Monday, November 26, 2018

The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again by Brin-Johnathan Butler

As a player of chess, I can't help myself when I see a book about chess. I have to read it. Sometimes, the results are awesome, like David Shenk's THE IMMORTAL GAME. Other times, the results are disappointing, like QUEEN OF KATWE. I'm sorry to say that despite its intriguing cover art, THE GRANDMASTER falls into the latter group. I read this book and was very disappointed.

The first warning sign comes at the beginning, with a random tangent about Donald Trump. I guess because Carlsen's match against Karjakin was overshadowed by protests against Trump's election and apparently Carlsen is a fan of Trump. According to this book, Carlsen likes him because, like him, Trump is good at finding people's weaknesses (ick). In fact, to cheekily show his support of that orange rat fink SOB, he played the Trompowsky Attack as a show of solidarity. How adorable.

Aside from turning me off Magnus Carlsen completely, this book failed to provide much insight into Carlsen or his games because the author keeps going on tangents. Tangents that aren't necessarily accurate. For example, he talks about how poorly compensated chess players are, but with things like Twitch (online streaming site for games, popular with online chess sites like or and the rise of influencer culture, I'm not sure that's true anymore. With social media being what it is, it is much, much easier for those in niche areas to reach out to like-minded fans.

Second, the author says that in order to understand Magnus Carlsen, it's important to research Bobby Fischer, and then goes on a tangent about chess and mental illness. Which, again, had me giving this book the ol' side-eye because 1) apart from being jerks who apparently like making their opponents squirm, Fischer and Carlsen really don't seem to have that much in common. They are two very different people coming from two very different walks of life. And 2) correlation does not prove causation. Once you get into any highly competitive arena of hobbies or sports, you're going to find dysfunctional people who take their obsession too far. That does not mean that the thing in question is responsible for these behaviors; it's self-selection on the part of the people focused on these activities.

Third, several times the author mentions the lack of women in chess, and seems focused especially on Judit Polgar. It's true that Judit Polgar has the highest peak rating of any woman, but she is by no means the only female grandmaster out there, nor is she the only recently active one. In fact, she's no longer even the youngest female grandmaster; that honor now goes to China's Hou Yifan.

Fourth, the author seems to think that Carlsen is special because he hobnobs with celebrities and - gasp - has a six-pack. A chess-player who isn't a total uggo? What a shock! I find that incredibly rude, like the author is buying into the "chess players are socially dysfunctional freaks" stereotype, especially with the focus on chess as being related to or causing mental illness portion of the book. One, I find it insulting that Carlsen deserves more recognition simply because he's done modeling - and even if that were the case (which it's not), two, he's not the only one. Alexandra Kosteniuk, for example, is a female grandmaster and a model (and one of my personal favorite chess players).

Fifth, when giving a brief background on Carlsen and where he comes from, Butler talks about how the town Carlsen comes from is (in)famous for two things: a Medieval festival and a concentration camp that was entirely Norwegian-owned and operated. That kind of made me feel icky inside, because I know a lot of people from Europe feel terribly about WWII, and putting this odd and irrelevant fact in the book felt (1) like padding and (2) kind of insensitive and disrespectful.

This book was kind of all over the place and wasn't very helpful. I'm guessing it was rushed to the press so its release date would coincide with Caruana and Carlsen's current match in the World Chess Championship games (happening right now - literally all anyone is talking about on lichess at the moment). That was a clever marketing move, but THE GRANDMASTER itself is anything but.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1.5 out of 5 stars

Second Grave on the Left by Darynda Jones

I gave FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT a mostly positive review in spite of myself because I did like the mystery elements and I thought the antihero love interest, Reyes, was intriguing. My hope was that the author would realize that the childish sense of humor of the main character was dragging down the tone of the book and it would disappear in later books. After reading SECOND GRAVE ON THE LEFT, I'm no longer inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt. If anything, Charley became even more childish in this book, and the mystery element of the first book - the thing I liked the most - was entirely overshadowed by the creepy "fated-to-be-mated" insta-love between Charley and Reyes. Like I care.

I'm also not super happy with Reyes's character arc. I don't understand why he likes Charley so much. It's kind of weird that he abandoned all of his plans just because she glows brightly. Is he a moth? Also, I'm all for obsessive love interests, but something about Reyes starts to seem a bit... well, smarmy. I don't like his "I know so much more than you but can't tell you anything for your own good" spiel, even though in Charley's case, that's probably true.

The publisher gave me all the books in this series for free in exchange for my honest opinion, but after this book, I'm thinking I might call it quits at book two. I'll check out the summaries and the spoiler reviews of the other books in the series to see if continuing might be worth it, but to be honest after this book I'm kind of sick of Charley and her "OMG! So random!" sense of humor. Naw.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Fire & Blood by George R. R. Martin

DNF @ 10%

WARNING: This book is NOT a novel. It is written like a history book with no dialogue, and everything is all tell and no show.

You're welcome.

If you look at the reviews for this book, most of the reviews aren't about the book at all. 90% of the ones I glanced at were fans literally fighting with each other over how entitled they are to take the piss out of George R. R. Martin for publishing Targaryen fanfiction instead of WINDS OF WINTER. And as both an author and a reader, I get it. As a reader, I've spent years, years, waiting for sequels to books I have enjoyed, only to sometimes see that the sequels are cancelled or eternally postponed after the author loses interest or the publisher does because it was a bust. And as a writer, I've also felt the frustration of being told to write sequels for books I have no time or inspiration to write (although my fan base is in the thousands and his is in the millions, and I'm not a full-time author, nor can I afford to be). There are always two sides to every issue, but I can definitely understand how his fans might be annoyed and betrayed when, after waiting years for WINDS OF WINTER, Martin comes out with a 600-plus page tome that's mostly irrelevant to the main story, even though it's set in the same world. Yeah, I'd probably be mad, too. In fact, I am mad - but for different reasons.

In terms of the Game of Thrones fandom, I am a dilettante at best and utterly disinterested at worst. I've read the first two books in the series and they were okay. The parallels to the War of the Roses and politics are probably the best thing about them, as I found the writing subpar, and it appears to degrade as the books go on. In my review of the first book, A GAME OF THRONES, I write about the similarities the series has to many historical bodice-rippers of the 70s and 80s, and talk about the irony of how some of the book's staunchest fans are the same people who also frequently condemn romance novels and the "females" who read them, despite the fact that many of the OG bodice-rippers featured brutal heroes, a morally ambiguous cast of characters, and all kinds of physical and sexual violence, usually for revenge or for a political coup, but sometimes just to be a d*ck. I continue on that theme in my review of A CLASH OF KINGS, and then I got bored with the series.

Part of the reason I wanted to read FIRE & BLOOD was because Daenerys Targaryen was my favorite character in the series. She also gets to go on the coolest adventures and she has three flipping dragons that she rides around like a BAMF. For a fantasy series that really doesn't have that much magic in it, this was a huge draw for me, a fan of the OG swords and sorcery brand of fantasy. Did I want to read more of the Targaryens and their dragons? Of course. So as soon as this book popped up on my radar a while back, I added it to my to-read list despite being done with the series because I was curious to read about the crazy, power-mad Targaryens and their hotbed of dragons and incest that could make even a Lanister blush. They always seemed like the most interesting House.

Now that I've tried to actually read FIRE & BLOOD, I am disappointed. This book basically does what the SILMARILLION did for the Lord of the Rings series. It isn't a novel. It's written as nonfiction, with a pretentious AF index in the front of timelines, divided into tedious accounts of marriages and battles. It is NOT a novel, as I stated in my disclaimer at the top - at least, not a novel in the traditional sense. No, this is a novel masquerading as that dry history textbook that cost you $500 in college. You know the one that was so old, it was fabric bound and smelled of mildew? Yeah. And while the concept is interesting and I found myself reading further than I wanted to, it isn't sustainable. Not for 600+ pages. It's such a boring book, I couldn't believe that it would continue on in this vein for 600+ pages. So I skimmed ahead, looking for normal dialogue and narrative descriptions and - nope. It literally continues on in this manner for the full book.

And lest you be suckered in by the promise of ILLUSTRATIONS on the cover, those aren't that impressive either. The artist isn't bad... but his art style isn't exactly attractive. Considering Martin's immense popularity, you'd have thought that he could have found an artist to bring the characters to life in a way that the book might be worth buying for the art alone. But no. There's better artwork to be had in the Official Game of Thrones Adult Coloring Book.

1 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 24, 2018

American Star by Jackie Collins

Reading CRAZY RICH ASIANS gave me a hankering for tales of rich people behaving badly, and seeing as how I'd already worked myself through CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND, the only other book I had on had to serve my purposes was by good old Jackie Collins. RIP Ms. Collins. Nobody, and I mean nobody, writes trash like you. I don't believe in heaven, but if I did, I could totally picture Ms. Collins up there writing stories to scandalize the angels as they screwed their way across the clouds with big pie in the sky dreams, only to have success forestalled by drug addiction, sexual abuse, murder, car crashes, plane crashes, adultery, and heartbreak.

AMERICAN STAR is a lot like her other standalone, ROCK STAR, in that it follows a bunch of outcasts from youth to middle age as they hunt down fame, only to find out that success isn't all it's cracked up to be if you aren't with someone you love (re: want to bang until death do you part). Lauren is the good girl next door with a desire to break free from convention and become an actress in New York. Cyndra is a half-black girl with a long history of abuse who wants to sing and be appreciated for who she is and not what she represents to racist jerks who view her as a walking fetish. And Nick is Cyndra's half brother who wants to make something of himself and get out of the trailer park he lives in with his deadbeat father and black stepmother. All of them have dreams, all of them have secrets, all of them want revenge.

Given the publication date of this novel, it probably isn't going to come as a shock to you when I tell you that this book has trigger warnings across the board. AMERICAN STAR has a story to tell, and to hell with anyone who might be offended; it's going to tell that story however it wants. I can't help but respect such candor, but if you are sensitive to such topics as the ones I mentioned in the first paragraph, you'll probably want to give this one a miss. That said, if you enjoy doorstop epics that follow a troupe of characters over the span of their lives and put them through all kinds of hell before reluctantly dropping that HEA in the dust at their feet, then this is the book for you, my friends.

Honestly, I think this is one of the best books I've read by her so far. All of the characters were so compelling, and it had the nuance that ROCK STAR lacked. Say what you like about such trashy books and their target audiences, but I feel like books like this and VALLEY OF THE DOLLS really were quite advanced in some ways for daring to portray women as sexually autonomous beings with agendas of their own, for better or for worse. This isn't feminist literature, exactly, but it could be its second cousin twice-removed.

4 out of 5 stars

First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones

I might be rating this higher because I'm sick with the flu and my brain isn't working at peak capacity, but even so, I didn't fall in love with this book the way all my friends did. I'd heard mostly good things about the Charley Davidson series, but I always hesitate when I see a romance that's tagged as "humor" because it's been my experience that what most people find funny, I find lame. Case in point, WALLBANGER, which was just sad.

In terms of tone, FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT is kind of like the Stephanie Plum series or Meg Cabot's Mediator series. Charley Davidson is the human embodiment of the grim reaper. As a result, she can see dead people - lots of dead people. To them, she appears to glow like a Stephenie Meyer vampire in full sunlight, and that's because her body is the portal to the afterworld. They have to fly through her to move on.

Still with me? Okay. So her father and uncle are both cops and in her free time (read: when she's not playing the role of de facto River Styx), she works as a PI. Do her supernatural powers help her in her work? Maybe. Do people mistrust her for knowing more than she should? But of course.

Her latest case involves a whole bunch of missing kids, a crime syndicate, and human trafficking. People who were close to solving the case on their own merit, without supernatural help, are turning up dead in droves. Naturally, they're quick to offer their help to Charley, because conveniently enough, their lack of closure over the case is what's in part keeping them from moving on. Pretty soon, people are trying to off Charley too, but she has something that the other people working on the case don't: a supernatural guardian angel who likes to mind-f*ck her in the shower when he's not saving her ass. She calls the sexual smoky presence the Big Bad, but doesn't really seem worried about this otherworldly force in her life, which is funny because I kept thinking of that quote from Harry Potter: "Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain."

ANYWAY, I made it to the end of this book and it did entertain me, in between bouts of coughing, vomiting, and sneezing (woohoo). But I didn't really care for it as much as I have other paranormal romances. I think the humor actually worked against this book, to be honest. When you have a book about rape, child abuse, trafficking, and murder, trying to make it snarky and sarcastic and "cute" kind of seems grossly tone-deaf and insensitive. There's gallows humor and then there's "dude, have some proper gravitas, please" and I feel like this book falls into the latter category.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2.5  out of 5 stars

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I recently watched Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of Freddie Mercury and Queen's rise to fame. It's an amazing movie and Rami Malek outdoes himself - you should totally go see it if you haven't already. It's the type of movie that wins awards. Anyway, I was sitting in that theater, rocking out to the Queen songs (and other songs from the period, like Rick James's Super Freak), having a good time (having a good time), and then tragedy struck. I couldn't even say I didn't know it was coming, because I totally did. But when he was in that doctor's office, I started crying. And when he was performing at the LIVE AID concert, and started singing the most heart-rending performance of Bohemian Rhapsody that I ever heard, I started crying. I saw it with friends and we were all discreetly sniffing, like, "Oh my God, you guys, can you believe these allergies?" but we were all lying, of course. Those were tears. Tears.

Anyway, when I read THE SONG OF ACHILLES, the same thing happened. I knew, going in, what to expect. I've read The Iliad and seen the movies based on it. I know what happens. Heck, I just read Pat Barker's THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS, which is Briseis's account of the whole chain of affairs, so you can't even say that maybe I'd just plumb forgotten. Nope. And yet, when I got to that part, I started crying like I did the first time I watched Bambi. It was a betrayal. I guess it's testament to the author's story-telling abilities that I still felt that gutting surprise.

I told myself when reading THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS that I wasn't going to compare Pat Barker to Madeline Miller, that it wasn't really fair to considering that they are different authors trying to do very different things. SILENCE OF THE GIRLS gives a voice to that oft-forgotten casualty of war: women. Briseis's narrative chronicles her abduction by the Greeks, her ill-use by Achilles, the occasional sympathy tossed to her like table scraps, her further ill-treatment by Agamemnon, and basically serves the message: to the victor go the spoils, and to the spoils life is a Baskin Robbins of hell consisting of 21 different flavors, plus toppings. Especially if you are a woman. The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was there, but it was more of an afterthought; an, oh, so that's why Achilles went crazy that one time. Okay.

THE SONG OF ACHILLES is more of a romance. It follows Patroclus, the narrator, as a young prince who meets Achilles during his exile. The two form a close bond that starts as friendship and ends as something much more meaningful. Both boys, despite their best efforts to avoid the war, are forced into it knowing that they are both doomed. It's The Hunger Games all over again, but with a much more depressing ending, and trust me. Knowing that ending is coming doesn't lessen the blow. I found myself rooting for them against all odds, silently hoping that the author would find it in her heart to give them a happy ending (my romance side) while also silently hoping that she wouldn't (my purist literary snoot-snoot side). You can probably guess which side won, from the crying.

I don't think that this is quite the masterwork that CIRCE was, but it's still an amazing love story and an amazing piece of historical fiction. Cue me adding this author to my list of stalkables, because so far she hasn't written a thing I didn't like, and that circle of precious trust is mighty small indeed. If you like Greek myths and you like beautiful boys in love and you like crying your eyes out masochistically in the dead of night after reading a hideously good book, this is your deal.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

So I actually really enjoyed CRAZY RICH ASIANS, but seeing as how this is my month of disappointing sequels, my expectations weren't too high for CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND. Consistency may be key, and yet so many authors fail when it comes to penning that follow-up to a successful first book. Not so here! While I was a little apprehensive at the beginning of CHINA RICH, I ultimately ended up devouring the book with the same amount of enthusiasm as I did the first. Rachel and Nicky are such a great couple and after the wicked cliffhanger of the first book, I needed closure about what was going to happen with their marriage, as well as with Nicky's relationship to his mother.

CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND takes off where CRAZY RICH ended. Rachel and Nicky are finally going to get married, in secret, after the shenanigans that Nicky's mother Eleanor pulled (if you read the first book in the series, you'll totally understand why). My fear was that now that the main tension of the first book was resolved, there wouldn't be any more delicious drama, but I was wrong because now there's a new drama to replace the old: Rachel's father. Remember how Rachel not knowing who her father was was a huge deal-breaker for the Young family? And remember Kerry's teary story about her own upbringing? Well, now we know who Rachel's dad is and, more importantly, who he became - and trust me when I say it's shocking.

Also, she has a brother. *gasp*

In addition to this new drama, there are new characters: Carlon, Rachel's brother; Colette, said brother's crazy-rich society girlfriend; and Corinna, lifestyle makeover artist to the rich and famous. Kitty Pong also makes an appearance, but now she's desperately (and with mixed, but mostly failed success) trying to remake her image. I really liked the Pretty Woman trajectory of her narrative ARC. I liked her character in the first book, so it was kind of hilarious seeing her waltz into the narrative again and break one social more after another in her attempt to be one of the "in" crowd.

CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND is a different story than CRAZY RICH ASIANS, which I think might be why some people are ambivalent about it. CRAZY RICH is a much more traditional "us vs. them" romance story in which the underdog heroine snags the dreamy prince, despite the fact that everyone and their grandmas are against them getting together. CHINA RICH is more like those bloated glitter-trash doorstop novels that were so popular in the 80s (a favorite of the late Jackie Collins). Think lifestyles of the rich and famous. Yes, there's still romance, but in this book the focus is more on the drama between all the different families as they seek wealth, power, and acceptance. It's an incredibly fun series, and even though it may be vapid, I think it's important to note that representation is important in all forms of books, not just high literature: trashy books with people of color are just as important as rep in literary fiction, if not more so. After all, this is pure escapism.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Joust by Mercedes Lackey

Books like these make me nostalgic for childhood, when I would stay up way past my bedtime reading books with a flashlight, so utterly absorbed that it felt like I was physically unable to put the book down. Mercedes Lackey is an amazing fantasy author who is not afraid to write about serious subjects, strong women, and LGBT characters, and even though she's been around forever, not nearly enough people know about her or read her books. My job today is to try and fix that by telling you about the awesomeness that is JOUST.

Vetch is a serf tied to his land. He is an Altan, a country that is at war with the Tians. His Tian master is cruel and abuses him all day as he toils under the hot sun farming finicky root vegetables, and his only solace comes from cursing his master and wishing him ill. One day, one of the dragon riders called Jousters comes to the land to borrow some water and witnesses the extreme abuse Vetch suffers at the hands of his master. Shocked by such a brazen display of cruelty, the Jouster, named Ari, steals Vetch away to become a dragon boy. At this compound, his new job is to tend to the soldiers' dragons and try to anticipate both their and their riders' every need.

Ari, his savior, is different from other Jousters. He is the only rider to have hand-raised his dragon from the egg, and the difference in behavior shows. However, the work and time involved have kept others from doing this. Vetch, however, who is no stranger to hard work, can't get the idea out of his head. Even though he loves his new job working with the dragons, the cognitive dissonance of working for the selfsame army that oppresses his people does not escape him. And when one of the dragons at the compound goes into heat, suddenly the possibility of getting his own egg to hatch and raise seems more than just a pipe dream. The risk could be deadly. But the payoff could affect wars.

From the beginning, I found myself immersed in this world. Vetch is a great protagonist, selfish and impulsive at times, but also endearingly idealistic and naive. His outsider status makes him relatable to anyone who has ever felt like they didn't belong, and watching him get revenge through patience and hard work is incredibly satisfying. I also loved the descriptions of the dragons, and how each had their own personalities. Dragons are some of my favorite fantasy creatures, and I loved, loved, loved how Vetch's every day tasks with the dragons were so well thought out and detailed. It really added to this world, which was clearly inspired by ancient Egypt, and made it feel vivid and realistic.

If you're into classic high fantasy that is intelligent, deep, and not too dark, Mercedes Lackey is an excellent pick. She has her ups and downs with her books, but man, when she nails it, she freaking nails it. JOUST is a must-read if you love dragons and magic. I can't stress that enough.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Eidolon by Grace Draven

I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed - but I am very disappointed. What is this, the month of disappointing sequels? I just had a similar issue with THE QUEEN AND THE CURE, where I loved the first book, but the second book had a new cast of characters and an entirely different tone. It was like the author took everything I loved about the first book and trashed it. Part of what I loved about RADIANCE, for example, was the slow-burn romance that started from friendship and camaraderie, and ended up becoming a very deep and meaningful relationship borne of a comedy of errors as both the hero, Brishen, and the heroine, Ildiko, attempt to overcome the culture shock of being with the other.

In this book, Grace Draven wields the mighty hammer of angst. There are demons called galla taking over Bast-Haradis (which, funnily enough, is a similar plot to both THE BIRD AND THE SWORD (Volgar) and THRONE OF GLASS (Valg). Evil destructive demons seem to be a very popular plot point in unnecessary fantasy sequels (authors, take note).

We have a new character named Kirgipa who is literally the dullest dull who ever dulled. I skimmed over a lot of this book, but her part was so boring I didn't even bother reading it. Who is she? Don't know, don't care. As Mariah Carey once said, "I don't know her." Not that the Ildiko and Brishen passages are much better. Gone is the deep affection and understanding from the first book as they either (1) bang everywhere, all the time or (2) whine and moan about how they cannot be together, and how they are going to sacrifice themselves for (a) one another or (b) the kingdom, and oh great gods and goddesses, how can they possibly choose between love or the fate of a kingdom???!!

Meanwhile, I am sitting here and rolling my eyes.

So disappointing.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Kens by Raziel Reid

When a book has the guts to proclaim itself as "Heathers meets Mean Girls" for gays, it's got a mighty big pair of Alexander McQueens to fill. Both of those are beloved cult classics, and in the current political climate, creating the "right" kind of satire is difficult, especially for a group that has been so marginalized. My question going in was how on Earth would KENS approach LGBT issues in this manner without being trashy or cheap?

The plot is kind of weird to explain. The hero, Tommy, lives in a ritzy part of So-Cal where a group of boys called the "Kens" rule the school. Think the plastics, from Mean Girls. The leader, Ken Hilton, used to be Tommy's BFF, but they had a falling-out over a guy. But one day, KH decides to take Tommy back, give him an extreme makeover, and indoctrinate him back into the cult. Only Tommy fails, so once more he finds himself brutally humiliated.

At the same time, there's a new guy in school named Blaine who doesn't appear at all intimidated by the Kens. He's curiously eager to help Tommy get revenge on this group of guys who seem untouchable. But what he promises are harmless pranks end up being, well, psychotic. (This must be the Heathers influence of the story, although I've never actually seen Heathers.)

I think this is one of the most offensive books I've ever read. I think it's supposed to be satirical, but it's done so badly that it comes off as grossly insensitive. One of the characters in here has a drag act, in which his persona is named "Sandy Hooker" (you know, like Sandy Hook). The one black character is the story is gunned down by a policeman, after another character smashes his tail light and then calls the cops on him for reckless driving (casually dropping the fact that he's black). The book then cheekily tells us that the sound of sirens immediately fills the air, like, oh, of course. Classy. Then there's another character who brings a selfie-stick shaped like a gun to school and pretends to "shoot" some people who then say something like, "Whoa, I didn't know you were a Muslim." Because Muslim = terrorism, I guess.

In case those two things weren't enough, there's a reliance on gay stereotypes (drug-popping, promiscuity, shallowness); transphobic remarks; an abundance of racial stereotypes and coded language used to denigrate and demean; fat-shaming, weight-shaming, and body dysmorphia; suicide ideation; making light of those with eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, and the desire to self-harm; and of course, bullying. I don't necessarily believe that the author is a bigot or that it was his intention to indicate that he supports this sort of thinking. However, I do feel that he went out of his way to purposefully write an insensitive and shocking book. That's always a risk, and here, it was a failed risk in my opinion. It was dark and upsetting and not a very good book. I'm not sure what the message here was, or why it necessitated so much mean spirited humor. But it was awful to read.

I always feel bad when I see a book that has ratings below 3.0 on Goodreads. I usually go out of my way to read such books because sometimes I feel that such books either have a niche audience, an unusual and frustrating story, or a bad blurb that set them up as something they were not. In this case, however, I can understand the low ratings for KENS. It reads like someone who was trying to channel Cecily von Ziegesar and Bret Easton Ellis, while utterly missing the point.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

The Gladiator's Mistress by Jennifer D. Bokal

I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. I mostly bought it because I'm obsessed with Ancient Rome, and the ebook is ridiculously cheap ($1.49). It's a short book, and until the end, when it takes a dark turn, is on par with one of the bite-sized Harlequin Historicals in terms of mood, style, and atmosphere.

Phadera is the daughter of a Senator. Her mother is dead, and money runs through her father's hands like water as he gleefully spends money to keep his Seat. To secure his political position and get $$$, he has decided to marry Phaedra off to another Senator, a man old enough to be her father: Marcus.

On the day of her wedding, Phaedra's father hires two gladiators to fight for the pleasure of the crowd. One of these is Valens Secundus, Rome's Champion. Phaedra finds him attractive, especially in contrast to her husband, and the two of them end up talking briefly in the gardens about fate and position in society, and pledging to change the lot that fate handed to them for the better.

Several years pass, and neither of them has forgotten the other. Phaedra's husband is now dead and Valens has mostly retired from the Arena. However, a new man has stepped into the picture. This new man is Marcus's nephew, Acestes, who wants Phaedra for himself. And he will stop at nothing to get her, even if it means blood. It's been a while since I hated a character so much. He was awful.

THE GLADIATOR'S MISTRESS was a fun read. Phaedra is kind of a passive, spineless heroine, but she didn't quite border on TSTL, and seemed to have located her backbone in the last act (but only after it was basically handed to her - *sigh*). I really liked Valens. He is a kind hero, and strong. The secondary characters, Terenita, Baro, and Fortunada, were good too, and I see that the second book in this series is about Baro's and Fortunada's story. Acestes, as I said, was a pig. I liked the action scenes and the descriptions, and I think if you like HQ historicals, you'll enjoy this book as well.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang

Hello friends, I'd like to introduce you to the book that I've been secretly obsessing over these last couple days. It's adult historical fiction, which I know might seem off-putting to some who have neatly filed "historical fiction" under B for "Boring" in their mental file cabinets, but trust me when I say that this book is amazing and even though it's written for adults, there is tons of cross-over appeal for YA readers, especially YA readers of darker fiction cast in the molds of Rebecca Schaeffer's NOT EVEN BONES and Kerri Maniscalo's STALKING JACK THE RIPPER.

Our heroine, Cora Lee, was born in 19th century New York. By all accounts, this is a squalid, sordid time, but for Cora Lee, it's worse. Due to a genetic anomaly, she has two hearts. The doctor who delivers her into the world can't wait to acquire her tiny little corpse and puts in an offer then and there, but the family refuses. Frustrated, the doctor goes off and spews his drunken tale to all who will listen: stories of the half-Chinese girl with the two beating hearts who would make the perfect prize for a museum.

Fast forward two decades later, and the girl who the doctor said had no way of surviving is in good health, two hearts and all. Knowing that people will kill her for the marvel of her body, she has decided to work in the same shady career that would see her dead: she is a resurrectionist, a procurer of corpses for curiosity and scientific interest. A glorified grave-robber, basically. She does her work in drag, under the name Jacob Lee, and is considered the best in the business along with her crew.

One day she meets a man named Theodore Flint, who also seems to know a lot about the business, including the rumors floating around of a girl with two hearts. As the desire for freaks and geeks increases, some of those with curious medical afflictions begin to die under suspicious and morbid circumstances. And lest we, the readers, be too quick to pass over the dead, Kang writes of their deaths and last moments in the first person, to show their humanity in the way that their murderer(s) did not. As more and more people die, Cora Lee realizes that she's in grave danger, and that Theo, who she finds herself growing more attracted to by day, might pose the gravest threat of all.

So I loved this book. I posted about NOT EVEN MONSTERS recently, which is basically the fantasy equivalent of this book, and it has the same "hunter becomes the hunted" concept. I think both authors did a good job discussing that uncomfortable but still highly relevant question: what is the price of a life? NOT EVEN MONSTERS is gorier than this book but neither is a picnic, and THE IMPOSSIBLE GIRL had some very dark moments, including a twist that made me raise my eyebrows the way STALKING JACK THE RIPPER did (although it's nowhere near as ridiculous).

Twist aside, I thought this book was great. The research that went into it was obvious, and Cora is such a great heroine - I love it when heroines are strong and clever, but also allowed to be vulnerable and make mistakes. I even liked the romance, which I didn't expect to like at all. But then, doomed romance always has been my catnip. I'm honestly shocked that THE IMPOSSIBLE GIRL hasn't gotten more love. It was just shy of perfection and I can't wait to check out this author's other works.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Queen and the Cure by Amy Harmon

After finishing THE BIRD AND THE SWORD, I was eager to pick up the sequel, THE QUEEN AND THE CURE. Harmon is a good author - her writing is gorgeous, and even if her stories don't feature a lot of swashbuckling action or grim political coups, there is something appealing about a light fantasy that packs in some romance if it's done in capable hands. I liked the hero and heroine of the previous book, too. Lark and Tiras had the whole "star-crossed lovers" thing going on (I'm a sucker for that), and I thought Lark's magical abilities were cool. Plus, she was illiterate and she starts to fall for the hero when he teaches her how to read. YES. I couldn't wait to find out what happened next in the story, because even though the couple ended up together at the end, it was still more of an HFN because the baddie got away.

My first warning that THE QUEEN AND THE CURE wasn't going to be what I expected started at the very beginning. This book isn't about Lark and Tiras (although they have cameos). No, this book is about Tiras's bastard half-brother, Kjell, and the insipid little twit that is his love interest, Sasha - although I prefer to call her Becky, because of how basic she is. You know those spineless, teary, self-sacrificing heroines who immediately cling to the hero like saran wrap. That's Sasha, AKA Becky. To a T.

When Kjell first finds Becky, she's collapsed in the woods, with several broken limbs. She has the Gift, AKA magical powers, so her distrusting village-folk ran her into the woods and off a cliff. Because she would be stupid enough to run off a cliff. Anyway, he heals her (because his magical gift is healing), and she immediately proclaims herself to be his slave now, and that she belongs to him. This becomes a gross recurring theme in the book, her telling him that she's "his." It is also basically the foundation for their insta-love, which is super gross. That's not love. That's needy dependency.

BTW, her "gift" is that she's a Cassandra-like prophet, and most people choose to disregard her. Apparently her visions don't always come true; she can prevent them. I seeeee.

The villain in this book is Lady Firi from the last book, since the other villain died. I was sad about that, because I actually liked Firi, and her big reveal as the bad guy was upsetting. I felt betrayed. We find out that she's even eviler than we previously imagined because - oh, guess what? She's the reason that Becky with the lame powers has amnesia (oh yes, there's amnesia) and ended up a slave in the first place. Because we need a reason to hate Lady Firi, I guess, since Becky doesn't really have a horse in the fight beyond wanting to do what ever Kjell tells her to do.

Oh and guess what? GUESS WHAT?

...It's a spoiler, so don't say I didn't warn you.

No, seriously. It's a big one. Are you SURE???

Well, if you're sure.

Kjell... and Becky with the lame powers...

They're both fucking royalty.

That's right.

Even though neither of them starts off as anyone of importance (beyond Kjell, who's the "spare" to Tiras's heir), both of them find out that they're actually the Royal Royaltons of the Land of Special. Kjell's mother was a Queen, and Sasha - I mean, Becky - is a Queen. So now they don't need to be sad about not being as special as Tiras and Lark! THEY'RE BOTH SPECIAL TOO! YAY!

Oh. My. God. I wanted to throw this book out the window when I read that. I'm a sucker for a good amnesia plot as much as anyone, but this was ridiculous. And what the hell is that power, pulling memories down from the stars? I don't remember that being one of the four main powers from the previous book. I am pretty sure that this author went ahead and created new ones to insert this fuckery into THE QUEEN AND THE CURE for her special deus ex machina and I am not happy.

I am done with this Becky nonsense. Christ, what a disappointment.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

Bluebeard's Castle is one of my favorite fairy tales because it's so dark, and has so many possibilities when it comes to retellings. When I saw THE SEVENTH BRIDE pop up for sale on Kindle, I snagged it the instant I recognized it for what it was without even reading the reviews for it. That's a big risk, I know, and sometimes it comes back to bite me in the rear, but in this particular instance, THE SEVENTH BRIDE was totally worth it.

THE SEVENTH BRIDE is about a girl named Rhea, named for a goddess and possessing the strength of one. She is a miller's daughter and helps her family harvest wheat to mill for bread. One day, Lord Crevan shows up to their house to propose marriage, which she is immediately suspicious of, but her family basically gaslights her into accepting his suit. And when he demands that she come to his home at nightfall, prior to their marriage, alone? Yeah, they force her to do that too, even though they know that his intentions can't possibly be good.

And they aren't, naturally.

Oh my God, this was so good, and I recommend it to fans of Diana Wynne Jones, Rosamund Hodge, or Charlie N. Holmberg. It's one of those young adult books that manages to be deliciously dark without crossing the line of what the matronly no-fun-a-lot puritans consider "proper." You see, when Rhea goes to his house (after following a mysterious white path, befriending a small hedgehog companion, and encountering a number of monstrous creatures), she finds out that her husband-to-be already has a wife. In fact, he has several wives, all of them grievously marred in some way. Lord Crevan is an evil sorcerer who takes something from each of his brides. And if Rhea doesn't manage to complete his tasks and solve the mystery of the house, he will take something from her, too.

I can't get over how good this was. Strong female protagonist, adorable hedgehog companion, female friendships in the face of adversity, NO ROMANCE, creative story, dark atmosphere, and oh yes, a retelling of my favorite fairy tale. Could I put this book down? No. I enjoyed every moment of this story and I especially recommend it to people who liked CRUEL BEAUTY but wished it didn't have the romance. It's an odd duck of a tale, with the quirky morbidity of Tim Burton, and I adored it.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Warrior by Zoe Archer

DNF @ 32%

I am so angry at this book for not being good. I spent $2.99 on the four-book bundle when it went on sale, which was a great deal- but also a risk, because then if you end up not liking the series, you're out four books instead of just one. But oh, my God. It's set in Mongolia, and is like Indiana Jones meets Warehouse 13. I was totally predisposed to like this book, but I couldn't stand it. UGH.

Something about the writing in this book just feels very low quality. The sex scenes were awful - truly awful. I think it's going for a steampunk/Western vibe, but it didn't really strike the right balance, and the language was much too modern to feel authentic. Also, insta-love, you old bastard. I thought I told you never to darken my hallways again, and yet here you are, loafing around like you own the place. I'd like at least a semblance of some romantic tension.

It's a shame because the concept - a secret society who defends magically-infused objects called Sources from evil people - was great, and very much in line with some of my favorite movies like The Mummy and the Indiana Jones series (minus Crystal Skulls because that was the Jar Jar Binks of the Indiana Jones series). And this book was the Jar Jar Binks of the steampunk romances I've read: lame, cringey, and oblivious.


1 out of 5 stars

Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present by Hank Stuever

Christmas is one of those polarizing things, like the Kardashians and pumpkin spice, that people are either obsessed with or can't stand. There. Is. Literally. No. In-between. With this in mind, in 2006, Hank Stuever decided to go to Frisco, Texas to observe the locals for several months as the holiday season rapidly approached, and recorded everything that he observed while also primarily following 3-4 different families who would tell you that they f*cking loved Christmas if it wouldn't get them a mouthful of juniper-scented soap from Bath and Body Works, first.

Frisco is interesting because it's a region of the country that probably considers itself folksy and down-to-earth, and yet, the burgeoning middle-class is filled with conspicuous consumers who want all the latest in tech (even if said tech is produced by us liberals they hate so much) even as they go to craft fairs for fruit-strewn wreaths and come up with alternative facts about candy canes, such as the fact that they are actually "J"s for "Jesus."

I saw a few people, who are obviously conservative and obviously took issue with some of the author's snide observations, rating this book negatively because they took issue with the politics of the book. That's fair, I guess. The author is liberal - and I think he said that he was also gay. So obviously, going to Texas is going to be an odd experience for him, for a multitude of reasons. Keep in mind, this was in the middle of the Bush administration/Iraq War, and pre-gay marriage legalization, so politics definitely was a huge thing on many people's minds, and it would be inaccurate reporting to omit how this shapes Texans' ethics/lifestyle.

The three main families in this book are Tammie, a professional Christmas decorator; Jeff and Bridgette, people who go full-out Clark Griswold with their lights; and Caroll, devout worshipper at an actual megachurch who worries about being a good christian and taking care of her fam. Does the author sneer a little at these humble people he's writing about? Yes, a little. But I don't think he was cruel. And honestly, some of the things in this book are so ridiculous that it's hard not to roll your eyes. As someone who is neither conservative nor religious, it was so interesting to see this snapshot in time from the "other" perspective. You have people who are so like you in some ways, and yet so unlike you in others - and for some reason, it's the ways that they aren't like you that end up seeming so much bigger and more important, because those drive the choices that make them so annoying.

Part of what I loved about TINSEL is that the author did such a good job showing both the good and the bad parts of what it means to be an upper-middle-class Texan at Christmas. It was obvious by the end of the book how much he had grown to care about the participants in these little microhistories, and how much they had grown to care for him as well. Reading about all these familiar parts of my own teenage years - Converse, Natasha Bedingfield, Icing by Claire's - interspersed with emotionally manipulative radio shows peddling tragedy to sell Jesus and women who consider Sarah Palin their honorary BFF and would sell their soul to decorate Barbara Bush's house... well, it's surreal.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Heartstruck by Angeli E. Dumatol

I was disappointed by HEARTSTRUCK. I got really into the #romanceclass novellas over the summer, and preordered this one while caught up in the frenzy. Most of them are really good, but there's a couple in the line up that are either hit or miss, and I'm sorry to say that HEARTSTRUCK was a miss.

Alexa Zamora is the "It" girl of her high school but she has a secret...she used to be unpopular! People bullied her for being an orphan and said she was the reason her parents died in their car crash (WTF, seriously?) and she's afraid people will find out that she's a tough girl who practices martial arts and hurt somebody once! No, seriously, that is the entire conflict of this book.

When her childhood friend Theo transfers to her school, Alexa is terrified that her "secret" will get out. She's also attracted to him, despite knowing that she shouldn't be, but because her friends have branded him persona non grata (because despite being hot, he's "too broody"), she shames him and publicly humiliates him in front of them while expecting him to be understanding of her "dilemma."

While it was cool to learn about arnis, the Filipino style of martial arts, I couldn't get on board with a heroine that was so selfish. I hated Alexa, and thought the way she treated Theo and her friends was super annoying. How can I be expected to root for a heroine like this and want her to have an HEA?

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, November 12, 2018

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

Remember when the Anita Blake series was good, back when she wasn't the Special Snowflake Queen of Sex'n'Superpowers™? (Seriously, have you read the new books? How is her vagina not permanently on fire from all that friction? Also, girl has more special moves than freaking Ditto.) Remember how the series was edgy and erotic and did not condescend to its female audience? Remember how Anita used to kick ass? Remember when there were just TWO love interests and not an entire Siouxie and the Banshees concert-worth of Gothic rejects in frilly shirts suffering from existential crises? Ilona Andrews remembers. Enter Kate Daniels.

Ilona Andrews has a huuuuuuge cult following. I got indoctrinated almost two years ago with the Hidden Legacy series (BURN FOR ME was the book that got me back into urban fantasy). After speeding through the rest of the series like a cocaine addict burning through their stash, crying ecstatically over the series' rumored (and now confirmed continuation), and frantically working my way through the rest of the Esteemed Ilona Andrews Hoard™, I finally found my way to reading the much-hyped and very intimidating Kate Daniels series. This series has freaking fans with a capital F.

It's a little scary, because I was looking at the publication date and this book came out when I was still in high school. Despite being over ten years old, though, the book still feels fresh. Part of that is because it hasn't become dated like a lot of other older PNRs. This is because in Kate Daniel's world, magic and technology are in conflict (they short each other out), and currently magic is at its zenith, so technology has yielded to swords, horses, leylines, and magical abilities. Holy father, Batman.

Kate has decided to seek revenge for the murder of her Guardian, using her own magical powers and her trusty sword as tools. But revenge isn't simple. The murderer has covered their tracks well, and worse yet - they also appear to be responsible for the serial killings of several shape-shifters, humans, and vampires in the area. What seemed like a simple goal befitting the most basic of heroes' journey plots suddenly becomes a supernatural Gordian knot riddled with sexy shape-shifters and necromancers (oh my). Andrews doesn't hold back on the gore, either. This book packs a mean body count, and you, the reader, are sitting right in the Splash Zone. (And that ain't water.)

So, my Completely Unbiased and Possibly Unwelcome Opinion™ on this book is... that it was good but not great. People were telling me that this series is much better than Hidden Legacy (OMFG), and maybe that's true for the later books in the series, but honestly, BURN FOR ME has a much stronger hook. And as fun as Kate Daniels is, she doesn't have the emotional depth and aching humanity that made Nevada such a treat (and made her gradual transformation over the course of the three books that much more addictive and investing, as a result). She tosses off some good one-liners, but I don't really understand what makes her tick. She's a stiletto heel in human form: pretty, sharp, but not very empathetic or intriguing. Also, Curran is no Rogan (don't @ me). There, I said it.

Still, I'm curious to see where the books go from here.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Other Sister by Sarah Zettel

Gillian Flynn is the yardstick by which I judge all thrillers involving family secrets and lies, and THE OTHER SISTER fits that niche perfectly. It's been a while since I read a book about people so horrendously disturbed and unlikable, so horribly flawed. By the time I realized that this rabbit hole was taking me somewhere I might not fully want to go, it was already too late to turn back. So, bravely, I read on with my fingers crossed.

Geraldine and Marie are sisters. They have a close relationship but it's fraught with tension. Geraldine has always been the "bad" girl in the family - she has attempted suicide, been addicted to drugs ... and she might even be a murderer. Marie, on the other hand, is the "good" girl with the dutiful son and the apple of her ambitious father's eye; she's quick to obey, and that's what he likes. Their father, Martin, has always been about control.

As you read on, you learn more about this family, and how the father has been slowly acquiring property in their town - including that of his relatives - like it's his own Manifest Destiny. You'll learn about what happens to love when it's been poisoned by hate, and just how long grudges can last. And perhaps most frighteningly: you'll learn about the sharpened blades that wait at the bottom when you fall from the tower of your own ambition.

This terrifying family drama is juxtaposed against Geraldine's scholarly articles about fairytales, and fairytale motifs. It's fitting considering how bad the parents in fairytales were, and how children in those tales were often at the mercy of horrendous adults who used and abused them. There's an almost-magical element to the telling of this story that's reminiscent of the original V.C Andrews books (not the ones by Andrew Neiderman), and that charmed and horrified me in equal measure.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. It's a bit slow to get into and the writing style is a bit affected, but the story and the characters are gruesome, and I really think that if you're into Gillian Flynn and have been asking yourself, "What's next?" this book is probably your best bet.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World's Most Coveted Handbag by Michael Tonello

This was gossipy and fun, and proof that someone doesn't have to seem "likable" to write a good memoir. Michael Tonello made a living for a while as a "reseller" of the rare Birkin bags, named after Jane Birkin and coveted by highly materialistic, conspicuous consumers everywhere. During one year, he spent $1,600,000 on Hermes merchandise for resale. That's more money than most of us will ever see at once, and it's ridiculous to imagine it going towards handbags and scarves. I consider a scarf over $25 to be expensive, so you can imagine how much my eyes bugged out as I contemplated these prices. Jeez! The most I've ever paid for a bag was ~$145 and it was Kate Spade.

Michael Tonello reads like a Sex and the City character, or one of the catty flamboyant BFFs that populate chick-lit novels everywhere. This is a guy who enjoys judging people, and has it down to an art form, and considers an $800 tab with a colleague a good investment. I think he'd relish the Sex and the City comparison, to be honest; he seems to feel very comfortable with who he is, even if who he is sometimes means "politically incorrect" or "jerk," and is utterly unapologetic about his privileged and expensive lifestyle. There's some very off-color remarks in here, and he has put together a rather judgemental guide based on his perceptions of the walking stereotypes who work at many Hermes branches. It's hilarious AF, though, and pretty on-point based on what I've seen at some luxury stores' service.

I liked this book because it was very readable and it was interesting to see how he gamed the system. He perfected a "formula" for getting a Birkin when many people were either turned down or put on endless waitlists. You can't help but root for the underdog going against Big Corporate; in a way, it's as much of a guilty pleasure to watch as Oobah Butler faking his way to Paris Fashion Week with a pair of jeans he bought at a street market. There's also occasional moments of drama - hiring "thugs" to deal with a sketchy ex-colleague, fights with his boyfriend about money, dealing with snooty salespeople who won't fork over handbags - which add a nice bit of tension to the narrative.

The last chapter was rather jarring considering the tone of the memoir to this point, but I do agree with his point ultimately: the hustle life is a tough and unforgiving one. Initially, he enjoyed the thrill of the chase, but I think his mother's failing health and getting screwed over by that Luc guy put his "work" into perspective. I liked his decision at the end, and appreciated his outlook. He met a lot of really interesting characters (one of whom had him drive her Aston Marton to her second home as a favor) and had some of the most luxurious items in the world flow through his hands. As he said in the last chapter, he has some good stories to tell over ouzo now.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Bird and the Sword by Amy Harmon

Reading this book was surprisingly fun. I tend to side-eye cultish fantasy novels because they tend to be over-hyped by non-genre readers, and then someone like me comes along, picks the book up, and immediately starts crying, "TROPES! TROPES! TROPES!" But I had high hopes for this author because I'd read a book by her before, called THE LAW OF MOSES. I wasn't a huge fan of it, but I liked her writing style and I thought it would translate well to the fantasy genre.

THE BIRD AND THE SWORD is a very gentle fantasy novel. It takes a while to get rolling and while there's action towards the end, it's not "grimdark" or over-the-top with regard to violence and gore. Lark is a girl with magic powers in a land where magic is punishable by death. She sees her mother executed before her eyes, after her mother takes the blame for her spells, cursing Lark to silence, cursing the father to protect the daughter at the cost of his own life, and cursing the visiting king who executed her - he will fall, and his son will die. That that, suckers.

Talk about a hell of a flounce.

Lark is a reluctant princess, kept illiterate and powerless by her father. When the son of the king who killed her mother takes her captive, she's furious and afraid. But Tiras proves to be an unexpected captor with pity his father never exhibited. Slowly, she begins to warm to him, and he teaches her to read and write, which unlocks the powers she's tried to keep suppressed all these years, and ends up giving her a very different kind of voice than the one her mother imagined, but no less powerful.

This is the story that Sarah J. Maas was going for when she wrote A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES and THRONE OF GLASS. The heroine is pretty and powerful, but also feminine and, in many ways, relatable. There's an evil king who hates magic and is trying to corrupt his son. You could even argue that the evil beings in this book, the Volgar, are a little bit like the "Valg." The difference is that this is actually a good story, there's solid character development, a slow-burn romance that unfolds over time, and some actual character flaws. The heroine can be petty, cowardly, and self-doubting. While irritating, they ultimately contribute to her growth as a character. Maas's characters are Mary Sues that don't really grow as characters; they just find new ways to be special.

I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would, and will for sure be reading the sequel. That ending - ooh. Sounds like things are about to be shaken up.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

I am so cheesed off right now that I'm having trouble putting my fury to (virtual) paper. This is CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE all over again. People were singing this book's praises for being diverse!fantasy featuring not just a heroine of color, but a heroine of color who was a lesbian. How could this be bad? I asked myself. The advance reviews were great, and almost unanimously positive. It was an F/F romance set in a fantasyscape based off Malaysia, one of the most culturally diverse places ever. It sounded so freaking good, and I could not wait for it.

But it was not good. Not even close.

Problem #1: The heroine is a raging Mary Sue.

Per the synopsis, every year, the Demon King chooses eight human girls to be his teenage concubines (gross). This year, they've decided to go with Nine: Special Specialton herself, Lei.

Lei is cast in the vein of every Mary Sue ever, although for some reason, people are adoring and forgiving her for her utter self-aggrandizing blandness in this book where they condemned Bella Swan for it. She has ~special eyes~. Even though she's fully human, she has gold eyes the color of a demon's, and if that doesn't scream, "THIS IS MY ORIGINAL CHARACTER, MOONLIGHT SONATA RAVEN EMORY RAINBOW!" at you, that's probably because you've written more than your fair share of Moonlight Sonata Raven Emory Rainbows.

She has one character flaw: she's clumsy. For the first 50% of the book she's tripping over everything. I think it's supposed to be endearing. Since when does having too many inner-ear infections as a child make you better than the rest of the human - I mean, "Paper" - race? She's also shooting her mouth off all the time, and people seem to love her for that too. And her particular brand of sarcasm is basically the teenage equivalent of a toddler stomping his foot and saying "NO!" Oh, wow, so brave! So defiant! Like, please. This dumb papery-ass little shit wouldn't know Brave if she saw it at Disney.

Her actual character flaw: she's a hypocrite. She is constantly railing against the Demon King, and yes, he's an awful guy. But then right after he nearly sexually assaults her, she immediately turns around and says "Haven't we waited long enough?" when kissing Wren and Wren asks her to wait. It's like, oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize that consent was solely a heterosexual concept. When she says WAIT, you wait, b*tch. This becomes a pattern, with love that is definitely insta and super possessive. Lei clearly considers Wren "hers" before their relationship is even consummated, and despite being a feisty, sarcastic, papery little shit, apparently this is her trademark and no one is allowed to do it, because she is mad AF when she finds out Wren is keeping secrets from her.

Lest you say, "Nenia, wait, you read bodice-rippers, and this seems kind of like cherry-picking when compared to the bodice-ripping that goes on in what you read." This is true, and I appreciate your perception and strawman reasoning. The difference between bodice-rippers and this book is that bodice-rippers don't purport to be empowering, woman-loving feminist literary masterworks, and were not advertised to me as such. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's hypocrisy. You can write garbage and I will read it gladly, but tell me it's art or classy sh*t, and I will come after you. #TheEnd

Problem #2: The writing is not good

The phrase "I grit back a glower at this" literally appeared in this book, in case you need an example of why the writing was not good. This is written in a style that I call "Basic B*tch YA." The language is simple, the dialogue wooden, and there's a few nice quotes thrown in for people to put on IG or Pinterest, and trick people like me into reading the book thinking it's going to be good. This is the literary equivalent of a movie trailer where the movie is so bad, the trailer is basically a reel of the only salvageable moments from the film because otherwise nobody would want to see it.

Also, there was so much "purring" and "shoulder-rolling" that if I didn't know better, I would have thought that Sarah J. Maas had waltzed in and seized control of the narrative. Lord knows, Bellei Swan is just as annoying as Celery Saltine-thin. The two of them should start a bowling league.

Problem #3: The world-building was not good

"Lush fantasy" my sizeable rear-end! Moon-caste, Paper-caste, Steel-caste. Despite a few made-up insults to show scorn at those beneath them, I did not feel like this caste system was really adequately displayed, especially since we didn't see much of the Steel caste at all. While reading about these anthropomorphic animal-beastmans, I kept thinking longingly of Inuyasha, which I thought did a really great job of showing just how disposable humans were, and how annoyingly superior and classist demons were. Just look at how lesser demons like Inuyasha and Naraku were treated.

Second, why is the Demon King still in charge if everyone hates him and he can't produce heirs? What was the dealio with the rebellion that led him taking the Paper castes to bed in the first place? Why weren't the Xia mentioned earlier so they didn't seem like a Deus-ex-Machxia later on? The world-building in this book was garbage, and the idea of the teenage concubines just seemed like a salacious hook to lure people in with the promise of reading something illicit (like me *cough*). The magical powers and totalitarian regime were so badly done, and made me think longingly of Avatar: The Last Airbender, where there was cohesion in the Asian-world-building, as well as the magic and culture and oppression tactics of those who were in power.

Problem #4: The hype was a lie (for me)

I'm very angry at myself for falling for the hype of this book - it's like I never learn my lesson. I really want to support PoC authors and books with PoCs, but I will never do that with a book that I, personally, think is bad. YMMV, and if this is the book to make you feel appreciated, validated, or acknowledged, then that is wonderful. But to me, it felt like just another watered-down YA fantasy.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

8-Bit Apocalypse: The Untold Story of Atari's Missile Command by Alex Rubens

8-BIT APOCALYPSE is a difficult book to review, because there were some things it did really well and other things that it did less well. This is one of those "micro-histories" about how certain things were made or created, think the Canadian TV show, How Its Made, only less overtly focused on the technical aspects. This book in particular is about the popular Atari/arcade game, Missile Command: a game in which the player's goal is to defend cities from weaponized attacks and prevent a nuclear apocalypse.

I've read another book about video game history, which was called THE COMIC BOOK STORY OF VIDEO GAMES: THE INCREDIBLE HISTORY OF THE ELECTRONIC GAMING REVOLUTION. The title is a mouthful, which is fitting, because I think the creators bit off more than they could chew with that book. It aspired to be a comic book "oral history" of video games, but was crushed under the weight of its own ambition. The actual video games themselves did not even appear until around p. 70 or 80, as the author was focused on the previous technological advancements that made the invention of video games possible.

You could argue that this book has the opposite problem: instead of focusing on the history of Atari itself, the author has narrowed the scope of his interest to one game. Getting too specific is always a little risky because you won't always know going in if you're going to have enough meat to put on the bones of your story, and also because, depending on the subject matter, your book could end up becoming a niche topic interesting only to a very small number of people. To be honest, Missile Command game I had never even heard of before picking this book up, and I've played a lot of arcade games, from Asteroid to Frogger to Galaxian and Galaga, to Rampage and Pacman.

The author opens the book by giving context to the political environment that birthed Missile Command: the Cold War. I did think this was worth getting into, because the Cold War shaped many other popular media we still enjoy today, like Red Dawn and WarGames. A lot of people, even young people, were suddenly, painfully aware of their own mortality, and how quickly not just they could be erased from this world, but also how quickly the world itself could be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. Apparently, the designer of the game Missile Command had more than a bit of existential angst over his creation, and some of the larger-than-life implications of its gameplay.

I did like having the context, but as with THE COMIC BOOK STORY OF VIDEO GAMES, the titular game doesn't even appear until around p. 80 or so. When it does, it's a bit tedious, because the creation of the Atari company mirrors that of many contemporary start-up tech companies, and the brogrammer culture and fast and fun work environment has lost the luster today that it probably had almost fifty years ago, when it was still a complete 180 from the typical sterile office environment.

My favorite part of the book - and this will probably surprise no one - was the drama over the high-scorers, especially that one guy who just could not handle not being the best, and decided to screw with not just the other victor, but the people who handled the world records and even the creator of the Missile Command game itself. There's a YouTuber I follow called Fredrik Knudsen who likes to do mini documentaries about weird, niche subcultures or pop phenomena (mostly on the Internet, but not exclusively so), and I was tickled because this weird war over an obscure arcade game from the 80s seemed like just the sort of thing he'd report on.

The tie-in to contemporary video games at the end was also interesting, but went on a little longer than it should have. I do agree that Missile Command (based on what I've read about it here, anyway, having not played it myself) was revolutionary in how it forced players to make optimal choices, rather than purely good ones, and punished players in an emotionally devastating way for failing to do well. The comparison to the game Spec Ops: The Line was ingenious, especially since they're both about war, and the player comes off looking and feeling pretty bad about what they have to do in both games in order to win. It's probably not surprising to you (knowing what a liberal creampuff I am) that one of my favorite paraprosdokians is: "War does not determine who is right - only who is left."

On a final note, I'm kind of surprised that the author did not bring up the game One Chance. One Chance is a game in which a scientist, thinking he has developed a cure for cancer, learns that the drug he has unleashed upon the masses will destroy all life within six days. An indie game that uses old-fashioned, vaguely Atari-looking graphics, One Chance takes the player through a grim and increasingly claustrophobic storyline that forces the player to make several moral decisions with a very high impact. It is a game that seems, in retrospect, to have been directly inspired by games like Missile Command, with unpleasant forced-choice scenarios resulting in unpleasant consequences.

Ultimately, I did like 8-BIT APOCALYPSE and I think the author had a lot of enthusiasm for his subject matter, even if it felt like he didn't always know how to go about it at times. I see that he works at Google, according to his Goodreads biography, so I'm sure his tech know-how made him a great person to write about some of the more mechanical and "insider" aspects of Atari and the game. It's not my favorite book on pop culture that I've ever read, but I enjoyed learning about arcade games and was happy that it ended on a positive note about the resurgence of arcade games in bars. (Plus, Killer Queen got a shout-out, and Killer Queen is an amazing game.)

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Pretty Ugly by Kirker Butler

I received a copy of this as an ARC a while ago, but I liked it enough that I bought a copy of it for a reread. I think the best way to describe PRETTY UGLY is to say that it's one part Drop Dead Gorgeous, one part BIG TROUBLE, and one part Toddlers in Tiaras. The humor in this book is pretty mean-spirited and crude, so it's not super surprising that this author has worked on shows like Family Guy, but unlike Family Guy (in its current incarnation, at least), PRETTY UGLY is actually funny.

PRETTY UGLY follows one dysfunctional family and takes a look at how child pageants shape all their lives. Miranda Miller, the mom, won a teenage pageant when she was young by process of elimination and it gave her a taste for winning. She's decided to live vicariously through her daughter, Bailey, who is sick of the whole circus and has decided to binge-eat so as to gain weight and spite her mother. Miranda has two boys, but she mostly ignores them and dumps them off with her crazy mother, Joan, to watch, who "home schools" them by letting them eat junk food and watch all the TV they want. Joan thinks she hears the voice of Jesus in her head, like he's her own personal life coach. Lastly, there's Ray, the husband. Ray works at a hospice, and his two major passions in life consist of 1: eating his patients' cocktails of pills and guessing what they are by the effects on his body and 2: having sex with the underage grand-daughter of one of his patients, because, in his mind the desperate emasculated SOB wants to feel like a stallion. Obviously, NONE of this is sustainable, and the family goes through major, MAJOR drama.

I've never really liked the idea of pageants. I'm a feminist, and think there's something inherently disgusting about parading women around on a stage before dissecting their features like they're attractive slabs of meat on a lab table. Doing it to children is even more inherently nauseating, because at least some women could argue that they feel empowered by pageants, that doing it gives them a stepping stone to other future projects and career opportunities, that it's their choice - but children have no way of truly consenting in the matter, and I suspect that many of them would much rather be playing with kids of their own age and being kids, instead of stomping around to Christina Aguilera songs on a stage while wearing a dress that has way too many dyed feathers on it.

PRETTY UGLY is not a nice book and the people in it are not good people. I have a fairly dark and cynical sense of humor, so I found this book more amusing than most, but I think there's something in this book guaranteed to cause offense to virtually anyone. That's why I found it funny: I think it's a pretty pitch-perfect look at a certain group of people and what drives them to do the things that they do. It's worth reading if you think you can stomach the content. CollegeHumor's amusing new reboot of Precious Plum (a none-too-subtle parody of Honey BooBoo) is written much in the same vein, but PRETTY UGLY is far less crude and cruel with regard to how it treats its victims.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Friday, November 9, 2018

Sleep In The Woods by Dorothy Eden

 DNF @ 47%

Maybe if I had forced myself to slog through the remaining 53% I might have found it in me to award this book an extra star. But I couldn't really muster the enthusiasm. I really enjoyed the other book I read by this author, a Gothic called DARKWATER. The premise of SLEEP IN THE WOODS sounded even more intriguing.

Briar is the servant of two wealthy girls seeking husbands. They go to New Zealand to find their matches, bringing Briar with them, living with their aunt. Briar is very ambitious and strives to catch the attention with one of the local boys, but instead, at a masquerade (because #MistakenIdentity!), she ends up in the arms of the dangerous and very wealthy Saul.

Thus compromised, Saul has no choice but to marry her and take her to his home in the heart of Maori country, where the local indigenous peoples are portrayed as ruthless, violent cannibals.

I wanted to like this book. I love Gothic novels, and even though this is as un-PC as all get-out (reminiscent, in a way, of that exploitation film Cannibal Ferox), I am willing to tolerate un-PC content if it a) suits a purpose, b) suits the times, and c) doesn't involve children or animals. But I can't stomach a book that is boring. And boring this book was.

Sorry to give this a bad review, but that's how it goes.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Man, people are getting all up in this book's face because it doesn't read like Madeline Miller. Of course it doesn't read like Madeline Miller. Do you see the name Madeline Miller on the cover? No; it says "Pat Barker." It's like marching up to your step-mom and saying, "YOU'RE NOT MY REAL MOM." Well, duh. But that doesn't necessarily mean that she's a bad person, either.

THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS appeared on Netgalley one fine summer day, and I did what I do with all ARCs: applied for it, and then promptly forgot about it until it was about to expire. When I saw that it was about Ancient Greece, however, I immediately prioritized it a little higher on my to-read list, because I love learning about antiquity. Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece - that sort of thing is my jazz. I could listen to it all day.

I actually read this book at the perfect time because I had just finished another book called A THOUSAND SHIPS, which is about the events in The Iliad that lead up to the Trojan War. In THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS, everyone is already in the thick of it, and things are nearing the end. The narrator is Briseis, a casualty of the Trojan war, who ends up becoming a war prize/concubine of Achilles after watching everyone in her home be slaughtered or raped depending on their gender. She is also part of the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles, which ends up resulting in the turning point of the war, AKA When Achilles Loses His Sh*t.

Most of the story is narrated by Briseis, but some of it is also narrated by Achilles. I wasn't really interested in his narrative, because he was a Sad Boy with Mommy Issues™ who Freud would have a serious field day with (seriously, the "sex" scenes in this book were wtf). It is not a book for the faint of heart. The author really does not shirk on the physical and sexual violence. As William Tecumseh Sherman said, "War is hell." But it's especially hell for women, who are basically considered chattel as far as the men in this book are considered, and whether they're being sacrificed on a pyre, spat on, abused, assaulted, or treated with the most condescending sort of compassion possible, they are still considered objects - objects resented, cherished, despised, coveted, but objects all the same.

I remember reading somewhere recently that Greek heroes aren't really the same as American heroes, in that many of them were not Good People. They did awful things (see Hercules/Herakles) in the name of glory. Many of them would probably be closer to villains, now that I think about it, who are far more consumed by vainglory than our (almost self-abnegating) selfless heroes. Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, I remember exactly where I heard that quote: it was in Lindsey Ellis's review of Disney's Hercules (a must-watch; she really has the most excellent feminist/cinematographic rhetoric). And I think she has a good point. Achilles, too, is awful. Pat Barker lays that out clearly.

Barker also makes the odd choice of writing this book with modern language. Margaret Atwood did that too with the PENELOPIAD, but that feels like more of a post-mortem retrospective, whereas this takes place in Ancient Greece - and yet, they're talking like a bunch of modern British people. What gives with that? I saw that a lot of people who were criticizing this book took issue with that (yes, the Madeline Miller people, mostly) and I'm more sympathetic to this; the Greek myths were lyrical and dramatic, and its odd to have that sort of storytelling removed from the equation: odd and jarring.

That said, I did enjoy this book. Parts of it were slow (Achilles) and it was unpleasant to read (horrific scenes), and told in an odd way, but the modern language also makes it easier to understand what's going on. I would not read this in lieu of The Iliad, but it makes for a nice supplement.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Hi, let me tell you about this book. It was SO good and I say that honestly (#NotSponsored). But seriously, you know that I'm not afraid to take the utter piss out of an over-hyped book (see anything I've reviewed by Sarah J. Maas), so when I read something like this and say it's awesome, please know that I have absolutely no reason to lie. CRAZY RICH ASIANS is crazy good.

So what's it about? Well, the story itself isn't that original. We've all read and watched rags-to-riches chicklit, whether it's DEVIL WEARS PRADA (book or movie) or that mid-2000s classic, What a Girl Wants. There is something very satisfying about watching Jane Everygirl soar up the class system, sticking her nose up (very good sportsmanship-like, of course) at the people who oppressed and snubbed her when she was just a humble pleb. This is a story that nobody gets sick of. We, as a society, eat this story up like it's a nacho-cheese drizzled tray of curly fries at the fairgrounds.

No, what makes this story special is that it takes this tried-and-true formula and it sets it in Asia. And before you say, "What, what about MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA?" No, White Person (because you probably are a white person if this is your rallying cry). That is different, because MEMOIRS was written by a white dude from a white dude's perspective of what Asia is like. And as much as I enjoy that book (I did, guiltily), there is something vastly different about a book written by someone who is only observing a culture through secondary sources and someone who has experienced it firsthand, and is writing not just based on their observations but also based on what they, personally, experienced from within.

Rachel Chu is a likable, intelligent, girl-next-door type professor of Economics who has been dating her fellow professor/Singaporean boyfriend for two years. When one of his old chums is engaged to be married, Rachel is invited to accompany him back to Singapore as a guest of the wedding, but also to meet the fam. She's excited - THIS IS THE BIG NEXT STEP - but also a little afraid. Nick, her boyfriend, has never said much to her about his family before, and this worries her. And she should be worried, because they are basically the Carnegies of Asia. They have their fingers in all the pineapple pies, and want nothing to do at all with Rachel, the gold-digging interloper (in their minds).

What follows is several hundreds of pages of drama, running the gamut of conspicuous consumption and materialism, cheating and adultery, cruel hazing, superficiality, gossip-mongering, family drama, abuse, lies, and MORE. It should have been vapid, what with all of the name-dropping of luxury products and jet-setting, but it wasn't. The only other author who I've read that was able to do this "ennui of the rich and famous" style of writing was Jackie Collins, and based on what I've read thus far, Kevin Kwan is basically the Asian Jackie Collins, which was incredibly refreshing, because there are only so many times that you can read about rich white people living it up in London, New York, and Los Angeles, before you start to feel a little, well, bored.

Rachel is a really likable character and except at the end, when she starts blaming her mother for something that wasn't really her fault, I was constantly rooting for her and Nicky. I loved Astrid, Nick's troubled and gorgeous socialite cousin. I liked Peik Lin, Rachel's conveniently rich BFF (and advocate). I loved Rachel's Mom, Kerry, and her backstory at the end nearly broke my heart and left me teary-eyed. It just goes to show how much mothers will sacrifice for their children. That said, the only thing I didn't like about this book was the lack of closure. The book ends in a very inconvenient and unfinished spot (probably because there are two sequels), but it feels very anticlimactic since things are never really squared with Eleanor, Nick's scheming snobby mother, Francesca, the resident mean girl, and also between Nick and Rachel themselves, who are a constant will they/won't they? This was very disappointing and I felt like it wasn't fair to the reader. It wasn't fair to ME.

I desperately need to find out what happens next. The two sequels are already on hold at the libs.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars