Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Admirer by Debra Franklin


I'm going through some of my old books that I found in storage and deciding what stays and what goes. This book is from the Z-Fave line which seems to be Kensington publishing's attempt to compete with Scholastic's Point Horror line. I haven't read any of the other books in this series so I can't say for sure how well it succeeds, but based on this one, I have to say that it was a pretty solid thriller.

When Duane, Morgan's abusive boyfriend, slaps her for not doing his homework for him, Morgan breaks up with him and declares that she's over men despite her friend Elliott's skepticism. Morgan's ability to hold out lasts approximately a few days before she lands eyes on Neal. Such is the fickle nature of the teenage girl.

At the same time, gifts are appearing on her front porch-- a bottle of her favorite perfume, a cassette of her favorite band, a sexy nightgown in her favorite color. She thinks it's from a secret admirer and at first she's flattered-- but then the gifts start to turn nasty. You know, as things do.

I think I've read this before but so many YA books from this time period revolved around sexually motivated stalkers that it sometimes felt like a sneaky form of birth control ("don't have sex, or you'll get an axe in your head"). The mystery was good. I had a pretty good idea what was going on from the beginning but the author foreshadowed it really well. It also had a ton of really fun dated references, like VHS players, the heroine reading one of Danielle Steel's old novels (Heartbeat), and cars like the Chevrolet Celebrity or the Chevrolet Malibu (I guess the author likes Chevrolets?).

Some of the dated references were less charming, though. There's a reference to something called a "f*g rag", which I looked up and I guess is a derogatory word for a gay magazine. The heroine at one point threatens to put one in her ex's bedroom if he doesn't stop threatening her. It also keeps using the word "pudwhacker," which I'd never heard before, and I guess is a Southern way of saying jerk-off? (The book is set in Kansas.) It's used several times and is kind of surprising to see such words in these YA pulps because in my thoughts they were always tame, but I guess these things just went way over Child Me's head. 

The villain, it probably won't surprise you to hear, is a super incel creep, so there's all kinds of abusive language towards women, including numerous uses of the word "bitch."

Overall I liked this mystery a lot and I liked (most) of the dated references. ESPECIALLY the link to the publisher's online chat, which actually invites you to dial in with a modem. I took a picture of that and uploaded it to my Instagram because it was so precious (don't worry, I blurred out the numbers). Would I read this again? Probably not. But I am curious about the other books in the series.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Party by Christopher Pike


Whoa. This was SO dark. I'm reading through my stockpile of YA horror and I was kind of shocked by how bleak and intense this was. Unlike a lot of other vintage YA horror, which glosses over character development in favor of easy thrills and chills, 80% of this book was about building up all of these characters, getting you to understand their interactions and relationships to each other, which makes the ending even more brutal.

When Mesa School closed, the kids were integrated into Tabb High. To unify everyone, local rich orphans, Polly and Alice, decide to throw a big party in the name of camaraderie. Polly is heavy and boy-crazy but socially awkward and Alice, her sister, is a dreamy artist who, it is hinted, might have psychological problems and an eating disorder.

The other characters are Nick, a young Black man who grew up in a bad part of L.A. and is having difficulty fitting in with his rich white peers; Michael, a nerd who has a crush on one of the pretty new girls and is trying to reconcile his lack of a sex life with that of his very successful player of a friend, Bubba; and Jessica, an ex-cheerleader who is self-aware and self-conscious, all at the same time.

The side characters are Sara, an outspoken girl with an attitude problem and one of Jessica's friends from Mesa; Maria, the daughter of illegal immigrants and Nick's love interest; and Bubba, a really sleazy nerd who has inexplicable success with the ladies and isn't above lies and manipulation to get in their pants. There's also Clark, Alice's creepy and mysterious boyfriend, Clair, the social butterfly of the school and Bubba's love interest, and Bill, the guy Jessica might be into and Michael's rival.

This book was just so well done. I like that it mentioned sex and drugs (not too explicitly) and actually seemed to reflect a modern version of high school and not one of the 50s (the age at which some of these writers likely attended high school themselves-- for example, in this R.L. Stine book I read recently, one of the kids describes a dance as a "hop" LOL). It talks about abortions, illegal immigrations, racism, drug abuse, therapy, and all kinds of other things. As for swearing, it's pretty light on that, although the F-word for gay people is used and one of the racist football assholes keeps referring to Nick, who is Black, as "boy." Neither instance was portrayed as acceptable.

After the murder inevitably happens, the book ends on a cliffhanger of sorts since this is book one in a trilogy. So after all that build-up, you only see the death and not the culprit. I'm really curious to see who dunnit and I loved that this deadly party is described in-text as a locked-room murder (one of my FAVORITE tropes). Thank goodness I have the omnibus edition of this series! I can't wait to read more.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Boyfriend by R.L. Stine


R.L. Stine's books can be hit or miss because he churns them out like butter. You can tell when he's dialing it in and when he's making a more concerted effort. Writing spoiled, borderline-sociopathic girls getting their comeuppance seems to be his strong point. There's Reva from the Silent Night trilogy and this book, THE BOYFRIEND, with Joanna.

Joanna is a rich, snobby New Englander who is basically a living, breathing stereotype. She's dating a boy from the wrong side of the tracks because he looks like Matt Dillon (lol) but she's getting bored of him. Now she's got her eye on Shep, another rich New Englander who comes from the same sort of stock as her and also has a brand new Jaguar.

Instead of straight up breaking up with him, she treats Dex like garbage, which results in a prank... that goes horribly wrong. Fatally wrong, one might say. Dex dies and instead of calling the police, Joanna runs away-- and promptly gets into a car wreck. When she wakes up, she hears the horrible news and her first thought is literally something like, "Yay, now I don't have to break up with him! I'm single again!" What a card.

But then-- Dex comes back.

This is one of Stine's better books. I thought the suspense was great and the writing was a cut above some of his other books. There were so many twists at the end, it kind of made my head spin a little, but ultimately I think I liked it. Joanna was just SO awful... it was kind of a relief not to feel sorry for her and just kick back and go along for the ride. Point Horror books are always way more intense if you actually like the character, which is why the Losing Christina series by Caroline B. Cooney still sends me on a rollercoaster of emotions to this day.

If you like Point Horror books, you'll enjoy this one. It's the perfect read for fall.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell


The copy I read is from the 1960s and features a very white-washed version of the Native heroine and a blurb from the New York Times book review that refers to her as "primitive." Oh, history, you racist scamp, you.

I had to read this book for school and thought it would be fun to revisit it as part of my reviewing project. It falls under this branch of children's literature that I think of as "kiddie disaster lit," including titles such as MAROO OF THE WINTER CAVES and THE CAY. Is this book authentic? Who the hell knows. It's written by a white guy and was published in the 60s... so I'm sure he took some, ahem, liberties.

Our heroine, Karana, is part of a Native tribe living on an island (I believe off the coast of California). White people come to hunt otter but after one of them screws over her tribe, they attack and her father is killed. Then one of the scouts goes off somewhere to find them somewhere else to live and on the day it's time to leave, Karana's idiot brother misses the boat, so she jumps overboard to save him.

Idiot brother is murdered shortly soon after by wild dogs, leaving Karana with the run of the place. She's a consummate bad-ass, hunting squid, making her own weapons and clothes, killing the wild dogs who killed her brother and then taming the leader as a pet. Books like this made me realize that I wouldn't be cut out for wilderness life but I kind of enjoyed the vicarious journey although to answer your question, YES the dog dies after she tames it because what the fuck, 1960s children literature. You certainly had a hard-on for killing animal side-kicks, didn't you? If a vintage kids' book has an animal side-kick in it, there's like an 80% mortality rate. I see you, OLD YELLER, THE RED PONY, THE YEARLING, and WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS.

