Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Creatures of Charm and Hunger by Molly Tanzer

DNF @ p.64

It saddens me to have to give CREATURES OF CHARM AND HUNGER a bad review because I was genuinely looking forward to reading it. The black cat on the cover called to me and I loved the title and the premise. It sounded Gothic and witchy, two things I love. Unfortunately, it's dull as dirt and kind of reads like thinly-veiled Chilling Adventures of Sabrina fic. One of the characters even has the last name Blackwood, and they're diabolists, which is somewhat similar to the whole demon-summoning/S*tanist aesthetic of the show.

I'm sure this will find its niche audience with people who enjoy densely-written puff pieces that are more about the concept and less about the execution. I'm thinking specifically of the Tumblr people who seem so enchanted with what I call Basic Girl YA. Sadly, this is not for me, and if you don't like books like WICKED SAINTS, I would avoid.

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

1 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Lost Orphan by Stacey Halls

THE FAMILIARS was probably one of my top 5 favorite historical fiction reads of 2019, so I was really excited to receive an ARC of THE LOST ORPHAN by the same author. THE FAMILIARS is a dark but unexpectedly feminist story that takes place during a time that was historically unkind to women but manages to have an empowering message that reads as being fairly accurate to the times as well as a sympathetic heroine. THE LOST ORPHAN is the same, but the vehicle through which it accomplishes this is an entirely different beast. Don't make the mistake that I did and assume that the books are going to be similar: they are not-- at all. Not in mode, not in pacing, not in character. I was surprised they were by the same person, tbh.

THE LOST ORPHAN is narrated in two POVs. The first POV is a working class woman named Bess who has had to put her illegitimate daughter, Clara, in a foundling hospital. Think of it as a library, where you check in your baby, and then pay to take them back out again-- only unsanitary and if you don't check your child back out, they're basically put to manual labor. Bess has scrimped and saved for years to return for her daughter... but when she returns, she discovers something terrible: someone took her daughter from the hospital the day after she was checked in, and they did it in Bess's name, with Bess's token. How did this happen?

The second POV is an agoraphobic widowed woman named Alexandra who is rich but never leaves her massive house and lives there cloistered up like a wannabe Miss Havisham with her daughter, Charlotte, who is also never permitted to go outside. One day, she hires a nursemaid who engages her daughter and brings new life to the dispirited girl, but this ends up forcing Alexandra to confront her own demons, including the reason for her fear of the outside, which tries her relationship with her young daughter in ways she didn't expect and forces her to ask the same: How did this happen?

I don't want to say too much more than this because of spoilers (I tried to keep it to what was on the back jacket of the book, with some elaboration), although you might be able to predict some of the things that happen in this book. It takes a while for THE LOST ORPHAN to pick up but once it does, it's riveting. I felt very sorry for Bess, who had some serious low points in this book, but my favorite narrator was actually Alexandra. It's hard (and brave) to write about unlikable women in fiction and then make them the heroines of their own stories, but Stacey Halls did it to great effect and I actually ended up finding her POVs more enjoyable and entertaining than Bess's.

My one qualm is that the ending felt too tidy... too easy. I do think I ultimately ended up liking it but I know some probably won't, likely for the same reasons that I waffled on it. I don't like this book as much as THE FAMILIARS but it was a good follow-up and I did enjoy it.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

When it comes to fairytale retellings, Beauty and the Beast really is a tale as old as time. I am 99.9% sure that it is the most common retelling out there, and it comes in a large variety of forms and derivations. A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY is the latest hot take of this popular fairytale, following in the wake of books like A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES, where they try to make the story even more palatable by their young (and mostly female) audience by making the beast "hot." Tamlin was a hot faerie who wore a spooky mask, and Rhen, the hero in this book, is a hot prince who kidnaps girls in an attempt to cure this werewolf-esque curse that occasionally turns him into an unspecific beast.

I have gone on many rants about how making the characters in these sorts of books hot ruins the message, so I'm not going to go through that whole song and dance again here. I'm here to review A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY for its plot, which has my friends pretty much evenly split when it comes to opinion. Half of them loved it, half of them hated it, and a few of them fell smack dab in the middle... like me. So why so polarizing?

This is not a novel story. It doesn't bring anything new to the table. A lot of the preliminary reviews were hyping this up like nobody's business when it kind of just reads like an attempt to cash in on the Sarah J. Maas bandwagon. The writing is a cut above but it does feel derivative as all get out.

Harper is just not a very compelling heroine. She has problems, sure, like a mother with cancer and a brother who is involved in a gang, but those problems never really feel real. You know what reading this reminded me of? Do any of you remember Quizilla? There was a user on there whose books I was obsessed with as a kid, and she wrote all kinds of Goth stories about a heroine who was just like you and me only, you know, Emo/Goth, and nobody understood her-- except for the hot, slightly evil and deranged paranormal guy whose world she randomly gets sucked into one day.

This book felt a lot like that. I do appreciate the attempt to include diversity by giving the heroine a disability but I'm not entirely sure how on point the cerebral palsy rep is in this book, as the heroine in this book has a very mild version of it. The only people I've met with CP had much more severe versions.

Rhen is not a very compelling hero. He's attractive, sure, but I actually liked Grey a lot better, and I felt like the whole book was gunning for a love triangle that never actually happened. Rhen is kind of a jerk. He has his guard kidnap women for him and then sits around waiting for them to love him and acting all angsty and sad when being in his presence isn't enough to cause them to fall madly in love with him therefore ending another massive slaughtering spree. He was dumb and arrogant, which is not a good blend. I can deal with dumb and sweet (Fry from Futurama) or arrogant and smart (any hero from any Anne Stuart romance novel ever written) but not dumb and arrogant. No thanks.

The story was just compelling enough that I felt invested to the point of seeing it to the end, but I'm not at all interested in the sequel and I wouldn't recommend this book to others. There are much better fairytale retellings with more likable heroines and heroes, and I feel like this book was much longer than it actually needed to be and spent its page time on all the wrong things.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Mountains of Tibet by Mordicai Gerstein

This is a beautifully illustrated book loosely based on the principles of reincarnation. It's about a boy in Tibet who grows up to be an old man and then dies, after spending a lifetime with his wife and family. During his life, he always yearned to travel and discover new worlds, so he is offered the chance to reincarnate. First he chooses a galaxy, a star, a planet, and then he gets to decide what animal he wants to be. Even though there are so many options, he chooses to be human. And despite all the regions out there, rich with culture and delicious food, he ends up going back to Tibet... only this time, as a girl.

THE MOUNTAINS OF TIBET is a beautiful story for several reasons. First, it introduces children to the concept of mortality in a non-threatening way. One day, all of us will die. It is an upsetting thought, but it is also the force that drives us to live as thoroughly and richly as we can, knowing that one day, we won't any longer. The main character of this story lives a long and happy life, and even though he never got to travel and explore, his family ended up making his entire world, which is sweet.

Second, in the age of #fomo, it is more relevant than ever, because it teaches kids that even though we might yearn for what we don't have, it's often the familiar that we come back to again and again because that's what makes us feel good and loved. The man stayed home to be with his family because they loved him and made him happy. When he had the chance to start over, he went back to Tibet, because the happy memories he had there persisted over his lifetime, and filled him with joy. This book isn't saying that novel experiences aren't worth it, but that we don't need them to be happy, and that even after we have them, they might not be the things that keep us satisfied and content.

Lastly, it shows that we're all part of a rich, elegant tapestry. All living things are valid and beautiful in their own way, and when we die, we're still part of that tapestry-- just not in the way we used to be. I am not religious but I think that's a message that transcends religion: understanding that our lives are short and finite, and that death is simply a natural process that happens to all of us, whether we're plant, animal, or even the universe itself. All things, eventually, come to an end.

I used to love this book when I was a kid and rereading it now, as an adult, I enjoyed it still. Definitely recommend it for kids and it's also a nice book for adults. I have a friend who read this together with a loved one who was in hospice, and it really gave the two of them some much-needed closure, as it enabled them to find some beauty and hope during what was a really sad time.

5 out of 5 stars

Night Spinner by Addie Thorley

DNF @ p.72

When I found out that NIGHT SPINNER was inspired by The Hunchback of Notre Dame I was so excited. It didn't even matter whether it was truer to the book by Victor Hugo or the Disney movie, I love them both for different reasons, and they're both so deliciously dark (with flawed, dark male leads-- my kryptonite). I also really enjoyed the other book of Addie Thorley's, AN AFFAIR OF THE POISONS, which I also received as an ARC earlier this year. How could this possibly go wrong?

There's a sub-genre of YA fantasy that I refer to as Basic Girl Fantasy, which become popularized by Sarah J. Maas, but also consists of authors like Renee Ahdieh and Maggie Stiefvater. It's young adult that doesn't have any substance. It's all flash in the pan. Once you peel back the pretty words and basic feminist characters, you're left with something that feels cheap and tawdry.That's how I felt about NIGHT SPINNER. It's fantasy that doesn't really deep dive into its world-building. The characters are all two dimensional and so kick butt... without any cause.

I actually found reading this to be so incredibly dull. In seventy pages, nothing of note happened. I don't think I've been this disappointed since I picked up Emily Duncan's WICKED SAINTS, another book that purported to be dark and Gothic fantasy and left me wanting more-- more of something else, that is, because that book obviously didn't cut it. I know a lot of these YA fantasy books aren't written for fantasy genre readers but giving them a free pass because of that doesn't give credit to the authors who do go the extra mile to write richly imagined worlds for their young audiences.

I'm sorry to say that this highly anticipated read was, for me, a major miss.

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

1 out of 5 stars

Sealand: The True Story of the World’s Most Stubborn Micronation and Its Eccentric Royal Family by Dylan Taylor-Lehman

This is a book about the British guy who decided to claim a disused offshore military fort and turn it into a country. Sealand is a micronation that sounds a little bit like a joke, and is probably the basis for that Family Guy episode, Petoria, when Peter Griffin discovers that, due to a zoning technicality, his house's plot of land isn't even technically part of the United States. According to this rule cited in the book, abandoned islands and structures can be claimed if they weren't declared sovereign.

Sealand is considered by some to be the "world's smallest country," although it isn't really recognized as a country by most. You can buy royal titles in packages on their website, which I find hilarious. It's a nation that doesn't really seem to take themselves or anyone else seriously, and feels like a concept dreamed up by a socialist hipster.

SEALAND the book is a biography of the founder, Roy Bates, who does seem a bit like a proto-hipster. As we find out in the book, founding your own country isn't easy and when you force larger, more powerful nations to take you seriously, trouble abounds. I found that cat and mouse element of the book most interesting, as more established countries tried to figure out how to deal with Sealand and it's royals without embarrassing themselves. I'm not sure they succeeded.

I found this book to be pretty dry. I might not have finished it were it not for the author's tongue in cheek style, which ended up proving to be the book's saving grace. I've found this to be an issue with a lot of nonfiction-- authors get so caught up in the fruits of their research that they forget to be an entertaining book and end up reading more like a textbook. As with all books, in nonfiction you need to "murder your darlings" and cut anything that bogs the book down and makes it too long. This could have been a much shorter book, in my opinion, without losing any value.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Empress Game by Rhonda Mason

DNF @ 6%

This wasn't a bad book... it was just really boring. Do you ever have one of those reads where the premise sounds awesome but the writing just can't carry it off. Michelle Sagara is like that for me. In principle, her stories sound like the types of books I ought to love, but her writing is so dense and puts me to sleep. That's how I felt about this. Great premise, dull execution.

I buddy-read this with my friend TL and she says that it gets better about halfway through but that's more time than I really want to invest in a book that might or might not pay off. Giving this book two stars despite not finishing because I honestly feel like I'd probably at least find it okay if I pressed through, but with almost 1,000 books to weed through on my Kindle, I'd rather not waste my time.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake

Okay, before I even get into this review, how perfect is this guy's name? Not only does he study mushrooms, he has a name like a professor in one of the Harry Potter books. Which is perfect, since mushrooms do have a bit of a reputation for being mysterious, sinister, and even kind of spooky. Which, if you read this book, you'll find out is a reputation that they totally deserve.

ENTANGLED LIFE is all about fungi (because they're fun, guys!), written by an author for whom this is clearly a passion project. It's like a non-stupid version of Goop Lab, only completely mushroom-oriented... or like Bill Nye for a higher grade level. In his quest to study the wild shroom, Sheldrake does all kinds of things like tromping through the rainforest to count flowers for a mushroom network, experiencing a "fermentation bath" (rotting wood and mushrooms-- ahh, relaxing!), or tripping out on LSD in a controlled lab environment... for SCIENCE!

I learned so much from this book that I didn't even know, like how cordyceps mushrooms (zombie fungi) take over carpenter ants, march them to their place of death mafia-style, only to consume the ant and sprout a mushroom out of its head when they're finished like they're some sort of hideous nightmare Pikmin creature! Or that mushrooms are actually more closely related to animals than plants. Mushrooms even have sort of a "hive mind" dynamic, because if you measure the electrical output of mushrooms while exposing one of them to a flame or chemical stimulus, several other mushrooms in the network will give a jolt of electricity. The author also quotes a scientist who refers to lichen as "a sensational romance...[an] unnatural union between a captive Algal damsel and a tyrant Fungal master."

OH MY GOSH you guys. I knew there was a reason I thought lichen was cool! It's basically the scientific equivalent of a medieval bodice ripper. SIGN ME UP.

Also, I learned about a really cool plant called "ghost pipes," which would be an excellent name for a Goth rock band. Ghost pipes are basically albino vampire plants that look like mushrooms and don't need to photosynthesize because of the presence of... FUNGUS. (Yaaaass!)

The book ends with some of the more practical applications of mushrooms, like how mycelium can be used to make furniture, biodegradable packing materials, and even clothes. Or how the presence of fungus can change the taste of bread, spices, and other foods for the better. And then there's a chapter about yeast and how it is used to create ciders and beers. Whether it's tasty, scary, or poisonous, this book isn't afraid to delve into it, as long as it's mushroom related.

I know we're all quarantined right now but if any of you are ever in San Francisco, there's a stall in the Ferry Building that's entirely mushroom-related and they have all these really exotic edible mushrooms that are hard to find, as well as colorful posters depicting mushroom taxonomies. I thought of that stall several times while reading this book.

ENTANGLED LIFE is definitely a must-read to learn more about the fungus among us.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 22, 2020

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

DNF @ p.61

I don't like people telling me how to think and even though I respect the one-star reviews of people who were genuinely hurt by this book and felt like it dirtied or tarnished their culture, I do not support the people who are going onto the reviews of people who read or want to read this book and are telling them not to read it. 1) Since when has telling someone not to do something ever made them not want to do it? And 2) Attacking the readers is not going to fix the mistakes made by the author; there's a difference between politely commenting on a review and sending them a few links so they can make an informed consumer purchase and telling them straight up on that review that if they read the book they're a bad person and/or part of the problem.

That said, I have a lot of thoughts about this book and what it represents and the demographic it appeals to. Before I get into my review of the book itself, though, I'm going to repost my original thoughts on the controversy that were part of my "pre-review," as reading the book in question has only cemented what I thought before and actually raised new concerns and I do value transparency and want to have my original opinion stay intact.

1. Negative feedback sucks, but that's part of being an author-- especially when you write about a topic that is a pain point for a LOT of people (particularly under this administration). I think blocking the critics was a mistake on behalf of the author and (part of her) publishing team. I also think it's a mistake to package this as an #OwnVoices book-- and it isn't the author doing this, I've seen readers doing it too-- especially since the author is of Puerto Rican decent and this takes place in Mexico. That's like saying a book is #OwnVoices because it's about Chinese characters and the author is Korean. It homogenizes two very different cultures, which is offensive to both.

2. I wish the author acknowledged that her book was basically THE HELP for Mexican culture, in that it's a feel good story for white people (or at least people who don't identify as Latino) because it acknowledges all the stereotypes that they likely hold without challenging them or making them feel guilt. Stories like these might feel harmless because they don't seem racist on the surface but, again, the whole stereotype thing-- portraying Mexico as a shithole filled with gangbangers just kind of feels icky to me. Especially when the gold ring in her plight is the United States, her ticket to freedom. Ick.

3. I also wish that maybe the author had boosted the voices of the people she wrote about and researched from. From what I understand, there was a vaguely guilty author's note that made a lot of people mad. Using her platform the way Courtney Milan does, to talk about and promote important social issues, and name-drop people who do big and important things in human rights and social justice, would have made her seem more sincere. Instead of, you know, some of the other things that were allegedly posted.

 4. I see a lot of people trying to play both sides because they don't want to feel guilty about liking the book. You can like the book but don't shut down the people who read this and felt hurt or dirtied by it. Everyone has a right to feel. If their commentary makes you feel guilty, then it might be an opportunity to ask yourself why you're feeling bad, and if maybe this is an opportunity for you to swallow your knee-jerk outrage and maybe just sit back and listen.

So, now the part you were waiting for: my review of the book. 

I'm going to be very brutally honest and say that AMERICAN DIRT is for Latino people (specifically Mexican culture) what MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and THE HELP were for Japanese and Black people, respectively. It takes various stereotypes about Mexican people (English-speaking intellectuals, cartel drug lords, hard working lower class, etc.) that are readily accessible and understood by white people and puts them in a book while purporting to be telling the story of that group of people. MEMOIRS did the same thing with geisha and THE HELP was about Black servants. These are no stories intended primarily for the people in question and they were not written by the people in question; they are all from an outside perspective, as viewed from the lens of an outsider. I actually liked MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and THE HELP, but I understand why they are problematic and why people can see those stories as stereotypical at best and incredibly offensive at worst. To deny that is somewhat ignorant. You can love something that is problematic but it's important not to forget why it's problematic, and that it does not necessarily reflect reality.

AMERICAN DIRT would like to be like those aforementioned stories, but it doesn't even tell a particularly good one. I joked in a status update that the heroine's interaction with the drug lord could be the meet-cute in one of those mafia captive romances that are all the rage, but I was only half-joking. It really reminded me of Karina Halle's Dirty Angels trilogy, a guilty pleasure smutfest that is basically the modern-day equivalent of a 70s exploitation film and in no way represents a realistic portrayal of Mexico. I actually liked that story, too, which is yet another black mark against AMERICAN DIRT-- and I find it hilarious that both those books have cartel lords named Javier and 'dirt' in the title.

This is a boring story with mediocre writing. I found it intolerable. It's not really literary fiction because the writing is so hackneyed. It is, at best, book club bait: a book that aspires to literary pretentions but whose appeal is basically limited to making people who don't want to struggle through real literature feel smart by diving into something that's "daring" and "controversial." I don't begrudge the people who enjoyed this book, but I also don't think it is a good or even particularly well-written book, nor do I think that it's telling a particularly compelling or even novel story. I also don't think it would be anywhere near as popular as it is were it not for the controversy that brought this book under the public eye. As it is, the vast number of five star reviews befuddle me.

If you're interested in the controversy, there are a number of reviews written by people who can speak to that topic with much more authority than I. I am rating this book solely on its ability to tell a good story (nope) and the rather amusing idea that it is somehow literary (nope) or worthy of acclaim (also nope). Unfortunately, it's popular enough that they'll probably make a movie of it, but hey, maybe they'll offer Scarlett Johansson the chance to play the Mexican heroine.

(Sorry, I couldn't resist, ScarJo. I actually did love you in The Marriage and JoJo Rabbit.)

1 out of 5 stars

Officer Clemmons by François S. Clemmons

I grew up with Mr. Rogers' neighborhood and really loved the show. It always felt much more intimate than other children's programs because of the way Mr. Rogers would talk to the camera (and therefore, the child watching on the other side), and how he would go on field trips to places in that overlap between the world of the child and the adult. One episode that stuck with me all these years later was about a trip to see how and where crayons are made. Officer Clemmons was a recurring character on the show who I think I only vaguely remember, as he retired in 1993, and I probably would have only seen him on reruns of older episodes.

Despite the title, the focus of OFFICER CLEMMONS is not primarily about his role on the TV show, which doesn't really come into effect until the latter half of the book. This is François S. Clemmons's story about how he grew to love musical performing, what it was like to grow up in the times directly following post-segregation and have family members who remembered the times of slavery, and also about what it was like to be gay in a time where that wasn't widely accepted. Clemmons actually married to hide his sexuality while meeting with men on the side, and even though he felt guilt about using his wife that way, it was the only way that he could be free to be who he was.

I liked this memoir. I feel like it was brutally honest and touched upon a lot of really tough subjects in a matter-of-fact way. It was really interesting to see this complex history behind the character of a beloved kids' television show and really edifying to see how the adults we know and loved as children can have a secret life that they are never allowed to reveal. My favorite portion of the book was definitely about his role on the television program and all his treasured memories about Mr. Rogers. It's cool to know that he was every bit as kind and compassionate in real life as he was on the television, and his unequivocal support for Clemmons, including defending him to a racist orchestra, was truly incredible. We need more people like that, who use their clout to speak out against injustice.

OFFICER CLEMMONS is a good book, and I do recommend it-- especially if you are old enough to remember him on the original episodes. It's a great memoir about a career in retrospect, while also talking about matters of sexuality and race. I won't be surprised to see this topping a lot of "best memoirs of summer" lists when it comes out in May.

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

3 out of 5 stars

The Dead Rule the Night by Heather Crews

The first book in this series, DREAMS FOR THE DEAD, was originally supposed to be a standalone. But then I entered Heather's life and nobody can nag like I can. I'm like the inspirational coach/cheerleader from your nightmares. Now there are THREE books in this amazing series, with more to come. Mandatory disclosure: I am friends with Heather and I did the beta-reading for this book, but I bought a final copy like everyone else and I'm such a jerk, you know I'd totally rate my friend's book a one star if I hated it. I've done it before...

Luckily, with this one, I didn't have to... because I liked it!

Anyway, THE DEAD RULE THE NIGHT is the third book in this series. Our heroine, Dawn, has been turned into a vampire but is reluctant about giving in to the darkness. She doesn't like taking blood and balks at the thought of killing humans, let alone the numerous other depravities that vampires like to indulge in. (Branek, from DEAD HEART, could tell you all about that...) Dawn's vampire boyfriend, Tristan, is all too happy to assist. And with his help, Dawn finds out that the dark side really is so much better. Especially with a hot, moody and broody ex-Goth to help you discover it.

But of course-- this is not just a romance. In this book, there's more focus placed on Tristan's siblings, Jared, Augusta, and Branek. At the end of the first book, their house burned down, and some of the siblings appeared to have been mortally wounded. But what really happened to them? Gus, their sister, is the key. She's like a poisoned pixie stick, hiding all her broodiness under caustic sugar, and is definitely jealous that her brother got the happy ending that she always craved. While looking for her own, she encounters a sinister vampire duo who have an unhealthy interest in her family...

I really can't tell you how much I loved this series. At first I waffled between four and five stars but anything that keeps me reading until 3AM has to be five-star worthy. These are vampires at their darkest, and they're like The Lost Boys meets the Manson family, if everyone was in a Goth cult. I know vampires aren't real (I wish, though), but if they were, I 100% believe that this is exactly how they'd think, act, and behave. The only other vampire authors whose books resonated with me like this one were Trisha Baker and Susan Squires. I like my vampires dark, thanks!

Also, Gus and Dawn are both such strong heroines. They don't always behave in conventional ways, but that's kind of their appeal. Dawn really becomes so much stronger over the course of this book, instead of weaker, and even though her boyfriend refuses to change for her... he totally does. And Gus totally owns her sexuality and makes no apologies for being the way she is, and I loved her for that, too. I think the next book coming out is going to be a "prequel" about Jared and Leila, but after that, I think we get Gus's story, and I'm really, really looking forward to learning more about her.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Most Likely by Sarah Watson

This was an okay book. I hate reviewing okay books because I don't have a lot of feelings about them one way or the other, and often end up doing some skimming, even though they aren't bad. They're just... okay. And a little born.

MOST LIKELY has a great premise. You see a girl, all grown up and successful as a woman, and then the rest of the book is about her senior year of high school and the changes that put her on the inspiring path she's on and the relationships that paved her life.

It's kind of like a feminist version of THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS. Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha all met when they were young in a park over the summer and stayed friends well into their senior year of high school. Now exploring relationships and college options, as well as other major life changes, they're all in a highly transitional phase that will change their friendships and, indeed, their whole lives.

All the girls were pretty bland imo. Even though all their stories were well-crafted and they had REAL ISSUES! their voices felt pretty interchangeable. Maybe it would have helped if they were written in first person instead of third person.

Also, how sad is it that the author envisions a female president in the future but still plays it up that the heroine had to take her husband's name for people to vote for her? That's kind of depressing.

I liked the ending, though. :)

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

DNF @ p.84

I am actually a huge fan of retro Gothic novels from the 60s and 70s, so when I found out about MEXICAN GOTHIC, a Latinx take on the popular Gothic novel subgenre, I was pee-in-my-pants excited. Just look at that cover! OMG. Stunning.

Sadly, the cover is the best thing about this book. It was SO BORING. Noemi is a socialite whose father doesn't approve of her superficial ways. She goes to see her cousin in the countryside after receiving a mysterious and paranoid-sounding letter about poison and danger-- it sounds like she might fear her husband and his family! Right away, things are... well, not creepy, but definitely not like home. One of the older relatives is a fan of eugenics, the house is creaky and old, and Noemi has strange nightmares every night. Oh, and her cousin has tuberculosis and might be going mad... or maybe not.

This had the perfect recipe for a good book but the writing plodded and it was just so uninteresting to me. Wooden, I think, is the term I'm looking for. I had the same problem with THE SEVEN AND A HALF DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE, a book that purported to be an engaging mystery but ended up being wooden and kind of lame.

Giving this two stars since I feel I could probably find it OK if I forced myself through it, but as tedious as this is, why bother? I have other things to read during this period of self-quarantine that aren't going to make me fall asleep.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Lion's Den by Katherine St. John

THE LION'S DEN turned out to be the perfect read for my current mood. It was light, frothy, and utterly mean-spirited, a scathing critique on social climbers through the medium of locked-room murder mystery aboard a private yacht. Similar to Janelle Brown's PRETTY THINGS, everyone in the book is an awful person... but some of them are more awful than others.

Aspiring actress Belle is a little surprised when her friend Summer invites her above her rich (and older) boyfriend's private yacht for her birthday on a trip to the French Riviera. Particularly since she and Summer haven't exactly been biffles lately. But an all-expenses paid vacation is an all-expenses paid vacation-- OR SO SHE THINKS. Things start getting sinister pretty quickly. Assigned seating, restricted diets, technology embargos. John isn't just a rich boyfriend, he's also super controlling.

And then the killings begin.

Told in past and present POVs, THE LION'S DEN plunges us not just into a vacation-turned-Hitchcock-movie but also into the super secret falling out between Summer and Belle and how it ties into the events of the present day. Let me just tell you that even if you get cocky about reading this book and think you have it all figured out-- you don't. There were several things in here that shocked me in a good way, even though I thought I knew what was going to happen. Little twists keep the book interesting and spicy, so I appreciated that as a reader.

Even though Belle is vapid, she quickly proves to be surprisingly interesting-- and there's a great cast of characters in here to love, hate, or love to hate, ranging from tacky pageant-type moms to hot artists to silent and sinister bodyguards. Yes, THE LION'S DEN is pleasure reading, but it's decadent and delightful and just brainy enough to be completely guilt-free. I enjoyed it immensely!

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Book of Second Chances by Katherine Slee

DNF @ p.82

I try to read at least 50 pages before deciding a book isn't for me. I feel like 50 pages is a good amount of time spent invested in making an effort to care about the characters and the story. Sadly, I didn't really care for either. This is an overly twee, hand-holdy book about a young woman whose grandmother leaves her a posthumous scavenger hunt. The young woman in question is disabled, anxious, and has agoraphobia-- and since she's orphaned, as well, her grandmother is literally the only person she had in the world. So, perfect. Granny is going to torture her from beyond the grave and call it character development. *slow clap* Bravo.

You might enjoy this if you like preciously written works of women's fiction. I, however, do not. I think the cover is lovely and the premise of a book-about-books with an introvert with a disability who has relatable interests and passions (books! drawings!) should have been great, but it missed the mark for me.

Maybe not for you?

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

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Diamond Fire by Ilona Andrews

I've been sitting on this one for a while, saving it for a rainy day because I knew I'd love it and wanted to savor the prospect of reading it. With all the quarantining going on, now seemed like an excellent time to revisit the world of Hidden Legacy, Primes, and, of course, Mad Rogan.

DIAMOND FIRE is the bridge between the original trilogy starring Nevada and the new series starring Catalina. Nevada is now getting married to Rogan and the Baylors have their own prestigious House with multiple primes (although the records of the minors are sealed). Catalina and Arabella are tasked by Rogan to make sure that the wedding goes smoothly... but wedding planning takes a sinister turn for the worst when theft and poison enter the mix.

Catalina ends up acting as investigator on her own, trying to figure out who might want to stop Nevada and Rogan's wedding, whether they're willing to kill to do so, and if it's an inside job. She really comes into her own in this book, developing a confidence in herself, as well as her controversial and powerful abilities.

I loved Catalina and I'm sure I'm going to love her even more once I read her "official" novel, but this book had some problems. Part of me wants to give it 5 STARS out of my sheer love for the original trilogy but this does have some of the typical novella problems. The first half is very rushed and has a definitive "fanfic" vibe. The second half is much better, pacing-wise, and I liked Catalina a lot more as a narrator. Which is one of the problems I had with this book.

Nevada was made into a total Bridezilla for the lolz. And while I get that nerves and perfectionism make everyone a little crazy, it did almost feel like Nevada was demonized to make Catalina seem more likable and even-tempered by comparison. Which was totally unnecessary! One of the things I loved about the original story was Nevada's loving dynamic with her family. So making Nevada go le cray cray felt not only out of character but also kind of mean.

Ilona Andrews, I expect better from you!

As a fan of The Hidden Legacy trilogy, I'm giving this a four star rating because it was really, really fun and the mystery element was much less silly than I was afraid it was going to be. However, this is not a standalone and can't really be read and appreciated without the original trilogy under your belt, and it does have some pretty major problems that I just can't overlook, no matter how much I love IA.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Glow: Vs the Star Primas by Tini Howard

I was attracted to this graphic novel because of the big 80s hair and the Jem and the Holograms vibes. I didn't even read the summary before accepting the ARC, which turned out to be a good thing, because if I had, I wouldn't have requested this-- and I actually really ended up loving it a lot!

GLOW is based on a Netflix series of the same name about a bunch of women wrestlers who wear pretty costumes, undergo rigorous training sessions (#montage??), and craft elaborate backstories for their fights. It reminds me a lot of the Southpark episode that was about the same thing only much more good-natured, wholesome, and fun. The women in this book come from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of body types, and some of them seem to be coded as being LGBT+ although I can't say for sure!

What I can say is that this is a fantastic book about female friendships. When the girls get sent to a competition that has double-booked with another female wrestling team, it seems like things are going to be tough. Especially since the other team is much more serious and skeptical about the somewhat lighthearted vibes of GLOW. But in the end, everyone ends up having a good time in the competition and learning a lot! It's so good!

Anyone who enjoys books with team dynamics, feel good comics, and stories about female friendship will love this. There isn't even much romance-- the focus is almost entirely on the sport and the platonic relationship between the women as they compete. This is the second graphic-novel I have received this month that is not only female-fronted but also showcases female friendships, and I can't tell you how happy that makes me. I stopped reading graphic-novels for a while because it felt like they were getting increasingly cheesecakey and violent, so stuff like this is a godsend.

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

4 out of 5 stars

The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L'Engle

DNF @ p.54

Like most kids, I read A WRINKLE IN TIME when I was young and I really, really loved it. Not just because it was an intellectual fantasy that didn't talk down to its readers but because the heroine was bespectacled like I was! YAAAASS.

I was really excited to receive a copy of THE MOMENT OF TENDERNESS, which is a collection of L'Engle's earlier stories from the 40s and 50s that predate A WRINKLE IN TIME. Many of them have never been published before... and honestly, I kind of see why? A lot of these seem really sloppy and the endings of two that I read were so terrible that they were like non-endings.

L'Engle has written realistic contemporary YA, like A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT and TROUBLING A STAR, and I have read and liked those, so the reason I disliked this short story collection wasn't because it wasn't like A WRINKLE IN TIME. It was because I perceived them to be poorly written unfinished stories.

I think real hardcore L'Engle fans might enjoy this because it shows the development of her work and gives you a taste of what her writing was like as a young woman. But if you're reading these for the quality of the work, don't. You would be much better off reading her later stuff instead, because this body of work just doesn't have the mainstream appeal that her later, more mature works did.

YMMV but I wasn't happy with this one at all. Sadness.

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

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

An Embarrassment of Witches by Sophie Goldstein

Witches seem to be the hot topic this year in young adult and new adult fiction, probably due in large part to the popularity of shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and The Witcher. Well... as someone who is obsessed with witches, I am all for it! I grabbed AN EMBARRASSMENT OF WITCHES on impulse because I loved the cover and the concept seemed really good, too. The best way to describe AEoW is like a cross between Jeph Jacques's Questionable Content webcomic and J.K. Rowlings's Harry Potter.

Rory is a college-age witch living in an AU version of our world where all of the major brands have witchy twists ("Taco Spell"), everyone has a familiar, animals can talk, and people can do magic. She has just broken things off with her boyfriend and is trying to figure things out with a new guy, named... Guy, and her best friend and roommate, Angela.

There isn't really a plot to this comic. It's more like a coming-of-age but with magic. Rory wants to be loved and have adventure, but she's a taker and a bit impulsive, so she's always making mistakes and pushing people around her away. Angela wants to do really well on her new internship but she's a pushover who has trouble saying no and has a lot of anxiety, which revolves around a severe fear of failure.

I loved the turquoise, yellow, and purple color palette. The illustrations are whimsical but never overshadow the text (or vice-versa). Anyone who loves books about magical schools or new adult books that don't sugarcoat real young adult problems will love this, especially if they like Questionable Content, Sabrina, or Harry Potter. It ends on what I felt was a bit of a cliffhanger, though, so I hope there's more books coming out of this universe. I #need closure!

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman

MOTHER DAUGHTER WIDOW WIFE is an interesting book that gets more interesting as you read because it goes in several directions that you (probably) won't expect. The format is a bit tricky, because it's told in multiple timelines with multiple POVs. It took me a shamefully long time to figure that out going in so I'll detail a little about what's going on to make it easier for others.

Lizzie is an ambitious student working at a research institution. Her professor gives her a golden opportunity to study a woman who has been checked in to the institute who has dissociative amnesia. Her POV takes place in the past. Elizabeth is grown-up Lizzie, now widowed and no longer involved in science. Her POV takes place in the present. Wendy is the name given to the woman with amnesia (short for "Wendy Doe") who is surprisingly cynical about her situation. Her POV takes place in the past. Alice is Wendy's daughter. She's looking into her mother's checkerboard past now that she's gone missing again. Her POV is in the present.

These three women and the roles they play in the narrative gradually intertwine. Over the course of the novel, you learn more about what drives Lizzie, what happened traumatic incident happened to Wendy, and how Alice lives under the shadow of her own psychological problems that remain largely unchecked. The psychology/neuroscience angle doesn't come into play as centrally as I thought it would, and this book isn't quite the thriller I imagined it would be based on the blurb and the cover. It's almost like a domestic drama, like Lianne Moriarty would write, where it takes these intimate scenes from people's lives and uses them to do an exhaustive character study on some truly flawed and yet completely relatable characters.

The first two thirds of this book read much faster than the last third. I did feel like it slowed down a little, but before I could get bored, Wasserman threw a curveball that completely changed my feelings about one of the other characters in the book and put their relationship with another character in a wholly new light. It made me realize how careful the foreshadowing was, and let me read the story with new eyes. I'm always impressed when an author can do that successfully as it shows such careful planning. MOTHER DAUGHTER WIDOW WIFE is the type of book that will do really well in book clubs and I wouldn't be surprised to see it topping the best-seller charts when it comes out. It made me realize that I have some other Wasserman titles in my TBR pile that I really ought to read, because I'm a sucker for books about morally grey women and she's quite good at writing them.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Silent Scream by Diane Hoh

Just as many bodice ripper authors ended up publishing smutty versions of the Gothic and Regency romances they read as girls, all of my published books are basically smutty versions of the YA pulp I read growing up. Nightmare Hall, as well as the other Point Horror novels, are a huge part of the inspiration behind my Horroscape series, with each book highlighting a YA horror/thriller trope I loved (can you guess which ones? lol).

I remember reading THE SILENT SCREAM when I was a kid and thinking that I was reading some really good shit because this is one of the few books that actually had college-age characters instead of teen or middle grade ones, so it gave the books a really "mature" feeling that made them feel extra edgy.

In this book, a girl named Jess is starting her first year at college. She's living off-campus in a place called Nightingale Hall along with a bunch of other coeds: artistic Milo, low-key Ian, tightly-strung Cathy, athlete Linda, and the repair guy, Trucker.

Right away, you know this isn't going to be a chill year. The book opens with a pretty graphic description of the house mother finding out that one of her female residents hung herself. Then Jess finds out that she actually got the dead girl's room and weird things start happening. Objects turning up missing or destroyed, spooky letters, and all kinds of unexplainable creepiness.

And the question: Did Giselle, the dead girl, really take her own life?

Part of the fun of these vintage YA is the dated pop culture references. I loved seeing Tom Selleck and Kim Basinger referred to as sex symbols in this book. Also, the students at this school use typewriters and have to go to the school computer lab if they want to use a computer. The story also held up pretty well. I knew who the bad person was from the beginning, which took out some of the fun of trying to figure out whodunnit, but the mystery was well crafted and well written.

Looking forward to reading the rest of the series! I only ever read the first book!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 9, 2020

Freeze Tag by Caroline B. Cooney

FREEZE TAG is a "new to me" Point Horror novel that was first published in 1992. Meghan has been best friends with the Trevor family her whole life. She's the literal girl next door, in awe of their warmth and close-knit family bonds. Lannie is the interloper, the creepy girl that no one likes. But Lannie has a special power: she likes to play "freeze tag": only... when she freezes you in the game, you freeze for real.

Meghan and West are now going out, but Lannie doesn't like this. Because Meghan was frozen by Lannie when they were children, and she only unfroze her if West would "like her best." So Lannie breaks up the school's golden couple by threatening Meghan with another freeze, as well as West's younger sister, Tuesday, and anyone else who gets in the way of her and what she wants.

This is the darkest story I've read by Caroline B. Cooney. Darker even than Losing Christina, which is an entire trilogy devoted to the psychological torture of children by adults. There's just something so sickening about Lannie's extreme sociopathy and what she is doing to West. It's basically sexual assault-- he's a victim, blackmailed into being her boyfriend and all that entails. Parts of this book made me so uncomfortable; she's so fucking evil.

On the other hand, that darkness is part of the reason this book holds up. Cooney takes a silly premise that R.L. Stine might come up with for one of his Goosebumps books, but she makes it genuinely terrifying and believable. I'm also in love with her poetic descriptions and her ability to set a scene. The winters in this book juxtaposed against the summers, and all of the sights, scents, and sensations are all so well done. In some of her books it can feel a little dialed in but not in this one! Not at all!

The ending was a bit dissatisfying but also really interesting. I kind of wish there was an epilogue, but on the other hand, it's fun to imagine what might have gone from there, too.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do The Work by Tiffany Jewell

What a great classroom resource! THIS BOOK IS ANTI-RACIST is part workbook and part history book and part instructional guide. Even though it's pretty short, TBIAR talks about everything from privilege to institutional racism to how you can go about calling out problematic behavior and whether it should be public or private (there's a series of questions you should ask yourself).

I really liked the illustrations from Aurelia Durand: they're bright and colorful and give this a really fun vibe that's reminiscent of the guides published by the American Girl imprint. The tone is conversational, simple, but doesn't talk down, and I liked how the author gave history and context behind a lot of the inequality that plagues multiple countries (not just the U.S.), and the types of questions that readers can ask themselves to do better.

One thing that was new to me was the term "folx." I Googled it and there's over a million results, but a lot of them refer to the Firefox software system. I guess it's a gender neutral term for people to use to describe themselves, but I didn't think "folks" was gender specific? Latinx and Filipinx, for example, come from languages that have "gendered" nouns, so the replacement of the "a" or the "o" serve as a means to respect and acknowledge people who don't wish to be associated with a specific gender. I was confused and unfamiliar with the term, but it's always cool to learn about a new means of identifying people because knowing is half the battle.

TBIAR is a book that will most likely teach you something new about yourself or about others, and provide you with a tool kit you can use to call out problematic behavior, look at whether you're doing any of your own, and also give you ideas on how you can either work more proactively against discrimination and/or use your own privilege to benefit others with less. It's a really great book and I think it's an amazing classroom resource for teachers. I'm telling my teacher friends all about this one!

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Blood Spell by Janice Harrell

I enjoyed the first book, BLOOD CURSE, in this series enough that I wanted to check out the sequel. The best way of describing these books is kind of like a gender-reversed Vampire Diaries. James, the dumb, perfect human boy, has attracted the attentions of a vampiress named Rina. The only problem is, he has a human girlfriend named Chelsea. Rina pays James visits in the night for sexy neck biting sessions, but he still stays loyal to Chelsea despite his growing attraction to Rina. But how does she fix that? By killing her!

...Except, oops! She accidentally made Chelsea into a vampire instead. And while Chelsea was ambitious as a human, she's positively evil as a vampire. She's decided that Rina must die and James will be hers-- as a vampire-- and enlists the help of the very vampire who turned Rina, a man named Vlad, for assistance.

This book... was frustrating. First, James is such a dope. I didn't buy him as a love interest and couldn't understand why two human women would waste their time over this dope. People talk about Bella Swan being a dopette, but at least she was smart and passionate. James has all the passion of a slice of whole grain bread and he's not very smart. Why would two vampire women waste their time on this twit? You have all of eternity... come on!

Also, this book jumps the shark about fifty times. I'm not exactly expecting realism in my vampire novels but it really felt like Harrell had no idea what to do with this one and just crammed as much as she could to pad this out to novella length so she could publish it. It showed. I was incredibly bored.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Blood & Flowers by Penny Blubaugh

DNF @ 24%

I'm trying to clean out my Kindle and last night, I spent about two hours deleting everything from authors whose books have bad ratings from friends on Goodreads, or who wrote one book I read and really didn't like to the point where I no longer wanted to give them a second chance. After the first initial purge, I'm now working my way through my short list of books I was actually really excited about reading & am finally getting around to.

I LOVE books about faeries and I love reading books with low ratings on GR (provided that they weren't from friends). My tastes are somewhat unconventional and I always wonder if maybe the reason a book missed the mark was because it didn't really resonate with the public because it would only appeal to a niche audience. BLOOD & FLOWERS with its dark, artsy premise seemed like it could be such a book. I mean, look at that cover. It's gorgeous! I can't stop admiring it.

Human Persia is a teen runaway who frolics around with a modern day theater group (picture art students from UC Berkeley). Some of them are humans, some of them are fae. In this universe, humans are aware of the fae and don't like them. Whenever something goes wrong, it's blamed on the fae. They're demonized and villainized, and considering how Floss, the fae in their group, talks about Faerie, maybe it's even a little warranted. The fae in this book seem like they're more than a little cruel.

The problem is... after more than a quarter of the way through a book, it DOESN'T GET MOVING. I was so bored. There is a definite disconnect between the characters and the narrative. It feels empty, soulless. I never really understood what made Persia tick or why I should care about her as a character. Also, the threat of faerie was never fully introduced-- not early enough. I tried to skim until they actually got to Faerie but the book is just way too long for me to even want to wait around and see if it eventually gets to the point. It's a shame, because it has a gorgeous cover. Oh well.

1 out of 5 stars

Signs of Resistance: A Visual History of Protest in America by Bonnie Siegler

Bonnie Siegler was incensed by Trump's election and it inspired her to compile a book documenting the history of the U.S.'s major political movements, and the people who fought hard against oppression (or, in some cases... didn't). This is a really excellent, very visual history that starts with the U.S.'s own declaration for independence and ends with many important modern movements of equal significance, such as Climate marches to draw attention to the importance of protecting the environment and reducing the effects of climate change, BLM (because of course), movements for support for the sciences, and movements demanding the fairer treatment of women and minorities.

This is a pretty short book and some chapters are much shorter than they should have been, in my opinion, but I loved all of the art, memes, photos, posters, banners, and magazine covers that were selected for this book. There are definite trigger warnings in here, particularly for some portions of the book that talk about extreme injustice and racially-targeted violence, but overall, I do feel that this book has a positive, hopeful, and, yes, somewhat satirical outlook that made me laugh a few times (even though it also made me cry).

If you're interested in politics or activism, SIGNS OF RESISTANCE is a wonderful book to read. With its tongue-in-cheek captions that give a brief history of the movements in question and explain why the art was created and what its purpose is, it's one of those books that manages to be edifying and educational while also giving you a delightful glimpse into the personality of the person who created it. The ebook also features fairly high quality images and I appreciate the effort that went into making this an enjoyable read for those who can't appreciate the glossy pictures in person. Looking at Siegler's other work, it seems like she might be in design, which makes sense.

Definitely give this book a read! The ebook is very affordable and it's so informative and good!

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh

THE MAGICAL LANGUAGE OF OTHERS is a very short book that packs a punch. In it, E.J. Koh describes her parents taking a fantastic job opportunity in Korea that meant her and her brother (both teenagers) living alone in Davis, CA for three years. She also writes about her grandmother's life, and how she flouted the conventions of her time while also being oppressed by them. In addition, Koh writes about her own coming of age as an adult, and how that was influenced by her identity, language, and culture.

TMLoO is very beautifully written. I liked the scans of the original letters her mother wrote to her while she was away in Korea. I also loved the parts about language, and how Koh talked about some of the things that are different in Japanese (which she learned as an adult), and how so much of meaning is impossible to translate because of symbolism or the physical gestures used to give them meaning. Language is such a fascinating construct, which is why there are entire subdivisions of psychology and humanities devoted to studying how it works and develops.

My only criticism with this work is that it didn't really flow as smoothly as I wished it would. Some parts were fascinating and others dragged. Even though this book is just over 200 pages, it took me longer to read it than I thought it would. Some parts were difficult to get through because they just weren't as interesting as other portions, which I think is hard in a memoir. It's difficult to pick and choose which portions of your life to share with an audience and guess what they will find interesting. Mostly, I do feel like the author succeeded though. I thought she was very interesting.

I'm honestly surprised that this memoir isn't more popular than it is. I think it's very topical, as it talks a lot about dual identity, bilingualism, and the way culture influences the way we define ourselves.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Dreamstalker by Barbara Steiner

I first read DREAMSTALKER when I was in middle school. Usually the young adult pulp was kept in a small bookshelf along the far wall, but somehow this one had gotten mixed in with the more sophisticated titles. The moment I saw that jagged font and horror movie cover, twelve-year-old me knew she was in for a treat.

This book is about twins named Karen and Kerr. Both of them are attractive but Karen is more popular than Kerr, even though he's the better looking one. He's needy and clingy and wants his sister to be with him all the time. Karen, however, is ready to move on from Kerr and be a little more independent.

Anyway, Karen starts having dreams that seem like they predict the deaths of her classmates. The school bully dies of an asthma attack with flowers shoved down his throat ("natural causes," say the police), her boyfriend gets crushed in a football match, her best friend dies of fear while covered in red paint ("natural causes" again), and then, soon, she starts dreaming of her brother's death, too.

Someone is trying to torture Karen-- but who? Why? And HOW?

I read another book by this author called THE MUMMY that was actually pretty good. It was kind of like something L.J. Smith would write-- paranormal romantic horror. This was more traditional YA horror movie thrills and chills. The dream sequences, which were terrifying when I was a kid, just seemed silly and cheesy now. The twist shocked me enough that I remembered it twenty years later, but I wasn't as impressed this second time around.

Also, THE PSYCHOLOGY IN THIS BOOK IS SO BAD. Karen's psych teacher keeps talking about dream symbolism, shadow dreams, and psychic abilities. I'm sorry, since when did Venkman retire from Ghostbusting and become a suburban Colorado high school teacher? That is not psychology and as someone who actually studied and has a degree in psychology, this made me cringe super hard.

Read this for the cheese factor, and to see the most incompetent doctors and policemen I've ever encountered in fiction, where murder is basically labeled a natural cause if you aren't found with a knife embedded in your throat.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 7, 2020

The Vampire's Promise by Caroline B. Cooney

THE VAMPIRE'S PROMISE is the third book in the vampire series, renamed Fatal Bargain when the series was rebranded. Here, our unnamed villain returns to torment a group of six teenagers who decided to have a party in the haunted mansion that's slated to be demolished. With his home being torn down, the vampire really has nothing left to lose, and he's so hungry... Being one to toy with his prey, he tells the teens that he'll be happy to let them go, provided that they vote someone to be his eternal victim instead.

I owned this book when I was a kid, so I've read and reread this one multiple times. I remember thinking it was ingenious when I was fifteen, but as a thirty-something, I'm slightly more skeptical. This book is better than the second but not as good as the first, and part of what bogs it down is a litany of unnecessary POV swaps-- we're not just treated to each of the six kids, but also one of the younger siblings, one of the older siblings, a carjacker, and a policewoman.

Regarding the actual teens themselves, I thought they were all pretty well done. Lacey was my favorite as a kid and I still liked her the best now, but all of the others are extremely unlikable. Watching them argue about who gets to die is amusing but kind of sad (in fact, Roxanne, one of the bitchy teens, has this hilarious line about how selfish she is that stuck with me for all these years and made me laugh anew last night).

The vampire is really the pieces de resistance of this book. When I was a teen, I wrote fanfiction about this book where he took Lacey to be his bride of the night because that's what I was into back then: vampire brides and darkness. Actually, still true, but I was way more melodramatic about it as a teen haha. I don't have that fanfiction anymore but it just goes to show that I noticed the vampire's rather erotic interactions with his victims even when I was a child. It's canon.

This was a fun series to revisit but it really doesn't hold up as well as some of CBC's other books, like the Losing Christina trilogy, or the excellent Twilight-esque romance, THE STRANGER.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 6, 2020

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

DNF @ 30% 

Hey, did you know that this book is actually a love triangle? It's not just a love story between Alex and Henry. It's a love story between Alex and Henry and everyone on Tumblr. I have not read a book that wallows in its own sense of self-importance since, well, ever. This book won a Goodreads Choice Award. I had assumed it would be good because of that. But then again, SJM books also win GCAs and we know how I feel about those.

RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE (where's the Oxford comma? I hate this book already) is a romance between the son of POTUS and the son of the royal family. If you would think that means serious political issues are going to be discussed-- HA! Think again. Instead it's falling into $75,000 wedding cakes and trading pop culture references about Harry Potter and Star Wars.

RW&RB is a book that wants to let you know it's really, really hip. All of these references are going to mean nothing in ten years, but right now everyone is just nodding their heads and saying, "Yes, so topical!" When really, it's about as topical as a hemorrhoid cream. It reads like fanfic. I wouldn't be surprised if this started out as fanfic, but even if it didn't, it has that vibe. That vaguely fetishistic vibe that some books about gay men have that really bothers me, because it feels like they rely on stereotypes and head cannons and less about creating actual, realistic characters who are having an actual, realistic romance.

Henry and Alex are both SO IMMATURE. They have zero common sense, zero social savvy. Considering that they're both children of major heads of state, you would think that there would actually be some intelligence and grace somewhere in there, but no. Their "charm" consists of sarcastic grade school insults that we're supposed to believe is witty banter, and we're supposed to relate to them because they watch TV shows and read books that appeal to the 18-39 demographic, eat ice creams in the middle of the night, and use emojis! OMG THIS CHARACTER IS SO ME, A MILLENNIAL, AGE 18-39! I FEEL SEEN!

The female characters in this book, as others have pointed out, are all interchangeable. They are all basically stand-ins for the female audience, fawning over these two male characters, SHIPPING THEM SO HARD, and basically acting as the soulless Karen pod people they are, who all evolved from a single spore that bloomed out of a Harry/Draco fic on FF.net circa 2004.

I. Hated. This. Book.

I hate being pandered to, and I hate books that masquerade as intellectual and witty when they are, in fact, rather dull and unexceptional. If you want to read a good m-m romance that explores politics and fame while also being a provoking and incredibly romantic love story, read THE GRAVITY OF US (it's #ownvoices!). If you want to read vaguely fanficcy trash that at least doesn't pretend to be anything other than it is (i.e. vaguely fanficcy trash), read THE CAPTIVE PRINCE (warning: triggers abound). But if you want to read the "I'm vegan because I read the title of an article about free radicals in People magazine, and get all of my news from BuzzFeed articles and The Young Turks" version of an m-m love story, by all means, pick this up. #Bye

1 out of 5 stars

The Return Of The Vampire by Caroline B. Cooney

I'm rereading some of the old YA pulps that are available on Kindle Unlimited and among those are some of Caroline B. Cooney's contributions to Scholastic's Point Horror imprint. I grew up reading these books and they influenced many of my own writings. My favorites were the Losing Christina trilogy and the Vampire's Promise trilogy, although the names of those trilogies came later. THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE was actually renamed EVIL RETURNS when it was repackaged into the trilogy, something that confused me as a kid when I went to the library and found both editions, seemingly different books, until you opened up the covers.

Cooney has a pretty unconventional take on vampires. This one lives in a spooky tower and grants wishes that come with strings attached, kind of like Jareth from Labyrinth. Also like Jareth from Labyrinth, he has a somewhat inappropriate relationship with the teenage girls who enter into bargains with him. It's not quite sexual but there's a tension there that made me feel uncomfortable as a kid without quite being able to identify why. This is the stuff that writes a thousand fanfics.

The first book in this series, THE CHEERLEADER, is about a lonely girl named Althea who desperately wants to be popular, so she feeds some girls to a vampire in order to become a well-liked cheerleader. A flawed character to be sure, but relatable and interesting. My only qualms with the series were a lack of closure and the fact that Althea seemingly doesn't have any parents and lives in her house alone?? It's very disjointed and doesn't have the polish of some of her other books I've read.

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE features another girl with a weird name. Devnee. Devnee is also a new girl who's desperate and alone, but she's a bit more unlikable and greedier than Althea. She doesn't just want to be popular, she wants to be beautiful... smart... everything. And the vampire is only too happy to give her what she wants, as long as she gives him what he wants.

The relationship between Devnee and the vampire definitely feels erotic. Some of the things he says to her could totally be taken the wrong way (but maybe Cooney intended that). Sadly, he doesn't get as much screen time here as he did in the first. He doesn't feel quite as seductive, nor as chilling. Devnee also feels like a ridiculous caricature of a character, and I kind of hated her throughout the whole book-- especially at the end, which feels hugely anticlimactic and devoid of character development.

This is the first CBC book I'm giving less than three stars. It feels very dialed in. It's a shame, because the first one was so good and really provides a lot of set-up for more Faustian bargains. Oh, well.

2 out of 5 stars

The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner's Trilogy is probably one of my favorite YA fantasy series out there, apart from Holly Black's Folk of the Air, so when I found out that Marie Rutkoski was planning a totally different fantasy series, set in a totally different universe, featuring an LGBT romance, I was hopeful, skeptical, and excited, all at once. When an author is that wildly successful, I think the pressure is really on high for them to do it again, and it can be hard to deliver to readers' expectations. We become a sort of hype machine.

Luckily, THE MIDNIGHT LIE didn't disappoint.

THE MIDNIGHT LIE is set in a world divided up by a caste system. High Kith are the nobles who spend their lives in indolent, decadent pleasure. Middlings are the middle class, who have some pleasures but are inferior to the High Kith. Half-Kith, which is what our heroine, Nirrim, is, are the lowest. The only people lower are the Un-Kith, people without a class or home. The homeless, basically.

Nirrim scratches by working under her sort of mother figure, Raven, who acts like she stepped out of the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. To pad their income, she indulges in a bit of criminal activity: forging passports for people-- poor people-- who want to seek out better lives or flee. One day, when she returns the escaped and magical pet of a High Kith, her good deeds land her in jail. As part of the punishment, she also has to "tithe," which basically means she has to give up a body part. Sometimes it's hair or blood, but sometimes it's something more sinister: skin, teeth, or even an eye or hand.

While in prison, Nirrim meets a rakish and mysterious individual named Sid. Sid doesn't seem to have to play by the rules that bind the rest of society. Under Sid's wing, Nirrim finds not just her first blush of real attraction, but the means to question the inherent oppression that's built into the very structure of her society. Why are things the way they are? How did the caste and tithe system come to be, and why does their sinister leader, the Lord Protector, try so hard to hide the past?

This is a great dystopian fantasy and I love how many difficult subjects it tackles within the relatively small span of 350-pages. It does everything I loved about THE WINNER'S CIRCLE: forbidden romance, political and court intrigue, dangerous games, rebellion, and war. This is the second amazing LGBT fantasy for the YA audience that I've read this year, the first being THE WINTER DUKE. I feel so optimistic and excited for other LGBT fantasy releases because it seems like publishers finally understand the demand for them, and are giving them the gorgeous covers and accolades that they deserve. THE MIDNIGHT LIE promises to be an epic fantasy of class and magic that rivals that of Megan Whalen Turner. I'm already into it and can't wait for the next book.

Also, Sid is probably one of the best-portrayed LGBT love interests ever. I loved Sid and Nirrim together, and I loved them apart. The chemistry between them is just so undeniable.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

I lied. I said this was a book that I was either going to love or hate, that there was no middle ground... and yet here I am, in the middle ground. A lying liar, pants on fire. You see, there were things about ELIZA AND HER MONSTERS that I loved-- and things that I despised. Things that made me literally clench my teeth in fury because I was so irritated at this book and its characters. This is a very frustrating and personal read for me. A lot of times, when I post critical reviews of books like these, I get rude comments saying, "Well, this book wasn't written for you." Not that that invalidates my feelings about the book, but I get where they're coming from (rudeness aside). When you're reading about a specific group and you're not part of that group, you don't truly know what it means to be a part of that group.

My review for ELIZA is about as #ownvoices as it gets. I used to struggle with social phobia, and I'm a content creator with anxiety. When I was in high school and college, I used to serialize my writing online. Part of the reason I have the following I do today is because a lot of my fans doing that followed me over to Goodreads and other social media sites. Like Eliza, I wrote the stories I wanted to read about but couldn't find, and I found a community that I got really active and involved with. I wouldn't presume to say that I'm as popular as she is, but I know what it feels like to have a readership that you have obligations to, and the pressure of creating content in a semi-professional way for consumers.

Like Eliza, all I wanted to do was write. I stayed in my room a lot and just wrote, sometimes for hours. I wanted to write professionally because my self-esteem was terrible and I didn't think I would ever be able to become good at anything else. Also like Eliza, I had a well-meaning family who I treated like absolute shit and villanized because they tried to push me out of my comfort zone, which made me feel threatened and afraid. I lashed out against the people who loved me because I felt like they "just didn't understand"-- but I didn't really make an effort to help them understand. Like Eliza, I just basked in my own sense of imagined injury, and poured myself into my art.

So here's the problem I have with ELIZA, and from what I've read of the other reviews, it's a problem that many people share. The anxiety rep is on point and so is the anger and the unpleasantness. But I never really feel like Eliza is ever called on her bratty behavior and her maladaptive habits. Having a mental health problem is not a free pass from personal accountability. Eliza's parents were at fault for not reaching out to her in a way that Eliza could feel comfortable with, but a lot of that was because Eliza never let herself be approached or made any attempt to get help or healthy or self-care. She used Monstrous Sea like a crutch, and put all her weight on it, so when it inevitably smashed, she came tumbling down because she had no other support systems in place. I could definitely see why Eliza's parents were so frustrated: she had no interest in college, didn't want to find a job, resisted going to the doctor or getting healthy, and balked at all social interactions including her family.

That is not healthy and when a hobby gets to the point that it becomes a crutch, it's time to step back. I stopped writing for a while because I felt like I had let it become an obsession. Now I feel like I've stepped back enough where I can look at it objectively and let myself enjoy it without taking offense to criticism, or feeling like I've poured my soul into it. It's something that I do for fun and enjoy, and that others enjoy as well, but my entire sense of self doesn't hinge on my creations.

There's a line in here that people shouldn't kill themselves for their art. It's spoken by Wallace, the love interest in this book. Which is REALLY FUCKING IRONIC considering what he does to Eliza after she has a mental breakdown. When he finds out someone is willing to pay him for the fanfic that he has written for Eliza's work, he DEMANDS that she finish, even though she is clearly in no psychologically healthy place to do so. SO, okay, apparently people shouldn't "kill themselves for art-- UNLESS it's of personal benefit to fucking WALLACE." Excuse you.

It's a shame, because up until that point, I really liked Wallace... but after that, there was no going back. SPEAKING OF GOING BACK-- what Eliza did to Wallace with that "scare" scene. Was. Fucking. Sickening. Up until that point, I was seething a little about the rep-- but mostly because it hit close to home and was making me think hard about a lot of my own behavior when I was Eliza's age. But after that scene... well, there was no going back. It felt like another scene of mental health being used as a "pass." Oh, I'm sorry I hurt you-- I'm not well. I'm okay now. Are you okay? WE'RE COOL. Like... considering what Wallace told her, that was such a breach of trust. And maybe she did it because he breached her own trust but man-- TOTALLY UNCALLED FOR. Yikes times infinity.

I liked the art scenes in the book but I thought the fantasy blurbs that came with them were wooden and lame. It reminded me of the fic scenes we got in Rainbow Rowell's FANGIRL, another anxiety/fandom rep that I took serious issue with. Eliza is slightly easier to relate to than Cath, who was just a hideous stereotype of every negative assumption people make about people with anxiety, wrapped in wish fulfillment fantasy and tied off with a big ol' bitch bow, but she is certainly no more likable. My favorite moment in this book was when she realizes what a twatwaffle she's been to her brothers after she learns that they have interests!!! and are actually people like her!!!

Jesus Christ, Eliza. How self-centered can you get.

I'm not sure if it's intentional, but I think that self-centered element is another part of anxiety and depression that isn't often talked about but it's hard to focus on others when you feel bad inside. Eliza feels crappy and dwells on that, so she doesn't really think about her family or her friends as having any problems, and the way she used her friends as personal therapists was kind of unhealthy, too. I felt like the book was trying to show that when she texts her friends during her breakdown and they don't write back because they're busy!! having lives!! but this also was never really addressed, and I think it is something that really is important. Healthy relationships where care is reciprocated.

I said more than I meant to say about this book but it made me feel a lot of things pretty strongly. I wouldn't read it again because I feel like the overall message in this book hurts more than it helps, and I kind of hate that Eliza was never taken to task for all the bad things she did and Wallace basically got off scot-free for being a raging shit weasel. The last 20% of the book ruined everything that was cute about their interactions in the first 80% and Eliza's treatment of her family even cast a shadow over that. So, that's my #ownvoices perspective. Not all rep is created equal, so maybe you'll see yourself in her more favorably than I did. But if you're going to tell me that I read the book wrong, or that it wasn't written for me, we can chat later via 1-800-GIRL-BYE at never o' clock.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

I was really excited to receive an ARC of this because of the blurb by Haruki Murakami. Don't be fooled by the racy title-- this is a very serious, very dark look at gender norms and expectations for women, tackling topics such as fertility, body image, and gender conformity. Our narrator is a woman in her thirties named Natsuko and the story revolves around her, her sister, Makiko, and her niece, a teenager named Midoriko.

Style-wise, this reminds me a bit of Banana Yoshimoto's work in that there's a dreamy element to the narrative, even as Kawakami is writing about some very unpleasant things. Natsuko is feeling the ticking of her biological clock, but isn't sure if she wants children. Makiko, who has a child, is a single mother working as a hostess in an industry that seeks ever younger girls. She's feeling self-conscious about her post-pregnancy body growing older and wants to get cosmetic surgery to look young. Midoriko thinks all of this is disgusting. She finds aging terrifying, and the inevitability of it combined with her own powerlessness has essentially led to her taking a vow of silence with her mother.

The first half of this book is much better than the second half. I really enjoyed the unconventional family dynamic and all of the issues that were being presented-- something that's incredibly relevant in Japan, with women demanding more autonomy in a society that has historically repressed them. One thing that may trigger readers is the way a character who might or might not be transgender is addressed. This is a translated work and I'm not really familiar with the way that people who are transgender in Japan identify themselves, so it's possible that this is a language barrier thing, but the way it is written, people of Western audiences may see it as intentional misgendering.

The second half of the book is a bit more tedious. It takes place... I want to say 5-10 years in the future. Midoriko is no longer in middle school; now she's a young woman in college. Makiko is in her late forties and Natsuko is younger (early forties, I think) and now a successful author who has decided that yes, she does want children after all, and is looking into artificial insemination.

This is a very interesting book and I do appreciate the issues it brings to the table, but it felt like a much longer book than it actually needed to be.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars