Take the Lead go do that). Jasmine and Ashton were such excellent characters, too. They each have some stuff to work through – Jasmine feels like she doesn’t get support from her family in both her career and her dating life (her two cousins are pretty awesome and that’s it) and Ashton has PTSD, and maybe a little paranoia, from a crazed fan’s break-in attempt years ago. I would have maybe had them grovel a teensy bit more to each other at the end since they said some really below-the-belt stuff during their big blow-up. And Ashton’s dad is a love 💖.

PS: Paparazzi are trash scum and wtf, people, don’t take sneaky pictures of famous people out minding their own business, that’s rude. It did make me feel a little sad when Jasmine is basically like “we sign up for some of this when we’re famous” – and yeah, I can see the press interviews and such, but the garbage invasions of privacy? Nah. No one deserves that.

You Had Me at Hola is out today!!

Dear FTC: I read a finished copy of this book that the publisher sent to me.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (The Singing Hills Cycle #1)

Summary from Goodreads: With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama, Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully. Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for. At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

Praise for The Empress of Salt and Fortune

“An elegant gut-punch, a puzzle box that unwinds itself in its own way and in its own time. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Gorgeous. Cruel. Perfect. I didn’t know I needed to read this until I did.”–Seanan McGuire

“A tale of rebellion and fealty that feels both classic and fresh, The Empress of Salt and Fortune is elegantly told, strongly felt, and brimming with rich detail. An epic in miniature, beautifully realised.”–Zen Cho

I missed The Empress of Salt and Fortune when it published earlier this year, so I snagged a paper copy to read. This was such a surprising read! The world-building is so rich without pausing to tell the reader about it. It’s so skillfully sketched in through the interactions of Chih, a cleric who functions much like an archivist and anthropologist, Almost Brilliant, their accompanying niexin, and Rabbit, an elderly woman who slowly relates her tale of exile with the Empress. The way the little list of objects at the head of each chapter led into that little bit of story from Rabbit was so clever – like a little anthropology before a history lesson. It’s such an inclusive and feminist story.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.