Monday, October 28, 2019

NVK by Temple Drake

I just finished beta-reading for one of my author friends, and I have a love-hate relationship with beta-reading for this author because nobody else writes stories like her, so whenever I finish one of her books, I always end up in the grand mother of book slumps-- at least until I get my hands on my next fix (WRITE FASTER). I was in a gloomy and creepy mood, and wanted to read a book that was densely atmospheric, rich with erotic horror and morally grey characters. Much to my surprise, I found that in NVK, and it helped get me out of my slump because it was exactly the type of book I wanted.

NVK is one of those books that kind of feels timeless. Reading it reminded me of the vampire and supernatural horror movies from the 80s and 90s, like Fright Night and Lost Boys, where they weren't strictly horror, in that they had romantic scenes and storylines, and explored themes that had more depth than their slasher movie cousins that seemed to serve more as morality plays dressed in gore. It was so good, and the suspense was kept up nicely throughout the story.

Set in China, NVK is about a Chinese executive named Zhang who becomes enamored with a mysterious Finnish woman named Naemi. Zhang is a man that has everything, so the elusiveness of Naemi and the way she constantly keeps him hanging fascinates him. They end up dating and sleeping together, and becoming quite fond of each other, but there is something that is not quite right about Naemi. An old man recognizes her in a restaurant and thinks she's his friend from his college days, even though she's only in her twenties. One of Zhang's close friends is insistent that Naemi is a ghost with unfinished business. And Naemi herself, with her strange eyes and the mysterious scar on her upper arm, often defies human qualities, to the point that she seems otherworldly.

This book was great. I see that it's the debut work of an author and supposed to be the first in a series, which has me very excited. I would gladly read the other books in the series by this author, because this one had such a great vibe. The spare writing managed to conjure up incredibly vivid scenes, and I liked the morose sense of doom that hung over the story, from start to finish. It's definitely not a read for those who want their books to be all sweetness and light, but I really enjoyed it.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 27, 2019

A Small Town by Thomas Perry

A SMALL TOWN wasn't really the book I was expecting. I guess I was hoping for a tautly written mystery, and not what it actually seemed to be: a moderately fast-paced airport thriller, to be read in a single sitting before being donated. In A SMALL TOWN, a small town (lol) in Colorado is brutally attacked and destroyed following an intensely planned prison break.

Wanting revenge, and furious by the lack of justice served out by the cops, the mayor of the town hires an ex-police officer named Leah to hunt all these men down and kill them, Kill Bill style. Which she does, happily, because all of these guys are truly awful and it really is sickening that they got away with their crimes. The first couple are easy, but when the surviving men learn that someone is hunting them, they start to make plans of their own.

As I said, I guess I was hoping for something a little more mysterious. It's clear from the obvious start who the bad guys are, and even when Leah's tracking them and on her way to kill them, there isn't a whole lot of suspense. Leah is personally invested in the murders because they killed one of her lovers, but that emotion doesn't really make it off the page. You could argue that Leah is cold because she has to be as a cop, but I felt like more work could have been done with her character to make the reader more invested in her survival.

Definitely not a bad book, but also not my favorite by any means.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Wall by John Lanchester

THE WALL by John Lanchester falls into a genre that I call "unapologetic lad-lit." It's written for men, and doesn't really make any secret about it; the manly-man protagonist plows his way through the story with his testosterone-charged mediocrity, and all of the women who should be out of his league but aren't end up falling for his oh so average charms. There's also war, too, of course. I definitely got a STARSHIP TROOPERS vibe from this book, with a bit of Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD. It's war with the meandering pace of McCarthy (although without McCarthy's aversion to punctuation, thank God), and more about the ops elements than high-octane battle scenes drenched in derring-do and copious amounts of alien blood.

It was, in a word, boring.

I think THE WALL could have been a good book. My impression of THE WALL is that it is set in a post-apocalyptic future where the sea levels have risen dangerously and there might be a Nuclear winter (wasn't sure why it was so cold where the hero was if it was hot enough to met the seas; this aspect of the book wasn't explained super well). Resources are scarce, so this knock-off group of Black Watch soldiers man the wall and keep out The Others.

It seems easy enough, but it isn't. Because people are desperate, and when people are desperate they do ugly things. Joseph Kavanagh (poor choice of last name, imo), is the newest recruit to the Wall. He bonds with his team and learns the way things run and most importantly, he learns how to attack and defend against the Others who want to get over the wall and kill them all. But then he learns that, as with any government, not everything you think know about the current situation is truth.

THE WALL's biggest weakness is that it doesn't feel like a fully developed story. Is it political commentary against the current president of the U.S. and his dreams of a border wall? Is it a treatise on the importance of stopping global warming and preventing water and resource wars? Is it just supposed to be a dystopian fiction work of militaristic lad-lit, to be consumed and enjoyed and hopefully turned into a movie one day with actors who used to be in B-movie action films? This was not clear, and that lack of clarity really sank the book for me and caused the storyline to suffer.

Overall, this wasn't really for me. I read a lot of science-fiction, old and new, and this was not something that stood out to me in any way. It actually reminded me a lot of a book I read called SOFT APOCALYPSE, which had lofty ideas but didn't know how to execute them.

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

2 out of 5 stars

The Plastic Problem by Rachel Salt

Rachel Salt is the head writer for the YouTube channel, AsapSCIENCE, a highly accessible science channel that is kind of like what Bill Nye the Science Guy was for the tech-savvy, 21st century audience. I'm a huge fan of the channel and I'm also trying to make more environmentally friendly choices, so even though THE PLASTIC PROBLEM is a book for children, I still wanted to read it.

THE PLASTIC PROBLEM is a short book, and presents itself in a graphic-heavy format that is a lot like a child's textbook. It talks about what plastic is, how it's made, what it's found in, and what some of the long- and short-term environmental repercussions of plastic are, whether it's killing wildlife who eat it by mistake or by degrading into small pieces known as micro- and nanoplastics, that get into the bodies of humans and animals.

Plastic is not really that sustainable. The people who make plastic products in factories are susceptible to toxic fumes that might cause cancer and, in some cases, can actually change their DNA. Some plastics cannot be reused and end up in the trash. Many people do not know how to recycle plastic properly, even if they put it in the correct bin, and that, too, can end up in the trash. People consume products with too much packaging, impulsively buy things that they don't need that won't last, and sometimes make choices that they think are helping but are actually hurting (like buying polyester canvas bags).

At the end of the chapter, the book offers some solutions to children who would like to reduce their ecological footprint. Participating in programs that offer and then reclaim reusable packaging (the milkman model), buying things to last and reducing consumption, and participating in clean-up and recycling programs are all potential opportunities that kids can do to help make the world a healthier place. I grew up in the age of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle as a kid, as well as the DARE program, but like DARE, RRR was never really fully fleshed out to us as kids, and we didn't really understand what the call to action was, or even what we were really supposed to do.

This book gives a pretty good explanation of the problem, as well as what the solution(s) might look like. It would make an excellent classroom or library resource and I hope a lot of kids read it.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things by Jacqueline Firkins

DNF @ p. 25

Reading this book was like the visual equivalent of hearing nails on a chalkboard. It's so saccharine and is trying way too hard. I picked this up because I heard it was supposed to be a Jane Austen retelling, but if Jane Austen is a gourmet wedding cake, this book is a plastic-wrapped Hostess cupcake.

Maybe if you like Morgan Matson and Stephanie Perkins, and the legion of other YA books featuring idiotic and ditzy leads whose manic pixie dreamgirl quirks are supposed to be endearing, you might enjoy this book. I really did try, but I couldn't stand the writing and ended up tossing it aside in disgust.


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

1 out of  5 stars

Furious Thing by Jenny Downham

Lex used to have a fairytale life with her mother, and the two of them shared the close bond of people trying to hunker down against the rest of the world. Then Lex's mom met John, the man who seemed like he was the answer to all of their problems: the prince who sweeps the princess off to happily-ever-after. But John isn't as nice as he appears; and Lex, once the apple of her mother's eye, is losing herself to a furious and sweeping anger.

FURIOUS THING is such a good book. It's nonstop drama, from start to finish, but has more value than a book written purely to titillate. It's about a girl who is the victim to emotional abuse in a toxic and enabling family dynamic, who acts out with anger, and nobody bothers to understand why she's upset. The book is about Lex struggling to deal with her anger and trying to break the vicious cycle, all the while trying to show other people the side of her stepfather that nobody else seems to see.

I think this will be a really hard read for some people, because as other reviewers before me have said, there aren't any easy answers. Many of the things that Lex does are wrong, but her sister, mother, and stepfather aren't blameless, either. It really shows the fine line between emotional abuse and the usual family flare-ups, and how a toxic environment can amplify maladaptive behaviors. I didn't really like anyone in this book but it was a great story and I couldn't put it down; I had to see what happened.

If you like books that challenge your way of thinking about the world and don't provide you with all the answers, I think you'll like this book. It kind of reminds me of those edgy YA novels that came out under the Speak imprint in the mid-2000s; it has that same kind of "voice." I really enjoyed it.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 21, 2019

Around the World on 50 Bucks: How I Left with Nothing and Returned a Rich Man by Christopher Schacht

I think we all know That One White Guy™ who's, like, so woke, and is also, like, constantly leveling up in Life Experience Points™. He reads pop-fiction philosophy books and identifies as a Buddhist based on what he knows about the religion from other white Western people who also identify about Buddhism. He travels to places that are generally considered unsafe to travelers and don't have working toilets, because, like, it's rich in experience, and it's so important to learn about the world. I call these "brocations," because these guys are always bros.

AROUND THE WORLD ON 50 BUCKS is the story of one German TOWG™'s brocation adventures. The title is actually a bit misleading because he started out with fifty euro, not fifty dollars, which is actually closer to sixty dollars, but hey, that's localization for you and I'm sure the publisher figured that a nice,  round number was probably a better hook. Christopher Schacht hitchiked and freelanced his way from Europe to South America to Asia to Melanesia, starting with only fifty euro and then basically winging it for the next three or so years.

While reading this, I couldn't help but remember Maarten Troost, another travel writer who goes to places I would never go so I can visit and learn about them vicariously without having to give up my precious toilets. I definitely see why someone desires to go to all these places, and Christopher does have a wealth of experience doing all sorts of strange and bizarre things, like being an au pair in exchange for mooching on an island paradise beach house (doesn't go over well), gold mining in Guiana, learning about cargo-cults in Vanuatu, allowing himself to be experimented on in South Korea with trial drugs for cash money, and being saved from wild dogs by a donkey.

One thing that kept occurring to me repeatedly throughout reading this book is the whole concept of privilege. Part of the reason these adventures tend to be done by TOWG™s is because women and people of color wouldn't be as safe and wouldn't receive as many of the lucky breaks Christopher did while traveling. While reading this, I kept thinking about how I would never feel comfortable traveling alone, hitchhiking on the streets, or sleeping out in the open like he did, because there are too many out there who would see a woman-- or a person of color-- and think, "Easy target!" and try to take advantage, because even though I'd love to believe Christopher's philosophy that most strangers are inherently kind, when you meet a bad able, the consequences can be dangerous.

In short, I really liked this book a lot more than I thought I did. Some readers have said that the writing is a little clunky, but I think that's because the author is German and it seems like maybe this was translated into English (not sure if that was done so by the author or a translator, but if it was the author, he did as good a job as a translator would have, honestly). It fits the author's happy-go-lucky personality, and I didn't mind the chattiness because he told good stories. I do think that the target audience for this book is probably young men in the 14-21 demographic, though, especially those who are hankering for their first taste of adulthood and who have a pressing sense of adventure.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry

ORPHEUS GIRL is a loose retelling of the Greek Orpheus myth. In it, a girl named Raya is sent to a conversion therapy camp after she is caught having sex with her girlfriend, Sarah, in a conservative Texas town. There, the two of them are reunited, but it's bittersweet. In addition to the rigid gender role exercises and constant confessions, a terrible threat looms over them all.

So this book was... kind of amazing, actually. I was a little leery when I saw that the author was a poet, because what works in poetry doesn't always translate well to fiction, but ORPHEUS GIRL was a really lyrical novel with exceptionally vivid and unique imagery and the author did such a great job of putting a scene into your head, whether it was good or bad. I was high-key impressed with how Greek myths were woven into the storyline. Raya's mom is a soap opera star on a Greek myth-themed fantasy show and she's learned the myths to get closer to her mom in spirit, basically, but also casts herself as the heroine in her own hero's journey as a way of coping with her terrible situation.

The book seems to be set in the 90s/early 2000s and does a great job of capturing a snapshot of what it was like to be a teenager in those times. I would know, because I was one. I loved the romance between Raya and Sarah, and how much they loved each other, and how that was juxtaposed against the more universal insecurities that plague adolescents worldwide. I love that there are more F/F books coming out, and honestly, this is one of the best ones I've read.

I do want to issue a caveat that this book deals with some incredibly tough topics. What makes it worse is that conversion therapy and homophobia are real, so this isn't even fantasy; people suffer like this in real life. Some of the trigger warnings are suicide, self-harm, electroshock therapy (which is represented as torture), misgendering a transgender person on purpose and forcing them to dress like the opposite gender and go by their "dead name," and lots of other homophobic stuff.

If you can stomach the content, it's so worth the read. What a beautiful, sad little book.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Sarah Jane by James Sallis

This book follows a woman's rise to sheriff in a small town. She's basically been through it all-- troubled childhood, military service, minimum wage job. When the sheriff disappears, she's accorded a position of power in a field that has the unpleasant tendency to disrespect women. As we learn more about Sarah, we also learn more about the claustrophobic small town she works in.

I wanted to like this way more than I did. I love small town mysteries and unreliable narrators. The trouble was, I just found SARAH JANE, book and heroine, to be really, really boring. I think the problem for me was that this was just a series of info dumps and character-driven story line without much in the way of whodunnitry or plot. Maybe if you have the patience to sit through 200 pages just to learn about the anatomy of small town craziness, you might enjoy this book more than I did. I know some people are content to bask in the ambiance of a book if they like enough, even if nothing happens. Sadly, I am not one of those people and I need something more substantial to satisfy me as a reader, no matter how good the writing is.

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

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Memory Thief by Lauren Mansy

DNF @ p. 101

I was having such an excellent streak of luck with YA titles, and then it all went south. Man, I don't know what it is about this book. I was so excited to read it when I first heard about the concept. The idea of memories as currency seemed like such a great idea and I love fantasy worlds built around dark topics. There was a compelling body-snatching element here that sounded way too good to miss and perfectly creepy for October.

Reading this was an exercise in tedium, though. The writing was especially juvenile, and seemed like it was about five years too young for the reading audience (e.g. middle grade instead of mid- to older-range teens). I didn't like the main character at all, and didn't find the world as it was represented here engaging or interesting at all. In fact, it kind of made me uncomfortable, because I felt like it smacked of pro life support propaganda. The heroine is trying to save her mother who's been in a coma for years and is essentially stopping the government from pulling the plug. Your read on this might vary, and that might well not have been representative of the author's thoughts or intentions, but it generated a very visceral response of revulsion from me.

Between the writing and the subject matter, this really wasn't for me. I just didn't buy the world building, wasn't a fan of the info dumps, and didn't really like the way that the theft of memories or their implication was portrayed here. The way that gifts and memories work here kind of remind me of the Death potion from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and if it had been more like that, it could have been really cool. As it is, I was just completely put out. Your mileage may vary.

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

1 out of 5 stars

Laughing with Obama: A Photographic Look Back at the Enduring Wit and Spirit of President Barack Obama by M. Sweeney

I don't think I've been this excited about receiving an ARC in a while. LAUGHING WITH OBAMA consists of many quotes taken from Obama's speeches, paired with heartwarming pictures of him laughing, smiling, joking around, and just in general being Classic Obama (i.e. Cool Dad, level 80). Reading LAUGHING WITH OBAMA was bittersweet because Barack Obama was such a lovely, decent human being, and it's just heart-breaking to compare him to the sorry excuse of a leader we have now. I tried not to think about that too much while reading, though, and just tried to focus on the photographs instead, which were lovely.

I actually just read another Obama-themed coffee table book recently (I'm not a stalker, I swear), which was called OBAMA: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT. That book was published by the official White House Photographer, although it served a similar purpose: to show what a great man he was. LAUGHING WITH OBAMA definitely focuses on his more light-hearted side. He comes across as so natural and relaxed, no matter who he's with. I think his ability to relate to people was one of his strong points, and I honestly believe with all my heart that for a politician, he was as genuine as it's possible to be and that his heart was in the right place. The pictures of him with his family and especially his wife were so touching. Where can I find me a guy who looks at me the way Obama looks at Michelle? I mean, really. #CoupleGoals

If you are a fan of Obama and want a book that catalogues his glory days, this is a great book to own. The selection of quotes is great and they are paired alongside pictures that are amusingly appropriate. If you don't like Obama, I don't know what you're doing on this page, but this book probably won't be for you and looking at it will just make you angrier, so you should probably leave for your own sake. Otherwise, I really don't see how anyone could read this book and fail to smile. I love Obama.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 14, 2019

Black Canary: Ignite by Meg Cabot

Meg Cabot was my go-to in high school. I had most of her books and read them over and over. She was THE quintessential teen girl voice for the longest time in YA fiction. So, obviously, when I saw that she was trying her hand at superhero comics, I was all over that like white on rice. I love comic books as much as the next geek, but I'll also be the first to admit that they aren't always, well, accessible to women. Between cheesecake shots in physically impossible contortions, and refrigerated women, I always kind of felt like they just weren't written for me at all.

That's finally changing. Now we're getting superheroes who are strong women and independent and actually have lives and hobbies when they're not fighting crime. I think we can all thank Wonder Woman for proving that there's a definite market for that. BLACK CANARY is basically Wonder Woman for the middle grade audience. Dinah is an ordinary preteen girl who is in a band with her two friends, Kat and Vee. She loves her parents and wants to be a police offer when she grows up. There's just one problem-- she has a supersonic voice that shatters glass.

As Dinah comes to terms with her powers, she learns that-- well, to quote Spiderman-- with great power, comes great responsibility. If she's not careful, she can cause destruction and hurt people, simply by speaking too loudly. And then, there's the whole safety element: her father is a cop who has put a lot of bad people away, and if any of the wrong people learn who she is and what she can do, they'll hurt her to keep from going back to Arkham. And unfortunately for Dinah, it seems like someone has figured out who she is, and they'll do anything to keep from being locked up.

Meg Cabot was the perfect writer for this comic book, to be honest. It has an almost "magical girl" feel, reminding me of manga I read when I was younger such as Tokyo Mew Mew, Wedding Peach, Sailor Moon, or Saint Tail. Cara McGee's art looks vaguely anime-inspired, and the friendship between the girls really makes this feel like a warm-hearted anime for young girls. Better yet, there's no romance (shocker, I know; Meg Cabot is all about that romance, usually). The focus is just entirely on a girl balancing friendship with her two besties with her burgeoning superpowers. Also, I'm kind of in love with their whole rock aesthetic. I don't know if any of you watched Scooby Doo and the Witch's Ghost, but they totally remind me of the Hex Girls.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Dead Girls by Abigail Tarttelin

What if Alice Sebold's LOVELY BONES started a preteen version of Lisbeth Salander from GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO? You'd get this book, that's what. Wow, this book was creepy-- in the best possible way. DEAD GIRLS takes place in England, in the 90s, and is about two girls who are best friends: Thera and Billie. Thera is the clever one who thinks up all their games, and Billie is the pretty, bold one who goes along with everything. They're opposites, but nothing can separate them-- except for murder.

When Billie goes missing, Thera's small village is filled with paranoia, suspicion, and curfews. Suddenly, all the adults keep throwing around words like "pervert," without really explaining what that means, or why Thera should fear them. She comes to the conclusion that a pervert is a type of man who likes to hurt young girls, and decides to take it upon herself to find her friend's murder and avenge her death. It seems endearing and harmless, until, suddenly, it isn't, and the reader can't help but wonder how far and to what lengths Thera will go to find out what happened to Billie.

I really enjoyed this book. It's actually similarly titled to another mystery about young girls I read recently, called THE DEAD GIRLS CLUB, and like TDGC, DEAD GIRLS also has a supernatural element to it. Or does it? That's what I love about both books-- they follow the traditional missing girl formula, but then add a supernatural (or not) twist that makes it the perfect October read. Of the two, I think I actually liked DEAD GIRLS better because it does such a great job capturing the vibe of what it was like to grow up in the 90s. On the one hand, you have Spice Girls, S Club 7, and Nanos (as in, the digital pets on key chains, not the iPods), but on the other, you have the fear of stranger danger paired with an unwillingness by authority figures to talk about sexuality and abuse.

DEAD GIRLS will definitely appeal to genre readers, but I also think anyone who enjoys stories of suspense with morally grey hero(ines) will enjoy the book as well. I'm not giving it five stars because the ending wasn't entirely satisfying (and not just for the obvious reason-- there were some loose ends I won't go into because spoilers, although it involved the "supernatural" element), and I felt like it was a little too obvious whodunnit (to me). It was still a fun read and passed the time, though, and what more can you ask of a creepy book in the creepy month of October? Exactly.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

DNF @ p. 66

Oh man, this is another review that is probably going to get me hate, but you know what, I thought this book was bad and I'm not sorry about being honest. I'd be a pretty crappy book blogger if I lied to you and said this was amazing when I kept zoning out while reading this and thinking about all the other books I'd rather be reading instead. It was boring and 100% not for me.

On the surface, THE NEVER TILTING WORLD sounded amazing. LGBT+ fantasy set in a broken world where one half is always cold and dark and the other half is sunny and light. It reminded me of this planet I watched in this documentary called "Exoplanets from Hell" (which is totally amazing and you should track it down and watch it), and I believe the planet that I'm thinking of was Upsilon Andromeda b, a planet that is literally half-fire and half-ice. Obviously my nerdy heart started palpitating and I couldn't wait to get my hands on this book.

THE NEVER TILTING WORLD turned out to be not my thing, though. The world-building is kind of a mess. I loved the premise, but it was so convoluted and confusing that I couldn't get into it. I had a similar problem with another book, THE TENTH GIRL, where I could not figure out if the author was doing a bad job explaining the story to me, or if I was just too stupid and uninterested to figure out what was going on. There are goddesses in this world, and they're at odds, and it has something to do with what caused the planet to "break" in the first place, and that's as far as I got.

There's also some "this is my original character" fanfic vibes going on here. Two of the characters have LITERAL RAINBOW HAIR and one of the characters has two colored eyes (I think one is gold and one is violet/blue). Everyone in this book has a POV chapter of their own and unfortunately they all have very similar narratives, so it was impossible to keep track of who was who, which was another thing that made it difficult to keep track of what was going on. I shouldn't have to keep flipping back to the chapter heading to look at who's narrating. They should be distinct.

I'm sorry to give up on this but I'm not going to waste my time on something I'm not enjoying, either. You might very well like this, and if you do, more power to you.

Disclaimer: I am reviewing an ARC copy of this work and my copy may be different from yours.

1 out of 5 stars

Rick by Alex Gino

RICK by Alex Gino is a young middle grade novel about a boy named Rick who is just entering middle school and is questioning his sexual identity. His best friend Jeff, who is also a sexist jerk in the process of objectifying young women, is already talking about hot girls, and his parents-- his father especially-- has begun to tease him about paying attention to his peers. But Rick feels uncomfortable when people talk about attraction and doesn't feel that way about anyone, boy or girl. He can't help but feel like maybe something might be wrong with him, until he starts talking with a girl in his class named Melissa, and ends up finding about an LGBT+ alliance group called Spectrum.

There's a lot to unpack in RICK, and for the most part, I think it's a really great book. I haven't read a lot of YA that really tries to speak so frankly about sexuality and orientation, defining terms in a way that a young child can understand, and attempting to be really inclusive and encouraging about that desire to explore your identity, even if said identity might not be cisgendered or romantic. It's got a great message and is accessible.

A big part of this book is Rick struggling to communicate his identity to the people he cares about, while also struggling to hide it because of people like Jeff. There's a major element of cognitive dissonance here; can we really call ourselves good, accepting people if we surround ourselves with bigots and willingly hang out with them despite knowing what they're capable of doing? I say no, and I have gotten into arguments with people about this online who think I'm being cruel for unfriending people who think differently from me-- but I know who I am and what I stand for, and I'm not willing to be friends with or even associate with people who actively discriminate and spread hate, because doing so is kind of a tacit acceptance in and of itself that such behavior is normal. And it shouldn't be.

I liked most of the kids in Spectrum, especially Melissa, and I thought the relationship between Rick and his grandfather, and their conversations about defying gender norms (even if not described as such) were really beautiful. I had a lot of really open and loving conversations with my parents about the importance of acceptance as a kid, so it always makes me really happy to see strong and loving bonds between kids and their guardians in books because it reminds me of my own childhood. I was also happy to see a book discuss what it means to be asexual, and encourage kids to stand up for themselves and who they are, and that you're never too young to know your own mind.

The part where this book fails, in my personal opinion, is that it was written with an agenda clearly in mind. And even though it is a really noble agenda, and an important one, there is a "preachiness" to this book that comes across as almost sanctimonious and really makes you, the reader, feel like you're being sat down and taught a lesson. I realize that this is a delicate area and I might be misunderstood, so I do want to be clear that my problem with this book is not about the content or the author's intent, but that the intent could have been less heavy-handed and more focus could have been on the characters themselves so the reader could reach the same conclusions that the author wanted them to through the narrative and subtext instead of having my hand held and being forcibly led to the point. Given the age of the characters and the intended audience, I understand why the author might have taken on the chiding tone and felt the need to be so pointed-- it is important that kids know about these things-- but as an adult reader, it felt condescending.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

I've read a lot of Isabel Allende's stuff before and I really like some of it, but some of it is also too weird for me. A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA is actually a pretty good introduction to Isabel Allende because it's mild, and doesn't have any magic realism, so you get a sense of her literary style without the surrealism that can sometimes make her stories hard to follow.

A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA is set in Spain in the 1930s, under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. A rift is beginning to form, and those who do not follow his tyrannical ways suffer or disappear. Roser and Victor are a young couple who end up fleeing as refugees to Chile. Their marriage is one of convenience so they can both be sponsored by Pablo Neruda to contribute to Chile's economy in new positions (as a musician and a doctor).

One of the things I liked best about this book is that it's like one of those epics from the 1970s and 80s-- it follows Roser and Victor throughout their entire lives. Roser's history is especially interesting, as she came from nothing, and was adopted by a rich old man, only to fall in love with a soldier who died before they could be officially married, leaving her as a single mother. When she marries Victor, her brother-in-law, they aren't attracted to each other at all. He only marries her to be a father to her son, Marcel, and help get her into Chile as his wife.

Victor is definitely a kind man, although he makes mistakes (one of which is having an affair with the daughter of a wealthy landowner, Ofelia). It's not really cheating since their relationship (the one he has with Roser) is open, and both of them plan to get divorced eventually, once they go back to Spain. Their platonic relationship actually gives them a really strong bond, though, and eventually, after so many years of companionship and shared experiences, Victor begins to fall for her for real.

The end of the book is a little sad and bittersweet, but not for the reasons you might think. A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA is a very timely book, because it shows how immigrants and refugees can contribute and add to a country's culture and economy, as well as the inevitability of our mortal ends, and the importance of having a life well-lived, surrounded by family. It's definitely a much better book than THE FOUNTAINS OF SILENCE, another book about fascist Spain that definitely skates over the oppression. In A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA, you feel the stakes-- and they are weighty.

I'm not giving this a higher rating because it could be boring at times. Allende does a lot of recounting, more telling and less showing. It gives it an almost fairy-tale quality at times, but at other times this matter-of-fact play-by-play of every character's actions was hard to pay attention to, and I occasionally caught my mind drifting while I was attempting to read. I did like the story, and the characters, and-- again-- not to hate on Ruta Sepetys, but I'd take Isabel Allende over Ruta Sepetys any day, and if you're going to read a book about fascist Spain, this is the one you should pick.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Guilty Pleasures by Kitty Thomas

DNF @ 52%

I want to be clear about something: I read this book knowing what I was getting into. I like dark romances, in fact I'm of the opinion that the darker the better, as long as they are well written and the story and characterization makes sense. Kitty Thomas is all about captive erotic "romances," many of which involve BDSM and total power exchange, so if that isn't something you're into and you read one of her books not knowing that, it would make sense that you would give a low rating for that reason. I actually really liked TENDER MERCIES, and even though it was too hardcore for some of my friends, I thought it told a good story.

My problem with GUILTY PLEASURES is that it makes a fantasy out of something so toxic. Vivian is having marital issues and when her husband signs her up for a sex therapist without her knowledge, she's less than thrilled. She's even less thrilled when her sex therapist sends her to a massage therapist who is an abusive sexual predator, grooming women to be sold at a later date to creepy dudes who enjoy having female slaves. Um, yike on a bike. What?!

The rest of the book (at least insofar as I was able to read) just consisted of these male characters gaslighting the heroine into thinking that she wants it because she had a physical response to their abuse, and because she froze instead of running away. Because this is a "fantasy," the heroine of course realizes that being dominated against her will is the magical key to unlocking all of her sexual frustrations and making her happy and fulfilled. Ugh.

I really liked TENDER MERCIES because the fantasy element was more clearly demarcated and I was able to compartmentalize my feelings about consent within that safe space the author created. Here, the line felt much more tenuous, and I wasn't really able to stop feeling uncomfortable while reading this book. I'm sure this will be someone's sexual cup of tea, but I just thought it was rapey. YMMV.

1 out of 5 stars

White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue ... and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson

Wow!! What a great collection of essays. Considering how short this book is, I am honestly so impressed by how thorough and detailed each of these essays are, and how each one of them stands alone and comes full circle by the end of the chapter. By the time I finished and closed the cover, I felt like I had learned so much. Cultural appropriation is one of those terms that tends to put people on the defensive, even though it's really important to understand why it's harmful, and how it relates to privilege.

This book is all about cultural appropriation and privilege, and it's written in a way that makes it virtually accessible to virtually everyone because of how concisely and logically it identifies problematic behaviors and why they cause pain. I challenge even the most bigoted person to pick this book up and not learn anything from it. Even if you don't agree with the author, you will at least understand why it's upsetting to individuals of color when white people don pastel locs to fashion shows or Coachella, and how erasure and white-washing remove people of color from key discussions about race and equality, and even from pop culture.

Some of the subjects that the author wrote about that I found particularly interesting were, of course, the appropriation of black and rap culture by white people (focusing specifically on Miley Cyrus and Christina Aguilera, but also applied more broadly) and how that ties into the fetishization of people and women of color; cultural appropriation in fashion (tying back to the title of the book, and focusing on locs and box braids); black slang and Black Twitter and how pop culture borrows from the innovations of black people without giving credit or acknowledgement, leading to the ultimate white-washing and erasure of the origin of these references; Paula Deen, and the idealization of the historic South (while omitting slavery); activisim, feminism, and intersectionality; and then, throughout the book, the importance of BLM and how racism influences oppression and inequality.

When I put down this book, I actually thought to myself, "WOW." In all caps. Wow, I learned so much and I still have so much more to learn. Wow, this book is so important and everyone should read it, because it will either validate you or educate you (or both), and it's written in such an affirming, engaging way. Even though the title is somewhat provocative and controversial, the text is not. It's matter-of-fact, and just states things as they are (with evidence to back it up). Racism is still a HUGE problem in the United States, and the world at large, and I think having dialogues-- as the author did, by writing this book-- and laying out these issues in the open where they're much harder to ignore is a key step in tackling the inherent inequality that is still such an integral part of our country's makeup. Read this book and boost this author-- she's amazing. I can't wait to see what she does next.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Wine from Grape to Glass by Jens Priewe

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I love wine. I live in California, which is the biggest producer of wine in the United States, and basically grew up with the understanding that wine was a crucial element not just of our economy, but also of social life and culture in my state. I guarantee you that if you're an alcohol-drinking adult, at least 50% of your weekend activities will involve wine. When I saw this book available as an ARC, I clamored for a copy and was so, so happy to receive it, because it's a combination of my two favorite things: wine and books.

WINE FROM GRAPE TO GLASS exceeded my expectations. It is a gorgeous book filled with exceptionally beautiful photos of grapes, wines, and landscapes that inform the aforementioned's terroir. It's a hefty tome and the cover just glows. I am putting this on my coffee table, where I can admire it while drinking my favorite beverage-- wine. It's too gorgeous to be shut away or left to collect dust on a bookshelf.

This book is also incredibly informative and very broad in scope. I skimmed it because there was way too much to read in a single sitting, but I was incredibly impressed by the breadth of knowledge. Reading this book teaches you about all the ways wine can go wrong, either in the growing phase (pests, rot, climate change) or in the fermenting phase (unwanted bacteria and yeasts, cork rottage). It really makes you appreciate how many times wine goes right, considering how delicate the process is. This book also teaches you about the varieties that make up wines, where they come from, and at the end, regional trivia about all the major wine-making areas, including South America, China, and Eastern-Europe-- players you might not normally hear about in the mainstream winery scene.

There is also practical knowledge, such as wine pairings (including a special section about cheese), how to properly aerate and drink wine, a flavor notes wheel to aid you in tasting notes (very helpful), and a guide to the colors of various wines and what to look for when identifying. If that weren't helpful enough, there's also a section on how to open wine, the tools you need for opening various types of wine bottles (and why), what wines should be drunk in what glasses (and why), as well as a history section on some of the key wines in wine history. There's a chapter on bubbly for the champagne crowd, and a chapter on rose for those who like their rose all day, every day.

I really love this book. It made me appreciate wine even more than I already did (and it's not like I hated it before, come on, guys). I think this is a really great gift for someone who is new to wine and wants to learn more about it, especially if they're interested in pairings, wine glass etiquette, and key terms. It looks gorgeous on a coffee table, but also has a wealth of practical and technical knowledge that will appeal to serious hobbyists and dilettantes alike. I absolutely adored it, and celebrated finishing this book with-- you guessed it-- a lovely glass of wine.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 7, 2019

Scars Like Wings by Erin Stewart

SCARS LIKE WINGS packs an emotional wallop and was probably one of the most difficult YA books for me to get through this year because it could be so devastatingly tragic and heart-breaking at times, even though it had its lighter points. In X meets Y formula, I'd say that this book is like WONDER meets THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, in that it is about disfigurement and disability, and also about the power of support groups and having a purpose in the recovery process, and how recovery isn't always a straight uphill journey, and the importance of recognizing that.

Ava divides her life into two sections: Ava Before the Fire and Ava After the Fire. She is the only one to survive the house fire that killed both her parents and her cousin/best friend. Now she lives with her aunt and uncle, covered with burn scars and still filled with the loss of her previous life and her loved ones. Under pressure from her aunt, Ava goes back to school and it's about as horrible as you might expect, because kids can be so cruel.

Her one friend is actually a girl from her burn support group, a girl named Piper who is filled with pep and verve and defiance, and basically embodies everything that Ava wishes she could be. She gives Ava the confidence to stand up to her bullies and renew her interest in singing, which was her passion before her injury. It seems like things might finally be turning around, especially with an exciting new surgery on the horizon, but Piper's friendship is somewhat toxic, and Ava is finding out that Piper wasn't exactly the best friend in her previous friend group, before they ended up estranged from Piper's injury. Worse still, some of the kids in her drama club don't want her onstage, performing with them, and when Ava gets a crush on a boy at her school, it forces her to confront her own self-worth, and see it separately from what other see at face-value.

This book broke me. Ava's grief over the loss of her family broke my heart again and again. I felt so bad for her, and the many cruelties that she suffered at the hands of others. She never got a break. Since I was in her corner from the beginning, it made every "win" extra satisfying, because it felt like they were so few and far in between. Ava was a great character and she was done so well. I also loved Ava's aunt and uncle. Their love for their niece was so pure and I loved that they loved her on her own terms and not just as a surrogate daughter. Everything about that family was pure gold.

I was less a fan of Ava's friendship with Piper and Asad. I felt like her relationship with both of them could be kind of toxic, especially with Piper. I guess kids are cruel, even when they mean well (or want to mean well), but it was still kind of upsetting. I wanted better for Ava and didn't feel like she got that here, even if she ended up loving herself again because of (or in spite of) her friends.

SCARS LIKE WINGS is a really great book and I like that it has a happy ending. There were some things about it that required a suspension of disbelief, but overall I think it did a great job not only portraying what seemed to be an accurate representation of someone with severe burns going through the physical and psychological recovery process, but also about finding yourself and your identity as a teenager, and what it means to truly overcome adversity and love yourself when others don't.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams

THE BABYSITTERS COVEN is one of those books that I was hotly anticipating for fall. The tongue-in-cheek title and gorgeous cover made me feel so hopeful that what I was going to get was going to be a cross between my childhood favorite, The Babysitters Club, with a dash of The Craft, and a heavy dollop of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I didn't get that, and maybe part of that is on me for having unrealistically high expectations, but part of that is definitely on the book.

First, even though this book is set in high school, it felt so immature it almost feels like a middle grade novel. There was also an element of being "out of touch." I never felt like I was reading about a bunch of teenagers. It felt like reading about a mom pretending to be a sanitized version of what they imagined a teenager was like from watching The Disney Channel all day.

Second, the magic and world-building is a bit of a mess. THE BABYSITTERS COVEN skates that fine line between a book that wants to be taken at face value and an homage/parody. The magic spells seemed cool, but the execution of them was kind of lame. And then the fact that the book basically used the plot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to explain how magic worked in this universe felt totally lazy. Don't use other universes that did you one better as a crutch to hold up your own shoddy world-building; it will just remind me that better stories exist out there than yours.

Third, the babysitting club element had a nice hook, but didn't really capture that responsibility and closeness that made the original Babysitters Club series so compelling. The girls in the original BCC were mature for their age and had a lot of interesting hobbies. The girls in this BCC aren't as invested in their jobs, are actually pretty immature, and engage in girl on girl hate. I was very disappointed. The only thing they have in common with the original BCC is that they're a club of girls who occasionally babysit and they like to create "themed" outfits, like Claudia from the original BCC did, but after a while their "themed" outfits started to seem too precious and contrived and annoying.

I'm pretty disappointed by how much I didn't like this upon finishing. THE BABYSITTERS COVEN was one of my biggest anticipated reads and ended up becoming one of my biggest disappointments. Maybe it would be good for a preteen girl who enjoys the Disney Channel, but it wasn't great for me.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo

If I had to sum up my feelings about this book in a single sentence, I would say this book is passable. I read a lot of fantasy and there was nothing about INTO THE CROOKED PLACE that really made it stand out to me, as it follows the typical formula of many best-selling YA titles coming out these days, to the point that over-saturation has rendered them virtually indistinguishable from one another. INTO THE CROOKED PLACE is not a bad book, nor is it an exceptionally good one. It's an okay YA fantasy with decent writing and some interesting but two-dimensional characters.

The setting of this book is in a fantasy city called Creije where magic is forbidden (whoomp, there it is). At night, black market traders sell charms and potions to people looking for a little extra, where they split the profits with their crime boss masters. Tavia is one of these, and her boss, Wesley, used to be her childhood friend until he was corrupted by power and became just as evil as everyone else. When he sends her off with a new potion, she doesn't think much of it, until her friend, Saxony, stupidly drinks it, and ends up becoming slightly, well, not herself.

As the truth of the new magic sinks in, Tavia realizes that Creije and its crime system is even worse than she thought. Especially since the Kingpin, Ashwood, is looking to expand his reach and, you guessed it, take over the world. She, Wesley, Saxony, and Karam, Wesley's bodyguard, must band together and join their pooled forces in order to save Creije from falling into darkness under a reign of dark magic and terror. But in order to do that, they'll have to confront the darker shadows haunting each of their pasts-- and some of the secrets that they're hiding might well be deadly.

As I said, the characters were fine. I felt like they checked a lot of boxes, to be honest. Wesley and Tavia are the childhood friends who still care about each other but pretend not to. Wesley is the smooth-talking dapper criminal who seems to have been created with the intention of fan service. Karam and Saxony were an F/F couple who broke up but still have feelings for each other, which is refreshing to see, but their sexual tension-fueled constant bickering started to get a little old, after a while. You could pick up this cast and drop them into virtually any other fantasy novel that came out within the past five years, and whether it's SIX OF CROWS or THE GILDED WOLVES, they could still fill out virtually the same roles, in a virtually similar storyline, without much change to the plot.

I also feel like it's hard to suss out the target audience for this book. The cover and writing style feel like this is geared towards younger teens/older middle grade, but the writing itself is peppered with swear words and the characters appear to be older teens. I don't know if it's gritty enough for older teens to really enjoy, but the subject matter might be too dark for younger kids.

To this book's credit, I liked it a lot more than SIX OF CROWS (which I have tried to read and ended up dropping in irritation 3+ times) and THE GILDED WOLVES (which I managed to finish but gave a terrible review). I even liked this more than the author's previous effort, TO KILL A KINGDOM, and it seems like the author really looked at the feedback readers gave her for her previous book and tried to implement it in this book, to mostly great effect. The characters were likable, even if they lacked the depth I'd like to see in books like this, and the magic system was interesting. There were also some truly chilling scenes in here, and moments of some really descriptive writing.

I suppose if you enjoy YA fantasy, and especially the titles I mentioned in the previous paragraph, you'll probably really enjoy INTO THE CROOKED PLACE. It wasn't quite my cup of tea but it passed the time and managed to keep me invested where similar books did not. I might be reading the sequel, as this book ends on a cliffhanger, and I'm curious to see how everyone ends up.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker

WHO PUT THIS SONG ON? is a young adult novel about a teenager named Morgan struggling with depression and anxiety. Her mood is exacerbated by being a young, liberal black woman in a highly conservative, highly religious suburb in Southern California, where she feels like nobody-- including her parents-- understand her and her struggle to come to terms with her identity. Morgan's refuge are emo culture and emo music, as this book is set in 2008, and she identifies strongly with the impact of the unhappy music that reflects her own emotional landscape.

There are some things I really liked about WHO PUT THIS SONG ON? and things that I thought were less well done. First, this book really captures the dichotomy of the 2000s: aggressively normalized preppy culture vs.  emo/scene culture, and all of the products that tied in to those two things, be it skinny ties and striped shirts and Sunny Day Real Estate, or Maroon 5 and puka shells and dELiA*s. I really felt like I was seeing my own high school experience brought to life, and the music soundtrack was A+. I freaking love emo music. #NoShade

This book also really captures what it can feel like to be depressed. Too many people out there think that depressed equals sad, and while depression can manifest itself as a persistent sadness that lasts for many months, it can also manifest in other ways, like absence of emotion (like a void) or irritation and anger. Morgan's experience with depression was very close to my own as a teenager and I wish so hard that this book had been around when I was in my teens, because the only book I ever read at the time that really resonated with me was SPEAK, and since the heroine of that book had undergone a major trauma to feel the way she did, SPEAK also made me feel unworthy as well, as though I didn't deserve to be unhappy since nothing bad had happened to me. WHO PUT THIS SONG ON? captures that bewilderment, as well as the lack of control. Morgan knows she isn't like everyone else and tries to assign it to external factors, even though deep down, she knows it's physical. Coming to terms with her depression and anxiety is a major point of the book, and I really appreciated that.

There are also some good dialogues in her about racial identity. Morgan lives in a suburb that is very conservative and mostly white, and the people around her say ignorant and hurtful things-- sometimes accidentally, but sometimes not. Since this is set in 2008, Barack Obama's run for presidency is happening in the background, and his courage inspires Morgan to do research into black history and black excellence, and she ends up finding a wealth of information that literally no one around her is talking about, and decides to take it upon herself to educate her peers-- with interesting results.

The downsides of this book were actually the writing. I see that this author got her start in poetry, and I can see that because while she does have a way with words, the dialogue often felt rushed and artificial, like the author was speeding through point A to get to point B at times. I recognize this because I have similar problems in my own writing, and I find it's a typical problem for introverts who might be more interested in setting the stage than the people who are on it. I also think that because the book was so short, all of the things the author tried to cram in it ended up making it feel very back-heavy and, again, kind of rushed. I thought all of the messages in this book were important, but if they had been explored more gradually, the messages might have been more meaningful.

WHO PUT THIS SONG ON? isn't a bad book by any means. It's a nostalgic portrayal of the 2000s from the eyes of a young woman of color trying to figure out where she belongs-- and it's got a kick-butt soundtrack from some of the major artists of that decade. Maybe it could have been written better, but I had a good time reading it and it got me listening to some music I'd half-forgotten. I'd say that, for the music lovers out there, it's worth picking up for the nostalgic value alone.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Gravemaidens by Kelly Coon

So, at first I was like 😍, but then I was like 😏, and then I was like 😐, but then I was like 😶, with a little bit of 🙄, and when I went to write my review I was like 🙃. Basically, the evolution of my disappointment with GRAVEMAIDENS. It promised me something dark and dangerous, and ended up being just another book in the long litany of the Basic Girl Fantasy™ canon.

**contains very mild spoilers**

GRAVEMAIDENS is set in a world that seems to draw inspiration from Ancient Egypt/Ancient Sumerian society. Kammani, the main character, is a healer. Her parents are both dead and her family is in disgrace after her father failed to heal the royal son. Now the king (called a lugal) is dying and Kammani is called in to save him virtually as the same time as her younger sister Nanaea is given the "honor" of becoming a Sacred Maiden, basically part of the king's death harem that will join him in the afterlife when he dies-- and yes, that means murder.

Kammani has to save the king from dying and save her dumb younger sister from being ritualistically killed, but when she gets closer to the royal court she discovers all kinds of sneaky goings-on that suggest that nothing is really as it seems. Which sounds like it should be really good, right? Nothing gets me hook, line, and sinker like a hot court intrigue novel, and if it's got scheming and murder and danger, so much the better.

The problem is, well, several things. I don't think the world was adequately developed, for one. All the terms were very confusing and I didn't really get much context for what Kammani's world was like. Except for some bursts of startling violence that seemed to be there to show some "stakes," everything was very bland. Second, the way the characters all talked was very modern and didn't really fit in with the Ancient Society vibe this book had going on. Third, Kammani was a totally repulsive little twit. So much whining. She's one of those characters who's beautiful but doesn't know it and claims to be so smart but makes all the dumb mistakes. Minor spoiler, but for a character who is supposed to know ALL the plants and remedies, she doesn't know poison when she sees it? As the French say, Quel dumbage. None of the other characters were that much better. Nanaea was also annoying, and since Kammani is supposed to be involved in this to save her, it felt extra unbelievable because there was literally no lost love between them. None. Every time the two of them were together, they were fighting. Somebody didn't get the character/world-building memo.

I think GRAVEMAIDENS had a good initial concept but it just ended up feeling too derivative, reminiscent of books that had similar concepts but did it better. I pushed myself to the end because I was hoping for a twist that might end up saving the book, but it ended up being a convoluted mess that felt like a stretch and really tested some of the character development we'd seen so far (especially what she did with two in particular, and their conveniently deteriorated mental states-- it didn't make ANY sense). I'm trying to keep this vague, because I don't want to spoil anything major for those who are still excited about reading the book, but if you get to the end I think you'll know EXACTLY what I'm talking about. This was a disappointment-- and from the sequel-baiting at the end, there isn't a whole lot of closure here, either. Yikes. I'm sorry to say it, but this was a huge disappointment.

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Horror Stories by Liz Phair

This is actually one of the best memoirs I have ever read. I'm shocked because most celebrity memoirs end up as something of a disappointment. HORROR STORIES was not. It blasted through my expectations, shattering them like broken glass. Reading this is like listening to new wave music-- it's dark, it's lyrical, and it will pull you under its black sea of emotion, leaving you to drown in the turbulent emotion that's an integral part of the experience.

I was expecting HORROR STORIES to be all about Liz Phair's childhood, followed by her big break as a celebrity songwriter, followed by the usual "extended Oscar speech" formula in which the author tells glowing stories of all the great and talented people they know who helped them on their star-studded path to fame. Phair doesn't really focus on that at all. These essays are all discrete incidents taken from her life, many of them strikingly personal and jarring, and the theme, in true form to the title, is that these are all incidents that haunt her to this day, that she carries with her, and that have helped to make her who she is.

I felt haunted, too, after finishing this book. She is such a great writer and you really feel like you're there with here while she's describing each scene. She writes about being stuck outside in New York in the middle of the polar vortex, navigating empty and icy streets with thundersnow looming overhead. She writes about a chilling "Final Destination" moment, which results in near-disfigurement and/or death. She writes about the birth of her son, and the horror of her labor. She writes about college life, feminism, art, fame, privilege, mortality salience, and life. Every chapter was absolutely wonderful and there was not a single piece in this collection that I didn't like.

One caveat is that the copy I read and am reviewing is an unfinished ARC. Usually, my ARCs are pretty polished and, in the cases that I have compared them to finished copies, don't seem to vary much, but this one was missing two chapters. Not a big deal to me, as I loved the book and I doubt those two chapters contained any material that would have changed my rating, but in the interest of full disclosure, do keep in mind that my copy may differ slightly from the one that you buy.

Seriously, this is such a wonderful memoir. You should read it. I feel like this aptly-named book will stay with me a while.

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

5 out of 5 stars