Review: The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

My quest to read all of the fairy tale retellings…kind of continues into 2018, I suppose. I admit that I lost a lot of my motivation for this last year, because I read a lot of these and found a lot of repetition. (Or…sometimes there would be something interesting in a book that just didn’t quite work.) Buuut I still have some of the books I’d collected from that attempt around and, well, at least this one is an Aladdin retelling, so that’s something else?

The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury

This cover is decent. The model is lovely and the colour scheme is nice and mysterious, but I feel like the font and its various alignments & the figure drawing our attention to the bottom just don’t exactly work in the composition. I don’t know. It throws me off.

The Forbidden Wish

The Forbidden Wish is an Aladdin retelling from the perspective of the jinni, Zahra, who happens in this retelling to be female. If you can’t tell where it’s going based on that one sentence, then…okay, not all of us have read one million YA novels. But yeah. That’s where it’s going.

In any case, this book is somewhat original on the merits of the premise: what is the mind of a thousands-year-old mythical creature like? What are its dreams and motivations? How does it go about fulfilling them within the constraints of being enslaved by a lamp?

Unfortunately, the answers this book gives are not all that interesting. Zahra spends relatively little time scheming to be free and having her own agenda, and much of the book feeling embittered than jinn are forbidden to love. This book is very heavily a romance, and not that interesting of one? It tells us how charming Aladdin is, but won’t linger in scenes of dialogue between him and the jinni; it prefers to tell us how they’re heating up together rather than show us their tension.

It also tells us that Zahra is drawn to him but conflicted because she must work towards her freedom, but we don’t really…spend much time with her trying to work towards her freedom. And it tells us that jinn are this feared group of different types of monsters, but doesn’t do much worldbuilding on that account, making it difficult to understand how fearsome they are to humans (other than in the case of the king of them, who destroys whole cities on a whim and disdains humans but…can’t always do this? doesn’t always do this because he’s lazy?) and what our lamp-friend’s place is among them.

It does tell a relatively compelling backstory about a friend Zahra once had and how that situation came to ruin, which was honestly more interesting to me than the main narrative and I could’ve stood to learn more about? But other than that and how Zahra came to be a jinni (she has an origin story), it’s as if her entire past is a blank, and we really don’t get to know what makes her tick or particularly special, or why she’s so compelled to be kind to humans or why others never show that kind of kindness.

More or less: this is the kind of book that has a really neat premise on many levels (the setting, the hierarchy of monsters, the different perspective character, the twist on the story we know), but it falls flat because it doesn’t really fill in many of its own blanks, and it gives us a fairly big cast of characters who we don’t get to know much about. I could also call it short, but honestly, it’s not very short. It’s just short in terms of covering the territory it would need to do get me invested in its emotional moments, or short because it prefers to tell me what happened rather than show it.

This is the kind of book I really wanted to like, and saw a lot of potential in, but ultimately read for a few hours and ended up going “Huh, well that’s that” because it turned out kind of just bland? Which is too bad. If you’re really attached to Aladdin as a story and the idea of this spin on the romance of it excites you, you might have fun with it anyway (and it’s not a very long book to invest time in). But if you are a fanfic reader who has read many characters and story patterns rewritten in a billion different ways, my guess is you’d take one skim of this and think, “There’s probably a better version of this somewhere on the Internet.”

Overall: 


Welp, I’ve asked before, but I’ll ask again: what are your favourite fairy tale retellings? Or: what are your favourite fairy tales? (I’m partial to the tinderbox one with all the enormous dogs, although really it’s kind of horrible. I just really like enormous dogs.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Review: Everless by Sara Holland

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

I saw a bunch of hype around for this recent release, Everless, and although it hadn’t really previously been on my radar, I decided to pick it up since it was on sale. And since it was recent, I figured I’d try to be hip and/or with it by getting to it right away.

So let’s talk about that, shall we?

Everless by Sara Holland

A lot of people dig this cover. (My partner actually stopped to comment that it looked pretty cool.) I find it medium. I feel like it’s kind of busy, especially with the background black appearing somewhat brocaded in real life and with that addition of the cheesy text tagline, but like, subjective taste is also a thing (I tend to like simple covers) and this clearly captures what’s going on in the book, so props for that.

Everless

This book is like that flop movie where everyone pays for stuff with time from their own lives, only instead of being a dystopian future thing, it’s more of a fantasy setting. Our main character, Jules, is very poor and is worried about her father, who has been selling off all his time to pay their rent, so she heads off to work at the palace, Everless, even though that’s where they ran away from years ago.

This book has an interesting and shudder-y premise, which I would credit more if it weren’t an idea that’s been done already, but yeah. The imagery of people going to the time lender to have their blood (and years of their lives) extracted to turn into blood iron and exchange it for rent and food, well. It’s kind of horrific. The author does well to drive home how horrifying the excesses of the rich are and how much the poor have to go through just to live (for a very limited amount of time).

Buuut this book is just not as full of twists as it thinks it is, from my perspective. It heavily foregrounds from the first that the protagonist will turn out to have some relevant chosen one-ness (I mean, the cover also does that, so not a spoiler), and it really takes the whole book to get to what’s up with that, which is kind of tiring. Maybe it’s the kind of mystery I should care about, but like…it’s obvious from the jump that she’s important and what kind of power she may have, and most of why she doesn’t know why that is has to do with people just not communicating with one another for reasons unknown. At least two people who care about Jules just don’t tell her a dang thing and she’s the one with the most at stake, so it feels pretty tiring to wait for the info and for Jules to get to do some stuff.

Some people are into this book because the heroes and villains aren’t who Jules initially expects them to be, but I feel like Jules is pretty dang bad at processing information, to be honest. (She’s observant enough to see the details readers can pick up on to suspect something different, but she never makes anything of them.) As a reader, you will be given all the clues you need to figure out most of the people who are going to be not exactly as expected. (There is one instance that surprised me, but not…a lot?) This is maybe a problem of being genre-savvy, so I will admit to that. But because I was also slogging through this book waiting for Jules to encounter and understand her chosen-one-ness, it also felt like a slog when the book told me, “This guy is actually more good/bad/important than you think!” and then made me wait the entire book for Jules to realize it and for the relevant character to come out with why.

This is also a book where we don’t really get to know most characters beyond Jules, because she has about two scenes speaking to each named character who isn’t her, and the rest of what we know is what Jules tells us/thinks about them, which is obviously unreliable because of aforementioned lack of info-processing. (Also people just kept stuff from Jules or lied to her, so yes.) So we have to lean on how invested we are in Jules and her quest to figure out the secrets of her life, and honestly, Jules is a pretty nondescript character. She cares about her dad. She’s mostly nice and sympathetic to other people and grossed out by the excesses of the rich in a world where many are poor. She sometimes says or does something reckless. She has a crush on a nice, cute guy from her childhood. She has a lot of the most generic qualities of a YA heroine without the more specific qualities of a good one: no particular interests, long-term dreams, particular skills, ways of interacting socially…I don’t really know her, and as a result, it’s hard to get particularly emotional about anything going on? She’s really the reader conduit to Care About Stuff since every other character is so sparse, but I couldn’t get a grasp on who she was enough to get invested.

I mean, tl;dr this book was…basically a mystery book where the mystery was kind of obvious in the broad strokes (who was involved) and then sometimes indecipherable in the details (what’s actually going on), and it was hard to invest in it because I already knew the “endgame” for the main character, more or less, but I also wasn’t too invested in the main character and what would happen around her?

I think normally I would’ve considered this middling YA—a strong potential premise/setting with some issues with the way it created conflict and with character development—but ultimately, giving me so little reason to care about anyone left it in a less-than-that category. This might be for some people who like when books are mysterious and don’t mind when things are still a little hazy by the end and who like more-unique fantasy premises? For people who are more patient than I am and less interested in character, for sure.

Overall:


Have any hyped-up books let you down lately? Are there any books you’ve read where you thought a lot of the “twists” came off as obvious and you got a little tired waiting for them to happen? Am I just incredibly harsh? (Probably.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Review: Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

This week, I managed to pick up another recent pub from a young adult author based in Canada, which has been an ongoing goal of mine. (Not a lot of prominent Canadians in YA for me to read, I’m afraid.) How did it go? Let’s talk about it.

Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra

The cover is reasonably sweet and depicts something important from the book. A good start.

Markswoman

Kyra is a Markswoman, a woman from an order sworn to bring peace to their area by performing executions of those guilty of great sin. She has trained from a young age for this duty, and she is bonded to the telepathic blade she wields to do her work. But her conviction isn’t as deep as it should be, given the shadows of her difficult past. Can she overcome her inner darkness to do what is right?

Y’all, let me start off by saying I am very conflicted about this book. On one hand, it is very imaginative, with a world that seems both futuristic and past-y and fantasy at once. (Think some kind of “if ancient aliens had actually happened but then left and everyone relies on weird ancient technology and mystical hitmen” scenario.) This world is cool, the premise of hanging out among an order of women who train to kill with their intelligent blades and their telepathic powers is sweet, and it’s always fun to occupy a fantasy world that isn’t all kings and castles and very Western Europe. I want to know its history, from the broad strokes down to the very personal interplays between the different orders and their internal politics. Heck, I want to know what these people are farming and about their economics. They live in a world where you can travel through slowly-breaking-down teleport doors. There are guns that are malevolently evil and talk to your mind. How does that affect…everything? It feels like the author has a lot more planned to reveal how all of that works, so it makes it all seem pretty fascinating. I dig that a lot.

But like, the actual book beyond the setting, you guys. The plot of it is in some ways so rapid fire and in some ways so slow-paced and also so full of tropes it’s kind of tiresome. On the quick end: There’s instalove, there are a couple blink-and-you’ll-miss it training montages where the protagonist learns enough to have a huge impact on the narrative, there’s a weird incident of violation that’s brushing too close to sexual assault for comfort that of course quickly blows over (is even treated as forgivable by a protagonist?! WHY) and is just another quick plot point, and so on. The main protagonist is really close with three people and has a couple of rivals, but we get one or two real moments each between her and each of these people, she just…doesn’t really talk to her love interest but then wants to kiss him. I mean, whatever, you’ve lived your whole life only with other women and you’re straight, sure, teen life in my experience (I thought I was straight then, for a minute), but it’s hard to get behind ships when the people have no compelling reason beyond hormones to be so drawn to each other. Basically, it’s very hard to get invested in any of these relationships.

But on the slow side, we get to read a lot about what a sandstorm (even one of no real consequence) is like, about an early conflict Kyra’s there for that seems to have no impact in this book, about who teaches which lessons and what traditions people in the nearby village have even when they’re of no importance, and so on. These sometimes feel like details given to be guns that’ll go off later in the narrative, only they don’t. Maybe they will in later books, and I’m not necessarily against detail, but it feels shifty here in an otherwise quick book that skims over a lot of character stuff to spend time on food descriptions or whatnot. Also a protagonist we get as a perspective seems to kind of withhold information from us even when we’re kind of in his mind, which is just frustrating to read and the information comes off as really predictable and I just don’t get why people slow-roll this kind of thing. (Also this is a book with telepathic blades in it, can we please spend more time showing that bond rather than telling the audience how much it sucks to be parted from a blade, okay thanks)

I don’t know, blog friends. I mean, I’m down for a cool world and the promise of more even within a messy shell (The Bone Witch, anyone?), but anything remotely close to sexual assault as a trope really raises my hackles, instalove can become pretty tiresome (maybe it’s just something I have to accept because YA but…no, there are people who write love stories that aren’t this), pacing that is simultaneously rapid fire but then sometimes certain stuff is unnecessary is a little rough, and I like to get to care about the relationships between characters.

I don’t really know how to rate this. The world is really something, I dig the premise, and if it had just played out in a kind of slow or mediocre way, it’d be a definite continue and three stars? (If it had played out with way more speaking to intelligent blades and female friendship moments, it’d definitely be more.)

But this was…otherwise messy, and I’m not sure if I’d continue (certainly not right away and without hesitation, anyway), and I still feel kind of weird about that violation of a female protagonist as a plot point bump. If it hadn’t been such an intriguing world and magic-ish/sci-fi-ish system, this would be more in the one-and-a-half star realm of The Wrath & The Dawn (with its weird consent issues and super messy romance and stated-not-developed relationships between characters and storytelling powers).

Let’s…leave it somewhere nebulously in the middle for now, yeah?


Have you ever loved the setting or premise of a book and had Real Problems with its execution? (I feel like sometimes when I read a whole trilogy I am drowning in the potential the first book showed while the series grinds on to…not deliver. Or there are weird times like this.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Review: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

This book has been on my list to pick up for a while, but the hardcover was proving difficult to get my hands on for a decent price and the reviews of this were so mixed that I waited for the paperback, so here’s my lukewarm take for you.

I don’t always want to commit to something that’s not-so-loved in the blogosphere—after all, I tend to be more critical than most, so why gamble the time, you know?—but the premise of this book (necromancy! zombie brother!) was pretty dang intriguing, and there are some times my taste just wildly varies. So here we are to talk about The Bone Witch.

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

First off: this cover is worth appreciating.

The Bone Witch

The Bone Witch is essentially about, as you might guess, a bone witch. (This might have been part of its appeal to me, since I liked Truthwitch. Give me weirder magic and lay it on me upfront, I guess?)

Tea raises her brother from the dead by accident and finds herself stolen away from her home to train among the asha, the geisha-like witches of this universe, where women are trained to entertain and battle and politic at once. Only unlike those more common witches who control the elements, Tea is a rare Dark asha, the kind tasked with dealing with the horrible beasts who come to plague the land—and, despite this, hated by many for their fearful powers.

I can boil down my feelings on my book pretty quickly, and for once, they’re not about its length! The beauty of this novel is its worldbuilding. The annoying thing about this novel is that it is almost solely worldbuilding.

Okay, to explain further: this book keeps you moving through it by framing the story as a told narrative. A collector of stories has come, bidden by a dream, to a beach littered with bones, where the Bone Witch tells him how it all began, how she came to be here in exile doing unspeakable magic. That does a good job of pushing the narrative forward, because what she is doing and about to do have a sense of foreboding and dire consequence about them, and it does beg the question of how she got to that point. And, come on. It’s just a very cool set-up.

But the thing is, the book never quite catches up to all that. This is basically entirely a set-up novel for the action to come. It establishes the origin stories of Tea’s powers, how she came to train, and so on. It establishes in often elaborate detail the way that asha train, the way they dress, their role in society, and so on. We get some background in the politics and different locales of the world. We get a fair amount of information about how the magic system works (actual magical powers and also why everyone is wearing their heart made of glass on the outside—it’s a thing).

I mean, don’t get me wrong, Tea gets to do some magic in this book, and we get to know a few characters. But these moments of action are brief, and we are mostly told, not shown, how Tea feels about her family and friends. This book falls pretty short on giving us interactions between Tea and the people she has relationships with, which is harsh because they seem like relationships and characters with a lot of potential. All of them seem to have something going on below surface level, even if it’s continually frustrating that we just get told about it and we don’t get to see Tea’s interactions with them and how they feel about each other on page. And Tea is someone I want to root for, even though I’d like to know her a bit better by the end of that many pages from her perspective.

But…despite the slow plot and relatively small amount of time spent on character stuff, I liked the book? I mean, it’s basically 400 pages of set-up, but the world is interesting and feels complex and thought through. I would ideally enjoy seeing these characters interact (for the love of pie please just let these people have some more conversations and moments, the few we get are good but so far between), and as overloaded as this book is on description, the descriptions did feel pretty immersive. (Yes, this book spends ages on asha garments, but I’ve read fantasy before. It is prone to spending ages on whatever the author’s pet thing is to describe.)

(I’m maybe biased in still enjoying this book because there were aspects of this that reminded me of the early half of Kushiel’s Dart, only it never really gets to the part where the other foot drops and all those plot set-ups go off.)

And if all of this seems comparable to Shadow and Bone so far, then yeah, you’re not wrong? I’d say that here, the training aspects feel more thorough, the world and magic systems more complex and immersive, but Tea’s main relationships feel less developed than Alina’s. (Although it was only ever to me Alina’s romances that felt fairly developed, while her friendships and rivalries felt a little shallow. I have my fingers crossed for Tea’s non-romantic relationships, since they feel like they have a lot of potential; I’m pretty meh on her love interests.) That book is also more clearly plot-focused, driving Alina to a “destiny” and, ultimately (from my perspective), a series of predictable events with diminishing returns (and drawn out romantic angst) thereafter, whereas…this book is admittedly messy in terms of why the heck all of this was important and where it’s going, but on the bright side, it feels less predictable?

Basically, that book at a glance is an easier, better-paced read than this one with more action and romance payoff, but this book seems like it could have a higher ceiling in terms of creating a trilogy that steadily improves on what’s basically an unadorned, sometimes dull strong foundation rather than decaying after the strength of its premise. (Keyword seems. I’ve been burned before.)

Aaand all of that said, I’ll rate this how I’ll rate this now—I’m kind of torn on whether it deserves what I’m giving it, but time and the next book will tell if this really worked out. (And if not, hey. At least it had some cool ideas.)

Overall:


So…are there any books most people disliked that you actually enjoy? (I’m not usually the one in this position, hypercritical as I am, but I suspect I will be among not a majority of YA blogs preordering book two of this series.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Review: The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love by Sarvenaz Tash

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

This year, I told myself I would challenge myself to read less books, but longer ones. The problem I have found so far with that is that sometimes, I get really busy and I only feel like I have time to read and review a short book.

Oops. I’ll have to work harder on that next month. (On the bright side, at least I’m keeping up with my number-of-books goal now?)

The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love by Sarvenaz Tash

This is one of those covers that feels like it was created based on the pitch of the book vs. like…the actual content of the book. The details are pretty off? But it is colourful and geeky and it gets at the spirit of it, so there’s that.

The Geek's Guide to Unrequited Love

This is another book along the lines of Queens of Geek, but with only the one protagonist: Graham is headed to New York Comic Con, and he’s determined that now is the time that he can confess his feelings to his best friend, Roxana, only something always keeps getting in the way.

This book has a really typical kind of plot and at first, it does play out really typically. The protagonist pines, he thinks of ridiculous grand gestures to do, and he ends up putting so much pressure on the gesture and the moment that it feels like it would be overwhelming to anyone who doesn’t already “love” him back. And we don’t really get any insight into the mind and character of Roxy, other than the nerdiness that makes Graham love her, so we don’t know how she’ll respond…so it continues on feeling a little eh, because we don’t know if she wants this gesture or if he’s even thought about the way it’ll affect their friendship—and creative partnership (they write a comic together).

But the plot actually diverts in a different way than you’d expect, which was something I appreciated, and the protagonist rolls with it, so I ended up kind of pleasantly surprised by the book rather than feeling an epic eye-roll towards this guy who wouldn’t just use his words. (Some people really need to read some Captain Awkward.)

I still don’t really love its treatment of Roxana, since she has a lot of pressure put on her to be this perfect love interest and we really don’t get to know her outside of that. But it’s something the protagonist kind of acknowledges (that he’s set up a whole narrative in his head, and life isn’t like that), which helps a little? This book is also clearly committed to being a diverse one, which is nice but…doesn’t really do anything in the story, which is kind of too bad. (Also, it’s a book with diverse characters that chooses to focus solely on the white straight male lead, which is fine but not interesting.)

In any case, this is a quick read and I do feel like if it had been more developed, I might have quite liked it? So I’m open to the idea of reading this author again in future. But as is, it introduces quite a big cast of characters (the protagonist, his best friend, their parents and siblings, their other best friends, two people they meet at the con, etc.) and doesn’t really spend much time with any of them. So it’s really just a series of events from the perspective of the protagonist, but at least he turns out to be more likeable than he initially appears? (I kind of can’t stand the rom-com thing where boys/men try to make themselves “deserve” to “get” the girl using a series of grand gestures, but I feel like this book resists that idea in some ways—the gestures fall through and so on.)

This book is an okay quick read if you’re looking for one of those types of geeky contemporary romances; it doesn’t really have the character depth of Queens of Geek, but the conflicts in that book felt so contrived and shoehorned in (and lengthily angsted about by the characters) that I really had trouble enjoying that book as much as others did. I’d still lean towards recommending Geekerella for something pretty dang cute framed around a con, or maybe Eliza and Her Monsters for something with max fandom immersion. (That book made me really interested in the fictional series within it; this one didn’t get that much into it.)

Overall: 


Do you have any favourite fandom romances or other geeky books? Let me know (I’m obviously trying to catch ’em all to choose my starter), and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

This very-buzzed about book was released in the fall of last year, but I accidentally ordered it with a pre-order book and had to wait until now to get into it. So this isn’t much of a hot take or really a blast from the backlist, but given its subject matter, it’s still very relevant.

So let’s get to it!

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

This cover has a simple, clean design that accurately reflects what’s going on in the book. Props to the designer.

Dear Martin

Dear Martin covers some months in the life of Justyce, who is initially arrested for trying to help his on-and-off girlfriend get home on a night she’s drunk, and decides after to start a project where he writes letters to Martin Luther King Jr. to try to grapple with how to deal with racial injustice. He finds himself up against more of it on a day he and his best friend Manny are out for a drive, and they meet up with an off-duty cop.

That much is expressed in the teasers online, although the later situation happens somewhere in the middle of the book, so I was honestly surprised it came up there. (Feels like kind of a spoiler? But it’s a spoiler the book wants you to have ahead, I guess.)

This is the kind of book that’s hard to review because it’s important and expresses useful, currently relevant sentiments, but it isn’t necessarily just…a really good novel. (The Hate U Give made my life easy in this respect by getting there on both counts.)

In any case: the short version of my review for this book is that it was evocative, but really short. Like we’re talking a two-hundred-page-situation short. So what provokes reactions and emotions from the reader is not so much the characters, because you don’t have a lot of time to get to know all of them (and there are a fair amount of them, for a short book: Justyce, his mom, his favourite teacher, his best friend Manny, Manny’s parents, his on-off girlfriend, another love interest, Manny’s other best friend Jared, Jared’s friends, Manny’s cousin, Manny’s cousin’s friends, etc.).

The situations in this book, and how Justyce ruminates on them, are really how you can get sucked into this story. It’s easy to have a gut reaction to Justyce being arrested, to incidents where others express racist views, to conflicts between the characters that leave Justyce feeling isolated, and so on. And that said, it’s a worthwhile story. The injustices Justyce struggles with are real, and his difficulty in coming up with perfect answers to deal with them reflect reality. If this is the way the world is, and he’ll be seen a certain way no matter what he does, then who is Justyce supposed to be? What if there is no justice? How will he live with it?

The book reflects what reads like an almost unavoidable cycle of violence, but it does end hopefully, albeit at a terrible cost. It’s worth reading for the questions that it asks and for the lack of easy answers it gives.

However…yeah, it’s not my favourite reading experience. I enjoyed it and it asks meaningful questions, but it does lack depth. All of the characters are basically defined by their situations because we don’t really get to know them, which feels mildly ironic in a book that grapples with stereotyping. I could still sympathize with them (or hate them) because they were going through a lot that was difficult (or causing the protagonist a lot of grief), but I didn’t connect with them as memorable.

There’s another aspect here that got me to thinking: The instances of racism in this book are very overtly obvious, as if the reader can’t be trusted to be on Justyce and Manny’s side if they were getting upset over anything less. The jerkish white kids in this book aren’t throwing around racist microaggressions—they’re being very straight-up in their awfulness (at one point, a guy dresses up as a member of the KKK as a joke) and they’re acting like anyone reacting to that is being “too sensitive.”

And like…it comes off almost as stretching your suspension of disbelief, even though obviously this stuff happens in real life. But I remember that the strategy of If I Was Your Girl,  for example, was to make the main character so incredibly “palatable” as a trans girl (transitioned via surgery, very feminine, straight, always “passing”) that she would be easy for cis readers to relate to and sympathize with. In some ways, though, that means you’re pitching the book as high school required reading—because the teens who would seek out the novel on their own are already doing it because they’re willing and happy to read about a trans (or in this case, black male) protagonist, and they are ready (or at least mostly willing) to be on that character’s side.

So the people who are the audience of a strategy like that are those being slightly coerced into reading a book, and what you have to hope is to make an argument so strong and clear-cut that even those with entrenched points of view will step outside of their box. That I get and admire to some extent, but then, it leaves less room for nuance, and a lot more room for people who are not as obviously prejudiced to excuse themselves, to not check their privilege.

(Also, the implied audience feels a little strange here, because Justyce’s through-thread of trying to decide what to do and who to be in the face of all this prejudice are very much for the kind of person who faces racism, not the kind of person who needs to read this book and recognize that those injustices exist. Maybe those two strategies are in parallel to try to make this book work for a broader amount of readers, but I think the two strategies don’t exactly mesh.)

Not making awful racist jokes or shooting off slurs or straight-up shooting someone doesn’t mean a person has conquered the internalized racism they’ve been raised with. There’s more to it than that. (I mean, take me with a grain of salt on this whole review as a white person trying to check my own privilege every day.)

But the sentiments in this book—recognizing the cycle of violence, the problems with respectability politics, the prevalence of racial profiling, the very real danger that black male teens face currently—are important, are expressed in an active, easy (and quick) to read way, and can open up a lot of thought and dialogue without being openly teach-y. So the book is a good one to read and I’d recommend it, even if it’s not in my kind of four-star wheelhouse.

Overall:


Are there books that you’d recommend that aren’t necessarily in your favourite style of writing? What makes them valuable and/or important? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Review: The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith

Hello everyone, and welcome back.

Some time after reading Exit, Pursued by a Bear, I committed myself to eventually reading a lot more books about the subject of sexual assault, since I wanted to have a sense of what I’d feel comfortable recommending on the topic. Last year, I read All the Rage (not reviewed, but one of my best fall reads), The Female of the Species (also one of my best of the year), and What We Saw. This time around, I picked up The Way I Used to Be.

The Way I Used to Be

(And this is a content warning that I’m going to talk about sexual assault in this post, although not graphically, and that if you read those books, that content is contained in them, sometimes graphically.)

It’s difficult to qualify these types of books, in some ways, because I haven’t read one yet that doesn’t cover sexual assault and rape in a different and important way. Exit, Pursued by a Bear is about someone who actually has an excellent support network, the kind of book meant to inspire hope, even after something incredibly bleak. All the Rage is about the frustration of not being believed, about living with the hostility of the people who see you as a liar. The Female of the Species is about rape culture generally, but also about how difficult it is to work past the aftermath of assault. (It’s also about murdering rapists, so it’s pretty dark.) What We Saw is also about rape culture and the way that others enable awful behaviours.

These books are different in quality, for sure. Some are just more compelling than others, either in the perspective they choose to take, the amount of time they devote to character development, the subtlety of the delivery of their message, whatever. It’s difficult when I write about this subject to talk about the parts of writing as clearly as I try to for other books, which is maybe why I’ve been waiting to review a lot of these in comparison rather than as individual novels.

The subjects these books cover are important and I do feel that, when this topic is handled with compassion and a sense of responsibility, there’s always going to be someone who needs a specific book and a specific protagonist, even if I think some books are technically better-written than others. Speak is an excellent example of handling this kind of subject well, but maybe Melinda, who finds a way to vent through art, isn’t the protagonist every reader needs. Maybe they need Romy from All the Rage, who wears her makeup like armor, who creates the ritual of her nail polish to protect herself. Maybe they need What We Saw’s Kate, who wasn’t assaulted but needs to learn to challenge the assault-enabling behaviours of the men in her life, who needs to learn who to trust and who to stand up against. Teens are a multitude, and teens who need books about rape and rape culture are varied with different needs and different characters they’ll connect with.

One common thread I do find through a lot of these books is the narrative of the young woman who has been assaulted or who has been surrounded by that environment and who is having a hard time with the idea of physical intimacy. This makes intuitive sense; in a book about rape, people living with the reality of it don’t feel comfortable being physically vulnerable.

The aspect this doesn’t cover is that some survivors of sexual assault trauma actively seek sex and tend towards a different pattern of behaviour, and that’s the reality The Way I Used to Be portrays. Eden feels distrustful, distances others, puts up walls—but she also seeks out sexual encounters, needs to put them behind her meaninglessly like she needs to escape her bed, her home, the way she used to be. She doesn’t seek to make herself unnoticeable, like some, or to take vengeance, like others. She takes on a bad-girl role to try to put the trauma behind her, and she commits to it entirely.

It’s on that merit that I do think that some people will read and connect with this book in a way that they won’t with others, because this brings that unique and somewhat opposing reaction to the table. Eden is a sympathetic character who has been through something awful, but her method of dealing with it involves a lot of destructive coping mechanisms, some of which harm others. And some people will need to read that character, because some people will feel like Eden does and react the way she does, and they shouldn’t feel alone.

That said, regarding the writing of The Way I Used to Be? This book was a bit of a miss for me. It felt like it had a lot of time to develop relationships between Eden and her parents, brother, best friend, and love interest(s), but didn’t really do much but tell us what the status quo of those relationships looked like, so it was hard for it to hit home when those relationships shifted in the book. No one beyond Eden seemed to have significant character development, so I wasn’t particularly moved or surprised (or not surprised) by any of their actions. Sympathizing with Eden and wanting to know how she’d find a way through it carried me through the book, but in some ways, I wonder if that’s only because she was a (fictitious) person who went through awful trauma, not because she was a character I was particularly invested in.

For me, this was one of those books that didn’t spend enough time showing us who its characters were to earn the emotional beats when they fought, made up, fell apart, or came together. But I did feel for Eden, and maybe for someone reading this book, they’ll know exactly how she’s feeling. And for that reason, though I didn’t think this book was anything more than okay to read and messily written, it might still be very important.

So that’s my review for now, and my commitment to continue reading books on this subject because I now think I know that, although I’ll find some books to be “better books” than others, some people will need different books than others do. And I want to be able to point to which is which (and, if I find them, to the books that might be just plain harmful).

If you have any further suggestions, please leave them in the comments. And I’ll be back in my next post with actual star ratings and less heavy subjects.

Review: Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

I’ve been looking forward to this sequel to Scythe for a while. It was one of the books I enjoyed most last year, and it’s hard for me to find a series that I’m stoked to continue with. (I seem to have much better luck with one-shots, whereas most trilogies for me go downhill.)

So how did I feel about this continuation? Well, let’s get to that.

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

This is a pretty good cover, as covers go. I am not yet profound on this subject. I think it evokes the two main characters and it’s got a smooth, futuristic look that kind of suits the world in this series.

Thunderhead

Thunderhead is the follow-up to Scythe, a utopian novel about a world in which humans have figured out the secret to (basic) immortality and have given over the stewardship of society to a benevolent, all-seeing AI called the Thunderhead. However, the one thing the AI doesn’t control is death, which is still necessary to curb population growth—and death is the function of specially trained humans called Scythes.

In Scythe, the two main characters (Rowan and Citra) are recruited by a wise and compassion Scythe to be his apprentices. They end up embroiled at the centre of a Scythe political conflict, between the old guard, who believe their work to be a regrettable act of compassion and mercy, and the new order, who say it should be no shame for Scythes to revel in the dealing of death.

Thunderhead continues that conflict, and there’s not a lot more I can say about it that isn’t spoiler-y, which is kind of the junk part of reviewing sequels. The Thunderhead, as you might imagine, is more important in this novel, and its given its own voice and cares and concerns accordingly, which is interesting and a part I generally liked.

As is Shusterman’s style (in the previous book and that I found in Unwind), this book spirals out from the main characters to include what’s going on with other characters, sometimes characters who seem very insignificant but who might later do something of importance. While I think this worked well in Scythe because all of the outside information we received was necessary (Rowan and Citra were, after all, new to this world and not privy to everything that was going on), in this book, there were times when I felt like there was a lack of focus, and to the book’s detriment. The time we spent getting to know The Thunderhead and one of his most devoted “friends,” so to speak, was worthwhile; the time we spent lurking around some other Scythe characters felt like it had less payoff, and I really wanted Rowan and Citra, at this point, to be more involved in and aware of events.

Rowan and Citra have the potential to be very strong characters, but that’s a potential they had in the first book that wasn’t entirely realized, and it felt not entirely realized here, either. In the first book, they’re people plucked out of mundane existences because they have some small spark that defines them, but it’s not clear exactly the people they’re going to be. By the end of the first book and the start of the second, their approaches to improving the state of Scythedom are clear, but their personalities still feel in some ways indeterminate. And since we travel around to others more in this book, we have a dwindling amount of time we get to spend seeing them interact with others and develop.

(Their relationship with one another also felt fairly shallow here; they didn’t get to spend much time together, but this book also didn’t do much to build on what it was they felt about one another in the wake of the events of the first book.)

However, the plot lurking in this one somewhat behind the scenes was interesting, so maybe this book is mostly suffering from a second book syndrome where the major conflict can’t come to fruition, but also the two main protagonists aren’t spending the book together. The tension between The Thunderhead and the Scythes, the one segment of humanity that it cannot interfere with, seemed like it’ll pay off in book three; it also seems that then, the Tonists will probably be more important, and the conflict that has been largely political and slow-moving in the first two books will come more so to a head.

Also, while this book felt a little slow at times, it does have a pretty splashy and cliffhanger-y ending that does make me want to see what happens next. So it is really likely that I continue with this series.

So that said, I generally enjoyed this book because, as it went on, I still really wanted to know what happened. But I also felt a twinge of repetition, because, having read Unwind, I feel like there are a lot of similar elements across these two series by the author; his style does seem to be to spiral out to more and more characters over time, include some destructive rebels, include some religious fanatics, young protagonists to shake things up, etc. But I don’t know. It would be odd to encounter books within almost the exact same genre by the same author without feeling some stylistic similarities, but I think what I’ve seen in second chances makes me believe that some authors really pivot a lot?

Tl;dr: I had some fun reading this because I wanted to know what happened in this world and situation, but I feel like I had a hard time getting very invested in the main characters, even though they have a lot of potential. (And it wasn’t for lack of pages to develop them; it’s not a short book.) Cool world, interesting plot threads and AI voice, but a bit of a set-up book other than the wild last bunch of chapters.

Overall:


What sequels are you looking forward to in 2018? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon.

Review: The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

I decided to kick off 2018 with some more magical realism and some more Anna-Marie McLemore. I don’t think I liked it more than When the Moon Was Ours, but then, it’s an earlier book than that, so I’ll have to see how I feel about her newer release, Wild Beauty. 

Buuut I’m definitely going to read it. And in any case, let’s talk about this book!

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

This cover is pretty on point, by the way, in terms of capturing some of the imagery in the book. And design-wise, it’s pretty nice. Not the best of the year, but above average. (Maybe I should best-covers in 2018.)

The Weight of Feathers

So this is a magical realism novel and a bit of a Romeo and Juliet situation. Cluck and Lace are from travelling performing families who are bitter rivals and who come to the same town once a year for a blackberry festival. Cluck’s family, the Corbeaus, performs winged, in the trees; Lace’s family, the Palomas, performs in mermaid tails in the water.

The book is about the two falling in love as well as the deep rivalry between the two families, with the backdrop of performing life, deeply superstitious and close-knit families (along with some family jerkwads), and dazzling performances.

There are definitely some common points between this and When the Moon Was Ours. The family histories are secretive and rooted in trauma, the book is largely driven by character arcs and description, and there’s definitely some angst embedded in the protagonists choosing one another.

I found the description here to be stronger than in When the Moon Was Ours in terms of creating vivid imagery of both families’ performances, although a little weaker in terms of establishing the setting of the town, which did turn out to be somewhat important (although less so than it was in When the Moon Was Ours, so overall I feel like the descriptiveness here was just more useful).

But I found the romance in this one somewhat less compelling? It follows a pretty established pattern of mistaken and hidden identities, forbidden romance, and so on. The two characters see the good and beauty in one another, but they seem to do so mostly because they are kind to each other at times when others are cruel; the relationship doesn’t seem to be built on a foundation of who they are so much as a need to feel accepted. It doesn’t feel as if they’ve really gotten to know each other by the time they’re in love? Which is fine and realistic in terms of first-love romance, but doesn’t feel as compelling to root for as when two people clearly fit together.

Sam and Miel in the other book have an established friendship and status quo of interaction before their relationship, and their getting together is more compelling because the barriers they face re: being together are internal and more unique, but a reader can also root for them getting together because it’s already established how good they are for one another.

(Internal conflict in relationships is often just so much more compelling than external forces keeping people apart, generally, because in romances it’s obvious the way the conflict will be overcome in the latter case: the couple will decide to ignore what other people think, say, or do or what happens and will try to be together anyway, probably after a short period of being bitter and missing each other. Getting over internal conflict can have more varied solutions, I think.)

Aaaanyway, that huge rant aside? This was a book I enjoyed, but I’m not sure I got to know the characters beyond Cluck and Lace well enough to become really embroiled in all of their drama. This was the kind of book that felt like an ensemble cast kind of story, but stayed very much with its protagonists at all times. And Cluck and Lace were likable enough as characters, but their dreams and personalities felt a bit vague?

This author has some definite strengths in terms of lyrical and flowing writing and a sense of magic that’s never explained but never really goes over the top, and I appreciate the diverse characters she writes and the values of her protagonists. I think she definitely improved from book one to two, though, except in that I think the descriptions of performances in this one really outstripped the descriptions of most things in the second book in terms of being much more concrete.

Overall:


Do you usually find that you enjoy an author’s second book more than their first? Or are there cases where you love the author’s earlier work and not so much their newer novels? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Second Chances: December 2017 Edition

Hello everyone, and welcome back to another second chances post! For the idea behind this, check out the first post. Or, the quick run-down: this is the post series where I try authors out another time when I wasn’t sold on the first (or last) book I read from them. And that might seem like a silly idea, but it actually works out well sometimes, which is why I keep doing it!

In any case: here are the authors I gave another shot over the past couple of months (and the books I read). Let’s get to it!

Warcross by Marie Lu

WarcrossWarcross is a semi-futuristic sci-fi where everyone plays a game that’s kind of a cross between an MMORPG and Pokémon Go, and the protagonist of the book gets recruited for her ability to hack it.

I actually wrote a full review of it, so you can check that out if you’re interested. More or less, though, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding and setting aspects and was less sold on the rest of the book. I wanted to spend more time getting to know the mechanics of the game and seeing why the protagonist, Emika, was so special in what she could do with it.

Emika kind of comes off as a wish fulfillment, cool-and-good-at-everything-relevant kind of character (especially since we get told and not shown, at points, how she does what she does), and the plot was fairly predictable. Still, I had a lot more fun with this than Legend,  which I kind of slogged through and thought was a very typical-to-form dystopian without much standing out to cling to. I could see myself reading the sequel to this book.

(I might also not, depending on what’s coming out over the next year, but it’s likely I will if the reviews are good. And in any case, Marie Lu’s stock has risen with me.)

What Light by Jay Asher

What LightIt took a deep breath and a lot of self-convincing to take this second chance on Jay Asher, because I really don’t like Thirteen Reasons Why and I’ve had awkward luck with Christmas-themed books and stories, so.

Anyway: What Light is about a girl whose family moves south to sell Christmas trees every December, and while she’s down there working, she meets a mysterious cute boy with a bad reputation. Can you guess what happens? Yes, probably. That’s not what makes this book bad; a lot of contemporary romance is like that, of course.

But…this is more or less a not-great romance that is cheesy, kind of boring, and builds up conflict that’s not really conflict. The friend character is just there to provide relationship advice; parents are just there to provide ineffectual relationship impediments, etc. Even the Christmas tree lot setting kind of loses its romance, and people in this book don’t seem to understand what a mocha is. (They keep making hot chocolate and stirring it with a candy cane and calling it a cheap peppermint mocha. Dude, that’s a peppermint hot chocolate. Know your beverage.)

I honestly just stuck with it because I had already started reading it and I wanted to be able to write about it for second chances, but I feel especially confident in saying that this book is not worth your time. Although yeah, stir your hot chocolate with a candy cane. That is tasty. (Still not a mocha.)

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

RenegadesI didn’t hate the Lunar Chronicles series, but I didn’t really dig it, either? The cultural appropriation aspects in the Cinder parts of the story were awkward, and I feel like it suffered from a kind of character bloat, where more and more people were introduced and it felt like the narrative lost sight of the people who were originally at its centre. (Also, as it introduced more and more people, we still just had all straight people pairing off, which can get pretty tiresome.)

I figured I might get along better with Renegades, because it just takes place in a comic-book-like city, some people in it are not straight (hurray!), and I was hoping it’d be a more focused story. It’s also a different genre outing, generally: it’s more of a comic-type “prodigy” (mutant) heroes and villains story.

Honestly, though, I was more interested reading Cinder than I was reading this. First of all, this book is too long. (Is this a first?) For what happens in it, it kind of drags and feels a lot like a long set-up. Second of all, it very much cleaves to a plot we already know, a sort of Magneto vs. the X-Men conundrum, with the somewhat-twist that the X-Men here can be a little drunk on power and the Magneto-team wants regular people to do stuff for themselves rather than rely on superheroes. The powers some of the characters had were pretty fun and imaginative, but I was also bored by the characters because we got to know them to such a tiny extent in such a long book. (Basically just their key tragic backstories.)

Like I don’t really know what actually took so long in this book: it’s kind of a typical two-character perspectives, not-that-interesting romance plot with one person infiltrating the enemy and another keeping a secret from all of their friends, plus three villain-hero encounters and a lot of characters introduced with very little fanfare.

Anyway, not really for me, which is a shame, because I wanted to like this author; she started as a fanfic author and…didn’t just publish her fanfiction, which I admire. But yeah. This book is not really for me.


Welp, I had pretty good luck with this in my last round, but not so much here. Still, I enjoy doing this series, so I’ll find my way back to some more authors I had bad luck with in 2018, I’m sure. (I’m not actually sure who they’ll be yet, but I am looking forward to putting together that list.)

Have you retried any authors lately? How was your luck? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!