Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Black Sheep by Brynne Weaver

 

DNF @ 36%

Maybe I'm just not in the mood for this book right now but I've been struggling with it for weeks. I liked the beginning but Bria kind of felt like a Mary Sue. She's too perfect and too good at what she does, and she's a sociopath, so there's that. I stan me a good antihero and no-holds-barred psychopathy can be fun, but this kind of just felt like a gender-reverse Dexter with porn. Her love interest, Eli, is just a really nice guy (except, you know, for lusting after his student), and he's okay. It's kind of nice to see a nerdy professor who has a hard-on for BDSM. But that's his core personality. The two of them eventually find out that they're both hunting down the same cult figure and his group of followers, which is a really cool premise. It just wasn't clicking for me. I tried.

The writing is really good, though. So don't let my review discourage you if it sounds like it's something you'd be into. I'm just not feeling it.

2 out of 5 stars

The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas

 

THE HACIENDA has been on my to-read list ever since I learned of its existence. As someone who is a huge fan of old skool gothic novels, this sounded like it was going to be everything I loved about the genre, infused with Mexican history and culture.

Beatriz's father was killed as a traitor during the overthrowing of the Mexican government. After that, she and her mother were left at the mercy of distant relatives, who resented their presence and treated Beatriz cruelly for being too dark. When she meets Rodolfo and he proposes marriage, it seems like a dream come true: he has the fair good looks of the upper-class and runs an agave plantation that is used to make pulque. San Isidro is so massive that there is plenty of room to send for her mother and have the two of them live happily ever after.

But pretty soon it becomes obvious that a traditional ending is not in the cards. Beatriz sees and hears what appear to be apparitions and there is a darkness, a coldness, that runs through the house. Her new sister in law, Juana, does not appear to care for her, and there are terrible rumors about her husband, Rodolfo. The only one who can help her is a priest named Andres, but he has secrets as well. If Beatriz is unable to fix what is wrong with the hacienda, her life might be in terrible danger. But so might be everyone else's, too.

So this was really good. The writing was beautiful and spare and I thought the atmosphere was amazing. Cañas did a great job staying true to the classic gothic formula, and there were scenes in it that scared the shit out of me. I liked all the characters I was supposed to like and hated all the characters I was supposed to hate. The ending was fantastic, too. My only qualm was that the characterization was a little bland. I guess I was hoping for more nuance from some of the characters. Beatriz and Andres felt pretty interchangeable as narrators. It sure was great for a debut, though, and I honestly thought it was a lot better than MEXICAN GOTHIC (it's weird that they're being compared so much because they have totally different writing styles and HACIENDA runs circles around MG, in my opinion).

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

 

I stayed up until about 2am finishing this book. I knew from the beginning that I was going to like it, but it took me until about halfway through the book that I realized I was going to love it. As other reviews have mentioned, this book employs a really unusual narrative style. The two sisters, Cat and El, grew up with a childhood that was heavily tangled up in their magical world of makebelieve, called Mirrorland. So in the present day, when Cat comes back to Scotland after finding out that her twin sister has gone missing, and she finds out that her sister is now living in their old childhood home, the past bubbles up to the present, until fantasy and reality collide.

Once I got used to the fairytale-but-not-really narrative, I really liked the book. MIRRORLAND is what my friend Heather and I like to call a FULT (a Fucked Up Lady Thriller). Catriona is a deeply flawed and traumatized woman. As she looks into her sister's disappearance and fights against her attraction to her widower (and their old childhood friend/mutual crush), she starts to remember things that she half-forgot. And she starts receiving secret notes and emails warning her that she NEEDS to remember. That she is, in fact, in terrible danger.

This is one of those books where it's better to know less going in because the payoff simply won't be as good otherwise. MIRRORLAND kind of reminded me of a cross between WHITE OLEANDER and COLD LIGHT, but with some of that allegorical Pan's Labyrinth and MirrorMask pseudo-fairytale atmosphere woven in for spice, to give this an interesting spin on the more typical Gillian Flynn-esque formula of a woman coming back to her hometown to confront her disturbing past. There are TWs for a lot of seriously messed up shit in this book, and even though some people like to say TWs aren't spoilers, in this case, they really are and would spoil the mystery. That said, I would advise people who are sensitive to abuse not to pick up this book. It goes to some very dark places.

What a brilliant clusterfuck of a thriller. The ending was absolutely perfect and alternately made me tear up/gave me chills. I can't wait to read other books by Ms. Johnstone. She's a vastly underrated talent.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

 

I've been wanting to read this book forever. WEIRD THINGS CUSTOMERS SAY IN BOOKSHOPS is an anthology of quotations from customers in bookshops, as reported by various booksellers. Most of them come from Jen Campbell herself, who used to work at a bookshop in the UK called Ripping Good Yarns, but the ones from elsewhere are quoted and cited, ranging from the obtuse to the delusional to the entitled to the barmy.

I thought this book was fun. It's not a keeper read, but it's definitely a solid pick-me-up. Anyone who has ever worked retail will recognize the language in here, especially the ridiculous requests. But I think it's even more fun if you've worked retail and you love books.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth by Wendy E. Simmons

 

Oh dear. I remember getting approved for an ARC of this when it first came out but then I gave it a pass because all of my friends said it was seriously problematic. When I saw that the hard copy was on sale for $2.99 on Kindle, though, temptation took hold. I'm fascinated by books about North Korea and the thought of reading a book about a Westerner who was able to go on a tour in NK was really interesting to me. And while there were things that I really liked about this book, there were also a lot of things that were, indeed, problematic.

So Ms. Simmons was able to go on a tour to North Korea (which she refers to as "NoKo," like it's a trendy neighborhood in SF or something), and it definitely seems like she went on this trip with an agenda in mind (i.e. write a book). I would not be surprised if she were a fan of J. Maarten Troost, because she seems to be trying to emulate his overly sarcastic and incredulous style, but it doesn't really work here because she doesn't have Troost's charm or willingness to play along. She says she loves travel because it makes her feel like an ambassador for U.S. culture, and all I have to say is, "please don't be my ambassador." Especially since she also claims to have a high emotional IQ. I was not there for her trip, but it was apparent, even to me, how uncomfortable she was making some of these North Korean employees, putting them in positions where it was impossible to save face, or asking them questions that could compromise their employment. I really, really hope that some of these scenarios were exaggerated for comedy.

I don't know how much of this is exaggeration, but reading this book, I kind of feel sorry for her guides, because it seems like she went out of her way to give them a really hard time. Sneaking photos of things she wasn't supposed to, poking her nose around, staring at native Korean citizens, making fun of cultural centers (at one point, they take her to a sort of museum where gifts of state are stored, and she starts telling the guides why the gifts aren't as cool as they think they are), etc. Her running gag with this book is that everything in North Korea is a sort of Potemkin village, and she recounts multiple situations where she tried to pull a "gotcha" on the guides, and get them to admit that the pageantry isn't real, and then acting frustrated or annoyed when the guides deflect or refuse. My jaw actually dropped when she said she hit one of the drivers for killing a bug for her (after he already saw her freak out about a bug earlier). She claimed it was a joke and was apparently incredulous to find out that this hurt the driver's feelings, since in her mind, they were BFFs.

The pictures were great but I wish she had given them real captions instead of Alice in Wonderland quotes (seeming to underscore her idea that this was all some sort of fantasy world or game?). I don't think that Wendy E. Simmons is a bad writer and she took a trip of a lifetime that is incredibly very difficult to get, but I wish that she had written it from less of an ethnocentric perspective. Most of the memoir is just "ha ha, how RIDICULOUS" and it would have been cool to have more descriptions about the tour itself and what she saw and less about making fun of them. Look, I'm not exactly sympathetic to the North Korean regime, but at the end of the day, the people taking her on the tour are just trying to work their 9-5 and take care of their families, like anyone else. Why make their job difficult?

2.5 out of 5 stars

Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall

 

I remember seeing this book everywhere when it first came out, and since I love reading books about feminism, I was really eager to read it. Now that I've finally gotten my grubby mitts on it, I can say that it mostly lived up to my expectations. In this book, Mikki Kendall illustrates (with examples) how feminism has historically failed women of color, and how white women can broaden their intellectual scope to be more inclusive to the intersectional branches of feminism, including BIPOC women, LGBT+ women, and women living below the party line (and these groups are not mutually exclusive). I think the biggest takeaway from this book is that "white feminism" often looks to increase and broaden existing privilege, which doesn't always work for people who already have little to none. While some women are pushing for advancement to a CEO position, others can't get work. Period. In addition to being a rallying call to action and a blistering recounting of harsh but necessary truths, it's also a cautionary tale against being short-sighted and selfish when it comes to pushing for change.

That said, as other reviews have noted, I do feel that this is more of a primer for said privileged women (including myself) than it is for BIPOC women who already know this stuff and probably don't need to be told twice. I do think it's worth reading though because Kendall has a beautiful way with words, and I love the way that she chooses them so as to express her points in language that is spare, concise, and cutting. For me, the best feminist essays are emotionally charged, and include self-referential or autobiographical elements, so in addition to getting the author's viewpoint, you also see how they got to that viewpoint from within the framework of their own lives. You really get that here, and I think it added to the essays in a really positive and beneficial way.

Some of the topics discussed in here are gentrification, fetishization and hyper-sexualization of women of color, gun control and gun violence, discrimination in all forms, microaggresions, tone policing and respectability politics, poverty, food stamps, and violence against women. I thought the chapters about hyper-sexualization and about food stamps were the strongest, and I felt like the author did a good job showing how both society and the government fail women (working or no) who require basic things to take care of themselves and/or their children. I also liked the chapter about how society forces women-- especially BIPOC women-- to grow up too fast, usually against their will, and how these preconceived notions of a woman's coming-of-age can lead to violence or a dispassionate reaction to seeing violence being committed against BIPOC women. The line about respectability politics made me especially thoughtful because it reminded me of a Tweet I saw condemning people (so-called feminists) for the way they talked about Caitlin Jenner and basically misgendering her or making fun of her, and how it's not feminist or progressive to misgender people when critiquing them because it suggests that people are only worthy of their identities when we're in agreement with them, when this should be a basic tenet of decency, if not a human right. I feel like Kendall was making a similar point with this book: that Black women are more than just examples to be held up to make a throwaway argument for cheap points, and that they are rightfully owed a voice and a position at the table, whether or not they are making white feminists at that same table uncomfortable with their thoughts and views.

There were a couple essays in this book that didn't resonate with me as much (the parenting one, mostly because I am child-free and can't really imagine motherhood and the sacrifices that comes with, even though I appreciated her points about child rearing as a BIPOC woman and how that can differ for some BIPOC women below the poverty line who don't have access to the resources that might make parenting a relative breeze for someone with access to more resources, etc.), but there were none that I disliked. I will say that, at times, it sometimes felt like the author was imagining the face of white feminism as a yoga-pants wearing, Whole Foods-shopping, Taylor Swift-listening caricature of privilege, and while that is certainly one face of white feminism-- and perhaps the one that this book is geared primarily towards since they have the most social power and cachet when it comes to privilege-- I do think it's a tactical error to resort to this sort of bland stereotyping when making these sorts of arguments, as it chips away at the otherwise solid rhetoric that anyone could stand to open their mind and check their privilege and makes it far too easy for people to say, "Well, I'm not like that. This doesn't apply to ME." Maybe we're just brushing people like that off as a lost cause for being too thick to realize that this book was written about them, but it's still worth noting, imo.

But over all, this was great. Definitely lived up to the hype. I hope she posts another collection.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 26, 2022

Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why by Jude Ellison S. Doyle

 

When I picked up the feminist book, FEMALE CHAUVINIST PIGS, I was expecting something more in line with TRAINWRECK. In this book, Doyle takes a close look at how we, as a society, talk about famous women-- specifically, their rise, decline, and fall. Why do we feel so comfortable branding women as failures of human beings for a single mistake that would barely cause a blip in a man's career? Why do men get to be tortured, whereas women are called trainwrecks? Writing about women from Mary Wallstonecraft to Amy Winehouse, Doyle discusses the standards that women are given to live up to, and the cruelty we mete out in judgement when they fail to perform to our standards and expectations, especially with regard to morality.

I LOVED this book. I was expecting discussions of Amanda Bynes, Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Amy Winehouse, but it was also kind of exciting to see the author dig out older case studies as well, like Charlotte Bronte (who apparently may have had a crush on her married Belgian professor, and Jane Eyre might have been lusty fanfiction about him), or Mary Wallstonecraft (who had quite the scandalous life, which was all accidentally unearthed when her husband made the decision to posthumously publish all of her letters), or Monica Lewinsky and Hillary Clinton, both representing two poles on the "I Hate Women" yardstick: the harlot and the shrew.

In TRAINWRECK, Doyle gives nuanced portraits of these maligned women, talking about how they were built up and then crucified, and how the expectations for women are impossible to meet even if you play by the rules (she cites Taylor Swift for this specifically). She also includes women of color (such as Billie Holiday, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna), and how when they fail or are made to fail, their condemnations are often racist and sexist, with some people criticizing them simply for being in the spotlight at all. But most importantly, I feel like TRAINWRECK gives these women accolades for the weight of their achievements and what they accomplished because of-- or despite-- everything. It is a nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of society's famously difficult women, and as someone who deliberately seeks out books with heroines who do have flaws or are unlikable, I have to say that it's really refreshing to see a book like this, that so unequivocally condemns these toxic double-standards.

I don't often reread nonfiction, but TRAINWRECK is a book I think I might like to keep on hand to reference again and again.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Stolen Magic by Esri Rose

 

DNF @ 20%

Despite the low ratings for this book, I approached it with an open mind because there is a serious dearth of paranormal books about faeries and elves and Zebra is one of my favorite imprints. The premise of this book is kind of weird. Adlia is an elf who doesn't remember her past who is in serious "like" with her photography instructor. But then another elf named Fia joins their compound and she appears to have suffered some sort of trauma that has obliterated her memories as well.

STOLEN MAGIC is very slow-paced and very dated. The outdated technology references were endearing, but the outdated social mores were not. When Adlia declines an offer of a meal, Mark jokes about her having an eating disorder. And when Adlia commits a social faux-pas, she casts a glamor over Mark to erase his memory (which felt super icky to me). I wasn't a huge fan of the writing style and while I appreciated the author's inventiveness with regard to certain things, this is mostly a no from me.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

The Bachelor's Bride by Audra Adams

 

I buddy-read this book with my friend Caro. She recently hit me up and informed me that Audra Adams was a penname of Margot Abbott, who wrote one of my favorite works of historical fiction of all time, THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR. Obviously when I found out that one of my faves wrote Harlequin novels, I was all over that like white on rice, even though secret baby is my least favorite romance trope ever.

THE BACHELOR'S BRIDE is so ridiculous, though. It starts out with a sex scene that the heroine, Rachel, thinks is a dream because she did what you're not supposed to do and mixed antibiotics and alcohol. She realizes that her hook-up wasn't a dream when she winds up pregnant, and when she describes her lover and his French-sounding accent to her friend, it turns out that her mystery lover is her French-Canadian boss, Reid James.

Most of the book is Rachel saying that she's not like other girls, she's not cheap, she's not for sale. She throws a tantrum when Reid wants her to sign a pre-nup before they get married-- a marriage that she's made it clear that she doesn't want and might break up after a year. Reid gives into her, the way he gives into her on everything else. Usually in older romances like these, I'm solidly on the heroine's side, but Rachel was so wishy-washy and awful. I felt sorry for her because of her sick mother and her mean father, but she was also no prize herself. Reid had serious boundary issues, but as far as alpha Harlequin heroes go, he was one of the better ones, and a total Consent King. I stan.

