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 ⭐⭐⭐
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.
Sadie by Courtney Summers ⭐⭐⭐
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 ⭐⭐⭐⭐
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 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
YA 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 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 Virtue, This 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
While 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 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
YA 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 ⭐⭐⭐
historical 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 ⭐⭐
new 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 ⭐⭐⭐⭐
retelling, 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, contemporary
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 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 Bookstores by Jen Campbell ⭐⭐⭐⭐
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.
The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
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
Rick 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 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
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 ⭐⭐⭐⭐
YA 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 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 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
YA, 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 ⭐⭐⭐
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.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
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 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 ⭐⭐⭐⭐
YA 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 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 ⭐⭐⭐⭐
fantasy, 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 ⭐⭐
Yes, 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 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
My 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.