Somehow we’re already 3/4 done with 2009. I have no idea where the time went. Actually, that’s a lie. Most of it went towards reading War and Peace. Really, though. This year has been flying and it’s time for another rundown of what I’ve been reading and watching. I’m still behind on my overall reading goal, but at least I read better books this quarter than I did last (last quarter was kind of a bummer). I unfortunately still read a lot of books that were, for me, one or two stars; thankfully I rounded those out with some rereads of old favorites.
I’ve been reading…
We Told Six Lies by Victoria Scott ⭐
We Told Six Lies is like a young adult version of Gone Girl, except without Gone Girl‘s nuance. It centers around a deeply codependent, toxic relationship that it ultimately seems to romanticize. The characters are deeply unlikable, but without the interesting complexity required to make readers care about them. An ill-advised final twist squanders any limited goodwill the reader might’ve managed to scrounge up, and the result is that I’ll probably forget this book entirely except to retain a lingering sense of disappointment.
Nick and June Were Here by Shalanda Stanley ⭐⭐⭐
Nick and June Were Here is the sort of book that is almost really good. The writing is excellent, and June is a very well developed, interesting character. Unfortunately, the novel falls into a common trap for romances: its romance is its least interesting aspect. There are so many storylines in Nick and June Were Here that warrant more exploration (June’s relationship with her new diagnosis, Nick’s brother’s discharge from the military, June and Bethany’s plans for after high school, Nick’s family dynamic, etc). If I were to rank every plotline in this book by my level of interest in them, Nick and June’s romance would come dead last, because it’s just dysfunctional enough to be troubling and just typical enough to be boring. Overall, Nick and June is a decent book, but it’s probably not one that I’m going to remember having read.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
JF fantasy, mythology, adventure, humor
What can I say about Percy Jackson that hasn’t been said a million times? It’s hilarious. It’s sassy. It’s one of the best fantasy series out there, and I spend half my life talking about it. That’s an exaggeration, but not a huge one. I work at Barnes and Noble, and I talk to a lot of moms trying to find books for reluctant readers, and Percy Jackson is one of the best ones for that. I have met so many kids who hated reading before they found Percy, or who claim that they hate reading except when they’re reading Percy. This series is so consistantly funny and exciting that I had a blast rereading Sea of Monsters even though I’ve read it a lot and I’m no longer “young reader.” There’s a reason I own a Camp Half-Blood t-shirt and once threw my sister a Percy Jackson birthday party. You can’t go wrong with Rick Riordan.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang ⭐⭐⭐
I liked The Kiss Quotient about as much as could be expected. Traditional romances don’t particularly appeal to me, but I read this one because it got such good reviews and promised to deviate from some of the more insidious romantic tropes. It does deviate some, but not as much as I suspect it intended to. While I think it’d be difficult to find a romance fan who wouldn’t like The Kiss Quotient, it’s not for me. I didn’t care for the subtly controlling male love interest, and I felt that the central relationship relied too heavily on physical attraction, sex, and love-at-first-sight. That being said, it’s still an entertaining, quick read with breezy writing and an atypical heroine who is a welcome change in an often homogenous genre.
The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson ⭐⭐⭐⭐
YA, fantasy, apocalyptic, LGBTQ+
Shaun David Hutchinson is an excellent writer with big ideas. The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza is a high concept novel that forces its readers to grapple with questions of faith and morality along with its protagonists. The intense internal focus makes this a story that stands out amongst the many end-of-the-world narratives. It’s populated with extremely well-written characters who break stereotypes and feel extremely real, and who are so compelling that they mostly make up for the fact that the novel is so hyper-focused on asking difficult question that it offers few answers.
Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed ⭐⭐⭐⭐
YA romance, bildungsroman
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. It’s 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.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer ⭐⭐
romance, LGBTQ+, comedy
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.
Naturally Tan by Tan France ⭐⭐⭐⭐
memoir, LGBTQ+, television
Tan France’s memoir Naturally Tan is a fun, light read, full of funny anecdotes and fashion advice. It is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from Queer Eye‘s fashion expert, though I suspect he was given a lot more freedom content-wise in his book than he is on the show. While he certainly has a snarky side on the show, it is much more apparent in Naturally Tan. He’s humorously sarcastic throughout and there are lots of anecdotes about racism and the pressure and responsibility to represent the underrepresented in media. Queer Eye fans will love Naturally Tan. Biographies aren’t my usual thing, but I enjoyed this one.
Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
YA contemporary, romance, family drama, LGBTQ+, bildungsroman
I loved Little and Lion. It’s a beautifully written novel full of memorable and richly diverse characters who complement each other wonderfully. Sibling love is rarely the focal point in literature, and it’s a treat when it is, especially when it is done as well as it is here. Lionel and Suzette are a great pair of protagonists whose struggles to grow up in unusual situations intertwine in ways that are heartwarming in their best moments and terrifying in their worst. Brandy Colbert is an immensely talented writer, and I am absolutely going to keep an eye out for anything else she’s written.
Queer Eye: Love Yourself, Love Life by Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Jonathan Van Ness, Bobby Berk, and Karamo Brown ⭐⭐⭐
personal growth, self help, television, LGBTQ+
Like Naturally Tan, this is a book for Queer Eye fans. While I think non-fans might like the former, however, this one is probably for hardcore fans only. It’s full of life advice alongside personal anecdotes and photos. Jonathan’s voice comes through the most, and is quite funny in book form. As much as I’d like to say that reading this has totally overhauled my life and made me a more productive, attractive, happy person… I don’t think it has. Jonathan’s tips, while supposedly simple, seem really daunting to me (I wake up, make my bed, get dressed, do my hair, pack a lunch, and leave home for work in 15 minutes because I like sleeping, and there’s not a lot of pad time in there for skincare). That being said, I’m trying! And I am very organized! And I do occasionally French Tuck.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead ⭐⭐⭐
This book consists almost entirely of unrelenting misery. Obviously any novel that takes place in the aftermath of the Jim Crow laws is going to deal with intense racism and other unpleasant subject matter, but fiction has an obligation to be more than a depiction of historically accurate suffering. That suffering has to be connected to something. A sense of hope. A call to action. Compelling characters. Empathy and understanding for the suffering. Anything. The Nickel Boys just left me feeling hopeless. I’m glad to be done with The Nickel Boys; I struggled to pick it up and jumped at any opportunity to set it down. I had such a hard time struggling through this one that I actually forgot that I like to read. However, I should say that after discussing The Nickel Boys at book club, I retroactively found a lot to like. I definitely hated it while I was reading it, but outside perspective did wonders for me.
The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler ⭐⭐
I speed-read this in literally one hour because I found out I was running an event for it at work and ended up reading it on my break the day of. Thankfully, it’s not long. Unfortunately, it’s also not great. Some young readers’ books absolutely stand up to an adult eye. This isn’t one. While I can see why it would appeal to its intended age range (who doesn’t want to be a mermaid at that age?), the deficiencies in character logic and pacing kept me from getting invested. Emily’s mother can’t stick to a decision for more than twenty seconds (No, you can’t take swim lessons because I’m afraid of water. Oh, now you want to quit? Guess what? I’m very invested in them now. Also, we live on a boat, because that makes sense). Emily’s schoolmates bully her for… being good at swimming? What? Any given character’s behavior depends on what the plot needs, and problems are introduced and solved at breakneck speed. Characters show up and conveniently info-drop every few minutes. All this was convenient for me and my time crunch, but if I’d been reading this at a normal, leisurely pace, I would’ve wanted bigger stakes, more push-and-pull, and more consistency. Lastly, and admittedly this is petty, I cannot remember the name “Windsnap” to save my life. I’ve had to look it up about a hundred times because I keep thinking it is anything from “Windspar” to “Wingstrap.”
