The Mortal Engines (Mini Book Review)

mortal enginesIt’s still early in the year, but I’m certain that I’ve already found a book that will make one of my end-of-year lists. Unless I have a very, very bad year, Philip Reeve’s The Mortal Engines is going to anchor my Bottom 10 Books of 2020 list. I expected to like The Mortal Engines because I usually love YA fantasies and dystopias, and because I figured that any book that was adapted into a movie (with Robert Sheehan of all people) had to have something going for it.

What’s it about?

In a post-apocalyptic world, cities are on wheels and survive by “eating” smaller locales. When apprentice historian Tom saves his hero, Valentine, from assassination, Valentine in return tosses Tom off the side of the city for seeing the assassin’s face. Faced with the truth about his hero, Tom teams up with Hester Shaw, the assassin, to try to thwart Valentine’s evil plans.

Is it like The Mortal Instruments?

TMI_spine,_repackaged_aBefore I get into the actual review, I wanted to address the glaring similarities between this book and Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments. There are a lot of similarities even aside from the similar titles. A major villain is called Valentine. There’s a character called Magnus. Valentine has a daughter who serves as a love interest, and there’s a parental reveal at the end of the book. A later book in The Mortal Engines series is called Infernal Devices, which is of course the title of Clare’s prequel series. As a big fan of The Mortal Instruments, my immediate response to Reeve’s book was that it’s a bad ripoff. Then I looked at the dates each was written and found out that Reeve’s book was published long before Clare’s. Honestly, this was devastating. I’ve heard plagiarism accusations against Cassandra Clare before, but not personally seen much behind them. I read Infinity, the Sherrilyn Kenyon novel Clare got sued over and felt it was a stretch. I haven’t read enough fanfic to know where that whole mess comes from—though The Mortal Instruments is nothing like Harry Potter, so…—so that didn’t much bother me.

I see it here, and I’m upset, but at the same time I’m personally not going to let it stop me from enjoying tMI because it’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s fun and funny and diverse and full of interesting characters I love. I wish it could have been created in more innocent circumstances, but Reeve’s book is a much better springboard than it is a book.

What’d I think?

Caution Angry Rant

I almost gave up on The Mortal Engines multiple times, and I would’ve done if it weren’t for the fact that I haven’t DNF’d a book in more than five years. I figure if I’ve already expended the time and energy to read two hundred pages of a terrible book, I may as well power through it so I can count it towards my books-read total. But my goodness did this one challenge that resolve.

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Supernatural 15×10 Review (The Heroes’ Journey)

Things have taken a turn for the worse in the aftermath of last week’s standoff with Chuck. Sidenote: I love how unthreatening the name “Chuck” is. Who’s the Big Bad of the final season of the longest running live-action sci-fi TV show in American history? Oh, it’s Chuck.

Thanks to Chuck, things are going really badly for Sam and Dean. Dean’s magic credit card got declined and he’s got multiple toothaches. Baby is breaking down. Sam has a cold, keeps tripping on stuff, and has tragically forgotten that oven mitts exist. Like, yeah. You guys have hit a spell of bad luck. But grabbing a metal pot off the stove with your bare hands is easily avoidable stupidity. Sam, that one’s on you.

I love that when Sam gives a rundown of all the things that are going wrong, he includes Cas being gone (he’s in heaven asking the angels for information that we know he won’t get because as Dean says, the guys upstairs are historically not all that helpful).

In the midst of all this misery, Garth calls for some backup. I love Garth so much, and I’m glad he’s back and that he makes it through this episode without getting killed. That’s always a concern with special guest stars. But Garth deserves only good things. He’s seriously the cutest.

DEAN: It’s Garth. Hey, Garth.

GARTH: Hey, Dean. It’s Garth

Garth is calling on behalf of his wife’s cousin, who was tossed aside for dead with bad wraith injuries. The hunt this week is honestly pretty weak. The monsters have what is basically a Fight Club (except apparently without the “don’t talk about Fight Club” rule because the cousin blabs right away) where monsters spar for money. It’s not great, but it’s not exactly Sam and Dean’s thing, when you think about it. These monsters aren’t hunting humans that we know of. They’re only hurting each other, and as far as I can tell, the whole thing is entirely voluntary. Yeah, the Winchesters get caged up and told to fight, but the monsters all seem to be there of their own volition. But a hunter’s gotta hunt, I guess, because once the guys find out about the monster hub, they’re like, I guess we should murder all of them. It’s almost like they haven’t spent the last fifteen years learning that monsters aren’t always evil. Garth is exhibit A. Also, Garth’s cousin-in-law is the victim that alerts them to this monster cage fighting arena, and we like Garth and his wife. This kill-‘em-all mentality is more in line with the black-and-white morality of the very early seasons. But, you know, whatever. The plot is just an excuse for Sam and Dean to be ridiculous for an hour, so let’s focus on that.

garth spn don't hate

It takes Sam and Dean a while to get to Garth’s, because Baby broke down and they had to walk ten miles. Things get much better for them when they arrive, though. Garth, by virtue of earnestness and cuteness, makes everything better. He’s still fond of hugs, but he doesn’t get one from Sam, because Sam is sick. He likes the way Dean smells, though (at the end of the episode, Dean returns the compliment; it’s nice how Garth brings out Dean’s sweet side).

Also there are baby Garths now, which is good. It’s important to have as many Garths in the world as possible. Garth introduces his daughter and then his baby twins. It’s a great moment.

GARTH: These are the twins. This is Sam. I, uh, sorta named him after you.

SAM: Wow. That’s, um. Wow.

DEAN: That means this one must be…

GARTH: Castiel.

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SLAY (Mini Book Review)

slaySeveral of the blogs that I follow recommended SLAY by Brittney Morris, and because I am a bandwagon fan when it comes to books, movies, TV shows, and basically all pop culture, I jumped on.

What’s it about?

When high-school Kiera developed SLAY—an online video game dedicated to Black excellence—she wanted it to be a safe place for Black people around the world to celebrate themselves. She did not expect it to result in the real-life murder of one of her gamers, and she certainly did not expect it to draw ire from her own boyfriend or to become the subject of heated news reports accusing it (and her) of racism. When a troll finds his way into SLAY, Kiera finds herself on the defensive both in the real world and in the one she so lovingly created.

What’d I think, briefly?

I’m not necessarily the target audience for SLAY, but I loved it anyway. I’m white and I know absolutely nothing about gaming (to the point that I wasn’t sure if the things described in SLAY are possible or if Morris took creative liberties) but I love books that can let me peer into worlds and experiences that aren’t anything like my own.

Because of that, I don’t have any incredible insights about SLAY, which is why this review is so significantly shorter than usual.

SLAY—both the novel itself and Kiera’s game—is very lovingly created. This is a story dedicated to Black excellence. Morris and Kiera have both made a space that is beautifully and unapologetically Black. The realities of the racist real world are juxtaposed with the freedom of Kiera’s MMORPG; Kiera and the other SLAYers have to navigate a world that was not built for them while being condemned for celebrating one that was. The social commentary is both excellent and necessary, and it is tied intrinsically to the rest of the story. SLAY would not be SLAY without the background of inequality, and it’s so important for stories like this to exist. Things don’t get better if art ignores reality, or when it includes only token minorities. That said, I really hope that someday in the future books like SLAY don’t make any sense without a lengthy essay about the backwards culture that produced them.

The only minor complaint I have is that the hints leading up to the twist are a little too big, and people paying attention will probably pick up on them and say of course instead of oh my gosh.

That’s a minor complaint about an otherwise excellent debut. If you’re in the mood for a book that doesn’t flinch away from serious social issues but focuses on beauty that persists despite opposition, definitely check out SLAY.


Our Own Private Universe (Book Review)

our own private universe
I wish this cover had done more to emphasize that Aki is black.

Our Own Private Universe is the second book by Robin Talley that I’ve read. Pulp wasn’t my favorite book ever, but it had enough in it that I liked that I’m at least passively interested in reading Talley’s other work. Hence this selection, which I enjoyed.

What’s it about?

Aki (Ack-ee, not Ah-kee) is on a service mission trip in Mexico when she meets Christa, a beautiful girl from a nearby church. Encouraged by a pact with her best friend Lori to have a summer fling, Aki begins a tentative romance with Christa despite a few obstacles: Christa has a boyfriend back home and is deeply closeted, Aki doesn’t want to admit that she gave up on music even though it’s what they first bonded over, and a church-sanctioned trip doesn’t leave much opportunity for lesbian hook-ups. But her new romance with Christa isn’t all that’s going on: Aki and her new friend Jake become increasingly involved with the church and, specifically, its political outreach, Aki’s brother Drew reveals a secret that could rock the family, and Aki and Lori have the most serious fight of their long friendship.

What’d I think?

Our Own Private Universe has two major storylines (the romance and the turn towards politics) and several comparatively minor ones. There’s a lot going on in this book, and it’s balanced quite well. It’s pitched primarily as a romance, but I’d argue that classifying it that way does it a disservice. Yeah, there’s a romance, but it’s pretty standard for a queer romance. Instead of the love triangle and awkward misunderstandings that come part-and-parcel with straight romances, we get coming out and navigating the closet. It’s a cute enough romance, but it doesn’t bring all the much new to the table. Between this novel and Pulp, it’s pretty clear that while Robin Talley likes romance, it’s far from her first priority. In my review of Pulp, I wrote that Pulp frames queerness more as identity and less as desire, and that’s true for Our Own Private Universe as well. Even though the romance is certainly more central here than in Pulp, and Aki is really into Christa, the love story itself is not the main point of the book.

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Supernatural 15×09 Review (The Trap)

So we are officially on the downhill with Supernatural now. With just half a season left to go, things are ramping up. Arguably, they may be ramping up a little too steeply. “The Trap” is a very fast-paced episode. It apparently wraps up Dean and Cas’ season-long rift and drastically redirects the guys’ long-term goals regarding Chuck. Pacing has always been one of Supernatural’s biggest struggles. It bides its time in the first half of the season and then breaknecks it at the end. Dean and Cas have been fighting for months, so as much as I was ready for them to make up, it was still a bit jarring to see them immediately wade into their issues and come out reunited so quickly and easily. Although you know me by this point: Dean and Cas are my boys and their relationsihp is my favorite of the show. Any episode that centers around their emotional connection is going to be a win for me. Still…

After the drama of confronting Adam and Michael last episode and making a plan, it comes to nothing. The guys prepare Michael’s spell and then decide against using it in the space of an hour. “The Trap”s entertaining (and great from a Destiel endgame perspective), but it was impossible for me to shake the impression that it was meant mostly to clear the slate for episode 15×10 to essentially start over fresh.

Anyway. Hopefully everyone rewatched 15×08 or at least read a recap, because “The Trap” picks up about three seconds after “Our Father, Who Aren’t in Heaven” went to credits, with Sam and Eileen meeting unexpectedly with Chuck and Dean and Cas facing a 12-hour flower-picking trip in purgatory.

Chuck hasn’t been able to see as much of Sam and Dean as he wanted, so he sent Eileen to them. He explains monologues that he has been nudging Eileen: he claims that he got her to the bunker, that he helped her and Sam find the resurrection spell, and even that he has been spurring her romance with Sam. Boo, Chuck. She’s been a mole the whole time. Unintentionally a mole, yes, but a mole nonetheless. It’s a bit scary to see how easy it is for Chuck to force people to do his will. Eileen loves Sam and would never want to hurt him, but when Chuck uses his powers to make her carve into Sam’s Equalizer wound with a scalpel, she does it tearfully but without hesitation.

I should mention that before Chuck forced Eileen’s hand, when he was acting as if he was going to make the cut himself, Eileen called Dean to clue him in. Chuck caught her and goaded Dean a bit before hanging up. This is relevant mostly because it sets up the Dean/Cas dynamic for the episode: Dean acts emotionally and Cas corrects him with logic and competence. Even though Michael’s portal to purgatory is only open for a few hours, Dean wants to drop it and run to Sam (and Eileen). Cas has other ideas.

CAS: Dean, will you stop? Just stop being so stupid.

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My Bottom 10 Books of 2019

At the end of every year, I make top ten and a bottom ten lists. I didn’t read as many books as usual in 2019, and I didn’t read all that many that I truly, actively disliked, so there are more books than usual on this list that even I’ll admit aren’t actually that bad. A lot of them, at least in the first half of this list, are either just not my thing or didn’t live up to their potential. I hated putting some of these on this list, but I’m a stickler for format and I wanted to keep the top ten/bottom ten thing going even though top ten/bottom five probably would’ve been more fair. Anyway, here we go!

My Bottom 10 Books of 2019

i am not your perfect mexican daughter10) I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

I really, really wanted to love this book. And I did for a while. The first half is fantastic. When Julia’s perfect sister Olga dies, Julia finds herself unable to fill the space left or answer the questions Olga left behind. The problem is the second half. It’s almost like someone told Erika L. Sánchez that she had to address literally every single topical social issue, and as a result everything is rushed. Instead of continuing the themes and storylines set up so beautifully at the start of the story, the second half of I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter crams in halfhearted plotpoints about everything from gang violence to teen abortions to eating disorders. Overall, I did I still like this book, but I expected so much from it, but by trying to do too much it ended up doing too little.

the boy the mole the fox and the horse9) The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

This is another one that doesn’t actually deserve to be on this list. I just didn’t get it. Here are two things about me: I’m not at all visually-oriented and I don’t have a sincere bone in my body. This book is a bunch of inspiring platitudes accompanied by illustrations. I’ve been told by my arty friends and family members that the art is beautiful, so there’s that. But I still maintain that the text of the book doesn’t have anything new to say or even a creative way of saying it. It didn’t help that everyone I talked to acted like this was a breakthrough of a book that was going to, like, magically cure mental illness all over the world, and I went from being mildly confused by the enthusiasm to being actively annoyed by it because I absolutely do not see what everyone else seems to.

frankly in love8) Frankly in Love by David Yoon

This one makes the list mostly for being disappointing. For some reason, I was convinced I was going to love it. I did love part of it: the depiction of life as a Korean-American. I haven’t come across many novels with that perspective, and it was great. If Yoon had kept the focus there instead of on a series of increasingly uninspiring romances, Frankly in Love might’ve had a chance to make the other list. Unfortunately, nothing else about Frankly in Love was great. It’s full of predictable twists, disgusting details, and storylines that don’t actually make all that much sense. It’s a fake-dating novel, which is fine. It’s not my cup of tea, but it’s fine. But at some point, if the fake-dating premise has run its course and has to be stretched well past believability, maybe it’s time to let it die.

sadie7) Sadie by Courtney Summers

I don’t read many thrillers, but my understanding of them is that they should be exciting and keep the reader at the edge of the seat. Sadie doesn’t do that. Instead, it’s bland and repetitive in the ways that make it difficult to remember. I remembered I didn’t like it, but until I reread my own review I couldn’t remember why or even what it was about. I looked at the title and was like, “Eurgh. That one.” I was never particularly interested in either the mystery or the titular character, and that’s not great.

the tail of emily windsnap6) The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler

Some books for young readers are still fun for adults. Some are not. This is one of those that absolutely is not. I’m glad that young kids are reading and enjoying this series, but any adult applying even the smallest modicum of logic is going to realize that the story doesn’t hold together upon close (or even close-ish) inspection and that the stakes are almost comically low. This book was written for little girls (and little boys) who want to discover that they’re mermaids, and that’s great. I, sadly, am no longer in the I-wish-I-were-a-mermaid stage, and instead kept squinting incredulously at the page, saying, “She’s never had a bath and she’s how old?”

Caution Angry Rant

All of the books above are either simply not for me or mostly good with a few disappointments. The ones below all got my custom-made rant filter, which means that I really disliked them. The books above this sign don’t really deserve to be on a bottom ten list. The ones below it absolutely do.

fan art5) Fan Art by Sarah Tregay

So this is the first of the books on this list that I actually, firmly disliked. I disliked it both because it was bad in general and because I loved the premise and built my expectations accordingly. The problem with Fan Art, in short, is that it’s a book about LGBTQ+ characters and fangirls that doesn’t seem to understand either group. It’s full of lesbians obsessed with boys, fangirls who focus their attentions on random unpopular classmates, boys who simultaneously spend every waking hour thinking about the terror of being outed and accidentally outing themselves, and character relationships that are supposed to be powerful but are actually painfully bland.

social intercourse4) Social Intercourse by Greg Howard

The best thing that came out of this book is the best writing I did all year: “To its credit, Social Intercourse does try to touch on serious topics with tact. To its detriment, it fails.” Basically, this book is about an obnoxious negative stereotype falling in lust with a cardboard cutout and then doing increasingly heinous things that are meant to come across as hilarious hijinks but are really not. The whole thing is embarrassing and painful. I have rarely hated a character more than I hated Beck, the main protagonist, which made it impossible to root for his happily-ever-after, even though I was clearly meant to.

99 percent mine3) 99 Percent Mine by Sally Thorne

Maybe it is because I usually read pretty socially progressive books, but I honestly thought that the controlling, misogynistic romantic hero was a thing of the past. Apparently not, because 99 Percent Mine was published in 2019 and it is a celebration of all the behaviors that were once thought of as charmingly romantic but are now correctly seen as manipulative. Or maybe they’re not seen as manipulative yet. This book has a mind-boggling 3.46 on Goodreads, which I suppose can by largely attributed to the fact that the writing is breezy and makes the book fun to read. But once you engage any part of your brain, you realize that the supposed hero is a walking, talking red flag. The heroine isn’t any better, and together they are a toxic, codependent disaster that is portrayed as a fairytale happily-ever-after.

we told six lies2) We Told Six Lies by Victoria Scott

Imagine you’re reading a thriller about a missing girl told by the perspective of her boyfriend. Imagine the boyfriend is a very unreliable narrator and that you don’t really trust him, but you’re very interested in finding out what happened to the missing girl and learning about all the things the boyfriend is deliberately not telling the police. Imagine you’re at the edge of your seat and then a brilliant twist pulls everything together. You’re excited. You’re loving the book. You’re making a mental list of friends to recommend it to. Now imagine there’s a second twist that destroys everything. The connections fall apart. Nothing makes sense. Characters act seemingly without motivation, purely for shock value. You wonder if–of all the countless ways this could have ended–this is the worst one, and you come to the conclusion that, yes. It would be impossible to come up with another ending that manages to destroy every good thing the book had going for it while simultaneously adding a whole litany of stupidity. You return the book to the library, feeling like an idiot for wasting your time but relieved you didn’t waste your money. Congratulations. You’ve just experienced We Told Six Lies.

the road1) The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I know, I know. You’re not supposed to name a classic as the worst book you read all year. But this freaking book was a chore. I was bored out of my mind. I was so bored that I accidentally reread full pages without noticing because the “story” is so repetitive and it was all I could do to read the pages by rote. The Road is 287 pages and it took me two weeks. For comparison, I once read Les Misérables (1,400 pages) in five days. This year, I read War and Peace (1,392 pages) in three weeks, and that was with breaks to read other things. I love to read. I don’t think I’ve ever avoided reading as much as I did when I was halfway through The Road. Honestly, I think anyone who makes it through this book without dying of boredom deserves a medal.

What were the worst books you read last year? What were the best?

My Top 10 Books of 2019

It’s hard to believe that another whole year has passed! 2019 went by way too fast, and I did embarrassingly badly on my annual reading goal. I always try to read 100 books, because that’s a nice, even number. I also try to read one classic per every ten books. I failed on both counts. I only managed to read 92 books, and only eight of them were classics. I can lay my failures entirely at the feet of Leo Tolstoy. I finally read War and Peace this year. It took me three weeks and burned me out on classics for the rest of the year. As a result, I didn’t have as many books to pick from for my annual top and bottom tens, which means that a few books made it onto lists they wouldn’t otherwise have appeared on. Still, I’ve kept my top-ten qualifications the same as they’ve always been: I must have read a book for the first time in 2019 for it to make this list, and no author may appear on the same list more than once.

But before I get to the real list, I have to give a quick shoutout to some of the books I reread. They’re not eligible for official top-ten status this year (some of them have made the list in the past few years, though!), but they deserve to be highlighted yet again.

Amazing Books I Reread this Year

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty; The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan; The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson; The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart; I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson; A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

My Top 10 Books of 2019

my whole truth10) My Whole Truth by Mischa Thrace

Even though I have every intention of expanding my reading horizons, I often end up staying within a few genres because every time I branch out I’m reminded of why I like what I like. Sometimes, though, pushing my limits rewards me with something like My Whole Truth. I’m a pathetic scaredy-cat, so I have to ration how often I read scary books. I’m glad this is the one I read. It follows Seelie, a teenage girl who killed a popular classmate in self defense when–high on drugs–he violently assaulted her and is put on trial for his murder. It’s a powerful book that is incredibly timely in our #metoo world, and it is written in such a way that it’s impossible to put down. Every time I thought I had reached a spot where I could put it down and go to sleep, I hit another heart-stopping plot twist and had to keep going until I reached the very end. Interestingly, according to Goodreads, this was also the least popular book I read this year.

red scrolls of magic9) The Red Scrolls of Magic by Cassandra Clare and Wesley Chu

I love all of Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters, but I love Alec the most. When I first read City of Bones a decade ago, I wasn’t sure how much I liked it… except for Alec (well, and Simon). I connected to Alec even with his minimal pagetime. I loved him. I waited impatiently for him to reappear between his appearances. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise that I loved this new Shadowhunter novel that put Alec front and center. I also, weirdly, have a fondness for fantasy novels that sort of shrug in the general direction of plot. Like, plot is good. Plot is great. But sometimes all I want is to go on vacation with my favorite characters, and if they happen to casually save the world on that vacation, so much the better. See also: Wayward Son.

our chemical hearts8) Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland

I read lots of young adult novels. I love them. I think they’re awesome, and I am unashamed to say that I firmly believe that many of them are as good and better than quote-unquote “real” books. Young Adult books tackle issues like mental health often, and some of them–like Our Chemical Hearts–really nail it. I usually hate putting one thing down for the purpose of boosting another, but I’m going to make an exception and do it and say that Our Chemical Hearts is everything that All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven wishes to be, and I’m devastated that Niven’s book is the one that’s getting the hype, acclaim, and movie adaptation. Our Chemical Hearts has a well-meaning but selfish narrator who falls in love with a girl suffering from terrible depression. It’s raw and painful, and at no point is depression romanticized. It’s like Sutherland took a list of all the dangerous tropes found in the most irresponsible fiction and somehow crafted a compelling narration by subverting them.

ninth house7) Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

I love Leigh Bardugo. If you didn’t know that, you’ve clearly never visited my blog before. (No shade if you haven’t; hardly anyone has). She’s brilliant. She seamlessly combines interesting, complicated, morally dubious characters with twisty plots and socially relevant commentary. While Ninth House does address some of the same themes that are present in her Grishaverse novels, it is a notable departure from her standard fare as it takes place in a world very much like ours, which gives the ugliness an extra edge. It follows a young college girl desperately trying to solve a murder that is probably tied up in dangerous magical rituals she is meant to help control, and it is both terrifying and inventive. It is set in a magical underbelly at Yale, and while the blood rituals and ghosts are made up (hopefully, lol) the story and the setting is grounded in reality in a way that’s rare for fantasy. Plus, the paralleling of magic and bodily autonomy is masterfully done.

wayward son6) Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

Remember how I said vacationing with favorite characters is fun? Apparently that’s what I was in the mood for this year. Many of my favorite books from this year are from writers I already counted amongst my favorites, and this is no exception. Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was the first book that I felt fully seen by, and she’s been one of my instant-buy authors ever since then. While Wayward Son doesn’t play with meta like its predecessor Carry On does, it’s still a deeply satisfying sequel. It’s fluffy and romantic without being too cheesy, and it manages to tell a surprisingly emotional story about disappointment and depression while it’s at it (weirdly, a lot of my favorite books this year dealt with depression). Rowell could have skated by doing far less with Wayward Son, and I for one am overjoyed that she put as much into it as she did.

i wish you all the best5) I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

Strong characters make strong stories, and I Wish You All the Best‘s Ben is one of the best-written characters I came across this year. Ben’s story is heartbreaking, but it is also hopeful. The writing is excellent, and the story is filled to the brim with fascinating relationships, some beautiful and fulfilling and others toxic and manipulative. Deaver manages to tell the gutwrenching story of a nonbinary teenager relearning how to trust after being thrown out of their home by their supposedly loving parents with grace and even, occasionally, humor; it’s a deeply personal, internal story that rests squarely on Ben’s shoulders, and Ben is such a fascinating character that it very much works.

little and lion4) Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I love novels about relationships and identity, and this one–which is about a pair of stepsiblings during a rough patch–is absolutely wonderful. My closest and most meaningful relationships are with my siblings, so when books make those relationships a priority instead of writing off the younger sibling as a brat or the older one as a bully, it stands out to me. Plus, Colbert fleshes out her characters really well. Lionel has recently been diagnosed as bipolar and Suzette is coming to terms with her sexuality, both of which are storylines that could support a novel on their own, but Colbert expertly makes these changes only a part of their stories. Little & Lion is a complex story, but it is written so well that doesn’t feel difficult.

darius the great is not okay3) Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius the Great is Not Okay is a love story. It’s about the love between a father and a son (even though that love is complicated by a lack of understanding). It’s about the love between two new friends in a friendship (that might be something more). It’s about the love of one’s culture and heritage (while discovering it for the first time). I don’t know what it is that called out to me about this novel, as I’d never heard of it or its author before reading it, but I’m so glad I did read it, because it was one of the loveliest surprises I had this year. This novel is fiercely character-driven, and watching Darius figure himself out is beautiful. This has one of the best father-son storylines that I’ve ever read, and that is in addition to the poignant depiction of a boy discovering his own culture for the first time. This novel is a masterclass in winding identity, relationships, and culture together.

on the come up2) On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Angie Thomas is absolutely spectacular. The Hate U Give made my top ten list the first year I read it, and On the Come Up made this one even though–being the fifth book I read in 2019–I had a lot of time to forget about it. A lot of the strengths of this book are the same as the other books in this list: the characters and the strong messages. Protagonist Bri anchors On the Come Up, and she is a magnetic force. It’s impossible not to be drawn to her. The writing is great. I despise poetry and can’t stand when novels force me to read it, but the lyrics to Bri’s raps are actually great and not once was I tempted to skip over them. On the Come Up, like Thomas’ first book, addresses very serious real-world issues in a masterful way. When you read the descriptions, they sound like they’re going to be extremely political. When you read the novels themselves, you learn a lot about the world and feel motivated to help change it, but as secondary responses to enjoying an exceptional story.

1) Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (or Solitaire; take your pick)

radio silenceI know, I know. I cheated on this. I said I was only going to solitairehighlight one novel per author, but then I couldn’t pick between Radio Silence and Solitaire. I knew Alice Oseman had to take number one this year, though. She was my favorite discovery because she writes so honestly about brokenness while keeping enough hope alive with beautiful friendships and characters who defy what it means to be normal. Oseman’s books are clever and nerdy and heartfelt, and I raced through them. I am so grateful to the other book bloggers who have been raving about Radio Silence, because I never would have found Alice Oseman without their reviews, and I’m thrilled about having found her. I absolutely need to get my hands on her third book, I Was Born For This, but am having trouble finding out where to buy it. [Update: I loved it]

Infinity Son (ARC Book Review)

infinity sonI was lucky enough to get an advanced reader’s copy of Infinity Son by Adam Silvera through work, and I’m totally psyched about it. I love Adam Silvera. YA fantasy is my favorite genre. Me liking Adam Silvera’s YA fantasy novel was a foregone conclusion, but it’s nice to have it confirmed.

This review is spoiler-free. The back cover of my copy of the book was not. Hopefully someone edits that before the official book is released, because whoever wrote that blurb did Infinity Son dirty.

What’s it about?

Brothers Emil and Brighton live in an alternative version of New York, in which magic is real. Certain people, called celestials, naturally have superhero-like power. Others, called specters, have obtained similar powers by using blood alchemy with endangered creatures like phoenixes or hydras. Emil and Brighton used to dream of becoming celestials, but that was years ago, before an incident that drove celestials into hiding and has painted them with a wide brush as dangerous terrorists. Brighton, though, still loves magic and dreams that soon—under the fabled Crowned Dreamer constellation—he’ll acquire powers and become real hero, not just someone who documents them on social media.

What’d I think?

I’ll admit it took me a little while to get into Infinity Son. Silvera drops the reader right into the middle of things, so I had a period of flailing and floundering around before I figured out the history of this alternate world and what’s happening in the present day. There are four POV characters, which also makes it a little difficult to find your footing. However, once I got my bearing, I was all in and I loved it.

In his introduction, Silvera writes that he has long loved fantasy but never saw LGBTQ+ representation in it. He loved Harry Potter and X-Men, but never realized that fantasy heroes could be gay. Apparently, in his first drafts of Infinity Son, everyone was straight because he had no idea there was any other option. Representation is so important… and because fantasy often draws on real-life inequality for its worldbuilding, it also makes the stories better.

I can really, really see that X-Men inspired Infinity Son. There are magical parallels to social issues in our real world, most notably racism, homophobia, and profiling: mutants have to “come out” and the scenes are played with the queer-reading very obvious. Harry Potter does it, too: “mudblood” is a derogatory word that echoes the N-word. Lycanthropy is commonly considered a metaphor for AIDS. However, unlike in X-Men and Harry Potter, Infinity Son allows its characters to be members of the social groups being allegoried. Most of the main characters are queer and many of them are people of color. The themes of discrimination are played out mostly as magical issues, but after a while it gets annoying when stories that blatantly mirror experiences of queer people or people of color are given instead to straight, white protagonists; it’s nice to see a diverse cast in a story like this.

The political and media tilts are interesting, too. There’s a critical election in the background of the action, and Brighton crafts a narrative with his social media presence. These storylines are more commonly in dystopias like The Hunger Games (another fantastic book), and I love genre-blending.

If there’s a weakness in Infinity Son, it’s that the writing struggles a little in the most traditionally fantasy moments. When the magic system is explained or when foes shoot spells at each other, the book loses its stride just a little. It’s not as confident or purposeful as it is in other, smaller moments. Even though the world is really, really cool and the magic system is extremely creative and unlike anything I’ve read before—and that’s saying a lot; I read a lot of fantasy—there’s the feeling that Silvera isn’t totally comfortable writing it yet. It’s not nearly enough to put me off the book, since I loved it, but it’s there.

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Book Club: The Family Upstairs (+Mini Review)

family upstairsI try to keep an open mind when I read outside my comfort zone. I have my favorite genres, but I always hope that when I read something else I’ll love it so much that I’ll be converted. Thrillers aren’t my thing, but I have read some exceptional ones (Gone Girl comes to mind). I was willing to go into The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell expecting the best, but unfortunately I did not get the best. Despite some decent writing, The Family Upstairs is ultimately a poorly constructed mystery that falls apart the closer you look and which expresses some deeply unsettling ideas (and not the good, thriller-y kind).

What’s it about?

When Libby turns twenty-five, she inherits a house that was in a trust for her. When Libby was a baby, she was found in a house at the scene of what was apparently a ritualistic suicide, and now the house is hers. Her parents and a third, unidentified man were found dead; Libby was upstairs, perfectly happy; and the other children in the house disappeared. Finally in possession of some of the facts of her early life, Libby gets in contact Miller, a journalist who covered the story when it broke, in the hopes that together they will  find out exactly what happened in that house.

What’d I think?

Caution Angry RantDisclaimer: I did not like this book. I had major issues with it, and this is not a complimentary review. My discussion questions are neutral, though, so you can skip to them if you would like to bypass the negativity. Also, this post is not spoiler-free. I usually try to keep my reviews spoiler-free, but there was no way for me to express about what I wanted to express about this book without spoiling some (but not all) major plot points. The discussion questions, as always, spoil everything.

I had to force myself to keep reading. I wanted to know the answers to all the questions, but I got bored in the actual process of reading. Also, the farther I got into the book, the more I had this uncomfortable feeling—not quite dread, but definitely something akin to it. Dread light, maybe—because there are some very gross, damaging themes in The Family Upstairs and as I read I kept thinking, “Oh, no, is she going to…? Oh, okay. Yes, she is.”

Judging purely from The Family Upstairs, I have to assume that Lisa Jewell is anti-millennial, anti-LGBTQ+, and pro-pedophilia. Obviously I don’t know Lisa Jewell personally. It’s possible she’s a lovely person. But she goes out of her way to soften the blow of forty-year-old man having sex with a fourteen-year-old girl who he keeps locked up while simultaneously and joyfully playing directly into the depraved homosexual trope. Libby eventually ends up in a romantic relationship with Miller–who, again, was an adult journalist writing about the deaths of Libby’s family when she was an infant–and goes out of her way to establish that she’s a good millennial. She doesn’t like tattoos and she definitely doesn’t eat avocado toast (so of course she was able to afford a home even before inheriting one). Seriously. Jewell feels so strongly about the avocado toast that it comes up in the novel itself and in her afterward. These undercurrents are suffocating and upsetting. I was willing to laugh at the ageist stuff, and was generally onboard at the beginning at the novel, but about halfway through it was obvious that Jewell was using Henry’s gayness to fuel the implication that he’s a psychopath. Once that started, the justification-of-old-guys-having-sex-with-very-young-girls followed and that was the end of my goodwill.  I’m pretty lukewarm on thrillers in general, but when there are gross themes in a book that go against my morals, that’s it. I can’t like it even if the rest of it is great.

The rest of The Family Upstairs is not great.

Jewell sets up what appears to be a complicated mystery, but when we actually find out what happened in the house all those years ago… it’s way too simple and only makes sense if you don’t look too closely. Apparently the police and everyone who investigated the deaths—including Miller, who was so dedicated to his investigations of the incident that he spent two years on it and ruined his marriage in the process—was staggeringly incompetent. Jewell drags things out ridiculously slowly, presumably because once the main characters are in the same spot, everything comes to light immediately. Everyone just opens up their mouths and spits out their whole stories. Seriously? Not a single person was able to track down the missing kids? Phin changed the spelling of his name slightly and Henry creepily absorbed Phin’s identity by taking on his name (with one letter changed). It should not have been that hard to find them. The only explanation is that the police were all idiots. They found three corpses and apparently were aware that there were children missing, but they didn’t even thoroughly search the premises? We’re really supposed to believe with all that media scrutiny, no one was able to find the fourth body on the roof? It’s all just… eurgh.

There are so many holes in the plot that are disguised only by awkward pacing. Combine that with the awkward writing—who pairs third person with present tense?—and off-putting biases and you’ve got what, for me at least, is a resounding dud. I read some goodreads reviews that indicated that The Family Upstairs missed the mark even for longtime Lisa Jewell fans, which suggests that her other books are better, but I am certain that I will not read them. 

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Quarterly Report Oct-Dec 2019

the testamentsThe Testaments by Margaret Atwood ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited (34 years!) sequel to her terrifying and groundbreaking Handmaid’s Tale does not disappoint. Her writing is as deliberate and masterful as ever, and even though I don’t think The Testaments quite reaches the highs or the lows of its near-flawless predecessor, it’s still a great sequel even if it is arguably superfluous. Gilead, the nightmarishly sexist and authoritarian landscape of the duology, feels even more alarmingly possible today than it did when Atwood first introduced it in 1985, making The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments both as scary as they are scarily good, and the former is an absolute must-read.

emergency contactEmergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Other than centering on a romantic relationship that probably would have been better had it stayed platonic, Emergency Contact is enjoyable. It’s a pretty standard (good) YA book. The characters are cute, there’s some handling of more serious issues (like anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and unplanned pregnancy) that deepen the story without bogging it down or making it less fun, and the texting is a nice way to present a modern relationship. Mary H.K. Choi has a new book out as of a month or so ago, and while I’m not going to rush out to read it, if I happen upon it at the library at some point in the future, I’ll probably read it.

after i doAfter I Do by Taylor Jenkins Reid ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I loved After I Do. It’s a rare take on a love story, but one that I really want to see more often; getting together is not the end of a love story, not even close. Focusing on the part of a partnership after the initial spark has gone out and irritating habits make themselves known allows author Taylor Jenkins Reid to explore ideas of what it means to love someone. Throughout the course of the novel, the characters question the role of romance in their lives and the main character Lauren gets the opportunity to focus on her familial and platonic relationships in a way she couldn’t—or in any case hadn’t—while married, and she gets to rediscover herself as an individual. The writing isn’t spectacular. I could tell that this is one of Reid’s early books, but that did not keep me from thoroughly enjoying the excellent themes, fully developed characters, and realistic but still romantic love story.

finding yvonneFinding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I read Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert a couple of weeks ago and really loved it. When I wrote my review for it, I said that I was going to search out her other work, and now I have. I wasn’t as blown away by Finding Yvonne as I expected to be following Little and Lion, but that’s no slight to Colbert’s writing. A few pacing issues aside, the book is an excellent story about growing up, dwindling passion, friendship, class and more. I wish that Colbert had slowed down a bit at the end, because the story could have used a couple of extra chapters, but the rest of the book is good enough that it hardly matters. A few plot points rubbed me the wrong way, but that has more to do with particular storylines that I historically dislike, which means that people with different hangups likely don’t even know what I’m talking about (but I’m not going to clarify, because they’re all late-act twists and I try to avoid spoilers whenever possible).

wayward sonWayward Son by Rainbow Rowell ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Wayward Son is a ton of fun. I’m glad that it takes a slow approach to plot and spends most of its page time on characters and relationships. The people reading Wayward Son are here for its heroes, so I’m glad Rainbow Rowell didn’t shortchange their development for plot stuff. From its inception, the Simon Snow series has been a love letter to fandom, and Wayward Son is an official/”real” book that focuses hard on the things most beloved in fandom (specifically: it’s openly queer, focuses on mental health issues, and spends more pages on emotional downtime than dramatic plot stuff). While I wish that there had been more parody, as I loved that element in Carry On, overall I have no complaints about Wayward Son. I flew through it and now I’m ready for book three. There better not be a four-year hiatus this time, because now there is a cliffhanger I need resolved.

frankly in loveFrankly in Love by David Yoon ⭐⭐

I really wish that I could have liked Frankly in Love more than I did. Even though there wasn’t any real evidence suggesting it, I was convinced that this was going to end up being a favorite, and instead it really disappointed me. It’s been a while since I’ve been this disappointed. An unappealing hero, predictable twists, and over-reliance of disgusting descriptions made Frankly in Love a novel I can’t really get behind, even though its depictions of racism and cultural conflicts are complex and fascinating.

lokiLoki: Where Mischief Lies by Mackenzi Lee ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Unfortunately, my primary impression from Loki is that it plays it safe where it should’ve gone way out there. Loki is a character perfectly suited to Mackenzi Lee’s strengths, but instead of playing into those strengths, Lee wrote an origin story that is made of potentially fascinating story blocks fashioned into something entertaining but a little bland. At the very end of the novel, things speed up and improve. It’s awesome. I only wish we could’ve started at that point instead of taking more than two hundred pages to get there. While it’s probably true that I would not have read Loki if a different writer had written it, I think it’s also true that I would’ve liked it more if it didn’t have Mackenzi Lee’s name on it. I brought too many expectations with me. I thought Lee and Loki were a match made in heaven, so I went into the novel assuming that it would be glorious. It’s good. It’s fun. The problem is that I expected it to be spectacular.

the promThe Prom by Saundra Mitchell (with Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, and Matthew Sklar) ⭐⭐⭐

I have a hard time knowing what to say about The Prom. There are a lot of things about it that are good, but reading it upset me and put me on edge. There’s so much hatred and homophobia in it that it’s hard to see anything else. In truth, I struggle to know who this book is for, because queer readers are likely to be depressed or triggered by the too-real hate and too-easy love, and straight readers have plenty of happy prom stories of their own. The Prom the musical may be a comedy, but I’ll wait to comment on that until there’s a film version to see; The Prom the novel has a few moments of comedy in an onslaught of misery that relaxes only when it’s time for the neat happily-ever-after every YA romance needs. At the end of the day, I think the most honest thing I can say about The Prom is that I expected it to make me happy, and instead it made me sad.

ghosts of the shadow marketGhosts of the Shadow Market by Cassandra Clare (with Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, Kelly Link, and Robin Wasserman) ⭐⭐⭐

I love Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters, but I don’t like short stories. As a result, my responses to these collections are always a little mixed. I like half the stories in Ghosts of the Shadow Market; the other half struggled to keep my attention. There’s an uneasy mix of fluff and plot here. It would be hard to pitch a collection of short stories in which nothing happens, but honestly I kind of wish that’s what’d happened. Because so many of these stories take place in the past, any reader who has read through Queen of Air and Darkness (so, everyone) knows how everything shakes out. Jem doesn’t die, and he does eventually find Kit Herondale. These facts remove a lot of the tension from may of the earlier stories, and frustrated me at times because it made so much of Ghosts of the Shadow Market recaps of things I already knew. However, when Clare and her cowriters settle in to simply enjoy characters and eras we haven’t seen or haven’t seen in a while (revisiting Raphael was fun, and seeing Jace and the Lightwoods as children is always a treat), Ghosts hits its stride. It’s not the best Shadowhunter book, but it scratches the itch while we wait for the next one.

ninth houseNinth House by Leigh Bardugo ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Leigh Bardugo has quickly become one of my favorite writers. I was absolutely blown away by her spectacular Six of Crows, and I will read anything she ever writes. I was initially upset that she had published this book rather than the sequel to King of Scars, but after reading it my opinion changed. Ninth House is fantastic. It’s terrifying and atmospheric, and Bardugo masterfully mixes fantasy horror with terrors that are all too real. Ninth House is very much about sexist and sexual abuse, which makes for an agitating and occasionally upsetting read, but it is done so well and the mysteries in it are so compelling that Ninth House is overall somehow as enjoyable as it is terrifying.

a monster callsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd) and illustrated by Jim Kay) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I’ve read A Monster Calls many times, but no matter how many times I read it I will never stop being blown away by it. It’s a small book, but it packs more emotional wallop than anything else I’ve ever read. I get emotionally invested in books, but I don’t cry. Usually. I have cried while reading A Monster Calls every single time. I can count on one hand the novels that have actually caused tears, and this is one of them. And no, that’s not an exaggeration: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness have reduced me to tears. That’s it. This book is devastating in its raw simplicity and beauty. It is both a deeply affecting story in its own right and a powerful catalyst to draw from the reader’s most profound experiences. People who read this book experience their own grief alongside Conor’s. I’ve never read anything else like it and I’ll keep reading it every year or so for no other reason than to experience again how evocative language can be. And I would be remiss not to praise Jim Kay (of illustrated Harry Potter fame) for his gorgeous and unique illustrations.

The Colors of All the Cattle by Alexander McCall Smith ⭐⭐⭐⭐

no1 ladies detective agency colors of all the cattleAlexander McCall Smith’s series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is absolutely delightful. I’ve been reading it for years. They’re the sort of novels that are gentle and repetitive. Somehow the fact that all the books are basically the same is what makes me love them so much. The characters are incredibly charming, and the fact that they’re very set in their ways is part of that charm. The Colors of All the Cattle breaks from the format more than usual. It is not my favorite individual #1LDA novel because it has a very different feel… and not one that, in my opinion, fits the Ladies’ Detective Agency especially comfortably. That said, it’s still quite a lot of fun, and I very much enjoyed reading it.

circeCirce by Madeline Miller ⭐⭐⭐

Madeline Miller is an excellent writer. In her hands, Circe is so much more than a witch who turns people into pigs, and her story is in some ways a story of simmering rage and the oppressiveness of the patriarchy. Until she uses her powerful magic to change things, Circe is very much at the mercy of the powerful men in her life. Gods and heroes alternately abuse her and overlook her, and it’s immensely satisfying to see her come into her own. It’s particularly interesting that she is transformed from the mythological villainess into someone who is far more complicated than that. She is still arguably a villain, but she is also a hero and a victim and, more than any one of those, a person. Circe is impeccably written, but it didn’t command my attention like Miller’s previous novel did. My issues with it are all personal, though, and this is one of those mileage-may-vary situations. Plotlines centering around solitude and motherhood are unlikely to excite me, and the fact that Circe held my attention as well as it did despite its subject matter is a real testament to Miller’s skill as a writer. Anyone who does like to read about motherhood or who is interested in experiencing the transience of human life through they eyes of an immortal should definitely give Circe a go.

benedict society riddle of agesThe Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages by Trenton Lee Stewart ⭐⭐⭐⭐

When I opened this book up and realized that ¾ of the Mysterious Benedict Society are now in their late teens and that there is now a fifth member of the Society, I was deeply skeptical. I love these books, and only recently reread the first one and found to my delight that it holds up especially well even though I’m older and it was published more than a decade ago. There’s always a worry with childhood favorites, because what if they’re not as great as you remember? The Mysterious Benedict Society is, and when I saw how much things had been shaken up for book four, I was afraid. Thankfully, I didn’t need to be. As always, there’s a great combination of cleverness (I don’t know how Stewart comes up with all his riddles and tricky clues) and adventure. Riddle of Ages is a great continuation of what remains one of my favorite series. I hope that the rest of the world is reading The Mysterious Benedict Society and I just coincidentally haven’t noticed it, because otherwise people are really missing out.

i wish you all the bestI Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I Wish You All the Best is an excellent book. With a deeply human, painfully sympathetic character at its heart and several more filling out the supporting cast, it moves from charming to heartbreaking to silly to bittersweet quickly and relentlessly and somehow manages to address larger issues like toxic relationships, gender identity, and anxiety without missing a beat. I was not sure what to expect from this one, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

these witches don't burnThese Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling ⭐⭐

I liked These Witches Don’t Burn, but I’m surprised by the almost universal enthusiasm it has been met with. Lots of people loved it. I wish I could’ve been one of them. I expected to be. It’s about a teen lesbian witch balancing life and magic! That sounds right up my alley! Unfortunately, I found that the small inconsistencies and lack of specificity kept me from getting particularly invested in either the main plot or the central romance. It’s very possible I would have liked this book more if I’d heard more measured responses to it. I heard nothing but overwhelming enthusiasm, and I expected to join the chorus, and my high expectations were sadly not met.

the boy the mole the fox and the horseThe Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

I didn’t write a full review for this one because I don’t want to have spent more time writing about the book than it took to read it. My coworkers all adored this book, which is the Barnes and Noble book of the year. I just don’t get it, I guess. Admittedly I’ve never been much of a visual person, so I sometimes struggle to absorb writing and illustrations equally, but The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse didn’t do it for me, and not just because it fails to use the essential Oxford comma in its title. It’s full of cheesy, arguably empty platitudes. It doesn’t even come up with its own platitudes. It just illustrates them. Plus, and admittedly this is petty, but the text is very difficult to read. I did enjoy the mole’s love of cake, though.

The_Hidden_OracleThe Trials of Apollo: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Since Tyrant’s Tomb was just published and I often fall into the trap of not rereading previous books and therefore forgetting everything that was going on, I decided I would go ahead and reread The Trials of Apollo. I love Rick Riordan. I will always love Rick Riordan. His books are fun, clever, snarky, diverse, and filled to the brim with Greek mythology… all things I love. This is the third time I’ve read The Hidden Oracle, and it was just as much fun this time around. As long as Riordan keeps writing, I will keep buying and reading his books. He hasn’t let me down yet, and he’s got a whole shelf to himself on my bookcase!

pans labyrinthPan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun by Guillermo del Toro and Cornelia Funke ⭐⭐⭐

Not having seen the movie, I have no idea how similar the book and the movie are, although I would guess very because of the very visual element. I do wonder, however, why del Toro and Funke decided to release this novelization in 2019 when the movie is from 2006. It’s an interesting book for sure, but my overall takeaway is “why?” Why make a popular and well-received film into a novel thirteen years later? Why try to turn images so famous that even people who have never seen the film are immediately familiar with them into text descriptions that don’t achieve the same effect? Why shoehorn two plotlines together when they don’t do much to reflect on each other? Why focus so hard on the villain at the expense of all other characters? I liked Pan’s Labyrinth fine. It’s entertaining and imaginative and the writing is good. I didn’t love it, and while it was an easy enough read, I’m not entirely sure I understand for whom it was meant.

The_Dark_ProphecyThe Trials of Apollo: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The linked review was actually written a year or so ago, the first time I read The Dark Prophecy. I actually enjoyed it much more the second time around. Because I remembered Apollo and company sticking around at the Waystation for almost the whole book, I didn’t read with the expectation that they’d move along at any moment, and as a result I let myself actually care about the new characters. I also enjoyed Apollo’s dynamic with Leo and Calypso more the second time around. I must have been in a somewhat grumpy mood the last time I read it, because I had a lot of unnecessarily harsh criticisms that I’m now side-eying. Sure, Dark Prophecy is not my all-time favorite of Riordan’s books, but it’s still pretty great.

virtually yoursVirtually Yours by Sarvenaz Tash ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

A few minor qualms aside, I really enjoyed Virtually Yours. It has a mature, balanced take on romantic relationships that isn’t always present in stories that revolve around them, and it takes the time to lovingly craft a full cast of diverse characters whose emotional lives are in plain view for the reader to follow. Sarvenaz Tash is a talented writer who keeps her characters sympathetic and likable while holding them accountable for their worst behaviors, which allows for satisfying and believable development that slots perfectly into the central romantic storyline. I don’t read a lot of romances, but if more of them were like Virtually Yours, I would.

too much is not enoughToo Much is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Towards Adulthood by Andrew Rannells ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Too Much is Not Enough is an entertaining read. I’ve been a fan of Andrew Rannells for a while, and this memoir is both very different from what I expected and very in-line with what I already knew about him. It’s clever and funny and balances silly anecdotes with serious turmoil while maintaining a witty, self-depreciating tone. While I would’ve enjoyed reading about Rannells’ time with The Book of Mormon or Falsettos or Hamilton, I really enjoyed this “longer, more honest version of [his] bio” that focuses on the mistakes and the failures that eventually—through hard work and perseverance—turned into success.

burning mazeThe Trials of Apollo: The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Another Rick Riordan reread, another fun ride. Riordan is a very consistent writer. If you like one, you’ll like ’em all. I like ’em all. The Burning Maze is interesting because it marks the first significant heroic character death and takes the series to a much darker place than I would’ve expected while still managing to keep things–for the most part–fun. I didn’t sprint through this one quite as quickly as some of the others in the series, possibly because by this point I was reaching reread fatigue, but I still very much enjoyed it and it gave me a much needed reading boost at the end of a low-quantity reading year.

let it snowLet it Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is a cute, romantic story that goes all out for the holiday cheesiness. One story stars a girl named “Jubilee;” she was named after a collector’s Christmas item that her parents collect so passionately that they get arrested while shopping. Another follows a barista as she quests to relocate a teacup pig for her best friend after her selfishness gets it accidentally sold to someone else. The last makes a game of twister and a plate of waffles life-or-death. The book is almost campy in its silliness, and it absolutely works. Christmas stories are supposed to be cheesy and heartwarming. They don’t have to be emotionally complex or thematically nuanced. Actually, they shouldn’t be. Ninety-nine percent of the time I want emotional complexity and thematic nuance, but if I’ve opened up a Christmas romance, I want it to be a simple Christmas romance that leans into–not away from–its own ridiculousness.

tyrant's tombThe Trials of Apollo: The Tyrant’s Tomb by Rick Riordan ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Rick Riordan’s books are always good, and Tyrant’s Tomb is no exception. As with the book it follows, the stakes have increased and the threat of death is more tangible than it was in the earlier books set in this universe, which contributes to an older, more mature feeling overall. The Greek gods are a morally suspect bunch, and never has that been more on display than in Tyrant’s Tomb, when Apollo’s past sins begin catching up with him with a vengeance. The clash of immature arrogance and humbled culpability inside Apollo makes him a fascinating hero, far different than any other Riordan has penned (despite sharing the classic sarcastic humor Riordan is famous for), and this book—like those it follows—is an excellent continuation of a long series that has aged with its audience. It will probably be another year before the fifth and final book is published, but I already can’t wait.

The Trials of Apollo #4: The Tyrant’s Tomb (Book Review)

tyrant's tombRick Riordan is one of my favorite authors, but I was still taken off-guard when The Tyrant’s Tomb came out a few months ago because I hadn’t known he was due for one. Often in situations like this, I’ll jump right into the new book because I’m too excited to wait, but this time I actually did the smart thing and reread the books that came before (well, The Trials of Apollo; I didn’t go all the way back to HoO or PJO), which was definitely a good thing because I let some truly massive plot developments slip my mind. Remember that major death in The Burning Maze? I didn’t. So, yeah. The reread was a good idea. I was well caught up when I finally got to read the newest book. Am I too late to post a review that anyone is going to care about? Probably. Is it good that I invested the time for that reread? Yes.

Rick Riordan’s books have really matured since The Lightning Thief. I don’t mean that they’re better now or that they were amateur then. I mean that Riordan has done a great job of allowing his characters to age, and the stories have developed with them. When we first met Percy Jackson, he was a sassy middle schooler; while his adventures are still incredibly readable and enjoyable for older readers, they were perfect for kids Percy’s age. They were fun. They were fast. They were witty. The stakes were high, but nothing was too scary or scarring. Everyone lived. No one was permanently psychologically damaged. But now, years later, Riordan’s characters have grown. His readers have stayed with him, which means that for nearly every middle schooler grabbing The Lightning Thief off the shelf for the first time, there’s a twenty-something like me still anticipating his latest books. Now the heroes are solidly in their teens, and the world has opened up more.

That shows in The Tyrant’s Tomb. It’s scarier and more perilous than what has come before, and the narrative doesn’t shy away from that. Unlike Percy or Leo or Annabeth or any of the other heroes that have come before him, Apollo is not an innocent caught up in battles he shouldn’t have to face. Despite his hilariousness and dramatics, Apollo is not what we’d call a good person. In these last few books, Riordan is allowing some of the darker elements of Greek mythology to rear their heads. And they’re ugly. While The Trials of Apollo doesn’t get into all disturbing elements like an adult book would (like, say, Madeline Miller’s Circe), it also doesn’t edit all of it out. Apollo is on a quest to regain his godliness, but over and over he, his companions, and the readers are confronted with the undeniable truth that he doesn’t deserve it. He was selfish. He was callous. He was egotistical. He murdered people. He harassed people. He wiped people out without a second thought. Yeah, he’s funny and charming. But he was a sociopath.

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