Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage


The only thing better than getting an ARC of a highly anticipated read is finding out that it basically lived up to and/or exceeded all of your expectations. YES, DADDY is a wildly daring book that aspires to be so many things, and sometimes books that are that ambitious only partially succeed or fail at everything, but not this time. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this ends up becoming one of the most talked about books of the summer when it comes out in May.

While reading YES, DADDY, I kept thinking about another book I read, MY DARK VANESSA. Both books are written for the #MeToo age and feature victims of abuse as the leads who don't always behave in the ways that society expects of its "model victims." Reading through some of the criticisms for this book actually made me think about MDV a lot, because after experiencing something like these characters did, I imagine all you really want to do is survive and sometimes survival means putting distance between yourself and your drama by any means necessary, even if it means sacrificing others, pushing people away, or becoming an unreliable narrator in your own narration so you can make your own story more palatable to yourself.

The less you know about this book going in, the better, but the basic summary is this: Jonah is a young gay man with an evangelical background who has been estranged from his parents for years. He's a waiter, a struggling playwright, and, yes, a little shallow, but mostly because he has big dreams and he's young and he's operating by a playbook that's much bigger than anything he could possibly come up with. When he meets Richard, an older man and a successful playwright in his own right, sparks fly and Jonah finds all of his problems are neatly solved for the first time in his life.



Things aren't as neat as they seem. Which Jonah finds out firsthand as the book swan dives into a steeply neo-Gothic setting that is reminiscent of Daphne DuMaurier, only so much more messed up. In the reclusive Hamptons, strange things happen at night, and the waitstaff are oddly subdued and cagey. And suddenly, lines that once seemed starkly defined suddenly become horribly, incontrovertibly blurred-- until they're not even there at all anymore, because there's nothing left to cross. And maybe not even in the way you're thinking, either, as this is a book that explores ethics, morality, and cancel culture in a really bold and thorough way, picking apart how we dictate who gets to suffer and how, and what the consequences are for those who exploit their power to predate on the weak.

This was just... so good. I can't believe it's a debut (which, again, makes me think of MY DARK VANESSA, because that book was also a debut that just blew everything out of the water). I do agree with others in that the last act isn't quite as compelling as the first 2/3 of the book, but I get why the author made some of the narrative choices that he did. Anyone who likes dark beach reads, glitzy thrillers, thoughtful criticisms of society, or just a really good story will enjoy this book a lot.

I can't wait to see what this author writes next.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now by Dana L. Davis


DNF @ 15%

If I had realized this was written by the same author who wrote THE VOICE IN MY HEAD, I probably wouldn't have bought it because I don't generally re-buy books from authors when their narrative style doesn't really meld with what I want and TViMH had an age-inappropriate/immature and flippant voice than what I usually look for, especially given the gravitas of the subject matter. Which is my personal preference (and your mileage may vary). But this book was on sale and the blurb sounded a w e s o m e, and I bought it, so here we are.

I can't speak to the Black rep at all, so I won't be touching that. As I did with TViMH, I found the tone a little all over the place and once again, wasn't happy with the mental health rep. As someone who has both anxiety and OCD, I found the portrayal of Tiffany's disorder cartoonish, but she has a different subset of OCD than mine-- it seems like hers are more geared towards rigid order and invasive thoughts, and mine is obsessive thoughts and compulsive checking (yay), so if you find that this character speaks to you and represents you, that's great.

There were a couple things in the text that made me side-eye the character but I couldn't figure out if it was the author representing the character's own internalized biases that are a reflection of the ones that are mired in the infrastructure of society and a byproduct of being raised in that kind of environment (in otherwise, totes valid) or if it was an oversight. I figured it was the former, since I prefer to give the BOTD and also because of the MC's age and circumstances, but I noticed a couple #OwnVoices reviewers had some issues with the rep, so I guess read the TWs if that's an issue for you.

Sadly, I don't think I'll be reading any more of this author's books. Her style is inconsistent with mine but if you like one of her books, you'll probably like all of them because of that selfsame consistency!

1.5 out of 5 stars

His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie


My first book by Peace Adzo Medie but not the last. I bought this when it was on sale and am only just now getting around to reading it. Set in Ghana, this book is kind of a subtle take-down of patriarchal values through the medium of a domestic drama. Our heroine, Afi, is a poor girl with a widowed mother who relies on her selfish uncle for goodwill until she is married to a rich guy who doesn't even bother to show up to the wedding. As we see from the very first addictive sentence in the book, he marries her in absentia.

From there on, the story takes on a Rebecca like tone because her husband, Eli, is seeing another woman. A woman from Liberia that none of the family likes. Her husband's family hopes Afi will be enough to lure their son back to the path of filial obedience and righteousness, but this other woman's presence overshadows every aspect of the household and takes on a sort of "shadow self" presence as Afi hears about her from acquaintances, family members, and friends of her husband who have met this mysterious "Muna."

This was a really interesting portrait of African family life and values, and how a woman might realistically go about overturning societal expectations. In some ways, it reminded me of another work of feminist African literature, A GIRL IS A BODY OF WATER. Like this story, the ending was more bittersweet than fascinating, but both feature protagonists who are allowed to be flawed, complete women on their own terms, even when they are unlikable or difficult. I loved that.

I'm giving this a three because the middle section of the story was a bit of a slog. I loved the set-up and the many faux-pas Afi committed in her rags-to-riches journey (such as the uncertainty a buffet of unfamiliar foods might bring and throwing her weight around with the help to assert authority) and I thought the ending was an interesting twist and subversion of the usual OW plot, but the middle section definitely lost steam a bit along the way and I did find myself skimming a bit. It's still a really interesting story and I loved the Ghanaian setting and domestic drama elements of it.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson


Dark academia with shades of Ancient Greece? You know someone's out there ringing that "For those who liked THE SECRET HISTORY" cowbell. And I actually did love THE SECRET HISTORY, even if it is a pretentious paperweight of aspirational classism and intellectual snobbery, it was beautiful and dark and just a little bit smutty, and if there's something a dirty-minded pedant like me loves, it's literature with an actual bang. I actually loved THE MAGIC CIRCLE the first time I read it, too, as an ARC (almost ten years ago). Sometimes, when you read a book, you read it at just the right time and it ends up being a perfect fit-- and to me, fresh out of college and kind of broody and miserable, longing for the fiercely intelligent discourses and the safe-but-dangerous feeling of being ensconced with my peers, I found that it was basically everything I wanted. I loved this book.

I recently reread it and found to my regret that a lot of the sensationalism was lost on me this time. The way the characters talk is ridiculous. I don't think anyone actually talks like this outside of, say, fundraising parties being held at art museums or maybe college faculty meetings. It also seemed like it was trying a little too hard to be edgy, and since I prided myself on being ~edgy~ in my early twenties, maybe that was lost on me because, in my mind, this book was life! Now, reading it as an older adult, I was like, "Nobody is like this!"

I'm giving it two stars because for the right reader, this will be a five star read. It's wild and daring and interesting, and the writing is good (when not reflecting dialogue). I thought the bits about games and game theory were fascinating and it's clear the author did a lot of research with the setting and the subjects of the book. I'm also giving it two stars because now that I've actually read THE SECRET HISTORY, this kind of feels like a derivative variation on the same themes. I'm so sad that I didn't enjoy this book as much the second time around-- that always feels like a brutal kick from Nostalgiaville-- but if the themes speak to you, and you feel like getting lost, you might enjoy it as much as I did in the first go.

2 out of 5 stars

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell


I was inspired to read this book after picking up and enjoying A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway, which was a beautifully written memoir of living in Paris as a broke writer in the 1920s. I didn't even think I liked Hemingway as an author until I read that book and was totally blown away by the vivid descriptions of the "lost generation" working on many of their magna opera that would make them famous-- in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald, posthumously so. DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON is Orwell's memoir of being a broke writer in the 1930s and it is... well, vivid, yes, but not in the fun way. More like in the visceral doom-scrolling way that so many of us are accustomed to in Our Year 2021.

There are two parts to this book. It opens with Paris, which in some ways does glamorize poverty, I feel. Or maybe that's just because Paris is more livable to those in dire straits. He paints comical portraits of his landlords and fellow tenants, and of his co-workers at the hotel at which he worked as a dishwasher. This was my favorite portion of the book because it feels the most light-hearted-- he has some cunning observations on the poor versus the rich, on the hypocrisies of society, and a few cunning tips on how to even the odds as someone who has the odds stacked against them. Unfortunately, this is also the part of the book that is rife with antisemitism. Given the time at which this was published, it was not shocking to excuse it, but the zeitgeist does not excuse the fact that many of his comments would be wholly inappropriate today, even if it makes it easier to understand why he says and thinks the things he does. Apparently, Orwell came to question many of his harmful beliefs later in life in his journals (he was an ardent diarist) and if that is the case, it is glad news, because history is filled with creators who have messed up some way ethically and rather than introspect and seek to be better people, they have simply doubled-down and closed their ears.

The London portion, as others have pointed out, is much starker and far more grim. There is a description of a lodging house that is truly horrifying. The characters he meets in this portion are also interesting but I feel like they didn't have the verve of the people he met in the Paris portion, and Orwell himself seems so much more exhausted here. The work is harsher and less forgiving, people seem so much more jaded, the conditions are draconian, etc. I also found it to be more repetitive and skimmed some portions, although I did like his chapter where he lists out some of the "cant" he observed among people working the streets, and meditates on slang, appropriated words, and Cockney dialect.

Whether you like or hate Orwell (and there are reasons to feel either way), I think this is a fascinating insight into his life, and there were several events that seemed to inspire his two major works, 1984 and Animal Farm (particularly his observations on how the working class is exploited and basically worked to the bone while the rich pretend to care but don't). The first portion of the book is like hearing about that one "bro" friend of yours recount travel to a questionable location while staying in a dangerous hostel. The second portion of the book is like hearing about that same "bro" friend recounting a terrible ordeal. The tonal shift between the two portions is noticeable and even though it affected my reading, it really made the book feel raw and real in a way that some of these literary figures sometimes don't because so much time has passed that their personalities feel removed from their work.

Anyone who enjoys edgy memoirs or learning more about literary figures will enjoy this.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Guest List by Lucy Foley


My advice to you is to go into this book with absolutely zero expectations. I mean it. Don't look at the hyped-up reviews for it, or you're going to be disappointed. Because they're all saying THIS IS THE BEST MYSTERY EVER!!!! And... guys. Y'all. A lot of books have the prestigious and desirable acclaim of being "the best mystery ever" to someone, but this just wasn't it for me. Is it fun? Oh yes. Trash as all get out? Yes. Fascinatingly complex? In a way. It's a breezy beach read about a wedding gone terribly wrong, kind of like if CRAZY RICH ASIANS were about a bunch of horridly posh British people who decide to play the IRL version of Clue (replete with the "gotcha" ending of the movie).

It's difficult to sum up THE GUEST LIST because until the murder actually happens, it's largely character driven. Basically, you have Will, the husband-to-be, star of a hit reality TV show and a total heartthrob. There's Jules, the rich and posh wife-to-be, who used to be an ugly duckling and sees Will as affirmation that she has finally found her place in the universe. There's Olivia, Jules's incredibly damaged and beautiful half-sister, who seems like she might be a typical girl with undiagnosed mental health problems who's acting out in a desperate attempt to self-medicate, but she has secrets of her own... And then there's Hannah, the "plus-one" who's married to Jules's childhood friend and crush, Charlie. And Johnno, the best man, who went to the same prestigious school as Will and has seen him at his best-- and at his worst.

Because everyone on the guest list has secrets. And all of them have a motive.

But, as the synopsis of the book gleefully informed me from the book jacket, only one is a killer.

I was hoping to get an ARC of this back when ARCs were making rounds (but I'm not cool enough to get one, apparently, which is FINE), but I didn't swing a copy, so I put it on my "WANT" shelf and promptly forgot about it until my mother was like, "Oh, hey, didn't you want this book? I bought it after you talked about it and now here, you give it a read-- and then give it to your sister when you're done." So, I finally got around to reading it and I finished it in less than 24 hours because it was SO READABLE. I thought the author did a really good job at pacing, holding back just enough to keep me wanting more. Sometimes it felt a little cheap but did I care? NOOOOOOOO.

I don't want to say too much because part of the fun in this book is seeing the surprising way in which people are connected as the plot starts to stitch together like a quilt, and less is definitely more. I loved the Gothic island setting (set in a gorgeously remote manor off the coast of Ireland) and even though I don't normally like multi-POV narration styles (by which I mean, more than two), I thought each character was distinct enough that it wasn't hard to tell the characters apart. Is this the best mystery I've ever read? No. But it was SUPER fun and it's 100% the type of book your mom buys to read and then tells you to read and then give it to your sister after so you can all talk about it during quarantine.

By which I mean, it is f u n.

I will definitely be reading more from this author.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald


DNF @ 10%

Maybe reading this after GATSBY was a mistake. That was such a polished, beautifully written book, and this just makes me feel like I've spent the last hour banging my head against the wall.

1 out of 5 stars

Life by Lu Yao


I've been on a literary fiction kick and while looking through my Kindle and trying to decide my next read, I came across Lu Yao's LIFE. Set in China during the 1980s, an incredible period of flux in terms of cultural and industrial development, this book revolves around the life of Gao Jialin. Jialin has just been fired from his job because of nepotism-- one of the village bigwigs needed his cushy teaching position for his own son-- and has returned to his parents to the drudgery of being a peasant, filled with grudging resentment.

Opportunity presents itself, though, in mysterious ways, and soon Jialin finds himself on the path he dreamed for himself once more: working at a prestigious position in the county seat, rekindling his old relationship with a past flame. Torn between two women representing drastically different styles of life, Jialin is not really sure whether his heart lies with the hard-working and diligent peasant girl, Qiaozhen, or the spoiled city girl, Yaping.

Like Russian literature, a lot of the Chinese literature I've read has been both epic and depressing, so I spent the whole book waiting for the shoe to drop. Which it did, although not as viciously as I expected. 90% of this book is about the complex interactions and relationships between people, and the tension between the old ways and the new, which might not be your cup of tea, since it's almost entirely character-driven, but I found it fascinating. Maybe it's because, even though this book could be gloomy, it never felt like it was without hope. I did feel like maybe Jialin was being punished for his hubris... but not at the cost of potential redemption.

Anyone who enjoys learning about other cultures and big epics will enjoy this book, I think. Apparently the author only wrote two books before dying relatively young, and this was one of them. The translation is very good (in that it flows smoothly and doesn't even really feel like a translated book at all) and it's about such an interesting time period. I'm glad I picked this up for World Book Day!

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith


STRANGERS ON A TRAIN has been on my list forEVER so when I found out that I could get an ARC of a new edition, I was like, hmm, let me think, um yes please! Because I am one of those unbearable people who refuses to watch film adaptions of things until I have read the book thing, so now I can watch the movie version of the thing!

Rife with m/m subtext and dramatic tension, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is the tale of a Faustian bargain conducted between strangers with all the casualty of a handshake. Imagine you're on a train minding your own business, an individual struggling to obtain a divorce with your cheating pregnant spouse who's all like, "Okay, babe, we can get the divorce but only if you stay with me until I have the kid because I want the protection and I can ruin you, haw haw haw." You're not in a very good mood. You need this job. And then you meet this drunken but cold-eyed individual who gives off desperation and ruthlessness in equal vibes and you have one of those weirdo-sitting-next-to-you-on-public-transit conversations and he's just bought you dinner and suddenly he's like, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if someone murdered your spouse for you and oh, by the way, murder my father."

Originally, I was super into the beginning of the book. It's tautly written and suspensefully plotted, and even though literally everyone in this book is awful, the hero, Guy (the every-guy?), is relatable in his selfishness and his paranoia. Bruno, the stranger, is also compelling. At times, he is magnetic. At other times, he's about to fall apart. Neither of these guys is a mastermind, so you know there's no way their plan is going to work out-- if they even put it into action! Will they? Won't they? Dun, dun, dun. But the end of the book kind of fell flat for me. I actually had the same issue with THE PRICE OF SALT, which also took forever to get where it was going in a classic case of Last-Actitis and ended in a way that kind of felt haphazardly tacked on. The only book by this author that I have truly loved so far (and need desperately to reread) was THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. But this one is ok and I think it gives context for the movies, both of which took some pretty significant liberties with the plot, iirc.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald


It's a shame that Fitzgerald never lived to see his novel become one of the most successful literary works of all time. In fact, according to the afterword in this text, by the time of his death, his book had all but fallen out of circulation. I was inspired to reread THE GREAT GATSBY after reading Ernest Hemingway's A MOVEABLE FEAST, in which a detailed account of Fitzgerald talking to Hemingway about his "new" novel, The Great Gatsby, transpires. Hemingway is impressed by the quality of the book and declares it exceptionally good but also notes that Fitzgerald laments his bewilderingly tepid sales.

THE GREAT GATSBY is narrated in first person by a man named Nick Carraway, who seems to be a stand-in for Fitzgerald himself: educated, but not possessing much money, and hobnobbing it with those who are much more privileged than he is. His cousin is Daisy Buchanan, who is married to a bigoted narcissist named Tom, who is also having an affair with a married woman. Charming.

Nick's neighbor is a nouveau riche man named Gatsby who is well known in the area for throwing incredibly lavish parties that people attend with the same sort of wide-eyed wonder as one would a theme park. Unbeknownst to Nick, the overtures of friendship Gatsby extends his way aren't exactly guileless; Gatsby is utterly obsessed with Daisy and has been for years, and would like for Nick to arrange for the two of them to meet, as it turns out that they had a relationship when they were young and Gatsby was poor, and he's thought of her ever since. They meet and Daisy is as stunned by his lavish displays of wealth as everyone else, and also remembers all the good times she had with young Gatsby, and the two of them begin an affair of their own.

This is a tragedy that is also about classism, and how good breeding often excuses the rich. It's also a tale of love and obsession, and how passion can quite literally consume those who open themselves up to consumption. Gatsby's money attracts people to him, as does his charm, but he never really lets anyone know him except for Daisy, who is so selfish in her love that she isn't really ever quite willing to give of herself to anyone. Even her own child feels like an afterthought, mentioned only once. One really can't help but feel like Daisy is in it mostly for Daisy and doesn't give a fig for anyone else.

The most sympathetic person in the book is actually Nick, whose love and admiration for Gatsby is of a much purer form than that, ironically, which Daisy has for him. Nick is a stand-in for the reader, who discovers the story in pieces in real time, as we do, when disaster inevitably causes all of these fractures to cave in. Gatsby never really understands that what he is in love with is an illusion and a projection of his own wishes and desires. I felt kind of like Daisy is an extension of his desire to be one of the rich, and that his desire to marry her stems partially from his desire to be fully accepted into high society.

The writing in THE GREAT GATSBY is truly gorgeous and had me immediately buying up some of Fitzgerald's other works. I read this when I was a teen and much of the nuance was lost on me (and I also struggled with the vocabulary). I remember giving this a three-star rating originally, fixating mostly on the romance and missing basically everything else (as teens can sometimes do). THE GREAT GATSBY definitely gets better over time. I can see and understand the allegations of antisemitism within this work (there are other archaic references to people of other ethnicities that would be considered highly offensive now), and while the age of this book doesn't excuse those words and descriptions used, I do think that the context and the time in which this book was written makes it easier to understand why they are there. What a stunning portrait of doomed love. I am in awe.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Animal Farm by George Orwell


Like many teenagers, I was diametrically opposed to the literary fiction foisted upon me by teachers I hated. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of books I read in high school that I actually enjoyed: this is one of them. I read a lot of what people consider "junk" on this website but I spent two years reading most of the classics. My go-to stance on the subject is that reading some books over others doesn't make you a smarter human being, but even if you don't like the classics, you should probably at least give the Cliff Notes a look-over just so you understand the literary references when they're mentioned in other books. ANIMAL FARM in particular is mentioned a lot in other books and the rise and fall of the Russian Revolution is such an important moment in global history that it's important to understand why it happened, and reading this book makes it so much easier to understand the timeline.

I've seen some people saying that they chose to read this book without taking into account the historical context but since this is both an allegory and a roman à clef, this is one of the few novels where it really isn't possible to separate it from its broader context. As a "talking animal" book, I will admit it is not the best (if that's what you want, I'd recommend RATS OF NIMH or WATERSHIP DOWN instead), although I do think the animals have pretty strong characters. I will never not cry at the final scene with Boxer and Benjamin. It's like chopping onions.

ANIMAL FARM is about a farm called "Manor Farm" that is lorded over by Mr. Jones (an allegory for Czar Nicholas II). After Old Major (Karl Marx) gives his vision for a future in which animals are free and work together to achieve common goals together without the yoke of tyranny, the animals find and take an opportunity to rebel and claim the farm as their own, renaming it "Animal Farm." (Hence the title.) At first, everyone is happy. The gambol and skip around the fields, burn the bridles and the whips, and rejoice in their brotherhood, their comradeship. These are the glory days when all seems possible.

The animals possess various degrees of intelligence, with the pigs and the dogs being among the smartest and the geese and the sheep and the chickens being the stupidest. Two pigs take charge, Snowball and Napoleon, who represent Trotsky and Stalin, respectively. When Snowball runs off, this is meant to represent Trotsky fleeing from Russia, but he was later assassinated in Mexico (with an ice-axe-- yikes!), which is never mentioned in the book. Likewise, Czar Nicholas was assassinated with a gunshot to the head, but Jones, his allegory, is only run off. Perhaps because the alternative was deemed too brutal. I suppose there are only so many gory murders one can stomach in a 100-page short story.

Squealer goes around telling the other animals warped versions of reality to reflect the pigs' constant edits to the original Animal Farm tenets to benefit themselves. He represents the U.S.S.R. propaganda, Pravda, and all of the other organs that disseminated propaganda at this time. Ironically, pravda means "truth" in Russian when the things that it was reporting often reflected anything but.

The farm animals represent various strata within the construction of the new Soviet society. Boxer and Clover, the draft horses, represent the proletariat, or the working class. Boxer's ultimate demise at the hands of the pigs represents how the working class suffered under the Czar and continued to suffer under the Communists, some dying in poverty believing their conditions would better. Mollie represents the White Russians of the former noble class who fled with their jewels after the fall of the Czar (which is why she takes off so early in the book). Benjamin represents the intellectuals. The dogs represented the KGB, or the secret police. The pigs represent the Communist party, in general. At one point, when the chickens revolt, they represent the farmers in Ukraine (called "kulaks"), which resulted in the holodomor. Stalin starved peasant farmers into a widespread famine with executions and impossibly high grain quotas. It is now considered an act of genocide by many governments. The execution of the chickens by Napoleon is combined with the death of the four dissenting pigs, who represent Bolsheviks who were killed by Stalin in what is called the Great Purge.

The two neighboring farmers, Pilkington and Frederick, represent the United Kingdom and the allies and Germany, respectively. Since much of the events in the book take place during WWII, "Germany" as it is portrayed here is probably meant to be an allegory for Hitler and his interactions with the Soviet government during WWII.

At the end of the book, when the animals see the pigs with the humans and cannot tell them apart, it is meant to show that they did not cast of the yoke of oppression after all, but merely traded one oppressor for another. It's one of the most chilling endings in literary fiction that I remember reading because it's so powerful, and honestly, the fact that Orwell does all of this in less than one hundred pages is truly amazing. For some reason, I remembered this being a longer story than it was, but my edition clocked in at just shy of one hundred pages. Despite this, it reads as being a complete story, regardless, and I definitely recommend it.

4 out of 5 stars

A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition by Ernest Hemingway


I'd mentally filed Hemingway into the "Crusty Old Authors I Do Not Like" drawer after being bored to tears by THE SUN ALSO RISES and THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA in my youth, and did not touch the drawer again until my mom said, "Hey, you know what you should read? Hemingway's memoirs of 1920s Paris where he hangs out with F. Scott Fitzgerald and all these other famous people." And I thought, hmm, okay, might as well give it the old college try, if only for the inevitable poetic descriptions of the Seine and good wine.

A MOVEABLE FEAST honestly feels like it's been written by a totally different writer. There's a straightforward wistfulness to the writing that imbues the prose with a misty luminescence-- like a streetlamp in the fog. Hemingway writes about the literati hanging around Paris, turning it into their own snooty little writer's club. I had no idea that Gertrude Stein was such a snob, and the way he describes her describing her colleagues-- like a general recounting battles in which he has defeated other generals-- was just so colorful and striking. I found it fascinating how quickly he seemed to grasp the measure of people and cut right to the heart of who they are.

The food and wine descriptions are lovely, and I think people who have been to Paris and know firsthand how expensive it is now will be awed at how Hemingway and his wife were able to get by on so little. This is, first and foremost, a measure of an author struggling to balance his life of the fine arts with an ill-paying job that often leaves him hungry and poor. It's a bit romanticized, but there are unexpected brutal moments, too, such as him choosing to go for walks in the park during lunch hour in places that were far away from food so he wouldn't have to suffer.

The two high points of this book for me were the utter dysfunctionality of the relationship between Zelda and Scott F. Fitzgerald, and learning that apparently Hemingway saw nothing wrong with leaving his favorite cat to babysit his child in the cradle. But I honestly loved the way this was written and while there were some repetitive parts, most of it left me feeling nostalgic for a time I never even lived through because the emotions in his writing were just so strong. I'd never really considered Hemingway a likable guy before but this book really makes him a compelling figure on paper. Color me impressed.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon by Colin Bryar


So, I actually haven't read that many books about business management-- most "business" books I read are about the history of tech and how human psychology influences consumer behavior-- so I'm not sure if this is a shining beacon of knowledge in its genre. I do know that while reading WORKING BACKWARDS, I was smacked with an idea of something I can do to improve my own work ethic, so that was cool. That said, it does seem to be more of a guide for managers and directors (think high level) and less a guide for people who might be lower-level managers/leads who don't directly impact the decisions of their company on the every day.

My favorite portions were actually the promised "stories and secrets from inside Amazon" because it was interesting to get that inside look at the Big Scary Company from which I order all my books. I'm old enough that I actually remember when it JUST sold books (and CDs). I liked reading about the growing pains, the decisions behind some of the major decisions they made, what they learned from their failures (Unbox), and those brief snippets of Jeff Bezos doing his Important CEO Things by asking all of the tough questions.

Another favorite portion of mine was when the two executives break down the development of some of Amazon's key features. OBVIOUSLY my favorite was about the Kindle, which I think is great. When I was working a minimum wage job, I wanted to blog about books like all of the cool kids out there, but I couldn't afford to buy shiny paperbacks fresh off the shelves. Waiting for ebook sales of Kindle books made reading new(ish) books REALLY affordable. Their prescient observation that digital was the way of the future when physical media was still selling well and comfortable was quite lucrative for them (and also, I love my Kindle-- it really is just like a book iPod). I also liked the story about Prime and how they found away to get around people's biggest deterrent in ordering online in the first place: shipping $$$. Free shipping is great.

Vast swaths of this book really didn't apply to me, but I still found it really interesting and I just skimmed the parts that were of less interest. I do want to again issue the caveat that this is first and foremost a book for people working in business (specifically tech business), and if you're not in management or you don't know much about tech, you're going to be sad because there really aren't enough "secrets" in here to tide over a dilettante. I also-- and the authors agree, based on their afternote-- want to issue another caveat that not all of the approaches in here are going to work for every company. Case in point: I love my PowerPoint slides and no big shot is going to convince me otherwise. *snarl*

That said, this book was way more fun than I thought it would be and is very accessible and down-to-earth for what it is!

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

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The AOC Generation: How Millennials Are Seizing Power and Rewriting the Rules of American Politics by David Freedlander


I saw a Tweet where someone said they agreed with 50% of what AOC says and disagreed with about 50% of what AOC says, which basically averages out to neutral. I thought that was a pretty brilliant Tweet because that sums up how I feel about her, too. I respect her for so much of what she's done and I think she has some great ideas-- but sometimes it feels like she's only really appealing to the most left of the left. And while that's fine-- that's her base-- I think it stymies a lot of the potential she has to further herself in the government ladder because getting elected means being able to play to all your constituents.

(I'm a Democrat, by the way. I'm probably more conservative than some of my peers, but socially, I'm very liberal.)

That said, I spite requested this book because I saw some people giving it one star reviews just because it was about AOC and she deserves better. I'm actually pretty disappointed that this isn't really about her on a personal level-- the author only interviewed her once, and not for this book, so it was lacking the personal touch I was hoping for. He also doesn't interview people on the streets about her. It feels weird to have a book about "The AOC Generation" and then not interview random millennials about her? Most of the people he talks to seem to be other politicians and a lot of them are/were her friends. So... 

Well, it's about what you expect.

The parts that were about AOC's history were actually my favorite. That one snapshot where it talks about her father and the impact his feminist outlook had on her upbringing was so poignant. Unlike some people, who present one face to the world and act differently in private, it seems like AOC behaves exactly the same no matter who she's with-- outspoken, engaged, passionate, and driven. She is excellent at connecting with people and expressing herself in a way that seems to come from the heart. When she came forward about her #MeToo experience and then about her thoughts on the Capitol insurrection, I got tears. I think it's that element of genuine heart in a field that seems ridden with double-talk and double-standards that makes her such a draw, as well as a desire for a more European style of socialized medicine and infrastructure that lifts up the people who need it most.

THE AOC GENERATION is a very dry book and I think it works as a good overview that introduces AOC and her platform, as well as her rise to fame and the context in which she made her political debut, but as a biography, a song to a generation, and a specific treatise, it fails. I'm not really sure who this book is really targeted at, because all it really did was leave me wanting more.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Stress Relief Coloring Book for Adults by Jenny Palmer


 I got this coloring book because I've definitely been stressed and the idea of relaxing and coloring sounded like pure bliss. There are a number of pretty scenes, all illustrated by artist Jenny Palmer, that feature pastoral tomato fields, secret garden enclaves, and cozy nooks and crannies. I took a picture of a few uncolored ones, plus a gorgeous terrarium that I finished coloring after a few hours.

The scenes range in difficulty. Some are much more complicated and would be more of a time commitment. My terrarium was one of the simpler drawings. Paper quality is excellent. I used gel pens and the color didn't bleed through at all. Also, I love that the drawings are staggered so you can use the back of the previous illustration to blot if need be.

This coloring book is highly giftable but it's honestly worth keeping for yourself as a way to wind down. Definitely recommend pairing with a mug of your favorite tea or a glass of good wine. Cheers! 🍵 

P.S.  Here's a photo of my completed terrarium! I posted a marquee of it on my Instagram. I'm so happy with the way it came out that I might post more of the finished pages as I go.

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

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Lurkers by Sandi Tan


I'm honestly shocked this has such low ratings from advanced reviews because I couldn't put it down-- I read it in a single sitting. LURKERS made me realize that one of my all-time favorite tropes in literary fiction is when an author writes an intimate portrait about a dysfunctional bedroom community, where you, the reader, get to vicariously enjoy the dark secrets and troubled histories of the inhabitants of an isolated microcosm and how their interactions are shaped by one another and overlap in mysterious ways. It's honestly so fascinating to me, kind of like watching a human ant farm. Maybe "enjoy" is the wrong word, though. Maybe engrossed might be better. Emphasis on the gross.

LURKERS is dark. It's apparent from the first chapter that these characters are not happy people. There's a pretty big cast but the main characters are the Park family, a family of Korean immigrants consisting of husband, wife, and two teen daughters, Rosemary and Mira; the Ireland family, Mary-Sue, an ex-San Franciscan, and the Vietnamese daughter she adopted during the war; and Raymond, an author of pretentious horror fiction, and delightfully affected. All of them are looking for something, and in their idealistic little town of Alta Vista, filled with Craftsman cottages and the comfortably and not so comfortably middle class, none of them are finding it. I think that's why this book is called LURKERS. The characters drift and sneak around, presenting one face to the world, while stealthily leaving small breadcrumbs of their personalities behind.

There isn't really a plot for this book; it's almost entirely character-driven. Some of the major triggers are for death, depression, and grief; grooming behavior; underage sex; violence; and portrayals of racism. I don't think any of the bad stuff was romanticized and to me, it felt like the content was included to give nuance to situations or characters, rather than to excuse or exculpate. That said, this isn't a book for the pearl-clutchers. This isn't a feel-good domestic drama where even the bad things that happen are very cut and dry and result in satisfying consequences, such as BIG LITTLE LIES. I think some people only feel comfortable with reading about bad things in fiction if it ends up being a kind of morality play, with clear-cut consequences. This is not that. This is a literary work that seems to be a largely experimental character study that does a deep-dive into what motivates people to do what they do, and how their actions change them for better or worse, and while I found it compelling, looking at some of the other reviews, it seems like that gray area lost a lot of readers who maybe didn't get it or felt uncomfortable with the content that such nuance was either unappreciated or lost. Which is totally fair, but I think that explains why this book has such mixed reception: it appeals to a niche audience.

I.e. pretentious people, like me.

I would say if you enjoyed books like Rick Moody's THE ICE STORM and Tom Perrotta's ELECTION, you will enjoy LURKERS, as it seems to have been written in that same vein. I could see this becoming a popular indie movie with good actors-- you know, the kind that people cringe-watch and attracts A-listers who want to break out of type-casting with a "serious" and edgy first role.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Narcissus Nobody by Gina Yates


NARCISSUS NOBODY is like the book equivalent of an art film. It is not entirely clear who the audience should be, but you know that whoever enjoys it is going to be thoughtful and educated. It does not feature the traditional sorts of characters, who are likable, conventionally attractive, and successful. It is not particularly happy or linear in its mode of story-telling, and it's weird.

That said, I liked it... sort of.

This book follows its main character, Hope, over a period of 20 years, beginning in the early 90s when she is in her early twenties all the way to the 2010s when she is in her 40s. The 90s portion was my favorite job when she's working at a home-care job with the elderly, dating a guy who's obviously using her, and living her best Goth life replete with new wave music and essential oil hippie juice. She's also a painfully awkward and introverted vegan who prefers the company of animals to people.

As the years go by, her relationships shift and she starts to develop more agency in what she's willing to take from partners. Her job also changes: she starts working for a psychic call center, which I found hilarious and unconventional (I love heroines who have weird or unusual jobs). Throughout all of her incarnations, a disgraced "love guru" pops in and out, and we see his evolutionary journey from popular relationship self-help author to disgraced hypocrite to "some men want to watch the world" complete trash fire 180 as he decides to cash in his chips and tell everyone that, guess what, monogamy is for squares-- if you try hard enough, anyone will leave their spouse, so why not try? Um, yike on a bike.

As I said, the beginning was really strong and sucked me in. The later portions were a lot slower and less engaging. I felt like this took me forever to read-- not because it was bad, but because the pacing was off and Hope's older selves just didn't feel as developed and realized as her younger self. I'm not sure if that was intentional or not. Maybe this is intended to show how we're "dulled" as we get older and become more complacent? How miserable. And this book was kind of a downer, tbh. It's not a sad book, but it definitely left behind a sort of residual gloom because the heroine is such a brooder.

I'm also not really sure what the point was. And I know that not all books have points but I like it when a book comes full circle and leaves me with something of value that makes me feel as if the journey was fully worth it. I didn't really get that with this book.

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

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Smartphone Society: Technology, Power, and Resistance in the New Gilded Age by Nicole Aschoff


I'm a huge fan of Adam Conover's Adam Ruins Everything, and while reading this book, I kept thinking about his episode, "The Terrifying Cost of 'Free' Websites." The closing argument being that, since the cost of use is our data, we are essentially the products being sold when we sign up for these free social media platforms. Something that seems like maybe it's no big deal at first but ends up being a far more Mephistophelean bargain that it appears when looked at more closely. I mention this because I don't feel like the title of this book is a very accurate reflection of what the book itself is about. I thought it was going to be an apologist take on the saving grace of social media and smartphones, but instead it's a rather nuanced and holistic view taken from both sides. On the one hand, there are ads that can be used to jump over the Fair Housing Act by essentially allowing companies to target housing ads based on age and ethnicity and facial-recognition software being developed by Fortune 500 tech companies might be being used to monitor immigrants and other nefarious purposes. But on the other hand, Facebook Live has enabled people of color to take a hard stance on holding police accountable for racially targeted violence and people in war-torn nations and/or with oppressive governments are taking to social media as a way to protest when doing so in the streets might mean death.

Each chapter opens with a more personal anecdote that then kickstarts a deep dive into various meandering topics that seem only peripherally related at best, at times. Actually, if I have a criticism of this book, it is that it isn't really organized all that well. The chapters are very long and jump from subject to subject. I wish the chapters were more clearly divided by topic. The essays themselves are fascinating, although the book didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know. If I walked away with any takeaway messages, it's that social media has brought us closer to the democratization of resources and information, although algorithms and people being what they are, much of the information that surrounds us is cherry-picked to suit our personal tastes. There is also a disparity of what the internet offers to the poor versus the rich, which shouldn't surprise anyone, and a rather terrifying number of Americans don't seem to understand what a First Amendment violation is. Being "deplatformed" by a commercial website for repeated ToS violations is not a First Amendment vio. The government building a search engine that blocks out certain searches would be a First Amendment vio. Also, if you're a politician using social media within your capacity as a public servant and you decide to block your naysayers from viewing or commenting on your post, that is also considered a form of government censorship and therefore a First Amendment vio, as ruled upon by the courts.

If you work in tech or are interested in social justice and how they intersect with social media and the future of technology. This book is written like a textbook and even though it's interesting, it's very dry and I'm not sure it will find its audience with everyone. I found it fascinating, though, and I think it provides a balanced look at the risks and the rewards of using social media websites.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 12, 2021

Girl, Interrupted by Susannna Kaysen


GIRL, INTERRUPTED is basically required reading for psychology majors. I've read this book about five or six times and I've seen the movie a handful of times. I actually don't like the movie-- it's a good drama, but from a clinical perspective (that's clinical in the pedantic sense and not the medical sense, BTW), I feel like the movie is mental illness tourism that sensationalizes psychiatric disorders for fun and profit.

The book, while hard to read, is very good. Susanna Kaysen is brutally honest about her stint spent in a psychiatric clinic. I think she also does a pretty good job trying to balance writing about what it was like being there, in the moment, and her attempt at an objective postmortem where she attempts to analyze her diagnoses at a distance. Mental health exists on a continuum and part of what turns a habit or behavior into a symptom is pervasiveness and distress. It's a large part of the reason for the stigma, I think: the line feels uncomfortably thin. One day, you're compulsively scratching at an itch on your skull. The next, you're on anxiety medication for trichotillomania.

Kaysen at one point describes mental illness as a kind of schism between reality and one's own perceived mental states. There's an incredible metaphor in here where she gives the example of the senses looking at a bureau but the brain perceiving and responding to a tiger. Her own diagnosis was for Borderline Personality Disorder, and I always found it interesting how different it feels to read about a real human with the disorder on paper than a bunch of cold, impersonal symptoms that you're supposed to memorize when cramming for a final. I honestly think that's part of the reason why so many of my professors forced us to read so many of these memoirs: it's important to remember that mental health disorders have a human face, and that to validate those who suffer from these conditions as individuals who are worth more than the sum of their neuroses and deserve to be treated with dignity.

The movie kind of failed with that, IMO. It feels kind of like a Lifetime movie with a bigger budget. I'll admit that I used to really like the movie but it always made me feel vaguely uncomfortable and when I read the book and met the real characters who were the inspo for the film adaptation, it made me realize that the movie itself was kind of a schism from reality. Like someone read the book and played a game of telephone and ended up with something surreally similar, but holistically different. I enjoyed reading about the other inpatients through Kaysen's eyes. She's surprisingly non-judgemental in her assessments of their personalities and actions. Lisa fascinated me as a young reader; as an adult one she scares me. Polly and Georgina were the most interesting and sympathetic, although I felt sorry for Daisy.

If you like reading memoirs about mental health, or gloomy literary fiction aimed at subdued young women, you will enjoy this book.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Don't Hate the Player by Alexis Nedd


It's been ages since I was this excited about a book and all I want to do is scream my life for it from the rooftops in all caps. This was everything I love in YA, condensed into a beautiful book that, despite being just shy of 400 pages, somehow didn't feel long enough. Emilia, the heroine, is strong, smart, and geeky; she makes mistakes, but is exactly the kind of girl you could see yourself wanting to be friends with, which is why it's absolutely no surprise when she gets the boy. And Jake is SUCH a sweetie. When people try to write beta heroes, it doesn't always work out. They either end up with flat personalities or with a severe case of Nice Guy Syndrome. But Jake-- Jake is the guy.

And bless my heart, this is the geeky romance I have been waiting for that hits the pitch-perfect references OUT OF THE PARK. It never felt forced, the jokes sounded like things I might say to my own friends, and I just. I JUST. You know how sometimes you read a book and like it but you know you're probably never going to pick it up again? I am keeping this book forEVER to reread because it was so good, I know I'll definitely want to revisit those warm fuzzy feelings.

The plot is beautifully simple in its complexity. Emilia and Jake played arcade games when they were young together. Now they're both in high school and in addition to being an athlete and an all-around overachiever, Emilia moonlights as a semi-professional gamer. When she and her team are tapped to play in a MAJOR competition that might have some serious rewards, she's shocked to see Jake and even more shocked to find out that he's playing on one of the competing teams. The game they play is like a cross between League of Legends and WoW, and it portrays the gaming community at its best-- and at its worst. On the one hand, it is a thriving community of diverse individuals who can be so compassionate, kind, and funny, with the sort of camaraderie and witty repartee you would find in a swashbuckling romance. On the other hand, it's a boys' club with a "no girls allowed" sign taped to the fort and when people violate the rules, they get mean. This book gets that. Both sides.

I really can't say more because you NEED to read it to see for yourself why it's so great, but I loved the banter between Jake and his team, the kick-butt Latinx heroine who was an athlete, a gamer, and all-around champion of nice (not that it kept her from sticking up for herself if need be). Oh, and an utterly swoon-worthy hero and an ending that had me flipping pages five minutes to midnight. If this doesn't become a movie, I am going to lodge a Formal Complaint because it was truly epic.

Please, please, please, please tell me this author has like twenty more books in the making.

I want to read them all.

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

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 8, 2021

Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter by Shani King


From a purely aesthetic standpoint, this book is a five. The minimalism/pop-art illustrations done by Bobby C. Martin are exceptionally gorgeous and would make great posters (I would be surprised if posters of his work aren't available already). I would gladly purchase a coffee table book of his art at some point (and maybe even a print or two). From a readability standpoint, however, this book is more of a 3 or a 4, for several reasons.

While the message of the book is important and the way it is presented is lovely-- inspirational quotes in color block font, gorgeous illustrations-- it felt too short. I wish this was more of an art book, with even more quotes and illustrations. It doesn't help that the book feels very back-heavy because it has a bunch of micro-biographies of famous Black scientists, artists, politicians, etc. of note just crammed in very plain, very small text in the back half, which are fascinating to read but presented in such a plain, unadorned way in comparison to the vibrant presentation of the first half. It feels a bit anticlimactic!

I'm also not really 100% sure what the age range for this book is. The first half feels like a children's book but the language in the mini-biographies combined with the small font size feel like they're being targeted towards a much older audience, maybe middle grade as opposed to elementary. I think this would be a beautiful book to display in the home or have as a resource in a classroom, but as something to read over and over and use as a reference, it isn't all that accessible.

I'll definitely keep an eye out for more work by Bobby C. Martin, though!

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron


Gorgeous cover aside, I'm going to need everyone who enjoyed Tracy Deonn's LEGENDBORN to add this to their TBRs a.s.a.p., because this book does with Greek mythology what that book did with Arthurian legends: strong Black heroine, magical heritage, Gothic elements, and family secrets. Can you say "YES"? Because I can.

THIS POISON HEART is about a girl named Briseis. She works in a flower shop with her two moms and she has a natural affinity for plants. An affinity that makes them approach her like friends and grow at super-speed. Also, she's immune to poison. I was thinking to myself, "Oh my God, she is literally like Poison Ivy" and was delighted when one of the characters in the book comes to a similar conclusion. Apparently this is also a Secret Garden retelling, but I'm just going to run with the Poison Ivy comparison. She even sort of meets her own Harley Quinn to be her BFF/love interest.

Anyway, Briseis finds out that her birth mother left her a house that comes with its own apothecary and garden and that's where things get weird. Because other people are interested in the garden and some of them are benign but some of them not so. And the deeper Briseis delves into the history of her family and her garden, the more she learns what's really at stake.

I obviously really enjoyed this book. It's the sort of light and breezy YA novel that I crave, and it didn't pull any punches. The last quarter was brutal and I can't wait to see where the author goes from here in telling Briseis's story. There's a lot to love in this book: beautiful descriptions of plants and nature, elemental magic (a weakness of mine), fairytales and mythology, LGBT+ rep, a main character who loves and will do anything for her family, and a really driving sense of pacing that kept me turning the pages even as part of me wanted to make this last so I could hold onto the story longer.

My only complaint is that it suffers from a problem a lot of YA books have: insta-love. I wish the relationship between Briseis and her love interest had been developed just a little more gradually and that there was more will they/won't they? before they finally got together (call me an evergreen, because I'm a sucker for a good pine).

That said, I seriously can't wait to read the sequel.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Dig Your Grave by Avril Ashton


This was my first buddy read with the amazing Julia, so make sure you check out her review! I was super psyched to read DIG YOUR GRAVE because the first book in the series, CALL THE CORONER, ended up being an unexpected fave despite the violence and dysfunctional romance. Sequels that follow a couple actually getting together are always hard, and I was interested to see how Ashton kept things fresh between Daniel and Stavros in this new book.

But... I actually wasn't that into it.

First, the violence in this book seems to have been upped by a lot. It pushed the limits of what I'm comfortable with personally, and I think anyone who doesn't enjoy reading about gore and torture should avoid this book. It doesn't shy away from graphic detail. I said in my review of CTC that the first half of the book was torture porn and the second half was an enemies to lovers romance. This was... mostly violence. And there wasn't much of a plot except for the torture stuff and Daniel and Stavros each taking a turn rescuing the other from... torture stuff.

Second, I'm not really sure how the romance between these characters has progressed or that they've really developed as people. The attraction between them still seems to largely hinge on physical elements and a mutual love of fucking people up. And watching two guys just lusting after each other and getting off on watching their partner cut guys up with saws just... doesn't do it for me. On multiple levels. I guess it's realistic that these guys (who are older-- in their 40s and 50s, I believe) are largely set in their ways, so their romance might be less fluid than a couple that was younger and still developing emotionally, but it wasn't all that enjoyable for me to read against that tapestry of violence.

If you like really dark books-- I know some people enjoy being shocked, which is why splatterpunk is a thing-- this will be a great fit for you. Sometimes books sugarcoat the lives of the people they're about; I totally believe that these two dudes are awful cartel goons who revel in their violent lifestyle. And I've found out that this really isn't for me, but maybe it will be for you.

Side note: the author seems to have changed her writing style a bit. It flowed much more in here, I noticed: there wasn't as much of that telegraphic writing style I noticed from the first book and she didn't have as much word repetition. So even though the story wasn't as interesting to me, it does seem like her writing style is becoming more polished with subsequent books. I'll probably check out more from her soon-- but I think I'm done with this particular series.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Mazel Tov: The Story of My Extraordinary Friendship with an Orthodox Jewish Family by Margot Vanderstraeten


DNF @ p.207

This is a tough book to rate because-- like all memoirs-- it can feel like you're reviewing the person and not the book. In memoir reviews, I do strive to be as objective as possible for this very reason, focusing on what happens in the book itself. There are some things about MAZEL TOV that are very interesting: beautiful descriptions of Belgium, an intimate study of a closed community (people who practice orthodox Judaism) within the microcosm of the family the author au pair'd for. The problem is that some of the questions she asked-- admittedly in her early 20s-- feel very rude and invasive, such as question about what it was like for their family during WWII and whether one of the daughters is "bothered" by her upcoming arranged marriage. Maybe some people will appreciate this author's frankness because of her honesty and the dialogues about culture that arose from it, but it made me uncomfortable.

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 5, 2021

Satan's Mistress by Rachel Cosgrove Payes


This took me over a month to read. By contrast, if I really like a book that's under 300 pages, I can finish it in just a few hours, and I managed to finish my friends' much-anticipated 450-page tome in under a day. Normally, if a book takes me this long to finish, I call it quits, but with SATAN'S MISTRESS, I felt compelled to finish because I had already clocked in so much time and the beginning is so crazy that I needed to find out how the book would end.


SATAN'S MISTRESS is a bodice-ripper and features a medley of triggers. The ones that come immediately to mind are: gang-rape, rape, orgies, substance abuse, black masses, gaslighting, and child sexual abuse. I may be forgetting some more but those are the ones I distinctly recall. The heroine, Fiona, works as a milliner and suffers from a common historical problem: Being Hot While Poor. Since she has basically no rights, she's foisted like chattel from family to abuser to family to abuser like vicious cycle clockwork. She thinks life is pretty sweet when a duchess takes her on as a maid, only to have her husband attempt to rape her and then be drugged and recruited for a gang rape for a black mass at the Hellfire Club (which was a real thing, by the way). It's implied that this happened because the duchess was jealous that Viscount Huxley, #1 babe, had an eye for Fiona.

After that, she gets taken on as the mistress of this total asshole named Werington, who, I KID YOU NOT, gets his hands on some erotic literature with pictures and is like "here's what you're going to do to with me" which results in (what is implied to be) anal rape. And then lots more forced sex in exchange for being his kept mistress. Fiona develops a taste for the good life and a hatred and disdain for all men, especially those in the Hellfire Club. Even though she's abused throughout the novel, she gets some good licks in. Two of my favorite "GO FIONA" moments were when she sends the same erotic book Werington gave her as a wedding gift to his new bride with her compliments via courier and then when she saves Huxley from raping his own sister when she is drugged (without his knowledge) and trussed up as the Hellfire Club's new ceremonial gang rape victim.

Despite all this craziness, the book was incredibly boring. There were some dude, WTF moments and then there were just long endless passages of waiting for more WTF things to happen. The book is heavy on the purple prose but not badly written and it seemed relatively well-researched. This is one of those romance novels that doesn't feel like a romance novel, though, because there is just so little connection between Fiona and Huxley (or any of the men), and she just reads as kind of emotionally disconnected and damaged (which makes sense). I just didn't see things working out between Fiona and Huxley because he treats her like a total whore after her rape, assuming she must have wanted it, and when he finds out she was drugged (after she saves his sister-- and first, she has to convince him that she isn't lying because he assumes she's made the whole thing up to fuck with him) he's just like "oh whoops, I thought you were just some greedy slut" almost in those exact terms (except, you know, more Georgian-y in tone). Meanwhile, I'm just sitting here, like, ARE YOU KIDDING ME, MY DUDE.

If ever there were a man who should have, could have groveled, this is him.

I'm giving this 2.5 stars because it was balls-deep in bat-shit insanity but I would not reread or recommend.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Dark Waters by Meredith Hart


DNF @ 45%

Buddy-read this with my friend, Karen! Make sure you check out her review because she wrote a really good one! After struggling with this book for several days, I'm jumping ship. I'm not even entirely sure if it was the book's fault or mine... because I was so excited for DARK WATERS after loving book one and liking book two. It just felt to me like the characters were pale shadows of who they were in the first book. Lyria was such a kick-butt character who was gritty and moody and basically all the things that women aren't allowed to be in fantasy and now she just feels super toned-down and only moons over Vethe. I love Vethe because he gave me Jaskier vibes in the first one-- you know, brash and flirty and charismatic-- but he also feels toned-down. Gaul is fun (that's him on the cover, I think-- isn't he a babe?) and I liked him, but his POV was pretty interchangeable with Vethe's, and Annette didn't really have much personality at all. This book just felt like filler to me.

I'll definitely be checking out this author's other books (I'm told that she also writes under the name Samantha MacLeod, and I took a peek and saw some villainous-looking romances on there) and I think if you like light-hearted fantasy romance, you'll enjoy this series. It just doesn't seem to be going in a direction I'm interested in. Maybe I'll return back to it someday.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Love Is For Losers by Wibke Brueggemann


Because the title is LOVE IS FOR LOSERS, I originally thought that this was going to be a story about an aro/ace girl. Instead, this is a young adult story, told epistolary style, about a depressed misanthrope who hasn't quite figured out that she's a girl who likes girls.

There is so much to appreciate about this book but I think it's probably going to put a lot of people off because the heroine, Phoebe, is so angry. Ironically, that's what made me relate to her so strongly as a character. When I was fifteen, I was very unhappy, very miserable, and very jaded. My thoughts weren't always nice, colored by a bitterness that stemmed from my own sense of inadequacy. And Phoebe is working through a lot of issues: she's conflicted about what she wants out of life, her best friend has just dumped her for a boy, and her mother is often absent because she works for a program that's like Doctors Without Borders that often puts her in war zones or developing nations.

Lest you think that LOVE IS FOR LOSERS is a sad sort of book, though, it isn't. Even though abandonment, depression, and grief are explored, there's also all sorts of delightful things in this book. Things like thrift stores, cats and kittens, first love, positive female role models, female friendships, personal growth, and a pretty accurate look at the world from a teen's eyes. I'll understand why some people might be put off by Phoebe as a character, and if she had been handled less competently I might have ended up putting the book down, but I like she grew as a person over the novel and began to develop a sense of empathy from the coaching of her friends and family. She even begins to adjust her behavior and slowly learns to be more forgiving and accepting of others.

This book has been compared to Louise Rennison's Georgia Nicholson series and I could sort of see that, but it's less breezy and Phoebe is much more sarcastic and introverted than Georgia. That said, if you're into books set in the UK and like that sort of diary format of storytelling, I think you'll really enjoy this book! It's been a while since I read a contemporary YA that I enjoyed as much as this one.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

You and Me at the End of the World by Brianna Bourne


This is a tough book to rate because I liked YOU AND ME AT THE END OF THE WORLD but I wasn't keen on the ending and I can't really say why without delving into some pretty major spoilers, and since the book doesn't come out until July, I don't want to spoil it. The short of it is, Hannah is a young ballerina who wakes up to a silent world that no longer has any people in it. She thinks she's completely alone until, inexplicably, she hears the sound of music and finds school heartthrob, Leo, testing out a guitar in a music store.

The silent city of Houston is ominous and the only people they have are each other. It feels natural, then, that they would turn to one another for comfort and solace as the emptiness becomes increasingly sinister and they try to figure out where they are-- and where everyone else went. For most of the book, the mystery element kept me turning pages, wanting to find out the twist. I also thought the forced proximity element was a reasonable path to take to try and circumvent the usual "is it instalove?" dilemma (even though I would say, yes, it still does feel like instalove, but at least it sort of makes sense now).

I did not like the ending at all, however, and both characters fell a little flat to me. I loved that Leo wasn't quite the playboy everyone assumed he was (he's deep) and the message that part of growing up is separating your parents' plans and ambitions for you from your own. There were some good things in here but it just ended up feeling way too cliche and disappointing.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 1, 2021

DC Comics Cover Art by Nick Jones


My friends! Why are you sleeping on this book? I know I have a lot of comic book aficionados and art lovers in my social group, and anyone who loves either of those two things is going to love this book. Art books can be hard because sometimes they can feel dialed in. I've read books where the photos weren't great or the captions were bland and uninteresting, so even though I appreciated the subject matter, I wasn't wowed by the book. Well-- not only are the pictures in this book high quality and totally gorgeous, the captions are super interesting, too! I think it's clear that Nick Jones harbors a love for comic books and his captions really conveyed his love of the art, medium, and history, which makes such a difference, I just cannot tell you.

The book starts with the Golden Age comic books of the 1930s, replete with the first "Bat-Man" (yes his name used to be hyphenated) cover and the infamous "Superman" book which I believe was called Action Comics and didn't even have a #1 because he was originally supposed to be a one-off! It goes all the way to the Modern Age (2011-- present), with titles that you could probably see on the shelves if you went inside any comic book store or maybe even a Barnes and Noble (masked up, ofc).

It was so fun to see how the superheroes changed and stayed the same all at once. There are some elements of their designs that remained constant or similar and others that were totally done away with. I had no idea, for example, that the Joker was originally introduced as the "Red Hood" because he was wearing a red bag over his head lol (and they wanted to kill him off in his first appearance!). Seeing the inked lines give way to CGI-enhanced covers was also really cool, and from the 90s onward, you start to see more women artists taking the reins, leading to less sexualized Wonder Womans and Cat Womans and a deeper, more complicated portrait of characters like Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy.

I seriously can't recommend this book enough to comic book lovers. I pored over this in just over an hour and I know I'll be revisiting it again and again for the artwork alone. It would make a great gift or a great coffee table book for that out and proud geek in your life.

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

5 out of 5 stars