I guess this aged okay and there's a replacement dog that takes the place of the dead one, so yay? I guess if you read this, take it with a grain of salt.

3 out of 5 stars

The Invitation by Diane Hoh


When I was a kid, I was all about the Point Horror books. I would scavenge the library for these and check out the max amount at a time, and then come back, return the ones I'd gotten, and immediately check out more (and so on and so forth, until I exhausted the selection). There were many tropes in these books but my favorite was and still is "the deadly party." Oh, we got invitations to this strange creepy mansion owned by this girl who doesn't like us? Cool. A mountain retreat with a sinister couple who like torturing children? Neat-o. A beach getaway with a bunch of red-blooded teens who start lusting for blood? Radical.

You're always painting the town red with Point Horror!

A lot of these books have started to run together in my memories but I actually vaguely remembered THE INVITATION and I thought it would make a good candidate for my rereading project, where I revisit books from my childhood and adolescence that I used to enjoy.

The premise of THE INVITATION is pretty simple. Five outcast teens receive invitations to go to a mansion owned by the most popular girl in their school. The party opens up with a game of musical chairs but bad things happen to the losers. At first, what simply seems mean-spirited quickly seems deadly, as one girl is locked up in a garage with a car, and another is left to panic in the dark. But who would want to hurt them? And why?

The payoff for this one was such a cop-out. There's no real foreshadowing and everything just kind of happens all at once. It felt cheap. I like it when you at least have a shot at picking out the bad guy from the beginning of the book and it's no fun if the author just throws something together. I remember thinking the mansion setting was so cool as a kid, but as an adult, it feels kind of lame. I liked the Dark Shadows reference in the beginning of the book, though. It really slaps a time stamp on it.

Not my favorite Point Horror so far by a long shot. So far, Caroline B. Cooney is the reigning queen.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt


I'm doing a project where I reread some of the books I liked when I was younger and seeing what I want to keep and what is better reconciled to memory. TUCK EVERLASTING is one of the few books where I actually saw the movie first, which actually set me up for disappointment because the movie was well-casted and really well done, and they upped the age of Winnie, making the movie more like TWILIGHT with the whole "how long have you been seventeen?" thing. In this book, Winnie is ten and Jesse is seventeen-going-on-eighty, which definitely makes the book way more yuck.

The movie is more of a straightforward romance but for obvious reasons, the book is not. Instead it's sort of a precocious coming-of-age tale and a philosophical musing on the ephemeral nature of life. If you could live forever, would you? How would you account for the draining of the world's resources? How should people be chosen for eternal life? It asks some tough but interesting questions and it's probably no surprise to you that the villain of the tale is a man who is hell-bent on living forever, no matter who he has to hurt.

I thought the story was okay. It's really short and clearly intended for a much younger audience than the movie. The first time I read this book, I remember liking it a lot, but this time around I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking about the movie instead. It kind of has a sad ending but it ends up being kind of bittersweet too, and I liked how the author alluded to certain things. In my first reading, I think I gave it five stars, but this time around, I'm feeling a three. It was decent but I don't think I'd reread.

3 out of 5 stars

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare


By now you are probably familiar and tired of hearing about my project, but just in case you have somehow missed out on what I've been up to, let me tell you. While cleaning out my garage I found some old VHS tapes, my high school Nintendo Powers, and a whole bunch of my old books from high school and college. Naturally, some of them had to go, and naturally, I decided the best way to decide that was to give some of them a reread and see how they stood up to the test of time.

I've read THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND several times over the course of my life and my attitude towards the heroine, Kit, changed with me. I remember thinking she was super annoying when I was younger, but as an adult woman, I found her fascinating and brave. I thought the author did a magnificent job making Kit seem like an ordinary teenage girl but with the problems that might befall a girl of her age at that time.

Kit grew up on Barbados but when her parents died and then her grandfather, too, she is left with no choice but to seek out her Puritan aunt and uncle, and her cousins Mercy and Judith. They reluctantly take her in and immediately Kit proceeds to stick out like a sore thumb. She can swim and read and her clothes are too fancy and she can't do any chores. At best, people glance at her askance. At worst, people grumble that she might be some sort of witch.

Things get worse when Kit befriends Hannah, a Quaker woman everyone believes is a witch. As their friendship grows and the two of them envelope a young girl named Prudence into their folds, tensions and suspicions against Kit and Hannah mount until, like a lit fuse, something just has to go off.

I loved all of the characters in this book. Everyone was so complex and there were a ton of nuances that I missed as a kid. Like the fact that Nat is totally crushing on Kit, or that Mercy is sort of a Christ-like figure in this book (kind of like that girl from Little Women who died, only thankfully, she doesn't die). I actually really liked her uncle Matthew. When I was a kid, I thought he was a big meanie but he really is doing his best and his frustrations and love for his family were super subtly portrayed.

Not all of the books from my childhood hold up but this one does. It's a much better story than The Crucible.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 28, 2021

Camp Fear by Carol Ellis


I'm preparing to unhaul some of my middle grade books for a friend so I've been reading through my collection to see what goes and what stays. I don't actually remember reading this one before so it might be one I bought and forgot about. CAMP FEAR is kind of like Friday the 13th for kids. Rachel is a teen counselor at Camp Silverlake, along with a handful of other teens. It seems like a more adult version of regular camping, but it's cliquish-- especially since it turns out most of the counselors know each other from summer camp as kids.

Pretty soon, however, it turns out that things aren't exactly copacetic. The other kids are hiding something and get cagey when Rachel brings up the past. Then when she puts up some old camp photos on a billboard, they freak out. It's clear they don't like the photo, but not why. Then Rachel learns that something bad happened at the camp years ago that the others would dearly like to forget. But SOMEONE wants them to remember.

This was a fun book. It really is a lot like Friday the 13th but without all the sex and gore. I didn't really figure out who did it until the end. The author was trying to force one of the red herrings too hard, which made me figure that definitely wasn't whodunnit. I don't remember reading a lot of Carol Ellis's Point Horror contributions, but she really isn't bad! I'll have to keep an eye out for more of her books.

3 out of 5 stars

Chain Letter by Christopher Pike


DNF @ p.31

I remember Christopher Pike being one of my all-time faves as a kid but this one just wasn't it. It was bland and boring and felt really dialed in compared to books like DIE SOFTLY, which have the benefit of being ridiculously over-the-top, or his awesome vampire series.

Can't say I'd recommend this one. To the donation box it goes!

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Hot Ladies Murder Club by Ann Major


Wow! I actually really enjoyed this book! It wasn't what I was expecting, either. The bright neon cover made me think I'd be getting a light, chick-litty sort of mystery and instead this was DARK. It had a truly awful villain and themes of domestic violence, child abuse, and murder. So, you know, not one for the fluffies.

The book opens with our villain's POV and segues into the heroine, Hannah Smith, a realtor on the run and a single mom who's just been roped into a frivolous lawsuit with a homebuyer. The man representing the opposition, Joe Campbell, is a shady sort who advertises on billboards and takes some less-than-scrupulous cases and he feels conflicted when he feels an instant attraction to Hannah.

The title comes from Hannah and her friends go to a biker bar. It turns out that they're all being sued as part of this lawsuit-happy bandwagoning trend in Texas and after joining some bikers in a toast and throwing some darts at a picture of a lawyer's crotch, they come up with "the hot ladies murder club" where they write down the names of the lawyers suing them and how they'd kill them if they could.

It's a joke, of course. But then somebody actually tries murdering some of the lawyers.

The romance kind of reminded me of a Linda Howard or a Sandra Brown novel, only less rapey. Joe Campbell was actually a REALLY good hero and I loved his relationship with his son, Joey. I didn't like Hannah's kid, Georgia, as much. She was way too twee. But Joey was great. I also loved Hannah's friend, Taz, a Black woman who ends up having an adorable secondary romance with a gruff bear of a biker named Charger/Chuck. This is one of the few times where I liked the secondary couple basically as much as the main couple. I kind of wish there was a sequel to this book about them.

So if you like darker romantic suspense, and are a fan of Linda Howard and Sandra Brown, and if you also enjoy romance heroes who are alpha but with a tender caring side, I think you'll really enjoy this book. It was dark and creepy with some really good sex scenes too, and a villain who seriously squicked me out. I got my copy in an assortment box that I got for pretty cheap but if you're curious, this title is currently only 99 cents in the Kindle store, so don't take my word for it. Check it out!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz



Proposed alternative title: "Delusional Idiots LARP to Revisionist Fanfiction About Their Beloved Treason War."*

*with some exceptions

I bought this book about ten years ago and then forgot about it. While going through my shelves, I thought it might be interesting to read and at first it was but probably not in the way the author intended. CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC is basically a written documentary chronicling the South's obsession with the Civil War and how they revise and glorify their own history to further their own ends. Whoever said "history is written by the victors" clearly hasn't been to the U.S. South.

This was published in the late-90s and I'm not sure the author would have taken the same tone had he written this book today. The people he interviews, many of them racists who feel a little too comfortable spouting slurs or using the N-word, are portrayed as quirky characters who are free spirits that don't believe in coloring in the lines and abiding by PC Culture. You just know a lot of these assholes ended up voting for Trump.

And here's the thing: portraying that kind of attitude as harmlessly funny is why we ended up with "fake news" bullshit, partisan stances on BLM and anti-Asian Hate, and January 6th. I'm not blaming the author here, to be clear, but it is sort of a retrospective of how certain parts of the U.S. have kind of festered in their isolationism, and how the rest of the country was content to look askance and leave them to it while chuckling behind closed doors. There were parts of this book that I really did enjoy, like the Black individuals he interviewed for their opinions (and they had some very good and interesting things to say that had the nuance I was expecting from the book as a whole), and the chapter on Gone with the Wind, which had some interesting details about Margaret Mitchell and an Scarlett O'Hara impersonator who looks like a cross between Andie Mcdowell and Vivien Leigh.

This book is very well written and I can see why it won awards but it ended up pissing me off and I am just not looking to feel pissed off when I read a book, unless it's the powering sort of pissed off that makes you want to take action. Definitely doesn't age well and I would be unlikely to recommend.

P.S. Black comedians, Key and Peele, have an excellent sketch about Civil War reenactments and I kept thinking about it while I was reading. TWs: racist Black stereotypes (for satire and political commentary).

2 out of 5 stars

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher


So I'm doing this project where I reread some of the books I loved in my adolescence to see how well they stand up to the test of time. Sometimes I go in with tons of expectations because the book occupies so much space rent-free in my head, but sometimes I know I read the book but can't remember anything about it. Such is the case with THIRTEEN REASONS WHY.

Before I dive into the review, I want to add a little anecdote about this story. I bought my original copy used and some MONSTER had cut out thirty pages from the climax, so I never really got the full story of what happened, which was incredibly frustrating. Even more frustrating-- after defacing this book and ruining it for somebody else, this monster casually donated their book to a thrift store so someone could part with coin to reap the fruits of their satanic labors.


I still think about this incident all these years later and it still makes me mad. Teen me flipped through the missing pages several times, wondering stupid things like, are all thirty pages sticking together? and, is this on purpose? I just couldn't quite believe that somebody would do something like that. I mean, I put my books face-down and dog-ear the pages and use them as coasters and about a half dozen other so-called "book crimes," but I would never destroy a book and then try to trick someone into reading it. That's just chaotic evil on steroids.

So anyway, the book. This time, I got a new copy. The "unabridged" copy, if you will. I was really curious to see how it would stand up because it is about depression and suicide and recently, I read another book with similar themes, WINTERGIRLS. I loved WINTERGIRLS when I read it as a depressed teen, but as an adult, I couldn't get into it at all. I just kept thinking about SPEAK and how SPEAK was a much, much, much better book. So I wondered if maybe I'd feel the same about THIRTEEN REASONS WHY. Now that I'm no longer a depressed teen, maybe it wouldn't feel relatable.

Here's the thing about THIRTEEN REASONS WHY. It does kind of tie into the suicide fantasy that a lot of embittered/angry teens have (and if you have trigger warnings about suicide, you will probably want to leave my review now). You probably know the one. It's the one where you sit there and brood about everyone who wronged you and you think, "They'd be so sorry if I was gone." And you think about how they'd have to suck it up and come to your funeral and be forced to say nice things about you and how it would haunt them for life, etc. This is the book version of that, only the heroine in this book actually does it. She kills herself and sends out tapes (thirteen reasons) to the people she holds responsible for taking the path she decided upon for herself.

One of these tape listeners is Clay, King of the Nice Guys. We get to hear about what a nice guy he is for the bulk of the book. He had a crush on the girl who killed herself and we get to hear about that for the whole book, too. This is kind of like a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl story with a tragic ending, and I'm not sure how I feel about that, because I hate the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope, but this book does kind of show how that is unsustainable and how pining from afar is actually kind of weird and toxic. It's almost a subversion of the genre. Hannah isn't the sparkling Zooey Deschanel clone from a Judd Apatow movie. Things don't glide off her like Teflon. Even though you could argue that her bullying doesn't really seem serious, for her, it is, and for her, it's what pushes her to believe that there is no hope.

Does this book romanticize suicide? I'm not really sure. It definitely bats eyes at it, but it's a thriller, and thrillers are all about death and tragedy. It's a product of the genre. I think whether you see this book as more of a YA contemporary or more of a mystery will shape that view more. I personally found it fascinating, even though I disliked most of the characters. It's so teen, which is probably why it's as popular among the teen crowd as it is. I did like that it closes on a hopeful note, of noticing other people and looking outside of your own sphere of awareness to reach out to people, even if it's hard.

I think that's a good message. But I can definitely see why people have issues with this book and get so fired up about it. It deals with a lot of incredibly problematic subjects and I'm not always sure they were handled as well as they could have been. Part of that is a reflection of the world we live in, but part of that is also the story-telling and the choices the author made in telling it. I'm not sure I'd ever read this again, but it definitely made me think and once it got moving, like Clay, I couldn't really put it down.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Friday, June 25, 2021

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson


DNF @ p.34

I've been on a Laurie Halse Anderson binge as part of this project. (I'm sure some of you are tired of hearing me talk about The Project™ and I'm sorry, but I am a book hoarder and this is my way of letting go and saying goodbye to some of my books-- giving them a final send-off, if you will, before turning them over to a new owner.) So far, most of her books have held up reasonably well. I even enjoyed the relatively unpopular PROM and CATALYST.

WINTERGIRLS is a story about eating disorders. It is incredibly triggering, I think, because it has a lot about weight and calorie counting and the main girl's friend actually dies, so she's also trying to deal with her grief over that while managing her ED. I remember really liking this book a lot when I had depression. I think it's because the lack of control is a theme in this book and when you're depressed, you feel totally lacking in control: of your feelings, of your body, of your life. Even though I didn't have an ED, the MC's hopelessness and focus on her internal states really resonated with me.

Rereading this book, I found that I couldn't quite relate to it the same way as I did in my late teens/early twenties. That's probably a good thing, though. I'd like to think that it means I'm a well-adjusted thirty-something. WINTERGIRLS has a totally different tone than the other Anderson books I've read. They all had this snark to balance out the hopelessness, but WINTERGIRLS is just pure hopelessness. I'm sure it will be solace for some but I just couldn't get into it now. I gave it four stars when I read it for the first time but now I'm giving it a two. I could barely find the will to read it. It's too bleak. YMMV.

2 out of 5 stars

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris


I'm doing this project where I'm revisiting books that I really enjoyed during my adolescence. One of my favorite memoirists of my youth was David Sedaris. He was so wickedly funny and I liked how he balanced his cutting observations on society at large with self-effacing humor. After reading ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, I immediately leaped into one of his follow-ups, WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES.

WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES follows a very similar formula to Sedaris's other works. Some of the stories are excellent, like the one about his awful baby-sitter from hell, Mrs. Peacock, and his racist neighbor, Helen. Other essays are less compelling, like his fanciful essay on Princeton and family murders and the essay on Japan, where his crowning observations are "all cities in Japan look the same" and "wow, Japanese is hard to learn."

This collection felt a bit "edgier" than ME TALK PRETTY. He uses the R-word, the F-word for gay people, and makes a number of observations that involve slurs. As other reviewers have noted, he's just as harsh on himself as he is on other people, but this is definitely not a PC memoir. Who knows if Sedaris would write it the same way if it were published today?

Overall, I would say that the bulk of these essays are quite humorous but there were way more misses in here than in his earlier works. I would not recommend this one as a starting point.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh


HYPERBOLE AND A HALF is probably one of my favorite memoirs of all time. The simple drawing style and complex ideas really hooked me and I loved how she balanced talking about her struggles with depression with the funnier, more light-hearted stories, like the tales about her dogs (Simple Dog and Helper Dog). When I found out Brosh was writing a follow-up called SOLUTIONS AND OTHER PROBLEMS, I was terribly excited.

But then the author kind of just seemed to disappear from the internet and the book's publication date came and went with no book, and I wondered what was going on. Was the author okay? Did something happen? Even though it's none of my business, and I totally respect that, after reading an intimate book like HYPERBOLE that really, really resonated with me on such a profound level, I felt like the author and I had gone on a journey of sorts together and I felt really invested on where she had gone after our shared leg.

SOLUTIONS AND OTHER PROBLEMS talks about why Brosh disappeared from the public eye. And-- it's really, really devastating. I wasn't really prepared for it, even though one of my friends was kind enough to warn me. Because the book starts out with the usual funny anecdotes where you're like "ha ha, this is so weird and quirky and funny," and then it jumps right into the dark stuff. Some of my friends didn't like this book because of that, but I honestly really liked it. Well-- maybe liked is the wrong word. I appreciated it. HYPERBOLE was like that too. Brutally honest juxtaposed against some light-hearted funny moments that made the darker content feel more transitory. SOLUTIONS is like that, too, just on a much larger scale.

Personally, I loved SOLUTIONS AND OTHER PROBLEMS. Some of the stories made me laugh out loud, one of them made me cry (not with laughter), and all of them made me appreciate Brosh. Her drawing style and self-effacing humor are both so well done. I was glad that she decided to share a glimpse into the window of her life, even though it's less than perfect. There is so much in here about hurting and healing, and learning to accept yourself and the quirkiness of life. It's just such a good book with such a great message. I would recommend this to anyone who feels alone and in the dark.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris


So I'm doing this project where I'm rereading some of the books I enjoyed as an adolescent and seeing what holds up and what doesn't. David Sedaris was one of my high school faves because he was just snarky and inappropriate enough to make me feel edgy, but just snobby enough to make me feel grown-up. Having read ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY 10+ years later, I have to say that I basically feel the same way. His sense of humor is not for everyone. I feel like he has a very "British" sense of humor; it reminds me a lot of Black Adder, in that it's a blend of intellectual superiority, toilet humor, and very cuttingly observant insights about society and its foibles. I don't normally laugh at a lot of so-called humor books, but this made me giggle out loud several times. It was UPROARIOUS (to me).

In this collection of autobiographical essays, Sedaris talks about his addiction to drugs, his stint as a creative writing teacher, his foul-mouthed younger brother who refers to himself as "The Rooster" (one of the best chapters, imo), his French teacher who said that being in his presence was like undergoing a cesarean every day (ouch), and the speech therapist who sneaked into his life like a government agent. He has such an interesting life and the way he writes is just SO FUNNY. I don't know how much of it he made up or took liberties with and I don't even care. That's how good it is.

If you like funny memoirs, read this book. I feel like Augusten Burroughs tries to channel his energy but as with chocolate and vanilla, Coke and Pepsi, and The Illusionist and The Prestige, one is clearly superior to the other. ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY definitely holds up!

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald


I have very mixed feelings about HOLY COW. On the one hand, it's a memoir about a place I am unlikely to go and it was interesting to see a journalist's take on the people and the culture, since if I can't travel somewhere, it's fun to enjoy it vicariously. But on the other hand, this memoir is very dated (published in 2002) with some very outmoded views towards people of color and she takes a decidedly Western slant when talking about said people and culture that oscillates wildly between ignorant and insensitive. (I would probably vote for ignorant-- in the beginning of the book, she talks about her "dreadlocks" phrase in college.)

Sarah Macdonald is an Australian who ended up going to India because of her boyfriend's work (I think he's an Australian news reporter). As a journalist herself who was fond of travel and backpacking, she had mixed feelings. She went to India as a young woman and had a bad experience, and then, literally and metaphorically flipped it off, vowing never to return. But she ends up tempting fate and going back anyway because she wants to make her relationship work and also because she's curious and the journalist in her hungers for new experiences and stories.

As I said in my opening paragraph, I really liked the travel parts of the book. She met some incredibly cool people in India who had really interesting stories, like the Zoroastrians and their commune, the woman who got married without permission and was cursed by her mother(!), and the people who did incredible physical feats for religious reasons (I forget why and what they were called, but one guy apparently stood up for two years and one guy lifted his hand in the air for one year-- so it was stuff like that). But as other reviewers have pointed out, there's also a LOT of complaining. And she does it in a way that definitely can come across as bitchy and condescending. To be fair, this was the style for comedic travel memoirs of the time. J. Maarten Troost does this in his memoirs too, which were being sold around the same time as this one, and his books in the South Pacific/Micronesia/Melanesia have titles like GETTING STONED WITH SAVAGES and THE SEX LIVES OF CANNIBALS. I'm not making apologies, just giving some historical context. These probably wouldn't be published today-- at least not with these titles and not without a proper editing scrub.

Maybe the author realized she was getting annoying because she seemed to tone down her attitude in the second half of the book. She did whine a little about not being allowed in with her camera to spy on the Zoroastrian rituals (*eye roll*) but after that, it was more about her recovering health and how she was getting on as she became more acclimated to the culture. And I do get culture shock and compensating with humor, which is what I think the author was doing here. It just comes across badly now because the humor doesn't age well (and looking at the Goodreads reviews, it seems to have offended a number of Indian people, too). The last quarter of the book or so talks about 9/11 and her fear for her husband as he did his reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a horrific moment in which she thought he'd been captured and killed. It's an odd tonal shift, especially when she tries to end on an almost spiritual note after making light of religions and treating them like they're funny party hats she saw in a shop window for most of the book. It made me miss the poorly-aged humor.

I'm rereading this book as part of this project where I revisit books I liked and disliked when I was younger. Some of my past status updates for this book were actually preserved, however, and it appears that I did not enjoy this book when I read it. I vaguely remember giving it a two. I'm giving it a three now because at times it could be funny and the writing could be very vivid and sensory, but I would probably not recommend this book to anyone who wasn't (still) a fan of Maarten Troost.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 21, 2021

A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan


One of my (not-so) secret loves is food memoirs, so when I saw this Singaporean travel/cooking memoir, I knew I just had to read it. Cheryl Tan is Teokchew/Singaporean with family in Mainland China, as well, even though she lives in New York currently and describes herself as fairly "Americanized." In this memoir, she tells her family history, talking about her Singapore and Chinese family and some of their colorful stories, and describes the cuisines from all three cultures that she learned to make on her self-journey to teach herself cooking.

I think the best parts for me were the stories about her family. One of her aunts inadvertently became an opium carrier and several of her family members ran gambling dens. One of her grandmothers did some incredibly complex and traditional Singaporean dishes and the other was the second wife to a Chinese playboy. It's a fascinating tapestry of family details and I really enjoyed those parts of the book.

The cooking parts were a bit more inconsistent and I think part of that is because she was writing this as she was learning (presumably) and a lot of her traditional family members didn't really use recipes, so there's a lot of "I don't know how much of X ingredient goes in here, I just do it by taste." There are some pretty jaw-dropping descriptions of food in here but the tone is inconsistent and the author meanders a lot from subject to subject in a way that is very disorienting.

Overall, I liked this memoir and I would recommend it to foodies (especially foodies who love Singaporean cooking, as I do). But it is a bit of a rough read and I probably wouldn't revisit it.

3 out of 5 stars

Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron


My friends and I have been trading bags of books back and forth and this was one of the books I got in my bag. I was actually excited to read this one because of all the reviews complaining that it was too dark. As someone whose soul screams for all things twisted and disturbing in fiction, I was like "YAAAASS GIMME." And the book did deliver on that note, so if you are also one of those people who wishes that YA was a bit more intense, this is the book for you.

The plot of KINGDOM OF SOULS is a bit confusing. Arrah, the heroine, is the daughter of a powerful priestess but has no magic of her own, much to her mother's shame. At first, the story is really slow and full of exposition and I wasn't all that into it, but it picks up when children in her community start disappearing and the Demon King shows up, choosing someone unsuspected as his would-be ally. There are not one, but TWO villains in this book and both of them are completely terrifying, so there's that. In order to stop them, Arrah has to exchange years of her own life for magic-- a terrible price to pay.

The second half of the book makes up for the slow first half. There's all kinds of triggers, though. Mind rape, actual rape (someone dons the appearance of someone else to have sex with someone), mutilation, murder of children, and various other things that I've probably forgotten or skimmed over. I personally didn't think anything was over the top and some of the violence and sexual content is only alluded to, or done with a couple of details, but the one of these that upset me the most was the rape w/ disguise because the heroine is so completely unsympathetic to it and treats the rape victim like a cheater because they didn't magically see through the rapist's magical disguise. So there's that.

Overall, though, I liked this book. I don't think it needed to be as long as it did-- five hundred pages is pretty long for a YA debut and not all of the content felt necessary. Pacing-wise, it's pretty back-heavy, so by the time you get towards the end of the book, it's like being backhanded with twist after twist. It does end with resolution and a sort of cliffhanger, and I am curious to see where the author goes from here. There's a couple West African-inspired fantasy novels that have been coming out over the last few years and so far, I think this is my favorite so far. Looking forward to seeing what happens next.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Peeps by Scott Westerfeld


Before TWILIGHT, it was actually super hard to find books about vampires, which was sad for Teen Me, who has always kind of been obsessed with/fascinated by vampires. I craved books about fanged monsters and it was just so hard to find them. That was why I knew I had to reread peeps for my literary-sad-girl-canon project; it's one of the first vampire young adult books I remember reading as a kid and it really left an impression on me, because it was so different than the rest.

PEEPS is about a Texas-born man named Cal, who is an older teen and works for an organization called the Night Watch. He's a hunter of vampires, only in this universe, vampires are caused by a parasite infestation and are referred to as "peeps" (shorthand for "parasite positive"). His job is to track down and haul in people who have been infected, starting with his own ex-lovers. Because one of the ways the parasite spreads is through sexual contact and Cal just so happens to be an asymptomatic carrier.

Interspersed throughout the novel are all these really interesting trivia facts about parasites told in a matter-of-fact, tongue-in-cheek way that kind of reminds me of zefrank1's YouTube channel (if you haven't seen it, it's a must-watch). Meanwhile, Cal continues to do his work, while trying to track down the mysterious femme fatale who turned him (a hot goth woman named Morgan) while also dealing with the nosy Lois Lane-wannabe named Lacey who lives in the same apartment his ex used to live in and won't be put off by easy explanations.

I just loved this book so much. Some of the books I enjoyed as a teen really don't hold up all that well, but this one really did. The science and the research that went into it is so well done and I totally bought most of the author's explanations. The climax was a little weird-- but oh well, it was a fun ride, so I don't really care. Still, it is why this is getting a four-star review instead of a five. Even so, I think this would make for a great movie or TV show. It is so visceral, you really get a feel for what it would look like on the big screen. When Cal explores the subterranean depths in particular, it's chilling.

If you're tired of the usual vampire stereotypes and want something novel, gritty, and different, this is the book for you. I liked that Cal is a pretty nice guy and he's a great narrator. Unlike 99% of other male narrators, it's easy to see why the women-folk fall for him.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Burger Wuss by M.T. Anderson


DNF @ 17%

I bought this on impulse because M.T. Anderson was one of my faves when I was younger but I'd never read this one. The idea of a sort of "fast food wars" done in the name of revenge over a girl sounded really funny, but I really did not like the way that this was written. It was so affectedly quirky and strange. This style worked for his dystopian, FEED, but it bogged down his paranormal, THIRSTY, and this one, as well. So far, FEED is the only book by this author that has really held up for me, which is sad, but at least I have one.

1 out of 5 stars

Feed by M.T. Anderson


I'm doing this project where I'm rereading books I enjoyed from my adolescence and seeing how they hold up. FEED was a book that really stuck out to me as a candidate because I still remembered it so strongly despite not picking it up for several years. It's kind of like a YA-ed up version of BRAVE NEW WORLD. In a future where the earth is suffering from multiple environmental crises, humans take solace in an electronic soma: the internet feeds wired into their brains.

Titus, the hero, is the main character. He's just an ordinary teen who likes to do dumb stuff with his friends. When we meet them, they're partying on the moon, wanting to hook up and get wasted. Then he sees a girl who isn't like other girls. Her name is Violet and she uses big words and actually cares about the world beyond what it can offer up to her for sale. But when a rioter hijacks their computers to make a political statement, something goes wrong with Violet's... and as she struggles with her health, she tries to make Titus see without the influence of his feed.

This is a very depressing book but I think the author did a really good job with it. All the slang is a bit tricky at first, but the words the author chose all make sense and I picked it up pretty quickly. Some readers complained about the swearing and graphic content, but again, I think it sets the stage for the vapid, superficial world the author created and it never crosses into explicit.

Some sci-fi books don't age well but this one actually got better with age. The author actually predicted so much-- doom scrolling, toxic positivity, physically harmful trends for the sake of virality, and so much more. What makes this even more impressive is that social media was still kind of a gleam in the internet's eye when this was published, and so were the shopping algorithms that are now economical powerhouses online. I can't say that this book filled me with joy but it was incredibly intelligent and insightful for a YA dystopian and I think I liked it more as an adult than I did as a teen.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Munmun by Jesse Andrews


DNF @ p.60

The back of the book says "destined to be the most talked about young adult book of the year," but I hadn't heard anyone talk about it-- which is weird, because this book has one of the most "HUH? WHAT?" summaries I have ever read. Set in an alternate universe, MUNMUN takes place in a fantasy world where people's physical size corresponds to how much money they actually have, with poor people being the size of doormice and rich people being the size of skyscrapers.

I appreciate what this book was trying to do and it has a genuinely unique premise, but it didn't work for me for several reasons. First, the author has made up his own words and unique grammar style, like CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which made it really hard to read. Second, I just felt like it was a little wooden. Maybe that was because of the dialogue, but once I got over the initial premise and the novelty of that, I quickly found myself losing interest.

I could see this being a good read for reluctant readers, especially boys, who might find the novel text style and gritty world-building to be incredibly fascinating. But for me, I just didn't care for it all that much.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

In the Role of Brie Hutchens... by Nicole Melleby


I was cleaning out my bookshelf and found this book, which I won in the Goodreads Giveaways a year ago and never reviewed. WHOOOPS. Better late than never, I guess? Anyway, here I am, finally getting to this ARC because I felt bad for letting it slip through the cracks.

IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS is about a middle schooler named Brie. She goes to a Catholic school and is obsessed with soap operas (my girl!). The beginning of every chapter opens up with an epigram that summarizes a Big Dramatic Moment from various soap operas, which I thought was REALLY cool.

Even though they aren't super well off, Brie's family is able to send her to the school because her dad is the janitor. Brie is super embarrassed about that. She's also embarrassed about the fact that she sees girls in a way that her mother and her best friend don't seem to. When her mom catches her looking at the naked photos of a soap opera actress, Brie blurts in a panic that she's been given the prestigious role of "crowning Mary" at the celebration at her school--

--even though she hasn't.

Middle grade novels are a tough sell for me because there's a certain level of brattiness that comes with the genre (it's a bratty age), and sometimes I'm just not in the mood for that. I think some authors also do too much hand-holding in the narrative and I'm not super into that, either. BRIE HUTCHENS was great, though. Brie could be a brat but all of her concerns were super relatable and I loved the way the author tackled things like money, questioning your sexuality, and talking about important subjects with your parents. 

Anyone who likes LGBT+ books and middle grade will probably enjoy this one. I just read it after ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE, which is another YA sapphic book about first girl relationships, and that pairing actually really works, so I'd definitely recommend reading them together. ZARA even takes place in a Catholic school, too!

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, June 18, 2021

Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan


ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE is so good. I thought the author's other book was only okay, as it had a lot of the problems that typically plague a debut, but the premise of this one was intriguing enough that I definitely wanted to see how the author improved-- which she did! So, so much. Like, this is the work of an established author who feels comfortable in her writing skin. It's a fully fleshed-out story with a strong protagonist, good pacing, and lots of suspense.

Zara is a Pakistani girl living in Texas. Her father is a physician with a work visa and they're waiting on their green cards. But the whole process might end up compromised when Zara becomes the target of vicious bullying from a school bigot. In addition to that, she's also trying to navigate her new relationship with a girl named Chloe, and the consequences of a ruthless act of discrimination that totally disrupts her family's life and her own dreams.

I loved the interactions between Zara and her friends, Zara and her girlfriend, and Zara and her family. I loved the unequivocal love between her and her parents and how they supported Zara in what she wanted. I also thought the author did a great job showing jealousy between friends in a way that isn't super toxic. And the relationship between Zara and Chloe was really cute and I liked all of the open communication and how even though Chloe's parents weren't the most tolerant, they tried to understand.

Definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for diverse sapphic YA!

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 17, 2021

If You're Out There by Katy Loutzenhiser


Over quarantine, my friends and I have been exchanging bags of books. IF YOU'RE OUT THERE was one of the titles I got in my bag. I am such a sucker for thrillers of all kinds and the premise of this one really hooked me. Zan and Priya are best friends, but when Priya moves from Chicago to California, she suddenly ghosts Zan on all of her accounts and starts Instagramming like she's Queen of the Basic Bitches, with captions like "live, laugh, love." It doesn't add up and it freaks Zan out, especially because all of the adults in her life seem totally unconcerned about it and tell Zan to just let her "reinvent."

The only person who seems to believe her at all is Logan, the new boy at her school with a mysterious past. He humors her Nancy Drew investigations, even when they turn to things like B&E, and suddenly, Priya's disappearance starts to look a little more sinister. Especially when certain clues pop up that suggest that maybe she never actually wanted to ghost Zan-- at least, not completely-- in the first place.

This was a pretty fun book, if I do say so myself. I loved the effortless diversity in the large cast of secondary characters. The family dynamics were interesting and I thought it was cool how the author explored parents who question their sexuality late in life and how that can effect their extant relationships. Logan is a great beta hero, the sort of love interest you could bring home to mom, and for most of the book I had no idea what was going to happen.

I dinged a few stars for this book because I personally felt the reveal was a little silly. Zan was also crazy obsessive. Granted, in this case, her hunch paid off, but when someone ghosts you, 99 times out of 100 you should probably move on. I know this is a tale of friendship (and quite a positive one) but it ended up coming across as a little weird. But hey, teen me was weird and obsessive and if one of my friends had just disappeared and started posting weird stuff on their socials, I'm not sure what I'd have done.

3 out of 5 stars

Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market by Eric Schlosser


DNF @ p.30

This book has been sitting in my room unread for years. I bought it because it's written by the same guy who wrote FAST FOOD NATION, a book I read and enjoyed as a teenager and plan on rereading soon as part of my not-so-secret-project. But before I revisited FFN, I wanted to check out this edgy-looking book about the marijuana, illegal immigrant labor, and porn industries.

I ended up really not liking this book. I struggled through the marijuana chapter which was woefully out of date (this book was published in 2003) and skimmed through the other two sections before deciding that this wasn't for me. It was written during a different time, with different rules and different standards, and I could kind of get a glimpse of how well this book had aged from the very intro, where the author refers to illegal immigrants as "illegals" in the text and when several of the top-grossing American companies are listed, Facebook and Google were both glaringly absent (again, 2003).

Maybe this was topical twenty years ago, but it isn't now.

1 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Manic: A Memoir by Terri Cheney


From the first line in this memoir, I knew it was going to be good. As a psychology major, I've been introduced to a lot of memoirs about and written by people with psychiatric disorders. The vast majority of them are really great. I think it takes a certain amount of courage to open up and share such intimate details about one's life, especially if one suffers from a disorder that foments chaotic and dysfunctional behavior. Which bipolar disorder definitely does.

Some of the critical reviews for this book take issue with the fact that Cheney seems full of herself, and while that is true, on the surface, at times, I think it is mostly because she is trying to reflect the self-aggrandizing thoughts that can occur when someone is in the grip of mania. She says at one point herself that she knows how extreme her behavior was, how irrational. In that way, the memoir is almost written as if it were from an unreliable narrator. While writing her book from a stable place, she is trying to accurately reflect both her manic and her depressive states by portraying those thought patterns.

I think Cheney did a really good job on this, to be honest. It's not quite as artistic as Marya Hornbacher's MADNESS, which kind of played with structure and syntax to reflect the breathlessness of mania and the slow plod of depression, but I think that makes sense since Hornbacher was a creative writer/artist type and Cheney, as a lawyer, seems much more practical. Anyone who is interested in learning more about bipolar disorder and what it is like to suffer from it should read this memoir. There are content warnings for virtually everything, including sexual assault, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation, but I thought Cheney handled these subjects with care and open honesty.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger by Nigel Slater


I'm currently doing a project where I'm rereading some of the books I loved as a teenager. The impetus for this project was a long slew of disappointments from new releases I was looking forward to, and the discovery of some of my old books tucked away in my garage. TOAST is especially near and dear to my heart because I used to live in the UK and the copy I found was purchased at a Waterstones. It's an ode to food written by a food critic, but not just the fancy stuff-- here, he sings the praises of things like toast and store-bought trifle, penny candies and cheap gum, Jammie Dodgers, gammon, and all of the food of the working class and how it ties into his memories.

There's a movie based on this memoir and it's really good, but I like the memoir better. It's a lot like Anthony Bourdain's memoirs in how his passion for food and the emotions it stirs tie in to the eating of said food, but Slater is much less pretentious and much more unprepossessing in his tastes. He's not here to impress-- his tongue-in-cheek dry wit really carries the narrative along when he talks about his mother's failed custards and pies, or how marshmallows reminded him of goodnight kisses, or the Brit fascination with food from the South of France.

If you enjoy foodie memoirs, I think you'll really enjoy this memoir. It's so well written and so good. I think I actually enjoyed reading it even more this second time around because a lot of the humor and references went over my head as a teen. There are some trigger warnings for references to grooming and discipline that would probably be considered borderline abusive now (his childhood was in the 60s), and it also deals with the death of a parent as a young age, but it's never too grim and I think there's a real element of hurt/comfort in how Slater writes on all of these topics.

5 out of 5 stars

You're On Mute: 101 ways to add zip to Zoom and not look tragic on Teams by Jo Hoare


I'm actually kind of shocked that YOU'RE ON MUTE has such low ratings on Goodreads because I thought it was a very helpful and humorous introductory guide to using video calls. Maybe that's the problem, though-- it's very introductory. I think the ideal audiences for this book are probably high school and college students who are just entering the work force (and possibly the virtual dating game) and older adults who might not be as used to technology and were able to get around video calls pre-COVID because they worked in industries where tech wasn't exactly a necessity.

This book provides great tips, such as online etiquette, video safety, tips for video dates, and reminders that it isn't okay to take Zoom calls into the bathroom and that you should really mute yourself if you're in a big meeting where lots of people might be making small but cumulative amounts of noise.

YOU'RE ON MUTE *is* basic but I personally found most of the advice incredibly on-point and helpful. The only one I disagreed with is the one about taking video calls outside. I conduct a lot of my meetings from my porch because my house can get noisy and I prefer the natural light. This book says it's unprofessional and hard to see, but I think if you're in a shaded, clean area, it's totally fine.

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

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Craigslist Confessional: A Collection of Secrets from Anonymous Strangers by Helena Dea Bala


I try to read my ARCs right away but sometimes I'm not in the right mental space to read certain things. If I give a book a low rating, I've usually tried and failed to stick with it several times and just didn't see the point in finishing. CRAIGSLIST CONFESSIONAL intrigued me but the reviews warned me that it wasn't the light-hearted collection of anecdotes I'd thought it would be, so I decided to save it for a time when I was feeling pretty positive in life and could stomach it.

CRAIGSLIST CONFESSIONAL is a lot like POST SECRET for adults (if you're familiar with POST SECRET). In this book, Bala has gathered the anonymous confessionals of people talking about their dreams, secrets, hopes, and fears, as they admit to everything from sex addiction to abuse to overcoming loss of loved ones to failing to remove toxic people from their lives. Most of the stories are sad or bittersweet, which is why I wouldn't recommend this if you're already in a bad frame of mind, but there is a hurt/comfort element to some of the stories. My favorite was a woman who was able to find solace in her son's untimely death from finding out the stories of the people who received his donated organs and how he helped further their own lives.

Ultimately, I really liked the stories that were chosen and how they were divided. They are all beautifully written and cohesive (I am unsure if the author perhaps rewrote some of them or tweaked the facts to make them more uniform in format), and I found all of these slices of life fascinating. It's an interesting window into the secret lives of people you might encounter on the street, and a reminder that everyone is engaged in their own private battles. I actually really enjoyed reading these stories and they made me think deeply on some of the details from my own private life.

Definitely recommend this to anyone who is a fan of Frank Warren's POST SECRET project.

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

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 14, 2021

Bluebird by Sharon Cameron


BLUEBIRD was a book that I grabbed purely on impulse. I'm just such a sucker for revenge stories and even though I'm totally fatigued on WWII books, I couldn't resist. This had everything I love-- dangerous boys, dual timelines, family secrets, revenge, and real stakes. From the first chapter, I was sucked in, and I was really impressed at how darkly and deftly the subject matter was handled considering that this is a young adult book and usually the authors tend to write with kid gloves (to the detriment of the plot, sadly).

There are two alternating narratives in this book. One is about Eva, a German girl coming to America with her friend, Annemarie. She has a dark secret and revenge on her mind. The other story is about Inge, another German girl who comes from the ideal German family. Only... her life isn't as perfect as she thinks. And the reason her life isn't perfect is the same reason her mother hates her and her father treats her like a beloved but strictly disciplined dog. The narratives end up intersecting in an unusual and gradual way and while I predicted some of it, there were still plenty of twists that surprised me.

The less you know about BLUEBIRD, the better. I personally thought it was an excellent work of historical fiction. Some of my friends hadn't liked her previous books so I had avoided her other work but after reading this, I'm thinking I seriously need to check out her backlist. The only critiques I really have is that the last half of the book felt a little disorganized compared to the excellent beginning and I don't think the book really needed to be 400+ pages. There were a lot of pieces that felt redundant.

Since this is a book of wartime fiction, the usual trigger warnings apply. Nothing is graphic, but there is a lot of implied abuse and violence, and some references to human experimentation.

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster


I'm doing a project where I'm rereading some of my favorite books from adolescence and seeing how they hold up. Some of them are adult books and some of them are children's books. My most recent addition to the project is the delightful middle grade fantasy novel, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. Including this book on the list might actually be cheating because I read it for the first time elementary school (and also watched the movie, which is supremely creepy in the way that only 1970s movies can be creepy, by which I mean it is basically like a bad acid trip).

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is about a boy named Milo who is depressed and jaded and doesn't really take joy in anything. One day, a present shows up in his apartment. It's a cardboard tollbooth. Having nothing better to do, he decides to try it and ends up transported to a very strange world where numbers come out of mines and words can be eaten and demons live in the land of Ignorance.

This is definitely a book for children but it's wonderfully clever and I think one of the things I love most about it is how many layers it has. Like ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Juster loves to play with words and meaning, and it's just so witty. Every time I read it, I pick up more references, and I think that's the mark of a perfect work of children's literature-- something that becomes additive over the years and gains, rather than loses, its value.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Holes by Louis Sachar


I'm doing this project where I reread books I enjoyed when I was younger. I've read and reread HOLES several times over the course of my life and every time I enjoyed it in a different way. It's such a compelling story and I think one of the best things about it is how everything ties into everything else and it all comes full circle.

Stanley Yelnats, whose first name is his last name backwards, is sent to "Camp Green Lake" when he has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused of theft. The camp isn't actually a camp, but one of those punishment retreats that disciplines kids with back-breaking physical labor. In this case, the boys dig holes in the desert under the hot sun, 5ft wide, 5ft deep. The logic being that if you take a bad boy and make him dig holes all day, it turns him into a good boy. Seems like Republican logic to me.

Stanley meets the other campers, who are pretty ethnically diverse, but the one he ends up closest to is a young Black man named "Zero." Everyone treats Zero like he's stupid because he's quiet and functionally illiterate, but there is actually a lot more to him going on to anyone who actually takes the time to get to know him, as Stanley finds out.

There's a ton of other stuff, too. You get to learn about the history of Green Lake and how it was once a prosperous Western settlement with an actual lake. You get to learn the tragic history of Stanley's no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather. And you even get to learn about the mysterious Warden of the camp and why hole-digging ended up being the de facto punishment for the boys. By the end of the book, everything comes full circle in an incredibly satisfying way.

I enjoyed this book just as much as I did the first time I read it, and finished it in a single sitting. The language is not particularly complex but it paints an interesting picture of morality and justice and I liked that no one in the story was really pure good or pure evil (well-- with some exceptions). It ends up being a critique of the justice system and an interesting cautionary tale of how small actions can have large-scale effects. Definitely a must-read for all ages.

5 out of 5 stars

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller


I actually put off writing my review for this because I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I ended up going for a hike and then I came back and fell asleep, and when I woke up, I saw this book sitting on the armrest of my chair and sighed, like, "Oh, YOU. I don't like you."

UNSETTLED GROUND is sort of a mystery but not in the way you might expect. Instead of a traditional whodunnit, it's more of a gradual untangling of relationships and lingering resentments. The book starts out with the mother of two fifty-something-year-old twins dying of a stroke. The twins, Jeanie and Julius, are basically just above the poverty line and after she dies, they have to scramble to make ends meet and hold onto their home.

This was a difficult read because the more I read, the more I disliked all of the characters. The hook for me was the idea of picking apart the structure of this small English town and kind of looking into this poor family living off their land, but I predicted the "mystery" element really early on and there wasn't really a single character in here that I particularly liked or rooted for at all-- and I really disliked the end.

The writing was good and I thought the pacing was nicely done and the story kept me engaged to the finish, but man, this really wasn't what I was hoping for. I'm actually more excited about her other book, which I bought recently: BITTER ORANGE. It sounds more in line with my tastes and I'm really looking forward to it.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, June 11, 2021

Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier


So I don't know if you know this about me but I am a total hoe for thrillers that like to get their freak on. Like, books that are about fucked-up women coming to terms with their fucked-up pasts while living their fucked-up presents... it is my literal favorite trope. So obviously when I heard about the premise of JAR OF HEARTS, my screamed "YAAAAASS" could be heard echoing over all of the hills and valleys of California. Even better, my friend, Heather, agreed to BR it with me! Good books with good friends? Cue an even louder YAS.

The premise of JAR OF HEARTS is pretty similar to a lot of books I've read and loved. Dual timeline. Murder. Estranged friends. Fucked-up families. Toxic relationships. Geo, Kaiser, and Angela were inseparable as friends until a boy and a murder wedged them apart. In the present tense, we see Geo on her way to jail, for being an accomplice to her best friend's murder. The actual murderer? Her childhood lover, Calvin. Or is he? The truth may be more complicated.

After serving her time-- which is totally heinous and very Orange Is the New Black-- Geo tries to return to normality. But Kaiser is now a cop and isn't totally convinced of her innocence. Calvin has escaped custody and might be returning for revenge. Oh, and Angela is still dead but now other women are turning up murdered in the same way. So you know, it's just a typical day in Fucked-Up Thriller Land. The narration is a bit unreliable narrator-y because of the dual timelines, which is one of my favorite mediums of story-telling because it becomes an almost call-and-answer for the plot. I thought this part of the book was pretty well done and it added a ton of suspense.

In fact, for 80% of this book, I was sitting perched on the edge of my seat holding back All The Screams. Parts of this book were just so emotionally devastating. My favorite parts of the book were the prison politics and the backstory of Angela and Geo's teenage friendship. The ending was a little strange. I think ultimately I did like it but it had a similar twist to another book I've read, so I actually saw all the twists coming. Like, I literally predicted what would happen as soon as the first clue popped up. So. There was just one thing that didn't really make sense to me and it felt like it didn't fit. If I were the editor, I would have tapped the other an email and been like, "GIRL. WHAT ARE YOU DOING."

Overall, I really liked it. I've read other books by this author, too, and enjoyed those as well, and after this one, I'm thinking I will probably have to read even more.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 7, 2021

Tante Eva by Paula Bomer


I thought this was f i n e. Just fine, though. TANTE EVA is set just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Eva is an older woman who is taking drugs and alcohol to cope with getting old. Her only real friend is the daughter of the sick woman next door and, soon, her niece, who starts out writing her letters and then claims she wants to visit.

TANTE EVA is a book about relationships. There isn't really a plot. It's just messed up people living their messed up lives while also portraying a very specific snapshot of Germany at a very specific point in time. I thought it was interesting but it didn't really grab me and I ended up skimming the last couple chapters. I almost feel like this would have worked better as a short story rather than as a full length novel.

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 6, 2021

The Crown Lord by William Sirls


My friends and I have been exchanging bags of books over COVID and this is one of the books that was in my most recent delivery. It's one of those books set in an alternative universe where Black people have all the power and white people are oppressed, which I think is always a tricky subject to deal with because it's not like it's a past event that's been resolved, like the AUs that ask: "What if Kennedy didn't die?" or "What if Jews fled to Alaska during WWII?" It's not like racism is some past historical event that no longer exists. But despite that, I can think of two other books right off the top of my head that have the same premise. One is called SAVE THE PEARLS, which was written by a white woman, and the other is called NOUGHTS AND CROSSES, which was written by a Black woman. SAVE THE PEARLS got mostly negative reviews from my friends, whereas NOUGHTS was mostly positive. As with most books, who's writing it and how matters. CROWN LORD was written by a white guy, which made me a little nervous, but I decided to try it anyway.

The premise is pretty simple. After a successful rebellion in the 1800s, Black people were able to wrest control from white slave-owners and turn the tables, leading to Black people being the primary economic and social power-holders in the contemporary age. The hero, Willie, is a young teen whose father is a lawyer gaining notoriety for defending a white man in the murder case of a Black man. After an unsuccessful verdict, his father is murdered and Willie is sent to live with his uncle in Michigan, who is living with a Black woman and a mixed-race son, much to Willie's disgust. In his uncle's town, he learns more about this group called the Crowns, which is a Black Supremacist group that has it in for white people, who they slur as "pinkies."

The whole book is about Willie learning to recognize his own prejudice and weaknesses, confront his emotional hang-ups, and also figure out who really murdered his father, while also working to stop the Crowns from their stranglehold on the town. It's a lot... and I wasn't really sure what to think about it, although I read the book in a single sitting so I guess I found it entertaining? The writing wasn't the best at times. The author has this weird tic where he doesn't write out contractions. So instead of "you're terrible" or "that's not good" he will have the characters say "you are terrible" or "that is not good," which made the dialogue sound really artificial and kind of robotic.

Regarding the racism and the world-building... eh. I don't think it lacked the nuance of SAVE THE PEARLS, but I also don't feel like it was completely successful in how it tackled racism. This one line at the end kind of cinched it for me, where Willie says, "...I want to believe that if the shoe was on the other foot, or if things were the other way around and whites had the upper hand, that there is no way that they would mistreat blacks as bad as we mistreated them" (319).

It was an interesting experiment but I wasn't a huge fan of it. But it also wasn't the shit-show I thought it would be. I can definitely understand why people hated this one, but I can also see why people liked it.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson


So I'm currently doing a project where I'm rerereading the books of my adolescence, and FEVER 1793 is the latest in the line-up. If the author's name sounds familiar, it's because she's also the author of SPEAK, which was another addition to my project. Unlike SPEAK, FEVER appears to be written for a middle grade audience. It actually reminded me a lot of the Dear America diaries which were coming out around the same time; it's a little bland and the primary purpose seems to educate rather than to entertain. Mattie Cook is no Melinda Sordino.

Reading FEVER 1793 was actually quite interesting (read: terrifying) in the aftermath of COVID. Having actually lived through a quarantine and pandemic, it's kind of morbidly fascinating to note the parallels: idiots who think the fever can't happen to them, bad science, bad medical advice, deniers, mass panic, suspicion and paranoia. As yellow fever grips Mattie's Philadelphia town, compromising her family's livelihood, she ends up being forced to make do through terrible extremes just to survive another day.

It doesn't actually hold up that badly. The pacing is woefully slow but there is a lot of action and the fever provides some real stakes. For a middle grade novel, it's quite dark. There is illness and death and people acting selfishly. One of Mattie's friends is a freed slave and we get to know a little bit about her story, but racism really isn't touched upon that much here. This is, after all, a kids' book written in the early 2000s. I wouldn't say it's a keeper but it helped me while away the hours.

3 out of 5 stars