Little and Lion (Book Review)

little and lionLittle and Lion by Brandy Colbert has gotten enough good reviews that I read it even though, left to judge entirely from the cover and synopsis, I probably would have skipped it. The title is a little off-putting (I don’t like cheesy nicknames) and Nicola Yoon provides the accolade on the cover (I was hugely disappointed by Everything, Everything; I do not get the hype). Still, I’d heard enough good things that I figured I’d read Little and Lion anyway. I’m so glad I did, because it’s delightful.

What’s it about?

Even though Suzette and Lionel aren’t technically related—their parents aren’t married, but they’re in a long-term relationship—you’d be hard-pressed to find a closer sibling pair. They’re there for each other always, even when it’s unclear how to be there, like when Lionel’s behavior becomes erratic. Suzette goes against his wishes by telling their parents, and as a result Lionel is diagnosed bipolar and Suzette is sent to boarding school on the east coast. When she comes back for the summer, Suzette doesn’t know how to act around her brother, especially when he goes off his medication.

What’d I think?

Little and Lion, at its heart, is about a pair of siblings who are struggling to understand themselves and rediscover their bond in the midst of intense change and uncertainty. Even though the novel takes place during a rough spot in their relationship, it’s impossible to question their closeness and devotion to each other. Suzette’s love and concern for Lionel is apparent in every line of narration, and her fear for him and her confusion at their new, uneasy dynamic is in turn heartbreaking and inspiring.

Even though the protagonists’ social life outside their family is very present, Little and Lion is very much a story of family. Suzette and Lionel have one of the best, most functional fictional families out there. They’re by no means a typical family: despite having been together for forever, Saul and Nadine—Lionel’s dad and Suzette’s mom—aren’t married, and they don’t plan to be. They’ve both done it before, and have decided mutually that it’s not for them. But they’ve done other things to prove how permanent the relationship is. They all live together, and Suzette and Nadine both converted to Judaism for Saul. They’re also a mixed race family: the girls are black, the guys white. They’re also—and this is rare for YA—very present in each other’s lives. There is no absentee parenting going on here. Saul and Nadine are loving and understanding of their children, whatever comes, whether it’s Lionel’s bipolar disorder, Suzette’s confusion with her sexuality, or anything in between, but they are still parents. They discipline. They have expectations. They worry. They’re not necessarily the focus of the novel as individuals, but as members of the core family, they’re absolutely essential.

The cover flap summary of Little and Lion emphasizes its love triangle aspect, but I don’t think it’s particularly fair to present the novel that way. I understand that love triangles are marketable, which is probably why it’s mentioned, but it’s not a run-of-the-mill who-will-she-choose triangle. Yes, Suzette has a crush on Lionel’s new girlfriend despite the fact that she has a new maybe-boyfriend. Competing for the girl is not the point. Choosing between her love interests is not the point. Suzette’s feelings for Rafaela are much more about Suzette and about Lionel than they are about Rafaela.

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Less (Book Review)

lessAndrew Sean Greer’s novel Less won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year, so I’ve been meaning to read it for a while. Unfortunately, I built up too much hype in my head for it, because now that I’ve read it, I have to say… I’m underwhelmed.

What’s it about?

Arthur Less is a relatively unknown writer. Although he’s written a handful of decent books, he’s known more for his youthful love affair with an older, famous poet. Although Less doesn’t like to trade on his relationship with Robert, he accepts invitations to speak about it when doing so gives him the opportunity to leave the country at a fortuitous time. Less books himself a tightly-scheduled foreign tour to distract himself from two things that are weighing heavily on him: he’s about to turn fifty, and perhaps more importantly, his younger ex-boyfriend Freddy is getting married.

What’d I think?

All the accolades on the cover acclaim Less for its humor, which strikes me as odd. If I hadn’t seen promises that the novel would be “deftly” and “endearingly funny”, and have me “doubled over in laughter” every time I opened the cover, I honestly wouldn’t have realized that this is a book meant to make me laugh. For me, Less in no way works as a comedy. It’s decent enough as a story about a midlife crisis, but funny? No way. There is the occasional instance of cringe humor—Less is pretty awkward—but the same gags repeat multiple times. If I didn’t think Less’ clumsy German was funny the first time, I’m unlikely to laugh about it when it comes up again.

Less’ best known novel is a gay retelling of the Odyssey, and in a sense, that’s what Less is; Less travels the world in attempt to find himself. He’s not finding the literal home that Odysseus seeks, instead questing for a home within himself. He has to rediscover himself post-fifty and find a way to feel at home in his own skin. He’s not physically traveling towards anything, but he is traveling metaphorically. The triple layer of Odysseys is the novel’s greatest strength, and when Greer’s focus is on Less’ struggles and failures as a writer–especially in comparison with his more famous and more talented peers–the novel hits its stride.

There’re some interesting and affecting storylines. Less is nearly fifty, and he’s terrified that the best part of his life is over, and that he wasted his youth. He’s also struggling to figure out who he is; he’s a part of what is basically the first generation of gay men who have survived to his age. The AIDS epidemic devastated the generation before, leaving Less and his contemporaries without queer role models. The struggle to transition out of youth is the strongest element in Less, but it’s lost under what I initially thought was bad writing but now think is probably just humor that didn’t land. I wish that Greer had focused more attention on what it means to be young (or old) apart from romantic relationships. Less is always in a relationship, and his relationships are always May-December. As a young man, his boyfriends were always much older. Once he passed middle age, he started taking up with much younger men. Being at different stages of life put pressure on these relationships, but unfortunately Greer focuses more on the romance-wrecking qualities of age than anything else.

