Multiple Winters of Discontent

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Scrolling through my TBR, I found two books, published a week apart, about protagonists named Winter. And, since in a previous life I was apparently one of those people who drive behind ambulances to avoid traffic jams, every book on my Kindle is dark romance these days. So which book beats up and molests an innocent woman better: Winter’s Storm by Deja Brown, or Hunting Winter by Ivy Thorn?

At the start of Winter’s Storm, Winter is working a dead-end job when she gets an invitation to her step family reunion. Her alarmingly well-informed coworker insists that she should go, since she’s probably over wanting to bone her step brother. The rest of the first chapter is a whirlwind flashback that progresses from the image of her parents being killed in a car accident when she’s seven, to making out with hot, blue-eyed Kyle. There are butterflies from the beginning, but the crescendo is the classic trope of rescuing a girl from getting raped by Chad on prom night. Naturally Kyle is furious about what almost happened to his sister, and emotional, so he expresses this by kissing his Bun Buns. Oh, right, he calls his kid sister Bun Buns.

Meanwhile, in Hunting Winter, Winter wakes up tied to a smelly, dead-end mattress, in pain and with a bad case of amnesia. A man walks in, and through the blood and panic Winter instantly notices that he is drop dead gorgeous. At no point does she describe any of this man’s actions without prefacing it with a fawning account of his piercing blue eyes. He looks down at her and says simply “you’re mine.” It turns out that Gabriel is in a biker gang, caught up in some dicey local politics. There’s been a bloody coup, and Winter lost her memory as she was dragged from the burning aftermath. Once stuck up and too good for a man like Gabriel, now she is scraps to be snatched up by anyone with hot enough desire and blue enough eyes. But of course Winter doesn’t remember any of this, so Gabriel decides to Overboard her. The story is, he rescued her from a bad accident, which of course explains the restraints and lack of proper medical attention.

Now firmly rooted in the present day, we learn that Kyle has been obsessed with Winter his whole life, to the point that other women are basically Fleshlights to him. As he puts it, “I need my Bun Buns.” At the reunion, the sexual tension is immediate, to the delight and frustration of both parties. They sneak a few make out sessions under their parents’ noses, have a few jealous fights, and just generally act like any young lovers in a romance novel. Deja Brown really takes her time with oral sex scenes, which I feel is unusual in these kinds of books, but that might be my imagination. But all is not well. I mean, obviously, but even less is well than I’ve already described. In addition to being bummed that his love for Winter can never lead to a real family with marriage and kids, Kyle has (an additional) deep, dark secret. The shadowy cabal he works for is looking for him, and they are not happy, despite all the buckets of cash he’s made for and from them. The rebellious bad boy with a money market account, truly the distaff version of the Madonna/whore complex. I don’t want to spoil too much of the later chapters of Winter’s Storm, but it does eventually get pretty crazy once the cartel gets involved. This is a dark romance, so you know there’s gonna be miscarriages, immediate replacement pregnancies, people getting shot and dying, people getting shot and not dying, this Winter even gets tied down at one point, like her biker slave counterpart.

The vibe of Hunting Winter follows a similar track of domestic melodrama punctuated by criminal activity. Winter and Gabriel are constantly fight-fucking, with the narration always careful to remind us that any time Winter is putting up some token tee-hee resistance, she is re-enacting the Vajont dam collapse in her pants. “Everything about him screams predator,” muses Winter, but he is “dangerously hot.” Sometimes she fears his anger, but blames herself for provoking him. After all, he never hurts her in a way she doesn’t like. While her friends are insisting that if she loves him, it will all be worth it, the various biker gangs are playing a massive chess game with Winter as a pawn. Gabrielle defends her from danger, primarily because she makes his dick twitch. In every scene. Winter will say something he likes, and we’re told that this caused an immediate kinetic reaction in the man’s penis. This guy’s dick is more expressive than a pair of boobs in a Game of Thrones book. It could have a whole conversation in semaphore. It could play jazz drums like that kid from Whiplash.

So how do we compare these two books? Since the content is nearly identical, I think it comes down to style. Winter’s Storm was slightly more fun to read, because the writing was less polished. Let me be more specific, because you might read that and think “Oh, Madeline’s poking fun at someone who’s trying, because she’s such a failure herself.” Well, that’s mostly accurate, but while I did find it amusing when the characters call a psychotic jerk “you psychic jerk,” that’s not what I mean. It’s a common pitfall for new authors to write every character in the same register, and the same dialect, whatever he or she finds most natural. I don’t want to assume too much about Deja Brown, but somehow Winter’s rural white step family all speak exclusively in AAVE. They say “She mad” instead of “she is mad,” “he favorite” instead of “his favorite,” and they’re all really excited about Teyana Taylor. For some reason, I found this delightful. More redneck erasure in my dark romances, please.

The writing in Hunting Winter is more deliberate. Ivy Thorn knows exactly how penises operate, how unhealthy relationships form, and how generic middle class white people talk, and she tells you succinctly, so she can make room for more dubiously consensual finger banging in a bathtub. Eventually Winter’s memories come flooding back to her, and although I had been pretty checked out (and even started to forget that Gabriel was still Overboarding her twenty chapters in), that last chapter where she recalls how she came to be tied down and injured is some of the most effective sequel bait I’ve seen in the first installment of a series lately. Overall, though, it just wasn’t fun. Maybe it’s better if you’re looking for efficient ratios of “you belong to me, now get spanked” per page. Or if you’re looking for a good deal; Winter’s Storm is ten dollars on Kindle, and Hunting Winter is only five dollars at nearly twice the length.

He penised down the hall, penisly, his penis penising up a penis.

Going Homeless by Kevin Becker

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

You’re not going to believe this, but sometimes I can be a bit… critical. No, there’s no use arguing with me on this. You may see me as a happy little sidewalk daisy, but deep down, under all those cheerful layers, I’m more like an actual sidewalk plant: gnarled, trodden, and smelling faintly of cat piss. Well, no more! Today, I am turning over a new leaf as Polly Positive. I’m going to read a book, and for once I am going to find things to enjoy about it. Going Homeless by Kevin Becker is a first person account of a young man who spends five days on the streets of Chicago. This is a hefty one. If I ever scratched off something more lucrative than a hangnail and found myself rich enough to afford physical books, this one could stun a bear. So let’s start by getting to know our protagonist.

Kyle is Lao Tzu’s uncarved stone. He’s bored with his classes and classmates. He has a lukewarm friendship with another boy, who moves away. No other friends are mentioned, so I’ll assume he’s just too busy. As far as school goes, he has the apathy of a greaser in the background of a teen movie from the 50s. You know that podcast where Elon Musk said when he was a kid, he didn’t realize that everyone else’s mind wasn’t constantly exploding with ideas? That’s our Kyle. He gets a 13 on the ACT, and you know what? Screw the ACT. Kyle’s got bigger fish to fry, like biking to the Polish deli to look at Maxim Magazine and not buy anything. He briefly toys with the idea of being a garbage collector, until he realizes that garbage smells bad. In spite of everything, thanks to the diligent efforts of a school counselor, our underappreciated genius gets a few college credits before graduating, mainly because he likes getting to leave school early. It’s a story about inevitable triumph. Kyle’s destiny is woven so deep into the weft of the universe, even he can’t unravel it. I like it. This is fine. Everything about this is absolutely fine, and I am engaged with the material.

Kyle just sees things that other people can’t see, you know? Like the rat race. All the “robot zombies” on the train to Chicago every morning, don’t they realize they’re wasting their life? They should be more like Kyle, slowly discovering that he’s not going to be a professional musician and being generally unflapped by everything. The list of things that don’t bother our hero includes: silence, pigeons, Black people, religion, the emotional needs of intimate partners, the continued existence of social media, and hot dogs. I’m sure this is all part of some elaborate set up, a flawed character who undergoes a painful learning experience later in life. Anyway, the story really gets started when Kyle sees an advertisement for an amateur film festival, and thinks back to an experience he had as a child. Visiting the city with his father, he was struck by an encounter with a young homeless man named Marvin. The idea hits Kyle to film himself living on the streets for five days, to… show people what it’s like, I guess.

Not knowing any homeless people, and apparently unaware that he could speak to one ahead of time, Kyle sets about making a to-do list, with things like “sleep on bench” and “urinate in public.” Presumably “practice bindle tying” didn’t make the final draft. No! Positive. This is a good book, I just need to open my frigid little heart and let Kyle’s warm magic inside. What’s next? He begins his first day on the streets with a quote by Martin Luther King. OK, nope, skimming a few pages. Kyle describes his time wandering the streets of Chicago as a series of goals and encounters. He helps a man named Irv sell newspapers. A nice lady goes with him to scrounge a cup of coffee, and he informs us that she has worth despite not having any assets. At some point he gets mugged by cartoon splatter punks whom he describes as “goblins.” That’s a theme. Anytime our author doesn’t like someone, they are described as something other than human. The high school kids who tried to beat him up in the pornography forest (don’t ask) are “hyenas,” while the Chads beating up a mentally ill homeless man are “jackals.” This makes it just a tad alarming when he describes the hustle and bustle of a city street as “the zoo,” but we’re not going to unpack that one. Kyle is befriending people, broadening his horizons, the whole deal. What kind of obstacles does he face, being on the street with no money? How does he get food?

Kyle tells us his first encounter with starvation was in college, when he ran out of money and had to ask his mother to send him some. Hold on, I just need to get up and stretch my legs a little. OK, so hunger. Kyle ends up doing a little begging at a local food festival to get a few slices of pizza. This requires a little bit of sneakery, but he knows the police won’t touch him, because it would be bad PR if they were seen roughing up a person in need. Yes, you know that’s not why the CPD are letting him go, and I know that’s not why the CPD are letting him go. We’re just going to move on. It’s a learning experience, remember? We’re building a better Kyle out of spit and bubble gum. The whole time he’s living on the streets, he’s filming with a hidden camera, and planning out the sketches and narration that will go along with them. I never did get any indication of what this film is supposed to be other than random footage of a guy selling newspapers or free pizza at a beer festival. What sort of lesson does Kyle take from all this? There is a scene near the end of his experiment, where Kyle looks around at the swirling mass of humanity around him, and thinks that if only people worked for the common good, like ants, then maybe the world would be a better place. Sure, the queen may squash the plan, but what if she didn’t? What if they got away with it? Kyle relates his epiphany to a random stranger, and is disappointed that “even this bug-eyed man” (classy) didn’t get it.

I. OK. So. This is. That’s is not how ants work. The queen of an ant colony is not a divine right monarch, directing her minions to bring her chocolate crumbs and mouthfuls of Pepsi. For that matter, ants do not have a concept of the common good. Ants operate on instinct, usually following the chemical trail of the ant that came before them. I thought we weren’t supposed to be mindless sheeple doing some mechanical nine to five, Kyle! I know I said I was going to like this book, and I tried. I really did. I didn’t even talk about how all the homeless people’s lines are spelled phonetically, or that he calls people “gypsies.” Yeah, didn’t like the taste of that, did you? Well I swallowed it. And this was the thing that brought it all chundering back up: misinformed fucking ant politics. It’s no wonder nobody gets your Earth-shattering revelation, Kyle, you human jar of mayonnaise. This man doesn’t even know how much of a personality vampire he is. The only thought he has for the women in his life is how they can feed him, motivate him, or reward him for success, because oh, did I not mention that his asinine documentary about glamping in Millennial Park got a streaming deal? Because of course it did! This man fails upward faster than a SpaceX rocket. That’s right, two Elon Musk references in one review. That’s how bad it is. There’s no indication that anything he did helped a single person. Kyle is to the homeless what Betty Friedan is to the woman who cleans her house.

Should you pay six dollars to read this on Kindle? It’s still possible this whole thing is an elaborate parody of mediocrity and middle class cluelessness. The fact that I can’t tell for sure may make it worth the read for some people. If your idea of a good time is watching a narrator use “the end of the Civil Rights era” as a reference point and trying to figure out what year he thinks that is, then you’re going to love Going Homeless. Otherwise, not so much.

I tried owning my own house for five days and made a movie about it.

Helfyre by Mariel Pomeroy

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Sometimes I get to read a power fantasy, where a pimply nerd invents a machine that makes him irresistible to the girl who ignored him in third period. Sometimes I get to read a romance about a main character whose fetish is being miserable. And sometimes, I get both. Helfyre by Mariel Pomeroy is a dark romance named after an Axe body spray, in which the reader learns a lot about a fictional world and its singular beef with the protagonist.

The story begins with Aheia running across a desert, afraid and alone, trying to make it to some sort of border. There’s a death eater chasing her, but I guess she’ll be fine if she can cross into Aljira. They don’t have an extradition treaty with death eaters. She makes it across the shimmery fantasy border (which, shockingly, is not described as “coruscating,” in flagrant violation of sf/fantasy law), and collapses smack into the arms of Some Dude, who saves her from certain doom. Aheiea is immortal, which means she attained the visual age of twenty eight and stopped there, so it wasn’t clear to me at first what was at stake or what she was running from, but as the first chapter went on it became clear that I was going to have to let go of a lot of questions. The amount of front loading, eyebrow waggling, and unexplained terminology is just bonkers. I will elaborate.

When Ahehe first meets the male lead, he is described as a demon, which is not italicized, and a Leviathan, which is. Also a Nephilim. No idea what any of this means yet. Also he has an Avarice, or is an Avarice? He is later identified as Al Shaytan, of course. He can bend shadows, the way that Ah-Ah-Ah’s Dioscuri people can bend light, except she doesn’t have her light powers anymore, obviously. In any case her kingdom is ruled by winged Maleks (or possibly Mithras), not the race of her mother, who is dead, as I’m sure you already assumed.

One thing I’m not going to dock points for is cramming how hot the dude is into her chapter. Yeah, it’s a little weird that she would be focusing on that when she’s dying of thirst and sand and stuff, but it always annoys me when the hot bod description happens in the man’s perspective chapter. You know what it is? I just figure out why it bugs me. You know how guys are constantly taking dick pics from a top-down angle? What the hell is that? Am I supposed to imagine having that attached to me? Give me a photo from, to put it delicately, the diner’s perspective, and maybe we’ll talk.

Our hunky love interest is Arioch, an evil handsomeman who gets a thrill from watching Aihaheay suffer. I mean, presumably you, the reader, are supposed to get off on that as well; Helfyre XXXtreme is one of those dark romance stories where you watch a reader insert endure wanton abuse for hundreds of pages. Before he will agree to grant asylum to the stranger dying in the desert, he makes her do a highly sexualized soul binding ritual, with hair pulling and everything. There’s dubcon kissing, and a “good girl” that will either make your skin crawl or your seat damp, depending on what sort of parties you’re no longer invited to.

Believe it or not, I’m not going to shit on Pomeroy for putting abuse and porn in the blender. Helfyre by Monseigneur Frollo is very upfront about what it is. Have you ever cut into a delicious looking BDSM cake, only to find it full of 50 Shades candy corn? You know what I mean. You read a chapter where Christian complains about women who use safe words, and you’re like “Well, that retroactively changes how I feel about everything I’ve just read.” Yeah, you’re not gonna get that scene in this book. Right out of the gate you’re reading lines like “He wanted to see what it looked like when she truly begged, and imagined it would be so fucking pretty.”

Aiiiiiii wakes up and fights a bed, which, it turns out, is her bed at home. Surprise! It was all a dream. She is back in Keloseros, ruled by her father Ophion, the thing she was running away from in the first place. Fresh off a description of our heroine getting Weinsteined moments before death, we get to see her receive a routine beating from her father’s henchmen, while he watches and licks his lips. Pomeroy doesn’t specify, but I assume just out of sight there is a conveyor belt of injured puppies for him to continuously kick. But just then, Fifty Shades of Bruise wakes up again in Aljazeera, under Arioch’s care. It all being a dream was all a dream! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Something I didn’t mention before is that the handsome monsterman has the ability to make her aroused with the sound of his voice, which he does frequently and randomly, as a joke. So we get descriptions of pain, anger, and abuse interspersed with sudden desire to get boned.

Some of the worst flowery language is poured over Arioch’s head. He has “a stare that spoke of burnt secrets and gray ash, eyes that were flecked with embers, dark and angry.” He has shadows on top of shadows next to his shadows. We can’t have grains of sand; sand comes in kernels or granules. In addition to the thesaurus abuse, some words are spelled weird for fun, like magyck. I’m not counting in this category made up words that we have to figure out along the way, like achlys, eyrid, and the various demon curse words. That’s fine. It’s all about finding the right balance of “The Fnang-Blade coruscated with a resplendent luster under the two suns of Thoop” and “Sword shiny.”

Given all that, is Doritos Helfyre Sour Cream n’ Onion worth checking out? The Baroque prose was a lot, but I doubt most people will find it cringe-worthy. The nazty bits are spaced out very deliberately to keep the reader sweating through their white gloves and hoop skirts. I would say maybe don’t buy it as a gift for someone who is likely to read the annihilation fantasy as romanticizing self harm, or the abuse as passion. But then again, if you have the temerity to buy a book like this as a gift, you’ve earned the right to do as you please. Overall it’s a pretty good piece of artsy erotica if you like it rough and full of pseudo-Herbonic mythology. Helfyre is seven dollars on Kindle.

I coruscated all over myself when I read this review.

Notorious by Mae Thorn

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or whenever I feel like it. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Historical novels set during the American Revolution are apparently still a thing. But instead of having a cover that evokes Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, this book promises a peek at garters, hidden daggers, and intrigue against the British. Normally you undermine the British by leaving them to their own devices, or minding your own business while being trans, but sometimes you have to use sex appeal and stabbing instead. Notorious by Mae Thorn is a thriller-romance from the perspective of a young Rebel woman active in New York high society.

The action begins with Foxglove, petticoats clenched, trying to lose a British officer down the back alleys of revolutionary New York City. She’s a secret rebel badass, fleeing the scene of another presumably righteous crime in the name of freedom, cold beer, and spelling the word “plow” in a way that makes sense. She has a chance to evade him before he sees her, but he catches up when she is delayed by a gaggle of drunk British soldiers. The officer gives them a jolly good speaking to about being rude to a lady, apparently unaware that said lady is the rebel spy he is chasing. While this is going on, Foxy G gets a long, hard, stiff look at the man. He has to snap her out of the mental image of listening to the handsome officer advertise fresh creamery butter and send her on her way. She continues to her secret rendezvous and retires for the night, wondering if she will ever run into the mysterious stranger again. Any guesses?

Cut to a fancy high society ball for New York’s loyal colonial elite, and Delia tries to make the most of her role as a debutante in a setting where no one knows she is actually Foxglove. Being paraded in front of a bunch of men like a prize hog has its advantages when you’re gathering intel, trying to ascertain how much the British know about your nightly sabotage. Then her mother, obligated by the rules of narrative fiction, introduces Delia to the latest addition to the New York bachelor crowd, Captain Lord Carrington. When she sees his face, Delia realizes she is standing inches away from none other than Fresh Creamery Butter! He shows no sign of recognizing her as the woman from the night before, but how can she know for sure? Through the usual small talk, Delia learns two things. First, that her actions last night led to the unintended deaths of three guards, and second, that she is extremely horny for FCB. She invites him to an innocent stroll through the gardens, and a full little game of cat and mouse ensues.

I’m surprised the parlor-and-ballroom setting hasn’t had more pushback in recent years. The people who complain that dark academia is cringy because it makes you look like if David Cameron worked at Hogwarts would probably not approve of elite escapism. “What if I went back in time, and had even more privilege” is not usually a good look. Bridgerton got around it by having a multiracial cast (and then ruined it by feeling the need to explain it—you’re putting your actors in whalebone corsets in 1813, Bridgerton, you don’t have to explain that it’s a fantasy!). Another trick is to have the protagonist feel vaguely uncomfortable with the trappings of wealth and power (though low key enjoying not having dropsy and xylophone ribs); it’s all very pink hat and safety pin. Self publishing is a bastion of work you couldn’t get published traditionally, so no doubt books like Notorious aren’t going anywhere, but I can’t help but think while I’m reading these stories that in the near future I’m going to have to pretend I didn’t at social events.

From here, the plot moves at break-neck speed. FCB saves Delia from the tedious advances of Niceguy Millhouse. We learn that her brother Arthur was killed by the British, hence her dedication to the rebel cause. Later, Foxglove and her collaborator lose a chance to save a sympathetic family from violent reprisal from British counter-intelligence. Mostly we learn just how badly Delia needs to bone FCB. Most of this book is our heroine making ah-oo-ga noises anytime this man is around. At one point someone mentions his name, and Delia is so distracted that she loses her hand-eye coordination and stabs herself in the hand. This comes to a head when Delia’s family decides to take FCB on as a lodger. This would put him in Arthur’s old room (also, while the narration doesn’t actually make this comparison, if you’re taking notes Arthur and FCB are the same age, hair color, and eye color, which I’m not sure what to think about), right next to hers. This is bound to cramp her style as someone who sneaks out at night to foil the redcoats, not to mention ruin her plans of ever wearing clean underwear again.

There are a lot of things I like about Notorious. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I really think you need better hobbies, but you know I will always be ready for an on-the-nose romance story. Give me your “but I can fix him” love interest with a body that looks like something Rocky would use for boxing practice in the freezer. Give me your plot that can be summarized as “it’s Pride and Prejudice, but this time… again!” Bring your reader-insert protagonists who hide knives under their gingham frocks and drop them into my open gullet. No, don’t bother to count how many times you described his breeches in one paragraph. Just back the wheel barrow up to my face and tip it over. Notorious knows what we’ve all come for. The dialogue is sassy, the characters are fun, and the story never gets bogged down in questions like “yeah, but why, though?”

Not that it’s all perfect. For one thing the language can be a little too flowery in places. Delia doesn’t run places, no. Her “legs consume the distance.” I don’t know if this is because Mae Thorn thinks it’s clever, or because she thinks it’s period-appropriate, or because she thinks this sort of purple prose is necessary for old-timey smut books. I’m here to tell you, it’s not any of those things. But this is really a minor point. The speed of the plot means that descriptions or even whole passages simply do not have time to wear out their welcome before it’s off to the next daring predicament for our debilitatingly horny heroine.

The British are coming! And so am I… 😉