Monday, May 31, 2021

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto


DNF @ p.77

I'm doing this experiment where I'm rereading the books from my adolescence as part of this project. When I was in high school, I went through this phase where I was OBSESSED with Banana Yoshimoto. Lucky me, I found my trove of old books in the garage while cleaning it a few weeks ago, so I'm giving a lot of my old faves a reread to see which are worth keeping and which should be passed on to someone else.

One of the reasons I love Banana Yoshimoto's books is that they have a dreamy, introspective wistfulness to them. Sometimes this makes them really slow but when you really like the characters, it's a bit like reading one of your old school diaries. It's all very internally focused and everything kind of shimmers softly because you haven't become jaded yet. All of her books are like that, even with adult characters.

Because they are so introspective, though, they aren't really all that fun if you don't like the characters because they're almost entirely character-driven and don't really have a lot of action. That was the case with me for GOODBYE, TSUGUMI. Maria is bland and Tsugumi is a manipulative sociopath. Neither of them are particularly likable and their friendship really didn't make sense to me. I seem to remember being ambivalent about this one as a teen but rating it higher because she was my ultimate favorite author. I think in my teens, I gave this a three. Now it's getting a two.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Thief of Souls by Brian Klingborg


I love mysteries so I was excited to get a copy of THIEF OF SOULS. This is a really good noir crime drama set in China. The author is not Chinese but he majored in Cultural Anthropology in Harvard and lived and worked in China, so all of the details felt really vivid and meshed with the #OwnVoices works of fiction that I have read. The main character is a man named Lu who was given a promotion that was a punishment, as it banished him from Harbin to the rural countryside, where there isn't really any "real crime."

Until, of course, one day there is.

Not only is this a murder mystery, it's also a really interesting look at the idea of "face," and how complex the business relations can be in China when everyone is trying to follow protocol. The perp is super creepy and the backstory for them was great, too. Lu is also very sarcastic and jaded, which you would expect for a noir crime hero. I found myself really liking the dark humor in the book as it fit well with the mood the author was trying to create.

I think if you like Scandinavian-type crime thrillers, you'll really enjoy this, as it has the same hardened noir vibe. I see that this is book one in a new series and I'll definitely be reading book two.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui


I snatched this one right up because the premise sounded so cute. It's about a young girl named Nimra who ends up switching from a religious school to a public school, where she gets involved in a school band (Barakah Beats). It's middle grade but deals with a lot of grown-up issues, like changing friendships, staying true to yourself, finding your passions, practicing faith (and different interpretations of faith), and, of course, the feeling of finding something you're really good at and enjoy.

BARAKAH BEATS was just as cute as the cover made it look but as with other middle grade novels I have read, the narrator sometimes felt more like an adult writing what they thought a preteen should sound like and less like a preteen. I think it's hard to capture that mindset perfectly and it might not be something as many younger readers would pick up on. Overall, this was a light, enjoyable read.

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

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 27, 2021

February Flowers by Fan Wu


I read FEBRUARY FLOWERS a looong time ago when I was going through an Asian literary fiction obsession (and if that sounds like fun to you, you're in luck, because I managed to dig out several other titles from that era). In case you missed it, I'm currently doing a project where I reread the books I enjoyed as a teen. The reason for this project was one too many book slumps. I thought it would be fun to revisit some of the books that really cemented my love of reading and inspired me to blog in the first place. This book is one of those books.

FEBRUARY FLOWERS is a very slow-paced book. I vaguely remember giving it a three star rating when I first read it and I think it's because, at the time, I really didn't know much about China and couldn't appreciate how well this novel shows a country in a state of flux. It's set in 1991, and features two girls: Ming, a seventeen-year-old university student who embodies all that is considered traditional in Chinese culture, and Yan, who is twenty-four, and a total rebel. When they meet, Ming is fascinated and a little disgusted by Yan, but that doesn't stop her from getting sucked into the other girl's compelling orbit. Eventually, the two of them become friends, but the tension between them seems to suggest that there's so much more.

I'm shelving this as an LGBT+ book because at least one of the girls seems to be coded as having an attraction to girls, even if she can't express it. I think I missed all the sapphic undertones when I read this book for the first time because I was pretty naive. The intense, almost sexual friendship between Ming and Yan really adds tension to the narrative, and reminded me of some of Megan Abbott's books, who also writes about the fierce, close, and sometimes fraught relationships between young women. I actually think that if you enjoy Megan Abbott's work, you'll probably really enjoy FEBRUARY FLOWERS for the same reasons that Abbott's work is so beloved.

It's not a particularly happy book but it isn't as depressing as I feared it would be either (*cough* bury your gays *cough*). I think it comes off as being wistful and nostalgic, and a criticism of some of China's less attractive elements, while also portraying university life, university friendship, and the rapid development and growth of China's urban locales. I'm actually kind of sad that more people haven't heard of/aren't reading this book because I think it's really, really good. If it was published today, I'm sure it would make more waves now than it did in its release in 2007 because it really ended up being a book that was way ahead of its time. Definitely check this one out.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Perfect Daughter by D.J. Palmer


DNF @ p.48

Gah, the first blip in my near-perfect book streak. I'm sorry to give this a not-so-great review because as a psychology major, I love seeing mental health discussed in literature. Does that mean I'm going to be super picky about it? Yes. Ironically, the research element of this book is something I have no problem with. The author did a good job. In school, I had professors who claimed that DID (dissociative identity disorder) was a construct or made-up and then there were others who definitely believed it was not only real, but also a defense mechanism of the brain to shield the mind from extreme trauma (similar to a dissociative fugue or certain psychosomatic disorders). The author even discussed that controversy in the book, so points to them.

I just thought the mystery was a bit too cheesy for me. It focuses on a mom learning that her daughter might be a murderer, and I've found that mother-daughter books don't always resonate with me-- especially if they focus on the motherhood element. Sometimes thrillers have a more "women's fiction" feel to them and this definitely was that, in my opinion. That doesn't necessarily make it a bad book but it wasn't what I was looking for at all.

Your mileage may vary with this one!

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Oy, Joy! by Lucy Frank


So in case you missed it, I'm doing an experiment where I'm rereading some of my favorite books from my teen years and seeing how they hold up. So far, most of them do! (Which has, obviously, cemented my belief that I have *sniff* unparalleled taste in books-- at least, when it comes to being consistently true to my own pretentious self bwahahaha.) It's a fun opportunity because some of them have fallen out of print, like this one, and it's a great way to spread awareness of some of my old faves.

I think I actually bought OY, JOY! at one of those Scholastic book fairs back in the day. It's such a great book-- it reminds me a lot of Meg Cabot. It's set in New York and the heroine is Jewish and an artist, and she has one of the most authentic teen voices I remember reading when I was a kid. Her freak-outs, her love for her family, her obsessions with boys and what her friends are doing? All totally legit. Also, she has a goth/punk friend named Maple who wears pretty cool outfits. Orange lace tops? Turquoise hair? She sounds like a total bad-ass.

The real show-stealer in this book is actually the comedy relief and the source of all the tension: Joy's Uncle Max. After Max suffers from some health issues, the family decides that he's going to move in with them, taking his smelly terrier, Sarge, in, too. Uncle Max is a stubborn, old-fashioned, set-in-his-ways codger and a total busy-body, which leads to some downright comical scenes involving nosedrops, a coffee mug, and the Worst First Date Ever.

Sometimes when I reread an old fave, I still like it for nostalgia's sake but I can admit that it doesn't age all that well. OY, JOY! ages super well, though. I think I like the heroine even more now than I did as a kid because I have a more nuanced view of all the characters (including the adult ones), and why she and Maple end up having a falling out in the first place. If you are able to get your hands on a copy of this book, do. Mine's falling apart because of how many times I reread it as a kid. It's just really great.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 23, 2021

They Never Learn by Layne Fargo


Sometimes you read a book that doesn't just meet your expectations; it surpasses them. THEY NEVER LEARN is one of those. Part dark academia, part #MeToo story, part revenge-sploitation, it's a dual narrative mystery-thriller involving two bisexual women-- Scarlett and Carly-- who have a bone to pick with predatory men.

I don't even want to say too much about this book because it's like a layer cake of twists. Every time you dig into a slice, you discover a new flavor of dude, WTH. It was so well-plotted and so well-written and at times, it could be darkly funny, even as it provided a scathing criticism of warped gender norms and rape culture.

The way the two storylines finally intertwine surprised me. I didn't predict it at all because of a red herring (or should I say blue herring?) that was incredibly well done. If you like dark thrillers, tales of revenge, strong women, and dark academia, you'll love this.

I'll be terribly surprised if they don't make it into a movie.

4.5 out of 5 stars

A Room with a Darker View : Chronicles of My Mother and Schizophrenia by Claire Phillips


This was such a good memoir. When I was a psychology student, I read a lot of mental health memoirs, sometimes because they were required and sometimes just because it was something I was interested in. As the author herself points out, such memoirs used to be notable and hard to find-- as it became more publicly acceptable to talk about and discuss mental health, however, there was a glut of memoirs about people who were suffering from various mental health problems as well as those written by their caregivers, creating public awareness and also removing the barriers erected by societal stigmas.

A ROOM WITH A DARKER VIEW is a beautiful memoir about Ms. Phillips's coming of age with two career-minded parents while also growing up under the shadow of a mother in the early phases of prodromal schizophrenia that gradually blossomed into a case that was quite severe. She talks about the hurt and confusion because sometimes her mother would say and do incredibly awful things. She talks about what it was like being her mother's caregiver, the side-effects of taking Haldol, and what happened when a pharmacist screwed up and her mother was given incorrect dosage and incorrect instructions.

I just can't say enough good things about this book. It was brutal and honest and fascinating. She doesn't dramaticize anything, and she doesn't try to portray herself or her mother as a martyr. The portions about mental health and feminism were fantastic, but I also liked the more "normal" parts too, like the culture shock of being a British student in an American school (and vice-versa), or her trip to Zimbabwe, where she talks about apartheid or the questionable legacy of her cultural anthropologist grandfather and how his own biases colored his research. It was just a fantastic book all around, textured and nuanced and deep, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys memoirs or has an interest in mental health.

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

5 out of 5 stars

The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur


I loved the cover and the title of THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS so much that I actually accepted an ARC without even bothering to look it up and see what it was about, which I literally never do, so you can imagine my surprise when I find out that it's a murder mystery set in Medieval Korea of all things! I mean, how unexpected. How welcome. Once I found out the book's premise, I was even more excited. I love reading things that are new and different.

THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS kind of has an Enola Holmes vibe to it, with the whole young lady detective thing. Hwani, the heroine, is looking into her father's disappearance while investigating a case that ended up haunting their entire family. A case involving a ghostly man in a white mask, missing girls, and a sinister forest.

The author, June Hur, explores many interesting and complex themes in this book. I think my favorite is sisterhood and redemption. Maewol, Hwani's younger sister, has been living with a wise woman during all this time and has become estranged from Hwani. As the two of them become embroiled in the mystery, they end up growing closer and understanding one another in a way that they really couldn't while competing for their father's love.

I do think that the book had a somewhat removed tone that made it difficult to become emotionally invested in the characters. It didn't really feel like I knew Hwani until the very end of the book. She was just kind of an impersonal vehicle driving the story along. The writing was very clean and the story was interesting and it was strongest when there were real emotional stakes. But at other times, reading this book was gruelingly slow and the uneven pacing made it feel like it was a debut work.

That said, I did end up liking THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS. The afterword is also worth reading too, as the author talks about her historical inspirations for writing this work. The heroine is strong and capable and there's no romance; it's literally just about family and independence, which is kind of refreshing in books written for an age group that tend to be filled with unnecessary romantic subplots. Even though the pacing is uneven, the ending was great and there were some genuinely creepy moments that gave me chills and kept me turning the pages, wondering how everything would turn out.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Lost Village by Camilla Sten


The blurb compares this to The Blair Witch Project meets Midsommar. I actually think a better pairing would be The Night Film meets American Gothic. THE LOST VILLAGE is about a documentarian named Alice who wants to create a project revolving around the abandoned mining town, Silvertjarn. But Silvertjarn is different than other ghost towns: things changed mysteriously after the arrival of a charismatic preacher and then all the townsfolk disappeared at once.

Alice goes to Silvertjarn with her crew: Emmy, Robert, Max, and Tone. The town is eerie, the perfect setting for a creepy documentary. But pretty soon, things start to get weird. Mysterious figures watching them in the rain. Equipment going missing. Vehicles blowing up. Disappearances. When one of the crew goes missing, it starts to look like the project might be more dangerous than even Alice ever thought.

THE LOST VILLAGE is a dual timeline mystery. The present tense is narrated by Alice. The past parts are narrated by Alice's great-grandmother, Elsa, who grew up in and lived in the town. This allows for the gradual dissemination of knowledge through the mediums of two unreliable narrators, neither of whom have a complete set of information at their disposal.

It took me a while to get involved in the book. It moved very slowly and at first it seemed like it might be the type of book to have a silly ending. But I stuck with it because I was curious and I'm really glad I did. Elsa's POV was the slowest but ended up being quite chilling. And Alice's POV became even more compelling as she began to question her own sanity and reality. If you enjoy slower-paced mysteries with dual timelines, I think you'll really enjoy THE LOST VILLAGE. Especially if you also like cold Scandinavian settings and the gradual unwinding of dark family secrets.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

The Queen of Everything by Deb Caletti


I'm doing an experiment where I reread some of the books that I loved as a teen to see how well they hold up. There are so many YA options out now these days, but when I was younger, it felt like there was a much narrower selection. Most girls I knew either read Deb Caletti or Sarah Dessen (and maybe Julie Anne Peters if they were edgy). Because of this, a lot of the titles that I read and enjoyed really stick out in my memory. I've read so many more books now as an adult that it's fun to reread and compare them to my other options and see if they really do stand up to the test of time.

I remember liking THE QUEEN OF EVERYTHING but I also remembered thinking parts of it were boring. I actually enjoyed it a lot more this time around because of how detailed the town and all of the characters are. It's one of those books were the town is basically the main character and I really loved that because it made the setting so much more than just set dressing. The details that went into the island community and all of Jordan's classmates, friends, and family members was just so, SO well done.

We know from the beginning that Jordan's father has done something terrible, so reading the book is kind of like holding your breath and waiting for disaster. While Jordan deals with family drama, she also gets entangled with a burgeoning psychopath named Kale who dabbles in sexism and animal cruelty. Trigger warnings for on-page animal deaths (and off-page). One of my favorite parts of the book is when Jordan gets sick of his shit and plans revenge on the little freak. It truly is a YOU GO, GIRL moment.

I don't want to say too much more because I think it's one of those books that you have to experience for yourself. The plot is pretty thinly spread out over the course of the book but the heroine and her world have so much personality that I didn't really mind until the end where it began to drag (right about the time she ends up at Big Mama's). But 95% of the book was pure gold. I think I own HONEY, BABY, SWEETHEART somewhere around here from my high school days and I am definitely planning on purchasing the rest of this author's books at some point-- and so should you.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 21, 2021 My Story by Katherine Tarbox


I'm doing this project where I'm rereading the books I read as a teenager and seeing how they hold up. KATIE.COM (later retitled A GIRL'S LIFE ONLINE) is one of those scare-memoirs that talks about a pretty traumatic incident in an attempt to use it as a teaching point. It's set in the early days of the internet (late-90s) when chat rooms were all the rage. As a thirteen-year-old, Katherine Tarbox met a guy claiming first to be 23 and then later 31 (he was actually in his 40s) who groomed her into a relationship that culminated in meeting with him at a hotel and molesting her (with an attempt to probably do more). I remember reading this and being totally suckered in by the premise because it sounded a lot like those articles I'd see in my issues of Elle and Teen Vogue, where girls would write in talking about how they got their stomachs pumped from ODing on ecstasy or-- one in particular I remember because it was so horrifying-- being molested by an uncle while interning at a morgue.

I am honestly shocked that this book has such low ratings. Katherine wrote this memoir when she was still a teenager and she comes across as sounding very honest and straightforward about her experience that it actually breaks your heart a little because she seems so earnest. She lived in New Canaan, so there are huge swaths of exposition about her privilege, but I think that just goes to show that while privilege might prevent abuse, it doesn't remove the risk entirely. With her busy parents, Katherine was pretty vulnerable and emotionally needy, which ended up making her the perfect prey to an internet predator who treats her as the adult she wants to be while exploiting her loneliness.

What made this a really hard read-- and totally went over my head the first time I read this-- was all the gaslighting. Her parents tell her that she's "ruining a man's life" (debatable: didn't he ruin his own life by going online trying to hook up with adolescent girls?). Her swim coach makes her stand up in front of everyone, tells them all what happens, BLAMES her, and then makes her apologize. To everyone. For being molested and distracting them from the swim meet. Because apparently it was her fault for going up to his hotel room. Hotel staff got involved pretty quickly because Katherine had the foresight to tell her friend where she was going and her friend told an adult, but even though the adults' intervention prevented worse things from happening, the way they blamed an innocent and naive kid for her situation was pretty sickening.

After it was all over, because the coach made what happened to Katherine public knowledge to all her swim mates, Katherine was bullied at school and called a slut. Her mother got phone calls about her from parents who (from the subtext) seemed to be demanding that she get an STD test lest she contaminate the other girls with her uncleanliness. It was truly nauseating and left me with a sinking feeling in my stomach. I think this could be really hard for victims of sexual abuse to read. It seems like an incredibly triggering memoir and I can only imagine how confused the poor author felt.

Overall, I thought this was a really good memoir about internet predation and sexual abuse. It doesn't really age all that well because the internet has changed so much-- but people still groom minors online and young people are still (perhaps even more so) vulnerable when they use the internet, and I liked that the author ended the memoir with resources on how to protect your kid online while web browsing (although it could probably use an update).

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Djeliya by Juni Ba

I really like graphic-novels but I'm super picky about which ones I like, so making a selection sometimes ends up being totally random. DJELIYA is a post-apocalyptic fantasy graphic-novel based on West African folklore. It's about an evil wizard who lives in a magical ivory tower that ended up destroying the world. Now the kingdom is kind of a post-apocalyptic wasteland with people throwing their weight around for clout, power, and magic.

The hero and heroine of this book are Mansour, a prince who is the son of a powerful king named Keita, and Awa, Mansour's djeli, which seems to be something between a vizier and a bard. As they journey to the tower, they get caught up in various adventures and power struggles, while also learning more about their own pasts and ambitions. It's a thoughtful tale that incorporates African language, religion, and writings (with helpful translations on-page and a little mini-glossary in the back). The story was confusing for me to follow at first but all of the distinct characters and the layout of the panels made it easier for me to follow and pretty soon I began to enjoy myself a lot as I lost myself in this bizarre and colorful world.

At the back, Juni Ba says he was inspired by Cartoon Network, and I'm glad he said that because his style was reminding me of something-- 90s cartoons! All those bright colors, high contrasts, and stark linework really reminded me of the comics and cartoons I consumed in my youth. Reading this gave me an incredibly nostalgic feeling, even though it's a modern work. I liked that a lot. The content in this book is somewhat mature but not graphic in terms of violence or sex, and I would say that it would be OK for most teens to read. Especially if they love fantasy and dystopians. If you enjoy graphic-novels and are looking for a fun intro into West African folklore, this would be a great book for you!

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

A Captain for Caroline Gray by Julie Wright


A CAPTAIN FOR CAROLINE GRAY is a sweet and simple romance that's told in the style of those old Candelight Regency romances-- it's a very clean, very spare story that focuses mostly around the romance with some plot dressing, and an attempt to deepen the characterization of both primary and secondary characters. I was actually impressed because it's been a while since I read a straightforward romance and it was much more substantial than I was expecting.

Caroline Gray is a bluestocking. She and her mother are about to be ousted from the family home because her father has passed and the property is about to transfer to the next male relative, a cousin, who is getting married. Caroline is such a nerd (and so outspoken) that she's put off most of her would-be suitors and her mother is going to be companion to yet another distant relative with no room for Caroline, so she's contracted for Caroline to go abroad to India to make a marriage match abroad.

Most of the story takes place on the ship where Caroline is making her journey, so we meet several other women and men who are venturing to India for various reasons, as well as the Captain, Thomas, who is Caroline's love interest. I didn't realize when I got this book that this was a grumpy/sunshine romance, and since I love those, my interest was immediately piqued. Thomas is a bit surly but never outright mean and I thought he had really great chemistry with Caroline, especially since he found her strong personality so compelling.

Obviously there's a big misunderstanding in the third act but it wasn't so bad and it ended up being that neither character was totally in the right, which kind of ended up making it feel like they were both on even ground. The ending was totally satisfactory and there was even a bit of action I wasn't prepared for, so overall this ended up being a pretty sweet romance. It's a little forgettable, which is probably its only flaw, but after a slew of heavier reads, A CAPTAIN FOR CAROLINE GRAY ended up being just the thing I needed to cleanse my literary palate. If you like clean romances with strong protagonists and grumpy/sunshine pairings, this is your book.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Gone: A search for what remains of the world's extinct creatures by Michael Blencowe


I enjoy reading trash as much as the next person but I do have a degree in the (social) sciences and I actually love biology, so whenever I can get my hands on books about botany, biology, psychology, or the natural world, I start to get grabby. Looking at the other reviews for GONE, I wasn't really prepared for what it was going to be about. I thought it was going to be about animals that were thought to have been extinct but weren't (such as the frilled shark or the coelacanth), or about weird animals that have been extinct for years that are really cool looking (like eohippus or the smilodon). Instead, the focus of this book was mostly about recent extinctions and features some pretty graphic descriptions of animal cruelty. What happened to the great auk and the huia were particularly upsetting.

GONE focuses on several creatures recently lost to history-- great auk, spectacled cormorant, Steller's sea cow, upland moa, huia, South Island kokako, Xerces blue, Pinta Island tortoise, dodo, Schomburgk's deer, and Ivell's sea anemone. Each chapter features beautiful full color illustrations of what the animals would have or were thought to have looked like in life, a description of their behavior and habitat, and, when known, the means of their destruction (usually human beings). Every animal gets its own chapter.

The tone of this book is, as others have pointed out, strange. Blencowe definitely adopts an elegiac air for these stories that shrouds them in gravitas, but there are odd notes of humor (that aren't disrespectful, just sort of read as the author trying to keep things from getting too dark). At times it reads like a travelogue because he is physically going to all of these animals' stomping grounds or to the museums that house their remains, and there are even moments where the narrative can feel almost whimsical. There's an incredibly darkly funny passage in here about a scientist who was so consumed with hatred over one of his rivals that he kept a piece of his spine on display after his death. I mean, that's just purely ridiculous. But then there are the really sad passages about animal deaths that are hard to read, and I think would be very upsetting for the animal lovers who might be tempted to pick this up.

I think if you really enjoy natural history and are okay with the darker side that sometimes accompanies scientific curiosity left unchecked (if presented as a cautionary tale), you may find this book interesting. I learned a lot and found parts of it fascinating and I loved the illustrations, but I would not read it again.

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

4 out of 5 stars

The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers


I enjoyed this author's other book, A WITCH IN TIME, so much that I was really excited when I found out I could get a copy of her new release, THE LADIES OF THE SECRET CIRCUS. AWIT is more of a straightforward romance, similar to THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE or A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, but I would say that TLOTSC is more of a mystery/drama with some romantic elements, kind of like WATER FOR ELEPHANTS or THE NIGHT CIRCUS.

In TLOTSC, there are two timelines. There's the story of Lara, whose tale begins when her fiance mysteriously disappears on the day of their wedding. As it turns out, he disappears on a day when lots of other people have disappeared, too. Lara also has supernatural abilities and family ties to a mysterious circus. As it turns out, the three things might be connected, all circling back to two sisters and a sinister man.

The second timeline is about one of the sisters, narrated in a series of journals. These were few and far between, which made me sad because, to me, it made up the creepiest and most interesting part of the book. I don't always like stories about circuses because I think they can be too twee, but this one was really creepy and kind of awful. It gave this story fun Gothic vibes and I'd definitely recommend it if you like circus stories.

Personally, TLOTSC took me a while to get into. Then by the time I got to the middle, I didn't want to put it down. At the ending, it started to drag a little and got kind of strange. This is one of those books that feels very idea-heavy, like the author got a really cool idea but wasn't sure how to finish the story and just threw something together. I wasn't all that keen on the ending, but I really enjoyed the build-up and the characters were decent. I just think that A WITCH IN TIME is the stronger of the two books.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson


So I'm doing this project where I'm rereading the books I enjoyed as a teen. It's called the literary-sad-girl-canon, because I was both mopey and precocious, a literary sad girl. Yes, I know it's dumb but that's what I'm calling it. Anyway, when I was young, my mopey self was super into Laurie Halse Anderson. I mean, super. I didn't know book-signings were a thing back then but if I did, I probably would have dragged my mom to one because I worshipped this woman. SPEAK was the first book of hers I read and I loved it so much I wanted to read everything else that she wrote too. Unfortunately, though, nothing else came close except, maybe, WINTERGIRLS and TWISTED (I remember liking those a lot but it's been years since I read them and I can no longer vouch for Teen Me's choices).

One thing I like about Anderson's books is that all of her protagonists are so different. PROM is about a bad girl who might not be so bad. SPEAK is about an outcast struggling to find her place and overcome trauma. CATALYST is about a good girl with some bad problems. Kate Malone is a preacher's daughter with aspirations to get into MIT. She's so confident (or risky) that it's the only school she applied to-- no safeties. As she gets more and more neurotic about the acceptance deadlines, more trouble brews. Teri Litch, the school bad girl and Kate's ex-bully, has her house burn down, so she ends up staying with Kate-- along with her little brother. Saturday morning sitcom this is not.

I don't think this book is quite as strong as SPEAK but it's a better book than PROM and attempts to tackle some pretty serious topics, like not getting into your dream college, the struggle between selfish and selfless actions, incest (yikes), and dead loved ones/grief. I actually really liked Kate because she reminded me a lot of me in high school and college. I was also very grades and extra curriculars focused and I tended to beat myself up about it. I also had my heart set on one college but unlike Kate (spoilers) I got in. Where it failed, I think, is that the story just isn't as compelling as SPEAK was. SPEAK, to me, felt very linear with a clear message whereas CATALYST was much more disorganized. It ventured from topic to topic, like an after school special that wasn't sure what it was supposed to be warning me against, and even though I did find Kate a compellingly unlikable (but relatable) heroine, I just didn't quite vibe with her the way I did with Melinda.

P.S. Melinda makes a cameo in this book. She's still creating art. YAAAAAASS.

3 out of 5 stars

Mortal Danger by Ann Aguirre


I'm trying to purge my room of its physical copies of books and that means a lot of YA I've stocked up over the years. MORTAL DANGER is a book I bought years ago but never read. 99% of the reason I bought it was because I love the author, Ann Aguirre: her Sirantha Jax series is my everything.

MORTAL DANGER is... a very strange book. Actually, a lot of my friends really didn't like it and I can sort of see why. It's like a weirder version of the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning, with a high school revenge plot and some insta-love thrown in. Is it cliche and silly? Yes. Did I care? No, not particularly. The pacing and story-telling was so much fun that I was just like #YOLO and kept reading, despite things that would normally annoy me so much that I'd put the book in question down.

Part of that is the heroine. She's pretty compelling. In the beginning of the book she is about to kill herself (major triggers) but an otherworldly figure intervenes, cutting her a Faustian bargain: three favors in exchange for her soul (well, basically). As we get to know the heroine, we find out that Edie had some truly fucked up stuff happen to her at her private high school, but the changes from her first wish make her realize that happiness and revenge don't necessarily walk hand in hand, which is a surprisingly mature lesson-- and one I wasn't really expecting to see here.

I liked the idea of the game and the opposing forces and seeing whether or not Edie would use up all her wishes kept me turning pages. I'm also a sucker for a hot dangerous guy, and Kian was charming although he wasn't quite "bad boy" enough to suit my particular tastes. This book is trying to do a lot of things and maybe it's too many but I enjoyed the ride and you might, too. It's a lot more brutal than most YA these days ventures to be and I kind of admire it for that.

3 out of 5 stars

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding


So I'm doing this thing where I'm rereading the books I read as a teen and trying to figure out whether they hold up to an adult's perspective or if they were just zeitgeist-appropriate crap. BRIDGET JONES is definitely not a teen book, but that didn't stop me from reading it anyway! Actually, the first time I read it, I was ten. My mom wouldn't let me have it because she was like, "She'll be a bad influence on you!" which meant me pulling up a chair to the bookshelf to get it from where she'd hidden it and staying up three nights straight to read it. Did ten-year-old me understand WTF Ms. Jones was on about? No. Did I suddenly start weighing myself and listing my meals in my journals just like she did because I thought it was cool and the Grown-Up Thing to Do? Yes. Did it mess me up for life? Well, no, but it did seem to turn me into a thirty-something Singleton so maybe that's The Curse of the Book.

I'm not sure there's a book out there that captures the life of the thirty-something single woman quite like this one. Bridget is so relatable and so funny. She's like the perfect blend of good girl/bad girl, and her dynamics with her friends and family were such a delight to read and made her feel like such a well-rounded character. I did think the movie was better since so much of the focus is on Daniel that Darcy almost feels like an afterthought and when his feelings do crop up, they seem to come out of nowhere. It's funny that Hugh Grant and Colin Firth were chosen for the roles because both of the actors are actually mentioned in this book (which I thought was super hilarious). 

The sexual harassment and outmoded dating advice don't age quite as well, and part of my love for this book is definitely nostalgic, but I still really enjoyed being in Bridget's head. Her anxiety/neuroticism really mirrored my own in my teens/early 20s. I honestly feel a little embarrassed thinking about how much I obsessed over boys sometimes when I was younger. I still have my journals from my early teens and oh my god, I forgot how I could spent hours parsing through every single interaction for secret clues. I'm not sure this book will be quite as appealing to teens and young women now but if you're interested in some fun 90s references and a pretty well-rounded heroine (that also serves as a pretty decent homage to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE), you should definitely check out this book.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Rhapsody in Green: A novelist, an obsession, a laughably small excuse for a vegetable garden by Charlotte Mendelson


This is a cozy little memoir about a British woman's unconventional garden. Sweet chaos is how I'd describe it, actually. She doesn't really know what she's doing but she has heaps of enthusiasm, and when she's not accidentally killing off her plants, she's reveling in the different kinds of varietals. Rather than growing pretty flowers, she's obsessed with anything edible, and RHAPSODY IN GREEN chronicles her thoughts on various plants, her successes, her failures, mostly taking place in a very tiny plot in her humble backyard.

I recently started gardening with my mom so the idea of reading a book about another amateur gardener was pretty appealing to me. I get so excited about seeds-- I just got a pack of squash seeds that contains heirloom varieties of spring, summer, fall, and winter squash-- and my mom and I often fangirl over radishes and bokchoy, and everything in our garden is edible. So reading this book was kind of like reading someone after my own heart. I found myself nodding along to a lot of what she was saying, especially in those moments where enthusiasm eclipses ability and leads to (humorous) disappointment.

Her writing is gorgeous, self-effacing and descriptive. If you like quiet and cozy memoirs you can read on your porch, this is that. I don't think you'll enjoy this if you aren't a foodie or if you aren't into gardening, but if you love vegetables, and if you love growing vegetables, you'll love RHAPSODY IN GREEN. I myself am now tempted to race out and load up on arugula and golden beets.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson


So I'm doing this project where I'm rereading the books I read as a teen, some adult literary fiction, some young adult. Some books hold up, some don't. This book is a don't... well, kind of. PROM is written by Laurie Halse Anderson, of SPEAK fame, and while SPEAK held up and was still as near and dear to my heart as it was when I read it the first time, PROM... fell short. In fact, I was shocked when I checked out the release dates because PROM felt like a kind of washed-out, leading-up-to-the-polished-finale debut... but apparently it came out after SPEAK did?! Whaaaaaaaat? I am #shook.

PROM, in case you couldn't tell from the title, is about prom. It's set in a bad neighborhood in Philadelphia, only it's like 1990s after school special "bad," so there's some references to unsafe neighborhoods, drugs, and gangs, and a couple of the kids in this book smoke, but there's no real consequences, and it feels more quirky than edgy. This is something I've noticed a couple other reviewers complaining to as well, and... yeah, that's something that went over my head as a (white) teen, but as an adult, the author's attempts to have these kids talk like they're "street" is... more than a little bit cringe at times.

Our heroine is named Ashley and I actually liked that she's a little bit of a bad girl. She cuts class, she has a no-good boyfriend, she wants to be a Beauty School Dropout. In a way, she's kind of like a Grease Pink Lady, only without the pink. The title comes into play when it is discovered that one of the math teachers embezzled all of the prom money for reasons, leaving them with less than a month to think up a solution with, like, no money. Ashley's friend, Nat, is on the prom committee and basically forces Ashley into helping her, so Ashley is like "why not have it at the gym?" Literally the whole plot is a will prom/won't prom happen? conundrum, with some slice of life thrown in for funsies.

This book was a much Bigger Deal to teen me because it really captures the fishbowl mentality of high school, as well as the importance of being seen and seeing at social events (like prom). Which I actually went to. And prom was a big deal... when I was a teenager. Now, I barely remember that night, which is kind of sad, but maybe also an allegory for the evanescence of What Matters When You Are Young. Things that seem like life and death at seventeen will be half-forgotten by the time you are thirty.

PROM is an okay book but I definitely wouldn't recommend it to older readers. I think it's in this weird book limbo, where some people are going to hate on this book for having Bad Teen Values and some people are going to hate on it for being Fake Woke, and some people are going to hate on it for being Not As Good As Speak, and some people are going to hate on it because it comes across as more than a little vapid. I personally thought it was fun but some nostalgia was definitely tying into that, and it doesn't really hold up for an adult reader, imo, even though I also wouldn't consider it a bust.

For more Baby Nenia reads, check out my literary sad girl canon project!

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 14, 2021

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helen Fielding


You might know Helen Fielding as that other famous female British author that even Americans know about. Unlike the other other one, though, Fielding seems content to enjoy her fame in peace and quietude and doesn't hang around on the internet spouting nonsense and offensive bullshit. More power to her, I say. I hope she's living the high life on her heaping piles of well-deserved money. (Mark Darcy-- I swoon.)

In case you didn't know, OLIVIA JOULES AND THE OVERACTIVE IMAGINATION is by the same author as BRIDGET JONES. It is a lot less popular than Bridget Jones and, like CAUSE CELEB, seems to have a tendency to divide its audiences. I read this for the first time as a teenager. In fact, I read it while living in the UK (I think I bought the book at a Waterstones in a mall; it was on sale for just a few quid). And since I'm doing a super fun project where I'm rereading some of the books of my youth (literary sad girl canon), this book seemed to be a solid candidate as I have vivid memories of lying awake late at night reading this book, skimming through for the bizarre and randomly placed illustrations that are interspersed throughout the book with text (all done comic book style, because of course).

The premise of this book is incredibly silly. It was written in the wake of 9/11 (2003), so Al-Qaeda is, of course, the villain. The heroine is a gorgeous/perky/cute journalist with an overactive imagination who ends up crying wolf right about when nobody believes her: that the hot guy she's super into might, in fact, be a megalomaniac who could be a terrorist in disguise. Also, there's makeup launches in Miami, a bit of a take-down of the L.A. party scene back from when boy bands were still a thing and people still wore red carpet drop-crotch pants, and there's a scuba diving accident, a trek through the Sudan, and someone accidentally snaps a pic of Bin Laden's crotch. No, it's not Cocaine o' Clock at the Nose Candy Cafe. All of this really happens in the book. I KNOW. I kind of loved it.

So here's the thing. This book does come across as a teensy bit Islamophobic in hindsight. And by a teensy bit I mean... this book would not be written today. That said, I think it is an incredibly cutting social commentary on everything from British snobbery, American ignorance, vapid celebrity culture, stereotypes in general, and that hyper-paranoid mindset so many people had in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack. You kind of get the same sort of vibe with old James Bond films and 1980s bodice-rippers: they show the attitudes and reflections of the times, for better or for worse. And what makes OLIVIA JOULES a bit more forgivable is that it really doesn't take itself at all seriously.

I think I enjoyed this more reading it as a teen but BRIDGET JONES was always this author's crown jewel to me (although I have a soft spot for CAUSE CELEB). If you're going to read it, be prepared to suspend all of your disbelief and take it with a whole bag of Morton's salt.

P.S. Debatable point, but I would argue that the biggest crime in this book was not the terrorism but the noughties fashion. I forgot about micro-minis and the low-rise jeans/whale tail combo, and ramen bowl haircuts for men. Lord help us all, how we made it out of the 2000s with any semblance of taste is nothing short of a miracle.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Sold by Patricia McCormick


I'm doing this thing where I reread books I read as a teen. SOLD was one of those books. I remember reading it when I was an older teen and thinking it was so interesting and edgy, reading about the types of real world issues we didn't really learn about in school. Sex trafficking is a global epidemic, so it is good to see YA authors writing about it, but all of the criticisms people had for this book really held true for me: the vignette style comes across as pretentious and overly simplistic. I think McCormick captured the horror of forcing children into prostitution but all of the characters in this book fall flat, except for Lakshmi's mother and stepfather in the beginning, who were actually pretty interesting. Setting up white male Americans as the heroes and saviors in this book was also questionable to me, especially since wealthy white men are often the clientele of sex trafficking. This is definitely a book about people of color that was probably written for a white audience.

I can't remember what I thought of SOLD the first time I read it because it was so long ago. I feel like I probably gave it a three but it really doesn't age well.

2 out of 5 stars

After by Francine Prose


There's this movie called Disturbing Behavior (1998) that I really liked when I was younger. It's like Stepford Wives meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and it has a baby James Marsden and Katie Holmes in it. It's dated AF and riddled with plot holes, but I really liked the story and it had some genuinely creepy moments. Reading AFTER reminded me a lot of a less-gritty version of Disturbing Behavior. Set in the aftermath of a mass shooting, it chronicles a high school's gradual stripping away of its students' liberties in the name of safety. But who will protect them from the protectors?

I remember thinking this book was so good in high school. I stayed up all night reading it, my tiny aspiring writer brain filled with raw envy. It's narrated in first person from a male jock named Tom and I thought the author did a pretty good job making him sound like a real teenage boy; he's selfish but not a bad person, and hyper-focused on what other people around him think of him and his constructed persona, which is why when things start going south, he immediately begins self-doubting his own reality. He doesn't want to look like a coward or, worse, paranoid.

I saw a couple other reviewers comparing this to ANIMAL FARM and I could sort of see that. They have similar themes. ANIMAL FARM worked where this one didn't, though, because it was fantasy and didn't attempt to root itself in reality. There is something almost dystopian about this world, with almost supernatural elements, but they aren't well-explained enough to really work, which makes it feel like several pivotal plot points are either totally lacking in explanation or suffering from deus-ex-machinitis. I feel like the author had this really cool idea but she wasn't really sure how to hash it out, and instead of going full dystopian, full realism, or full Twilight Zone, she compromised with all three.

It kind of reads like a longer, edgier version of one of those old Point Horror books, so if you are in the mood for some creepy-lite that also talks about sex and drugs, you'll probably like this book. I didn't really question it all that much when I read it at age seventeen. I was like, "Yeah! The man sucks! Down with the man!" Now, adult me is like, "Yeah, the man sucks-- but what the fuck was up with that ending and why does the man have god-like powers?" Like... I'm down to hate the man, but I want answers.

This wasn't a bust, but as with my reread of ALL-AMERICAN GIRL, I find that as an adult reading YA, I'm much less satisfied with unsatisfactory explanations and am far less willing to suspend my disbelief.

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier


So I'm doing this thing where I reread some of the books that made a big impression on me as a teen. I'm calling it the "literary sad girl canon" because it's basically a collection of depressive and precocious mopey teen lit, because I was a depressive and precocious mopey teen, and I REALLY wish Goodreads had been around when I was a kid, because if someone had put together a list like this for ME back then, I probably would have dissolved into weepy tears of gratitude.

THE CHOCOLATE WAR is a really intense book that kind of looks at the innate predilections for cruelty that dwell within team boys. If you've read LORD OF THE FLIES or THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE, you will know what to expect. If you haven't, then you might be one of the one-star reviews for this book bemoaning the fact that somebody wrote this without first thinking of the children! I kid, but seriously. The way Cormier dissected the psyches of the kids-- and adults-- in this story gave me chills the first time I read it, and it still left me feeling cold even now. It's brutal. Especially the ending.

The premise is simple. At a Christian all boys' school, there is a fund-raiser being held where the boys have to sell chocolates. One of the unscrupulous Brothers ordered twice as many as normal (in what smacks of a fraudulent racket) and has enlisted the school's secret society to aid him in selling the chocolates. At the same time, Jerry Renault, one of the new boys, has landed on the secret society's radar for holding his head too high. When a prank goes too far, and pride reaches its stretching points, Jerry finds himself facing down against not just the secret society... but also the whole school.

I guess how much you enjoy this book will depend on your need for stories that have a life-affirming world-view. THE CHOCOLATE WAR portrays a world where evil often triumphs and even though that's sometimes true, I think it's something a lot of us wish wasn't true, and might not want to read about in books (judging by some of the reviews). I personally really liked it and I am surprised it was a banned book because it doesn't seem that much worse than other things I have read, but as a character study and a tightly-paced thriller, it's fascinating and doesn't condescend to its audience.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Great Big One by J.C. Geiger


DNF @ p.130

I really struggled with this one. It's not a bad book, the writing style just really didn't resonate with me and I didn't particularly like or relate to any of the characters. The premise is an interesting one. It's about two brothers, Griff and Leo, who live on a coastal town that's constantly wondering when the next big tsunami will happen. They're preppers who are interested in classic rock and roll, but their relationship strains with the arrival of a new girl, Charity, who can sing like an angel. She's also a manic pixie dreamgirl, acting as a sort of muse for both of them. This reminds me of some of those cheesy adventure movies from the 90s/the teen Judd Apatow-esque movies from the mid-2000s. I think it requires too much suspension of disbelief for me, but if you're into zaniness, you'll probably like this.

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

2 out of 5 stars

Stone Fruit by Lee Lai


This is a very strange graphic novel and I didn't really like the art style but it fit the story, which made it easier to appreciate once I started to get a better sense of the characters. I think the best comparison that I can really think of is the TV show, Bojack Horseman. STONE FRUIT is a book about messy (and sometimes toxic) relationships and mental health and LGBT+ issues and family and parenting and all of this other stuff, only there's no gloss here.

When Rachel and Bron are playing with Rachel's niece, the author chose to draw them as, like, spirit-like monsters to capture the feral nature of child's play. This serves as an interesting juxtaposition to the more grounded adult storylines, such as Bron going back to reconnect with her Christian family members that she left after coming out as trans, or Rachel trying to build her relationship with her single mother sister who is stressed and worried that all of her issues are keeping her from being a good/fun parent.

This isn't the happiest story in the world, but it isn't sad, either. It just feels like a serious slice-of-life drama about figuring out your life as an adult and trying to salvage you can from relationships that aren't perfect.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Don't Read the Comments by Eric Smith


I meant to write a review for this earlier but I actually just bought Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town for the Nintendo Switch and I've been playing that all day instead of reading and posting reviews. Which is actually totally appropriate because DON'T READ THE COMMENTS is about a girl gamer.

It's funny, because the cover, title, and premise are pretty similar to another book I read recently called DON'T HATE THE PLAYER. Both are about girl gamers of color who end up being targeted by internet trolls while also trying to navigate their personal lives and also find love. They're not rip-offs of each other or anything like that, though. In DHtP, the heroine is Latinx, the love interest is white (and her childhood friend!), and she's competing in a Leagues of Legends-like clone while also trying to balance school and sports. The harassment is pretty local and starts because of something personal.

In DRtC, the heroine is Indian, the love interest is Palestinian, and she's a popular streamer who plays a futuristic all-range MMORPG, which seems to be a clone of No Man's Sky while trying to use her gamer clout to help out her single mother as they teeter on the edge of poverty. The harassment is large-scale and impersonal; they're harassing her because she's a girl on the internet who plays video games.

I really loved DON'T READ THE COMMENTS. The author did a great job writing from the POV of a teen girl and while I can't speak to the diversity rep and how accurate that was, nothing jumped out at me as being disrespectful or, like, blatantly stereotypical or wrong. I loved Divya and thought she was an incredibly strong heroine and I liked how cautious she was on the internet. I also loved the hero, Aaron. I liked that he respected Divya's boundaries and his relationship with his younger sister was super cute. He has a story arc of his own with an employer who is taking advantage of him and I think that's something a lot of teens will unfortunately be able to relate to, especially if they are working under the table or neglected to ask for cash up front for a contracting job.

Anyone who loves games is going to love this book a lot. It's fast-paced with really great action sequences and both characters are likable and interesting with real problems that I think teens (and some adults) will really be able to relate to. If you don't like video games, you might not enjoy this because it is such a focus, but for me, it felt a lot like coming home.

Also, that ending! SWOON.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch


I bought this a while ago and never read it and one of my projects is to go through all my YA and get rid of the ones that aren't worth keeping. It's interesting to me that so many of the reviews for this book claim that this is taking an apologist stance on rape because I really didn't get that read anymore than Nabokov's LOLITA is advocating for pedophilia. Both books have unreliable narrators who truly believe that they have done no wrong, even though they are hurting people and operating within a moral void. Their goal, as the main character, is to convince you, the reader, that they are, in fact, the good guy.

INEXCUSABLE is slightly less disturbing than LOLITA, but its premise is no less grave. Keir is a football player who has just been accused of rape by a girl friend of his. He is convinced that it wasn't rape and the whole book is a laundry list of all the reasons he can't be a rapist-- because he is, in fact, a "good guy." But if you parse between the lines, the evidence kind of mounts up against him. He's selfish and believes that everything revolves around him. He hurt someone badly in football and makes light of it as being part of the game. He doesn't think of his sisters as people and refuses to entertain the idea that their wishes might differ from his. He has a father who is reliving his own glory days through him and no mother. In fact, his mother is dead, and Keir resents her passing as an inconvenience to himself.

So it really isn't surprising, then, that when he covets the girlfriend of one of his friends, he constructs this entire narrative in which she is just another thing-- yes, thing-- that is his due as one of the ball-playing golden boys in town. A narrative in which her boyfriend doesn't deserve her, because he is obviously the better candidate for boyfriend; a narrative in which there is no possible reason she would ever refuse him because nobody ever does; a narrative in which he is, in fact, the good guy. The end of the book takes a slightly chilling turn as Keir maybe, finally, gets a tiny glimpse of what a monster he is capable of being for maybe the first time in his life and the book ends on that shivering note.

INEXCUSABLE is heavy-handed and I thought it lacked subtlety personally, but so many people seem to be taking this book at face-value that maybe it had too much subtlety? It's funny because I just read SPEAK, and was thinking that Andy Evans, the rapist in SPEAK, probably had a similar running narrative in his own head-- and then I saw that one of my friends had come to the same conclusion in her review. Is the rapist's narrative really necessary or even desirable? No, not really. But I do think the author did a really good job with this experimental work-- what is writing if not an ongoing social experiment?-- and that it reads as a condemnation and not an apology, but rather a close examination of the kind of toxic culture of masculinity that breeds excuses instead of accountability.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros


There's a line in here about linoleum roses and ceilings that look like wedding cakes that has stayed with me for over ten years. I had to read this book in high school and for a long time, I didn't like it because the teacher who taught it to me was a total asshole and he imposed his own white man world view over it. To give you an idea of what this man was like, he would make jokes about AIDS and regale us with stories of public urination from his own adolescence (because #PeePranks) and his favorite author was John Steinbeck and he once told us that Jane Austen was an insipid romance novelist and not "real literature." Such was the man who taught us this delicate story about a Mexican-American girl's coming of age.

So, you know, obviously he treated it with respect and care.

I haven't quite gotten over my hatred of John Steinbeck because of this man and suspect it might last me a lifetime, but having just reread and loved SPEAK, I thought it would be nice to give HOUSE ON MANGO STREET another try because I remembered them sharing similar themes. And to my surprise and delight, I ended up loving this book much, much more when reading it and discovering it for myself at my own pace with my own interpretations. It's a beautiful story about a girl living in the poor part of Chicago and trying to find her own interpretation of the American dream.

This weighty book tackles all sorts of subjects: racism, classism, family, found family, abuse, gender roles, sexual assault, the immigrant experience, poverty, and feminism. I loved Esperanza's narrative voice. It's told in a sort of stream of consciousness style and mostly it sounds just like you would expect a very young girl to write, but there's all these beautiful turns of phrase that make it sound like poetry. So in that sense, I guess it's like the nostalgic way that you think you talked as a young adult, but with the poetic adult filter imposed over it. It's very short and easy to read, so if you haven't read this book, I definitely recommend it. It's often sad but it's not without hope and the ending is wonderful.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 3, 2021

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel


I don't read a ton of literature now because I read a lot of the ones most worth reading when I was younger (at least, the ones I thought worth reading), but one of my recent projects is revisiting some of the books I read as a teen and seeing if I liked them just as much upon taking a second look. I read LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE when I was in high school and I remember being totally shocked at all the scandalous sex scenes and family drama. In many ways, this is kind of like a magic-realism take on the V.C. Andrews fucked-up family Gothic, with all of its secret lusts, hidden violence, and tempestuous relationships, all lorded over by an evil matriarch who has it in for the heroine and wants to make her miserable.

Narrated by the grand-niece of the heroine, this is a story about a star-crossed romance. Tita, the heroine, is the youngest daughter of Mama Elena, which means that she must take care of her mother until she dies. When Tita falls passionately in love with another man, Pedro, her mother rebuffs his offer and hitches him to her other daughter instead, Rosaura. Pedro agrees only because marrying Rosaura means being close to Tita and he hopes to have an affair with her.

Lots of other things happen too, and some of them are totally crazy. Like, imagine causing fireworks displays and visions of the Northern lights every time you bang (you might be in a Sarah J. Maas novel!) Feelings also get transmitted to food, so depending on the mood of the chef that day, you might find yourself moved to bitter tears (to the point of death) or so desperately horny that you set your bath on fire. This fantastical element keeps the story moving and gives it an interesting, fairytale-like quality that I found fascinating, even though some of the characters made me want to knock their heads together.

If you're new to the magic-realism genre, this is a fun book to start out with. It's short, which makes it easy to read, and has all these fabulous descriptions of rustic Mexican cuisine. The romance is also fun, even if it doesn't really have the sort of HEA romance readers might expect, and has an over-the-top bodice-ripper vibe that I think I appreciate more now as an adult who reads bodice-rippers. Some people might say it's too racy for teens but I disagree-- for some teen girls, this will probably be the hook that gets them into classic literature and shows them that it's not all stuffed shirts and dusty parlors.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez


It's always a little stressful picking up a book that all of your friends have loved because it's never fun being the first person to hate on it, but luckily I didn't have to worry about that with FURIA, because I loved every moment of it. I don't even like sports, so the fact that a book about soccer kept me engrossed from start to finish is really testament to the author's abilities to tell a moving story.

Camila is a Palestinian-Argentinian girl living in Argentina. She comes from a family of soccer players and she plays soccer too, but she does it in secret knowing her family might not approve. Her life gets even more complicated when her childhood crush comes back to visit his hometown, only now he's a famous soccer player in his own right, and Camila feels a sense of inadequacy when he's around, struggling to reconcile his newfound fame with the boy she remembers.

This is the type of YA I love. It's a book that tackles tough subjects without sounding like it has an agenda or coming across as heavy-handed. And wow, there is a veritable LAKE of tough subjects in here: abusive parents, managing to parental expectations, feminism, women's rights, setting limits and expectations in relationships, and standing up for your dreams. Also, romance.

Let's talk about the romance, too, actually. I normally hate YA romance because it comes across as too forced (done for the clicks). This is the perfect example of a relationship that zaps you with its perfect chemistry while also portraying consent, realistic goals, and the idea of setting boundaries. As frustrating as it is to have such a prolonged will they/won't they, I felt like all of Camila's concerns were 100% valid and I loved that she wasn't willing to shelve her dreams to become what society expected of her. Diego was a doll, though. One of the best YA love interests ever. I swoon.

Definitely read this if you love YA with strong female protagonists!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson


When I was a freshman, the girl behind me in one of my classes tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I reminded her of the girl in SPEAK. I don't even remember what the context for this revelation was. It was right before class was about to start and I was just minding my own business. I was extremely socially phobic and carried around a drawing notebook and did the same sort of nervous lip-chewing thing and I was like, huh this sounds like a trap. But when you're a kid and someone tells you that you remind them of a character in a book, you read the book. So I got my hands on a copy of Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK and I was... well, horrified.

Because, you know, the rape thing.

Don't get me wrong. I loved the book. With all the chipper, nostalgic YA fiction coming of age stories coming out with the plucky and indomitable heroines, it was so refreshing to read about a character who was miserable and didn't care who knew about it. I can't tell you how many fucking people-- teachers alike-- told me to "smile" when I was young. In her case, her depression was a by-product of her trauma and social shaming. In my case, it was just depression. And that isn't to trivialize depression at all, but in my mind, at age fourteen, it felt a little strange to find myself relating to a character so strongly and yet not have the same sort of external reasons that she did. It made me feel like my depression was unwarranted and maybe undeserved, which caused a lot of angst.

I'm surprised more people don't like Melinda Sordino's character, to be honest. SPEAK has such mixed reviews among my friends. Some people took issue with Melinda's snarkiness (which felt super accurate to me). Some took issue with the way rape was presented and treated (which is a fair point-- especially since not all victims of sexual abuse have the same experiences, although this isn't something I can personally speak to with much authority). Some people didn't like the writing style, which is also fair. It's formatted almost like a teen's notebook and it really does read like someone's found journal. Reading this book gave me all of the same feels that I got reading it the first time, and even though I'm slightly less jaded and misanthropic now than I was as a kid, I love the portrayal of adolescent angst. It also talked about issues that not a lot of adults writing YA talked about at the time, or that weren't readily available and widely publicized if they were. The only book I can really think of that I had access to and read at the time that talked about sexual assault and the unhappiness and angst that sometimes comes with being a girl was HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros.

This is a book I would recommend to any teen who is tired of reading sugary-sweet stories written by adults that kind of romanticize the high school experience and want to read something "real." It was published a while ago so it does have a slightly warped and un-PC reflection of high school and its students, but this is really what high school was like where I went, and a lot of the people and the things they do and say have real-life counterparts in my own memories. Just, you know, maybe learn from my classmate and don't go around telling people that they remind you of Melinda Sordino.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 2, 2021

The In Between by Marc Klein


I dithered a little on how to rate this. I loved the set-up but ultimately THE IN BETWEEN ended up all over the place. It's dual-timeline, with both past and present storylines. In the past, the heroine, Tessa, is falling in love with a jock-y manic pixie dream-boy named Skylar, who is good at sports but also speaks like five languages, is into 80s music, and watches arthouse cinema and French films. In the present, Tessa is recovering from the accident that killed Skylar and ruptured her heart, nearly killing her as well.

There's a bit of a magic-realism element in this book, like BEFORE I FALL and IF I STAY and all of those other books that rode on the coattails of LOVELY BONES. But it doesn't really work super well here because it feels so undefined. The dialogue and the slang don't really feel authentic (lots of "bros" and "yos") and it seemed like the younger characters were super precocious and annoying, not really into the sorts of things kids would be into but more into the things that an adult who watches a lot of Woody Allen and John Hughes movies would be into while also trying to channel John Green.

I was invested enough to read to the end, but ultimately the story fell kind of flat for me. I didn't really relate to any of the characters and while I thought most of the cultural references-- 80s new wave, 90s alt-rock, French and indie films, getting drunk on soju-- were fun, I'm a pretentious snob in my 30s and I'm not sure a lot of teens would get the appeal. I think it's trying to be too high brow and meaningful for what it is, and I'm not really sure who the target audience for this book would even be. It does kind of remind me of those pretentious hipster teen movies that were coming out in the mid/late-2000s so I guess if you're into that, you might like this.

2 out of 5 stars

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell


DNF @ 30%

Welcome to my Cleaning Out the Kindlethon! I recently came to the attention that I had over 1,000 books on my Kindle. I'm trying to wade my way through the mess and sort the wheat from the chaff.

I bought this book while it was on sale because it kind of had REBECCA vibes. A young and pregnant woman goes to the home of her departed husband to give birth and finds everyone to be standoffish and unfriendly. It alternates between the past and the present, where the heroine is now an old woman in an institution.

There's nothing wrong with the book objectively. The writing is decent and it has good atmosphere. It's just too slow-paced for me to get into, so it seems like a matter of stylistic differences. If you enjoy really slow-paced books, in the vein of Margaret Atwood or Stacey Halls, you may enjoy this. I like both those authors so I thought this would work for me but for whatever reason, I couldn't get into it.

2 out of 5 stars

Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa


I went into this with no expectations. I'd seen people raving about this Japanese novella but didn't really know what it was about. The hero of this book is a man named Sentaro, who is an ex-con and an aspiring writer, who works as a cook making crepes filled with sweet bean paste. He leads a jaded, monotonous existence, in debt to his employers, so when an old woman with deformed hands comes to him one day begging for work, he isn't quite sure what to do. At first, he rebuffs her, but her persistence ends up paying off after he samples some of her sweet bean paste and finds it to be incredibly delicious.

The woman's name is Tokue and she is a mysterious, enigmatic figure. The story leans a little heavily on the Magical Old Person trope but she has nuances that keep her from being a stereotype. Tokue is actually suffering from Hansen's disease, which is a type of leprosy, and even though she has been asymptomatic and "cured" for years, her hands still bear traces of the disease, which has caused people in town to talk and customers to slowly drop away from the dorayaki shop.

This is a really interesting book that explores friendships between people of different social classes and age groups, and also what happens to people suffering from diseases that society doesn't understand. The history about how people with leprosy were treated in Japan was really awful (there was also a leper colony on one of the Hawaiian islands, if I recall correctly, that were similarly ostracized and swept under the rug). My heart ached for Tokue and I really liked how her gentle friendship with Sentaro encouraged him to be a better person and to seek agency in his own life.

SWEET BEAN PASTE is a bittersweet story that has lovely descriptions of food and Japan and even though it is short, it manages to convey a ton of character development in a very short time and it is very life-affirming. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys Japanese literature.

4 out of 5 stars

For the Wolf by Hannah F. Whitten


DNF @ p.90

I actually hated this a lot. It's written in the same generic sort of style that a lot of YA is, so if you like the usual line-up of edgy-lite authors-- Renee Ahdieh, Sarah J. Maas, Emily A. Duncan-- you'll enjoy this. I loved the premise and was envisioning something like BONE HOUSES or SABRIEL but this was not that, and if you're expecting that, too, you'll be disappointed like I was. I'm going to donate my copy to a teacher friend for her high school students, who I think will enjoy this more than I did.

Thanks to Brigid for reading this with me.

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

1 out of 5 stars

I'll Be the One by Lyla Lee


DNF @ 24%

This is a tough review to write because I love what the book was trying to do. I just wasn't keen on the execution. I'LL BE THE ONE is about a heroine named Skye who wants to be a K-Pop star. The only problem is, she's plus-size and she knows that it's an industry that pretty ruthlessly regulates the appearances of its stars and is very unforgiving to girls (and boys) with bigger bodies. Despite that, she enters a singing competition anyway and manages to woo 2/3 of the judges to get to the next stage.

I think the way you feel about this book will depend on two things: how you feel about books that are as sweet and airy as storebought cupcakes (i.e. pure sugar and not a lot of substance, but nice to look at and endearing in their way) and how you feel about books that have a pretty obvious agenda and spend their whole page count whacking you over the head with it repeatedly.

As a plus-size woman, I love seeing books that raise women with bigger bodies up. But I want it to feel natural and I do want it to feel real and not like a post-it I've stuck to my bathroom mirror to empower myself. I'LL BE THE ONE is very cute but I personally felt like the shallowness of the material made its messages ring a little hollowly. Your mileage may vary.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 1, 2021

King's Captive by Amber Bardan


Wow, this was a lot of fun. A captivity romance that isn't super problematic with incredibly hot scenes and an intense Gothic vibe? Um, let me think for one-point-five seconds... YES. I bought this at the recommendation of a friend who said she thought I'd like it because it's similar to the types of books I love to read and write. That, and the inexpensive price tag, made me slam the one-click button and boy, oh boy, I am so glad I did!

Sarah is the captive of a mysterious man named Julius and has been for three years. Alternating between a show-down at her eighteenth birthday and the present when she is twenty-one, we slowly learn more about the history between the two of them and why they have such explosive chemistry. It's set on a gloomy island estate and the heroine is an unreliable narrator, which is intensified by the dual timeline. I know some people don't like dual timelines but I love them. Getting the bits and pieces of a story in tantalizing crumbs is like catnip to me.

This was so good. It was dark but not in an edgy way-- it reminded me of a more erotic version of one of those 1970s Gothic mysteries, drenched in atmosphere and UST, only in this book the author leaves the bedroom door all the way open. What makes it even better is that Sarah is a pretty strong heroine. Sometimes in dark romances, the heroines can come across as kind of spineless pushovers, but she was conniving and determined to do what she needed to do for her own sake, and I loved that. I was pleasantly surprised because I read another book by this author and didn't really like it all that much, so it's so incredible to see how much she has improved at her craft!

Definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes dark romances that aren't too taboo.

4 out of 5 stars