Sunday, May 31, 2020

Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy by Pat Morris

"What are you reading right now?" "Oh, you know, a book about an excellent British guy who collected dead animal corpses and then stuffed them and put them in dioramas."
-A completely normal conversation to have

I would estimate that about 25% of the books I read are your usual book blogger fare: popular new releases, beloved classics, things that normal people enjoy. These reviews are typically what people know me for, since those are the ones that get the most attention, so I imagine that the people who click that "follow" button are then in for a wicked surprise when they discover the other 75% of what I read: problematic and out of print bodice-rippers from the 1970s and 1980s (to laugh at, but also to enjoy secretly), books with low GR ratings that all my friends hate, adult manga, and nonfiction about taxidermy.


I found out about this book from karen, who is one of my go-tos for weird books. I really enjoy weird facts about history and the Victorians had weird history down to an art form (literally). When people think Victorian, they probably think corset or pointy-tipped manor, but there was a dark edge to all of that arsenic-gilded finery. The Victorians were death-obsessed, and it wasn't uncommon for them to wear a locket with the hair of a dead loved one around their neck, or, if they were wealthy enough and wished to show off that wealth in all of its morbid splendor, they might have a curiosity cabinet.

Curiosity cabinets were where a lot of Victorians kept things like tableaux and domes filled with pastoral scenes of nature-- all dead. Dead butterflies in cases, stuffed animals (no, not the cute kind), shells and corals, and perhaps even a skeleton or two. WALTER POTTER'S CURIOUS WORLD OF TAXIDERMY is about a British guy who lived in Victorian times and preserved animal bodies because he was bored, posing them into scenes from folklore and nursery rhymes, or else to display typical events of the times (such as the kitten wedding, the frog park, and the bunny school). Eventually, all these things got put into a museum that lasted for about one hundred years and people would go to this museum and pay money to see all these dead things because ART!

I really enjoyed this book. It's morbid, but I can be a regular Wednesday Addams at times, despite my pastel-clad appearance and my love of all things romance. The detail and level of artistry that went in to all these scenes truly is incredible, and I loved the tongue-in-cheek tone of the writer, who struck a really nice balance between conversational tone and informative passages. Obviously, as the years went on and people developed a more salient sense of animal cruelty, feelings about the museum shifted towards disgust. The last chapter of the book is about the selling off of the individual displays (once managed by a distant relative of Barbara Cartland!), and some of the more disgusting "freaks" that Walter Potter had, such as supernumerary-legged animals and conjoined twins.

If you have a sense of the morbid and enjoy weird books about weird shit, I recommend WALTER POTTER'S CURIOUS WORLD OF TAXIDERMY. It's disturbingly fun, and I've reread it multiple times, always picking up on a new detail or tidbit that I somehow missed before.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

#Murdertrending by Gretchen McNeil

DNF @ 68%

I made it to almost 3/4 of the way through the book before I decided I didn't care anymore. #MURDERTRENDING made quite the splash when it first came out; people were comparing it to The Hunger Games. Basically, the United States has an ex-reality TV star president (huh) who is a tyrannical dictator (huh) and has decided to endorse a state-sponsored reality TV show where people are publicly executed by a bunch of paid serial killers who wear costumes and have back stories like they're on the WWE. But our heroine, Dee, is innocent, and when she wakes up wearing a princess dress on "Alcatraz 2.0," she starts to wonder if maybe she might be part of a bigger conspiracy.

The premise is like The Prisoner meets Running Man, but the book itself actually reminded me a lot of a young adult dystopian novel I received an ARC of last year, called THE HIVE. THE HIVE also features a president who is clearly modeled after Trump, but the premise is a bit different (and, in my opinion, better): everyone is connected to a master social network called "BLINQ" where users are encouraged to "trend positive." But in addition to likes and reshares, users can also "condemn." And if someone gets enough "condemns," it triggers an alert that encourages people to swarm down on that person like angry wasps and deliver some rough, mob-style vigilante justice.

#MURDERTRENDING almost works. I think the problem is that it's a little too silly. When the prisoners aren't running for their lives, they're living in quaint little town homes and working jobs to get money for their "island credit cards," one of which is a quaint little ice cream shop called "Ice Scream." I feel like the potential for commentary on reality TV shows and dramatic diplomacy are there, but it's lost in the cheap thrills and cheesy costumes. It's unclear how this execution reality show fits into the culture (whereas in THE HIVE, it was a necessity around which the entire framework of social and legal norms and mores were built). The idea was interesting but I didn't much care for the execution (ha, pun).

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Final Girls by Riley Sager

I see Riley Sager's books popping up in my timeline all the time but I've never actually read any of his work until now. FINAL GIRLS intrigued me because I kind of loved the idea of a group of "final girls" (those girls in horror flicks who end up becoming the last women standing) overcoming the tragedies of their pasts, only to end up finding themselves playing the real life scream queens yet again in a new slew of horrors.

Horror was my go-to genre before I fell in love with romance and even though I no longer like it as much as I used to, I still return to it occasionally whenever I find myself in a slump. I know it's strange, but I find it comforting. It kind of transports me back to my high school years, when focusing on slasher films and pulpy novels about killer cults and demonic worms took my mind of the everyday anxieties of being an unhappy teenager. FINAL GIRLS is especially fun because it's like 90s horror movie meets crime thriller.

Our heroine, Quincey, is one of the final girls. About ten years ago, she and her friends went to a cabin in the woods-- and all of them were brutally killed except for Quincey herself. She has dissociative amnesia and can't remember the events from that night, which some people found suspicious. Others were more sympathetic. Either way, she's now trying to rebuild her life, and bar some substance abuse and emotional PTSD, she's become a successful baking blogger with a successful lawyer fiance, and it seems like everything's coming up roses.

...Until another final girl, Lisa, dies. Killing herself allegedly. And then, a few days later, Sam shows up on her doorstep. Wanting to help, she claims, and haunted by her own miserable past of being the only one to survive a series of gruesome tortures at a motel. But Lisa's death doesn't add up and Sam's motivations are questionable, and pretty soon it becomes clear that all three women have more secrets than their dark pasts, and at least one of them might be in mortal danger.

Was this book literature? No. Did I devour it in a single day? YAS. I said to someone that this kind of reminds me of Rachel Caine's Stillhouse Lake series in that it's about a woman recovering from past encounters with violent crime, only to find herself victim to it yet again while trying to recover. Like the heroine in that novel, she's also flawed as all get out and morally ambiguous, but still easy to root for even as you might question whether she's truly the victim others would like her to be. It had the right amount of suspense to keep me turning the pages and some interesting twists that weren't what I was expecting. This turned out to be exactly the book I needed for my current mood.

I would definitely read more by this author. If you like slasher movies or fast-paced crime thrillers, you'll probably like this, too.

3.5 out of 5 stars

A Fucked Up Life in Books by Anonymous

People often ask me, "How can you read so much?" And my thought is often, "How can't you?" As long as I could string words together, I've had a book in my hand (and maybe even before that; I used to try to eat them). I'm the type of person who carries not one, but two books in my purse, because there's a very real danger that I might finish one and then have nothing left to read. Books have accompanied me on virtually every turning point in my life: crates of books that came with me to college, where I binged on chick-lit and paranormal romances to distract me from my studies; books that were given to me by various exes; books that accompanied me abroad or to job interviews; books that I read underneath the covers with a flashlight as a child. For as long as I've been who I am, there's been a book lurking in the background.

A F***ED UP LIFE IN BOOKS has been on my to-read list for years, but I never got around to purchasing it until recently when it appeared on sale in the Kindle store for a very affordable $1.99. I was really excited to read it, as much for the positive reviews as the negative ones. The positive reviews were all saying how wickedly funny and relatable it was, while the negative reviews seemed to be coming from pearl-clutchers who disapproved of the bad language and thought the narrator was too raunchy. To any author who believes that negative reviews deter purchases, I give you this gleeful spite purchase.

And you know what? I liked it. I actually liked it a lot more than I thought I would. I figured, based on the sample I read, that it would be a series of short, anecdotal paragraphs. Nothing too fancy or elaborate. But this was actually a very nice collection of essays-- yes, filled with cursing, but also some very relatable sentiments to anyone who is a book addict like me. Honestly, the moment she won me over was when she started talking about Flight of Dragons, which is one of my favorite childhood movies that isn't Disney, and nobody I know seems to have heard of it. It's also based on a book (which she doesn't name, here, but it's got a different title from the film-- it's called THE DRAGON AND THE GEORGE, and it isn't half as good as the movie). The whole book was like that, keen observations and title drops that made me sit up and say, "BUT ME, AS WELL!"

People have the idea that people who love books are a well-behaved, quiet lot that are prim and decorous and schoolmarmish. Which isn't true. Books belong to anyone who cares to claim them, and I liked that the author was so different from the stereotypes that many people try to slap on those consider "bookish" (which is maybe why so many people were so shocked by this book). The fun, rambling tone reminded me a lot of Louise Rennison writing as Georgia Nicholson, only this was a Georgia that loved reading books (real Georgia was somewhat anti-intellectual) and tied her love of reading to all of her madcap, risque adventures.

Basically, I loved it.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm

THE INVENTION OF CURRIED SAUSAGE is autofiction. Uwe Timm, narrating as Uwe Timm, recalls that his first remembered time eating the German dish of curried sausage actually precedes the time of its acknowledged invention in 1950s Berlin. In this novella, we see him track down the woman who (wo)manned the food stand of his childhood, now blind and in a retirement home, and she tells him that she is, in fact, the inventor of curried sausage through a looooong meandering story set during WWII, where she falls in love with a deserter while her husband is at war, that ends with the allies defeating the Nazis and liberating the camps, and Germany struggling to right itself in the midst of their collective shame at what they have done to the Jewish people, and the poverty from their collapsed economy.

My mom brought this book back for me as a present while traveling in Europe and shhh, nobody tell her that I didn't like it, because it's one of her favorite books. I was wondering why I found this in a drawer, covered in dust, and then as I read, I realized that I actually did vaguely remember giving this a try when she first gave it to me years ago and then getting bored and putting it in the drawer. Sadly, I couldn't get into it this second time, either, although I actually finished this time. I don't know if it's the translation of the work, but the wandering narrative really didn't work for me. Parts were interesting-- like the food stand woman, Mrs. Brucker, finding empowerment in the absence of her good-looking but domineering husband, and flouting the conventions of the ties-- and you know me, I'm a sucker for food descriptions. But even though this book is just over 200 pages, it felt like it was 2x longer because of the pacing.

And man, is the invention of curried sausage dragged out. You don't find out how it was invented until literally the last couple pages, and even though Mrs. Brucker kind of tells you several times that it was an accident, it really was an accident and it just feels so contrived and silly that it kind of feels like a cop-out. I know, I know-- a lot of great inventions were accidents, but still. I was disappointed. The story I was told didn't really feel like it was worth reading about to its conclusion, which makes me sad, because it's my understanding that this is a pretty important literary work in Germany.

2 out of 5 stars

Crave to Conquer by Zoey Ellis

I'm somewhat new to the whole alpha/omega subgenre. I know it started in the M/M fanfiction universe and was translated into M/F erotica a few years ago, where it exploded in popularity. My two friends on Goodreads, Maddy and Meredith, are actually the ones who got me into the subgenre in the first place. I've tried several other authors before Zoey Ellis-- Eva Dresden and Addison Cain-- but I really didn't like their writing style, and the alternate universe Quentin Tarantino-esque dystopian sci-fi settings where people have the traits of wolves (except not, because pack hierarchy with alphas/betas/omegas/etc. was actually debunked a couple years ago, so whoops). I was beginning to wonder if maybe a/o just wasn't for me, and then I picked up this book and was like YAAAAASS.

So, first a caveat. I rate every book I read solely based on entertainment and quality metrics that are particular to my tastes alone, and how well the book performs compared to similar titles in its genre. That's why a book that's considered a literary classic by many, like, oh-- Pulitzer prize winner, THE ORPHAN MASTER, might get a two star DNF review, and books about trashy fantasy erotica, like CRAVE TO CONQUER, get a glowing four star review (spoilers). Is it fair? No, and that's why it's so delicious.

CRAVE TO CONQUER, unlike the other two books I've read by the aforementioned authors, takes place in a fantasy setting. Our hero, Drocco, is the ruler of Lox, which cracks me up because lox is the brined salmon that you buy at Jewish delis to put on bagels. So after reading about the kingdom of Lox, Drocco was forever known to me in my head as Supreme Leader of the Salmon Squad™ (SLotSS™). SLotSS™ is an Alpha, which means he's the big man on fish campus, but it's been over 100 years since anyone has had an Omega, which are like the Super Shiny Holographic Pokemon Cards™ of mates: not only are they rarer and more valued, they have magic mating powers.

Cailyn is a secret Omega who is hiding her traits with magic. I've found that this "hiding my Omega status" subplot is pretty common in a lot of these, for various reasons, but here in CRAVE TO CONQUER, Cailyn has the best reason yet. The Omegas didn't actually disappear or die off: they're all in hiding, having left to fend for themselves after Alphas took to abusing their mates and using Omegas up before casting them aside, broken. Cailyn is in Salmontopia™ to make sure that the Alphas aren't close to finding their hiding spots, basically doing a reconnaissance mission. SLotSS™ thinks that she's a Beta female, but he's still wildly attracted to her and even though she's not quite as good as the Omega in his head that he plans to take someday, she'll do in the interim, he thinks.

But then one day, Cailyn's blocking magic fails and TROUBLE BEGINS.

Another caveat, this is a pretty brutal romance. Consent really doesn't happen for a lot of this book and I know that is going to be triggering for a lot of people. It's not very comfortable to read and part of the reason I was able to get through the book is because I really didn't see the characters together as a couple, in that I didn't ship them. To me, it was more of a horrific and fascinating character study about what an alternate fantasy universe would be like if people behaved like wolf pack archetypes that no longer hold any credibility with animal behavior scientists, and there just happened to be some erotica thrown into the mix. It was well written and the world-building was great, and it didn't go quite as over the top as Eva Dresden's BROKEN did (that was so brutal I had to put it down). Thank goodness, because I think this is about as much cruelty as I can stomach.

It does end on a wicked cliffhanger, though, so you've been warned.

Honestly, though, this was a great guilty pleasure. I would read more from this author and from this world, which is not something I can say about every series I've tried. If you're into dark erotica or books from the omegaverse subgenre specifically, you'll probably really enjoy this book.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Never Game by Jeffery Deaver

DNF @ 14%

I bought this when it was on sale for $1.99 because the idea of a mystery in Silicon Valley (just a stone's throw away across the Bay) focusing on video games was really, really appealing to me, a California gamer with a love for mystery novels. Plus, I was obsessed with the Lincoln Rhyme mysteries when I was in my early twenties. The fast-paced whodunnit style with serial killers and jaded gumshoe kept me thumbing pages like nobody's biz.

Sadly, I did not get that vibe with this one. Everything in this book is tell and not show. I WAS SO BORED. There was nothing that hooked me, and I think you'll probably agree that if you're not engaged with a mystery from the beginning, you're not going to want to sit around and wait for the book to figure itself out. I ended up setting the book aside to read later... only I never read it later because it was so boring that the thought of going back to it made me just want to read other books instead.

It's really too bad because I was SO EXCITED for this one and it ended up being a major let down.

1 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 28, 2020

An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson

DNF @ 42%

Can I just say that I love how the blonde heroine's arm markings look just like Feyre's arm markings on the cover of ACoTaR? Y'all know I have no lost love for Sarah J. Maas, but in this case, SJM is by far the better writer-- at least stuff happens in her book. The hero and heroine of this book spend ages in a wood, and let me tell you, if I wanted to spend hours in a wood with monsters, I'd dig out one of my old JRPG games and do some grinding.

It's a shame because the book has a good premise. Whimsy is a mortal village set on the edges of the summerlands where all mortals aspire to do "Crafts" (e.g. cooking, painting, baking) for the faeries to buy. It's created a weird economy where no one can afford the cost of the luxuries except the fae, who are unable to do any of them. Our heroine, Isobel, is a self-proclaimed prodigy painter and an expert on all things fae (except when she isn't), and one day she is offered the chance to do the autumn prince's portrait.

Unfortunately for her, Miss Fae Expert painted a flaw in the painting, giving Prince Rook a look of sorrow that becomes an unpardonable show of weakness when he stupidly unveils the painting in front of his court without looking at it first. To punish her, he drags her to the autumn court to meet out justice, but that doesn't happen within the first 42% which is all wandering around in the woods, with sprinkles of instalove here and there, to remind you that this tepid story is, in fact, a romance.

Maybe this book gets better but I've got so many books that I just don't bother finishing if a book doesn't grab me. The pacing and inconsistency in this book is just so off the wall that I can't even give it the "benefit of the doubt" two star rating that I sometimes give to books that I don't finish but think that I might have felt were okay if I was able to finish them.

1 out of 5 stars

Mafia Chic by Erica Orloff

Mafia romances are pretty popular in the self-published section of the romance genre, but this is a traditionally published chick-lit from the early 2000s that touches upon the same subject. The heroine, Teddi, is the daughter of the Gallos and the Marcellos, two local mob families who dabble in felonies. She plays it straight and runs a restaurant but that doesn't mean that she doesn't know where all the bodies are buried (literally and figuratively). It really wreaks havoc with a gal's relationship status, if you know what I mean.

I actually thought this was a lot of fun. The first half of the book is a lot better than the rest, because the plot is basically a "will she/won't she?" love triangle conundrum between two guys: Robert, a TV personality; and Mark, the FBI agent who's investigating her family. While she tries to figure out what she wants, she's working out the kinks in her restaurant business, dodging mob hits, and trying not to explode after Sunday dinners with the fam.

Her friend Diana is probably my favorite character in this book and I liked her romance with Teddi's cousin Tony even better than the main couple(s). I also really liked her dad and grandfather, and how they played into virtually every Italian stereotype. This book was definitely inspired by the Sopranos and the Godfather, you can tell, but they're a lot more cuddly. I didn't think you could make a mob family cute, but this author did.

Apart from the pacing issues and the fact that I wasn't really that into either Mark or Robert as love interests, I thought this was a ton of fun. I've been wanting to read this for years because I really loved the cover and I'm happy to say that it's much more positive and non-offensive than some other chick-lit novels I have read from this era. It's a little "backwards" in some areas, but never verges into outright cringeworthy and offensive, unlike some others I could name. If you're looking for a quick pick-me-up and you really enjoy mafia romances, this would be a great read for you!

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Imagine that you're giving someone who wishes to prepare you a meal a list of your favorite foods. For me, it would probably be something like eclairs, lentil madras, tea leaf salad, avocado toast, and shrimp scampi. Now imagine the person making you your meal goes to the kitchen, takes all these things, and puts them into a blender. They place the chunky, brown liquid in front of you in a fancy glass, and you can make you dustings of chocolate powder griming the edges while fish tails bob merrily amid chunks of garlic and avocado. "Here it is," they say proudly. "It's everything you asked for-- your favorite." And you run out screaming, "NOT LIKE THIS! GOD, NOT LIKE THIS!"

That's Sarah J. Maas for me, in a nutshell.

At this point, I feel like I am an unwilling connoisseur of SJM's work. My followers keep asking me to read and review her books because they like it when I'm sad. I'm sure somewhere they all have vials secreted away with "Nenia's SJM tears" printed on the labels. Some evil fiend is probably listing them on Etsy as we speak. I'm beginning to feel quite bullied! And it's really a shame, because going by the summaries, they should be books that I love. I'm fairly well-versed in Celtic and faerie folklore, and The Ballad of Tam Lin is one of my favorites. I love assassins. I love strong female heroines. I love the idea of an edgy film noir take on fantasy land where everything is so fucked up that people pursue sex and drugs as a means to oblivion. Every Sarah J. Maas book has a premise that I should love.

But I don't, because I really can't stand her writing style.

A COURT OF THRONES AND ROSES is the closest that Maas ever got to getting it right. I actually enjoyed this book (I know, right? WHAT?), and from what I've read of her reviews of the sequels, it's like she learned nothing from what she got right about this one, and then proceeded to undo EVERY. SINGLE. PERFECT. THING about this book, which led to the speeding train wreck that is the Holographic Shiny Charizard of WTFery™ on Maas's evolution to ultimate self-indulgent Fantaporn™.

I am talking, of course, about HOUSE OF EARTH AND BLOOD.

But this one... this one can come to my birthday party.

There are two seconds in this review. Section one is about what this book got right. Section two is about what this book (and other books of Maasly nature) got wrong, including a section on Why Rhysand is a Sleazy Bastardy Bastard Son from A Court of Fuck and You™. You're free to disagree with me, but I will not tolerate rude stans. And if you've already been blocked by me on Goodreads, kindly don't go to my blog and start spouting your condescension there (this is a call out to you, yes, you, you know who you are and what you wrote, and you know why I deleted your comment).


✨ Feyre is an okay protagonist. In the beginning of the book, she has strengths and weaknesses that Celaena, Queen of Sues, First of Her Fucking Name, Mother of Perfectly Perfection™ does not. I liked that she was illiterate, that she had hobbies, that she had the normal thoughts and insecurities that someone of her personality in her situation might have. I didn't always like her and sometimes I found her REALLY annoying, but in the beginning of the book, she was a well-rounded human.

✨ The world-building was good. I liked how much effort was put into the lore of the fairy kingdoms, how each court was distinct, all of the monsters. The challenges at the end had a distinct Goblet of Fire/Hunger Games tang, which gave the book a much needed jolt of action.

✨ Decent sex scenes. The only decent sex scenes in any SJM book I've read. Apparently someone has a body paint fetish, not that I mind. Maybe it's because there wasn't any "mating" or "claiming."

✨ A great love interest. I loved Tam Lin. He reminded me of a more vicious Chaol (who was my ship of choice after Nehemia for Celaena-- good thing I wasn't in a betting pool). He was so tragic and fierce and tortured, and I am a sucker for a hero toiling under the Yoke of Tragic Backstory™.


✨ Pacing is slightly off. The first half of the book is very slow. This only becomes more of an issue in later books when the page count mysteriously begins to inflate. Unless she's like Dickens and getting paid by the word, I see no need for the word counts to balloon. Especially since in later books, no real content is being added-- it's all fluff. 400 pages was slightly longer than this book needed to be but it worked. Her books really should not be longer than that, and certainly not 800 pages.

✨ Rhysand. I don't know why people like this bastard. And before you come after me for being a hypocrite, yes, I acknowledge that I like problematic romance heroes myself-- but not at the cost of my original ship, and not when they're turned into pussycats as soon as the matter of moral responsibility becomes an issue. From what I understand, Tam is villanized in later books and Rhysand becomes the de facto love interest, and I have receipts for why he is not great:

a) calls Feyre "mortal trash"
b) mind-rapes her in front of her friends
c) humiliates her friends in front of her
d) tracks down, kidnaps, and helps kill an innocent human
e) delivers the head of an innocent faerie to Tam's door
f) taunts Tam with Feyre when Feyre is trying to save Tam's life
g) roofies Feyre with faerie wine and molests her to taunt Tam some more
h) lets Tam catch him and Feyre together with a sexual assault kiss
i) is named Rhysand, which is probably faerie for "hypocritical asshole"

I did feel a little sorry for him at the end when we find out that he's basically the sex slave of Amarantha, and everything that happened between them was probably rape. That is awful. But having bad things happen to you doesn't absolve you when you do them to someone else. I say this because Rhysand fans seem to rejoice in dragging Tam, and conveniently forgetting all of the problematic things that Rhysand did to Feyre and others in this book, so fuck him, I say.

✨ The usual litany of Maas-isms: "huffed a laugh," "purred," "rolled their shoulders," "incarnate," something involving stars, etc. It becomes way more problematic in later books, but they're noticeable here, too, and they're in virtually all of her books multiple times.

✨ Feyre ends the book as a Speshuly McSpeshulton™ because OF COURSE SHE DOES. How dare a heroine allowed to be succeed as a basic bitch mortal? NOT IN MAASLAND. Was the scene a little touching? Okay, yes. BUT this happens in every single book, and it definitely ties into the whole Mary Sue vibe her heroines have, where their perfection must be written in the stars!! or something.

✨ This is a mishmash of Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin, and it does something that I can't stand in YA retellings of these myths. It takes the character of the Beast and makes him gorgeous. His cross to bear is that he has a mask stuck to his face. I complain about this in ROSEBLOOD, a retelling of Phantom of the Opera, also featuring a pretty-fied hero, but basically my argument is that it cheapens the messages of these types of stories when you take something that is supposed to be about inner goodness and change the story so that everyone looks like a model for Armani. That theme of self-sacrifice and looking past the surface becomes laughable when everyone is fucking gorgeous.

I feel like this book must have had a better editor than some of the later ones because the writing style is so different, and it feels like Maas is being held back from doing some of the things that she loves to do but that bog her writing down so problematically. Everything felt clean and crisp and there were some beautiful passages in here. I seriously could not believe this was the same author who wrote HOUSE OF EARTH AND BLOOD, and everything that came after book three of the Throne of Glass series. Whatever she did in this book and stopped doing, she needs to go back to grass roots and find it, because this book had the potential for a really great author inside it.

The fact that that has been squandered frustrates me to no end.

Anyway, I liked A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES. I'm not really sure I want to read the other books in the series knowing what happened, but I liked this one a lot and I kind of want to stop here and pretend that she ends up with Tam. The world-building, the danger, the characters, the stakes were all really fun, and I liked the hints of darkness lurking at the edges, and my heart GENUINELY hurt when Feyre realized that it was her own damn fucking pride that doomed Tam. (I'm still sad about that, tbh. Especially now that I know what happens in future books.) I just want to give Tam a big hug and tell him that everything will be okay while telling Feyre and Rhysand to fuck off about a thousand times (and not in the fun way that I know they'd like, nooooo).

If you're going to read a Maas book, read this one. And then... maybe stop with this one.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Space Between by Brenna Yovanoff

If Hot Topic sold books in 2004, this book would be there right next to the book of piano/vocal chords for Evanescence's Fallen. Even though this was published in 2011, THE SPACE BETWEEN is dripping in emo trappings, whether it's from its motifs of self-harm and blood magic, pale girls with black hair, or the idea of finding redemption in someone as broken as you are. It borrows from christian mythology in a way that I can only describe as cheekily blasphemous and yet... I really liked it.

Our heroine, Daphne, is the daughter of Lilith and Lucifer. She has metal teeth and dresses like a backup dancer in an Evanescence music video. Her sisters are succubi, but Daphne prefers to spend her time in Beelzebub's human contraband closet, much like how Ariel enjoyed spending time in her grotto. Before you can say "part of that world," a human boy with angel blood pops into the new arrivals platform, and noting how her kin are all eying him like a bunch of hell hounds eying tasty winged hotdog, she saves him and brings hiiiiiim toooo liiiiife.

(I guess you could say she woke him up inside.)

Anyway, Azrael, the angel of death, is going around killing demons who outstay their welcome on Earth with a monster assassin called, and I kid you not, "Dark Dreadful." Her brother, Obie, is one of these, and it turns out the human angel boy-- whose name is Truman-- is the only link to finding him. So she goes to Chicago (hi, Veronica Roth) to look for him, only to find out that he's a young adult alcoholic who has a caffeine addiction and suicidal ideation. He's in no state to tell her anything, much less help her find her broski. She practically has to scrape him up off the bar floor.

Angel and demon romances were really popular for a while because some people decided that vampires were too sexy and angels were much more appropriate, or something. IDK. But Brenna Yovanoff decided she was going to Make Angels Sexy Again (probably printed on hats, hanging on the rack right above the Evanescence CDs), and in case you don't believe me, hero and heroine have sex while lying in a bathtub, because that doesn't sound uncomfortable at all.

Honestly, this was pretty ridiculous and carries all kinds of trigger warnings... but I actually liked it? It reminds me a little of another young adult book I read a little while ago by Jenny Trout called SUCH SWEET SORROW. As with this book, a lot of people reviewed that and talked about how bad it was, but I was like, "Hey! It's artistic and different and weird! I kind of like this freakshow!" Would I recommend either of these as a top fave? No. But if you're sitting at home listening to My Chemical Romance and feeling your inner fourteen-year-old, read this book. It is a serious #mood.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 25, 2020

Poison Princess by Kresley Cole

DNF @ 49% 

I actually felt kind of sorry for this book. It came out when everyone was starting to get sick of TWILIGHT and its ilk, so people really weren't feeling all that kindly towards paranormal romances with insipid heroines and emotionally controlling heroes. Maybe if it had come out today, when dystopians and paranormals are starting to have a resurgence, people would be kinder. But hey, sometimes you draw the short straw in publishing trends and someone always has to be the last one.

Set in Louisiana, POISON PRINCESS is the story of Evie, an ordinary high school student who's well-liked and part of the pretty set. Their lives are disrupted when a group of Cajun students join the school, poor and declasse, but undeniably attractive, and portrayed with every stereotype in the book. Their ringleader is a guy named Jackson who talks like a dirty 40-year-old man in a bar trapped in the ripped body of an 18-year-old.

But Evie has a secret. She sees visions-- dark, terrifying visions that she draws on her sketchbook. Visions of the end of the world. And then one day, it all comes to fruition and suddenly there's plagues, zombies, and worse, and all of the plants in the world just die. Except that Evie can grow them with her blood and maybe has a couple other superpowers up her sleeve, including the power to smell like a flower even when she's not wearing perfume! WOW!!!! Step aside, Superman.

I could probably make it through the whole book if I wanted to. I don't, because it isn't wowing me and I don't really feel invested enough to make myself continue. I personally didn't think it was as bad as some of my friends did, and found myself feeling more bemused than angry with the book. Jackson is a skeeve, yes, which is maybe why the author felt the need to include an incel serial killer who keeps girls locked up in his basement for experimentation and sex... you know, for contrast.

POISON PRINCESS is dark and while that can be a good thing in YA, I'm not really sure the author fully knew what she wanted from this world she created and it shows in the writing.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Drops of God Vol. 6 by Tadashi Agi

What good is it to even have a following on the internet if you can't get people super obsessed over the same things as you? That's what I've been asking myself as I've been plunging into this relatively obscure manga for adults, The Drops of God. It's a manga about wine making, wine tasting, and wine pairing, and as a Californian who loves all things wine, I'm obsessed.

This is kind of a two part "episode." The first half of the book is about the creepily flirty "fauxtalian," Honma, and the one-sided love affair that led to him eschewing all French wines. He finally spills his tragic story to his friends, gets over being put in the friendzone, and comes to terms with the fact that sometimes happiness means letting people go. A pretty mature message for a book geared towards young men, I thought.

The second half of the book is about-- YES-- another contest involving blind tasting. Shizuku's loyal friend and wine sommelier-in-the-making meets a childhood friend again with his arrival as a big-spending customer. But despite his humble origins, he's become a terrible snob and thinks he can sell wines the way people buy designer bags: through the allure of the label only. Now Shizuku and Miyabi must find some mediocre but pricey wines to pair against cheap and luxirious-tasting wines to prove him wrong OR Miyabi will quit her job with their company and go to work with him as a consultant instead-- oh noes.

This time, I decided to Google some of the info about the history of the big five chateaux because I keep saying "ohhhh it sounds authentic!" without really knowing all that much, and it kind of makes me feel like a phony. So I did some light Googling and yes, it seems like the information really is authentic: much more so than I previously thought. I wouldn't be surprised if the authors maybe took a couple liberties, but a lot of the stuff they're talking about does seem factually accurate.

Sometimes the descriptions of the wines are so over the top and cheesy, but I think the mangaka did it so they could have pretty, fantastical scenes to draw. I must admit, I did like the idea of a highly tannic wine being compared to a dusty Egyptian tomb in the middle of the desert. I'm a basic b, so I would compare it to licking a dry, tea-stained paper towel for minutes, but the effect is the same: dry mouth and sorry you. Some might find them annoying and fanciful but I kind of like them.

I would recommend Drops of God to anyone who loves wine. I feel like it does such a good job of portraying wine culture and the types of ridiculous individuals you sometimes meet in the wine scene, like label snobs, region snobs, etc. This manga might be boring if you don't care about wine at all, but if you do, it will make you want to have a glass right now, with a full course meal to pair it with to boot because oh, yes, I haven't even talked about the food porn. Manga and anime do a great job making food look super appealing period, but Drops of God takes it a full step further.

4.5 out of 5 stars

A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

I was just saying on Twitter that I was craving a rivals to friends story that's like The Great British Baking Show and then an ARC of this book practically fell into my lap. A PLACE AT THE TABLE is a middle grade novel about two girls named Elizabeth and Sara: one of them is English/Jewish and the other is Pakistani/Muslim. They end up meeting at an after-school cooking class taught by Sara's mother, and even though at first they don't like each other all that much, they end up finding out that they have more in common than they ever dreamed.

Elizabeth's mother misses the UK and has depression, which leaves Elizabeth to pick up a lot of slack when her mother is too tired to cook or clean. To make matters worse, her best friend has taken up with another more popular girl and seems to have discovered a hidden well of intolerance that she has never really showed until now. She's worried that her mother's depression will get in the way of her passing her citizenship test, and that she might just decide to abandon her and her siblings for the UK.

Sara's mother is also in the process of studying for her citizenship test. There are also money problems that their catering business can't quite cover, which is part of the reason her mom has started teaching. Sara has some ideas on how they could resolve some of these problems but she's too anxious to share them and worried that her parents won't take her seriously. In addition to money woes, she also feels like the odd one out at her new school, especially with people making nasty intolerant comments about her and her family just often enough to make her feel unwelcome.

A PLACE AT THE TABLE is a great book because it's inclusive, heartwarming, and sweet, focusing on friendship and empowerment, and the importance of being open and honest. I loved how food ended up being the thing that united everyone in the end, and how friendship was the key factor that resolved some of the problems. There were also several moments in here that turned tropes on their head, most notably with the character of Stephanie. I don't often read middle grade because I feel like it sometimes has this tone that talks down to its readers, but this is the rare and precious example of a book that doesn't do that: that feels like an authentic preteen voice without any adult judgement.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes stories about friendship and food.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Drops of God Vol. 5 by Tadashi Agi

I've been feeling a little sad lately due to quarantine and other reasons, so I've turned back to manga, my one true love (well, okay, not really-- I have many loves). This one in particular is currently free on Kindle Unlimited and after trying book one on a whim, I accidentally became obsessed and have gradually been working my way through each book in the series as if they were bottles of wine to be savored slowly, glass by glass.

A lot of people think that manga is for kids but there are actually manga made specifically for adults. Drops of God, being about wine tasting and the making of wine, is obviously not a book for eight-year-olds. It's the saga of a young man named Shizuku who is the son of a famous wine critic. When his father dies, Shizuku's inheritance is made contigent on a Willy Wanka-esque contest involving guessing twelve bottles of wine, plus an elusive bottle called "the drops of god." If he guesses all the wines correctly, he inherits. Otherwise, everything could go to his father's adopted son, Issei!

Book five teases at the identity of one of the twelve mystical wines, nicknamed "the twelve apostles." Do we actually get to find out what it is? NO. Instead, we get an amnesia plot. A women named Kaori has lost all of her memories before a car accident, except for the taste of wine that matches the clue of the first apostle that Shizuku is trying to figure out. At the same time, Issei is tasting spring water with a temple monk, using that pure clarity to meditate on his memories of wine. Because these two fools are more pretentious than a drunk college boy starting his first Philosophy 101 class.*

*It's okay, though, because I love it.

I really love how episodic these manga are. Each one has a new story that still fits in within the overarching arc, resolving the smaller subplot while raising new questions to be resolved in future episodes. The passages about wine making and wine tasting are pure poetry, and every time I read one of these books, I end up craving a glass of wine. They're so good, and I think that anyone who enjoys wine tasting will really enjoy these. I wish they were a Netflix drama. It feels like Netflix is really picking up a lot of K-, C-, and J-dramas, and hopefully this will become one of them.

Deducting .5 stars because the idea of wine waking someone up from an eight-year coma is a bit ridic.

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Amazing World of Gumball Vol. 1 by Frank Gibson

I had honestly never heard of The Amazing World of Gumball before because I don't get Cartoon Network, so I didn't realize this was based off a television show until I Googled the graphic novel. It's a pretty bizarre story about a cat boy with a bunny sister whose mom is a cat and whose dad is a bunny. His best friend is a fish boy, and they have a giant T-rex, a ghost, a paper doll, and some various food items as their best friends in school.

Story-wise, it reminds me a lot of Spongebob, with the cast of bizarre characters and anthropomorphized animals and objects, as well as the blend of toilet humor and adult jokes. I thought the characters were all really cute (Tina the T-rex is my favorite), and most of the stories were actually pretty funny and had a definite "Saturday Morning Cartoons" vibe, which I loved. Not all comic books are able to keep up the vibe and pacing of a TV show, but this one succeeded pretty well.

I'm giving it three stars because it was entertaining and I enjoyed trying it out on a lark, but I think it's too young for me and I didn't like reading it enough that I'd want to continue with the series. Anyone who enjoys children's TV shows like Spongebob and the like will probably really like this, though. I'm glad I gave it a try.

3 out of 5 stars

Drops of God Vol. 4 by Tadashi Agi

In today's "No, manga is not just for kids" rant, I want to squee over this series, Drops of God, some more. As a native Californian, wine is something that has always been there in the background. There are wineries all over California, and many people here are passably knowledgeable in all things wine because wine-tasting is such a part of the social scene. When I was in college, I used to say that I didn't like wine. And then I changed my mind and said that I only liked white wine. I got really angry at people who sneered at me and said, "Well, it's an acquired taste." Because that is the most annoying thing ever, having someone look down on you like a snobby snob. I know this, because I have people accusing me of this all the time with regard to my literary snobbery #sorrynotsorry.

Anyway, I eventually grew to love wine of all kinds, pink, white, and red-- shh, don't tell the snobs-- and even began to develop a pretty decent taste for it, to the point that I could recommend red wines to people who didn't think they liked red wines and actually have them enjoy it! (Or they were trying to shut me up and lied-- I prefer choice A, though.) Now wine is something that I enjoy all the time, and feel quite passionately about, because as this book says so lovingly, it isn't something you drink to get drunk. It's a social drink that's meant to be savored, chatted about, and enjoyed with others.

Drops of God is a manga that is basically a celebration of wine and wine tasting. The hero, Shizuku, is a young man who distanced himself from wine because his father was obsessed with it to the point of neglecting him emotionally, but now that wine has become a part of his father's will (he has to engage in a taste-off with the adopted son his father never told him about), he's gradually getting into wine and relearning all of the things his father tried to teach him in life. From that first point of contact, Drops of God is a rush of contests, rivalries, discourse, and knowledge-- all about wine!

Part of what makes this book SOO GOOD is that all of the characters are likable and it subverts a lot of the tropes in manga. For example, the "villain," Issei, isn't the usual cruel and taunting hero. He's arrogant and cocky, but he's also fair. (Also, I find him super attractive, soooo.) Miyabi, the heroine, is drawn like your typical shounen/seinen love interest, but she's REALLY smart and the book doesn't sexualize her all that much (bar the occasional fan service drawing-- but they're all tasteful). Other characters pop up, and the book always ends up making them really surprising, which I love.

This book is FINALLY about the French vs. Italian wine blind tasting that one of Shizuku's coworkers has insisted on. The outcome will determine whether the wine branch of Shizuku's beer company decides to import French or Italian wines, with wines in the Y1000, Y2000, and Y3000 price range (so roughly $10, $20, and $30), which are pretty decent margins for good wine. As usual, there's some unexpected challenges and developments that arise, and the book ends with another teased challenge, in this case, Shizuku finally tackling the riddle of his father's will.

I wish this was a drama on Netflix! I feel like the hero has the same sort of rambling poetic genius that made House M.D. a popular show, but this is a lot better because the hero is nice. All of the characters are so interesting and the wine tidbits seem to be accurate, based on what I know! I think anyone who loves wine and manga will LOVE Drops of God, and even if you just love one or the other, you'll probably still love this as long as you don't find the idea of wine mania boring.

Unfortunately for me, it looks like only about 25% of this series was translated into English and made available on Kindle, which makes me want to scream. GUYS. You need to read this and help me make it more popular so I can find out how it ends.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

I genuinely regret accepting an ARC of this book because reading it made me so miserable. I honestly do not recommend reading this book during quarantine if you're already feeling sad, as it's like being slapped in the face with the Worst of Twitter: women being oppressed by an authoritarian government, plagues with a high death toll, a planet dying from global warming run rampant-- oh yes, it's all my worst fears, packed into a 300+ book.

I'm especially disappointed because the summary made it sound so girl power-ish. I loved the idea of a bunch of rogue women astronauts hightailing it into space to flip the bird to the actual man as they voyage to the final frontier: a new exoplanet called Cavendish that could be humanity's best hope. The problem is that none of the women are particularly likable, there's no real sense of unity, and even though the ending isn't quite as miserable as I feared it would be, it comes off as a pretty dismal hybrid of Silent Running, The Martian, and the beginning of Handmaid's Tale.

Maybe if I had been in a better mood going into this, I would have liked it more. I wanted to like it. I wanted so badly to like it. But the pacing was so slow and, like I said, I didn't find any of the characters to be particularly sympathetic or likable. It was just so doomy and gloomy, that by the time I got to the end, I was too emotionally exhausted to care anymore. I know some of my friends really enjoyed this one but I'm sorry to say that I disliked vast swaths of it.

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

2 out of 5 stars

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

DNF @ p.179

There are two kinds of books my mom gives me: books she genuinely enjoyed and books she got bored with and thought I might like to hate-review before chucking them into the donation box. Usually she tells me which is which before she gives them to me, but not always, and THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON was one of these books. I was excited to read this initially because it won the Pulitzer Prize and it's about North Korea, and if you've been following me recently, you've probably noticed that I've been on a bit of a nonfiction binge of North Korean history and memoirs. I honestly didn't plan it out that way, but for whatever reason, I had about five of them stockpiled on my Kindle and ended up reading all of them during AAPI Heritage Month.

THE ORPHAN MASTER is about a boy named Jun Do (John Doe, get it? Get it? SO SUBVERSIVE. SO CLEVER) whose beautiful mother was whisked away to Pyongyang to entertain the bigwigs, as beautiful women often are (no, seriously, look up what the "Joy Brigade" is). His father runs a work camp for orphans and Jun Do is allowed some trifling amount of power, although his father subjects him to cruelties to give the illusion of equality, and he has low songbun because he's regarded as an orphan... even though he's not. Anyway, he becomes noted for his work, and ends up becoming a professional kidnapper, which was actually quite true. Kidnapping was all the rage under the reign of Kim Jong-Il, which you can read more about in A KIM JONG-IL PRODUCTION. The problems begin to occur when this book tries to take a Catch-22 sort of approach to North Korea, only it ends up sounding woefully Western and just not very good.

Here's the thing about the blurb. The entire blurb describes everything that happens before page 100. After that, it just becomes woefully cyclic and repetitive and dull. I feel like it also takes a very Westernized approach to North Korea. The whole idea of "rising through the ranks," for example, based on the memoirs I have read, just isn't very feasible. If you have a low songbun, you're doomed. Even if you're an A-plus student who excels in school, you will NEVER advance because you're considered a liability by the government. The whole idea of songbun precedes birth. If your grandparents were foreigners or defectors, the taint will follow their generations. That's why it's such a big deal when someone violates the rules, and it's why the population is so eager to narc on one another: it's not just their future at stake, it's all of the generations to follow.

The whole Cinderella mythos is a very Western concept and from what I've read, doesn't really exist in North Korea. Humility is important, but it's a humility steeped in proud lineage. I really, really doubt that a parent would just allow their kid's songbun to drop just because it was convenient. That idea of starting out a traitor and becoming a prestigious official is just not something that would happen in North Korea. Likewise, the way the North Korean characters casually make fun of their government also just wouldn't happen. In the books that I read, all of the people who let something mildly treasonous slip were shushed or punished by their parents, taught early on that to speak ill against their country or their leaders could be fatal. That vibe just isn't present here. I feel like the author was trying to capture this tongue-in-cheek, CATCH-22 vibe about North Korea, but it just didn't work. It ended up being boring and trite and (based on what I've read) not very accurate.

I read the author's note in the back where he gives this interview, and he actually has been to North Korea, and he admits that he wasn't allowed to talk to citizens, only to his handlers and people who were authorized to speak to Western visitors, so the only way he could "bring their stories to life [was] through fiction." And granted, there's such a thing as artistic license, but at the same time, it's really hard to divorce oneself from one's own biased perspective when writing a book about a culture that has a very different psychology embedded not just in the culture, but also in the language. I posted a status update saying that my fear while reading this was that it would end up being the North Korean edition of AMERICAN DIRT, and while it wasn't quite that laughably bad, it also comes across as having a number of blind spots with regard to some important aspects of the culture.

I am shocked that this book won a Pulitzer, but I guess I can see why it did. There's a mystique about North Korea here in the West, and because the author has actually been there, this book can be packaged as "authentic," "brave," and "controversial." I feel like the publishing industry has a history of rewarding people who are white who write about the edgy histories of people of color-- AMERICAN DIRT being one of those, but also THE HELP and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA-- and even though this comes across as slightly less appropriating, it still doesn't feel authentic, and it's someone trying to write the "story" of a specific group of people when that story isn't really theirs to tell.

As an author myself, I'm definitely not saying that people can't and shouldn't write about other cultures than their own (I am a white lady, after all, and it's not really my place to play the PC Police, nor would I want that role), but it's important to be mindful of how easy it is to get things wrong, and how the stories are often just better when they're being told by people who grow up there and have experienced these things firsthand. If you're really interested about getting to know the "real" North Korea from #ownvoices authors, I would urge you to read instead THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES, UNDER THE SAME SKY, and A RIVER IN DARKNESS, all written by actual defectors. As for fiction about North Korea, there's a delightful collection of short stories that were smuggled out of the country and published under a pseudonym, called THE ACCUSATION.

But hey, other people enjoyed this book and you might very well, too. YMMV.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Long Shot by Kennedy Ryan

DNF @ 27%

I downloaded this while it was a Kindle freebie because my friends were going nuts over it, and I figured anything with that many five star ratings across the board had to be good. In the book's defense, it isn't awful. It actually reminds me a lot of Colleen Hoover's TOO LATE. August and Iris meet at a bar and have an instant connection but Iris is already in a relationship with a guy named Caleb.

Like August, Caleb is a professional basketball player, but unlike August, he's controlling as all get-out and expects Iris to put all her dreams on hold for him. Which she pushes back against initially, even lining up her dream job: until she finds out *oh no* that despite using protection, she's pregnant.

Here's where things soured for me. The heroine doesn't, even for a moment, entertain "other options," even though she's not sure she wants to be a mother. #Sorrynotsorry to get political here, but that is exactly why pro-choice options should exist. It isn't fair to bring a child into this world that you're not sure you want to care for. That's selfish and cruel. What makes it worse is that Caleb is abusive and shows no more interest in the baby than as its potential to be an anchor to keep Iris trapped into a relationship with him that will eventually lead to marriage.

Now I 100% understand how hard it is to leave a controlling relationship, but that dynamic really wasn't present in Lily and Caleb's relationship. She had other options-- she had a job, she had another guy who was interested in her. It didn't make sense to keep her in the relationship with Caleb except to basically provide the plot for an angsty romance about cheating that was okay because the other man was a bad guy. And that's kind of what squicked me out about this book. It felt like it was taking two REALLY complicated, emotionally fraught issues and not really handling them all that well.

I got bored with this book and ended up leaving it to rot on my Kindle for a couple days. I've finally come to terms with the fact that I'm probably not going to finish it. Again, other people have enjoyed it and seemed to feel that it was handled with appropriate sensitivity. I just didn't really feel that keen on it (especially when the hero is like goggling creepily at the breastfeeding heroine).

Peace, I'm out.

2 out of 5 stars

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

I'm very picky about fantasy novels. All of my favorites have some unusual hook or quality that make them stand out from the rest. I knew as soon as I started THE GHOST BRIDE that it was going to be one of these stories. Set in late 19th century Malaysia, it is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl named Li Lian, who lives with her opium-addled father and her caring nurse. She's about the age to be married, but the man she should marry is now bound to someone else, and the rich Lim family wants to secure her as a "ghost bride" for their departed son.

Li Lian refuses, and that should be the end of it, but soon she starts seeing the dead son, Lim Tian Ching, in her dreams. As his presence becomes increasingly more menacing, Li Lian takes drastic action to escape him which ends up backfiring horribly. Suddenly, she's half here, half in the spirit world, and in her quest to get back to her body, she'll have to venture into the fringes of the Chinese Underworld, learning more than she ever wanted to know about the Lims' sordid history-- and her own.

I freaking loved this book. One of my favorite movies is Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, which I rewatched recently, and I loved it for how affirming it is about life, death, and spiritualism. THE GHOST BRIDE is like the Malaysian version of that, only with more depth: there is vengeance from beyond the grave, love and romance that transcends mortal lifetimes, and magic and wonder, as well as the menacing courts of hell in which the departed must pay their dues, Dante's Inferno style, before journeying towards their final stop. It was dark, wondrous, and fascinating.

It helps, of course, that Li Lian is a capable heroine with a lot of agency. She acts seventeen, making the foolish mistakes a seventeen-year-old would. We see her rush to meet her challenges head-on with the brashness of youth, and see her fall in and out of love with the whims of a young woman. It isn't until she ends up in the spiritual in-between that she realizes just how much she has taken her youth-- and her life-- for granted. Even though this isn't young adult, I think it would appeal to a young adult audience because so many of the themes are universal, in my opinion.

I was a bit hesitant to read this at first because I was not quite as fond of THE NIGHT TIGER, which was interesting and rich in history but hard to follow. But this is a very different book from THE NIGHT TIGER, and the narrative is much neater. So if you didn't care for her other work, I would strongly urge you to read this one anyway, as they are very different beasts. I would dearly love to see this as an animated story. I think it would make an amazing movie and I hope some enterprising film agent buys up the rights because this is such a great story, and it deserves to be on the big screen.

P.S. At least one of those stars is for Er Lang. I'd tell you more, but I don't want to drag on.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 22, 2020

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

I read BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS for the first time when I was a very young teenager. I applaud my mom for giving this to me because, like a fine wine, this book is easy to consume when young, but gets better for age. Under 200 pages, with spare prose and simple language, it's a short, easy read and goes by quickly, and it helps that the characters themselves are teenagers as well, even though this isn't a young adult book.

The (I believe unnamed) main character and his friend, Luo, are sent to the Chinese countryside during the "reeducation period" under the leadership of Chairman Mao. During the reeducation period, the children of the bourgeois were sent to the rural parts of China to toil alongside the working class and basically learn what it meant to be a real patriot: hard-working and free from finery.

Luo is the quick-thinker of the duo and is able to save the narrator's violin by convincing the inspector that it's an instrument, and that the Mozart song is actually an ode to Mao.

As the story continues, we see them try to adjust to the discomfort of living on a mountain, slogging around shit, working in the muddy fields, and braving the precarious twists and turns of the mountain paths. One day, they meet the daughter of the tailor-- the "Little Chinese Seamstress"-- and Luo falls in love with her. At the same time, they acquire a book through bribery (and then more through theft), and Luo is convinced that with these books, he can civilize LCS into a real bourgeois city girl.

Books at this time were banned, so the whole time you're reading this story, there's a very real sense of danger. At the same time, it's endearing to watch three young people fall in love with reading, drawn to the forbidden with the same reckless candor that attracts modern youth to alcohol or drugs. My parents had me watch the movie before I read the book and I remember saying, in my naivete, "They should just ban books because then kids would actually want to read them." Which is probably true, but banning books carries a whole host of problems that naive 13-year-old me didn't consider.

Whether it's the odd hypocrisies of the Communist era of China, the pleasure of learning to fall in love with reading, or the oddly satisfying ending of Pygmalion being thwarted by his Galatea, there's a lot to unpack in this book and I think I actually enjoyed it in a different way the second time around. I would definitely recommend this to young adults, though, and honestly, now is the PERFECT time to read it, because May is AAPI Heritage month, and this would make a great pick.

4 out of 5 stars

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

When I first started reading this book, I couldn't quite figure out why the ratings for CATHERINE HOUSE were so poor. Ines was a desperate, anxious, introverted girl filled with insecurities and a sense of fatalism that cause her to act out wildly within the confines (or prison?) of her new school, a university-like institution that doesn't call itself a university, where scholarship is given to all who are accepted but expulsion is as easy as the money, and wine flows freely like soma to opiate the masses.

And then I continued to read, and CATHERINE HOUSE became less like THE SECRET HISTORY's younger, butterfly clip-wearing little sister, and more like a 80s B-movie version of VITA NOSTRA. You see, there's a movie called The Langoliers by Stephen King that starts off really great and has all this amazing build-up, so that by the time you're about to reach the climax of the film, you're on the edge of your seat. And then you find out what's really going on and you go "whaaaat?" or you laugh. You laugh, and laugh, and then you cry, because those are your hopes being dashed on screen in dreadful CGI.

I made a shelf on Goodreads called "the langoliers effect" for books that start off good but are effectively ruined by the "payoff" (or lack thereof). More than the pretentious language of the book, and the syrupy-surreal flow of the plot (which I actually liked), I feel like a lot of readers were turned off by how ridiculous the "secret" of Catherine House is, and how it doesn't even end in a particularly satisfying way. There are books out there that make a point of confusing the reader as part of their premise, and many of those are cyberpunk novels, and many of those are Philip K. Dick novels, but I don't think this book was meant to be one of them. I can't help but feel like Elisabeth Thomas had several conflicting ideas for how this book was going to go and tried to combine all those threads to the best of her ability, maybe liking them all so much that she didn't want to scrap any of them.

I do like the 90s setting and the whole "Pleasure Island" by means of Pinocchio way that the students drowned in their excesses. Likewise, the intellectual snobbery and impossible-to-please professors made me wonder just how much of this book was informed by the author's own Yale education, especially when the main character, Ines, talks about how her school never leaves her. Yale is also a prestigious institution, and though I've never been, I imagine that because of the wealthy and privileged student body, they have access to a wide variety of excesses that probably result in wild parties that serve as a stark contrast to the draconian rigors of academia.

This was a debut novel and it definitely feels like one, and not in a good way. I would read more from this author because I do like her dreamy style but I can't say that I would recommend CATHERINE HOUSE now that I've finished it.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy

DNF @ p. 57

This one just isn't grabbing me and I think it's for a number of reasons. First, the writing seems really young-- and not in an authentic young adult way, but in an artificially breathless, iCarly sort of way. Second, the aggressive way that fandom is shoved down the throat of the reader. I am a fangirl and even I thought it was too much. I knew there was going to be trouble when she describes Oscar Isaac as a "literal cinnamon roll." Third, all of the side characters have ridiculous names and feel like two-dimensional characters. A good YA has you engaged and wanting to know more about everyone and I just didn't feel that way about the heroine, Faith, or her way-too-numerous sidekicks.

I'm shocked I didn't like this because an F/F romance with a plus-size superhero who volunteers at a dog shelter and likes Star Wars feels like it should be it for me, because it ticks all my boxes and many of those things describe me, as well. But I just couldn't get into this one at all, and that made me feel sad and angry.

I hope you enjoy this more than I did. Keep in mind, also, that the Goodreads shelves are wrong: this book is not a graphic novel, it is a novel based on a heroine from graphic novels. That does not factor in my rating, btw, but is just an FYI for people who might take a look at the cover art and be confused about what they're getting, since it is kind of stylized like a comic book. It isn't.

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

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Almond by Won-Pyung Sohn

The amygdalae are two almond-shaped nodes in the brain responsible for the processing of emotion, most notably fear. ALMOND is a book about a young Korean boy with underdeveloped amygdalae, leading to a condition called "alexithymia," which is a brain disorder in which a person can't really identify with or even experience emotions in a normal way (their own or others). As a psychology major, we talked briefly about alexithymia but never in any concrete detail. I was surprised by how similarly it was portrayed to someone who might have autism or a nonverbal learning disability, as Sohn's struggle with empathy is something that I have seen in people with the two aforementioned conditions, but the difference is that he doesn't really feel anything either-- at all. Which makes me wonder if maybe the reason I didn't learn more about alexithymia when I was in college 10+ years ago was because there simply wasn't that much literature about the disorder in the first place.

Obviously, as a psychology major, I was super-psyched (ha!) to receive a copy of this book from the publisher. It's also a translated work from Korea, which makes it an excellent choice for celebrating AAPI heritage month. Interestingly, I heard another reviewer saying that in Korea it's marketed to a young adult audience, but in the United States, it's been rebranded as an adult title. I can see why. This book is very dark. The teenage character sees his mother and grandmother bludgeoned and stabbed before him, killing his grandmother and putting his mother into the hospital. After their respective death and incapacitation, he is put into the care of a well-meaning neighbor, who lets him continue to live alone and run his mother's bookstore while he goes to school and tries to have some semblance of a normal life.

Given that the hero, Yunjae, has so much difficulty with empathy and relating to others, he often attracts negative attention. One day, this attention comes from a juvenile delinquent named Gon, who has a whole bunch of his own problems, one of which brings him into the sphere of Yunjae in the first place. As you learn more about them, their bond becomes one of contrasts: Yunjae is a "good boy" who feels nothing at all; Gon is a "bad boy" who feels far too much. Yunjae has no empathy and could do terrible things without remorse but doesn't. Gon, on the other hand, lashes out at everyone, even as it tears him up inside. It becomes a curious and fascinating study about societal norms and morality-- especially in the last act of the book, when Yunjae makes another friend named Dora.

ALMOND is such a stark and powerful book, written in spare prose and with surprising depth of emotion. I loved the neurodivergent hero and his quest to just try to live his life, despite his disability. I liked the subtleties of his development, and how the people around him helped him relate to himself and those around him in various ways (whether deliberately or inadvertently). I still feel like this could (and should) be read and enjoyed by a young adult audience, but again, it does have some dark content, like the aforementioned crime scene, and a scene involving graphic animal cruelty (a butterfly) that was quite hard to read and made me pretty sad.

I would say that this would appeal to people who liked WONDER and CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, as it has the same elements of a boy developing agency and independence on his journey to life despite being picked on for something he can't control.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Fairytales by Cynthia Freeman

DNF @ p.156

Two years ago, I got to meet my friend Heather in person and we spent the most amazing day in San Francisco, and she gave me this really cool vintage book (also set in San Francisco!). Shortly afterwards, she found a copy of her own and we decided we were going to buddy read this together-- for SCIENCE.

FAIRYTALES is the story of Catherine Antoinette Frances Posata Rossi, a rich, Southern Italian girl who gets married... and then makes it her business to control everyone around her with emotional manipulation, histrionics, and self-destructive behavior. The timeline is all over the place. In the beginning of the book, she's a very young woman meeting her husband-to-be, Dominic, for the first time. Then she's an old woman, residing in a day spa for obese people, lounging around naked in a dark room while slugging back cognac and wine. Then she's middle aged, with children, harping at her husband and plotting murder when he has an affair. It's EVERYWHERE.

(Are you a timelord, Catherine Antoinette Frances Posata Rossi?)

Another thing is that large swaths of this book are told in stream of conscious format. The heroine drops the 'g' from all words ending in -ing so you know she's "Southern," and you'll hear the phrase "cotton-picking" until you want to scream. There are paragraphs that last for multiple pages (one lasts longer than three), and the dialogue in here just goes full ham awful. This makes Jackie Collins look like a candidate for the Nobel prize. Where was the editor during all this? No doubt in a hotel room, slugging back cognac and wine.

The 1970s just oozes from the pages of this book. Everyone is tan and blonde and rich, but like, sleazy Donald Trump rich with everything slathered in Rococo and settlement money. The San Francisco scenes are especially funny to me because the heroine compares a five bedroom apartment in SF to "the ghetto" (which... um, no? DO YOU KNOW HOW EXPENSIVE THAT IS?) and I laughed outright when she mentions finding an abandoned pier in the Embarcadero because GOOD LUCK WITH THAT TODAY. (Actually, we're in quarantine, so you might actually have luck with that today-- but only in these very special circumstances.)

I ended up bailing on Heather (who has assured me she intends to keep reading for the greater good), and you can check out her review here when she posts it. The only two good things about this book are 1) it has that nice old book smell that is like being a child and rooting through your grandmother's purse (kind of thick and perfumey and a little too powdery-sweet), and 2) it was gifted to me by a dear friend and is a reminder of a pleasant day during better times. Apart from that, this book sucks.

1 out of 5 stars

11 AMAZING Books to Pick Up for Pacific Islander/Asian Heritage Month (or Whenever!)

May is Pacific Islander/Asian Heritage month, and I thought it would be fun to do a wrap-up posts with some of my (semi)-recent faves by Asian authors! I tried to mix it up a bit, so some are historical, some are nonfiction, some are romances, and some are literary.

I really hope you enjoy some of these! I can personally vouch for all of them (and some were ARCs, so I will be disclosing that in the description, so there is no conflict of interest).

⬇️ Tell me about some of your favorites in the comments ⬇️

11. SHIZUKO'S DAUGHTER by Kyoko Mori
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️

Genre: Young adult/Coming-of-age

This out of print gem from the 90s is a really sad story about a girl named Yuki, whose mother committed suicide. The story is about her growing up in the shadow of that grief, and her anger at her father and step-mother, whom she blames. Since her mother was fond of flowers, each chapter is named after a flower that is typical of a specific season. It's a beautiful, quiet, sad story that ends on a poignant note of hope as Yuki comes into her own and develops a sense of self and agency.


My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️


Genre: Memoir

This is a really great memoir that opens up with Chang's family escaping from North Korea and then segues into what it was like growing up in a small town as one of the few minorities in the 60s and 70s. Sophia Chang is considered the "first Asian woman in hip-hop" and managed Wu-Tang Clan, among other famous artists (including RZA, also known as "Bobby Digital"). Her life is so fascinating and I really enjoyed this memoir so much because of how deftly she deflects the stereotypes and labels people try to pin on women (especially Asian women). Love her!*

*I received a copy of this as an ARC


My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: New adult/Romance

Anyone who liked THE KISS QUOTIENT needs to read LOVE AND OTHER CHEMICAL REACTIONS, because LOVE came first and (in my opinion) did it better. Kaya Rubio is a neurodivergent woman in her mid-twenties who works in genetic research and decides that she's going to gamify her love life with cold, hard data. Of course, all of that ends up totally up in the air when she ends up falling for someone the numbers say she shouldn't. I love this book so much-- it's cute, sweet, and features a STEM heroine. Plus, it was my entre into the wonderful world of "romance class": a group of Filipinx authors writing charming romance stories.


8. JADE CITY by Fonda Lee
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Fantasy

The author describes this series as a "wuxia gangster saga." I would describe it as MISTBORN in an Asian setting with Game of Thronesque Machiavellian politics. Basically, a special few can get magic superpowers from jade, which has created entire hierarchies over the collection, utilization of, and trading of jade. Anyone who likes dark fantasy with complex themes will really enjoy this one. It takes a while to get rolling, but once it does, you won't be able to put it down. It's that good.


My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]


Genre: Chick-lit
This book is just pure, unadulterated fun. I love the movie, but the book is amazing. Picture a Jackie Collins-like portrayal of the Singaporean super-rich and the guileless Chinese-American professor who accidentally snaps up one of the richest heirs and finds herself like a fish out of water. The social commentary is scathing, and the characters are surprisingly layered. I ended up reading all three books in the trilogy and am eagerly anticipating the author's new book, SEX AND VANITY.


6. THE GHOST BRIDE by Yangsze Choo

OK, so I might be cheating with this one since I haven't actually finished it yet, but trust me... it's AMAZING. Set in 1890s Malaya (Malaysia), THE GHOST BRIDE is about a beautiful young woman whose father receives a proposal for her to become a ghost bride to a young man who has died untimely. Unfortunately, that young man is kind of a sadist and has no problem with haunting her and basically dragging her to the underworld in her dreams. The fantasy sequences are incredible and anyone who likes the surreality of Studio Ghibli films is going to LOVE this.

I'm not even finished and I can already tell it's about to become a new fave.


My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Romance

All my friends I've recommended this to have loved it! Picture enemies-to-lovers, with a dash of The Taming of the Shrew. The leads are an Indian couple whose families want them to get married. Liya, the heroine, is a biochemical engineer, and the hero, Jay, is a lawyer. Their first encounter goes badly and it gets even worse when they have to work together, too. Throw in a mix of lovable side characters, some serious topics like abuse and sexism, and a genuinely sweet and slow-burn romance, and you'll find yourself with a book that rivals THE HATING GAME for best enemies-to-lovers ever. I can't wait until the author writes more books. I hear Preeti's story is next...*

*I received a copy of this as an ARC


4. MEMBERS ONLY by Sameer Pandya
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Comedy

This is ELECTION for the 21st century audience. The hero, Raj, is a professor who attends an elite tennis club. One day, a racial gaffe results in the other (white) members wanting to kick him out of the club. Shortly after, some of his students start accusing him of teaching "reverse-racist," "anti-white" propaganda in the classroom. It's a darkly comedic look at the awkward interactions that happen in the racially diverse, class-conscious suburbs of Northern California. Honestly, this portrays everything I love and hate about my state with such blunt honesty, I can't help but laugh... or cringe. Probably one of my top-5 comedies that I've read in the last ten years. Someone needs to snap up the film rights to this and make it a movie and cast Hasan Minaj as the lead.*

*I received a copy of this as an ARC


My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Young adult contemporary

Jay is half-Filipino and half-white. When one of his cousins dies under mysterious circumstances, he goes back to the Philippines with the intent of finding out more for himself. It's a brilliant book about privilege, the dark side of Duterte's government that doesn't always make it to the U.S., colorism, identity, and sexism. The comparison to THE HATE U GIVE is apt because it's a young adult book that tackles serious issues without talking down to its audience at all.*

*I received a copy of this as an ARC


2. AMERICAN PANDA by Gloria Chao
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Young adult/New adult contemporary

This is a really sweet college-age YA about a freshman named Mei. Mei is Taiwanese and her parents want to be doctors but she has OCD and is highly germophobic, and the idea of blood makes her feel ill. I loved this book so much for the way that it puts a high premium on friends and family (but not at the cost of yourself), while tackling such issues as interracial dating and marriage and racism, including racism within Asian culture. I read this two years ago and I still think about how much I love it. Mei is so likable and so relatable, and the book had such a powerful message about finding your sense of self as a young woman. I think sooo many girls will relate to that message.*

*I received a copy of this as an ARC


My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Memoir

This is high key one of the best memoirs I've read in a while. In this book, Hyeonseo talks about surviving the 90s famine following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then her decision to escape to China before going to university. Once in China, she is nearly put into a brothel, and forced to do minimum jobs under the radar to escape being forcibly repatriated. As if her own escape weren't risky enough, she then decides to help free her mother and brother. The whole time I was reading this, my heart was in my mouth. Hyeonseo is such a street smart, fast-thinking woman and the way she takes control over her future (and develops all these new skills) was just awe-inspiring.

So those are my eleven picks for Pacific Islander/Asian Heritage month! There are SO many other amazing books out there written by Asian and Pacific Islander authors, but these were the eleven that just happened to stick out in my mind as the obvious choices to share with you.

What are some of your picks? And what's on your to-read list? Let me know. 🖤