Sunday, October 30, 2022

A Man to Slay Dragons by Meagan McKinney


DNF @ p.59

It actually causes me physical pain to have to give this a low rating because Meagan McKinney is one of my favorite authors, and when I found a copy of this at a thrift store, I McCouldn't wait to read it. Meagan McKinney is the genius behind two of my favorite romance novels Of All Time: WHEN ANGELS FALL and LIONS AND LACE. She also wrote two gothic romances I loved: GENTLY FROM THE NIGHT and THE FORTUNE HUNTER. She's also written some duds. I think only Anne Stuart fucks me around this much and keeps me coming back for more.

A MAN TO SLAY DRAGONS is a contemporary romantic suspense which already made this quite a bit different than some of McKinney's more popular works. I know she wrote some Harlequin novels as well (all contemps), but I've only read one of those-- in manga form, no less!-- and I can't say I was a fan. Here's the thing about McKinney, she's one of those authors where all of her heroes are basically different facets of the same mold. Anne Stuart is like that, too. Usually I like their heroes, but sometimes they're either too mean or too smarmy. 

A MAN TO SLAY DRAGONS is about a women's right group that gets fed up and goes vigilante. They start holding lotteries to murder the abusers of women in the group. Holy shit. What an awesome premise. Claire, the heroine, is the lawyer and cofounder of the group and she's horrified when she finds out what's happening. Liam, the hero, self-identifies as a redneck and used to ride rodeo before he got into the paramilitary organization where he became a gun for hire. When he sees an add from the group, asking for "a man to slay dragons," he ends up responding, which is how he meets Claire.

Here's the thing. I'm not a fan of military romances. I'm also not a fan of really meek heroines (usually). This had both of those things, and Liam was kind of a jerk. The multiple references to white supremacists and women's rights violations was also bumming me out, because even though this book was published DECADES ago, we still haven't fixed those things. In fact, in some ways, they've gotten worse. All of that was kind of a recipe for disaster with regard to my reading experience. People who enjoy military romance/heroes may like this, especially with the murder mystery angle and themes of justice gone too far. But it wasn't for me and I found myself quickly getting bored.

I'm sorry Meagan McKinney! I still love you. <3

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 29, 2022

The Fortune Hunter by Meagan McKinney


Meagan McKinney is one of my FAVORITE authors, as anyone who has ever had WHEN ANGELS FALL or LIONS AND LACE foisted upon them by me knows. When I love an author as much as I love McKinney, I'm willing to forgive them a lot, and will continue to buy their books like a sucker even when-- ahem-- they are lackluster. Sadly, WAF and LAL are McKinney's two best efforts that I've read to date, and while she has some other books that are good, none of them consume my thoughts and my soul the way those two titles do. I still think about Ivan and his "let's destroy each other" line. OH MY GOD. *fans self*

THE FORTUNE HUNTER is actually a really good read for Halloween because it's about mediums and spirtualism. The heroine and her "sister" are famous mediums who have gotten rich bilking the wealthy from their readings and now live in a manor home filled with constructions that help add to the illusion. But their latest customer (i.e. rube) is a copper magnate named Vanadder and his bastard son, Edward French-Stuyvesant, doesn't take too kindly to these monies going into their coffers when they should go to his half-sister, Daisy, the true heir.

Edward decides to make it his mission to destroy the Murphy sisters and prove them frauds. He's really quite cruel to the heroine in the beginning, at one point threatening to rape Lavinia and turn her into an unwed mother like his dead mother. YIKES. Holy mommy issues, Batman. And you know I love me a good cruel hero, but Lavinia, spineless con artist that she is, not only convinces herself that she's doing these rich people a favor and using the money to help her young charges (WON'T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN), but she also just spends way too much time fretting over her attraction to Edward, even when he's treating her like something he scraped off his shoe. He never really atones, and they basically go from cat-and-mouse enemies to "I WILL FILL YOUR ROOM WITH POSIES."

THE FORTUNE HUNTER succeeds where lesser works have failed because it has a good story, one of the hottest sex scenes I've ever read in a hist-rom (THEY BANG IN A HAMMOCK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STORM AND HE ASKS HER-- AHEM-- "HOW SHE WOULD LIKE IT" BEFORE TELLING HER WHAT HE'D DO TO HER WHILE SHE BLOWS HIM #BYE), and not one, not two, but THREE secondary romances... which were actually all pretty decent and didn't take up too much page time. I also loved the gothic elements and the supernatural element (even if it was cheesy). It reminded me of McKinney's actual gothic romance GENTLY FROM THE NIGHT, which I loved, but also featured an inexplicably cruel hero who treated the hero like shit until-- boom-- it's love.

