Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Only Ashes Remain by Rebecca Schaeffer

NOT EVEN BONES was one of the more disturbing YA books I've ever read, but I really enjoyed the tight storyline and strong female heroine. Even though there were parts that made me straight-up cringe, I couldn't help but applaud it for being daring and taking risks in a genre that's basically stagnated, with everyone trying to outrace each other to write the next over-hyped Sarah J. Maas clone. If you like SJM, that's on you, but I can't stand those stock footage fantasy novels. Adventure, please!

ONLY ASHES REMAIN begins where NOT EVEN BONES left off. Vita has just come in contact with the person who sold her out and caused her to be tortured/almost eaten. She still bears the wounds-- physical and psychological-- of that interaction, and is eager for revenge. However, her betrayer has ties to a secret organization that holds lots of power in the unnatural community, and her new zannie friend (a creature that feeds off pain) has a dark history that's about to return with a vengeance.

This is not as dark or as brutal as its prequel, and there's a lot more running around. There's still suspense, but it didn't have the high stakes of the previous book. On the other hand, we get to meet some cool new characters, like a kelpie named Adair and a ghoul named Diana, as well as some INHUP agents and Vita's mom returning to act like the savage meanie she is. I think I liked the prequel more than this one in terms of plot and pacing, as this book definitely suffered from a mild case of second book syndrome. You can feel the sequel-baiting.

That said, I enjoyed ONLY ASHES REMAIN because it's got unique world-building, morally-grey characters, conspiracies upon conspiracies, and some pretty solid writing. I'd recommend this urban fantasy series to anyone who likes grimdark or wants to read about more female characters who don't always think about looking pretty or acting sweet. The diverse cast and doomed romance are just an added bonus, especially since they're both basically villains cast in the role of reluctant heroes. YAS.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories by Young-Ha Kim

I didn't realize that this was an anthology of short stories when I applied for the ARC, I was so taken with the title story: a tale about an old serial killer with a degenerative brain disease who believes his daughter is dating another serial killer. I mean, how awesome does that sound? Then I got the book and realized there were other stories in here, too. I call that a bonus.

Diary of a Murderer: ☆☆☆☆

It's the title story, and what we're all here for. As I said, the narrator is a serial killer who was active until he was about 45 or so. Then he developed Alzheimer's and started to lose his whole killing drive. His daughter is actually the daughter of one of his victims, who he has raised himself, and he cares about her as much as he cares about anything-- which is why he is enraged when his daughter begins seeing the man he suspects is a rival serial killer setting up shop in the same town. Frantic, he begins to write down his thoughts in journals, and record instructions to himself on a device he wears around his neck. He must save his daughter by beating the killer at his own game-- before he forgets both the man and the mission.

This was such a good story. The pacing is excellent and the translator did an amazing job. Sometimes translations can read as clunky, but this was smooth and felt like it was written in native English. Also, there's an amazing twist that I did not see coming, and the best part of all is, it's foreshadowed, so it doesn't even come out of nowhere. Those are the best kinds of twists, the ones where if you read back and look for the clues, you think to yourself, "Aha!" This was an "Aha!" Great story.

The Origin of Life:

Wasn't a fan of this one. It was boring and I skimmed it. Next.

Missing Child: ☆☆☆☆

I honestly think I liked this one as much as the title story. A couple has their child kidnapped at a grocery store and their life has fallen apart. The husband is bitter and depressed and the wife has come down with schizophrenia. They're reunited with their child when his kidnapper ends her life and leads a note behind as a confession to what she's done. The reunion is painful, though, because the kid now considers his kidnapper his true parent and his new guardians as interlopers.

This one was emotionally painful and did not have a happy ending (well, sort of), but it worked. The parents were flawed and so was the kid, and nobody was really a "good" character. It actually reminded me a bit of Herman Koch's THE DINNER in that it shows the way some people with mental illnesses can create toxic environments for their children and families, and how nuture can sometimes triumph over nature, no matter how much we wish otherwise.

The Writer: ☆☆½

This is a story of a writer who is working on his new book. He has an affair, but it does not go as he expects. I felt like this story was dull. The beginning of it had a lot of promise, but after Missing Child and Diary of a Murderer, my expectations were high and this story kind of tanked.

I just added up my ratings and averaged them out, which apparently means that this book is a 2.8. I feel like that is unfair to the 4-star stories, though, which were especially good, so I am going to bump my final rating up to a 3-stars. Honestly, this book is worth buying for the first story alone, which is the longest of the bunch, comprising half of the page count. It's so, so worth it.

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

3 out of 5 stars

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Two WASPy couples go out to dinner at a ridiculously fancy restaurant, where each meal has its own pedigree. Serge is a politician and Babette is his hot wife. Paul is Serge's brother, and he is married to an intellectual and demure-seeming woman named Claire. Both of them have children, and their children have done something terrible. As they eat their ridiculously pretentious meals and drink their ridiculously pretentious wine, they banter, circling each other as if in a dance-- or a duel. Because when the curtains go down, the claws come out.

I'm always bemused by what Goodreads declares "good." If you look at the ratings for this book, they're pretty dismal. I can only assume that people took issue with the fact that literally everyone in this book is awful. There's no one to root for: everyone is bad. I guess if you read books and want to like the characters, it makes sense why you wouldn't like this. I personally found it fascinating. It reminded me of this other book I read recently, called RABBITS FOR FOOD: it's social commentary masquerading as a comedy of manners masquerading as a train wreck.

Paul was a really compelling narrator. The descriptions of the food, and how it was unpleasant and unpalatable, mirrored the social interactions of the couples. Everything seems great on the surface, but you just know there's something sour and rotten lurking underneath. That's exactly how this book was: it was like peeling the skin of an apple back to find everything is bruised and brown, and the more you peel, the more rotten the apple is, until at the very core of it you find a mutant worm. You know that something isn't quite right with Paul, that he's hiding something, but you aren't sure what. It fills you with dread-- you have to know-- and then at the end, Koch pulls a sleight of hand trick.

The end of this book is not nearly as good as the beginning. If it were, this book would be five stars, easy. It doesn't quite jump the shark, but you can tell it was thinking hard about doing so. The grand reveal was just a little anticlimactic and disappointing-- especially with the rave review on the back comparing this to GONE GIRL. No, GONE GIRL this is not. It's got the same gleeful, voyeuristic sociopathy of GONE GIRL, but lacks that careful planning and finesse.

Still; if you enjoy dark books and family dramas, I think you will enjoy THE DINNER.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

I requested this book because I was in a witchy mood and the concept of feminism and girl power set against the backdrop of the witch trials during the rule of King James appealed to me. In case you didn't know, King James was all about that witch-hunting life. He wrote a book called the Demonology, and Shakespeare actually wrote Macbeth with witches to appeal to his audience (i.e. King James). The witch trials in the United States were terrible, but the 100 or so women killed tops pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of women who were murdered in the UK on account of being "witches."

Fleetwood is a seventeen years old, pregnant, and the wife of a lord. Theirs was a marriage of convenience (she has the money), and he basically treats her like chattel, condescending to her and talking to her the way one would a child or misbehaving dog. So she's understandably shocked and outraged when she finds a hidden message from a physician advising against pregnancy as the next will be her last. Especially since he doesn't seem concerned about her health at all, despite 2 miscarriages.

Wanting to live, and wanting their child to live, Fleetwood enlists the help of a mysterious woman she finds gathering herbs on their property one day. This woman is Alice, a midwife and wise woman, who has gained her knowledge from the maternal line. Alice's knowledge of herbal remedies actually ends up helping Fleetwood and she finds herself feeling better than she has in months. All of that changes, however, when a friend of her husband, Roger, starts arresting and imprisoning women to await trial for execution. He's heard about King James's penchant for witch-hunting, and figures the murder of the innocent will be a fine feather in his cap when it comes to his own ambitions.

THE FAMILIARS is a very frustrating book because on the one hand, it doesn't fail to highlight how little respect women had back in the day, and how showing any sort of knowledge or ambition as a woman could quickly lead to suspicion and fear. On the other hand, it's a really great story of women bonding together and using what limited power they had to accomplish great things-- sometimes at the expense of the status quo. The writing style and message kind of reminded me of Margaret Atwood, so I think if you're a fan of Atwood and pro-feminist historical fiction, you'll enjoy this book.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Shizuko's Daughter by Kyoko Mori

I've been mostly reviewing ARCs lately, but I spent last weekend cleaning out my room and bagging up/moving around books that I've bought. I got rid of a whole bunch that I'm no longer interested in or have already read, but I also found a whole bunch of gems that I meant to read and review a while ago and never got around to. One of those books is SHIZUKO'S DAUGHTER, an out-of-print YA novel from the 90s about a young girl living in Japan whose mother commits suicide. The novel is about Yuki coming to terms with her grief and the shifting of her family when her father remarries.

First off, obvious trigger warnings for suicide. You can sense Shizuko's depression from the beginning, when she narrates. It's not entirely clear why; some of it is due to external factors, but it's also clear that she is not a happy woman and probably hasn't been for some time. Yuki feels that she is to blame, and internalizes her grief and her anger at her father, who it's revealed was cheating on his wife with his secretary for some years. This woman, Hanae, becomes Yuki's new step-mother and hates Yuki with a passion.

The writing in this book is beautiful. It's largely character-driven, as the bulk of the "story" is just Yuki growing up and trying to navigate the empty space her mother's absence has created in her life. Her mother liked flowers, and each chapter is named after a flower that blooms in the season in which that particular moment of Yuki's life is taking place. Yuki is an odd and stubborn child. Others perceive her as happy and studious, but inside she feels awkward, self-conscious, and tactless. Hanae is awful, and her violence towards Yuki and destruction of her things was sickening. I actually just finished reading a V.C. Andrews book, and Hanae's sociopathic menace wouldn't be out of place there. I also hated her father, Hideki, for being so weak and not standing up to his new wife.

I think it's a shame that SHIZUKO'S DAUGHTER isn't more widely read, as it does a really good job portraying the erratic ways humans react to grief, and accords Yuki a lot of agency as she grows up and begins to start her own life out from under the apathetic and distant care of her parents. It's not a particularly happy book, but it's real and carefully crafted in a way that so many contemporaries aren't. I would honestly recommend this book to anyone who has experienced loss, and wants to read about someone who shares their situation, and think this would be a good addition to a classroom.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Heaven by V.C. Andrews

The Casteel series was the last of the family sagas that V.C. Andrews had a hand in before she died and her ghostwriter took over. It's impossible not to compare it to the Dollanganger series, especially since both approximate what you'd get if you decided to adapt a bodice-ripper for the not-so-discerning young-adult audience. On a scale of one to trash, this ranks a solid Bertrice Small: the writing is just as melodramatic, and Andrews regularly and predictably makes out parental figures to be abusive the same way that Small could be counted on to make all of her villains libertines and deviants.

HEAVEN is about a young girl named Heaven Leigh (get it?) Casteel. She lives in the hills, cramped in a small shed with her four other siblings, grandparents, father, and stepmother. She is the only child from her father's first marriage; her mother died in childbirth, and her father kept her on a pedestal in his mind. No other woman can match up, not even his daughters or his new wife, so he mostly ignores his children, abuses his wife, and is a regular attendee of the local "den of ill repute" despite the fact that they're all starving.

Heaven catches the eye of a rich boy because of her beauty, and this is a trope of Andrews's, too: there's always a soft and sensitive boy hero figure to whisk the heroine away from her wretched life-- until he proves to be just as disturbing as everyone else, only better at hiding it. Logan doesn't have a chance to show off any true colors he might have, though, as Heaven's father gets an STD, and kind of loses it after his wife has a deformed stillborn child; he gets the brilliant idea that the solution to their money problems is to sell off his children for $500/ea. to local rich people in the area.

Heaven gets sent off to live with a woman named Kitty, but her nickname could be "Mommie Dearest." She lives in a house filled with creepy ceramic animals and everything is pink. She has violent mood swings, and living in Casa de Crazy, you could find yourself having your hair lovingly combed out one minute, only to be thrown into a scalding hot Lysol bath the next (note: pretty sure this Lysol name-drop in the book was #notsponsored). Her only solace in this house is Kitty's young husband, Cal, but his feelings towards Heaven-- as you would expect-- aren't exactly pure.

HEAVEN was a good book-- and by a good book I mean it told a good story, even though the writing was arguably not good. It reminded me a lot of the stories I used to read on FictionPress back in the day, with its long laundry list of soap opera plot devices, and the fact that virtually every character in this book except for the good ones were villains. I hated Kitty, and I also hated Heaven's siblings, especially Fanny and "Our Jane." Tom was also creepy, and he and Heaven definitely had a "Flowers in the Attic" vibe going on, and I'm worried about what might happen with their relationship in the next book. Logan will be back, I'm sure, but whether he stays nice and heroic is anyone's guess.

If you're into bodice-rippers and vintage sleaze, I really can't urge you strongly enough to pick up V.C. Andrews's books. There is nothing quite like them, and you can take that how you like.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Why Social Media is Ruining Your Life by Katherine Ormerod

Click-bait title aside, social media is becoming a huge dependency for some individuals. In a society where many of us are feeling increasingly isolated and despairing, living your life through a screen and celebrating conspicuous consumerism act as a balm for both loneliness and personal inadequacy. It's chillingly reminiscent of the soma used in Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD, which kept the oppressed population subdued and pacific. So many of us use social media every day, if not every hour, and it's so easy to get lost in the massive ocean of data. So easy. This book is about how not to get lost-- or, if you do get lost, how to find your way back.

WHY SOCIAL MEDIA IS RUINING YOUR LIFE covers a wide away of life-ruining topics, from motherhood to debt to politics to depression, and in each of these essays, Katherine Ormerod says why, exactly, social media is exacerbating existing problems, and what we can do to combat it or at least be aware of the effects. I became interested in this book when I watched the author's TED talk by the same name, which seems to be modeled after her essay about "career and money." On the one hand, it's a bit difficult to take her seriously because you have this posh and glamorous looking woman with an Instagram feed drowning in privileged lifestyle telling you that her life isn't actually as awesome as it seems--and yet, that's the point, isn't it? As awesome as her life looks-- and as awesome as the lives of most influencers look-- you never get to actually look behind the curtains. Because if you saw the struggle, strife, and unpleasantries behind each carefully curated photo, all the magic would be gone. Even so, it's hard not to roll your eyes.

Reading this book was very personal to me because I've been fairly active in the blogging community for 10+ years, and during those early years, I was very depressed. I've actually stopped using a few platforms because I couldn't help but compare myself (unfairly) against others, and feel like I'd fallen short. In 2016, I actually deleted thousands of reviews written over a seven-year period because I wanted a fresh start, and also, I wanted to prove to myself that I could; that I wasn't so dependent on social media that I couldn't pull a Marie Kondo on the content I'd written that wasn't sparking joy, and was in fact making me feel worse about myself. It was probably one of the more difficult and weighty online decisions I ever made, but I did it, and it made me a lot happier. I've worked very hard to be authentic and consistent in what I say online, and when that content was no longer representative of who I am and what I believe in, I elected to remove that content.

The only thing I didn't really like about this book was the political section. In each segment, you see, Ormerod interviews various influencers and YouTubers to get their hot takes for each essay, and most of the people she interviews are good, but the political section fell short. I felt like the author was out of her depth, and didn't like the person (whose name I can't remember) griping about TERFs, and how discussing the exclusion of transgender people from (I'm assuming cis-gendered) woman's spaces automatically makes you a TERF. Well, it kind of does? That's basically the definition of it, to a T. Not really sure what there is to discuss about that. This whole section felt incredibly uninformed. I'm not super active in politics, but I wasn't impressed with the half-cocked mentioning of TERFs and Brexit, because those aren't things you can just drop and then not diffuse; they are sensitive topics.

Overall, though, I really did like WHY SOCIAL MEDIA IS RUINING YOUR LIFE. I actually think this book should be required reading for high school students, as it brings up a lot of topics I don't think people (of any age) necessarily think about: that influencers have a self-serving motive in what they post, that if the site you're using is free you're probably the product, and that it's easy to make false comparisons between yourself and others when it comes to perceived haves and have nots. To some extent, the internet is the biggest fantasy role-play of all time, and how much you choose to participate or believe in it is really on you-- and it's okay to step back if it gets to be too much.

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

4 out of 5 stars

In at the Deep End by Kate Davies

So much for my streak of amazing books. I think I jinxed myself by bragging about my good book luck. IN AT THE DEEP END was advertised as an LGBT+ Bridget Jones, which would have been aces had that actually been the case. It was not. Sadly, IN AT THE DEEP END is more like an LGBT+ FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, only without the compellingly intense (albeit dysfunctional) romance that made it such a best-seller.

Julia has been single for years and her last hookup was disappointing and basically tainted the punch for her. Then, one night at a party, she ends up meeting a woman and ends up going home with her. Much to her surprise and dismay, the encounter is more satisfying than anything she's ever experienced before. She begins to question her sexuality, and realizes that she's always been attracted to women but never let herself admit it on a conscious level. Thus empowered, she goes to a gay bar and ends up meeting another woman who ends up becoming her girlfriend-- but this girlfriend, Sam, has dark tastes and doesn't quite know where to draw the line when it comes to control.

I wanted to love this book but for the most part, it was really dull. Julia wasn't a very interesting protagonist. Bridget Jones was funny and self-aware and relatable, whereas Julia didn't have much in the way of personality. She was the portrait of a victim, and everything that happened to her kind of made it feel like she a vehicle to propel the storyline through this morality tale of an emotionally abusive and controlling relationship. The foreshadowing of the toxic relationship was well done and at first, I wasn't sure which tack this book was going to take. Would it romanticize extremely uncool behavior, like FIFTY SHADES OF GREY did, or was the book going to call it like it was?

IN AT THE DEEP END called it like it was, much to my relief and to the book's credit, and Julia ends up realizing how bad for her Sam is. I wish I could give this book a higher rating, but I just didn't really enjoy it that much and didn't love the writing at all. I wish Julia had been given more of a personality and that we had a better sense of her life beyond her sex life, but it is what it is.

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

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack

DNF @ p. 220

Nobody can tell me that I didn't give ANYA AND THE DRAGON a fair shot. I valiantly struggled through 200+ pages of this book before deciding that it probably wasn't for me.

There are a lot of things that make this book seem promising: the beautiful cover, dragons, the Russian-Jewish culture, the background of oppression and potential for revolution. This book takes place in an alternative version of Europe where magic is banned and Jewish people are still being discriminated against. Anya has magic and is also Jewish, and is inwardly raging at the cruel minions of the czar who are exacerbating her family's debt. If she can beat the evil Northern European dragon slayer to the dragon, she can help pay it off... but are dragons really evil?

I love the idea of monster hunters and in fact recently read and reviewed another book with monster bounties called NOT EVEN BONES, although it's much darker than this book and intended for an older audience. By contrast, ANYA AND THE DRAGON doesn't even bother to hide the fact that it's intended for middle grade, and the result is a narrative style that is bland and patronizing.

I know some people find this style of book cozy and inoffensive, but I like some grit in my reads. I think a lot of kids do, too. They want to read things that made them feel grown up, not talked down to. I'm not saying that we should try to scare children, but it doesn't hurt to make characters nuanced and worlds scary; kids understand complicated topics as long as it's explained in a way they can understand. And I know middle grade can do this, because I've seen Holly Black and other authors carry it off. But Anya is such a little Mary Sue and nothing about her or her world grabbed me, so I think I'm going to save myself another 100+ pages of frustration and call it quits while I'm ahead.

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

1 out of 5 stars

The Liar's Daughter by Megan Cooley Peterson

There's a video on YouTube called "Mind Control Made Easy" which is about the psychology of cult leaders. It's clearly low budget, but very well done in spite of that. I have never been 100% sure whether it was intended to be satirical/comedic or not, because while it is funny at times, that humor is rooted in a very dark truth: no matter how ridiculous what they are saying is, these tactics have worked before by real cult leaders.

I read a lot of nonfiction books and memoirs about cults and extreme fundamentalist religions a few years ago because that's what I do: I get interested in a topic, obsess over it, only to lose interest and forget about it a few years later. I always found them both horrific and fascinating-- it chilled me that people could be so unquestioning, so blindly trusting; it felt like a grievous oversight in the hard-wiring of our brains to make us this "hackable." How can things like this happen? I wondered.

THE LIAR'S DAUGHTER takes that concept and really races off with it. Piper is a teenager who has spent her whole life being raised in a cult. She loves her Mother and Father, and does not question them-- even when their asks are big and dangerous, and might involve abuse, drugs, or underage marriage. Her parents want only the best for her mind and body, and every unpleasant thing is a test to judge if she is ready for enlightenment. Told in BEFORE and AFTER, THE LIAR'S DAUGHTER explores what a cult upbringing would do to a child's psychology and how hard it might be for her to go back.

Piper is a really difficult character to like. Her upbringing has made her cruel and insensitive, as the cult she's in rewards people for ratting each other out. She is quick to turn her back on those who are closest to her if she thinks it'll get her a pat on the head from an adult figure. In the AFTER portion of the book, she is suspicious, sly, and selfish, and the things she does to her real mother, Jeannie, are unspeakably cruel-- especially one thing she does towards the end that made me want to slap her. I had to keep reminding myself that to Piper, Jeannie was the interloper, the kidnapper, the bad person who had a hand in her being forcibly removed from an environment that felt comfortable and familiar, no matter how horrible and abusive it seemed to us, the reader. It was sickening.

I think this is a good book, but I didn't really enjoy reading it. Piper was truly horrid and the content was very dark. I found it fascinating from that morbidly curious angle that motivated me to go out and buy all those books about cults in the first place, but I don't really think a book that made me as angry and upset as this one did can really be considered "enjoyable" or "fun." Kids will probably get a kick out of it though, as Cooley Peterson never talks down to her young adult audience or writes as if she thinks that they won't be able to handle it, and I really respect that in a YA author.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika Moulite

Oh man, you guys. I wanted to love this book. I thought it did some great things, which I'll be talking about shortly, but it also came across as a bit of a disorganized mess. DEAR HAITI, LOVE ALAINE sounded so promising. The heroine, Alaine, goes to a private religious school. She's of Haitian heritage, and her mother is a famous reporter known for her looks and her edge. Everything falls apart when her mother assaults a politician on TV, triggering something called "Slapgate." Naturally, all the ignorant opportunists at her school take this as the perfect occasion for bullying, and when Alaine decides to enact her revenge, her shenanigans result in suspension, and a plane-trip to Haiti to help out her aunt with her nonprofit, as well as relax with her mom, who apparently has Alzheimer's.

I think the biggest problem with this book, for me, is that it doesn't have much of a plot. Alaine gets in trouble and is sent to Haiti to find herself and reprioritize. It actually has a very similar plot to LOVE FROM A TO Z, except that book did a better job tackling chronic/degenerative illness, and the teen romance in it felt not obligatory, but a natural progression of the characters' shared interests and goals. DEAR HAITI, LOVE ALAINE is largely character-driven, but we don't really know much about the other characters beyond what's thrown at us in info-dumps, and the whole family curse thing was weird.

I did like the Haitian rep and how Alaine had natural hair. There's some good commentary buried in here about colonialism and racism, including how donations can actually sometimes hurt the nations they're trying to help (free food is really hard on the income that local farmers make), which might sound counterintuitive at first, but makes sense when you really think about it. I liked Alaine's mom, Celeste, a lot and sympathized with her struggle. I thought it would have been interesting to hear more from her, and wished the book had been written from her perspective. Roselind had such a devastating history but, again, she felt mostly like a vehicle for the whole curse subplot.

For people who like the prankster Meg Cabot-brand of heroines who act out for no reason and embrace the consequences they receive from adults like prizes at a show, you'll probably enjoy DEAR HAITI, LOVE ALAINE. However, if you're looking for something more serious, this book is probably not for you, as it tries a little too hard to be light, given the subject matter. As always, I encourage you to check out the Kindle sample and see for yourself if this book is to your taste.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

I realized I'd fallen into the trap of only reading feminist books written by feminists who were white, and since realizing that oversight, I've really tried to expand my views and read books of feminism written by women of color. This is my second feminist book written by a woman who is Muslim (Sohaila Abdulali was the first), although it is the first I've read from an Egyptian author, and I think the way she talks about her culture and religion bring a unique and much-needed view to feminism.

Mona Eltahawy was sexually assaulted at Mecca during hajj. She asked herself, if she couldn't be safe here, where could she be? The problem, she realized, was not with her-- it was with men. Yes, I know, not all men. But enough men. Enough to be emblematic of a deep inequality rooted not just in the Middle East or even in the U.S., but globally. Inequality is an epidemic.

In THE SEVEN NECESSARY SINS FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS, you can feel the author's anger vibrating from the pages. The focus of the book is of course feminism, but feminism specifically from the perspective of a Muslim woman of color. She talks a lot about racist sexism, and privilege within privilege, which is something I think a lot of white women don't really think about. She also talks about abusers, institutional sexism, and what it means to be a powerful woman. Some will likely be put off by her anger, but I think injustice should make people angry; if we feel nothing and allow ourselves to become numb or complacent, we won't do anything about it.

I liked the stories of Eltahawy's activism, and how she flipped the bird-- literally and figuratively in some cases-- to people in Egypt making careers out of oppressing women. I liked the many examples of institutional sexism in multiple countries, including the United States, and how she cautioned against making sexism the poster problem for a specific set of countries, which so many are afflicted with it. I liked how much she seems to like and respect herself, and how she made an active effort to include the LGBT+ (including trans women) in the dialogue, when so many authors don't.

I'm giving THE SEVEN NECESSARY SINS FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS a three-star review because I think it's an important read and it was good, but it wasn't fun and it was also very dry. This is more of a women's studies/gender studies textbook than something someone would read for pleasure (although I did enjoy learning about her life and her viewpoints). If you are looking to broaden your viewpoints as well and get new perspectives on feminism, you should read this book.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

I was trying to project, "I swear I'm not a psycho" vibes to the people side-eying me for reading this book, even though the title was basically 99% of the reason behind why I applied for this in the first place. MOSTLY DEAD THINGS is a book chock-full of dark humor, and is definitely not for the faint of heart. I thought Carl Hiaasen had the market cornered on the unique brand of Floridian-style "crazy," but apparently Kristen Arnett is moving in on his territory.

Jessa comes from a family of taxidermists; getting into the family business was the one surefire way she had of bonding with her somewhat aloof father. But when he takes his life into his own hands following a cancer diagnosis, the family is split apart. Jessa's brother, Milo, withdraws away from his mother, sister, and children. Their mother begins to methodically destroy her late husband's animals, turning them into disturbingly erotic displays. And Jessa is torn between stopping her mother and preserving her father's memory, and obsessing over Brynn, her brother's wife, and the woman she's been having a relationship with since high school.

MOSTLY DEAD THINGS doesn't shirk on the gory details, so be prepared to learn everything you probably never wanted to know about taxidermy. That part didn't bother me much, since I've read a couple nonfiction books about taxidermy as well, but sensitive readers should know that there are some animal deaths in here, some of them quite cruel. There's also the whole cheating factor, with Brynn stringing along two siblings for years, and Jessa knowingly continuing her affair with her brother's wife. I know I have some friends who can't stand to read about adultery and cheating, and that's a pretty significant plot point in MOSTLY DEAD THINGS; it can't be avoided.

MOSTLY DEAD THINGS is a pretty interesting look at a dysfunctional family's various ways of attempting to overcome grief. Some scenes were darkly funny, and others were bizarre to the point of being cringeworthy. One thing for sure, is that I've never read a book quite like this, and in a market that's inundated with copycats, originality is definitely noteworthy and appreciated. I'm giving this book 3-stars because I did like it and I thought it took some brave risks, but some of the characters fell a little flat for me and the ending fizzled out-- despite a pretty compelling beginning.

Overall, not bad.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 22, 2019

Out East: Memoir of a Montauk Summer by John Glynn

When I got a copy of this, I anticipated a nonfiction version of THE BEACH crossed with CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. Some of the other advanced reviews made me a little cautious, as they were leaning towards the negative side, but they seemed to be written by older individuals; I hoped that, being a millennial like the author, his experience would resonate with me more, and perhaps I would enjoy the book more than the people who didn't.

The problem with OUT EAST is that it is written by someone who seems to think that their life is terribly interesting, when it terribly isn't. This is all about the shared house John Glynn got with a bunch of other young people in Montauk, and his coming of age and then coming out, as he ends up falling in love with one of the other people he's rooming with. It could have been really good, but some people are good story-tellers and some people aren't. Glynn seems to be one of the later. I ended up skimming the last 150 pages pretty hard because it became intolerable.

I'm sorry to give this such a low rating, since I do hate to bash advanced reader copies (contrary to what some might believe), but I didn't find this good at all and really can't honestly rate it anything higher than a 1.5, tops. It's hard to rate memoirs because they feel so much more personal than ordinary books. But once the book is out for public consumption and out of the hands of the author, it becomes a product, and should be reviewed as such.

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

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

THE BONE HOUSES is amazing, but I don't really think I agree with the comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and SKY IN THE DEEP-- if anything, it's like a cross between SABRIEL and THE BLACK CAULDRON. THE BONE HOUSES is a fantasy set in a place that seems to be based off Wales. Aderyn is a grave-digger who lives with her sister, Cerridwen, and her brother, Gareth. Their mother is dead, and their father and uncle have both disappeared mysteriously, leaving them all effectively orphaned.

Aderyn goes into the forest to forage, but is mindful of her father's warnings that dangerous things rove in the trees after nightfall, including the "bone houses": or, the animated dead. They only stay in the forest and they only come after dark, but lately, Aderyn has been noticing that they have been venturing closer and closer to the edges--until one day, they're out.

In the meantime, their village has been graced with the presence of an unusual boy: a map-maker with chronic pain, who won't tell them his surname or why he's come to their village. Aderyn meets him when she saves his life and they end up forging an unusual alliance. Both of them need to go into the forest to find a legendary castle in the lands of the faerie, and a cauldron rumored to give life.

So, this was fifteen different kinds of amazing. The writing was lush and gorgeous, and it set the scenery of the village and the forest perfectly. I was very impressed by how richly-imagined this world was, considering that it was relatively simple. It does for Welsh folklore what Naomi Novik did with Eastern European folklore in SPINNING SILVER and UPROOTED. The faerie legends and the nod to The Black Cauldron made me so happy, and the Medieval village setting was so well done.

Other things I liked about this book were the chronic pain rep (understated, but rare in fantasy), especially since Ellis was never painted as weak or as a victim. Aderyn is a strong female character who doesn't need to be brash or throw her weight around (just her axe, heh heh) to be respected. I loved her close relationship with her siblings and the family goat, and her slow-burn attraction to Ellis. The way she fought back against the injustice of the village lord who wanted to ruin her family in his greed, and the hero's journey she goes upon to find the reason the dead are rising, were both really empowering for the character and instilled her with agency. She was never passive or bland.

Anyone who likes strong female fantasy characters and Welsh settings should pick up THE BONE HOUSES when it comes out, especially if, as I mentioned before, you enjoy Naomi Novik's work, or enjoyed SABRIEL and UPROOTED. It has that same fun, folkloric fantasy vibe, with a gloomy, Gothic edge to keep things interesting. Apparently it's a standalone too, so no need to commit. ;)

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

I Know I Am, But What Are You? by Samantha Bee

I watch Full-Frontal with Samantha Bee religiously and consider her a national treasure. Unfortunately, since she's Canadian, she's not my national treasure, but that's a technicality I'm willing to overlook. She's so funny and so witty and so down to earth, and I love her blazers. You could chalk this up to good writers and good stylists, of course, but you can also kind of tell when comedians are dialing it in and using their staff as a crutch, and I feel like Samantha Bee is the real deal; the proof is in the memoir.

This is the first non-ARC review I've done in a while-- I bought this book with my own money-- so if this book comes off as "too glowing," know that I had a fiscal stake in the outcome. I like Bee, so it makes sense I'd want to read her memoir. I love knowing what my favorite comedians are up to. Comedians are funny, except when they aren't. Sometimes comedians decide they want to write a serious memoir to show that they have depth. I call that a "bait and switch." If someone picks up a memoir written by a comedian, it's a sure bet they want to laugh, not navel-gaze, although YMMV.

I KNOW I AM, BUT WHAT ARE YOU? is a loosely-connected series of essays that don't follow any particular chronology or organizational technique. The only thing they have in common is that they're weird. Samantha Bee tells us, with tongue firmly in cheek, of the time she and her family decided to tag along to someone's honeymoon. She also describes, super casually, of her flirtation with grand-theft auto. Then there's her porn-inspired reenactions that she did with her Barbie dolls as a child, much to the delight and then the general disgust of her then-friends. And, my personal favorite: how she met her current husband while they were both dressed up as anime characters.

I'm giving this a three-star rating because it was very funny and is definitely written in her voice. The whole time I was reading it, I could imagine her speaking to me-- and that made it even funnier. I'm also giving it a three-star rating because it wasn't very organized and sometimes an essay would begin one way and end up talking about something totally different, which can be fun, but it was also very confusing and sometimes ended up being hard to follow.

If you like Samantha Bee, or memoirs written by comedians (especially women), this is a great book to pick up. Samantha Bee is one of my favorite comedians and I'm very happy to see that she seems just as charming and authentic on paper as she does on screen. If you haven't already, start watching Full Frontal, as well. It's the only way I consume unpleasant political news these days; her edgy humor and perfect delivery give it the fun sugar-coating I so desperately need.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

DNF @ 66%

So, I guess the new YA trend isn't just to write books that are derivative, but also to title them in derivative ways, as well? If so, good plan, because THE MERCIFUL CROW is a book that feels like dozens of books I've read before. Caste-based fantasy with an assassination plot gone wrong, and a plot to overthrow an evil ruler with a band of crude-talking underdogs. Yep.

I'm extra salty because my luck with books has been amazing lately, and I've absolutely loved some of the YA offerings that 2019 has brought me, but THE MERCIFUL CROW just didn't cut it. The heroine, Fie, was so annoying. I just couldn't stand her attitude or her smugness or her personality. She was the worst. I thought naming all the castes after birds was super lame, and didn't really understand what the point of the caste system was or what they even did (and no, the index didn't help).

The writing was great, but nice writing doesn't do anything for me if the world-building is a disorganized mess and I hate the main character. I probably could have forced myself to finish this if I'd really tried, but I didn't want to try. Who names their cat Barf? Oh, and guess what, the Crows have a stupid dance called "Money Dance" when they want to be paid. They actually stomp around and everyone acts like it's sooooo scary. LOL, no. Goodbye, book.

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

1 out of 5 stars

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Fairytale retellings are hard-- ideally, you're taking a story that most people are intimately familiar with and trying to put a spin on it that keeps it fun and fresh, while also reminding people about why they loved the original so much, too. STEPSISTER is interesting, in that it tries to keep to the dark, original retelling. When we first meet Isabelle, our heroine, one of the evil and ugly stepsisters, she is cutting off her toes to fit into the shoe--

Unfortunately, her evil plan is outed by birds that are friends with her sister, Ella. Ella goes off to marry the prince and Isabelle and her sister, Tavi, are left alone, ostracized by the rest of the town for their deeds. Only their mother, who is slowly going mad, will speak to them without anger, and even she is embittered about her daughters' new and lowly state. It seems like Isabelle is doomed to a life of ignominy but Fate and Chance have other plans.

I wasn't sure what to expect with STEPSISTER, but it was much more than I had anticipated. Isabelle is a strong, brave heroine with agency. Her sister, Tavi, is bookish and fiercely intelligent. Neither of them are attractive and both of them have done terrible, selfish things-- but so have the other characters in the book. But neither of them get a free pass because they are ugly. The book is all about beauty, forgiveness, and second chances, and what it means to truly redeem yourself.

I'm giving this book a three-star rating because I did like it, but it didn't wow me. The plot was great and I liked Isabelle's redemption arc, and how the human manifestations of both Fate and Chance were both fighting over her future as she (maybe) decides to go off and save a kingdom. The story just felt a bit "young" for me, especially with all of the unnecessary sidekicks. I don't think it was badly done, but I have a bias against sidekicks-- that's just my preference. I think for those who are tired of impossibly pretty and perfect heroines, STEPSISTER will be a breath of fresh air.

It's a shame my magnificent four-star rating streak has ended, but at least now you now I'm not secretly a bot. Or, if I am, I'm a far more devious bot than you ever imagined. YMMV.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

I wasn't really sure what to expect with this one but I ended up liking it a lot. GOOD TALK is a graphic novel memoir told in conversations. The art is static, set against photographs or hyper-realistic drawings, and at first this kind of felt lazy to me and I wasn't sure I liked this style, but I realized it was probably so the art wouldn't be a distraction from the text panels since that was the important stuff. The conversations are mostly between Mira and her young son, Z. Z has lots of questions, especially about what it means to be biracial and brown in a post-9/11, post-Trump political climate, where so many people in the United States still have biases.

One of the things I ended up loving about this book is the raw honesty. Mira's dating life shines light on a lot of the difficulties that women of color face in the dating world, especially women who are also LGBT+. She also talks about colorism, the difference between racism and bigotry, and privilege. Even though she loves her husband, they have to have a lot of conversations because he is white and a man, and there are some things about her world that he will never fully understand, not without having to stop and think about it, because part of privilege is that it allows you to glide past a lot of problems that are deeply entrenched into the institutional framework of our country, being the status quo.

I thought Z asked interesting questions. Kids don't have a filter or a shame button, so sometimes they end up asking some pretty brutal, uncomfortable questions that aren't fun or easy to answer. I actually think that can be a good thing, though. Mira seems to agree, although at times even she struggled with how to answer, because she wants to protect her son, even as she wants him to take pride in his identity without feeling the shame of not being "enough" that so many people-- either consciously or unconsciously-- try to project onto people who look, speak, or act different. I loved both of Mira's parents, and I thought the scenes and dialogues that arose from her husband's parents voting for Trump hit hard. How can you vote for someone who is totally against the people you love? It's a question that has an easy answer, and yet millions of Americans did that exact thing.

 I definitely recommend this to people who would like to broaden their minds and think more critically about privilege, multiracial or biracial families, intersectionality, and parenting. There's a lot of really valuable ideas in here, and it's delivered in an easy-to-read format that manages to convey pretty complex concepts in an easily understandable way. The ending, with the letter to her son and the photo of him as a baby next to a paper announcing Obama's win, was especially poignant.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Hitler's Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich by Mary M. Lane

This is an incredible story, but also a sad one. I've read a lot about WWII, and generally the focus is on the tremendous loss of life that occurred-- both as casualties of the fighting, and also as a result of genocide. I've never thought of the other casualty: the loss of culture. HITLER'S LAST HOSTAGES is about the art that was looted by the Nazis or destroyed for being "degenerate." Called "the last hostages" of the war because of a dispute that happened in the 2010s, when people found out about a man named Cornelius Gurlitt, a heinous man who was the son of Hitler's art dealer, and who personally cheated many people out of their valuable works by capitalizing on their desperation, or predating on the damaged reputations of previously famous artists who were branded "degenerate." When these works, which he had squirreled away, came to light, the question of whether they should be given back as reparations or repatriated to the countries they were taken from came up as an issue-- an issue that many European governments, including Germany-- had no desire to be involved in at the time. Gurlitt, when he was caught, was caught because of tax evasion.

This book skips around a lot, but it needs to, in order to tell the story. So, we get the history of Germany's economic and moral downturn at the end of WWI, which provided the climate that allowed Hitler to take power. We learn a bit about Hitler and his infamous failed career as an artist, and his fascination with the artists who gloried in an ideal Germany through iconic fascist imagery. We learn about the artists themselves, and how some of them struggled and scraped to rise to fame, while others basked in it leisurely, only for many of them to become despised-- either for being "degenerate" or for being Jewish-- with some dying and others being forced to flee the country.

We also learn about Hildebrand Gurlitt, Cornelius's father, who left his mother behind to save his art, who had the nerve to solicit Jews for letters endorsing his character and lack of Nazi collusion at the end of the war-- who bought paintings from desperate Jewish families at a pittance, only to turn around and sell them for massive profits to grasping collectors and museums. He was also the dealer who was going to be involved in Hitler's big pet culture project, a museum devoted to German art that exemplified the ideals they sought to achieve. Lack of involvement, indeed.

Reading this book was such an emotional experience; I really wasn't prepared for how deeply it would make me feel. At points, I was actually trying not to cry. It does not hold back when it comes to describing the utter atrocities that happened to the Jews, the medical torture, the eugenics-- all of it. Lane doesn't take the easy way out, either, and paint Hitler as a mad, power-grasping megalomaniac, even though he was arguably that, too; the fact that he is humanized to some degree is worse, because you find yourself wondering with real horror what would make someone do such terrible things to their fellow human beings? How would they rationalize that? How could they rationalize it? Especially when some of the xenophobia and anti-Jewish sentiments mirror so closely the hateful rhetoric in the U.S. being sown by alt-right extremists against Muslims and Latinos.

It was so interesting to learn about the War from this new angle, and to read about many of these famous artists, like Matisse, and ones I hadn't heard of before, like Grosz, and how their careers were impacted by the War, and how the families who owned their paintings had to fight for repossession. HITLER'S LAST HOSTAGES is incredibly well written but it's not a book you read for fun or all at once. I had a really hard time getting through it at times, even though the journey is worth it.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Wolf Wants In by Laura McHugh

Wow, I don't think I've been on a good book streak that lasted this long in a while! When I picked this up I had my doubts, because so many thrillers try to play the "just like Gillian Flynn" card and fail to measure up 9 times out of 10. Lucky for me, THE WOLF WANTS IN is the 1 book out of 10 that reaches the bar.

Told in dual POVs, THE WOLF WANTS IN is about two women: Sadie is a middle-aged mom, divorced, whose brother Shane has just died under mysterious circumstances. His wife, Crystle, doesn't seem as upset as a loving wife should, and the local police officer refuses to investigate. Henley is a young eighteen-year-old, and the daughter of an addict who cleans the house of the richest family in town when she's sober. Henley is currently dating the son of the rich guy, and she's also the cousin of Crystle, the wife who doesn't give two snips.

The book is about how their stories intertwine as we learn about a town riddled with drug problems, secrets, and-- maybe-- murder. In addition to Shane, a local man and his daughter were both found dead in the woods, and Sadie gets more and more concerned as she finds links between all of these incidents, even as she struggles to maintain control over the shambles of her own life.

I saw some people saying that this book was pretty depressing and I will be the first to agree this is so. It's a little like J.K. Rowling's CASUAL VACANCY in the sense that it shows people at their worst and nobody is completely good. I personally like books that show realistic portrayals of the sometimes-toxic environment that small towns can breed. Humans are capable of a lot of good, but sometimes they do some pretty horrible things, too. I was impressed by the spectrum of the emotions portrayed in THE WOLF WANTS IN, and how it addresses grief, greed, and ambition.

Both POVs were well done and I liked how they began to intertwine. Around page 200, I did find myself wondering how the story would wrap up when it still seemed so unfinished, but the ending didn't disappoint me. I actually thought it ended on a note of hope: all of our endings are inevitable, but if we're lucky, we get to hold the pen as we decide how the last chapter finishes.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

This is a really excellent collection of essays written by a black woman on issues that matter for both women and people of color. Better yet, she gives the why behind why she feels that these issues matter, and better still; I liked her whys. Intersectionality is so important, and it was only a few years ago that I realized how many feminist books and books about women's issues omit the issues that plague women of color. Even within marginalized groups, there are degrees of privilege, and that is something that Cottom talks a lot about in here-- at length-- among other stirring and relevant topics.

Cottom is a passionate writer, and a capable one. Her prose flows smoothly, leading you from one concept to the next, and it's like being guided down a river of ideas. She writes the way a lot of my favorite textbook writers wrote in college, and you can really feel the academia. You can also feel the outrage, and the electric power of her words. I liked that, too. Her writing was complex and emotive and clear; a hard balance to manage, but compelling.

Some of the things that she writes about are race, misogyny, sexuality, fetishization, Donald Trump's election, Obama's election, privilege, beauty, impostor syndrome, social echo chambers, equality vs. justice (although she does not refer to it as such), academia, colorism, and culture, and how these apply specifically to people of color, especially to people who identify as black (although anyone can learn from these essays). I picked this up because Roxane Gay reviewed it, and I like Roxane Gay, but after reading this collection, I think I might like Tressie McMillan Cottom more. Mind blown.

I saw a couple of people who clearly felt very uncomfortable after reading this. I think that might be a good thing, though. It's like ripping off a band-aid-- it's always unpleasant to realize that things that come easily for you and that you previously took for granted are a struggle for others; and that by merely taking advantage of and enjoying these things, you are contributing-- maybe unintentionally, maybe subconsciously-- to a system that continues to perpetuate injustice and inequality. Either this book will give you something to relate to and feel empowered by, or it will make you think hard and give you something to learn from. I call that a win-win, personally.

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

4 out of 5 stars

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un by Anna Fifield

First, a shout-out to PublicAffairs publishing, which, looking at the jacket for this book, appears to be a Hachette imprint. I've received three advance copies from them and so far, all of them have been both meticulously researched and fascinating to read-- not an easy feat in a media environment where click bait snags you more readers in the public sphere. THE GREAT SUCCESSOR was no exception (I'm counting it as part of the three), so I just want to give mad props to whomever curates these journalists. Well done.

THE GREAT SUCCESSOR is an interesting book, and a controversial one. It's essentially a biography about Kim Jong Un: a brief history on his father and grandfather, his childhood, his rise to power, and his leadership. Fifield has been to North Korea more than a dozen times, and in addition to citing secondary sources, she also managed to get interviews with relatives, North Korean expatriates, and people who knew him growing up.

So much of what we know about North Korea is shrouded in propaganda or lies, and I thought that Fifield did a really great job trying to sort falsehood or speculation from objective fact. She talks about his very odd relationship with Rodman, his Swiss schooling, the brutal labor camps and laissez faire totalitarianism of the early parts of his regime, but also about the changes that he's making (for better or for worse), using conspicuous consumption as a tantalizing carrot to appeal to the rich set of his generation, as well as focusing more on economy and less on military as a means of appealing to his people in the wake of his terrifying and accelerated success developing weapons to use in the global nuclear arms race.

This book does humanize a leader of a nation considered "hostile," but I don't think it makes any apologies for what he does, either. If anything, this rendering of Kim Jong Un's character makes him seem even more dangerous, because it becomes a cautionary tale of how absolute power corrupts in the absence of any regulating factors. I did not know much about North Korea before reading this book, and getting the historical context for the hows and whys of its split from the South, and its many decades under totalitarian rule, really gave context for how the Kim family operates, and why they have been so successful holding on to power. It's dark and disturbing, but worth the read.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art by Michael Shnayerson

I am slightly ashamed to admit that for the longest time, I claimed not to like modern art because all I knew about modern art came from representations by its critics and I was thinking that all of it was just blank canvases splashed with paint, or clear plastic glasses filled with dish detergent and a single floating golf ball, with titles like Existentialism #2 or Cry, Aphrodite. Of course, I realize now that that's a bit like saying that you abhor the romance novel because you've seen people making fun of Twilight. Everything is unflattering and exaggerated in parody.

I am now a regular visitor of Modern Art museums and enjoy (some of) the pieces quite a bit. Modern Art, like everything else, covers a fairly broad spectrum, and there is something for everyone. You might see a blank canvas splashed with paint, or a plastic glass filled with dish detergent and golf balls, but you might also see statues made from unconventional materials, neon lights bent into interesting shapes, poetry told via an LED marquee, or comic book art representations of everyday objects.

I actually applied for an ARC of this book because the cover design reminded me of the art of Dan Flavin, an artist who used neon lights as his medium (and whose work I really enjoy). You can think of BOOM as being an epic love letter penned to modern art, while also acknowledging its flaws. For example, I am a huge fan of Adam Conover's Adam Ruins Everything series, and one of his videos is called "How the Fine Art Market is a Scam," which mentions many shady tactics employed by gallery owners and dealers in this book, such as driving up art sale prices to inflate the price of collections, or being choosy with customers and venues to build up the gallery brand.

The focus on the book, however, is on the artists, dealers, and gallery owners themselves, specifically Leo Castelli and Larry Gagosian, and the rise and fall of their careers. Their careers intersected with many artists, though, so there are a lot of miniature biographies on these artists and their opuses within the greater ebb and flow of modern art's popularity, beginning with the abstract expressionists, and ending with installation and outsider art, and how social media has begun to change how consumers of art interact with it (Vox has a great video on this called "How 'Instagram traps' are changing art museums" and it features one of the artists in here, Yayaoi Kusama, who you might know as "the dot lady").

Because I've been to the museum so many times, this was a deeply personal read for me because it mentioned so many of my favorite artists, like Liechtenstein, Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Yayoi Kusama, Frank Stella, and Dan Flavin, to name a few. It was so amazing to be able to see where they came from, how they sold their art, and even get a tiny glimpse into their personalities. I also kind of liked how the modern art world was portrayed as being like a secret club. Indie publishing and book blogging felt like that in the early 2010s, when online commercial book stuff was just taking off and not as many people were into it yet, so everyone kind of knew and interacted with everyone.

The only downside is that this book is very long, but it's beautifully written and the huge amount of research the author did shines through every page. By the time I finished the book, I wanted to go to an art museum right now. Shnayerson really captures the positives and the negatives of the art world, neatly encapsulated within the brief (but thorough) history he provides, and I really liked that a lot.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Caster by Elsie Chapman

If you pitch something to me as Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Fight Club, I'm going to read it, no questions asked. I might be a little skeptical about how two such very different concepts might pair, but I'm still going to read it anyway. And then, I'm going to be proven wrong, because it's going to be amazing-- at least, that's how it worked out with CASTER.

This was such an amazing book. A much better way of describing it, though, is The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter. Aza lives in a vaguely dystopian world ravaged by pollution and poverty, where people pay tribute to bad people to protect their businesses. Aza's older sister used to handle their finances, but she died mysteriously, and now that terrible task has fallen to Aza.

In this world, magic is forbidden because it comes at a cost. When magic is cast, the earth and the caster both take a heavy toll. People blame casters for the world's current state, and being caught doing magic could mean death-- or worse.

Which is why Aza is shocked when she finds out that her sister, Shire, was involved in a secret underground magic fight. When she lands an invitation herself, she ends up involved despite knowing that she shouldn't-- it's not just a way to save her family's business from certain doom, but also a way to figure out what really happened to her sister, and why.

Oh my God, this book was so good. The world-building was dark and amazing and I loved the checks and balances of the magic system, when all too often, you read fantasy books where magic is basically a clever party trick people can perform at no cost. It actually reminded me a little of Brandon Sanderson's MISTBORN series, the way they relied on physical focuses with different properties and doing too much could take a physical toll on you (including death). Everything flows very naturally and I felt like I was allowed to sink into the fantasy element as if it was a hot bath instead of having it poured over my head like a shock of cold water. It was done very well.

And the battle scenes! I don't want to say too much because spoilers, but this book was action-packed and I think it's really going to appeal to fans of THE HUNGER GAMES, who put down MOCKINGJAY somewhat disappointedly (some more so than others) and found themselves wanting more, although I feel like Aza is a better heroine than Katniss in some ways, because of how she struggles with guilt and morality-- that cliffhanger, man. How am I going to wait for book two? (There is going to be a book two, right? I need to know what choices she ends up making.)

I'm so excited for September to come, because it means I'm going to be able to squee over this series with friends. Right now, I'm the only one who's read it-- and I'm just aching to spill the beans.

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

5 out of 5 stars

Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson

I don't read a lot of middle grade books, but I enjoyed Watson's contribution to the YA title, WATCH US RISE, that I really wanted to see more of her work. SOME PLACES MORE THAN OTHERS seemed like another title that would explore identity, heritage, and growing up in a positive and interesting way, delving in deeper to serious issues rather than merely scratching at the surface as so many books aimed at teens seem to do.

SOME PLACES MORE THAN OTHERS is about a twelve-year-old black girl named Amara, who lives in Beaverton, Oregon. Her father works at Nike and her mother is pregnant with her younger sister. She has one close friend, and apart from that, isn't really interested in much besides shoes and school-- and her one birthday wish: going to New York to meet her extended family.

Her father is estranged from Amara's grandfather and hasn't spoken to him for twelve years. Both of her parents are reluctant to allow the trip because of all the emotional baggage that will have to be unpacked, but Amara's incessant wheedling and her pointing out that there might not be a chance for "later" when the baby is born end up causing her parents to relent, although her mother issues a caveat that things will be awkward and that Amara should do her best to help her father and grandfather reunite-- because that's not pressure at all.

Amara is really excited to be in Harlem, which is rich in black history and black cultural heritage, as well as to meet her grandfather and her two older cousins. However, apart from her grandfather, nobody is really that thrilled to see her, and the distance and tension between her grandfather and her father is worse than Amara thought. As she gathers information about New York and her family for a class project, Amara learns many important lessons about family, forgiveness, and heritage, all while trying to navigate her place in the family, and the many shapes that love can take.

I actually liked this a lot. Amara can be a little annoying, but in that way that a lot of little kids can be annoying, which stems from ignorance and innocent selfishness, and not a lack of good writing. She's a fully fleshed-out character who feels like a real person, and Renee Watson did a great job writing like a kid. I also thought the rest of the family was really well-written, and I enjoyed how so many parts of this book felt like a love letter to black history and culture in New York. There are so many places and names mentioned, and I bet actually having been to New York makes those mentions even more satisfying-- I know for me, New York is on my bucket list of places I need to see; it's just risen even higher after reading this book, and seeing how awesome it is through Amara's eyes.

This is a great book for kids. It's got positive rep, good values, and deals with serious issues, and it doesn't condescend to its audience at all. Kids can sense that-- especially smart kids-- and I think SOME PLACES MORE THAN OTHERS will really resonate with its target audience.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 13, 2019

As Black as Ebony by Salla Simukka

I requested an ARC of this book because I thought it was related to Nele Neuhaus's SNOW WHITE MUST DIE, which is a German murder mystery with Snow White themes. The two books are unrelated, however; AS BLACK AS EBONY is a young adult Finnish mystery by Salla Simukka about a girl named Lumikki with Snow White themes. Apart from the Snow White themes, and the mystery elements, the two books are very different and don't have that much in common, just FYI.

AS BLACK AS EBONY is apparently the third book in the series, and while I did feel like I was missing some information, I could easily read it as a standalone. Lumikki has just returned back to Finland from Prague after a terrible disaster befell her old school. She was able to help avert disaster, and has taken up with her old Finnish art school, acting as the lead in a feminist retelling of Snow White called The Black Apple, and dating a dreamy boy called Sampsa who's the perfect boyfriend with the perfect life.

Someone is stalking Lumikki, now, though. Someone who claims to know a lot about her life, including a dark secret about her family that not even her parents will tell her. This person, who calls himself (or herself) the Shadow intends on running Lumikki around, like a rat in a maze, until they are ready to make their move and reveal themselves to her as a paramour-- but if she tells anyone about the letters, she is warned, the night of the play will end in blood.

I was super impressed by AS BLACK AS EBONY. The mystery element was done well and there was no shortage of suspects for the stalker. (And no, I didn't guess who it was-- a plus.) Lumikki is an engaging heroine who is clever but also weary; she appears to have suffered a lot over the course of the trilogy, and is ready to just be left alone and live the ordinary life of a high school student.

Also, I just want to appreciate how sex positive this book is. Lumikki's relationship with her boyfriend is portrayed as totally natural and normal, and there's no shaming or jealousy or cattiness between Lumikki and any of the girls. Also, Lumikki's ex-boyfriend is transgender and their break-up was because he wanted his space to think about his transition, and not due to any bigotry. She also uses the correct pronouns for him, even when talking about him pre-transition, and it was very respectful and correct (and something that a lot of U.S. books fail miserably at). The rep there was well done, and I really appreciated that and wish more U.S. books were the same.

I really enjoyed this Finnish YA thriller and am interested in reading more by this author.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Queen by Josh Levin

A lot of us are familiar with the phrase, "Welfare Queen." It's a phrase conservative people like to toss around as a reason to deny people food stamps or government-subsidized care, because low-income people might use the tax dollars to buy caviar and a yacht. Never mind the fact that it's actually pretty difficult to defraud most food programs, especially SNAP (having worked in retail), where registers will not even let you ring up non-eligible items.

THE QUEEN is about the woman who contributed to the coining of the phrase, and ironically, the welfare fraud was the least of her crimes. Racism got her on the hook for the crimes but, even more ironically, racism prevented her from being charged for the more serious of what she did-- potential murder, estate fraud, and even kidnapping. Linda Taylor was an ethnically ambiguous woman who was operating under multiple aliases, laying claim to various ethnic heritage, and had numerous spouses and children-- imaginary and not-- in order to get thousands of dollars from the government, and live an outrageous and incredible lifestyle.

I was surprised by the length of this book (almost 400 pages with the bibliography and the sources), and wondered how this woman's life and crimes could possibly fill a whole book. The first half is pretty good and it's clear how much time and effort Josh Levin poured in to researching THE QUEEN, from the police officer who helped bring her down, to Ronald Reagan's staunchly adversarial approach to government aid, to Linda Taylor herself, a woman who was easy to paint as the villain to an aggrieved populace that was becoming increasingly aware of the wage disparity between the top earners and the bottom earners as poverty itself became a partisan issue.

Linda Taylor is a fascinating individual and while I don't support what she did at all, it was interesting to see how she was able to get away with her crimes. Social media has allowed for a different kind of fraud, so it was kind of eye-opening to see that people have been doing such scams for years, albeit in a different way (and maybe in a way that was slower to catch without the instantaneous nature of the internet). She played cat and mouse with the newspaper reporters and the detectives chasing her in plain sight for years, seemingly assured that she would never face any real consequences, and the public interest in her case ended up making her a byword for people who were willing to cheat the system and a scapegoat for the crime to satisfy a xenophobic and tight-fisted population.

The second half of the book is much slower, as it's about Linda Taylor's actual history, childhood, and then, later, her life after the trial that ended up making her (in)famous. This part was dull and felt more like an opportunity for the author to show off his research, and was not very interesting or engaging. THE QUEEN could have been a much shorter book, and a much more effective book because of it, but instead, Levin chose to draw things out and ruin the effect he started with the first half of THE QUEEN. I ended the book feeling dissatisfied and bored.

Overall, I would say that this is an interesting glimpse into the 1960s/70s, as well as the inherent racism that was still quite prominent in the system, and it gives the story behind one of the go-to dog-whistling terms that is thrown around to this day with the relevant historical context removed.

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

2 out of 5 stars

The Summer of Ellen by Agnete Friis

My mother is really into Scandinavian murder mysteries, so I know a bit about them, even though it's not really my genre of choice. Agnete Friis is 1/2 of a famous writing duo behind a series of mysteries about a woman called Nina Borg, and seems like it might be the Danish answer to Miss Marple. Since then, she's gone solo, and this book, THE SUMMER OF ELLEN, is one of those singular efforts.

THE SUMMER OF ELLEN is told in a dual timeline. The narrator is named Jacob, and we know him as an awkward teenager growing up on a farm with his great-uncles, and also as a married and harried architect in his forties. One day, in the modern timeline, he gets a call from his great-uncle Anton, wondering what happened with the girl he used to hang out with, a beautiful girl from the hippie commune named Ellen.

As a teenager, Jacob was infatuated with Ellen, the artistic and wild girl who lived in the commune near his uncles' farm. His life was pretty unremarkable-- his parents don't get along, his friend Sten is loyal but creepy and misogynistic, and he's absolutely girl-crazy but utterly unappealing to them. His normal and boring life is disrupted when Sten's sister, Lise, goes missing, and is later found dead. Suddenly, all sorts of unpleasant revelations about the farm and the people on it come to life.

This story is slow-paced but pretty brutal in parts. Some examples of potential TWs: One of Jacob's uncles, Anders, is developmentally disabled, and of course, he falls under suspicion for Lise's death-- he ends up being the recipient of pretty severe targeted violence. (That said, I felt like his portrayal in the story was not offensive, and it could have easily been.) Sten is a despicable human being, and there are entire Reddit threads devoted to dressing down guys like him. He makes a lot of really crude and nasty statements about women. There's animal cruelty, but this book takes on a farm, and I've learned that farms are rarely as fun and idyll as they appear to children-- especially for the animals.

I don't think THE SUMMER OF ELLEN is a bad book, but it's not really my cup of tea. The characters were not as fleshed out as I would have liked, the pacing was uneven, and the reveals seemed a little cheap and disappointing-- for example, I was able to figure out who the bad guy(s) were from the very beginning, although I was hoping I was wrong. The best part of the book is how the author captures the sleepy, Bohemian vibe of the 70s and integrates that into the story.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 11, 2019

American Heroin by Melissa Scrivner Love

I was delighted to receive an advance copy of AMERICAN HEROIN because I really enjoyed the prequel, LOLA, so much. In my review of LOLA, I praised the novel for daring to do what so few books do: writes a compassionate and feminine heroine who is also capable of being incredibly strong and ruthless. Lola was a truly unique and unusual heroine, and her dark backstory and plucky grit made her an easy one to root for, even though she did unspeakably cruel things to lead her cartel.

AMERICAN HEROIN takes off where LOLA left off. Lola is now in charge and trying to manage her people and her deals, while also holding rival cartels at bay. In addition to her criminal life, she's also a parent dealing with the usual problems that all parents face: childhood bullying, discipline, and instilling good manners. Lola is aware of the irony of trying to teach her daughter to be a good person when she, her mother, is the polar opposite of what most people think of as a "good person," but she still tries, even while waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And of course it drops, because this is the cartel life, and it's just one backstab after another in cartel politics. The intrigue and complex social systems actually reminded me a little of Karina Halle's Dirty Angels series, which was also about cartels, but unlike Dirty Angels, Scrivner's series is about cartels that are led by women; the female characters aren't hapless heroines who were entangled in the shady life through the men they end up falling for, but strong leaders in their own right. All of the female characters in this book-- including Lola's young daughter, Lucy-- are fully autonomous, complex human beings, who make bad choices, and learn from those mistakes.

I sadly didn't enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed LOLA-- it's a lot slower, and lacks the high octane energy of the first book, where I literally couldn't turn the pages as fast as I wanted to read them. AMERICAN HEROIN isn't bad, but it's not as good as the sequel. That said, I wasn't mad at this book, and it helped pass the time on the bus (although I got a hilarious side-eye from an older lady, who was clearly unimpressed with the title). Scrivner leaves the book open for a sequel, too, which makes me think that a Lola #3 might be looming on the horizon-- hopefully it's as good as the first.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Club by Takis Wurger

THE CLUB is one of those books that's okay but kind of feels like about half a dozen other books that have done it better. Hans is a young sensitive German boy who loses both of his parents in two separate freak accidents. He ends up being put in the care of his English aunt, Alex, who is mostly hands-off-- until she suddenly requests a favor: she wants Hans to help her, by going to a prestigious university, to examine a secret club called "The Pitt."

Once there, a young and beautiful woman named Charlotte helps him get an "in" and gather reconnaissance, but she has secrets of her own, too. And as Hans gets more deeply involved with the secret boxing club, he starts to learn that the secret society has a dark under belly they don't exactly advertise to the public.

Surprise, surprise.

As I said, secret societies have kind of been done to death. I've read two books about secret societies in as many weeks, and both of them were more interesting than this book. THE CLUB isn't bad, but it isn't exactly the sensational blockbuster I was hoping for, either. I wonder if part of that is due to the translation, as all of the characters (there are multiple POVs) felt distant and removed in the narrative, and a lot of them had some pretty heavy stuff going on that necessitated emotional reaction.

I really liked the premise and it was a brisk, short read, but don't pick this up expecting any game-changing. It's a great book to read to pass the time, but isn't memorable and probably won't linger. I was able to guess what the dark twist was 20 pages in, which was disappointing but not shocking.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

My first advice to you is to ignore the blurb, as unless you are a very specific type of reader, it is going to give you unrealistic expectations regarding the tone of this novel and what it's actually about. RABBITS FOR FOOD is not a comedy in the usual sense and is unlikely to make you laugh out loud; it is funny, but in the scathing, bleak way that The Cable Guy is funny, or that Cousin Bette is funny-- it's "social commentary as train wreck"  funny, and a lot of people aren't going to go in for that style of humor.

Secondly, this is a book about mental illness, not about "losing one's mind." Mental illness is a chronic health condition and Binnie Kirshenbaum does a fantastic job showing how it can assert itself from a young age in milder forms, only to manifest in a more destructive manner when the person afflicted gets older. Bunny has always been different from the rest of her WASPy, affected family, and they have always resented her for it. Her negativity, and even her cruelty, appear to be byproducts of her depression, but nobody has ever taken the time to feel her out.

I suppose her personality could be described as "irreverent," but that implies a lack of caring, and it's pretty obvious that Bunny does take to heart the nasty remarks her friends and family make towards her. As someone who has experienced depression, those who have it may express it in odd ways-- it's more than sadness, it can also be expressed as emptiness or anger. Bunny's anger and bitterness at the world around her, though amusing and oftentimes spot-on, seem to be more of a reflection of her own lack of self-worth and self-value; and if you don't love yourself, it's really hard to love others.

We watch Bunny on New Year's Day, building up to what psychologists call an "episode": she is agitated, and not taking care of herself. Her husband, sensing something is wrong, is very worried, and does everything he can to dissuade her from going to the New Year's party with all their friends. Bunny is adamant; she wants to go. We don't know what's going to happen, but we know it can't be good, because the book opens with Bunny in a psychiatric clinic, pondering on how she got there.

The book switches back and forth between the Creative Writing prompts Bunny writes within the clinic, and Bunny getting ready for the party that will put her over the edge. Even though there isn't a lot of action, it's still very suspenseful, and her narrative voice, while bitterly sarcastic and misanthropic, is very relatable and clever. I was reminded a lot of GIRL, INTERRUPTED, for its unabashed portrayal of mental illness and recovery, and MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION for the way it juxtaposes mental health against the collective societal "sickness" of a specific period in time, in this case, the superficiality of the late 2000s, when everyone aspired to be a social climber.

RABBITS FOR FOOD is such a good book and I feel so lucky that I was able to get an ARC of it to review. Again, it's not a book for everyone, but for those who resonate with it, it's going to be a classic. It certainly filled that niche for me!

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

5 out of 5 stars