Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Baddest Bitch in the Room: A Memoir by Sophia Chang

When I first saw the title of this memoir, I thought it was one of those self-help books geared towards making women feel more confident and enabling their inner #girlboss. THE BADDEST is not that book-- although honestly, reading this book was about a thousand times more valuable and inspiring than the few self-help books that I've tried to read.

The woman striking the power pose on the cover who looks like she could be a model for Fashion Nova is Sophia Chang, considered to be the first Asian woman in hip-hop. She managed a lot of very famous and influential artists who were keystones of the 80s and 90s hip-hop scene, including the Wu-Tang clan guys. On one level, this is a career retrospective, but it's also a fascinating memoir of motherhood, family, friendship, overcoming adversity, and embracing the things that you love.

I feel like some people are going to be put off by this memoir because Sophia Chang doesn't fit into the box that is labeled (in feminine script, of course *eye roll*) "acceptable woman behavior." She is crass at times, outspoken at others; she is confident and completely unapologetic, and embraces her sexuality in a way that I couldn't help but admire. Honestly, though, I feel like the people who are put off by those things should probably read this anyway, because an important tenet of feminism-- and basic human respect, actually-- is respecting others for the choices they make, even if they aren't necessarily the ones you would make-- as long as they don't cause any harm. Women need to be allowed to take risks and make the mistakes that men do in their pursuit of happiness. As long as we condemn one group and not the other for making those same decisions, our society will never be equal. She has a great chapter in here about how so many people are quick to judge a woman for having too many partners, and yet nobody thinks badly of a man for doing so. I loved that, and it's just one example of how Chang doesn't allow herself to be bound to what's expected.

My favorite chapter in the beginning had to be about her family's escape from North Korea. It was so harrowing and intense, and provided a wonderful showcase for the quality of the writing in this book. Chang is an excellent story-teller, and the passages of her growing up with her family within that cultural context shaped in the beginning and throughout the book were so fascinating and pleasurable to read. She writes about how her heritage shaped her upbringing but didn't let it determine the choices she wanted for herself, and how her parents tried to be supportive to the best of their ability.

I also really enjoyed the portions about music. Even though hip-hop isn't a genre of music I listen to, the way she describes how a powerful love for a song or genre can just take over you is relatable to any music lover. She also isn't afraid to throw shade. I've complained that too many celebrity memoirs are afraid to be mean, and end up sounding like acceptance speeches. Chang has ringing accolades for the people who stand in her corner, but she also isn't afraid to name drop the people who did her dirty, and I admired that, because it made the memoir feel more authentic, more real.

There's so much more that happens in this book-- the struggles of balancing motherhood with a career, the Shaolin monk who fathered her children, the way she hung out with the members of Wu-Tang like they were a squad of superheroes chilling at HQ, being a part of such a game-changing music scene right when it happened, and palling around with one of the Ramones... there was a lot. She says at the end that she wasn't sure if she wanted to write a book and was basically forced into it by people demanding her story, and I can see why. She doesn't have to try very hard to sound interesting because she is interesting, and she's a great writer, too.

Even if you don't like hip-hop music, you should read THE BADDEST. It's really, really good.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Love and Theft by Stan Parish

DNF @ p.36

I hate giving bad reviews to ARCs. I really try to only select books that I think I'll love, and the premise of this sounded so appealing. But I actually thought this was pretty bad-- for me, at least-- and I didn't care to stick around and see if it got better. Maybe it does. I thought the cover was gorgeous and the idea of single parents getting wrapped up in a heist was an appealing concept, particularly after a slew of really enjoyable domestic thrillers of families gone bad. It's not easy to be a single parent and the temptation to make a quick buck must be great. Particularly if you're sure you will be able to get away with it...

Hence the premise.

But I really, really couldn't stand the writing style. It's written in third person present tense, and not particularly well. The dialogue is wooden. The writing is choppy. There are TONS of paragraph breaks per chapter, which I think is supposed to make it seem breathless and fast-paced, kind of like an old school noir, but only ends up making everything feel like a rushed first draft. And the chapter endings are so... abrupt.

Maybe his writing style will work better for you. It kind of reminds me of Thomas Perry in terms of style, an author whose work I forced myself through and wish I hadn't in retrospect, because the payoff really wasn't worth it. Anyone who enjoys those to-be-devoured-in-one-sitting airport thrillers will enjoy this, and I'm truly sorry to say that I didn't.

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

1 out of 5 stars

Devils' Line Vol. 1 by Ryo Hanada

Apparently, K-Pop guys who look like vampires is an aesthetic. And you know what? It's a really good aesthetic. That was 99% of the reason I went for this manga: the dude on the cover looks like he's about to serenade you about how much he wants to drink your blood. *swoon*

Devil's Line is a lot like a more violent version of TWILIGHT that is aimed at dudes. It's a seinen manga, which is like shounen's big brother, and from what I understand, is typically targeted towards men in the 20-30s age bracket. The book opens with a girl named Tsukasa finding out that her friend-zoned buddy is actually a vampire incel who's the main suspect in a whole bunch of rape and murder cases of human women.


The guy who books him is a half-vampire, half-human hybrid named Anzai, who works as a sort of police officer among his kind, hauling in the bad guys who prey on humans and disrupt their way of life. We get to see several of the cases that he's working on before he's put on leave for beating up a teacher who assaults Tsukasa right before Anzai is supposed to meet her for hot pot.

Vampires are referred to as "devils" and they certainly look like them when they transform. Like Bella with Edward Cullen, Tsukasa can tell when he has or hasn't fed by his eyes: he gets this sunken-in, baggy-eyed look when he hasn't had blood, which makes more sense than eyes changing color (although when he turns, his eyes become blood-shot). Also like Edward, he lurks around outside her balcony and watches her sleep, and Tsukasa is fascinated by him because he craves her blood and must resist.

I thought this was fine. As I said, it's basically a darker TWILIGHT, but I liked TWILIGHT even as I wished it were darker, so this ended up working out for me just fine. I probably would have liked it more when I was younger, as both characters look very young. Tsukasa looks like she could be in middle school and Anzai kind of reminds me of "L" from Death Note with higher cheekbones.

Overall, this wasn't bad. I'm not sure I'll continue with the series but I had a lot of fun reading it.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Drops of God Vol. 3 by Tadashi Agi

Have I mentioned how obsessed I am with this series? Seriously, anyone who thinks that manga is for young people only needs to pick up a copy of The Drops of God. It's an amazing manga series about a young man (twenties) named Shizuku who is the son of a famous Japanese wine critic. Finding out his old man died comes as a triple threat: not only was his death completely out of left field, he has to compete for his inheritance against an adopted brother he didn't even know about: another famous wine critic named Issei.

Most of these books seem to end on cliffhangers but the writing and story-telling are soooo good. If these aren't an anime or a drama already, they should be. The writing about wine is so poetic and even if it comes across as hammy at times, you really feel like the writers are passionate about wine-drinking and wine-tasting, or at least have done their homework on it.

My worry with this series was that the authors would run out of ideas since the concept seems like it would be one-note, but so far, that hasn't been the case either. The current dilemmas in this book are finding low budget French wines to win a wine contest against low budget Italian wines and helping a restaurant owner who received a scathing review from a critic (Issei!) win over the critic by redoing the menu/pairings.

One thing I love about this series is how the manga keeps letting you think it's going to fall back on old tropes, only to pull the rug out from under you. Without saying too much, let's just say that this book could have easily gone down the "restaurant critics are meanie meaners who only want to destroy businesses!" route, but it totally didn't. Part of the arc is about learning not to be too proud to face honest (albeit scathing) criticism, and that even as a professional, you should still be learning and honing your craft. It was a surprisingly poignant message, accompanied with gorgeous drawings of food and some excellent passages about the marriage between food and wine.

People often speak condescendingly of table wines, but it is true that the wine you enjoy with food isn't necessarily the type of wine you would want to drink by itself. There is nothing wrong with table wine, and the meal you enjoy a wine with can bring out unexpected and pleasant flavors (and vice-versa). I also liked the part about how not all shellfish can be paired with all white wines, and the dilemma with the Chablis and the oysters struck a personal chord with me because I was actually at a restaurant where they were serving champagne with oysters and it was the type of champagne you drink by itself (lightly sweet, airy) and it tasted HORRIBLE with the oysters and made them bitter and fishy! I thought there was something wrong with the oysters, but after reading this book, I'm now certain that it was just a poor match between wine and seafood. Amazing.

Anyone who enjoys food and wine will love this book, as it really speaks to one's inner-foodie. If you don't like wine or reading about wine, you will likely be very bored with Drops of God and that's fair. It's not a manga for kids or for people who like kids' manga, and I'm honestly saddened that more people don't know about it, as I think it could definitely find its niche among millennials. I was looking into this series and apparently in Japanese and French, there are 40+ books available, but in English there are only 11 published? GUYS. You gotta get on this train and show the publisher that there's a market for it. I need to find out how this all ends. Do me a solid and read this fucking series.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Chi's Sweet Adventures, Vol. 1 by Kanata Konami

DNF @ 32%

If I had paid money for this, I would have given it a one star, but because I read it on Kindle Unlimited, I feel I can afford to be a little generous. Besides, the drawings were cute. That's basically the only good thing I can say about this story. Come for the cute kitten and then leave for the bad formatting. Ugh.

The first book I read by this author was in the FukuFuku: Kitten Tales series, and I really, really loved it. FukuFuku has very simple panels and not a lot of text. Most of the actions speak for themselves: a kitten getting up to crazy antics, much to the despair of the little old lady who is her owner. The panels were easy to read and there wasn't a lot of dialogue so it was a nice break in between more dialogue-heavy comics.

By contrast, Chi's Sweet Adventures has a lot of dialogue and it's, well, annoying. I understand that this is a manga for kids, but the writing is terrible and there is too much going on in the panels, making them feel very busy.

This has also been formatted very poorly for e-readers. Unlike some manga, this one doesn't have an option to go panel by panel with the text enlarge. The print is small and two pages have been squished to fit each e-reader "page." Each panel has a "to be continued" written on it, like it's a choose your own adventure, and it took me several chapters to realize that the panels don't read right to left, top to bottom, but left column down and then back up and then right column down. I've never seen a manga formatted like this and it's not common-sense and very distracting, and repeatedly pulled me out of the story.

I was not a fan and won't be continuing this series.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Drops of God Vol. 2 by Tadashi Agi

Wow! So much happened in this book, as compared to book one. You wouldn't think that the authors would be able to pack so much drama in a book about wine tasting and wine making, and yet I find myself rapidly becoming hooked. Book one of Drops of God ends on a cliffhanger, with Shizuku preparing for his tasting competition with Issei, wine critic and adopted brother, for the right to live in his father's mansion.

But then! More stuff happens! We find out who the bottle of expensive wine was for from the previous book, and the relationship this mysterious guest has to Miyabi's boss's boss (surprise: it's tragic). Then the tasting happens and we find out why Shizuku dropped the wineglass when he smelled the wine and the memories it evokes (surprise: it's tragic). And then we meet this snooty jerk who hates French wine for some reason but loves Italian wine (I mean, Italian wine is awesome) and a despairing restaurant owner who is about to destroy his wine cellar because of a single review from an evil critic (cough).

Oh-- and there's a mysterious new woman named Sara, who's a model.

I picked this book up on a whim because I love manga and I love wine and I was so curious to see how the authors would conjure up a story around this premise. I was kind of expecting a wine variant of Hikaru no Go, but this is for a much older audience (seinen, instead of shounen) and it doesn't feel nearly as one note. The story has the perfect balance of drama and heart. The characters are quirky and realistic (with multi-dimensional female characters who aren't drawn like hentai). The art is gorgeous (especially the pics of the food). But the descriptions of the wine are... lyrical.

As I said in the previous book, I think this series would be incredibly boring to people who aren't interested in wine because the entire premise hinges on it, from tasting notes to terroir. I live in California, which is famous for its wine, and if you live here, you're basically schooled from early young adulthood about the elegance of wine. You might think I'm kidding, but when out with my parent friends, sometimes they'll bring their teens along who can chat remarkably candidly about aging and barreling, even if they don't *wink* know what it tastes like *wink*.

It's so wonderful to read a book that captures the excellence of wine, and not in a snobby way, either. One of the recurring themes in this book is how interpretation is so deeply personal and layered, and how cheaper wines can be delicious enough to rival their expensive counterparts, even if some of said counterparts are truly standout enough to merit their expensive price tags. Adults who turn up their noses at graphic novels for being too juvenile would do well to pick this up and learn that there are plenty of manga out there geared towards older audiences with elegant and sophisticated writing.

Also, holy cliffhanger, Batman! You can't just end it there.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Drops of God, Vol. 1 by Tadashi Agi

A lot of Western people out there think that manga is for kids, but a lot of those people tend to be only superficially familiar with the manga format, thinking of the popular shoujo and shounen anime and manga that have made their way into the Western pop-cultural lexicon. And yes, it's true that a lot of the manga readily available in the United States and Europe are aimed at middle grade or young adult level audiences, there are a lot that aren't. Shoujo and shounen manga have a big sister and big brother in the form of josei and seinen manga. Sadly, they're a bit harder to find in English.

THE DROPS OF GOD is a seinen manga, which means that it's targeted for adult men (probably beginning around the new adult age bracket, in this case). It's a fascinating story about the son of a gifted wine critic. Shizuku Kanzaki is the son of Yutaka Kanzaki, but they have grown alienated over the years. Shizuku even started working in the beer industry to spite his father. When he finds out about his father's death, he's devastated... and then angry. Because his father has found yet another way to judge with and fuck with him from beyond the grave.

In a posthumous test, he's left behind a list of descriptions that Shizuku must match to wines, and he's appointed a lawyer to see all this out. Worse yet, Shizuku finds out that Yutaka adopted another son named Issei Tomine, another esteemed wine critic. Oh, and that toast that the lawyer poured them on dad's death bed? Yeah, it was another test. Shizuku has a week to not only identify the wine but match his descriptions of it to his father's, or he doesn't get to live in the family home.

Luckily, Shizuku isn't alone. He has a friend named Miyabi, a training wine sommelier he helps out in the very beginning of the book with a difficult customer. Her boss is also a darling (I forget his name, but he has an Errol Flynn mustache). The whole book is about them bonding over wines as she helps him train to battle Issei, and he helps her when she accidentally breaks an expensive and irreplaceable vintage that the snooty owner of the wine bar needs to impress a customer.

I'm sorry to say that a lot of the shounen and seienen manga I'm familiar with don't have great female representation. The portrayal of women is either rooted in stereotypes or else blatantly sexualized. Miyabi, however, was drawn in a normal-looking way (i.e. no huge breasts) and was charming and friendly in a way that a normal woman would behave towards someone she liked. And Shizuku was worthy of her! Not only is he cute, but he has a charm and artlessness to him that just makes him really likable. Plus, he stepped in to help her when she needed it without asking anything of her.

I hope they end up together. I ship them.

Is there an obligatory panty shot? Yes. But the book pokes fun at itself over it and Shizuku isn't creepy about it. There's also some really fan-servicey drawings of the dudes, particularly Issei, who I thought was so hot. I stan a hot, dark-haired man with thick eyebrows and glasses, okay? The fact that he is icy, arrogant, and apparently kinky in bed only adds to his charm. DON'T JUDGE MEEE.

My one caveat to this book is that it is VERY HEAVY in wine facts and wine lore. I am from California and when I am not in fucking quarantine, I'm always going out for wine. I've been on wine tours and read books about wine-making and terroir. Everything in this book that I recognized checked out, and while I didn't look up everything (ugh, work), based on my knowledge, the statements in this book seemed feasible or at least correct. I found the back and forth between the hero and heroine on wine fascinating and loved all of the kooky characters they encountered who shared the passion. I think if you hate wine or aren't interested in wine, Drops of God might be boring for you, but if you fancy yourself a wine connoisseur, you'll love this manga all the more.

4.5 out of 5 stars

A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers

I grabbed A WITCH IN TIME on impulse because the prospect of doomed love has always been a concept that has appealed to the dark romantic in me. It is a story about a woman with a curse, doomed to repeat the same mistakes throughout time. And the man-- or should I say, demon-- who loves her. Oh, and she's a witch.

"Aha!" I thought. "Interesting!"

And it was... interesting. But not in the way I expected or necessarily wanted. Gentle spoilers to follow.

First, a few caveats. This is about witches in the way that CHOCOLAT and PRACTICAL MAGIC were about witches, which is to say that this is less about magic and spells and more about that vague, magic-realism sort of magic which doesn't really work in an obvious way and tends to surface as a plot contrivance.

Second, this falls under a genre of pseudo-literary fiction that I call "TWILIGHT for adults." And before you start harping at me, I do like TWILIGHT, but let's call the book what it is. It is, first and foremost, a love story, and the characters behave in reckless and irresponsible ways that will sometimes make you despise them (more on that). Similar books are A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES and THE TIME TRAVELER'S LIFE, and like both those books, there is a big age gap between hero and heroine and the hero is often a patriarchal smarmosaur.

The main narrator is Helen, the latest incarnation of who we'll begin to think of as Juliet. Helen is the editor of a successful magazine called In Frame, but strange things are happening. A politician outs a major secret in an interview and her ex-husband is behaving oddly. Then she meets a man named Luke Varnier on a date who says some very crazy things, which result in even crazier dreams. She can't possibly be a reincarnated soul and yet-- he knows things about her that nobody should.

We meet several of Helen's other forms-- the first is Juliet, who had the misfortune to fall in love with a married painter. Then there's Nora, an actress from the slums. And then Sandra, an aspiring musician. All three of them end up in the same doomed relationship with an incarnation of the painter who started this all, only for everything to go horribly wrong. Then Luke enters the picture, and she falls for him... only for tragedy to strike anew.

