Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Centurion by Ken Gire

DNF @ p.105

I'm sure this will be very exciting to read if you are a christian, but if you are not, I would avoid. It does all the things that make christian and inspirational books so hard to read for secular or non-christian readers, which is a shame because I love Ancient Rome so much and was willing to suspend my doubts and give this a try.

1. Please do NOT take me to church. Reading through this feels like you're in church. Some people are into that but I'm not, and it's possible to write christian books that don't proselytize. I've read them-- and some of them were really, really good. Those actually tend to be the books that some of the more hardcore religious readers complain about, though, so maybe this will meet the religious quota for those people. It exceeded mine.

2. Rational thought? That's for jerks! This book takes a really sly and condescending tone towards the people who don't want to believe in Jesus's resurrection, like it's looking down on people who believe in reason and science and don't want to believe any magical thing that people tell them to for "Reasons." I really hate that attitude because faith will never supersede reason for me.

3. Historical accuracy? Nahhhh, Jesus. There's this one scene in here where this Egyptian guy and this Roman guy are talking about their deities like they're planning out a fantasy football team and both of them put down their own gods. Which... okay, I get that Christianity is a Big Deal and it's probably uncomfy and triggering to write about another faith plausibly-- maybe it even feels like blasphemy-- but if you don't do that, you look ridiculous and, yes, offensive. And also kind of dumb.

I am not religious at all but I will still read christian fiction if the premise looks good because I've found some really good ones and I feel like the market has gotten a bit of a bad reputation among secular readers for being too preachy. It is possible to write a balanced and nuanced book that is spiritual but also historically accurate, while having the potential to appeal to a broad audience--

But sadly, this book, for me, was not one of those.

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

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

So I just watched this amazing film that came out this year that nobody seems to have heard of, and it's called The Laundromat. Meryl Streep and Antonio Banderas are in it. The movie, through a series of seemingly disconnected vignettes, tells the story of shell corporations, fraud, and corruption, on a global scale.

While reading THE GLASS HOTEL, in all of its haunting glory, I thought of The Laundromat because at its heart, it is also a story of corruption. The main characters of this book are a brother and sister, the trophy girlfriend of a rich man, and the ringleader of a multi-billlion dollar Ponzi scheme. Their roles sometimes overlap, and the story is told in many different timelines which all converge, showing how they relate to each other-- and why.

If you're reading this expecting a lot to happen, it's not particularly action-packed. THE GLASS HOTEL is more of a character-driven story, showing people with all of their toxic idiosyncracies. This works for me when done well, but I know it's not everyone's cup of tea to sit around and watch people exist. I liked it-- particularly because it has a lot of cutting remarks on what it means to be rich, poor, desperate, callous, self-serving, selfish, and cruel. All written in beautiful language, too. Someone should hire this author to deliver the news with her eloquent punditry; I like my devastation to be pretty.

As if all that weren't enough, I think there's a bit of a magic-realism element in here towards the end, too, which makes the story extra strange. The author's other book, STATION ELEVEN, was also strange. If you like strange, haunting books, you'll love THE GLASS HOTEL. It's not a particularly happy book, but it's definitely interesting; and I'll take interesting over happy if the payoff is good.

P.S. Go watch The Laundromat. You'll thank me.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

DNF @ p.100

I read one hundred pages of this, hoping it would grab me-- but it never did. Alexis and Austin met in the ER when Alexis removed a bullet wound from Austin's arm. Six months later and they are dating and going on vacation to Vietnam to bicycle, and then Austin is accosted by strange men in the wilderness and disappears. Alexis is in her hotel room, fretting and drinking wine, when she finds out that he's missing.

The narrative is just so slow-paced and plodding. I thought the scenes with Austin were better, and somewhat chilling, but they were spaced out too much and I hated Alexis. This almost reads like a debut novel because the pacing is so weird, and I was really surprised to see that the author has actually published a whole bunch of stuff besides this. I guess if you're into slower mysteries, this might work for you, but I was really bored.


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

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

CONJURE WOMEN is like if John Steinbeck sat down and wrote about the black experience during the Civil War. It's just as epic in scope and the author, Afia Atakora, does a really good job showing people at their best and at their worst in the microcosm of plantation life. I was so impressed by the depth and complexity of all the characters, especially the two main characters, Rue and May Belle, who are the healing women on the plantation and sometimes due hideously cruel things when their own selfishness and desperation to survive overrides their mission to do no harm.

The novel is told in pieces. The wartime parts are narrated by May Belle, a respected woman on the plantation who delivers the babies and does all the healing. Her position is thrown into flux, though, as her daughter slowly comes of age and with her, the daughter of the plantation, Varina. Brought up in relative shelter from the crueler machinations of the plantation, Rue has grown up blind to what white people are capable of. That blind eye has some glaring repercussions for Rue and her mother.

The second piece of the novel is narrated after the war. Rue has now taken over her mother's duties, but she lacks her mother's warmth and her people regard her with suspicion and fear, especially when a mysterious plague starts to afflict the children, causing them to sicken and die. Rue's foothold of power and respect is then thrown into question when a preacher named Abel comes and his biblical variety of salvation proves more imminently consumable and palatable than her own.

I loved this book so much. In addition to the Steinbeck comparison for its simple but elegant brutality of the written word, I would say that this book also reminded me a lot of Octavia Butler's KINDRED. It's one of the more nuanced books of the Civil War-era South I have ever read. There are some scenes towards the end that are very hard to read, including torture and rape, but it's never too graphic, isn't lingered on, and is crucial to the story.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology by Leah Remini

Leah Remini was an actress on a lot of TV shows I didn't watch. She also used to be a Scientologist. TROUBLEMAKER is a celebrity memoir about her big break and her rise to fame, but it's also about growing up as a Scientologist, an inside look at some of the inner-workings of a religion that is known for being secretive and invasive, and a tell-all about why she chose to leave.

This is a really compelling memoir and I breezed through it in just over a day. Personality-wise, she reminds me a lot of Chrissy Teigen, in that she tells things like it is without caring who she's going to offend in the process (hence the title of the memoir). I didn't actually know much about Scientology before picking this book up and was kind of blown away by how much money parishioners end up pouring into the Church, and how many hours and hours of classes and auditing sessions they have to attend. It honestly sounds like a hideous mash-up of college work and Sunday confessionals: two things that should never be combined.

Leah obviously has a huge passion for acting and being in front of a camera and it was a lot of fun to hear about her excitement with each roll she managed to land (Saved by the Bell, Living Dolls, King of Queens, etc.). I liked hearing who was nice and who was mean. I think that's one of the most fun elements of memoirs like these, and I'm always secretly disappointed when celebrities won't dish.

The dark edge to this memoir is obviously the religious angle. One of the things that really disillusioned her was Tom Cruise and the way he was able to act with the silent (or not so silent in some cases) approval of the Church. She was invited to his wedding with Katie Holmes and the way and some of the other guests acted was really, really creepy. Another thing that put her off was the disappearance of David Miscavige's wife, Shelly, who she even went so far as to file a missing person's report for. But the thing that she said really drove a wedge between her and Scientology for good is that you're supposed to Disconnect with your family if they ever become a Suppressive Person (SP), meaning you can never ever talk to them again. She didn't want to have to do that.

If you're interested in dark memoirs, religious memoirs, or celebrity memoirs, you'll probably really enjoy TROUBLEMAKER. Leah Remini has a great voice, she isn't afraid to dish, and it features some truly bizarre exploits of the rich and famous and the religiously zealous. I really enjoyed reading this a lot and hope everything is still working out for Ms. Remini in this new chapter of her life.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Longer Fall by Charlaine Harris

This is an AU fantasy western. I haven't read the first book in the series but was able to figure most everything out and jump right into the story-- for what there was.

Rose is guarding a chest on a train with a bunch of other mercenaries. This being a novel, everything goes wrong, there's an explosion, a bunch of people die, and the chest disappears. Whoops.

While tracking the chest down, Rose encounters a Russian wizard prince with whom she's had a fling named Eli. Their search takes them to a fun (not) racist town where it starts to seem like the disappearance of the chest was part of a bigger conspiracy.

So here's the thing. The beginning of this book was great but the middle is slow as syrup. It's literally just Rose and Eli wandering around and talking to people and eating at all the diners. I lost count of how many times they stop to EAT. It's... a lot.

I really like the Sookie Stackhouse series and even though I can admit it's not the best written story out there, part of its charm was the action-packed storyline laced with tons of romance and erotica. This appears to be Harris's attempt to branch out and tell a more serious story and while I respect that, it's so dull and boring that I kind of wish she'd opted for trashy and fun instead.

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

2 out of 5 stars

The Harlot by Saskia Walker

DNF @ 14%

Nobody can say that I didn't give this the old college try. I bought this book because it had great reviews from people I trust, but I really didn't like the writing style. It was just too clunky and even though I get it's an erotica, the language and explicit language of the nature felt too anachronistic for me to really buy it.

I wish I'd liked this more, as I enjoy a smutty historical romp as much as the next lady, but this just wasn't it for me.

Oh well.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Verity by Colleen Hoover

I'm going to be 100% honest. I hated Colleen Hoover's early stuff. No matter which one I picked up, I never seemed to like it. Then she wrote TOO LATE, and I found myself sucked into her ability to write drama and dark characters. IT ENDS WITH US was even better, ratcheting up the drama and instilling it with a solid message. But VERITY is Hoover's best work yet, with a mystery that is comparable to GONE GIRL, and a writing style that seems to be channeled from the great Tarryn Fisher herself via osmosis.

Lowen is a lower-tier writer struggling to make ends meet. Nobody is as shocked as she is when her agent manages to broker a deal to have her be the ghostwriter to the best-selling mystery author, Verity Crawford. Verity has just suffered an accident leaving her unable to write, and they need someone to provide for the fans who will be able to do her book justice.

To Lowen's surprise, Verity's husband is the attractive man she has a run-in with on the street after witnessing a man get crushed by a vehicle. With such an auspicious first meeting, there's nowhere to go but up, right? Ha... ha... NOPE. When she moves into the family home to make sense of Verity's papers, she has to fight her growing attraction to Jeremy-- and her growing fear of his wife and everything she represents.

Because even though his wife is catatonic and can't move, ghosts haunt the family home and the very books that Lowen herself is supposed to help write. And Lowen has found a memoir written by Verity suggesting that not everything is as it seems. In fact, Verity might just be a terrible person... and Lowen herself could be in grave danger.

I couldn't put VERITY down. Not only does this capture all the struggles of being a writer SO WELL, it also features so many of my favorite tropes-- family secrets, a bit of an unreliable narrator (or not?? spoilers), writers as main characters, forbidden romance, kind of a Gothic haunted house vibe, murder, mystery, mayhem, and so much more. I freaking loved the ending. I loved the book even before the twist at the end but after the twist I was clapping my hands and saying BRILLIANT.

Seriously, this book is so good and if you're not afraid to go where angels fear to tread, you'll love this.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Stars We Steal by Alexa Donne

This is a retelling of Persuasion set in space with a dash of The Bachelor. People from Earth now fly around in spaceships, and those of the nobility have especially luxurious ones. Leonie, aboard The Scandinavian, is such a one, only her family is on the verge of becoming impoverished and she is going to have to take part in the extravagant match-making ceremony called the Valg, along with her sister and cousin, to help save the family fortune.

Leo is therefore shocked and horrified when her childhood friend and ex-fiance, Elliot, arrives for the proceedings. When he left her, angry and heartbroken, he was still considered "the help." Now he is the captain of a ship that manufactures whiskey and considered quite the eligible bachelor. She watches him flirt with all the other women in front of her, still wanting him and wishing she didn't, all the while trying to broker a deal for a new water filtration system that will save her family without her needing to marry, while also trying to investigate some mysterious goings-on aboard the ship that hint at treachery and, maybe, murder.

I enjoyed this book a lot for many reasons. First, as a science-fiction book, it's pretty light, so don't pick this up expecting hardcore space opera. The Bachelor in Space is a pretty apt description for this book. It isn't quite THE SELECTION (thank God), but nor is it Star Trek. I actually enjoyed the drama, and the artfully done will they?/won't they? between Elliot and Leo just about killed me.

Leo is a pretty great protagonist. I liked the fact that she was tall (5'11"!) and curvy. I thought it was cool that she was an inventor and a significant portion of the plot is about her filtration design. She also has a pretty healthy relationship towards other women. Even though she has a lot of jealousy towards her cousin and sister, it doesn't dissolve into a mess of girl-on-girl hate or shaming.

Regarding things that this book could have done better-- well, it was pretty fluffy, and I think it would have been nice to have more action beneath all the hearts, flowers, and trimmings. I also thought the LGBT+ rep was a bit clumsily done. There's an introduction of an ace character towards the end who basically serves as the foil for someone else's romantic relationship, and about 60% of the dialogue of the one lesbian character is her reminding all the characters that she's a lesbian and oh, by the way, are there any available girls around? It felt like her sexuality was a stand-in for her personality, which made me kind of sad, even though her character improved a little bit in the last quarter of the book.

Overall, though, I did like THE STARS WE STEAL a lot. It was a fun read and I enjoyed it.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Luminous by Dawn Metcalf

I read LUMINOUS for the first time seven years ago and when I saw that it was available via Kindle Unlimited, I was curious to revisit the story and check it out. LUMINOUS is one of the most unusual and creative fantasy stories that I've read, and even though I forgot some of the details, the concept stuck with me.

Consuela is a Mexican-American girl who is self-conscious in her own skin. One day, she notices a lump on the back of her neck, and in a gross, cringe-worthy scene, digs her fingers into it to peel off her own skin and finds that she can reduce herself down to magical, glowing bones and done the flesh of anything organic-- butterflies, water, fire, feathers, air.

In her other form, Consuela can enter a place called the Flow, an in-between world accessible to only a select few. Everyone she meets there has special powers of their own, which they use to navigate the Flow, but also to return to Earth in the capacity of guardian angels, saving those who are destined for great things from death.

Consuela likes her new skins and her new purpose, but something about the Flow, and its repercussions for her status back on Earth, chills her. Someone is also killing residents of the flow in brutal ways, and if Consuela isn't careful, she might die, as well. And if you die in the Flow, you die in real life...

I thought the story was a really great concept and I liked how Dia de los Muertos influenced Consuela's bone form, as well as some of the more magic-realism-y motifs in the story. The language of the book is poetic and lyrical with some truly unusual and memorable writing passages. The other residents of the Flow are also diverse, but some of these characters aren't handled quite as well. I raised my eyebrow at the Chinese guy having math as his superpower and being nicknamed Abacus, and one of the bad characters says that he thought someone who was Ainu had Down's Syndrome-- I guess that's slightly more forgivable since they were a "bad" character with bad thoughts, but still.

In the author's note, the author acknowledges that her story has problems and she would not write it the same way now, and even though she wanted to recirculate her out-of-print book, she took it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Honestly, I think that is the best way to go about books like this. Don't self-censor; acknowledge your mistakes, let your book speak for itself, and then move on to bigger and greater things. I have a lot of respect for that mindset, and it made me like Metcalf more for it.

Word of warning that there are a couple scenes of body horror in here, including that scene in the beginning I just told you about. I was looking through my status updates and apparently it made quite an impression on twenty-three-year-old Nenia back when I first read this in 2013.


Seven years later and yeah, it's still just as gnarly.

What an unusual and interesting book.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

This is my first work of fiction by Ken Liu, so I had no idea what to expect going in. THE HIDDEN GIRL is a collection of short stories, most of which are science-fiction, that dwell on themes of artificial intelligence, the transmittance of culture over time (memes), global warming and climate change, and at its most fundamental level, what it means to be human.

Reading these stories made me think of the TV show Love, Death + Robots. Not only does it share many of the same themes, it also shares the ability to really bum you the heck out. Even though I'm a fast reader, I couldn't really make it through more than three or four of these stories in a sitting, as they were almost all depressing and many of them had truly tragic or even wretched endings. Do not read this book if you are easily upset and are looking for something uplifting, as I left THE HIDDEN GIRL feeling pretty bummed and in need of a hug.

Depressing content aside, most of these stories are excellent. I'm definitely interested in reading more of Liu's work, and liked the focus that he put on having strong and intelligent women in these stories, many of them being of Asian (and more specifically, Chinese) descent. It's hard to rate a short story collection as a whole, which is why I tend to break them down story by story, but this is a pretty solid effort, and I was, on the whole, impressed with what I read, bar a few exceptions that were mediocre/confusing at worst.

Mild spoilers ahead!

Ghost Days: ☆☆☆½

This is a poignant story about an alien colonist who ends up taking solace in the multi-generational saga of a Chinese family's dealings with xenophobic white people as well as their struggle with dual cultural identities. The title is a play on the Chinese term (often offensive, so I won't write here) for white foreigners, which also refers, additionally, to spirits. Both meanings play a role in this story.

Maxwell's Demon: ☆☆☆☆

This is a story set during WWII about a woman of Okinawan descent who is taken from an internment camp and forced to renounce her citizenship so she can be deported back to Japan as a spy for the Americans. Working in a physics lab, she ends up being the assistant and lover to a scientist developing a weapon that runs on a type of magic, forcing Takako to make a choice about what it easy versus what is right, and which country she should choose to be loyal to when both are wrong.

The Reborn: ☆☆☆☆

This is a chilling story that occurs in the aftermath of first contact. After a brutal colonization, the invading aliens feel remorse and have turned the other cheek to instill compassion and peace in the very society they destroyed. But their compassion has a dark edge, and the body modifications required of the humans they interact with have a sinister purpose.

Thoughts and Prayers: ☆☆☆☆

This is a multi-POV story exploring how a mass shooting affects the members of the victim's family, including the POV of a troll who is determined to see that the family suffers.

Byzantine Empathy: ☆☆½

Confusing story about cryptocurrency, virtual reality, and the dispassion with which we view global conflict when looking through the removed and sanitized lens of social media.

The Gods Will Not Be Chained: ☆☆☆☆☆

This is honestly my favorite story in the collection. It's heartbreaking, but ends on a note of hope. A girl being bullied ends up gaining the mysterious protection of someone who only speaks in emoji, but, through further attempts at contact, starts to seem kind of familiar...

Staying Behind: ☆☆☆☆

This is a haunting story about what happens when we get the ability to upload consciousness without a physical body to anchor it. What kind of temptation would a digital existence pose to a venal one, and what would this mean for those who choose to remain behind? This one reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode, or maybe a kinder retelling of The Matrix.

Real Artists: ☆☆☆☆☆

Another stand-out story in the collection, Real Artists is a rather disillusioning look behind the curtain at the sterile future of creativity, in this case, via the medium of film. I liked it.

The Gods Will Not Be Slain: ☆☆☆☆½

I loved the opening to this one, and had it continued in that vein, this probably would have been a solid five-- but no, it had to be depressing. This is a sequel to The Gods Will Not Be Chained, and explores the dangers of AI and the painful sacrifices we must make to do good.

Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer: ☆☆

Meh. Another story about AI and the evanescent nature of all things. This one wasn't really a favorite, I think because it was too similar in topic to several stronger stories that came right before it.

The Gods Have Not Died in Vain: ☆☆☆☆

The conclusion to the three-part miniseries revolving around AI. I really loved this little miniseries, even though it broke my heart. AI is like the Promethean fire, with advancement meaning tragedy for both the creator and the receivers. It definitely feels like a cautionary tale, like Icarus flying too high.

Memories of My Mother: ☆☆½

A sad story about a woman dying of terminal disease who decides to cheat time by going into stasis and visiting her daughter once every seven years to cheat her 2 year prognosis. Interesting concept and heart-tugging idea, but the story was too short to pack much of an emotional wallop.

Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit-- Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts: ☆☆☆☆

Really more of a three and a half, but I rounded up for the beautiful writing and interesting premise. In this story, earth has flooded in the wake of massive climate change, and humans have moved on to colonize other planets. Here, two are deep-sea diving in the remains of Massachusetts, looking at coral and pondering the end.

Grey Rabbit, Crimson Mare, Coal Leopard:

Really confusing. I didn't understand what was happening in this one at all.

A Chase Beyond the Storms: NO RATING

This is an excerpt from the upcoming third book in one of the author's series. I don't really like this, as it kind of feels like an advertisement masquerading as content.Ads belong in the back.

The Hidden Girl: ☆☆☆½

The titular story. I always have high hopes for the titular story; I feel like if you're going to name your collection after a story, it should be your strongest work or the most representative of the themes. Neither is the case for The Hidden Girl, which is more fantasy than science-fiction and also very strange. It's about a girl who becomes apprentice to a Buddhist nun with powers, but ends up leaving her order after being asked to kill a man, despite this meaning cutting all ties to the people she considers family.

Seven Birthdays: ☆☆½

Another really strange story. I didn't get this one either, even though it was nicely written.

The Message: ☆☆☆½

This is a very sad story about an ancient civilization hiding a secret, the meaning of lost symbols, and a father and daughter who have bonded too late. Easily one of the most depressing stories in the collection, and what makes this even more infuriating is that it feels like it was handled carelessly.

Cutting: ☆☆☆

A poem, and don't worry-- cutting, here, refers to cuttings of paper and not the more upsetting kind. I know, I had the same concern, given the content in this book. After a series of major downers, it was nice to end on a somewhat lighter note.

So there you have it, THE HIDDEN GIRL with all its ups and downs (mostly downs). It's a great work of science-fiction and I do recommend it for fans of Love, Death + Robots, but don't read it when you're having a bad day, as it will likely make you feel worse.

And now, to read something happy! :)

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sparrow by Mary Cecilia Jackson

I think there's a rule somewhere that says that if an author writes a book about ballet, you are legally required to read it. How else to explain my apparent compulsion in picking up books about ballet, even though I've never really had an interest in it before in my life? Something about the discipline required, the athleticism, and the intense emotions just appeals to me on a very base level.

SPARROW is a book about a high school ballerina named Sparrow. She has close friends and is passionate about ballet. When she ends up going out with the hot jock on campus, Tristan, it seems like her whole life is perfectly rounded out. But Tristan is not a nice boy; and when he attacks her one day, she must spend the rest of the book not just having to recover, emotionally and physically, but also face the dark, half-buried memories from childhood that his abuse has inadvertently uncovered.

I didn't realize this when I picked up the book, but SPARROW is a dual-POV story. Half is told from Sparrow's POV and the other half is told from the POV of the Nice Guy who she's friendzoned, Lucas. I kind of wish the whole book had been narrated from Sparrow's POV, because it kind of ends up feeling like one of those cautionary tales Nice Guys feed girls to gaslight women into dating them, e.g. "He's no good for you, I'm the only one who can treat you right, hope he beats you to teach you a lesson, etc." Lucas isn't like that at all, but I'm not sure having that dichotomy in the narrative was a good move.

I liked Sparrow's POV, but wasn't as big a fan of Lucas. This is a story of healing and confronting abuse, and while the author did that part of the book really well, I didn't really feel like Lucas's POV had any place in Sparrow's journey of healing. The writing is beautiful and it does portray an abusive relationship pretty realistically-- to the point where it's hard to read at times-- but something about it felt a little too dramatic and contrived, and it kind of ended up feeling like a Lifetime movie.

SPARROW is not a bad book but I would not put it on the same level with Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK, as the blurb writers did. That only raises somewhat unrealistic expectations.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy! 

2.5 out of 5 stars

Bitter Falls by Rachel Caine

I've been working my way through the Stillhouse Lake series since around Thanksgiving. It is such an addictive series, and during multiple times throughout the story arc, I found myself literally unable to put the book down, desperate to know what happens next. These would make an excellent miniseries, I think. They have everything that makes up the formula for a successful book: tight-plotting, sympathetic characters, messed up villains, serial killers, cults, crime rings, and much, much more.

Gwen, the heroine, has certainly come a long way. In the first book, STILLHOUSE LAKE, she's very much the broken woman, trying to come to terms with her life after finding out that her husband-- the man she married and loved and had kids with-- was a gleefully sadistic serial killer. Not only that, but there are a number of people who refuse to believe her innocence, and will do anything they can do see her dead or jailed, at any cost.

In KILLMAN CREEK, things reach a fever pitch. Her husband is determined to get his revenge and Gwen and her children are thrown in the crossfire as the moves she makes to root out her husband end up uncovering the sick and very twisted schemes of powerful men with a taste for the cruel and taboo. In this book, everything Gwen built up in the last book is utterly dismantled, and she comes out of it at great cost.

It is, unquestionably, the best book of the four.

WOLFHUNTER RIVER definitely felt like a down-grade after KILLMAN. It glosses over a lot of the more unpleasant parts of KILLMAN, such as Gwen being betrayed by her two ungrateful children. Now, they're all one big happy family again-- except for the fact that an Anti-Gwen League is creating a documentary to show what a bad human being she is. Oh, and that freaks are coming out of the woodwork to call up Gwen about their own problems, including a mysterious woman from a place called Wolfhunter who says she's in serious danger but can't explain how or why.

Now, in BITTER FALLS, Gwen has moved up from phone calls to become a private detective. Her first lead is to follow up on a young man who disappears. What she unearths suggests the presence some truly depraved individuals using religion as the cross for their depravities-- and if you think that this won't drag Wolfhunter River and their sick shenanigans back into the mix, you would be wrong.

I really struggled with BITTER FALLS. I actually struggled with it the way a lot of my friends struggled with WOLFHUNTER (which I personally enjoyed). It feels like an unnecessary sequel, especially since the plot of this story is so similar to the previous book. All the stakes are gone, the Anti-Gwen League is just hinted at but provides no real threat. The only danger that really happens in this book happens because of stupidity, and because Gwen's two dumb children can't seem to stay in the good books for-- well-- more than one book at a time. I swear, the two of them owe Gwen so much groveling at this point. Also, I take issue with making Vee a tag-along main character, as seems to be the case from this book. She's TERRIBLE and I hate her. This whole book reads like fanfiction.

I'm not sure if I'll continue with the books after this, to be honest. Even though I managed to push myself through to the end to see what happened next, I kept comparing this book unfavorably to the three previous books in the series. Honestly, it would work really well as a duology, and if you have to read further, book three gives you all the closure you would need for Gwen and her post-Melvin life. I'm not sure how many more books this series could carry if it continues to pace like this.

Very disappointing.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy! 

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

When I was in college, I got one of my friends to sign up for Goodreads with me and the two of us decided we were going to start our own Young Adult Book Club. We went to Target and bought the first three books in The Hunger Games series when they were on sale and then as soon as we finished working on our papers and various assignments, we read.

I stayed up all night reading THE HUNGER GAMES, as well as its sequel, CATCHING FIRE. It was unlike anything I had ever read before, with a really enticing battle royal format featuring a strong female heroine, a forbidden romance, and some surprisingly mature themes for a book aimed at the younger set. Some of the scenes in this book-- Peeta telling Katniss on the rooftop that he doesn't want the Games to change who he is, Katniss singing to Rue, the nightlock berries-- haunted me for years. I loved it so much when I read it in my early twenties that I was afraid to pick it up again for fear that I wouldn't like it.

If anything, I enjoyed it even more the second time around. There were the scenes I remembered, but I couldn't believe how many scenes I forgot. Katniss is such a great heroine. She's strong and enterprising and selfish in a way that not a lot of heroines are allowed to be. Survival is always first and foremost in her mind, which makes sense, since romance is hardly something that should be clouding up her head when she needs to be fighting for her very life.

I loved the scenes in the woods and how they paralleled the hunting scenes in the beginning of the novel. I loved how horrified Katniss is by the lavish displays of excess in the Capitol and how the only thing that really humbles her in a positive way is the food (holla). I thought it was interesting that District 12 appears to be in the South (Appalachians) and the Capitol is in the West (Rockies), like the author is suggesting that fucking Colorado or Utah would be the bastion of all this wealth and political power and not someplace like Washington D.C. or California. It made me realize how desperately I crave a book about the very first Hunger Games and the rebellions leading up to it, because I am so curious to see how the disparity and power ended up being apportioned out this way.

THE HUNGER GAMES ended up causing a HUGE craze in dystopian young adult novels. For a while, it seemed like authors were in constant competition to see who could destroy the world in the most creative ways. Would it be with drought? Gravitational disruption brought on by the moon? Economical poverty that could only be resolved with Bachelorette competitions? Vampires? Or would it be by creating a caste system via one-dimensional Myers-Briggs tests? *COUGH* THE HUNGER GAMES became huge enough that I think it was actually Harry Potter for many millennial and gen-Zers. Everyone has a magical world that ended up capturing their imagination when they were young, and while I was out of the age gate with this one, it still enthralled me.

I was saying in a status update that too many authors try to milk their franchises dry, but in the case of The Hunger Games franchise, I would gladly read books about every single game. There are so many hints at previous games in this books and I would love to read them all, whether it's Haymitch's book, a prequel about the rebellions, or the Russian winter-esque arena that ended up killing most of the combatants with frostbite. Honestly, if Collins writes it and it's about this world, I'd read it. If she writes it, and it isn't about this world, I'd read it but I don't envy the woman that task, because you KNOW anything she writes is going to be immediately compared to Hunger Games.

I'm not sure what else to say. This book still gave me all the feels and whether it was watching Katniss twirl in the dress on fire, sing a beloved friend to sleep, have her first kiss, or shoot some literal backstabbing bastard in the heart, I was with Katniss Everdeen every step of the way. This is such a perfect, well-done book and I'm happy to say it holds up just as well as the first time I read it.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury

Harry Potter with musical instruments? The premise got me, a Harry Potter fan with 10+ years of music lessons under my belt, pretty flipping excited. My instrument of choice was even the flute (and by the way, major props to the cover artiste for drawing the girl holding the flute with correct positioning of the hands). I don't usually go for middle grade novels, but as a flute player with a fondness for magical schools, it seemed like a win.

Amelia Jones is an effective orphan who lives with her grandmother. Her one wish is to go the prestigious magical musical school called Mystwick, the best in the world. Unfortunately, Amelia is a pretty mediocre musician and knows it, but in the eternal optimism of kids everywhere, that doesn't stop her from auditioning. Surprise, surprise, it flops, and Amelia is broken-hearted. Surprise, surprise, she gets into the school anyway (I don't think that's a spoiler; just take a look at the title and cover, you so know that the girl gets in).

Unfortunately, it turns out that her admittance was kind of a mistake and even though she's already got a friend, her roommate completely resents her presence and is all kinds of hoping that she'll flunk out. Throw in some hauntings, school hazing, and high stakes competitions, and you would expect to have something pretty awesome. Unfortunately, THE MYSTWICK SCHOOL OF MUSICRAFT ended up being a miss for me.

Maybe if I was younger, I would have liked it more. But I think the hallmark of a good middle grade novel is one whose subject matter and character development is mature enough that it appeals to older audiences. MYSTWICK didn't really transcend its target audience of the 9-12 set. There were a couple really good twists in here and I liked the premise, but the actual execution left a lot to be desired, and the characters didn't really have all that much depth. I wish that they'd been fleshed out more. Maybe that would have kept Amelia from feeling like such a blatant Mary Sue.

I'm sorry to say that I can't really recommend this as an adult for either adult or YA readers, but young girls may like it. Definitely err on the younger side of the middle grade sliding scale, though.

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Tied Man by Tabitha McGowan

THE TIED MAN is a book that's been on my radar for years, but I never got around to reading it myself until Heather invited me to buddy read it with her via Kindle Unlimited. The premise is pretty interesting, even though it seems like standard new adult fare at a glance: beautiful and sexually autonomous heroine, Lilith, is a professional erotic artist who ends up being invited to an exclusive and prestigious estate to do a commission to the reclusive lady, Blaine, whom her philandering father owes a debt. Once there, she sees the most beautiful man she's ever laid eyes on in her life: a young Irish man named Finn, Blaine's personal companion.

Lilith has a knack for reading people, though, and despite her initial attraction to Finn, she realizes that something about his situation isn't quite right. He doesn't seem to want to be there-- and then, she realizes to her horror that not only does he not want to be there, he also can't ever leave. That's when she learns about the true horrors hiding in the gilded shadows of the estate-- dark, twisted horrors of humanity at its lowest-- and if she's not careful, she'll also become sucked into the twisted machinations of Blaine, too.

This is honestly one of the best books I've read in a while. It packs an emotionally devastating wallop, made all the more effective by my investment in the characters. It's got trigger warnings all across the board, so it's definitely not one for the faint-hearted. I don't think I've seen a male character go through this much torture since Jude from A LITTLE LIFE, or Jamie from OUTLANDER. And the villain is the absolute worst-- I haven't seen such innovative displays of sociopathy since reading and being scarred for life by THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR.

Part of what makes this book halfway tolerable on an emotional level is the tenderness between Lilith and Finn. Their relationship is slow-burn, as it should be, and one of the most touching scenes in this book is when Finn lets down his guard around her completely and she is so sweet and patient with him, it just about broke my heart. THE TIED MAN did such a great job showing how intimacy and sex are not necessarily mutually inclusive, and how difficult it can be to overcome abuse.

I actually didn't like Lilith much at all in the beginning because she felt so artificial, but her character grew on me and by the end, I actually quite admired her strength. In the author's profile, she said that she was inspired to create a heroine in a dark story who wasn't just a foil for the hero, and I think she succeeded. The damsel saves the hero in this one, and it's really, really exciting to read a book that does that so well, even as it plunges to depths where most writers normally don't dare to tread.

This was really excellent. I hope the author writes more books someday. She's exceptionally talented.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Throw Like a Girl by Sarah Henning

I don't normally go in for the cute, fluffy books, but the prospect of a female quarterback playing on an otherwise all-male team was too intriguing to ignore. My high school actually had a girl playing on the junior varsity team, and since I went to high school a while ago, people made a much bigger deal of that then than they did in this book. Sexism in sports is a real thing, yo.

THROW LIKE A GIRL is about a girl named Liv. She's the darling of her private school, a key player on the softball team, and a solid contender for the homecoming court. Then one day, a girl says something homophobic about her sister, an out lesbian who is also the coach for their team, and Liv decks her in the face, breaking her nose. Which means suspension. Which means the loss of her scholarship. Which means no more private school.

Liv has no choice but to transfer to the public school across town, which isn't exactly eager to take her on their softball team. Liv has to prove her team spirit first, and that seems like it might be impossible until the male quarterback from the football team sees her throw something in a fit of anger and tells her she's got a good arm. A quid pro quo deal is worked out: if she joins the football team and does well, then maybe she can go for softball, too.

This book was fine. It didn't really have a lot of depth and Liv had serious anger management issues. I also thought it was pretty dumb that she never told anyone why she punched the mean girl. Her love interest, Grey, also does something pretty stupid, refusing to tell anyone about a pretty serious problem that could have drastic consequences on his health. I know, I know, I'm a thirty-year-old woman and these are teenagers. I know-- but still, it was so stupid.

That said, the usual things that make books like these unbearable-- obnoxiously plucky heroines, teenagers acting like out of touch adults, fake swearing, girl-on-girl hate, internalized misogyny-- were blissfully absent. THROW LIKE A GIRL takes a pretty healthy look at the camaraderie of sports without any of the sexist stuff, and there's some pretty great female relationships in here too.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Blood Heir by Amelie Wen Zhao

It's impossible to discuss this book without addressing the controversy surrounding it. Basically, publication was delayed and digital ARCs were pulled after some preliminary readers alleged that there were passages in this book that were, according to the articles I read summarizing the issue, "anti-black." After a small but vocal minority of people decried this book-- either overtly or subtextually-- as being racist or problematic, the author took it upon herself to remove the book from circulation and make the necessary edits before resubmitting the book.

I have a few thoughts on this:

A lot of people who were talking about this book being racist hadn't actually read the ARC and were just quoting the statements of the people who had. My friend Alice has an original copy that she was comparing against the finished copy at the time of my reading this, and the final changes aren't even that different from the original and don't even seem to be describing traits that are obviously black, in my opinion. Yes, people of color are oppressed in this world, but it seemed to me that the descriptions in the book were more typical of what you might expect to see of someone who was Middle Eastern or maybe Mongolian, and not someone who was black, which would make sense since this is set in an alternate Russia. I'm honestly shocked people came at this book so hard when there are other books that are much more problematic that get a free pass-- not saying either is right, but why this book specifically? Especially when nobody I saw even seemed to be considering that the PoCs might be Asian and not black.

Second, people are saying that the decision to edit was the author's choice-- and while that is true, I don't think that she would have pulled her book if she hadn't been at the epicenter of some pretty ugly allegations and hardcore negative feedback. It's the right of people to read and interpret the book as they choose as readers, but I also think it's foolish to suggest that this was an isolated event influenced solely by the author's agency and the controversy surrounding the book had no influence on her decision. Should she have pulled it? I personally don't think so. There's always going to be controversy and if I, as an author, pulled one of my books every time someone found something problematic in them, I'd have no active books available for purchase. That said, I've also pulled some of my books from publication because I felt like I couldn't really stand behind their quality as an author, so it's possible that the feedback did make Zhao second guess herself and want to do better.

Anyway, let's get into the book. BLOOD HEIR is, like many books coming out these days, set in a world where magic is suppressed or forbidden, with an autocratic kingdom rife with corruption. There's a hint of Avatar: The Last Airbender in here, in that different Affinites have different abilities and some of them are more feared or reviled than others. The heroine, Ana, is one of these: she's a blood Affinite and can possess people's bodies and rip them open from the inside out. She's hardcore.

BLOOD HEIR is also a dark retelling of the Anastasia fairytale (I'm calling it a fairytale because the story we know and love has been debunked-- they found bones that were a DNA match for the princess, thus putting an end to the parade of hopefuls). Ana's father was murdered, and Ana herself was framed for it. She's on a quest to unmask the real culprit, save her brother and her kingdom, and exonerate herself in the process. But it isn't that simple, as she finds out, when the man she visits in jail for information turns out to be a snake of a con artist who is more than happy to throw her under the bus. Enter Ramson, the morally grey hero who has a dubious past of his own.

BLOOD HEIR is so dark and has actual stakes. There's some truly chilling scenes in here, and they're all beautifully written. Until about 70% of the story, this moves at a break-neck pace. Then it hits a slow point, but recovers in the end, which opens the door to a sequel in which I'm sure Ana will have to come to terms not just with her powers but also some new and daunting responsibilities. BLOOD HEIR is actually a lot like how I had expected books like CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE and THRONE OF GLASS to be, only I thought both of those sucked, whereas this one was awesome.

This is how you write about oppressed magic and have a morally grey but kick-ass main protagonist, who gets shit done and also has a bit of romance on the side, but doesn't let herself get distracted by it. Ana would certainly never look at a bag of candy left for her by a stranger and think, "OH BOY, YUMMERS!" without stopping to ask herself where it came from (*stares hard at Celaena*).

If you were put off by the controversy, don't be. This is pretty typical YA fantasy fare, maybe a little darker than most, but engaging and well-written, with a heroine who doesn't suck and has to make some pretty miserable choices over the arc of her character development. I liked it.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Dragonfly by Julia Golding

DNF @ 62%

I've had this book on my Kindle for literally years and am trying to clear out some of my older titles. What better way to do that than an impromptu buddy read with the lovely Tadiana?

I bought DRAGONFLY because the summary sounded like it was going to be right up my alley. It's about a girl named Tashi and a boy named Ramil who are from two countries on the opposite side of the world, joined together in an arranged marriage to ally their nations against a hostile one.

From the very beginning, the two of them seem to cross all kinds of faux pas, and pretty soon their dislike is mutual, and both countries have taken offense. When the marriage is on the verge of being broken off, the two of them are kidnapped by the very nation they were going to marry to unite against, and the villainous mastermind of that endeavor is named, um, Fergox Spearthrower. (Which, okay, sounds kind of... racist?)

You know Fergox is a bad guy because he's depicted as a lawless savage and he has more than one wife. He hopes to make Tashi his most recent wife, meanwhile Ramil is creepily pursued by Fergox's sister, who tries to take him to bed when he's drunk. Luckily, they escape to one of Fergox's colonies, where revolution happens to be brewing as his commonwealths struggle to escape his control.

So there were some things about this book I liked. The writing was gorgeous and I liked the world, sort of. It was just really boring. The characters were all so bland. I was also kind of uncomfortable with how some of the races in this book were coded. Tashi, as Tadiana pointed out in her review, is coded-- by name, culture, motif, and ritual-- as being Asian-inspired, even though she looks white and has blonde hair. Which feels kind of culturally appropriating, imo. Likewise, the savage guy with the last name Spearthrower and the multiple wives seemed kind of... I don't know. Questionable.

I was trying really hard to finish this book but I'm not into it at all, so I'm just going to set it down. I don't hate it, and I'd probably give it 2-3 stars if I managed to finish it, but why bother?

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

DNF @ p.233

I had high hopes for THINGS IN JARS. One of the suggested books was THE DOLL FACTORY, which was an ARC I really enjoyed reading earlier this year. The resurrectionist angle with what sounded like a dash of magic realism was reminiscent of another piece of Victoriana, THE IMPOSSIBLE GIRL, which was yet another win for me. I didn't see how this could be bad.

I think my chief problem when picking up this book was that I came into it expecting-- and being set up for-- something else. THINGS starts out with the main character, Bridie, being roped into discreetly investigating the disappearance of a lord's secret daughter. Only it turns out that the daughter had some physical abnormalities that might appeal a collector, and that the lord is hiding something he doesn't want anyone else to know about.

It's never a good time to be a low income individual, but being a low income individual in Victorian times seems like it's up there with the worst, between the laundry list of unsafe and unsavory professions, and the tendency for those who won't be missed to disappear. That, combined with the great fog, the filth-strewn streets, and the fact that everyone's a villain, seemed to be the perfect recipe for a creepy medical mystery.

Unfortunately, this book starts to read kind of like a blatant fantasy that's supposed to be taken at face-value, kind of like The Shape of Water, only without the charm. Second, the book has this very precious writing style that's difficult to describe but reminded me a lot of another book I also read recently and didn't like called TUESDAY MOONEY TALKS TO GHOSTS, a similarity made more similar still by the fact that Bridie also talks to ghosts who are just as quirky and special as she is.

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

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

1.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 19, 2019

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS is a book that has a very interesting premise but is potentially problematic in a lot of ways. I breezed through it pretty quickly-- normally a good sign-- but when I finished, I found that I had a really bad taste in my mouth. Something about the book really didn't sit right with me. I finished the book on my lunch break and spent the rest of the day with my thoughts on the back burner, trying to figure out, what, exactly, it was about the book that rubbed me the wrong way. I think I figured out what those things are, but before I get into that, I need to tell you what the book is about.

WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS is the story of Zelda, a high-functioning adult with fetal alcohol syndrome. She lives with her older brother, Gert: a man who should be in college but instead works as a runner for a local gang. Zelda, who lives her whole life by rules that make her feel more comfortable, takes umbrage with this, and when Gert's activities get all of them into trouble, she takes it upon herself to bail her brother out.

Interspersed with this are scenes of Zelda's everyday life-- she goes to an adult daycare where they teach her life skills she'll need to take care of herself; she has a boyfriend, a developmentally disabled boy named Marxy, with whom she wants to have sex; and she also sees a therapist named Dr. Laird, who she talks to about everything else. Zelda has a narrow scope of interests, which mostly revolve around vikings and dabbing. She dabs at people to greet them, and lives her whole life to the viking credo, including talking in Ancient Norse and, later, hefting around a giant viking sword.

So what didn't I like about this book?

Honestly, I'm shocked that this book has such high ratings. I'm guessing that people probably think the subject matter is brave, but I found a lot of it upsetting. First, this whole book feels incredibly exploitative in some ways. Zelda has fetal alcohol syndrome, which typically causes facial irregularities or deformatives. Zelda is quick to tell us she doesn't have these; she's just a small woman. All the men in this book think she is SO attractive and keep telling her how hot she is. What makes this extra icky is a big part of this book involves a subplot with Zelda wanting to have sex for the first time with her developmentally disabled boyfriend.

I get that people with disabilities want to have sex, too, but making sex the major focus of Zelda's internal and external sense of worth seemed kind of gross. When she and her boyfriend do go at it, it goes horribly, horribly wrong. It was SO cringe. The only other action she gets is from a guy she refers to as "normal" (normal meaning "not disabled"-- very ableist) who only wants to use her, and a guy who attempts to rape her. So even though sex is a big part of this book, none of it works out well for Zelda. She is lusted after by virtually all male characters in this book but doesn't really get to experience any empowering sexuality for herself-- it's all abuse and disappointment.

I also felt like the whole viking and dabbing angle was really twee. It felt like an excuse to make Zelda seem precious and quirky. Like a manic pixie dream girl. She even refers to herself as a valkyrie. Everyone else in this book is super quirky too, just in case that wasn't annoying enough. And what's with the blurb calling this book "heart-swelling"? It's actually really disturbing and dark and takes a pretty dismal look at how women and people with disabilities are viewed. Even Zelda, the main character, looks down her nose at her less functional peers with superiority. Yikes.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Wolfhunter River by Rachel Caine

Gwen Proctor has come a long way since the haunted mess she was in STILLHOUSE LAKE. She's found a new life for herself, met a man who loves her in spite of her demons, and is basically taking life one step at a time with her kids, who are still messed up from the events in books one and two but are far more resilient than Gwen ever dared hope. As far as she's concerned, life is peachy.

Then she gets a phone call from a weirdo living in a place called Wolfhunter. I know what you're thinking-- I was thinking the same thing: "Gwen, seriously. Get the fuck out of the South-- and especially get the fuck out of places with creepy-ass names like Stillhouse Lake and Killman Creek and Wolfhunter River. If it has the words Kill, Hunt, or Still in it, just don't, okay, Gwen?"

To her credit, Gwentries her best to stay out of things, but it doesn't work out that way. Gwen gets more involved than she ever wanted to be when the woman who called her to beg vaguely but desperately for help ends up dead and she's forced to trek down over to scenic Wolfhunter to make a statement while also dealing with a mob of people making a documentary about how she's a killer herself. Cinéma vérité it is not, but if truth was a requirement for journalism, FOX news wouldn't exist.

WOLFHUNTER RIVER is such a creepy book. It definitely has a different vibe from the previous two books, where Gwen's own circumstances are the focus of the events happening. This was much more impersonal and it was hard to feel the same sort of stakes, even though Caine did a really good job making the creepy town creepy, showcasing the ickiest rednecks you've ever seen since that movie, Deliverance. I feel like this book is meant to be a turning point in the series, as it makes the switch from mysteries directly involving Gwen to ones that she engages in peripherally. I don't think anything will top KILLMAN CREEK for me, but I do look forward to the fourth book in the series.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, December 16, 2019

Dot Con: The Art of Scamming a Scammer by James Veitch

I became obsessed with James Veitch a while ago while I was on a TED Talk binge and came across the grabbily titled, This is what happens when you reply to spam email. I enjoyed it so much that I ended up Googling him to see if there was any more where that come from and landed on the Scamalot series he did with Mashable. You can imagine my delight, then, when I managed to finagle a copy of his book, DOT CON, which further chronicles his adventures in tormenting scammers by wasting their time.

I think part of why I like James Veitch so much is that he's not malicious or mean. He doesn't insult the scammers he corresponds with or yell at them. He actually reminds me a lot of another "troll" I like, Ken M., whose sense of humor is self-described as "bringing a banana to a gun fight" (per his interview with Vox). In his correspondence with these scammers, James deflects their requests (or demands) for personal data with zany good humor, playing the blithe idiot while never outright saying no, and it's absolutely hilarious when they try to pander to him (some of them go to great lengths to win his credit card info!).

If you're a Veitch fan already most of the content in this book probably isn't going to be new to you. I recognized most of the emails from his Scamalot series and only saw a couple new ones. I didn't mind seeing them again though-- especially the Giant Gummy Lizard one, which is one of the funniest things I've ever seen on the internet. However, if you're new to James Veitch's shenanigans, you should definitely read this book as it's honestly pretty pure and frankly hilarious. In his TED Talk, he said that he doesn't feel bad about messing with these guys (or gals) because every minute they spend with him is a minute they don't spend preying on the vulnerable, and I think that's true.

And if you don't want to read the book, well-- we'll always have Tuscany!

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Gudetama: Love for the Lazy by Wook-Jin Clark

This is so cute. I first got into Gudetama after watching Vox's YouTube video, How a melancholy egg yolk conquered Japan. Here in the U.S., we only really have one kind of cute: the kind that conjures up images of big-eyed, childish innocence, but Japan's different kinds of cute are more textured, with dark or even sad nuances that our kind doesn't have.

Gudetama is a cranky, cantankerous egg yolk that just wants to be lazy. Sometimes he's melancholy, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes fatalistic, sometimes nihilistic, but no matter which way you look at him, that thicc ol' yolk is pretty darn adorbs.

In this graphic novel, Gudetama helps the lovelorn who are frustrated with their dating app. In each chapter, there's a new character suffering from a real or imaginary problem, and Gudetama "helps" them with mixed success at the urging of a rather terrifying, human-sized egg yolk ballerina sidekick.

I wouldn't go into this expecting anything cerebral, but I loved the art work and there were even some good messages in here buried under all that silly laziness. If you're into cute graphic-novels with great ark, GUDETAMA: LOVE FOR THE LAZY is a good buy.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Apartment by Teddy Wayne

APARTMENT takes a while to get going, which isn't really a good thing considering what a short book it is. Ultimately, I did end up liking it, as I'm a sucker for tragic endings, and I'd prefer a human tragedy to something that seems too hipster and twee. It has the modern-day Dickensian undertones of Donna Tartt, the generational-specific nostalgia of Douglas Coupland, and the desperate intellectualism of David Foster Wallace.

Take that how you will.

The unnamed narrator is an MFA at Columbia trying to write the Great American Novel, and failing miserably. He lives a cushy, upper-middle-class life, bankrolled by a generous aunt letting him illegally sublet in her rent-controlled apartment, and by his father who gives him an allowance in addition to paying his tuition. With everything coming to him so easily, he's a bit offended when writing doesn't. So when the attractive and talented Billy from writing class sticks up for him after everyone else piles on with criticism, he lets him move in, rent-free.

At first, the camaraderie appears to be instantaneous, laced with homoerotic undertones as the narrator's affection for his friend seems to blossom into what is almost a crush. Speaking as an author who is friends with other authors and whose work I adore, Wayne really captures that wonderful feeling of being able to honestly say that you appreciate a friend's work, and the warmth you feel when the feeling is mutual. It's only when the narrator begins to let his feelings show a little too transparently, and the raw desperation begins to bleed through, that Billy begins to pull away. And as a rift begins to grow between them and the narrator is filled with despair over his lack of talent and the distance between himself and his new friend, he is motivated to do something terrible.

I liked that APARTMENT was an intimate character study of two flawed individuals who end up colliding into each other's orbits to disastrous effect. I also liked how this book was awash in 90s nostalgia, with pitch-perfect cultural references (speaking as someone who grew up in the 90s). The reference to the Macarena, especially, made me smile. I am also a huge fan of flawed, morally grey protagonists who sometimes behave in ways that make them hard to root for, and hard to like. APARTMENT is a tragedy, and the message seems to be that some people are born to destroy, rather to create, no matter how much they might wish otherwise, which is jarring but-- perhaps-- apt.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World by Bettina Elias Siegel

Bettina Elias Siegel was a senior in-house marketing attorney for Unilever before essentially going rogue and becoming an activist and advocate for healthier eating for children. Towards the end of the book, when she talks about food activism and how to get involved, she cites some of her own accomplishments, which include helping to nip in the bud the blatant attempt of a fast food company to spread propaganda about its own products in schools.

Whenever I am offered a book about healthy eating, diet, or processed food, I always try to grab it because I am passionate about food activism and healthy eating. I have a food "sensitivity" to GMO corn, specifically. "Sensitivity" sounds pretty wishy-washy, I know, but if I eat corn, I throw up or experience diarrhea or both, and the problem with corn is that it's in everything (and masquerades under names like modified foodstarch or just "starch") and can even be omitted from the label of a food product entirely if the amount is small enough (for example, unless organic, cornstarch is usually added as an anti-caking agent to shredded cheese, powdered sugar, and baking powder).

For many years, I would get severe stomach cramps or digestive problems, especially after eating. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I learned what was wrong. I haven't eaten fast food or most heavily processed food in about fifteen years, and always have to ask restaurants what is in their food before I can eat there. We make a lot of our own food from scratch at home. I often choose to abstain from the food offered at work and social functions. People often say to me, "I wish I had your self-control," not knowing that the reason I no longer crave junk food is because I've developed a powerful taste aversion to it. If you throw up every time you eat something, you're not going to crave it at all.

Over the last five years especially, I've noticed a shift in the food industry. There are more options available to me now than there used to be ten years ago. Companies and restaurants are starting to realize how important it is that they know where their food comes from, and what their ingredients are. There is still a glut of unhealthy food in our economy, though, and even as we slowly begin to move in a healthier direction, eating well is still an activity that is rife with privilege, costs a lot more than it should, and is especially difficult for children, who are marketed to aggressively and don't know any better. That is the crux of this book: it talks about the history of "kids' meals," the importance of kid nutrition, the aggressive and unethical-seeming practices of the food industry in how they target kids, and the way that our government policies about nutrition leave them in the dust.

KID FOOD is such an amazing read. I knew a lot of the information in here already through my own experience (several people in my family have the same food allergy, so we are all very well read about food and food ingredients), but I think a lot of it will be fresh and new to people who don't check their labels. It urges the importance of disregarding misleading claims on packaged food items, which may purport to be healthier than they are, and gives tips on how to encourage and foster healthy eating in kids. I liked how the author gave some of the biological reasons for child pickiness, and the ways that parents could try to prevent that when their babies are young. I also like how she acknowledged that some parents, with older kids, might feel frustrated that they were "too late," and also gave advice on how to work with older kids, too. She really tried to come at the issue from all sides, and I especially liked her focus on children from vulnerable demographics, and the way that communities can engage with low-income families-- especially families of color, who are apparently marketed to most aggressively of all by junk food companies-- to help them get access to good food.

Healthy eating is sometimes made into a partisan issue, and I have seen conservatives champion the bake sale and the greasy diner as hallmarks of the American way. But... should that be the case? Pushing unhealthy food in schools isn't good for kids and it excludes people with food allergies and sensitivities who can't participate, while also overriding the will of the parents who might not want their kids eating those things even if not physically present to stop them. I feel like we, as a country, need to undergo a radical shift in not just how we view food, but also how we go about regulating it-- the standards, the way it's advertised (to kids especially), and especially what nutritional claims, if any, a product is allowed to advertise on its box if it is, holistically, not all that healthy to eat.

This would be a great book for parents but honestly, I think it's a great book to read if you don't have kids, too. Everyone should have more transparent insights into what is in their foods-- and I think not knowing might truly be making some people sick, as it did with me. I often wonder myself how many people who think they've gotten food poisoning at a restaurant might actually have a food sensitivity like I do, as I usually get sick 30 minutes after I eat and it lasts about two hours. But even if you're not getting sick, knowing your food will empower you to make better eating choices for you and your families. Having these conversations about food ethics and nutrition also opens the door to fantastic conversations about health and activism and eating well, which are all exceedingly important.

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

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The God Game by Danny Tobey

This book is trying to be Ready Player One meets WarGames, as run by Hal 9000s with the gory morality play mentality of The Purge. The God Game is exactly what it sounds like, an invitation-only e-game that is sent to the unwary. If they play and win, all their dreams come true. But if they die in the game, they die in real life-- and there's only one way to stop playing.

Charlie and his friends are initially super into the God Game. They can play on their monitors or on their phones, and the interplay between reality and the game quickly fascinates them, even if the little "errands" the game sends them on do occasionally cause people to get hurt. It all seems pretty harmless, and as outcasts they feel a little entitled to their pound of virtual flesh.

But when the errands become higher stakes and the pain they cause in the game takes a sharp and drastic incline for the worse, Charlie and co. have to figure out how much of their souls they're willing to sacrifice if it means playing to win, or if there's even a way out of conforming to the hostile intelligence's will at all.

I thought THE GOD GAME was good but cheesy. I think it was a mistake trying to write it as more "realistic" and less speculative science-fiction/fantasy. It gave the book a hokey, 1980s fantasy fulfillment vibe that I don't think will age well as technology continues to improve. The social commentary was interesting but, again, heavy-handed, with a grim, and rather disturbing message that left me in a bit of a funk. I'm not sure what this book was trying to be; I think the author had so many ambitions for his project that he couldn't focus on a single one, and didn't succeed at any of them. THE GOD GAME passed the time and entertained me while I had the flu, but I don't think I'd ever reread it. It was too dark and depressing, and I don't really think it made a whole lot of sense.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Nameless Queen by Rebecca McLaughlin

DNF @ p.55

This book was a hot mess from the beginning.

1. Stupid names.
2. Fake swearing.
3. Disorganized world-building.
4. Mary Sue protagonist.
5. Cliches everywhere.

I wanted to give this until page 100 at least but Coin's Mary Sue acquisition of her royal status and her powers is already starting to "spetz" me off.

If you want books about royalty, thieves, and caste systems in fantasy, there are better books to pick up than this one.

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

1 out of 5 stars

The Queen's Fortune: A Novel of Desiree, Napoleon, and the Dynasty That Outlasted the Empire by Allison Pataki

This is a trashy work of historical fiction that will appeal to readers who like Philippa Gregory, although I'm not sure how closely it ought to be taken at face value. Most of the book consists of Desiree's amusing but cliched "Mean Girls"-style rivalry with Josephine, and alternately waxing prolific about her husband, Bernadotte's, tall, slender figure and tatted chest, while also pining or despairing over Napoleon and wondering What Could Have Been. I will give this author some credit, though, in that this is the first Napoleonic-era book I read that paints Josephine as a catty, pathetic woman. Sandra Gulland this is not.

Desiree Clary is a noblewoman who married one of Napoleon's first commands and ultimately ended up becoming ruler of Sweden at the side of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, later Carl Johan. I had never heard about these historical figures before so it was interesting to learn about a piece of history that I had never learned about before. Napoleon, in this book, deflowers her and promises to marry her, but Desiree learns the sad lesson of historical women everywhere that unless you can get him to put a ring on it first, men are lying liars who lie and don't want to buy the cow when there's free milk, etc.

He cavorts around with Josephine, shoving her in Desiree's face at various parties while friendzoning Desiree hard. Meanwhile, Desiree's sister, Julie, is married to the hot, non-insane Napoleon brother, Joseph. Desiree, on the other hand, is only saved from marrying some old guy when he keels over from stroke. Jean-Baptiste seems like a pretty good alternative by comparison but when his relationship sours, Desiree and Jean-Baptiste's position in Napoleon's increasingly power-hungry attempts at coup become tenuous, and it starts to feel like the Revolution all over again.

As I said, this is pretty light reading. I'm not sure how much artistic liberties were taken with the story-- my guess is a lot. I do think the Philippa Gregory comparison is apt, because much of the focus is on relationship drama, as well as fashion porn, and it definitely feels like something that was written with the attempt to titillate. If you're into bodice-rippers and don't care whether your historical reading is frothy (as I don't), you'll probably enjoy this book. I have the flu right now, and it was the perfect thing to read while wrapped in two robes, a bowl of seasoned bone broth and Earl Grey with lemon and honey at my side. I could concentrate on the story without tripping over the details. Fun.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Lament by Heather Crews

Mandatory disclaimer time: I was the beta reader for this book and Heather is a friend of mine. That said, my friends are generally despairing of the reviews I leave them and I paid money for the hard copy like all the other chumps, so I'm pretty sure you can trust me on this one, since I'm well known for giving my own books 1-star. What can I say? I'm a menace.

You know what else is a menace? This book. My HEART.

LAMENT is probably one of my favorite things that Heather has written, apart from her Dreaming for the Dead series and spin-offs. It has everything I love about the thriller genre-- broken people, tons of smut, small-town secrets and lies, childhood romance, angst, artistry, punks and goths, and, oh yes, super hot and dangerous guys who kiss so good that you'll forget your own name. Plus, fires. And not just the hypothetical kind, although there are plenty of those, too.

Frances Young was just an ordinary teenager crushing on an ordinary boy named West. When he invited her out to a Halloween party, it seemed like it was going to be the best day of her life. But it ended up becoming the worst. Now, at twenty-five, Frances is forced to return home to the same town that helped ruin her life and destroy her older sister, and she meets that boy again, no longer a bright-eyed youth of sixteen, but a lean and dangerous man who might be her salvation or ruin, she doesn't know, she just wants him-- and he wants to make her buuuurn.

I think the less you know about this book going in, the better. Me, I thought it was fun seeing all the things that were added since my initial beta-read. I was originally thinking four-stars, but the final draft was so polished, and so much more emotionally wrenching, that I ended up giving it five. Having been in an emotionally abusive relationship myself, I was cut pretty deep by how well Heather portrayed the after-effects of someone whose had their mind warped and twisted by someone who couches "affection" in bad intentions and uses it to make you feel like garbage about yourself. When someone poisons you like that, it's really hard to start trusting again. Really, really hard.

This is basically a mash-up of Anne Stuart and Gillain Flynn (more Stuart than Flynn) with that same vibe of dangerous gamma hero and broken women trying to set things right in a toxic, small-town atmosphere. I really, really enjoyed it and hope that Heather writes more erotic sexy thrillers like these (after she finishes her vampire series, of course), because she does it really, really well.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett

This book is one of my biggest disappointments in years. Everyone was talking about how great this was-- it's the YA Hype Train™ in action, yet again, and once more, I'm left behind in the dust to wonder, "Did I read a different book than everyone else?" It's not that I don't trust your judgement, exactly, it's just that-- okay, yeah, I don't trust your judgement. What the fuck was this?

THE GRACE YEAR is a book that borrows ideas and concepts from several notable works of speculative dystopic-themed fiction, including (obviously) The Handmaid's Tale, but also The Crucible, The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and The Purge. It's set in a society with institutional and social misogyny built inherently into its system where women are sorted by caste based on their marital status and believed to be full of magic that is both a danger and an aphrodisiac. At age sixteen, they're released into the woods beyond to sow their proverbial wild oats, and release their magic, despite the many dangers of the woods and the poachers who collect and sell their bodies to be used in potions.

Tierney, the main character, is one of these girls. Before their release, they are "claimed" by the men who want them, and Tierney is as surprised as anyone when she's promised to a boy before she leaves. Once out in the wilds, it takes a decidedly Lord of the Flies note where the girls go a little crazy at the behest of their sociopathic and Resident Mean Girl Ringleader™ who seems to hate women just as much, if not more so, as the men in this book, so what's a little girl on girl hate?

People were lauding this book for its feminist themes. I don't really see that. Men play such a focal point in this story and end up being Tierney's saving grace. The girls and women all hate each other, and it doesn't really bring any new criticisms to the table that stories like Handmaid haven't already done. There's also the usual YA love triangle in this book, which in my opinion makes it even less of a feminist work, particularly since it feels so unnecessary and is done so passionlessly. All of the twists feel like cop-outs and lack finesse. I thought the big secret was totally lame-- and, even worse, I completely predicted it. From the beginning. But I've read all the books that this author probably drew inspiration from, which is the problem with being well-read. Nothing surprises you anymore.*

*Yes, I realize that sounds snobby. But all my haters accuse me of that anyway, so I may as well revel in my literary snobbery. I'm not ashamed: I am one smart bitch, and I fucking know it.

*tips fedora*

Maybe if this book hadn't been sold to me as The Next Big Thing with people hyping it up left and right, I probably would have liked it more. But I'm honestly shocked everyone is kicking up such a big fuss about it. I thought it was unimaginative and lacked the world and character development it so desperately needed to make it great. The beginning had so much promise and then it jumped the shark and the story went to shit. Curse you, YA Hype Train™, for setting me up to be the bad guy yet again.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 6, 2019

Two Cuts Darker by Joely Sue Burkhart

I loved ONE CUT DEEPER so much that I absolutely had to grab the sequel, TWO CUTS DARKER. Whereas the first book is all about Charlie and Ranay, this book is about Charlie's older brother, Vincent, a dark and twisted man working for an evil human trafficker. Vincent is just as haunted by his horrific childhood as Charlie, but he exorcises his demons in a different way. Charlie is a sadist, but Vincent is pure masochist, and his love for pain helps him in his work as a double-agent, basically nulling the pain.

He meets his match in an FBI agent posing as a trafficked woman named Mads. Mads is short for Madison but they call her "Mads" because she's, well, mad. And believe it or not, she also conveniently has a fetish that enables her to do her work: Mads enjoys forced seduction, which seems like it would be a match made in hell for Vincent, who suggests using a fight between them to get his boss's attention and provide a reason for bringing her back in the game when it comes time for the final showdown.

I didn't like TWO CUTS DARKER as much as the first book. It lacked the sexual tension and hot scenes that made ONE CUT DEEPER such a page-turning read. I couldn't leave that book alone for a moment, whereas this one had some slower scenes that made it easier to step away. Also, Charlie and Ranay were just allowed to be who they were and like what they like, but I felt like Mads and Vincent tried too hard to rationalize their likes based on tragic backstories. Vincent was a little too emo for me and I didn't really understand Mads much at all. We're never given her POV, so she remains a black box throughout the whole story.

I did like Charlie and Ranay's POVs. The hottest scenes in this book were theirs, especially the one in the middle and the end, yum. I saw a few reviews saying that Ranay was whinier in this book and I could kind of see that, but I would also be tense and afraid in a situation like the one they were in, so I get that, too. This book definitely felt cheesier and more over the top than the previous book, but I did still mostly enjoy it and I liked the twist at the end. If you like romantic suspense novels with a darkly erotic twist, I think you'll really enjoy this series, even though the first one is the best.

I hope the author decides to continue these one day!

3.5 out of 5 stars