Also, the hero has a stupid Colonel Sanders beard and I wasn't into that, so minus half a star.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom by Sara Benincasa


AGORAFABULOUS! is one of those books where after I finished it, I'm like, "Did I really enjoy reading this?" because even though it was rip-roaringly funny in parts, it could also be surprisingly brutal. The two toughest scenes involve her recollections of the violent (self-inflicted) death of one of her classmates and a description of severe anxiety, agoraphobia, and depression-- which had escalated to the point that she was peeing in bowls to avoid leaving her bedroom and had mostly stopped eating.

Despite these triggers, though, AGORAFABULOUS! was a very endearing, if uneven, memoir. There were parts that were so funny, like her stint working as a teacher with at-risk kids, which kind of came across as a less pedantic version of Dangerous Minds. The story about Billy made me laugh hysterically. I also liked her writing about her trip to Planned Parenthood, her response to the jerk protestors stationed there to heckle women, and the fact that PP apparently has escorts to walk women up to the clinic through the protestors while distracting them. Oh my God, how wholesome.

I've been following Sara Benincasa for a while. She's one of those women who's kind of famous for her online work doing commentary and interviews, like Lindsey Ellis or Anita Sarkessian. I think I first remember seeing her as a guest star on College Humor's Bleep Bloop segments way back in the early 2010s, and she had an appearance on BuzzFeed as well. Mostly these days I follow her on Twitter, because she's really funny (her thread about the fates of '80s and '90s children's book protagonists was nothing short of brilliant), and I was curious to see what her experiences with psychological disorders was like, as someone who, you know, has mental health issues herself.

Overall, this was a pretty great read. I found it incredibly validating and I wish I'd had a copy when I was feeling at my worst in the late aughts/early 2010s. Knowing you're not alone is such an integral part of healing and recovery, so I'm so glad that she put this book out there in the world.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Bad Decisions by Heather Crews


Disclaimer: I was the beta reader for this work and Heather is a good friend of mine, but I paid real live monies for this book and was not in any way biased (HAHA... no, really) in the writing of this review.

So when I was reading this book in the raw, I was originally conflicted because Dante, the hero, normally isn't the type of hero I like in fiction. The author really brings him down to a level of vulnerability that most heroes in romance never face. But I ended up really liking that, and liking the book also, which ended up being the atmospheric haunted-house-maybe-but-not-really story that I didn't realize I needed.

This is another one of those books where the less you know going in is better, but it examines rape culture, bullying, and obsessive love through a very fine lens, with two flawed and realistic leads. It took me a while to read it, though, because it was so high stakes and high stress, and I found myself needing to take frequent breaks because of the subject matter. It is just so well done, and ended up being possibly my new favorite work from this author, and I am honestly just so blessed to have the privilege of being friends with someone who has such talent (I mean, OMG).

Seriously, people in Peach Creek suck. I don't think I've ever had such a long list of People Who Need to Be Punched in the Face while reading since, like, IDK. Game of Thrones, maybe. Maybe Peach Creek is the Texas version of King's Landing. (And we all know what happened to King's Landing.)

Also, June is officially my new favorite heroine and I will attack anyone who comes for her or her sexuality (because girl, you get some-- just ease back on the wine, please, ILY).

LOVED this book.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 20, 2022

MARVEL Spider-Man: A History and Celebration of the Web-Slinger, Decade by Decade by Matthew K. Manning


SPIDER-MAN: A HISTORY AND CELEBRATION is exactly what it promises to be. A history of the Spider-Man comics, replete with lots of pictures and panels, showing how S'Man evolved throughout the decades, and how his costume changed, and even how the lore got built out and complicated when Marvel expanded its legendary universe (sometimes for the worse lol).

I liked this book a lot. The pictures are gorgeous and I felt like the history was pretty thorough. It would be an amazing gift for anyone who loves Spider-Man.

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

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Promise Not to Tell by Jennifer McMahon


DNF @ 25%

I will say that I am honestly delighted at how many female-fronted thrillers are available now, because when I was young (high school), there weren't really a lot of books like that except for police procedurals like the Kay Scarpetta or Bones series, or old school gothic novels. Jennifer McMahon was one of the first of these sorts of authors I'd read (pre-Gillian Flynn, even), so I have really warm feelings towards her work.

PROMISE NOT TO TELL is her debut and I'm sorry to say it shows. I remembered really liking one of her earlier books but I couldn't remember which one it was. Now that I've gotten about a quarter of the way through, I know it wasn't this one. The premise is interesting. It's set in rural Vermont with dual timelines in a hippie commune, and when Kate returns as an adult she's haunted by the disappearance and murder of her very strange and very dysfunctional friend, Del.

This story just didn't grab me. I felt like the structure was shaky and I wasn't really compelled by the main character's narrative voice the way I have been by some of this author's other offerings. 

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, October 14, 2022

Book of Extraordinary Tragedies by Joe Meno


DNF @ p.118

I really, really wanted to like this book-- especially since it's written by an author who I've been wanting to check out for a while (he wrote HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED, which is high on my list because it's about punk culture, which I think is really cool). BOOK OF EXTRAORDINARY TRAGEDIES, on the other hand, is about an Eastern European family cursed with extraordinary bad luck. The hero, Aleks, and his sister, Isobel, are ex-child prodigies whose bright futures ended up tarnished and crumbling into nothing. Now, as young adults, they are all washed-out and struggle through existence.

As other readers have pointed out, this is a very depressing book. There's a Canadian author I can't remember right now, but she wrote a book about two young adults who are big fish in the little pond of their Quebecois city, children of a famous regional athlete?? And that's, like, their only claim to fame. And it's all about how they've just kind of peaked young, but told in an earnestly fatalist voice. That's how this book reads, too. There's nothing objectively wrong with it, but that's either the sort of story that you're into or you're not. I was not into it. I tried.

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

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars 

The Heights by Juliet Bell


So apparently I'm just giving five star reviews to every thriller I read now, but that's okay, because every thriller I read now has been unusually awesome. Case in point: THE HEIGHTS. I'm actually shocked that it has such low ratings because it's such a good story. It manages to capture the bleak passions and the emotional insanity of the original WUTHERING HEIGHTS story while also modernizing it. It's been about ten years since I've read WH so I looked up the summary, and THE HEIGHTS follows it really well, with a couple tweaks to ensure that it ends up being period-appropriate and working for the story.

THE HEIGHTS, like its predecessor, is dual timeline. The modern-day one has DCI Lockwood looking into the numerous deaths surrounding a coal-mining town, specifically a place called The Heights, where the Earnshaws used to live. Maybe I'm twisted for finding this amusing, but it makes sense-- why wouldn't a police want to look into a place where a horrendous amount of people mysteriously died? DID YOU EVEN READ THE ORIGINAL WUTHERING HEIGHTS? Emily Bronte was aiming to be the 19th century George R. R. Martin.

The past timeline starts out with Catherine and her other brother, Mick, as children. Heathcliff is brought on as a foundling, like the original, but here it's implied that he's one of Catherine's father's by-blows. The story is set against the background of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's decision to close twenty coal mines, which led to a miners' strike in 1984. This gives the story a bleak and gloomy setting, except instead of the moors, it's working class poverty and hopeless and coalface and unsafe mines and riots that set the gothic backdrop. Cathy and Heathcliff avoid their family by running off together, always together, until they meet the Linton children: the wealthy offspring of the people who owned and helped close the mine.

I don't want to say too much because less is more going in, but I think you can read this as a standalone book separate from it standing alone as a WH retelling. Heathcliff is seriously crazy. Juliet Bell (brilliant penname by the way; if you know, you know) captures how selfish Cathy was and how aggressive and irrational Heathcliff was. I mean, he murders a puppy. (Spoiler.) I loved the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff, even though I recognized how destructive and unhealthy it was, and everyone around them just ended up caught in their chaotic maelstrom. It was brilliant.

And now I'm sad and more than a little devastated.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris


This was another book I had campaigned pretty hard to get an ARC of. But once again, book-blocked. How rude. But then it went on sale and I bought it IMMEDIATELY. Reading ALL HER LITTLE SECRETS, I had very high expectations-- but somehow, this book still managed to exceed them. The comparison to THE FIRM is excellent but I would also compare it to ACE OF SPADES, with how it deals with the subjects of privilege and infrastructural racism. 

Here's the premise. Ellice is a high-powered lawyer nursing a very dark secret, which we find out slowly through the dual timeline medium (MY FAVORITE MEDIUM). She might have her professional life together but her personal life is a mess: she's sleeping with her boss, for one. Which is why it's such a shock when she arrives to one of their early morning tete-a-tetes only to find out that he's dede-a-dede. That is: dead. Uh oh.

After deciding to flee without telling a soul, Ellice waits out the discovery and is shocked when she's promoted to her late-lover's job: the much-coveted position on the executive level suite. It seems too good to be true. And you know what they say about things that sound too good to be true. But if you don't, this book is going to be an even bigger surprise for you than it will be already, and I'm so thrilled for you.

I honestly don't want to say too much about this book because the less you know going in, the better it will be. There are MAJOR TRIGGER WARNINGS, though. Not just for racism (but also that), but also for a rather graphic and chilling depiction of what happens when you deny a woman reproductive rights. That's not a huge spoiler, and it's honestly so awful that I feel like people should brace themselves for it. I didn't see any reviews with warnings, so it surprised me in a really unpleasant way.

Apart from that, I loved every moment of this book. I loved the heroine's voice, I loved the pacing of the story and the satisfying ending. I loved the writing style and the message. I thought all the characters were really well done (good and bad). After Ellice, Juice and Vera were probably my favorite people. And I LOVED her friend, Grace. This isn't just a story about a woman triumphing over evil: it's also an ode to the power of having a good support network and the bonds between women. 

I can't wait to read this author's next book.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Stephen King: A Complete Exploration of His Work, Life, and Influences by Bev Vincent


I'm often skeptical about coffee table-style niche encyclopedias like this, because they're often only accessible to the super-fans of whatever they're about, and even though I love Stephen King and he was, at one point, my favorite author, I would no longer call myself a super-fan of his work. I think the last thing of his that I actually read was REVIVAL and I didn't like it.

But you can color me wrong for this book because I actually loved it so much. I actually think this would be a great companion to read with Stephen King's memoir-slash-writing guide, ON WRITING, because it has pictures of a lot of the things he talked about. This book is part biography, part extended bibliography/CV, and part fan trivia. For example, I didn't know that early editions of MISERY had a fake romance stepback inside picturing Paul Sheldon's Misery cover! And better yet, THIS BOOK INCLUDES A PICTURE. AND STEPHEN KING WAS THE MALE COVER MODEL.

The whole book was full of fun little facts like that, including his inspirations, insights into his relationship with his wife and sons (I honestly LOVE how Tabitha is Mr. King's "Ideal Reader." Every time he talks about her, you can tell how much he worships her), and what his life was like after the accident that caused him serious injury. I've read most of his early works and a lot of the ones into the '90s, but everything from the aughts onward was a little new to me and there were several things he did that I hadn't even heard of. After seeing the summary of LISEY'S STORY, I'm kind of interested in picking it up now.

Horror fans, King fans, and movie fans will probably get a lot out of this book. I'm happy to report that you don't need to be a super-fan to get something out of this book. There's literally something in here for everyone and I kind of like that. Bev Vincent knocked the ball out of the park.

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Bride of Pendorric by Victoria Holt


DNF @ 18%

I was actually telling my friend that I felt like I lost my mean reviewer edge because I have just been four- and five-starring everything in sight. What's wrong with me? I wondered. What if I just now love ALL THE BOOKS? What if I've become one of those pod people who just five star everything like they've never known despair? And then this book came along and I was like OH THANK GOD I'M STILL AN ASSHOLE.

Victoria Holt was actually my first foray into gothic romance and when I like her books, I really like her books. But also, all of her heroines are the same heroines and they're all weirdly prudish and uptight. Which fits the times, I guess-- but I like heroines with a little more personality. Prudish and uptight can be fun if the heroine has some bite to her. Which is why I tend to gravitate more towards Mary Stewart and Phyllis A. Whitney now when I want to go old skool. I just like their heroines-- and settings-- better. Whitney's are particularly fun because she has books set in places like Japan or the Virgin Islands because she's actually been to those places.

BRIDE OF PENDORRIC is a REBECCA knockoff. I don't particularly mind books that are derivative as long as they're good. While I don't think this is a bad book, I do think it's a boring one. The heroine is very milquetoast, there's no chemistry between her and the hero, and she reacts to things the way an alien might react to things if they were briefly shown a YouTube video on Humaning 101 before being laced into a petticoat and plopped down to Earth. I think I'll give this one a miss.

2 out of 5 stars

Blood And Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause


BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE is such a weird book. It revels in its 90s-ness the way your one hipster friend who still owns a VHS player and Instagrams their collection of Pogs does, and it's weirdly sexual in a way that I'm not sure a YA today would be allowed to be without drawing all sorts of outcry. I mean, for starters, there's ~SEDUCTION~ where one of the heroine's boyfriends is waiting for her naked under a sheet with candles all over his room lol. And also, the heroine is sixteen and in a love triangle between a human boyfriend her own age (Mr. Bedsheets and Fire Hazards) and a werewolf guy who is-- ahem-- TWENTY-FOUR. (Also it's implied that he may have banged her mom. Yum. Not.)

I can see why this book gets a lot of flak from critics. It's kind of like a gender-reversed TWILIGHT, if Edward were a girl named Vivian who was also a werewolf. (Her mom is even named Esme!) But there's so much more about it, too. It's a coming-of-age story that's about pushing boundaries and wanting to grow up but also wanting to explore and find adulthood and be your own person. Vivian has grown up under her wolf pack but she doesn't want to be wedded to convention, and she loathes how juvenile and immature the only other werewolf kids in her pack (all guys of course) are. So it's not really any wonder that she would be attracted to their total opposites: a sensitive artist type (Aiden) or a powerful and dominant man who doesn't need to make displays because he owns them (Gabriel).

The weird age gap is uncomfortable, especially since the heroine is underage. If she were seventeen it would have been better, and it would have been even better still if she were eighteen. But I also can see why the author chose to make that choice because sixteen is an age when you can start to feel like you have your whole life figured out (even if you totally don't). Also it was written in the '90s when fewer people had the means of giving a shit. I was mostly able to roll with it because of the fact that Vivian isn't human. I think my favorite parts of the book were actually the action scenes and the scenes describing the political intrigues between the pack members. Even though this is a short book, I felt like a lot of work went into fleshing out the world building and the way they changed. I'm not usually into werewolf books because they're all furry and sweaty and gross, but in this book, paired with the beautiful writing, I felt like Klause really did a great job portraying the beauty of the page.

Also, unlike THE SILVER KISS, which was about vampires (and which I usually prefer), I felt like the heroine was a lot more likable (even if she was a bitch; she was my bitch, you know?). It also has more of a romance ending than THE SILVER KISS, which I feel is more of a love story. Apparently Blood and Chocolate was made into a movie, but I have never seen it. Now I'm kind of curious to see how it compares to the book, which is pretty dark and often brutal. I'm guessing they aged up the heroine and took out a lot of the violence and sex.

I don't know. I kind of liked it. Is that weird?

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, October 7, 2022

The Woman in the Water by Kelly Heard


I'm always leery about reading books about authors I'm on friendly terms with, because I've found that nothing can put a wrench in those friendly terms quite as fast as a negative review. So I typically don't read a book by a friend unless I'm pretty sure I'm going to like it (because I'm not going to lie!). Luckily for me, Kelly Heard writes in what is probably my favorite subgenre of fiction: domestic suspense with gothic and romantic elements. Um, yes. Come to mama.

I was initially a little lukewarm on the first book of hers I read, THE SILENT GIRL, which I thought had a ton of promise but didn't take enough advantage of its admittedly cool elements. But it had the recipe for something good and the writing was clear and immersive, so I knew I was definitely going to want to check out other books by this author because it felt like she had a ton of potential. And that potential comes to a head in THE WOMAN IN THE WATER, which was excellent.

Felicity lives in the Virgin Islands in tropical paradise which is abruptly shattered when she gets a call from a Virginian cop in her hometown: her sister is dead and she's been named guardian of her two children. As soon as she touches foot in Virginia, she's swamped by memories: the sexism and classism of her town, the swamplands and lakes where girls have drowned (they're called the "Reverie Girls"), and the creepy abandoned fairgrounds that are haunted by more than just ghosts. Felicity has bad memories of something that happened when she and her sister were teens and of a night that went horribly wrong.

So let's do a check of some of the tropes in this book that were THE BEST: second-chance teen romance revisited as angsty adults, woman going to confront the dark secrets of her hometown, sexism and patriarchy confronted in the narrative, reasonable and mature heroine with a slight spiteful streak (YAS GIRL), sisters with a close bond that broke over betrayal/tragedy, suspicious hot guys, forbidden romance, CREEPY GOTHIC ELEMENTS, a hero who wears GLASSES, dual timeline, sinister stalkers. And let's not even talk about the Reverie girl mythos and all those creepy swamps. I was all over that like orange on a pumpkin.

The only things that really kept this from being a five-star read were some very mild pacing issues (there were parts that felt slow), pseudo-supernatural elements that felt a little too cheesy, Felicity having some truly odd and unrealistic-seeming reactions to things (particularly the bad guy and what they did, but then again I get that people process trauma in different ways-- especially if the whole town is brainwashed by sexism-- so IDK), and the fact that I would have (personally) appreciated just a teensy bit more smuttiness and romance.

But honestly?? I loved this. I can't wait to see what the author writes next.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 6, 2022

The Story of the Great British Bake Off by Anita Singh


I love The Great British Bake Off. It's a total comfort show and there's nothing mean-spirited about it, which is what puts me off a lot of reality TV. Some people enjoy shows about people being egotistical jerks, and more power to them, but my favorites have always been the good-natured competitive crafty shows. THE STORY OF THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF is an unofficial "guide" to the show that provides profiles on all the bakers from all the seasons, collections of the best bakes, and even the inside scoop on "Bingate" (which surprisingly was way more innocent than it seemed). I should note that there are NO RECIPES in this book (lest you think it should contain some) and while it's beautifully designed with fun illustrations and a few photos, it's not really a pictorial book either. I feel like this is almost like an encyclopedia-cum-oral history, so, like a Buzzfeed listicle padded out to full length. You could probably find out a lot of the behind-the-scenes trivia in this book from browsing the web but it's nice to have it all in one place and I think the author did a great job capturing the wholesome tone of the show. But this is definitely a book that is ONLY for people who watch the show and are already big fans.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

I'm Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy


So in my pre-review of this book, where I lamented about not being able to find a copy anywhere because of all the HYPE (seriously, I could not find a copy of this anywhere and the library had, like, a five-hundred year wait-- thank GOD for my sister sending me a copy as payment for watching her kitten), I said that the people giving this author shit about her choice of title were dickheads. Some people got mad at me about that, but I stand by what I said. Even more so after reading this memoir. I am seriously side-eyeing the people defending the mother, actually, because based on the accounts in this memoir, she was verbally, emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive. Not only that, but she coached her daughter into an eating disorder at age eleven and then managed her to ensure that she continued to starve herself. That's not to mention the stage-parenting, the freak-outs (especially while driving), and the fact that she wiped Jennette when she went to the bathroom well into, like, her preteens (imagine not even trusting your eleven-year-old daughter to wipe her own ass) and showered her into her late teens (sometimes with her older brother and also while giving her breast and vaginal exams, ostensibly to search for cancer, I guess). 

What the FUCK.

Here's a hard truth. Some people are shitty people. Some of those shitty people are shitty parents. Being a parent does not give you a free-pass from all wrongs. Especially if you're just doing the whole parenting thing for a little human-sized accessory that you can live all of your failed dreams through. By the end of this book, I was kind of glad Jennette's mother died, too. After living under that kind of suffocating parenting, with gaslighting and serious emotional trauma, not to mention abuse, I would be fucking done. I don't blame Jennette for her feelings. And I love my mother. I'm lucky enough to have a pretty good relationship with her. And a few years ago, my mother got breast cancer, just like the author's mom, and I was so devastated that I felt like I was working in a total fog. I stepped back from social media and it was all I could do to focus on my day job because I was so upset. But I know that other people's experiences aren't like that, and we don't get to dictate how other people mourn (or choose not to). My mother ended up okay, but I would have been really sad if the worst happened, and that's because she was a good mom and she still works hard at being a good person. People who don't try to be good people are owed nothing. Why enshrine the dead if they leave behind a legacy of trash? The title is shocking but only because we tend to airbrush the pasts of the departed.

I'M GLAD MY MOM DIED rejects this premise. In this memoir, Jennette McCurdy lays out her upbringing in painfully explicit detail, starting from her mother's hoarding and growing up in poverty in a house that sounded like it should have been condemned, to the way her mother forced her into acting and she ended up being the golden goose that kept her family afloat after years of living hand to mouth. She talks about the way her mother emotionally manipulated her, and her guilt. She talks about how she started to get body dysmorphia because she felt like the only way she could continue to be successful was to look like a child forever, and when she expressed this fear to her mom, her mom taught her how to starve herself, starting an eating disorder that would basically rule her emotional breaks and her relationship with food for over a decade. She talks about her hatred of acting, what it was like working under the man she calls "The Creator" at Nickelodeon (we know who), her friendship with Miranda, and her jealousy and resentment of Ariana. And then she writes about her utterly conflicting feelings when her mother began to die of another bout of cancer, still manipulating her emotions.

This book stressed me out so much. I think it would be very triggering for people with eating disorders and people with abusive parents, as it is SO descriptive when it comes to these passages. It's also a brand new look into celebrity, because most celebrity memoirs are written by people who are still in the business, but this is kind of a fuck-you memoir written by someone who doesn't care if their bridges are burned, so she really unhauls all the dirt in a way that someone who probably wanted to keep working in this field wouldn't. It's really well-written but the writing can, at times, feel a bit amateurish. McCurdy has a lot of raw talent but the people hyping her up as brilliant are exaggerating a little.

ALSO, who the fuck is calling this book a "hilarious" memoir? Are these the same people who were talking about how "funny" CRYING IN H MART was? Is this where we open up the floor to a conversation about how women's emotional pain and fraught relationships are often mined for comedic value? Why do people find it so amusing when women hate their mothers? My review is already getting longer than I intended it to, but this is definitely a trend I've noticed lately where I'll pick up a memoir that's supposed to be funny and instead it's just an emotionally wrenching book about a woman dealing with her trauma. Ha-ha, I guess. Fuck that.

Do read this book, if you are in a healthy mental space, but gird yourself against the hype. It is not Jesus's Second Coming. It is just a very brave story about a woman trying to come clean with herself and the past.

4 stars

Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops?: The Lost Toys, Tastes, and Trends of the 70s and 80s by Gael Fashingbauer


I meant to post status updates for this book on Goodreads as I was reading it, but I basically have two modes when it comes to how I devour a book: greedily, all in one chunk; or slowly, with multiple pauses to savor. I can't command the reading mood, either. The reading mood commands me. And with this book, it was chunk.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO PUDDING POPS? is a fun nostalgic retrospective. It's arranged in alphabetical order, and every nostalgic item on the list gets a paragraph or two describing its role as a phenomenon of '70s and '80s pop culture, whether it's still in existence or actively being produced today, and, in relevant cases, a fun trivia fact about said thing. For example, Kim Basinger did commercials for Maybelline's Kissing Potion lip glosses and Meg Ryan did a commercial for Tickle Deodorant.

Just so you get an idea of what sorts of things are in here, this book covers this like Jell-O 1-2-3, Wacky Packages, Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific shampoo, Love's Baby Soft, the Osmond family, ugly '70s furniture, Saturday Night Fever, and unsafe playgrounds (remember those rusty metal slides and the swings that had chain links that could pinch your fingers?).

