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… 😉

Fire and Honey by Trinity Rayborn

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 apparently Wednesday now? Who knows! This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to eat weird plants in the woods. Not very often, mind you, but sometimes. Fire and Honey is a sempai-noticing-me simulator by Trinity Rayborn that focuses on a young woman coping with immortality.

Our main character is Millie, a typical American teenager, who lives in Greece at some unspecified point in the past. All we know for sure about the setting is that there’s wheat, and if I had to guess what time period Trinity Rayborn thinks wheat is from, I’d guess middle ages. But we all know Greece jumped directly from pottery times to the modern nightclub era, so who can say. At least this suspiciously peaceful protagonist village has a national designation, putting it easily in my top 10. You might think Millie is short for something. I know I did. But no. There is one specific reason our story begins in a small village sometime in Greece, and that is ambrosia. Millie works on the farm alphabetizing the wheat and stuff, while her parents spend their time trying to find a suitor for her. I would just find the guy with the greatest enthusiasm for wheat, but what do I know. You don’t want me in charge of your pairings; I once fried an egg in mayonnaise. One day Dad gets the kids to gather around and listen to the latest retelling of the story of ambrosia, the plant of the gods, forbidden to mortal kind. Shockingly, we actually get to hear the story because these are fictional children that let you get through an entire story without interjecting their own suggestions to add a cowboy, or wander off to stick their tongue in a light socket.

Millie has heard this story her whole life, and doesn’t put much stock in it. Being a modern teenage from the country of America, present day, she is naturally skeptical of tall tales that could have an alternative explanation. She knows she is right, and she desperately wants to prove it to everyone so they will shut up about the plant. That’s it. That’s her motivation, and it plucked at the dusty strings of the splintery dulcimer I call a heart. I see this woman. I see her so hard it hurts inside. Apparently, the notion that this plant belongs to the gods is a strong enough prohibition that nobody has thought to just eat the damn thing, ever. Millie just walks up to it, yanks some leaves, and makes tea out of it. Did no one ever do this before? The legend says that the plant is associated with immortality. And even if it wasn’t, it’s a weird plant in the woods. The entire history of biology could be summarized as “What To Put In Your Mouth, And What Not To Do That To, With Examples.” Do they not have mall goths in Wheat Greece?

So ambrosia tea. It’s amazing. It tastes like that one artisanal cream soda your ex made you try and you can’t remember the name, but you can’t bring yourself to ask him, even though you’ve definitely thought about messaging him for the first time in three years to ask about it, because it’s THAT GOOD! It tastes like that. Again, no one has ever thought to do this, in a country where somebody thought to squeeze goat tits and ferment whatever came out, to great public celebration (I am referring to Steve Feta). How does it feel to be immortal? Why, it feels like get back to work! Millie doesn’t feel any different, and goes back to her ordinary routine of applying wheat ointment. But as the years go by, it becomes clear that she isn’t aging.

This is where Fire and Honey shows off one of its signature tricks: the time jump. Millie sits on the news that she’s immortal for fifteen years. She has a plan to leave town before anyone notices, but then they notice, because she waited fifteen years. This is presented as “Oh, snap! I didn’t leave fast enough, by like, one day!” Time behaves very strangely in this book. Much like wheat, it’s basically a plot device that does whatever Trinity Rayborn needs it to do. Caught, Millie is banished from the village. She accepts this as the punishment she “deserves,” which.. I feel like there could be some appeal, given that it’s been fifteen years and nobody has flattened their village with thunder bolts or horny swan-dudes or other Greek maladies. But Millie is forced to flee with little more than the clothes on her back, destined to roam the Earth alone forever. Or at least until she finds a suitable love interest.

Ultimately, this is a romance, and our protagonist has a serious problem when it comes to relationships. Anyone who wants to grow old with her is going to feel seriously misled. Personally, I think this is played up as a bigger problem than it should be. I understand not all men are mouth-breathing troglodytes who want a woman who never ages past 23, but… if you’ve got that in your pocket, lady, use it! You could date Leonardo DiCaprio, for extended periods of time. Years, even! Get him to put you in his will, and just wait till he makes a movie that requires him to get actual dysentery because it’s method. I guess what Millie really needs is a man who can understand her predicament. Perhaps a man, who travels through time much as she does. A sexy Korean archaeologist, perhaps? It’s something to think about.

Further time jumps bring us to Jazz Age London, only with corsets, because it’s also Bridgerton times, which also took place in a time without those stiff whalebone corsets, but… Oh, we’ve already jumped again. Millie makes her way back to Greece in the fifties, because that’s where the plot is about to happen, and it’s a great place to find sexy Korean archaeologists from the seventies. It’s complicated.

What makes it slightly more complicated is the language. Rayborn gives us a warning that she is a South African author, and thus writes in British English. I’m not qualified to decide whether that patois that Elon Musk’s family speaks counts as “British,” when it sounds like Australian spoken through a rubber band, but that’s not really the problem anyway. A bigger issue for me is that the book appears to be written by an alien. There are lines like “beautiful and fulfilling types of vegetables,” or “machines to make things faster.” Normally I would chalk this up to second language acquisition, but we’ve been explicitly warned to parse this as British English, so that’s the square hole my brain is trying to jam these round pegs into. To be clear, I’m not complaining about indie books being unedited. Usually that’s fine, and can even add to the entertainment value because I get to read about “flying dargons” and imagine what a dargon looks like in my mind. But Rayborn’s writing is just correct enough to leave me constantly wondering whether maybe I’m the one from another planet.

Fire and Honey is actually a lot of fun. The pace is blistering, but that’s because Trinity Rayborn knows what we’re waiting for. The fan service is efficient and effective. Millie is a relatable, if not always believable, reader insertion. And we all need more sexy Korean archaeologists in our lives. I mean you might have one already, but why not pick up a spare? The one caveat is that I can only recommend it if you have Kindle Unlimited, as it’s ten dollars for what is basically a novella. But assuming you don’t pay full price, you won’t regret it.

I got boned by Zeus, and all I got out of it was another one of Madeline’s crumby reviews.

His Forbidden Mate, by Julie L. Vance

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 apparently whenever I feel like it. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

This isn’t your ordinary dirty book, people. This one. This one is a lot. If you’re the sort of person who can read about a young lady being anime-awkward-horny around a snake because she just had an erotic dream about him and doesn’t know how to broach the subject, and you don’t have follow-up questions, then read on. Also delete me from your phone. His Forbidden Mate by Julie L. Vance answers the age old question: but what if the guy is a snake, though?

In proper “Trapped In A Island With Josh Hutchinson” style, our story strobes between the perspective of Aella, the scrappy female human protagonist, and Amon, her handsome love interest. The story begins as Aella, or Ella to her friends who are very keen to save one letter, tries to protect a young girl named Saphira from the Grays. OK, some background. We get a flashback in chapter one, which I must admit is very slightly better than a prologue, so it gets a hesitant thumbs up from me. Earth has been visited by Roswell Grays, aka those aliens that have been building pyramids and trolling Nostradamus all these years, only they’re real and they suck. Aella takes time out of her busy day of being chased by cliché 50s aliens to explain to the reader how the Ir’rlyeh or whatever the Grays call themselves came to Earth and started experimenting on random Earthlings for reasons unknown. They started a war that claimed the lives of our protagonist’s mother and father, along with billions of others, in the name of some unstated scientific curiosity. Seriously, it’s never explained what the Grays have to gain from performing bizarre experiments on unconsenting humans. Maybe they just have a lot of unfinished work to do on their BB cream. Whatever they want, in the present day Aella is cowering in a collapsed parking garage when some snake dragon aliens arrive. Aella treats these new aliens as just another threat and tries to fight them off, despite knowing full well that these are the new, good aliens who have come to humanity’s aid in the fight against the Rl’y’aeh. She’s injured in the scuffle and wakes up in the hospital.

Amon, her sex dragon benefactor, escorts the injured woman to a hospital, and falls into a very predictable pattern of behavior, like any good clockwork love interest. He is constantly fawning over how wonderful humans and Earth are. They’re so resilient! It’s so beautiful with its several colors of lake! Humans are the only race to resist the Rl’rl, and the Earth is the only planet with… clouds? It seems? The other thing he is constantly doing is bioluminescence, but we’re told that he did a little squirt of glowy stuff that normally signals when one of his species has found their One True Mate. Glad they spelled that one out for me. His 70s buddy cop movie partner Calliope thinks it’s for her, while we all know it was for the human lady bleeding out in a collapsed parking garage. Calliope spends a good chunk of the book begging to get plowed, but the triangular comedy of errors premise is dropped immediately, and she just turns evil instead, which was obvious from the beginning. We know she can’t be the one for Amon, because he wants “many hatchlings,” and she doesn’t want lots of babies (unlike you, reader!). Luckily she’s already painfully hard for the other fleet commander Malekith, so it’s fine. I’m sure it’s fine. It’s fine. But it wouldn’t be the Jedi if they didn’t have baffling rules against hard-bodied young people slapping their barely compatible flaps together. It seems Amon disobeyed the craven bureaucrats of the Galactic Idiot Council to intervene on Earth’s behalf, but I guess boning a human is harder to come back from than starting a war.

Despite being a furry (or a guess they’re called “scalies” when they’re a snake), Amon makes a perfect Austinian love interest. He is physically sturdy, emotionally uncomplicated, and initially supportive of all the stuffy traditions you can convince him to break with you. He exudes confidence, but not in a way that you can’t get him to pick you. I’m not sure if Fitzwilliam Darcy Esquire had reptilian hemipenes, but somebody out there has always visualized him that way, and this is their Twilight. The general premise of the book is bonkers, and only gets worse. There is a grand ancient alien story arc, even though the Grays’ motivations never really made much sense. Seriously, they could just steal our medical books. We even made an insultingly easy to follow TV show based on our most famous anatomy textbook. There is an egg-laying scene in this book. There’s even a unicorn, but Vance immediately informs us it’s not really a mythical unicorn as we know it. Thanks, Julie. I knew it wasn’t a real unicorn. I figured that out. But none of that bothers me. It’s not even the clit-bookisms. A clit-bookism is when an author, who I remind you is writing dripping, salty smut for money on the internet, is too bashful to say the word “clit.” His Forbidden Mate drives right down the grassy median by alternating clit with things like “her most erogenous nub,” “her awakened anatomy,” or “the little bundle of nerves between her legs.” Oh! I know! Is it her clit? It’s her clit that’s between her legs, isn’t it? Did I guess right, Julie? Did I win a prize? No. That’s not my problem. What broke me was simply the fact that this fifty thousand page grimoire of bonk-beasts was the straw that finally broke me.

I’ve read books before that made me feel like the orphanage lady from Fantastic Beasts, only with hucow and feet-fisting as the stand in for magical children. I try to remind myself that I, me, the author of this blog, am and is a filthy rat person who likes things that would redden the cheeks of Burt Ward’s parole officer. But it never works. My primitive monkey brain knows only two facts: bad thing bad, and other monkey who like bad thing also bad. It’s the same reason why, anytime someone tells me they like a food I personally find unpalatable, I just quietly wait for them to stop talking, while trying to ascertain what they think they stand to gain from lying to my face about something so trivial. Usually I get through a dirty book about asymmetrical butts or erotic ear cleaning out of a sheer fascination for anything that makes me uncomfortable, my self preservation and self destruction in perfect equilibrium. But sometimes a book tips the scales with one little drop of kink, and it happened in His Forbidden Mate when they got to the (entirely snake-based, by the way) lactation scene.

So… so, let me just work out at my own speed how a lactation fetish works. So there’s boobs, right? Feel free to check my math, but I’m sure we’re all onboard so far. And while much of the visible structure is what could be politely termed decorative, there is also a functional side to the human breast. I get that bodies are complex and wonderful, and they can be significant and purposeful in a lot of different ways. But not all at the same time, usually. Nobody says “Yeah, give me that hot load. I love thinking about all the PTA meetings we’re gonna go to because of your jizz. Let’s make this act of reproduction explicitly about child care.” So whatever, you cross the streams by incorporating milk into your love-making. And then, and I know this is part of it because it’s in all the smutty books don’t even try to fight me on this, you have to talk about it. You do your revolting business, and then you have some dialogue about how “these will make our babies grow big and strong, yum yum.” Yes, that’s right; this is now officially a sex-negative book review blog. Hide your perfectly healthy and harmless fetish about spanking or, I don’t know, Canola oil, because here comes another miserable old biddy to rid the world of any and all forms of fun. I am Zardoz. The penis is evil. The gun is good. You did this to me, Julie Vance.

Is this book for you? Probably. You’re all sick bastards if you read this far. His Forbidden Mate is four dollars on Kindle, which is pretty cheap for its length. It definitely delivers on the promise, or threat, of Na’avi snake sex, and I can’t say I’ve read anything quite like it before. Just buy it. Maybe you’ll get anime-awkward-horny.

My fetish is seeing Madeline in pain.

The Sordid Tale of Sir Ginger: a Comic Novella by J. E. Honaker

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. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

What hot mischief is this? No longer content to watch my misery as I try to understand a book about sexualized zombies or author-insertion whale sharks, you sick freaks are now throwing each other under the bus. J. E. Honaker, the author of today’s sacrificial offering, was thrown in front of my dilapidated killdozer by his own sibling. Hopefully this will lead to some good old fashioned fratricide at the next family gathering. The Sordid Tale of Sir Ginger: a Comic Novella is a high fantasy comedy about a valiant knight on a quest to save the princess.

“Why did little Suzy fall off the swings? She had no arms.”

Sir Ginger starts off strong with a description of Fantasy Kingdom 12b, ruled over by a beloved but sickly king. His unbearable daughter will soon inherit the throne, much to the dread of the general population. When she is kidnapped, the general vibe is one of relief, but the king, being a devoted father, seeks out brave knights to rescue his little petunia anyway. The only volunteer is Sir Ginger, a straight-man archetype with a puffed up chest and even puffier sense of honor. This is a great start. Even though it’s called a prologue, it’s clearly just a crypto-chapter, which is fine. I’m not even gonna dock it any points.

The docking of the points comes shortly after, when our perspective cuts to the kidnapper. Our well-evil Orwellian tower-dwelling ne’er-do-well sends a series of obstacles against Sir Ginger to slow his advance and provide an episodic structure to the plot, while trying to figure out what to do with his foul-mannered captive. But the shtick is that this villain is a “pimp,” who talks like a cross between Dave Chappel’s Rick James impression and a middle aged white person repeating Dave Chappel’s Rick James impression. Is the pimp voice racist? I couldn’t say. My “Speaking on Behalf of People of Color” permit was revoked when we as a society realized that it never existed. But it made even me uncomfortable, and I’m sick enough to make a joke below about someone dying in real life. The cringey pimp voice is a symptom of a larger problem with Sir Ginger, and a lot of comedy writing in general.

“Knock, knock. Who’s there? Not little Suzy.”

There’s a reason I don’t talk about comedies very often on this blog. Have you ever read a review of a fantasy parody or a rollicking romcom farce? They usually boil down to “Eh, what can I say? It is the way it is.” I’ve started numerous descriptions of comedies only to throw them away when I failed to communicate exactly what, how, and why it made me feel. Until Sir Ginger came along, and I was able to put my finger on what happened. That’s probably not a good thing.

The comedy in Sir Ginger is hit-or-miss (already a 50% higher hit rate than most comedies), and I think a lot of it comes down to the mix of Watsonian and non-Watsonian jokes. This is where I get to talk about the Obliterat. In The Sordid Tale of Sir Ginger, the Obliterat is a giant rat that you summon for the purposes of squishinating your enemies. Obliterat is huge. And destructive. But Obliterat is also not too bright, and a total coward, so it mostly just runs away from danger and squishinates whatever is in the opposite direction from the gallant hero you’re trying to flatten under several short tons of rat meat. I like this. I like the Obliterat. However, shortly after his victory over the giant rodent, Sir Ginger has a dream about “nubile wenches who spread their legs wider than the Romanian gymnastics team.” How does he know about Romania? I’m not mad at the joke for being tasteless. If anything, you could double down on that without breaking the fourth wall: “a nubile wench who could ride two horses and a mule all at the same time.” OK, that sucks, let’s try again: “a nubile wench who could kick down two doors on either side of the street.” Man, I am bad at this. Maybe bluer: “a nubile wench who could donate a kidney by jumping up and down.” Too blue. Alright, last try: “a nubile wench who got a job as the village clock tower, but was fired because she couldn’t display 6:30.” There we go. Nailed it.

“What did little Suzy get for Christmas? A skateboard! Just kidding. She couldn’t open the box.”

Point is, if unlike me you were some sort of… talented writer person, you could come up with an in-universe joke. Breaking the fourth wall is best used sparingly, if at all. Since we’re talking about fantasy comedy, let’s talk about Terry Pratchett. In the first book in the Discworld series, The Color of Magic, there is a scene where the heroes briefly end up on a passenger jet, and it’s weird. Pterry rightly decided to not do that again. Instead there are (very!) occasional moments where the fourth wall bulges slightly; a character invents a camera and feels the inexplicable urge to call people “dahling,” for example. It’s as confusing to the characters as it is to the reader. But you wouldn’t see something like “Sam Vimes felt like a Kardashian when he stepped in front of the camera.” Should everyone be just like Terry Pratchett? Certainly not. He’s dead. But he’s a useful example of how you can make fantasy funny by hinting at the absurdity of our world while cheekily dancing around it. It’s like playing “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you” with the gloomy dystopia we all live in. When Honaker keeps his jokes confined to the universe he has built, they do often land. I like that people call Sir Ginger “rusty,” because he’s a redhead but also covered in metal. He’s a thinker, our J. E.

I have a lot of problems with this book, but when the humor does land it’s good. I can tell Honaker puts a lot of thought into the flow of dialogue and the timing of punch lines. I’m eager to see where he goes next stylistically. Maybe he’ll take my advice and stick with a more diegetic perspective. Or maybe he’ll go the opposite route and go comprehensively bananas with fourth wall and cross-the-line-twice edgy humor. Either way, he’s one to watch. The Sordid Tale of Sir Ginger: a Comic Novella is a short read, but appropriately priced at one dollar on Kindle.

If we pretend to laugh at Madeline’s jokes, maybe she will stop trying.

Infamy: The Godling Saga by Mohamed Omar

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. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

You know those moments when you suddenly realize how insufferably old and decrepit you are? I started writing this paragraph with “You remember Louis Black’s routine about candy corn?” Anyway, in the ancient times there was a comedian, and he asked the question about candy corn that no one else dared: why do we keep doing this to ourselves? I think of that every time I open a new “Turns out I’m a demon princess” novel. I keep expecting to find the one piece of candy corn that managed to escape the factory before the flavor-extractors and wax-injectors could do their filthy, Godless work. But alas, I just keep shoveling disappointing orange plastic into my gullet over and over again. And then there’s licorice, a favorite among enthusiasts who do not tire of telling me that I just haven’t tried the right licorice, and all I need is to wrap my gums around this weird pirate-themed candy from Groningen or something. So I do. And the result is always the same. Infamy: The Godling Saga, the first book in a series by Mohamed Omar, is like that salty Dutch nonsense that some people can’t get enough of.

“The supernatural world at one point wasn’t so secret. You know, when the time of man used to worship gods and the like, but with time, science came to be what we all feared and hated.”

This book starts with a prologue, and I hate it. You may think “Oh, quelle surprise! Hey everybody, drop what you’re doing; Madeline doesn’t like a prologue!” But this one is such a classic example of the flash forward archetype that I wish it had come out in time for my foaming rant about prologues in general. Our hero Malik starts the prologue giving the “tears in the rain” speech if Rutger Hauer was into My Chemical Romance and LiveJournal (I already said I was old, leave me alone), and then chapter 1 picks up with a happy family breakfast. It’s like the prologues are taunting me in real life now, and not just in my nightmares. We get a quick overview of the Blackwood family, including Malik, the skateboarding rascal, his sister Girl, and his parents. Mom writes African literature, while Dad drags the family all over the world to study ancient artifacts, which is apparently a job. It’s almost Halloween, and the four of them have just moved to Portland, nestled firmly in a part of the country known for three things: rain, hypocritically car-oriented development, and YA novels about comic book monsters, so we can see where this story is going.

At school Malik runs into friendly Jayden, hot girl Bianca, an emergency backup Bianca named Maya, and jock Nico. Thisis one of those high schools where the grown ups are thin on the ground, and thoughtfully stay out of the way of teenagers’ lives, especially when it comes to bullying. Actually, the whole town seems to operate on that principle. After school, Mom and Dad are having some mystery fight, so Mailk decides to go for a jog through the scary woods that are straight out of those nosleep stories called “Everyone in our town knows not to enter the dog park after dark and now I wish I hadn’t.” It’s literally called the Crimson Forest. As is tradition, a group of high school bullies spot Malik and decide to chase him through the woods with knives so they can stab him to death, the little scamps. But this is when things get interesting. A mysterious force overcomes Malik, saving his life and filling him with a power he does not understand. The jocks are now revealed to be hideous demons, all gnashing teeth and claws. A werewolf guardian arrives to help, and Malik joins the fight. He kills one demon, causing the rest to flee, but not before his protector is mortally wounded. The last words of the dying guardian are “find the wizard.”

“The ghost, for his part, had an arm that belonged to the demon, its blood dripping on the floor with a dark red pool emerging.”

If that sounds awesome, that’s because it is. At least in concept. I love a good kitchen sink fight scene. The more it sounds like it’s being improvised by a blood thirsty ten year old the better. Infamy goes on to develop this core idea of “everything, but at once” with councils and covenants of various demons and monsters, fragile ceasefires in ancient wars, hidden traitors close to home, and a demon prince possession. There is a genie-spirit-thing in Malik’s head, whom he immediately tries to free, and it’s like “Oh, no one’s ever tried to free me before!” Literally. Everything. But at once. Without spoiling too much, I have to mention that this part of Portland is some kind of sanctuary zone, and when demons try to pick a fight, the entire student body of the high school turn out to be various Universal Studios monsters and join the rumble. It’s like West Side Story if they were literal sharks (and literal jets? That one doesn’t fit as well). This is the first part of a trilogy, so eventually it comes to light that this whole thing might be bigger than Portland, and that maybe Malik and Bianca can’t date quite yet so they can have an Empire Strikes Back kiss, but less rapey.

Most of the book oscillates back and forth between boring exposition about how many different clans of were-marmot there are and crises that need to be solved with immediate punching. The fights usually feel unearned, like they’re just happening because we need an action beat. There’s a story in there somewhere, but there’s no flow. OK, this is going to be the pot calling the kettle literally a pot given how my own writing reads like the aftermath of two cats playing DDR on a keyboard, but Omar needed to hire an editor. He clearly understood the need to bring in outside talent, because he hired a great cover artist. Seriously, you can’t not love this cover, don’t even try. Illustrator Richard Sashigane is like Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the Parisian sewers on his giant Chad shoulders, turning this book from something that could be overlooked into something that commands the attention of potential readers. But the phrasing is clunky, the sentences over-conjuncted, and the dialogue sounds like it was all spoken by the same person. If Team Omar had more nerds, it would be unstoppable. Nevertheless, this is a book that will satisfy a hunger for monstery demon high school dramas. If you’re trawling Amazon for anything that has teen werewolves, this is your jam. Infamy: The Godling Saga is seven dollars on Kindle, which isn’t a bad price given its hefty girth.

Much like candy corn, Madeline’s opinions continue to disappoint.

The Man Who Was Born In 9 Countries: A Novel by Tajo

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. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Have you ever looked around at your life and wondered how you got to where you are now? I never thought I would be the sort of person who owns cutting board wax, but there it is, on my shelf next to some kind of… Arabic drum? And a broken diffuser. My shelf is truly a land of contrasts. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how half the stuff on my shelf got there. Some of it shows where I’ve been in the world, and some of it just shows the trip I made to Festival Foods when I was hungry and bought some kind of Finnish candy I’ll never actually eat. Tani Goldstein, writing under the name Tajo (no last name, like Cher), is a man from presumably any one of the countries not listed below, and he thinks about this question of life trajectories a lot. So a lot, in fact, that he wrote a book about it. The Man Who Was Born in 9 Countries: A Novel is not a novel, but an aesthetically jumbled collection of artifacts from imagined other lives, much like my shelf.

“My mother would say that I have the mind of a philosopher.”

Tajo begins with a brief introduction about himself, explaining how mediocre and pointless he is. A bold choice, but I respect it. He has apparently worked in PR, retail, and education, and what do you know? Your girl has worked in those fields, so I can confirm they are the most pointless jobs. But he wants to be a journalist! Also, he doesn’t care for screens and doesn’t get FOMO. Just your typical bro, hanging out at Applebee’s, working up the courage to flirt with the waitress. But what if he were an entirely different ordinary person? The nine countries Tajo imagines as his alternate homes are Russia, Japan, America, Greece, Hong Kong, Britain, Jordan, Israel, and India (I know! I was surprised he’s not from India, too). I’m going to walk you through just one of these, Russian Tajo, to see whether the grass is truly greener on the other side.

Our imaginary hero starts out in the closing days of the Soviet Union with a deadbeat German dad who has fine Finnish drinks. Tajo and his mom follow him to a stifling Russian compound in East Berlin, where the boy wonder struggles to fit in at school. He is “dominant among other children,” which I assume is code for being a loser who gets the borscht beat out of him on a regular basis. This is a theme, Tajo being alternately happy and miserable, while having very little agency over the process. Anyway, Dad blasts off with some chick named Tammy, and because he’s a super secret nuclear computer scientist, Mom can’t actually find him. And she’s not supposed to leave the compound anyway, so when she goes out in search of her top-notch husband, she is promptly sent back to Russia.

“I had no worries for the future, and my mother was also not worried about me.”

Tajo grows into a handsome highschooler. Filled with optimism for the country’s future under Perestroika, he turns into an oblivious himbo, merrily humping away at the student body. His girlfriend, considerably less optimistic, insists that all men beat-and-cheat, and he is no exception. Tajo obliges, because I guess you can’t be falsely accused of something if it’s true. This sets off a series of disasters in his life, chief among them being his propensity to wax philosophical about God and the subconscious (seriously, how is this book not Indian?). Other disasters include his time in the army as a “theater officer” (which I assume is part of the Soviet Union’s “pro-bullying” policies), the collapse of said Soviet Union and the ensuing social chaos, and the death of his mother.

Education policy is made using the model of a spherical algebra classroom of uniform density. Basic things like music or drama are never on the mind of reformers and administrators. You see this constantly whenever a school district makes a change to their Covid policy that segregates the grade levels, and only the next day is it brought to their attention that they don’t have the resources for seven orchestras and seven bands. If you’re an arts teacher, you’re lucky they even let you in the building. My point is, I have no faith that any education system is set up to successfully train anyone to be a “military theater officer.”

After deserting the army amid riots and shortages, our hapless handsome hero illegally moves to Germany to start a new life. Money is easier to come by, there are parties and friends to enjoy, and political freedoms undreamed of back home. Tajo is happy again, which means it’s time to go back to carelessly using women. Seriously, you don’t want to meet this guy when he has both feet on the ground. But once he gets kicked back to Russia (again!), he resumes a hardscrabble life as a journalist and meets the love of his life. Unlike him, she is a hard working, altruistic person, and they have two daughters together. The couple barely notices when Putin comes to power.

“My Russian obstinacy defeated my logic: I wasn’t prepared to give up.”

Then the repeating sine wave of Tajo’s life crests and his wife dies. So, for the record, you don’t want to be used by this man, but you also don’t want to be any woman who is a positive part of his life, either. He’s Captain Kirk. Tajo writes a scathing article about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine (that’s the 2015 one, not the 2022 one), gets fired, and goes to work for the white collar mafia. He shacks up with a woman he doesn’t love, and she’s mad because she loves him. I mean, who wouldn’t love this guy who keeps bloviating about how anything exceptional just leads to disappointment? Freedom and love are illusions, insists our broken middle-aged Tajo, and speculating about a happy future is pointless. Hopefully the girls don’t spend too much time at home with their dad.

I’ve become a connoisseur of the Mediocre White Man during my time rummaging through self-published books. The MWM is to be understood as a metaphor; as a literal description it would be very reductive and hurtful, and besides it is in no way limited to white people. Being an MWM is a state of mind, or rather a lack of awareness. Reading this book I felt that Tajo (the author) was curating nine MWM Tajos (the characters) for me, like a menagerie. At times it almost felt like the author was in on the jokes, and at other times it felt painfully sincere, as if these are real insights into the minds of young men tragically carrying unrecognized brilliance with them everywhere they go. It’s the kind of “how many layers am I looking at” piece of fiction that has you squinting at the page, like those second wave feminist books where you can’t quite figure out how intentional the racism is supposed to be. Nevertheless, some people will enjoy the meticulous, clinical breakdown of these nine life trajectories, with their attendant historical details. The research seems pretty good as far as I can tell. The translation by Judith Yakov is smooth and natural, and despite all the times I wanted to smack Tajo in the face, he does have a consistent voice as a character. The Man Who Was Born in 9 Countries is only a dollar on Kindle, so if you think it might be worth a glance, it probably is.

If we all band together, we can stop Madeline from writing crappy book reviews.

Frankenbook: Three YA Fantasy Plots In One

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. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

I’ve reading through a few books this week, trying to keep them all separate in my mind, so I could decide which one to write about. But in their continual effort to use me as a beta tester for various petty torments, the fates have seen fit to fill my TBR with a plethora, nay a cornucopia, nay a group of just three very similar books.

A Patriot’s Tale by Nicole Peirman is historical fiction in which Lily lives a crazy person orphan life in the woods, and wants to join the Rebel Alliance or the Washington’s Wizards or whatever the American army was calling themselves back in Yore times. The Combatant by Julie Falango follows ostensibly orphaned Lexi as she lives in the woods and wants to join the Medieval-but-with-motorcycles elite fighting force of her kingdom. In the legally distinct science fantasy novel A Shimmering World: Book One of the Shimmering Saga by A. C. Lowry, it’s Em who wants to be an elite fighter, but she’s only a second degree orphan and her crazy people cabin is a barracks. The common thread seems to be a classic YA genre trope, the 5½ P: perfect, persecuted, pugilistic, (partially) parentless prodigies. So why limit ourselves to just one PPPpPP? If these three titles represent three attempts to get an idea right, surely all three at once will give us our greatest chance of success. Welcome to the first installment of Frankenbook, where I review the book that is living rent-free in my head after absorbing several self-published YA fantasies. I’m going to blend the details of each book together like one of those tiny Asian washing machines that turn all your clothes into Klein bottles, in the hope that what comes out will be better than the sum of its parts. Allow me to summarize the first act, as best I can.

“She shook off the tears of hopelessness after the twenty-fourth survivor had spit on her shoe and cursed her name.”

At the age of five, Princess Lilexem (Lil’ XM to her friends) of the Kingdom of Odessa has it all: an intact, loving family, an intact, un-burnt house, a teddy bear. If there’s a pleasant thing you can think of pertaining to being a privileged little girl who lives in a castle for the time being, she’s got it. Her completely alive father loves to give her presents and big hugs, and her older brother Damion teases her the way only still-extant older brothers can. Everything is happy and perfect, and presumably will be forever. But then! One night our heretofore untragic heroine wakes up to find that she’s on a lot of fire. She curls up into a ball under an asbestos blanket and waits for death.

Prince General-Kirigan-slash-Hans-from-Frozen proposes to his father King Malachy that the Maq, a magical race of humanoids with jet black skin and glowing red eyes, do not need to be hated anymore. The old man is not buying it, still seeing the Maq as a tribal enemy to be exterminated. This is relevant because our protagonist LXM (940 to her Ancient Roman friends) has become a Maq somehow! She is living with her mystery replacement mother, who is very… what’s the female version of avuncular? (checks internet) Materteral? Seriously? Jesus Christ, English. Just when I’m done being mad about the word “authoress” you go and pull this shit. Anyway, her surrog-aunt simultaneously lives in an isolated cabin in the backwoods of South Carolina and a fantasy version of Kowloon Walled City. It’s very pastoral, but also one of those gritty places where nobody’s nice to each other for some reason. Even our plucky (Oo! Another p!) heroine is kind of a Mean Girl (she has this uncomfortable way of describing all the other women in the story by their hair style and color). And the closest thing she has to a mentor kills poor people to make tchotchkes out of their bones. One person I did enjoy was the sloppy foul bestie who just wants drunk cake. But she doesn’t get much screen time, probably to make room for more boys.

Now twenty years old, Lixmy doesn’t remember her life before bring raised in the cabin by her substi-tía and her ersatz brother and friendzoned sparring partner, Cole. A word of advice, ladies. If any human male roughly your age is practicing martial arts with you in a book or a movie, he’s in love with you. I don’t know if that rule applies at the dojo in your local strip mall that turns into a zoomba studio after five, but in books it’s a hundred percent of the time. Do with that knowledge what you will. Anyway, Lesmex has joined some murderous organization of fantasy super soldiers so she can one day become a field medic. Apparently there’s an engineered shortage of medical supplies in the kingdom, and I guess joining the steampunk Hitler Youth is the only way to address that.

Bourabon Van Verot towered over the naked man strapped to his dining table.”

Meanwhile, British soldiers ruthlessly burn villages across the part of South Carolina where our fantasy story has been taking place, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves. Our girl is elated to see starving families shuffle down the country road by her orphan cabin because she can chat them up about the war and maybe find a way into the rebel army. Because the elite combat organization she’s already in isn’t good enough. She rescues a hot boy with chocolate colored hair, and casually explains to him how much of an orphan she is, since she believes the local British corporal (who in the film adaptation looks suspiciously like Prince Not-a-Bad-Guy-Pinky-Swear) murdered her brother and parents. I guess it was him who set the fire in her bedroom, and she just assumed that the rest of her family was killed, except she also doesn’t remember the fire. Jeez, try to keep up. She shows off her badass knife-throwing skills (which in my opinion is any amount of knife-throwing skills), and probably talks to the squirrels she hunts a little too often (which in my opinion is any amount of talking to squirrels), about how useful she would be to the rebels. The chocolate-haired love interest is skeptical.

For the time being, Emmalily is merely a cadet at the top of her class in the city guard of Evil Ankh Morpork, set to replace the prince’s own guardian after the peasant-knickknack-making weirdo’s imminent retirement. Resentment follows her everywhere she goes, because on top of beating every boy and girl in training, she has the whole Maq thing going on (you probably remember from high school what a burden it is to be better than everyone else). Her protagonist-hating instructor acts on this resentment by ambushing her with a sex-fight against four armed cadets. Only the speedy intervention of the Prince himself prevents possible death. But then he shoots the instructor, and enjoys it. This is never framed as a bad thing, by the way. The instructor lives, and the Prince is obviously being set up as a “I can’t believe the evil guy was evil the whole time” twist anyway. But still, it’s weird that everyone seems to be cool with it.

One day Cole comes home with a mysterious knife wound, and Allie Maq has to use her medical skills to suture it, which inevitably leads to her wondering if maybe she was wrong to overlook him as a potential source of vitamin D. A word of advice, fellas. If any human female roughly your age tends your wounds in a steam-peasant science fantasy, she’s into you. The two go into town, where everyone loves our super swell protagonist. “Everyone simultaneously loves and hates me” is like a Madonna-Whore complex that you can inflict on yourself! But she has to duck into a combination book store and library when she notices a shadowy figure following her. I’m not sure how a book store library works; it kind of seems like a book store that has no revenue, but we can’t be dwelling on these things. At the very special birthday picnic Cole made for her, Cole admits that the knife wound was inflicted by Kill Squad cadet Damion! Oh, it turns out her whole family is alive, and I guess someone set fire to just her bedroom specifically, but of course she doesn’t put these pieces together yet. Just as this information is revealed, Damion and the rest of the jocks crash the picnic with nothing good on their minds, and the two galaxy-crossed youngsters have to flee.

“He was quite short too and looked like he would be a librarian.”

Despite being “just a woman,” LAX sets out with Hot Chocolate to find the rebel camp. They arrive just in time to see a spy get shot, a grim reminder that the fantasy Revolutionary War is no joke. HC takes another try at changing her mind, insisting that she can’t hide her sex, and besides, fighting grown men on a bloody battlefield is not the same as hunting squirrels in the woods. But it’s no use. She needs to join the rebellion to fight the invaders who destroyed her royal Maq family. She impersonates a man, fights in a gruesome battle against the fantasy British (who presumably wear horned bowlers and blast drizzly weather from their fingers), and gets captured. When she awakes in a stately Georgian bedroom, wearing a poofy gown, and tended to by a maid, it becomes obvious that she has been found out. She is now the personal “guest” of the very same corporal who has been laying waste to rural South Carolina. How will she escape from Prince Corporal McEvilFace? Which boy will she pick? Will she rediscover her old family?

That’s just the start of our Frankenventure. I’m not sure if jamming everything together like that made the end result any better, but it definitely makes the whole experience more efficient to read. Maybe there should be an app that does this senseless smashing together for us, so we can read entire genres in one sitting. Kind of like watching American Horror Story, but for books. A Patriot’s Tale, A Shimmering World, and The Combatant cost a cumulative fourteen dollars on Kindle.

I thought they would get better, but if anything Madeline’s opinions are only getting worse.