The Martian Book Review

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Review:

I’ve been reading a lot of romance lately, so I decided it was time for a change of pace. While I was contemplating what to try next, the Sebastian Stan fans on my Tumblr dashboard (of which I have many, thanks to my current obsession with the Captain America films, where he plays Bucky Barnes*) started sharing a new viral trailer for his upcoming film, The Martian, also starring Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, and Jessica Chastain.

I’ve heard great things about the book, which was written by Andy Weir and originally self-published, and it’s been on my to-read list for awhile, but then one of the aforementioned Sebastian Stan fans bumped it up to the #1 spot it by describing it, essentially, as the “square peg in a round hole” scene from Apollo 13 expanded into an entire book:

To which I was like, “heck yeah, baby!” because that is my favorite scene in one of my favorite movies, and so I bought The Martian and started reading it straightaway.

Bonus: it turned out to be only $5.99 on Kindle! Yay! So many traditionally published books try to charge $9.99 or even more for the Kindle edition, which is just stupid. I’m not going to pay as much as a paperback for an ebook. But $5.99 is within reason.

So, the plot of the book is that humanity has managed to get its act together with NASA funding (hint, hint) enough to do manned missions to Mars. On the third mission, the astronauts are forced to abort the mission six days into their time on Mars due to a powerful dust storm, but during the evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney, the mission’s botanist and mechanical engineer, gets hit by a flying antenna and is presumed killed. The crew attempts to recover his body, but are forced to leave the planet before they can find it.

However, Mark’s not dead, and once he regains consciousness and realizes what happened, he sets about figuring out how to survive alone on Mars for four years until the fourth mission can come along to rescue him.

The description of the book as the “Square peg in a round hole” scene from Apollo 13 was not misleading at all. I was in nerd heaven, especially reading Mark’s log entries. Although I’m not enough of a nerd to know how accurate some things were, the stuff I knew anything about seemed reasonably accurate, and I thought that Weir did a really good job overall of describing extremely technical stuff in an understandable and entertaining way.

In addition to the delightful nerdiness, the story was really tense and gripping from beginning to end, and very hard to put down. The great pacing and consistent tension was especially impressive considering that a lot of what Mark had to do was pretty damn mind-numbing. Crossing 3000+ kilometers of barren wasteland at 25 km/hr? Kill me now.

Where I thought the novel came up a bit short was the characterization. You get a pretty strong sense of Mark’s personality – as you’d expect, since you’re basically reading his thoughts (via the log entries) for most of the book – but the other five astronauts and the various NASA staff were less well defined and the dialogue between them was very basic and functional at best. However, this isn’t exactly an unusual complaint with hard sci-fi novels, and I thought the great pacing and fascinating survival story made up for it.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

I definitely plan to see the movie, which is scheduled to be released October 2, 21015, and am now really looking forward to it. Here is the official trailer:

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A Fashionable Indulgence: A Society of Gentlemen Novel Book Review

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Review:

Think of England, by KJ Charles, was one of my favorite reads in 2015 so far, so I was excited to see that she has a new series coming out, and even pre-ordered the first book, which I rarely do.

A Fashionable Indulgence, the first in her new Society of Gentlemen series, is a Regency-era m/m romance with many of the same things I enjoyed about Think of England. It’s plotty and heavily influenced by the politics and social issues of the period (you may want to scan the Wikipedia article on the Peterloo Massacre to get a refresher course before diving in), has lots of witty dialogue, and an appealing cast of characters, including several excellent female characters.

The story centers on Harry Vane, a young man who was raised by radical, reformist parents but never shared the strength of their convictions. After the deaths of his parents in a cholera outbreak, Harry discovers his father was actually the son of a noble family, and he is set to inherit a fortune… if he drops his radical beliefs and marries an appropriate young lady. Harry is quite happy to do both in exchange for a more safe and comfortable life, and his newly discovered cousin, Lord Richard Vane, takes him under his wing and convinces his friend, the dandy Julius Norreys, to help remake Harry into the image of a proper gentleman. His dreams for his new life almost immediately get complicated: Harry, who is bisexual, thinks Julius is just about the most beautiful person he’s ever seen, and as he gets deeper into the world of gentlemen, he realizes increasingly that neither his attraction for other men nor his political beliefs can be quite so easily cast aside.

As with KJ Charles’s other series, The Magpie Lord, I did not think the UST was as strong between Harry and Julius as it was between Archie and Daniel in Think of England, so I didn’t feel as much emotional connection to their actual relationship, but her characterization is excellent, both for Harry and Julius themselves and for the well-developed supporting cast of characters. (It appears that the Society of Gentlemen series will focus on a different one of Lord Richard’s friends and relations in each novel, and I’m pretty eager to learn more about several of them, including Dominic Frey, who will be the focus of the next novel in the series, A Seditious Affair.) The period atmosphere and details were also excellent, and inspired me to look up more about the reform movements of the period.

A very enjoyable read!

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Him Book Review

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Review:

Him, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy, is a cute and mostly fluffy m/m romance about two long-time friends, one gay and one straight, who meet again four years after an ill-advised drunken hookup nearly destroyed their friendship.

Him has great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, which is what attracted my attention in the first place, but I found it enjoyable but not particularly memorable. Probably I should have guessed as much before buying it. It is a Friends To Lovers story, which I enjoy in both m/m and m/f, but it’s also modern (I generally prefer historicals and sff), plus the main characters are both star hockey players, a sport about which I know even less than most. There was nothing wrong with it, it just wasn’t for me. However, clearly lots of other people adored it (including, I was interested to note, a bunch of people who claimed it was their first m/m ever), so if you like modern and/or sports romances, give it a shot.

Bonus points for it not being a gay-for-you scenario (Jamie does realize he’s bisexual and can be turned on by guys other than Wes) and for switching.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

The Song of Achilles Book Review

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Review:

I’ve loved the legends of the Trojan War since I was a young girl reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but I have to confess, I’ve never been a big fan of Achilles. The qualities that made him Aristos Achaion , the greatest of the Greeks, are not, for the most part, the sort of qualities that endear him so much to modern audiences, let alone a pacifist like myself. Still, as the greatest of the Greek heroes who fought in the war, his story is inescapable, and there are many parts I love.

One of these is his relationship with kind, gentle Patroclus, which brings out the best in Achilles and, in the end, the worst as well. The exact nature of their relationship has been a matter of controversy for hundreds of years, if not thousands. Close friends or lovers? Personally, I lean towards the latter camp, and so, it’s clear, does Madeline Miller, whose debut novel, The Song of Achilles, tells their story as a love story through the eyes of Patroclus.

Reading the novel, I was struck by how many passages from it I already knew. The most famous, of course:

I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.

But also a bunch of others that I wouldn’t have guessed came from this novel, like:

Perhaps it is the greatest grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.

and

“Name one hero who was happy.”

“You can’t.”

and

Fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another. We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory.

Despite the lyrical style, The Song of Achilles was an easy read. There were a few points where I thought the story or characterizations were a little over-simplified, most notably the council scene from Book 9 of the Iliad, which is one of my favorites, but overall, I thought it did a good job of sticking to the legends while also managing to give enough of a different perspective to be absorbing, despite how well I know the story.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Last Will and Testament Book Review

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Review:

My m/m romance phase isn’t out of my system, but with it temporarily being satisfied by the millions upon millions of words of free Stucky slash fic on AO3, I decided to try poking around the New Adult genre a little to see if anything caught my fancy. I mention the Stucky because my decision to read Last Will and Testament was sort of inspired by a cute Stucky modern AU fic called Breadth Requirements with a really fun, snarky dynamic between a college student and a TA. (You don’t need to be familiar with the Captain America films to understand the fic, by the way.)  So I kind of thought of that when I saw that Last Will and Testament also featured a student/TA romance.