I actually just read this book hot on the heels of another book called INTERIOR DESECRATIONS, which takes shots at bad '70s interior decorating, and while I liked the pictures in that book more (this book had a couple pictures scattered in, but they're few and far between and all in black and white), I liked the tone of this book better. The authors have a wry tongue-in-cheek sort of tone that manages to be both affectionate and teasing. Even if they understand that the things in question have aged badly or were bad ideas, their sense of nostalgia and appreciation still seeps through. I liked that. I think it's okay to enjoy things that are tacky, juvenile, problematic, or stupid, as long as you talk about why.

Anyone who enjoys pop-culture essays will love this book, I think. I gave it to my mom to read after me because I thought she would really enjoy it. I am a bit too young to remember all of the things in here, but the late-80s and early-90s had a lot of holdovers from the '70s and early '80s, so I definitely had access to some of these things. 

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes from the Horrible '70s by James Lileks


Console stereos, sunken living rooms, mirrored wallpaper, mixed prints. These are just some of the features that probably cross your mind when you think '70s decor. If not "NOPE." Honestly, I'm with the author in the sense that I agree that the '70s were just kind of the worst when it came to art and fashion, and that includes interior decorating. That said, the retro look some of these rooms had really did appeal to me, and with just a few tweaks, I could see some of these rooms looking pretty cute. The author, however, seemed not to degree. The vitriol of their commentary was a little off-putting, and looking at some of the reviews, it seems other reviewers didn't think that they were as funny as they seemed to think they were. (Did a rogue roll of '70s wallpaper kill your mother?)

Honestly, what really made this book for me were the pictures. Whether you love or hate the '70s, it's good design inspo, and it's a fun look into the trends of the decade.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 3, 2022

Hold Back the Tide by Melinda Salisbury


So whenever I stay over at someone's house, I immediately stalk their bookshelves, so when I did a kitten-sit and saw that my sister had a copy of Melinda Salisbury's latest, I was all over that like white on rice. Salisbury is the author of THE SIN EATER'S DAUGHTER, which a lot of my friends didn't like but I actually thought was a lot of fun, and this Scotland-set The Village-esque claustrophobic horror novel sounded it was going to be absolutely perfect for Spooky Month.

Alva is the daughter of the master of the loch. For centuries he and his kin have looked over the loch and monitored the water levels. But now, things are different. The water levels are falling. Strange things are also happening. Animals are dying and traps are being ripped apart. Alva knows that he should tell the village elders but for some reason he's being secretive about it. She can't help but wonder if the reasons for that are as sinister as the ones behind her mother's disappearance.

This is a really good story but less is definitely more going in. Some of the reviews have big spoilers. For my part, I will say that I enjoyed the sort of Lovecraftian horror angle (except, you know, without the Lovecraftian racism) and the small village politics. There's even some cute boys and hints of romance and the heroine is unbelievably strong in a Katniss Everdeen sort of way. The ending is kind of a downer, though, so if you don't like downer endings I would recommend against this book. It definitely took some of the shine off the polish, if you know what I meant. But apart from that, this was an enjoyable way to spend my afternoon.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Beach Read by Emily Henry


BEACH READ is my first book by Emily Henry, who definitely seems to be a love her or hate her kind of author when it comes to how people feel about her work. I've been seeing Tweets making fun of how basic and white her stories are for ages, and I've come to the conclusion that maybe her books are the pumpkin spice lattes of the chick-lit world. Yes, maybe they are a little over-hyped and saccharine-sweet, and maybe they are a little basic-- but also, there's a reason why millions and millions of people define themselves by them, right?

This book is the story of a girl named January. January is a romance author who's feeling a major slump because she was always inspired to write based on her parents' own larger-than-life love story, and her own good luck in love. But now she's just discovered that her father was cheating on her mother-- while she had cancer-- and when she falls into a depressive funk, her boyfriend-almost-fiance decides he just can't handle it because she's not fun anymore, and they break up.


Now January's father has died and she's at the beach house that she thinks used to be his love nest, trying to figure herself out and what she's going to do next. The picturesque town is beautiful but she's too upset to enjoy it, and all she can think about is the fun loving person she used to be. That's when she meets her grumpy neighbor-- or at least, she has several passing interactions with him where she can't really see his face. And it turns out that Grump is actually her old college writing class rival, now famous in his own right for writing pretentiously depressing lit-fic. The two of them end up bonding at a social event gone wrong and becoming closer-- close enough that they start talking about their writing road blocks and then come up with a challenge: they'll trade genres and see if writing something else fixes it, and the winner gets to have the other person blurb their book.