I liked the cyclic elements and each of the women's stories were interesting, both independently and how they fit into the context of the whole. Nora's story was especially moving. I loved the whole 1940s Hollywood vibe, and it felt like a passage right out of a movie. Juliet was harder to like and I didn't understand why her mother did what she did... until the end, when we learn a little more about her and her background and it sort of made sense, but it was still weird. Sandra, I despised-- and I despised Luke in that story too. Their story was full of garbage behavior and what Luke said to Sandra and did to Aurora, and what Sandra did to Aurora after was pretty horrible.

I would be very surprised if there were no one-star reviews because of that scene.

As for the rest of the book, I did enjoy it in that it was compelling enough to read to the end and hard to put down once it decided where it was going to go. I don't think the magic angle was thought out particularly well, so if you're reading this for the fantasy elements I think you'll be disappointed. Likewise, the casual abuse of power to mess with people's heads was wrong. Especially how free Helen and Sandra felt to mess with Roger and Aurora. It felt sadistic and cruel. Luke also wasn't great. I couldn't stand him in the beginning-- he is so condescending. By the end, he grew on me a little, like Helen did, but after their past selves' actions, there was no going back.

The ending was too neat. I'm not sure I can say more about that without spoilers, but after a story filled with hardship and strife and angst, it seemed abrupt and convenient. I was also curious what happened to the rest of Angier's wives and more insight into the curse. But again, the whole magic element definitely felt like an afterthought to the romance, and wasn't explained all that well.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Princess Jellyfish, Vol. 1 by Akiko Higashimura

Princess Jellyfish has got to be one of the weirdest premises I've seen in manga that wasn't supernatural or fantastical in some way, and that's saying a lot. Tsukimi is an otaku who lives in a place called "Amamizukan," which they have nicknamed "the nunnery." The girls who live inside are all otaku, and all female incels, only they are proud of their incel-status, and refer to themselves as "amars," or "nuns." Each of them has a hobby that they are passionate about to the exclusion of all else-- dolls, antique kimono, jellyfish, idols-- and none of them work. They all receive income from their parents, and they live in the apartment because one of the girls is the daughter of the owner.

Tsukimi loves jellyfish because they represent one of the last deep connections she had with her mother before she died. Her mother took her to an aquarium where they both admired a jellyfish that looked like the train of a wedding dress. One day, while looking at a pet store, she sees two jellyfish in a tank but one of them has excretions that are toxic to the other (moon jelly and toxic jelly, IIRC). She gets into a passive aggression dispute with the clerk that ends in tears, only to be rescued by an impossibly beautiful woman.

The woman returns with Tsukimi to her home and Tsukimi kind of develops an awed and horrified crush on her, because someone so beautiful (she came back from clubbing!) simply comes from an entirely different social sphere than the one Tsukimi herself occupies. But the mysteries surrounding the mysterious woman deepen when Tsukimi finds out that the woman she brought back to "the nunnery" is actually a man named Kuranosuke who just happens to enjoy dressing in drag. He identifies as male and is straight, but just really enjoys doing makeup and wearing women's clothes.

There isn't really much of a plot to this book; most of it is character-driven. Tsukimi's fellow nuns are initially unwelcoming to Kuranosuke, but he manages to win them over with food and, later, makeovers. The makeovers aren't to change who they are, though. An evil real estate developer is trying to turn their property into a hotel space, and Kuranosuke dresses them up in expensive and feminine clothes as a lesson to how people are often blinded by their first impressions and biases, and how sometimes when you want to be taken seriously, you have to dress in a certain way. It could be a degrading message but it isn't because Kuranosuke compares clothing to armor, and how wearing the right clothes can make you feel powerful and even give the wearer confidence. To the kimono otaku girl, he tells her that when she's with her friends and they're dressed up, she looks like an expensive rich woman, but when they're geeked out, everyone just assumes that she's an otaku. So there's also the importance of context and scenery as well. It was very interesting criticism.

Regarding the gender norms in this book... originally, I was afraid it would be offensive and transphobic. The only other book about a straight drag queen that I've read about was L.H. Cosway's PAINTED FACES, a book that really annoyed me because of how it plucked a rapey, sexist asshole out of the normal line-up of sexist assholes and tried to make him quirky by putting him in drag. Kuranosuke-- at least in this book-- is very respectful to women, and apologizes to the one who is shocked when she catches him in the woman's bathroom while dressed as a man. He is also deeply respectful to Tsukimi and their friends and seems to embrace them for who they are. They are initially the ones who are biased against him (although they still don't realize that he's a man-- future plot drama), because they harbor that same hatred of pretty people that unhappy outsiders do.

There is a love triangle in this book. Kuranosuke's step-brother, Shu, is attracted to Tsukimi-- first when he sees her in makeup without glasses, but also with glasses, too. Shu is a deeply shy thirty-year-old following in his politician father's footsteps and he's also a virgin. Their father really hates Kuranosuke's cross-dressing, but Shu and their uncle don't seem to mind it, which is kind of endearing. I wasn't sure about Shu at first but he's very charming in his bumbling way and it's clear that he has a lot of hang-ups about his dad, and by the time that Princess Jellyfish ended, I wasn't sure who I wanted Tsukimi to end up with: Kuranosuke or Shu. They both like her and they're both really nice guys. I know, right? What a change.

I've been frustrated by a lot of the Western representations of fandom and fangirls in fiction. I think maybe it's so new that a lot of authors aren't really sure how to represent it properly and end up being overly reliant on stereotypes. I know fandom is a huge element of Japanese culture, and I can't tell you how refreshing it was to see an emotionally vulnerable, introverted, grumpy fangirl represented in a way that didn't make me want to punch through my computer screen. Her friends were way more annoying than she was, but later it starts to become a little more clear that their fandom personas are more like shields that they hide behind to protect themselves against their insecurities of being millennials without jobs whose lives revolve solely around their passion projects. They start to become way more interesting once they get out and start interacting more, which feels realistic.

I would definitely read further into this series. It's got a lot of interesting things to say about gender norms and otaku culture, most of which are far more flattering than other mentions I've seen in manga (which tend to portray both as a joke). The first volume is even free to read if you have a subscription to Kindle Unlimited.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Mars, Vol. 2 by Fuyumi Soryo

There's a lot of bad manga out there, but sometimes you'll come across a series that has exceptionally good stories and writing and you'll realize why manga fans are among the most passionate. I read part of the Mars series during my manga phase in college. As an overworked student who spent all of her time writing essays and studying, I often wasn't in the mood to read a dense novel, but manga were easy to consume and gave me the escape I sought when I was stressed out and anxious.

Mars is one of the few manga I've re-read that has held up to the initial reading. If you like soap operas, you'll love Mars: it has all of the usual tropes that are like catnip to the discerning garbage can-- good girl/bad boy, tragic pasts, death, suicide, mental illness, bullying, school gossip, forbidden romance, twins, plagiarism/theft, violence, dangerous sports, and so much more.

The heroine, Kira, is a soft-spoken artist. The hero, Rei, is a heartless bad boy who sleeps around and rides a motorcycle like he has a death wish. As you read more, though, you find out that appearances are deceiving. Kira is a lot stronger than anyone gives her credit for, and Rei is far more vulnerable than anyone would expect. It's a little like BEAUTIFUL DISASTER, if Travis weren't an abusive, misogynistic asshole. Rei is a playboy, but he doesn't hate women. And a lot of the women who wanted to date him only saw him as an accessory, which played to his insecurities too well...

This book gets even more intense than the last with more bullying, post-traumatic stress (done pretty well, by the way), and more hints at the dark secrets of both characters. We learn that Kira's father died in a car accident and Rei had a younger brother who everyone looked up to and admired who died under tragic circumstances. Kira also has her art stolen by an opportunist who capitalizes on her shy and unconfrontational nature, which is bound to hit any artist reading this pretty damn hard.

But it's not all doom and gloom. There are some truly touching moments. Seeing the blossoming intimacy between the heroine and hero and how much they care at each other is actually really beautiful. One of my favorite relationships is that of Tsukushi and Domyouji in Hana Yori Dango, but I'll be the first to admit how toxic that is. Watching Rei and Kira laugh together and go to an art museum together and seeing how much they trust each other is truly heartwarming.

I love the mature themes in this book and the writing is a cut above what you typically see in most shoujo manga. If you like titles like Peach Girl and Hana Yori Dango and don't mind trigger warnings or problematic elements in your books, I think you'll really enjoy Mars as much as I did. Bonus: the whole series is on Kindle Unlimited right now, so if you have a subscription you can binge through them with the same heedless greed as me.

5 out of 5 stars

Mars, Vol. 1 by Fuyumi Soryo

I remember reading some of Mars when I was in college, although I never finished the series. It's an older shoujo manga from the 90s and the style is very similar to Yoko Kamio's Hana Yori Dango. Like Hana Yori Dango and Peach Girl, as well, the storyline is a lot darker, featuring some pretty tough subjects, like death, bullying, abuse, sex, and forbidden love.

