This has been a strange month. On one hand, it was great. I took a week’s vacation and visited my brother with my parents, which was a lot of fun. We hiked, we played board games, and we ate good food. In other words, a great vacation (only not perfect because my sister was too busy studying with Dreamworks). Then I had a massively cool fangirl moment when my belovedLeighBardugo put my Grishaverse anniversary post on her Instagram story; mine was the least elaborate cosplay on there, but it was insanely exciting to get noticed by my favorite author.
But of course every vacation has to end. I went back to work and it absolutely sapped my energy and I spent the second half of June as a corporate zombie, stumbling my days through work trying to ignore the fact that Texas is the worst and wondering if maybe I should rethink all my life choices. It’s just been kind of a rough month, and I didn’t exactly help myself out with my usual creative outlets. I wrote less, read less, and worked out less than I have in a very long time. In any case, here’s to a better July.
I love Greek mythology and I love feminist books, so I expected to love this. It’s okay, but I expected more. Of course a straight (pun lightly intended) retelling of Greek heroics is going to leave the mortal women largely on the sidelines, but the overall impression of Elektra is hearing about something second- or third-hand. Our three POV characters are far removed from the main action and spend most of their time waiting for their men’s arrival and ruminating on the wrongs done to them. Even though Saint does an excellent job with Clytemnestra’s story and her emotion, for the most part Elektra feels like a blurry best-hits of the Trojan War; it is deeply unfortunate is that, instead of enjoying the women finally getting a voice, I kept wishing we could exchange one of the POVs for Achilles or Odysseus or even the detestable Agamemnon so that I could get in close to the action instead of just waiting and waiting for something to happen. I also found it an odd choice to name the novel for Elektra, arguably the most one-dimensional and antifeminist of the three leads, rather than picking something that better accounted for the full scope of the story.
Pride? Yes. The Song of Achilles presents the relationship between the hero Achilles and his beloved Patroclus as a romantic and sexual one, and that relationship is the beating heart of the novel.
After reading Elektra, I knew I had to reread The Song of Achilles. Even in Elektra there were moments where the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus (spelled “Patroklus” in Elektra) felt like maddening empty space. Admittedly The Song of Achilles is the version of the Trojan War that I’m the most familiar with, but that being said: to me, the story just doesn’t fully make sense without that love story at its center. And it is a beautifully tragic love story that manages to keep a very human, vulnerable core even while telling a story of gods and heroes, fate and legend. Miller is a spectacular writer, and reading her mythology retelling back-to-back with one by another writer really solidifies how fantastic she really is. It takes a special kind of talent to retell an epic and make it feel both as grand in scale—while still, somehow, impossibly, intimate—and as lyrically beautiful as ever before. This is an absolute must-read for anyone even passingly interested in Greek Mythology. If you were a Percy Jackson/Rick Riordan kid, you should be a Madeline Miller adult.
We’ve made it to June! May was a hectic month for me; between my sister’s graduation, increased business at work, and coworkers taking vacations I have been exhausted. That’s possibly why I spent so much more time in May reading and watching TV instead of doing literally anything else (like, specifically working out. RIP my athleticism). At least I read some good books and watched some good TV. I got very deeply obsessed with Nine Perfect Strangers and Stranger Thingsthis month, reread some great books, got some ARCs, and even expanded my usual reading habits to include some nonfiction and middle grade novels.
Is is just me, or is 2022 the slowest year of all time? Do you know how many times I’ve written “2023” on things this year because it feels like it has been going for at least 20 months? So many. It’s gotten so bad that I was talking to a coworker and accidentally said that it felt like 2024. It hasn’t been a bad month, exactly, but it has been interminably long and somehow none of the projects I started are anywhere close to being done even though you’d think they would be after a month that felt like two years.
The most important thing that happened this month is that I finally took the picture that I’ve been meaning to take for nearly two years: Darcy posing with a copy of her namesake. Look how adorable she is!
A new book from Darius the Great is Not Okayauthor Adib Khorram that deftly handles issues of morality politics, white and straight privilege, and young sexuality while still telling an engaging story full of flawed but likable characters? Yes, please. I had high hopes for this one because I liked Khorram’s previous books so much, but it did not disappoint.
I rad this because it was one of Barnes and Noble’s monthly picks. It’s not something I otherwise would have picked up because it is horror and that’s not my jam, but it kept me reading and I made my way through it very quickly. I would recommend it to someone looking for a compelling wlw romance, but it wouldn’t be my first suggestion if someone was looking for a solid plot as there are some noticeable pacing issues and plot holes that are characteristic of a debut novel.
This is one of my favorite fantasy series. I recommend it all the time and with a lot of enthusiasm, and I convinced a friend to read it. And then I got so excited that she was reading it that I decided to reread it along with her. It was just as much fun the second time around. Schwab did an incredible time with this trilogy. The characters are incredible. The magic and world-building are unlike anything I’ve come across, and the writing is so good that it makes it almost impossible to stop reading. It’s so amazing. If you haven’t read it, go read it now.
Happy April, everyone! I hope you had a good March and that you read some good books. I somewhat uncharacteristically read lots of new releases and graphic novels, neither of which is characteristic for me.
Here’s what I read…
Blood Scion by Deborah Falaye
This book is basically if you took the African fantasy setting from Children of Blood and Bone and combined it with the bloody intensity of The Hunger Games. It is a bold, confident debut novel that taps into racial trauma and rage to tell a story that is uncomfortably real but powerfully magical.
I’ve heard that this is actually a retelling of The Brothers Karamazov, and people’s opinions about it seem to depend on whether or not they’ve read it. Those who have see The Family Chao as a cleverly done homage to the Russian classic. Those who haven’t are bothered by stereotypical elements, unlikable characters, and iffy pacing. I have not read The Brothers Karamazov, and unsurprisingly I fall into that latter group. The Family Chao didn’t do it for me. It’s not terrible, but I didn’t like it all that much and it really just made me crave Chinese food.
Love and Freindship: And Other Youthful Writings by Jane Austen
I adore Jane Austen, and while I’ve read all her official novels and most of her more popular unfinished work—Lady Susan, Sanditon—I’d never gone deeply into her early work. Knowing that, a friend gave me a pretty version of Love and Freindship, a collection of Austen’s childhood writing. While I wouldn’t necessarily call it a great read on its own, it is fascinating from the standpoint of a writer and longtime Austen fan. Even in the earliest writing, you can see glimmers of the writer who would eventually produce the novels we all know and love. I thought the pathways to Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility seemed particularly clear. Austen’s love of parody and satire was borne young, and her stories are funny and surprisingly dark. Not being a historian, I also really appreciated the notes and cultural references that are clarified in the back, because the information back there is fascinating and added a dimension to the work that I would have entirely missed without it. For what it’s worth, though: if I ever get super famous and someone decides to posthumously release all my young writing… don’t feel like you have to preserve my spelling errors.
Heartstopper Vol. 3 & 4 by Alice Oseman
I adore Alice Oseman’s novels. They’re incredible and Oseman is easily one of my favorite writers. I’ve been pushing her books for years, so it has been really exciting to see her popularity blow up in the last few months. I’m less delighted that it’s Heartstopperthat’s climbing the charts and making it to Netflix, though. Don’t get me wrong: Heartstopperis sweet. It’s cute. I enjoyed it a lot, but when I compare it to her other novels—particularly Solitaire, as it is where Nick and Charlie originated—I’m disappointed. If I were to summarize my favorite things about Oseman’s novels, I’d go with the diversity (particularly her inclusion of criminally underrepresented groups like asexuals), the way she deftly handles mental health, and the complex relationship her characters have with growing up in the modern world. At least in volumes I and II, Heartstopper doesn’t engage with those themes quite as much. It’s fun to see Nick and Charlie fall in love, but one of my favorite things about them initially is the way that Oseman navigates their relationship concurrently with Charlie’s OCD and anorexia. Heartstopper is straightforward and happy, which is great, but it’s not really what I read Oseman for.
Then a coworker told me that volumes III and IV start to engage with Charlie’s mental health, and I got interested again. That plus the recently announced TV show release date (April 22) told me that it was time to reengage, so I did. I’m glad I did, because I like these volumes better. I like the increased presence of the boys’ friends and family members, including Radio Silence‘s Aled and Solitaire‘s Tori and Michael. I like the increased focus on Charlie’s health, particularly since it engages important subjects like the fact that romantic love can’t fix mental health issues and that mental health issues do not make one unlovable. I like that the story engages with LGBTQ+ issues like the difficulties of repeatedly coming out in different situations to different people, continually, forever. I like that the secondary cast is diverse (there’s a pair of lesbians, a Black girl, a trans girl, and an Asian guy). I like that Nick’s cute dog gets more pagetime and that he gets a second cute dog. I still don’t love Heartstopper as much as I do Oseman’s more traditional (yet more groundbreaking, in my opinion) novels, but my affection for it has certainly increased. I just hope that eventually the enthusiasm for Heartstopper extends to Oseman’s other work (and makes it easier to find in the US faster)!
The Girl From the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag
Yes, apparently I was into reading graphic novels this month. I don’t do that often, but occasionally I step outside my comfort zone. I’m still not great at it, but I’m getting better! This book is on the shortlist for the Barnes and Noble YA book of the year, and I decided I’d pick it up. Ideally I’d read all the nominees—I eventually want to read The Sky Blues, Ace of Spades, and potentially Iron Widow—but this one was short enough that I could knock it out in less than an hour. It’s the story of a closeted young lesbian who, thinking she’s dreaming, kisses a selkie and thereby grants her the ability to walk on land. What follows is a sweet story that is part romance, part uncomfortable coming-of-age, and part call to environmental action. It feels a bit like a Little Mermaid retelling, but is ultimately its own thing. It’s very cute and very quick, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in queer graphic novels.
Loveless by Alice Oseman
I told you I love Oseman! In honor of Loveless finally getting released in the US and being picked as the BN YA book club, I decided that it was high time for a reread. It’s a really great platonic love story, and we need more of those. It’s also a really great coming out story. There just aren’t a lot of aroace protagonists, so having a novel with not one but several ace characters (Georgia, Sunil, Jess, Ellis, and arguably even Jason) is incredible. Rereading it, I also found and enjoyed a bunch of fun Easter eggs. Georgia reads Jimmy/Rowan fanfiction and listens to Universe City. Just those tiny references have really put me in the mood to reread the rest of her books. They’re just so thoughtful and lovely. Loveless still isn’t my favorite—I love it a lot, but a lot of it feels like visiting my own brain and calling it fiction—but it’s still great and I’m super excited that it’s getting mainstream attention. And how cute is that new cover!?
I’d been meaning to read this book ever since I found out that it is author Maggie Stiefvater’s favorite of her own work. It’s no secret that I am a huge Raven Cycle fan, so I was interested to see what it was like. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I expected or hoped to. I mean, I LOVED Ronan, Adam, Noah, Gansey, and Blue. I would read about them just sitting around doing nothing. So it was a little disappointing to go into The Scorpio Races expecting to fall in love with the characters and walk away feeling largely ambivalent. I cared a bit. I didn’t root for them to fail or anything, and I wanted them to get what they were after, but I wouldn’t have been deeply devastated if it didn’t end with a happily-ever-after. It’s always a risk when there’s a romance at the heart of a story. If you don’t buy Puck and Sean together, their novel isn’t going to hit right and even though I liked them both and supported them individually, I simply couldn’t get invested in their teamwork or their relationship. Still a good book, but I’m not exactly itching for a sequel (which is for the best, since it’s a standalone).
This was a book club pick, so I never expected to adore it. For what it’s worth, I liked it more than previous book club books, and I did read it relatively quickly. Divorced from the comparisons to activelybadbooks, One Italian Summer looks pretty good. Against books generally it doesn’t fare as well, as the emotional core of the story is lost in the countless descriptions of food and clothing. I don’t care how good at packing someone is; there’s no way someone could pack that many pairs of shoes for a vacation. The main character seems to change clothes for every meal, and she has a meal at least every one or two pages. It’s frustrating, and would be frustrating enough even without the weirdly codependent relationship our protagonist has with her mother and the half-hearted and quickly-reached conclusion. If you like reading food descriptions and are deeply nostalgic for the Amalfi Coast, by all means check out One Italian Summer. If you don’t and aren’t, this is certainly not a must-read.
Another month gone! I set up Blind Date with a Book at work for Valentine’s Day, which was really fun (and we sold just short of 200 books off it, all handpicked YA books that deserve more love than they get). I got to show off books that don’t get nearly enough attention or that have bad titles or covers that turn people away. (Talkin’ to you, The Petrified Flesh. Whoever retitled and redesigned Reckless messed up in a huge way, because that is a spectacular novel that used to have a gorgeous cover and now it has a bland cover and a horrible title). I also got to put my much-practiced describing-books skills to work. So that was fun. Other than that, things have been pretty boring. Darcy is taking a tunnels and jumps class that is deeply delightful, but other than that it has just been work and sleep.
Here’s what I read…
Jackpot by Nic Stone
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
I read this mostly because there was a big stack of it at work and I wanted to be able to sell it. I ended up being very pleasantly surprised. It’s a very well written book with a fun, scavenger hunt style plotline that has nuanced depictions of class privilege and race baked in. It has an interesting narrative style, a compelling romance, and a heartbreaking family drama all bubbling under the surface of a coming-of-age for a winning if over-serious heroine. I mostly liked Dear Martin, Stone’s first book, but she has improved vastly since then. I was very happy to sell this one as a Blind Date book. My description? Turtles All the Way Down meets In the Heights.
I decided to finally get around to my long-overdue reread of Turtles All the Way Down. I loved it when I first read it, right when it first released. While I did still really like it, I maybe liked it a little less this time around. It’s still a great depiction of a character with anxiety, and I do like the main platonic relationship… but that relationship is less central than I remembered, and the mystery plot gets wrapped up much sooner and much easier than I remembered. I still think this is a great book, but I no longer think it’s in my top tier of John Green books. I mean, they’re all pretty top-tier. I don’t love Will Grayson, Will Grayson but the other ones are absolutely fantastic, the kind of books that you can read once for pleasure and then keep going back to for the additional layers of nuance. I got to buddy read this one with my sister, which was fun as I haven’t done that in a while.
I was immensely excited to get an ARC for this one, because I adore V.E. Schwab’s work. This was a good one, but it doesn’t reach the heights of Schwab’s other work. This book has a lot of potentially interesting ideas but they don’t ever seem to fully come together. I was halfway through the novel before I had any idea of what exactly the plot was going to be, and when we got there it felt like it came and went too quickly. It’s a shame because both the characters and the setting have a lot of potential, but it’s never fully realized and it just made me want to reread A Darker Shade of Magic.
I was very excited to read this, because I loved Last Night at the Telegraph Club so much. Add to that accolades from fantastic writers like Leigh Bardugo, Rainbow Rowell, Holly Black, Nina Lacour, and Kristin Cashore and I was certain this would be a winner. And that was even before I found out that this was a wlw fantasy retelling, and one of the earliest LGBTQ+ YA fantasy novels. So my expectations were sky high. And the book is good. I just don’t know that it reached my expectations. The pacing is a little odd, and the writing feels a bit distant. That being said, I love the dark fairy lore and the casual lesbian relationship. This isn’t my favorite Cinderella retelling, but I’m glad it exists for the walls it—and Lo—knocked down for YA literature.
I finally got around to reading this behemoth of a novel after it trended hard for like two years. It’s such an immense novel that even I—who loves getting lost in massive series—thought twice about picking it up. I’m glad I finally read it, though, as it is very well written and manages to create a rich world filled with complex characters with only a single novel. Is it the size of several smaller novels? Sure, but it’s still very cool to come across a stand-alone fantasy novel that’s this good, as fantasy usually comes in multi-book packages. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to anyone who isn’t already into epic fantasy, but if you are… The Priory of the Orange Tree is a really good one.
I started watching this ridiculous show a few years ago because of the Grey’s Anatomy crossovers, and now I like it better (maybe because it doesn’t have Owen in it. I seriously can’t believe that Owen is still kickin’). It’s just the right amount of ridiculous to be highly diverting. That episode where they put out a flaming zamboni on ice skates? Hilarious. I finally went back and watched all the back episodes, and that was a lot of fun. I really like that, unlike Grey’s, it still focuses lots of energy on non-romantic relationships. Like, I’m onboard for a certain amount of romantic shenanigans but the familial feeling of the whole group—and the best friendship between Travis and Vic, specifically—is the show’s main strength. Just in general I love Travis and Vic. Plus it does a pretty good job of balancing fun, silly plotlines (an escaped tiger!) with more serious ones (Jack’s PTSD) and even relevant social commentary/calls to action (Dean’s storyline with police racism). I’m mad that Maya is getting shoehorned into that old everyone must have babies and anyone who says they don’t want them is wrong thing and of course I’m upset about what happened to Dean (I do NOT miss Pruitt or Ryan, though), but otherwise I’m having a lot of fun with it and very much looking forward to it every week.
Looking for Alaska
I’m a huge John Green fan (see above). I’ve read all his books multiple times and even met him once several years ago. Back when I ran a YA-specific book club, I picked Looking for Alaskaas one of our first books because it is a wonderfully fascinating book with complicated characters who are compelling but frustrating. I’ve loved it since I first read it because it is messy and mature and makes for a great conversation, not least because it’s unafraid to ask big questions even when there aren’t easy answers. I was very upset when the show first came out because it was on Hulu, which I didn’t have. Well, guess who has Hulu now? It was one of the first things I watched on the new platform, and I have to say: it’s a great adaptation. It’s been years since I last read the book, but from what I can remember this adaptation is almost beat for beat accurate. There are a few minor things that have been expanded or updated. Like, I think the Eagle got more fleshed out, and I don’t think OG Hyde has the same backstory, but for the most part it is massively faithful. It absolutely does justice to the book. I wish it hadn’t started with the wreck and that it had restrained itself from giving us that long, romantic shot of Alaska at the end of episode six but those are really small quibbles. I mean, I maybe wish that Takumi had gotten a little bit more to do because he was my favorite character in the adaptation (no one can catch the motherfucking fox), and he felt a little sidelined at times, but that’s about it. Looking for Alaska aged well, and that’s fantastic. If you like the book, you’ll like the show (and vice versa) and that’s pretty much the most glowing review of an adaptation that you can give.
It’s kind of amazing that, being the person that I am, I’d never seen RENT until this month. I mean the real stage version of RENT. I’d seen the movie multiple times, and I’d listened to full cast recordings, but I’d never actually seen it. But then the goodbye tour came through and I got to see it and I fell in love with it all over again. It’s such a beautiful, heartbreaking musical and every time I hear it a different part of it strikes me (this time, Roger and Mimi’s duet “Another Day” was the most powerful moment; also my Angel was absolutely phenomenal). After seeing it live I sought out both RENT: Filmed Live on Broadway and Fox’s RENT Live! I enjoyed both. Obviously nothing beats seeing it live—I never would have believed that Maureen’s protest song could be massively enjoyable! Or that a whole theatre would be happy to start mooing!—but I enjoyed both filmed versions. The former has Renée Elise Goldsberry and Tracie Thoms! Of course it is amazing! I’d been warned that Fox’s behind-the-scene injury/mess made it not worth watching, but for the most part I liked it. It’s sad that the audience screamed through “What You Own” since that’s my favorite RENT song, and everything about Angel was bad (that must’ve been a stunt casting gone wrong, because yikes), but on the whole Fox’s version doesn’t suck as much as I’d been led to believe. I hope Jordan Fisher gets another chance to play Mark, though, because he was great. There’s a reason that lots of people cite RENT as a show that has changed their life. I don’t know that I’d go that far, but it’s certainly a musical that gets really stuck in my head and heart and refuses to leave.
Is it just me, or has this been the longest month in the history of months? Every time I look at the calendar I’m surprised because it feels like it should be at least mid-April by now. It hasn’t been a bad month, exactly, although it’s always depressing to go back to work after a vacation, but somehow life in general has managed to be even more tiring than usual.
Still, I read a few good books and got to see some absolutely fabulous shows! And Darcy continues to be as sweet as ever! Seriously: look at this precious face:
Here’s what I read…
Counting Down With You by Tashie Bhuiyan
Rating: 2 out of 5.
This is definitely a typical romance for the tropey romance crowd. It gets a few diversity point for having a Muslim heroine, but aside from that there’s not much to recommend. The truth of the matter is that I’m never going to like a romance that plays the fake dating trope straight, and this one did. If you like that trope, you’ll love this. If you’re like me, this is one to skip.
It is actually a total coincidence that I read two romances in a row with the world ‘count’ in the title. Of the two, I preferred this one. It’s still not really my cup of tea, but it is a quick, enjoyable read with likable heroines and a mostly compelling love story. It hinges a bit too heavily on the dreaded unnecessary miscommunication trope so many stories have going for them, but other than that it’s not bad. It is the third book of a series, though. You don’t have to have read either of the other two books (I didn’t even know they existed until after I’d finished!), but it’s still good to know.
Every year, I reflect back on what I read and take a moments to reflect on some of my more noteworthy discoveries. I start with my ten favorite (new-to-me) books because I love recommending the stories I love. And then I make another list of my ten least favorite books from the year because ranting is fun. So here’s what my brother calls my annual burn list.
10) Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart
To be honest, this book isn’t horrible. It’s just vaguely boring, a bit confusing, and a too-soon depiction of the early days of COVID (which I am not ready to relive). There are definitely some good things about it, like the way it taps into traditional Russian storytelling and recalls writers like Tolstoy. The problem with it is that it is about a bunch of well-off people bunkering down to wait out the pandemic. I’m pretty tired of thinking about the pandemic all the time, and when I read I generally don’t want to revisit the worst of what’s happening now in the real world. It’s also notable that none of the characters in Our Country Friends really experience the pandemic. It’s weird knowing that a huge percentage of the population suffered worse than these characters; you expect people in books to have more dramatic, difficult lives than realpeople. COVID is just an excuse to get them all together, and a way to make the book more topical. It’s also pretty predictable. You can tell within the first few chapters who is going to have an affair with whom, who isn’t going to get along, and who is going to (spoiler) die.
So yeah. It’s not bad, but I didn’t enjoy it and wouldn’t recommend it except maybe to future scholars who want to study COVID-19 through the fiction written about it.
Okay, with this placement it seems like I’m just dunking on the Russians. I promise I’m not. The problem with Anna K is that it took on a challenge it was not equipped to handle. There’s simply no way to take a novel that is about marriage and adultery in the 1800s and adapt it as a teen romance in the 2020s. You can’t turn Anna Karenina—a woman who stays in a suffocating marriage to a visible and well-regarded government official for the sake of her son—into a seventeen-year-old. I applaud the attempt. You can see the effort Lee put into making the story work, and in some places she makes really clever updates, but at the end of the day the story isn’t sustainable. I hope someday Jenny Lee writes a wholly original book, or picks a novel with themes that do work in the modern day with a teen cast, because she’s clearly talented. Anna Karenina just wasn’t the move.
8) When You Get the Chance by Robin Stevenson and Tom Ryan
What is this book about? It’s hard to summarize because it has at least three different plotlines that have very little to do with each other and which all needed significantly more pagetime to make any impression whatsoever. It’s hard to actively dislike When You Get the Chance because it is very sincere and it clearly means well, but it’s frustrating because every time it picks up momentum it comes to a screeching stop and restarts something entirely unrelated. It throws in more characters instead of taking the time to develop the existing ones. By the time you get to the end—which doesn’t take very long, because this book is very short—you’re scratching your head trying to figure out how everyone got where they are now. How has the rude, selfish, borderline alcoholic party boy turned into a model citizen after one conversation? Why exactly are these siblings suddenly coming together after nearly a decade of animosity? This book is frustrating because it has so much potential. It’s billed as a roadtrip-to-Pride book, but the roadtrip to Pride just arrests the development that the protagonists were building towards at home, and the whole things feels like that one episode in a TV show that everyone hates (think: Lost’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” Ted Lasso‘s “Beard After Hours,” or Stranger Things‘ “The Lost Sister”). It adds nothing but resentment for the story we might have gotten in its stead.
7) Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller
I was promised a female Captain Jack Sparrow. I expected a ridiculous heroine with bad manners and significant swag to chaotically win my heart with pirate shenanigans. What did I get instead? A swooning damsel in distress who could claim to be the baddest sailor on the seven seas until she was blue in the face, but who is only ever able to come up on top when there’s someone around she can seduce. This was such a disappointment. I was really feeling a good swashbuckling pirate story. I did not want a cheesy, trope-laden romance and I particularly didn’t want one with lightly misogynistic underpinnings. Maybe if I’d known going in that this was going to be a romance I might’ve liked it more, but I didn’t know and I was hugely let down and annoyed.
I read this one because some liar recommended it for Six of Crowsfans. The Merciful Crow is not a good book by any stretch of the imagination, but put beside the Grishaverse? Oof. Personally, I generally steer clear of romance unless I’m in a certain frame of mind. I hate it when I’m in a fantasy mood and get bamboozled into reading a badly-written romance between two bland, one-dimensional characters whose connection more or less boils down to an Avril Lavigne lyric. So, no. The romance isn’t good. But if you focus on the fantasy, The Merciful Crow is even worse. Want a book with a political/religious system with basically no rules, but still manages to be illogical? In the mood for a vague threat that never develops beyond if she takes the throne everything is over? Ever think, heroes these days are just too smart; why can’t I root for someone whose plans are absolutely nonsensical? Longing for some heavy-handed allegory that falls apart as soon as you think about it for more than two seconds? If so, this is the book for you. It was not the book for me.
Very, very near the end of We Begin at the End, the novel acknowledges a few of its hero’s flaws. Up until that point, I’d thought the author was blind to the arrogance and dangerous recklessness of his protagonist. It was nice to get the reassurance that Whitaker knew that his character was not the wonderful, caring, perfect hero he’d previously been billed as. But it made me ask… how much time should you have to give a book before it makes a case for itself as being worth reading? I spent the whole time thinking this man is horrible. Does no one realize how terrifying he is? But I wondered it in a sort of detached way because I assumed Whitaker didn’t know. Why did I assume that? The casual misogyny and mixed messaging from the rest of the book. Every single female character in this novel is one-dimensional (yes, including the co-lead) and sexualized. One of them exists purely as a reward for the main character, to be bestowed upon him when he gets his act cleaned up. Then there’s the theme that you have to move on with your life instead of continually looking back… that finishes off with our supposed hero achieving everything he wanted/had back in high school as if the time in between didn’t matter. It’s not enough that Whitaker eventually acknowledges that a policeman going rogue and brandishing weapons at suspects isn’t acceptable. If We Begin at the End had been a better book, I might have trusted Whitaker to do the right thing. But it’s not a better book, and if I didn’t finish everything I start I certainly would have DNF’d it far, far before I reached that bit. Even with that, for the record, this is still not a good book. It’s just not as bad as I though it was when I was halfway through.
The front half of this book is actually pretty good. Atmospheric, interesting, reminiscent of classic gothic romances. And then the fantasy/witchcraft kicked in and wtf. It’s like someone completely different took over the writing of the book. Someone considerably worse at writing and considerably less attached to reality. I read a review from someone on goodreads (I wish I knew whose it was so I could link/credit it) that suggested that the author must’ve tried her own magical ritual before writing this book, and honestly that would explain it. The ritual, for reference, involves a lack of food and sleep, and an abundance of cocaine. I honestly don’t even have words for the second half of this book. It’s barely coherent, but it tries so hard to make its nonsensical magic sound scientific that it’s actually a little embarrassing. Also, for a horror book, The Death of Jane Lawrence is so dedicated to romance that it undercuts its own attempts to be frightening and ends up almost entirely devoid of scares.
Ah, yes. The first of the three books that have unlocked the rare “Book Rant” honor. You know it’s bad when I hate a book so much that I can’t even bring myself to call my take a “review.” The main problem with this book is that it is maddeningly boring. It somehow manages to spend a lifetime with its characters and yet never lets the reader get to know them. Someone dies every other page, but the deaths seem only to show the passing of the time and all the focus is on the reprehensible protagonist. Reprehensible? You ask. Isn’t she a progressive, feminist nun? Sure, supposedly. Our “hero” is, yes, a lesbian nun who revolutionizes her abbey and creates a supposed female utopia. Except if you told me that Matrix was written by a homophobic misogynist to demonstrate why women and feminists are horrible, I’d believe you. And yet I wasn’t even all that engaged in hating the horrible protagonist. I would just roll my eyes and think is this seriously what we’re doing now? because it’s just that boring. I spent the whole time I was reading this alternating between falling asleep and counting to see how many pages I had left. It could not end soon enough.
The problem with this book can be illustrated almost entirely by one very awful scene. Two girls get in a fight, and shortly afterwards one falls into a sinkhole. The plot of the entire novel hinges on this scene, but for the scene to work every single person in it has to act wildly out of character and make a total 180 immediately afterwards. If your plot hinges on this scene, but this scene doesn’t work for any of your characters… something needs to change. Beyond that, though, the book is simply terrible. No character’s motivations ever make any sense, and the only reason I can come up for why they do what they do is that Langan really wanted a horrifically bloody ending. She also expected me to swallow some really huge, bitter pills… like the fact that an unhinged psychopath who would beat a child’s head in with a rock just because is somehow an empathetic character, or that a Grammy-winning singer and his conventionally attractive wife would be ostracized by their wealthy neighbors just because they’ve got tattoos. I felt like the point of the book was carnage. The characters don’t make any sense or inspire any affection or empathy, but Good Neighbors doesn’t really seem to have a cohesive thematic point, either. Novels should entertain or enlighten us. Good Neighbors doesn’t. It’s frustrating, and no tricky narrative device can wholly distract from a storyline that pushes towards violence merely for violence’s own sake.
Back in September, when I wrote my initial review of The Paper Palace, I said: “At the end of December, I make lists of my ten favorite and least favorite reads from the year. There’s still some time to go before I start compiling those lists, but I’d be willing to bet nothing beats The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller for the number one spot on the worst books list.” I was correct. I read a few more clunkers, many of which also made this list, but nothing came close to touching Heller’s hellish cacophony of sexual trauma. The Paper Palace is about children getting repeatedly sexually abused and raped, but it tries to play itself off as a love triangle. The fact that there are people out there reading this book without having their stomached turned is absolutely insane to me. I felt sick reading this, and I’m honestly horrified that it was published and lauded, especially without copious trigger warnings.
So long, 2021. We thought you would be better and less COVIDy than 2020. I’m not certain you were, but if you were, it wasn’t by much. Still, the year wasn’t all bad for me. I was promoted at work, which is always good even if it is rather exhausting. Musicals have started touring again, and I got to see two wonderful shows—Come From Away and Cats—which was one of things I was most anxious to see triumphantly return (I haven’t gone back to playing volleyball yet, sadly). I got to meet up with a friend from high school I haven’t seen in nearly a decade. I got a new computer, and I met a few authors when they stopped by my local Barnes and Noble. No one in my family has gotten sick. Darcy has grown from a tiny precious puppy to a slightly larger but equally precious (and still small) puppy. So for me personally, it’s been okay.
As always, though, this year has been spent reading. Because I spent so much time working, I didn’t have as much energy to write or play volleyball like I have in years past, which means that my book total went up. *Sigh* I used to read more than a hundred books a year regularly. One year I read a hundred and fifty books and I realized… I love to read, but at a certain point I’m reading so much that I’m not doing really anything else. Since then I’ve been giving myself the goal of finishing the novel I’m writing (or at least a full draft) or of actually getting in shape, or learning how to be a more functioning human adult. So I set my goal at seventy-five books (with 10% of those being classics). I did not do that. I read 108 books this year. Here’s to being a functioning adult in 2022. Here’s the breakdown:
Out of my 108 books, I read…
64 YA books (59.2%)
7 young reader/junior fiction books (6.5%)
37 adult books (34.2%)
Of those, I read…
8 classics (7.4%)
5 nonfiction books (4.6%)
82 books that were new to me (76%)
26 old favorites I’d read before (24%)
7 graphic novels (6.5%)
50 sci-fi/fantasy books (46.3%)
7 historical fiction novels (6.5%)
7 mysteries or thrillers (6.5%)
28 contemporary fiction novels (25.9%)
Honestly, that’s about what I expected. It was mostly YA, mostly fantasy, and not enough classics. I was a little surprised that I didn’t read more contemporary books since my impression is that I read a lot of LGBTQ+ romance, and I thought I’d read more mystery, but otherwise that’s very in line with what I expected. Next year I hope to get my classic and nonfiction numbers up, but since I say that every year, I’m not deeply optimistic that it’ll happen.
But enough about last year. This post is really about my top ten books of the year, so let’s get into that!
I hope that you all had a safe and happy holiday. Mine was fun. I got to see some family that lives in a different state, and I got to meet up with a friend that I haven’t seen since high school. I also got to take a very much needed week off work, which means I actually fully enjoyed the holidays for the first time in several years. I slept in, read a bunch, lost badly to my siblings in Smashbros, and finally had enough family around to play the absolute best game ever, The Game of Things (seriously; get a group of your closest, most inside-jokey friends together and play this game. It is the greatest). This was Darcy’s second Christmas, and there are few things cuter than having a puppy help you unwrap gifts. Plus, she’d just gotten her hair cut and broke out the Christmas bandana, so the cuteness was even more off the charts than usual.
Since it’s the end of the year anyway and I figure December wrap-ups get lost in the flurry of yearly retrospectives, I decided to make things easy on myself and do one sentence reviews here of all the books that have or shortly will have full reviews. For the two books that I left off writing full-length reviews, I’ll go into a bit more detail.
I met Ruby Dixon in person and she was extremely nice; that interaction made me like Ice Planet Barbarians more than I would have in other circumstances, as it is more romancy and sexual than I’m generally comfortable with.
When compared to the other books I read for book club this year, Our Country Friends is great, but compared to all other books, it’s merely okay; I didn’t connect to it and felt that its depiction of early-COVID days felt a little too soon.
November is always a difficult month. Between work picking up—oh, the joys of retail in the leadup to Christmas—and NaNoWriMo, I didn’t have a whole lot of spare time. To save myself the effort of writing lots of book reviews on top of NaNo, I filled the month with rereads. I LOVE rereading (which apparently is an unpopular opinion???) but I din’t do it as often as I’d like to because there are so many new books that I want to experience and sadly there is only so much time I can devote to books. Thankfully, new books from two of my favorite series have come out recently, making my reread choices very easy: Benjamin Alire Saénz and Mackenzi Lee entertained me immensely this month, packing it with four- and five-star reads. Which is good, because the disjointed 57k words I wrote this month are not a four- or five-star read.
Since I’ve written a lot recently, I figured I’d experiment here and do one-sentence reviews; all these books have or will shortly have full reviews anyway, so here we go.
While the first half of this novel recalls classic gothic romances like Jane Eyre or Rebecca, the second half devolves into an absolute mess of poorly conceived magical systems, inexplicable character regression, and painfully plodding pace; if you told me that a different person wrote the second half—or that it was the same writer, but very high—I would totally believe you.
This gorgeous novel chronicles a friendship-turned-romance between two boys on the cusp of adulthood; the way Saénz deals with complex issues like mental health, homophobia, racism, and growing up is incredible, and despite this being a reread I went through the emotional wringer with this one as dramatically as if it were the first time, and I enjoyed every page.
Even though I think that the original Aristotle and Dante book was a perfect standalone and that this book is therefore somewhat unnecessary, I still enjoyed it and was impressed by how well Saénz slid back into Ari’s narrative voice after so long; I wouldn’t necessarily call this sequel required reading for fans of the first, but it’s certainly worth a read.
This queer, sex-positive new adult romance is inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma and as such should have been one of my favorite reads of the year but is ultimately let down by a slight identity crisis and over-reliance on a few jokes that don’t quite land; it’s the sort of book that I read, mostly enjoy, and then forget so thoroughly that in a year or two I’ll see it in my Goodreads and say “I read that?”
I adore this totally bonkers thrill-ride of a novel that is part adventure story, part queer romance, part fantasy, part historical fiction, and totally fun; I’m always into books with diverse characters, as well as ones that blend genre in unique and interesting ways… plus I’m a total sucker for chaotic idiots with well-developed character arcs, so this book abso-bloody-lutely ticks every box for me.
The Montague Siblings trilogy is a really interesting series because of the way each novel follows a different sibling and therefore has a unique flavor that—despite fitting well into the whole—makes each installation very distinct; this second book, which centers on the asexual, ambitiously level-headed sister of book one’s aforementioned chaotic idiot, is a decidedly different experience but no less charming (or less full of adventure) for that.
This last book in the trilogy once again has its own distinct flavor, and it was a really strange but enjoyable experience to rejoin characters we first met in their late teens twenty or so years later as adults; as nice as it was to meet back up with Monty and Felicity, though, this book is the Goblin Adrian’s show, and he stalwartly stands up to the difficult task of coming after them to helm his own novel.
I hope you all had a good October. I didn’t have a particularly eventful month. There have been some renovations at work, which has been stressful, but that’s pretty much all that’s been going on. I dressed up as Kaz, which was fun.
This was my second book by Misa Sugiura, and I loved it. Love and Other Natural Disasters has cemented Sugiura as a go-to writer for smart, nuanced, sweet lesbian romance. This book subverts many of the usual romcom tropes and turns them insto something that is somehow even more romantic, but significantly less frustrating. I think this one would appeal both to people who love romance and those who hate it, because it averts most of the things that are most irritating (and/or traditionally toxic) about romantic narratives while maintaining the feel.
If you like the musical The Last Five Years, you will like Out of Love. They use a similar format to tell the story of a once-promising relationship that has fallen apart. Interestingly, like Love and Other Natural Disasters, it is a kind of anti-love-story love story. While it is about a relationship that ultimately fails and moves backwards from the breakup towards the first kiss, it is also a love letter to love. The most powerful thing about it is the way it makes a case for the beauty and power of love even when the relationship isn’t “the one.” A relationship isn’t a failure just because it ends, and that’s a beautiful sentiment.
It’s hard to believe that it’s already October! 2021 is flying by, not necessarily in that when-you’re-having-fun way, but flying nonetheless. The most important thing that happened this month is that this darling angel turned one!
That’s right! Darcy, the world’s sweetest puppy and this blog’s mascot (she deserves better), had her first birthday! In November, we get to celebrate her adoption day.
With the most exciting news out of the way, let’s move on to my literary recap.
Since I’ve written full reviews for all these books, instead of rehashing my thoughts I’m going to try something new: five-word reviews. If you’re interested in my full thoughts, the full reviews are linked as always (unless they’re not posted yet; some of the reviews are behind). We’ll see how that goes. Here’s what I read…
I was apparently in the mood to watch a bunch of campy musicals this month, because I watched a bunch of them. I’m still doing five-word reviews, but since in most cases I haven’t written about these movies and shows at all elsewhere, I’m elaborating a little more after the fact.
This was not my usual reading month. I was all over the place. I reread two of my favorite novels, but I also strayed well outside my usual tastes to read a thriller and a romance. I usually read YA almost exclusively, but I only read one this month, instead reading five books for non-young adults. (I wish there was a good name for those. There’s young readers/juvenile fiction and young adult but books for anyone older is just called “fiction,” which is misleading because YA and JF is also fiction. And you can’t just say “adult books” without people thinking you mean erotica.) I read books that I adored (so many five-star books!) and at least one that I despised (it’s not often that I fantasize about DNFing before I’m past the first chapter). I read books that have been out for years, books that were released recently, and one that hasn’t been published yet. I read new books by favorite authors, authors I’d never heard of before, and one book from an author I’d previously been lukewarm about. It is quite the assortment, and that’s pretty fun. Overall, I’d say that despite the bad start, this month was more good than bad from a book standpoint.
This is the most emotionally taxing book I’ve read in a long time (in a bad way). I honestly think that the misleading cover-flap summary was irresponsible by everyone involved. People need a heads up for something like this. I had a happy, healthy childhood and was immensely upset. I cannot even imagine how traumatizing this book would be for anyone who has suffered abuse. I felt nauseated all the way through and would have DNF’d it a dozen times if I didn’t have to finish it for a book club. Even aside from the negative mental health effects, the book just isn’t very good. The character motivations are vague at best and the flashbacks are messy, overused, and poorly done. I am very, very relieved to be done with it. However, I will add the caveat that I seem to be among a minority who feels this way. The others in my group called it a beach read and were able to brush past the more traumatic elements to focus on the love triangle, so make of that what you will.
Genre/categories: YA fantasy, meta fiction, romance (m/f and m/m), LGBTQ+ (bisexual and gay)
Read it or skip it?Read it!
I absolutely adore this book. It seriously could not be more fun. All my favorite things—ride-or-die friendships, great character development, relevant social commentary, smart humor, queer romance, fantasy shenanigans, fun worldbuilding, meta commentary—are here in abundance. It would be hard to find a book more perfectly catered to my tastes, and In Other Lands is every bit as great as that list makes it sound. I’ve now read this book twice, and I couldn’t put it down either time. It is somehow both hysterically funny and deeply emotionally touching. It feels like a let’s just chill out and have fun with it kind of book, but it also deftly incorporates more serious topics like sexism, mental health, and othering. A person could easily write an essay about this book, but it likely wouldn’t occur to them to do so because it is so much fun to read that it feels like a brain-off bubblegum book. I highly, highly recommend it.
Genre/categories: JF mystery, action/adventure, series (book 1)
Read it or skip it?Read it!
The release of the (excellent) Disney+ TV adaptation inspired me to reread this childhood favorite. Is there anything better than revisiting an old favorite and finding it just as lovely as you remembered? It’s easy to age out of stories, or to look back and realize with horror that there is stuff in it that is not okay/socially acceptable. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. The Mysterious Benedict Society is wonderful. It is so clever. It’s packed with puzzles, and the way that the four protagonists’ very different skillsets combine to create a formidable team is great. The loving and unquestionably supportive rapport between the characters is something you don’t often see. One character is a certifiable genius who can read at blistering speeds and remember everything; another is a clever leader; a third is street-smart and has a past as an acrobat that gives her incredible physical prowess. The novel celebrates what each member brings to the team and at no point is one character’s talents seen as preferable to another’s. And then there’s the simple fact that this book is funny. It’s heartwarming and clever and silly and it’s impossible to read it without a smile.
I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for so long! Today, August 18, is the 5-year anniversary of my first-ever blog post. I don’t think I ever envisioned blogging as regularly or obsessively as I do (even I think reviewing every book I read is a little excessive, but once you start it’s hard to stop). It’s been fun and weird. To celebrate the occasion, I picked five of my old posts to highlight.
It’s hard to believe that my first post was a movie review! When I started out, I must’ve thought I was going to review movies more often. That has definitely not been the case. I’ll still review the odd movie, but it is definitely not a priority.
It’s not surprising that my book club posts get the most engagement. They definitely take the most effort! I’d say it takes me somewhere between two to four hours to write my usual book reviews. My book club discussion questions, not counting the time it takes to take notes while I’m reading, take anywhere from eight to fifteen hours to put together. It’s a big commitment, which is why I haven’t been doing as many of them as I once did. That’s what happens when you move from part time to full time! I’m a little surprised that The Pull of the Stars is the most popular book, though; I’ve done a lot of book club discussions, and while I liked The Pull of the Stars, it’s not my favorite. It does make sense, though, as it is a pandemic book that was released during a pandemic.
It’s not surprising that more people read this post than others, because it is a very popular book. It’s also still relatively new, and I tend to be a little behind on new releases. What’s surprising is how many likes it got compared to other reviews I’ve written. If you ask me, it’s a pretty typical review. I liked the book a lot and said so, but that’s honestly about all I said. The more I think about it, the more I think that the likes have more to do with how I tagged the post than the post itself. Or maybe it’s because it’s a short review. I can get pretty wordy!
I don’t get a whole lot of engagement on my blog. I’m lucky to get a like or two, and I only very rarely get comments. This one, though, actually does get responses. Apparently I’m not the only one who really ships Erin and Andy from The Office and thinks that the show did them dirty. I think I may be one of the only people who has written a long rant about it, though, because it seems like the people who still think about Andy and Erin all find me. Ditto for the Outlander haters; my Outlanderrant is my second most commented-on post.
My Post That’s Most Like What This Blog Should Be!
I’m very proud of this essay, and if I had all the time and focus in the world, more of my posts would be like it. I adore books. I adore TV, and especially I adore adaptations. Few things give me more pleasure than reading a book and watching its adaptation back to back and then parsing out the changes; I went ham on this one. I chronicled every little change. I found specific images to accompany each entry. I analyzed, I made comparisons, and I even brought in my particular interest in feminism and queer theory. When I think about what I want this blog to be, it’s not just reviews (although that’s mostly what I do) or rankings of my favorite books (although that’s fun). It’s an in-depth look at stories, what they do, and how they’re told. I like to bridge the gap between casual reviews and literary analysis. I don’t do that often, but I manage it occasionally. I did a similar comparison post with Shadow and Bone, but it is nowhere near as insanely and nerdily detailed as this one.
Before I sign off, I want to give a shoutout to five other great bloggers who read and like my stuff. It makes me feel really good, guys, so thank you!
This has been a rough blogging month. My stats have consistently dropped by more than fifty percent despite my best efforts, which is probably the universe telling me to work on editing my book instead of continuing to write book reviews that only I ever read. Whatever. This is fun, that’s stressful, and this makes it easier to remember what I thought about everything I’ve read and therefore makes it easier to do my job (bookseller). Still, I think I’ll probably make an effort to reshuffle my priorities next month.
That said, I had a really fun time reading. I took a week-long vacation that was very much needed and got the chance to actually sit down and devote some time to the books I’ve been looking forward to. I’ve been rereading some of my favorite series because my favorite authors are all gifting me this year with new content. I also made an uncharacteristic but enjoyable foray into the world of graphic novels.
I read 18 books this month (not counting the Dream Trilogy’s prequel story Opal, which seems too short to count): 3 adult books, 5 graphic novels, 1 children’s classic, and 9 YA. Of that, the vast majority was fantasy: 11 were straight fantasy, with another 3 with sci-fi/fantasy elements (Fence was the only entirely realistic story I read this month). I also did a lot more rereading than usual: 8 rereads vs 10 new-to-me books.
new release, fiction, literary fiction, science fiction, horror
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
The Other Black Girl is outside my wheelhouse in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s an adult new release, and to be totally honest, I don’t usually read those. YA is my favorite, and for everything else I usually wait until I’ve seen enough reviews to know if the universe collectively has decided whether or not it is worth reading. Furthermore, The Other Black Girl is horror, or at least horror-adjacent (it’s usually compared to Get Out). I was a little nervous going in because I was afraid I’d be left with nightmares. Thankfully, it isn’t that kind of horrific. It does leave the reader with a sense of dread because the evil depicted inside it, while exaggerated into science fiction, is absolutely true to the real world. This is a story about institutionalized racism in the corporate world, which obviously lends itself well to horror. Psychological dread is depicted wonderfully and terribly here, so much so that the literal brainwashing almost feels secondary. It is brilliant, but I’m honestly a little surprised that it got published, because it is not flattering to the publishing industry. It doesn’t attack the industry, but it doesn’t try to hide the racism and self congratulatory fake-wokeness present there. The Other Girl is entertaining, but it is also powerful and eye-opening. I discussed this book with my (unfortunately entirely white) book club, and it is amazing what an education it was for some of us.
YA, graphic novel, series (vol. 1-4 of ?), sports stories, LGBTQ+*
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Last year, I read two graphic novels. This month alone, I read five. Weirdly, I both broke out of my usual reading patterns and very much upheld them this month. I read Fence initially because I adored Sarah Rees Brennan’s YA take on the characters. Maybe it’s pretentious of me, but I didn’t expect to love the graphic novels as much as I did. My goodness are they fun. The illustrations are aesthetically pleasing, and the characters are deeply compelling. The marriage of the writing and the pictures is wonderful, and it creates a universe I would happily spend hours in. I do wish that the individual volumes had more story to them; I felt that I was done almost as soon as I’d started, and find myself daunted at the thought of just how many years it will be before the story is complete. That said, I’m certain that I’ll read the rest of the series as it is released, because I truly loved it. If more graphic novels were like this, I would read more of them.
I read Black Sun partially for work and partially for me. It was already on my TBR, but then it got picked as Barnes and Noble’s July book of the month (one of them, anyway), so I figured I’d read it so that I could better sell it. It’s really good. I don’t always love the corporate picks, but sometimes they nail it and this time (and when they picked The House in the Cerulean Sea) they nailed it. Black Sun takes lots of familiar fantasy elements—a factioned society, a ruling religious elite, a badass female magicking her way through a man’s world, an alternating POV, etc.—and combines them to create something that is exciting if not entirely new. The multiple points of view and time jumps keep the story moving briskly forward and the result is an adventure that feels breakneck and keeps the reader flying through the story. It’s a big book (450-some pages), but it doesn’t feel big because it moves so fast and has so many surprises. It starts off quite brutally, but it is absolutely worth powering through the upfront gore to get to the more interesting parts.