The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (Book Review)

It is no secret that The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab is an immensely popular book right now. It was released in October of 2020, but now—eight months later—it is still selling really well. Movie rights have been sold. It’s trending on #booktok. All that good stuff, plus a gorgeous cover. Also, it’s by the same person who wrote A Darker Shade of Magic. It was only a matter of time before I read it, and then I went on vacation and had a good twelve hours in the backseat of a car. I had high expectations for Addie LaRue, and I’m happy to report that it met them.

What’s it about?

Addie LaRue was told not to pray to the gods who answer after dark, but sometimes they’re the only ones who answer. On the eve of her arranged marriage, Addie makes a desperate plea for her freedom and has her wish unexpectedly granted. But there’s a catch. By asking to remain free and untied to anyone, Addie finds herself immortal and unable to leave any kind of mark; she is immediately forgotten once out of sight, and she cannot so much as speak her name. Repeatedly over the years, Addie’s dark god comes to her to see if she has tired of her eternal purgatory and is ready to hand over her soul.

What’d I think?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

V.E. Schwab is a fabulous writer. I haven’t read all her books, but the ones I have read all have interesting characters and magical systems that sit outside the norm. This is no exception. If I’d heard the synopsis of Addie LaRue without Schwab’s name attached, I would have said that there’s no way it would work as a concept, and certainly not for 442 pages. Because all of Addie’s acquaintances forget her as soon as they turn their backs, there’s not much opportunity for her to form any long-term relationships or even to interact with other people except in the most superficial ways. Usually, character relationships make or break a story for me. Addie LaRue succeeds on the strength of its titular character, and in the fascinating specification and limitations of her Faustian deal.

I suspect that the few people who dislike Addie LaRue are put off by the repetitiveness. It is, I suppose, a fair criticism; for much of her life, Addie’s existence is cyclical. In the hands of a lesser writer, this might have been boring, but Schwab excels in the little moments. Addie’s frustrations and triumphs are laid bare as she tests the boundaries of her curse and finds herself trapped… or finds a small loophole. Centuries pass, but these frustrating, often fruitless, usually heartbreaking moments both illuminate Addie as a character—she is stubborn, yes, but more than that she is clever, optimistic, unrelenting, and endlessly in love with the world and the people in it—and set the stage for the latter part of the novel. Addie lives nearly three hundred years in a limbo of memory before she meets someone who remembers her. If we, the readers, don’t live at least some of that time with her, Henry’s recognition would not have nearly the impact.

Resilience is the main takeaway from Addie LaRue, at least for me. There are two or three dramatic plot developments in the latter half of the book, but before that it is a story of a woman persisting. She longs for a life of freedom but was born in a time that did not afford that to women, so she found an escape. When that escape proves itself unlivable, she finds a way to live through it and even to carve out moments of joy. Where almost anyone else would have given up and given in—I certainly would have—Addie presses on. Even as the world forgets her and breaks her heart and forgets her again, Addie persists. She grows strong, but she never closes herself off. She looks for the wonder in the world, whether that is in traveling or seeing a piece of art or in meeting a new lover. Even when she knows her heart will break, she throws herself in wholeheartedly.

Continue reading

Fence Vol. 1-4 (Graphic Novel Review)

I’m not usually one for graphic novels. I’m not one of those judgy people who is all they’re not real books. They just don’t suit my reading particularly, because I like to be deeply immersed for a long time and I’m not great with visuals. There’s something about images that my brain just doesn’t handle as well. I majored in English literature and took classes that studied everything from The Hunger Games to Jane Austen to Kafka to Oscar Wilde. The most challenging? The one where we watched movies instead of reading books. I like looking at pictures, especially in a certain kind of style—I love the recent trend of cute YA covers!—but graphic novels and I don’t really get along because half their story is told in the images, and unless I actively tell myself look at the pictures, don’t just read the words I tend to miss things. As you can imagine, this made reading Watchmen a nightmare.

Still, I like trying to expand my horizons, and if one of my favorite authors takes me somewhere—even somewhere I’m not used to—I’ll follow. When Alice Oseman of Radio Silence and I Was Born for This fame wrote Heartstopper, I read it. When Sarah Rees Brennan, author of In Other Lands, wrote a novelization of the graphic novel series Fence, I was onboard for that, too. Of course, that is a slightly different situation. Heartstopper is an original graphic novel series written and illustrated by an author that I already loved. I had read all of Oseman’s novels, including the ones that you can’t just step into a US bookstore and pick up. Brennan’s Fence is somehow connected to an existing graphic novel series that she initially had nothing to do with. At first, I was content to read Brennan’s novels and leave it at that. Except then I fell in love with Fence and decided that I needed more. Brennan had no more to give me, and I had to go right to the original source.