The story is about a shy girl named Kira and a bad boy named Rei. They remind me a lot of Tsukushi and Rui from Hana Yori Dango in terms of personality and the way they're drawn, except Kira is shier and an artist and Rei is a manwhore motorcyclist. One day, Kira is sitting on a park bench drawing when Rei comes by and asks for directions. Instead of answering, she hastily scribbles him a map... only it's got one of her drawings on the back: a picture of a mother and her baby.

Struck by the poignancy of the image, Rei ends up reaching out to her when he finds out that they share the same class. From there, he becomes her friend, modeling for her pictures, and saving her from the advances of a pedophilic teacher in their school. The more Kira gets to know him, the more she realizes he's not as "bad" as she thought: he's quite depressed and has a fascination with death and darkness, spurred on by his friend Akitaka's near-death and leg amputation.

The relationship takes another dark turn when the girls in their classes get jealous of their relationship and start bullying Kira. The bullying is pretty vicious, which is another way this feels similar to Peach Girl and Hana Yori Dango. Modern readers may balk at it, and call it unrealistic, but I'm sorry to say that bullying was way more out of control in the 90s and having been bullied at that time myself, I can definitely assure you that the admins were way more hands-off than they are now. I was shoved around and pushed into a wall and had someone threaten to light by books on fire.

So yeah, bullying. Definitely a thing.

Anyone who likes shoujo manga with substance will enjoy Mars. The romance develops at a natural pace and the meet-cute actually feels like a solid means of connection. I also liked the secondary characters, like Tatsuya, Rei's friend who has a crush on Kira, and the evil Harumi, Rei's friend-zoned girl pal and ex-lover who thinks that she has first dibs for liking him the longest. Gag. There's a lot of drama and the art is gorgeous and I'm absolutely dying to see what happens next. This was just the thing I needed to get me through my quarantine-induced book funk.

5 out of 5 stars

FukuFuku: Kitten Tales 1 by Konami Kanata

FUKUFUKU is by the same creator of CHI'S SWEET HOME and is about an adorable little old lady who has an equally adorable cat named FukuFuku. When we see them at the beginning, FukuFuku is a fully grown cat and the old lady meditates on how cute Fuku was when she was a kitten.

The rest of the story is basically a series of short tales of the various acts of kitten mischief that Fuku got into when she was young. I think anyone who owns a cat is going to love this book because it reads like a book that was written by someone who owns and loves their cat and is very familiar with their frustrating but adorable mannerisms. Like the "oh, I'm too cute to punish, aren't I?" head tilt. Or the, "oh, I don't know what the scratchboard is for but I'll scratch literally anything else" passive aggression. Or the, "oh, I hate what you eat but I'm going to beg for it anyway and act like you pulled a bait and switch when you give me a piece and I hate it just as much as the first time" look of betrayal during dinner time.

The illustrations are very round and simple, but that simplicity really works in the book's favor because it puts the focus entirely on the two main characters, along with a couple of side characters like a puppy and a neighbor cat. I don't actually have too much to say about this book except that it's one of the cutest manga I've read since HAMSTER CLUB and I absolutely loved every moment of it.

5 out of 5 stars

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson

Man, it is such a shame that all these female superhero comics are coming out now instead of twenty years ago when I was a teen. Teen me would have loved these. But instead, the closest I ever got to an empowering superhero figure was magical girl manga. Not that there is anything wrong with magical girl manga. But I must say, there is something incredibly satisfying about having the gate to geek country swing open in welcome with decent rep. MS. MARVEL is an especially huge win because the heroine is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, and a Muslim with brown skin. At one point, she even dons a superhero costume that consists of the hated "burkini" that her mother bought her. Love.

Kamala Khan gets her powers one mysterious foggy night after receiving a mysterious vision that appears to be the Avengers, only speaking in her parents' language. As if that weren't trippy enough, she suddenly gains the ability to stretch and shape-shift, and her dark hair turns blonde and golden and she gets a fab outfit.

There really isn't a lot of plot to this story, apart from the fact that Kamala experimenting with her powers (and her desire for freedom as a teen) leads to repeated groundings and punishments from her parents who, while strict, are actually quite warm-hearted and kind, and it's clear how much they want to love her and understand, even if they are at somewhat of an impasse.

Kamala also has a friend named Bruno who obviously has a crush on her, but his brother, Vick, is into some shady shit that ends up getting all three of them into trouble. The book ends right when the shady shit begins, so I suspect the reason a lot of my friends felt so ambivalent about the first book is because it's literally all origin story and world-building. As far as origin stories go, this one really isn't that unique, and Kamala's funny character was the only thing that kept me reading. Some comic books neatly incorporate the origin story into the plot but sadly, this one ended up feeling front-heavy, and very light on the actual plot and climax.

I'm not sure I'll read more into the series, but I did love Kamala and her family. Even if this book weren't a superhero novel, and was just about them and their interactions with one another, I'd probably still have read it and liked it.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1: The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen

Come for the art, stay for the LGBT+ fan-service. I honestly wasn't sure about what to expect with THE WICKED + THE DIVINE. Half my friends loved it, half my friends hated it. I'm in Team Loved It but I can definitely see why it isn't for everyone. It's messy, it's shallow, it's weird, it's violent, it's mean...

But it works.

X meets Y descriptions are so overdone, but this is literally like American Gods meets Jem and the Holograms. Every 90 years, the gods reincarnate as humans but then they only live two years before dying again. Why? Who knows. It's tragic. The end. And what better way for a god to be worshipped in the modern age than to play at being a pop star? One only needs look at footage from a Taylor Swift or BTS concert to see the quasi-religious mania.

Our biracial heroine, Laura, is fascinated by the gods. She starts out at a concert for the embodiment of Amaterasu, where she's spotted by Lucifer and given a VIP tour of the back, only to end up being witness to a murder that ends up landing her in a court where she witnesses another murder.

Lucifer gets blamed and Laura is determined to see her freed, but her interviews with the other gods-- with the help of a nosy and well-meaning trans reporter named Cassandra (uh oh)-- end up going... badly. Because the gods have basically become jaded as fuck and they don't really give a shit about what happens to Lucifer as long as she doesn't make trouble and spoiler their 2-year debauchery stint.

And that's... basically the plot.

This book reminded me of a theistic version of the Fables series, which is a lot like this, only with fairytale and folkloric characters. I definitely liked the music element and the outrageous costumes, especially since Lucifer looks like a female David Bowie. One of them dresses like Freddie Mercury, and Baal was dressed like a rapper. YG wore a red suit and chain a lot like his, actually.

I really enjoyed this book, especially since one of my own books has a trans character named Cassandra (only this one is an actual prophet)-- that little bit of random similarity made me smile. The diversity rep was amazing and the art was exquisite. I think the story is confusing but if you just go in with zero expectations and roll with the punches, it'll probably be more fun for you. This book is violent and sexual, though, so if that's an issue for you, you might want to steer clear.

I, however, quite enjoyed it.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Volume 1 by Katie Cook

One of my favorite documentaries is a series called The Toys That Made Us, and they did an episode on the My Little Pony toys, which was actually Hasbro's first major toy line for girls. The My Little Pony franchise is very near and dear to my heart, because I grew up watching the original My Little Pony Tales, a show that, like Care Bears, alternated between saccharine sweetness and some surprisingly dark storylines, case in point: Rescue from Midnight Castle and Bright Lights.

When I heard about the reboot, Friendship Is Magic, my eyes rolled a little. The My Little Pony had an unsuccessful reboot in the mid-2000s, replete with a McDonald's toy line. Both my sister and I were both in firm agreement that the new ponies were "ugly." We liked the comfortably pudgy ones from our childhood. But the FIM ponies managed to capture that pudgy charm from the originals while giving them a new, human look.

Better yet, the writing and characterization was surprisingly mature. I've seen a couple episodes of the show and the writing was actually decent. In fact, it reminded me a lot of the Arthur shows I used to watch as a kid, in that even though it's clearly a kids' show, it has some really complex moral issues, the ponies are allowed to behave selfishly and make mistakes, and there are a lot of references for older viewers.

Everything that makes FIM so popular translates really well to graphic novel format. This book is about the evil Queen Chrysalis and her plan to turn all of Equestria into Pony Pod People and drain them all of love, before stealing Twilight Sparkle's magic for her own. To make matters worse, she has kidnapped the three youngest ponies (the "Cutiemark Crusaders") to ensure that the "Mane Six" come to her castle.

This book is... surprisingly dark. Queen Chrysalis really is evil and there's even a scene where the ponies marvel that she's not just cartoon evil, just evil evil. There are also a ton of call outs to popular movies from the 70s and 80s, like It, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There's also a hilarious scene that seems to be making fun of bronies, when a "cave troll," who collects toys, tries to capture the ponies for his own so he can brush their hair.


Apparently I received an ARC of this in 2013. Looking at my status updates, it seems like I really enjoyed it back then. I still did, even now. Seven years is a long time and I'd forgotten most of the details, so it was almost like reading it again for the first time. I really enjoyed this volume a lot and can't wait to pick up the others. Anyone who enjoys My Little Ponies will enjoy this book, but even if you don't, I think you still might. Forget that it's about pink and purple ponies and read it as if it's meant to be a tongue-in-cheek fantasy like Steven Universe or The Amazing World of Gumball.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham

In case you haven't heard of it, Fables is a series of graphic novels-- probably more expansive even than the current Marvel movie lineup in terms of spin-offs and crossovers-- that's like a dark, noir version of Once Upon a Time. Sometimes it can be very graphically violent-- one of the spin-offs had three evisceration-- but this one is not too bad, and it's standalone, so you can just jump right in and enjoy the Grimm* ride.

*Wait, so would that mean this is Grimmdark fantasy?

1000 NIGHTS OF SNOWFALL explores the possibility of Snow White being the princess who must entertain Shahryar. She came to him as a delegate and ends up being held captive pending their wedding and execution, but saves herself by telling a series of stories set in the Fables kingdom, starting with her own.

I wasn't expecting too much with this graphic novel but I ended up loving a lot. Don't get me wrong, it's dark and triggers abound, including the usual suspects of rape and murder, but also including baby deaths, animal deaths, and torture. It isn't too graphic in most of the chapters, though, and it feels like a necessary part of the world that Fablehaven was meant to provide escape from.

I liked the detailed backstory that was given to the witch of Hansel and Gretel and the Big Bad Wolf. I liked the odd story about the forest animals that seems to be a subtle nod to Narnia. The story about Old King Cole and his sacrifice for his kingdom was surprisingly heartwarming and had a happy (well, mostly) ending. And in the background, I was fascinated by this retelling of 1001 Nights, and wondered how it would end for Snow White. Would that end happily, too?

I think anyone who is really into fairytales and dark retellings will enjoy this. There are so many different art styles in this book and I enjoyed seeing each artist showcased, and the writing is lovely and fits the whole fairytale vibe of the overarching story. I'm definitely going to explore more books in the Fables universe, especially since a number of them are available through KU like this one.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Dead of Eve by Pam Godwin

DNF @ 12%

I loved this author's book, DELIVER, but nothing of hers I've read since can recapture that magic for me. DEAD OF EVE had a lot of problems, though. It's a post-apocalyptic book where a "Muslim insurgency" has unleashed a plague upon the U.S. that turns them all into bug people. The xenophobic/mutant plot kind of reads like something you would see in a 1950s Z movie, that could just as easily be called "Invasion of the Bug People" or "The Last Woman on Earth." You see, all the women have died, as the men mutated, except for Evie.

This post-apocalyptic nightmare is basically her gun nut husband's wet dream. He's prepared for this his whole life, you see. He trains his wife to use weapons but still treats her and talks to her like a child. I get that it's ostensibly because he loves her and is afraid during these terrible circumstances, but he comes across as a major ass. I'm guessing he probably dies at some point, but he's in it for the long haul in the beginning.

The book summary makes it sound like this is going to be a reverse-harem, but I read one of my friends' reviews and if it is a reverse-harem, it's a very slow to start one, because she said that by 60% in, there still wasn't any reverse-harem action. I didn't read this book for that, but if you are, that's something to think about. I was put off by the extremist themes in the book and some less-than-stellar writing. I do think this will appeal to people who like those campy 1950s movies, but that person is not me.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Driven by K. Bromberg

DNF @ 5%

My friends' reviews for this book are actually pretty terrifying. There's a whole line of one-star DNF reviews, which is why I think I've owned this book for years without touching it. I must have gotten it for free from the Kindle store because this isn't the type of book I'd buy. It's one of those FIFTY SHADES OF GREY knock-offs that were so popular in the wake of FSoG's blistering popularity, where people were scrambling to find new ways to write the authoritarian man/doormat naif trope and make it "hott."

The book opens with our dunce heroine marveling at her ability to remember things (no, seriously) and fretting about her organza dress and heels, when she hears people in a supply closet doing things that definitely don't sound like inventorying (I mean, unless inventory is your passion-- I'm sure someone out there goes "OH GOD" and "YES" while checking the database, and I am equally certain that this person is probably not very popular at parties).

Anyway, the heroine judges this unseen and vocal inventorist, thinking smugly "I wouldn't do that if you paid me." Which is kind of true, because not five pages later, she does it for free. You know, before deciding better of it (she's not that kind of girl, you know), and thereby giving the hero a chance to show off his rapey side by saying "I don't take anything that isn't given to me so you must have been giving it to me" (because gaslighting) and going all apeshit at the idea of refusal.

From there, you just know it's going to be a hot mess of courting (i.e. stalking), relationship issues (i.e. other women and more rapeyness), and setting boundaries (i.e. cutting down on said rapeyness and turning down expensive gifts for moral reasons, i.e. not being that kind of girl). I'm not psychic, I've just read enough of these FSoG-alikes to know the typical trajectory of the plot, and while I get that that predictability makes them fun for some, for me it's like nails on a chalkboard.

1 out of 5 stars

Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz

I wanted to read this book because people were claiming that MY DARK VANESSA plagiarized content from this memoir and I wanted to read this to 1) compare both books and 2) see if there was any merit to those accusations. Personally, even though there are some similarities to the books, I find them to be pretty different books that set out to accomplish different things, and that anything they have in common speaks more to the universality of sexual abuse and how internalized misogyny facilitates predatory behavior and the victimization of young girls.

But obviously, that's my opinion and you might feel differently.

Like MY DARK VANESSA, EXCAVATION is about an English teacher who is 10+ years older than the student he grooms to be his victim. Both girls enjoy writing, and are somewhat unsuccessful socially, which enables the teacher in question to play to their insecurities, lauding them as being mature for their age and artistic, and using that alleged emotional connection and longing for something deeper as a way to begin the abuse. The novel LOLITA also features prominently in both, but that's only to be expected. If you're going to have a literary allegory for underage sexual abuse enabled by institutional sexism, it's going to be LOLITA.

Jeff from this book is needy and unhinged, with a clear lack of emotional maturity (which I think is typical among abusers; if you are emotionally mature, you would not be attracted to or find the need to predate on teenagers). He acts as if he were a teen boy, is too friendly with his students, and possessive and careless of Wendy by turns. One particularly chilling scene that happens in here is when he ties Wendy to a chair and gives her a detailed harangue of how she could be raped and killed by hitchhiking, before gagging her, while someone else watches. It made me feel sick.

Jacob, from MY DARK VANESSA, isn't quite as immature, even though he's obviously emotionally stunted and manipulative-- his actions felt much more deliberate and sociopathic. It's also implied that he pursues teenagers because his tastes run much younger, hence the infantilizing games he plays with his victims and his refusal to have children. Vanessa is fifteen in the book and Wendy is thirteen in her memoir. Jeff continues his relationship with Wendy much later, though, whereas Jacob loses interest in Vanessa as soon as she's no longer underage. Both cases are disgusting portrayals of child sexual abuse, but Jacob appears to be a pedophile who likes prepubescent children whereas Jeff seems to be more attracted to young teenagers/adolescents (I think that's called an ephebophile).

Both books have past and present sections. Vanessa is much more broken by her abuse and her family feels more dysfunctional. In the present sections, she has no future and self-medicates with marijuana use. Jacob has succeeded in damaging her self-worth and leaving her unable to form healthy romantic relationships. It ends on a note of hope with her being able to give name to her abuse and find that she might move on, but Jacob has left his damaging mark on her and it's clear that progression is going to be a really difficult and fraught path for her with many backslides.

Wendy, on the other hand, has found a relationship with a woman who cares for her. In her reflections on her past self, she levels much-deserved disgust on predators and the people who enable them by sweeping things under the carpet or not giving credence to victims who report abuse (as she did at one point, only to have nothing come of it). I thought these reflective sections were among the better writing in this book, although when she says that she tells her partner that she reminder her of her abuser at one point, my eyebrows shot up. That felt really gross and hurtful and squicked me out.

But I guess it makes sense, in a way. If someone does something like that to you, it won't be easy to forget. Intimacy is hard to break away from sex, especially if there has been abuse, and that's one of the more insidious effects of abuse: it's hard to separate those two things without trust, and not think of the abuse even when you're with someone you care about. That was also an issue in MY DARK VANESSA. Vanessa breaks up with her boyfriend, who can't stomach the idea that she refuses to condemn her abuser, and she seeks out situations that end up almost replaying the abuse with others.

There is one similar scene in this book but it ends differently than it did in MY DARK VANESSA, and, again, I think that's typical in abuse: it's why some people become promiscuous after abuse. It's a way to regain control, to work out what happened to you in a safe way where you have all the cards. I just read a romance novel that did that, and how the heroine reclaimed her sexuality after abuse by making sure she had all the control and that she could end things at any time. It makes sense to me that women who have been abused might put themselves in dangerous situations that they know they can get away from them, just to "prove" to themselves that they aren't victims all the time.

"Victim" is an exhausting label with many implications and I imagine it must be a heavy burden to bear. This was a topic that was explored at length in MY DARK VANESSA, with the heroine refusing to call herself a victim because she doesn't feel like her case is as black and white as real victims of abuse (her thinking, not mine), and she throws up tons of walls and barriers to draw an us vs. them between her and other survivors, to avoid being branded by that label.

Personally, I think MY DARK VANESSA is the better book. EXCAVATION is done by a small publishing company and reads like an indie work, rough and unpolished. The story is important in the #MeToo age but it doesn't have the neat and linear journey of a more palatable story, and at times it can be very hard to follow. Someone reviewing this book said that it didn't seem to have a "point" and I can see what they mean: Vanessa's book is a path to healing and owning what happened to her in a way that won't break her. It's not quite clear what Wendy's path is here, apart from meditating on what happened to her and how it affected to her. Which is valid, but not really conclusive-- it ends on a vague note, instead of coming full circle in a way that ends up serving a higher meaning.

If you want to read this book for yourself, it's free on Kindle Unlimited right now. I'm glad I read it because I never would have heard about it were it not for the MY DARK VANESSA drama, and I am relieved as a reader that they were not as similar as I feared they might be. My personal takeaway is that abuse often has many universal elements because abusers abuse for the same reasons: mental health problems, power, and warped views about gender roles and (especially) women and girls. Both books are important in the era of #MeToo and show why it's so important to protect and empower young children and especially young girls to come forward when something terrible happens, and what can happen when someone who is in a position of trust abuses their power to take advantage. The fact that these books are similar seems less a case of nefarious actions on behalf of either writer, and more of a reflection that our society has some very deep flaws that need to be fixed.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Trouble With Hating You by Sajni Patel

I haven't been reading as many romance novels lately, but THE TROUBLE WITH HATING YOU was such a great book to get back in to the genre with. It's one of the best romances I've read in a while, and part of that is because of a really great cast of supporting characters, but most of that is because I love, love, loved both the hero and the heroine of this romance: Liya and Jay.

Liya is a lead biochemical engineer that is in hot water. She works hard and was just given a promotion. She lives on her own, cooks, cleans, does her own laundry, but she saves so well she can afford to splurge on the designer things that make her smile. But her very traditional parents-- especially her father-- don't like that she lives on her own and refuses to marry. She has a reputation in their community for being "easy" and "too American," and so her father has decided that it's time for her to meet her match.

Jay is a lawyer and helps out with his widower mom, especially now that his older brother has gotten married and now has a pregnant wife. He's a little skeptical when he's invited over to dinner, and his skepticism only increases when he's literally barrelled over by the woman whose family he's supposed to be sitting down with. As it turns out, he's the lawyer from the firm hired to save Liya's company, but because of that terrible dinner gone wrong, they both hate each other.

I was delighted when I realized that this was a sort of Taming of the Shrew story. But when I realized it was enemies-to-lovers, I got glittering stars in my happy eyes. And the book does it so well. Nothing is rushed. Not the thawing of emotions. Not the physical affection. They start off as enemies, but then slowly become friends... and then, they become more. But it isn't easy. Both of these characters have HUGE problems in their back stories that are actually quite emotionally heart-wrenching. I felt so bad for Jay, but Liya's back story made me want to cry and punch someone.

Well... actually several someones.

Jay is such a doll. I'm a sucker for the caring alpha stereotypes, especially the woke ones who like strong women and treat them with respect. But Liya was great, too. She was more than capable of fighting her own battles and I loved how hard she worked to get to where she was. The supporting cast of characters was also amazing. Her friends-- Preeti, Sana, and Reema, and, later, Shilpa-- were so great. I loved Liya's mother. Jay's brother, Jahn, was also really, really nice, and I loved their mother. I think the overarching message that tragedy shouldn't be your own burden and that it's important to have a support network you can fall back on when you can't fight alone was really powerful.

While snooping on the author's profile, I saw that the next book in this series is apparently going to be about Preeti, who is a doctor and has strong feelings for a man who isn't Indian. I am so excited for that book, you don't even know.

If you enjoy great novels with PoC characters that lovingly portray other cultures, have great food imagery, feature STEM heroines, have strong friendships, handle tough subjects with delicacy, and basically just go above and beyond at building a world that feels real and will sock you right in the feelings when things go sour, READ THIS BOOK! The whole time I was reading it, I kept thinking about what a great movie it would be. When I put it down, I felt like I'd eaten a hearty meal.

Seriously, this was just great.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 24, 2020

Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed by Laurie Halse Anderson

Wonder Woman has always been one of my favorite superheroes and I love this interpretation of Diana Prince. Diana is the princess of the Amazon and it's her sixteenth birthday. Like all teenagers, she's painfully awkward and uncertain of her place in her world, but eager to grow up. When she plunges into the sea to save refugees, she ends up accidentally breaking through the veil surrounding Themyscira and ending up in our world instead.

Her skill with languages helps identify her to a diplomat and a volunteer, who pull her out of the camps and take her to New York, where she ends up staying with a Polish family. There, she immediately begins helping out undocumented immigrants and low income families, while the book-- very neutrally and not at all sanctimoniously-- tackles issues like gentrification, human trafficking, and corruption.

I really loved this book a lot. It's aimed at young adults but nothing about it is childish. The art style is polished and the writing is mature. I wouldn't have expected less from Laurie Halse Anderson, though. Tough topics are basically her bread and butter as an audience.

Diana is a hard character to write and Leigh Bardugo didn't quite pull it off with her interpretation. This is close to perfect, though. Diana is the perfect blend of kick-butt heroine and naive traveler. She doesn't tolerate sexism and is willing to put everything on the line to defend families and children, but she doesn't know what a merry-go-round is and is flummoxed by homelessness and bad coffee.

I also loved the positive themes in this book: bonding together as a community, the greatness of libraries and how they serve as resource hubs for those who are struggling, and the importance of friendship and family ties. I think TEMPEST TOSSED will be an excellent read for anyone who loves Wonder Woman.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera

DNF @ p. 39

Sadly, this is a case of "it's not you, it's me." Reading ARCs is always really difficult because there are no preliminary reviews to clue you in to whether a book will work or not. You're going solely by the concept and the summary. I thought this book sounded really good. I love coming of age stories, especially international ones that give you a slice of life idea of what it's like to live in another nation. On that note, I think SUNCATCHER delivers really well, because SUNCATCHER is a snapshot of what it's like to live in 1960s Sri Lanka (Ceylon) as a teenager.

I think where this book fails is that it's a slow-moving, character-driven vehicle. There isn't really a lot of plot. And before you jump on me for abandoning ship so early, I skimmed through the book to see if it would pick up, as sometimes a book really does start to get moving before it finds its pace. But no. This author actually reminds me a lot of Don DeLillo in that way; it's less about the destination than the journey.

My advice to you, when you get this book, is to read the sample and see if you like the character and the writing style. If it really clicks with you and you just want to lose yourself in the time period, you will probably like this. If, however, you are hoping for something faster paced, you will probably not enjoy this book. I found it very boring and that's my opinion, and you might disagree with me, but that isn't going to change about how I felt about SUNCATCHER. I really wanted to like this, but I kept losing interest in the story and I have too many other books I need to read.

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

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Birthday Girl by Penelope Douglas

DNF @ 12%

I don't know what it is about this author. I keep forgetting how much I disliked her books until I pick up the next one. The premises always sound amazing and usually the beginnings are fine, but as soon as the love interest appears, the whole story just falls apart and becomes a hot mess.

Don't get me wrong. I wasn't expecting anything highbrow about a smutty erotica novel where the girlfriend of this loser ends up falling for said loser's dad when the loser basically messes up his life and they all have to move in with Loser Sr. Loser Sr. had Loser when he was really young, so even though he's old, he's still hot. That's really important-- he's a Daddy, but a young Daddy.

You know, so it's not gross that he's one of the olds.

Douglas also does something that I only really put together in this book, where all of her characters are into things that Douglas was probably into when she was young (80s movies, 80s and 90s songs), which are things I like, but I'm not a teenager, and it always ends up feeling kind of out of touch. Kids these days are into Zendaya and Tik Tok and Billie Eilish, an artist this "not like other girls" heroine would probably like. Even if she would never admit it until someone pried her air pods out of her cold dead ears.

This was supposed to be a buddy read with my friend, Deidra, but the book was annoying me-- and not in a "so bad it's fun" way, but in an "OMG NOT THIS SHIT AGAIN" sort of way, so I ended up jumping ship at 12% because I'm a bad friend. But life's too short to read bad books.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

The Swap by Robyn Harding

This was my first book by Robyn Harding, but it won't be the last. With quarantine, I've been so bored, and losing myself in slutty mysteries about fucked-up people with problems has been my escape. THE SWAP reminded me of PRETTY THINGS by Janelle Brown, actually, in that it provides criticism on the shallow, superficial world of influencing, while also shedding light on the dark souls of the people attracted to that lifestyle.

THE SWAP is about a girl named Low (short for Swallow, because her parents are idiots) who is the daughter of polyamorists living on an island where everyone knows everyone else's business that's notorious for playing musical beds. But Low's parents are the only official poly people, which has made her a bit of a recluse at school. One day, a gorgeous, glamorous woman comes to her school to advertise her pottery classes, and Low is the only taker and ends up becoming her friend.

That woman is Freya, a social influencer and pretty young wife to a famous hockey player named Max. Freya's career used to be all sparkle and light until her husband whacked someone with a stick and ended up breaking his neck. Since then, she's taken a breather from the socials, turning to pottery instead-- and Low. Low is delighted with her glamorous older friend and has visions of them being best girlfriends forever--

But Freya has another friend her own age named Jamie. Jamie owns the artisinal gift shop that sells Freya's work and is the wife of a best-selling author of young adult fantasy books (Brian). She's just as in awe of Freya as Low and the two of them are jealous of each other as they compete for Freya's affections, who pits them against each other for the attention. But everything changes when one night, Freya proposes a dangerous, sexy game that ends up changing the dynamic between all five of them entirely... and then we find out what a raging dumpster fire of trash all these people really are.

Guys, these people are the worst. Freya and Low are both clearly sociopaths, Max seems to have severe emotional problems, Brian is... well, a doormat, and Jamie is such a sanctimonious bunt cake with a c. I wanted to deck her in her smug little face, the bitch. Especially at the end. Oh my God, I hated everyone in this book but I didn't want to miss a moment of this speeding train crash, either. Don't read this book if you want to read about likable people-- there are none-- but if you enjoy reading about trash people behaving like flaming bags of trash, this is your calling.

I couldn't put this book down for a moment and I regret nothing.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

DNF @ 10%

Someone else pointed out the irony of Alice Bolin writing about how dead girls are used to titillate, and then doing it to sell copies of her own book. It's the obvious criticism, and yet, I'm going to second it because like Rebecca Solnit's MEN EXPLAIN THINGS TO ME, the title of this book is somewhat misleading as to what this book is going to be about.

Like MEN EXPLAIN THINGS, only the first essay really has a lot of relevance to the title, the rest of this book (from what I've read and skimmed) are mostly this author musing on Joan Didion and Los Angeles and how it's changed over the years, which might be interesting to some people, but not really to me. I was expecting this book to be similar to the Women in Refrigerators blog: a criticism of how young women are killed in fiction and how that correlates to the internalized misogyny of our society.

I'm just glad I bought this book on sale because I'd be pretty angry if I bought this full price expecting one thing and ended up getting something else.

1.5 out of 5 stars

The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole Your Vote and How to Get It Back by Thom Hartmann

This is not an easy read and the content is upsetting. THE WAR ON VOTING is a history of how the right have systematically worked to disenfranchise vulnerable, left-leaning voters through policy and gerrymandering by letting politicians redraw districts in their favor, tossing out ballots from women who forgot to update to their married name, and tossing out ballots from people who don't have street addresses, which unfairly targets Native Americans living on reservations. These are just a few of the upsetting examples in this book, which goes all the way back to the Three Fifths Compromise and how the Electoral College arose out of those ashes.

I think it's important to learn about the history of our government, particularly if the history is unflattering or hard to hear, because we can't move forward unless we acknowledge the mistakes of the past. Hartmann cites his sources and the book reads as if it were researched extensively, which lots of examples to back up his points. I found it incredibly sad when he talks about how FOX News has taught people who are working class to parrot ideologies that benefit the rich, having successfully brainwashed them that the very policies that are put in place to help them are actually undesirable or even harmful. It's so Orwellian.

The end of the book tries to end on a hopeful note with some ideas on how to increase voter turnout and make the representation of said turnout feel more fair. I've always thought that voting day should be a national holiday because otherwise, it isn't fair for the people who work jobs that they literally can't get off (minimum wage, especially), and in some states, the hours end so early that the polls would be closed by the time their day ended. I also liked the idea of compulsory voting where anyone who didn't vote would have to pay a small fine. He mentions some countries in Europe that do this and it makes sense to me: voting should be even more of a compulsory civic duty than jury duty.

THE WAR ON VOTING is not a fun or pleasant book to read but I still would recommend it for anyone who doesn't know much about how the U.S. voting system works as it will certainly give you a lot of food for thought.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth

I was not a fan of DIVERGENT or CARVE THE MARK, and found both to be very much soulless "cash ins" based on current trends. And yet, despite that, the idea of CHOSEN ONES appealed to me because of its very simple and yet original premise: what happens to the chosen ones after they complete their mission and defeat the evil force disturbing the universe? Veronica Roth is also the latest YA author jumping about the "let's write for adults now" trend (including Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo), and after reading Maas's utterly abysmal take on "adult fiction," I was curious to see how Roth would fare.

Our narrator is a young woman named Sloane, who, along with her friends, Matt, Ines, Esther, and Albie, were part of a prophesied group who would take on the Dark One. Despite his cheesy name, the Dark One is a genuinely terrifying figure who creates these events called "Drains," which are basically tornadoes made of magic that literally pull people apart.

They were victorious and are now idolized by the public as somewhat of a cross between demigods and A-list celebrities, but Sloane is feeling embittered about her victory. There's something about "peaking" in your mid-twenties that's kind of disturbing, knowing that nothing you do will ever match up to that last battle. She also has serious PTSD from her traumatic battles, and guilt from not being strong enough. Everyone in their group had their own roles to fill, and Sloane fell neatly into the jaded and sensitive slot way too easily, and it's kind of sad how (most) of her friends use that against her or give her a hard time about it.

Then, one day, the ex-Chosens are called in by their old government handlers and debriefed on inexplicable phenomena happening all over Earth. There's a possibility that the Dark One-- or someone like him-- has returned. And then, in part two of the book, all of our heroes find the rug-- and the world as they knew it-- literally pulled right out from under them, plunging them into a terrifying world of magic, mystery, and death. They're going to have to go to battle again, and this time, all of their demons will be joining them, and Sloane is absolutely terrified.

I debated about what to give this book. It engrossed me from the beginning but there were things about it I didn't like as much. I think the world-building is interesting but cheesy (once again, as in DIVERGENT, the story is set entirely in Chicago, which is fine, but begs the question of what the world is like outside of Chicago and even the U.S.? This is never really answered satisfactorily). Not bad-cheesy, but comic book-cheesy, which given this book's premise, actually makes it work better than if it had tried to take itself too seriously. Parts of this book reminded me of Brandon Sanderson's STEELHEART, especially with the idea that superheroes can be morally ambiguous, and other parts reminded me of Animorphs, especially the reluctant hero aspect and the team dynamic.

I do want to say that like HOUSE OF EARTH AND BLOOD, this doesn't really read as "adult." All of the characters are extremely immature and read and act like children, to the point where I had to repeatedly remind myself that they were not. If I were being generous, I might speculate that part of this is due to the trauma of "peaking" at an early age, and emotionally they are trapped in the minds of their teenage selves, much like how child stars who are unable to deal with their fame sometimes act like rebellious teenagers well into their twenties and thirties. But the narrative and the story also feel very "YA-like," so as an "adult" work I almost feel like this would have been better marketed towards a young adult audience, despite the swearing and references to substance use, which did not feel particularly excessive and weren't, in my mind, enough to bar an older teen from reading it. Part of me can't help but wonder if maybe someone decided it might be more lucrative to market to adults rather than children and if maybe this started out as a young adult book that was tweaked. That would explain why all the adults read as kids, and why the writing feels like it's been coded so young.

Sloane's character was honestly one of the best things about this book, though, if you ignore the fact that she acts like she's about seventeen or eighteen and not in her mid-twenties. I loved the way she was so haunted by her past and allowed to be selfish. Tris from DIVERGENT was the worst, and I couldn't stand her. Sloane, on the other hand, felt real. I could see myself making some of the decisions she did. In the beginning, when she's just trying to survive, I ached for her. Her misery pours off the pages and you really sense what a toll her life took on her. Seeing her plunged into an unfamiliar world and having that be the impetus for her first real steps towards healing made sense: she was finally breaking free of the loop that had kept her in the mind of her younger self.

Also, there's a bad guy in here who is basically Kylo Ren with magic, and if that isn't enough to get all of the villain fangirls out there swarming the book shops, I don't know what is. He even has a metal mask. I'm honestly surprised the Kylo Ren angle wasn't pushed harder by the marketing team, especially since CARVE THE MARK (as I recall) was compared to Star Wars, when the only thing it had in common with Star Wars was space. I loved the Kylo Ren character in this book and won't be saying anymore about him because spoilers, but honestly the world needs more villain arcs like his in stories and I'm glad that Veronica Roth actually did a decent job handling his character.

I think a good comparison to this book, actually, is THE BONE SEASON. The world building can be hokey at times but the story is addicting, albeit slow-paced. If it clicks with you and you're willing to make the effort, it becomes a world you can sink into and won't want to leave. But some people aren't going to click and others are going to be put off by the hokey weirdness, and they're going to give the book low ratings, and that is their right. I'm lucky that it clicked for me and I did find the book the effort (even though it was a slog at times). The only thing I really didn't like was the ending. I feel like so many people harped on Roth about ALLEGIANT that she went in the opposite direction with this book and actually ended up creating an ending that felt too easy, and too neat.

Overall, though, CHOSEN ONES was a really great take on the "chosen ones" stereotype and the world-building is pretty creative and original and I had a great time reading it. Anyone who enjoyed books like Animorphs or STEELHEART is probably going to enjoy this, particularly if they like hot villains and sullen heroines who are tortured by a dark past. I just realized that this is book one in a series, and I'm shocked, because it felt done, but I'm definitely curious to see where it goes from here.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp

I hated Nijkamp's YA novel, THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS, so much that I had pretty much decided "never again." But I'm a sucker for graphic novels, especially novels about female characters who are in STEM and are strong and capable, so I figured maybe it was worth giving the author another chance.

THE ORACLE CODE blew all of my expectations out of the water. It almost feels like a response to THE KILLING JOKE, which also ended up with Barbara Gordon severely injured, but in this book, Barbara, or "Babs" as she likes to be called, is the heroine of her story and not a victim.

After a terrible accident puts her in a wheelchair, Babs is sent to a rehabilitation center in Arkham, where she meets three other girls who end up becoming her friends of sorts: Jana, Yeong, and Issy. At first, Babs pushes them all away, as she is depressed and still coming to terms with the effects of her accident, but as she gets fit, and learns how to navigate in her wheelchair, tackling everything from stairs to sports, she becomes more confident.

That confidence is a must, because she discovers something sinister about Arkham. Jana tells sinister stories when she visits Babs's room at night. And Babs finds out that people at the center have a history of going missing. Are they getting better? Or is it something darker... and more malicious?

I loved the art in this book. The illustrations are soft and more rounded than the art typically geared for adults, but it fits the story. I also liked the contrast between the realistic portions and the way the tales that Jana told were illustrated, which were much more stylized and reminded me of Coraline. I feel like those passages were a great way for the artist, Manuel Preitano, to show off his abilities.

The story is also really good, too. Lots of diversity (one of Babs's friends is Asian, the other is black), disability rep, and of course, a STEM heroine who's a teenage hacker. I liked the mystery element, and the messages about friendship, confidence, and belonging, and how Babs gradually stopped thinking about her disability as the end of her old life, but as an obstacle that could be overcome with a bit of extra work or different approaches. It felt like a very empowering book to me, and it was great to see Barbara Gordon portrayed with such agency and competence after THE KILLING JOKE.

Definitely a must-read for anyone who likes creepy stories and strong heroines.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West

SAVING RUBY KING is a book that sneaks up on you with its emotional intensity. At first, it's a bit hard to get into because there are so many POVs and characters, but all of them are carefully intertwined into the story, forming a tapestry that ends up serving as a microcosm of the African American community in Chicago, and their stories represent a number of really complex themes, from cycles of violence and abuse, to how friends can end up being the families you choose as your own, to toxic relationships, and how the secrets we carry with us can weigh us down like millstones. By the time I was a quarter of the way through the book, I couldn't put it down. I'm playing a video game I'm obsessed with right now, and I set aside that game during one of the key parts in the story to read SAVING RUBY instead.

The vast number of characters do make it hard to follow what's going on, and I can't really sum up what the book is about too much without giving the story away (and this is one of those books where less is more, really). But basically, the story opens up with RUBY, whose mother has just died under suspicious circumstances. RUBY is the daughter of ALICE and LEBANON, who is abusive.

RUBY turns to her friend, LAYLA, who is the daughter of the community preacher, JACKSON. JACKSON and LEBANON are friends, but their friendship is fraught with inequality, because Lebanon is emotionally manipulative and a taker. LEBANON's mother, SARA, is dying of cancer, and when she was younger, she abused her son the same way he abused his family. SARA was also the victim of abuse, at the hands of her father, SAUL. As it turns out, SARA is friends with JACKON's mother, VIOLENT, and also ALICE's mother, NAOMI. Their friendship is as intense as the friendship between RUBY and LAYLA and LEBANON and JACKSON.

The story comes to a head when all of those friendships end up revealing sinister ties.

The numerous time periods and POVs could be confusing, especially since there is this omniscient narrator POV called "CALVARY" and I couldn't figure out if it was being told through the POV of the church as if it were a person (the church they all go to is called Calvary), or if it was supposed to be the ghost of one of the dead characters watching all this go down. Either way, it was a lot to take in and I imagine that this book won't be for everyone simply because of the way it's told (content aside). It's also a very dark and at times, depressing story. The subjects in here are hard to talk about and hard to listen to, reminding me in some ways of THE HATE U GIVE, only for adults, in how it shows the devastating toll that violence can take on a community.

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would, and grew to really appreciate the unusual narrative style. A lot of times, multiple POVs feel unnecessary and bog down the story but here it was like a puzzle where every piece felt crucial to the overall picture.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Update: I just read and reviewed EXCAVATION, the memoir that MY DARK VANESSA is being compared to and at one point was accused of plagiarizing. I personally don't think they are very similar and have written a blog post comparing the two.

The novel LOLITA is central to this book, which makes sense since, like LOLITA, the narrator of MY DARK VANESSA is unreliable. Unlike LOLITA, however, MY DARK VANESSA is narrated from the POV of the victim of abuse, not the abuser. Obviously, this book is about some very traumatic and unsettling subjects since it is a story about a teacher and his inappropriate sexual relations (statutory rape) with a student, so if that's sensitive for you, you might want to read cautiously.

Oh, and yes-- there will be spoilers.

The title comes from a passage from Nabokov's other book, PALE FIRE, which Vanessa Wye's teacher, Jacob Strane, shows her one day while telling her about how she makes him feel. He does that a lot, giving her books of poetry, works of literature, telling her that she's precious and rare and dark and "dripping beauty." He pretends like he wants to resist, but his grooming of her is so gradual, so inevitable, that Vanessa is convinced that she wants this as much as he does by the time he makes his move.

While reading this, I thought of two other books about inappropriate teacher relationships with students, THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS and INDECENT. THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS was also about the slow grooming of students, with that experimental touch on the knee, followed by inappropriate compliments and praises of a mature and worldly mind, before abruptly shifting towards the sexual. INDECENT did this also, but the abuser was a woman in that book, and it's interesting how the interpretation of that work shifts, with a number of people shelving it as a "romance." What this tells me is that our society has huge problems not just in how we look at victims of abuse and the perpetrators of abuse, but also how we look at typical gender roles.

Vanessa is a seriously traumatized girl and she doesn't know it-- or she does know it, but not in the way she should. Even in her 20s, stuck in a miserable job and still hung up on her abuser, Strane rules her life. She has squandered her potential and replays that year at her boarding school again and again, courting relationships with predatory men, and even becoming obsessed with one of her English professors. Vanessa would have you believe that he's obsessed with her, in the same way that Humbert believed that Lolita wanted it, but if you read between the lines, you'll see a man trying to befriend and mentor a student he sees as promising, but Vanessa, having had that inappropriate relationship with an older mentor figure who broke her trust in the worst way by doing what no adult should do with a young, and vulnerable student, sees him as coming on to her.

What is telling are her reactions (panic attacks) to triggers, like underage sexual abuse in films, or that moment of heartsick she has when she thinks that her professor is coming on to her the way Strane did. Vanessa tells everyone (including herself) that she wanted it, even telling her therapist that she "needs it to be a love story" because what happened to her at fifteen has become such an integral part of who she is that she cannot stomach the idea that being a victim is the core of her being. Because she can't let herself talk about it, she never moves on, and she is doomed to repeat it over and over, her mind obsessing over what she is unable to let go, adding to the trauma piece by piece.

MY DARK VANESSA is not a story with a happy ending. It is not a cathartic celebration of women rallying together to overcome a corrupt system, the way THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS was. Justice is meted out, but not by those who should have done something about it. The school failed Vanessa by siding with the abuser, as schools sometimes do. As institutions sometimes do. Taylor, the other girl who came forward, does not get justice-- at least, not in the way she deserves. Vanessa refuses to add herself to the list of names-- but it is a sad truth that many other women don't, either.

Part of what makes MY DARK VANESSA such a hard read is because you can see little slivers of yourself in her. I, too, was a precocious and jaded girl, and a lot of the books that Strane gives her are books that I enjoyed when I was young because they made me feel adult. Vanessa is just beginning to get an idea of who she is, and her headstrong spirit and sense of fairness and justice are completely crushed under Strane's carefully constructed attempts at mind-fucking and manipulation. Before Strane, she said some feminist-like things about how women shouldn't be judged by boys-- but after Strane, she's quick to blame the victim, to decide that women do ask for it. Because she needs to distance herself from other victims, to find a barrier to separate her circumstances from theirs.

I think the only other book that made me feel this strongly was Hanya Yanagihara's A LITTLE LIFE. Unlike A LITTLE LIFE, MY DARK VANESSA does end on a note of hope, but both books are very grim character studies that do a deep-dive into the psychological effects of severe abuse, and how the system tends to fail the same people over and over, until they start to feel helpless and maybe even like they deserved what happened to them in the first place. MY DARK VANESSA is a chilling read in particular because it really highlights how much faith we put into the people who take care of us as children, and how anyone could be a victim to those abuses when that trust is broken in the worst way. I wasn't sure this book would be worth the hype, but it was, and I am shaken.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars