Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Billionaire's Virgin Mistress by Megumi Toda


I've never been a fan of the virgin mistress trope and this one was no exception. Heroine finds out that she's the heiress to a fortune and falls in love with the current heir. It's full of tropes I don't really like: hero with daddy issues, art that makes the characters look way too young, heroine who acts like a total martyr and basically lets the hero walk all over her like a welcome mat, and so on.

I really don't have a lot to say about this one except that I didn't like it.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

Wife by Arrangement by Rin Ogata


Heather works at a perfume store and is dating a rich Italian man named Lorenzo, so obviously she's shocked when an arrogant, obnoxious man smarms his way to her perfume counter and attempts to brashly pick her up. As she finds out when out to dinner with Lorenzo, this is the half-brother of her BF/fiance, and he was doing it all to test her morals because that's what bros do, I guess?

Anyway, she thinks he sucks but gets a proposal out of it and goes to Italy to meet the fam. While there, she gets to know Renato, the half-brother, better, and finds out that he's actually deep. And he has woman-issues because his heart was broken. But he's basically a really, really good guy. *eye roll* No, but somehow the author (and the manga artist) actually made me buy it because he wasn't that much of an ogre, so it was totally easy to buy the fact that he was a delusional playboy who wasn't ready to open up with his feelings.

I began to wonder how the author was going to ditch Lorenzo and get Heather and Renato together since he was the obvious love interest and I actually didn't expect her to do what she did. It wasn't really the easy option but it ended up fleshing out the plot a lot and making it quite meaty and dramatic. There's no OW drama, just OM drama, and nobody does anything super cruel. I know, right?

What an unexpected delight this one was.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Something from the Heart by Kazuko Fujita


I didn't even know that old skool stepbrother romances were a thing, so color me shocked. Leigh met Morgan when she was ten and he was eighteen and always looked up to him and their relationship was okay until he misunderstood an encounter she had with another man and decided she was just like her scheming, unscrupulous mother. When they meet again, he treats her coldly but neither of them can deny the lingering attraction between them.

The hero in this book is an incredible jerk and constantly jumps to conclusions. Even by the 90% mark he's still assuming the worst about the heroine. I did like the story though and I liked that the heroine had a backbone and wasn't afraid to call the hero out on his BS. Sometimes I read some of these Harlequin manga and find myself wondering what the full-length books are like and this is one of those times. I really, really want to read the print book now and see if the story is better if it's fleshed out.

Rounding up for lolzy, over-the-top drama and simply gorgeous art. Good art can really bring these stories to life and make even a lackluster storyline feel more intense and emotional.

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Italian's Token Wife by Kazuko Fujita


I am such a sucker for blackmail relationship/bought bride tropes in romance, so when I found out that this manga was basically that, I was super excited. Magda is a cleaning woman who is shocked when a gorgeous Italian man offers her $10,000 to get married. She eventually agrees to marry Rafaello and finds out it's all part of a plot to get back at his father.

But Rafaello isn't the jerk that she thought he was and he's so nice to her son, Benji. Pretty soon, she starts to forget about the money at all as one intimate moment after another happens, but her new life with him in Italy is filled with people who are determined to break them apart and Rafaello's entitlement might be enough to undermine Magda's slowly growing affection for him in spite of her wariness.

So this was light and fun and I really enjoyed it. There was nothing stand-out about it but it also had nothing offensive, either. Fade-to-black sex scenes, no forced seduction/dub-con, and very minimal (albeit cliche) OW drama.

3 out of 5 stars

The Bride of Montefalco by Kiriko Higashizato


These Harlequin Presents books have influenced me so much as a writer because they taught me that there's nothing wrong with being trashy if it means telling your own story for fun and entertainment. So there's value in that, I think; reading doesn't have to serve some higher purpose as long as you're having a good time. These Harlequin manga are especially true to that sort of mindset, because they're like a further condensed "Reader's Digest" version of HP novels, done by Japanese mangaka and then translated back to English. Which is pretty nifty (and a handy tool for learning a foreign language; I sometimes read the Spanish ones to help myself improve because the panels make comprehension so much easier!).

Sadly, THE BRIDE OF MONTEFALCO was kind of a bust on all levels. I really didn't like the art. The panels in the e-reader were squished and hard to read. (They made them way too small.) The story was also pretty lame. Goody-goody heroine's cheating husband dies in a car crash with his mistress, who was the wife of a duke. As it turns out, when the heroine goes to Italy to confront the family and console them (ha-- what), she ends up being kidnapped by the duke's brother in law. Because it turns out the duke has Alzheimer's.

I just... wow. This was pretty much all the tropes I don't like in books. Extremely passive and naive heroine. Cheating. Children as props. Bland romance. Even the whole kidnapping angle is kind of silly and ridiculous. No, I can sadly say I didn't like this one much at all. What a shame.

1 out of 5 stars

Heartstopper: Volume One by Alice Oseman


In my Goodreads reviews, I'm trying to give credit to the people who encouraged me or inspired me to read a particular book, but in the case of Heartstopper, it was recommended to me by so many people that I actually lost track of who was first. Heartstopper is the adorable story of two boys named Nick and Charlie. Charlie is a shy but popular boy who has just come out to his school as gay, and Nick is an equally popular rugby player. The two of them become friends and then, maybe, something more, and that's really all this graphic-novel is, but their interactions are so wholesome and sweet that it becomes super life-affirming and uplifting.

I normally read darker romances but I thought Heartstopper was really well done. It captures the highs and lows of high school so well, as well as the uncertainties of first love and figuring out what you want in a relationship, learning to stand up for yourself, and falling for friends. It actually reminded me a lot of some of the older shoujo manga I used to love that had the whole "opposites attract" thing going, specifically Mars, which had a quiet artist falling for a race car driver.

Anyone who enjoys really wholesome romances that deal with real issues will love this. I went in with pretty low expectations and basically ended up loving it.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Bunny by Mona Awad


I need somebody smarter than me to read this book and tell me what they think happened because I am so confused. The first half of this book is a brilliant satire of liberal art schools and pretentious art schools via a sort of Stepford Wives medium and I was super into it. The Bunnies, like the Plastics from Mean Girls, were compelling Queen Bee figures and I was interested in their culty vibe.

Then... the book starts getting really weird. Trippy, in the way that some of those experimental late-90s movies could be trippy, like Dark City or Being John Malkovich or eXistenZ. Trippy, in the way that I found myself sitting here and wondering, "What the hell is going on?"

I ended up setting the book aside, half-finished, and I didn't get back into it until today. I skimmed the second half, and it got even weirder. By the time I finished the book, I was even more confused than I was at the first WTF moment in the book, and I'm not really sure what to think about BUNNY or how I feel. It's fitting that it shares a list with CATHERINE HOUSE because it shares many of the same problems. If you liked CATHERINE HOUSE, you'll probably enjoy this.

I would read more from Mona Awad but this one wasn't really a bullseye with me.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sabine by A.P.


DNF @ 10%

I feel like the concept of a sapphic version of THE SECRET HISTORY with vampires doesn't really need a lot of push to get me-- or anyone-- to read it. And yet, my God, those Goodreads ratings are abysmal, aren't they? But so often, I find myself on the opposite end of What Goodreadians Think Is Good (spoiler: they're wrong and I'm right, lol jk, but also seriously), so I decided to give it a whirl anyway.


I don't know what it is about this book but it is so overwritten that, to me, it was unreadable. I couldn't make it past the 10% mark. It was really that bad.

Goodreadians, I'm sorry I doubted you this one time.

1 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Luna by Julie Anne Peters


I was reading some reviews for other YA LGBT+ books I wanted to try and one of them, also involving a teenage trans-woman, had a review that said something like, "This is a book about transgender people written for cis people." And I thought about that a lot while reading LUNA because I kind of feel like this book is, too. Luna, the eponymous young trans-woman character, isn't the heroine of her own story. That privilege goes to her sister, Regan, who consistently misgenders her and refers to her deadname. Granted, this was written in the early 2000s when people were much more misinformed about trans issues and there was much less protective infrastructure in place to ensure that protected classes are just that: protected. Speaking as someone who went to high school in the 2000s, people were jerks. And they got away with it, because that's how it was back then. People were so much more intolerant and awful than they are now.

The only book about trans people I remember reading during this time period was WHAT HAPPENED TO LANI GARVER, which actually shares many of the same issues as LUNA. It isn't really centered on the group of people it's about; like LUNA, the heroine in WHTLG is an ignorant bigot whose world view is reshaped by the trans person who enters her life and teaches her to, you know, not be such a jerk. WHTLG's protagonist is actually probably non-binary, but the heroine assigns Lani male pronouns, and it is the heroine's pronouns, and not Lani's, that stay consistent over the story. Likewise, Regan talks about Luna in the terms that she, Regan, feels comfortable with, switching back and forth between masculine and feminine whenever it suits her comfort or world-view. But that should never be the case. If someone is non-binary and tells you it's okay to swap or tells you when to swap, that's their business, but you should 100% not do that for them and especially not when it's contrary to what they want-- which is the case in Luna because Luna, as I said before, is a trans-woman. Period.

The writing is actually quite good and the author REALLY captures the time period so well. The sexist teachers? The casual homophobia? The bullying? Yeah, my schools definitely had some of that. Regan is even a believable heroine in her reactions-- which is maybe what makes this book so unpleasant to read. Especially since Luna is so obviously suffering (major trigger warnings for body dysmorphia, attempted suicide, bullying, misgendering and HORRIBLE PARENTS) and Regan is just whining about "me, me, me, and how hard this makes MY LIFE." Again, realistic for a teenager at the time probably, but also probably not what many of the teens picking this up are going to want to read.

I probably would have given this book a one star if the author had done what WHTLG's author did and killed off the trans character but thank GOD she did not. I gave an extra star for that. WHTLG got a four star review because it was the first book I ever read about trans issues and I credit it with making me want to seek out more books about the LGBT+ at a time when they were pretty hard to find in most libraries. I probably would have given this book a higher rating too if I had read it as a teenager, but reading it as an adult mostly left me with horror at how wretchedly poor Luna was treated.

Some people will probably enjoy it but I think some people might actually find it seriously distressing (and it's bad enough that I think it could, potentially, elicit anxiety in someone with that kind of trigger). So if you're interested in this book, make sure you read the warnings and go in with caution.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 26, 2021

Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson


GROWN was a book that I was immediately interested in upon hearing about it because (1) it was literally all over Instagram for a hot minute (okay, more like a hot month) and (2) that cover. I also really liked the premise. In the age of #MeToo, it feels really important to have books like this coming out that not only draw awareness to the issue of abuse but also sort of provide a sort of cathartic solace for the victims of such abuse where they have books that either make them feel seen or maybe make them realize that they're in or have been in an unhealthy relationship and that they aren't at fault for it.

Apparently, GROWN is loosely based off of R. Kelly, but it mostly seems to be about grooming behaviors and the blinding power of celebrity cult status. Enchanted is a normal high school girl with a beautiful singing voice. Her family are lower middle class and don't really have the funds to give her the launch pad she wants, so when she catches the attention of mega-star Korey Fields, she feels like she's won the lottery. Especially since he seems to know all of the words to make her feel special on a deeply personal level.

But the more time Enchanted spends with Korey, the more she begins to wonder if something isn't right. The eleven-year age gap, the purple drinks he plies her with, the way he begins to insult her as freely as he compliments her, the way he sometimes keeps her locked up in her room. Soon it starts to feel like she hasn't won the lottery at all, so much as plunged headfirst into a deep ocean without a life preserver. And it seems like her family, with their few resources, are in little to no position to help.

So I ended up not liking this as much as I wanted to. There were a couple things I thought GROWN did really well. It told the story of abuse without sensationalizing it or giving too many gory details (which is important since this is a young adult book). That said, it was still pretty horrific if you know what's really going on. I also liked that it touches upon the way that we, as a society, tend to approach victims of abuse, sometimes treating them with the suspicion that the perpetrators should be treated with. There's an assumption of falsehood in the way that some authority figures talk to people reporting crimes of abuse and this book calls that out, and it also calls out the fact that women of color can be disproportionately affected because of infrastructural inequality that ends up facilitating their abuse.

Things I didn't like were a little more integral to the writing itself. The dialogue was very wooden at times and didn't always flow in a way that felt natural. I also felt like all the characters who weren't Enchanted fell flat. Her parents and siblings, as others have pointed out, but also Korey himself. He was so oily and repulsive-- and yes, I know I'm biased since I knew exactly what he was going in and hated him for it, but he didn't really have any of the surface charm that these serial abusers tend to have that makes them so good at manipulating people. He was just skeevy. I'm not sure if that was the point or not. If it wasn't, it wasn't subtle. He might as well have worn a name tag that said, "Hi, I'm a CREEP." I also felt like the book was a bit all over the place in terms of execution, taking on too much for its page count, and ended up reading like an overly ambitious debut because of it.

So while this wasn't bad, I'm afraid it didn't quite live up to the hype, either. Still, it's worth a read.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho


Usually I hate those X meets Y-type blurbs but CRAZY RICH ASIANS meets BRIDGET JONES is pretty on the mark for LAST TANG STANDING. LTS is about Andrea Tang, a lawyer who's gunning for partner and basically has it all made... except for a boyfriend. Painfully single and well into her 30s, she's officially the last woman in her family to be in a long-term relationship and man is she feeling the family pressure.

First, I want to say that even though I liked this book, at both 6% and 7% in I appeared to be missing a page. In the breaks, the next "page" started mid-sentence, so I was clearly missing text. That was annoying because this is a traditionally published book and it is not an ARC, so you expect a certain level of quality from books of this nature.

Moving on from Formatting 101, let's talk about the book itself. I really liked the fact that the heroine is an older millennial with a career. As fun as college stories are (and they are fun), I am an older millennial with A Career and I occasionally like reading about people like me. I also like that the heroine had relationships with several different men over the course of the novel while trying to figure herself out. Even though there's a lot of people who are like "THE HEROINE AND HERO MUST BE EACH OTHER'S ONE AND ONLY" I'm okay with them not being that way, necessarily, as long as it feels organic and isn't done for cheating drama (I HATE pointless cheating drama, FYI).

There's a large cast of characters, many of them tastelessly (or tastefully) rich. And this book is set in Singapore, so that's probably where the CRAZY RICH ASIANS comparison comes in. It's also written in epistolary journal format, like BRIDGET JONES, and like Bridget, the heroine is unlucky in love and very insecure and has some habits she would like to break but can't (in her case, it's drinking instead of smoking). Some reviewers thought the heroine was too bitter and cynical but her personality is actually a lot like mine (bitter, cynical, hard-working and ambitious), so I actually really related to her sense of humor. If you like that sort of acerbic writing style, you probably will, too.

I do agree with the nay-sayers that the book went on for a bit too long but I loved the love interest (he was the BEST) and the journey actually caused me some hardcore nerves as the will they/won't they vibes increased, so even though the execution was a little shaky, I still ended up liking this a lot.

Just fix the formatting, PLEASE.

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Glorious Guinness Girls by Emily Hourican


DNF @ p.87

I was concerned when I saw the negative reviews on Goodreads from other advanced readers but I didn't let that bother me too much at first because everyone has their own opinions, and sometimes the book everyone else seems to dislike ends up becoming a new fave of mine (see Sandi Tan's LURKERS). I was particularly excited to read THE GLORIOUS GUINNESS GIRLS because I've actually been to Dublin and seen the Guinness Storehouse (and yes, I know it was a recent construction, and isn't the site of the OG business). Point of fact: I love Guinness. I love Ireland. I love historical fiction. How could I not love this? ...Well, I didn't love this. The other reviewers were pretty on the ball for this one. It's dual timeline, which sometimes works for me, but the 1910s/1970s sections sounded exactly the same. The heroine is also an incredibly passive narrator with no personality which ends up making the book very dry and uninteresting. The writing isn't bad, it just isn't very compelling (which some would probably argue is the same thing). I couldn't get into this at all.

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

1.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward


This is one of the best memoirs I've read in a while. It's beautifully written and achingly sad. In MEN WE REAPED, Jesmyn Ward writes about some of the Black men in her life who died way too young. But this memoir explores other things, too: class disparity, racism, what it's like to grow up in poverty, the social pressures of growing up Black (for men and for women), the way drugs can tear apart a community, and the callousness of reducing all of this to cold statistics.

The writing is gorgeous. I ended up reading most of this in a single day. I felt almost like I was held captive by the author's stories: I wanted to know how everything would turn out, even if it would turn out bad. (And, given the premise of this memoir, it often did.) The last story, about her younger brother, was especially devastating, although Ronald's story was pretty brutal, too. Even though the memoir is very short, each of these vignettes really give you an insight into what these men were like and why they were so important to the author.

I almost feel like to say anything else wouldn't do this memoir justice. I hadn't heard any buzz around this book and bought it when it was one of the deals of the day, but now I want to read everything else this woman writes. It takes real talent to stir emotion with words, which are by nature impersonal, but the author succeeds wildly with this book.

5 out of 5 stars

Just Pretend by Tori Sharp


JUST PRETEND is Sharp's graphic-novel/memoir of growing up in the late 90s/early 2000s. Her parents are divorced and she's in middle school, struggling to deal with the tensions in her family, the changing landscape of her social group, and her desire to be a writer. I actually sympathized with her character a lot on the last note because I also used writing as a means of escape when I was young, only in my case, it was to kind of distance myself from some pretty intense bullying.

There's fun references that older readers will get, like Harvest Moon 64, and Cornelia Funke's Inkheart. Age-wise, though, this seems to be targeted at late-elementary school and middle school. Sometimes graphic-novels manage to be accessible to a wide rage of audiences but this one is geared very young, in my opinion, and it feels young, even though the book tackles some pretty tough subjects that will probably really appeal to its audience.

Overall, I liked it but didn't love it. I actually didn't realize it was a memoir until I got to the last page and found myself thinking, "Wow, that doesn't really offer a lot of closure." And then I saw the author's note and realized that it was based on the author's own life. It still ends pretty abruptly though, and doesn't really feel like a "neat" ending.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Your Republic Is Calling You by Young-Ha Kim


YOUR REPUBLIC IS CALLING YOU grabbed me with its unique premise. It's about a man named Ki-yong (weirdly called "Gi-yeong" in the book's blurb-- you'd think the transliteration would be consistent across the same edition, but no?) who is a securely middle class Korean man who works in the film industry. He's also a North Korean sleeper agent. One day, he receives a coded message informing him that his duties are over and that he must return home.

It's told through multiple POVs, all within a 24-hour period, so as Ki-yong tries to figure out what to do, we also see the story narrated from a coworker of Ki-young, his wife, Ma-ri, their young daughter, their daughter's teacher, and a couple others I forgot. There are a lot of moving pieces in this story and it ends up kind of being an interesting portrait of middle-class life in South Korea, in addition to being a sort of surreal spy thriller.

I liked the beginning a lot but I felt like it lost steam in the second half. I actually ended up skimming because I didn't really care about some of the POVs and they ended up feeling more like filler. I bought this copy for myself but it turns out I've also read another book by this author that I received as an ARC, which was called DIARY OF A MURDERER, and it shares some of the same problems I had with this book in that the author has some great ideas but sometimes he applies himself to them inconsistently, and they end up not really working out because things get either (1) too weird or (2) too boring. I guess I was hoping for more danger and suspense instead of a sort of Desperate Housewives situation with affairs and domestic drama.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Son and Heir: A Memoir by Alexander Münninghoff


I got this for World Book Day on Kindle! I'm kind of glad I did because it's not the sort of book I would normally gravitate to. THE SON AND THE HEIR is part memoir, part biography. In it, a famous Dutch journalist talks about his discovery that his father was a Nazi soldier in WWII and goes from there to talk about his family's rise and ultimate fall, revolving around his grandfather, the family patriarch around whom everything revolved. The author's father actually joined up with the Germans to spite his father, but Münninghoff delves deeper than that, talking about the complex relations in Europe during WWII, and how many of the countries were torn between fear of Hitler's growing power and fear of Russian annexation.

I can't imagine what a difficult book this was to write. Apparently, the author died a few months before it was published in English. His family's story is sad. It's ultimately a story about how war tears up families and ruins lives and how money drives wedges between what remains, sowing discord and grievances. When Alexander Münninghoff was named the family heir by his grandfather, both of his parents, now separated, fought over him pretty brutally.

The writing (and the translation) are crisp and at times, it feels incredibly impersonal. Maybe the author needed that distance to examine such painful subjects. There are themes of classism and xenophobia that give the book a really intensely claustrophobic feel that make it read like a nonfiction gothic. Towards the end, the pacing of it all got a little slow, but this was such a novel perspective on WWII and the recovering European economy and social structure that I found I didn't really mind. So far, this is my favorite book that I got from my World Book Day haul, and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes books that plunge the dark side of "old world charm" or who enjoy learning about WWII.

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni


I nabbed this book on impulse because it was giving me POISON STUDY vibes, and for those of you who don't know, that is one of my golden standards when it comes to YA fantasy. If I had known that this was blurbed by Sarah J. Maas, I probably wouldn't have gotten it, though, because I'm not too keen on her books and, like many authors, she tends to read and blurb books that are written in a style similar to hers.

THE PRISON HEALER kind of reads as a cross between AIR AWAKENS, THRONE OF GLASS, and INCARCERON. I wasn't really a fan of any of those three books which maybe explains why this book quickly paled for me in terms of enjoyment. Kiva is a healer in a prison, where she basically has two jobs: carve the Z into prisoners' wrists and then cure them of any ailments. Since she has a sweet gig, people don't think all that kindly of her. Especially since she's often one of the first people they see once she gets down to business with the tagging. So yeah, not many people are #TeamKiva.

When Kiva ends up becoming the Champion for a Rebel Queen, she ends up having to go through all of these ordeals that will mean her life if she fails. She also ends up embroiled in a political intrigue that seems to be taking place entirely within the jail. Which... okay. I actually ended up getting pretty confused at this point because it suffered a problem that a lot of these claustrophobically set fantasy novels have, where it kind of ignores everything that's happening outside the scope of the main setting, making the reader wonder why this is such a big deal. I mean... it's a jail.

The plot twist at the end was seriously THRONES OF GLASS-y, and so were the blue-and-gold colored eyes and the PoC friend, Naari, who kind of ends up serving as a deus-ex-machina (hi, Nehemia). Oh, and there's a playboy prince who likes her for no reason. I did like how several of the pages were just black when the heroine gets thrown into a dungeon-like thing called the Abyss, and the healing angle was cool, but it quickly lapsed into pretty generic YA fantasy and Kiva ended up becoming a Mary Sue. People who are more partial to the three books I mentioned two paragraphs ago will probably enjoy this more than I did-- especially since it is somewhat darker than your typical YA fantasy fare (and unlike some reviewers, I took no issue with this). It just wasn't to my taste.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Shark Summer by Ira Marcks


SHARK SUMMER is super cute. In some ways, it reminds me of an edgier kids' adventure movie, like Monster House (2006) or Tower of Terror (1997). After the heroine, Gayle, suffers an arm injury that gets her off the team, summer at Martha's Vineyard seems pretty boring. Her mother is working double-shifts to cover her medical expenses, which means that their dream of opening a boutique ice cream store are put on ice until they have the time and resources.

While moping around, Gayle meets two other kids: Elijah and Maddie. Elijah is the son of a journalist and Maddie's parents are historians. Both of them are outcasts like her, and the three of them unexpectedly end up working together on a youth film festival project in order to win the prize money being put up (as a publicity stunt for a Hollywood-filmed movie that's clearly inspired by Jaws that's also being filmed in Martha's Vineyard concurrently).

What you get with this book is some Scooby Doo-like chills-and-thrills, East Coast gothic vibes, some spooky history about cults and sharks, and an unexpected friendship. It was much darker than I was expecting, and may be too dark for really young readers, but for middle grade and up, I think this would be perfect. It really does remind me of some of those niche kids' horror movies I watched when I was young, and I think anyone who enjoyed Goosebumps or Eerie Indiana will love this. I'm always a huge fan of middle grade books that don't condescend to their young audiences and this is that.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Me Time by Jessica Sanders


As a quivering ball of anxiety, ME TIME seemed like it was made for, well, me. When I had the opportunity to nab an ARC of this, I was super excited because I liked the cover and learning some self-care tactics was super appealing, even if I figured that they would probably be things like "scented candle" or "face mask." (One can't help but think of the CollegeHumor sketch, You Can Be Terrible If You Call It "Self Care," which is simultaneously a brilliant parody of people who abuse the term self-care and the people who think that self-care is an infantilization of the self.)

ME TIME isn't just about spa days and eating cheat foods. This book contains some excellent tips on how to center yourself, whether it's having a relaxing day in after a stressful day out, spending time with pets and family, or making space in your schedule to go outside and enjoy nature or exercise. I was actually impressed at how attainable so many of these goals are. One of them is as simple as just taking the effort to brush your teeth (which seems common sense, but for those who are severely depressed, even tasks that are basic hygiene can be difficult).

I would recommend ME TIME to anyone who wants to improve the quality of their life and focus on their mental health. The graphics are really fun and quite colorful and the book is helpfully divided up into sections that say how long the self-care tasks will take, so whether you only have five minutes or a half-day, there are activities and things in here that you can do to take time to appreciate yourself.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Break Her by B.G. Harlen



This was so dark and disturbing, but in the best way?? I'm not quite sure how to rate this because there were parts I loved and at its core, this is a five-star book for execution and story-telling. The "banter" went on too long and at some points, the story felt repetitive, but it never dragged me out of the plot and never kept me from desperately wanting to know what happened. I ended up devouring half of this book in a single sitting and went to bed wondering what would happen next. I finished the second half in another sitting and now that I'm done, all I can think to myself is, "Wow, she went there."

The heroine and the villain don't have names. They aren't really described physically and neither is their setting, the heroine's remote house. The details are spare. All we know is that the heroine wakes up to find a man in bed with her. A man who tells her that "they" have hired him to break her. And then the book is about him proceeding to do exactly that, with the heroine relying on her wiles and intelligence to fight him every step of the way. Which sounds like the plot of basically any other so-called "dark" fiction out there, but trust me: this one is different.

At times, this book is philosophical, even existential. I'm honestly amazed at how much character study was packed into this short work. Even though it's just two people in a room, it's tense and interesting. I felt so involved. Every time the author let something slip, I wanted to know more. By the time the book was over, it had become a hydra-headed monster of unanswered questions. I found myself thinking over everything I read, frustrated by the intentional lack of closure on so many levels. I want to say tons more, but it's best to go into the book cold. I will say that if you cannot read books about rape, do not read this book. Ditto if you don't like reading books with icky sex scenes. This is not a work for the squeamish. At times, I found myself incredibly disturbed and upset while reading this, but the author worked to handle her difficult subjects with gravitas and care. And the ending--


I'm not ready to accept that this author wrote only *ONE* book. I feel like it has to be a pen name. I hope she decides to share her other name (if she has one) because I would gladly read her other works.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

You, Me, and the Colors of Life by Noa C. Walker


DNF @ 31%

Initially, I really liked this. The heroine saves a man from jumping off a bridge. His name is Steffen and he is a cop who is suffering from tremendous guilt over a work-related accident. But Steffen doesn't appear to be the love interest: it seems like it's his brother Thomas, who's the love interest, and I really didn't like him. The heroine, Janica, is also kind of a manic pixie dream girl. I got this for World Book Day, which was kind of exciting because it means opportunities to try books I wouldn't ordinarily pick up. Sadly, this was a miss.

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chao


AMERICAN PANDA is one of my favorite young adult books, and cemented Gloria Chao as an "insta-buy" author for me because of her excellent balance of light and chatty narrative and her serious handling of tough topics. Plus, she's filling that much-needed gap of YA that is geared towards older teens and verges on new adult but doesn't have all of the "edgy" and graphic content that makes new adult more... well, adult.

RENT A BOYFRIEND is apparently based on a real practice that people do in some Asian countries, according to the author, where women "hire" fake boyfriends to bring home for the holidays to get their parents off their backs about marriage. Here, the author has made up an American company called Rent a Boyfriend. The heroine, Chloe/Jingjing has hired Andrew/Drew to please her parents and get a truly wretched excuse of a potential fiance (Hongbo) off her back and hopefully out of her life for good.

Andrew makes a good impression to Chloe's parents but they still want Chloe to marry Hongbo because his parents are incredibly rich and prominent figures in their local community. Never mind that she already turned him down and has expressed over and over that she wants nothing to do with him. Her parents won't take "no" for an answer. As Andrew and Chloe grow closer over the holidays, they find that this dissonance between who they would like to be and who they feel they have to be to please their parents is something they have in common, only when Andrew chose his path, he ended up alienating his parents for good.

Pretty soon the lies stack on top of lies and Chloe begins to struggle to keep everything she's told her parents straight, especially when it becomes clear that her parents have secrets of her own. When Andrew and Chloe decide to make their relationship real, it becomes clear pretty fast that the truth will have to out-- but Chloe fears that her parents might decide to cut her out of their lives for her choices, and that being independent might mean being alone.

So this was a really good book. I loved the concept and I thought the author did a good job balancing the cute rom-com elements with the more serious elements revolving around autonomy, family, and tradition. At times, I really did feel like I was watching an Asian drama because of all the twists and introspective moments and the inner-monologues. This would make a great movie. I did think the beginning was stronger than the end and I'm not really sure why. I feel like her father's secret was drawn out for too long and maybe it felt like the book could have ended sooner than it did and would have been a stronger book because of it. But Drew was SUCH a lovely love interest and Chloe was relatable and strong while still staying true to her shy character, so it ended up working.

I will definitely be checking out OUR WAYWARD FATE and anything else Ms. Chao writes. <3

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 19, 2021

Return to the Enchanted Island by Johary Ravaloson


Apparently this is only the second work of Madagascan literature to be translated into English. I got this for World Book Day and was initially concerned because the ratings for it aren't great, but I don't let other people's opinions put me off a work. I like to see for myself if it's any good-- plus, I loved the cover and title.

Sadly, I would say that the consensus opinion is pretty on the ball for this one and I'm really not sure if it's the author's fault or the translator's fault to blame because the writing was flat and everything was told in a series of info dumps. If this book wasn't so short, I never would have been able to make it through because reading it was so tedious.

The redeeming factors are that you get to learn a lot about the history, culture, and folklore of Madagascar. I learned so much that I didn't know before, so it's hard to give this a one when it was such a learning experience. But no, I really don't think this is a great book and I can't recommend it, either. Give it a try if you want to check out something new, though.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Some Days by María Wernicke


I snagged this for World Book Day. Apparently this is an Argentinian work that has been translated into English. The style of the book is very minimal, with the main color being red. The premise of the story is about a young girl who has discovered a portal that only opens up sometimes, where it isn't cold and nothing is unsafe and she can see her departed father again. She tells her mother she wishes it was open all the time.

Children's books can sometimes be touching and emotional in a way that adult books are not and even though I'm an adult reader, I find that I still do enjoy children's books on occasion because of that connection. I did not find that with SOME DAYS. I'm not sure if the translation was poor, or if this was just a not-so-great book, but it read as being very rushed and kind of nonsensical, and I'm not sure what the point was. I kept thinking of Sang Miao's THE IMMORTAL JELLYFISH, which is a much better magic-realism tale about grief and fantasy.

I can't really recommend this one. I thought about giving it a two but the illustrations weren't all that great either and there wasn't really anything about it I enjoyed.

1 out of 5 stars

Earth Boy by Paul Tobin


This is a very cute graphic-novel that reads like a cross between a magic school and a space opera. Benson is a young boy who lives on a farm but dreams of going up to space. When he finds out he's been accepted into the prestigious inter-galactic academy as the first human student, he's filled with pride and thinks that something about his application must have made him feel special. But the other students all regard Earth as a backwater, and with the exception of a few of his friends, everyone bullies and ridicules him like he's some kind of yokel.

I did like this book a lot. The motifs of friendship and acceptance were great and Benson's cast of friends are all adorable. There were several twists I didn't anticipate and I liked the world-building. It was more text-heavy than I prefer in a graphic-novel, though, and the font was VERY small. I had a hard time reading it and I'm in my thirties, so those with older eyes or who are more far-sighted may have issue reading the text. I also felt like the pace of the book slowed in the middle: the beginning and the end were the best.

If you like graphic-novels that focus on adventure and enjoy space drama like Star Wars and Star Trek, this will be a great fit for you.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi


DNF @ 39%

This book is beautifully written and I do recommend it to people who enjoy really cerebral fantasy, especially by authors like Poppy Z. Brite and Tanith Lee. That said, it wasn't really my cup of tea. There is too much body horror and I had a really hard time following some of the convoluted narratives, as this is told in multi-POVs from the views of gods inhabiting a mortal named Ada. I love the LGBT+ (trans) African fantasy rep but this book just wasn't my personal cup of tea.

2 out of 5 stars

Thin Girls by Diana Clarke


I bought THIN GIRLS a while ago but didn't read it until now because I wasn't really in the right "space" for something so dark and heavy. It's a really weighty story that delves into a number of really difficult subjects, everything from coming out, to eating disorders, to toxic family dynamics, to abusive relationships, to bullying. There's almost a fairytale-like quality to the writing, which is floaty and kind of dreamy. I don't think it's a style that is going to appeal to everyone but it worked for me and kind of reminded me of an adult-geared version of Laurie Halse Anderson's book, WINTERGIRLS.

Lily and Rose are twins-- identical twins, alike in every way, until one of them stops eating and one of them can't get enough. It's told in past and present. In the present, Lily is overweight and entering into an unhealthy relationship with a married man and Rose is in a rehab center trying to reestablish a healthy relationship with food. In the past, we follow the twins through high school, and see Lily's fall from grace as a popular girl and Rose struggling to suppress her emerging sexuality as she finds herself attracted to the Queen Bee, Jemima.

The "past" sections were much better than the present sections, in my opinion. There's a subplot with an influencer's weight loss products that ends up kind of being a distraction, adding too much to the plot, which already has so much to work with and focus on. The present sections are about girls in a household that, while not abusive, still has toxic dynamics and enabling behaviors that end up fostering some really maladaptive coping habits that Lily and Rose develop in an attempt to get some control over their lives. The past portions are also going to be the most triggering for people because the author lists out their weight at the beginning of each of these sections, with hard numbers, and it's my understanding that this can be particularly hard to see and read if you've struggled with an ED.

Overall, I liked this book a lot and thought the author handled her subject with respect as she told the story she had to tell. It was beautiful and disturbing, and even though it had its flaws, I would still recommend it to anyone who is a fan of literary fiction that focuses on women's problems, in the vein of of WHITE OLEANDER and the many attempts to copy it that followed in the late-2000s.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Privacy is Power (Revised and Updated): Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data by Carissa Véliz


There is an irony, I think, in giving a book like this to a book reviewer and being all, "Hey, book reviewer, please review this book about the dangers of social media websites and algorithms on social media sites so algorithms can use your sphere of influence and the engagement of the people who follow you to help the author/publisher sell more books!" I'm not saying it's a bad thing-- at least, not on the part of the writer or the publisher-- but it just goes to show how entrenched social media has become in the quotidian details of our lives, from work to play.

PRIVACY IS POWER is a cohesive collection of essays that is intended to serve as a call to action to people to navigate social media a bit more safely and make them aware of the value of their data and how freely and carelessly some of us toss all caution to the winds. I've read other books about this subject and watched documentaries on it (one of my faves is the Adam Ruins Everything short, "The Terrifying cost of 'FREE' websites." By the end of the book, the reader learns about how social media giants like Facebook and Google mine users for data and sell them to third parties for profit, and not always in a way that seems completely aboveboard.

It's a great book. Sometimes the author seems like she's reaching a bit, though. I felt a little uncomfortable with the comparison of data harvesting to WWII-era Germany, for example, even though she was careful to clarify her point with some comparisons. It felt like the conclusion was a bit too A Modest Proposal for me. There were a couple other moments like this, such as the suggestion of starting a book club on privacy and then, in all seriousness, suggesting Dave Eggers's THE CIRCLE and Orwell's 1984 that kind of made me roll my eyes. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're out to get your data.

Overall, I think this book should be suggested reading for many people-- especially if you use a lot of smart devices or social media sites-- and something like this should really be part of the school curriculum. Apart from "don't talk to strangers," we were never really taught about online safety in schools and kids now are developing online profiles from a very early age (sometimes, in the case of over-sharing moms, from birth), so I am totally for everyone "interwebbing" safely, even if maybe I've taken a few too many hard knocks with the soma from BRAVE NEW WORLD in the form of social media usage. Reading a book really primes you to think critically about what you consume.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 17, 2021

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha


IF I HAD YOUR FACE is a multi-POV story set in Korea. It revolves around Kyrui, Miho, Ara, and Wonna. All of them lead very different lives but their intertwining journeys share one similar theme: navigating the misogyny and rigorous gender norms for women.

The beginning of the book is very strong but after the 50% mark, it kind of peters out. Kyrui and Ara are the best narrators, in my opinion. Kyuri is a hostess who used to be a prostitute and Ara is a hair stylist who is unable to speak due to injury, but despite her apparent weakness, she has a core of iron. Miho and Wonna are less compelling. Miho felt too much like a composite of Kyuri and Ara and Wonna had an interesting backstory but her present narrative was uninteresting.

I was actually kind of shocked at how short this book was, because it felt like there wasn't adequate room to accomplish everything that it set out to do, and I wasn't really convinced that the author knew how to cohesively end all of the narrative threads she had begun. I think parring the narrators down to just one or two might have been better. Kyuri could have carried the book all on her own, to be honest.

I would read more by this author but ultimately I was kind of disappointed by this book. I guess I was hoping it would focus more on viciously taking down the Korean beauty industry while ascribing agency to its unreliable female narrators.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

White Ivy by Susie Yang


This was a wild rollercoaster of a book. Beautifully written, with rapturous highs and wilting lows, I found myself gulping down the sparkling prose like poisoned champagne and when it was all over, I listened to brooding indie rock for an hour because I was WRECKED and wanted to stew in my sad feelings like a piece of emo!lamb.

WHITE IVY is the saga of a Chinese-American girl named Ivy Lin. You can say a lot of things about Ivy-- that she's a sociopath, that she's a social-climber, that she's desperate, unhappy, and a sad shell of a human being-- but you can't tell me that she's boring. As a child, she shoplifts and is resentful of her poor-kid status at the elite school she attends only because her father is an employee. Her only real friend is a boy named Roux, whose mom is the mistress of a criminal boss. When Ivy is caught being with boys, she's sent to China as punishment, which ends up making her even more aware of class disparities and her hunger for wealth (like she can use it to fill the void inside her soul) and her desire to rebel against everything her parents want for her while also wanting approval and status herself, but on her own terms.

As an adult, Ivy catches the eye of her childhood crush, Gideon, the golden boy of East Coast wealth. And East Coast wealth is a whole other thing from West Coast wealth-- they're basically nobility once-removed. Finally, everything she's told herself she's wanted her whole life seems attainable-- but all of those golden dreams have a terrible shadow as memories from her past threaten to subsume her future and really push Ivy every extreme she possibly has as the reader wonders to themselves, "What won't this woman do?" Because this is literally like Mr. Ripley or Great Gatsby in how it examines the ease with which the rich gladly consume other people, metaphorically or, perhaps, less metaphorically.

Did I like the ending? NO. *Tame Impala intensifies* This is why we can't have nice things, okay? But I didn't really go into this expecting a romance. I think the best way to read this book, actually, is like a Patricia Highsmith novel. It's a deconstruction of the vapidity of the rich, the stratification of wealth, and the consequences of always looking past what you have for the next best thing. It's a brilliant case study of a truly troubled individual who is walking her own path of self-destruction to the sound of her own slowly detonating drum, not that the people around Ivy are much better. Sylvia? Gideon? Nan? Meifeng? They all have secrets; they all have something to hide.

As wrenching as this book was, I couldn't put it down. It's one of the best books I've read in a while and when I pestered the author on Twitter, I found out she's hard at work on her Next Book, which I will definitely be buying as soon as it comes out because this was just... *chef's kiss*

BRB, wallowing in the depths of despair.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Those Not-So-Sweet Boys, Vol. 1 by Yoko Nogiri


THOSE NOT-SO-SWEET BOYS kind of has elements of a reverse-harem romance. It's about a poor but positive girl named Midori who ends up getting involved with three semi-delinquent rich boys, two of which are the heirs to wealthy families (doctor, businessman) and one the son of a mob boss. Midori gets voluntold by the chairman of their school to get them to stop playing hooky and take the exams after she does something that violates the terms of her scholarship. If she can manage to get them to show up to school, her misstep will be forgiven.

Manga has REALLY changed since the shoujo of my youth. The guys in here are actually pretty nice and so far there is no girl-on-girl jealousy, hate, or bullying. One of the guys saves her from an attempted assault but the person who does it is pretty terrible already, so it's not at all apologistic like some manga I've read that definitely has problematic undertones (like Peach Girl or HYD).

This is short and sweet but it ends up feeling a little bland. Anyone who likes cute feel-good stories with heroines who are nice without coming across as doormats will like this one. It picked me up when I was feeling kind of sad and I'm passing it along to my sister next, who loves manga as much as I do.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Cells at Work! Baby, Vol. 1 by Yasuhiro Fukuda


Educational manga might just be the sneakiest way to get kids to learn stuff yet! Between the manga retellings of classic literature and biology-focused ones like Cells at Work! and Heaven's Design Team, there's definitely an emerging trend of these visual lesson plans-in-book-form, and I am so here for it. Cells at Work! BABY is a spin-off of the main Cells at Work series, only it focuses on neonatal biology (and since they are the cells of a baby, the artist made the choice to draw them as itty bitty chibis! SO CUTE).

Beginning with pregnancy and ending with the baby just living its baby life, this manga comic is about a little red blood cell who ends up navigating the entire human body as she goes about her day to day duties as she's chased around by hemoglobin-F, who doesn't trust her not to slack off. Between fending off viral infections, bacterial invasions, and clogged up sweat glands, these cells have seen it all-- and they're ready to work, work, work, work, work. *cue Rihanna song*

So obviously, I really liked this. It was super fun and cute. As with Heaven's Design Team, scientific tidbits are introduced in little side panels to explain what is going on with fun trivia. It's very nonthreatening and super accessible. I think this book would be great for middle grade and up, although I think if you have a precocious younger reader, they could probably read this too as long as they had someone sitting with them to explain some of the harder words/concepts. I read the after note and the writer of the manga apparently consulted with a Japanese pediatrician who is a fan of manga and was happy to offer consultation, so this book is ~doctor approved~. Which I think is really neat.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse


This was a buddy-read with my friend, Deidra @ ShadeTreeReads, so make sure you check out her review, too!

I've been anticipating this one for a while because I heard it was good for people who like the Kate Daniels series and it is a post-apocalyptic urban fantasy that puts emphasis on Navajo/Dine culture.

The good:

The writing is very clean. The world-building, once I figured it out, is unique among its peers (although that isn't really a "positive," since, you know,: more rep of different cultures in UF would be nice). I thought the climate change event that triggered the undoing of life as we formerly knew it was interesting and love that the story revolves mostly around other Native American people. The heroine is a bad-ass who takes no prisoners and has cool powers and a scary knife.

The bad:

I feel like I spent huge swaths of this book waiting for Something to happen. And while that's the only bad, it was the main thing driving the story (or preventing the driving of the story), so it ended up impacting my enjoyment of the book a lot. Some people seem to enjoy the experience of just being immersed in something different, and if that's enough for you, you might like this. But by the time I finished, I kind of felt like the Kate Daniels comparisons might end up doing this book more harm than good because it really doesn't have the same pacing and the setting is totally different. KD is much more urban-centric (big cities, underground tunnels, etc.) whereas this one feels more like a remote Western. So apart from snarky first person female narrator, they really aren't so similar.

2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Weird but Normal: Essays by Mia Mercado


I am seriously surprised this book isn't getting way more love. It seems like maybe WEIRD BUT NORMAL just isn't reaching its target audience, which would probably consist of hip millennials who like BuzzFeed and consider Refinery29 "peak journalism." And before you come after me, I fully group myself in that category. Refinery29 is awesome, btw, and it's so easy to fall down that rabbit hole...


WEIRD BUT NORMAL is a collection of essays on womanhood and millennialhood by Mia Mercado, a woman who is half-Filipino, half-white, and yes, this is also a theme to her essays, as well. The first 3/4 of this book were an easy five for me but then it was like she was running out of the ideas towards the end, because some of the topics got a little weird. Most of the essays I loved-- like there's a really funny one about some of her usernames that she used when she was young in the early days of the internet that was so nostalgic, and I don't think I've vibed with anything an author said about the impostor syndrome you can get with depression like this since, like, Allie Brosh. I was like, Mia Mercado, you get me.

But then there would be weird essays. Like when she pretends to be a judge ruling a court case between her 2013 self getting bangs (her current self is the plaintiff, obviously). Or when she compares bringing home different types of satire to parental disappointment? And there was one where she was writing to her sister in a way that was really sweet but also felt way too personal-- not in a "yikes!" way but in the way that reading someone else's inside jokes holds literally no involvement for you, the outsider in this equation. Sometimes these little gags would work and I would laugh (like when she pretended to be her dog-- oh my God, comedy gold), but usually it just made me go, "Huh, what?"

Most of these essays, though, are high key relatable and I really, really enjoyed this book. The commentary on being biracial and or struggling with impostor syndrome or inadequacy as a woman? So good. I breezed through this in just under a day and it left me feeling pretty happy, kind of like I'd just made a new friend. You know how some memoirs just feel really personable and it's like you can hear that person talking to you in your ear, like she's your best girlfriend and you're chatting over wine? This book was like that.

You may have thought I was joking about BuzzFeed in the beginning, but I wasn't. That is the demographic this book was reaching for-- and if her agent/pub didn't reach out to BF in an attempt to get some press, they did the author a h u g e disservice. (Okay, I just checked and NOPE. #disservice)

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Lady Joker, Volume One by Kaoru Takamura


DNF @ p.105

I understand that this is a cultural touchstone of crime literature in Japan, that it's taught in schools and considered a significant work. I liked the prologue a lot but the next couple chapters were REALLY slow and I could feel myself losing interest. I recently said in a review of another work that I don't mind character-driven books where nothing happens as long as I'm engaged, but if I'm not engaged and I'm not particularly invested in the characters, it just becomes a test of wills. For some people, I think this is going to be an instant favorite because of the ponderous pacing and really thoughtful prose (the translators seem to have done an excellent job), but I urge you to read the sample if you have doubts to see if you think it would work for you.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 12, 2021

Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz



FOUR LOST CITIES is a really interesting concept. In this book, Annalee Newitz explores four "lost" cities that basically fell into disuse due to either environmental disaster or social change. To give this book a really personal and sensory narrative, they traveled to each of the four cities that they chose to write on: Çatalhöyük (in modern-day Turkey), Pompeii (the Roman getaway off the coast of modern-day Naples), Angkor in modern-day Cambodia (home to Angkor Wat), and Cahokia (a pre-Columbian Native American city dating back to early Medieval times).

I liked that the author made a point to include cities that were not exclusively European. I learned about Çatalhöyük in an art history class (primarily the bull's head motifs and building designs), but this was my first time learning about Cahokia and I liked how, in the cases of Cahokia and Angkor, the author challenged the Anglo-centric views of anthropologists that continue to bias research and education to this day. For example, the idea that Native Americans had no idea of land ownership, or that Native peoples are too naive to appreciate their own art or cultural artifacts. This is a point that I think some people don't feel comfortable discussing and I was really glad that the author pointed that out.

It's difficult to rate this book because while I enjoyed it and the writing style was exceptional, it wasn't all that entertaining-- in part, because in some of the chapters, it felt like the lack of knowledge about the ancient cities gave the writing a sort of nebulous uncertainty. I felt this most strongly in the chapter on Çatalhöyük, where the whole chapter basically continued to reiterate the point that archaeologists still aren't entirely sure what the people were like or what really caused the discontinued use of the city. Likewise, Cahokia remains a mystery in many regards, with no written records and very little surviving evidence to give us insight into what the daily life was like in such an old civilization.

The chapters on Pompeii and Angkor are the most vivid, perhaps because they are the most written about and, in the case of Pompeii, so well preserved. Pompeii, in particular, was particularly fascinating because of its salacious history and the way that the day to day life of the nobility and the working class was so richly portrayed. I would have read a whole book about Pompeii, I realized, because once the chapter ended, I felt like I hadn't gotten my fill-- and sadly, it was the only chapter I really felt that way about, because everything else just raised more questions and left me feeling frustrated for answers.

I do recommend FOUR LOST CITIES because I think it gives you an idea of what makes a society crumble (at least, the physical parts of it) and it really shines a light on some parts of history that you probably wouldn't learn about in your history classes (again, writing this from a U.S. lens). In my American history classes, I never learned about Cahokia, for example, even though it is literally a part of U.S. history and it goes back to the 1000s! That is so cool! I recommend reading the book in pieces and then taking a break after each chapter to let things sink in and give yourself time to look things up.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Don't Call It a Cult by Sarah Berman


I remember following the NXIVM story on my phone after work. On packed buses and trains, I'd read the BuzzFeed articles that seemed to be "breaking" every day. It came as a huge blow because I used to be a huge fan of Allison Mack and Smallville, and I couldn't help feeling that instinctive betrayal you feel as a fan when someone whose work you used to admire and admire ends up showing to you, their now ex-fan, that they aren't exactly a model human being.

DON'T CALL IT A CULT is an investigative journalist's story on the NXIVM cult, headed by Keith Raniere. Even though the involvement of B-list celebrities and the Seagram heiresses ended up blowing up the story and providing a hook for many, the focus of the story is primarily on Raniere and the women he abused. We see the origins of NXIVM and Raniere's more aggressive tactics at recruiting and ill-treatment of the women he took into his fold, closing with the court case and prosecution of Raniere and those in his inner-circle.

I'm not really sure what to say about this book. It was fascinating and I read through it in just a few hours (once again, this review is dedicated to my cat; I wouldn't get as much reading done if she weren't there to make it so I can't get up), but it was also a really difficult read because of what some of these women had to endure. I guess I find it hard to get into the mindset of someone for whom a cult would be appealing-- but I guess that's almost the point. Cults appeal to people who are vulnerable and impressionable and made to feel as if they don't belong.

I definitely appreciate all the work that went into putting together this story. If you want the deets on NXIVM, this is a pretty cohesive story.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Siren by Katherine St. John


After being lucky enough to receive an ARC of the author's first work, THE LION'S DEN, I knew I was going to have to read anything she published next. THE SIREN takes a while to get moving and the multiple narrators take some getting used to, but once the plot slowly starts rolling, I found that I couldn't put this book down. Like THE LION'S DEN, this book reads half like a Jackie Collins fairytale of Hollywood excess (and its dark underside), and half like a charming locked room mystery from the days of yore.

I don't want to say too much about the premise, but basically, Stella is an actress whose career is on the rocks who is hoping to make a comeback with a new hit movie and maybe a new memoir. Felicity is her gorgeous and mysterious young assistant. And Taylor is a young director with daddy issues who is hoping to make a hit movie to get some cred. All three women are involved with the project, but each has a secret ulterior motive for doing so, and as a dangerous storm moves into the tropical island where they're filming, the danger and distraction may provide fertile grounds for... REVENGE.

So, I mean, obviously I really liked the book. It reminded me a lot of THE GUEST LIST, which was another "rich people gone mad" mystery that I found myself enjoying way more than I thought I would. One of the things I've learned about myself recently is that I really enjoy books that focus on the connections and relationships between characters, especially if the plot ends up being the vehicle that turns up all of those deliciously dusty secrets that the main character(s) were hoping would stay buried. This is purely escapist reading and I think if you know that going in, you're going to enjoy the book a lot more, because I think people are going to hype this book up as being THE BEST MYSTERY EVER (as book bloggers do), and it really isn't a shocker. I predicted several of the big twists.

But it's compulsively written with fascinating characters and a really great location, so take this book with a tiny pinch of salt as you suck it down like a poolside margarita.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Promise Season by Lee Evie


I had never heard of this author before but I bought PROMISE SEASON on a whim because it was only $2.99 and I really liked the cover. Set in Joseon-era Korea, it is about a girl named Seorin. Seorin was once a girl from a noble family but they were plunged into a ruin following an insurrectionist plot and now she is basically a sex slave, a gisaeng, which is kind of like an indentured geisha. She hates her life but is determined to endure the new normal until one day, a man breaks into their compound and is in desperate need of her help.

After that, Seorin finds herself embroiled in the same plot that was the end of her brother and father. But she agrees to be a spy to save her younger sister from meeting her own fate. There's romance, espionage, and derring do, all with exquisitely clean prose and a gentle narrative of a young girl who learns that she is worth more than the sum of her parts. 

The author lists Yangsze Choo as one of her influences and I can see that. Like Choo, Evie is really good at writing an adventure story set in Asia with a strong female protagonist who is brave without being brash and compassionate without being foolish. This is an indie work but it is incredibly polished and I was really impressed at the consistency of the narrative. I just wish that there had been a bit more action because at times the pacing did feel a bit off, but I think that's just me being picky.

If you enjoy learning about Asian history, you should definitely read this book! I'll definitely be checking out more from this author.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Princess Jellyfish 2-in-1 Omnibus, Volume 3 by Akiko Higashimura


This series is currently free on Kindle Unlimited so I have been bingeing it all day. The premise revolves around a bunch of otaku girls who end up banding together to save their home from a group of developers. Also, there's a romance between the main girl and two brothers: the son of a politician and a spoiled young heir who enjoys cross-dressing. It sounds ridiculous-- and it is-- but somehow it manages to be fun and "out there" in a way that never makes me suspend my disbelief too far. Plus, good josei manga in English are so hard to find. I guess because maybe there isn't a big market for it.

In this issue, the characters have taken their respective talents to create a Jellyfish-themed fashion brand called "Jellyfish" (but in English, so it sounds trendy). They're planning a big runway show and one of the girls, Mayaya, gets a makeover as one of the models. Surprise, surprise! She's secretly gorgeous (just like the main girl, Tsukimi). I normally don't really like makeover-themed stories-- or if I do, it's with a kind of sinking feeling of guilt, like I need to fork over my feminist card-- but I actually really like the way that Higashimura handles the trope.

All of the girls in this story start out as very antisocial personalities. And I mean antisocial, not asocial-- they're judgemental, set in their ways, selfish, and not very nice. After years of being judged for their personalities and weird hobbies, they've developed an intricate network of defense mechanism, whether it's turning to stone or being prickly and weird. What I like about Princess Jellyfish is that their external makeovers are accompanied by internal ones and reflect a growing comfort with the outside world and socializing with others and letting go of some of their own prejudices.

This one was a bit more slow-paced than the two previous but I'm still really enjoying it.

On to the next!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Princess Jellyfish Vol. 2 by Akiko Higashimura


Right now, this whole series is available on Kindle Unlimited and I. Am. Obsessed. So, if you follow me for X type of book reviews, please excuse me while I proceed to blissfully geek out over manga for the next couple days, because I used to be TOTALLY into that.

Princess Jellyfish is so good. It's a josei manga, which means it's for older women, and even though the premise is kind of silly in that "in what world?" way that anime and manga can be, it isn't so off the wall that it feels like an Olympic shark-jumping competition. Basically, it's this slice-of-life comic set in this apartment complex where this group of otaku girls all live together. They call themselves "amars," or nuns, and their apartment is the nunnery. But developers want to bulldoze the place down and replace it with something else so they have to figure out a plan to save it. Also, the heroine, Tsukimi, finds out the gorgeous girl she had a run-in with is actually a rich boy in drag named Kuranosuke, only she might be in love with his older half brother, Shu. WHAT IS LIFE.

This is like one of maybe three books about nerdy girls that didn't make me want to throw my books out the window. In some ways it's like a better version of FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell, because Cath was a raging twatwaffle on wheels who was portrayed as being morally in the right (even though she was basically the villain in her own story), these girls all end up undergoing pretty major character arcs. In the first books, they learn that they have allowed their interests to run their lives and basically turn them into selfish, antisocial people, and as the stories go on, they seem to be learning how to embrace their hobbies in healthier ways, while also socializing with one another and embracing team-work (but not at the cost of their true selves). It's surprisingly empowering and sweet, and watching the friendship between them all develop and grow is one of the best parts of the story for me.

The romance is a bit less compelling. Shu and Kuranosuke are both very flawed characters. Kuranosuke is more interesting because of his circumstances whereas Shu comes off as a bit more bland. I feel like that may end up becoming his character arc as well, perhaps similarly to the French film, The Closet; Shu thinks he has slept with a woman he hasn't (he's actually a thirty-year-old virgin) and his "prowess" frightens him and shames him, even as it raises him in the estimation of his womanizing father and makes Tsukimi jealous and conflicted. I'm curious to see what the author does with that.

If you're interested in slice-of-life manga-- especially those geared towards older audiences-- I think you'll really enjoy Princess Jellyfish. I find that I'm really enjoying it a lot.

4 out of 5 stars

Idol Thoughts by J.S. Lee


DNF @ 54%

I'm kind of surprised this doesn't have more reviews given that (1) K-Pop is insanely popular and (2) it's one of the more decently written reverse-harems I've encountered in the Kindle Unlimited store. That said, this one just didn't work for me. I liked the premise a lot. The heroine is the illegitimate daughter of a major player in the Korean music industry and ends up over her head when he brings her in to take over the family business and she ends up basically being assigned as the manager of a problematic and scandalous boy band called H3RO on the verge of being disbanded. Her half-brother is out to get her and thwarting her by turns and all of the guys she's in charge of are incredibly attractive. It sounds like the recipe for drama and it is: just... not really the kind I was hoping for.

Sejin was such a wasted villain, in my opinion. I felt like the author really could have played up his involvement with the music industry and been more active about his attempts to thwart the revival of H3RO. I also felt like the meet-cutes with the boys felt very Wattpad-y in terms of execution. Like, this felt like a fic geared towards a very young audience, and while that is fine, the fact that the characters were so much older and there are some explicit scenes made me a bit confused about who the target audience for this book is. It's a bit too adult for most teens but it feels too YA for most adults, so I guess maybe it's meant to appeal to older teens/early 20s? The author also overuses the phrase "holy hell" to the point that it starts to feel like a tic. I feel like she could have dialed back the "holy hells" by about 75% because it's reaching Anastasia Steele "inner goddess" levels of wtfery.

Maybe this review is a bit harsh but my hopes for it were very high. Several of my friends really enjoyed this one but I noticed they seemed to be younger and more into K-Pop than I am.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 9, 2021

Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley


DNF @ p.51

I have too many books and too little time, so I no longer finish books I'm not interested in. That doesn't necessarily mean a book is objectively bad but please keep in mind that when I review, I am writing a review for ME, so "good" and "bad" for me might not be "good" and "bad" for you. I say this because even though this book has wildly positive ratings on Goodreads, I kind of feel like I read a totally different book from everyone else who liked it and sometimes I think people think I am speaking for all and sundry when I write my reviews. There were things about it I loved: the cover (obviously), the premise (it kind of sounded like an #ownvoices YA version of Longmire, which would be AMAZING), and the emphasis on Ojibwe culture (including language).

What ended up making this book a miss for me is that it was really boring. Not a lot was happening. There were a ton of info-dumps and it felt like there were way too many characters introduced too quickly which made it hard to figure out who was who and what their relationships to one another were. The heroine also came across as sounding slightly bland just because she came across as a vehicle for all of this weighty info-dumping, so by the time the murder finally came around (I skimmed to about p.200 to try to see if it was worth reading), I was just feeling completely exhausted by the thought of continuing.

You might very well enjoy this book if you enjoy really dense, really long books that are more about the scenery than they are about the plot. I have trouble focusing on books that don't have a lot happening, but I know some people are really into setting. If you're into setting, this will be great for you. Likewise, the heroine's voice felt kind of "generic teen girl" to me but I know some people like a more unobtrusive narrator because it enables them to project into the head of the main character more easily. So the two things that made this a "bad" book for me might make it "good" for someone else.

I'm sorry I didn't enjoy this more, but oh well.

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

2 out of 5 stars