Our heroine, 18 year old college sophomore Lizzie Brandt, was a valedictorian back in high school, but hasn’t adjusted well to college life and has allowed her grades and attendance to slip while she parties and hooks up with the wrong guys. Then her life is turned upside-down when her parents are killed in a car accident and she becomes the sole guardian of her 13 and 7 year old brothers. She has to get her life back on track, fast, and begins to rely increasingly on the help of her Byzantine History TA, Connor Lawson.

Despite the grief and hardship Lizzie undergoes on her way to turning her life back around, this is a pretty light and enjoyable read, with a sweet (and yes, often snarky) romance. Despite some kind of annoying (for Lizzie and the reader) mixed messages early on due to his misgivings about starting a relationship with a student, Connor is a fundamentally good guy and it’s nice to see a nerd get the girl. It took me a little longer to warm up to Lizzie (knowingly hooking up with another girl’s boyfriend – even if the girl is a psychotic bitch – is a major turn-off for me), but she really did try hard to step up for her brothers, despite some bumps along the way.

Bonus points for representation: Lizzie is biracial (half-Filipino) and her friend Frankie seems to identify as pansexual. Speaking of Frankie, I also liked that Lizzie had two really close and supportive female friends, which helped offset the overly stereotypical subplot about Lizzie’s hook-up partner’s psychotic bitch of a girlfriend.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

Unteachable Book Review

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Review:

It’s kind of funny what a 180 degree turn Unteachable was from my last summer read, despite being very similar in genre and setting. I identified pretty strongly, maybe even overidentified, with the characters of Fangirl. I have almost nothing in common with the characters of Unteachable.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book a great deal. The main character and narrator, Maise O’Malley, is pretty severely fucked up – major daddy issues thanks to the father she’s never met, as well as a mother who’s a meth addict and dealer and who turns tricks on the side – but she’s vibrant and alive in a way that makes it pretty clear why men in general (and one man in particular) are drawn to her.

Her personality leaps off the page via vivid, impressionistic prose. In fact, I bought the book kind of on a whim, without checking the sample like I usually do, but I knew I was going to enjoy it as soon as I read the opening line:

When you’re eighteen, there’s fuck-all to do in a southern Illinois summer but eat fried pickles, drink PBR tallboys you stole from your mom, and ride the Tilt-a-Whirl till you hurl.

Maisie is cynical, blunt (“Thanks, Dad, for leaving a huge void in my life that Freud says has to be filled with dick“), and often funny, but desperate to escape her small Illinois town and sad, messed up life. In the way of smart, creative teenagers everywhere, she swings sometimes into melodrama and pretentiousness, but she’s also very raw and honest in a way that makes you feel for her, and root for her even when she’s making mistakes. Her dream is to direct films, and she experiences the world in a very immediate way, like a series of overlapping but often fleeting sensations, so the book is filled with evocative sensory descriptions, from the steamy sex scenes to the sights and sounds and smells of the carnival. I tore through it really feeling like I was experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes.

It was a bit less clear why Maise felt so drawn to Evan Wilke, the stranger she hooks up with at a carnival shortly before the start of her senior year of high school, who’s soon revealed to be her new Film Studies teacher. Neither Maise nor Evan is shy about admitting the lure of forbidden fruit for both of them, but the extent to which their relationship exists outside of mutual lust, mutual fucked-upedness, and the irresistability of the taboo is left a little ambiguous. (Deliberately, I suspect.)

The book ends hopefully, but if you like your endings Happily Ever After, it’s the sort of hopeful ending you don’t want to examine too closely with a realistic eye. As someone 10 or 15 years older than the intended audience of the “New Adult” genre, there were several things that set my alarm bells clanging about Maise and Evan’s real prospects for a happy future together, including, most alarmingly, the revelation that Maise wasn’t the first student Evan had slept with. (In real life, girls, this is the point where you run the fuck away and don’t look back.) By the end, it seemed clear to me that despite the 15 year age gap between them, Maisie was in many ways the more mature of the two of them and the one who really knew what she wanted out of life and was willing to do what it took to get it. Evan finally took action toward the life he wanted for himself at the end, but will it be enough to change it or will he continue to drift? The book leaves the question open, and frankly you could easily make an argument for either outcome.

In short, it’s not a comfortable book with characters or actions that are easily slotted into neat pigeonholes, but if you’re okay with complicated people in complicated and not always healthy relationships making complicated and not always healthy choices, it’s an intense and absorbing read that you may find will stick with you for a long time.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Ant-Man Movie Review

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Review:

This review contains minor spoilers.

Marvel’s latest film, Ant-man, is formulaic and predictable (even down to some of the lines of dialogue), but entertaining. Like many Marvel films, it is at its best during its humorous moments and action sequences. I especially enjoyed the final fight between Ant-man and Yellowjacket, which made clever use of a child’s train set. The use of the actual ants was also pretty cool.

Some of the other scenes were too talky (sadly, Peggy Carter’s brief appearance was among these) and the occasional attempts at emotional depth were fails all around. Frankly, I never felt attached enough to any of the characters to care about the emotional pain they felt over their dead/imperiled/estranged wives and daughters. Yawn.

The romance, such as it was, was tacked on to a degree that was actually ridiculous. Coming so fast on the heels of the disastrous Bruce/Natasha in Age of Ultron, I’m tempted to say that Marvel should just give up on romance entirely – its best films, including Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers, are notable for having little or no romance at all. Though I am fond of Tony/Pepper and Steve/Peggy, nearly all of Marvel’s most interesting and best-written relationships are canonically platonic friendships (i.e. Steve & Bucky, Clint & Natasha, Tony & Rhodey) or family relationships (i.e. Thor & Loki), not romances. Most of the romances are bland at best. Ant-man‘s romance didn’t even manage to qualify as bland: it was so minor and added so little to the film that it would have been better to leave it out entirely.

However eye-rolling it was, the romance was so minor it doesn’t really deserve to have the longest paragraph in this review. My bigger beef with the film was that it sidelined Hope (and almost completely erased Jan), who was experienced and competent, in favor of (essentially) a random guy off the streets. This is not exactly an uncommon trope, but it felt especially irritating in light of the continuing failure of Marvel to make a Black Widow movie, or any movie with a female protagonist, until Captain Marvel, which isn’t projected to be released until 2018.

Overall, I’d put Ant-man about on par with Thor as an intro solo film (though lacking the benefit of a virtuoso performance comparable to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki) – enjoyable, but not something I’m likely to rewatch over and over.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

Fangirl Book Review

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Review:

Oh man, I loved Fangirl so much. A crazy amount. Instant favorite.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not 100% sure that part of that wasn’t the absolute joy of recognition. Cather (Cath) Avery, the titular fangirl, is a fan of “Simon Snow,” a blatant stand-in for Harry Potter, and I was certifiably obsessed with Harry Potter for years, including – yes – both reading and writing fanfiction. (Cath’s favorite ship, Simon/Baz, seems to represent Harry/Draco, and I was more of a Remus/Sirius girl, but still.) Rainbow Rowell has written about her experience in the Harry Potter fandom and she nails a lot of things about being in fandom and the appeal of fanfiction, how it feels to love a world so much you just want moremoremore forever. Infinite variations.

Of course, everybody’s experience of fandom is different and Cath’s is not representative of all fangirls. For example, Cath is curiously shut away from the social and communal aspects of fandom – she takes her own fanfiction so seriously that she doesn’t read other people’s fanfiction in order to avoid being influenced by it too much, and that’s very, very different from the experience of most fans I know, who thrive on the conversation that takes place in the course of storytelling in such a collaborative community. However, I’ve noticed that my own real-life social anxiety is reflected in my fannish life by my tendency to lurk, and Cath’s anxiety is much worse than mine, so I didn’t regard her behavior as unrealistic or an inaccurate representation of fandom life, just a reflection of her own personality. Again, everybody’s experience of fandom is different, and I don’t think Rowell intended for Fangirl to represent fannish life in general, just the life of one fan in particular.

In addition to the fandom aspect, Fangirl is set in Nebraska, and the Nebraska that I know. (Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is also set in Nebraska – North Omaha, specifically – but a neighborhood I’m not as familiar with.) Although I didn’t go to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, my mother did, and I’ve been going to campus for my entire life (literally – my mom was still a student there when I was born.) The Dairy Store on East Campus does make really good ice cream. Morrill Hall really does have the largest mammoth fossil ever found. (Nebraska is much better for fossils than most people would guess – see also Agate Fossil Beds and Ashfall Fossil Beds. Yours truly found a pretty awesome fossil turtle shell along the Niobrara River as a kid.) Cath’s South Omaha neighborhood is also much more familiar to me than Eleanor and Park’s North Omaha one – I’ve been to Jacobo’s, for example, and while I personally prefer El Alamo to the taco trucks, I know what Cath’s talking about. Jim Flowers is my favorite weatherman, too. The Bookworm is one of my favorite indie bookstores. Like Levi and Reagan, I grew up in rural Nebraska (though a totally different part of the state than Arnold) and I share Levi’s obsession with bison – “Cows good, buffalo better” is an actual line of his dialogue and I may or may not have cheered (totally did) – and interest in sustainable range management. The only thing I did notice that the book got wrong was that it describes the winter of 2012 as being extremely cold and snowy, when it was actually one of the warmest and least snowy in Nebraska history. (Freakishly so, in fact.)

So reading Fangirl was so fun for me. These are my people, you know? On multiple fronts. It took no effort whatsoever to identify with them.

On top of that, I genuinely enjoyed the romance and was grinning like a total sap by the end. Although not as intensely emotional as Eleanor & Park, you could definitely see Rowell’s fandom influences in the book’s excellent UST. I also enjoyed the positive depiction of female friendship and the great (often witty) dialogue.

The only real complaint I have is that the excerpts from the Simon Snow books and Cath’s fanfiction didn’t really seem to connect in any way to Cath’s story. They were interesting, but they were just there, and I did find myself skimming them more often than not as the book progressed. I would have liked to see Cath’s coming-of-age journey as she gained more confidence and came to terms with her various family members, friends, and romantic interests reflected through the themes in her writing.

As you might guess, I recommend this book especially strongly for people with experience in fandom (or who are at least sympathetic to the existence of fanfiction), and to people who like books with strong local flavor. It’s also a great choice for anyone who’s simply looking for a sweet college romance.

In short, a fantastic read and one of the best novels I’ve read in years.

(By the way, although I haven’t read any of it, there is totally Fangirl fanfiction. There’s even Simon Snow fanfiction. If that isn’t fitting, I don’t know what is.)

Update: Rainbow Rowell has written a book about Simon Snow’s adventures! Carry On will be released October 6, 2015.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Inside Out Movie Review

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Review:

After 2013’s disappointing Monsters University, it’s great to see Pixar back to form in Inside Out. While I don’t think Inside Out reached the heights of Monsters Inc. or Finding Nemo, it’s smart, creative, charming, and moving, just like all Pixar’s best works.

The film takes place mostly inside the head of an 11 year old girl named Riley. Five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust – live inside her brain’s control center and help Riley navigate life. Riley’s a lucky little girl with a happy and loving family, and up until this point, Joy has mostly been in charge, but after the family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, Riley struggles with the transition and the emotions start to panic due to the repeated failure of their attempts to keep Riley as happy as they believe she deserves to be. In the ensuing chaos, Joy and Sadness are accidentally sucked out of the control center and into Long-Term Memory, where they’re unable to help Riley cope. Taken over by Fear, Disgust, and Anger, Riley’s happy life starts to fall apart.

There are lots of funny moments in Inside Out (many of my favorites were the brief glimpses into the control centers of other characters, including Riley’s mom and dad, her teacher, and a dog and cat on the street) and it’s ultimately a feel-good film, but it also deals with some weightier issues than most Pixar films, including an attempt to run away from home and a very effective visual metaphor for depression, so I think older children will get more out of it than younger children. In fact, I think it could be really helpful for older children, because it offers a safe framework to talk about feelings (via the personified emotions in the control center) and some valuable lessons about how important “negative” emotions (especially sadness) can be to our physical and emotional health, yet at the same time, how dangerous it is to be controlled exclusively by them. As someone who, like Riley, had a really happy and loving childhood yet struggled with depression beginning around age 11 or 12, I found myself wondering if a movie like this could have helped me understand and express more clearly what was happening to me back then. Maybe it would have helped and maybe not – loving as they are, my family does Emotionally Repressed WASP like champions, and I’m no exception. But I definitely don’t think it would have hurt.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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The Boss Book Review

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Review:

All the fuss about the release of EL James’s latest novel, Grey, which is 50 Shades of Grey from the perspective of Christian Grey, reminded me that months ago I downloaded The Boss, by Abigail Barnette, as a free Kindle ebook.

Abigail Barnette is the pen-name of Jenny Trout, who did a hilarious sporking of 50 Shades of Grey on her website a few years ago, and then decided to write, essentially, the “good” version of 50 Shades, including a realistic portrayal of BDSM and a hero who doesn’t confuse being “Dominant” with being an abusive, controlling stalker.

I have no intention of ever giving EL James a penny of my money if I can help it, but thanks to Grey reminding me yet again of everything I hate about the 50 Shades phenomenon, I decided to finally sit down and read The Boss as a sort of personal protest against that fact that EL James is about to get even richer.

The novel follows Sophie Scaife, an overworked and underappreciated assistant, whose future is left uncertain when the magazine where she works is purchased by billionaire media mogul Neil Elwood. Sophie immediately realizes Neil is the same guy she had a one night stand with six years earlier – a one night stand she still remembers as the best sexual experience of her life – and it’s not long before the two renew their relationship.

I liked the novel okay, I guess. I’m not really sure it’s my kind of book, to be honest, although if you like m/f BDSM romance, you’ll probably love it. I read Dominant and submissive stuff occasionally in slashfic (m/m), but the power dynamics seem to inevitably end up making me a little uncomfortable in m/f romance, even when there’s an attempt, as there is in The Boss, to be feminist about it. Also, the age difference was way bigger than I personally prefer – I’m fine with a certain difference (heck, my own husband is 6 years older than I am, which is probably above average) but in The Boss, Neil literally has a daughter the same age as Sophie. Which grosses me out when man-child Hollywood stars do it, and grossed me out a little in The Boss, too. I also felt that the initial development of the D/s relationship between Neil and Sophie was a little rushed. It was established early on that she liked to be spanked, but aside from that, I thought she went awfully quickly from “sure, I’ll try anything once” to “I have an uncontrollable urge to submit to you sexually.”

What I did like about the book was that it did indeed have a realistic and respectful portrayal of BDSM that put a lot of emphasis on consent, which is (in my admittedly limited understanding) absolutely critical to a healthy BDSM relationship, and gave a balanced presentation of what both parties get out of a BDSM relationship, both sexually and emotionally. Both the book itself and Neil are VERY pro-female pleasure, which makes for a much nicer dynamic than Ana cringing and crying when stuff goes too far.

I also loved the positive portrayal of friendships and other close relationships between women, which is an area where both 50 Shades and Twilight were deeply, disturbingly lacking. (Note how Jenny began her sporking of 50 Shades with the subtitle “why Ana is the shittiest friend ever?” Yeah. It doesn’t get any less true.)

Finally, I enjoyed the actual plot, which, while it didn’t take up nearly as many pages as the pr0n, was reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada in that it involved a lot of backstabbing and other shenanigans at a New York fashion magazine. Evidently, I’m a sucker for political intrigue even when it involves no actual politics.

Bonus: as I mentioned, it’s free for Kindle! However, the three sequels – The Girlfriend, The Bride, and The Ex – are $3.99 each.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)