At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson ⭐⭐⭐⭐
YA fantasy, romance, LGBTQ+, apocalyptic
Even though I wish there’d been a little more explanation at the end of At the Edge of the Universe, I continue to be impressed by Shaun David Hutchinson’s creativity. He mixes the terrifying fantastical elements of his novels expertly with the more realistic—but never mundane—ones. I love that the real-world issues in At the Edge of the Universe are given as much weight (and, at times, arguably more weight) than the collapse of the universe, both because the real-world issues can be considered in the reader’s own life and because real people worry about their own lives more than the abstract end of the world. Oz is a teenage boy, not a superhero. Of course he cares more about his personal life, his boyfriend, his friends, and his family than he does about a few stars many lightyears away. This is an apocalypse story, but it’s surprisingly grounded. I’m very surprised that I don’t see more people gushing about Shaun David Hutchinson because his books–while similar to each other–are unlike anything written by anyone else.
Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Eva Ibbotson is fabulous. I spent half my childhood reading her books (specifically reading Which Witch? and the equally charming The Secret of Platform 13) and I can’t recommend her work strongly enough to fantasy fans. Which Witch? in particular has a great mix of lighthearted humor and darker, more dramatic material. It’s the fantasy literary equivalent of a dating game show, and it is incredibly fun. It may be intended for children, but that didn’t keep 25-year-old me from loving it as much as I did when I was actually a part of the target audience.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
JF sci-fi/magical realism, adventure
I’m so glad that I reread The Mysterious Benedict Society because it is absolutely as good as I remembered. It’s always a good sign when a novel is as delightful and surprising to me now as it was when I first read it more than a decade ago. Filled with one-of-a-kind characters, legitimately frightening villainy, good-natured humor, and a huge scoop of cleverness, this novel is a treat. It has one of the most hilarious and unexpected twist reveals of all time, and everything before and after it is equally compelling. I had a smile on my face the whole time I read this, and I really wish that more people knew this series because it deserves to have a much bigger audience than it does.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
YA magical realism, bildungsroman, LGBTQ+
I talk about I’ll Give You the Sun all the time on this blog. If you’ve visited me before, you might have noticed that it was my favorite read from 2017 and that I listed it in a Pride Month post about great books with LGBTQ+ characters. I absolutely loved this book when I first read it, so much that when I looked back I thought, “Surely it’s not as good as I remember.” I mean, when I look at the books that it beat back in 2017–Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, A Monster Calls, The Hate U Give, Wonder–it seems impossible that it could’ve been that good. But it absolutely is. It’s so good that I devoured it in a single sitting the second time. There’s a magical undercurrent to the novel that expertly toes the line between real magic and simple belief that gives I’ll Give You the Sun a precariously beautiful tone that wavers right on the edge of what’s believable. It’s a story about art, but it also is art. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that gets to the heart of why art is so important, and the sibling relationship that anchors the novel is heartbreaking. And, of course, the gorgeous writing that brings it all together makes I’ll Give You the Sun the sort of book that no one should miss.
Fan Art by Sarah Tregay ⭐⭐
YA contemporary, fangirls, romance, LGBTQ+
Fan Art is a gay love story facilitated by nerdy lesbian shippers, which sounds like something I’d like. Unfortunately, author Sarah Tregay doesn’t seem to have a firm understanding of either queer issues or fandom; when the whole story hinges on those two things, that’s a problem. I think she meant well, that’s unfortunately not enough. Even though the story has its cute moments and does its best to create a sweet, supportive friendship and romance, as a whole the book has an uncomfortable voyeuristic undertone that was impossible for me to ignore.
Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy ⭐⭐⭐
YA romance, bildugsroman, family drama, LGBTQ+
Julie Murphy is a talented writer who does herself a disservice by writing romances. The love story is a huge part of Ramona Blue, but it’s also the weakest part of an otherwise solid story. Ramona Blue is a great character who fully deserves the honor of having her novel take her name. Watching her chafe against circumstances conspiring to keep her locked in a town too small for her is delightful, and her relationship with her sister is both lovely and frustrating. Ramona Blue might have been a great novel if the focus had been more on Ramona and Hattie, but unfortunately a large swath of it is dedicated to Ramona’s uninspiring boyfriend Freddie, who detracts from the novel by adding nothing to it.
Social Intercourse by Greg Howard ⭐⭐
YA romance, LGBTQ+
Social Intercourse is primarily a hodgepodge of tropes and clichés slapped together in uninspiring ways to create a novel that is somehow both nothing new and actively annoying. For all its good intentions, it pairs tired tropes with dangerous stereotypes and unlikeable characters. Its attempts to be funny end up putting an uncomfortable filter on things that should be viewed with horror or disgust rather than laughter, but it doesn’t seem to be done satirically or for intentional contrast. Because Jax and Beck are placed narratively into heroic roles, the reader is meant to like and sympathize with them and forgive them for their transgressions even though their transgressions are easily bad enough to cast them as the villain in any story that isn’t invested in their happily-ever-afters.
Inland by Téa Obreht ⭐⭐⭐
historical fiction, magical realism
I enjoyed parts of the novel, but others dragged and overall I’d say my reading experience was mostly neutral but overall more negative than positive. Inland is simply not my kind of book. I’ve never liked westerns or survival stories, so a western survival story was never going to be my jam. Still, I did enjoy half the story; when the novel focuses on Nora, I kept reading and wanted to know more. Any time Lurie and his camel took center stage, though, I had to fight against myself to keep from setting the book aside because no matter how much I tried, I could not care about them. It didn’t help that I found the resolution of the novel, when the two storylines finally come together, singularly disappointing. I read 367 pages expecting that, eventually, Lurie’s presence in Inland would be warranted; in my opinion, it never was, and Obreht could have saved her time and mine by scrapping his half entirely. That said, the book club came through for me again. After discussing Inland for two hours, I walked out with a much better appreciation of the novel and of Obreht’s considerable talent as a writer. Discussing books really helps me see the difference between “this was a bad book” and “I did not like this book.”
Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee ⭐⭐⭐
YA, romance, superhero, LGBTQ+, family drama
Despite my criticisms—namely that the concepts are bigger than the writing manages to execute—I really liked Not Your Sidekick. I’d read lots of really positive reviews for the book and had been looking for it for more than a year, so I let my expectations balloon too big. I expected to love this book, and I didn’t. I really liked it, and if I can find the sequels, I’ll read them, but I didn’t love it. Combining superhero fun with post-apocalyptic governmental corruption is an interesting concept, but I wish that Lee had done more to differentiate her world from the real one. That being said, the writing is breezy, the characters are sweet and lovable, and the story is entertaining. Anyone looking for diverse genre fiction should consider giving this one a chance.
Denton Little’s Still Not Dead by Lance Rubin ⭐⭐
YA magial realism
Denton Little’s Still Not Dead lacks the clarity of the novel that came before it, and it suffers for it. While Denton Little’s Deathdate knew exactly what it was—a quirky story about a stupid teenager trying to cheat death long enough to go to prom—Denton Little’s Still Not Dead struggles to find itself. Rubin’s irreverent silliness is his biggest strength, but that feels out of place in a story about protests and government conspiracy. There are a lot of troubling undercurrents, like the fact that a huge percentage of the female characters are only there to fall in love with the hero, but the biggest problem is that the novel tries to set up a bunch of interesting, nuanced conflicts but then takes the easiest way out by ultimately opting not to address them.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy ⭐⭐⭐
classic, family drama
It took me a full month to trudge through War and Peace, a 1308-page monstrosity that alternates between legitimately compelling storytelling and overly long ruminations about fate that read like an exceptionally dry textbook. Even though I did enjoy bits of the novel, on the whole I am happier to have read it than I ever was actually reading it. I have rarely been so relieved to finish something. There are some interesting things in War and Peace, but for better and for worse it is a CLASSIC. I get why people read it, and I get why people like it, but I can’t imagine anyone would want to read it if it weren’t for its reputation as one of the best novels of all time. If it weren’t for the ‘I’m smart and well-read’ status boost that comes with having reading it, I’m not sure it’s entirely worth the 32 days it took to read.
I’ve been watching…
Stranger Things ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Season three of Stranger Things came out, and it was just as great as the two that came before. Stranger Things does a great job of mixing genres. While the genre divides aren’t as clear in season three as they were in previous seasons (in season one, for example, the adults were embroiled in corporate espionage, the kids had a fantasy quest, and the teens operated somewhere between romance and mystery before all coming together), there’s still some excellent play. This show is also consistantly good with character development, and Steve–and his friendship with Dustin–continues to be a highlight.