At first I was thinking this book was going to get a four or a five. The way the emotions the characters feel can be so beautiful. It's kind of like if someone turned every meaningful 3AM conversation you've ever had into a book. The portrayal of depression and grief felt dead-on, and I liked that every light moment of banter was counterweighted by some heavy emotional stuff. Where this book failed for me was that it started to feel a little too cyclical. After a while, it felt like Gus and January started to have the same arguments over and over. The ending, when Gus does his confession, felt a little bit mean the way he did it. And I hated the way he ended his "romance" novel-- because it didn't have an HEA. THAT'S NOT A ROMANCE NOVEL GUS. Oh my God, if I read a romance that ended the way his did, I'd be so mad. 

In the end, I'm giving this a very high three because I loved the way this author wrote about two authors falling in love and I did think that it was just the right amount of quirky. It gave me good '90s rom-com vibes. If you enjoyed Beth 'O Leary's THE FLAT SHARE, I think you'd enjoy this too. Same vibes.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Putney by Sofka Zinovieff


I found PUTNEY on a list of books suggested for people who enjoyed (maybe enjoyed is the wrong word?) MY DARK VANESSA. This is an excellent multi-POV, dual timeline saga with three narrators. The first narrator is Ralph, who is dying of cancer in the present timeline as an old man, but in the '70s he was a wunderkind composer hobnobbing it with other bohemians, when he meets the heroine, Daphne, at the Greenslay estate. Daphne, in the present timeline, is a single mother with a good job, but in the '70s she was a wild child with too little adult supervision which left her vulnerable and lonely. The third narrator is Jane, Daphne's childhood best friend and a not-so-impartial observer who has secrets of her own regarding both Ralph and Daphne.

PUTNEY is an exceptionally difficult read because it portrays the nuances of grooming behavior and the way its aftermath can take hold for decades after the fact. Daphne's story actually reminded me a lot of this memoir I just read recently, called CONSENT, which was written by a French woman named Vanessa Springora. Like Daphne, she thought she was "consenting" to a relationship with an older man who also referred to her as his "muse" (I wonder if perhaps this memoir inspired the author), and like Daphne, it took her a while after the fact to recognize his behavior for what it was, and how it upset her life.

The first half of this book was genuinely painful to read. I have ZERO sympathy for people who abuse children so it was difficult to stomach these portions, like watching a train wreck in progress. I think people who have experienced actual abuse may find this book very triggering, because the accounts are detailed (but not graphic). The second half was satisfying, because Ralph does eventually receive his comeuppance, but not in the way you might expect. It was also great to see the relationship between Jane and Daphne play out, and how childhood jealousies still affected them decades later, as women in their fifties. I found it genuinely touching and gratingly realistic that motherhood is what really cements what happened in Daphne's mind as abuse, when she realizes that if someone did to her daughter what Ralph did to her, she would find it unconscionable and come for him with claws out.

PUTNEY is not a light read but it's beautifully written and basically a master class in how to write complex, deeply flawed, and outright unlikable characters. Even the side characters were so layered and interesting. I feel like if a book makes you want to read between the lines of every interaction, then it is a genuinely good book. I can't wait to see what other books Sofka Zinovieff writes. I would definitely recommend this book to readers who enjoyed MY DARK VANESSA or THE GOLDFINCH.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Green Girl by Kate Zambreno


I found this book on a list of transgressive women's fiction. GREEN GIRL, by the author's definition, is sort of like a depressed ingenue. Picture a Shirley Manson music video or any '90s Winona Ryder character, and that's basically our heroine, Ruth. She is a sad clown, but in girl form. There's no real plot to GREEN GIRL. In the afterword, it seems like this character was written with the old cinema trope of the "shopgirl" in mind, and I can see that; it's a symbolism that's forcibly emphasized with epigrams from old Hollywood movies.

GREEN GIRL is a good book but if you don't like "unlikable" female characters or stream-of-consciousness, character-driven stories, you won't like this book. Sometimes the writing style could be grating but most of the time I really loved it. There's a sort of poetry to the writing, which I think is why this book is being compared to THE BELL JAR. Some people are saying this is a bad comparison but I don't think it is. Both books are about women who are depressed and don't really know how to even really exist in the midst of all their exhaustion. The only difference is the zeitgeist, and what ennui looks like in different decades, in different venues.

I used to read a lot of literary fiction when I was younger and still defined myself by the media that I consumed, but I stopped because most of the voices getting lauded were white, cis-gendered men, and when only one sort of voice is dominating the narrative, things can get a little boring. I wish I'd had more access to books like these when I was a younger woman: books about women who aren't happy, who struggle to exist, who aren't good people but who are still entitled to their stories. Reading GREEN GIRL made me appreciate that now, we're finally starting to get those stories and they're finally getting some airspace-- not just for white women, but for the LGBT+ and women of color, too.

If you know of any other books about women toiling under the weight of their malaise, please send me recs. Books like WHITE OLEANDER and THE BELL JAR made me realize that yes, I actually do enjoy literary fiction if the stories resonate and the characters are interesting.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars