Tuesday, February 28, 2023

WtAFW: Dino Stud by Lola Faust


DNF @ 57%

What is this? It almost reads like a tribute to the newest Jurassic Park movie. There's no dino-fucking, though; instead, there's the eponymous studly scientist-- the dino stud-- who's working on a secret dinosaur ranch that, whoops, somehow got leaked to Buzzfeed. This book is quite a bit different from WET HOT ALLOSAURUS SUMMER, which really leaned into the whole dinorotica thing. This book is almost trying to play things straight. The writing is a lot better and the author made an attempt at world-building and even, as a pleasant surprise, diversity in the cast (one of the staff is nonbinary).

Idk, it wasn't weird enough to be fun but it wasn't fun enough to be good. I LOVE the cover and how it pays homage to the old 60s and 70s pulp novels, but this one just wasn't it.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 27, 2023

The Girl at Goldenhawk by Violet Winspear


Did somebody say JANE EYRE retelling set in Brazil? Actually, no, you probably didn't-- but now that you know that it exists, I bet you want it, right? As you should. Look, Harlequin Presents novels can be pretty insipid. The heroes are brutish and patriarchal and the heroines demean themselves on the fragment altars of their dignity. The plots are thinner than a communion wafer. And oh yes, the ethnic stereotypes.

But once in a while you find a book that actually ends up breaking the mold. Jaine Dare, the heroine of this book, is the niece of an aging theater actress. Her spoiled cousin is a socialite who enjoys stringing men along and her latest conquest is a Portuguese duque. However, when Larraine, the cousin, finds out that his primary goal of marriage is to find a surrogate mother for his young disabled son, she's like nah, bye.

The aunt decides that the bearer of bad news should be Jaine, because Jaine is so naive and pathetic that just by being herself, she tends to diffuse uncomfortable situations. Also she doesn't want to. So Jaine goes to the duque and returns the engagement jewelry and is awed and fearful of the duque's intense masculine prowess.

The duque ends up impressed with Jaine-- not because of how she looks but because she is so staid and straitlaced and also because she jumps in front of a car to save a child. He decides that she should be a governess to Tristao, his son, and offers to pay her more than her aunt paid her for being her secretary. The backdrop is the gorgeous Brazilian jungle and the duque's two intimidating properties: Casa de Rochas, an intimidating fortress, and Goldenhawk, a beautiful gothic mansion in the jungle.

I loved the hero. Pedro was everything I love in a vintage romance: enigmatic, dangerous, mysterious, but not abusive. He doesn't hit or rape the heroine and his animal passions come through in a very restrained and compelling way. He and Jaine also have several long discussions that really showed the intellectual chemistry between them, which I loved. The writing in here is so quotable and if this were an ebook I probably would have highlighted half of the passages in here, I was so impressed.

The only weird thing is that the author kept talking about Mayans in Brazil and I'm pretty sure there were no Mayans in Brazil. In fact, I'm sure there weren't because I just looked it up and Google said no.

Whatever, I'm not going to harp on it because (1) Jane Eyre and (2) Sir Pedro.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Apathy by L.K. Reid


DNF @ 54%

The summary of APATHY really intrigued me because I am a sucker for books about small towns with big secrets (although it's SO vague! It doesn't tell me anything about the book! Tell me about the boooook!). At first, I was really into it, though. The heroine, Skylar, is damaged and messy and kind of traumatized. She's sleeping with someone who's using her and providing her with the drugs she's addicted to. The town is hiding something sinister that nobody talks about, but that results in burned down buildings and bodies.


Then we meet the hero, Ash. Ash, like the heroine, is descended from one of the founding families. But unlike the others, his has fallen from grace and he's here for revenge. Falling for Skylar doesn't really factor into his plans but he's not the kind of guy who plays by the rules. He's the kind of guy who is, shall we say, apathetic to the rules. So pretty soon she and him have a thing going on, and it's a path of hookups and messy parties as they work their way towards revenge. Also there's another guy who's interested in Skylar named Kane, and there's sort of a thing there, too. Omg, so much drama, Bizarro CW-style!

Like I said, the beginning was pretty good. But I feel like the author was trying a little too hard to make this book edgier than it needed to be. Sometimes less is more. I also wish she'd led with the whole cult angle because it's so obvious what's going on from the beginning that it doesn't make sense to play coy. Especially since Skylar grew up immersed in it, so it's not like it's a secret. The unreliable narrator device can work in books like these, but for that to be the case, I think Skylar might have had to either (a) have some sort of dissociative amnesia or (b) be taking way harder and more frequent drugs. I also didn't really love how quick the romance between Ash and Skylar moved. I get that they're in high school but I didn't really understand the connection between them, especially since Ash is as forceful as Skylar's abuser and she's so damaged... I don't know, for her sake, I just wanted her to find someone who at least made her feel more protected if he was going to use her so rough. :'(

I might have liked this more if I hadn't read RITUAL SINS and A PALE SHADOW first (by Anne Stuart and Heather Crews, respectively). I love a good book about creepy twisted cults and this one was almost there, but I just didn't love the romance enough to want to continue. I'm really picky about my dark romances though and this book seems to have found a loyal following, so it might just be me.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Pérez


I read this hot on the heels of TECHNICALLY WRONG, which was a mistake, because I felt like that was a better book: even though it deals with a lot of the same subjects, I felt like TECHNICALLY was more inclusive and intersectionally feminist, and also more accessible. INVISIBLE WOMEN is very dry and data-heavy (which perhaps makes it a more credible read than TECHNICALLY in some regards) and reads like a women's studies textbook. It is also written by a UK woman and largely cites UK studies (although not exclusively).

My favorite chapter was the introductory chapter about "The Default Male" and how data gaps can cause people to assume gender where there is none. When I was blogging anonymously, and serializing my work anonymously, people often assumed I was a man. There is an assumption, also, for many people to assume that voices of expertise or authority are male, I think, unless told otherwise beforehand. I also liked how the author talked about how incensed men get when women come into "their" spaces, and how equality to some can feel invasive. The hidden biases in city planning that followed in the next chapter were also interesting, but after that, I lost interest in the book.

I guess my first red flag was the bathroom chapter, where the author makes the odd choice to say that gender neutral bathrooms don't work because they have urinals in them and men can pee faster? But then, why not just put in more stalls? When I still physically went into the office, we had gender neutral bathrooms and they were great. No urinals, just stalls. You didn't have to wait in "your" line to go in, and people who were non-binary or perhaps trans but not out didn't have to make a public choice about their identity every time they went in to do the necessary. Weirdly, trans people weren't mentioned in this chapter at all, though, and I thought that was odd because when you are talking about bathroom rights and bathroom accessibility, that's often one of the top 5 issues that comes up. The author instead chose to focus more on how lack of bathroom accessibility can lead to sexual assaults for women.

This segues into another thing I noticed other critical reviewers taking issues with: lack of intersectionality. I have the Kindle edition and I did a few quick searches in my copy to check representation: trans people are mentioned not once, LGBT was mentioned once as a voting block, lesbian was mentioned once in reference to what the author calls "corrective rape" (lesbians being victims to men who want to turn them straight). Black women were referenced three times, twice in the chapter on health care and once as disproportionate victims of environmental disaster, but the author does not mention that they are also disproportionate victims of violence and also seems to have neglected to discuss how Black women's pain can be especially ignored by medical professionals and they are more likely to be turned away or accused of seeking medication to abuse recreationally.

Between the dry text and the surprising gaps, I don't think I can give this a high rating. I really appreciate what it was trying to do but it seems to take a pretty narrow focus on the issues at hand.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 26, 2023

The Devil's Daughter by Katee Robert


DNF @ 42%

I like cult books so I was really excited and intrigued when I found out Katee Robert of NEON GODS fame wrote a cult-themed romantic thriller. Girls are dying or going missing and the heroine, Eden, has come from the FBI on her own time to help look into things. We find out that she's the daughter of the local cult leader in a small Montana town, and that her upbringing was anything but pleasant or traditional.

The hero, Zach, is the head of the local police department and for a guy who usually spends most of his time handling public drunkenness or domestic disputes, this is a bit out of his paygrade. He reluctantly accepts Eden's help once he finds out that she's legit and estranged from her mom and they start looking into the disappearances and seeing if they can figure out whodunnit.

I loved the parts about the cult and the small town vibes. I thought these were well done. Also it was super funny that the cult was kind of Persephone themed because I've read two other series by this author that reference the Hades/Persephone myth. I actually think it's really cute and fun when an author is this passionate about something and you can see these little motifs popping up in their books again and again, although the way it's referenced here is so much darker than how it played out in NEON.

I thought this book might be four or five stars for me but I really didn't like the romance. I also was not a fan of Zach. Part of this is a me thing. I'm not a fan of cop romances, and he's kind of the stereotypical starched-shirt, slightly sexist portrayal that shows up in these kinds of romances. I also felt like the connection between the heroine and the hero was tenuous at best. When they first made a move at each other I was like, WAIT, WHAT?? I thought it was a trick or a scam, but no, they weren't playing. This also isn't my first cult romance rodeo. I liked Anne Stuart's RITUAL SINS and Heather Crews's A PALE SHADOW a lot better, but I might be biased because one of those ladies is my best friend and one of them is my writing god-slash-spiritual aunt (although she doesn't know it...yet).

Still, this book had a lot of potential and I hope Robert turns to romantic suspense again at some point because I feel like she could probably rock a GONE GIRL-type book if she really wanted to.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Hills of Kalamata by Anne Hampson


Ridiculous! Insane! Purely sensational! These are just some of the words that came to mind while reading HILLS OF KALAMATA. This is one of those old school Harlequin Presents novels people love to make fun of and laugh at. The heroines are usually insipid and weepy and the heroes are usually forceful and shouty, and because both of them are also conventionally attractive, they always end up getting married at the end.

Sarah has a friend named Miranda. Miranda has a plan: this Greek guy named Charon Drakos is seeing her sister, Pam. But it's clear he has no plans on marrying her and is just taking Pam for a figurative and literal ride. Miranda's plan to deal with the situation? Kidnapping. Dump Charon on an abandoned Greek island somewhere with some food or water, thus giving Pam time to get over him, Yeah, that seems reasonable. Sarah, naturally, gives voice to her concerns about this plan, but Miranda and her mother are both convinced this is the only option.

So they drug him with some wine Miranda's mom made that puts everyone who drinks it to sleep because of some herb it has in it (which is never named-- what is it, pot??). But Charon, suspecting something, doesn't actually drink the wine. He locks Sarah up and takes Miranda away, only to inform Sarah that she is now his captive and he's going to have fun with her until he gets bored. When she threatens him with murder, this excites him and he's like hahaha maybe I'll marry you.

It turns out that Charon is a Maniot, from an actual region of Greece called the Peninsula of Mani (called "Deep Mani" in this book). According to the Wikipedia page, they claim to be descendants of the Spartans. In this book, they're portrayed as vendetta-crazy barbarians who treat murder and torture like it's a national sport. And just by the color of the heroine's tilted midnight blue eyes, Charon determines that she's a descendant of the family that his family loves to hate. When he takes her to his home, his grandmother is there, and Sarah asks granny if she has any qualms about her grandson being a kidnapper. The grandmother basically shrug-emojis and is like, "I'm Greek, we're all criminals, what can you do?" (RACISM!) Then she compliments her grandson on his excellent taste in reverse-kidnapping victims (not kidding). She changes her tune when she finds out that Sarah is a descendant of the family she hates though; then she starts begging her grandson to let her have Sarah, so she can disfigure and torture her, keeping her alive in agony before dispensing her forever.

Charon insists that he wants to fuck Sarah before killing her and she is taken back to his rooms. Also, he marries her so his family can't kill her anymore because now she's part of their family and something about honor, I don't know. At this point, I was only half paying attention to the book. Sarah is attracted and repulsed to him in equal measure and eventually Charon rapes her (it's fade to black, one paragraph ends with him threatening her and the next has her waking up in bed with him). A jealous OW helps Sarah escape but then she MISSES him and decides that he must have loved her her whole time, so after telling Miranda how stupid her plan was a final time, she goes back to the island of Hydra and lives happily ever after with Mr. Drakos.

The end.

So this book was stupid, I'm not going to beat around the bushes about it. It's un-PC and offensive to Greek people and also to the Romani people because it throws that G-slur around like a man at the strip club waving $1 bills. Granted, it was the 70s, so it's not like it's modern or even unrealistic for the times (probably, I don't know, I wasn't alive), but as a modern reader, it can probably be shocking. Equally shocking and offensive is how the hero laughs at the idea of a man being "ravished." He thinks it's impossible and laughs at the very idea. But he also thought women kidnapping a man was impossible, and only his deep-ingrained suspicion of basically everyone prevented that, so you'd think this dude can understand that having two X-chromosomes isn't the genetic equivalent of having a crime prevention unit implanted in your brain.

Crazy granny had potential and so did jealous OW, but the author never really went THERE with that drama. I also felt bitterly disappointed by the heroine's 180 from reluctantly agreeing to kidnap the motherfucker to complete spineless capitulation. But sometimes there can be joy in reading something stupid, and I did kind of enjoy this book, even if have the joy came from laughing at it. It seems like this book, which is one of the first 200 Harlequins ever published and written by a fairly big name author, is actually worth a pretty decent sum of money, so I may end up selling this one to a collector.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 24, 2023

The Russian's Acquisition by Dani Collins


I don't normally read a lot of these Harlequin books but sometimes my sister gets me romance novels and I end up with really random things I might not otherwise read. THE RUSSIAN'S ACQUISITION is a hi-LARIOUS romance published in 2014 but that reads like it was published in 1984. The heroine was the public arm candy slash secretary for the CEO of this business, and when he dies, her future is kind of suspended in limbo.

Because the new CEO is a Russian dude who hated her old boss. Also, old boss had the heroine sign an NDA so she couldn't tell everyone he was impotent, so like everyone else, Aleksy assumes that the heroine was his whore and he decides to punish her for it: by firing her without cause, insulting her half a dozen times, and evicting her out of her apartment, which he now owns. And he lets himself into it, startling her mid-pack, to threaten and insult her half a dozen more times.

When she tells him that she didn't ever sleep with the old boss, the hero is like, "You're just telling me that because you want me to fuck you." So he proceeds to insult her a couple dozen more times, this time, telling her how much she wants the D. He offers her money for sex, and when she points out that it will take time to show up in her account, he whisks her away on a sex vacation to France and then Russia, telling her that by the time they arrive via plane, the money will be there and she will be his.

The balls on this dude are pure brass. I mean, when he finds out that she was a virgin, his first thought is that she's trying to trick him into MARRIAGE. The heroine is like, who said anything about marriage? And he's like you whore, you're trying to trick me. And then he realizes his own illogic but consoles himself with the knowledge that all whores have to start somewhere (I am not kidding). Lmao, what a charmer. At least he's sort of good in bed, even if he apparently has sharp thumbtack nipples and eyebrows that "clash together like titans" (also they are "macho eyebrows").

After using a condom and pulling out and coming on her stomach, they through condoms to the winds (not literally, that's littering) and bareback it into the necessary third-act breakup, which leads us to a pregnant and sad heroine. BUT DON'T WORRY. He loved her all along and now she's no longer a blackmail mistress, no; she's been promoted to WIFE FOR LIFE.

This book was honestly so ridiculous. The guy was an asshole and the girl was kind of sad. She wasn't a doormat, just sad. When you learn about her life and how she never felt special, you can kind of see why the idea of a sex vacation and $100,000 virginity auction kind of made her feel like the pick-me she desperately wanted to be when she started shitting on how promiscuous and party-hardy her generation is (ma'am, I'm not sure you're actually twenty-three; are you sure you're not in your fifties?). But the book was so entertaining I couldn't put it down, so maybe I'm the fool here.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher


Fun fact: I applied for an ARC when this was first coming out and did not get a copy. No, I'm not salty about it (she said, while casually presenting like a human-shaped lump of salt). When this book went on sale, you can bet that I snapped it right up, hyped as all get out to read it, because as a feminist who works in the vast technology industry, this was relevant to all my interests. And it's good. Even though you've probably seen most of the case examples Wchter-Boettcher brings up when they made the news (such as the lens-focusing cameras that didn't work on Black people, or Twitter's failure to stop the mass-harassment of many women online, including Lindy West). And even though the "beware the evils of technology horse" is the latest and greatest dead horse that the news media loves to beat. But it's so useful to have all that information organized into one place, for easy reference, with commentary on how it happened and why it matters.

I'm not sure how appealing this book will be to people who aren't interested in social sciences and social justice and/or who aren't in tech or use it actively for work. But since most of us engage with some sort of app or website on the daily, I think it's important for everyone to understand how technology can fail us. One of the prevailing themes in this book is how a lack of unbiased and undemocratic (small d, don't @ me) information can lead to unconscious bias that reveals itself in AI systems. The author gave the example of a risk-assessment website that predicted what the recidivism of a criminal might be, but it did not take into account racial biases, such as the fact that Black individuals tend to get arrested more regardless of whether they are guilty or not, making one of the value points-- associating with people who have prior arrests-- questionable at BEST. Another is that a lack of diversity can contribute to erasure, or-- worse-- systemic microaggressions that can make a site significantly less safe or useful (examples: binary gender options upon signing up with a website or period-tracking apps that assume their users are straight women who want to get pregnant).

This book was published in 2017 so obviously it's aged. There are some comments about Twitter and its failure to sell the company based on its bad track record, for example, that have aged like a used diaper left out in a hot sun. (I can only imagine what the author thinks of some of the latest site "updates.") For the most part, though, I think a lot of the book is still relevant. Especially with more and more companies leaning more heavily on the use of algorithms and AI. Technology itself is not inherently harmful, but wielded in the wrong hands and used with carelessness, it very easily can be.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 23, 2023

The Attic Child by Lola Jaye


For Black History Month, I decided to read as many of the books by Black authors on my Kindle that I had, that I hadn't been able to get to during the rest of the year. One of these was THE ATTIC CHILD, a book I bought on a whim because the summary sounded so intriguing. It almost gave me FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC vibes, only without the breathless sensationalism, instead being more historically focused.

THE ATTIC CHILD is a dual-timeline story about two children who both have their own trauma to bear. In the early 20th century, our narrator is Dikembe/Celestine, a boy who is taken from the Congo to be a companion to a British explorer. In the "present" timeline, set in the early 90s, our narrator is Lowra, a young woman who works as a cleaner but is forcibly thrust back into her past when she finds out that her stepmother has passed and her childhood home has fallen to her.

I don't want to say too much because it will spoil the book because part of the fun is how the two timelines converge and what really became of Dikembe. But there was so much about this book that I loved: the immersive storylines, the way it talks about trauma, how history gets whitewashed and how one culture's "heroes" can be another's oppressor's, and also so many important and interesting dialogues on racism, internalized racism, colorism, and microaggressions. Also, there's a little bit of a romance between Lowra and a bumbling Black professor who has a penchant for cheese and pickle sandwiches and I STAN IT.

For most of this book, I was thinking FIVE STARS! FIVE STARS! FIVE STARS! But the ending started to really drag at 80%. Part of what kept me turning pages like a fiend was my emotional investment in the storylines of both characters and wanting to find out what happened to Dikembe. I would say that the ending is ultimately a happy and touching one, but it took a while to get there. Also major trigger warnings for racism and child abuse. The author doesn't get too graphic or go into detail, and the worst stuff is hinted at, but it's still disturbing and upsetting. 

Also, if you, like me, were wondering if Celestine/Dikembe was based off an actual historical figure, read the afterword. There's an author's note where Jaye talks about a photograph she saw that partially inspired her book and why she decided to set the book in the Congo in the beginning. 

Overall, this was just a really great thriller/historical fiction/lit-fic hybrid and I'm SO glad I randomly took a chance on it. I hope the author writes another book very, very soon!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Notes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi


For Black History Month, I'm reading all of the books by Black authors that I had on my Kindle that I wasn't able to get to throughout the rest of the year. NOTES FROM A YOUNG BLACK CHEF was a book that I was very excited to read, because one of my favorite types of memoirs is the foodie memoir. I love food of all kinds, and I really admire the people who are good at making it, and how they translate culture and science into exquisite-- and edible-- creations.

Kwame Onwuachi was apparently on Top Chef, which I did not know because I do not watch that show, but it seems like he was a crowd fave for the season he was on. After reading this book, I can see why. He's a fascinating guy. His memoir starts with him doing a fancy museum dinner for an African Studies tie-in, but then launches back to his upbringing and the various experiences that put him on the track to culinary stardom. We learn about the time his mom sent him to his grandfather in Nigeria to teach him discipline, his brushes with gang life in the Bronx, what it was like cooking on a ship, and how he scrimped and saved to get money learning how to cook at the CIA (which I stupidly assumed was the Central Intelligence Agency, to which I thought, "Oh, is that where they teach their spies how to cook?)

There were some things I loved about this memoir but fell just short of me loving it. First though, I want to address some of the reviews slamming him for being young and arrogant. I am not sure where this assumption comes that people who are under forty don't have anything worthwhile to say about their lives. I think a lot of young people these days are accomplishing great things and I want to read about them. Memoirs are only as interesting as the life someone has lived and trust me, I've read plenty of memoirs from older individuals who thought they were fascinating and clever, but were not. Second, while I agree that Onwuachi comes off as abrasive in his memoir, I do feel it's justified. He works hard and dealt with some pretty awful stuff when he was younger. He even says something in this memoir to the affect that being meek and mild within the oppressive structure of society when you yourself are a member of the oppressed isn't going to get you very far. Maybe some of his persona is defensive, and maybe some of that is who is, but I think it's totally valid. You don't become successful by being a pushover. Not in his industry, anyway. Being a professional chef is brutal. It's probably one hundred times harder as a man of color, with so many people just gleefully hoping you'll fail.

That said, I do wish that this had been more food-focused. He does talk a lot about cooking but a lot of it got too technical for me. I actually think people like my mom, who aren't professional chefs but have some culinary training, would appreciate this more than I did. My favorite portions of the book were actually about the parts of his life when he was in Nigeria and the Bronx, and how some of what he ate there shaped his cooking. For example, I had no idea that gumbo comes from a Twi word (I think that's what they speak in Ghana?), and that the Creole dish has African and German influences. I also LOVED that he included so many recipes that tied into his life's story. That was really neat.

So overall, not a bad book. It wasn't quite what I expected but I ended up liking it anyway and I think it's a great addition to the culinary canon of those such as Anthony Bourdain and Padma Lakshmi.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood


DNF @ 33%

Okay, so I really tried with this one because when I first heard about this book, I was SO EXCITED. Okay? SO. EXCITED. JANE EYRE is one of my favorite works of classic literature and when I found out that it was going to have Ethiopian elements, I may have screamed. I campaigned so hard for an ARC and DID NOT GET ONE, so I waited like the good book peasant I am for the chance to get a copy with coin.

FINALLY that day came and I tore into this book... only to be, uh, disappointed? The world-building felt really flat for me, like this could have been interchangeable with half a dozen other YAs. I liked that the heroine was plain and really passionate about her job, but those are the only really notable things about her. Our girl has NO HOBBIES and one of her favorite activities is pooping (I am not kidding). What in Galahad is going on here? (And don't even get me started on her "creative" method of ersatz tampon substitution.)

I'm afraid I am going to have to call it quitsies on WITHIN THESE WICKED WALLS. The writing was fine and some of the scenes of the evil spirits haunting the house genuinely gave me chills, but the bland protagonist and even blander romance really turned me off of this book. A lot of really popular reviewers swear by it, so maybe you'll like it too, but I definitely recommend checking out the sample first to make sure that the writing style-- and the narrator-- are to your taste.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 20, 2023

Truly by Carmel Rhodes


My friend Julia told me about this book and it sounded really amazing. I have to say, I'm a sucker for tender, possessive dudes with a slight psychotic streak and some of the lines she shared as quotes in her review made me swoon. Also, I loved that it's a dark romance with a Black heroine written by a Black author. There aren't a lot of diverse dark romances out there, although that seems to be changing, and I am glad. Fucked-up stories for everyone, of all creeds! That's my motto.

Noah is the brother of Truly's ex, and there's bad blood there that goes beyond the breakup. I feel like this book really plays with family dynamics in a way that a lot of dark romances don't. Truly goes on the road trip, for example, because it's the same one that her mom took with her aunt when she was a teen. We also get to see little excerpts from Truly's mom's journal and I really hope the author decides to write a prequel about that, because I think it would be so much fun to read a book about Truly's mom falling in love with Truly's dad. I also felt like Truly was a bit more dynamic as a heroine. She's selfish and imperfect and flawed. The grovel at the end was also pretty good and I wish it had ended there, instead of with the epilogue. Also, she does photography as a hobby and we actually see her doing that and documenting her journey, which I appreciated. Often we're told that heroines have hobbies but we never see them in action.

That said, even though I mostly liked this book, there were some things that really rubbed me the wrong way. I hated that Truly fell in love with Noah so quickly and that she never told Becca that he tried to rape her. This bites her in the ass later when she finds out that Becca invited boys on what should have been their girls-only trip. Now, that is Truly's decision to confide and she is in no way to blame for what happened to her, and Becca was wrong to ruin their plans without okaying it with Truly first, but it felt like this oversight was just a big loophole to force the guys on the trip. Given the relationship that the two girls had, it felt weird that Truly wouldn't tell Becca what happened. I also wasn't a fan of the nickname "Little One" (what is he, a vampire?) or some of the sex scenes. The rough sex was fine but it didn't always feel like the heroine was into it, or that Noah wasn't using it as a way to take out his frustrations on the heroine to punish her. Calling her butthole her "forbidden entrance" in reference to anal sex also made me cringe, and the slight breeding vibes to this book (multiple references to wanting to put a baby in Truly) made my ovaries shrivel up like sand. These are college students, right?

The beginning was four stars and the ending was two stars (for me), so I think I'd round this out to a three. Loved the road trip angle and how this felt like an aged-up version of one of those indie films from the aughts, like Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist or Charlie Bartlett. If she'd played up Truly's ambivalence about Noah a little more and made him work harder to get with her, I think I would have liked this more. But considering it had so many things that are usually deal-breakers for me, it's kind of amazing how much I ended up liking this. Regular readers of jealous, possessive stalker romances will probably enjoy this more than I did. I prefer my heroes more on the gamma side than the alpha side, but I'm not entirely mad about Truly ending up with her psychotic prince. (This is fantasy, after all.)

2.5 out of 5 stars

Confessions of an Alleged Good Girl by Jaya Goffney


DNF @ 59%

Okay, so this is one of those books where I appreciated what it was trying to do more than what it actually did do. The heroine, Monique, has tried to have sex with her boyfriend nearly 30 times but always has to stop because it's so painful. She later finds out that she has vaginismus, and the book sort of becomes an almost fetch quest as she, and two unexpected allies-- sycophantic good girl Sasha and bad boy Reggie-- try to help her "cure" her problem by plying her with erotica, vaginal dilators, and constant instruction on how to train herself.

I've read other sex-positive YA before that hit it out of the park. One of the book was Camryn Garrett's FULL DISCLOSURE (about an HIV positive girl who wants to have sex, but who also wants to do it in a way where she won't infect her partners who, you know, get something herself) and JACK OF HEARTS (AND OTHER PARTS) by Lev A.C. Rosen, in which a young gay teen plays Dear Abby anonymously to the anxious and curious teens in his school who have sex questions.

I read CONFESSIONS OF AN ALLEGED GOOD GIRL hot on the heels of Lara Parker's VAGINA PROBLEMS, which is a memoir about living with the chronic pain and sexual difficulties of living with endometriosis, which also involves painful sex. I wish CONFESSIONS hadn't focused so hard on "fixing" Monique, or held up penetrative sex as the be-all, end-all. In Ms. Parker's memoir, she talks about some of the alternatives she sought out, and how despite her angst and misery about not being able to have sex normally, the focus is always on her physical and psychological well-being. Monique is clearly very uncomfortable with some of the treatments her friends find for her, but she forces herself to do them anyway because she sees them as necessary for the heteronormative sex she desires.

I also wish the author had mentioned that sex isn't even necessary as part of a teen's coming of age. There are kids who are ace and aro who may not even want that in the first place, so it was kind of weird to read a book about an inability to have sex that didn't even bring up the fact that there are non-religious people who simply don't want or need sex.

I am always appreciative of sex-positive books in the YA lit canon, especially since so many alt-right groups are challenging books like these and trying to get them banned from libraries. This is also the first YA book I've read that tackles "vagina problems" in the first place, so it makes me especially sad that I didn't like it more. But it felt really superficial and kind of ridiculous for the subject matter it tried to tackle, and making the heroine's medical issue into something that needed to be resolved and having her repeatedly refer to herself as broken was really sad. Even though I'm sure that's language that is part of a grief and acceptance process, having her friends constantly pushing her to fix herself, even if it came from a place of support, kind of normalizes that sort of thinking rather than refuting it.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones


SILVER SPARROW is another book that made me go, "Man, can I write like this when I grow up?" The opening line hooked me right in and didn't let me go until the end of the book. Told in two POVs and set in the 80s, SILVER SPARROW is about two girls: Chaurisse and Dana. They're sisters but they don't know it, because their father is a bigamist who's married to both their moms-- at the same time.

Dana, the first narrator, is the daughter who knows. She's also the secret daughter, the one who lives in shame and has to watch her mom mooning after this man who doesn't even live with them. Her only consolation is that she's the "pretty" one, but pretty doesn't make up for not feeling loved, and as she watches Chaurisse, she becomes obsessed with this sister who doesn't know she exists, to the point where she starts finding excuses to be where she is.

You know that eventually they're going to meet, and that it's probably going to be explosive, and I think the author definitely comes to the clutch with the drama, because when the inevitable happened, I actually exclaimed aloud. As other reviewers have said, the end is a bit of a lull, but 85% of the book had me figuratively gripping the pages, waiting to see what would happen next, and I did like the ending, even though it's a quieter ending than I expected for a book like this. Also, the 1980s nostalgia is EVERYTHING. In some ways, Jones's book reminded me a lot about Jess Lourey's. I think Tayari Jones does for Georgia in the 80s what Jess Lourey does for Minnesota in the 70s.

I'd seen AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE floating around and the summary didn't interest me at all, but after reading and loving this book so much, I might have to check that one out, as well. Ms. Jones has also been writing the introductions for a lot of really great books, like Delores's Phillips's THE DARKEST CHILD, Ann Perry's THE STREET, and Alice Walker's MERIDIAN. With THE DARKEST CHILD, I could definitely see the influences that book may have had on this work, so if you, like me, end up falling in love with this author and end up needing more, more, more, check out those three aforementioned books, as well.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Carefree Black Girls by Zeba Blay


CAREFREE BLACK GIRLS is a collection of essays written about the interaction of Blackness and pop-culture. The focus is more on the former than the latter, which seems to have disappointed some reviewers, but if you enjoy think-piece type takes on pop-culture, in the style of authors like Rebecca Solnit or Lauren Michele Jackson, you'll probably really enjoy this. I recently got into an argument with someone over the validity of soft journalism like this, where the point isn't necessarily to share factual, testable data, but cultural opinion. With social phenomena, there often isn't measurable data, so if you want to describe what you see in the world, your samples come from observation and consensus opinion. But how else are you supposed to write about and study culture?

While reading, I waffled between four and five stars. Most of the essays in this book were incredibly strong. I liked the one about how people talk about plus-sized bodies (using Lizzo as an example). I liked the essay about the meme-ification of Breonna Taylor, which tied into performative activism and the commodification of Black bodies for clout. I liked the essay about colorism and how Hollywood still favors lighter skinned actresses. And I LOVED the essay about Mel B and her role in the Spice Girls, which then segued into how Black representation in film and media has changed from tokenism to more authentic roles.

CAREFREE BLACK GIRLS is one of those books that everyone should read but I do have a few criticisms. I didn't really care for the essay about Cardi B and Nicki Minaj's feud. I guess from a "tea" standpoint, it's sort of interesting to hear about a tiff between two famous women, but I'm not really invested in either of them as performers, and apart from some valid criticisms of people who infantilize and marginalize Cardi, denying her Blackness and her potential for growth because of her upbringing, it felt more disorganized and less cohesive than Blay's other essays.

I also thought it was a little strange how the author seemed to suggest that Aunt Viv's character was replaced on Fresh Prince because of colorism because, from what I understand, Janet Louise Hubert was replaced because of an ongoing feud she had with Will Smith behind the scenes. If she was going to use this as an example, it felt like it might have been better placed in her essay about Denise Huxtable, played by Lisa Bonet, who had a similar tension with Bill Cosby, because both Cosby and Smith seemed to resent sharing the spotlight with their incredibly charismatic female co-stars.

Lastly, the author said at the beginning that she wasn't going to define things for readers because she felt like they should do the legwork, and I think that is mostly fair, but then she uses a couple terms that have some nuance when it comes to definition (like hotep, for example), where even after looking it up, I wasn't 100% sure what she meant, or what her particular definition for the term was. I also was unclear if the photos she used at the beginning of each essay were supposed to tie into the essays because sometimes the relationship was unclear (why was Mae Jemison shown before the Cardi B/Nicki Minaj Chapter????).

But overall, this is a really great collection. I liked what Blay had to say and how she wove some of her own personal experiences into these observations. When you look up her Goodreads bio, she has a truly impressive resume, and it's easy to see while reading these essays why she was published in such a wide variety of prestigious media outlets. Anyone who is interested in the development of pop-culture and how it intersects with gender and ethnicity, needs to read this book.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson


Renee Watson is one of my autobuy authors. I love the way she manages to capture the way teens and preteens actually sound: it's a period of self-discovery and the formation of one's soon-to-be-adult identity, but real teens and preteens can also be moody, petulant, and, yes, even selfish. That's part of being human and I often see reviewers critique YA for these sorts of portrayals, but I think it's important for kids to have these feelings be validated, as well as being shown the path for growth. Ms. Watson does this beautifully.

Jade is an artist. She is also one of the few Black teens at her prestigious school, which she has to bus into every day. Since her family is poor, and she herself is very smart and talented, she received entry to this sponsorship program, Woman to Woman, which guarantees a scholarship upon completion. Her mentor is a woman named Maxine, a Black woman who comes from a very wealthy family. Her job is to relate to Maxine and school her in the ways that she can build a successful future for herself, but because she never grew up poor, her advice often ends up feeling laughably tone-deaf.

PIECING ME TOGETHER is a really great book for a variety of reasons. As I said, the heroine feels like a typical teen, with all the ups and downs that come with that. It talks about the intersection between poverty and ethnicity, but also how these things are not mutually inclusive. This is also shown with one of Jade's friends, Sam, a white teen who is also poor, like her, who sometimes faces socioeconomic microaggressions from her peers, but not the racial ones, of which Jade receives both. The book is also about learning to stand up for yourself and set boundaries. Jade learns to be her own advocate, and how to constructively challenge people who make her feel bad about herself, intentional or no. Most of these work out in her favor, but she also learns about overstepping, when she lets her (valid) anger with some of Sam's own microaggressions shade into her jealousy about Sam being the recipient of a benefit that she (Jade) wants, which she then proceeds to guilt her about.

I liked seeing Jade grow as a character and I liked the descriptions of her art, and how going to the museum felt like such a moment for her. Experiences like that when you're young, where you love doing something and then get to see how the experts do it, can be so powerful. I felt like Watson really captured that for Jade. I also liked how she incorporated some of her angst and uncertainty about the hostile sociopolitical climate for Black people into her works. Also, as with some other Renee Watson books, I really enjoyed how this felt like a love letter to Portland.

Though this book was a little shaky and precious in some parts, I'm rounding up because it was fun.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur


So apparently Sanyika Shakur actually has a Wikipedia page, something I did not know prior to reading this book. (He was also friends with Tupac!) I found this book totally randomly in a Little Free Library and thought it would make a great addition to the list of books by Black authors that I am reading for Black History Month, as I know very little about Black Nationalism or L.A. gang violence, and before Shakur converted to Islam and Black Nationalism and started trying to devote his time to turn people away from gangs, he was a pretty major player in his local syndicate.

MONSTER, which was his nickname he got for beating up a guy, is Shakur's story of how he got into the gang, how he eventually got caught, what prison was like, and what he did after. It's an interesting memoir and I can appreciate his motives for writing it and coming clean about his past, even if a lot of what happened in it disturbed me. I also think that he brings up a pretty important issue, which is similarly touched upon in Patricia Williams's memoir RABBIT, which is that infrastructural racism contributes to crime because it makes it possible for Black people and people of color in low-income areas to make money and make community networks, which they might not otherwise have the privilege of getting. This does not make gang violence or, in the case of RABBIT, drug-dealing, morally ethical, but it does make it understandable-- at least from a logic perspective. If the doors to legitimate ways of making money and earning a living are closed to you and your family, why wouldn't you turn to other channels instead?

My favorite parts of the book were his interactions with his mom and girlfriend(s), and what his upbringing was like, and his interactions with his family. I also really liked the descriptions of 1980s L.A. and how well he knew his neighborhood. There was a description of him and his mom in an Asian-owned grocery store and another of one of his associates and a boombox that just felt very 1980s. His interest in Black Nationalism and his African cultural roots was also interesting and I wish there was more about that, and what he talked to the younger men in his community about after prison. Most of the memoir is a recount of his crimes, which started to feel repetitive and impersonal-- probably by necessity, but it could make the writing feel cold. Although I will admit that I smiled when he was reading The Godfather and using it for inspo on how he wanted to run his own gang. It was both disturbing and quirky, and felt like something a character in a movie might do. I don't know-- I thought it was funny. Honestly, for a subject I feel so uncomfortable with, he made it fairly easy to read. So take from that what you will. Honestly, if you're at all curious about L.A. history or what happens in a gang (hopefully for research purposes only), it's worth the read.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Maybe This Will Help: How to Feel Better When Things Stay the Same by Michelle Rial


MAYBE THIS WILL HELP is the follow-up to AM I OVERTHINKING THIS? While her first book was about anxiety and stress, the focus of MAYBE is about grief and chronic pain. With gentle humor and emotionality, she gives advice for self-care and coping, while also validating the whole spectrum of feelings that come with not being okay.

I liked this book and appreciated the creativity of the charts, just like I did in the first book. This book is less humorous though (obviously) and features little essays about how she felt over the loss of his father, during the fires and quarantine of 2020, and also a low-point where she was experiencing severe pain while being overworked. Part of healing can come from representation and feeling seen, so I think that these more painful passages were crucial, even if they made the book less "fun" to read.

That said, I didn't quite enjoy this book as much as the first. The formatting didn't translate quite as well to Kindle and the type was very small and hard to read. The essays also didn't always tie into the charts that came before and after, and I would have liked a little more cohesion if she was going to go for this mixed-media sort of vibe, like Allie Brosh. I also think that the title doesn't quite convey how different in tone this book is to her first book, and people who don't know what they're getting into might be unpleasantly shocked or triggered, especially if they are dealing with fresh grief.

3 out of 5 stars

The All-New Amelia by Marissa Moss


I don't read a lot of children's books but I have fond memories of this series from when I was a kid, even though I never actually owned any of the books. One of my teachers had some in her class library and I remember really relating to Amelia, who is rather adorably self-conscious and uses her journals to obsess over the things that most kids her age worry and fret over (am I cool enough? what if I like things others don't? how can I get people to like me? why are my siblings so annoying? etc.)

In this book, Amelia wants to befriend the cool British girl who has come to her school. She also gets to go on an archaeological dig to look for Native American tools and pottery. There's usually a message in these books and here, it's basically that people like you best for being yourself (although her friend is pretty mean to her about trying to explore her identity). I liked the art a lot and love how Marissa Moss captures the voice of a young girl. She is for little kids what Meg Cabot was for so many teens. Love.

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips


Okay, wow. I think this is one of the most messed up books I ever read. THE DARKEST CHILD was published in 2005 originally, and seems to be written in the vein of the melancholy coming of age stories that were popular at the time, like WHITE OLEANDER or DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD. However, this, I think I can safely say, is one of the most disturbing books I've ever read, and in terms of content, it's way worse than either of those things.

THE DARKEST CHILD is set in rural Georgia in the 1950s. The heroine is Tangy Mae, one of many illegitimate children belonging to Rozelle Quinn, a light-skinned Black woman who moonlights as a prostitute and sends out her children to earn her money and work for her affection. She is incredibly abusive and some of the things she does involve stabbing one of her children through the hand with an ice pick and branding another, the heroine, on the ankle with a red-hot iron.

Set against the backdrop of all this abuse is the burgeoning civil rights era. Some of the Black people in town are getting sick of being treated terribly and sometimes not even getting paid for their hard work. Segregation is in full-force but the people who get to decide to cross those lines-- and when-- are the white people, and that's made painfully clear when Tangy is forced to work for her mom in a brothel and is exploited by white men with twisted agendas.

I think this is a compelling story. I had a hard time putting it down. But it's not a story I enjoyed. The comparison to WHITE OLEANDER is pretty on point, but it goes to places that WHITE OLEANDER feared to tread. I don't have a lot of triggers, but descriptive gore and sexual exploitation of children are two subjects I have a hard time reading about, and both of those things were in abundance here.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 17, 2023

The Last Girl To Die by Helen Fields


I was so excited when I found this book because I've lived in Scotland and the Hebrides are beautiful. The sample looked great-- I'm a sucker for mysteries with private detectives. My mother read the book first and at first things were going well and then she groaned and said NENIA. THAT BOOK YOU GAVE ME WAS STUPID. And I was like, "The mystery one??" And she was like, "YES. THE ENDING. I HATED THE ENDING. BUT MAYBE YOU'LL LIKE IT." And I was like, thanks mom. And she was like, "WE'LL TALK ABOUT IT. BUT YOU NEED TO READ IT."

For context, my mom is an incredibly picky and elitist reader, who won't read any romance unless it's by Jane Austen, and thinks mysteries are only worthwhile if they're published in Europe or former British commonwealths, so that's what we're working with. Meanwhile, there's me, the literary garbage disposal, who consumes anything, no matter how trashy, as long as it's entertaining. I thought she was being her snooty self and dove right in, thinking, "I'LL SHOW HER."


At first the book is really good. The heroine is a Canadian citizen who's on the Isle of Mull to help some American expats try to find out who killed their teen daughter, who was found dead in a cave, with sand shoved down her throat and a shell where the sun don't shine. There's beautiful descriptions of the Scottish seaside and a sinister betrayal of how people in small towns sometimes close ranks when tragedy happens, and even a few hints that maybe something culty is going on. But the book started to get kind of annoying. The heroine becomes a little not like other girls, assuring us that even though she looks like a pretty blonde cheerleader, she's smart and fit and doesn't see the need for false eyelashes. I found myself rolling my eyes a little, especially when she made stupid mistakes.

As soon as my mom realized I wasn't enjoying this book, she got gleeful. "Did the stupid woman get trapped in the basement yet?" she asked. "Did you get to the part narrated by the island?" Eventually I got so annoyed with the book that I asked her to spoil the ending for me and she didn't want to, because she was mad I made her buy a copy of this for 99 cents and wanted me to suffer like she did. When she finally told me the ending, I didn't believe her and had to see it for myself: The killer is someone who makes literally zero sense AND THE HEROINE DIES AT THE END. The island-- yes, the actual island-- narrates her death, and then the heroine becomes an omniscient ghost who is telling us what happens to her body and how sad everyone is that she's gone now. The fucking end.

I don't give out many one star reviews anymore but this ending beggared belief. My ideal ending would have been having the murder staged by the sketch reporter dude because that first killing was how he made a name for himself and maybe he wanted to get a book deal so he copycatted the original murder to jumpstart his career. The heroine finds out and narcs him out, and then she gets married to the cute forensic dude who was totally flirting with her.

But Ms. Should I Lick This Strange Powder I Found in This Shoe got herself killed and made ghost besties with the island ghosts instead.

The end.

1 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Dear Martin by Nic Stone


DEAR MARTIN is a frustrating read-- for both good and bad reasons. I put off reading this book, actually, because I only felt lukewarm about the last Nic Stone book I read, and I didn't want to write a negative review for a book that's right up there with THE HATE U GIVE in terms of its place in canonical literature for Black teens. (I just looked up the title of the other book I read; it's called JACKPOT.) But as I saw more and more of my friends hyping this book up, I got major FOMO. And finally, here I am, checking it out.

DEAR MARTIN is about a teen boy named Justyce. He is one of the few Black students at his posh prep school, and the distance between him and the other kids always seems vaster whenever there's something in the news about an act of police discrimination or police violence against someone who looks like him. Nowhere does this show up more than in debate club, where his teacher, Doc, likes to introduce controversial and real world issues. 

Like racial inequality.

MILD SPOILER but pretty soon Justyce ends up becoming the center of exactly one of these sorts of news stories, and he gets to bear the brunt of all the baggage that comes from that: people speculating that a cop wouldn't have bothered him if there wasn't something to be bothered about, people suggesting that he was probably in a gang. Justyce obviously knows what he is and he isn't, but having his identity questioned so publicly leads to an internal crisis of his own. If everyone is going to assume the worst of you anyway, why bother even trying to play by the rules?

So first, the good. DEAR MARTIN packages some pretty high level issues in a way that is easy for kids to process and understand. A lot of kids struggle with recognizing fake news or understanding that articles can be written with an agenda by manipulating their audiences with certain dog-whistle phrases or emotionally loaded language. So by showing us Justyce's study and then contrasting that with articles that do a verbal sleight-of-hand with information to work their spin, she introduces a young audience to media manipulation, and the ability to be skeptical and critical about what you read. Which is a very valuable and underrated skill. She also makes an attempt at nuance, showing how racism can exist within the Black community, and why kids might turn to a gang life in the first place. Pretty privilege and colorism are also discussed, which are topics that sometimes aren't touched upon in books about discrimination. It also packs a pretty emotional punch. There were several parts where I got misty-eyed. 

That said, there were a couple flaws. The author used a mixed media format, which I usually like, but she did it in the same weird way that didn't quite work for me in JACKPOT. The news articles were great for the reasons I mentioned before (that spin, though), and I thought Justyce's diary entries to Martin Luther King Jr. were interesting but that felt like something a younger kid might do, rather than a kid who is college bound. Justyce didn't really have a dreamy or quirky personality, either, so having him do something like this felt kind of weird. The author also did this thing where she would have normal dialogue and then the narrative would randomly switch to a script-like format, sometimes within the same paragraph. I'm not sure what the point of this was, but it ended up making parts of the book feel like a draft that didn't get fleshed out. I also didn't love the romance. Like in JACKPOT, it felt like an afterthought. Especially since so much of the dialogue in here feels canned, like it could have been shot for one of those sensitivity training videos that they force you to watch in the work place. No hate towards the videos-- the actors in them usually do a good job making you feel the cringe and sometimes I, being the reader that I am, get weirdly invested in those stories-- but they were created as teaching tools, and their behaviors are all highly exaggerated and driven in a way that makes them vehicles for the plot, rather than vehicles of their own agency, and I feel like that was the case here.


I'm sorry, but I didn't really find the ending satisfying at all. Having the racist kid suddenly realize he was racist(!) and minor in African American studies was almost laughable. I get that people change, but this kid is one extremist YouTube video away from having a MAGA Twitter account, so having him go from "they're taking MY spots in college!" to "Toni Morrison is my Patronus" (exaggeration) felt, well... like a choice. I also felt like having the cop who caused Justyce all his problems get unalived in jail was a cheap way out. I get why the author did it-- it seemed like Justyce was going to lose the trial, and I'm sure she was afraid that would depress her readers, but vigilante justice felt a bit like a deus ex machina. Especially since prison "justice" is a reflection of a flaw with prison-- lack of protection for those who need solitary, especially for people of color-- and prison itself is an institution that is rife with discrimination, especially for-profit prisons that benefit on holding people longer than they should. This made the "yay the bad cop died" ending fall kind of flat and feel more than a bit tone deaf. Prisons are part of that same broken justice system, and not a means to a much-denied end.

So overall, this book was... FINE. It's fine. Seriously, it's fine. It's not harmful. It tried to do the thing. It tells a decent story. For a younger audience who hasn't read other books on this subject, I think it would be a great stepping stone. And like I said, the book packs an emotional whollop at times and I got invested enough to keep reading. Justyce is a flawed and interesting young man and I am sure his conflicts will resonate with a lot of readers. It just didn't happen to be my favorite. YMMV.

2.5 out of 5 stars

A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow


DNF @ 16%

Nothing against this book personally, I just thought that the writing was a little clunky and the way the world building was set up sort of made this feel like a cheesy Disney-direct-to-TV movie. (I think there's actually a YA movie called Sirens that reminded me a little of this book, although this one was way more creative.) I appreciate the allegory of mermaids for misogynoir and the media witch hunts launched against Black people by the news, but this wasn't it for me.

2 out of 5 stars

Someday, Maybe by Onyi Nwabineli


This book is the perfect example of why the oversaturation of the illustrated cover trend has gotten some people so frustrated. If you didn't read the summary for this book, you might assume that you had gotten your hands on a chick-lit or a contemporary romance, and NOTHING-- I repeat, NOTHING-- could be father from the truth.

SOMEDAY, MAYBE is the story of Eve, a woman who has just found out that her husband unalived himself. In fact, she was the one who discovered the body. She handles her loss very poorly, falling into a depression that alienates her from her large and loving family, self-medicating with alcohol and substances, and dialing it in at a job that she never really loved. The plunge into this deep and profound grief is like a bleak and all-consuming ocean, and it shows how everything can end up being a trigger for someone who has spent many years of their life with someone who is suddenly and cruelly torn away.

The writing is great and I think the portrait of Eve and her family is done really well. Her mother in law, Aspen, is also truly awful. I kept waiting for a punch to the face that never came. There is a certain dark wit to the writing but it's not a humorous book. If anything, this is a book that shows how grief makes some people turn ugly and feral, kind of how CRYING IN H MART did. That book was also marketed as being funny by some people, and was also depressing as all get out. I don't know what it is with people marketing grief memoirs and grief books as "funny" but it says something disturbing about how people consume stories about women's pain, don't you think?

SOMEDAY, MAYBE is not a book I'd read again and I think you should go into this very carefully, especially if you have experienced a recent loss or are feeling very depressed yourself. But it's a very human and honest book and I'm not sorry I read it. Nwabineli is clearly an author to watch and I can't wait to read more from her.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi


Before reading this book, I strongly urge you to check out this author's interview with Trevor Noah via The Daily Show. Regardless of how you feel about the book, it's a very valuable interview because it puts the author's intentions into perspective and talks about how they included some of their own thoughts about love, grief, and art into the book. I also appreciated their love of romance novels (including the old Mills & Boon) and how you can appreciate the oldies for laying the groundwork for the far more feminist- and diversity-friendly contemporary romance novels of today, which give happy endings to people from all walks of life.


I liked the interview and I appreciated what this author sought to do with YOU MADE A FOOL OF DEATH WITH YOUR BEAUTY. But my thoughts on the book ended up being kind of convoluted and not totally favorable. I feel like I always end up feeling this way with Emezi's work. They're a very-- I want to say transgressive author? In that, their works seem like they're supposed to challenge the way you think about society and how it works and make you uncomfortable on purpose. YOU MADE A FOOL OF DEATH WITH YOUR BEAUTY is a romance, but it's not a straightforward one. The heroine, Feyi, is aching from the death of her husband, who she has immortalized and enshrined in art and memory. I'm reading another book right now that also explores these concepts, which is called SOMEDAY, MAYBE by Onyi Nwabineli. Both books show that there is no linear path to love or healing. In SOMEDAY's case, the heroine takes solace from her friends and family. In YOU MADE A FOOL, the heroine turns to sexual release. No one can really hold up, so she hooks up with people who are undemanding and easy, whether it's the pretty party boy, Milan, her own best friend, Joy, or Nasir, the nice guy who seems to think that he can save her from herself, like a charity case.

Nasir ends up trying to woo her by taking her to his family home on a Caribbean island, where it turns out that his father, Alim, is a famous Michelin-starred chef. He's also a bisexual silver fox hottie that Feyi kind of sort of has a crush on, and maybe it's the lipstick and the silver nail polish, or maybe it's the thought of the forbidden, but suddenly this book starts feeling a lot like Katee Robert's YOUR DAD WILL DO, social subterfuge edition. As soon as Nasir leaves the house for an extended period of tim, she's all over his dad like a pan on a stove, and yeah, they do have chemistry and I think he ends up being a stabilizing influence for her and also a safe space because of their shared grief and love of art, but it's way messier than what I bargained for (the sleeping around and unprotected sex and messy queer girl summer stuff, I could stand behind, but going on an all expenses paid trip with your friend you know wants to sleep with you and then doing it with his dad felt kind of... weird). The summary also doesn't really prepare you for the dad-fucking element. "Forbidden" romance could mean anything.

So, here are some things that I liked. The portrayl of queerness and Blackness and the unapologetic sexuality of the main character and her friend. Joy, and the way she tried to hold her friend accountable while also still being supportive of her choices. The message that women don't really "owe" men anything (even though Nasir paid for all Feyi's shit, she didn't owe him sex, or even the truth, really). The line when Alim is like "it's not your house, boy." (Owned.) The food porn and descriptions of the art. The blood thing was very Damien Hirst and the wedding ring thing reminded me of something Tabaimo might do. Neither artist is to my personal taste, but their work is both subversive and disturbing, which I think Feyi would appreciate. The writing is also gorgeous. There's a lot I highlighted while reading. Emezi has a great way with words, and everything is very sensory.

YOU MADE A FOOL OF DEATH did not really work for me as a romance, and I did not really like the story. I think it's more lit-fic than it is a romance, even though it straddles both genres, and sort of defies categorization. Framing it as an avant-garde work will probably help it find its target audience, as will knowing going in that it's an age gap romance that flies in the face of social convention, and has the heroine hooking up with her friendzoned boy "friend's" dad. 

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Mirror Girls by Kelly McWilliams


So I've been trying to read as many books by Black authors that I have on my Kindle as I can for Black History Month, and as a result, I've been finding so many new and undiscovered gems that I forgot I bought in the first place. Case in point: MIRROR GIRLS by Kelly McWilliams. 

Set in the South in the 1950s during the time of segregation, MIRROR GIRLS is about twin sisters: one has dark skin and the other is light enough to pass as white. Magnolia is raised by her paternal grandmother in a rich plantation house, whereas Charlene (Charlie) is raised by her maternal grandmother up north, in New York.

However, when the girls were separated, a terrible curse was enacted. And when Magnolia finds out the truth of her parentage, suddenly her reflection disappears from the many mirrors in Heathwood and she is unable to eat or drink anything without it tasting like ash or rot. OMG! When she and Charlene meet for the first time, they are struck by their similarities and differences, and also by the way that the current political climate regarding race has affected how they are treated. Especially when the townsfolk decide that they want to segregate the local cemetery and disinter all of the Black people, to move them to a fetid swamp. The spirits aren't happy, and one of the Yates girls might die as a result. DUN DUN DUN.

I thought it did a great job not talking down to its audience and it was honestly pretty dark and chilling for a YA book! People who are regular horror readers might not find this scary at all, but people like me, who are wimps and find mirrors creepy AF won't be able to read this at night. That was my mistake, you see, and I'm regretting it even now. Holy eep. The gothic atmosphere and the weight of the curse were both done really well and I liked the relationship between the sisters, even though I think maybe things might have been better if they didn't have that instant connection.

In some ways, this really reminded me of WHEN THE RECKONING COMES, but toned down for a YA audience. I personally thought WHEN THE RECKONING COMES was better because it really leaned into the history element, and it also had more of a romantic subplot, which I really like in thrillers. But the way this book portrays segregation and the strength of young women were both great, and I think this would be a great book for teens wanting to learn more about this time period, and also looking for something a little scary that won't scar them for life.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Phoenix Island by Charlotte Paul


Expectation: Love Island meets Lord of the Flies

Reality: Some bullshit.

I read the first twenty pages and then skimmed to the first sex scene and was not impressed. This came in a box of pulp I thrifted and while some pulps don't deserve to be lost to time, this one isn't one I'm going to be raving about. Points to the author for being ahead of her time and having climate change via tsunamis and flooding be the agent for the end of the world at a time when everyone was clutching their pearls about nuclear power.

1 out of 5 stars

Mad World by Hannah McBride


I saw this recommended as a suggested read for another book I had enjoyed and the pretty cover and summary intrigued me enough that I was eager to pick this up (plus it's named after an awesome song). MAD WORLD is about Madison, a girl from the proverbial side of the tracks and daughter of a drug addict, who lives in a double-wide trailer. One day, she sees a news article about a girl who looks just like her named Madelaine, except this girl is the daughter of a rich business tycoon and has the whole world wrapped around her finger. But-- coincidentally enough-- they have the same birthday.

When Madison reaches out to her, Madelaine eventually writes back. The two of them realize that they are twins separated at birth, and Madelaine decides that wouldn't it be fun if they Parent Trap it and swap places for a couple months to meet each others' parents and get a taste of each others' lives? Madison reluctantly agrees and is instantly thrown into the shark-infested waters of her twin's polished life, and comes to the disturbing realization that actually, Madelaine is kind of a bitch. And soon, she's a dead bitch.

Now Madison is the only twin left and her father expects her to take her sister's place. But with an entire school that hates her for reasons that she still isn't clear on, and a fiance who seems to think her lower than slime, all of the varnish of this shiny new life has abruptly peeled off, and Madison starts to realize that a gilded cage is still a cage.

So I really enjoyed this book. Was it a perfect read? No. But I ate up every moment of it. The pacing and suspense were excellent and I loved the attention the author paid to every character, not just the mains. Unlike a lot of heroines in these bully romance stories, I liked that there were some valid reasons for the bullying in question, and I liked the heroine's feminist streak. She also had some really great female friendships in here, especially with Bex, and that's something I love to see. I also liked the romance, although the author brands this as a "college bully romance," and it really isn't. It's set in the heroine's senior year of high school. If I had known it was a high school romance, I probably wouldn't have picked it up, because I don't like reading smutty high school stories. The author was pretty tasteful about it, though. The book doesn't get smutty until after the heroine turns eighteen, and most of the focus of the book is on the building of romance and emotional connection, which I really appreciated.

While reading, I waffled between a four and five star rating. It did a couple things that annoy me, like the use of whisper-scream and whisper-hiss (please don't), and sometimes the dialogue could be a little canned or corny (especially during sex scenes). Plus, it straight up lied to me about being set in college. But for the most part, this was just really addicting and fun, in the same way that Zodiac Academy and Royals of Forsyth were addicting and fun, and it won me over to a genre of books that I don't typically like or enjoy reading. With a cliffhanger that cruel, I will absolutely be diving into the next book in the series very soon. Thank God it's already out. I feel so, so sorry for the people who were reading these in real time and had to wait.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 13, 2023

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

 A few years ago, this book was trending on Instagram, and as with most Insta-hyped books, I calmly made a note of it before moving on with my life. Because I am a book grump, and whenever a panel of people universally decide that something is awesome, I'm usually the one person in the room who hates it. I don't even do it on purpose! How frustrating is that? VERY.

But when this book went on sale on Amazon and I read the sample, I was instantly hooked. The story starts out with something a lot of us see clips of far too often on social media: a Black person being unfairly profiled and treated like a criminal for just going about their life. In this case, Emira has just come from a party with her friends to do some emergency babysitting for her consciously class mobile family that she works for, the Chamberlins. And some "well-meaning" white lady sees her with the Chamberlins's young daughter, Briar, and assumes that she is a kidnapper. Because of course.

Alix, the mother of Briar, is one of those girl boss type social media mogul moms, who is feminist in the way that sells t-shirts and gets brand deals. It's the pull-up-the-ladder-behind-me type of feminism, although she doesn't see it that way, because Alix is constantly rewriting her own narrative in a way that spins her as the tragic heroine or noble hero. When she hears about what happened to Emira in the store, it consumes her, and makes her obsessed with Emira and her Blackness with a fanaticism that's generally reserved for first crushes... or serial killers. Pretty soon she's looking at Emira's phone and eavesdropping on the conversations she has with her friends and nosing into her personal life. But much to both women's surprises, all this intervention unearths a connection that will shake both of their foundations to the very core.

On the surface, this feels like a Lianne Moriarty-like domestic drama that thrives in its own awkwardness and secondhand cringe. I could not put the book down because all of the characters were all so flawed in their own way, and I could see myself in little shards of their personalities. For example, like Emira, I was also working a job that I was overqualified for at one point, and worrying about being bumped from my heath insurance. It's SO stressful being the person in your social group with the "bad job" and having no one take you seriously as an adult. And like Alix, I've definitely worried about whether my efforts to be inclusive or supportive came across as shallow or performative. There are also a lot of dialogues about "helping" and what happens when help is unwanted, classism and infrastructural racism, girl boss and hustle culture, and how some (white) people use proximity to Black people as a means of establishing clout, coolness, or the moral high ground.

I really hope someone picks this up and turns it into a TV mini series. I think it would translate really well to the big screen. And even though I'm already anticipating and cringing over the future articles that would call this story "timely" and "important," both of those things are true. I came, I saw, and I cringed-- and I loved every moment of it. The Bookstagram gang was right about this one.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Perishing by Natashia Deon


I bought THE PERISHING without really knowing anything about it because the summary intrigued me so much. I'm a sucker for literary fiction-type books about immortals, like Megan Chance's INAMORATA and Alma Katsu's THE TAKER, so that basically sold me on the book alone. When I found out that the heroine was Black, and the story was kind of a vehicle for exploring racism and inequality and the whitewashing of history, well, that just further sealed the deal.

I'm actually kind of surprised that THE PERISHING has such bad ratings on Goodreads. Sometimes, it seem like people just band together and decide that a certain book is "bad," which is weird because I remember seeing this book on a lot of hype lists when it was first coming out. I think the problem is that when a book is different and doesn't really fit into a specific genre, people sometimes think that means it's bad. THE PERISHING is a historical fiction book with sepculative elements and a bit of romance. In fact, it's a lot like some of the feminist sci-fi-fantasy books I read from the 80s and 90s by authors like Sheri S. Tepper, Joan D. Vinge, and Octavia Butler.

The story has two narrators: Lou and Sarah. They're the same person because Lou is ageless: an immortal who woke up one day in the body of a teenager with no memory of her past. She's adopted by a foster family and raised as their own, and develops an interest in journalism. Then one day, in a martial arts group, she sees a man she's been drawing unknowingly, despite never seeing his face. Most of the book is about Lou and her coming of age as a Black woman living in Los Angeles in the 1930s, and I loved the unflinching portrayal of that melting pot culture rife with racial tensions and inequality that people still did their best to gloss over, even then. I also really liked Lou as a heroine, and her prematurely jaded but still sort of artistic, wistful view about life.

Some people thought the villain was predictable, but I honestly didn't see that twist coming, nor do I think that their motives were any worse than the villain in a comic book movie. There's a larger-than-life vibe to the book that works well with its philosophical topics, and what it strives to achieve doesn't feel that much different than what CLOUD ATLAS tried to do. In fact, I actually liked this book better than CLOUD ATLAS: the writing is less dense and more accessible, and I liked the characters better. I do agree that the story could feel meandering at times and hard to follow, but I ended up really liking that element. You could just lean back and let the book take you on a journey. Sure, some things could have been explained better and the future storyline wasn't as good as the past one, but this book was just so different and interesting, and had me highlighting so many passages, that I can't give it a bad rating.

Don't let the negative reviews scare you away. If you're into different and liked the experimental speculative fiction that was popular amongst a certain subset of authors in the late 20th century, I definitely recommend THE PERISHING.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Wife Before by Shanora Williams


My sister gave me a copy of this author's other book, THE PERFECT RUIN, and I really enjoyed it. Even though I'd never heard of this author before, it was the perfect blend of well plotted and trashy, and I ended up devouring it like the thriller-soap opera it was. When I found out that this author was planning a loose retelling of REBECCA called THE WIFE BEFORE, I was all over that like white on rice. Give me all the drama, please, and if it has a twist of gothic soap, so much the better.

THE WIFE BEFORE is about a woman named Samira who is a bit of a moocher. She's living off her brother's good will as she does underpaying jobs, but all that changes when her brother ends up engaged to his fiancee and she decides it's for the best if they cut ties. Similarly, the heroine's roommate decides she wants to move in with her boyfriend and is tired of Samira half-assedly paying rent. When she takes a waitressing job and hits it off with one of the rich bigwigs at the event, it seems too good to be true. Especially when he invites her to move in with him as soon as he learns that she's having some financial trouble.

But Roland isn't exactly the perfect guy. He might have killed his first wife. And when Samira goes into his ex-wife's she-shed and finds her journals, she sees a very different portrait of Melanie than the rest of the world saw: she's angsty and fucked-up, and put Roland through the emotional wringer with her affairs. Add to that an unbalanced sister with a drug addiction, and there's no telling what either of these women are capable of-- or what Roland might have done to salvage his feelings and reputation.

So I've read the original REBECCA and as far as retellings go... I guess this was okay. It didn't have a lot in common with the original since Melanie wasn't exactly beloved by anyone who knew her. Samira also didn't have the innocence of the unnamed heroine in REBECCA: she was a pretty unlikable heroine, to be honest, and I didn't really see what Roland saw in her. Especially since she started the relationship basically doing as much prying as she could into his deceased ex's life, to the point where I was like, Girl, just take out a sign saying "Nosy snoop, kill me now." You're just that obvious.

I thought THE PERFECT RUIN was a better book (and I loved the Lola Maxwell shoutout in this book). As far as revenge thrillers go, I felt like that one was better executed. This one was kind of all over the place, and it wasn't really a close enough retelling for me to be like, Oh, yeah, REBECCA! But I'm not really sure it succeeded as a standalone, either. It wasn't bad, but it was a frustrating read, and I found myself getting annoyed with all of the characters, and not in a good way.

2.5 out of 5 stars