Stranger Things deserves a lot of credit for the way it introduces its new characters. When an original cast is as strong as this one, a new character can sometimes feel unwelcome and unnecessary. However, every time someone new shows up (most notably Max and Bob in season two, and Robin in season three), they are seamlessly integrated and they quickly become just as interesting as those who were there from the beginning. I love that season three sidestepped the Max+Eleven feud that was teased in season two. Watching girls fight over a guy who is arguably not good enough for either of them (sorry, Mike) is an annoying trope, and letting them be friends instead is way better. I do wish that poor Will had been given something more to do (or that someone would just freaking play D&D with him!), but other than that I thought the new season was great.
Speaking of excellent third seasons of popular Netflix shows… GLOW. This is such a good show. Before I watched it, I really thought it’d be bad. A wrestling show? Really? I’m glad I watched it anyway, because it’s a really well-written show that manages to be extremely funny while tackling some really tough, sensitive material. There’s some absolutely phenomenal character development from lots of different characters, the makeup and costume design is on point, the cast is refreshingly diverse (so many women, including women of color, queer women, and women who aren’t tall and thin!), and it’s simply hilarious. If you haven’t given this one a chance, you absolutely should, even if you think wrestling is gross and pointless. GLOW will change your mind!
Grey’s Anatomy ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I’ve watched Grey’s off and on in the past, I finally caught up when season fifteen landed on Netflix. It’s not the best show ever, but it is deeply addicting and when it’s good, it’s good. It has made some major, major missteps over the years (George and Izzie getting together, Callie and Arizona breaking up, Mark’s death, George’s death, Owen, etc.) and has tried way too hard to get its viewers invested in characters who are major bummers (Derek is a whiny manchild, Jo “I lived in my car” Wilson is annoying, Ben is painfully indecisive, and Owen is… ugh. Owen), but it has some major ups. There are some great storylines and characters (a few favorite characters: Arizona, Addison, George, Richard, Cristina, Callie, Mark, Schmitt, Bailey, Koracick, and Karev). Today’s Grey’s has very few of the same characters as vintage Grey’s, but I’m still quite invested and I only rarely miss the old crew. Would I like to see them back? Yes. Do I need them to come back to enjoy the show? Nope. I’m also really impressed that characters have developed so well over the years. It’s not easy to let characters grow when you have a hit. It would’ve been easy to leave Meredith and Alex like they were at the start of the show, but they’ve changed a lot, and for the better. In season one, Meredith was one of my least favorite characters. Now, in season sixteen, she’s one of the best.
One Day at a Time ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I’d been idly interested in watching One Day at a Time ever since I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda tweet about it, and I finally went ahead and watched it. I didn’t love it the way a lot of people love it, but I did enjoy it. It is very funny and the cast is great. The episodes are short and fun, so it’s easy to get sucked in. The only problem is that, in my opinion, it can be a little on-the-nose with its issues. Don’t get me wrong: fiction with a message is great, and fiction without a message rarely interests me. But ODaaT can come across a little preachy at times. Sometimes it’s amazing; often, like Elena, it’s too much (yes, that’s a joke; I love Elena). I feel that I should mention that my values align with everything the show preaches, so it’s not like I’m pushing against ideas I don’t agree with. Overall, though, this is a very good show.
The Boys ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I initially didn’t think I’d like The Boys, but then I found out a lot of the creative team worked on Supernatural. Plus, it was something I could watch with my dad, and our entertainment overlaps tends to be pretty small, so that’s always a plus. The start of the show is great. The latter half, I felt, dragged a bit (maybe because the world-building was so good that being in the universe wasn’t as fun as discovering it) but it’s a really cool take on superheroes. The Boys is darkly funny and simultaneously exposes issues with the superhero stores and with our own world. The social commentary in The Boys is top notch. I know that comics often tackle controversial, political subjects, but the cinematic superhero world is pretty safe and traditional, so it’s pretty cool to see The Boys deal with things like religious hypocrisy, corporate greed and dishonesty, drug abuse, grey morality, sexism and sexual assault, and more. I’m very interested to see where the story goes from here.