Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Long Con by Cecilia Tan



In case you're new to the whole Geek Actually serials, GA is a collection of (very) short stories, all under 50 pages, chronicling the romantic adventures of a bunch of geeky women with careers. Think Sex and the City...only with geeks. It's a great concept, and for books 1 & 2, I was sold - hook, line, and sinker. After the glaring disappointment that was BOSS BATTLES, though, I was a little hesitant. Because here's the thing: each serial is written by a different author. I initially expressed concerns about this in books 1 and 2 but they meshed so well that I figured it wouldn't be an issue. Well, book 3 noticeably deviated in quality - like, "is this really the advanced reader copy and not a rough outline?" deviated - so I was not quite as wholeheartedly excited about picking up book 4.

THE LONG CON, however, is written the way books 1 & 2 were, i.e. fairly well. I do think that #2 is probably my favorite so far in the series, with #1 being a close second. Since the books are so short, they focus on a handful of the characters in each episode so as not to spread the content too thin. This book mostly focuses on Michelle, Elli, and Aditi. Aditi and Elli are my least favorite characters, so I wasn't too happy about that (Michelle is OK).

In THE LONG CON, Elli, Michelle, and Aditi all end up going to the same convention - a book con, modeled after BEA. Michelle is there wearing her editor cap, trying to keep Aditi (her author) in check while also editing a rather terrible manuscript from a best-selling author. Aditi is feeling anxious about the sequel to the book that she's already having second thoughts about. And Ellie - well, Elli is Ellie...immature, self-centered, and utterly obsessed with all things fandom.

I felt like Aditi's flakiness is hammered out better here. We finally understand why she's so insecure about her book, and why she's reluctant to move forward. Haven't we all had moments of self-sabotage, where we're so literally terrified about the chance to finally fulfill our dreams that we subconsciously end up screwing ourselves because deep-down we don't feel deserving? I've definitely felt that. I've felt that hard. So even though I didn't really like Aditi for being a flake in previous books, I felt like this revelation helped me understand where she was coming from better.

Michelle, on the other hand, has the stage set for some rather kinky goings-on when she attends a BDSM panel from a Dom and his slave/wife. (And I'm sure that the fact that Celia Tan has published some BDSM erotica novels had no bearing on this twist whatsoever - ha.) I was actually impressed with how it was played out, though. Despite a lack of sexual content, Tan manages to write a pretty sexy scene. I'm curious to see how this will play out in future character arcs.

Elli's story was okay. She ends up befriending another cosplayer who draws comics and also happens to be in a wheelchair (I think her name was Ruby). Ruby was really cool and I liked how the concept of able-ism was treated in this segment and some of the ways that Ruby incorporated her chair into her cosplays (i.e. using it as the pumpkin carriage for her Cinderella costume). I didn't like how Ellie immediately started pushing her for a job as an assistant, especially when Ruby says that she doesn't have all that much money and doesn't want to depend on people. It felt opportunist and gross to me, and considering how she treated her last two employers, I'm skeptical of where this goes. Honestly, it's too bad Ruby isn't a main character - she was really cool and I'd happily read more about her.

Tan teases me with cameos from my actual favorites in the story - my favorite F/F couple Vivi and Christina experiment with some rough sex, and Taneesha goes on a "date" with this cute gamer dude. However these sections are short and left me feeling more frustrated than happy. This is why I don't tend to like books with multiple POVs; I always like one set of characters more than the others...and the ones I love the most never get as much air time as the ones I can't stand. (I see you, GoT.)

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Coraline by Neil Gaiman



This is one of those rare instances where I watched the movie before I read the book. Coraline (2009) came out while I was in college and all of my friends couldn't stop talking about this creepy story; they said it started out whimsical and turned into a total mindfuck, like Mirrormask (2005) - only better.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, Coraline is a little girl who moves to a new apartment in this rural area peopled with colorful characters, like a retired mouse trainer and two washed up film stars who haven't gotten over their halcyon days. Her parents are hard-working and don't really have time for her, so Coraline is often left to her own devices and feeling frustrated as a result. When she finds a mysterious locked door in the wall of her new home that leads to another, magical world, she is absolutely delighted. It's like Narnia, or Harry Potter - only not.

At a glance, the other world seems to be better than Coraline's own reality. Her other mother bakes delicious meals, her other father is always willing to take the time to delight her with games and conversation. Her film star neighbors are young and still very much entertaining, and her creepy mouse-trainer neighbor is ... well, still creepy but now he has something to show for his efforts. Everything in this whimsical world is Coraline's for the asking, if she can only ignore the darker edge beneath the glamor...and the horrible, infamous catch.

I read this book in a single sitting. It's middle-grade, so the language is fairly simple, and the book itself is quite short with drawings interspersed between the text that take up even more of the page count. I liked the story, but as with most of Neil Gaiman's written works, it was lacking some crucial element to make me really love it. I'm finding that to be the case when it comes to Gaiman's works - the movie versions are phenomenal (like Stardust), but the books themselves feel wooden and three-dimensional by comparison, despite being imaginative. I kept comparing the book to the movie while reading, too. Coraline's challenges are way easier in the book than they are in the movie, and the character of Wybie (who I loved in the movie) is omitted entirely in the book.

Overall, CORALINE was an okay book but I'm sorry to say that the movie is much better.

3 out of 5 stars

Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love by Sarah Vaughn



Sarah Vaughn also contributed to Alex + Ada, which is a Chobits-esque romance between a human and a robot, so when I saw that she had contributed to "DEADMAN," I applied for it without really knowing what this graphic novel was about. I liked her work! I like spooky books! The cover of this book seemed spooky! (I thought it was about vampires, actually....)

I WAS WRONG LOL

DARK MANSION OF FORBIDDEN LOVE is a title that conjures up the campy pulp novels of the 60s and 70s, but the graphic novel is actually really surprising...and I mean that in a great way. Not only does it have a Gothic mystery surrounding ghosts and revenge, it also features a bisexual heroine of color (half-Asian, half-white) and a non-binary hero of color (black). I was shocked...in the best way! How progressive of you, DC!

The story is good, too. Bernice's fiance lives in a mansion and is working on his book. When she joins him, she's put off by the fact that the house seems to be filled with ghosts and a dark presence. One of the "ghosts" is Boston Brand (Deadman), who is trying to get rid of the dark energy as well. They meet a ghost named Adelia who was murdered but can't remember why or by whom, only that her fate somehow ties into the dark energy of the house...

DARK MANSION OF FORBIDDEN LOVE has a Scooby Doo vibe to it that I found charming. I'm sure some people will be put off by the campy vibe, but I've watched dozens and dozens of Scooby Doo, so the classic ghost story element really appealed to me. I also really liked Deadman, because I'm a sucker for brooding, angsty heroes. He's like Bruce Wayne, without the asshole-ish tendencies. You really can't help but like him...he's so awkward and adorable and too precious for this world.

ALSO - whoever designed these characters, I LOVE YOU. One of my biggest beefs with graphic novels is over the top cheesecake shots. There's a tendency in graphic novels to focus on the boobs, dress the characters in revealing costumes, and give them all 50s pin-up style figures. I get that it's a throwback to the Golden Era of Comic Books when they were all drawn that way, but it's also nice to see characters that look like you. They made Bernice curvy, gave her rather thick thighs, and she's smaller on top than she is on the bottom. Her outfits are also...ordinary. She looks like someone you'd see at a coffee shop. Let me be perfectly clear: I have no problem with women who want to dress sexy or are skinny; I have a problem with that being the only representation women get in comic books. Real women are not one size fits all and it was so great to see someone with a body type and fashion sense rather similar to mine in a graphic novel.

I'm so glad DC gave this to me as an ARC. It was actually a really fun superhero comic, and I enjoyed the dark Gothic vibe, the ghost story, and the diverse rep (this is the first graphic novel I've read with a non-binary character!). The only reason I'm not giving it 4 stars is because the storyline was just a little bit too cliche, and as much as I enjoyed reading it, it's probably not a book I would purchase for myself or keep in a permanent collection. For others, though? Definitely!

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Goblins of Bellwater by Molly Ringle



This has been the third goblin-related book that I've read this year, and while it is arguably the best of the three, I have to say that it did not hold up to my expectations. I've read The Goblin Market and assumed that the book was going to follow the Labyrinth formula - which it did to an extent. However, uneven pacing and some odd creative choices caused me to give the book a lower rating than I would have, had these issues not been present.

First, let me give credit where credit is due. The cover is lovely - it's a huge reason behind why I wanted to pick up the book in the first place. I also feel like it ties into the story well, as the wildflowers conjure up that wild beauty that many associate with Washington's lush and gorgeous rainforests. The setting of this book was also great, and like I said, I loved the concept because I love Labyrinth and Labyrinth is the metaphorical yardstick by which I measure any romance-themed faerie story I come across.

THE GOBLINS OF BELLWATER is set in Bellwater, Washington, near Puget Sound. Two siblings, Skye and Livy, have always had a close relationship with the woods. Skye is a barista/artist and Livy is a forest ranger. They get mixed up with Kit, a mechanic, and his cousin, Grady, a cook, though circumstances involving goblins. Because in addition to his day job, Kit also acts as a liaison to the fae, and when he displeases them they end up cursing one of the locals, in this case: Skye. Skye ends up cursing Grady, by giving him an enchanted kiss and claiming him as her "mate," which ends up bringing the entanglement full circle. If Kit and Livy want their relatives back, they have to outsmart the fae and they have to do it soon, before both Skye and Grady are lost forever.

The writing in this story is really great, but the sex scenes and the romance all felt forced. Especially with the enchantment, which gives the relationship between Skye and Grady an icky feel. Skye's enchantment in the beginning also causes her to no longer be able to smile, laugh, or feel joy, either, so Livy makes some weird assumptions about Skye's mental state and depression in general, which involve opinions that are based on false facts (e.g. people with tons of good things in their lives shouldn't have anything to feel depressed about). I was wondering whether this was because the author was trying to portray Livy as ignorant, or due to oversight, and the author actually commented on one of my status updates and said it was the former, so it was nice to get confirmation on that. But the whole way it was dealt with felt awkward to me and, like the issue of consent regarding the enchantment sex between Skye and Grady, I felt like it wasn't handled as well as it could have been.

I didn't really care about Kit and Livy or Grady and Skye much until the last 1/4 of the book, which is where the story turned around for me. The way Livy goes about saving her sister was really, really cool, and if the majority of the book had been more like that, I would have really enjoyed THE GOBLINS OF BELLWATER, because that was the magic and adventure I was expecting when I picked this up. It was also the first part of the book where there was some actual intense emotional content and I found myself rooting for the characters instead of passively reading about them.

This really was not a bad book, and I felt like it deals with the fae lore and mythology in a fresh and interesting way. The execution was a little iffy for me and in some ways it has the "uncertainty" of a debut novel, but the world-building and the clear writing made up for a lot of the flaws. People who enjoy books reminiscent of Labyrinth and enjoy stories about faeries and goblins will enjoy THE GOBLINS OF BELLWATER. I would read more by this author.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen



Whoa, you know a book is **edgy** when you lose a few friends every time you post a status update for it.

TOO FAT, TOO SLUTTY, TOO LOUD; THE RISE AND REIGN OF THE UNRULY WOMAN is written by a BuzzFeed writer who also published another work of nonfiction about the scandals of Golden Age Hollywood. TOO FAT also focuses on Hollywood, but Hollywood in the present day: in particular, it is a rather scathing and critical look at how various women are treated by the media when they choose to openly defy various gender roles, and what that means for us, as a society.

I really liked the structure of this book. TOO FAT is divided into segments, with each chapter focusing on a typical gender norm and a famous woman who does not follow it. There are ten chapters, plus an opening and a conclusion.

Chapter One: Too Strong // Serena Williams

This was one of my favorite chapters in the collection because I thought Serena Williams was so cool when I was a young girl. In the 90s, most "cool" female celebrities were very girly, like the Spice Girls and Britney Spears, and while I loved those ladies, too, and happily played their music for hours, I was a tomboy, so it was very cool to see a woman - a young woman - being praised for being strong and athletic and basically the antithesis of the pink bows and sparkly flowers that were being crammed down the throats of girls at the time.

But all was not as rosy as it seemed in my various issues of Preteen Monthly. TOO FAT talks about how Serena had to work every step of the way to become recognized in a sport that was rife with double standards regarding not just her gender but also her ethnicity. Her critics frequently wrote about her with coded language mocking her beaded hair and her temper tantrums, focusing on her with an intensity that simply did not happen for her male (white) colleagues. I thought this was a very thoughtful piece and it reminded me why I admired the Williams sisters so much growing up.

Chapter Two: Too Fat // Melissa McCarthy

This was another favorite chapter of mine, because I love Melissa McCarthy and live for her Sean Spicer sketches on SNL. This was also a very well-written essay that discusses how overweight and plus-sized women are treated by the media (read: mocked) and how the accomplishments of women are recognized differently than the accomplishments of men (read: they aren't - at least not as effusively, nor to the same extent). Women are supposed to deflect and be demure - they aren't supposed to openly acknowledge their accomplishments; it is really amazing to me how quick people are to tear women down when it seems like they're "too confident." I also thought it was interesting how McCarthy's persona on stage is apparently so different from her real-life persona. As someone who's also quite shy in real life, I thought it was kind of sweet that McCarthy sounds like she's soft-spoken and actually super girly off-stage.

Chapter Three: Too Gross // Abbi Jacbson & Ilana Glazer

To be honest, I have no idea who these people are. They're from a show called Broad City, which I don't watch (I don't watch a lot of TV). But the point the essay makes is clear: society has definitive ideas about what women are permitted to joke about, and women are often mocked for or excluded from participating in raunch humor or slacker humor. There was one quote in this book that summed up this idea really nicely: According to this logic, men's bodily functions are funny - but women's bodies are fundamentally obscene (86)

It actually reminded me of the Eat, Pray, Queef episode from South Park, which does a great job of poking fun at the double standards when it comes to bodily humor and gender.

Chapter Four: Too Slutty // Nicki Minaj

This was another good chapter that talks about the catch-22 situation that many women find themselves in when deciding whether or not to show skin: is having a "sexy" image in the public eye merely catering to the male gaze, or is it owning one's sexuality? Can it be both?

Like the "Too Strong" chapter with Serena Williams, Too Slutty also talks about how women of color, specifically black women of color, are hypersexualized and held to different standards than white women when it comes to beauty and sexuality (read: the shortest short end of the stick). This is a topic I've seen mentioned a lot lately, and I was pleased to see the author mention it, and defining why this double standard is so problematic in such clear and precise terms.

Chapter Five: Too Old // Madonna

"Too Old" is one of the weaker chapters in this book, in my opinion. It's about age discrimination with regards to sexuality specifically, and how older women are expected to give up basically all sexual agency and just become celibate, demure, and matronly as they grow older. Using Madonna as an example, Petersen shows how women are shamed and portrayed as pathetic and desperate when still attempting to convey a sexual and youthful image post-middle age.

Chapter Six: Too Pregnant // Kim Kardashian

This was one of my favorite chapters, which surprised me because I'm really not a fan of Kim Kardashian. But this chapter surprised me, and it actually made me like Kim a little more. In this chapter, Petersen talks about Kim's pregnancy with North and how Kim totally went against the "cute pregnancy" standards set by people like Reese Witherspoon or Kate Middleton by wearing tight, unflattering clothes and complaining publicly about her discomfort and ambivalence of being pregnant instead of yapping about how great(!) and amazing(!) pregnancy is.

I liked this chapter because, like the Too Gross chapter, it shows that women can't always be neat and cute and clean all the time. Maintaining such a pristine image is hard work and not everyone has the resources or the will to manage such a time-consuming illusion. Kim Kardashian chose not to buy into that and showed us that even famous people have bad moments - and that's OK.

Chapter Seven: Too Shrill // Hillary Clinton

I think this might have been one of the chapter updates that caused me to lose some friends, because I said that I thought Hillary Clinton should be president instead of certain **other people** and that it was a shame she wasn't given a chance. Well, I stand by that. And Petersen did a great job talking about some of the obstacles female politicians face, being mocked for wanting power and accused of being bitchy, aggressive, and shrill for the same attributes that their male colleagues are praised for.

Chapter Eight: Too Queer // Caitlyn Jenner

"Too Queer" was an interesting chapter. Most of the other chapters have a tone of "praise" or at least "admiration" but in "Too Queer" I felt the tone was more critical. Here, Petersen talks about the subject of heteronormativity (or having heterosexual norms being the de facto standard for a society) and how coming from a position of privilege can color or shape the perception of inequality for someone who is within the marginalized group in question (in this case, not realizing how bad things are for other trans people if you are a rich, gender role-conforming trans person who "passes" easily).

Chapter Nine: Too Loud // Jennifer Weiner 

MY FAVORITE CHAPTER IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE BOOK.

Jennifer Weiner novels were the staple of my young adolescence and after Bridge Jones, were basically what got me into the whole "chick lit" genre. I related to everything in this essay so hard. As a reader and writer of romance, I cannot tell you how often I have been denigrated because of my choices of reading and writing material. (One phrase that sticks out is "articulate" - I feel that is the go-to code word for people who want to find a way to tell you that they think you are an idiot if you write intelligently. Like, "Oh, you're articulate, but everything you think and feel is trash.")

I do not think it is a coincidence that the genre that primarily caters to women receives the most criticism from both within and without the industry - especially (although not always by) men.

Honestly, I would read an entire book about this topic (need a future book idea, Ms. Petersen?).

Chapter Ten: Too Naked // Lena Dunham

Ugh, my least favorite chapter. I just don't like Lena Dunham and I don't like Girls and have little interest in seeing Girls (which is a feat in and of itself, given my mad Adam Driver obsession). I thought about skipping this chapter but I wanted to read it anyway just so I could write a well-rounded review of the book...and it wasn't that bad. Basically, Lena Dunham asserts herself by flaunting a body that most people don't find attractive or "worthy." ...Okay? I think this was the least effective chapter because it was basically a combination of the "Too Fat" and "Too Gross" chapters from the beginning of the book, so I didn't really feel like we were covering any new ideas. I think a "Too Confident" or "Too Smart" chapter would have been better, because my God, have you ever noticed how quick people are to tear women down for daring to feel...good about themselves?

Overall, I really enjoyed TOO FAT, TOO SLUTTY, TOO LOUD. It helped that I already liked most of the people the author chose to write about, but the writing stands on its own. This book covers some very important topics about how women are treated by society. Even though we are moving towards true equality, there are still many areas that need improvement, and I would suggest this book to people who insist that society is equal or smugly call themselves "equalists" because TOO FAT does a great job highlighting not just where the last bastions of inequality exist, but also why they exist, and why it's important not to null these groups out.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 out of 5 stars

Be Like Bill: The Internet's Smartest Sensation by Eugeniu Croitoru



This is yet another one of those "let's make an internet meme into a book" sorts of deals, which I always have mixed feelings about because it takes several years to publish something so by the time the meme book gets published, the meme itself usually isn't popular anymore or is on the wane. It actually took me a moment to remember what Be Like Bill was referring to. In case you forget, too, a couple years ago, Be Like Bill reached critical mass. It was an ideal tool for calling people out in a socially acceptable way on the internet, and lord knows, we are always demanding new ways of doing that, because for as long as there is an internet, people will use it for calling out.

BE LIKE BILL is better than most meme books I've read, although like most meme books, the user generated ones are better (probably because you have a greater number of people contributing to the pool, so the ideas are more likely to be fresh). I'm not sure if the two authors generated all these memes, but most of them felt pretty safe and boring, and a couple just seemed petty (but then, we've all got our pet-peeves, so I'm not here to judge). Only one made me laugh out loud:

This is Bill.

Bill wakes up and sees it's snowing outside.

Bill doesn't feel the urge to post a status about it on Facebook because he knows his friends also have windows.

Bill is not a douche.

Be like Bill (6).

I feel like it would have been better if the authors had done a "best of" compilation, curating some of Bill's greatest hits from the Facebook pages they manage (and maybe giving the users credit at the bottom with their permission). This was just sort of bland, and while a couple were amusing and had me going, "Preach!" the vast majority of the collection barely warranted a smile. Still, it was nice to revisit an old meme that I'd half-forgotten and get a few chuckles out of it.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

If My Dogs Were a Pair of Middle-Aged Men by Matthew Inman



This is exactly why I love being a book blogger - free copies of books by my favorite authors to review. (Okay, I lied - that's not the only reason; but it's a very definitive perk.)

I've been following the Oatmeal since 2009, and thought it was The Best Thing Ever. He's crude, but in a way that adds rather than detracts from his art, and somehow manages to find a way of looking at even the most tedious of life's moments and finding a way of making it either seem novel, hilarious, or outlandish.

Case in point: IF MY DOGS WERE A PAIR OF MIDDLE-AGED MEN.

We all think dogs are cute, right?

Well, it turns out...dogs are sort of creepy. And what better way to illustrate those kind of creepy behaviors than by portraying his pet dogs as...two middle-aged men.

Since I follow his website religiously (as I mentioned before), there is a major downside to this ARC: I've read all these comics before - and I didn't recognize any new ones. It seems like these were just the Middle-Aged Men comics from his site packaged into a collector's volume, either for die-hard fans who want this book for their IKEA coffee tables or as novelty gifts for people who haven't read his comics yet (but should). I felt like I kind of fell in the middle in terms of readership, here.

I always enjoy reading The Oatmeal's work, so I can't really give this less than three stars. But I think if I'd paid money for this, I'd be really disappointed. I'd be happy to be supporting such a talented artist, but also sad that my hard-earned money bought me a very short book with no new material.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars