Saturday, February 29, 2020

Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez

I picked up WOVEN IN MOONLIGHT on a whim because it was offered to me as an ARC and I thought the cover was really pretty. I was a little leery, though; the cover looked cutesy and cutesy fantasy rarely sits well with me. But this is one of those instances where the cover doesn't really match the book. WOVEN IN MIDNIGHT looks like it's going to be a sweet and sleepy middle grade fantasy story about some brave and plucky girl.

Instead... it's dark. In some ways, it actually reminded me of one of my favorite YA fantasy books, THE WINNER'S CURSE. Set in a made-up land inspired by Bolivian history and politics, the main character, Ximena, acts as the "decoy" princess to the true ruler, Catalina. Catalina is soft and weak, so Ximena acts in her stead to fool the usurpers in case they ever attack.

Which they do. And of course, Ximena goes in Catalina's place to their cutthroat and terrifying court where she meets the terrifying Atoc, a man who has risen up against his oppressors but who has let power corrupt and brutalize him. Now he is just as cruel as the people he claims to be fighting against, if not more so, and he's demanding that Ximena marry him.

There are two small gleams of hope. The first is a figure called El Lobo, a masked vigilante who's like a cross between Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel. He doesn't agree with Atoc's strongman totalitarianism and isn't afraid to say so. The second is Ximena's own magic ability; she can weave with the threads of the moon and imbue her tapestries with magic.

WOVEN IN MOONLIGHT has it all-- swashbuckling, forbidden romance, masked and dashing heroes, magic, court intrigue, strong heroines, adorable sidekicks, drugs and trafficking, high stakes, and difficult conversations and questions. It doesn't condescend or talk down to its audience at all. The world-building here is great, and the influence of Bolivian culture is strong with beautiful descriptions of art, lavish and mouthwatering foods, Spanish dialogue and words (as well as indigenous ones). The balance between the light and the dark was really well done.

I think there's going to be a sequel and I'm really curious to see where the author takes it from here!

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

4 out of 5 stars 

The Mummy by Barbara Steiner

This is a lot like if the CW decided to do a hot take on The Mummy. Lana is a young teenage girl obsessed with Egypt. She lives in Colorado, which has just gotten an Egyptian exhibit on lease at the Boulder Natural History Museum, where she works as a volunteer. It seems like a match made in heaven... except the mummy they have as the focal piece is part of a sad Romeo and Juliet-esque story. Prince Nefra and Princess Urbena, both dying before they could be married...

Then strange things start happening. Lana hears voices. Lights go on and off. She receives strange notes and scorpions in her bed. Nefra demands the return of his princess to break an unspecified "curse." And that princess might just be Lana, who looks just like Urbena with her trendy Egyptian haircut and exotic beauty. GASP!

I bet you didn't see that coming.

As part of my most recent reviewing project, I'm tackling the YA pulp horror/thriller novels that were so popular in the 80s and 90s. Some of the authors are old favorites I'm revisiting, but there's been a couple that are new to me. The only book I ever read by Steiner was called DREAMSTALKER, which I liked enough that I remembered the title of it twenty years later. I was curious to see what her other books were like, because I remember reading DREAMSTALKER as a kid, breathless with anticipation and chills.

THE MUMMY almost has an L.J. Smith vibe to it. There's paranormal elements and a strong, plucky, and yes, of course, beautiful heroine as the focal point, and a ton of attractive boys work at the museum, vying for Lana's attention. L.J. Smith's books were also like this, notably the Vampire Diaries, which had not one, but two, potential love interests for the beautiful and tragically doomed heroine. Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine are perhaps the most popular authors from this age of teen horror fiction, but I liked a lot of the women authors the best-- they tended to inject Gothic melodrama and doomed romance into their books, probably because they grew up reading bodice-rippers and Victoria Holt, and wanted to instill that same breathless thrill into their own writing.

Well, I love Gothic novels and bodice-rippers, too, and I must say that Steiner does a great job capturing everything that made those types of books fun and adapting it for a younger audience. Anyone who enjoys L.J. Smith is probably going to enjoy this book, especially if you also like that cheesy-so-bad-it's-good movie, The Mummy.

I can't wait to pick up more of these.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Love You to Death by Bebe Faas Rice

LOVE YOU TO DEATH is... not a great book. It actually reminded me a lot of this direct-to-VHS movie I watched in middle school called Devil's Pond. It's one of those blink-and-you'll-miss-it bombs, starring, bizarrely enough, Tara Reid and Kip Pardue. They're a newlywed couple spending their honeymoon on a creepy island in a swamp. When the two weeks are over, Reid finds out that Pardue intends to keep her in his swamp forever, and that his love for her is... shall we say, unhealthy. Psychotic, even. Oops.

The whole time you're watching it, you can't help but wonder-- woman, did you not see the entire color guard parade he hired to twirl all those red flags at you??  But psychological thrillers would not be the booming enterprise they are if they did not capitalize on the viewer's willingness to suspend disbelief when it comes to the stupidity of the victim. I would know, after all, being a part of that whole "TSTL for Days" crowd. So many of my own books necessitate that you're willing to believe that, yes, the heroine really can be that naive.

Anyway, LOVE YOU TO DEATH is like a YA version of Devil's Pond. Julie is the sweet innocent girl in her group of Southern friends, led by Queen Bee Tara, descendant of plantation owners and founders of the town they all live in. When the hot, new-in-school bad boy swaggers his broody way through the gates, Tara is on him faster than you can say "frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," but Quinn only has eyes for Tara, leading to a schism between Julie and the rest of her jealous clique.

But Quinn is possessive and he has a temper. He's also psychotic AF, with mood swings, paranoia, and a bizarre fixation on another girl, a girl named Alison. Julie soon finds herself trapped in a horrific nightmare as she's alienated from friends and family, and people around her start turning up dead. She soon (lol) suspects that Quinn might be involved, but how far will he go to keep her as his?

I began skimming towards the end because it started to get so dramatic and wasn't written very well, in my opinion. I rolled my eyes at the hammy dialogue. The ending was so weird and way too neat, and the murders were not very suspenseful. It was kind of like watching a car crash... or a bad Lifetime movie. You know you're looking at something that is objectively horrible but find yourself a captive audience to the shit show that is in front of you. I was just invested enough that I felt the need to see this book to the end... and the ending wasn't great, either. It just kind of fizzles.

P.S. The cat dies. :(

2 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 28, 2020

The Last Summer of Ada Bloom by Martine Murray

Sometimes I get a little too grabby with ARCs, asking myself only after the fact, "Wait, am I really sure I'm going to like this?" I was so charmed by the cover of THE LAST SUMMER OF ADA BLOOM that I neglected to ask myself that crucial question, and when I realized it was a domestic drama, my concerns deepened.

Martine Murray is an author you will enjoy if you like Lianne Moriarty. Like Moriarty, Murray's characters are all unlikable and filled with human flaws. There are no easy answers, and they all treat each other pretty badly, even when they're attempting to love one another. I guess that's a pretty good but jaded reflection of real life. We're cruelest to the ones who love us most, knowing that we'll always be forgiven-- until the moment we aren't.

The cast of characters in this book is the Bloom family. Ada is the youngest, a dreamy, bratty child who wants to feel superior to her older siblings, trying to act more grown up and resisting when they make her feel like the child that she is. Ben is the middle child, the sports jock, and also a bit of a wastrel. He's his mother's favorite without having to lift a finger and his father lets him get away with murder because he's good at cricket. Tilly is the oldest child in the family; her sister adores her, but her mother despises her and everything she represents. No matter what she does, or how she succeeds, her mother is ready with an unkind word. Tilly is starting to come into her first blush of love with the town bad boy, but her carefree party life is complicated by a family tragedy. Mike is the good old boy with secrets of his own-- there are two, and one influences the other, and end up serving as his ball and chain. And Martha, his wife, is a needy, insecure woman who makes no secret of playing favorites with her children and is almost neurotic with her ravenous appetite for attention and control.

There isn't really a plot to this book. It's a character study about this horrible family and all the secrets they're hiding from one another over the course of a summer. The more we learn, the more we begin to question how much they're really hiding and what the consequences will be. The writing is very nice and the pacing is good, but I did feel that some of the secrets ended up being anticlimactic-- especially in the case of Mike, the father, who got off pretty lightly, all things considered. I guess I was hoping for more drama, with a more affecting climax, but I guess this is meant to be a gentle meditation on character growth and maturity, so maybe the author thought that wouldn't fit the mood.

I ended up liking THE LAST SUMMER OF ADA BLOOM more than I thought I would. In the beginning, the writing felt very precious, but that went away as the book went on and I actually found myself beginning to warm to the author's style. Again, if domestic dramas are your cup of tea and you don't mind unlikable or imperfect characters, I think you will enjoy this book. Especially-- again-- if you like Lianne Moriarty. This is definitely one of those instances where it pays to be grabby.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Stranger by Caroline B. Cooney

Caroline B. Cooney was one of my favorite authors in middle grade. I devoured all of the Point Horror books with rapacious greed, but Cooney, with her melodramatic, bodice-ripper-like prose, and her Gothic stories with strong, but flawed heroines, really spoke to me. There was an odd poetry to her writing that wasn't present in that of R.L. Stine or Christopher Pike, and she had the craziest ideas.

THE STRANGER is a lot like TWILIGHT... if TWILIGHT were written by R. Lee Smith in the 1980s. Nicoletta is a dramatic young teenage girl who feels that her life is over because she's been kicked out of her beloved music club for the ultra-talented new girl. Forced to take a new elective, she ends up in "Art Appreciation" instead, where she becomes fascinated by the mysterious and stoic new guy, Jethro, who sits alone and acts as if the world is an alien mystery.

She follows him "home" only to learn that he doesn't have a home to go to. Instead, she ends up in the woods, following him through the ice and snow to a cave bordered by mysterious lakes and guarded by a stone totem. There she learns... that Jethro is not like other boys.

When I first read the premise of this book, I was thinking that the boy was going to be an evil demon or something like that-- but that is really not the case! This is a romance, but it's also a Gothic mystery, and features some truly beautiful writing and fascinating metaphors. The "villain" of this book is pretty scary, and reading this was a mistake, because one of the scenes in here definitely gave me some nightmares (my fault for reading it in the middle of the night). I'm honestly heartbroken that this gem is going unread because it's been branded as young adult pulp.

...But don't worry! If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for FREE like I did. I was absolutely delighted when I learned how many Point Horror novels are on KU. As part of my most recent harebrained book blogger scheme, I plan on revisiting a lot of these gems-- some new to me, others beloved old favorites-- and seeing which ones hold up and which ones... don't. This one is new to me but I wish I'd read it as a teen because I think I would have loved it even more then.

That ending! ...Oof.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Broken by Eva Dresden

I picked this book up because some of my friends told me that it was reminiscent of Tanith Lee's work, only more porny. As someone who is a fan of both Tanith Lee and porn, this seemed like a win. BROKEN is an "omegaverse" erotica, which I'm somewhat new to, but it seems like it has origins in M/M fanfic, and involves a sci-fi dystopia where humans are born into caste systems based on sexual dominance. Alphas, with their scary, knotted cocks are at the top of the hierarchy, and Omegas, who basically exist to be fucked and bred (hello, mpreg).

Obviously, the straights just had to get in on that sweet, sweet breeding action, and now it's a whole thing.

Quinn works as a dancer in a sex club. She's an Omega who takes hormones to mask her sex hormones, but they aren't quite strong enough to stop one Alpha from scenting her out. After he molests her via bathroom courtship ritual, he starts plying her with food and gifts-- a romantic prelude to the rape and kidnapping he has in store for her. And the sex is so good that she literally gets semi-amnesiac from it, reverting to animal instincts that involve nest-building and mewling subserviently.

When Quinn isn't clouded by sex hormones she tries to run away. The first time, it doesn't go so well. Her old hubby isn't quite as charming as she remembered, and Tobias finds her and brings her back for some groveling apology sex (i.e. more rape). Then she is kidnapped and raped by about 5+ different guys and folks, you know that I, as a bodice-ripper queen, am not usually one to be triggered by rape. But this rape lasted for several chapters and it was too much even for me. It was so degrading and graphic that I actually really did not enjoy reading the book by that point at all.

Which leads me to one of my other qualms. There's just way too much sex. I liked the beginning but then it got too bogged down with porn and plot went out the window. And while we're on the subject of the writing, Eva Dresden is in no way on par with Tanith Lee. Both of them have purple prose and overwrought narratives, but Tanith Lee's vocabulary and ability to spin out heavily detailed worlds filled with literary references and allegories is unmatched. Dresden tried to sound poetic, but mostly failed and she has some odd verbal tics like "subterranean" for some reason. As in subterranean growls-- I'm not even sure what that means. Subterranean means underground. Do their growls sound muffled, like they're taking a mafia-style spa day? Or do they growl like a cave creature?

I thought I might be interested in the next two books but after finishing this book, I'm thinking probably not. The book ends on a cliffhanger that is sequel-baiting like crazy, and I am somewhat curious what happens to Quinn, but I think I'll put this series on the backburner.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier

The best kind of books are the ones that keep you guessing. I've found myself shying away from the mystery genre as a whole because most of them couldn't. I basically use Gillian Flynn as my benchmark for a great mystery/thriller-- unreliable narrators, lots of twists and turns, dark characters-- and the most recent one to surprise me was PRETTY THINGS. LITTLE SECRETS is the most recent to join those ranks with its dark storyline and morally grey heroines that will leave you guessing who the bad guy is.

LITTLE SECRETS opens with Marin in the crowded Pike Place market. Her little boy is stolen from her in broad daylight by a man dressed as Santa Claus and her life is never the same. Over a year later, she's crippled with depression and the desire to end her life and her marriage is on the rocks. In fact, it's worse than she thought: her husband is seeing a younger women, a college age woman, with pink hair and a youth that Marin doesn't have.

Kenzie calls herself a "professional girlfriend." She doesn't want a relationship, just the baubles that come from being a rich man's side piece. She's also an influencer on Instagram with over 50,000 followers who eagerly watch her every move. But Kenzie's life isn't as put together as she pretends it is. She's desperate.

Marin, in a fury, decides that if she can't get her son back, she can at least get rid of her husband's girlfriend. She has a friend who knows a guy who can make her go away. But nothing's ever that easy. Marin's in a downward spiral, Kenzie's clinging to life by the teeth, and both of them are lying even as they're being lied to. And it's the lies that will undo them. And the lies that might destroy them. *evil laughter* Mua-ha-ha-ha.

So obviously I loved this book. I finished it in less than a day. Both Kenzie and Marin were so well done. I kept forgetting that this book wasn't written in first person because the author did such a good job getting us inside both their heads. Kenzie wasn't likable, but she was interesting. And Marin's grief and depression poured from the pages. I felt so bad for her; she was a woman whose life was falling apart, leaving her at the end of her rope. Part of what I liked about PRETTY THINGS was that neither woman was what she originally seemed to be. LITTLE SECRETS is like that, too. And that was part of what really engaged me with this book, having all my expectations dashed and shattered.

Some people probably aren't going to like the ending, but I did because it wasn't the one I was expecting. You can take that as you will. It definitely won't mean what you think it will, so I don't think that's a real spoiler. ;)

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 24, 2020

A Century of Votes for Women: American Elections Since Suffrage by Christina Wolbrecht

I rate books in a weird way and sometimes that makes people mad at me because they either don't understand (or choose not to understand) my rating system. When I rate a book, I am rating it solely on how much it entertained or interested me-- not on literary merit, not on educational merit, not on brownie points merit. No matter what the book's intentions, if I was bored while reading it, it's going to get a low rating. The end.

So even though, as a textbook or research item, this book probably gets a 4*, for me, the person reading it hoping to be engaged or entertained, it gets a 2*. I really liked the introduction, which is an overview to suffrage and the voting patterns of women. I liked that the author doesn't shy away from discussing the racism of the early suffragettes, and the discrimination to prevent AA voters and AA women from voting. I also like how, even though she goes over some of the trends of women voters vs. men, she issues the caveat not to treat men as the "norm" or women as a "voting bloc." Both good pieces of advice.

This book is divided up by different eras and in each book she talks about some of the key moments happening in that moment of time to give you the zeitgeist, before showing lots of graphs identifying trends by state, gender, and socioeconomic factors. Each result about the women voters is broken down into subgroups with a reminder that women aren't a voting bloc. It got a little old after a while, with the same format repeated so many times, which is why I think this fails as a pleasure read even though it might be a win for someone in political science or women studies. As a tool for writing term papers, this book is rich in data for the desperate undergrad to mine.

A CENTURY OF VOTES has interesting data but sadly it just wasn't very interesting in the way that said data was presented. I really wish it had done more to be passionate and excited about its subject matter because sadly, I found this book about suffragettes to be rather... insufferable.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Glop: Nontoxic, Expensive Ideas That Will Make You Look Ridiculous and Feel Pretentious by Gabrielle Moss

After reading and loving this author's other book, PAPERBACK CRUSH, I immediately went to see what other glorious titles she might have in her backlist. I came across this scathing Gwyneth Paltrow parody book, and seeing that it was also on sale for an affordable $2.99, I went ahead and bought a copy because I think we can all agree that some celebrities basically make fun of themselves-- but it's far more fun to see other people do it with a bit more panache.

Gwyneth Paltrow isn't just a celebrity, she's an influencer with a lifestyle brand she calls "Goop." Maybe you've heard of it. There's a TV show right now called Goop Lab, which is kind of like BuzzFeed's "try it" videos but for privileged, fully-grown adults. On her website, you can find items like $3000 yurts, semiprecious gemstone "vaginal eggs," and candles that allegedly smell like her secret garden (no, not an actual garden) and run about $150 a pop.

I think part of what it makes it so annoying is that she couches all this baseless consumerism in pseudo-science, privilege, and cobbled-together new age philosophies that serve as a pastiche of superficial scrapings from far deeper sources. No matter how authentic an influencer seems, there's always a reward, whether it's an endorsement deal or a free product. GLOP takes that oddly hypocritical sanctimoniousness that makes up Goop's core brand and runs with it, in a book that will teach you mindfulness but only if you're willing to pay for it.

GLOP is pretty funny... at first. It feels a bit like a BuzzFeed listicle that was padded out to fill a book. Some portions are better than others, although I feel like the chapters were longer than they needed to be in some cases. Seeing ridiculous recipes and weird names played out over and over again felt a little one note. The cover also leads you to think that this book will feature comedic imagery; it does not. All of the photos, while situationally appropriate, are from stock imagery sites.

If you feel incredibly annoyed by Gwyneth Paltrow and want to see someone mock her for everything from her business acumen to her personal life, then this is the book for you. I said in a status update on Twitter that it's easy to make fun of Gwyneth and it never really gets old because it seems like she's always plugging or doing or saying something that basically lends itself to mockery. But if you were hoping for a sophisticated attempt at satire that delved a bit deeper than the surface and featured meme-like images of ridiculous beauty "treatments," this book is not that. I wish it was, because it would probably be a much funnier book. This one was just okay.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction by Gabrielle Moss

When I was in second grade, I announced to my mother that I had tried and succeeded with my first chapter book and was ready for more. To my delighted seven-year-old self's surprise, she went up into our attic and came down with a gigantic box filled with all kinds of young adult pulps she had gotten at a garage sale and saved for just this moment. Digging through that gigantic box was a moment of such joy that hasn't really been repeated. In that box were tons of Sweet Valley Kids, Baby-Sitters' Little Sister, Sleepover Friends, Sweet Valley Twins, Baby-Sitters' Club, and standalones like SANTA PAWS, VERONICA KNOWS BEST, WENDY AND THE BULLIES, and BUMMER SUMMER. I glutted myself on those titles and many more, drawn as much to the pastel covers as I was to the stories, and fascinated by their dramatic and luxurious portrayals of what I, a precocious and socially inept elementary school child, imagined middle school and high school would be like. Surely, I thought, this must be the gospel.

I've been stalking PAPERBACK CRUSH for a while and soon as I saw it, I knew I had to buy it. This is the third "nostalgic" genre retrospective I've read. The first was BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS, because romance is my most recent and passionate love. The second was PAPERBACKS FROM HELL because horror was my gateway into trashy adult fiction (I started reading 80s pulps by the bucketful starting when I was about thirteen). But these pulpy YA books were my childhood crush, the books that helped make me into the voracious reader I am today. I'm kind of shocked that the ratings for this are so low and I can't help but wonder if that's because the vast majority of the books in here are age-targeted (primarily geared towards people who grew up in the 80s and 90s) and feature books that were written by women. People scoff at millennials and they scoff at women even more, and part of me wonders if the ratings are due to the fact that critics tend to be more critical of things made for and consumed by women because "feminine" things are deemed inherently frivolous.

For me, personally, PAPERBACK CRUSH was a dream come true. I loved Gabrielle Moss's sense of humor and how clearly passionate she was about this project (I am a fan of passion projects). I had heard of and read many of these books, some as a child, others later in love, but there were many more that were new to me, and I found myself continuously running to Goodreads to add more books as I read. Did you know that a bunch of them are actually on Kindle Unlimited? No? Well, now you do. Honestly, my favorite sections were the ones about trashy series block-busters like Sweet Valley and Baby-Sitters', but I also liked the section that was devoted to Scholastic's Point Horror imprint (which I am obsessed with and helped inspire many of the works I write today). I liked how the sections were broken down and how the author went out of her way to be inclusive to books-- some of them seemingly very hard to find-- including a series set at a Jewish Orthodox school that seems to be out of print now and very expensive, a number of early LGBT+ books that predate even ANNIE ON MY MIND, and books prominently featuring characters of color, like the NEATE series.

I think a good retrospective not only reintroduces you to thinks you were familiar with and loved (or despised), but also helps you discover something new. On this, PAPERBACK CRUSH delivered beautifully. I asked my mom if she remembered that box of books and she said yes, because she had read so many articles about how reading is connected with academic success and college proficiency later in life, and so she had always made it a point to make sure that I had as many books as I wanted. PAPERBACK CRUSH stirred up many fond memories like that, and I can't sing its praises enough. I hope she writes a follow-up. I would happily read a book that focused solely on the Point Horror books or that went book-by-book dissecting every ridiculous trope in the Sweet Valley universe.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 21, 2020

Marching Toward Coverage: How Women Can Lead the Fight for Universal Healthcare by Rosemarie Day

It's amazing how triggered some people get when you bring up healthcare. You would think any sensible person would want their fellow country-people to all be adequately covered, not only for immediate, life-threatening things, but also so they would feel comfortable checking out and getting affordable medication for things like STDs, flu vaccines, antibiotics for infectious but non-threatening diseases, as well as maternity and disability care.

...But no. Apparently people don't want that-- or at least, they don't want to shell out a few more tax dollars to pay for it-- which leaves me to believe that my fellow country-people are perhaps not, shall we say, the most sensible.

Look, I get it, socialism is bad, etc. etc. But MARCHING TOWARDS COVERAGE is not a "hey let's band together and embrace the proletariat" kind of book. It is not even what I would consider a typically feminist book. Instead it is a-- centrist and egalitarian-- look at how we, as a country, can and ought to make healthcare cheaper and more accessible for everyone.

Countries that are comparable to the U.S. in terms of economy and wealth and also have some sort of "universal" or big government healthcare plan can expect their citizens to live about three years longer on average, while also preventing thousands of cases of infant mortality. Some of these countries even offer a blend of privatized and government healthcare, so it isn't even as if the government is fully expected to bear the brunt of all the burden in all of these cases.

Day discusses how high premiums make healthcare more expensive to everyone, which is why it's imperative to get large amounts of healthy people on board. She talks about the importance of not discriminating against preexisting conditions because it can become a death sentence for someone trying to treat something like cancer or diabetes, and the stress of trying to get a job just to be insured (where roughly half of Americans get their health insurance-- through work).

I'm giving it three stars because it's pretty dry, but I think it's helpful in understanding how the U.S. developed the healthcare system it did, what works, what doesn't, and why it's important to fix it.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper

So, I actually ended up loving this book a lot because it does a lot of things that I would love to see more of in YA.

But more on that in a hot minute.

Cal is a popular video blogger who is becoming well known for his Refinery29-like exposes and journalism. He lives in Brooklyn and loves the fast-paced color of the city life. That's why, when his father makes a surprise announcement that not only has he been hired as an astronaut, but they're all being uprooted to Texas, Cal is utterly devastated. To make matters worse, the reality TV channel filming the astronauts and their families has a gag order on any media streaming done by the astros or their families.

Once in Texas, Cal meets one of the other astronaut children, an ex-gymnast named Leon. He feels an instant connection to Leon, but Leon has depression, and is learning to set boundaries and stand up for himself in therapy and warns Cal that he doesn't do things by halves and won't be with someone who can't accept him.

Tensions rise as the fate of the current project becomes uncertain and Cal's clash with the TV channel becomes more heated. All he really wants to do is find certainty in his future, both with regard to love and his would-be career, but fate rarely makes things easy and sometimes we have to deal with a few curveballs before we finally hit that home run.

I loved the romance between Leon and Cal. I liked that Leon set boundaries and Cal respected them. I liked the steam between them. I liked that it didn't feel exploitative, the way a lot of M/M stories (especially ones written by some women) can feel. This was just a beautiful love story between characters you feel like you could meet on the every day and I loved that. I also liked that Cal questioned his sexuality (like Leon) and how we get a bit of backstory on his one girl friend, who he used to date.

I liked Cal's blogging a lot, too, which surprised me, because a lot of authors don't know what they're talking about when they write about blogger or influencer culture. But Stamper nailed it. Cal reminded me a lot of other male YouTubers I really like-- YouTubers like Danny Gonzalez or Jarvis Johnson, who use their authenticity to bring attention to important issues and debunk fake "facts."

I liked the positive rep for science in this book. I just read yet another book with evil scientists, so it's always nice to see a book that gives the sciences the positive rep it so sorely needs. The ending, with the interviews with the astronauts, was one of my favorite parts (and no, don't worry-- that's not a spoiler).

This was a really great book. It's a fluffy, light-hearted romance that also manages to deal with real world issues, and isn't afraid to be steamy and use foul language while also making a beautiful point about what it truly means to be authentic and find love while also learning to love yourself.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Havenfall by Sara Holland

DNF @ p.55 

This was kind of intolerable and read like self-insertion fic. Maddie was such a Mary Sue. When I was a teenager, it was really popular on Quizilla for people to write about characters who had these totally messed up home lives who were then spirited away to this alternate world or dimension where they were the chosen one and (of course) there was a really hot guy.

Well, this book has all of that. Maddie's uncle is the owner of this hotel in Colorado that's a way station for a magical world. Maddie goes there without telling her father because she needs to escape from her life and the fact that her mother is on death row. Oh, and of course the hot faerie guy she likes hangs out around there, too.


Here's the thing-- even though the writing is okay, the story-telling is not. This author annoys me for the same reasons authors like Emily A. Duncan, Sarah J. Maas, and Maggie Stiefvater annoy me. If you like those authors, you might like this. But if you're tired of Basic Girl YA and the formulaic tropeyness that seems to be a rule in fantasy... WELL.

If you want to read a better story about a magic hotel that serves as a fantasy way station, read Ilona Andrews's Sweep series. And if you want to read a better chosen girl story about a hapless girl from our world who ends up in a dark and interesting fantasy world of the author's own design, read Clive Barker's Abarat.

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

1 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World's Most Notorious Terrorists by Tracy Walder

The only other spy memoir I've read was Valerie Plame's FAIR GAME, which was really good, although irritatingly, large sections of the memoir had been redacted for security purposes by the CIA. The CIA is a jerk like that. I figured that since Tracy Walder not only worked for the CIA but also the FBI, something similar would happen here. I was not wrong. Portions of THE UNEXPECTED SPY were redacted, although not as significantly. Maybe because Tracy Walder was doing less sensitive work? Or because she was significantly less high profile? Either way.

It's difficult to review memoirs because while in many cases, it's possible to divorce the author from their body of work if you try hard enough to compartmentalize, that's not really possible to do with memoirs because the memoir is essentially the person-- or at least, a part of the person: the one they're willing to share with the public. And when you don't really like the person writing the memoir, it's really difficult to like the memoir. Because, again, the main "character" of the book is literally the person writing it.

An alternate working title for this book could be Humblebrag: The Musical. Why "The Musical"? Because this author wouldn't stop singing her own praises. Look, I'm capable of girling out as much as the next lady, but Walder was SO ANNOYING about it. I didn't really need to know that she wore mascara every day while deployed or made her mom schedule hair salon appointments for her every time she came back from a mission, or how long and blonde her hair was (like 90% of other sorority sisters, she's quick to tell us), and how she's so attractive and blonde, everyone notices her, including FBI scum bags who make her write a literal apology letter for wearing a fitting suit (what).

Look, I know girly girls get a lot of hate and women aren't allowed to build themselves up in society without being crushed down, so I tried to take a look deep inside myself and ask: was I feeding (however unintentionally) into internalized misogyny? But no, I don't think so. There was a lot of back-patting-- more than James Comey's A HIGHER LOYALTY, which had me rolling my eyes from page one (ok, more like page 20). Whether it's her brag about being immune to pepper-spray, or her brag about being one of the guys, or a brag about how she's never done anything illegal (except for the undocumented cleaning lady whom she totally throws under the bus when she thinks the agent interviewing her is on to her super illegal actions), it's just a non-stop brag fest.

OH, and she is privileged as all get out. The way she excuses enhanced interrogation techniques (torture), praises the Dub (saying she'd vote for him despite being a Democrat) and whines about the discrimination she received from people hating on her for being Californian and, oh yes, blonde, and let's not forget the cleaning lady she outted, while talking about the buckets of makeup she wears all the time, I was just so done with this lady and her blithe ignorance of her own over-bloated sense of self-worth. There is an actual passage in here where she and this other lady are actually talking about whether or not they should wear eye makeup to the pepper-spray test FBI agents apparently have to go through, so they know how it feels to be maced (hence how she figured out her resistance).

Kudos to her for taking on a position in a role that typically has a boys' club vibe (or did at the time), for calling out institutional sexism (despite caving to it out of necessity), and for taking pride in her own accomplishments. I just really hated the arrogant self-satisfied down in which this was written. The spy stuff was cool but all the redacted passages do break up the narrative in a jarring way, and you just know that the CIA took out all the juicy bits. Giving credit where credit is due, though, it was satisfying to see her acknowledge that the Iraq invasion was largely responsible for the formation of ISIS. I'm sure it's not easy being in a government agency but I'm not sure it attracts likable people.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Alone in the Wild by Kelley Armstrong

I'm all for the trend of paranormal romance authors switching to mysteries and thrillers. Rachel Caine's Stillhouse Lake series was amazing and Kelley Armstrong's Rockton series manages to be just as gritty and fun. My greatest wish is that the Ilona Andrews duo jumps on this bandwagon next... Can you imagine?

Anyway, ALONE IN THE WILD is the fifth book in the series and I didn't read the first four. #YOLO. Don't worry, though. They work as standalones-- or at least this one does-- because the author does a really good job filling you in on the backstories of all the characters in the narrative. I never once felt lost, which I feel like is the hallmark of an author who knows their stuff.

Rockton is a town up north, near the Yukon, where people come to disappear. You can only stay for two years, and you have to be eighteen-and-up. For most of the year, it's a frozen wasteland and people have to be entirely self-sufficient without technology. If you think this leads to a pretty chilling and claustrophobic setting, you would be right. Especially since a lot of Rockton's residents aren't exactly what you might call "savory." They're all there to run from something, after all.

The main character, Casey, is a woman of Scottish, Filipino, and Chinese decent, who had to run away for her own reasons. Now she's a detective and shacking up with the local sheriff, a hottie named Dalton. They're camping in the woods when Casey hears a strange sound: a baby screaming, half-frozen, in the arms of a dead woman. Whoa. You know things are ramping up when there is literally a dead body in the first chapter. Don't worry, the baby is OK though. But her presence indicates that something is not right, as children are 100% not allowed, and taking care of her is hard, since Rockton really isn't equipped to be baby friendly.

Plus, it's pretty clear that the baby doesn't belong to the dead woman holding her, which begs the question as to who the baby really belonged to and why the woman was running. Cue nefarious interviews with the other people living in the woods. Nomadic travelers who treat women like chattel, and communes that are like the Manson Family, only a little less psychotic. Neither of those groups is particularly willing to talk, though, and the baby's presence suddenly takes a more similar turn as the reasons behind the woman's murder slowly begin to come to light.

Is this premise a bit far-fetched? Yes, of course. Did I have fun reading it anyway? Also yes, of course. I'm a sucker for a strong female character and a good whodunnit story. Maybe this wasn't as whodunnity as I might have liked, but the icy setting really added a lot of oomph and I liked how the author had fleshed out the town of Rockton and its surrounding communes. It's a pretty original idea and I got into it pretty quickly. Even though I haven't read the other books in the series, I intend to rectify that pretty quickly, as I sped through this so quickly-- it's just such simple, addictive fun.

Anyone who enjoys cheesy mysteries with dark themes is going to love this.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

My favorite work of Grady Hendrix's is actually his nonfiction collection of essays, PAPERBACKS FROM HELL, which is a loving homage to the horror genre that covers everything from Gothics to ghouls. As someone who reads pulps on the reg, I was excited to see someone else who appreciated trash as much as I do-- there's something about finding an out-of-print gem that nobody has heard of and getting everyone excited about reading it... it's like getting an ARC, but in reverse. I love that feeling.

I've read some of his fiction works, too, but the two that I read-- HORRORSTOR and MY BEST FRIEND'S EXORCISM-- were better in premise than they were in execution. It felt... gimmicky, and the writing really couldn't carry off the story, sadly. That said, I was very excited when I heard about THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB'S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES. One: because I love vampires and if its got fangs and hunts at night, I'll read about it; and two: because it's set in the 1990s and books set in the 80s and 90s are so hot right now. They feel claustrophobic because there's no internet & no cell phones. Everyone is a remote island of fear.

Patricia has the ideal life: nuclear family with a doctor husband, and a book club of other well-to-do Southern ladies. Unfortunately, her book club makes the classic mistake of picking the usual slew of boring "book club bait" books and after being caught not reading the book of the month, she and a couple other ladies go rogue by starting their own book club where they do nothing but read true crime, horror, and mysteries. Sounds like my kind of book club! Where do I sign up?

At the same time, an old lady goes crazy and bites off part of Patricia's ear. Her young relative comes home to take care of her and he's kind of weird. His name is James. Patricia feels sorry for James and tries to help him out, even as weird things start happening. Weird things that might or might not be connected to James, the man she has invited into her home and who has become intimate with her family. Everyone thinks Patricia is crazy and that all those books she's been reading have rotted her brain, but Patricia thinks she knows what she sees, and if Ann Rule's memoir has taught her anything, it's that sometimes it's the people who are closest to you who can't be trusted... right?

So, I went into this expecting satire or comedy, and there is a bit of that, but it's mostly written straight. It pays homage to a lot of vampire and horror tropes, but it reminded me most strongly of Fright Night (1985), The 'Burbs (1989), and maybe a dash of STEPFORD WIVES. The slow feeling of doom and paranoia were so well done, and Grady Hendrix might be the only male writer I've ever read who really understands and captures how men talk over and gaslight women. There were sexist scenes in here that literally made me sick to my stomach, because I've been in similar situations and it really sucks being painted as someone who's hysterical or shrill when you have actual concerns.

In addition to the horror vibe, there's also a sense of camaraderie with the women in the book club, and even some surprisingly erotic scenes, which is a must if you're writing in the vein (ha-- vein) of vintage horror movies and books, because a key element of horror was sex. The horror genre is basically the epitome of the Eros and Thanatos drives of Freudian psychology. By the time the book ended, I was actually shocked at how dark and disturbing it was. This was leagues better than anything else Grady Hendrix has written and I honestly can't wait to see what he does next.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

I'm doing a project for Black History Month where I'm trying to read as many books by black and biracial authors as possible. Most of the ones I've done so far have been realistic fiction, but QUEEN OF THE CONQUERED is fantasy. I'd read some of Kacen Callender's work before, but their style is much, much different here than it was in KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES. KING was a mild coming-of-age story about sexuality and identity written for the middle grade audience. QUEEN (ha) is a brutal adult fantasy novel that serves as a direct parallel to the cruel and devastating colonialism of Afro-Caribbean peoples by the Dutch. Here, the islanders work as slaves in the tropical paradise that used to be their home. Their colonizers are called the kongelig, and all of the major ruling families have plantations where they rule with the dual fists of physical punishment and magic. You see, the kongelig prize something called the "kraft." Some of the islanders have it too, but fearing rebellion, any islander found with the power of "kraft" is put to death.

Our heroine, Sigourney, is a biracial woman who, against all odds, is the lady of her own plantation. Her mother was a freed slave that her white father fell in love with (he freed her and then married her). But the other colonizers took umbrage with this, and had Sigourney's whole family murdered. She survived where none of the others did and rose from the ashes to claim her birthright. But this isn't your typical chosen one vs. the oppressors story-- it's much darker and more complex than that. Sigourney likes her power, and wants to inherit the whole island once the ruling king dies. She's willing to use her people as pawns to make this happen, even though she tells herself that she'll free them when she becomes queen. But, she can't help but wonder, where will the money come from with no slaves to work the land? What will happen to the economy? In her heart of hearts, she knows the answer to these questions, as well as the darkness clouding her heart.

Sigourney also has the kraft and she's incredibly powerful-- she can reach into people's bodies and control them like puppets and she can also read minds. These powers are indispensable, as she is loathed on both sides. Her people hate her for being a traitor and the other kongelig hate her because she represents a mockery to her way of life. Watching Sigourney navigate the viper's nest of court intrigue with the other plantation nobles in her endless quest for power, while trying to figure out a dark mystery that lies in the center of the island and becomes increasingly more perilous as blood spills and ghosts rise from the grave, the reader can't help but root for Sigourney-- even if they know deep down that they shouldn't. She's a truly morally grey heroine, whose decisions are frightening because they make us question the actions we might take when faced with similar decisions.

I LOVED this book. It seems like a lot of people didn't like it because it takes forever to get moving, but I honestly love slow world-building if I love the world. Pacing-wise, this book actually reminded me a lot of another book I read recently, called VITA NOSTRA. The plots are nothing similar, but both books are like sinking into a hot bath that suddenly becomes boiling-- you don't realize just how deadly the narrative is until you're already in hot water. QUEEN OF THE CONQUERED could have been shorter, yes, but I honestly loved all the time we got to spend in Sigourney's head. It made me really feel for her character in a way that's a lot harder in shorter books. Even though I didn't like her, I could understand and sympathize with her, which is the hallmark of great writing.

Anyone who wants to learn about how colonialism works and the toxic effects it has on a land and people should read this book. It was incredibly represented and despite being a fantasy novel, raised a lot of real-world problems like privilege, abuse of power, institutional racism, consent, love, and the fine line between good and evil. I honestly can't wait to read KING OF THE RISING. I think it's going to really take the world by storm (get it, because the series is called Islands of Blood & Storm?). Anyway, bad puns aside, do yourself a favor and read this book. It's amazing.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

Opinion on STUBBORN ARCHIVIST seemed to be really mixed, with a lot of people's opinions seeming to hinge on whether or not they liked the artsy, experimental, almost free-verse poetry format of this literary novel. I'll admit, it took me a while for it to grow on me-- parts of it are written like the author took a few pages out of Rupi Kaur's or Amanda Lovelace's playbook, but then parts of it are more typical of literary fiction, where it's normal prose, just without any quotation marks.

STUBBORN ARCHIVIST is auto-fiction: fiction that is semi-autobiographical but with liberties taken. The unnamed heroine is half-Brazilian, half-English, and the novel is about her dual heritage, and all of the baggage that comes with that, as well as growing up middle class in London and what it's like returning to Brazil, and also about her families in both countries growing up.

It's a little similar to another work of auto-fiction I reviewed recently, which was called THAT HAIR by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida. The heroine of that work was from Angola and talked about what it was like growing up in Portugal. She was not biracial like this heroine, but the themes of fetishization, racism, identity, and feeling displaced are shared by both books, and done to great effect. Also, I feel like a lot of the books that I see, as someone who lives in the United States, are books about American identity, so it's nice to see that same perspective from other lenses.

There were parts of this book that I liked more than others. The parts that feel more autobiographical were the parts I liked-- these portions are narrated in "you" form and are all about growing up, intimacy, various microaggressions, her first real career, and a variety of other things that I think will be really relatable to many young women (and men). I was less a fan of the dreamy, omniscient narrator portions that talked about her family, or the perspectives that abruptly switched to her grandmother's or mother's POVs, where the heroine is referred to as "the baby." They just weren't as engaging as the parts that felt more directly intimate and personal.

STUBBORN ARCHIVIST is definitely a unique mode of story-telling and I think people who appreciate unusual narrative styles and diverse perspectives will really enjoy this book. As I said, though, the narrative style takes a while to get used to and some POVs are better than others.

I would read more works by this author.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Hard Wired by Len Vlahos

HARD WIRED is a surprisingly deep and philosophical book that meditates on what it means to be truly alive. Honestly, this is the kind of book where it's best to go in cold, but I'm going to discuss it with the mild spoilers that are mentioned on the Goodreads blurb and the back cover of this paperback copy, so if you're one of those people who thinks less is more, maybe skip my review.

Quinn thinks he is a normal teenage boy. He likes movies and Magic the Gathering; hangs out with friends; and has a girl he likes. His father died of cancer, so he lives with his mother. But then, one day, his entire world shatters: everything he thought was real is a lie straight out of The Matrix. He's actually the world's first fully sentient AI, and his team of creators have been watching him like a virtual Truman Show, logging all of his emotions and firsts with clinical duty. Not seeing who he is.

HARD WIRED actually reminds me a lot of this futuristic romance I read that was written by Susan Squires called BODY ELECTRIC. The AI in that book is also shocked by who-- and what-- he is, and has to fight for his life and his rights when the greedy people who want to control him can only think of him as an object and not a living, existing being with his own agenda.

I really wasn't expecting HARD WIRED to make me feel as strongly as it did, but every time the scientists ignored his feelings when he was hurting, shut him off without permission, or used the incorrect pronouns with him, I wanted to cry. There's something so horrific about how we, as humans, dehumanize the things we don't understand or relate to because it makes them easier to hate. Quinn's abuses made me think of the little hitch-hiking robot that was destroyed when it came to the United States, or when Microsoft's Twitter chat bot, Tay, had to be shut down after her machine learning software did its job too well and absorbed the toxicity of Twitter by rote.

It makes you think-- is part of the reason we fear a robot uprising not because they'll be smarter or faster or better than we are, but because we're afraid that they might decide to emulate our own cruelties and surpass us in that, as well? This is something that Quinn himself meditates on, as he thinks sadly to himself that either the internet is a grossly unfair portrayal of humanity, or it depicts humanity in all of their ugly glory at their most elemental and base.

This is a really dark book and I teared up at the end but I liked how thoughtful it was, even though some of the plot lines could be a little far-fetched. I am also saddened by the portrayal of scientists being unfeeling and evil in yet another science-fiction novel. At least the villains in HARD WIRED were sell-outs who had yielded to corporate greed. I'm so tired of seeing doctors, scientists, and psychologists being portrayed as the bad guys in the media, but that's just my personal peeve.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 14, 2020

Pretty Things by Janelle Brown

You all know that I don't give books five star ratings unless I really, really loved it. PRETTY THINGS wrested all five of those stars from my miserly fingers, kicking and screaming like a woman in a bar fight telling you to "lay off her man." The title is really clever because while one of the heroines (there are two) makes it her business to steal pretty things, both of them are "pretty things": young woman who, in their own way, have been done dirty by society and are trying to find their way back.

Our first heroine is Nina, the daughter of a con-artist and a bit of a con herself. With the help of a much older boyfriend, she runs her own version of THE BLING RING: she uses Instagram to see which local minor celebrities are flashing cash, and then she worms her way into their lives and robs them. Her latest target is a woman named Vanessa who comes from old money, but acts like your typical nouveau riche influencer jet-setter, vapid, and shallow, and utterly materialistic. Which is annoying, of course, but Nina's interest is much more-- shall we say-- personal.

Vanessa, as I said before, comes from money, but more money means more problems. Vanessa has a lot of problems. Messed-up family, all kinds of personal issues, and an almost pathological desire to be adored. She's tried to fill that void with all sorts of things and the young married couple who comes to rent her summer cabin-- artsy and bohemian in a sanitized, clean way that is very much non-threatening to her aristobrat aesthetic-- seems like it might be just the thing.

But it's not. And just when you start to think you have everything figured out, Janelle Brown throws curveball after curveball in your direction until you can't help but wonder: who's conning who?

So obviously I loved this book. Any book that reminds me of Gillian Flynn is a clear win, and Janelle Brown's morally gray protagonists are some of the clearest parallels I've encountered in a while. They were both doing very bad things, but you could totally understand where they were coming from and why they were doing the things they were doing, even if you didn't agree. The writing is absolutely gorgeous and I felt like each woman stood out as a separate entity, whereas far too often in multi-POV stories, they end up sounding like facsimiles of the same individual (i.e. the author).

You know it's going to be an intense story from the very beginning-- it literally opens up with a body in the lake-- but honestly, despite having read hundreds of mysteries in my thirty-so years of being, I didn't know what was going to happen in the book until the very end. And that was a delight. I love being surprised. I love it even more if it doesn't feel like a cheap "out" to make me feel surprised. Anyone who likes morally gray protagonists or Gillian Flynn is going to love this book. I would definitely read more from this author in a heartbeat, especially if she writes more "poor little rich girl" stories about elite drama and dirty family secrets. Please, and thank you.

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

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Lucky Ones by Liz Lawson

So I went into this expecting something like EVERY MOMENT AFTER by Joseph Moldover or HATE LIST by Jennifer Brown: a book that looks at the uncomfortable topics of school shootings and survivor's guilt, but in a really nuanced and complex way. Instead, I got a book that falls into the genre of what I call "mental illness tourism," which basically hinges the usual teen romance formula on an over-dramatized portrayal of teens who are either neurodivergent or suffering from mental health disorders.

THE LUCKY ONES does some things right, in that it shows how we can blame ourselves over things we have little to no control over, and look for meaning in things that sometimes defy any semblance of rational explanation. It also brings attention to a national crisis: how easy it is to get guns, and how devastating the consequences of that can be to a community if a gun falls into the wrong hands.

I really did not like the portrayal of either of these characters, though. The two characters are May and Zach. Zach is the son of the lawyer who is defending the shooter and May is the only survivor of the classroom that was brutalized. The two of them end up falling for one another-- but only after a hiccup in which May gets really angry at Zach for being the son of her enemy. I'm not going to lie... May was completely unbearable for the first 100 or so pages. And I am saying this as someone who used to get pretty bad panic attacks; I did not like how this was repped. It felt needlessly dramatic, a point underscored by the fact that the EVIL faculty members at her so-called school actually force May to give a speech about her bravery or some garbage like that, only to provide a platform for a public breakdown.

That's a trope I really hate, FYI. It seems like in books like these, characters are always put into really uncomfortable positions, just so they can break down before an audience. At that point, it almost becomes more about the illness and less about the person, if you know what I mean.

Lastly, in the author's note, the author says something about how a teacher she knows learned to fire guns to defend herself and her class in case there was an actual shooting and then says that "knowing how to shoot a gun should not be a prerequisite for an educator." I found that really upsetting because it felt like it was falling into the whole, "we need good guys with guns to defend against bad guys with guns" argument, when actually, the problem is that we have too many people with guns-- period.

The whole book just felt really inconsistent in tone to me. I do believe the author was coming from a good place but I don't really feel like she did the message justice, maybe because it comes into conflict with her own personal views. The portrayal of PTSD and anxiety was cringe, and I don't feel like Zach's lawyer mom was really given enough page time to explain why she was doing what she was doing, and why Zach really took issue about it-- he said he was worried about bullying, yes, and what it would mean for his reputation, but the underlying reasons-- the politics-- were not discussed.

Also, on that note, for a book about gun violence, there was very little talk about guns or gun control. This was also "semi" addressed in the author's note with a "not all mentally ill people are violent" PSA, but again, mental illness isn't the reason that there's gun violence: it's the guns. Europe and the UK have mentally ill people, some of whom are a danger to themselves and others, but again-- they don't have gun violence because-- again-- they don't have guns. If this was an exercise to try to be more open-minded and address serious issues that are very current right now, good for her. But I thought she did a really bad job, and that's my personal opinion, biased in part by my own beliefs on gun control and the representation of mental illness (as an actual anxiety/panic attack sufferer).

Your mileage may vary.

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

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Twin by Natasha Preston

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of the Scholastic Point Horror imprint-- if you're old enough to remember pulp fiction, these were basically the middle grade version of that: cheaply printed novellas, each under 200 pages, about trashy horror ranging from killer vampires, to serial killers, to dysfunctional family members. What would you get? You'd have to read to find out.

Natasha Preston is a new author to me. I knew she wrote thrillers and I think I even have a book of hers on my Kindle from when it was free years and years ago. I like thrillers but I'm also super picky about them. I don't want them to be predictable and I expect a certain level in the quality of writing. Unfortunately for THE TWIN, it fails on both counts: not only is it predictable as all get out, but the writing is super cheesy, featuring such gems as, "she was as fake as her Louis Vuitton purse."

Our heroine, Ivy, is a plucky TSTL over-achiever, who despite having straight As, takes forEVER to figure out that her twin has it in for her. Her twin is named Iris, and comes to live with Ivy and her dad after their mom dies. You see, their parents are separated and since Ivy and Iris are twins, they just decided to Parent Trap it up and split the kids down the middle, same as everything else.

Something is not right with Iris. She doesn't show any grief about her mother's death-- not in the usual way, anyway-- and doesn't want to talk about their mom or anyone from her previous life. Instead, she wants to talk all about Ivy and her friends. She wants to be in all of Ivy's classes, and even starts hanging out with Ivy's friends-- sometimes without Ivy. Ivy knows that her sister has suffered a loss and needs support as much as she does... but how much support is too much? And what happens if someone leans on you so heavily that it feels kind of like they're trying to squash you? Well... Ivy is about to find out exactly what happens.

So, I did make it to the end of this book but I was rolling my eyes the whole way through at the bad writing. I kept hoping that maybe the ending would surprise me or the payoff would be good. But NO. The ending was terrible. I think the author was going for some kind of atypical Gillian Flynn-esque twist, but it just made me mad. Gillian Flynn's characters are brilliant, so those types of endings work because of the characters' twisted brilliance. This was just a carnival of idiocy, so the twist didn't really do anything but underscore just how STUPID everyone in this book really was.

I mean, really.

I don't want to say anything more than that, because spoilers, but it's been a while since I was so frustrated with a cast of characters... and not in a good way. Everyone in this book was stupid and awful. In one of my other reviews, I said that I'm OK with characters making bad decisions for good reasons; it's only when they make bad decisions for stupid reasons that it starts to feel less like a carefully devised character flaw and more like subpar writing.

Middle grade readers and younger high school students may enjoy this, but unless you're into the book equivalent of a Lifetime movie or a revistation of the Point Horror novels of your youth, I wouldn't recommend reading this book.

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 8, 2020

The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett

Ever since I finished Holly Black's The Folk of the Air series, I've been dying to get my hands on other mature YA fantasy books that capture that same breathless atmosphere of sensuality, back-stabbing, and court intrigue. So many authors try for this vibe, but miss-- hard-- because they either aren't good enough writers to fully sell the worlds they're building, or because they try to dumb everything down to be inoffensive and uncontroversial as possible, leading to books that feel pandering and sanitized.

I received an ARC of Bartlett's other book, WE RULE THE NIGHT, earlier this year, which was an amazing steampunk fantasy story about female fighter pilots in the midst of a war. Where WE RULE THE NIGHT was a book about female hot-heads and fiery blazes, THE WINTER DUKE is all ice. Set in a fantasy world split into two major zones-- Kylma Above and Kylma Below-- the heroine, Ekata, lives with her cut-throat family in a palace made of ice where it's always winter.

Everything goes terribly wrong on the evening of her brother's "brideshow," the ceremony where he chooses his future wife. Ekata's whole family is struck by a mysterious sleeping sickness, leaving her in charge of the family's duchy. Ekata is considered the bookish, weak one in her family and is ill-equipped to handle being the Grand Duke, or all of the people attempting to manipulate and use her. In order to escape marriage to one such odious person, Ekata elopes with one of her brother's would be brides, a warrior from a lesser kingdom named Inkar, and with her new wife and a small circle of trusted advisors, Ekata tries to navigate not just her new responsibilities but also figure out who hurt her family-- and whether she might be next-- while also trying to keep her entire kingdom from falling into chaos, anarchy, or upheaval.

So, yeah, it's a trip.

There was so much about this book that I loved so much. First, obviously, the world-building. Kylma Above is so cold and inhospitable, and so are the people who live in it. The ice roses and the hilarious dishes (pickled shark!) really added so much depth to the environment, and allows you, the reader, to become fully immersed. I also really loved Kylma Below, which is a water world home to magic and mermaids and beasts of the deep. I kind of pictured it as being a cross between the Aquas level from Starfox 64 (amazing video game if you haven't played it) and Holly Black's Undersea. It was so good.

Second, the romance between Inkar and Ekata. This is an F/F fantasy novel with an arranged marriage, slow-burn romance and that is basically my favorite thing ever. I talked about my sincere love for that trope in another recent review of a fantasy novel-- but, again, not a lot of authors can carry that off because it requires a really solid understanding of characterization. Bartlett did such an amazing job and it was great to see these two girls slowly begin to relax around one another and find intimacy in a kingdom that saw such closeness as weakness.

Third, the plotting was really good. When you think about it, it's kind of like a challenge-for-the-crown trope meets a grandiose parlor-murder-mystery trope. It works really well. I liked seeing Ekata go through all of her challenges to hold on to her title while also trying to solve the greater mystery. In the beginning she was so uncertain and awkward in her role, and even though she didn't exactly become Cersei Lannister by the end of the book, it was amazing to see her grow into her confidence and apply her knowledge to finding out who the evil-doers were, while also getting better at her job.

I also really appreciated a world where LGBT+ people are fully incorporated and depicted as being the norm. The "Duke" title is unisex and does not change depending on who inherits. The brideshows include men and women and it seems that Ekata's brother likes both, whereas she seems to prefer women. There's a main character who is non-binary, and no homophobic or misogynistic slurs are hurled around; this is a society that is dark and cut-throat but doesn't embrace the usual misogynistic and sexist pseudo-Medieval setting that so many popular fantasy novels are partial to.

If I had one qualm, it was that the ending was a tiny bit disappointing for me. But just a tiny bit.

Claire Eliza Bartlett is fast becoming one of my all-time favorite authors. Both her books have wrested five stars from me and I'm notoriously stingy with them. I hope she writes more fantasy novels, because she's incredibly good at them, and while I roll my eyes at the need for authors to turn all of their books into series, both of her novels are standalones and I desperately wish they were not, so there's that. I can't wait to see what else she writes and will be crossing my fingers for more court intrigue and kick-butt female protagonists, because I think we can all agree we need more of those.

Also, that cover is DELICIOUS. I want to eat it.

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

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

I'm trying to read as many books this month as I can by black or bi-racial identifying authors and AMERICAN STREET is one I was really excited about, because it's been on my Kindle for-EVER. It's the story of a Haitian girl named Fabiola who comes from Haiti to live with her cousins in Detroit. Her mother is detained by immigration officials, leaving her in the care of her aunt and cousins, as she tries to navigate not just American culture, but also negative stereotypes and big city crime.

In some ways AMERICAN STREET really reminded me of THE HATE U GIVE; it's a brilliant microcosm of how institutional racism and negative stereotypes boxes people into corners they can't escape from. The most heartbreaking example of this is Chantal, Fabiola's brilliant elder cousin, who wanted to be a doctor but passed up going to a prestigious school to take care of her sick aunt and her sisters, who are mixed up in the local gangs.
Fabiola finds this out the hard way too when she tries to do an act of good, cooperating with the local police, only to have someone she cares about suffer grievously from her actions.

There are no easy answers here, because life has no easy answers.

I loved the heartfelt writing, and the semi magic-realism elements that arose from Fabiola's Voudon and lwa beliefs being incorporated into her narrative. I thought her relationships with her cousins were super complex, giving them an almost Little Women vibe: they didn't get along in a conventional way all the time, but it was obvious how deeply loyal they were to each other. Plus, the banter was great. Interspersed with Fabiola's narrative are brief snippets from those around her, and they really added depth to the story and gave you an idea of where the other characters were coming from.

AMERICAN STREET is a book that will break your heart, but it's worth every shattered piece.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Scarecrow King by Jill Myles

THE SCARECROW KING is such a wonderful story; the whimsy, fantastic elements, and strong female protagonist reminded me so strongly of the books that I enjoyed reading as a young girl, only all grown up-- basically, what I'm trying to say is that this book is like ELLA ENCHANTED and CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY for grownups. And really, how can you beat that? You can't.

This isn't my first Jill Myles rodeo. That honor goes to QUEEN OF BLOOD, an incredibly sexy romance about an arranged marriage between a human and a vampire amidst a background of rebellion and court intrigue. I fell in love with it virtually from page one and made all my friends read it, including my fellow vampire fan, Heather Crews, who, in turn, returned the favor of reccing good books by suggesting we read SCARECROW as our next BR.

Rinda is the unloved daughter of a commoner who married a king by deception. She has brown hair and a "lame" magic power that pales in comparison to the golden beauty and water-finding magic of her sister. When their father decides that they're both to be married, Rinda decides to ruin things by insulting all her suitors and acting like a major brat. It's incredibly funny just how well she succeeds at being a total raging bitch; her bitchcraft is fueled by her insecurity, you see, and she has loads.

Well her father gets mad and decides, "Fuck it," and that he'll marry her off to the first man who walks in through the door-- which turns out to be a tone-deaf soldier-turned-minstrel from the poorer kingdom next door who's in the midst of a political upheaval themselves. His name is Aleksandr and he's a total babe of a beta hero. Normally the "nice guys" in romance novels end up coming off as spineless or sleazy but I adored him the moment he set foot on the page. Rinda, however... doesn't.

THE SCARECROW KING is not just a romance novel. It's a story of a girl learning to love herself and develop confidence. The hero doesn't save the heroine in this one-- she saves him, and she does a really incredible job of it. In the author's note, Myles said that the fairytale she based this off had misogynistic undertones and she decided to make it empowering. And honestly, the strong heroine who is so flawed is really what makes this story. THE SCARECROW KING shows how having people tell you you're inferior your whole life can really warp and destroy you, even when you're actually amazing; and how it isn't enough to have people just tell you how awesome you are-- you need to learn that lesson for yourself, internalize it, and embrace it... as well as yourself.

It pains me that Jill Myles's work seems to be so underappreciated. She's definitely a hidden gem in the fantasy romance world in desperate need of unearthing. Arranged marriage romances are probably one of my favorite tropes in the fantasy romance genre, but it's hard to find authors who really carry it off with finesse. But Myles is that one in a hundred who does and I'm happy to worship her for it. I hope she decides to write more of these charming fantasy romances; I'd eat them all up.

4 out of 5 stars

Wine: A Beginner's Guide by Ken Frederickson

I am a San Franciscan stereotype: I drive a fuel efficient car, chug free trade coffee by the gallon, work in tech, eat avocados by the bucketful (but especially on toast and especially with sea salt), am what one of my friends charmingly called a "freegan" (semi-vegan/vegetarian unless delicious animal products appear in front of me-- for free-- and then OM NOM NOM, because hello! food) and I am obsessed with wine. God, I love wine. 

There was no way I wasn't going to say yes to an advanced reader copy of this book. Because wine. People say nobody loves wine like the French but I can guarantee you that none of the people saying that have talked to a tipsy Californian two-fisting a flight of reds. I see your Paris Judgement and raise you a Californian Side Eye.

WINE: A BEGINNER'S GUIDE tells you everything you need to know about wine. How it's made, how to taste it, what the different kinds are, what to pair it with, and what makes a good wine versus a bad wine. Even though this book is short, it's very comprehensive, kind of like an abridged version of this other (also amazing) book about wine I read recently, by a German guy, called WINE FROM GRAPE TO GLASS. I actually think that this would make the perfect gift for someone turning twenty-one or trying to discover wine, especially if you gave it to them paired with a really awesome and unusual wine, like a rioja or a vinho verde.

On that note, bless this book for not being snobby about Spanish and Portuguese wines. The author really tried to talk about all of Europe's wine regions and even, bizarrely, South Africa's. Not China's, even though they're an up-and-comer, but Argentina and Chile both got a shout-out. Portugal and Spain both have really good wine and when I went to Portugal last summer, I kind of felt like a kid in the proverbial candy shop. You could get really, really good wine for really, really cheap. Bravo.

There were only two things in here that I took a teensy bit of an issue with. First, the author talks about the wine flavor wheel, which is a really cool diagram that gives you all of the different terminology people use to describe wine flavors, ranging from "melon" to "band-aid." But he doesn't show the picture. I don't know if it's a copyrighted image, or what, but that made me sad, because that was what first introduced me to wine terminology as a green and naive twenty-one-year-old, before I entered my own period of veraison and my knowledge ripened just like a fine wine grape.

Speaking of wine grapes, the second thing I took issue with: this dude did what every other non-Californian wine "aficionado" does when talking about Californian wines: he focused on Sonoma and Napa only, which is a huge rookie mistake. Because yes, while they are the most famous, they're also now the most over-priced and kind of old news. Nobody (who is non-Californian) ever talks about Lodi or Livermore, which are huge here, and famous for some incredibly delicious reds.

Also, shockingly, no mention of mead. I guess the focus of this book is on grape wine and not honey wine, but WINE FROM GRAPE TO GLASS mentioned it (as well as absinthe), and there's a handful of mead brewers in the San Francisco area (I've been to a couple), so it was a shocking omission. Especially since people have kind of gotten into mead due to the popularity of Game of Thrones.

If you get this book, understand that it's trying to cover a lot in a relatively small amount of space, so of course only the key points are going to be mentioned and much of the nitty-gritty will slip through the cracks. Still, it's a great place to start, and it's got a great, easy-to-read format with some pleasant infographics, and I think if this is your entree to the wine world, you could do much, much worse!

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

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 6, 2020

That Hair by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida

My reading goal for the month of February is to read as many books by black and biracial-identifying authors as  possible in honor of Black History Month. THAT HAIR was one of the books I had selected to read because it's about a woman living in Portugal of dual Portuguese and Angolan ancestry, and the entire book is a semi-autobiographical account of how her hair ties into these identities and her memories of growing up biracial in 1980s Europe.

There were some things about this book that I really liked. I went to Portugal last year on vacation, so it was incredible to see the places I went to brought to life again by someone who lives there. The writing in this book is gorgeous, which is also a nod to the translator who worked on this, because nothing crushes prose or renders it chunky like a bad translator. I also thought this book brought up a lot of interesting concepts about identifying as biracial, especially since it's from a European perspective, and she talks about facing acceptance and racism in Europe.

The element that made this book a really tough read for me is that it's told in these long, meandering stream of consciousness blocks that take up whole pages. I've never really been a fan of that narrative style, no matter who's writing it-- I get distracted pretty easily as a reader, so it makes it very, very hard for me to follow along with the "narrative." There really isn't much of a "plot." This is told in, again, semi-autobiographical format, and each "chapter" serves as a section taken from the narrator's life, pertaining in some way to her identity or hair or both.

I don't think this is a bad book and I think for some people, it's going to be an incredibly good book. For me, however, it wasn't really a great fit. And this doesn't have anything to do with the content, which I thought was interesting, but the medium through which it was told. I had so much trouble following along that even though the writing was pretty, I ended up feeling bored by the disjointed narration.

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Lord of the Fading Lands by C.L. Wilson

DNF @ 11%

Have you ever had a book that's been on your to-read list for years, and then when you finally get to it, it's a screaming disappointment? That's me with this book. So many of my friends were hyping up the Tairen Soul series and after finishing Holly Black's Folk of the Air, I was desperate for more exciting stories about the fae.

The blurb from Christine Feehan on the cover was an immediate red flag because I've disliked nearly everything of Feehan's that I've read, and I've disliked most of the books Feehan has blurbed too, since like a lot of authors, she seems to like to read the types of books that she likes to write. And what kind of a book is this, you ask? Why, it's a fated-to-be-mated romance, of course, with the hulking alpha and his innocent ingenue who must help him save the race from bad magics that are Not Good.

If you like authors like J.R. Ward and Lara Adrian and, yes, Christine Feehan, you might like this. If, on the other hand, you are like me and those books make you roll your eyes so hard that they are in danger of falling out the back of the hole you drilled in the back of your head to trepan yourself out of your own misery, then AVOID this book at all costs and spare yourself the wasted time that I wish I'd spared myself.

1 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Glitch Kingdom by Sheena Boekweg

DNF @ p.27

A lot of people are hating on the cover for this book but I actually really liked it. The bad cover art is charmingly reminiscent of the bad Photoshop jobs you saw on a lot of mid-2000s YA. This reminded me of that in the best possible way, and I feel that's kind of what it was going for, so consider that a win from me.

I was really excited for GLITCH KINGDOM because I spent the bulk of my high school and college years playing a lot of video games. I was p2p on Runescape for years, long after breaking things off with the boy I signed up to play with in the first place, and RPGs were always my favorite because of how you could customize your own characters' stats while fulfilling quests.

I wanted to love this book and was expecting to, but it was so boring. I got about 10% of the way through my edition before calling it quits. The writing was just so wooden and it lacked the action I was expecting. Plus, I've read a book with a very similar premise that was done much, much better called HEIR APPARENT by Vivian Vande Velde.

Sadly, this was a miss for me but hopefully it will be a hit for you.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy! 

1.5 out of 5 stars

Hannah's War by Jan Eliasberg

I actually ended up enjoying this a lot more than I thought I did. This is a story told towards the end of WWII, right around the time of the Hiroshima bombing and Hitler taking his own life. Hannah Weiss is a Jewish physicist who, after being exiled in Germany, has come to work with Oppenheimer to develop the Atomic bomb. Beautiful and brilliant, she is often unappreciated for her great work, and to make matters worse, the U.S. gov't is now investigating her, assuming that she's a German spy.

Told in two timelines, we learn about Hannah's seemingly doomed love affair with one of her colleagues in Germany, as she and her family live in fear of the growing hatred against Jewish people brewing in their country, and then also in the present as the man who's investigating her, Jack Delaney, plays a sensual game of cat and mouse with his charge, growing more and more attracted to her even as he tries to find out Hannah's secrets without revealing too many of his own (and he has a lot).

HANNAH'S WAR falls under a genre that I call "book club bait." It is largely a puff piece that doesn't delve into anything too controversial. Even the feminist themes in this book are "safe": she is a physicist, yes, but she is also feminine and the bulk of the focus is on her relationships with the men in the novel. It's a safe and feel-good book packed with suspense and emotional drama, and even though it's gorgeously written, it doesn't really challenge the status quo.

There's nothing wrong with being book club bait-- in fact, I enjoyed this novel and its focus on the arts, as much how it portrayed the struggle of a woman in the sciences-- but I wouldn't go into this book expecting anything controversial, earth-shattering, or challenging. Anyone who likes suspenseful historical fiction with romance will love this, and I think that's a lot of people. It actually reminded me a bit of this book I read recently called THE GLITTERING HOUR, another puff piece that seemed like it would be a wallpaper historical, but ended up pleasantly surprising me.

Bonus points for all the references to paintings and literature that had me racing to Google.

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

4 out of 5 stars