There is a pretty steamy sex scene in this book and as I said, Reid is way less jerky than some of the other heroes in books of this type. The dated references were also amusing. We love to see someone navigating with a road map and women wearing denim skirts. Apart from that, though, I wasn't all that impressed with this book. THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR was so much better.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy

 

I was a teenager in the aughts, when raunch/party culture was at its zenith, and this shaped me in some really negative ways. It gave me ideas about what it meant to be a girl versus what it meant to be a boy that were very problematic, that I internalized for many years. It also gave me issues, because I didn't embody any of those cultural attitudes, which made me feel like a social failure. So when I found out that FEMALE CHAUVINIST PIGS existed and was essentially an attempt to analyze party/raunch culture from a feminist lens and how it harmfully effects women (and, presumably, everyone), I was very interested. It seemed like a book destined to be a favorite.

It was not.

First, a caveat. This book is dated. It was published in 2005 and I knew that going in. I wasn't expecting the pop-culture references to be current, and I knew it might use some out-of-date language that would probably not be optimal today. And yet-- I was surprised at how problematic this book ended up being for me, personally.

I'm not even sure how I want to rate this because there were some essays that I really liked. The first essay, which I believe was titled Raunch Culture, was the best. It was a condemnation of Girls Gone Wild and celebrities like Paris Hilton and Hugh Hefner, and how the commodification of women causes everyone to lose, even if women are the ones buying and selling. This sort of socially acceptable objectification isn't progressive: it just sells the lie that making it public removes the barriers, when really, the issue is that women are still being reduced to objects but are now being encouraged to objectify themselves with the "boys" in a grotesque mockery of egalitarianism. This was the strongest essay in the book and gave me a misguided idea as to how much I would enjoy this work as a whole.

The third essay, the titular Female Chauvinist Pigs, felt, to me, like an entire essay that could have been an expansion of Gillian Flynn's infamous quote about "cool girls" from GONE GIRL: basically, a critique of women who pull up the ladder behind them, who excel at being a woman by being one of the boys-- but also still feminine enough to make it look attractive. In other words, an unfair an impossible dichotomy that makes both men and women (and everyone in between) look bad. But I also felt like these essays felt somewhat hypocritical because they seemed to be blaming women and not really examining the societal and infrastructural contexts that drive decision-making like these. The second essay, The Future That Never Was(?), could have just as well have been called "Pulling Up the Ladder" or "I Became a White Feminist to Piss Off My Second-Wave Feminist Mom." It felt like more blaming women for things that are already skewed by an extant patriarchal society and I didn't like that.

The essay I had the most trouble with was called From Womyn to Bois because it felt really TERFy. Levy seemed to be buying into the (mistaken and hurtful) idea that some FTM trans people become trans because they hate "being" women or, you know, just hate women in general. The idea of gender-fluidity also seemed very muddled and problematically portrayed here, because the focus of this essay was on people who identify as "bois," which I looked up and seems to mean anything from people who are gender-fluid and trans to women who are lesbian but like to present as masculine. For example, one of the people Levy interviewed said that they felt more comfortable living in a murk, which sounded, to me, like someone who is non-binary or gender-non-conforming. I felt like this was portrayed as this person being confused, but to me, it just sounded like someone who didn't like labels and was enjoying living their best non-conforming life. In this essay, she (Levy) also interviewed gay women who acted like f-boys, and the implication seemed to be that a lot of women use masculinity as an attempt to live out the trendy fantasy of being an immature jerk with no emotional responsibility. Top surgery was described as faddish and the way that transitioning was described here as a whole just felt incredibly problematic and transphobic. I hated this essay so much and it left such a sour taste in my mouth. Lumping queer women with pre-transitioned trans men felt... like a bad take. And I got kind of angry when she (Levy) was like, "Oh wow, isn't it weird that one of the founders of this lesbian group is a trans man?" (Not exact quote.) Like that wasn't allowed, or was somehow sus. Like I said, the language here felt really TERFy, or at the very least, similar to what TERFs use. I think trans people reading this chapter are going to feel very triggered and offended. It ages very, very poorly..

There's also an essay on how high school and middle school kids are being affected adversely by social media that forces them into a precocious sexual coming-of-age and this could have had merit if the essay weren't called "Pigs in Training" (ugh, why?). It felt very shaming and I didn't like this essay, either. I do agree with the author that sex education should start younger and kids should be taught at least a very basic idea of what sex is and how it relates to pleasure and consent, because otherwise they're going to turn to media for answers and media is often horrifically wrong. In the age of TikTok and fake news, I think that's even more the case now than it was back in 2005. But the way she talked about these girls having sex and mimicking pornographic acts made me very uncomfortable. It felt almost like she was mocking these girls and that, paired with the title, felt like she was blaming these girls for trying to fit in with what a sexist society was demanding of them. It felt different from the way she described the male teen she interviewed. From the quotes she used, I felt like Levy was almost going out of her way to make these girls look vain and foolish, to cherry-pick the conclusions she wanted, kind of like how the "bois" she interviewed were all flaky and sexist.

There's an essay on Sex and the City that I wasn't interested in at all, even though it does circle back to the sexuality as consumerism theme. It wasn't a bad essay, but after two essays that really bothered me, I was less inclined to agree with the author. FEMALE CHAUVINIST PIGS had such a strong beginning, and I think if this had been an essay holding raunch culture accountable and really emphasizing the idea of women as products, it could have been a really good essay. Nowadays, an essay such as this would probably tie into incel culture (if women are products, what happens if someone is unable to "obtain" what they feel that they are entitled to), rape culture, and the hyper-sexualization of women as video game and anime characters, or by social media personalities who gamify callbacks to these easily accessible stereotypes (like Belle Delphine).

One last thing I had an issue with was that the author compares women taking on masculine attributes to get ahead to Uncle Tom w/r/t Black stereotypes equaling likability from white people. She quickly doubles back and says that obviously stereotypes rooted in slavery and generations of inequality aren't quite equivalent to sexism and that of course Black women exist, too, but then there's virtually no mention of how women of color are sexualized or eroticized, and I'm pretty sure that was happening a lot in rap music videos at this time (not to mention the magazines peppered with microaggressions or overtly macro aggressions with how women of color and especially Black and Latina women were described in pop culture). I get what she was trying to do with this comparison-- and other feminists have used it before (I believe Gloria Steinem was one of these), but it's just another example of how this book comes across as a little short-sighted and problematic.

I thought about giving this book a rounded-up three but as I'm listing out all of my issues with this book, I'm thinking more of a 1.5 or a 2. There were some good points buried in here and the first essay is exceptionally strong, but it all quickly goes downhill from there.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Blaze by Susan Johnson

 

DNF @ 21%

I tried really hard to love this one. I liked that the author included a Native American character who wasn't a blatant stereotype. I also liked the headstrong heroine. This was a buddy-read with my friend, Heather, and I think we both lost interest around the same place because for some reason the hero became a huge jerk as soon as he met the heroine. I don't mind jerk heroes but it has to make sense for the character, and I just don't see why the heroine galled the hero to the point to turn him into a total cad. She committed micoaggressions against him, yeah, but so did his other lovers, so I didn't understand why he signaled her out. Parris Afton Bonds did the same thing with one of her books, LAVENDER BLUE. It was more than a little jarring.

I don't think this book is bad but this is my third time DNF-ing this book and I'm finally throwing in the towel. So far, nothing of hers has captured me the way her Russian/Kuzan series has. I'm hoping her St. John-Duras series can deliver on that same magic for me.

1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars

Eating for England: The Delights and Eccentricities of the British at Table by Nigel Slater

 

Nigel Slater's other book, TOAST, is one of my all-time favorite food-related memoirs, so when EATING FOR ENGLAND went on sale, I rushed to buy it. This is honestly one of the coziest books I've ever written and it gives off the same witty, wholesome, swathed-in-a-blanket-with-a-mug-of-hot-tea vibes as Great British Baking Show. The way Slater describes food is transcendent. I could sit and listen to this man talk about chocolate boxes and brown sauce for hours.

EATING FOR ENGLAND is an analysis of England's changing national palate. In this collection of essays, he discusses everything from the introduction of international foods (such as sushi), to things like Branston pickle and the Jammie Dodger, to the various stereotypes of wannabe chefs he encounters at the shops, to glowing praise of harvest festivals and local farmers' markets.

I would only recommend this book to people who are really passionate about food and cooking. For me, it was especially nostalgic because I lived in the UK for a short while, and seeing him talk about some of the things I used to eat there but can't get in the U.S. filled me with such longing. I think if you enjoy food authors such as Anthony Bourdain, you will love Slater. I love that he appreciates both the bougie and the commonplace with equal passion. It takes talent to convey the senses in writing the way he does.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan

 

I love reading books about North Korea but I have to space them out because otherwise they get too depressing. One of the things I find most fascinating is how the stories are always so different from defectors and yet share so many similar themes. Kang Chol-Hwan's is interesting because he originally lived in Japan (many ethnic Koreans were displaced after occupation), but at the time North Korea was running propaganda campaigns encouraging Koreans to repatriate. Chol-Hwan's mother was very communist, so they went to North Korea to start their new lives.

Originally, things were okay. They were poor but his grandfather had a good job and his mother came from a position of respect. Then relationships soured between them and the government and his grandfather was branded a traitor and all of them were taken to Yodok, Camp 15, a prison camp. He was there for twenty years before release, subject to incredibly difficult working conditions, bad hygiene, limited food, and cruelty from the guards. This is as much a survival story as it is a human rights story, and Chol-Hwan goes into a level of detail in his treatment that I imagine must have been very difficult to relive. Other writers chose to gloss over these sections of their lives, but Chol-Hwan doesn't.

The writing is a little melodramatic but it suits the way he tells the story. As far as the other NK memoirs I have read from other defectors go, I would say this ranks as one of the better. It's an evenly-paced, intense recollection of some truly vile human conditions. The way he woke up from years of his country's propaganda, and his escape from NK, were incredibly powerful. I'm glad he was able to get away and tell his story. It's sad that he had to leave family members behind and still doesn't know what happened to them. That lack of closure must really wear on the psyche. There are TWs for virtually everything in this book, so if you pick up THE AQUARIUMS OF PYONGYANG, make sure you are coming at it from a good mental place.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

WtAFW: Leonardo Decaprico Finally Wins His Award And It Pounds Him In The Butt by Chuck Tingle

 

Every week, I read and review a weird erotica or romance that my followers recommend me. Last week, it was shape-shifters who turn into balloons. The week before that, it was a Pokemon Go erotica where the Pokemon pound you in the butt. During What the Actual Fuck Wednesday, anyone can be fucked by anything-- I think this is the takeaway message from this project that I have learned.

LEONARDO DECAPRICO FINALLY WINS HIS AWARD AND IT POUNDS HIM IN THE BUTT was included with POKEBUTT GO: POUNDED BY 'EM ALL. It's the story of a very handsome buckaroo who, despite all his talent and handsomeness, never wins the goddamn award he's got his eye on. Maybe this will be the year? Maybe he'll finally get pounded in the ass by his own award in the middle of his own acceptance speech? Stranger things have happened.

This was actually the worst Tingler I've read to date. There were typos everywhere and it felt like he wasn't even trying. It also wasn't all that funny. With most of his books, there's this fourth wall-breaking meta-humor element and I did not get that with this one. Although the thought of Leonardo Dicaprio seeing this story cracks me up. I wonder if one of his friends has shown it to him?

1 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Colors of Art: The Story of Art in 80 Palettes by Chloë Ashby

 

I think this might be one of my favorite art books I've ever gotten. In it, Chloe Ashby takes 80 different paintings, from Neolithic times to the last decade, and breaks them down into a little infographic that shows some of their most pronounced or important colors. Each era of art has a little forward talking about some of the key players and the themes of that movement, and then each art piece gets a full page to itself with a description analyzing the composition and discussing the colors used, what they mean, and what they were made of.

While reading this book, I kept taking so many notes. The art she chose to showcase is gorgeous and the infographics really were helpful in analyzing the paintings. Since this is such a visual book it's hard to explain why it's so awesome because so much of what makes it great is in the pictures, so I would say that if you love art or have an art lover in your family, this would be a perfect gift to get. I know I'm going to cherish my copy.

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

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Consent: A Memoir by Vanessa Springora

 

I bought CONSENT on a whim and it's a really tough read. It's the story of a young woman who ended up being a writer's "muse" and lover. She was fourteen and he was in his fifties. I believe this was set in the 80s, in a post "free love" France, and even though under-age relationships were against the law, people looked the other way because the man that she was with was an incredibly famous and well-respected writer. For about a year, he used her as a storyboard for his work, while also taking advantage of her emotionally and sexually, but when he became emotionally abusive and she began to realize the truth of their relationship, she broke things off with effort.

This memoir is Vanessa's revenge. The written word was his pride, and she felt like it would be appropriate to get back at him through words. She writes about how his behavior was a pattern, how people-- authorities, even her own mother-- looked the other way. She writes about her shock when she picked up some of his books and saw casual recollections of his time spent with other children, boys and girls. She writes about the difference between rape and sexual abuse, and talks about how abuse can be much more insidious because the lines are much less clear-cut, and abusers know that and operate in those gray areas like experts. How does one consent to something they know nothing about? Spingora emphasizes the need to protect children from people who knowingly take advantage of a "yes" that is groundless.

It's a powerful memoir, and really well written. There's a sense of melodrama to it that reminds me a little of classic V.C. Andrews books. I can see some people didn't like the writing style but most people seem to think it's because she's trying to recapture the enthusiasm and naivete of youth. If that's what she was doing, I think it works, although the style wasn't to my preference. I admire this #MeToo memoir a lot, though, and I think it's so good that she shared her story. It goes into pretty concrete details about her relationship with G., so if sexual abuse is a trigger for you, I'd suggest avoiding the book because she spares no details about the physical elements of her relationship, or her anxiety/depression and almost PTSD-like symptoms after the breakup, when she began to second-guess herself after all of his stalking and gaslighting.

I can see why this book made waves in France.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Dawnfire by Lynn Erickson

 

I've been on a bit of a viking kick lately, and when I randomly happened upon this book with its gorgeous Harry Bennett cover, obviously I needed it ASAP. The premise is great. Gaard is a viking who invades a Scottish island called St. Abb. As vikings do, he and his men sack and pillage it, and become the terror of the inhabitants there. The innocent heroine, Dawnlyn, was intended for the church, but Gaard ends up taking her for himself-- not just because she's hot but also because she's the daughter of the Earl, and making her his sends a message to the Scots.

I was expecting some impressive old skool shenanigans but this book was actually pretty tame. After the initial pillaging scene (very toned down), the vikings are pretty chill. Gaard doesn't take advantage of Dawnlyn the way he could and even promises to marry her. At most, it's forced seduction. There's some lite-OW drama and an assassination attempt, but both of these things are resolved pretty quickly and don't drag out over pages and pages, the way they would if someone like Christine Monson or Rosemary Rogers was writing.

This book was honestly okay. I liked it in the beginning but after a while, I got bored. This is like a Zebra romance. It's sweet, it's diet old skool, and it's got vikings without the messed up stuff that makes them VIKINGS! I would actually recommend this book to friends who want to get in on older romances but are put off by the more hardcore scenes. That's not an insult to the book. Even though I found it boring and was sad it didn't offer me the crazy adventures I was looking for, for the right reader, I think this will provide the perfect blend of alpha hero and satisfying romance.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

100 Times: A Memoir of Sexism by Chavisa Woods

 

This is like if someone took the concept of Everyday Sexism and wrote an entire memoir about it. I knew it was going to be good from the foreword, where Ms. Woods talks about writing on a train and having a man get in her space on the Subway and mansplain what he thought the book she was reading was really about. Just to give the interaction a taste of delicious irony, the book was Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me.

There are humorous moments in this memoir, but mostly what it made me feel was frustration, sadness, and rage. Starting from when she was a young girl and working to the present day, Woods chronicles one hundred acts of sexism that stand out in her recollection, starting from a boy stabbing her in the hand with a knife for wanting to borrow his digging toys (because girls can't dig) and ending with a Lyft driver with no social graces or sense of personal spaces.

The most upsetting story to me was the one about the doctors who dismissed women's opinions about their own bodies. One dismissed her grandmother's symptoms (which ended up being a heart-attack). Another gave her an unnecessary cervical biopsy, claiming her pap-smear was "irregular." The story about her roommate who refused to put on pants was both amusing and upsetting. The story about the predatory theater technician who kept getting hired and put into proximity with children filled me with incredulity and anger.

Chavisa Woods is an engaging writer. She knows how to tell a good story. She is brave, even though she shouldn't have to be, and strong in a way that she shouldn't need to be. Her story made me wonder how many woman have been forced to don similar suits of armor just to go out and engage in the world. They made me remember similar threatening incidents when I worked in the city, when I was alone and a man confronted me and all my thoughts began to turn to how I could safely get away. They made me think about how it's a surprise and a relief when these interactions are benign, and how I have been trained by society to immediately be on guard and suspicious by default.

This is one of those books that everyone should read. I couldn't put this down and read through it in a day. It's honestly shocking that it doesn't have more reviews than it does. I can't wait to read more of her work, because she is truly gifted with a compelling voice.

5 out of 5 stars

Calypso by David Sedaris

 

I recently read one of the most gut-punchingly sad books I've picked up in a while and it left me in such a funk that I found myself in desperate need of something happy to read. While skimming through my Kindle, I saw David Sedaris's name crop up and thought to myself, "Aha! CALYPSO! This will do. Mr. Sedaris never makes me cry-- unless it's with tears of laughter!"

So of course, obviously in my grievous time of need, I find out that CALYPSO is one of Mr. Sedaris's sadder works, revolving around the death of his mother and sister, and the pains of getting older. THANK YOU FOR PUNCHING ME WHILE I'M ALREADY GASPING, MR. SEDARIS. Don't worry, though, the sad bits are couched in his usual trademark dark humor, so even though it's a bit greyer than his typical fare, there's still a laughing rainbow in the background.

I have a weird sense of humor, and if you want to know what my sense of humor is like, pick up a book by David Sedaris. He's grumpy, he's sarcastic, he's introverted and neurotic. Sometimes he's a little un-PC, but mostly he seems to delight in just how weird everyone can be. It's oddly wholesome, in a way. I laughed out loud at how obsessively he began using his FitBit (because same); his pleasure at telling people weird, gross stories (also same); the sweating terror of soiling himself in a public place (as someone with a food sensitivity that triggers intestinal distress, big same); and I just can't get over how he named his beachside property the "Sea Section." CALYPSO made me a little sad, but it also made me laugh a lot, and I love his interactions with his husband and his family so much.

If you have been burned on so-called comedic memoirs before, give Sedaris a try.

4 out of 5 stars

Dark Things I Adore by Katie Lattari

 

There's an old flash game called Viridian Room where you're locked in a green room where it's obvious that something terrible has happened, and the key to escaping the room is unspooling the mystery that lurks in the dark and haunted corners of the chamber. Reading DARK THINGS I ADORE was a little like playing that game-- going down the rabbit hole just to see how deeply you fall into darkness, despite being scared about what you might find.

DARK THINGS I ADORE is multi-POV, dual timeline. In the 2018 timeline, Audra and Max are taking a trip to the woods. It seems like a trip of art and seduction: on the guise of defending her thesis, she will begin an affair with her teacher. In the 1988 timeline, Juniper, a member of an artists' commune, Lupine Valley, talks about the dramatics between the other members. At first, it's petty squabbling, but pretty soon deeper tensions begin to emerge. In the interludes are pieces of Audra's art and their descriptions. Both timelines, and the interludes, will end up converging, and when they do, it might shock you. Or it might not. But at least you'll probably enjoy the ride.

The writing in this book was beautiful and I felt like it really conveyed the visual nature of art through black and white text, which is not easy to do. It's also the perfect fall read, with creepy autumnal aesthetics that wouldn't be out of place in an indie horror movie. I would say that 90% of the appeal of this book is the atmosphere, at least for me, since I was able to predict most of the twists well before I should have. Some things still shocked me, or fit together in unexpected ways, so that was really fun. And DARK THINGS I ADORE was also really tightly plotted, making this a real page-turner.

Less is more going in so I don't want to say too much more about the book, but I liked the writing and the ending and even though none of the characters were particularly likable-- like, at ALL-- I could at least understand their motivations and that made them somewhat relatable. The remote dark academia elements and bohemian trappings set this apart from other mysteries of this type, and I do think it's a great book for fall. That said, it's also not perfect and it lacked the emotional connections and OOMPH that would have bumped this up to a five, but I would definitely read more from this author.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 19, 2022

A Natural History of Mermaids by Emily Hawkins

 

A NATURAL HISTORY OF MERMAIDS is a beautiful cloth-bound book that gives the fictitious account of a female explorer named Darcy Delamare who sneaks aboard the HMS Challenger while disguised as a man in order to conduct secret research on mermaids. The book is written in a pseudo-scientific style, recounting different types of mer-creatures from all over the world, with illustrations on what they look like, their life cycles, and even how they use different types of shells in their culture. The illustrations are nice and it's a cute premise. Books like these, I feel, tend to be geared towards whimsical adults and precocious children.

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

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire

 

I would recommend this book to people who read and enjoyed MY DARK VANESSA, although TAMING THE BEAST is much sadder, much more desolate; it's honestly one of the saddest books I've read in a while. Despite the beautiful writing, it is a horrific story of a man who takes advantage of his fourteen-year-old student and this breaks her, although she thinks it's love, and she spends the rest of her teen years and her early adulthood going after man after man, trying to chase the high she thinks she got from her first time.

Sarah is probably one of the most compellingly flawed female characters I've read about recently. Her love of books is an ode to reading itself, but her view of herself is like a warped mirror. She doesn't see the beautiful girl other people want to save; instead she sees the victim two cruel men made of her when she was a teen, the piece of trash her family discarded her as, and the mirage that her best friend and would-be lover Jamie sees her as: the good girl she can never be, not anymore.

I can see why this book has such low ratings. The ending is sad. The message is sad. Daniel is awful. Mike is awful. Jamie is tragic. Sarah is broken. It's a book about how some events just leave their irreparable mark on you, and sometimes that mark singles you out for destruction. TAMING THE BEAST seems to suggest that there is a point at which some people can no longer be saved, or no longer want to be saved, and there were several points-- especially in parts two and three-- that just made me want to weep. My heart actually hurt when I set this down, and the ending was like being punched in the stomach. Despite that, the writing is exceptionally beautiful. Sometimes I'm jealous because an author wrote a story that I wish I'd written; but this time, I'm jealous, because Maguire wrote a story that I never could.

BRB, seeking out a happy read now.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose

 

I don't remember where I heard about this book-- NPR, probably. Even though I'm not religious at all, I really enjoy undercover journalism and there was something titillating about a Quaker from a liberal family going to one of the most conservative religious colleges in secret. I don't think I actually fully understand what Liberty College was before picking up UNLIKELY DISCIPLE. I've heard the name bandied around, but I didn't realize it was a school for evangelicals.

Liberty College was founded by Jerry Falwell, and it has a strict moral code that students have to abide by, ranging from no sex to no R-rated movies, violations of which are enforced by RAs and staff, who then force students to pay fines. (I kept wondering who got to pocket this fine money. I don't think Roose ever mentioned-- the fines quickly stack up, which definitely give the place a for-profit vibe.) There are religious classes up the wazoo and the school teaches young-earth creationism, which is the belief that the earth is only about six thousand years old. Homophobia runs rampant and it sounds like their pastors offer conversion therapy services to students who think they might be gay. Out of the love of their and God's own hearts, of course.

Roose acknowledges this himself, but this experiment definitely would not have worked if Roose was not white, straight, and cis-gendered, and already coming from a background of some religious knowledge. Every time he started talking about how these people weren't so bad, or how they didn't match the screaming, red-faced stereotypes from liberal straw-man arguments, I wanted to bang my head against the wall. It reminded me of this essay I read recently by Rebecca Solnit, which talked about how people in minority groups (whether it is ethnic minority, gender/orientation minority, religious minority, etc.) are constantly having to make room for people in dominant groups and take care not to step on their toes so they don't feel like the status quo changing is a big owie to their egos. This school is literally full of people like that, who seem to take it for granted that everyone should think and act the way they do, even going so far as to evangelize innocent passerby in public, and the fact that they couch it in "good intentions" and coming from a "good place" makes it even more messed up. Creationism is NOT science, it is not testable like science, and it should not be taught alongside science, and the fact that the creationism teacher kept desperately emphasizing that he was in fact a "real scientist" and that he came to Liberty College because even other religious colleges in the U.S. didn't employ a strong enough teaching of creationism with the wishy-washy intelligent design tells you basically everything you need to know about this place and what it stands for.

It was fascinating to see what this school was like at the peak of mid-aughts party/raunch culture, and the cognitive dissonance students employed to indulge in things they knew they shouldn't, and would probably still condemn others for doing. Religious faith seemed to place hierarchically over moral faith, which was interesting to me, because there are a lot of people who believe that you can't be moral if you aren't also religious. I also enjoyed some of the dated cultural references, like BarlowGirls, Girls Gone Wild, and Facebook being a social networking site for college students (lol now it's where your racist aunt sends you anti-immigration memes and MLM hunbots you knew from high school try to sell you essential oil protein shake candles).

Overall, I liked this book just fine and I think Roose was as impartial as it was possible for him to be (I'm actually shocked that there are negative reviews condemning him for being too critical-- if anything, I found the opposite to be true, especially with how he brushed off all those casual homophobic jokes, but hey, you know what they say; if both sides are mad at you, you probably ARE impartial). I think he's a talented journalist and I can see why he got the book deal. It was an interesting experiment and as a student writer, he was able to get Jerry Falwell's last interview before his death. It was just also emotionally draining to read, and with the far-right becoming what they are now, reading this book just made me kind of sad, because it just kind of showed me that extremists just seem to get even more extreme, so all of this "they're just like us" stuff just ends up feeling like a warped funhouse mirror where you're just like, "Oh God, I hope not."

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters by Rebecca Solnit

 

Rebecca Solnit is one of my favorite essayists, and she has such a knack for simple but powerful language that often reading her works makes me want to curl up in envy and despair of ever being so poignantly articulate. WHOSE STORY IS THIS? is one of her strongest collections to date. It's a work about feminism in the #MeToo era, and how the biggest obstacle to equality exists in the silent architecture of our society, in all the implicit biases and coded norms that remain uncontested and unchecked.

Some of the topics in this essay: how men are allowed to selfishly devote themselves to their art and expect someone to take care of them for the greater good while women are still expected to be caretakers; the problem with glorifying the confederacy and other problematic figures of the past; the expectation that women and people of color are supposed to make things comfortable for white cisgendered men and not inconvenience society with the inconvenient truth of their inequalities; and the tie to sexism and capitalism, when women are coded as commodities that incels believe themselves entitled to possess.

It's a fascinating, well-done, and eye-opening collection, powerfully written and timely as always. As with other essays of this type, I suspect they're written more for the people who will already agree than the people who should read them but won't (because, I mean), but even if you already agree, she provides such a useful toolbox of ideas and phrases to pour your beliefs into the setting concrete of plain language, giving them a substance they might not have in your own head.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 16, 2022

The Winters by Lisa Gabriele

 

DNF @ 24%

I stuck it out longer than I normally would because THE WINTERS is a REBECCA retelling, and I love REBECCA! It was one of my gateway books into the gothic romance genre, which I love. But this retelling fell a bit short for me. Setting it in the Hamptons and just making it rich people porn didn't really work-- at least not for me. The writing style was not bad but it lacked the sense of dread and atmosphere that I wanted, and this heroine lacked the sort of naive sweetness and charm that the original second Mrs. de Winter had.

2 out of 5 stars

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

 

I loved PRETTY THINGS by this author so obviously when I found out that she had written other things, I was eager to read them. WATCH ME DISAPPEAR had the set-up of a book I was ready to love. It's set in the Bay Area, in a place I've been before (heyo, Berkeley, CA). It's a FULT (F***ed Up Lady Thriller(TM)) about a mom who goes missing while out on a hike, leaving her husband and teenage daughter behind, wondering where she is. Waiting is the worst part, but they're so close to getting a death certificate-- 

But what if the mom, Billie, isn't really dead?

This was honestly such a frustrating read. The first half sucked me in and made me want to read it all in one go. The second half had me wanting to smack all the characters in the head and ask them what their problems were. It was like watching a play where all three of the main protagonists are competing for the role of The Absolute Worst. I give you our cast:

The Mom: OMG I'M SO SPECIALLLLL AND NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME OR HOW AMAZING AND UNIQUE I AM

The Dad: OMG I'M SO FIRE AND BECAUSE I'M A MAN AND DIAL IT IN, I DESERVE THE WORLD, AND I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHY MARRYING THE MANIC PIXIE DREAMGIRL OF MY GREY SADBOY DREAMS DIDN'T PAN OUT WHAT IS THIS

The Daughter: I LIKE SEIZURES! THEY MAKE ME SEE-HER-- AND BY 'HER', I MEAN MY MOM. ALSO I AM IRRESPONSIBLE AND HAVE A DEATH WISH BECAUSE #TEENAGER

Initially, Olive, the daughter, was the person I felt sorry for the most. Billie and Johnathan, the mom and dad, were insufferable. But as the pages go on and we're introduced to more and more insufferables, and even Olive began to let me down, I found my enjoyment of the book beginning to wane. I can tolerate a lot of unlikability from characters-- perhaps more so than a lot of readers-- but I have to have something to root for. The weird supernatural element, the endless red herrings, and the letdown ending kind of made me feel like this near-five hundred page tomb, um, wasn't worth it? I still tore through it in less than twenty-four hours, so I'd feel weird giving it less than three, but it's not getting the five-stars that PRETTY THINGS did, or even the four-stars that I initially thought I'd give it.

Kind of disappointing. But it has a formula that's begging for a Netflix mini-series.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Nevertheless, She Wore It: 50 Iconic Fashion Moments by Ann Shen

 

My sleep schedule is all messed up from being sick so when I woke up in the middle of the night with fever and couldn't go back to sleep, I looked through my Kindle for something quick to read and landed on NEVERTHELESS SHE WORE IT, which is basically an illustrated lookbook of 50 iconic fashion moments and how they apply to women's history.

This was fine but it could have been a little better. I think it lacked cohesion. Some of the entries were very specific outfits, such as Josephine Baker's banana skirt, Bjork's swan dress, and Lady Gaga's meat dress, Serena Williams's tennis jumpsuit, etc., but other entries were in reference to a broader style of a time-- for example jeans (yes, just the pants), the bikini, afros, and a couple other looks. One of the entries is just a marathoner's choice to continue running despite having started menstruating and staining her uniform with blood. Not really an outfit.