So now I’m obsessed with C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad’s currently-unfinished graphic novel series.

How are Brennan’s Fence and Pacat’s Fence connected?

Jump to review

If you read my review of Fence: Disarmed (and let’s be real, you didn’t), you’ll know that I was a bit confused about the continuity between the two Fences. Sarah Rees Brennan does a really good job of making the story feel like it’s hers. I knew that it was based on graphic novels, but for the most part, I didn’t feel like I had missed anything significant. I was curious to know what happened in the original, but I was content to enjoy Striking Distance and Disarmed as their own thing. Until I got too deeply in, that is. After that, I was full of questions. I was curious to know where the chronological continuity was. I had mostly decided that it was a sort of offshoot running mostly parallel to the main story, with Brennan telling Aiden and Harvard’s story primarily while Pacat and Johanna focused on Nicholas and Seiji. That is not actually the case, though.

Brennan’s novels are sequels. Nothing happens in the first four volumes of the graphic novel that I don’t already know from the novels, although the stories are dynamic and interesting enough that they feel surprising even when I already know what’s coming. Like, when the end of volume one teased Seiji and Aiden’s bout, I was all I must read this even though I already knew who won and how. Volumes one through three deal with the try-out process, but of course I already knew who makes the team and who is chosen as the reserve. I know the specifics of the most dramatic bouts and much of the history between Jesse, Seiji, and Nicholas.

If you want to read the series chronologically, do it like this:

  • Fence Vol. 1
  • Fence Vol. 2
  • Fence Vol. 3.
  • Fence Vol. 4: Rivals
  • Fence: Striking Distance
  • Fence: Disarmed

Note: it’s a bit confusing to know exactly how many graphic novels there are, because when you google for it, Google will tell you there are sixteen issues. I’m assuming each chapter was originally published individually, because there are only four full volumes, with four chapters/issues in each. Volume one includes issues 1-4, volume two is 5-8, and so on.

That said, I’m still a bit confused about the overall continuity, because I thought Fence was done. I didn’t realize that it is still apparently in its early stages. The team has barely been set. They’ve only fenced one match. They’re nowhere near Nationals, and no one has gotten a real crack at Jesse Coste, who is the great white whale of this series.

Continue reading

The Other Black Girl (Mini Book Review)

The best thing about book club is that it forces you to read books you might otherwise have missed. Such was the case with Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel The Other Black Girl, which has been pitched as The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out. Despite the eye-catching cover and intriguing premise, I was a little wary of this one because of the second comparison. I’ve never seen Get Out—heard good things, though—because I am a total wimp and I don’t go anywhere near horror. I’m scared enough of the world without talented, imaginative writers going out of their way to terrify me. I expected to like The Other Black Girl, but I also expected to be lightly traumatized.

Traumatized might be going a little far, but that’s probably a good way to go in. The Other Black Girl is a really interesting and disturbing insight into the publishing industry, and while I’d probably classify it more as sci-fi than horror, it’s certainly terrifying even when depicting the most mundane aspects of the heroine’s everyday life.

What’s it about?

Nella is an assistant working at a prestigious publishing house. Although she likes her job, it is wearying to be the only Black employee who doesn’t work manual labor and to know that the likelihood for promotion is low. Then Hazel shows up. At first, Nella is excited and relieved to have another Black assistant around… but then Nella gets on the wrong side of her boss and watches as Hazel quickly flies up the corporate ladder. And then there’s the question of the threatening notes that start showing up on Nella’s desk, urging her to leave.

What’d I think?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Vague but significant spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution.

Continue reading

Black Sun (Book Review)

I met Rebecca Roanhorse, Black Sun author, by total coincidence a few weeks ago. She’s semi-local, and she came by Barnes and Noble to sign some of her books. I happened to be the one there to speak with her, which was super cool because I love meeting authors but don’t get to do it very often. She is really nice, and I was upset and embarrassed that I hadn’t read any of her work even though I love fantasy and she’s a well-known, award-nominated writer. I went home and put her on my TBR, and then Barnes and Noble picked Black Sun as its speculative fiction pick for July and I moved it to the top of the list.

What’s it about?

I usually write my own summaries, but Black Sun is a big book with a lot going on, so I’m going to cheat and use Goodreads’ description:

“The first book in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas and woven into a tale of celestial prophecies, political intrigue, and forbidden magic.

A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun


In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.”

What’d I think?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’m really glad that Black Sun is as good as it is, because I got the impression Roanhorse stops by our store semi-regularly, and I wanted to be able to report that I’d read and loved her book if I see her again because I promised I was going to (not insincerely; it really did sound like my kind of thing!). Happily, I can be totally truthful if she ever comes by again.

It took me a little to get fully immersed. The first few chapters are quite intense and have more body horror than I’m comfortable with. My tolerance for body horror is very low, so when a book opens with a mother sewing her young son’s eyelids shut, it squicks me and I have to really brace myself before moving forward.

Thankfully, that level of gore is not maintained. It isn’t smooth sailing from there; there’s still a lot of violence, including assassination attempts, mutinies, stabbings, mutilations, and murders but it isn’t as visceral. Roanhorse is an excellent writer, and to my relief she does not linger on descriptions. She reports what happens but doesn’t glorify in the gruesome details any more than necessary. Thinking back, even that opening chapter isn’t specifically gruesome. Just a hint of what’s happening is enough, because what’s happening is pretty darn harsh. It does a good job of setting the stage for the rest of the book. It plunges you into this dark, magical, often violent world without any real preparation and lets you, like the many characters, figure out on the fly what is going on and who is and isn’t trustworthy.

Most reviews of Black Sun focus on the Pre-Columbian-America-inspired setting, so I’m not going to go deeply into that. Yes, it’s cool to have a fantasy world that draws its inspiration from somewhere other than the UK. Yes, I like it a lot. Yes, it gives the novel a unique flavor and immediately distinguishes it from other epic fantasies that otherwise it might have resembled. It’s great, but I don’t really have anything to add so I’m not going to try.

Continue reading

Book Club: No Talking

It has been too long since I did a Book Club post. I used to personally prepare discussion questions for every book club I attended or lead, and I loved doing that. I’ve dropped off it, though, because the difference between working part- and full-time is no joke. I’d love to keep doing it, but I would rather spend my limited free time reading, writing other things, hanging out with my family, walking my puppy, or watching TV. I still love writing book club discussion questions; I just don’t prioritize it anymore. But I still have a backlog of discussion prompts that I wrote back when I was in the habit of doing it regularly.

Andrew Clements was one of my favorite writers when I was a kid. I particularly loved Things Not Seen, but that was a departure from his usual. He usually writes contemporary middle-grade stories about a child encounters a very specific problem at school and who (with the help of a sympathetic adult, usually a teacher but occasionally a parent or other mentor) eventually rises above it. One such book is No Talking, which follows a class of chatterboxes who decide to a battle of the sexes during which they will decide who can stay the quietest for the longest period. (Another such book is Frindle, for which I also wrote book club questions).

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I didn’t have a particularly fruitful discussion with this book. I think it is a very interesting story, and I think that it could make for a very sophisticated, nuanced discussion is you get the right kids. I did not have the right kids in my group (or, perhaps, they were in a very immature mood that day). Young kids don’t always stay on task, and sometimes they refuse to be lead to even the most blatant themes. Still, despite that, I think that No Talking could be a very good choice for class discussion… although I personally might want to try it with sixth grade or older next time, because my fourth/fifth graders really made me feel for the poor, harried teachers at the very beginning of the novel, before their students had learned about respectful communication.

If you pick this book for your group, I wish you better luck than I had, and I hope that these prompts can help you to a lively, engaged discussion:

(Note: As always, these prompts cover the whole book, and spoilers are inevitable)

Continue reading

Warcross #2: Wildcard (Book Review)

Wildcard, the sequel to Marie Lu’s excellent Warcross, has been on my to-read list for an embarrassingly long time. I’m really bad about reading the first book of a series when it first comes out and then not actually following through with the rest of the series. A lot of time passes between publications and I forget specifics, so I always intend to reread before diving into the new material, but I add new books to my TBR constantly, so it often takes time for me to get to the point where I’m committed to a reread. It has been a few years, but I finally made Wildcard my priority.

And I was hugely disappointed.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

(SPOILERS)

It’s not a bad book, per se, but it pulled the focus away from the elements I loved most in Warcross and instead introduced a set of new characters who dominated the narrative at the expense of those I already knew and loved. I loved Warcross. I think I actually loved it more the second time around. Warcross is The Hunger Games meets Ready Player One. It’s fast paced and dynamic and the protagonist Emika is incredible. She’s tough and independent, just rough enough around the edges that she prickles, but no so much that she cuts. What I loved most about Emika, though, is that she goes it alone but she is not aggressively antisocial. She is slow to trust, but watching her friendship bloom with her Warcross team is really lovely. Even before she trusts the team to help her outside of the game, she has an obvious affection for them—and them for her—and I loved the moments when she would relax and let herself enjoy their company. It helps that they’re such a fun bunch. One of the things I was most excited for in Wildcard was the prospect of Roshan, Hammie, and Asher being more central.

Tremaine, also, I was excited to see more from. He was an interesting peripheral character in Warcross, and he was poised to step up and take on a starring role. The way book one ends, I was sure that Tremaine was going to take on a narrative role the size of Hideo’s. Lu did such a great job with Tremaine. She somehow managed to make him intriguing; we don’t know much about him, and his few interactions with Emika are antagonistic, but for some reason I still wanted more time with him to get to know him.

My other favorite thing in the first novel is Emika’s relationship with Hideo, and Hideo’s relationship with morality. I’m fascinated by love interests who turn out to be the villain. There aren’t many of them (the Darkling from Shadow and Bone is really the only other one who comes to mind), but they’re absolutely fascinating when they show up. There are few things I love more than YA literature, but even I can admit that there are an awful lot of toxic boyfriends found there. Any time a book really leans into that and lets warning signs be warning signs, I’m impressed. I’m not saying that Hideo is evil or that I wanted Lu to make him evil. All I’m saying is that Hideo is far more interesting as a mega-powerful tech genius who has invented something that gives him unethical power over millions of people than he is as a boyfriend. Hideo is inspired and fueled by the grief of losing his brother, but an explanation is not an excuse. Emika, in Warcross, has the right response to Hideo’s megalomaniacal leanings: she understands Hideo but works to stop him. Her sympathy and love for Hideo do not blind her to the harm he is doing, so when he ignores her pleas to stop and presses on with his plan, she breaks everything off with him and places herself in opposition.

Emika is a character with a conscience, much as she tries to hide it. She’s a bounty hunter, but she has never harmed anyone and balks at the thought of doing so. She cares for and finances a deadbeat roommate even when she can barely sustain herself. Yes, she’s a hacker and a thief but there are ethical lines she won’t cross. This conflict between who she is and who she appears to do makes her a wonderfully dynamic character.

It’s too bad that’s missing in Wildcard. I can hardly believe how passive Emika is in this sequel. She’s a go-getter. She’s a doer. She is directly responsible for most of the action in Warcross. In Wildcard, she’s a pawn. Both sides want to use her, and she is useful more for her romantic connection to Hideo than for any of her numerous skills. She is in the middle of everything, but she doesn’t cause anything. She switches allegiance when Jax or Hideo or Taylor provides her with a new piece of information or a fresh lie, but she rarely uncovers anything for herself. She fails at the only major hacking problem that comes her way; she passes the problem to Tremaine, who passes it to a new character called Jesse, who—as we learn near the end of the novel—was fed the information by Jax.

If you only read Warcross, you might be wondering who Jax is. She’s a new character in Wildcard. She’s an immensely important character in Wildcard. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with introducing a significant new character in a sequel. Look at Nikolai Lantsov from the Grisha trilogy. Alucard Emery from the Darker Shade series. Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter. Rachel Elizabeth Dare from Percy Jackson. Finnick Odair from the Hunger Games. Maia Roberts from the Mortal Instruments. There’s no shortage of great characters who miss out on the first installment of a series. The thing about these characters, though, is that they fill out a universe. They occupy empty spaces or open up new potential. They don’t muscle in and shove the original characters out of the way.

Continue reading

The Anthropocene Reviewed (Mini Book Review)

Thanks to my brother and sister-in-law for preordering The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green for me. John Green is one of my favorite writers, although you might not know that from the rest of my blog, as I read all his books before I started writing reviews (the exception is Turtles All the Way Down, which I believe was one of my earliest reviews).

I’m a big vlogbrothers fan. I haven’t been a Green brothers fan from the beginning, but I saw John at the National Book Festival in 2012 and have been very onboard since then. I’ve watched so many of their videos that it actually feels weird to refer to either John or Hank as “Green” like I would for any other author. I’ve read all their novels and adored them. I can’t even pick a favorite. I usually say that I like Paper Towns the best, but I could as easily name Turtles All the Way Down or the criminally underrated An Abundance of Katherines. And, of course, I like Looking for Alaska so well that I chose it for book club back when I had a YA group. John Green is one of my whatever-you-write-I-will-read authors, but I was slightly skeptical about The Anthropocene Reviewed.

I should not have been skeptical about The Anthropocene Reviewed. I’m usually not into nonfiction or essays in general, and I’m insecure and insincere so complete and unironic earnestness usually makes me uncomfortable. A collection of essays about being in love with the world could have massively backfired, but it doesn’t.

It’s easy, especially in 2021, to think of the world and of people as generally bad. It’s much harder to be hopeful than to be cynical, but it’s also much better to be hopeful than to be cynical and The Anthropocene Reviewed reminds of that, and helps us to see the good that is still there.

The most fascinating thing about John Green as a writer (and as a YouTuber) is how thoughtful he is about things that I wouldn’t even consider thinking deeply about. There are essays in this collection that are obviously going to be powerful reflections about humanity and transience, and you can tell from the title alone that there will be a lot to consider (like Our Capacity for Wonder or Humanity’s Temporal Range). Then there are other essays that seem like they should be silly and irreverent. There’s an essay about The Penguins of Madagascar and two different entries about various hot dogs. And yet the latter reflections are every bit as thoughtful and inspiring as the former. Possibly my favorite is the one about Super Mario Kart, in which John discusses privilege and imagines a world in which advantages are doled out like they are on the racetrack, with those in the back—rather than those in the front—receiving the real-world equivalent of the dreaded Blue Turtle Shell.

I knew I was going to enjoy the book when the first essay in it was about a song from a musical. It seemed like fate that The Anthropocene Reviewed would begin with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” when I had coincidentally watched Carousel only a few days previously. Surprisingly, though, I enjoyed the essays about things I knew less about (in some cases nothing about) just as much. I’ve never listened to The Mountain Goats or heard of Jerzy Dudek; I literally could not care less about NASCAR. Still, the writing and the thoughtful, directed meandering of each essay kept me captivated and I feel like I closed The Anthropocene Reviewed with more optimism and enthusiasm for life than I’d had when I opened it.

Even in the rare-instance when I disagreed with John, I was interested to see where he was going and by the end was mostly onboard. I’m not with him on Diet Dr. Pepper, though. I love soda. I’m addicted to soda. Diet Dr. Pepper is terrible. It’s literally the only soda I dislike, and it unfortunately tastes absolutely nothing like regular (and vastly superior) Dr. Pepper.

I don’t usually read multiple books at once, but I piecemealed this one out, picking it up and reading an essay or two between other books or occasionally while still in the middle of another one. That, I think, was the best possible way to read this. It let me extend the experience for more than a month, giving me time to consider and move slowly without putting me into the reading rut that always hits when I get stuck on one book too long. It also gave me little infusions of positivity when I needed it, which was especially good because work is stressful and *gestures vaguely at 2021*

The Anthropocene Reviewed is a good one. It has enough silly in it to be fun, but it is thought provoking and affecting enough to leave a more lasting impression. It revels in the beauty of the world and in human ingenuity. Even though it touches on the current state of the world—at least a few of the essays were written during lockdown and reference the pandemic—it never loses its sense of joy and hopefulness. It’s a great reprieve from the incessant anxiety of the modern world (ironic considering how many of the essays touch on or delve into John’s own anxiety) and I learned a lot about far reaching subjects from the invention of the QWERTY keyboard to Halley’s Comet to the meaning of the word “anthropocene” (this has actually already come in handy; the word popped up in I Hope You Get This Message and I felt smart for knowing it!). I knew I’d enjoy it because I love John Green, but I was surprised by just how powerful a reading experience it is. Even if you’re not usually a nonfiction person, this is a great one to pick up and peruse. You’ll probably laugh, but you’ll definitely learn something and feel slightly better about humanity. I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four stars. 

Rise to the Sun (ARC Book Review)

I am a sucker for free books. I have the opportunity to get free ARCs at work, and I pick them up whenever there is an outside chance that I’ll read them. When I get an ARC, it takes a maybe I’ll read that to a definitely I’ll read that and an I’ll read that eventually to an I’ll read that now. That was the case with Leah Johnson’s sophomore novel Rise to the Sun. I liked Johnson’s first book You Should See Me in a Crown and I am always trying to find more great wlw stories, so this seemed perfect. Also, reading a book before it is officially published feels like being part of a cool exclusive club. It’s very hipster to say that, but I’d be lying if I claimed that wasn’t a major reason why I read Rise to the Sun now instead of waiting.

What’s it about?

Cheerful, outgoing, flirty Olivia has dragged her best friend to the Farmland Music Festival partly to enjoy a besties-only getaway and partly to distract herself from the fallout from her latest disastrous breakup. Toni has been going to the festival for years. She used to go with her musician father, but he died recently and this is her first time without him. It is hard to be in a place with so many memories, but Toni is certain that being there will give her clarity about how she wants to live the rest of her life. Neither girl is looking for romance, but when their paths cross, a romance is what they find.

What’d I think?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Mostly, I think that I should have liked Rise to the Sun more than I did. I need to stop falling into the tap of reading romance books and then judging them because I don’t actually like romance books. I should have known exactly what I was getting into since I did read You Should See Me in a Crown, which is a light, cute romcom about prom. It flirts with more serious topics but ultimately steers away from them to focus on the fun and frothy bits. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. That’s good, actually, and as I said in my review of that book it’s actually probably better that it stayed romantic instead of digging into more powerful social elements. That’s what this book does, too, except where You Should See Me in a Crown toys with racism and homophobia, Rise to the Sun introduces and then backpedals away from gun violence and the fear of abandonment.

Both Toni and Olivia have significant emotional issues. Toni’s father was recently killed; she loved him deeply, but he was quite absent even before he was ripped violently from her. She has spent her life with walls up because she believes that the more people she lets in, the more she will have to lose. Her father’s death is therefore a double whammy: not only did she lose her dad unexpectedly and violently (and in such a way as to make her feel slightly responsible), she has also lost one of maybe three people who really knew her.

Olivia falls in love fast, hard, and often and has had her heart broken each time. The more it happens, the more she believes that there is something fundamentally wrong and unlovable about her. Also, her last boyfriend violated and humiliated her. There is so much heavy emotional baggage between these two young women. It’s touched upon briefly at the beginning of the book and I—like a fool—geared myself up for a deep dive into their issues. I hoped for a nuanced story about love and healing.

And yes, that does all get addressed. It’s not like Johnson forgets that she gave both her heroines tragic backstories. But they don’t really feel sufficiently explored and in the few moments they take center stage they feel very out of place. In one scene, Toni has a PTSD-induced panic attack because she hears a gunshot and there are several reminders throughout the book about how America has such a shitty track record with guns that people put themselves at risk literally every time they go outside. That’s absolutely true, but it feels like an out-of-place bit of commentary in a book that otherwise feels like a fairy tale romance.

My issue as a reader is that I prefer contemporary novels that dig deep into the psyche, focus on the most internal parts of growing up and coming into oneself. Romance is often a part of that journey, but it is not usually the main part. Often when I read romances, I accidentally read them as if they are meant to be contemporary bildungsromans when they are, in fact, meant to be read as romances. I wish Rise to the Sun had been about Olivia and Toni overcoming their self-loathing, with their romantic relationship being a stepping stone to that end. Instead, the quick resolution to their emotional hangups is presented as a stepping stone to the romance, and that feels backwards.

Continue reading

Fence: Disarmed (Book Review)

Last year, I discovered Sarah Rees Brennan. I read In Other Lands because of its precious cover and then read Fence: Striking Distance because I wanted more. I really loved that book. It’s funny and heartwarming, filled with characters who are just damaged enough to be utterly winning. Possibly the most impressive part of it is that it takes tropes that I usually despise (lookin’ at you, fake dating) and actually makes them really compelling. It’s a credit to Sarah Rees Brennan that she wrote a novel that is largely a romance and I fell in love with it. That doesn’t usually happen. The only thing I disliked about Striking Distance was the ending. It felt very abrupt, like she’d hit her word count and had to rapidly wrap things up. For that reason, I was especially excited for Fence: Disarmed; not only did I already love the world and the characters, but I was already fidgety, wondering what those absurd boys would get up to next.

What’s it about?

Although the team-building exercises were largely a success, not everything is smooth sailing for the fencing team at Kings Row. Nicholas and Seiji are still shaken at the mere mention of Jesse Coste, Seiji’s former fencing partner and Nicholas’ secret half-brother. More drastically, though, after a romantic misunderstanding Aiden has returned to his worst habits and is on the brink of an emotional collapse that could get him kicked off the fencing team and thrown out of school. Then there’s the worst problem of all: despite Coach and Seiji’s best efforts, they’re still not a particularly good fencing team. The solution? An elite fencing camp in France.

What did I think?

While I still loved Disarmed, I do think that it is a slight step down from Striking Distance. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still adorable. I still laughed. I still sat at the edge of my seat hoping Aiden and Harvard would get their lives together. I just felt like there was a little bit more treading water here. As much as I enjoyed every chapter, a lot of them hit the same beats and they didn’t all have any particular forward motion. Whereas in the first book I felt that with each new POV chapter I understood something new about each boy, I didn’t really get that here.

Aiden is still the most compelling character. He spends this book trying to stamp down his best instincts because he feels that he is absolutely unlovable and that it’s better to preemptively cut off emotional bonds than to nurture them only to be abandoned later. Watching him wrestle with his own sensitivity is my favorite part of Disarmed. Every time he wants to reach out to one of his teammates, whether it’s Harvard or Seiji or Nicholas or even Eugene, he stops himself because he fundamentally doesn’t believe he deserves friendship, or even to be thought of as a good person. It’s heartbreaking, but Aiden is somehow also the funniest character, which makes him unquestionably my favorite. I have a fictional type, and Aiden fits it like a glove. He was unquestionably—at least to my mind—the main character in Striking Distance. When I wrote my review of that book, I said this of Aiden:

“Nicholas is Pacat’s hero, and Aiden is Brennan’s. All four boys are written well, but Aiden is the one we spend the most time with, the one we empathize with the most, the one who gets the most laughs and the most developed backstory. He’s ever-so-slightly more in focus than the other characters.”

That’s less true here in Disarmed, where the focus shifts back to Nicholas and his quest to beat Jesse Coste. I’m planning to read the graphic novel Fence ASAP, but as of this review I haven’t read it; my understanding is that Nicholas vs. Jesse is a major element of the original series. I found myself wondering several times throughout Disarmed where Pacat’s Fence occurs. Is it concurrent with Brennan’s novels? Is it a prequel, with Brennan writing a sequel? Are Brennan’s novels the prequel? Are they slight alternate universes? I can’t really tell, because my outside impression is that while Aiden and Harvard are together in the graphic novel, Nicholas has not yet polished his skills or challenged Jesse. Maybe I’m wrong. In any case, Disarmed centers more on Nicholas than Striking Distance did, and that changed focus for some reason highlighted my feeling that I might be missing something. I guess I’ll find out in a week; I requested the graphic novel from the library and am hoping I’ll get it soon.

Continue reading

Anna K (Book Review)

I don’t know where I first heard about Anna K by Jenny Lee. For whatever reason, though, once I was aware of it, I kept seeing it everywhere. There are lots of very, very positive reviews for it and I was increasingly sure that when I finally read it I would love it. After all, it’s a YA retelling of classic novel and it was reimagined with a Korean-American family at its heart. When I like classic retellings, I LOVE them. I liked Anna Karenina when I read it years ago, and I have been looking to read more books by Asian authors and starring Asian characters, so from the outside Anna K looked like it was going to be a home run.

It wasn’t, unfortunately.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

About halfway through Anna K, I—like Levin—understood something. There is absolutely no way to adapt Anna Karenina as a young adult novel. The really successful retellings take the core of the original story and transplant it into a different setting where it can approach the same themes with a fresh spin. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is about marriage. There are three major storylines in it, and marriage is instrumental to them all. Dolly discovers that her husband has cheated on her, and she has to make the decision to stay with him and move past it in order to do what she believes is best for herself and her children. Anna has a passionate affair that dissolves her marriage and ostracizes her from society. And Levin pursues a young woman he wishes to marry. When you take marriage out of the equation, Dolly and Anna’s stories no longer work (Levin’s is still feasible). 21st century unmarried, childless, teenage Lolly (Anna K’s Dolly) has a lot more options when she discovers her boyfriend’s infidelity than her classic counterpart. As for Anna… teenagers break up all the time, and her choices and affair feel much less significant and far more frivolous when you realize that she had absolutely no reason to stay in a relationship she entered at age fourteen and, at seventeen, is already bored of. It might have been tricky to do a modern adaptation of Anna Karenina considering that society has changed so much—there are still sexist double standards, but a woman who has cheated is no longer such a pariah, and divorce is a far more common and accepted alternative for unhappy couples—but it is certainly doable. But trying to do it with teenagers? Without marriage? That was a fool’s errand.

Still, I’ll say this for Jenny Lee. She gives it her absolute best go. She adds plot elements and updates the material in order to try to get her story to mirror the spirit of the original as closely as possible. Alexander (Anna K’s Karenin) has a car wreck and Anna feels duty-bound to delay their breakup until he is off bed-rest. Towards the end of the novel, Anna hits her rock bottom not merely because of the affair but because someone releases a sex tape without her knowledge or consent. These little touches are needed and show Lee’s cleverness, but ultimately they are a few pieces of masking tape over the gaping holes.

It’s not my rantiest, but it feels slightly more considerate to mark overall negative reviews this way

Unfortunately, the issues with Anna K go beyond the unsustainability of a teenage Anna Karenina. If it were fun to read, all could have been forgiven. If Anna had been a sparkling wit or if Steven (Anna K’s Stiva) had been funny or if Anna and Vronsky’s love story had me swooning, it could have salvaged the whole thing. Sadly, it has no such saving graces. Most of the characters come across as vapid, privileged, irritating children. Anna feels particularly pretentious; she acts like she’s a high class lady of standing but everything she does is uncomfortably frivolous, particularly her love affair. This book is just one boring party scene after another. We’re told repeatedly that Anna and Vronsky have a lot of chemistry when they dance, but you can’t just say they danced and it was hot and have that be it. Lolly’s personality essentially boils down to basic rich white girl who tries too hard. Alexander (Anna K‘s Karenin) is a prick with few, if any, redeeming qualities. Dustin (Anna K’s Levin) is a little bit of a creep; his one dream in life is to go to Prom with a girl from the community’s deeply sexist Hot List, and while supposedly he does legitimately fall in love with Kimmie (Anna K’s Kitty), he does so at first sight and is entirely too preoccupied with the fact that she is quantifiably the third hottest sophomore. I can get behind any story if there’s one character I can glom onto and adore with all my heart. I couldn’t even find one here who didn’t annoy me.

Then there are even smaller irritants, like the fact that I was supposed to take a teenage boy called Alexia “The Count” Vronsky seriously. Lee updated everyone else’s names, but left “Count Vronsky?” WTF. No. Also, why change “Alexei” to “Alexia?” That’s just… weird.

And speaking of Vronsky, I was bewildered that Lee went so far out of her way to say that he doesn’t like horses, doesn’t ride them, hasn’t done for years, has no interest in them, etc. only to have the horse race with Frou-Frou’s death play out exactly as it does in the original novel. Anna K’s Vronsky rides a motorcycle. Why not have him crash in a bike race? Or why not just let him love horses? It would give him and Anna something to bond over, and it would keep the emotion higher in the horse race scene. Also, loving animals is a recurring theme in Anna K, much more so than in Anna Karenina, so it doesn’t make sense to remove Vronsky’s love for the horse.   

Ditto with all the trains. Why keep them in essentially their original form when the rest of the story no longer supports them? There are other dangerous vehicles out there. Trains were cutting age in Anna Karenina (and, obviously, a huge part of that story both thematically and literally), but every time someone takes one in Anna K I got pulled out of the story. Casually taking the train is not a thing people do anymore. Maybe a bullet train in Europe or Asia, but in the States? Why not put everyone on a bus? It’s less romantic and evocative of the original, but it makes more sense. Maybe Lee meant the metro every time she wrote “train,” but I spent the whole book thinking about how the only time I’ve been on a train was as a tourist when the train was the attraction.

Continue reading

June 2021 Wrap-Up

June was an interesting month. I feel like I got to read a bit more than usual, and I finally got through my intimidatingly large library stack, so I feel like I have slightly more control of what I’m reading now, since I’m no longer chasing overdue deadlines. I reread some books I’ve been meaning to get back to, which is always fun, and I read a few things outside my usual wheelhouse (which always feels good). I also had a fun time putting together some LGBTQ+ recommendations for Pride Month. I also, apparently, watched more interesting things, because I usually feel like writing about one or two shows that I saw a month, and this time I have a whole bunch that warrant mention.

Work has been a bit more stressful than usual recently since we’ve had some understaffing issues (everyone makes big life changes in the summer! Some are unavoidable, like moving away to go back to college, but everyone else needs to wait!), I’ve gotten some additional duties (it’s nice to move up in the world/company, but it comes with a lot more anxiety!), and my bad knees have been acting up.

But no amount of work stress is so bad that a good book and this cute face can’t cheer me up!

I haven’t published all these full reviews yet because I wanted to keep my schedule somewhat constant, but they should all be up within the next month or so (with the exception of To the Lighthouse, since this is all I wrote; reviewing classics is weird, so I only do it if I have a lot of thoughts). Without further ado, here’s what I read in June….

Continue reading