I really, really disliked the narration style. The narrator knows Less intimately but for some reason decides to write as if he’s a detached reporter, even going so far as to use his subject’s surname almost exclusively. It’s a deeply uncomfortable disconnect because the tone of the novel is ‘I’m a journalist who just got introduced to this celebrity I’m writing a piece on’ but the content is ‘here’s an in-depth description of exactly what is going through this man’s head, and also—for good measure—a very specific description of his kissing technique and how he is in bed with a lover.’ If the main character of the story had been called “Arthur” instead of “Less,” I might have given this book a whole star back. That’s how much I hate the way it’s written.

The fact that the narrator’s identity is a “mystery” until the very end is also deeply, deeply frustrating. I could tell who it was with literally the first clue, and it wasn’t a ‘hey, maybe it’s…’ guess. I knew with 100% certainty right off the bat and literally never wavered. And why would I? It’s incredibly obvious. The other “surprise” the narrative builds to is equally obvious.

Pretty much the whole book is a meandering narrative that works towards two obvious reveals that are saved until the end by increasingly contrived circumstances. It’s so frustrating. If you’re going to build to a reveal, that reveal has to be worth the build. If the “reveal” is something that’s been obvious from the first chapter, then the rest of the story needs to make up for it. In Less, in my opinion, it doesn’t.

Despite all this, I read Less pretty quickly. It’s a relatively short book and I did find it entertaining, if not actually good.

What’s the verdict?

I expected to love Less, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning gay comedic Odyssey, but it let me down. Even though there are some interesting themes and well-structured meta allusions, the story as a whole never grabbed me. The narration style grated on me from the start and only got worse the deeper I got into the story, and I found it pretty difficult to sympathize with the woe-is-me Arthur Less; it’s clearly intentional, but the corresponding likability did not come through for me; it’s difficult to read a couple hundred pages about a character who is neither likable nor sympathetic, and only occasionally interesting. While the novel is decent enough, I mostly stepped away from it feeling frustrated, especially since it commits the cardinal sin of comedy: it’s simply not funny.


Love, Hate, and Other Filters (Book Review)

love hate and other filtersLove, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed has been on my radar for a while. I can’t remember exactly when or where I first heard of it, so I’m assuming it was someone’s blog. Since one of the primary storylines advertised in the blurb is the protagonist clashing with her parents’ ideas about romance and dating, I let this book languish on the to-read list a little longer than I normally do. Romance isn’t my favorite genre. I have to hear a lot of positivity about a romance before I put it on my list, and even then it’ll move up slowly. Thankfully, this book is not just a romance.

What’s it about?

Maya, an Indian Muslim American, wants to spend her high school years making movies and being free to date the hot football star who is finally paying attention to her. Unfortunately, that’s not the life her parents have in mind for her. To them, moviemaking is a pointless hobby and, though she should have a suitable boy on retainer to marry once she’s become a lawyer or a doctor, kissing is absolutely out of the question. Balancing her own needs with her parents’ expectations is already difficult enough before an apparent terrorist attack hundreds of miles away ignites increased racial  discrimination in their small town and causes her parents to cinch in even more tightly.

What’d I think?

Even though Love, Hate, and Other Filters uses a lot of standard YA romance tropes, it manages to rise above the worst of the genre even before the other elements of the novel kick in. Yes, Maya is an unpopular, somewhat nerdy girl in the middle of a love triangle that includes the most popular guy in the school. Yes, there’s some petty drama with other girls at school. For the most part, though, Ahmed swerves away from the usual founts of teenage angst. I particularly appreciate that the false love interest is actually a really good dude; he’d be a great match for Maya if she were into him, but she isn’t, so they split up with no hard feelings on either side. There’s almost always something definitely wrong with the “wrong guy,” but in this novel gives us a false lead love interest who is kind, funny, and creative without being jealous, clingy, violent or any other negative attribute that characters in his role normally acquire when it’s time for the true love interest to win the day.

Ross you're/your friends
Grammatical side note: I have STRONG feelings about the Oxford comma, so I’m ignoring the fact that the title of this novel is usually written without it.

As the novel progresses, it transforms from a romance to something darker and more complex. When a bombing occurs nearby and a Muslim man—who coincidentally shares Maya’s surname—is identified as a suspect, Maya and her family become the targets of hate crimes. Ahmed does an exceptional job of capturing the fear and frustration Maya suffers in the aftermath of the attack. The racism and suspicion that Maya has to endure for no reason is horrifyingly real, and even though it wasn’t surprising, it was still kind of shocking. Love, Hate, and Other Filters is a romance. It has a cute, cheery cover. It shouldn’t have this ugliness in it. And that’s exactly the point. Maya is a seventeen-year-old girl who just wants to make movies and make it though a conversation with a cute boy without blushing. Just let her live. Without making her a scapegoat for every crime that was or might have been done by someone with brown skin.

The two sides of the story are balanced very well. It’s not just a story about racism any more than it’s just a story about a teenager with a crush on a football player. Everything in this novel feels very real, and despite a few brief passages that hang a neon sign over some of the important messages (Maya’s parents specifically lecture about how acts of terrorism go directly against the Quran, and it’s obvious that the information is intended for the readers, not for Maya) everything is done in a very effective, nuanced way.

Love, Hate, and Other Filters does a great job with a lot of things, but the strength of the book is Maya. She’s a great protagonist. She’s fun, she’s relatable and clever (even if she does have some very questionable taste in pop culture), and she does a great job carrying a novel on her back.

What’s the verdict?

Love, Hate, and Other Filters does an excellent job of balancing its romantic and familial storylines with darker subject matter like racism and violence; it never gets so depressing that it stops being fun to read, and it never gets so upbeat that the reader forgets the realities of the world. Love, Hate, and Other Filters is a perfect book for reluctant romance readers, because it replaces shoehorned drama for real-world issues and reframes itself as a coming-of-age tale with romance sprinkled in. It’s also a great novel for seeing the world through different eyes, as Ahmed does an amazing job of creating her world through Maya’s experiences and perspective.


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The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza (Book Review)

apocalypse of elena mendozaA few weeks ago, I read The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried by Shaun David Hutchinson. I was really impressed by the creativity and good writing, and decided to raid my library for other books by him. The first one I found was The Apocalypse of Eliza Mendoza.

What’s it about?

Elena Mendoza was born of a virgin, and she’s heard voices from inanimate objects her whole life, so she’s always kinda known that some kind of destiny was waiting for her. Still, she doesn’t expect it when her crush Freddie is shot in front of her; one of Elena’s voices tells Elena to save Freddie’s life, so she does. Freddie lives, and the shooter disappears in a column of light. Before long, Elena realizes that the power to heal is not a one-time thing, and it doesn’t come free. For every one person she heals, more are raptured to who-knows-where. As Elena grapples with the morality of her miracle-working, the voices warn her that the world is ending and it’s up to her to save it.

What’d I think?

There is a lot to like about Elena Mendoza. It lives up to my expectations; it is extremely inventive and extremely well-written. Hutchinson has a way of writing about familiar subjects and making them feel new. There is a lot of apocalypse fiction out there, but it is rarely as personal and introspective as it is here. Elena may be a chosen one of sorts, but she has no idea what she’s doing, or even if what’s she’s doing is for the best, and the reader is confused with her. Is she saving the world? Is she dooming it? Who and what are the voices, and can they be trusted? Most heroic protagonists are decisive. Most real people aren’t, and Elena–despite her powers and her origin–feels more like a real person than like a superhero.

The character work overall is excellent. Hutchinson does a great job of making every character nuanced and multi-faceted. Freddie, Elena’s love interest, is layered and—honestly—kind of unlikable. She’s a real person  dealing with her own issues, sometimes badly. Her blue hair and narrative role as the protagonist’s object of affection poise her as one of fiction’s most annoying tropes, but she’s no manic pixie dreamgirl; her relationship with Elena is all about Elena realizing that Freddie is an entirely different person than who Elena imagined her to be. The relationship between them is very much a deconstruction of the manic pixie dreamgirl trope, and it reminds me a bit of John Green’s earlier books.

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The Kiss Quotient (Book Review) ⭐⭐⭐

kiss quotentI’ve heard nothing but good things about Helen Hoang’s debut novel The Kiss Quotient, and I’ve heard a lot about it. The volume and enthusiasm of the reviews I read convinced me to put it on my to-read list even though I’m generally not a big fan of romances. It finally made it to the top of my list after several months, and I liked it fine. It’s not my favorite book ever, but it’s also not my least favorite.

What’s it about?

Stella is an econometrician, and she’s very good at what she does. She’s not as good at social interactions and relationship, though. Pressured by her mother to find a husband and have kids, Stella—who has Asperger’s—decides that the best path forward is to hire an escort to teach her the basics of intimate relationships. Enter Michael, a wannabe designer who has turned to sex work to support his sick mother. Despite his misgivings, Michael agrees to Stella’s terms, and the two enter into a practice relationship that—shocker!—becomes very real.

What’d I think?

The Kiss Quotient is good for what it is. By that, I mean that if you’re a fan of romance and particularly of the fake dating trope, you’ll almost certainly love this novel As a critic of the genre, I found that this novel falls into many of the most common pitfalls. Specifically, it has a romantic hero who isn’t quite as heroic as the narrative would like the reader (and the heroine) to believe.

The biggest problem, both with The Kiss Quotient and with many romances, is the reliance on love at first sight. Literally the whole novel—all 314 pages of it—is dedicated solely to the relationship; surely there’s space to make love develop naturally.

love at first sight romeo + juliet

Stella has sensitivities to smell and touch. She does not like to be touched, and strong smells like perfume repulse her. But for some reason, Michael is exempt from these rules, which makes falling in love a heck of a lot easier.

Stella is obsessed with Michael’s natural scent; she initially thinks it must be a perfume because it smells so good. Scent goes from something that causes physical recoil to something addictive and immensely appealing. Michael has to go slowly with her for about five minutes before she is comfortable with him touching her, but after that it’s like she has no problem with it whatsoever. Touch goes from something to be avoided to something she’s crazed for. She is a woman who tenses up when her own mother hugs her. I don’t care how hot Michael is; it doesn’t make sense that he is so immediately exempt from all of Stella’s particularities.

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Nick and June Were Here (Book Review) ⭐⭐⭐

nick and june were hereI have mixed feelings about Nick and June Were Here by Shalanda Stanley. It’s a pretty standard YA romance in terms of how much I liked versus how much I didn’t like, even though that are elements of the novel (specifically June’s situation) that I haven’t seen elsewhere in fiction. It comes close to being an excellent book, but unfortunately it’s too committed to its central romance to realize that it’s the weakest part of the book.

What’s it about?

Roughly, the novel follows June and her boyfriend Nick. June has started to experience troubling and disorienting mental issues, and she’s afraid that addressing them will derail the future that she’s planned, so she swears Nick (and her best friend Bethany) to secrecy. Nick has his own problems: he’s a car thief and has been since he inherited his incarcerated father’s debt.

What’d I think?

I didn’t like that whoever wrote the cover-flap summary for Nick and June Were Here spoiled it massively. Admittedly there’s not a lot of action in the front half of the novel, but still. June doesn’t get her diagnosis until, like, 2/3 of the way through the novel, and the other significant plot element included in the summary happens after that. Other things happen before that, so there was no need to pack the summary full of major spoilers. My summary may not be particularly good, but it doesn’t give anything away; surely someone whose job it is to write these summaries should be able to do better.

I liked that Stanley takes a mature approach to June’s mental illness. Although the novel never gets bogged down with June’s diagnosis, and June is never reduced to her label, it is still central to the novel and June’s experience. For much of the story, I was afraid that everything was going to get hand-waved with the typical love conquers all baloney, but it doesn’t. June and Nick think that their love will be enough to keep June safe, but it isn’t, and eventually they have to address it.

I didn’t like Nick, but I liked Bethany. Romances are made or broken by their central relationship, and I simply never understood what June sees in Nick. He’s a Bad Boy. He steals cars and also he likes art (because that makes him deeper, or something). Aside from that, he doesn’t have much personality. Yes, I understand that his bad circumstances trapped him in a situation without many options, but still. He’s in and out of juvie. He never shows up to school even when there’s no reason why he can’t. He’s simply not a reliable person for anyone except Benny, the man for whom he steals cars.

He paints blackbirds on June, but that’s it in terms of ‘reasons why June likes Nick.’ His POV chapters failed to make me feel for him, and it was frustrating to see June pin her hopes and dreams on someone who so obviously won’t be there for her. It’s even worse because Bethany is there. Bethany is great. She’s June’s best friend, so close she’s basically a sister. Bethany is always there for June. She’s supportive and fun, and, unlike Nick, she fits into June’s future and never endangers her.

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We Told Six Lies (Book Review)

we told six liesEven though I read it pretty quickly, I was ultimately very disappointed by We Told Six Lies by Victoria Scott. Thrillers, in my opinion, tend to be either very good or very bad and while We Told Six Lies straddled the line up until the end, it ultimately careened off onto the “very bad” side with an exceptionally ill-conceived twist.

What’s it about?

When his girlfriend, Molly, disappears, eighteen-year-old Cobain is made a person of interest. Cobain is a loner with violent and possessive streaks and a history of mental breakdowns, so he is a natural suspect, especially when Molly’s friends come forward to say that Molly had broken up with him shortly before her disappearance. But Cobain insists that he loved Molly, would do nothing to hurt her, and had in fact been planning to run away with her before everything went down.

A quick side note about the nature of mysteries/thrillers.

Thrillers/mysteries are genres dependent on their endings. An amazing mystery that ends sloppily is a sloppy mystery. An otherwise mediocre mystery with a phenomenal, mind-blowing conclusion is likely going to be remembered as great. That’s just how it is. For that reason, it’s very difficult to talk about a mystery/thriller without spoiling the ending at least in general terms. I’m going to put that off as long as possible, but there is going to be a spoilery section at the end of this, and it’s going to contain 99% of why I rated We Told Six Lies so poorly.

What’d I think?

There are a lot of issues with We Told Six Lies. There are minor ones, like the fact that nearly every character has a stupid, artsy name (“Cobain,” “Nixon,” “Jet,” etc.). One or two odd names is fine, but when everyone has one, it’s obvious that they were all named by the same person. But there are also more significant issues, like the fact that the story’s “hero” is disturbingly controlling and toxic. And no, I’m not talking about Molly. Well, I am, because Molly is manipulative and toxic but at least her tendencies are clearly character flaws. But I’m talking about Cobain, because it’s his behavior that keeps me from liking We Told Six Lies.

Make a mental list of every controlling, borderline abusive behavior a guy could have in a relationship.

crowley scroll gif spn
Cobain gets 100%

Chances are, Cobain does everything on your list.

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2019 Quarterly Wrap-Up (Apr-Jun)

It’s hard to believe that we’re already halfway through 2019. Yikes! I’m not on par to meet my reading goals for this year, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t read some great books. I have also, unfortunately, read some less-than-great books. I read more three-star books than usual recently, particularly compared to what I read in the first three months of the year.

For the books that I reviewed in full, I’ve put an excerpt of the most relevant bits of my own review, usually one specific paragraph and one paragraph of wrap-up. Since I read pretty erratically genre-wise, I’ve also indicated roughly what kind of book each entry is. And, yes, I did make up some of the genres.

I’ve been reading…

The Cardturner by Louis Sachar ⭐⭐⭐cardturner

YA contemporary

In his forward, Sachar writes that, “My publisher, my editor, my wife, and my agent all said I was crazy. ‘No one’s going to want to read a book about bridge!’ they told me on more than one occasion.” Sachar’s publisher, editor, wife, and agent were right.

This is not his best book. Although it does occasionally have touches of his usual brilliance, it gets much too caught up in the mechanics of playing bridge. When the plot and the characters are given second billing to a complicated, basically obsolete game with no observable action, the final result is going to be lackluster no matter who writes it. Bridge is never going to make a riveting story. There’s a reason there aren’t many books about it.

sadieSadie by Courtney Summers ⭐⭐⭐

YA thriller

Sadie is actually a decent book, but it never fully grabbed my attention. I think the main problem is that its two storylines are too similar. Instead of using the dual POVs to reveal a wider picture, the novel repeats itself.

Sadie deals with some extremely dark subject matter—abuse, murder, pedophilia, revenge, violence—so it’s not a cheery read. Although the writing is good, as a whole the novel repeats itself too much, and I closed the book feeling unfulfilled by the ending. Thrillers aren’t my genre of choice (though I do like them occasionally), and that may have contributed to my lackluster response to a novel that has so many fans, but in the end Sadie did nothing to win me over. 

Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart ⭐⭐⭐genuine fraud

YA contemporary, mystery, thriller

Genuine Fraud is an experience. I was unsure about the novel at first. When I first started, I had a hard time orienting myself around who the characters were and what exactly was going on. That’s completely intentional. As the story unfolds, I found myself getting sucked deeper and deeper in until I couldn’t put the book down.

Lockhart is a really fun writer. Her books—or, at least, the ones that I’ve read—are bonkers and they make the readers doubt everything they’ve read. There is a lot of reread potential for Genuine Fraud. There’s something very exciting and different about a story that makes a mystery out of what happens at the beginning rather than what happens at the end (or what happens next). It’s not a perfect book—I wish we’d taken one step farther back, because I felt there were still a few gaps that could’ve been filled—but overall I really enjoyed Genuine Fraud and would recommend it to anyone who likes thrillers or mysteries.

The Red Scrolls of Magic by Cassandra Clare and Wesley Chu  ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

red scrolls of magicYA fantasy, lgbtq+, adventure, romance

The Red Scrolls of Magic is a lot of fun. Alec and Magnus are as delightfully quippy and heroic as ever, and while no one would argue that this novel is strictly speaking necessary to the chronology of the Shadowhunter world—it takes place between City of Glass and City of Fallen Angels, and therefore can’t make too many waves without screwing with long-existing continuity—it is a welcome addition to it.

In any case… It’s very fun. It does a great job fleshing out the stories of two of the most popular characters from the universe, and it even manages some quality twists that indicate that, while this book arguably didn’t add anything super new, the next book will. The Red Scrolls of Magic is a kind of vacation book. It invites readers back into the world of Shadowhunters for a more relaxed adventure. There’s some cross-country demon-fighting, but there’s also a lot of romantic breakfasts, makeovers, and photo-ops. Basically, it’s cheesy and lighthearted.

this monstrous thingThis Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee ⭐⭐⭐

retelling, YA fantasy, magical realism, drama

I don’t love This Monstrous Thing as much as I adore Lee’s later work. The characters in this book aren’t as memorable or lovable as those in The Gentleman’s Guide or its sequel. This Monstrous Thing is also tonally darker. It’s a Frankenstein retelling about the monstrousness of humanity and it centers around the resurrection of the dead. None of that exactly screams, “Happy fun times!” Still, it is a very good book.

Mild qualms about Mary Shelley’s historical and literary significance notwithstanding, This Monstrous Thing is an interesting retelling that combines the resurrection and questions of morality from Frankenstein with a multifaceted steampunk world. Though it does not reach the heights of The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and VirtueThis Monstrous Thing is a good example of Mackenzi Lee’s excellent blend of genres and compelling readability.

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá ⭐⭐⭐

superheroes, graphic novel, adventure, fantasy

umbrella academy apocalypse suiteWhile I don’t love Apocalypse Suite as its own entity, I greatly enjoyed reading it and comparing it to the Netflix show, which I do genuinely love. I can absolutely see how the main plot and the characters were mined and transformed into something better. I’m very impressed by whomever read the comics and saw the potential. I wouldn’t have. There are some great ideas and strong concepts in Apocalypse Suite, but the pacing is such that it’s difficult to latch onto anything. I don’t think I’d recommend the comic book to someone who hasn’t seen the show, but it’s fascinating to compare and look at is as a sort of creative process project. I definitely would recommend the show. It takes the best of the comic book, tosses out the worst, and adds a bunch of great characterization, funky music, and humor.

Solitaire by Alice Oseman ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

solitaireYA contemporary, lgbtq+, bildungsroman, drama

What I love most about Oseman’s books is the unflinching way they address their central issues. There are strong convictions, and while the point of the story is not necessarily to make a point, the convictions bleed into the story and are absolutely irremovable. The high stress school environment is essentially poisonous, and the pressure to be normal damages anyone who isn’t “normal.” Without that environment and that pressure, Solitaire would not exist.

I love everything about Solitaire. The writing is great. I fell in love with the characters, who are strong and sad and broken and surprising. The novel is full of twists, harrowing moments, compelling relationships, and a mystery that is enticing if a bit predictable. I think I can safely list Alice Oseman amongst my favorite writers.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens ⭐⭐⭐

where the crawdads singhistorical fiction, mystery, bildungsroman

Author Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who has written several well-regarded nonfiction books, but this is her first novel. Honestly, that tracks. The writing is very good ninety-five percent of the time, and Owens does a particularly good job creating her atmosphere. She shines when she is writing about nature and the ways wildlife interacts with human existence. She’s less adept where humans interact with other humans. Her dialogue is stilted—at times, painfully stilted—and some of her characterizations seem off.

There are some deficiencies in the novel, as in any—namely some unconvincing characterizations and problematic implications—but as a whole Where the Crawdads Sing is an enjoyable bildungsroman with a nice helping of mystery. Anyone who enjoys reading stories with a solid sense of setting should give this one a shot. If—like me—you don’t particularly care for setting or ambience, this is probably not one to race out to read, though it is still diverting.

i hate everyone but you by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin ⭐⭐

i hate everyone but younew adult, romance, bildungsroman, lgbtq+

i hate everyone but you is pretty typical for the story it wants to tell. There aren’t any surprises, which in itself is probably not a surprise. It’s the story of two friends who love each other and hold onto their relationship despite distance and life taking them in different directions.

When I first started i hate everyone but you, I thought I was going to love it. I was immediately taken with Gen and Ava. Their fun, nerdy, quick-paced, relatable dialogue has great chemistry, and I was swept along for the first hundred pages or so. After a while, though, the protagonists and their consistently selfish, stupid romantic decisions started to wear on me; once I stopped loving the two leads, I started to notice the weaknesses in the rest of the novel. This is a cute enough book, and it is a very quick read, but ultimately it disappointed me. Plus, and this is a minor quibble: neither Ava nor Gen hates everyone but the other. Honestly, Gen would probably have fewer problems if she did.

And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness ⭐⭐⭐

and the ocean was our skyretelling, animal story, fable

And the Ocean Was Our Sky defies description. Attempting to describe it makes it sound, honestly, terrible. If I’d known before starting that the book was about a murderous pod of whales intent on seeking the devil, I probably would’ve been like… pass. But in true Patrick Ness fashion, the writing is lyrical without being self-indulgent and the ideas are big enough to prompt a great discussion. I wish I still ran a book club, because this would be a very fun one to write questions for. The characters are perhaps not the most compelling in the literary world, but this is one of the rare cases where that doesn’t really matter. The main player in this book is humanity, not specific people, so it works.

While And the Ocean Was Our Sky is not my favorite of Patrick Ness’ works, it is still a very beautiful book. The writing is violent but affecting—helped along by the gorgeous illustrations—and the huge themes are distilled simply into a deceptively short page-count without losing nuance.

Pulp by Robin Talley ⭐⭐⭐

YA, lgbtq+, historical fiction, contemporarypulp

Pulp does a lot of things well. It strives to be intersectional even during the chapters set in a period where that can’t be expected. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction because there is so rarely diversity, so it is always a pleasant surprise to find queer people and people of color there.

Talley does an excellent job of balancing her protagonists. Whenever a story features multiple perspective characters, there’s the risk that one will lose the reader’s interest. That’s not a problem here. Abby and Janet are equally compelling. Unfortunately, most of the side characters aren’t in the same league. Aside from Abby’s brother, none of the secondary characters seem to have much of an internal life. They’re footnotes in Abby and Janet’s lives, which is okay, but disappointing for a person like me who lives for well-written secondary and tertiary characters.

opposite of alwaysOpposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds ⭐⭐⭐

YA, romance, magical realism, drama

When it comes to contemporary YA writers, there aren’t many better than Becky Albertalli and Angie Thomas. The fact that they both endorsed Justin A. Reynolds’ Opposite of Always was enough for me to give it a shot. Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to those two names. Opposite of Always is cute enough, but it is nowhere in the league of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda or The Hate U Give.

I liked Opposite of Always, but I let myself get overly excited for it. It’s cute. The platonic relationships are done extremely well, and the writing flows well. Unfortunately, those elements can only get you so far in a romance. When the central romance of a romantic novel falls flat, there’s no recovering from it. If I could have liked Jack/Kate a little more, I would have much more positive things to say about this one, but as is I can’t say much more than, “it’s a cute, easy read,” which is as bland a compliment as exists.

weird things customers say in bookstoresWeird Things Customers Say in Bookstores by Jen Campbell ⭐⭐⭐

nonfiction, humor

My mom gave this book to me as a gift a few years ago when I started working my first job, which was at a library. I read it and enjoyed it then, but now that I’m working at Barnes and Noble (aka an actual bookstore) I decided it was the time to reread it. It’s a collection of ridiculous customer encounters, some of which are Campbell’s and some of which are contributors’. They’re hilarious and, in many cases, horrifyingly cringy. That said, I believe that all of them actually happened, because… yep, I’ve met some weird people and had to nod my way through some weird conversations, enough that some of the stories in Weird Things struck me as fairly normal.

abc murdersThe ABC Murders by Agatha Christie ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

classics, mystery

There’s no one quite like Agatha Christie. I read mysteries only rarely, because they’re either really good or really bad and I’ve been burned by too many really bad ones to keep seeking them out. So when I am in the mood for a mystery, I go for Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot. I’ve read The ABC Murders twice now, and I was blown away both times. The misdirection is masterful, and the ending is somehow both shocking and inevitable, which is the sign of an amazing writer.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

JF fantasy, mythology, humor, adventure

percy jacksonRick Riordan is the sassiest writer out there. Percy’s first person POV is hilariously snarky, and it brings ancient Greek mythology—which fascinated me as a child—into the modern day. The modern updates are on point, and the gods and goddesses are just as vain and petty as you could possibly want. The combination of a winning protagonist, familiar mythology, and updated—and surprising!—plot, makes Percy Jackson a winner for people of any age, and if you read through the multiple series, you’ll find that—like Harry Potter—Percy ages convincingly over the course of several years. Riordan’s bookd are also famously inclusive, so if you’re looking for a great fantasy novel that is also very diverse, this is a good choice. 

It had been a while since I read Percy Jackson, and I like to reread my favorites every so often. Sometimes I worry that time will have diluted my love for my childhood favorites, but thankfully that wasn’t the case here. The Lightning Thief is just as funny, compelling, silly, and endearing for me now, as a 25-year-old, as it was a decade ago when I first read it.

Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

ordeal by innocenceclassics, mystery

I very rarely say this, but I actually prefer the miniseries adaptation to the original book in this case. While the novel absolutely grabbed my attention and kept me guessing until the shocking reveal of the murderer, the adaptation breaths life and complexity into a group of one-dimensional suspects and removes many of the (admittedly old) novel’s troubling implications.

I would never say anything bad about Agatha Christie. She’s too good. Her mysteries are too twisty and shocking and tightly-plotted for me to lob any criticism at her. That said, Ordeal by Innocence is that rare adaptation that improves upon the source material. The series adds dimensions to every character  for a much more emotionally evocative story and more plausible motives. While Christie’s ending has the bigger twist, the adaptation better succeeds in engaging its audience’s sympathies.

The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg ⭐⭐⭐

the music of what happensYA contemporary, romance, lgbtq+

A lot of romance stories depend on miscommunication and drama to push the leads apart, but Konigsberg doesn’t bother with that. There’s a lot of drama in The Music of What Happens, but none of it is stupid rom-com drama. Jordan and Max are the kind of couple that the reader actually thinks should and would stay together: they don’t fight about pointless things and they communicate about and work through real problems as a team. Their being a team doesn’t in any way make the drama of the novel boring, because there is plenty of drama outside of the relationship to keep things interesting. It’s refreshing to read a romance about two characters who actually like each other and who come together when things get difficult, rather than breaking up so they can dramatically reunite later.

Overall, I did like The Music of What Happens. I don’t particularly like either capital-D Drama or brainless fluff, so novels like this that successfully straddle the line between earnest and fun tend to be my favorites. Where The Music of What Happens succeeds, it really succeeds, but it does have moments where the writing doesn’t fully support its content. On the whole, though, The Music of What Happens is a great summer read and I’d absolutely recommend it.

99 Percent Mine by Sally Thorne

99 percent minecontemporary romance

99 Percent Mine was published in 2019, but Tom is a male love interest left over from decades ago. He’s painfully old-fashioned, and I don’t mean old-fashioned like ‘holds the door and wants to wait until marriage.’ I mean old fashioned like ‘refuses to let his love interest do anything for the sake of protectiveness and loses his mind with jealousy whenever anyone else so much as looks at her.’ I thought that the world had collectively moved beyond seeing possessiveness as romance, but apparently I’m wrong. Tom made me so uncomfortable throughout the novel because so much of what he does is terrifyingly manipulative and controlling.

For all the flaws in 99 Percent Mine, the writing is good. It focuses on all the wrong things and produces some incredibly disturbing themes, but it is compelling enough to get me through an otherwise painful novel very quickly. This is a weird book to review, because I didn’t actually hate it even though I think it’s terrible and that no one should bother reading it. Like, the whole thing is a trainwreck but at least I wasn’t bored.

My Whole Truth by Mischa Thrace ⭐⭐⭐

my whole truthYA, bildungsroman, drama, lgbtq+

If there is one thing that My Whole Truth does better than anything else, it’s the plot twists. There are new revelations and unexpected developments throughout the novel, and they’re really well done and well spaced. While some of them are easily predictable, some of them hit me completely by surprise despite having been very well set up. It’s this barrage of stunning moments that kept me reading, because I’d tell myself, “Okay, I’ll just read until the fallout from this one settles” until it was 1:30 AM and I hadn’t gone to bed yet.

My Whole Truth is an exceptional book. I flew through it. The writing is tight, the characters are well-developed, and the plot is riveting. That said, it is not a cheerful book, and anyone triggered by assault might want to skip it.

Villette by Charlotte Brönte ⭐⭐⭐

villetteclassics, bildungsroman

This one is just okay. As always, Brönte’s writing is good and there are some great moments (I particularly love when Lucy sarcastically produces a spotless handkerchief to prove that she had not been moved to tears by an emotionally manipulative religious pamphlet), but as a whole it didn’t hook me. It would have benefitted by intertwining the plotlines together better instead of segmenting everything and it probably would’ve been more enjoyable with a hundred or so pages cut off, but it was still fine. It is definitely not one that I’m going to reread (I’ll stick with Jane Eyre), but I am glad that I experienced it once.

handmaid's taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

dystopian, classics

I read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time in college. I don’t remember being particularly affected by it. I liked it fine, but I didn’t think it was great or anything. I wrote a deeply unimpressive essay that miraculously got an A (my past writing is so bad; I sincerely hope that I’m now competent enough that, when I look back at what I’m writing now, I avoid that soul-crushing despair over the lack of quality), but that was the extent of my engagement with it. I reread it in order to run a book club at work. No one showed up for the discussion, but it was a great experience to reread the novel with more maturity. The Handmaid’s Tale is a terrifying book. There’s a reason that people dress up as handmaids while protesting. I wish I could say people exaggerate when they say they see similarities between today’s world and Atwood’s Gilead, but there’s a reason people are saying what they’re saying. This novel is the best worst best kind of horror story, because it is terrifyingly real.

red white and royal blueRed, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston ⭐⭐⭐

new adult, romance, lgbtq+

Every review I’ve read of this book has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about it, so it’s probably just me, but I don’t love the central romance. It’s fine. It’s a little corny, and I’m not as convinced as anyone in the book that it’s a forever love, but whatever. It’s fine. Romances are always a little corny. In general, I tend to be unconvinced by the romantic relationships in stories that are intended primarily as romances (though I do love romantic subplots in other genres), and this is no exception. I rooted for Henry and Alex passively, but the potential of them breaking up or otherwise not ending up together didn’t bother me much. The build-up of their friendship is a lot of fun and I rooted for them before they got together. After they hooked up, my interest in their relationship sagged.

Romance is very hit or miss with me, but Red, White, and Royal Blue is better than the average. It’s cheesy, but it’s hard to find a romance that isn’t cheesy. While I’m not going to join everyone else in recommending this book to everyone I meet, I do think that it’s a great read for Pride Month. There aren’t many royal romance stories about LGBTQ+ folks, and this is a fun, escapist romantic fantasy that also has some cute nerdy moments and interesting reflections on identity. If queer romance is your thing, definitely pick this one up.

The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried by Shaun David Hutchinson ⭐⭐⭐

the past and other things that should stay buriedYA fantasy, magical realism, bildungsroman, lgbtq+

This book is about friendship. Dino and July have a very real relationship. Their friendship is not idealized. They love each other, but they’re not always great for each other. They have their toxic moments, and over the course of the novel they manage to overcome their issues and clear the air. It’s an interesting concept, because Dino and July have to work on a friendship that already has a firm end date on it: July has died, and her current not-dead status is temporary. It makes for a conflicting and emotional storyline; the reader knows that a renewed friendship will only make July’s inevitable loss more painful, but it’s impossible not to hope for it anyway.

It’s always fun to like a book more than you were expecting to. I didn’t know anything about The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried, so I didn’t have any preconceived expectations to fight against. I could just enjoy the ride, so I did. It’s fun and silly but it shows all the messiness of a real relationship. It’s bittersweet and sad at times, disgusting and funny at others. It has a great mix of elements, and I’m definitely going to read more from Shaun David Hutchinson in the future.

the weight of a thousand feathersThe Weight of a Thousand Feathers by Brian Conaghan ⭐⭐⭐

YA contemporary, family drama

The Weight of a Thousand Feathers is an intense book but very affecting and very well-written. It’s a very somber read with great characters, and while the main plot doesn’t have a lot of surprises (thanks a lot, spoilery cover flap!), Conahan does some interesting, atypical things with his B-plots that make this novel a memorable one.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman ⭐⭐⭐

good omensfantasy, mythology, comedy, satire, apocalypse fiction

Good Omens is very funny, and there’s a lot of thematic intelligence hidden beneath the silly cleverness. That being said, in my opinion, the greatest problem with Good Omens the novel is that it doesn’t seem to realize what it has. There’s a reason that every person who talks about Good Omens talks about Aziraphale and Crowley. Those two are the heart and soul of the story, even if they arguably don’t effect the actual plot all that much, but the novel doesn’t seem to realize it. When one or both of them appears (even if it’s just for a paragraph or so), everything works. When they’re absent, the story stalls.

I was surprised as well by how relevant Good Omens still is. Aside from a few in-passing comments, it has aged really well. It was published in 1990, but if I hadn’t looked that up specifically, I wouldn’t have guessed; the most pressing real-world issues in Good Omens are just as important now as they were then.

I’ve been watching…

Good Omens ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


I love reading a book and watching the adaptation. I’m pretty good about being able to accept changes and view different media as separate entities. That being said, I didn’t really have to do that this time, because Good Omens as about as faithful an adaptation as it’s possible to get. Neil Gaiman lovingly adapted his own work, taking full scenes directly from the book and expanding sparingly but skillfully. I actually ended up liking the show better than the book because it is more dialed into the parts of the story that work: instead of hiding Crowley and Aziraphale in an ensemble cast, the show pushes them ever so slightly to the forefront, casts great actors to play them, and lets them gleefully traipse all over Heaven, Hell, and history to highly entertaining effect.

Game of Thrones ⭐⭐

game of thronesYes, Game of Thrones was listed on last quarterly report, but I kept watching it and excitedly viewing each episode as it aired was a big part of April. I wasn’t as disappointed by the last season as a lot of people were–I think that most of the story was on point; it was just missing a lot of groundwork that probably would’ve been there if GRRM didn’t get so far behind the show–but I’m not happy, either. I feel deeply betrayed by Jaime, who has been my second favorite character for a very long time now (he’s behind Sansa), but I’m generally okay with how the rest of it went down. In any case, I’ve enjoyed being up to date, because seeing all the memes the day after was deeply satisfying. There’s nothing quite like seeing the whole world up in arms because Jon didn’t pat his CGI wolf (and, for the record, I was right there with the whole world. Poor Ghost deserves so many boops).

Les Misérables ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

LesMisLogoMy first introduction to Les Misérables was the film version with Hugh Jackman. Mom mom dragged me to the movie theatre with her because, convinced that it would be depressing, I didn’t want to go. I ended up loving the movie. Something about the story really resonates with me. I read the novel almost immediately afterward and loved that as well. I am deeply obsessed with Les Mis. I wrote one of my biggest college essay on the novel. I’ve listened to just about every official cast recording and have very strong opinions about who played which role best. I know all the words to several of the songs, which is a gigantic feat for someone like me with an embarrassingly terrible memory for lyrics. Seeing Les Mis live went on my bucket list about five minutes after leaving the movie theatre back in 2013, and I finally got to do it! My parents took me to see the touring Broadway production when it came near us, and it was just as amazing as I hoped it would be. It was so, so good and I’m so excited that I got to see it! Life goal accomplished.

Good Omens (Book+Show Reviews)

good omensOne of the best things about the Internet is that it makes good recommendations very easy to find. I’ve been writing reviews for Supernatural for a few years now, so when I saw that basically everyone who likes Supernatural is watching Good Omens, I figured I’d give it a try. I usually avoid watching an adaptation before reading the book on which it’s based, but I did it backwards this time (yeah, yeah, I know, all the shame). When I got about halfway through the show, I decided that I should read the book as well since the show is so much fun. Amusingly, after I’d already decided to read the book, I realized that my brother had recommended it to me a few years ago and I guess I ignored him.

To be fair, my brother’s track record for recommending books to me is not great. I barely made it through some of his favorite books. Back when I was in middle school, he recommended Of Mice and Men, which I read and hated. And then I had to read it for school the next year, and I hated it again. When I mentioned this to my brother, he was confused about why he’d even recommended it to me, because he doesn’t even like Of Mice and Men all that much.

In any case, I did it backwards, but now I have both read and watched Good Omens, and I enjoyed both.

What’s it about?

Heaven and Hell are gearing up for war, and with the birth of the Antichrist, it’s only a matter of time before Armageddon arrives. Things don’t go quite to plan, however, because someone lost the Antichrist. Things do still go, however, and the world is all set to end: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are riding and, little though he knows it, the Antichrist is coming into his powers. Good Omens has a dramatic, high-stakes plot, but it isn’t really a dramatic, high-stakes story. It’s the tongue-in-cheek story of a bibliophile angel, an optimistic demon, a professional descendent, a stodgy old witchfinder, and a young boy all trying to make things work in a world that unfortunately happens to be ending.

What’d I think (of the book)?

hitchhiker's guide to the galaxyMy first impression of Good Omens is that the style is highly reminiscent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. They have the same sort of irreverent narrator who fills in the story with bizarre in-universe facts and quippy asides. I have always preferred fantasy and mythology to science fiction, and that is in large part why I prefer Good Omens to Hitchhiker’s Guide, though I’d be very surprised if there aren’t a lot of crossover fans. It’s certainly not a new comparison: in his afterward, Neil Gaiman compares Terry Pratchett to Douglas Adams and even my sister (who has not read Hitchhiker’s Guide, though she has seen the movie) clocked the similarities.

But whereas the often off-the-wall writing is Hitchhiker’s Guide’s greatest strength, it’s a bit of a distraction in Good Omens. I don’t mean to say that the writing isn’t good. It absolutely is. It’s very funny, and there’s a lot of thematic intelligence hidden beneath the silly cleverness. That being said, in my opinion, the greatest problem with Good Omens the novel is that it doesn’t seem to realize what it has. There’s a reason that every person who talks about Good Omens talks about Aziraphale and Crowley. Those two are the heart and soul of the story, but the novel doesn’t seem to realize it. When one or both of them appears (even if it’s just for a paragraph or so), everything works. When they’re absent, the story stalls. The other characters don’t have the same spark of life, so when the narrator gets off on a tangent about a group of human bikers who want to become apocalyptic horsemen who can’t pick out scary enough names… it’s a little hard to care, even if the writing is funny. When the writing is used to prop up the best parts of the story, it works. When it’s used to flesh out the less interesting and relevant bits, all it does is make those parts—which already aren’t working as well—longer.

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