Friday, January 31, 2020

The War Queens: Extraordinary Women Who Ruled the Battlefield by Jonathan W. Jordan

History can be dull as dishwater, so I'm always impressed when an author can bring the dead to life-- no, not using necromancy, but their "skillz" as a writer. I can guarantee that some people are probably going to take issue with the breathless, sensationalist way that this is written, but I found it incredibly entertaining. I actually hate nonfiction that is too dry, and as long as you're not muddling the facts, you can be as silly in the narrative as you want.

THE WAR QUEENS is a collection of mini biographies about queens and political rulers who were involved in major coups throughout history. Some of them might be familiar to you, like Cleopatra, Margaret Thatcher (not really a queen, but OK), and Queen Elizabeth I, but there were a couple new ones to me, like Tomyris of the Massagetae (part of the Persian Empire), which was some pretty hardcore stuff-- and then there was Caterina Sforza's "I give literally zero forks" shenanigans of the Italian Renaissance which was like something out of Game of Thrones. Oh, and the African Queen, Njinga, who was my favorite, because she literally did not care who or what she had to defeat to gain success.

One thing I really liked about this book is that it wasn't limited to queens of the Western world-- there were Queens from the Persian Empire, Queens from Asia, Queens from Africa, and yes, of course, Queens from Europe. All of them were interesting in their own way (except maybe Margaret Thatcher-- I really don't like her, and she's not a queen, so she doesn't even go here). I think if you're interested in history but wish it was a little less male-centric, this is a really eye-opening piece to learn more about some pretty fascinating kick-butt women dating from ancient to modern times.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Uncle Vampire by Cynthia D. Grant

Did you know that there are a lot of older young adult books you can read for free with Kindle Unlimited? Last night I was gleefully wading through old Point Horror novels and middle grade pulp, when I came across this book, UNCLE VAMPIRE. The title makes it sound like a Goosebumps-esque horror romp, but the execution... well, that's anything but.

Carolyn and her sister Honey live in an emotionally remote household. Their mother has had a mental breakdown and their father has anger and money problems. Their older sister went to college to escape it and their brother seems to have turned to drugs. Honey just does her best to act cheerful and please everyone, but Carolyn is getting angry by what nobody else can see: that their uncle is a vampire who feeds on blood.

The Goodreads summary for this book has a big fat spoiler, so if you really want to get a sense of what this book is like by going in cold, I'd suggest you avoid the summary entirely. Summary aside, though, there were still some twists in this book that I didn't see, including one at the very end that completely took me off guard. Considering that this book seems to be for the younger YA set, I'm honestly shocked at the content and language, and could imagine more than one kid realizing that they'd gotten more than they'd bargained for.

That said, I'm kind of glad. It's a scary book but tackles some glaring real-world issues that really weren't talked a lot back in the day (and still aren't really talked about enough now). Cynthia D. Grant really reminded me of the author Francesca Lia Block, specifically the book I WAS A TEENAGE FAIRY, but also a couple of her others less immediately. I think if you like Block's surreal magic-realism/emotional horror stories, you'll really enjoy this one-- although triggers do apply.

I teared up a little while reading this, to be honest.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Pirate in My Arms by Danelle Harmon

Danelle Harmon is fast becoming one of my solid favorites in the 90s bodice ripper experience canon. She just does such a great job of writing "caring alpha" stereotypes who manage to be all strong and manly and brutish without resorting to rape-- at least, they're not rapey in the "revised" editions I've been reading with my friends on Kindle. Who knows what the originals are like? But whereas some of those "revised" editions read like rape apologist bullshit, where the act itself is taken out and replaced with a bit of the ol', "no-no-no-yes" shtick (which somehow actually manages to be more offensive than they were in the beginning, when they were blatant about it), Harmon's heroes are solidly charming, and make me swoon every time.

PIRATE IN MY ARMS is set in the early 1700s. Maria is a beautiful woman living with her aunt in a Puritan community. The other women are all insanely jealous of her good looks and one of her frenemies decides to convince her to sidle up to the dangerous Sam Bellamy and seduce him in order to make the guy she likes jealous. Unfortunately, this being a romance novel, Sam Bellamy seduces her right back and ends up taking her innocence (gasp). He realizes pretty quickly what he's done and that she's not actually a whore (oops) like he assumed (double oops), and offers to marry her. But Maria is too proud and turns him down angrily, but quickly realizes that she actually kinda likes him sorta.

Sam is actually a fearsome pirate known as Black Sam and when Maria's aunt refuses to let them marry, he goes off to seek his riches, leaving a sad Maria behind. Especially since she's pregnant. Luckily Puritans are totally accepting of that sort of thing-- HA! JK, they totally ostracize her for it and throw rocks at her and basically murder her baby. Just when you think things can't possibly get any worse, Sam wrecks ashore trying to return back to her and she thinks he's died and everyone gloats about the dead pirates while Maria's heart is just about breaking into pieces. Seriously, fuck those town people. Gloating Puritanical asshole trash.

Luckily, this being a romance novel, Sam isn't actually dead. She nurses him back to health and tells him not to be a pirate anymore and he agrees-- but LOL, jk it was a lie. He's going to be a pirate until he rescues what remains of his friends and then he's going to give it up (he can quit any time he wants, he's not addicted, he just doesn't want to). Maria is infuriated by this double-cross and quickly becomes a bitch on wheels. This is the most difficult and sloggy portion of the book for me, because she basically just goes into these circular arguments about how much she hates him for pirating etc. etc., and I'm like, GIRL. HE HAS TO GO SAVE HIS FRANS. #BFFS.

Fuck you, Maria.

Luckily, she redeems herself in the end.

The last 10% of the book though? Man. So intense. I was biting my nails. I forgot how well Harmon can do emotionally intense scenes. It reminded me of another BR I did where we all read CAPTAIN OF MY HEART, and I was quaking with flashbacks from OUTLANDER. (Luckily, the villain wasn't quite that sadistic and psycho, but he was still pretty bad. Eep!) Also, I can't imagine how much research went in to all those nautical scenes. The way Harmon writes, you really feel like you're on a bona fide pirate ship. I learned so many cool terms and the action scenes were AMAZING. When I finished the book, I was like, OMG, how am I ever going to get my pirate fix now?

Luckily, the author coincidentally happened to make all of her pirate-themed books free for Kindle Unlimited. Which I have. There's only one explanation, clearly, which is that she's stalking me and wants me to read more of her books-- which, luckily-- I am only too happy to do. I have already downloaded like four of them and they are waiting in my Kindle to be read. #WorkThatKUSub

I honestly don't get why this author isn't more popular. She's so cool. And she even looks kind of like an IRL version of Merida, from Brave. Like, I kind of high key want her to be my friend.

Thanks to Heather for BRing this with me and cheering me on to the finish line! Go check out her review!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson

This is kind of like a darker, more depressing version of Diane Ackerman's A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES. In this memoir, Sinéad writes about not just her body, but about women's bodies in general, on a wide variety of difficult and sometimes controversial topics. Some examples include the many surgeries she had when she was younger for her atrophying leg and fused hip; her experiences with leukemia and the resulting chemotherapy that made her hair fall out; blood transfusions, which segues into talks about being HIV+ (she isn't, but she writes about those who are); childbirth, and the way people treat women's pregnant bodies, and the judgement many women face for the choices they make on how-- and when-- to give birth; and also pain, and the way that women's concerns and experiences with pain can be minimized and delegitimized, even by doctors.

One of the things I really liked about this memoir is how Sinéad Gleeson ties so many of these topics back to art. In the HIV+/transfusion section, she talks about the New York Artist Barton Lidice Beneš, and the work he did with his own blood. In the segments about living with pain, she talks about Frida Kahlo and the many ways that she incorporated her own chronic pain into her art. A big part of Irish culture is the arts, and I loved the way that paintings, poems, and songs were incorporated into her essays about the body.

I do think that this collection of essays will be difficult for some people to read because of the detail she goes into on certain subjects. I'm particularly squeamish and there were some sections that were really difficult to read, like the portions about her chest surgery, anything about needles, and the essays on blood. At times, it's so graphic, it feels almost like body horror-- but maybe that's the point. So many aspects of the human body are deemed inappropriate, almost pornographic, when really, it is just about our bodies struggling to work. Just look at how anything having to do with menstruation tends to be censored; we, as a society, are incredibly prudish about our bodies' functions (or inability to function).

All in all, I really enjoyed CONSTELLATIONS and I think it made me think about a lot of topics that I don't ordinarily let myself dwell on. It won't be an easy read for many-- it wasn't for me-- but if you're able to make your way through it, it's a thoughtful collection of writings on the human body.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 24, 2020

Siri, Who Am I? by Sam Tschida

The preliminary reviews for this book are pretty mixed, which I totally get. If you go into this expecting a serious mystery, you're not going to be happy. SIRI, WHO AM I? is pure fluff. I'd describe it as a cross between American Dreamer (1984), Legally Blonde (2001), and Memento (2000). The premise is basically this. An airhead wakes up in a hospital (no, that's not the introduction to an off-color joke), only to find that she's completely lost her memory. She's wearing a yellow Prada dress and the only possessions on her person are a rhinestone tiara and a matching bag containing a cracked cell phone and a Chanel lipstick.

Using her cell phone, she's able to learn that her name is Mia and a whole bunch of people are really mad at her. She's not sure how she got the traumatic head injury that landed her in the hospital in the first place, but with so many people out to get her, it's starting to look like it might have been intentional. Mia's attempts to discover herself take her all over Southern California, from the beaches, to the local art scene, to hipster taco trucks, all the while trying to figure out who bonked her on the head-- and why.

I loved Mia's voice. This book reminded me a lot of the Size 12 Is Not Fat series by Meg Cabot. The heroine is the perfect blend of snarky and vapid (hence the Elle Woods comparison), and she has a lot of really fun and on-point observations about the superficiality of Californian culture. Looking at some of the reviews, I suspect that maybe a lot of them aren't from California and therefore maybe didn't realize how accurate some of this satire actually is (very). I laughed my way through the first 200 pages because influencer culture really is ridiculous, and so are the Kardashians, and so are $12 burritos from a truck, and so is over-sharing on social media. How ridiculous is it that some of us over-share so much that it would allow us to double-back through our lives to figure out our street address and everything we did in the last week if we ever came down with retrograde amnesia?

Speaking of retrograde amnesia, I love the psychology/neuroscience angle in this book. You see, Mia's unwilling partner-in-crime throughout all of this is a cute house-sitter named Max who works in a neuroscience lab. Max is basically like a black, male Ms. Frizzle with his geeky passion for science-themed t-shirts and the final frontier. Speaking as someone who majored in psychology, tutored (intro) neuroscience, and actually worked in a lab on experiments about deception (just like Max), this part of the book really spoke to me. I always love a good psychology angle in fiction.

The second half of the book isn't quite as good as the first, which is why I think you need to suspend your disbelief. I personally thought it was a solid ending and even though it was kind of cheesy, it's the cinematic movie ending we all secretly want, even as our more intellectual sides might hang our heads. SIRI, WHO AM I? is just plain fun escapist fantasy and I recommend it to people who enjoy authors like Meg Cabot or Megan Angelo, and other authors of smart, brainy chick-lit.

P.S. I've already done the mental casting for this movie. Jessie Usher is Max, Maddie Hasson is Mia, Sierra A. McClain is Crystal, and Johnathan Rhys Meyers is JP. Feel free to credit me as assistant casting director when the movie comes out.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Will and the Wilds by Charlie N. Holmberg

THE WILL AND THE WILDS took me a while to read because it's a slow and odd book that, despite its length, builds up to its climax slowly. I ended up liking it because it reminded me a lot of the fairytale stories I read as a kid by authors with triple-barreled names like as Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Peterson Haddix and Gail Carson Levine and Vivian Vande Velde, but I already know that some readers probably aren't going to like it precisely because it is so slow and non-confrontational. Epic, fast-paced fantasy this is not.

Enna lives on the edge of the wildwood, which is, itself, only a stone's throw away from the monster world, a place called the Deep, which seems to be a sort of Unseelie faerie land where creatures that are part demon and part fae, called Mystings, come and go at their leisure. Sightings of them are rare-- in part because many of them are deadly-- but Enna's grandmother kept a journal of them and Enna uses that info to survive.

She lives with her father, a man who fought the mystings and lived, escaping with a rare and odd jewel that she wears around her wrist because it warns her when mystings are near. But his escape cost him his sanity, and now he appears to be suffering from dementia, living halfway in the past every day of his life. It's an odd life, and Enna is regarded with suspicion by the villagers for being a witch. All that changes when mysting visitations become more frequent, and she is forced to enlist the help of a being named Maekellus.

Her deal with him goes awry and the pact they made becomes a curse, binding the two of them together. If they can't break the curse, the two of them will perish, and kissing him to ease the curse will steal her soul. It seems like the two of them might be doomed, especially when she starts to fall for the magical man with the unicorn horn and the cloven feet who seems like he might be the devil himself. But will he end up proving to be her greatest ally-- or her destruction? Only time will tell, and time itself is running out. (Seriously, why haven't I been hired on as a blurb writer, yet?)

As I said before, I loved the dark fairytale elements of this book and any time you throw in a dangerous man who could be the heroine's destruction, I melt like butter. It's even better that he's a redhead, because apparently I have a thing for those. I also really liked the idea of the Deep-- really, the author spent way too much time in that creepy world, I wanted more-- and the mystings. I could have learned way more about them and their world and their creepy powers, which actually brings me to my biggest complaint: the ending was so anticlimactic. I understand why the author did it and I do think there is strength in grace, but the book seemed to be building to something epic and I kept holding my breath, wondering how something so big was going to go down in such a small amount of pages... and yeah, it turns out it wasn't going to. Not saying any more on the subject, but boo.

Also, at the end of the book is a piece of what looks like handwritten sheet music called "Enna's Wildwood." Obviously, I whipped out my flute (heh) and played it to see what it would sound like. It sounded a lot like creepy video game music that you'd hear in an enchanted forest in one of the Mana or Zelda games. I was kind of into it. So that was fun. If you can read sheet music, give it a try!

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy! 

3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Writers & Lovers by Lily King

Wow. I am kind of shocked by how much I loved this. WRITERS & LOVERS is the first book I've read that truly captures what it's like to be a woman in your late-twenties/early-thirties and not have your life figured out. When all your friends are in serious relationships or married, with real desk jobs and houses of their own, and you're still working a dead-end job and chasing the dream, while serial-dating like you're still in college, it's hard to be taken seriously.

But this book, it gets that.

Casey is living in New England working a waitressing job she hates while trying to finish up her novel. Her mother has just died, she has health problems but no health insurance, her student loans have defaulted and seem virtually insurmountable, and she's stuck dating two guys-- one a mature "adult" with two young children and a job with the respect and esteem she craves, and the other is in the same boat as her-- struggling to make it, still figuring his life out. She flip-flops between the two, afraid of committing to a course of action that could change her life forever-- for better or for worse.

As an author myself, I've read a lot of books about other writers and most of them don't get it. They either romanticize writing as being this holy grail of careers (ha) in this carefree bohemian life (ha) where you meet interesting people all the time and drink champers over Proust (ha-ha-ha), or else demonize it as being a career that attracts crazy people who use it as an exercise to exorcise their demons (ha... actually, wait this one is more accurate). Casey falls in the middle of both camps. She hates the pretentiousness of some writers, while also desperately craving that acclaim for herself. She stereotypes people based on what they read (I do this too-- LOL), she feels jealousy about others' success, and she is afraid to read the works of the people she knows, not just because they might hate her if she doesn't like their work but also because it might be too weirdly, creepily intimate (YES).

Besides all the wicked observations about writers and readers and pretentious intellectuals, there's also just some really good observations about what it means to be an older young adult who is still trying to grow up while feeling as if they already should have. Casey is immature but she's trying not to be. The struggles she faces-- even though this book is set in 1997-- are still relevant today, and it touches upon a lot of things that plague women, like fertility, sexism, being taken seriously as a professional, passion, domesticity, anxiety, partner intimacy, and so much more.

This is the first book I've read in a long time that I feel really gets me. I loved it.

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

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women by Mo Moulton

I hate writing reviews for books that bored me. On the one hand, I (usually) go into a book expecting to like it, and on the other hand, it kind of sucks to have to revisit something you didn't like and tell everyone why you didn't like it. Sometimes I don't even bother to review, but I feel obligated to with this one as others may share my expectations and feel similar disappointment.

THE MUTUAL ADMIRATION SOCIETY is a biography about Dorothy L. Sayers (called, bewilderingly, "DLS" through the entirety of this book) and the friends she made at Somerville College, a branch of Oxford that basically treated its female students like a bunch of dilettantes auditing a class, not even awarding them degrees for their work until later. #Feminism

While at school, "DLS" and her friends called themselves The Mutual Admiration Society, and it was basically exactly what it sounds like: a group of artsy, intellectual women who had great respect for each other, supported one another in their endeavors, and basically had a grand old time amusing one another.

The book follows them through two World Wars, various relationships, the many obstacles of being a woman in a time when women were accorded little to no respect, tempestuous relationships, questioning their sexuality, failures, successes, and so many other things. Considering that "DLS" was the baited hook for this book, I was surprised by how little the focus seemed to be on her. Even more surprisingly, I was surprised (ha) by how little I liked her compared to the others like Charis, who seemed incredibly cool and modern for her times, and Muriel, who was a somewhat out lesbian.

Charis Frankenburg was honestly the coolest lady in here, as some of DLS's beliefs seemed almost Ayn Randian, especially in how she seemed to detest other women so much in the beginning. I guess she changed later on in life and you can't really judge people outside the framework of their times, but man. She seemed awful. Charis, on the other hand, was basically a mommy blogger influencer for her time, having huge impacts on the way people raised children (for the better) and did some pretty cool work helping improve the conditions of children living in psychiatric facilities. I would read a whole book about her-- she seemed like she had her heart in the right place.

Maybe I would have enjoyed this book more had I been a bigger "DLS" fan. In some ways, this does kind of read like a fan's ode to DLS, especially with how Mo Moulton often reads between the lines-- or cites others who do-- of DLS's own writing to speculate on her life. I guess it's probably an irresistible temptation to do so when actual facts and journals exist. It's human nature to speculate. That said, I feel like doing that gives the book a sensationalist, breathless edge that reads more like the adulation of an opinion piece and less like a concrete biography.

I can respect the research Moulton put into their book, and I can see why so many DLS fans enjoyed this book as much as they did, but I also agree with the skeptics who did not appear to enjoy it. I feel for those skeptics because I felt the same way. Not all of the women in here are equally entertaining and fascinating, and it often feels like a Vanity Fair that's been padded out to novel length.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 20, 2020

Rascal by Jean-Luc Deglin

A young millennial's life is disrupted when she receives a mewing package in the mail. An acquaintance of her mom needs her kitten watched (and they sent it in a box???) and they decided she was up to the task. To her horror, though, the neighbor ends up dying, leaving her with the cat. She ends up naming it "Rascal" because she's always calling him "you rascal" do to his constant shenanigans.

Anyone who is a cat owner will really enjoy this book. It captures the douchiness of cats while also showing why they make such good pets for introverts. I own a little black cat and spent an hour reading while she slept on my lap. Cats don't make you walk them, and they aren't always affectionate when you want them to be, but that aloofness is precisely what makes their companionship so valuable, and they're very fun to cuddle with if you have hobbies that require keeping still for long periods of time.

That said, RASCAL also captures why cats can be so annoying. The sharp claws. The way they tend to stick their butthole into your face without warning. The way they get bored of the expensive toys you buy them while chewing on your clothes, beauty supplies, and houseplants (basically anything that isn't bolted down and isn't one of their toys). Oh, yes, and the stinky wees and the way they somehow manage to track litter all over the floor--

And don't even get me started on the "presents." My cat recently led me to a "death hoard," where she had amassed a small pile of murdered birds, rodents, and lizards for my purview. (Or should I say, purr-view?) I read somewhere recently that cats do that because they think of us as big dumb cats and it's their way of trying to teach us how to hunt.

I really enjoyed this graphic novel a lot. The way the artist draws the cat contorted into a wide variety of poses was really funny, and I liked the heroine who is his owner. She had a great sense of humor and their relationship was really fun. The only thing I didn't really like about this book was limited to its being an ARC-- I really hate it when people put giant watermarks on the pages of ARCs. I'm not going to steal your book, okay? I'm here to review it-- for FREE-- and that's that. Don't make it harder than it needs to be by stamping a big, ugly distraction smack-dab in the center of each page.

Apart from that, RASCAL was purrfectly adorable. Anyone who loves cats should read this!

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy! 

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey

I received an ARC of this and decided to read it on a whim because something about the idea of reading a book set in the roaring twenties while in the 2020s felt like achieving parity. I wasn't really sure what to expect of THE GLITTERING HOUR, but reading it was a lot like reading one of those bloated, sensationalist historical epics that were so popular in the 1970s. Honestly, if we're getting a resurgence of those, I will be so glad, as they are so devastatingly, emotionally engaging, and this book was really no exception to the example set by its forebears.

The timeline of this book is a bit difficult to follow at first because there are so many POVs and it skips around a lot. In the past, set in the 1920s, we meet a young Selina who is at the peak of her life, has a zest for trying all kinds of new and exciting experiences, and falling in love for the first time. Unfortunately for her, it's a classic case of "My boyfriend is out of my social caste-- and mummy and daddy will cut me off without a red cent!" in the vein of Titanic. He's even an artist, for God's sake.

In the "present," which in this case, is the mid-1930s, a young girl named Alice is fretting because she's left with her icy grandparents and mean governess while her parents are off in Burma overseeing her father's ruby mines. To entertain her, her mother has been sending her scavenger hunt clues via her sympathetic nursemaid, Polly, while also weaving in bits and pieces of her own past. I'm not always fond of children narrators but Alice is a sympathetic one, and I feel like the author did a good job authentically representing the mindset and thoughts of a young, fanciful child.

Also in the present, we catch little glimpses of Selina, now a fully grown woman and bogged down with sorrow and regret. We don't know what's happened to make her feel so upset or why, but she seems like a woman without much hope. We also see other people from her past as well, also now in the future, and also living with the fruits of their choices.

In the second part of the book, all of these narrative strands weave together to form a portrait of love, loss, tragedy, regret, life, hope, and courage. If this book has a message, I think it's that you need to learn how to live for yourself-- and not for others-- or you may end up at the end of your life looking back on all of your choices and realizing that you ended up walling yourself into a brick house of misery without any doors or windows. It's a sad message, but a powerful one, too.

THE GLITTERING HOUR is gorgeously written and the characterization is really well done. You know you're reading a good book when the characters are driving you crazy with their poor choices and you're screaming at them "don't! don't!" even though you totally get why they're making those fool decisions because you've made similar ones in the past yourself. There's a difference between bad choices done because of bad writing and bad choices done for character development, and this is definitely the latter. I loved the epic scope of the book and how it brought the period of the 1920s and 1930s to life. I would definitely read more from this author in the future-- but not without Kleenex.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

Munchausen's by proxy is a mental disorder where an individual induces physical symptoms in another individual (often by poisoning) so that they can take care of them and receive adulation and praise from others for their generosity and nursing skills. Munchausen's is when the individual does it to themselves (which is different from malingering in that a malingerer tends to only feign illness and is doing so to escape having to do something else, or for legal purposes, like to milk a lawsuit) We learned a lot about these disorders in my Abnormal Psychology courses-- one example that stayed with me was a mother who smeared feces on her baby's eyes to induce chronic eye infections. It's pretty chilling and I've never really been able to wrap my head around the people who do this stuff to themselves or others.

Rose Gold's mother did exactly this to her for years, poisoning her with ipecac syrup to induce symptoms that she called a "chromosomal disorder." Now Rose Gold is all grown up, but her teeth are rotten, she still has some lingering physical and mental trauma, and she's really, really upset at her mom. As one would be. You can't help but feel pity for Rose Gold, who has never had a normal childhood. Her mother abused her her whole life and called it "care" and her father is out of the picture. She's been abused, bullied, and mocked by other children, and her only friend, Alex, is a classic "mean girl."

Patty, on the other hand, is also pretty messed up. She definitely seems to have some kind of personality disorder; her utter self-absorption and inability to acknowledge wrong-doing is extremely pathological. Under that brassy confidence, however, is a women who is needy for praise and adulation, who has been abused herself as a child and only wants to be a "good mother." Reading her POV is like having your hands slathered in oil and being unable to rinse them off. She sticks to you and makes you feel disgusting, and even when you try to cast her out, her presence lingers.

Both of these women are truly despicable people. Their POVs alternate, and Rose Gold's skip around through time while Patty's are always in the present. Seeing their dysfunction and their toxic dynamic is like watching a train wreck happen in real time. You know that no matter how it ends, it isn't going to be good-- it's only a matter of how many people they take down with them. Major props to the author for researching Munchausen's. In her afterword, she mentions that she read a lot of articles and books about the disorder, and the extra effort shows. I've even read some of the books she mentioned.

Quite often, in the X meets Y comparisons in blurbs, I find myself rolling my eyes. Here, though, I do actually feel that the Gillian Flynn comparison is on point. ROSE GOLD is a bit more predictable than Gillian Flynn's books, but it's got a great twist and the characterization of these two obviously demented women was really well done. I despised them both and found them fascinating.

Also, if you're interested in another (fictional) story about Munchausen's, I'd recommend watching Glass House: The Good Mother. It's a pretty terrible movie but it was my first introduction to Munchausen's by proxy and I found the cheesy, over-acted drama of it fascinating to watch.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy! 

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Lucky Caller by Emma Mills

This book is so sugary sweet that you shouldn't be surprised if you wind up with sixteen cavities and a toothache after finishing it. I don't usually read fluffy books but once in a while I feel the need to heed the siren call and take a break from my darker fare.

LUCKY CALLER is a YA title about a girl named Nina. Nina has an older sister named Rose and a younger sister named Sidney, and their mom is about to get married to her boyfriend, Dan, a viral YouTuber who does cute, Bob Ross-esque art stuff. Nina is happy for her mom, but she also feels that regret about her dad, who skipped out on them but is still very much around, seeing as how he's a famous radio host living it up in sunny California.

Nina's father is very much on her mind when she signs up for a radio class. When she finds out that her childhood friend, who she may or may not have feelings for, is also in the class, things get even more complicated. Especially when they get put in the same group and the competition-- to see who can get the most on air listeners-- begins to grow fierce among the other students.

I love YA books where the characters have hobbies, and I really liked all the emphasis on what it means to be a successful radio host/star, and all the talk about music and contests and banter. The author did a really good job bringing that all to life, and it was fun to see Nina and her friends grow and become more confident with each "episode" that they did.

I'm giving this three stars because I do think it got a little too twee-- especially with the flashbacks to the imaginary games they played as kids-- and the series of coincidences that brought the book to its climax were a little hard to swallow. It started to feel kind of like a Disney movie-- fun and cute and larger than life, but also not very believable and a bit too fairytale-esque to seem very realistic. But, like a Disney movie, it was cloyingly satisfying in its fashion and left me with a smile.

This should be a must-read for anyone who likes cute, fluffy stories and Disney movies.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Escape Artist by Helen Fremont

This is easily one of the best memoirs I've read in a while. Books like these are part of the reason I don't five-star everything left and right. In my quest to separate the wheat from the chaff, I look for quality books that not only stand out from the rest but do so with eloquence and pizazz. THE ESCAPE ARTIST is a truly haunting memoir written by a woman whose parents were holocaust survivors. She writes about the strain of growing up with parents who truly went through hell, and how it felt with all of her own problems paling in comparison, and how guilty that made her feel. As if that weren't bad enough, her sister was mentally ill, and violently abusive, and the author had her own problems with suicide and depression.

It sounds devastating, and maybe it would have been if the author had languished on it, but she seems to have been able to distance herself from her childhood to the point where she can write about these terrible things as matter-of-factly as possible, while also acknowledging the faultiness of memory and that how her parents and her sister might remember the situation could differ from her own recollections. This made what could have been a very difficult book for me much easier to read, even though it was still a very emotional experience.

I loved how the author wrote about growing up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. She worked on a New England farm, went to Wellesley, hiked mountains, and did all this other stuff, while also struggling with her sexuality (she later came out as a lesbian) and her depression. Even when she became an adult, her sister loomed like a phantom over her life, and she could feel the burdensome guilt her parents placed on her. The dissociation in this family was so strong and I found it so upsetting how everything was brushed under the carpet to maintain "appearances" (her father footed the hospital bill for her sister's confinement so it wouldn't appear on her record from the insurance claim).

If you are interested in psychology, memoirs, books about holocaust survivors, or just books about very toxic family dynamics, I think you will enjoy this book. It's so well-written and emotional and detailed and it packs a wicked punch. Even though it's hard to read, I don't regret it for a single moment, and there's so many things I want to talk about in this book, but part of what makes this book so compelling is how the author gradually reveals elements from her life, piece by piece, so quite honestly, the less you know going in, the better. Just read it. Trust me.

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

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Last 8 by Laura Pohl

While reading this book in preparation for the ARC I received for the sequel, I was thinking to myself, "Books like these are why the three-star rating exists." It's a good book but not a particularly memorable; this is the type of fast-paced, brain candy that you consume on a flight or keep in your purse and then immediately forget about once you're done. Does that mean the book is bad? No. Does that mean the writing is terrible? No. It just means that, as fun as it is, it won't be topping any of my favorites lists.

Also, whoever compared this to THE FIFTH WAVE-- no. I see you, blurb writer. And you are wrong. If anything, this book is like Titan A.E. meets Animorphs.

Clover lives on a ranch with her family. They keep to themselves and don't hurt anybody, which makes it extra horrible when everyone Clover cares about-- her family, her boyfriend, the entire human race-- is killed by an invading race of creepy aliens that look half-human/half-metal spider (i.e. my worst nightmare). They have laser guns that turn people to dust with a single hit. Humanity never stood a chance... except, for some reason, they don't appear to see Clover.

Clover spends the next part of the book wandering aimlessly, and contemplates suicide several times. Readers, take note: suicide is a recurring motif in this book, for both depression and self-sacrifice. It is mentioned many, many times with a casualness that's kind of shocking. So if that's something that you're sensitive to, you may want to avoid this book. Luckily, Clover's depression abates to a point when she hears a mysterious broadcast whose cryptic riddle appears to be urging her to Area 51--

And once she goes there, on a whim, she learns that she isn't alone.

I think anyone who enjoys those teen warrior type books will really enjoy this book. That's what reminded me about Animorphs so strongly-- that, and the fact that the creepoid aliens in this book kind of seemed like the types of characters the Animorphs might encounter on one of their side missions. I really enjoyed learning about the backstory of them a little more and why they wanted to invade Earth, although if I'm being perfectly honest, I thought the reason was a bit disappointing.

The parts about the aliens and the invasion could have been fleshed out more and the reason why the aliens didn't "see" Clover felt like a deus ex machina. I'm inclined to be forgiving since this is just a young adult book and it's meant to be in good fun, but I like being shook and this was barely a poke. Honestly, though, it's much, much better than THE FIFTH WAVE, which I didn't like at all. The aliens are cooler and the characterization of the leads was more developed.

THE LAST 8 is a fun book for fans of alien invasion stories and post-apocalypse fiction. Just don't pick it up expecting a mover and a shaker, or for your mind to be blown by magnificent twists.

I'm looking forward to reading the sequel.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sin Eater by Megan Campisi

SIN EATER is another one of those books that suffers from poor comparisons. Alice in Wonderland meets the Handmaid's Tale?! The Name of the Rose meets Wolf Hall?! I am seriously side-eying all of the authors of those blurbs right now because comparisons like that 1) fail to adequately describe what the book is about, 2) do it an injustice by shaping the book as something it is not, and 3) are just such bad comparisons that I literally cannot even.

SIN EATER is a fantasy novel-- not historical fiction. It takes place in an AU version of Elizabethan England that is somewhat similar but with all different names and customs. May is a young woman who is about to be sentenced for a crime, but when sentencing is meted out, she doesn't get the usual death or torture. No, instead she is sentenced to be a "sin eater," a person who eats the feasts left on the coffins of the dead, with each food representing a crime that person committed in life.

Sin Eaters are basically the dregs of humanity, on par with grotesques and lepers. As if their forced ostracism isn't enough, they're also forced to take a vow of silence that is nulled only when they are listing out the feasts of the sins and offering the dying absolution. May learns all of this at the knee of the older, more established Sin Eater: a woman who has been eating sins for so long that they have made her fat.

Everything changes when the Sin Eaters are called to the palace to eat the sins of a dying handmaid of the queen. At the feast, which is public, there is an item on the coffin that does not represent any of the sins the handmaid recounted. But who would have reason to lie about the sins of the dead? And why? The answers to this lead May down a rabbit hole of intrigue, lies, and deception amidst the royal court-- lies deep enough that people are willing to commit murder to ensure they stay hidden.

I do think the premise of the Sin Eater is a cool one. Other books have done this with mixed success (I'm thinking specifically of the YA fantasy novel, THE SIN EATER'S DAUGHTER). Setting the book in an AU fantasy version of England makes sense, I guess, although the world isn't developed nearly as much as it should be, and even though there are feminist themes hinted at in the book, none of these are really carried to fruition either, so to compare this book to THE HANDMAID'S TALE-- a richly imagined world filled with lengthy criticism on the way women are treated-- seems unfair.

If you read this book, try to read it outside of the framework of the blurbs. It's a dark fantasy novel that doesn't have magic; instead, it's got a caste system and a means of purging sin that uses impoverished and marginalized women as the vessels. Maybe it could have been handled with more finesse than it was, but the writing is good and the idea was interesting, and for a debut, this isn't bad.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Theory of the Hashtag by Andreas Bernard

I've been told by some of the people following me that part of the reason they began following me in the first place is because they never know what I'm going to read next. And I suppose that's true-- on a given day, I could be reading a popular YA bests-seller, a B-list celebrity memoir, a bodice-ripper from the 1980s, or a textbook about the history of the hashtag in popular culture.

You just never know.

I suspect a lot of publishers have a hard time getting scholastic books of nonfiction into the hands of readers, so I'm usually pretty happy to take one for the team if it seems to come from a reputable university and the subject matter is interesting. As a blogger, I've seen firsthand how instrumental the hashtag is in marketing and indexing data online, and how it can mobilize disparate users into a singular, powerful force.

THEORY OF THE HASHTAG is a very short book. On Goodreads it says it's 200 pages, but about half of that consists of references and further reading. The actual meat of the book clocks in at just over 70 pages. Even though the book is so short, Bernard still manages to give a pretty solid overview of the hashtag, talking about its origins as the number sign and the pound sign (which apparently used to be used to denote actual poundage, which I did not know), and some of its lesser-known names, like the octothorpe, before getting into how it actually became used as a means of archiving and indexing keywords online, like a fantastically virtual Dewey Decimal system that requires no training.

Moving on from that topic, Bernard switches into how the hashtag is so useful for indexing, and how it's easy to track, so it's useful from an advertising, activist, consumerist, and sociologic perspective, as it provides valuable data about who is posting about what, why, and when; as well as mobilizing users who need to project their voices; and essentially providing a channel that is easy to find with a simple search. Of course, the #MeToo movement and #BlackLivesMatter movements are both discussed, and the author talks about how the hashtag helped unify all these users to a single cause.

The book ends on a bit of a questioning note, in my opinion. It's unclear what the future of the hashtag might look like. Some people have started to use it derisively or ironically, as now that the hashtag has become part of popular culture, the counter-culture feels an obligation to mock it. He also talks about the legality of the hashtag, in the sense that it is very difficult to copyright because the very purpose of it is to share and unify. I was disgusted to find out that greedy companies apparently tried to file copyright claims for #icantbreathe and #JeSuisCharlie-- people that had no hand in creating the hashtag in the first place-- which just goes to show the perceived power that these viral hashtags have, and how much people covet that sort of massive influence. It's still gross, though.

This is a short but interesting book about a humble punctuation symbol that many of us in the twenty-first century now use every day. If you are interested in learning about the lesser-known histories of everyday things, I think you'll really like this book. I really learned a lot. #octothorpe

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

I can't image the tremendous pressure an author would feel while writing the end to a wildly popular series like this, especially when there is so much riding on it to do well and succeed. There are many series out there whose enjoyment by readers has been tainted irreconcilably by a bad ending, and so I would guess that Holly Black probably had that fear top of mind while working on THE QUEEN OF NOTHING, asking herself over and over, "What will the fans think of this?"

I say that because, even though this final installment was well-written and an easy read, THE QUEEN OF NOTHING felt "safe" in a way that the previous two books did not. The romance is much more focal in this book, there are fewer deaths and machinations, and grievances are resolved in a more peaceable manner than one might have anticipated or even hoped for. It felt, in short, like fan service-- especially the many descriptions of Cardan in all his glory, and the lavish descriptions of outfits that seemed to have been written with the thought of fanart in mind.

THE CRUEL PRINCE catapulted the series off to a wild and deadly start as Jude stoops to all kinds of crazy lengths to seize power in the world she loves but probably shouldn't. THE WICKED KING takes things a step further, upping the stakes with court intrigue and scenes of surprisingly devastating brutality. In THE QUEEN OF NOTHING, Jude returns back to the world of faerie once more, in spite of her exile; and the vehicle of her turn is no one less than Taryn, of all people. Taryn, the despised, whose name totally stands for Twat-Ass Ratchet Young Narc™.

It's really hard to talk about this book without major spoilers, but I'm going to try my best because I have some major thoughts. First, Taryn got off way too lightly. Considering all the shit she pulled in previous books, I felt like her redemption arc was way lame. Even the most problematic YouTube celebrities out there need to cry a little and make an apology video before they're forgiven. Taryn definitely needs to make an apology video where she cries and tells everyone how much she sucks before asking them to #smash that subscribe button an oh, by the way, this video is #sponsored. #ad

Second, Jude seemed way toned down in this one. One of the things I loved about her in the previous two books was how unlikable she could be at times, and how much more I ironically liked her because of it. She was a true antihero, doing terrible things to further her agency, and I absolutely loved the fact that she was such a brainy, brilliant heroine. In this book, her thoughts are mostly focused on romance and she loses that sharp edge that made her such a delight. People are able to trick her six ways to Sunday in this book over things that she would have seen in a heartbeat before. That was very disappointing. I missed my knife-happy Jude Duarte from THE WICKED KING.

Third, that whole bit with the prophecy. And anything with this scene, which, again, so as not to post spoilers, I shall describe only with emoji: 🐍. You know what I'm talking about.

Fourth, the ending was way too easy. Yes, it was cute and it satisfied my fangirl heart-- but it was also too easy. Everything was resolved neatly and tied off with a perfunctory bow, and it was like reading that last installment of Harry Potter all over again and getting to that ending at the train station. Even as a teenager, I remember reading that part and thinking, "Oh my God, this is, like, literally fanfiction. J.K. Rowling tacked on a fanfic ending to her book." That's kind of how I felt here. This ending felt more like what the fans wanted and not what she, the author, had planned.

I did enjoy this book and it wasn't an unsatisfying ending, but it definitely felt like pandering. There were things about this book I really did like, such as the sex scene-- an actual sex scene-- which was tastefully done for the YA audience and surprisingly sensual (SJM, with her horrifically graphic and laughably purple scenes has set the bar low for me). I also liked the lavish descriptions of the world of faerie, the food and costume porn, basically anything having to do with Grima Mog, Vee and her girlfriend, and, surprisingly, Oak and his more developed personality. He's a good kid.

As I said, this wasn't a bad book. It just wasn't great like the first two. And that makes me sad. I'm also sorry to say goodbye to this series, as it was fun to have something like this to look forward to, and no other very recent YA fantasy novel has captured my attention quite like this one did.

P.S. Fuck T.A.R.Y.N.™

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood by Naomi McDougall Jones

What a pleasant surprise this was! I am a feminist, and am always eager to get my hands on new books about feminism coming out. THE WRONG KIND OF WOMEN specifically addresses the way women are represented in Hollywood, as well as how the movie industry is set up to shut out women from landing top-tier, prestigious roles-- especially if they are women of color and/or LGBT+ and/or disabled. When they said "it's a man's world," they might have been talking about the world at large, but it seems to really apply to the movie industry.

McDougall Jones talks about the harassment many women face in their professional roles, and a little about the #MeToo movement. She talks about typecasting-- not just for white women, but also how women of color and LGBT+ (specifically trans) women are forced into cliched and stereotypical roles, forcing them to decide whether they want to land a movie role and perpetuate a harmful stereotype or stick to their guns but become branded as "hard to work with" and get no work whatsoever.

She also talks about how actresses "peak" younger than men, with a sharp drop-off in work as soon as they hit forty. She talks about the male gaze and how and why it's harmful, and how sometimes it can be so subtle you might not even realize what is happening until you think about it. She talks about the importance of women's stories-- especially women's stories written and directed by women-- and how even some of the recent "wins" Hollywood has achieved with regard to diversity can be harmful because it makes people think that the work is done when really, we have so much further to go.

The book ends with resources on how to be a more inclusive viewer, actor, producer, writer, etc., with some links to websites and projects devoted to increasing and supporting diverse actors and how they are represented in film. I'll admit, when I picked up this book, I did worry about how inclusive it might be, but McDougall Jones acknowledges her own privilege while addressing the issues and concerns that are more exaggerated or unique to women of color/disabled women/LGBT+ women, and even interviews some of them so their stories are included and she isn't just talking for them.

If feminism isn't your cup of tea (why wouldn't it be, though?) and therefore isn't enough to sell you on this book, there's also a lot of really interesting insider-info about what it's like to work in the film industry (McDougall Jones is an actress, writer, producer), as well as a lot of really interesting breakdowns about film demographics and statistics. She talks about the shift in marketing movies to blander box office busters that do well internationally, and how China's burgeoning middle class has changed how the United States studios choose to make and market movies. Vox also did a really interesting video about this which you can find on YouTube and I recommend it after reading this.

THE WRONG KIND OF WOMEN takes a deep look at a problem plaguing the film industry, some offers of solutions on how to fix it, and also provides fresh and valuable insight about the struggles that real women face working in an industry that they love and that really ought to be much kinder to them for all the sweat and tears they produce for often far too little value and recognition.

I definitely recommend this book!

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Surrender by Ray Loriga

This Spanish dystopian novel was just translated into English and I am super excited to be one of the first English readers to read it! The blurb compares this book to Margaret Atwood and Jose Saramago which really shaped my expectations while reading it since I am a fan of HANDMAID'S TALE, ORYX AND CRAKE, and BLINDNESS. Do NOT listen to the blurb! The blurb is wrong. While enjoyable, I would not say that this work is of the caliber that those two authors are. If anything, it kind of reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's hit dude-bro classic: THE ROAD.

SURRENDER is a very soft dystopian novel. It's about a man (unnamed) who is our narrator. He lives in the countryside with his wife and a child they kind of unofficially adopted when he wandered on to their property one day. They are under an oppressive, militaristic government and one day, said government announces that they are going to have to evacuate and burn their house; they are being moved as refugees to a place called the glass city.

The glass city is quite literally a glass city with walls you can see through. Everyone can see everyone while they do all kinds of things, including bathroom and bedroom stuff. Yikes! I'm sure this is Swiftian commentary on transparency, taking the reductio ad absurdum approach to show what happens when a government forces its citizens to, quite literally, reveal all their secrets. The effect is appropriately disconcerting.

I thought the translation was very smooth for the most part and flowed well. The story was interesting and I liked the narrator, although some of his actions towards the end of the book felt odd and unnatural compared to the beginning, and I'm not really sure why. (Even he, the narrator, remarks on his strange behaviors at times, so you know it was intentional.) Mostly, it was fun to read a literary dystopian novel set in a place beyond the United States. I liked it but I think I may have liked it more if the blurb didn't hype it up so much by comparing it to two of the greatest modern dystopian authors EVER. Your mileage may vary, but I don't think this is a book that is going to appeal to everyone.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan

DNF @ 25%

I bought this book on sale because it sounded like everything I love in fantasy-- oppressive regime, bad boy love interest, morally grey protagonists, dangerous magic. But sadly, this ended up being boring as all get-out and I found myself quickly growing bored and frustrated with the novel, skimming and skimming until I decided that, finally, I was unwilling to give it any more chances.

1. This falls under a genre that I call Basic Girl YA™. If you've read any of the over-hyped YA fantasy novels to come out over the last few years, you'll know immediately what I'm talking about. Renee Ahdieh, Sarah J. Maas, Roshani Chokshi, Tomi Adeyemi, and now this author, Emily A. Duncan. It's like someone hands out a checklist and tells these authors what to write, and how to write, because YA fantasy has become so formulaic lately and it feels like every story is the same.

2. Can we stop with the AU Russia fantasy novels already? There's other countries and cultures out there that can be integrated into a fantasy world besides Russia, and really, the only author I've seen do it "right" is Amelie Wen Zhao (and yes, I'm including Leigh Bardugo in that list of "please, stop"--I've DNF'd SIX OF CROWS three times).

3. The world-building is so badly done and confusing. I honestly had no idea what was going on. It was the worst mix of mysterious mysteriousness and info-dumps, so I learned way too much about things I didn't care about, and nothing about anything that might have drawn me in.

4. The Kylo Ren stand-in was not very Kylo Ren-y. A huge reason behind why I wanted to read this book is because I heard this was a great book for Reylo fans as the character of Malachiasz was allegedly inspired by Kylo Ren. Nope. Kylo Ren is a tortured BA, and this is his annoying and smarmy younger brother who works in the stockroom at Hot Topic.

That is $2.99 and several hours of my time that I will never be getting back.

Thanks to Sage for BR-ing this with me. I'm sorry we didn't enjoy it more.

1 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 6, 2020

Unhinged by Nicole Cypher

DNF @ 48%

Heather knows how much I love my psychos, so when she suggested that we buddy-read UNHINGED, I was totally down. The premise is pretty chilling, I will say that. James is a psychopath who kills those he thinks deserve it. Holly is the wife of an abusive husband who has decided to take matters into her own hands. James kidnaps Holly, attempting to slay her as the monster he thinks she is. But then he sees her scars, and decides to keep her instead.

I think the problem is that this book just didn't decide what it wanted to be. Was James an unapologetic psychopath? A Dexter-like psychopath who operates on the principle of chaotic good? Or a damaged antihero who secretly wants to be a good man? The book tries to make him all three, and that turned out to be a recipe for disaster because all three of those archetypes are totally in conflict with each other and really don't mesh all that well.

Holly was slightly more interesting but I really don't think we get enough of a grasp on who she is as a character. Is she a psychopath, too? She's so frightened and incapacitated by her own problems that it doesn't really feel like she is-- but then why is she so quick to adapt to James's killing, torture, and lack of empathy? If she isn't a psychopath, the answer starts to look like stupidity and bad writing. An answer I found myself leaning towards more and more once the sex scenes began and I was kind of like, omg, um, this is so not hot.

I'm sorry to give this a bad rating because I do think it was an interesting premise. The story just didn't hold up to what it promised to deliver, and I didn't really think either character possessed the utter lack of moral compass that they should have considering their actions. I decided not to finish the story and I gave it two stars only because I think I probably would have found it just OK if I decided to push through to the end and finish the blasted thing.

2 out of 5 stars

Ghosts of the Missing by Kathleen Donohoe

The comparison to THE LOVELY BONES is really unfortunate because it almost sets this book up to fail. The only things the two books really have in common is the disappearance of a young girl and the ripple effect it has on a small community. GHOSTS OF THE MISSING in particular revolves around the missing girl's friend, Adair, now a young portraitist living in New York.

She leaves the city to go back to her hometown, a small, barely on the map place in upstate New York. She isn't just haunted by her friend's disappearance; we soon find out that she has her own demons to contend with-- the death of her parents, a history of chronic disease, and her lack of closure with all three disasters that seems to have spurred a fatalistic depression.

I really liked the beginning of this book, as it captures the superficiality of New York, New York so well. That quickly disappears as Adair returns home. I tried to find something to like in this smaller, more community-oriented piece of the novel, and I did enjoy the way the Irish communities in New England were portrayed, being of Irish descent myself. It's always cool to see where you come from, you know?

Beyond that, there was a lot more that I didn't like about this book. There were way too many back stories which, in my opinion, didn't add all that much to the book. GHOSTS OF THE MISSING teased at supernatural elements, conspiracies, and murder, but none of that came to a head in a satisfactory matter. I did not get the closure I wanted with the main mystery and I really wasn't happy with the way being HIV+ was represented here, even though I think the author was doing her best to dispel myth and misinformation. That actually made it sadder-- because I honestly don't think she meant to portray such negative representation. I just hate seeing chronic disease treated like life is already over.

By the end of the book I was bored and unhappy and frustrated. I really wanted this to be good and it gives me no pleasure to rate this poorly, but I take my responsibility as a book blogger very seriously, and I do not want someone else to be falsely lured in by the comparison to THE LOVELY BONES. I think it is important to be 100% honest, even if my opinion might not be popular, and do my best to say why something did or didn't work for me, even if that might not be the case for someone else.

If you end up giving this a try, I hope it works out better for you than it did me. The writing is more like Paula Hawkins than Gillian Flynn or Alice Sebold, so if that angsty, slow-paced style of story-telling works better for you, you might very well enjoy this. Just keep in mind that as far as this book is concerned, it's all about the journey and not so much about the destination.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Seep by Chana Porter

"People need to give each other space to make choices. We can't live solely for other people. Even if it hurts them. Even when it breaks your heart" (174).

I really enjoyed THE SEEP a lot! In some ways, it reminds me of a more sophisticated version of Stephenie Meyer's book, THE HOST. Set first in San Francisco, THE SEEP is about a "soft" alien invasion in which aliens, I guess in liquid form, infect the water supply and other host bodies via secretions, giving them a drug-like high but also allowing their hosts the ability to modify their bodies. Humans can turn into animals, or give themselves animal-like qualities like horns and scales and wings; they can become other genders or ethnicities; and they can even take on the very faces of people they know and admire.

The heroine, Trina, is a middle-aged Native American transgender woman, and since identity is so focal to her experience, especially as someone who is in three marginalized groups, she is horrified by what she sees as a tremendously insensitive act of mass appropriation. Identity, she points out to someone (and I'm paraphrasing here), shouldn't be something that can be taken on and off like a pair of socks. But of course, this isn't something that the aliens can really understand with their hive-mind and laughably new age-like hippie mentality.

When Trina's partner buys into the Seep's philosophy of renewal and decides to turn herself into a baby, Trina effectively becomes a widow, and ends up turning to alcohol in her sorrow... until she sees a young boy who is untouched by the Seep and ends up thinking of a person she knew when the invasion first began-- someone else who bought into the system and is using it for his own illicit gains. And that's where the story, and Trina's quest, really kicks off.

THE SEEP is a slow-moving work of speculative fiction reminiscent of Sheri S. Tepper and Ursula K. Le Guin, especially with the themes of female empowerment, LGBT+ identity, and explorations of what it really means to be human as explored from the lens of an entity that is not. The book is very short but it doesn't feel short-- and the writing is gorgeous. It's great to see a science-fiction work that features an older woman of color who is LGBT+, as a lot of popular science-fiction books tend to feature younger, heterosexual white heroes and heroines as their leads. There are so many great themes explored in this work and it feels very literary. What could have been dark is lightened by some humor and a surrealistic, fantasy-like environment that swirls around you like a Dali painting.

I would read more by this author in a heartbeat-- and by the way, big ups to whomever designed that cover because it's gorgeous. I love the flowers.

P.S. The quote I cited above may differ in your copy in form or by page count because this was an uncopyedited ARC.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Last Negroes at Harvard: The Class of 1963 and the 18 Young Men Who Changed Harvard Forever by Ken Garrett

This book is part-memoir, part-journalism, and is about the author's experience going to Harvard as a black man in the late 1950s/early 1960s. In his freshman year, Harvard had included eighteen black men as students at a time when historically, at that point, maybe only one or two were admitted per year. United by their being perceived as "other" by the rest of the student body, even though only some of them identified as African American (one was, I believe, Afro-Cuban and the other was from Barbados), they ended up socializing frequently because of their skin color and the way it could sometimes separate them from other students.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. On the one hand, it was cool to see what Harvard was like in the 1950s, and hear about the student life and the history of the school. On the other hand, it was even more interesting to read about it from the perspective of a man who is observing this wealth of privilege from a different perspective and talking about how he was affected by the lingering effects of segregation, blatant racism, colorism, privilege, and the burgeoning Civil Rights Era, which kick-started many important dialogues about privilege and equality, not just on a social level, but at the enforceable government level, too.

Garrett ends the book with a "where are they now?" section called the gallery, where he interviews his fellow alumni who are still alive, and offers touching reflections on those who are not. Some of them grew up to become professors and one was a musician-- and all of them seemed very grateful to Harvard for affording them opportunities they might not have had otherwise. I loved the guy who bought a Harvard Grad frame for his license after he was pulled over by one too many cops. Choice.

At times, I feel like this book is hard to wade through because it tries to tackle so many subjects at once, but I did enjoy it, even if it could be dry at times. I think anyone wanting to learn more about the history of university education, black history, or the intersectionality of privilege would really enjoy this book a lot.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Hush, Hush by Beca Fitzpatrick

Call me crazy, but I actually enjoyed this book?

...I know, right? I feel like it's almost not allowed. 90% of my friends hated it and tried to warn me away when they saw me starting the book. "Don't do it," they said, "it's not worth it," they said. But sometimes you have to ignore your friends and do you.

HUSH, HUSH gets a bum rap and part of that is the fact that the hero in this book is an abusive, rapey, psychotic douchenozzle, AKA my favorite kind of hero. But I think part of it is also because it kinds of reads like a sexed-up version of TWILIGHT, only with angels instead of vampires, and it came out at a time when TWILIGHT and copycats were literally over-saturating the YA market and the movies were coming out and the fangirls were everywhere and there was literally no escape.

Nora Grey is an ordinary girl... until she meets Patch Cipriano, a mysterious and dangerous boy who seems interested in her, and not in a good way. After some courtship (read: stalking), Nora realizes she might be attracted to Patch (read: in mortal peril), but he might also be trying to kill her (read: it's true love). And maybe some other people might want to kill her, too. You know, for funsies.

As I said before, I like douchenozzle heroes, so I didn't have a problem with Patch. Objectively, I know he is a bad man and people like him suck IRL. But in fantasy land, as a fantasy romance hero where the reader draws the lines of consent by picking up the book and deciding when to put it down of their own volition? Yeah. This is basically the dark romance I was expecting TWILIGHT to be. It was Gothic, slow-burn action with plenty of danger and sexy parts. Nora is a better heroine than Bella; she has more of a personality and isn't afraid to talk back or defend herself.

I liked her friendship with Vee, even if it was immature and kind of silly. Vee is a curvy girl whose personality revolves around making lewd comments about boys and eating. I feel attacked. But their banter was great and you got the sense of their friendship in a way that a lot of YA books at this time failed, miserably. Just look at the friendship ex machina that was Jessica in TWILIGHT.

Honestly, I thought this was a great dark love story for teens. I read and enjoyed FALLEN, too, but this is better than FALLEN. Those angels were too broody and acted like they were using Wuthering Heights as their courtship bible. This was more like Dogma-- angels gone wild, with a dash of sass. I would definitely read the sequels if they popped up on Kindle Unlimited like this one did. I guess the moral of this review (if there is one??) is that you can't always trust your friends.

...But I knew that. ;)

JK, I love you.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 3, 2020

Wonderland by Zoje Stage

Zoje Stage seems to be taking things that most people like and find wholesome and turning them into objects of horror. Children? Check. Nature? Check. What's next... bake sales? Dogs? Sunsets? Whatever she picks, I'm sure I'll find it totally validating, because this book reminded me why I hate camping and hiking so much. Nature can be creepy. I don't think I've ever been so freaked out by trees since I read UPROOTED by Naomi Novik.

This book is about a family that ends up moving to the middle of nowhere so the husband, Shaw, can paint. His wife, Orla, is a retired ballerina and now that her star has faded, she's going to be the one taking care of the kids in their reclusive cabin in the woods. But what first seems like a rustic and charming idyll quickly starts to become uneasy and horrifying as the family starts to see things that can't be explained... like lights, strange weather, and other phenomena that defy rational explanations, but somehow seem to be tied to the mysterious white pine on their property. And then, things start to get really, really twisted...

...Like a tree root! LOL jk. 

For the first 75% of the book, I was deliberating on giving this book 5 stars. Stage captures in this book the ambient horror that made Ira Levin such a lasting read. You don't need blood and body counts to make a horror novel good; the atmosphere in this book is fantastic. Regardless of what you end up deciding about WONDERLAND, it is, unquestionably, a better book than BABY TEETH. The character development is more refined, it is less cheesy horror movie and more Kubrickian, and the writing is much more mature-- and even lyrical in some parts. I liked this a lot more, and found it way less frustrating than I did BABY TEETH, which felt like a bad 80s horror movie at times.

The last 25% of this book got a little weird. And I don't want to say any more about it, because I don't want to spoil the ending, but to explain why this didn't end up getting a more solid 4 stars from me, or even a five, I want to tell you about this movie called The Langoliers, which is one of Stephen King's lesser-known projects. It's a horror movie that is filled with pulse-pounding, spine-chilling build-up, which is ruined in an instant during the grand reveal where you are treated to some truly heinous CGI. I have a shelf on Goodreads called "The Langoliers Effect" where I shelve horror novels whose effects are slightly tarnished by their reveals, and I feel like that is slightly the case here. It doesn't spoil the book but it does get kind of weird, and not necessarily in the good kind of way.

If you enjoy Ira Levin or M. Night Shyamalan 's good movies, I think you will like this. The atmosphere is nicely crafted and the writing is great and it is so freaking creepy. Even if you didn't like her first book, BABY TEETH, I would still urge you to give this one a try, as it's quite a different book from her first, and she's improved so much between then and now that I'm really excited for whatever she decides to put out there next, because I'm sure it will be even better.

P.S. The children are named Eleanor Queen and Tycho and the parents are named Shaw and Orla. Wot.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Vita Nostra by Maria & Sergey Dyachenko

I've been wanting to read VITA NOSTRA ever since the English translation was released and I heard about the dark magic school premise. This novel is part of a trilogy that was originally published in Ukraine, and it's one of the strangest, most fascinating, most inevitable books I have ever read. It actually reminds me a lot of R. Lee Smith's book, SCHOLOMANCE. The pacing is very slow and you just have to bask and immerse yourself in the cold winters of Torpa and the sinister misty springs. Everything is richly described, from the school itself, to the course work, to Sasha's struggles and feelings. Even though this is a translation, the English is lovely and the authors use such imaginative metaphors that certain phrases just stick in your head.

The best way to describe this book is to picture a magical system where everything has a cost-- sometimes a very sinister one. Sasha is scouted at a beach while on vacation by a sinister figure who tells her that she must train herself to go to this special school or bad things will happen. She doesn't take the warning as seriously as she should, and sure enough, bad things happen. This is a prevailing theme in the novel, as you'll see, where if students disobey the mandates of the faculty, they find themselves at the mercy of something that seems a bit too sinisterly deterministic to be fate.

Sasha, the heroine, is very ambitious and hard working. She starts out somewhat naive and frightened, and it's fun (and harrowing) to see how she changes over the course of this novel. Picture Hermione Granger's slightly evil twin, and that's basically Sasha. Her mentor, Farit, is like an evil Dumbledore. He gives her good advice but she also fears him, because terrible things happen when she doesn't do what he says. She also ends up sort of making friends with some of her fellow students, whether it's her doomed relationship with Kostya, her frenemy relationship with her two roommates, or the underclassmen she meets as a senior, who she mentors and terrorizes in equal measure.

Magic in this book changes the people who use it, with devastating effect. The whole book builds up to something terrible, and I've never read a book that really carries you along with the protagonist the way this one does. You really relate to Sasha because you experience everything from her eyes in real time, whether it's the agonizing frustration of studying for seemingly impossible exams, the slow and claustrophobic terror of being trapped in a school that's literally in the middle of nowhere, or her sense of drive and determination once she decides that she's going to seize her fate by the horns. (Go, Sasha!)

This book definitely is not for everyone and I think if you don't like long, slow-paced books, you probably won't like VITA NOSTRA. Ditto, if you're put off by scenes of body horror (of any kind) or morally grey characters, you probably won't like VITA NOSTRA. Luckily for me, that's all catnip to my inner reader and I devoured this the way the students devoured the fruit compote in their dining hall. It looks like the publisher is beginning the grueling process of translating these talented authors' works to English, as they have another one coming out soon called DAUGHTER FROM THE DARK. Sadly, it's not related to this trilogy (when's book 2 getting translated??? ahhh) but after being so impressed with VITA NOSTRA, I'd read anything from this fantastic duo.

Definitely recommend for fans of R. Lee Smith and Tanith Lee.

Thank you, Deidra, for reading this with me! :)

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

No One Here Is Lonely by Sarah Everett

NO ONE HERE IS LONELY was getting pretty bad reviews from other reviewers, but surprisingly, I actually thought it was okay. I can definitely see why some people wouldn't like it-- it's a strange book, and not a very happy one-- but I thought it did a good job showing what it can feel like to find yourself stagnating from social anxiety while also trying to deal with grief.

In this book, Eden, the heroine, is trying to get over the death of a classmate she had a crush on named Will. While that's going on, she's also trying to make sense of the last summer of "freedom" she has before college, her friend Lacey distancing herself, her father's health, and a dark secret of her mother's. Then one day, when talking to Will's mother, she finds out that Will donated himself as a "cognitive donor," meaning that there's a program of him that exists in cyberspace that can call up people in his voice, with his "personality" and even send out text messages-- for a fee.

Eden signs up for the program and uses Will as a therapist, confiding in him all of her problems and using him for advice. He ends up being able to "talk" her through a lot of her situations (including persuading her to shoplift, yikes), but she ends up using him as a crutch in a way that feels toxic. I think this is probably what turned a lot of readers off from the book, but I thought it made sense. Eden is so impressionable that she tends to rely on others to tell her what to do and how to feel, and a lot of the book is about her learning to get away from that-- first with the real people in her life, but then also with cyber Will.

Eden is actually a lot like me, personality-wise. I was really shy and awkward when I was younger and I think I was probably really clingy because I was afraid of being alone and saying the wrong thing and it felt like if I was in a group, I had camouflage and nobody would really focus on ME. And that was largely because, at the time, I didn't like me. This book is about Eden coming to terms with her "me" and shedding that camouflage and being seen and felt as a person, on her own terms.

I liked that message... even if the book was weird. *insert clown emoji here*

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Promise of Darkness by Bec McMaster

Some people are saying that this is just like SJM's faerie series, but those people are wrong because SJM's writing sucks and this book is the opposite of suck. This book was win. Don't get me wrong, it's romantic fantasy so you're not going to get anything like Tolkien (although I think Tolkien's boring, so that might actually be a good thing); instead, PROMISE OF DARKNESS is a fantasy romance with good writing, fast-paced action, and an intense romance with a lovable but slightly dangerous alpha male that's perfect for fans of Ilona Andrews or Jeaniene Frost.

The beginning of this book reminded me of THE CRUEL PRINCE so hard. Iskvien is the unfavored sister who gets to sit and watch while her mother blatantly practices favoritism with her sister Andraste. This reaches a cruel and incredibly unjust fever pitch when her mother casually trades her as a good faith hostage to the deadly-evil and deadly-hot Prince of Evernight for a couple months without so much as a by-your-leave.

Once at Thiago's court, Iskvien is immediately hit with a case of the insta-lusts, but she at least has the brains to know that she probably shouldn't and sort-of-but-not-really fights the attraction while I sat there with wine in hand and laughed gleefully. Honestly, it shouldn't have worked but it did and part of that is the way that the characters were written. Iskvien can be dumb, sure, but she's also a lot younger than most of the fae in the court, who have been alive for hundreds of years and talk about all the big wars and key players the way humans talk about actors in their favorite movies. It's so much larger-than-life than she's really prepared for, so I felt like her naivete and feelings of being like a fish out of water were totally on point. For what she is, I actually felt like she was a fairly strong female protagonist with some great kick-butt moments.

Thiago was also a great hero. I loved the way he loved the heroine. There's a depth to their relationship that I can't really get into because spoilers, but honestly, by the end of the story I was all weepy-- partially with feelings, but also partially with rage because I NEED THE SEQUEL IN HAND ASAP. There was so much more darkness and court intrigue than I was expecting in this book, and I honestly think that if you enjoy Frost, Andrews, or Holly Black's work, you will really enjoy this one, as it's got all the best parts of romance with all the best parts of fantasy. The court intrigue and fight scenes and fantasy sequences were so well done and there was just enough smut and sexual tension to make me keep flipping pages like a Vegas card counter.

I was kind of shocked that this is the same author who penned KISS OF STEEL, a steampunk vampire story that I thought had promise but didn't really pan out. This just goes to show that authors can grow a lot over just a few years and you shouldn't necessarily write one off because of a single book that didn't really jibe with you. I can't wait for CROWN OF DARKNESS to come out.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Electric Brain: How the New Science of Brainwaves Reads Minds, Tells Us How We Learn, and Helps Us Change for the Better by R. Douglas Fields

DNF @ p.202

Ugh, my first book of 2020 is a "did not finish"! Noooo!

ELECTRIC BRAIN is not a bad book, the problem is that it is very dense and not that easy to read. Now before you accuse me of being some idiot who dabbles in romance novels and doesn't know what she's talking about (the go-to insult for people on these sites wanting to discredit me, lol), I have a Bachelor's in Psychology (cum laude, y'all) and I used to tutor introductory neuroscience through the university (i.e. the university paid me to tutor, and even begged me to continue after I graduated because I was so good at my job), so understanding the material wasn't the problem. I'm a SMART idiot who dabbles in romance novels, thanks. I just felt like the material in this book wasn't necessarily presented in the most engaging way. It's very hard to read.

The paragraph blocks are big and tense and it kind of feels like you're being lectured at, especially when the author slips into "stream of conscious" mode, like he does when he's getting his EEG done, and feels like you, the reader, want to be privy to around four pages of his innermost thoughts as he engages in biofeedback. I did appreciate all the pictures and thought they helped break up the text, but there weren't as many photos as I would have liked-- particularly of the brain, as I feel like when he was talking about specific areas of the brain and their functions, it would be helpful to non-majors (and also as a helpful refresher to majors) to include a picture showing where the section he was talking about is.

Also, for those of you who need that sort of thing, major trigger warnings for the first section, which touches upon the darker side of medical science-- desecration and experimentation without consent, including a very charming mention of the man who inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by experimenting on the kittens he killed with electricity. Blech. Also, can we talk about how evil Thomas Edison is for endorsing the electric chair just to smear Nikola Tesla and AC? YIKES. #TeamTesla

I thought this book had some very interesting subject matter, and I think it would be a fantastic resource for a research paper on neuroscience or cognition (I see you, college students), but this is not a book that is designed for pleasure reading, and since I rate all books I read exclusively on how much I enjoyed them, I am giving it two stars for the iffy presentation. I get a lot of nonfiction as ARCs since I suspect a lot of people go, "Ew! School!" and don't want to read them for pleasure, but there are a lot of really engaging works of nonfiction out there. Sadly, this just wasn't one of them.

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

2 out of 5 stars