Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper

So, I actually ended up loving this book a lot because it does a lot of things that I would love to see more of in YA.

But more on that in a hot minute.

Cal is a popular video blogger who is becoming well known for his Refinery29-like exposes and journalism. He lives in Brooklyn and loves the fast-paced color of the city life. That's why, when his father makes a surprise announcement that not only has he been hired as an astronaut, but they're all being uprooted to Texas, Cal is utterly devastated. To make matters worse, the reality TV channel filming the astronauts and their families has a gag order on any media streaming done by the astros or their families.

Once in Texas, Cal meets one of the other astronaut children, an ex-gymnast named Leon. He feels an instant connection to Leon, but Leon has depression, and is learning to set boundaries and stand up for himself in therapy and warns Cal that he doesn't do things by halves and won't be with someone who can't accept him.

Tensions rise as the fate of the current project becomes uncertain and Cal's clash with the TV channel becomes more heated. All he really wants to do is find certainty in his future, both with regard to love and his would-be career, but fate rarely makes things easy and sometimes we have to deal with a few curveballs before we finally hit that home run.

I loved the romance between Leon and Cal. I liked that Leon set boundaries and Cal respected them. I liked the steam between them. I liked that it didn't feel exploitative, the way a lot of M/M stories (especially ones written by some women) can feel. This was just a beautiful love story between characters you feel like you could meet on the every day and I loved that. I also liked that Cal questioned his sexuality (like Leon) and how we get a bit of backstory on his one girl friend, who he used to date.

I liked Cal's blogging a lot, too, which surprised me, because a lot of authors don't know what they're talking about when they write about blogger or influencer culture. But Stamper nailed it. Cal reminded me a lot of other male YouTubers I really like-- YouTubers like Danny Gonzalez or Jarvis Johnson, who use their authenticity to bring attention to important issues and debunk fake "facts."

I liked the positive rep for science in this book. I just read yet another book with evil scientists, so it's always nice to see a book that gives the sciences the positive rep it so sorely needs. The ending, with the interviews with the astronauts, was one of my favorite parts (and no, don't worry-- that's not a spoiler).

This was a really great book. It's a fluffy, light-hearted romance that also manages to deal with real world issues, and isn't afraid to be steamy and use foul language while also making a beautiful point about what it truly means to be authentic and find love while also learning to love yourself.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!  

4 out of 5 stars

Havenfall by Sara Holland

DNF @ p.55 

This was kind of intolerable and read like self-insertion fic. Maddie was such a Mary Sue. When I was a teenager, it was really popular on Quizilla for people to write about characters who had these totally messed up home lives who were then spirited away to this alternate world or dimension where they were the chosen one and (of course) there was a really hot guy.

Well, this book has all of that. Maddie's uncle is the owner of this hotel in Colorado that's a way station for a magical world. Maddie goes there without telling her father because she needs to escape from her life and the fact that her mother is on death row. Oh, and of course the hot faerie guy she likes hangs out around there, too.


Here's the thing-- even though the writing is okay, the story-telling is not. This author annoys me for the same reasons authors like Emily A. Duncan, Sarah J. Maas, and Maggie Stiefvater annoy me. If you like those authors, you might like this. But if you're tired of Basic Girl YA and the formulaic tropeyness that seems to be a rule in fantasy... WELL.

If you want to read a better story about a magic hotel that serves as a fantasy way station, read Ilona Andrews's Sweep series. And if you want to read a better chosen girl story about a hapless girl from our world who ends up in a dark and interesting fantasy world of the author's own design, read Clive Barker's Abarat.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

1 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World's Most Notorious Terrorists by Tracy Walder

The only other spy memoir I've read was Valerie Plame's FAIR GAME, which was really good, although irritatingly, large sections of the memoir had been redacted for security purposes by the CIA. The CIA is a jerk like that. I figured that since Tracy Walder not only worked for the CIA but also the FBI, something similar would happen here. I was not wrong. Portions of THE UNEXPECTED SPY were redacted, although not as significantly. Maybe because Tracy Walder was doing less sensitive work? Or because she was significantly less high profile? Either way.

It's difficult to review memoirs because while in many cases, it's possible to divorce the author from their body of work if you try hard enough to compartmentalize, that's not really possible to do with memoirs because the memoir is essentially the person-- or at least, a part of the person: the one they're willing to share with the public. And when you don't really like the person writing the memoir, it's really difficult to like the memoir. Because, again, the main "character" of the book is literally the person writing it.

An alternate working title for this book could be Humblebrag: The Musical. Why "The Musical"? Because this author wouldn't stop singing her own praises. Look, I'm capable of girling out as much as the next lady, but Walder was SO ANNOYING about it. I didn't really need to know that she wore mascara every day while deployed or made her mom schedule hair salon appointments for her every time she came back from a mission, or how long and blonde her hair was (like 90% of other sorority sisters, she's quick to tell us), and how she's so attractive and blonde, everyone notices her, including FBI scum bags who make her write a literal apology letter for wearing a fitting suit (what).

Look, I know girly girls get a lot of hate and women aren't allowed to build themselves up in society without being crushed down, so I tried to take a look deep inside myself and ask: was I feeding (however unintentionally) into internalized misogyny? But no, I don't think so. There was a lot of back-patting-- more than James Comey's A HIGHER LOYALTY, which had me rolling my eyes from page one (ok, more like page 20). Whether it's her brag about being immune to pepper-spray, or her brag about being one of the guys, or a brag about how she's never done anything illegal (except for the undocumented cleaning lady whom she totally throws under the bus when she thinks the agent interviewing her is on to her super illegal actions), it's just a non-stop brag fest.

OH, and she is privileged as all get out. The way she excuses enhanced interrogation techniques (torture), praises the Dub (saying she'd vote for him despite being a Democrat) and whines about the discrimination she received from people hating on her for being Californian and, oh yes, blonde, and let's not forget the cleaning lady she outted, while talking about the buckets of makeup she wears all the time, I was just so done with this lady and her blithe ignorance of her own over-bloated sense of self-worth. There is an actual passage in here where she and this other lady are actually talking about whether or not they should wear eye makeup to the pepper-spray test FBI agents apparently have to go through, so they know how it feels to be maced (hence how she figured out her resistance).

Kudos to her for taking on a position in a role that typically has a boys' club vibe (or did at the time), for calling out institutional sexism (despite caving to it out of necessity), and for taking pride in her own accomplishments. I just really hated the arrogant self-satisfied down in which this was written. The spy stuff was cool but all the redacted passages do break up the narrative in a jarring way, and you just know that the CIA took out all the juicy bits. Giving credit where credit is due, though, it was satisfying to see her acknowledge that the Iraq invasion was largely responsible for the formation of ISIS. I'm sure it's not easy being in a government agency but I'm not sure it attracts likable people.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Alone in the Wild by Kelley Armstrong

I'm all for the trend of paranormal romance authors switching to mysteries and thrillers. Rachel Caine's Stillhouse Lake series was amazing and Kelley Armstrong's Rockton series manages to be just as gritty and fun. My greatest wish is that the Ilona Andrews duo jumps on this bandwagon next... Can you imagine?

Anyway, ALONE IN THE WILD is the fifth book in the series and I didn't read the first four. #YOLO. Don't worry, though. They work as standalones-- or at least this one does-- because the author does a really good job filling you in on the backstories of all the characters in the narrative. I never once felt lost, which I feel like is the hallmark of an author who knows their stuff.

Rockton is a town up north, near the Yukon, where people come to disappear. You can only stay for two years, and you have to be eighteen-and-up. For most of the year, it's a frozen wasteland and people have to be entirely self-sufficient without technology. If you think this leads to a pretty chilling and claustrophobic setting, you would be right. Especially since a lot of Rockton's residents aren't exactly what you might call "savory." They're all there to run from something, after all.

The main character, Casey, is a woman of Scottish, Filipino, and Chinese decent, who had to run away for her own reasons. Now she's a detective and shacking up with the local sheriff, a hottie named Dalton. They're camping in the woods when Casey hears a strange sound: a baby screaming, half-frozen, in the arms of a dead woman. Whoa. You know things are ramping up when there is literally a dead body in the first chapter. Don't worry, the baby is OK though. But her presence indicates that something is not right, as children are 100% not allowed, and taking care of her is hard, since Rockton really isn't equipped to be baby friendly.

Plus, it's pretty clear that the baby doesn't belong to the dead woman holding her, which begs the question as to who the baby really belonged to and why the woman was running. Cue nefarious interviews with the other people living in the woods. Nomadic travelers who treat women like chattel, and communes that are like the Manson Family, only a little less psychotic. Neither of those groups is particularly willing to talk, though, and the baby's presence suddenly takes a more similar turn as the reasons behind the woman's murder slowly begin to come to light.

Is this premise a bit far-fetched? Yes, of course. Did I have fun reading it anyway? Also yes, of course. I'm a sucker for a strong female character and a good whodunnit story. Maybe this wasn't as whodunnity as I might have liked, but the icy setting really added a lot of oomph and I liked how the author had fleshed out the town of Rockton and its surrounding communes. It's a pretty original idea and I got into it pretty quickly. Even though I haven't read the other books in the series, I intend to rectify that pretty quickly, as I sped through this so quickly-- it's just such simple, addictive fun.

Anyone who enjoys cheesy mysteries with dark themes is going to love this.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

My favorite work of Grady Hendrix's is actually his nonfiction collection of essays, PAPERBACKS FROM HELL, which is a loving homage to the horror genre that covers everything from Gothics to ghouls. As someone who reads pulps on the reg, I was excited to see someone else who appreciated trash as much as I do-- there's something about finding an out-of-print gem that nobody has heard of and getting everyone excited about reading it... it's like getting an ARC, but in reverse. I love that feeling.

I've read some of his fiction works, too, but the two that I read-- HORRORSTOR and MY BEST FRIEND'S EXORCISM-- were better in premise than they were in execution. It felt... gimmicky, and the writing really couldn't carry off the story, sadly. That said, I was very excited when I heard about THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB'S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES. One: because I love vampires and if its got fangs and hunts at night, I'll read about it; and two: because it's set in the 1990s and books set in the 80s and 90s are so hot right now. They feel claustrophobic because there's no internet & no cell phones. Everyone is a remote island of fear.

Patricia has the ideal life: nuclear family with a doctor husband, and a book club of other well-to-do Southern ladies. Unfortunately, her book club makes the classic mistake of picking the usual slew of boring "book club bait" books and after being caught not reading the book of the month, she and a couple other ladies go rogue by starting their own book club where they do nothing but read true crime, horror, and mysteries. Sounds like my kind of book club! Where do I sign up?

At the same time, an old lady goes crazy and bites off part of Patricia's ear. Her young relative comes home to take care of her and he's kind of weird. His name is James. Patricia feels sorry for James and tries to help him out, even as weird things start happening. Weird things that might or might not be connected to James, the man she has invited into her home and who has become intimate with her family. Everyone thinks Patricia is crazy and that all those books she's been reading have rotted her brain, but Patricia thinks she knows what she sees, and if Ann Rule's memoir has taught her anything, it's that sometimes it's the people who are closest to you who can't be trusted... right?

So, I went into this expecting satire or comedy, and there is a bit of that, but it's mostly written straight. It pays homage to a lot of vampire and horror tropes, but it reminded me most strongly of Fright Night (1985), The 'Burbs (1989), and maybe a dash of STEPFORD WIVES. The slow feeling of doom and paranoia were so well done, and Grady Hendrix might be the only male writer I've ever read who really understands and captures how men talk over and gaslight women. There were sexist scenes in here that literally made me sick to my stomach, because I've been in similar situations and it really sucks being painted as someone who's hysterical or shrill when you have actual concerns.

In addition to the horror vibe, there's also a sense of camaraderie with the women in the book club, and even some surprisingly erotic scenes, which is a must if you're writing in the vein (ha-- vein) of vintage horror movies and books, because a key element of horror was sex. The horror genre is basically the epitome of the Eros and Thanatos drives of Freudian psychology. By the time the book ended, I was actually shocked at how dark and disturbing it was. This was leagues better than anything else Grady Hendrix has written and I honestly can't wait to see what he does next.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

I'm doing a project for Black History Month where I'm trying to read as many books by black and biracial authors as possible. Most of the ones I've done so far have been realistic fiction, but QUEEN OF THE CONQUERED is fantasy. I'd read some of Kacen Callender's work before, but their style is much, much different here than it was in KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES. KING was a mild coming-of-age story about sexuality and identity written for the middle grade audience. QUEEN (ha) is a brutal adult fantasy novel that serves as a direct parallel to the cruel and devastating colonialism of Afro-Caribbean peoples by the Dutch. Here, the islanders work as slaves in the tropical paradise that used to be their home. Their colonizers are called the kongelig, and all of the major ruling families have plantations where they rule with the dual fists of physical punishment and magic. You see, the kongelig prize something called the "kraft." Some of the islanders have it too, but fearing rebellion, any islander found with the power of "kraft" is put to death.

Our heroine, Sigourney, is a biracial woman who, against all odds, is the lady of her own plantation. Her mother was a freed slave that her white father fell in love with (he freed her and then married her). But the other colonizers took umbrage with this, and had Sigourney's whole family murdered. She survived where none of the others did and rose from the ashes to claim her birthright. But this isn't your typical chosen one vs. the oppressors story-- it's much darker and more complex than that. Sigourney likes her power, and wants to inherit the whole island once the ruling king dies. She's willing to use her people as pawns to make this happen, even though she tells herself that she'll free them when she becomes queen. But, she can't help but wonder, where will the money come from with no slaves to work the land? What will happen to the economy? In her heart of hearts, she knows the answer to these questions, as well as the darkness clouding her heart.

Sigourney also has the kraft and she's incredibly powerful-- she can reach into people's bodies and control them like puppets and she can also read minds. These powers are indispensable, as she is loathed on both sides. Her people hate her for being a traitor and the other kongelig hate her because she represents a mockery to her way of life. Watching Sigourney navigate the viper's nest of court intrigue with the other plantation nobles in her endless quest for power, while trying to figure out a dark mystery that lies in the center of the island and becomes increasingly more perilous as blood spills and ghosts rise from the grave, the reader can't help but root for Sigourney-- even if they know deep down that they shouldn't. She's a truly morally grey heroine, whose decisions are frightening because they make us question the actions we might take when faced with similar decisions.

I LOVED this book. It seems like a lot of people didn't like it because it takes forever to get moving, but I honestly love slow world-building if I love the world. Pacing-wise, this book actually reminded me a lot of another book I read recently, called VITA NOSTRA. The plots are nothing similar, but both books are like sinking into a hot bath that suddenly becomes boiling-- you don't realize just how deadly the narrative is until you're already in hot water. QUEEN OF THE CONQUERED could have been shorter, yes, but I honestly loved all the time we got to spend in Sigourney's head. It made me really feel for her character in a way that's a lot harder in shorter books. Even though I didn't like her, I could understand and sympathize with her, which is the hallmark of great writing.

Anyone who wants to learn about how colonialism works and the toxic effects it has on a land and people should read this book. It was incredibly represented and despite being a fantasy novel, raised a lot of real-world problems like privilege, abuse of power, institutional racism, consent, love, and the fine line between good and evil. I honestly can't wait to read KING OF THE RISING. I think it's going to really take the world by storm (get it, because the series is called Islands of Blood & Storm?). Anyway, bad puns aside, do yourself a favor and read this book. It's amazing.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

Opinion on STUBBORN ARCHIVIST seemed to be really mixed, with a lot of people's opinions seeming to hinge on whether or not they liked the artsy, experimental, almost free-verse poetry format of this literary novel. I'll admit, it took me a while for it to grow on me-- parts of it are written like the author took a few pages out of Rupi Kaur's or Amanda Lovelace's playbook, but then parts of it are more typical of literary fiction, where it's normal prose, just without any quotation marks.

STUBBORN ARCHIVIST is auto-fiction: fiction that is semi-autobiographical but with liberties taken. The unnamed heroine is half-Brazilian, half-English, and the novel is about her dual heritage, and all of the baggage that comes with that, as well as growing up middle class in London and what it's like returning to Brazil, and also about her families in both countries growing up.

It's a little similar to another work of auto-fiction I reviewed recently, which was called THAT HAIR by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida. The heroine of that work was from Angola and talked about what it was like growing up in Portugal. She was not biracial like this heroine, but the themes of fetishization, racism, identity, and feeling displaced are shared by both books, and done to great effect. Also, I feel like a lot of the books that I see, as someone who lives in the United States, are books about American identity, so it's nice to see that same perspective from other lenses.

There were parts of this book that I liked more than others. The parts that feel more autobiographical were the parts I liked-- these portions are narrated in "you" form and are all about growing up, intimacy, various microaggressions, her first real career, and a variety of other things that I think will be really relatable to many young women (and men). I was less a fan of the dreamy, omniscient narrator portions that talked about her family, or the perspectives that abruptly switched to her grandmother's or mother's POVs, where the heroine is referred to as "the baby." They just weren't as engaging as the parts that felt more directly intimate and personal.

STUBBORN ARCHIVIST is definitely a unique mode of story-telling and I think people who appreciate unusual narrative styles and diverse perspectives will really enjoy this book. As I said, though, the narrative style takes a while to get used to and some POVs are better than others.

I would read more works by this author.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars