Monday, September 30, 2019

American Royals by Katharine McGee

Somebody was comparing AMERICAN ROYALS to CRAZY RICH ASIANS, and I think to do so is really unfair because CRAZY RICH ASIANS tapped into a lot of dialogues about race, class, and culture that AMERICAN ROYALS doesn't really do. Oh, it tries, but if anything it's just a thought experiment designed to write yet another frothy story about princesses. And if that's your cup of Earl grey tea, more power to you, but I think it's dangerous-- and disappointing-- to build AMERICAN ROYALS to be anything other than what it is: mindless fluff.

AMERICAN ROYALS takes place in an alternate universe where Washington did agree to be America's new King, leading to a lineage of nouveaux royales called "the Washingtons." There isn't really a plot-- it's entirely character-driven, and most of that character development revolves around drama, drama, drama. Dating, marriage, secret relationships, catty mean girls, and revenge, oh my. This has more angst and big misunderstandings than your favorite K-drama. And just like a K-drama, the interactions between the characters make up all the story line.

I'm including a brief summary of character bios that contain **very light spoilers**

👑 = royal

⚪️ = common

🎩 = rich and upper-class but not part of the royal family

👑 Beatrice is the heir to the crown. Everything is riding on her to be the perfect American princess. In the eyes of her family, it seems like she can do no wrong. All that's left for her to do is marry well and make her parents proud... but the true love of her life isn't someone her parents would approve of.

👑 Samantha is the spare and the prodigal wild child. She's spent her whole life in her big sister's shadow and always feels like she can do nothing right. She's in love with a handsome young noble named Teddy, but to her horror and heartbreak, Teddy is one of the suitors in her sister's lineup.

👑 Jeff(erson) is Samantha's twin brother, and Beatrice's younger brother. He also has a wild streak, but because he's a boy, he gets away with a lot of the things Samantha does not, and everyone just says he's sowing his wild oats. Many girls hope to snag him and have him make them a princess, but he's not too socially keen and has two girls fighting over him: a gold-digger and a childhood friend.

👑 Teddy is one of the noble lords Beatrice might marry. It seems like he's Beatrice's top choice, but he's actually in love with Samantha. It's not clear how far he'd go for power, even at the cost of love.

🎩 Daphne is Jefferson's ex-girlfriend and a self-made noble. She's spent her whole life molding herself into princess material and is determined to snag her ex back at any cost. But she has some very dark and sinister secrets under her designer belt that could wreck everything she's strived for.

🎩 Ethan is Daphne's friend and accomplice, and would like to be so much more. He knows all of her secrets and has the power to ruin her, but he'd rather she date him instead. 

⚪️ Connor is Beatrice's bodyguard. The two of them are attracted to each other, but they can never be... or can they? *I Will Always Love You* intensifies in the background.

⚪️ Nina is the daughter of the royal cabinet minister and childhood friend to Samantha and Jeff. She is also in love with Jeff, but he's a stupid mcstupidson and doesn't realize that his ex-girlfriend is playing a long con to get him back. Nina isn't prepared for fame or infamy in the slightest, and when her romantic ventures with Jeff break the news, she isn't prepared for it in the slightest.

Now you know the backstory, and if you think those are spoilers-- NOPE, not really. That's just everything you need in your toolkit to understand this 400-page drama fest and why these characters continually make stupid decision after stupid decision. I won't lie and say it wasn't entertaining, because it was, but 400 pages made this book seem really long without much in the way of plot, and it ends on the biggest cliffhanger ever, so by the time you get to the end THERE'S NO CLOSURE.

I think if you're a fan of Meg Cabot, K-dramas, and drama for the sake of drama, you'll probably like this book. But don't go into this book expecting a heavy plot or serious topics. It's pure froth, and while that might not be my cup of tea, you may find that it could quite possibly be yours.

P.S. All the heavy winking at "wow, isn't monarchy so much better than the utter chaos that would be an American democracy?" got really irritating. Monarchies have their own problems, hierarchically-based caste systems being one of them. So don't get high and mighty with me, book. Just don't.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Black Prince: Part I by P.J. Fox

I am annoyed.

I'm annoyed, because this series started out so good and then it was like everything that made this series really good and unique was removed in this latest installment. THE DEMON OF DARKLING REACH was a slow-burn romance with danger and rich world-building. THE WHITE QUEEN developed that world-building further, and even though it was a little slower than the previous book, I liked getting insight into Tristan's mysterious backstory and seeing his dark kingdom teeter on the precipice of war.

In THE BLACK PRINCE: PART I, Tristan and Isla are married and Isla is trying to resign herself to no longer having a mind of her own. She was such a strong character in the first book especially, and now she is just a pale shadow of herself, subservient and unhappy, but seemingly unwilling to take action to remedy that. This is a woman who ran an entire castle herself and relied on wit and reason to get by, since everyone else was writing her off as the "ugly" sister. It was this wit and reason that ensnared Tristan in the first place, and I was very unhappy to see all of that determination and sparkling wit disappear.

Hart is the focus of this book, relegating the other characters to the background, and while that is fine, it was weird seeing a previously supporting character suddenly become the main character. The author did something similar with Tristan in the previous book, having his prologue make up 1/3 of the story, but that at least made sense since he was the love interest. The focus on Hart felt more like filler, since he was kind of irrelevant before. But Hart is now Tristan's right hand man, and feared in his own right as a ruthless soldier and torturer who brooks no defiance or treason. Power and allegiance to Tristan has brought out his darker tendencies and made him positively demonic.

Sadly, I actually liked the secondary romance between him and Lissa more than I did the romance between Isla and Tristan. Now that the two of them are together and playing house, it feels like they're going through the motions and have a very passive, very Edward and Bella sort of romance.

I actually ended up skimming large portions of this book because I was so frustrated. Reading this reminded me of GAME OF THRONES, and not in a good way-- it started feeling like a derivative fantasy novel that was being grimdark for the sake of being grimdark, and keeping obnoxious characters alive purely to have them annoy the hell out of you until they could be cathartically killed at the last possible moment (I'm looking at you, Rowena), regardless of how much it didn't make sense. Isla knew what Rowena is capable of, and had so many opportunities to get rid of her. Also, her father was AWFUL. I hated him in the previous books and thought him a weak character, but in this book we find out how wretched he really was. If you ask me, he got off way too easy. :|

I'm not sure I'll be returning to read the second part of this book.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Have a Little Faith in Me by Sonia Hartl

When I saw the blurb comparing this book to Saved! I thought that was a huge mistake, because Saved! was a perfect movie with such a heartfelt message and it kind of seemed like it was setting this book up for failure. Well, color me wrong, because this was the second emotional YA read to fill me with emotional joy. Not only is this a brilliant book about religion, sex, and love, it's got a great romance and an awesome message, and I could totally see it becoming an amazing movie in its own right some day.

HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME is about a teenage girl named CeCe who is reeling from a breakup. Her Christian boyfriend, Ethan, broke up with her after they had sex, claiming that she was a "temptation" that he needed to avoid and he needed to focus on his faith. Desperate to get him back, CeCe joins a bible camp called Three SixTeen in order to prove to him that she can be the girl he wants her to be, despite her friend Paul's warnings.

Ever the supportive one, Paul accompanies CeCe to Camp Three SixTeen and CeCe discovers that Ethan has been meeting a girl every summer here that he's been secretly in love with-- and that girl is one of CeCe's roommates. To spite him, she pretends to be dating Paul, much to Paul's displeasure. When the fake relationship starts to have more value than her real one ever did, and CeCe discovers herself learning a lot about her own misconceptions about religion and faith, she starts to wonder if her plan is even worth it.

Guys, I could go into PARAGRAPHS about why this book was so amazing. Seriously, I want to gush over this the way I did with FULL DISCLOSURE (another must-read). Rather than doing that, though, I'm going to resort to my favorite medium of laziness: bullet points.

So why is HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME so amazing?

✔️ Female friendships. CeCe starts off the book thinking her cabin mates are going to be super weird and super lame, and ends up being totally surprised and aware of her own biases. Mandy, Sarina, and Astrid were the best. They were all so different, but their kindness and willingness to support and empower other women made them all equally wonderful in their own way. I loved their interactions with CeCe and how quick they were to embrace her into their fold.

✔️ Sex positivity. You wouldn't think that would be the case in a book about religion, but HAVE A LITTLE FAITH not only has some excellent conversations about safe sex and consent, it also shows that there's plenty of room for these conversations, regardless of faith, and the harm that religion can sometimes do if we use it as a vehicle to play out our own biases. This is so important and I love that so many YA books are talking about this, because none of them did in the ones I read as a girl.

✔️ Dreamy boys. Paul was such a sweetheart. Teenage me would have had such a crush on him. Adult me wanted to shake his hand and tell him that he was a wonderful advocate for women. Paul is proof that love interests can be respectful and attractive, and I would love to see more romantic leads like him. Whether he was a friend or a love interest, he was just such a decent human being.

✔️ Serious conversations about faith. What makes a good Christian? This book delves into that, and shows that the people who practice are just as diverse in creed and interpretation as you would see in virtually any other demographic. Some people use religion to excuse or rationalize bad behavior (like Ethan), but others use it to do good (like Astrid). HAVE A LITTLE FAITH shows how to have a healthy relationship with religion, while still having doubts.

✔️ A great story. Honestly, HAVE A LITTLE FAITH captures everything that is good about summer and camp and friendships. While reading this, I really felt like I was at summer camp again. It's such a great adventure story and is filled with fun hi-jinks and great relationship. There was nothing I didn't like about it, and at the end of the story, I was reluctant to say goodbye to the characters. Reading this made me remember why I loved reading YA so much as a teen. I loved it.

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

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva

ISOLDE is a work of Russian literature originally released in 1929. Apparently it was quite controversial in its day, which isn't surprising, as it comes across as very progressive for its time with regard to its frankness of writing about sex and the flouting of convention, as well as a surprisingly decent portrayal of an F/F character that was unexpected.

Liza is the daughter of a vain social climber named Natalia, who makes Liza, Odette, her other daughter, and Nikolai, her son, all pretend that she's actually their older cousin, and they are forbidden from calling her "Mama." Natalia is carrying on with two different lovers-- one spineless and weak, the other predatory and cruel. They are a family of White émigrés from Russia taking refuge in France. While there, Lisa meets a handsome young English boy named Cromwell who has just read Tristan and Iseult and sees Liza as the beautiful Isolde.

From there, this book almost becomes an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel as Cromwell takes Liza and her siblings out around the town, wining and dining them, and regaling them with his otherness and his money. But then the money runs out, and Liza becomes terribly bored. She is fourteen in this novel and acts every inch of it, with all the fickleness and depthless emotion that I remember experiencing from my own teen years. She loves and hates with passion, shifting from one to the other, and grows bored quickly.

Towards the end of the novel, things start to get a little surreal. Natalia's relationships become more tempestuous as the wife of one of her lovers catches on to their affair. Liza grows older and more beautiful, and finds that her mother likes her less as other men begin to like her more. Tensions in Russia reach a fever pitch as the country teeters on the brink of revolution and Liza, wanting something to live for, begins to wonder if the answer might be having something worth dying for.

As far as I can tell, this is a somewhat loose interpretation of Tristan and Iseult set during the Jazz Age, only with a different ending. It's a very loose interpretation, perhaps more homage than retelling. I think more than a literary retelling, this is social commentary on coming of age in Europe, as well as commentary on social class and the moral indolence of jaded, disaffected youth. The writing is gorgeous and the translators did an excellent job catching the "tone" of novels written in this time period. If you're a fan of William Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Edith Wharton, I think you will probably enjoy this book for its portrayal of the ennui of the upperclass.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Jackpot by Nic Stone

JACKPOT is the story of a teenage girl living about an inch above the poverty line. She works at a convenience store clerk which is how she ends up meeting the woman who bought the winning lottery ticket and also the rich young heir, Zan, who ends up playing willing accomplice to her heist to notify the woman of her good fortune and, perhaps, get a cut of that sweet, sweet cash.

I haven't read anything by this author before, although I do actually own her other book, DEAR MARTIN, and I had a lot of mixed thoughts while reading. Ultimately, I do think I liked this book-- with reservations-- which I'll list out here.

What I liked:

✔️ Realistic portrayal of what it's like living paycheck to paycheck. I think a lot of YA and NA try to romanticize being low-income, like you have no cred if you aren't starving. It's always for a sacrifice or a cause and I hate that, because I think it feeds into the (mistaken) belief that people without money have done something to deserve that. Rico's struggles to provide with her family and their sacrifices really hit hard. I liked that a lot.

✔️ Diversity everywhere! Rico and her younger brother are biracial and so, actually, is Zan. There's a lot of interracial families in here, and lots of discussions about culture and not a whole lot of bigotry, while somehow also managing to talk about privilege and discrimination. I think it's a very positive rep, for the most part, and I really liked that a lot. I think a lot of teens probably will, too.

✔️ Female friendship. Jessica was a great and supportive character, and so was her boyfriend, Ness. The two of them as a couple were very cozy and I liked their interludes.

✔️ A good heist story. I like the idea of kids going on adventures to win money. Adventure stories were really big in the 80s and 90s and then kind of tapered off. My generation grew up with those types of stories so it was nostalgic to see a similar one, but wearing grown-up clothes. #YAS

What I didn't like:

The weird interludes with inanimate objects. There's all these micro-chapters narrated from the point of view of inanimate objects (money, houses, pieces of paper, etc.). I didn't like that. It was a bit too surreal and precious, and kept yanking me out of the story. Whatever the author was going for, it didn't quite work and I wasn't a fan.

The "sarcastic" humor. Same problem with the inanimate object interludes-- it felt like it was trying too hard. There were a few moments of genuine humor in here but it felt like Rico had to have a retort for literally everything and eventually it got exhausting and annoying. Rico was not a very nice character and while I get her struggles, she was really hard to like. I never warmed up to her, especially at the end when she reveals her true colors as to how far she'll go to get the winnings.

The romance. I didn't really buy it. I didn't like Rico, so I didn't see what Zan saw in her and why he took all her attitude and meanness. It wasn't a very positive relationship. Zan had problems too and was too pushy and privileged and sometimes sexist, but he didn't make me recoil the way Rico did with all of her actions.

The ending. Not going to say anything else on this because spoilers, but yeah.

This wasn't a bad book and ultimately I did end up liking it more than I disliked it, but it won't be topping any of my favorites lists any time soon. I think people will either love or hate this one, tbh, depending on how they feel about the main character and her "humor."

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

3 out of 5 stars

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

Reading this book made me remember some of the middle grade adventure stories I consumed as a young kid, penned by authors such as Bruce Coville, Eva Ibbotson, and Roald Dahl. Even though it's clearly written for a young audience, the writing doesn't condescend and it has a great vocabulary, so it ends up being the type of story that virtually anyone can enjoy.

Vita is from impoverished nobility and all that remains of their lineage is their name and a castle-- a castle that has left their possession because of an evil land developer named Sorrotore who claims that her grandfather, perhaps suffering from dementia, has sold him the castle for a paltry $200. In the words of school-yard bullies everywhere, he tells them gleefully, "No take-backsies." Vita is filled with fury aimed at this man, who is taking advantage of her ailing, heartbroken grandfather. The home was filled with memories of his late, beloved wife, and now he has only Vita to remember her by, Vita who has her smile--

--and her determination.

Since the law isn't handling it, Vita decides to take the castle back by force. She ends up enlisting the help of some other kids, including a bird-tamer, an acrobat, and a thief. Their plan is to storm the castle and steal the emerald necklace her grandfather hid in one of the rooms many years ago. If they can get it, they'll have the funds they need to hire a good lawyer and prove once and for all that this whole thing was just the scam of a petty conman who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

This reminded me a lot of Up and I think it would make a good Pixar movie, to be honest. It has everything I love in kids' books: fast-paced adventure, a strong heroine, and friendship. I also loved Vita's grandfather: his love for his wife and his family radiated off the pages. I could see why he inspired Vita to do what she did. That isn't always the case in these types of books, and that emptiness of emotion can make it hard to suspend one's disbelief. Not the case here, though. I felt it.

The only thing that made me raise an eyebrow was the use of the word "Latinx" to describe a character who appears once. I get and support wanting to be respectful, but this book takes place in what I suspect is the 1920s due to the references to Polio and speakeasies, and I think there are ways to describe someone with respect that don't come across as glaringly anachronistic.

If you enjoy middle grade novels and adventure stories, THE GOOD THIEVES is a great choice. I grabbed it on a whim knowing that it might be too young for me, and ended up really enjoying it.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition's Evil Genius by Bob Batchelor

George Remus was a drug store owner, lawyer, and bootlegger during Prohibition. He was finally put away for his crimes after literally thousands of violations and foolishly gave his flighty and theatrical wife power of attorney, which she then used to confiscate his millions and take on another lover while he was in jail. Infuriated, Remus swore revenge, and when he was freed from prison, he tracked her down and shot her in the stomach.

It's quite the story and it makes sense why someone would want to take this menacing bourbon despot and write a book about his life. I was predisposed to favor THE BOURBON KING quite a bit because I've read Batchelor's biography of Stan Lee, also as an ARC, and really, really enjoyed it. Sadly, though, I didn't enjoy THE BOURBON KING as much as I enjoyed STAN LEE.

I think the problem with this book is actually similar to another book I read recently, called THE QUEEN, which was also a true crime novel about a lesser-known historical figure. I just think THE BOURBON KING was too long and dabbled in subject matter that wasn't focal enough or interesting enough to carry this book off to the finish. Your mileage may vary, but I personally felt this book was a bit of a disappointment. The best thing about it was that it pushed me to watch that episode of the Simpsons where Homer becomes the Beer Baron.

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 27, 2019

Fuck, Now There Are Two of You by Adam Mansbach

Do you have a friend who's getting ready to have their second child? Let them know that they've made the second biggest make of their life by giving them this book. ****, NOW THERE ARE TWO OF YOU is a heartfelt portrayal of the horrors of starting a family. Remember the noise? The mess? Remember not having a single moment to yourself? Oh, and remember how you can't even close your eyes to sneeze because the moment you do, every single expensive and/or irreplaceable item you own will be sicked on, smashed, or covered in crayon? This book is here to remind you of all that-- and more! Because now there will be double the "fun."

It's important to note that this is NOT a children's book. The language in this book isn't really child-appropriate (lots of F-bombs) and they won't understand a lot of the jokes in here (like why the parents seem so horrified at the thought of sending their two children off to college). This is a children's book parody, and a sequel to the popular first book, GO THE **** TO SLEEP. I think these books are meant to be soothing balms of humor for young millennial parents who can laugh at themselves. You could probably share it with an older child, but it's REALLY for an adult audience.

The images are beautiful and it's surprisingly funnier than I thought it would be. I'm single, without kids, but I think it would be a great gift for some of my friends, as they are constantly complaining about parenthood (even though they love it), and I'm sure the issues presented in here would really resonate and make them go "HECKS YEAH! THAT IS SO ME!" If that is you, as well, read this book (and try not to think too hard about college tuition or Legos).

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

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Scene That Became Cities: What Burning Man Philosophy Can Teach Us about Building Better Communities by Caveat Magister (Benjamin Wachs)

DNF @ p. 82

Those who know me joke that I'm a "forty-year-old woman in a millennial's body," which is probably true. Or, in the words of my family members, who don't mince words, "You're basically a narc." Whereas most of my friends (fellow San Franciscans) adore music festivals and the chance to live the music and have new experiences and dig the community, I am sitting there in horror thinking, "Omg, dirt everywhere, unhygienic conditions, heat with no air conditioning, and pretentious people who think that this version of roughing it gives them some kind of social cred." It's like those hikers who go to places in the middle of nowhere, just so they can Geotag them on Instagram. It's for the cred and the social cache. So, no, you will probably not find me at a music festival. But you won't find me in a bunch of other places, either, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't like to read about them. I might be a narc who doesn't want to experience these new experiences firsthand, but I still want to read about them and learn about them secondhand. I am a narc, but I am a cultured narc.

THE SCENE THAT BECAME CITIES is really less about Burning Man from a journalistic standpoint and more a collection of dusted-off aphorisms repackaged and rebranded for the armchair philosophy major who wants to go out and party but also feel superior to others while doing it. There's this kind of Ken M. prankster vibe to Caveat Magister, but also a kind of 21st century hippie vibe, too, advertising a kind of co-op, collectivistic, evanescent culture where nothing is permanent, money is secondary, creativity is limitless, and you're just supposed to be a much bigger, more extreme version of yourself; it feels both childish and like a very exclusive club where you have to be this radical to enter, and I found myself very annoyed. It has many of the same problems as Mark Manson's self-help guide, including a marked lack of self-accountability.

I can think of some people this book might appeal to but that person is not me. If you enjoy Burning Man and music festivals, or liked Mark Manson's self-help book and what he stands for, you might very well like this. But if you, too, are a forty-year-old narc trapped in a millennial body, steer clear.

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

1 out of 5 stars

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia

When I saw this cover and title, I thought for sure that it must be a middle grade novel; it has a very juvenile look about it. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that it was actually an adult novel-- especially with comparisons to THE WESTING GAME, a very old middle grade novel. Whoever was doing the packaging for this book really didn't think that one through.

TUESDAY MOONEY TALKS TO GHOSTS does try to be THE WESTING GAME for adults. It's about an eccentric man named Vincent Pryce (with a Y) who collects Edgar Allen Poe ephemera and memorabilia. He dies, very publicly, and in his will, he states that he's having a massive treasure hunt and the winner(s) get to have all his stuff. Naturally, people are interested, and one of these is the main character, Tuesday, who is basically an adult version of Wednesday Addams, if Wednesday Addams were a manic pixie dream girl who spent all her time listening to the Smiths and being eccentric, just like everyone else in this novel. In fact, this book should be called Tuesday The Eccentric Eccentrically Talks to Eccentric Ghosts: An Eccentric Novel.

Initially I liked this book a lot, as it has some very sly humor and was cute without being too annoying. As the pages went on, it got less sly and more cute. And then as more pages got on, it became less cute and more twee. I think the problem was the book wanted to be too many things: it wanted to be an homage to THE WESTING GAME, and maybe that aspiration gave it a very young adult vibe that felt out of place in an adult novel; it wanted to be a thriller, but there wasn't a whole lot of suspense going on because it also wanted to be an Eccentric Novel (only the author couldn't seem to balance realistic eccentricity with cardboard cutouts of eccentricity); and it wanted to, I think, do what READY PLAYER ONE did with 80s pop culture with regard to Edgar Allen Poe, only I don't really think Poe has enough of a foothold in modern-day pop culture where these references will really resonate with the experiences of readers the way READY PLAYER ONE did.

The supernatural element was also very strange, and felt very out of place in this novel.

Other readers may enjoy this book but I don't think it was for me. I'm sorry it wasn't, as I did think I might enjoy it in the very beginning, but it really lost steam towards the end.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Every Moment After by Joseph Moldover

This book broke my heart, and nobody is talking about it. That is so not fair. I want everyone else to read this book so they can be just as miserable as I am, because this book absolutely shredded me-- and it is so, so, worth it. Seriously, am I even allowed to give out this many positive ratings in a row? Pretty sure I'm going to lose my McComplainy badge if I don't start being just a teensy bit more obnoxiously picky, per usual. But EVERY MOMENT AFTER grabbed me from the first chilling scene and wouldn't let me go.

This is a book that everyone in the United States needs to read. It's about a small town facing the aftermath of a devastating shooting that resulted in the deaths of a bunch of first graders. The survivors of that class are now high school seniors, and at their graduation there is a row of empty, black-cloaked seats. The two narrators, Cole and Matt, are both wreaked with survivor's guilt and facing a litany of diagnosed mental health disorders as well as physical ones (hand injury and diabetes).

Cole was on the cover of the magazine chronicling the horrible event, carried out of the school in the arms of a policeman. He doesn't remember anything about that day (probably dissociative amnesia), but the tragedy has left its mark on him-- he's withdrawn and socially anxious. He wants to impress the girl he likes, but keeps pulling back. Self-destructive impulses make him push people away and even get him involved in light drug-dealing. He's filled with anger that has nowhere to go, and his father's recent passing after a bitter and painful fight with cancer has only added to the tragedy.

Matt has type 1 diabetes, and that's the reason he was staying home on the day when several of his classmates died. His brush with death has made him obsessed, and he asks everyone he knows about the details, over and over again, seemingly unable to stop. He's never fully recovered, psychologically, and seems to have untreated depression, as he has suicidal ideation, and feels guilt for just being alive. This guilt soon blossoms into risk-taking behaviors, such as not taking his medication, getting into a relationship with an older, off-limits woman, and alcohol-abuse. Every one keeps telling him how lucky he is for being rich and good-looking, but all he feels is raw pain.

The characters in EVERY MOMENT AFTER don't purport to be perfect. They are flawed, often unlikable individuals with really serious problems, and often behave in unlikable ways. That's what makes them feel so real, though. The foolish decisions they make feel like the things a really troubled teenager might do if they were struggling to lash out. It also takes one of the most grim and realistic views of the aftermath of gun violence that I have ever seen. One of the reviewers for this book applauded the author for not showing the violence or the perpetrator in the book itself, and I really agree with her opinion; I think it's important to not accord people who commit violence with attention, and instead focus on those who are hurting: innocent kids, their parents, and the community. Moldover even touches upon the debate of gun control, and manages to show, without being heavy-handed at all, the damage that possession of weapons can do in the wrong hands.

I loved EVERY MOMENT AFTER. It was wrenching, raw, and real, and pitch-perfect in a time of political turmoil where the debate for gun control keeps coming up again and again. Students should not go to school and feel afraid; and they should never be forced to grow up to relive that pain and suffering for every moment after the tragedy. This book communicates this beautifully, and its haunting message of despair and hope will both break you and put you back together again.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

"Who is even the target audience for this book?" I asked, while stirring my tea and clutching my pearls. No, but seriously, I'm not sure what age group this book is intended for. On the inside of the book, it says 12+ but I'm not 100% sure about that...

PET is the story of a young girl named Jam. She lives in this "utopian" society where people called "angels" have gotten rid of all the "monsters." From what I can tell, these angels and monsters are metaphorical, and monsters are abusers and criminals, and angels are those who either uphold the law or act as agents of justice. The only problem, this book warns, is that in a world without monsters, people forget what they look like...

Jam's mother, Bitter, is an artist. One day, she paints this especially creepy thing with corpse hands, fur, and feathers, with razor blades sticking out of its flesh. Jam trips and cuts herself on these blades, and when her blood mixes with the painting, the painting comes to life. A real life monster, only this monster claims its name is Pet and it's here to hunt the real monsters.

Most of the book is told in this overly precious narrative format that makes the book feel babyish. It kind of reminds me of Francesca Lia Block, if Francesca Lia Block were writing a Neil Gaiman-like middle grade novel. That should be really awesome, but this book wasn't because I felt like it talked down to its audience way too much and was a little too ridiculous, even for kids. (I mean, the heroine's name is Jam, her friend is Redemption, and their family members are named things like Hibiscus, Aloe, and Glass-- what.) Pet waltzes the line between scary and cute and for 90% of the book, wouldn't be out of place as an extra in Disney's Monsters Inc.--

--Until the climax, which is horrifying.

Seriously, beware, children. You're going to get scarred for life. What the actual fork did I read.

On the one hand, kudos to this book for making kids aware of abusers and the importance of shining the light on crimes that otherwise go unpunished. On the other hand, major down-vote for inconsistent tone and promoting however indirectly (violent) vigilante justice. I think there's a good message buried in this book but the story made it hard to find and I didn't really buy the world-building.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 21, 2019

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES is an odd, bittersweet book. I wasn't sure what to make of it while reading it, and to be honest, I'm still kind of trying to figure out my thoughts. King is a young boy living in Louisiana, struggling to deal with his grief over his older brother's death. That's not his only problem, either. He's alienated his best friend by outing him as gay, partially out of fear that his own sexuality might also come into question, as well. Add to that the matter of black idea and intersectionality, the always-grim topic of child abuse, and some magic realism (is King's brother really a dragonfly?) and you have a surprisingly dark children's book about some pretty serious topics.

First, kudos to Scholastic. I think I've given them several shout-outs this year, all well deserved. The Scholastic books I remember from my youth were all fairly milquetoast, but now it seems like their acquisitions department is keen on putting out books that talk about ethnicity, sexuality, diversity, and other relevant topics, all with great stories and told in a way that's easy for kids to read and understand. That is so important, and I love it.

I mostly liked this book. King is a relatable character and I think his struggle to reconcile his sexuality with the homophobia that is present in black culture was really well done. He's also a flawed and morally complex protagonist, doing what he thinks is right at some points, but acting selfishly and in his own interests at others. I liked how right and wrong was discussed in this book, as well as the coming of age story revolving around multiple identities, and I liked how these matters impacted his relationships with other characters in the book, most notably his family (especially his father), his ex-best-friend, Sandy, and his friends, Jasmine, Camille, and Darrell. If it has a downside, it's that the dreamy style and intentional quirkiness sometimes felt a little much, and it's a middle grade novel so it definitely felt young in terms of audience, but it's well-written, and doesn't condescend to its would-be young readers, so I ended up enjoying this much more than I anticipated.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

Simone is HIV positive. Her dads try to be supportive, but sometimes end up overprotective and think that the best way for Simone to manage her sexuality is with abstinence. But Simone would really like to have sex one day and she's really attracted to a boy at school. Will he like her if she tells him about her illness, even if it's well-managed? As they get closer, this question features more and more prominently in her consciousness-- especially when she receives threatening messages in her locker from someone threatening to tell everyone that she has HIV if she doesn't ditch the boy she likes and go back to being alone.

FULL DISCLOSURE is such a timely, amazing book. It does for sexuality what THE HATE U GIVE did for racial violence. It's a book that deep-dives into an issue that a lot of people can't, or won't, talk about, and does so with depth, sympathy, and a great story. The whole time I was reading this I felt really sad, because books like this weren't around when I was a teenager and I really wish they were, because I learned more from this one tiny novel than I did with a whole year's worth of "Health" classes.

Rather than go into multiple paragraphs about everything I liked about this book, I'm going to resort to my handy-dandy method of lazy review writing: the checklist.

FULL DISCLOSURE is amazing because:

✔️ DIVERSITY EVERYWHERE. Simone is black and bisexual. Her best friends are Asian. One of them is an asexual lesbian and the other is also bisexual. Simone's fathers are black and Latino. Simone's crush is black. Simone's doctor is a hijabi Muslim. This is the first book set in San Francisco that actually represents the city in all its diverse glory, and it's one of the things that I love so much about California. It made me so happy to see a world reflecting the reality in which I live.

✔️ Sex positivity. There's a lot of frank talk between Simone and her friends about sex. The book opens with Simone's dads literally sitting with her as she meets with a gynecologist and talking about some of her contraceptive options as someone with HIV. Sex is dealt with in a positive, open, healthy way-- I wish all sex talks were this positive, tbh. It reminds me of a documentary I watched about Dutch sex ed. classes and how they begin when kids are age 4. Teaching kids that their bodies are normal-- that sexuality of all kinds-- is normal, makes for a much better society. I loved this.

✔️ Great relationships. Even when the going gets rough, Simone's relationships are all #goals. She has a fight with her friends over a totally valid reason, and end up stronger than ever because of it. She has a fight with her family over a totally valid reason, and they end up stronger than ever because of it. She has some tough convos with her HIV support group, but they rally around her when she needs it. It's unusual to see a book that manages to portray such closeness, and still manage to convey the usual tensions that any normal relationship is fraught with, without making things look toxic. This book oozed love and support, and did so in a way that wasn't forced or fluffy at all.

✔️ Musical references galore! I love musicals and it was great to see the heroine of this novel be so passionate about something. A common complaint I see in YA is that the heroine has no hobbies or interests outside of her love interest, and that is so not the case here. Simone is the creative-director in her theater class and her passion for it shows every time she brings up the topic.

✔️ A great villain. I honestly didn't see that twist coming and when the inevitable showdown happened, it was so realistic and so well-handled that I wanted to cry. This book could have been ruined so easily by a cheesy strawman argument, and it was not.

✔️ Normal teen things. These teens have authentic voices and actually sound like teenagers. You feel, when you're reading this book, that you're eavesdropping on actual teen conversations and not reading the thinly-disguised morality play of a forty-year-old parent proselytizing to the next gen. Simone often made me laugh with her zany sense of humor, and that lightened up some pretty serious and angsty moments in this book that definitely captured those infamous teenage "lows."

In short, FULL DISCLOSURE is a really great book and I hope to see it in a lot of school libraries and maybe becoming a movie one day, just like THE HATE U GIVE did. The AIDS scare of the 1980s caused a lot of misinformation about the virus to circulate, and that misinformation continues to this day because people don't want to talk about it. Well, someone finally did, and if this book opens the door to those very serious conversations then that is a wonderful and marvelous thing.

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

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells

A girl who loves girls going off on a mission to steal a dragon in order to save her girlfriend? YES.

I'm happy to say that this book mostly lived up to the hype. It had some problems, but not with the execution of the premise and more with nitpicky things that bothered me as a reader of the fantasy genre. And honestly? That's a good sign. Because if I liked the book enough to be able to focus on the more genre-specific errors, that means that it was a pretty darn good book.

A while back, I read GIRLS OF PAPER AND FIRE which was my first foray into F/F YA, and some people seemed to read that review and have their takeaway be that I didn't like F/F books (false), and not that I didn't like F/F books that were bad (true). SHATTER THE SKY is the good F/F book that I've been looking for. It's written in a delightfully retro way that reminds me of Tamora Pierce and Mercedes Lackey novels, filled with strong women and medieval worlds where misogyny and homophobia aren't inherently built into societal structures.

Let me say that again for you people sitting in the back:

👏 LGBT+ 👏 and 👏 women 👏 aren't 👏 inherently 👏 suppressed 👏 in 👏 this 👏 society👏

I get that some people want to use fantasy as a vehicle for exploring institutional bigotry, but when it's the status quo in all fantasy novels, it gets exhausting. SHATTER THE SKY shatters that trope and has, from what I've read so far, LGBT+ people 100% accepted as normal by these societies, and women appear to be equal to men, except for the fact that the oracle-type characters take female tithes from villages (which some require as an honor or a curse, depending). But I'm okay with that.

The book begins with Maren and Kaia sharing a moment together before this big ceremony. Kaia wants to leave their village and Maren wants to stay, but their separation ends up being expedited by Kaia being taken away by the Aurati (seer-type people). Maren is devastated, but rather than sitting around and moping Bella Swan-style, she gets up and does something about it: she leaves the village and goes to the next city over where they raise dragons, planning on seizing a dragon and then laying waste to the people who stole her love from her in the first place (the Aurat).

The reason this book only gets three stars is because the world-building isn't as great as it could be. I was still confused about the smell magic and how it worked, and would have liked to see more scenes going into depth about it, like books like POISON STUDY and THE POISON MASTER did. I also wish there were more scenes with the dragons and those who bonded with and trained them, and what happened to the dragons that went mad in the oubliettes. The whole premise of this book kind of reminded me of a less successful version of Mercedes Lackey's JOUST, which is probably one of my favorite books about dragons ever. It is so good, and if you haven't read it, you really, really should.

That said, I think SHATTER THE SKY has a lot of potential and even if this series doesn't work out for me (I am curious to see where it goes from here, as it is sequel-baiting like crazy and you can't just end a book series like this without some sort of revolution), I would read more of this author's work as I really like her style and how it pays homage to the female greats of the 1990s. If you're a fan of Tamora Pierce and Mercedes Lackey and are tired of misogynistic, heteronormative fantasy novels written with the straight male gaze in mind, you would do well to pick up 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

The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr by Susan Holloway Scott

Reading this book was kind of exhausting-- not because it was bad, but because so much bad stuff happens to the protagonist. THE SECRET WIFE OF AARON BURR reminded me a lot of those chunky doorstop epics from the 1970s and 1980s that follow a person, usually someone from a notable time period or was, themselves, notable, from childhood to old age. Instead of a "slice of life," these books gave you the whole dang orange.

Mary Emmons is an obscure but real historical figure who was described as being either mixed race or Indian. In this book, she is half-Indian, half-white. Although she is most famous for being the wife of Aaron Burr and the mother of John Pierre Burr, too obscure to even get a Wikipedia page to herself, this book attempts to tell her story. We see her in India as a young child, ostracized for the tragedy behind her parentage and ostracized for her biracial heritage, only to be sold to a privileged French family that thinks nothing of abuse, sexual or physical. In the midst of an attempted sexual assault, a Swiss Loyalist takes pity on her and buys her-- again-- to give to his own wife as a present.

This wife of his is Theodosia, the woman who would later end up as Aaron Burr's first wife-- an intelligent, educated, but frail woman who, in the mentality of racists suffering from cognitive dissonance everywhere, considers herself a credit to progressivism while hurting those around her who don't fit in to what her ideas of progressivism looks like-- especially if it inconveniences herself. Poor Mary finds this out the hard way when Theodosia refuses to let her marry the man she loves, and won't hear of talking about her freedom because her unique talents would make her too hard to replace. When Aaron Burr enters their lives, Mary has hope again since he is so against slavery. But again, like Theodosia, Aaron is too concerned with what Mary can do for him and how much he needs and wants her to even consider setting her free, which breaks Mary's heart multiple times.

I was very impressed with THE SECRET WIFE OF AARON BURR. I'm sorry to say this, but in my experience it's rare to see a book penned by a white author about slavery that takes such a hard and unforgiving look at the (white) people who were in power. Even the so-called good characters in this book do horrible, selfish things, and what makes it worse is that because of the rules of the times, they felt that they were in the moral right to do these things. Even historical figures who often end up deified, like George Washington, do not escape the fray, and their hypocrisies are laid out on the line.

What makes this book even better, though, is Mary herself. She is such a strong, empowered character, and while some of her choices were hard to come to terms with, I get that she had limited opportunities at this time, and was forced to make the best of what she had. She is such an easy character to root for, and there was never a time in this book that I found myself not in her corner, cheering her on or booing her would-be oppressors. I've never heard of Susan Holloway Scott before, but her writing style was reminiscent of authors like Alyssa Cole or Margaret George, in that you can tell she really likes and respects strong women, and enjoys telling their life stories on the page.

This was a really great book and I'd happily read more from this author. Now I really need to pick up Anya Seton's MY THEODOSIA and do a compare-and-contrast of the two books.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

I was so excited to read this book because I loved her first book, BRAIN ON FIRE, which was her own journalism-style memoir chronicling her experience with autoimmune encephalitis that manifested itself with symptoms similar to schizophrenia. Had she been misdiagnosed, she could have ended up with permanent brain damage-- or dead. Given that close call, it's understandable that the author might have some skepticism about psychology. A lot of people do, and like a lot of sciences, its beginnings seem backwards and barbaric. Of course, since psychology is one of the newer sciences, those beginnings are far more recent than most.

THE GREAT PRETENDER is about the Rosenhan experiment, a study in which volunteers (including the psychologist leading it) pretended to have vague symptoms and see if they would get checked in to a mental health facility. Spoiler: according to the researcher's notes, all of them did, and all of them (except for one) ended up with diagnoses of schizophrenia (the other was diagnosed as borderline, I think, or manic). Also spoiler: they found the conditions pretty horrible, too. Staff were unsympathetic and liable to treat even normal behaviors (such as journaling) as mentally ill.

Cahalan manages to get access to the psychologist's notes and even interview some of the participants in the study. Her findings, through supplementary research and some historical context, are pretty grim on both sides. Yes, clinical psychologists have, historically, done some pretty awful things in the name of medical science, whether it's treating patients like circus acts (19th century Bedlam) or doing gratuitous surgeries assembly-line style, to those who are willing and not (lobotomies). Cahalan talks about a Victorian journalist who checked herself in to a psychiatric facility and was horrified by the results. Rosenhan and his experimenters, while finding themselves in conditions nowhere near as horrifying, were still shocked at their cold and impartial (and sometimes unhygienic) treatment.

When the study came out, people immediately sought to riposte it. Psychology is an oft-villainized field and I think there was probably a concern that a distrust in the industry might dissuade people from seeking the treatment they might need. Less philanthropically, I'm sure they were also concerned for their careers and the cash money said careers brought in. As Cahalan notes, the study may not have been as truthful as it could have been, as there were some factual disputes that arose when his data was cross-referenced with interviewees and other sources.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did, being that I was a psychology major in school and actually contributed to active research studies. Supposedly, there's even one floating around out there with my name on it. Initially, I was very interested in the subject of the experiment, but it quickly wore thin as it was much drier than I was expecting and the whole time I was reading, I kept comparing THE GREAT PRETENDER unfavorably to the author's first book. I do think if you want to read a book that goes into depth about what psychiatric clinics are like, as well as the ethics of psychology and treatment, you might enjoy it, but those who aren't interested in psychology and have only scant interest in the topic will be disappointed, as this is hardly titillating and textbook-dry.

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Wild Life: Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs by Keena Roberts

The movie Mean Girls opens up with Cady Heron returning to normal high school life after spending the last 12 years in Africa with her zoologist parents. Applying the same observational skills she acquired in Africa, Cady quickly observes that people, like animals, tend to stay in their own groups and exhibit hierarchical displays of social dominance and aggression. I always thought that was a really cool hook but it seemed unrealistic-- until I picked up WILD LIFE, and realized that Keena is literally Cady.

Keena grew up in Kenya and Zimbabwe with her primatologist parents, spending the majority of her time in a baboon camp. While camping in Africa, she learned many survival skills, such as how to treat severe dehydration and survive in temperatures reaching 130 degrees; how to react in a leopard or lion attack; how to shoot the head of a snake and wield a spear; and some unconventional first aid techniques, such as the use of a stun gun to neutralize snake venom.

To keep their grants, though, her parents had to continually return back to the United States to teach, and so, by proxy, did Keena and her younger sister, Lucy. In her private school in Philadelphia, Keena quickly learned that most of the kids didn't care about anything she picked up in Africa, regarding her as a freak and calling her names; the very things that made her unique and a survivalist made her unliked and ostracized from her peers, especially since her interests-- animals and fantasy books-- didn't really sync up with the trends in pop-culture.

I picked up this book partially because the premise sounded like a real life Mean Girls, and it was that, but also so much more. I love travel memoirs, especially if the author is really skilled at imparting the details of their journey, and WILD LIFE is an especially cinematographic memoir: I really felt like I was in the veldts of Botswana, having real life encounters with lions, and baboons, and hippos (oh my). When she described the 130-degree heatwave that made all of their equipment melt, I felt a little dizzy, myself. She's an incredible narrator, and during every step of this memoir, I felt like I was really seeing everything through her eyes. It was incredible.

One of the flaws of memoirs is that if you don't like the person writing the book, when you're rating a book you kind of have to rate the person. The corollary to that is, if you like the person writing the book, you feel like you've made a new best friend. Keena Roberts is so cool and I saw so much of myself in her-- a tomboyish, awkward book nerd with unconventional and obsessive interests and a love of facts and animals. I took it personally when she was bullied by her peers, because I had a similar experience in middle school and high school, and seeing her get stung by rejection but stay true to herself despite everything made me really wish that I could have been her friend in school.

WILD LIFE is such a fantastic memoir and it's completely different from other travel memoirs that I've read. Her knowledge and passion and genuine love of reading and the written word make this such a pleasure to read, and I think anyone who feels like they don't fit in will relate to Keena Roberts' own personal Mean Girls adventure-- complete with bonus scenes set in Africa.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Americana (And The Act Of Getting Over It.) by Luke Healy

AMERICANA is a graphic novel memoir about an Irish man who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail after being inspired by Cheryl Strayed's WILD. He starts at the Mexican-California border and goes all the way up to the Canadian-Washington border. During this trek, he meets a number of colorful characters who all go under a hike de plume, which makes them seem a lot like spies from a 1950s sitcom-- or hippies. In this graphic novel he chronicles his journey and how it changed him, and what this trek taught him about himself and his ability to endure.

I liked this a lot considering I have zero interest in the outdoors. I'm an environmentalist in that I try to make conscious life choices that will benefit the wilds and preserve them for the next generation to come, but I would also like said wilds to stay far away from me, preferably on the other side of a luxurious glass viewing window or on the other side of a TV screen. Reading this book definitely reminded me why I hate hiking and camping and doing anything away from a working toilet and AC.

Healy has a simplistic style in three colors, red, white and blue, and while it took some getting used to, I did like his style. He also has a lot of text in here-- more than I was expecting for a graphic novel. When describing this book to people, I called it "INTO THE WILD with a happy ending." I think this graphic novel will especially appeal to young boys because it's a success story about a man who began this exercise out of shape and slightly overweight and considered giving up several times, only to persevere, even when he was at his limit. I thought that was very inspiring.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

When the Stars Lead to You by Ronni Davis

DNF @ p. 151

I feel really bad about not finishing this one but I couldn't stand the writing. Devon is supposed to be an astrophysicist in the making in her senior year of high school, but she was written like a middle schooler. The whole foundation of the star-crossed romance is a summer of insta-love cheese that ends up going sour, followed by a second chance romance-type plot-- only because they didn't have any real or deep connection before (imo), it doesn't really work.

I skimmed to the end, and while I appreciate that this book tackles some pretty important issues-- depression, suicide, interracial relationships, and biracial identity-- this didn't click for me in the strongest way. I think I'd only be more annoyed than I am now if I pushed myself to finish, so I'm going to stop now.

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

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling

Qualityland is what happens when Big Business takes over politics and the economy. An online retailer called TheShop is an economic superpower that runs everything and everyone with handy algorithms. So what if they invade your privacy? They know what you want better than yourself, after all. In an odd nod to medieval times, people's surnames are named after their parents' professions, and people are accorded video game-like "levels" based on attractiveness and potential.

Peter Jobless is the lowest level you can be without being part of the most unfavorable caste. His girlfriend is thinking of leaving him. His job is scrapping sentient but dysfunctional machines who fail to serve their purpose in society. He finds he's often not happy, despite the algorithms telling him that he should be. Then one day, Peter receives an item from TheShop, delivered like clockwork, and it's something he doesn't want.

QUALITYLAND is about Peter's quest to not only return this unwanted item, but also to better himself in a society that is determined to run everything like a predetermined algorithm that removes the question of human choice and keeps people permanently in their place. As his foray into TheShop's runnings go deeper, invasive technology starts to look an awful lot like a conspiracy, and who better to help him than some shady vigilantes and his armada of quirky and broken droids?

QUALITYLAND was originally published in German, but this translation is very good. The humor, especially, carries over well. There's a pretty hilarious parody of Trump in here, and internet comments, social media websites (guess which one), consumer culture, politics, and dating all get mocked. This book reminded me a lot of Gary Shteyngart's SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY crossed with the wonky and bizarro humor of Douglas Adams. I think if you enjoyed either of those two authors, you will probably enjoy QUALITYLAND just as much as I did. It's an adventure. :)

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Held by Kimberly A. Bettes

The early 2010s were dark times. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY was a best-seller and everyone wanted to write the Next Big Thing. It didn't take long for people to go from writing about tortured porn to torture porn, and pretty soon we ended up with, well, a lot of books like these. HELD has been on my radar for a while because it frequently appears on the "Readers Also Enjoyed" tab for my Horrorscape series. Naturally, curiosity took over and made me want to check this book out.

First, a caveat. This book is dark. I don't think I've read or watched anything so horrific since The Collector (the one made by the Saw guy, not the one based on the John Fowles novel) or maybe since the tail end of Stephen King's MISERY. HELD is about people-- women-- getting tortured in incredibly brutal and graphic ways, and it was almost too much even for me. I think I was able to prepare for it since the negative reviews for this book were so detailed and helpful, so keep in mind that if this is a sensitive point with you, you should steer clear of this book.

That said, I actually liked HELD a lot more than I was expecting to. It's funny that this appears as a suggestion for my work because I actually had an idea similar to this-- although nowhere near so well-thought out. Nicole is just an ordinary wife and mom until she is abducted at gunpoint in a grocery store parking lot. Her captor is a man named Ron, averagely good-looking and 100% psycho. Ron finds Nicole amusing, and decides to keep her as his own. A fate that seems horrible until she finds out about the other women he keeps downstairs, the ones he calls his "basement bitches."

Ron is a failed author who wants to try again. This time, he's decided to do research for his horror novel-- by committing the horrific acts himself. He's certain it will be a best-seller. He has moments of being charming and funny that are quickly eclipsed by calculated acts of sadism. He claims to want Nicole's love, but not even she is safe from his whims. She knows she has to escape, but she isn't sure how, and time is running out, as Ron's novel is close to being finished...

So, if this had been brutality for the sake of brutality, I probably wouldn't have been able to finish. But this was more of a (very violent) work of psychological suspense, as well as a survival story. Nicole is funny-- it's clear to see why Ron decides to keep her-- but she's also selfish and a little cruel in her quest for survival, and she's forced to see the very worst of herself as she does what's needed to survive. I sped through this book pretty quickly wanting to see what happened. The book doesn't quite end on a cliffhanger, but it doesn't have the closure I need, either. I guess we have to get the second book to see whether or not Nicole gets to have her revenge.

If you can stomach dark and gory reads, you might like this. It's not for everyone but it has a really great story line with fast pacing and definitely creeped me out. I'll probably read the sequel. :)

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 16, 2019

Explicit Instruction by Scarlett Finn

DNF @ 21%

I hemmed and hawed over what to rate this. If I really forced myself to read this to the end, I might find something to redeem this book enough to give it an extra star. But reading almost four hundred pages just to go from "didn't like it," to "it was barely ok" isn't really worth my time, hence the DNF a quarter through.

Flick is having the worst day ever when she ends up in the bad part of town with a dead phone (basically, my socially anxious self's worst nightmare). She decides to go into a local bar to use the phone, despite the enigmatic warning a man standing outside gives her to NOT GO INSIDE. She disregards that warning and immediately realizes that she SHOULD NOT HAVE GONE INSIDE because it's filled with a bunch of hardened criminal thugs who sell drugs and traffic women, and she's about to become either a casualty or a product, depending on whether said enigmatic man of the warnings develops a soft spot for her.

So, I'm a sucker for bad-guy-gets-the-girl stories, especially ones about hit-men or assassins. I read buckets of those on Fictionpress back in the day, and they actually inspired me to write my own stories (because if they could do it, why not I!?). This book frequently showed up on the "Readers also enjoyed" tab of my own books and I was really curious about this book and wanted to support the author if I enjoyed it. Sadly, I didn't get on board with this one at ALL.

Why didn't this work?

1) Flick falls for Rushe waaaaay too fast.

2) This is basically an erotic fantasy book in that it's all about the sex, sex, sex. Maybe that will work for you if you can suspend your disbelief and just read something for teh hot scenes, but that's not something I'm interested in and I need a good story to invest me in the characters' chemistry.

3) The sex scenes just weren't that hot to me. I'm not a fan of raunchy, sloppy, crude sex scenes. They feel messy and gross. Some people are into that, and again, you do you. But me, I was about as turned off as a broken light switch missing an "ON" button. This book so didn't do it for me.

4) Rushe just didn't feel like a bona fide bad guy to me. He felt like a young guy trying on his Bad Boy Pants for the first time in his life and who wasn't sure if he liked the way they fit.

I'm sorry to say that this was a miss.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Hope Is Our Only Wing by Rutendo Tavengerwei

HOPE IS OUR ONLY WING is set in Zimbabwe and is the story of two teenage girls. Shamiso is still overcoming her grief at the death of her journalist father in a car accident that might or might not have been an accident. Tanyaradzwa is a mischievous, outspoken girl who loves to sing but is has a terrible burden-- she has a cancerous tumor on her vocal chords and surgery might mean loss of her singing voice, if not death.

**contains very mild spoilers**

Shamiso is bullied and teased for her English accent and about her dead father, whose death seems more and more likely to be politically-linked. Because a lot of her friends distanced themselves from her after the tragedy, she pushes everyone away by being antisocial. Tanyaradzwa isn't put off by this; in fact, she seems to take Shamiso's bristliness as an invitation to approach, prickles be cursed. The two end up unlikely friends, bonded together over shared tragedy and the intriguing mystery of Shamiso's father. It seems unlikely that these two will end up getting a happy ending, but sometimes the world moves in unlikely ways and even the unlucky ones can catch a break.

If there's a trope I'm a total sucker for that I really don't see enough of, it's well done female friendships. I'm finally starting to see more books that really put a premium on girlhood and the bonds between girls, and that makes me so happy to see. Not that I don't appreciate reading about a whole bunch of dramatic frenemies and cat fights, but sometimes it's nice to take a break and actually read a book about people who like each other. Shamiso and Tanyaradzwa are both nuanced characters with serious problems, and I like how they ended up bonding because of their unhappiness.

Even though this is just getting three stars, it's a high three-star rating. There was nothing objectionable about the book and it had lovely spare prose-- the problem is that it seemed to move a little fast and sometimes the story-telling and the characterization ended up falling flat because of it. Shamiso and Tanyaradzwa were great characters, as I said, but I would have liked to have spent more time with them and maybe learned a little more about them. I also think the suspense could have been better about Shamiso's father. I think I saw someone else saying that this book could have been better if the thriller element was played up more, and I agree.

HOPE IS OUR ONLY WING is an interesting piece of African literary fiction geared towards young adults. It's about girls being friends and overcoming adversity, and I think a lot of people who read this will like it. It's definitely an easy read and doesn't have any objectionable content, or controversial topics. That made it a little bland for me, but I know others prefer their books on the milquetoast side of things. The ending is satisfying, if bittersweet (to my relief-- I was prepared to cry).

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

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 15, 2019

SLAY by Brittney Morris

SLAY, on the surface, is everything I want to read about in a book. STEM heroine, science-fictiony elements, video games, diverse rep, real world issues, and political/feminist dialogues. Below the surface, however, are several Issue Sharks™ swimming and circling and waiting for me to dive down below and check it out so they can chew up my expectations to ribbons. 

Did my expectations become sad, tattered ribbons of disappointment? No. But they definitely got gnawed on a little.

Kiera is seventeen years old and one of the few black kids at her prestigious school. She has a black boyfriend, and a supportive family and sister, but most of her friends are white, and a lot of people at her school treat her like she's the Official Ambassador of Black People™, much to her annoyance. The only place that she really feels like she can be herself is an online virtual reality MMORPG called SLAY-- which she built and coded herself.

SLAY is to video games what Black Panther was for superhero movies; it's the READY PLAYER ONE for black cultural references, and rather than taking an exclusively Western view, Kiera tries to be inclusive to the entire African diaspora in her game. The premise is pretty simple: it's a card-based dueling game where characters can build decks and use cards that give them special superpowers, kind of like Yu-Gi-Oh!. Only instead of monsters, the cards have things like Black Jesus or That One Auntie's Potato Salad written on them.

Membership is invite-only and exclusive to black people, because Kiera wants it to stay a safe space. It's completely underground and everything seems golden-- until someone IRL is killed over a game dispute, and suddenly SLAY is splashed over news headlines as the latest example of gang violence. Worse, (white) people who aren't in the game start to say that its very existence is discriminatory if they don't get to play, and people begin to talk about whether or not the creator can be sued. One of these in particular manages to get access to the game and trolls Kiera and other members ruthlessly, baiting them to come out and do something about it. And Kiera intends to do exactly that.

So, as I said before, I have a lot of thoughts. I get why this book is a Big Deal™, and honestly, the things I liked most about it were the things I liked about READY PLAYER ONE: pop cultural references and wish fulfillment fantasy. SLAY actually has a one-up on READY PLAYER ONE in that it doesn't cater exclusively to the white and male geek niche; this version is much more diverse and female-friendly, and I really appreciated that. I also liked how many dialogues there were about ethnicity, culture, and safe spaces. Even if I didn't agree with all of them, I loved that it was happening, that there were some really smart and meaningful passages in here that everyone should read (especially teens) about discrimination and bias, and honestly, it's a great learning opportunity.

The dialogues in this book were probably my favorite thing about SLAY.

The things I liked less about the book was the nebulous execution of VR and gameplay. Does this take place in the future? The technology that Kiera is using seems much beyond what we're capable of doing today, and the idea that someone invented all of this-- as a teenager-- without making any sort of splash until a murder happens seems a bit ridiculous. Likewise, it seems like a lot of the players just sit around watching other characters play instead of playing themselves and, like, that's not really what you do when you MMORPG. A lot of MMORPGs do have moments of slow play, called grinding, where you have to do repetitive tasks to build up stats, or you might have to wait in a turn-based game for everything else to go through before you make your move. It's deferral of gratification and it sucks. Games are boring if you're not playing. Anyone who has a sibling knows how much it stinks to have to wait around and watch someone play while you wait for your turn.

I also thought the exclusivity element was iffy. I fully get the need for safe spaces and places where people can shape and form their identifies in a way that is validating. But I also don't think banning people of certain ethnic groups from these spaces is a good thing or should be celebrated, and it bothered me that the people saying this in the book were being branded as the bad guys. Doing this doesn't just keep out the racists; it also alienates allies, and also other people of color who might not identify as black, or who do identify as biracial. There's this really sad passage in here where one of Kiera's friends actually asks her if she isn't allowed to play because she's half-white, and I think the fact that Kiera's game membership fostered that kind of attitude speaks to the toxicity of that kind of exclusionary environment. It wasn't really fully addressed either, Kiera feels bad, blows off talking to her friend about it, and then basically goes, no it's totally okay you can play my game. But that doesn't address the issue, and it essentially makes Kiera the gatekeeper to black identity in this world.

One thing I do want to praise this book for doing, however, is calling out racism within the community of people of color, as well as the effects of harmful rhetoric as spoken by both white people and people of color. Morris did a good job showing how words can hurt-- even if they weren't intended that way. There's a twist in here that's really well done. I didn't see it coming, although once I thought about it, it all made sense and confirmed some of my initial gut feelings. So props for doing the unexpected and making it a morality play without seeming heavy handed. 

Even though SLAY has its problems and I didn't 100% agree with all the messages in it, I did like the core message of the book: it's a celebration of black excellence, black culture, and female empowerment. I honestly am so excited for all the young girls and boys who are going to read this and enjoy a book about video games with a STEM heroine as the main character. It's so great to see women (especially women of color) getting to live out their geeky wish fulfillment fantasies, too.

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

3 out of 5 stars

The Sheik Retold by Victoria Vane

Pull up several seats, my friends, because I have a lot of thoughts on THE SHEIK RETOLD. This book first caught my attention during the summer of 2013. It's an erotic "retelling" of E.M. Hull's bodice-ripper precursor, THE SHEIK, which was initially published in 1919. Unlike many of the people reviewing this, I've actually read the original. It was written in 1919, so it doesn't have much in the way of sexual content, although there is a lot of sexual tension. And violence. And racism. And smoking. It's basically everything good and bad about 1919, while bursting at the seams with repressed sexuality. It desperately wishes it was born sixty years later, so it could be the bodice-ripper it so badly wants to be.

I think the Smart Bitches ladies hit the nail on the head with their review, but I'll tell you what I think, as well. THE SHEIK RETOLD peppers its pages with the sexual scenes that were not in the original. It's an erotic romance, and initially I was really excited, because I thought to myself, "Finally! This is going to be Rosemary Rogers levels of fucked up bodice-rippery! I can't wait!" The author also rewrote it to be in the first person (I believe the original was written in the third person), which makes it much more intimate and personal. Also a win.

The problem is that when the author was rewriting the book, she took out a lot of the things that made it so much fun. I'm not sorry at all to see the racist slurs removed, because, you know, racist slurs. But trying to take a book that would have been non-con and making it into a "no-no-yes-yes-yes!" style dub-con with the heroine deciding that she's going to take ownership of her abuse and make herself like it because feminism really isn't much better. Honestly, keeping the scenes as rape would have been better than these weird, self-hating mental gymnastics the heroine puts herself through.It also messes with his character, because the sheik is a cruel and brutal man, so removing these scenes, as well as the violence, really lessons the impact of a story that, in the original, uses the allegory of horse-breaking and horse-killing to allude to his method's of "taming" a woman.

The beginning of this book was great, but after the sex scenes, things kind of fell apart for me. What a disappointment. In some ways, this is more readable than the original and it's certainly less offensive, but I'm really not  certain that the author ended up making this a better story. I'm not sure I'd read anything else by this author in the near future. This smacks of 90s bodice-ripper hypocrisy (and you KNOW how I feel about the wishy-washy sex scenes of 90s bodice-rippers). That said, I'm totally in favor of authors taking and rewriting the classics to fill them with the smut that we all deserve. I know the purists may disagree, but I am a trash can and will never say no to well-written smut.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Would Like to Meet by Rachel Winters

You know, I took one look at that cover and thought, "Hmm, gee, this looks a lot like THE KISS QUOTIENT and THE HATING GAME." I thought it might just be me, but it looks like someone on Goodreads actually went ahead and compiled a list of all these pastel book covers with cartoonish characters on the front, so I feel totes validated. #NotAllBookCovers #InvasionOfTheChicklit

Chicklit was my gateway into the romance genre, so you could say that I have a real soft spot for it. For a few years, though, it seemed to go out of fashion, but now it's back with a vengeance and I'm so glad-- especially since a lot of the more recent offerings are much more empowering than some of the overworked/underpaid/self-hating women characters that graced many a page in the early noughties, along with way too many cocktail drinks and a ring of supportive girlfriends including -sigh- the obligatory "gay bff." My, how far we've come.

On the surface, WOULD LIKE TO MEET is pretty similar to its early noughtiess forebears. Evie is overworked and underpaid. She works as an assistant to an ungrateful and comically incompetent agent and his childish and irresponsible author, Ezra, who Evie has nicknamed "N.O.B." (number one boychild). She has a supportive group of girlfriends, including, -sigh- the obligatory gay bff, and there are several scenes involving cocktails, something called a "hen do" (which I guess is a bachelorette party in Brit-speak), and, of course, a wedding. What sets this book aside from the rest is a little something called self-awareness. The concept really allows the book to wink at the audience while acknowledging certain tropes as toxic. You see, Ezra/N.O.B. is supposed to write a rom-com, and Evie's totally chaotic dating life has inspired him-- if she sends him IRL meet-cutes to prove that love at first sight is real, he will agree to work in earnest and stop flaking. Evie agrees and proceeds to copy the oh-so-quirky and oh-so-coincidental meet-cutes from various famous rom-coms, with disastrous results.

Evie's group of friends is more developed than a lot of the cast of friends I've read about historically. Each of them have their own personalities, and they call Evie out when she acts irresponsibly (something that will appeal to readers frustrated with authors like Sophie Kinsella, whose heroines act in super psychologically dysfunctional ways and are never called out on it in earnest). And her gay BFF actually gets to have a personality and problems of his own, and isn't reduced to a stereotype. So you know what, okay book, I see you. I also adored one of the friends she makes at a soured meet-cute that involves spilled protein drink and projectile vomiting. Ben and his young daughter Annette are great characters, and end up becoming the peanut gallery at many of Evie's ill-conceived schemes, as well as her biggest cheerleaders when the going gets rough.

I'll be the first to admit that the concept is totally outlandish and not at all plausible, but it was so much fun I didn't care. It's been a while since I read a romance that told me it would be a total laff-riot (note: not the actual words) and ACTUALLY DELIVERED. I laughed so many times while reading this book. I actually started cackling in the middle of the night at 3AM and then had to try to calm myself down while looking around guiltily to make sure I hadn't woken anyone else up. Evie is such a great character and you find yourself buying into her adventures, while rooting for her to find success and/or a happy ending. It's never completely obvious who she's going to end up with, and the author deliciously turns a lot of tropes on their heads in her attempt to show that a happy ending isn't always enough if you don't feel validated for being who you are and doing what you love.

This is one of the best chicklit books I've read recently and I can't wait for you all to read it, too!

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Becoming Beatriz by Tami Charles

This book set in the 80s is about gang violence, drugs, first love, and racial identity. Beatriz is just celebrating her fifteenth birthday when her brother is killed by a rival Haitian gang. With his death, she steps up to participate in their Puerto Rican gang, the Diablos, but his death haunts her and taints the meaning she previously got out of being affiliated with his group. She's also attracted to a geeky Haitian boy named Nasser, who might or might not be affiliated with their rivals. Nasser likes Beatriz for who she wishes she was and encourages her to pursue her love of dancing. Beatriz must decide whether she wants to break out and pursue her dreams or continue the cycle of violence.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I really liked the first half. I felt like it was a lot like THE HATE U GIVE, in that it explored the way violence affects a community, as well as the experience of coming of age as a person of color. Beatriz is Puerto Rican and black, and the book talks about that dual identity, as well as some of the discrimination that occurs within minority groups. It handled the topic of gangs really well, and I liked how there was a bit of a Romeo and Juliet element with her romance with Nasser, even though it felt a lot like insta-love in how it came out of the blue and he was like a smooth-talking Nice Guy (and no, not a Colin Firth kind of nice guy, but a fedora-wearing, white-knighting, milady nice guy).

I think my biggest complaint of BECOMING BEATRIZ is that it didn't feel long enough or developed enough to fully explore all the issues it presented. The whole thing with the gang ended pretty anticlimactically and I was expecting more development with the mystery girl with the ice-blonde braids. All of that basically petered out to nothing. I also felt like the author didn't really develop Beatriz's connection to Fame to the plot of the book. Beatriz is supposed to be torn between two very different worlds, but so many of the dance scenes felt dialed in. I guess what I'm trying to ineloquently say is that it lacked passion. The dancing lacked passion. The romance lacked passion. The only thing that had emotional punch were her misgivings of the gang and her loss of her brother.

I did ultimately end up liking this book but it was also a disappointment because it wasn't as good as it could have been. I also really don't like the cover-- I think it makes this book look very middle-grade, and the ideas and concepts in it are much more mature than the cover lets on. Someone should really rebrand this book so it ends up in the hands of teens who enjoy books like THE HATE U GIVE and want to read similar coming of age stories revolving around racial identity and community.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars