Review: Informant by Ava Archer Payne

The Informant Book Cover The Informant
Ava Archer Payne

MONEY I’m Kylie Porter, a nineteen-year-old biology major at San Francisco State. I’m a part-time waitress and a straight A student. I’m also an informant the DEA hired to infiltrate the Cuban mob.

DRUGS Specifically, I’m being paid to seduce Ricco Diaz, the sexy son of a sociopathic drug lord.

SEX And Beckett—the smoldering hot undercover DEA agent who lured me into helping him trap Diaz? I never meant to fall in love with him.

BETRAYAL And I definitely didn't mean to hurt him... I just didn't have a choice.

Review:

I received a free copy of this book from Xpresso Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.

Kylie Porter is your average 19-year-old, broke and ambitious, attending college by day, waiting tables by night. Average, that is, until she’s approached by Thomas “Beckett” Smith, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent on an undercover assignment at Kylie’s college.

Beckett comes to Kylie with a proposition. In exchange for a full ride to college and $5,000 a month, Kylie must cozy up to her lab partner Ricco, estranged son of a Cuban drug lord. The goal is for Kylie to get close enough with Ricco to learn his secrets and pass them on to the DEA, in hopes that this will be help them catch Ricco’s father, the infamous Miguel Diaz.

Kylie isn’t not crazy about the idea of betraying Rico, but she can’t turn down the money and the chance to give herself and her family a better future. She grudgingly accepts Beckett’s offer, thinking there’s no harm in having a few casual dates with Ricco. After all, he hasn’t seen his father in years. No harm, no foul, right?

She never expected her mission to take her into actual contact with Miguel, newly arrived in the United States and looking for his son. And she certainly didn’t expect to fall for Beckett while she’s supposed to be romancing Ricco.

Informant has the distinction of being one of the first New Adult novels I’ve ever enjoyed. For one thing, the plot is actually engaging. Infiltrating the Cuban mob is a dangerous game, and a single mistake could mean gruesome deaths for Kylie and her loved ones. Can she keep Ricco at arm’s length without him losing interest? Can she withstand Miguel Diaz’s shrewd scrutiny? Can she trust Beckett to keep her safe even though he clearly has his own reasons for wanting Miguel behind bars, reasons that go way beyond his commitment to the DEA?

Another pleasing difference between Informant and most of the other New Adult fiction I’ve read to date is that Kylie is actually likable and smart. It’s sad that this should come as a surprise, but so many NA books seem to have insipid characters lacking in common sense. Kylie’s intelligent and actually USES HER BRAIN! She thinks things through before making decisions, does her research, and has specific tactics for going into dangerous situations. In the beginning of the book, for instance, before she knows that Beckett’s DEA, she agrees to go on a date with him. Because he’s basically a stranger, she makes her sister and brother-in-law wait outside the restaurant in their car. That way, if Beckett turns out to be a whack job, Kylie has an exit plan. Finally, a heroine making smart choices!

What’s more, even when Kylie does happen to have a lapse in judgment, I never have to suppress an urge to smack sense into her – she does it herself!

“I have to get my head together. Think. What I need now is perspective. I’m smart, and it’s about time I started acting like it. I’ve allowed myself to be used, but that’s my fault as much as his.”

Kylie’s funny, too, and she’s got spunk. There’s a boatload of amusing quotes that had me laughing as I read:

“‘She thinks I don’t like her husband.”
‘Why does she think this?’
‘Because he’s a total low-life shit head and I can’t stand him.’”

And:

“So yes, as humiliating as it is, my whole family is now involved. Kylie has a date. Repeat three times in a tone of increasing wonder and disbelief. Apparently the news is so staggering I’m surprised the media hasn’t picked up the story yet.”

And:

“How perfect that I finally go out, only to find myself caught between a DEA agent and the son of a Cuban crime boss. God, my life.”

As much as I liked Kylie, I can’t say much for her taste in men. Other than his hot physique, I have no idea what Kylie saw in Beckett. I didn’t find him appealing in any way and was bored whenever he had page time.

Ricco, however, is another story. He drew me in from the start with his gallantry, sweetness, and good-natured teasing. I never knew what to expect from him, which kept me on my toes, especially after his dad showed up and Kylie found herself getting more involved with Ricco and placed in increasingly dangerous situations.

“‘Sorry. School night.’
It’s clear that he’s never heard this expression. ‘School night?’
‘Yes. That means we have class tomorrow. All the good little boys and girls go home and do their homework.’
A mischievous grin curves his lips. The light of challenge sparks in his eyes. He rests his hands lightly on my hips, leans down, and whispers in my ear, ‘What makes you think I’m good?’
I raise myself up on my tiptoes to whisper back, ‘What makes you think I’m not?’
He smiles at that. ‘I like you, Kylie Porter.’”

The only thing that kept me from being completely delighted by Informant is that it fell prey to a typical weakness of the New Adult novel: trite and unrealistic sex scenes. I am ALL for steamy lovin’ in my books, but graphic sex just doesn’t impress me if it’s cliché and uninspired. If your lovemaking reads like a catalogue of sexual acts (“He did this. Then I did that. Then we did this.”) I’m going to start skipping ahead to the next actual plot point.

I’m hoping that Informant will mark a turning point for my relationship with New Adult fiction. I haven’t been a fan of the genre up until this point, but if there are more books like Informant out there, there may be hope for an Angela/New Adult love affair yet!

Review: Ember by Bettie Sharpe

Ember Book Cover Ember
Bettie Sharpe

Everyone loves Prince Charming. They have to - he's cursed. Every man must respect him. Every woman must desire him. One look, and all is lost.

Ember would rather carve out a piece of her soul than be enslaved by passions not her own. She turns to the dark arts to save her heart and becomes the one woman in the kingdom able to resist the Prince's Charm.

Poor girl. If Ember had spent less time studying magic and more time studying human nature, she might have guessed that a man who gets everything and everyone he wants will come to want the one woman he cannot have.

Review:

This is one of those rare times you’ll see me posting a review of an adult novel, and one of the even rarer times when that adult novel is erotica. It’s not a genre that I’m usually into – the sex has a tendency to overtake actual characterization and plotting – but in this case I was willing to make an exception. Why? Because Ember is a retelling of Cinderella.

Dos Equis Gif: "I don't always read erotica, but when I do, it's fairy tale erotica."

If frequent, graphic sex scenes make you uncomfortable, then Ember won’t be your cup of tea, fairy tale retelling not withstanding. If you’re ok with mature hanky panky, though, it’s definitely worth a read.

Ember differs from other Cinderella stories in that the Cinderella character – Ember, obviously – is a witch, and her stepsisters are prostitutes. Most importantly to the plot, her prince is cursed as a result of a name day “gift” from a fairy:

“May he be charming. May every eye find perfection in his face and form. May every man respect him and every woman desire him. May all who meet him love him and long to please him.”

This curse might sound more like a blessing, but think about the implications. People have no choice but to adore Prince Adrien. His presence is compelling, and the mere image of his face stamped on a coin is enough to send women into a frenzy of lust. He can have anything – and anyone – he wants, and none can deny him.

“With magic and wisdom to aid him, he could have been the greatest king in the history of our little kingdom. Instead, he was a selfish, dangerous man with a voice none could refuse.”

Ember’s mother always warned her to stay far away from the cursed prince, but one day she catches a glimpse of him during a procession and becomes infatuated. The pull of his curse is unusually strong for Ember, affecting her even more than it affects Adrien’s other subjects, and her obsession becomes so severe that she resorts to dark magic – namely, sacrificing one of her fingers – to weaken the prince’s hold over her.

Though the spell can’t completely counteract the prince’s curse, it does ease it enough to allow Ember to go about her life with a modicum of peace….at least until the prince tracks her down, determined to find the one woman who resisted his charms rather than succumbing to them.

I love that Bettie Sharpe takes the quintessential components of Cinderella and turns them on their head. Ember is no innocent young maiden with a sweet voice and humble spirit; she’s a witch, a fact she likes to flaunt. Many in her village fear her, and for good reason. She can control fire, kills neighbor’s pets for revenge, and performs bloody spells and sacrifices. She isn’t shy about getting down and dirty with the local men in a stable or a random doorway, and there are some very sexy scenes that are going to leave you fanning yourself and dabbing sweat from your cleavage.

I also like that Ember’s relationship with her stepmother and stepsisters defies convention. Instead of becoming enemies, the four women establish a rapport…and a business. Ember does serve them and become the cinder-covered girl of fairy tale legend, but it’s her choice to do so as it allows her to better fly below Adrien’s radar.

Something else I appreciate about Ember is that I don’t necessarily have to like all of the characters to be invested in their story. Ember is so blunt and no-nonsense that it’s tough to get close to her, and there are times she can be spiteful and almost cold. Likewise, Prince Adrien is a self-seeking man-whore; much of his time in the story is spent lounging around naked and erect. Still, they’re both so interesting and multi-faceted – and the sex scenes are so hot – that I couldn’t put the book down until I got to the end. Which, by the way, makes sense for the book and is the perfect compromise between a fairy tale ending and one that’s realistic.

If Ember sounds like something you might be interested in, I encourage you to take a trip to Bettie Sharpe’s website, where she’s posted the story for free. (Note: You may need to scroll down to reach the content – on my computer, I see several rows of weird “Warning” text at the top of the page before the actual story begins.) If you do read this book, let me know what you think in the comments section. I’m curious to see whether it will appeal to other fairy tale fans, especially ones like me who don’t normally read erotica.

 

Review: The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

The Kingdom of Little Wounds Book Cover The Kingdom of Little Wounds
Susann Cokal

On the eve of Princess Sophia’s wedding, the Scandinavian city of Skyggehavn prepares to fete the occasion with a sumptuous display of riches: brocade and satin and jewels, feasts of sugar fruit and sweet spiced wine. Yet beneath the veneer of celebration, a shiver of darkness creeps through the palace halls. A mysterious illness plagues the royal family, threatening the lives of the throne’s heirs, and a courtier’s wolfish hunger for the king’s favors sets a devious plot in motion.

Here in the palace at Skyggehavn, things are seldom as they seem — and when a single errant prick of a needle sets off a series of events that will alter the course of history, the fates of seamstress Ava Bingen and mute nursemaid Midi Sorte become irrevocably intertwined with that of mad Queen Isabel. As they navigate a tangled web of palace intrigue, power-lust, and deception, Ava and Midi must carve out their own survival any way they can.

Review:

When I was in college, one of the exercises in my Children’s Lit class was to write a story that incorporated two completely unrelated subjects: T-rexes and ballet, bodybuilders and allergies, etc. I have a hunch that The Kingdom of Little Wounds must have originated from a similar exercise, as Cokal’s book combines two subjects that are totally at odds: fairy tales and syphilis.

Yes, you read that correctly. This is a fairy tale about syphilis.

I checked out a lot of other reviewers’ opinions prior to starting The Kingdom of Little Wounds. Many of those reviews were negative and dwelled on how gross and horrifying and screwed up the book is. As a result, I went into this novel fully expecting to hate it. Even while reading I kept telling myself, “This is it. Enough. I’m going to stop reading and take The Kingdom of Little Wounds back to the library.”

And yet I didn’t – couldn’t – actually put it down. In fact, I read the whole thing in a single sitting. When I reached the last page I realized, to my astonishment, that I had not only finished the novel, but enjoyed it as well.

That’s not to say those other reviewers were wrong. This book IS gross and horrifying and screwed up, but in a really bizarre way that’s part of its…dare I say appeal? The whole point of the aforementioned exercise in my Children’s Lit class was to help us recognize that the most unlikely pairings can also be the most evocative; the contrast is what draws and holds a reader’s attention. By imposing disease, sex, violence, and other nastiness over the elements of a fairy tale, Cokal has made her book striking and unforgettable.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds is set in Skyggehavn, a kingdom maintaining a façade of wealth and grandeur while sinking slowly into a figurative pit of illness and rot. In this land where magic, superstition, science, and horror blur together, there are gaping holes that open in the earth; a raving queen; a royal nursery full of oozing, mewling children too weak to leave their beds; and a court in perpetual mourning. Behind closed doors, power-hungry players deal in blackmail, violence, and lust while the kingdom languishes under a shroud of lunacy and disease.

In the midst of this corruption are the three women around whom the story centers: Ava Bingen, a lovelorn yet hopeful seamstress; Midi Sorte, a mutilated black servant; and Isabel, Skyggehavn’s unhinged queen. Each of these women is in a perilous position in the court, caught up in the plotting and treachery of their male peers. The machinations of the men gradually drive the women into one another’s paths, and they must decide whether they will be rivals or allies in the fight to escape the whirlpool of the cesspit that is Skyggehavn.

The story of these women is captivating but admittedly hard to stomach at times. This book is brimming with gross and disturbing content. There’s degradation, sickness, stench, bodily functions and secretions, sliced tongues, horrific deaths characterized by seizures and bursts of blood, rape…the list goes on and on. Even the relatively happy moments, few as they are, are tempered by dirt and lowness. First love is heralded with bugs and spiders in the bed. Grand feasts with sugared delicacies and dancing are only a prelude to the horrific death of a young girl on her wedding night.

I’m not harping on these details to discourage you from reading The Kingdom of Little Wounds – on the contrary, I highly recommend this book. I’m just trying to prepare you in case you’re squeamish or bothered by very mature content. I don’t want anyone to go into this book thinking it’s a happy little fairy tale, only to be blindsided when all the craziness starts.

You’re probably asking, “Angela, WHY would I want to read this book after you’ve gone to such lengths to explain how messed up it is?” Because as dark and gruesome as this book can be, it is undeniably transfixing. When I reached the last page and closed the book for the final time it was like I was waking up from a trance.

Moreover, Cokal is a fantastic storyteller. The intelligent twists and turns will amaze you and leave you marveling at her cleverness. Towards the ending, when I began to suspect how everything would play out, I actually laughed out loud in appreciation. Everything came together ingeniously.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re a brave – and again, not squeamish – reader, I highly suggest this book.

Review: The Boy Who Sneaks in My Bedroom Window by Kirsty Moseley

The Boy Who Sneaks in My Bedroom Window Book Cover The Boy Who Sneaks in My Bedroom Window
Kirsty Moseley

Amber Walker and her older brother, Jake, have an abusive father. One night her brother's best friend, Liam, sees her crying and climbs through her bedroom window to comfort her. That one action sparks a love/hate relationship that spans over the next eight years.

Liam is now a confident, flirty player who has never had a girlfriend before. Amber is still emotionally scarred from the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Together they make an unlikely pair.

Their relationship has always been a rocky one, but what happens when Amber starts to view her brother's best friend a little differently? And how will her brother, who has always been a little overprotective, react when he finds out that the pair are growing closer? Find out in The Boy Who Sneaks In My Bedroom Window.

Review: 

If I had to choose one word to describe my reaction to The Boy Who Sneaks in my Bedroom Window, it would be “aghast.” I’m stunned and horrified that there is actually a book as terribly written as this one, and I’m even more stunned by the number of people who seem to love it. This novel has an average of 4+ stars on Goodreads, for Pete’s sake! I just don’t understand it.

The issues began during the very first chapter and didn’t let up at all as the novel progressed. To start with, the writing is absolutely horrendous. Rather than flowing, the action of the story is very jerky and disjointed. Boom! A problem arises. Boom! The problem is immediately solved. Boom! Another problem arises. Boom! That problem is immediately solved as well. It didn’t work for me.

Another thing that irritated me to no end was the repetition in this book and how all of the characters sound like leering assholes. In Moseley’s world, there are apparently only two types of people: holier-than-thou saints like Amber, who turns up her nose at all of the “sluts” and “man whores” around her, and said “sluts and manwhores.”

Every character but Amber is basically a leering, foaming-at-the-mouth skeezeball, every guy trying to get in Amber’s pants and every girl trying to get in Jake or Liam’s pants. Hordes of “sluts” literally swarm Jake and Liam’s car every morning in the school parking lot, to the extent that Amber has to swim free of the mob. It’s just absurd. Everyone speaks like they’re in some swanky porno, and if I have to read the words “fine-ass,” “sweet-ass,” or “sexy-ass” one more time, I’m going to spontaneously combust.

There’s a lot more I could say about why I disliked this book – the prevalence of run-on sentences, the grating “voices” of the characters, the overabundance of cooing and groaning, the unrealistic and unoriginal interactions between Liam and Amber – but I think I’ll stop here. I’ve spent too much time on The Boy Who Sneaks in My Bedroom Window already and am ready to move on to bigger and better things.

Review: Pieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser

Pieces of Us Book Cover Pieces of Us
Margie Gelbwasser

Two families. Four teens.
A summer full of secrets.

Every summer, hidden away in a lakeside community in upstate New York, four teens leave behind their old identities…and escape from their everyday lives.

Yet back in Philadelphia during the school year, Alex cannot suppress his anger at his father (who killed himself), his mother (whom he blames for it), and the girls who give it up too easily. His younger brother, Kyle, is angry too—at his abusive brother, and at their mother who doesn’t seem to care. Meanwhile, in suburban New Jersey, Katie plays the role of Miss Perfect while trying to forget the nightmare that changed her life. But Julie, her younger sister, sees Katie only as everything she’s not. And their mother will never let Julie forget it.

Up at the lake, they can be anything, anyone. Free. But then Katie’s secret gets out, forcing each of them to face reality—before it tears them to pieces.

Review:

I have to confess that I’m saddened, and a little surprised, by some of the reactions other reviewers have had to Pieces of Us. A lot of people have said that this book just isn’t for them, and I can support that – there’s a lot of content in Gelbwasser’s novel that’s hard to handle. What I can’t support are statements I’ve seen from people saying they’d be embarrassed to be caught reading the book, that it’s too inappropriate for teens to read, that the characters have no redeeming qualities.

Yes, reading Pieces of Us is a harrowing experience. Yes, it’s crude and full of profanity and graphic depictions of rape and abuse. Yes, it will make you cringe and rage and wish, at the end, that things had turned out differently. But you know what? It’s a powerful book, and as chilling as much of the content is, I am very glad that I read it.

The story centers on four teenagers  – brothers Alex and Kyle, whose mother is a stripper, and sisters Katie and Julie, whose own mother has more in common with a high school “it girl” than with a normal parent – and how their lives are changed by each other’s actions and relationships.

The two families live in different states but come together every summer for a vacation in the Catskills. Spending the summer together has always felt like a release for the teens, who view it as a chance to shrug off the pressures and past mistakes of their “real” lives and become, at least temporarily, better people than they are at home. Katie can stop pretending to be the Golden Girl and try to forget the dirty little secret that has her living in fear and shame during the school year. Alex, whose contempt for women like his mother causes him to use and debase a string of so-called “sluts” at home, shows a more sensitive side. Julie can step out of her older sister’s shadow and feel special in her own right. And Kyle, who usually copes with Alex’s abuse by distancing himself from those around him, is able to breathe, feel safe, and connect with others.

Still, the summer home can’t remain a haven forever. Misunderstandings, jealousy, and hypocrisy gradually chip away at the tenuous peace the teenagers establish in the summer, and when Katie’s big secret is finally revealed, the peace is destroyed completely.

Pieces of Us is a story about lies, secrets, judgments, and the way a person’s ghosts haunt not just them, but the others around them as well. I won’t lie and tell you that the events in this book are easy to read about. It’s an upsetting and often ugly story, with a great deal of swearing, sex, bullying, and abuse. No one should ever have to suffer the way the main characters do; and yet, the things that happen in this book happen every day in the real world.

That, in a nutshell, is why I would recommend Pieces of Us. As sad as it is, it reminds people that abuse and sexism are still out there and need to be stopped. It calls attention to the injustices that go on every day, including the injustice of unequal standards for men and women.

Ironically, the fact that this injustice does exist is made evident by one of the reviews of the book that I read on Goodreads. The reviewer bashes Katie, calling her a slut because of certain choices she makes in the book. This shocked and deeply disappointed me, as it means that the reviewer missed the whole point of the novel. Katie is a victim, and yet people in the story, and even that Goodreads reviewer, see her as a villain. The blame is placed on her rather than on those who really deserve it. This happens all too often, and I think that’s part of the book’s message.

The themes aren’t the only strengths of Pieces of Us. Something else that really stood out to me was the complexity of the characters. Even though Alex, Kyle, Katie, and Julie all did things throughout the course of the novel that made me wince, I was able to understand the motivations behind their actions. Even when they let me down and I found myself wishing they’d made different choices, I couldn’t help but pity the characters. Alex in particular struck me as a tragic character. Even though he’s the least sympathetic of the four protagonists, and the most culpable, I found myself wanting him to be better. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of the decent guy he could’ve been, which made the guy he was that much more frustrating.

One criticism I do have about Pieces of Us is that, while all of the events in this book can and do happen in real life, the ways some of them happen in the novel seem like a stretch. For example, there’s a scene when one of the characters is pressured into doing something distasteful. Although clearly reluctant to perform the distasteful task, that character concedes almost instantly with very little arm-twisting. It seemed unrealistic and detracted from the novel.

Still, Pieces of Us is definitely worth reading. It’s a tough book, but a powerful one, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to experience it.