I feel like the author had a neat idea for what she wanted this book to be but didn't execute it as well as it could have been. It should have been all specific looks or all broad looks. Mixing them was confusing, and made it look badly organized. I agree with one of the other reviewers that these looks also should have been sorted by era. Also, I'm unsure who the target audience for this book is. It's sort of a picture book but I'm not sure how many children would find this interesting, as it uses a lot of big words and it's pretty text heavy.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Little Dancer by Brianna Hale

 

DNF @ 13%

LITTLE DANCER was the first book Brianna published with Carina Press out of three books that all revolve around Daddy/little kink. I gave the other two books five stars (well-deserved, imo). SOFT LIMITS and PRINCESS BRAT were both amazing. This one lost me when the hero calls the heroine into his office, ostensibly to critique her performance, and then just throws her over his lap and starts spanking. I get that this is a fantasy and we're to implicitly understand that the heroine is into it, but I just kept thinking, "Sexual harassment, much?"

Rufus Kingsolver can exit stage left.

1 out of 5 stars

Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions by Michael Moss

 

HOOKED started out strong but ended up becoming a kind of pale shadow of SALT SUGAR FAT. It starts out talking about the seeming addictive qualities of fast food and the lack of success people had trying to hold the food industries accountable for them the way the cigarette industry eventually was. From there, it talks about the various mechanisms in our brains and bodies that make salt, sugar, and fat so addictive, and how the changes in the way we obtain and consume food has led to an increase in obesity and heart problems.

I'm kind of surprised the author mentioned Ancel Keys but not John Yudkin. John Yudkin (correctly) stated that sugar was most likely the cause of obesity and heart problems all the way back in the 1950s, but Keys, an agent of Big Sugar, discredited and mocked his research, claiming that it was fat that made people fat, even though fat has been a dietary staple of humans since, basically, forever, whereas sugar-- especially refined sugar-- has only really come about into the food supply in high quantity in the latter half of the 20th century. 

This book could have been better but it felt kind of disorganized and incomplete.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

 

DNF @ p.123

So I remember reading this book a couple years ago and thinking it captured the sort of disaffected '90s youth mindset really well. I liked the plucky heroine and the brooding vampire but the book just went on FOREVER. Upon my attempt at a reread, I'm sorry to say that I feel the same way now as I did before. Con and Sunshine had good chemistry but there's so much pointless filler. The paperback is 400 pages but I don't think it needed to be. There's a lot of pointless meandering that could have been shaved off. McKinley has always been a hit or miss author for me, although I appreciate her more as an adult than I did as a teen, but I'm sorry to say that this one is more of a miss.

2 out of 5 stars

The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary

 

I'm pretty picky when it comes to chicklit. It's a genre that I want to like, but a lot of the time, the unrealistic situations, bland writing, and overly quirky heroines ruin what would otherwise be a decent premise. Apparently my mom picked this up in a ship library while on a cruise. She enjoyed it so much that she brought it back for me from Europe. And, as with all books I'm excited about reading, I promptly set it aside and forgot about it for several months. Now that I'm ill, though, I've been treating myself to some guilty pleasure reads, and THE FLATSHARE seemed like it would fit the bill.

Told in dual POV, it is the story about Tiffy and Leon. Tiffy works at a small publishing company and has just been booted out of her ex-boyfriend's apartment; now she needs a new place to live. Leon works the night shift as a palliative care nurse, and he needs the extra cash flow. He decides to rent out his apartment to someone who can sleep there while he works, ideally with the opposite schedule as his. They will share the flat and the bed, but sleep on opposite sides. Kay, Leon's girlfriend, will manage things to keep it less weird.

At first, Leon's odd narration style and Tiffy's quirkiness seemed like they might be too much, but their characters grew on me. I liked the epistolary elements (via Post-It), the friends-to-lovers, and the emphasis on consent and healing after an emotionally abusive relationship. I loved Leon's brother, Richie, and all of Tiffy's friends. I also liked the distinguishing between Leon's relationship with Kay, which wasn't toxic but soured because of a difference in expectations, and Tiffy's relationship with Justin, which was toxic, and which she had kind of psychologically repressed for her own emotional wellbeing. If nothing else, THE FLATSHARE is a fascinating look at relationships of all kinds and how they shape us, but luckily for me, it's also a really cute romance.

P.S. Nearly lost it when they ate tiffin together because that would be a great ship name for them.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Woman Beyond the Attic: The V.C. Andrews Story by Andrew Neiderman

 

V.C. Andrews is a beloved icon so I was honestly surprised that her biography had such low ratings until I read the reviews and realized that people were taking issue with the fact that (1) her ghostwriter, Andrew Neiderman, had been selected by the estate to write her biography and (2) apparently he didn't do a very good job (in the eyes of her fans, anyway).

I was late to the V.C. Andrews train. For the longest time, I didn't think I liked her books because someone had given me a bag of her titles but none of the ones she wrote, so there was one about an angry and abusive Southern mom (I know, right? which one?) that was bad and another about a teacher of an abusive school (I know, right? which one?) where the teacher molested her students and also that was bad. I think I poked at two or three more before deciding that V.C. Andrews was not for me.

A few years later, she came up in conversation with one of my friends and my friend was like, "Girl, no. You have to read the ones she actually wrote." And I was like, "She didn't actually write these?" And she was like, "Oh, you sweet summer child." And that was when I found out that OG V.C. only wrote the first four Dollanganger books, MY SWEET AUDRINA, and the first two Casteel books before she died of breast cancer. I believe Andrew Neiderman finished both series with outlines that she had written, after being contracted by her estate, and then the Landry series was the first one he wrote by himself in full.

Now for what it's worth, I'm not a Neiderman hater. I do question hiring on a horror writer to pen gothic novels about young women that tend to be about doomed and forbidden love, but whatever. And also for what it's worth, I think he did a decent job finishing her work and I actually liked the Landry series in a "well, it's not V.C. but it's close" sort of way. Everything went south from there, though. Now it's about vampires and teen escorts and, I guess, this biography.

Despite the low ratings, I went into THE WOMAN BEYOND THE ATTIC with an open mind. And there were things about it I liked. Half this book is actually excerpts from unpublished work V.C. wrote, including a story and two poems and a couple other things. There are also photographs of her and her family that I'm not sure were ever previously released, so that was neat. Where the book goes south is in some of his interpretations about V.C. It goes into strange detail about how pretty she was, and how this got her creepy attention from older men. At one point, Neiderman compares her to Lolita, but in his summation of the book, he makes the erroneous, face-value interpretation that Lolita was actually asking for it (she wasn't-- H.H. is an unreliable narrator and trying to get you, the reader, on his side). He also praises her for downplaying her disability, as if being more vocal about her chronic pain (a rare form of early onset arthritis) would have lessened her work. I found that view incredibly problematic because I think people with disabilities should feel proud about their accomplishments, especially if their disability made it extra hard to achieve them. I don't think it's up to Neiderman to portray people as lesser for discussing about how much harder writing a book is with a disability. Downplaying it was V.C.'s choice, and it seemed obvious to me that she was infantilized by some people for it, and if that's what made her comfortable, then whatever. But V.C. doesn't represent all people with disabilities AND she lived in an era when people were way less open about talking about disability.

The best parts of the book were actually direct quotes from the author's writings. I liked that she was angry about people who blamed the children in her books for things that were the parents' fault. I liked that she seemed to be a feminist, and a lot of her writing was her breaking with some of the conservative thoughts of her town. She seemed to genuinely be grateful for her readers and have a sincere passion for writing, and I think that showed in her books. Which, now that I think about it, is maybe why Neiderman's books never really worked for me. All of V.C.'s heroines had agency. Maybe it wasn't good agency, but they propelled their stories forward. In a lot of Neiderman's books, things just happened to the female protagonists. They were victims of fate, victims of abuse, victims of everything. And there's nothing wrong with being a victim, but it's disheartening to read about characters who are just basically being exploited for the literary equivalent of doom-scrolling. V.C.'s books were like that, too, but I felt like her heroines had an autonomy and a wistfulness that Neiderman's often lacked.

So after skimming through this book, I have to say that I really didn't like it. I can see why fans were upset after reading it or felt betrayed. There were good things about this book and I can appreciate the estate wanting to let the world know more about the mysterious, reclusive author who wrote a series of some truly shocking books, but I'm not sure they picked the right person for the project.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

 

DNF @ 10%

I feel like Riley Sager ran with this concept and did it one better with his book, FINAL GIRLS. I get what Hendrix was trying to do here and it's a fascinating premise, but one thing I've noticed about his books is that it's like he can't decide whether he wants to do homage or parody and kind of tries for both, which ends up making the mood of his books very... uh, weird.

Don't get me wrong. I liked his vampire slaying book and his book about old school horror and pulp is probably one of my favorite books-about-books titles to date. But this one was a lot of tell and not show and ended up coming across as kind of ham-fisted. I couldn't get into it.

2 out of 5 stars

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

 

For a while, I was seeing this book literally everywhere. I thought it was going to be a typical food memoir, kind of like Nigel Slater's TOAST, and while parts of it were that, about halfway through it undergoes a total tonal shift, where the focus is entirely on her mother's end of life, the stress it put on her relationships, the mental breakdowns it caused, and the agony of seeing someone you love go slowly and painfully as they shed their sense of self. It's incredibly painful and I don't think the summary fully conveys how traumatic this book could be to someone who is losing or has recently lost a loved one. The summary describes this book as having "humor and heart," and while it certainly possessed plenty of the later, I had difficulty finding any of the former.

CRYING IN H MART is about Michelle Zauner's identity as a half-Korean/American. Her mother was her anchor to Korean culture, and her entre into the culture was primarily through food. The book opens with her walking through H Mart and talking about how food is a bonding experience in so many different kinds of relationships, and she talks about some of the memories certain dishes gave her. This is a constant theme throughout the book, although it is not as food-focused as the first chapter would have you believe.

I liked the raw honesty with which she talked about her family. The alienation she felt from Korean culture because she couldn't speak the language and the existential crisis she had when losing her mother (and therefore, by proxy, part of herself) was powerful and tragic. I also liked how she talked about the ugly side of grief and mourning. All too often, when grief is portrayed, it's as a unifying experience; but sometimes, as it does in this book, it ends up driving people apart and making them selfish. There are different ways to express grief or to mourn, and it was nice to see that here.

Apart from the slightly misleading presentation, I really liked this book. I don't think I'd want to read it again but the way that the author described food and relationships was great.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans

 

I'm really picky when it comes to poetry, and since a lot of the stuff coming out is written in the vein of Amanda Lovelace or Rupi Kaur, I haven't been picking up a lot of contemporary poetry books. This collection is everything I love about poetry, though: it's personal, fiery, and full of visceral imagery; it gathers up ideas like beads on a string, weaving childhood nostalgia with the way that pop-cultural icons can sell out and betray us and rallying for the Black Lives Matter movement.

My favorite portions were the unstructured vignettes about her life growing up. Like, there's one about children playing with Nerf guns, and how that childhood innocence and play mirrors the far more unsettling reality of American's lethal fascination with guns. There's a passage about all the pain that goes into managing Black hair, and how it's a love-hate bonding experience between women. She talks about her struggle to balance her identity as a member of the LGBT+ with her Black identity, and how much rejection from the latter community hurt (especially if it came from "good" intentions).

This is just a really solid, really interesting collection of poems. I bought it because I used to have some of those hard plastic barrettes the cover model is wearing when I was a little girl, and I was curious to learn more about the author and her childhood. And while I did get that, I also got so much more.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth

 

THE MOTHER-IN-LAW has been on my radar for a while but I saw a couple reviews that made me think I wouldn't like it. When it popped up in a Little Free Library that I frequent, though, I ended up grabbing it. I don't know who owns that LFL but they keep stocking woman-fronted mysteries in there with books that have been slammed by Goodreads that I end up liking, so even though books revolving around marriage and motherhood usually don't appeal to me, I thought why the fuck not?

This a dual POV book about Diana, the mother in law, an exceptionally well-off woman who has two married children and runs her own charity. The other is Lucy, her daughter-in-law, who is married to Diana's older child, Ollie. Two portraits of the women rapidly emerge-- Lucy as the spoiled and slightly immature wife and Diana as the long-suffering and unkind MIL-- but both of these portraits end up warping and changing over the course of the novel in some really interesting ways, which become even more interesting when Diana's reported suicide starts to look more like murder.

This ended up being a much more emotional read than I expected. On a sadness scale, it compares to that scene in Knives Out when you find out the truth of the patriarch's death. But like Knives Out, THE MOTHER-IN-LAW has a happy, hopeful ending that keeps the book from being too miserable. Sometimes it did end up feeling a little schlocky, and there was obvious emotional manipulation going on from the writer's end, but on the whole, I felt like Sally Hepworth did a good job portraying two starkly different women's lives who end up having more in common than they thought.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 12, 2022

WtAFW: Squeak: A Twisted Tale by Vera Valentine

 

Every week, I read the weirdest romance or erotica I can find for my What the Actual Fuck Wednesday challenge. I've read stories where people fuck everything from Santa Claus to El Nino to COVID-19, and just when I start to think that I've tapped the bottom of the Rule 34 well dry, it proves itself to be bottomless once again (unlike these books hehe).

SQUEAK is the story of shape-shifters who turn into balloon animals, basically. Which was the weirdest premise I'd ever heard. Props for creativity. I don't normally get books based on tropes (in fact, this is a marketing trend that I despise), but BALLOON. ANIMALS. Obviously I needed to read this book asap and report my findings.

And the findings were both weird and yet not weird enough. Sebastian and Keane were turned into men by an evil horny sorceress with a hard-on for causing pain. They escaped but now they need to try the sigils that will unlock the spell that keeps them bound to her. Also, they turn into balloons. They also have a partial form where they're only partial balloons, so picture a semi-transparent man with a balloon dick.

Towards the end of the book, this takes an Omegaverse lite turn when they invite Poppy, an artist and the key to their problems, into their menage-a-balloon. She becomes an Omega and starts nesting or whatever, and the dude who mated with her, Keane, becomes her alpha. Also, their dicks have little twist-ties at the ends and knot at the base and ALSO you can twist their dicks to make shapes, so at one point, Poppy turns one of their dicks into balloon anal beads so he can do her up the butt. Horny sorceress is dispatched with very quickly and ridiculously and the balloon men ejaculate funnel cake icing.

Plot, what plot?

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Great Queer Speeches: LGBTQ+ voices that inspire and empower by Tea Uglow

 

As the title promises, this is a fantastic collection of speeches from the LGBT+ and their allies. I was really impressed by the inclusivity and intersectionality of the collection, as it seems like the editor went out of their way to curate a broad variety of voices from all over the world, representing more than just the first four letters. My two favorite speeches were probably the ones from Harvey Milk and Sylvia Rivera, because they had the most emotional impact on me, but their is also one from a mother speaking in support of her trans daughter, and one from an HIV+ woman talking about how AIDS is a human issue and not, you know, a curse or a stigma or punishment.

Overall, this is an incredibly powerful and inspiring collection, which would be a great educational tool, or a resource to give to those who are interested in speech writing or activism. The illustrations were absolutely wonderful.

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

4 out of 5 stars

A Mind Like Mine: 21 stories of mental health disorders by Rachel Davis

 

What a fun and unexpected surprise this was. A MIND LIKE MINE is a collection of famous neurodivergent people who have accomplished great things, ranging from past notables like Ava Lovelace and Vincent Van Gogh, to contemporaneous ones, like Serena Williams and David Chang.

As someone who lives with a mood disorder, I wish books like these had been around when I was younger. To those who are neurodivergent or living with mental health conditions, it's so inspiring to not only see people talking about their conditions like it's NBD but also being wildly successful in spite of the obstacles they face as a result of their conditions.

A MIND LIKE MINE is beautifully illustrated, and profiles on the people chosen are alternated with toolboxes on how to talk about those with diagnoses and conditions without being ablelist, and also a little bit about the disorders and treatments themselves. This is the type of book that's great for both the neurodivergent and people who want to be allies, and I really enjoyed some of the facts showcased in this book.

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

4 out of 5 stars