Saturday, August 31, 2019

A Student of History by Nina Revoyr

I requested a copy of this because of the comparison to GREAT EXPECTATIONS. That's my favorite Dickens novel, and I loved the idea of a modern re-imagining, replete with Gatsby undertones of lofty social climbing and unattainable socialite women. I did get that, but I also got a really interesting mystery reminiscent of THE THIRTEENTH TALE, in which an academic becomes privy to a powerful family's dirty secrets through the vein of research.

Richard is a graduate student struggling to make ends meet. He's on the cusp of losing his fellowship and is living paycheck to paycheck in the worst part of Los Angeles. When one of his friends offers to hook him up with an eccentric rich lady paying bank to type up her memoirs, he accepts without a thought. It isn't until he's driving up to her gigantic mansion that he realizes just how rich his employer is; Mrs. W, as we know her, is the grand-daughter of one of the original founders of Los Angeles, and beyond the trappings of her old world glitz and glam, and her anonymous charity donations, dirty secrets lie buried deep.

His advisor and a mysterious woman named Fiona are both very interested in Mrs. W's secrets, even though she's made it clear that she wishes the contents of her journals and her correspondence remain private. But Richard is heady on the fumes of wealth, even if it's not his own, and the power that moving in these circles provides. As he digs deeper and deeper into Mrs. W's history, and ends up learning things with the power to cause ruin, scruples fade, and ambition rises.

So obviously, I really liked this book. And it's funny, because usually literary academia books fall over themselves to proclaim that they're for readers who enjoyed THE SECRET HISTORY. I did not see such a comparison in any of the blurbs I looked at, but this was the first book I read that came close to achieving Donna Tartt's signature verbose style. Richard is neither good or bad, but he can be venal and self-centered, and a whole host of other things; and that doomed portrait of a character being drawn into ruin by apathetic rich people was so reminiscent of Tartt's books. I loved it.

If you like books about academia or Donna Tartt, I think you'd enjoy A STUDENT OF HISTORY. I was checking out some of the author's other books and they all look really interesting and have great reviews, so I think this is an author I may have to revisit, since I liked reading this book so much.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Soon the Light Will Be Perfect by Dave Patterson

I really wish the blurb on the back didn't compare this book to Brynn Greenwood because I almost didn't pick up SOON THE LIGHT WILL BE PERFECT because of that comparison, because of how much I disliked ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS. So if you saw that comparison and hesitated, fear not: the only thing this has in common with that book is bad things happening to young people and poverty.

There are a lot of books coming out dealing with young adult characters living in poverty-- and not the romanticized poverty you encounter in so many young adult books, where characters agonize about rent but still manage to afford bottle service at the night club on Friday nights. No, these characters are truly poor, and it makes me sad that we live in a tanked economy where that's a reality that so many individuals-- young and old-- can relate to.

The narrator of this book is a preteen boy who lives with his older brother, his factory worker father, and his mother, who is ill with cancer, on the verge of poverty in rural New England. They are extremely Catholic, working class, and filled with a stubborn pride that prevents them from sharing their dirty laundry and asking for help. I remember reading somewhere that part of the reason social programs don't work in the U.S. is because low-income Americans see themselves not as poor, but as "temporarily embarrassed millionaires." Actually, I think that's a butchered quote from John Steinbeck, and there is something vaguely Steinbeckian about this family's struggles and strife.

We follow the narrator through an incident with way too many cats (it's very funny, and there's no animal deaths-- thank goodness), protests outside a Planned Parenthood clinic, to a bizarre fetish for stolen bras, to his desperate need to connect to his brother and his frantic worry for his ailing mother, to his first sexual awakening and crush on a local girl who is poorer than his family, and an ending that manages to be both tragic and bittersweet. I wasn't expecting much with this book but that ended up being the saving grace, as this worked as a character portrait of truly flawed individuals attempting to make their way through life, much like WHITE OLEANDER or THE GOLDFINCH.

I was just talking about my mixed feelings about child/preteen narrators in adult fiction. I think it's an awkward topic that needs to be handled with care, or it can come across as either too disturbing or too precious (ROOM, ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS, and CLOVER BLUE fall under this category). But this book, and WHITE OLEANDER, are both examples of how you can take a young narrator and successfully utilize that voice in a book for adults that manages to be authentic while still tackling issues that might be too complex or mature for a younger audience. If you liked WHITE OLEANDER, or enjoy flawed and tragic character studies, this is a great book for you.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Clover Blue by Eldonna Edwards

CLOVER BLUE is one of those books for an adult audience that's narrated by a child. Sometimes this works, but far too often it comes across as overly pretentious and lame. Sadly, CLOVER BLUE is one of those latter examples. I didn't think that a book about a hippie commune with sinister motivations could possibly be boring. Maybe if I hadn't recently read THE ASH FAMILY, which was basically a better version of this, I wouldn't have been so dismally disappointed. Maybe if the characters hadn't been named things like Doobie, Goji, and Aura, I would have been able to take this book more seriously. There are a lot of maybes.

Clover Blue lives in Saffron Freedom Community, a hippie commune in the San Francisco Bay Area, let by a creepy dude named Goji who brags about his travels to India and acts like an obnoxious Philosophy major. Clover likes his many sister-mothers, who have raised him, and admires and wants to be like Goji. But he's also really curious about his family before he came to the commune, the people who abandoned him to these pot-smoking weirdos who believe in free love.

Precious narrative aside, this book had a couple other major flaws. First, it's boring. Nothing happens and none of the characters are interesting enough to make this a compelling character-driven story. Second, the twist at the end was super lame and felt about a zillion different kinds of contrived. Third, a total lack of closure and accountability. That is another way that THE ASH FAMILY beats this book. With TAF, I got a sense of closure, a sense of character development, and a sense of justice. With CLOVER BLUE, I got... wishy-washy, I don't want to commit. Are the hippies the good guys or the bad guys? Edwards wants them to be both, and the end result is a disaster.

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

1.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Opioid, Indiana by Brian Allen Carr

What a strange book. OPIOID, INDIANA paints a rather desolate portrait of Middle America under the Trump presidency. Riggle is a transplant from Texas, and in every comparison to the Lone Star State, Indiana ends up falling short. Orphaned, Riggle lives with his drug addict uncle and his uncle's girlfriend, in a town infamous for drug use and abuse, and a host of characters who are all backwards and dysfunctional in their own way.

When his guidance counselor frames him for drug use and gets him suspended as a result, Riggle has a week to himself. As he looks for his missing uncle to have him pay the rent and does some job hunting and soul-searching, Riggle is haunted by memoirs of his late mother and the stories she used to tell him, accompanied by shadow puppets, about her own rather bizarre take on mythology, including how the days of the week were named.

OPIOID, INDIANA is one of the few books I've read that really gets the edgy voice of a young adult right. Riggle is a dysfunctional teen, and you believe it, 100%. At times, it reminded me of a less elegantly written WHITE OLEANDER because of how successfully it portrayed people living on the fringe. I do think it gets a little too weird, though, especially at the end. OPIOID, INDIANA is not a book for everyone, but its raw takes on racism, the toxic cultures of small towns, politics, grief, and injustice are pretty well done, and the odd mythology elements were reminiscent of Tanith Lee's Flat Earth mythos.

If you're looking for something different that will grab teens' attention and not let go, I do think that this book has the ability to appeal to reluctant readers looking for characters they see themselves in.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Guest: A Changeling Tale by Mary Downing Hahn

GUEST is a middle-grade novel about faerie folklore, and reminiscent of stories like Mirrormask or Labyrinth, in which the fairy tale is an allegory for a coming-of-age morality play. It definitely reads as though it is written for a young audience, but it doesn't condescend to its audience, either, and would appeal to readers of Diana Wynne Jones or Vivian Vande Velde.

Mollie is the daughter of two peasants, and her parents have recently had another baby, Thomas. Thomas is a beautiful, good-natured child, and her superstitious parents have taken precautions to ensure that his presence doesn't catch the attention of the faeries who live in the nearby forest. Mollie screws all that up, though, by wishing him away, praising his beauty, and then stealing the charm of protection from him because she thinks it's a pretty bauble and selfishly wants it for herself.

Spoiler, as you can guess from the title and the blurb, this does not work out well. The baby is stolen and replaced with a changeling that they end up calling Guest, because he's an unwelcome visitor the family wants gone as soon as possible. Abandoning or killing him is out of the question, because ill-treatment to the changeling means ill-treatment for the human child, so Mollie's father storms out in a man-baby temper tantrum, leaving Mollie's mother to care for him in an increasingly exhausted stupor. Mollie feels sick with guilt, but isn't above treating Guest badly herself, resenting and insulting him by turns, while plotting all the while on how to retrieve Thomas.

The journey element of this was really well done. I liked how this story was steeped in folklore, and it kind of reminded me of this book I read when I was really young, Bruce Coville's SONG OF THE WANDERER. It has that same epic-fantasy-for-kids vibe, which I found nostalgic and appealing. Mollie is a terrible character, though. I hated her. She was so selfish, and stupid. I get that kids can be dumb, but she literally made the same exact mistake 10 times. It was hard to suffer. Guest, on the other hand, is a really great character and by the end of the story, I basically adored him.

Anyone who enjoys middle grade novels or has a kid who enjoys them, and would like a fantasy novel that is easy to read but does not talk down to its young audience will probably enjoy this book a lot. I don't normally go in for middle grade novels, but I thought this was well done and pays homage to faerie folklore in an informed way. It even has elements of Tam Lin, which I liked.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Impossible Causes by Julie Mayhew

Cue me yapping about this book to everyone I know. What an amazing book. IMPOSSIBLE causes is like a cross between The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Wickerman, and it is so, so good. The premise is absolutely brilliant. Lark is an island off the coast of England, claustrophobic, steeped in Celtic superstition, and entirely wreathed in fog seven months out of the year. There are no cell phone towers there, no technology, and Lark has stagnated in its own archaic splendor, unchecked, for years.

Viola and her anxious mother have come to Lark to escape the triggers of the modern world and the death of Viola's father. Ben Hailley, the attractive new young teacher, has come to Lark for, well, a lark. And maybe also to escape-- who knows? The entire town is consumed with the excitement of these new arrivals, especially a pretty young teacher, who has eyes for Ben, and three girls, called the Eldest Girls, a lot like the Weird Sisters from Sabrina, and just as attractive and mystifying, who end up welcoming Viola into their occultist flock with open arms.

Things start to go sour when rumors start flying about devil worship and illicit, sensational acts. The visitors to the island end up serving as unknowing catalysts to a Pandora's box of repression, folkloric superstition, misogyny, rape culture, and female rage. What follows is 400+ pages of breath-taking horror, mired in the abuse of religion for self-gain and many, many years of unchecked misogyny. It left my head spinning, I was so impressed by the beautiful writing and the plotting. IMPOSSIBLE CAUSES is so well done, and the spare prose really adds a wonderfully minimalist element to the story-telling, leaving you no choice but to focus on the characters.

Anyone who likes mysteries set in small towns will really enjoy IMPOSSIBLE CAUSES. I'm blown away that more of the preliminary readers weren't 100% into this, because I absolutely devoured this book and am going to recommend it to everyone I know. It reminds me a lot of this other book I read and loved, also set in a small island town in the UK, and also filled with superstitious paranoia and xenophobia, and that book was LUCAS by Kevin Brooks if you're into that concept. I totally am, and I am marking this book as a "keeper," to be re-read at will, preferably on a dark and stormy night.

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

5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Widow of Pale Harbor by Hester Fox

Gothic novels are my catnip. I think they're probably the genre of book I probably enjoy most because of the creepiness and the meticulous plotting that goes in to creating not just the mystery element but also the atmosphere. But, like all books, the Gothic genre has its hits and its misses, and this was more miss than hit.

THE WIDOW OF PALE HARBOR starts out promisingly enough in the way that it introduces our two main characters. Sophronia is haunted by the (figurative) ghost of her dead abusive husband, and struggles with her agoraphobia in her isolated mansion on the hill. Everyone thinks that she's a witch who probably murdered her husband, and the fact that her house servant practices herblore certainly doesn't help matters. Lately, she's been the victim of cruel pranks involving letters, ravens (dead and alive), and effigies, intent on making her squirm.

Gabriel is a man who has come to the small village of Pale Harbor to be a minister of Transcendentalism. He is doing this, despite a very painful lack of any religious training of any kind in homage to his late wife, who was fascinated by the religious movement and wanted him to practice the beautiful words that he used to transcribe for mere pennies. By preaching, he hopes that he will be able to honor her in death as he was unable to in life-- until he meets Sophronia.

The biggest detriment to this book is the insta-love between the hero and heroine. In the beginning, I was very much on board with the claustrophobic small town vibe, spiritual and religious and taking god-fearing to extremes that had the faintest whiff of witch-hunting fervor from the century prior. I could have even bought the doomed romance, had it been spaced out a bit, but with both parties being widowed, and haunted by their spouse's passings (albeit for different reasons), it felt a bit weird that they would be so eager to leap into a new relationship, given what we knew of their characters.

As for the mystery element, that was what I liked best about this book, although it wasn't quite the dark and disturbing read I'd wished for. The Edgar Allen Poe-inspired pranks and murders that had me picking up this book in the first place definitely don't quite capture that breathless horror that had Poe terrorizing the Victorians back in the day. I didn't actually guess who the culprit was until the end, so that was nice, but the ending was anticlimactic and falls prey to the usual "bad guy" tropes.

THE WIDOW OF PALE HARBOR is not a bad book, but it isn't a standout in the genre, either. It's bland, it's blah, but that's okay. Pick this up if you want a quick, breezy read that will pass an afternoon without too much brain drain, just as long as you don't mind a syrupy, saccharine serving of romance paired alongside your milquetoast murder mystery.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Iron & Fire by Ariana Nash

Whoa. That was one of the more difficult books I've struggled to get through in a while-- not because it was bad, but because it was so unrelentingly brutal. After finishing this, all I could think was, Game of Thrones, eat your heart out, because there's a new bad bitch on the block. Only since this is about a bisexual elf and a gay dragon, I guess you could call it Gay of Thrones. Or, my favorite alternative title: Lysander Can't Catch a Fucking Break.

IRON & FIRE continues where the first book, SILK & STEEL, left off. Humans, dragons, and elves are at war. Eroan, the elf, was captured when he tried to assassinate the dragon queen. Obviously, that failed, and he ended up as the prisoner of the royal dragons. Lysander is the young prince, and the black sheep of the family because he's gay and unbreedable and also because everyone thinks he's sniveling, weak and pathetic. He drowns his shame in alcohol, but after meeting the elf and seeing him remain unbroken, he starts to want to drown in something else... like that booty. The feeling even seems like maybe it's mutual.

Of course, this is not your mother's romance novel, and absolutely nothing works out. There is rape, slavery, torture, violence, incest, and abuse, and basically a whole entire rainbow of trigger warnings. The book ends with both leads apart and hating each other once more because of a betrayal. Eroan must return to his people as an outcast to convince them to fight the dragons, and Lysander ends up being an abused and broken plaything, only to be reborn like a phoenix from flames as a fucking death machine fueled by Kill Bill levels of revenge and rage, including a certain elf.

The plotting and the reveals in this book were really great. Second books often end up falling short because they end up as placeholders for the series finale, and have mostly expositions and padding. Not this book. There were expositions, yes, but it was an entire roller-coaster of W-T-F getting there, and if you thought the first book was dark, this one is where Nash really snuffs out all the lights.

Knowing what I know now about the dragons, I'm dying to see what happens in the last book. I can't wait for the epic showdown I know is going to happen. I keep hoping Lysander will catch a break, or six, and that Eroan will get his head out of his ass long enough to realize that he doesn't really know everything. Also, I actually don't want Akiem to die. He's a psycho dragon, but he's my psycho dragon, and he's one sexy mother-fucker (literally, yikes) of a villain and I'm kind of obsessed. You should see his fight scenes and read some of his one-liners if you don't believe me, damn. He's fire. 🔥

October 11th can't come soon enough.

P.S. I buddy-read this with Maraya, and you should definitely check out her review. 🐉

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Truth Worth Telling: A Reporter's Search for Meaning in the Stories of Our Times by Scott Pelley

The opening essay in this collection of journalism pieces stitched loosely together to create a nonlinear memoir was one of the most difficult pieces of writing I've struggled to get through in a long time-- not because the writing was dense or hard to understand, but because it was so distressing, and so evocative of one of the most tragic moments in the recent history of the United States. Scott Pelley was at Ground Zero during 9/11 and writes about those who survived and those who didn't. I read this on the bus and had to struggle not to cry when he wrote about all of those innocent people who died going to work, and the many brave emergency response people who died trying to save them.

Luckily, not all of the essays are this hard to read, but this is not a joyous or uplifting memoir, as Pelley focuses his efforts on critical moments of his field correspondent career that represent major turning points in history. Among this collection, he writes about the censorship of journalists and the dangers of the Gulf War, the Iraq War and the murky political waters from which it surfaced, his admiration of Hillary and his skepticism of Trump during the 2016 election and the failures to reach the frustrated blue collar middle class, the parents of those who died in the Sandy Hook tragedy, his two completely coincidental encounters with the Oklahoma City bomber, the abuses of power during the Patriot Act, and Bill Clinton's fall from grace.

Pelley is a great writer. Of course, you would expect nothing less from a journalist, but I think the rush to print and to be first has sometimes resulted in quality being sacrificed. I've noticed an increase in typos and post-publishing corrections and edits being added to articles, and while I think transparency and correct information is important, sometimes rushing to print means that the first to read the articles are also the first to walk away with factually incorrect information if there's an error. He's great at communicating a scene, and treating his subjects with nuance and care. Sometimes his job meant he went to dangerous places, and his description of fleeing Chinese officials trying to confiscate his teams' camera equipment and the high-stress nerve gas drills in the Middle East made me really, really glad that I don't have his job, as I don't think I'd be able to work in that pressure.

If I have a criticism, I think it's that Pelley can come across as too arrogant and idealistic. There's a lot of self-patting on the back, and the putting of journalists on pedestals as if they are the patron saints of truth and worthy of an entirely separate branch of government worthy of their own checks and balances. I get having pride in what he does, and the contributions he's made to history, but that arrogance was hard to read at times, and I found myself skimming some of the more self-adoring passages. Likewise, this book is very military-oriented, so some of the passages sometimes end up sounding similar. I don't know much about the military and am not particularly interested in it (even if I do respect what our servicemen do), so I tended to skim these passages lightly as well.

Overall, though, TRUTH WORTH TELLING is a really excellent and heartfelt collection of journalism as memoir, and I think it would be great for anyone who wants to know more about recent political issues and how they've contributed to the current political climate, and would serve as a good tool in a classroom for kids to learn about important political events in a relatively neutral tone. If you're interested in politics or journalism, or just happen to like watching the evening news a whole lot, you should pick up this book.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Midnight on the River Grey by Abigail Wilson

Christian fiction is not usually a genre of books I usually read because I am not religious, and tend to find the overwhelmingly sanctimonious and preachy messages of some of these books troubling at best and extremely uncomfortable at worst. But there's one thing I can't say no to, and that's a Gothic romance novel. MIDNIGHT ON THE RIVER GREY had a great cover and concept, and it had a plus-size model on the front cover. YAAASS

To my surprise, MIDNIGHT ON THE RIVER GREY was not all that religious. I think God was only mentioned in the epilogue, and there weren't any random prayer sessions or recitations of scripture, as many historical christian romances tend to have. Instead, what I got was a fantastic gothic romance with atmosphere and suspense, that managed to pay homage to the squeaky-clean romances of Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt, while also giving nods to much older favorites, like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.

Rebecca Hunter is a scrappy young heroine who is a bit of a feminist-- she doesn't want to get married, and she's incredibly smart. When her older brother dies under mysterious circumstances, she decides to investigate his death. Especially when her guardian, a cousin named Lewis Browning, takes her to the reclusive and sinister Greybourne Hall. Lewis is a darkly attractive and intense man, and as with many Gothic romances, there's a suggestion that he might be guilty of murder. When more bodies turn up, and reports of sinister happenings stir among the nearby village, Rebecca is forced to wonder: who might want her brother dead-- and why?

I enjoyed every second of this book. The writing is gorgeous and fits the time period, and given some of the references, was obviously well-researched. I loved the dynamic between Rebecca and her Aunt Jo; they reminded me of Sabrina and Aunt Hilda from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Aunt Jo had that bumbling but capable act down pat, and I was pleased that she got a side-romance of her own. The murder mystery element was also really well done-- I didn't even guess what happened! The final confrontation was suspenseful, and everybody (well, everyone good) gets a happy ending.

Honestly, if you're a secular reader and saw this cover and wanted, but had second thoughts, fear not. Anyone can enjoy this book, and as long as you're not looking for something really racy, I think you'll enjoy it if you're into regency romances and Gothic romances. I certainly did, and think it really captures the essence of its 1960s and 1970s forebears. Definitely recommend!

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

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 22, 2019

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

Reading this book was so incredibly frustrating because it sounded really good, but while reading it I was alternately depressed and bored. HOW WE DISAPPEARED has two alternating timelines. One is told in the 2000s by a preteen boy named Kevin, whose grandmother gives him a jarring and frightening deathbed confession that sends him on a quest to discover some of the dark secrets harbored by his family. The other is told during the 1940s, when the Japanese invaded and then occupied Singapore. Wang Di is an ordinary teenage girl whose life is upended when she is kidnapped from her family and forced into sexual slavery as a "comfort woman" for the soldiers.

The beginning of this book is really slow, and it took me over 100 pages to feel engaged in the storyline and characterization. Kevin is a mediocre character-- bullied in school, he is bookish and precocious, but doesn't have much in the way of personality since the whole purpose of his even being a character in the story is to serve as a vehicle to propel the merging of Wang Di's narration and his own, as well as to reveal the secrets of his family.

Wang Di is definitely a sympathetic character, and her story is tragic and harrowing-- more so, because it reflects a very dark time in history, and the stories of very real women in China, Singapore, and Korea during World War II. Her story is broken down into two parts: we see her narrating her story in the 1940s in the first person, as well as a very old women in the present day in the more removed third person. I actually found this really interesting; Wang Di was haunted by her traumatic abuse during the war, and I couldn't help but feel that she was given first person for these segments to show how immediate and personal these memories were, whereas as an old woman, Wang Di felt far more removed from her circumstances, as nothing could really rival what she experienced in the war.

HOW WE DISAPPEARED isn't a bad book by any means. I found it flawed, but there were parts of it I enjoyed. It doesn't shy away from the atrocities of war, and the casualties of the war in the form of women who were taken against their will and ill-used by soldiers who saw them as objects ripe for play or abuse. I also liked how language played a somewhat central role, and how the meanings of certain characters and words were mentioned. I'm currently learning Chinese right now, and it was really exciting to recognize certain romanticized words, like di, and even some of the characters. This imbued the novel with a relevance for me that went far deeper than the surface storyline.

If you are interested in books about WWII or books about Asian history, I think you will probably enjoy this more than I did. But unless you're really interested in these subjects, I don't think the novel has enough substance to really stand on its own and appeal to people who are strangers to the historical fiction genre and are looking for something light and titillating to read.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Captive by Jex Lane

DNF @ 52%

The idea of a romance between an incubus and a vampire while their people were at war was so appealing. I just got Kindle Unlimited, and I've been availing myself of all the dark romance my smutty heart desires, and this was one of the romances that's been at the top of my list for a while. Incubi and vampires have been at war for a while, but now Matthew, a man who previously believed himself to be an ordinary vampire, is a key player in the sinister machinations of the incubus and succubus army.

Tarrick is a lord general in the incubi army, and Matthew's captor. The beginning of this book was so hot and I had high hopes that it would be like Ariana Nash's Silk & Steel series, which I love so much. It kind of fell apart, though, since there are lots of dull scenes interspersed with some pretty abusive sex. I'm not one to shy away from toxic romances but it has to work. Tarrick just came across as super smarmy and gross.

I'm giving this 1.5 stars because the writing was okay and I think this might work for people who like those skeevy heroes who enjoy being called "master" and throwing their power around to overcompensate for masculine inferiority complexes. I would probably rate this higher if I forced myself through it but at the moment, I can't be bothered, and if a book isn't good enough to see to the end, that's on the book.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Proud: Living My American Dream by Ibtihaj Muhammad

Some books inspire you to be a better person and pursue your dreams. PROUD by Ibtihaj Muhammad is one of these books. Looking on Goodreads, it seems like there might be two versions of this memoir and this one with the blue cover is the "young readers" edition. I haven't read the "adult" version with the white cover (if it is, in fact, the adult edition and not just a reprint), but I must say that if I didn't know this was for young readers, I wouldn't have guessed except maybe for the amount of white space in the text. This is such a well-written memoir, detailing Ibtihaj's early life as well as how she got into fencing (surprisingly late in life), as well as what it's like growing up in America and then becoming famous as a black Muslim.

I was surprised by how late she started fencing. She started in high school, if I recall correctly. Normally when you hear about these Olympian athletes, they've been coached since birth. So I felt like it was extra inspiring to hear that she started later; it makes you feel like you don't have to be a prodigy to accomplish great things. The descriptions of fencing were great, and I loved how she talked about the struggles, the physical exhaustion, and how much she had to sacrifice. She didn't shirk from describing her failures and disappointments, and you could tell from the writing how much her successes-- and her losses-- mean to her. It's captured so well in the text. Amazing.

The racism and sexism she encountered are also written about here a bit. One of her coaches didn't seem to like women and said and did a lot of things that seemed really aggressive and hostile. Her fellow Championship team were also very cold to her, to the point where it almost felt like bullying, and I was really surprised that they were allowed to be such bad sports and so cold and exclusive. That isn't what being on a team is supposed to be about and I was sorry she had to deal with that. She also writes about dealing with and being targeted by airport security, receiving death threats for her faith, being bullied at school, and working at an inner-city high school as a substitute teacher for a stint and being a painful witness to the inequality that exists in schools in low-income areas.

Ibtihaj also writes about her faith and how it inspires her every day, and why her mother converted to Islam in the first place. The United States is shockingly Islamophobic, and reading this made me want to put this book into their hands so they could see another side to the religion they baselessly fear. I am not religious at all, but I found Ibtihaj's faith inspiring, and loved the consolation and the peace that it seems to give her in some of her most trying moments. I also loved her mother's guidance and her close relationship with her siblings, and how loving and supportive her household was. Those full color photographs in the center of Ibtihaj and her family were everything.

PROUD is a great book. I've been reading it over the last couple days in between some of my more hardcore reads, and it put me in a good mood starting out my day with something so hopeful. I think this is a great book for anyone who would like to learn more about a great athlete who is notable for being the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, as well as being the first American Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal. Her experience as a champion athlete, as well as being a woman of color in a sport that is predominantly white and affluent and privileged, is so important and I think this would be a great book to have in a classroom or school library.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Silk & Steel by Ariana Nash

Ever since I read C.S. Pacat's CAPTIVE PRINCE, I've been looking for other dark fantasy books that have that same fantasy bodice-ripper vibe. SILK & STEEL comes the closest of all the other books I've read to capturing that same balance of unapologetic smut and court intrigue, kind of like if GAME OF THRONES was written for the female gaze. Honestly, though, it had me at angsty dragon prince and arrogant warrior elf.

Prince Lysander is the younger son of a sadistic dragon queen who has physically and sexually abused him his whole life. He's treated as "broken" because of his attraction to men, and now she's trying to sell him and breed him with one of the other dragon clans, one that revels in violent orgies. Oh, boy. Eroan, on the other hand, is an elven assassin charged with the murder of Lysander's mother; he would have succeeded were it not for Lysander himself, who was the only one able to cut him down in battle. Now he's a prisoner in the dragons' tower, and finds himself perplexed by the silent, brooding dragon prince who has taken it upon himself to be his gaoler.

I think the most crucial point to mention for this book is that it is NOT for the faint of heart. It has all of the same triggers that CAPTIVE PRINCE did, and a lot of the world-building centers around rape or sexual violence. I didn't feel like the rape was romanticized, and the relationship between the two heroes isn't based on rape, but it is very much present in this book and committed by both men and women alike. There's also incest, which is gross. Nash also doesn't shy away from violence-- the fight scenes in this book are really well done, but part of what makes them so is no small amount of gore.

One thing I really liked is that this isn't GFY; Eroan is bisexual and has had relationships with women. Lysander, on the other hand, is gay and identifies as such; it's a huge problem for him as a prince in a homophobic dragon court that keeps trying to breed him with women. He's subjected to a lot of abuse because of that-- not just from his mother, but also from one of the other dragon clans that ends up drugging him into a stupor so that he'll be too blitzed out of his mind to realize that he's having sex with a woman. I think these scenes might be really hard for some people to read.

On the other hand, I liked that this book was so dark and didn't shy away from getting down and dirty in order to tell the story the way the author intended. It really did remind me of a bodice-ripper, not just because of the darkness, but also because of the globe-trotting adventures, alliances, betrayals, and fight scenes that made a lot of those 1970s bodice-rippers so much fun to read. This book is decently long, and yet the pages just flew by. I was never bored and was always wondering what happened next, and I wasn't even too mad when the cliffhanger I totally predicted happened because I had the other book in the series on stand-by, which I'm going to be buddy-reading with a friend.

If you enjoy dark fantasy novels or bodice-rippers and don't mind books with lots of trigger-warnings, I think you'll really, really like this-- especially if you're familiar with Pippa DaCosta's other work and want to see her try her hand at something different. ON TO BOOK TWO.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Ash Family by Molly Dektar

I'm honestly surprised this doesn't have higher ratings on Goodreads because it seems like the type of book most people claim that they want to read. THE ASH FAMILY is about a slacker, loser girl named Berie who's afraid of change and doesn't want to go to college; she just wants to hang out with her loser artist boyfriend and enjoy the life of the underachieving freeloader. Then she meets a guy at a bus station who she thinks is hot, and he blows her mind with some cheap, flimflam philosophy that she thinks is ~so wise~. Next thing you know, he's taking her to this commune in the mountains called the Ash Family Farm, where they live off the land and eschew modern medicine and technology. To Berie, it seems like paradise-- until it isn't.

First, major kudos to the author for writing such an unlikable, moronic, weaselly little heroine and having her still be interesting. It's easy to see why Berie gets sucked into the cult; she wants her life to have meaning without any effort; she wants to be special and different without having to achieve anything; she's afraid of what all young people are afraid of-- not amounting to anything, so she ends up making an incredibly foolish choice because she is also naive and vulnerable enough (despite thinking herself worldly) to be predated upon by this group of kooky opportunists.

THE ASH FAMILY has the slow, snowballing effect that ANIMAL FARM had, in that the small choices characters make and the small freedoms they give up end up ballooning into something terrible and transforming the characters into something that's almost unrecognizable from how they started out. Berie starts off as naive and foolish, but by the end of the book she's complicit in a lot of the cult's actions. Anyone who likes novels of suspense or who thinks cults are fascinating or who likes heroines who are morally grey and free to make bad choices at their own peril will enjoy this book.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Followers by Megan Angelo

I have other ARCs that I should have been reading before this one (deadlines, yo), but after reading a few pages of this book to "sample," I ended up not being able to put it down. I picked up FOLLOWERS because it sounded a little like Dave Eggers' THE CIRCLE, only without the terrible sex scenes and unrealistic protagonist that made THE CIRCLE seem like a social media version of RED SPARROW (i.e. exploitative and bad).

FOLLOWERS is coming out in January 2020, which is really the perfect time, since it's the time of new years, new resolutions, and FOLLOWERS is all about people who will do anything to tap into that idealized version of ourselves we all wish we could be and then becoming famous. There are two different narrators, set in two different timelines. In the present day, there's Orla, a wannabe writer who lives with a wannabe starlet. One day the two of them hatch a scheme that ends up catapulting them both to fame with disastrous results. The second plotline takes place in the future and is about a woman named Marlow who's famous for being famous, but having an existential crisis because of it.

Both Orla and Marlow are great heroines because they're heavily flawed and make a lot of bad choices, and the book explores the effects of those choices and the possibility of redemption. The dystopian aspect of it explores the superficiality and vapidness of listicles and famous-for-being-famous celebrities of the Now, and a Truman Show-esque-like post-social-media future, where technology and psychology have merged to the point that everyone can tune in via brainwave and everything and anyone can be filmed and viewed for one's voyeuristic pleasure.

I think the messages of FOLLOWERS and THE CIRCLE are both very similar, in that they both take a "social media is bad" approach. Social media is not inherently bad in my opinion, but it does act as a magnifying glass-- acts of good become hyper-focused, but so do acts of bad, and sometimes with disastrous consequences. The cataclysmic event in this book that ends up causing the rift between our Now and Marlow's Future capitalizes on this nature of "bad," by showing that a lot of us are a bit too cavalier with what we choose to share online, and that the internet really isn't as durable or secure as we'd like it to be; it's far from being compartmentalized, and we should be careful in how we use it.

The reason I'm not giving it a five is because I didn't really like the ending-- it felt too easy. I also feel like, for a dystopian, this book really didn't do the best job painting the future as horrific and doom-laden, which I look for in books of this nature. I was kind of hoping for a social media version of Brave New World or 1984, and while I sort of got that, I also sort of got a book that felt more like chick-lit, in that the focus was on mid-life crises, family, and finding yourself. And that's totally fine and it was done pretty well here, but I don't think it's what people reading this are signing up for.

Overall, though, this was a pleasure to read, and I think it will be a hot item for book clubs and might even become a movie (although hopefully, a better movie than THE CIRCLE ended up being). If you enjoy thoughtful, speculative fiction and would like a gentler dystopian novel with mid-2000s chick-lit vibes and flawed heroines and some pretty on-point jabs on social media and click-bait, this will be a great book for you. It even gets in some laughs at Donald Trump's expense, which I support.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Secret Girl by C.M. Stunich

DNF @ 38%

In high school, I was the biggest anime nerd ever. There was no way I couldn't read this book, with the many comparisons to Ouran Host Club, Kill Me, Kiss Me, and Hana Yori Dango. I went into THE SECRET GIRL with high expectations, as I had downloaded it as soon as I got Kindle Unlimited. Reading it now, though, I must say that my reaction is one of disappointment.

First, the writing isn't that great. Charlotte is a huge jerk, and comes across as way younger than an older teenager with all her eye-rolling and sarcastic "humor." It made me wonder what the target audience for this books is, because the tone is juvenile, but it also spends a lot of time talking about the "hunky" teenage boys who are as swole as adult men in their prime. What gives?

Second, I did not really buy the whole "girl dressing as boy" premise as it was presented here. I'm a sucker for cross-dressing plots, but it has to be done well. I felt like the portrayal of sexuality was not done super well in these books and suffers from the same problem as many of the GFY M/M novels in that it inadvertently contributes to bisexual erasure by suggesting that people just have gaydar, and know instinctively that the girl is cross-dressing because they're not gay or bisexual, dammit! Ugh.

Third, why was her father on board with this scheme? And why didn't he care that his daughter was being bullied? Also... the bullying was kind of lame? Charlotte was so mean that it was hard to feel sorry for her, and the bullying just didn't escalate to the point where it was interesting to read about. I was SO bored, and eventually decided to throw in the towel since it didn't look to be getting better.

I guess this author is not for me.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Milk Eggs Vodka: Grocery Lists Lost and Found by Bill Keaggy

I'm an incredibly nosy person. When I used to work as a grocery cashier, I would always be mildly amused by the things that people would put on the conveyor belt and imagine what kind of lives they lived and what their hobbies were like. And then there were the awkward encounters as well, like the people trying to buy alcohol with no ID, or the time I told someone buying two boxes of condoms, without thinking, to "have a good night"-- and then regretted that deadpan automatic clerk politeness with all my heart.

This book is a collection of "found" grocery lists that were submitted to a guy who keeps a blog about lists. I recently read another "found" book, which were all the rage until online communities went mainstream and people started sharing these sorts of things for free. I liked the grocery lists, because I feel like each one was a little story about the person who wrote it, but after a while, the premise wore a little thin. There's only so many times you can see someone saying they bought milk or eggs before you're like, "SO?"

The saving grace of this book were the little extras thrown in: food trivia and facts, a restored table someone working in a grocery store had covered in decoupaged coupons people had thrown on the floor, a grocery list someone had Chevy Chase autograph in a bathroom, and then a link to a printable grocery list the author made himself on his blog for efficiency, along with some handy recipes for all-American staples (with ingredients found in your local grocery store, wink wink).

As others have said, some of the author's pithy commentaries got pretty annoying. Some people conflate meanness with humor, but I think there's a line before things start to just seem petty, and Keaggy crossed that line multiple times. I was also kind of surprised that he didn't bother translating some of the international lists-- couldn't he find someone who could speak/write Turkish or Tagalog?

This was an OK book but I don't think it's a strong enough concept to really warrant a book in the first place. Blogs are easier because you can just look and view until you're bored of the subject without feeling compelled to read every single post to the end, unlike a book. Might be a funny conversation starter for a coffee table piece, but I wouldn't recommend buying this to read.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Mistress of Trevelyan by Jennifer St. Giles

DNF @ 68%

Normally, I give books I don't finish a one star review, because my logic there is if it's too awful to finish, it's a bad book. There are some special circumstances surrounding THE MISTRESS OF TREVELYAN, though-- I started reading it before I left for Portugal and then never picked it up again when I got back because I had a gigantic stack of ARCs that had come to my house through the post, and few books can stack up against travel or brand new shinies, let alone an old Gothic novel that you're feeling ambivalent about.

Second, THE MISTRESS OF TREVELYAN is leaps and bounds better than the other book I read by Jennifer St. Giles, which was TOUCH A DARK WOLF, a book so bad that it almost takes badness to an artform. Like, I seriously considered deleting THE MISTRESS from my Kindle along with all the author's other books, because I wasn't sure she could possibly write something good. That's how bad TOUCH A DARK WOLF was.

THE MISTRESS OF TREVELYAN is actually okay and starts off pretty good. It's a Gothic novel written in the same style as the ones that were so popular in the 60s and 70s (before bodice-rippers came on the scene to steal the show). Ann Lowell is living in 19th century San Francisco, and takes on the position of governess to have a place to stay and money to burn. In addition to growing attached to her charges, she finds herself (incredibly, furiously, passionately) obsessed with their father, who might or might not have murdered his wife.

This actually is pretty similar in style to some Victoria Holt novels I've read, bar the heroine's lusty persona. Holt was pretty prudish in her writing and kept the bedroom door firmly shut, but man, all that sexual tension you had to read between the lines for in the real things are laid out explicitly before you, as brazenly as, well, Victoria's Secret-- only the secret's out. The problem is it drags forever. Gothic novels are supposed to be slow-paced, but this is really slow-paced, and by 68% in, I wanted more spooky goings-on to tide me over and the idea that closure was on the horizon.

I'm giving this a two-star rating because I was planning on giving this 2-3 stars depending on what the ending was like, but I'm docking a star because it was so boring that I never really got around to finishing the book in the first place although it wasn't quite terrible enough to earn a solid 1-star rating.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sarah Miller

This is a fascinating and tragic story about five girls who basically ended up becoming a sideshow attraction as the wards of the Canadian government. The Dionne Quintuplets, as they came to be known, were five girls born to some low-income French-Canadians. They were two months premature and collectively weighed around 13 pounds. Nobody believed they would survive, at least, not all of them, but due to collective efforts from doctors and nurses and donations from interested third parties, an 18th century incubator that didn't run on electricity was obtained and the quintuplets survived through infancy, childhood, and beyond.

Therein lies the rub-- their survival was part of what made them so famous, because healthcare back then was not great, especially for women's health and natal care. Quintuplets didn't survive. The girls were "kidnapped" (their words, and their parents') from their family and raised in the public view, raised up Lion King style for the paying public's admiration, or else kept in an enclosed play area while (also paying) onlookers observed, Truman Show style.

Eventually, the girls were given back to their family, parents Oliva and Elzire, but their parents were exhausted and resentful of the ordeal, and later, the girls claimed they weren't treated well. Elzire, their mother, allegedly looked for reasons to be short with them and occasionally used physical corrective methods. Oliva, on the other hand, they claimed sexually abused them, and made them terrified to be alone with them. A statement that the Dionnes' other children mostly denied, although it seems at least one of them had observed enough suspicious behavior to be slightly credulous.

Reading this book was quite the rollercoaster. At first, I felt sorry for the parents, for the way they were mocked and made fun of by unsympathetic newspapers. Later on in the book, I read the girls' accusations against their parents with a shock that was like being splashed with cold water. I felt sorry for the girls, whose childhoods were essentially taken away from them; fame is a heavy burden for a child, especially when the guardians are the ones lining their pockets from the gains. Later in life, they also suffered-- not just from the abuse which may have taken place, but also from corrupt guardianship that resulted in their trustfund being leached by the government, their parents, the doctor who "saved" them and then took all the credit, and basically anyone else who had access to it and saw the girls' money as an easy write-off. They never got a break, and that is truly awful.

I had heard references to the Dionne Quintuplets and seen some of the ephemera associated with them without actually recognizing what it was. There's also a Simpsons episode that appears to mock the financial straits of the parents and greediness of their guardians, which I believe is called Eight Misbehavin'. Reading this book gave me context for that. I think if you're interested in biographies and the effects of fame on children, you would be interested in this book, too. It's definitely not an easy read, emotionally, but I was too fascinated to put it down. Also, there are two sections of pictures, which I always enjoy in a nonfiction book about history. I had an ARC, so they were not super high quality (printed on thin paper), but I imagine they're going to look great in the finished copies, as even in this format, they were interesting to look at and looked fairly high quality.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets by Feminista Jones

This is a difficult book to review because I really wanted to like it, but so many things about it rubbed me the wrong way that I wasn't able to appreciate it like I wanted to and ended up not really getting that much enjoyment or value out of it.

RECLAIMING OUR SPACE is a book written by Feminista Jones, a black activist on Twitter who has had a hand in a lot of popular social media activism movements. The subtitle "How Black Feminists Are Changing the World" made me think that I was going to get an in-depth look on, well, other black feminists, especially ones who inspired Ms. Jones and her current views, but with a few exceptions, that wasn't the case. This is basically a manifesto, and while there's nothing wrong with a manifesto, I think advertising this book as one thing when it's actually another thing is a bit deceptive and setting up this book for a fall.

This book has several topics, the most notable are, a brief overview of Black Feminism (and how it is similar to and differs from "white feminism" or "traditional feminism," with nods to intersectionality), some of the movements that black feminists championed or pioneered, harmful black stereotypes and white feminism (accidentally or purposefully) being exclusionary to women of color, and sexual empowerment and how that fits in to feminism, specifically black feminism.

There were some things that I really liked about this book. I thought the history of the movements themselves were really interesting, and I was interested in seeing her views on how mainstream feminism can improve and be more inclusive to women of color and the LGBT+. On the other hand, I raised my eyebrow at the idea of "womanism," since that term itself feels kind of exclusionary to the LGBT+ and specifically black members of the LGBT+ who might not identify as women (thinking in particular of trans and intersex). She also said some other things that made me raise my eyebrow, and couldn't help but make me question some of her own personal attitudes about allyship and feminism.

I learned a lot from this book and I think it's always important to check your privilege and make sure that your own experiences aren't blinding you to the experiences of others, who may be facing far more immediate and pressing difficulties. I also think it's important to read a lot of different views about the platforms you believe in, and try to understand where the people who have those views might be coming from. I also get that this book is probably not written for me, or people like me, and so my views are biased. That said, I just didn't really enjoy this book or the way it was organized, and while there were elements I appreciated, my overall experience reading this was one of disappointment.

Hopefully your experience reading this is better than mine.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

When I was in college, one of my (male) instructors said something to the effect that premenstrual syndrome was a first-world construct and largely psychosomatic, and that women in "other" countries didn't have this problem. Setting aside that this statement is problematic for several reasons, I remember hearing this and being utterly flummoxed. It was the first time it occurred to me that not only could I be more knowledgeable about something than someone considered a "professional," but also, that someone utterly uninformed could make such a blanket incorrect statement and confidently assume to go unchallenged.

NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine is a book written as a challenge. Women's bodies and minds are often forced into boxes, and with this book, Pine attempts to squirm her way out of the box by taking on topics that squick most people out when they're coming out of a woman's mouth. The book opens with a harrowing story of her father suffering from organ failure in a Greek hospital due to alcoholism, and she writes about her stunned horror and the gross conditions she found herself in as she had to take on much of his care herself for a time. She then segues into other topics-- the nitty-gritty of infertility, miscarriage, and ending up child-free; going through a parent's separation; being a proverbial wild child and experiencing depression, rape, and an eating disorder; menstruation; and lastly, being a career woman in a world with a high glass ceiling, where being a workaholic seems like the only way to get ahead, if not, at the very least, an addictive escape for emotional pain.

I'm surprised so many people disliked this book and seem to regard it as being self-indulgent. I encountered similar reviews for Janice Erlbaum's book GIRLBOMB, and came to the conclusion that people just seem to ferociously gate-keep who gets to write about their childhood being depressing or dysfunctional, and that if it doesn't reach a certain milestone of horrific abuse (which the author then heroically and inspirationally must overcome-- otherwise the memoir is branded as too depressing), the author doesn't deserve to write about these things, let alone feel bad about them.

I thought NOTES TO SELF did a really good job talking about things that people don't want to talk about in an informed and interesting way. I may not have agreed with everything she said, but I agreed with a lot of it. She's a good writer and an interesting person, and she seems to have suffered a lot, although she seems to be in a better place now emotionally. There's nothing raunchy about this book; she pushes the line of social acceptability, but with such eloquent prose that you'll probably find yourself listening to whatever point she's making, even if it's grossing you out. Anyone who enjoys a good memoir-- especially memoirs written by women-- should pick up this book.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 12, 2019

Memes to Movements: How the World's Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power by An Xiao Mina

MEMES TO MOVEMENTS is a really interesting book about how memes, and their highly transmittable and salient nature, are effecting political movements and social change. An Xiao Mina presents a variety of memes and hashtags that have been part of huge political movements, including #BlackLivesMatter and #MAGA, discussing their origin when possible, why they're important, and also why memes are so effective in gaining stream and becoming viral.

The author focuses primarily on American and Chinese memes, and to be honest, while I was expecting to be completely lost, I actually ended up enjoying the sections about Chinese memes the most. Two of the most interesting were the Umbrella Movement and the Grass Mud Horse. Because of censorship in China, it can be difficult for protesters to even break through China's firewall, so they have become really sneaky, using characters that are phonemes when pronounced (but contain different tones) or characters that resemble other characters. I had no idea how much subterfuge went on to get a revolutionary Chinese meme off the ground, and it really made me appreciate the cleverness and determination of the people involved in these political movements.

Regarding the U.S. memes, they were more familiar to me, although some of them were still so recent as to be painful. The easiest chapter to read is the one about LOLcats and animal memes. Harder to read are the ones about how the alt-right embraces memes to spread their message and basically sow chaos, and the ones that call attention to the racial injustice that is far too prevalent to this day. I thought the author did a really good job trying to be objective when writing about such sensitive topics, which is definitely not an easy task in this day an age.

I liked the pixel art on each new chapter, but I really, really wish this book had come with illustrations. Maybe they were concerned about copyright issues, or including the pictures would have made this book too expensive for its budget, but I would have really enjoyed seeing illustrations of some of these memes instead of continually having to look up the ones that weren't familiar. Overall, though, MEMES TO MOVEMENTS is a fascinating book and I think anyone who is interested in online politics should read it, because it does a great job talking about people becoming mobilized on social media and how they create and appropriate symbols and hashtags to give their movements more steam.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 11, 2019

An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole

I was ambivalent about Alyssa Cole's earliest novellas, but I liked the concept of them. Shorter stories did not really seem to be her forte, and in my review of one of her earliest works, I wrote that she was an author I'd want to revisit if she ever did a full length novel. Well, she did, and that was a while ago, and I've been coming back over and over again, ever since. Alyssa Cole is walking proof that it pays to be an author who is receptive to feedback and works tirelessly to write fresh and engaging stories with developed and diverse characters-- especially strong women.

The Loyal League series is about a secret group of people during the time of the Civil War who go undercover to infiltrate and stymie the Confederacy. The first book in this series, AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION, which is about a woman who poses as a slave and ends up finding romance and wild success as a spy, was good, but this book, AN UNCONDITIONAL FREEDOM, is even better. Part of that is due to the heroine, Janeta, who is one of my favorite recent romance heroines.

Janeta is Cuban, and the daughter of a plantation owner and a freed slave. All her life, she has been told that she is better than those working in the fields. She has a white lover who is a Confederate supporter, and when her father is imprisoned, this lover encourages her to gather intelligence on the North so she can name names and give information in exchange for her father's freedom.

Daniel is a friend of Elle from the first book. He is a free man and had studied to be a lawyer, only to be caught and sold into slavery by two evil men posing as abolitionists. Now he is free again and hungry for revenge. When the Loyal League assigns Janeta to him as his partner, he's skeptical of her and her motivations, and unwilling to trust her. But despite his suspicions, he ends up falling for her because of her strong will and their shared pain brought on by slavery and the war; both of them have been caught between their own desires and what society wants for them their whole lives, and in working to save a Nation and its people, they end up finding the agency to also save themselves.

I. Loved. This. Book. First, I love that Janeta was allowed to be so flawed, and that she had to figure out her own privileges and biases. I love that she did that without help. Daniel didn't have to "teach" her; she was canny enough to figure out that she'd been fed a pack of harmful lies her whole life. The double-agent angle provided so much tension, and it was so well done. Plus, there were no big misunderstandings. Everything had a sound reason and I never felt like Cole was playing things up for drama. The action scenes were intense, and there were some fantastic discussions about humanity, inequality, and privilege that fit the scenes and didn't come across as heavy-handed.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

"We can be intelligent, we can accrue wealth, we can strive to make this country better, and lose everything at the whim of some pale sir or madam. It doesn't even require much effort on their part. That's the worst of it. They don't even have to try hard to ruin us" (61).

"I care because as long as slavery is sanctioned in this world, either directly or tacitly, we are a doomed species. There is no hope for progress, no hope for a world of peace and prosperity, if some men are allowed dominion over others for as arbitrary a reason as skin color" (190).

Then there's Daniel-- the textbook example of a tortured hero. I loved him so very much. He was kind and noble, but also selfish in his own ways; he had taken his suffering and made his pain into a selfish drive for revenge, even at the cost of his personal relationships and self-love. The love-hate relationship between him and Janeta in the beginning was catnip for my fangirl self. I'm a sucker for the tsundere model of shipping (read: cranky character pretends not to care, but secretly does-- a lot), and he and Janeta were such an easy couple to root for, and an HEA that was easy to smile about.

If you enjoy historical fiction and want to read one that's empowering for and stars people of color in roles of agency, replete with excellent character development, The Loyal League is the way to go.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Hitorijime My Hero, Vol. 1 by Memeko Arii

I don't read as much manga as I did when I was younger, but I still occasionally read the odd volume-- especially the ones aimed at older audiences, like josei and seinen (basically, the "new adult" versions of shoujo and shounen). HITORIJIME MY HERO was an especially nice surprise, because for once, I feel like the cover did a pretty good job not just representing what the art is like, but also conveying the tone of the manga.

Setagawa (the blonde) is a jaded and sullen teenager who works as a gofer for a petty gang. I feel like it's implied that his mother is a prostitute. He doesn't do particularly well in school, and his closest friend (an outgoing, immature young man) is the younger brother of the hot new teacher, who also happens to be a champion street fighter called "the bear killer" (lol).

One day, Setagawa ends up working for Kousuke instead, and even though his feelings are initially rejected, it turns out that Kousuke had feelings for him all along. Their relationship is taboo, but both of them feel alone and need each other.

I guess how you feel about this book depends on how you feel about student/teacher romances. I don't feel particularly great about them, but the fact that this is a cartoon makes it an extra level removed from reality, which I guess makes it more comfortable to swallow as fantasy. Setagawa is drawn as being much older than he actually is, so I originally thought they were around the same age or that Setagawa was a recent graduate. Kousuke also looks young, too.

As a romance, I feel like this was pretty well done. It's got a silly, manic vibe (captured on the cover), but also some darker, more provoking moments. The sexual tension was pretty well done, and although this is nothing near as explicit as the June Yaoi titles, there are some romantic and sexual scenes in here (although not explicitly drawn). There doesn't appear to be much tension, so I'm curious to see how this will make it as a series. In my opinion, a good manga needs a villain.

Two other things to note: this is apparently a spin off of another manga title called Hitorijime My Boyfriend. It doesn't appear that reading that other series is necessary to enjoy this one, as these leads were actually side characters from the original series. Second, I loved the translation/cultural reference section at the back that defined not just certain words and brands, but also gave cultural context for some of the scenes and references happening. I really, really appreciated that.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Poinciana by Phyllis A. Whitney

Victoria Holt might be the most famous Gothic romance novelist but in terms of consistently good output, I think Phyllis A. Whitney is by far the best. POINCIANA, with its twists and turns of family drama, inheritance, Japanese art, and revenge, reminded me why I love these books so much. If you ever read those Point Horror middle grade novels as a kid, the effect of these is much the same, only with more sex and scandal, and with adult characters instead of kid ones.

Sharon is the newly orphaned daughter of a famous stage actress and her admiring husband. After her parents died in a terrible accident, she ended up marrying one of her parents' friends, a man named Ross many years her senior. He takes care of her and appreciates art as much as she did, particularly Japanese netsuke (kimono decorations), which he collects. She doesn't mind the age gap and thinks herself incredibly fortunate-- until he takes her to his family estate in Palm Beach, Poinciana. There, his mood takes a dark and sinister turn. He's no longer the man she's married, and every single one of his relatives and staff seems to hate her and want her to leave.

Jarrett, her husband's executive assistant, is sullen and resentful, and though attractive, Sharon can't help but feel hurt and annoyed that he appears to regard her as a gold-digging trophy wife. Ross's daughter, Gretchen, is similarly suspicious and resentful, and drops many hints that Ross's dark side might not be as hidden as he'd like his new wife to think. Gretchen's husband, Vasily, an easy-going European playboy, is the only one who's even remotely friendly, but it's obvious he's got something to hide. Allegra, Ross's mother, helped build the house, but now she's got dementia and is living in a lonely cottage off the property under the care of a servant named Myra while heavily sedated. And then there's Ross himself-- Ross, who's obsessed with her dead mother, keeps a portrait of her in a locked room, and even plays recordings of her singing while they make love. What's wrong with Ross? What is he, and his family, hiding? And why do they desperately want her to leave?

This was just so deliciously creepy. I was never 100% sure who was responsible for the murders and attempted murders, which is always a good sign. Whitney is so good at conjuring up this slow and creeping sense of doom, and while many Gothic romances have the atmosphere down, most of them can't quite manage the mystery. Some of Whitney's books toe the line between Gothic romance and romantic suspense, and I think you could say that this is one of these, although the ramshackle house, secretive family, and mysterious artwork definitely make this more like a traditional Gothic. I can't recommend these books enough to anyone who loves a good mystery-- they're so atmospheric and fun.

4 out of 5 stars

The Book of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks: A Celebration of Creative Punctuation by Bethany Keeley

I'm a big fan of novelty books like this one and honestly, if anyone is going to get pedantic about grammar, it's probably going to be me. I tutored Spanish in high school and college, and nothing makes you familiar with the construction and semantics of your first language like picking up a second one. There are a lot of memes floating around making fun of bad grammar, and "UNNECESSARY" QUOTATION MARKS decides to poke fun in particular at, well, unnecessary quotation marks-- especially those used, mistakenly, to add emphasis.

I had high hopes for this book but it was-- dare I say it-- boring. I didn't think any of the pictures were very funny. It's not like the Oxford comma, where leaving it off could potentially change the meaning of the phrase. There are some hilarious examples of that, but one of my favorites is the one that says "The president, a racist, and a misogynist" (with a picture of Obama, a picture of a racist, and then a picture of a misogynist), and then "The president, a racist and a misogynist" (with a picture of Donald Trump). And then there's the problems that arise with leaving out a comma-- perhaps the most famous is "Let's eat, Grandma!" vs. "Let's eat Grandma!" You don't really get that level of hilarity with quotation marks. The author of the book points out that quotation marks are often used for innuendo, sarcasm, and irony, so when someone says "fresh" toast on a menu, there is a suggestion that the toast isn't actually fresh. Yeah, that's amusing-- the first time-- but when you're using that one "joke" (you see what I did there) to hang your coat on, over and over and over again, I hate to break it to you, but that's not stable.

Honestly, reading this book just made me sad because it made me realize how many people who speak English don't have good grammar-- and not necessarily through any fault of their own. And while I do typically enjoy having a good laugh at an improperly written sign, the "humor" (again, you see what I did there) in this book was just too self-congratulatory and mean-spirited in nature for me to really enjoy. I felt like the sarcasm outweighed the crime in many instances, and in some instances, I think the author actually included correctly used quotation marks and just decided to interpret that they were used wrong for her own purposes. For example, there was a sign that said something like "Delicious," but it was over the logo, and under the logo was what appeared to be their slogan. It's okay to put slogans in quotes, and I'm pretty sure the "Delicious!" was supposed to be a quote, or an exclamation, which is also an acceptable use. So that was irritating and kind of hypocritical.

This was not very good, and I wouldn't recommend it, even if you are a grammar stickler.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Sound of the Hours by Karen Campbell

DNF @ p. 219

By all means, pick up this bloated, self-important hot mess of a book if you think Ruta Sepetys is the best author in the whole world. But if you don't like books that take forever to get to the point, multi-POVs with watery, bland characters, and a stream-of-consciousness style of narrating with incorrectly used semi-colons thrown in like ungrammatical confetti, AVOID this book at all costs.

THE SOUND OF THE HOURS is set in WWII and told in two POVs: Frank is a black soldier in the American army, serving in his own infantry and facing discrimination and segregation (mostly from unlikable white people portrayed as hilarious racist caricatures) and Vita is a half-Scottish/half-Italian girl living in Fascist Italy. They meet when Frank saves her from being sexually harassed and sexually assaulted by his fellow military men.


As I said, I thought the writing was horrible, the way racism was being broached felt lazy, and Vita was such a dull Manic Pixie Dreamgirl of a character. This is exactly the type of book that the book club I left would always end up picking-- it's dull, "cozy" armchair reading for the lazy and insecure pseudo-intellectual replete with glossy packaging. I picked this up because I ordinarily love WWII historical-fiction and it sounded really good, but I was disappointed.

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

1 out of 5 stars

Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You by Clive D. L. Wynne

Dr. Wynne has a dog named Xephos that he loves very much; he's also the founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. Since he loves dogs, and loves researching dogs, he decided to write a book about Animal Behavior Science, with a dash of Evolutionary Biology, as it pertains to dogs, to answer the question: Why do dogs love us?

If you're unfamiliar with the study of Animal Behavior, it's basically Psychology for animals. We can't really know for sure what's on an animal's mind because they can't talk to us, so we study observable behaviors in natural and experimental settings in order to get a glimpse inside that furry black box. Many Psychological studies have roots in data gleaned from Animal Behavior, perhaps the most famous being Pavlov's dogs.

The book is divided up into several sections:

Chapter One: Xephos. This is all about the author's dog, but also serves as an overview to some of the other subjects being covered later on. Lest you fear that this is an insipid reprise of MARLEY AND ME, fear not-- the author also talks about many other fascinating research expeditions, including a boarder-collie that knows several thousand words (as proved by "fetching" experiments), and his foray into a wolf enclosure.

Chapter Two: What Makes Dogs Special? This is a chapter about how dogs came to be the way they are, and details some cognition experiments people have  done with dogs. The author goes into more detail into his wolf enclosure adventure, and talks about some of the difference between dogs and wolves, especially with regard to tameness and their interest in humans. I really enjoyed this chapter, and it spurred me on to watch some absolutely adorable wolf videos on YouTube.

Chapter Three: Dogs Care. This is a chapter about the helping nature of dogs and their empathy. The author was semi-inspired to write this chapter after watching a hilarious video a researcher had done of an experiment to study humanitarian behaviors in dogs after their handlers pretended to be hurt. The experiment was a failure, which might lead some to think that dogs have no more interest in our welfare than the meanest of cats, but he goes on to talk about other experiments that put dogs in a much more flattering light, and some of the ways they display sympathy to their humans.

Chapter Four: Body and Soul. This was honestly one of my favorite chapters given my Psychology background, as the body vs. soul debate was one of the early conundrums in the very earliest stages of Psychology, and how brain influences body and vice-versa continues to be an interesting source of research to this day. This chapter is all about behavior and cognition, citing studies about cognition, and some of the genes that may mark the hallmark differences between dogs and wolves.

Chapter Five: Origins. This chapter is about some of the author's travels to look for early dogs, as well as his visits to fox and wolf shelters, and he talks about the differences between the Family Canidae. This chapter made me go on YouTube to watch some adorable fox videos.

Chapter Six: How Dogs Fall in Love. This is about dogs' attachment to humans and the bonds they form with people. I liked the study about how many dogs actually came to prefer affection from people over food, since it shows what a powerful dopamine release dogs get from being around people. They did a recent study with cats that actually ended up showing similar results (just Google "cats prefer people to food" and you should find the article). This may sound surprising, but the fact that animals get so happy from being around us proves why they stick around in the first place.

Chapter Seven: Dogs Deserve Better. This is the saddest chapter, and it warns against cruel punishment or training that involves excessive force, as well as going into some of the abysmal conditions in kennels/adoption centers. The author also talks about the pit-bull myth, and how "pit-bull" isn't actually a recognized breed of dog but a loose term used to describe a group of dogs (some of whom may not even come to mind, when you think "pit-bull"). He and his associates were actually able to raise adoption rates in a shelter by having the facility remove the breed information from the placards over the cages; 1) dogs weren't being misclassified as pit-bulls or other unfavorable dogs, 2) people couldn't go in with a single breed in mind and only look at those dogs, which was especially harmful if it was a vague and uncommon breed, 3) it forced people to see the dogs as individuals and not just a breed on a card, meaning they were judging them by looks and personality.

This is a cozy science book that is perfect for people who love dogs, but also for people who aren't. I'm Team Cat all the way, and was a bit surprised to be offered a copy of this ARC, but I also really love animals of all kinds and have grown to appreciate dogs over the years as an adult, despite being deathly afraid of them when I was younger. As a Psychology major, I loved seeing some of the studies about behaviorism, conditioning, and attachment that I learned about in university, and as an animal lover and all-around science fan, it was cool to learn about fluffy science with a wagging tail.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Speed of Falling Objects by Nancy Richardson Fischer

Gather 'round, my friends, for this seemingly innocuous young adult book actually ended up filling me with a lot of mixed feelings, many of them Not Good. Who'da thunk that a rain forest survival story would end up making me so conflicted? Not me!

THE SPEED OF FALLING OBJECTS is about a girl named Danger. Yes, literally-- although she goes by her middle name, Danielle. Due to a childhood accident, she is half-blind. Her mother is a nurse and her father is a d-bag reality TV star named Cougar who's cast in the vein of Man vs Wild meets Steve Irwin. Danny's accident made her timid and afraid, and she doesn't want to take risks. That's why her mother is shocked when Danny demands to go on her father's show when he invites her. The latest destination? The rain forest. She's determined to repair her relationship with her father and have him finally get to know her, and prove to herself and others that she's not afraid or lesser--

--But the plane crashes before they arrive on site and she, the cast, and the crew are all marooned in the rain forest, which is filled with things that want to poison them, eat them, or kill them (or all of the above). Between her father trying to constantly literally and figuratively steal the show with his mad skills, and the judgement of teen heartthrob Gus, who's there to be eye candy and wrangle young female fans, there isn't a lot of room for Danny or her fears-- especially when she learns her dad had ulterior motives inviting her.

So I have a lot of thoughts.

📌 Disability rep: Not very well done. Danny has lost an eye-- and she mentions it. Constantly. Which is fine, because I understand that disability-- especially disability that is sustained later in life and not experienced from birth-- can be traumatic and difficult to deal with. But you definitely get the impression that it's written from an ablelist frame of mind, a la ME BEFORE YOU, in that Danny defines herself by her disability, says that she's not "whole," and a whole litany of other stuff that was very uncomfortable to read about. Then there's the vicious bullying she gets from classmates: they call her "pigeon" because she cocks her head to peer out of her blind spot. The whole book felt very anti-disability and it wasn't really cool that the conflict experienced was for Danny to "get over it."


📌 Terrible father: I freaking hated Cougar. I saw another review saying that he was "trying his best" and that they felt bad for him. Um, no. He was (partially/mostly, depending on how generous you're being) responsible for the accident that blinded Danny. He was constantly thinking of himself. He invited Danny on his show basically to make her the butt of all the jokes, which is a pretty disgusting thing to do to any kid, let alone a kid feeling insecure about their disability. And then, the piece de resistance: he was constantly making fun of Danny and putting her down for her medical knowledge, mansplaining to and demeaning her by turns, and when she actually saves someone's life by killing a snake, he "um actuallies" her and takes credit for it, even though she did the work!

Wow. Worst. Father. Ever.

📌 "Essence": Danny has this weird belief that if she sniffs dead things, she'll gain their essence and it will make her "whole" again. Now a teenager, she knows this won't really happen, but she still sniffs dead things-- dead animals, dead people. If it's dead, Danny will sniff it. I think it's supposed to be meaningful, but it's actually kind of scary in a hilarious and awful way. It happens multiple times, so don't worry if you manage to miss it the first time. There's dead body-sniffing for everyone. Enjoy.

📌 Everyone's a jerk: There was honestly no one to root for, and the ones I did like had bad things happen to them pretty early on. It actually reminded me a lot of GAME OF THRONES in that way. That's tough when it's a survival story, because if you're already wishing murder on the characters, you're not going to be very sorry if they get eaten by a jaguar (hypothetical, not a spoiler).

I guess the takeaway message in this book is that the rain forest is a dangerous place, but I already learned that from the nonfiction book-turned-movie, THE LOST CITY OF Z, and South Park's Rainforest, Shmainforest episode. I'm not sure if there is such a thing as an anti-tourism bureau, but if there is, the author should be on it, because this has made me certain that I never want to set foot in the Brazilian rain forest. She does a good job showing how dangerous it is, and how, despite the greenery and the animals, it's actually quite easy to starve to death in there because of how many things are poisonous or inedible. (There was a name for it in THE LOST CITY but I can't remember what the exact phrase was; I think the author compared the rain forest to a green desert.)

If you like survival stories and don't mind reading about a bunch of characters that all suck, you'll probably enjoy this book. But if you picked this up hoping for good disability rep or because you thought you'd end up with a realistic HUNGER GAMES novel about likable and inspiring characters fighting the odds, you'd best give this a miss.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars