Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

38739562With the Fire on High follows Emoni Santiago, an Afro-Puerto Rican teen mother, during her senior year of high school. She has always dreamed of being a chef, and this is the story of her finding out what she wants from her life through her Culinary Arts class. It’s a story about learning to believe in yourself and taking the steps to pursue your dreams even though they feel impossible; about finding a balance between your interests and needs and those of the people around you.
I loved every moment of it.

I loved it for Emoni’s character arc, her growth, for how she learns to believe in herself and make difficult choices about her future. I’m two years older than her, and making this kind of choices is still really anxiety-inducing; I can’t imagine how it would be to have to do that while dealing with the college application process in the US, which sounds like a nightmare.
I loved it for how it talked about the link between food and culture and memory, which is a topic I love to read about, and that matters a lot to me and that I’d love to see more of in books. I had never read of a main character who loved to cook as much as Emoni does, especially not in a book with the smallest maybe-magical twist (Emoni’s food awakens memories in other people and she has a sense for what a dish needs) and it was so refreshing. Also, I loved the inclusion of recipes. Be careful, though – apart from the recipes, the descriptions of food in the story itself are perfect and this is the kind of book that will make you hungry.

Another thing I appreciated was how this book portrayed a romantic relationship in which the love interest had no problem with waiting, with taking things slow, because Emoni needs that after the failure that was her previous relationship. She has responsibilities that the average teenager doesn’t have, as well – babygirl – and that also changes the whole dynamic. While I love reading about messy romances with complicated sides, showing that relationships like this can exist is important.
However, I wish the book had developed Malachi a little more. I did like him, but I never got a sense of who he was as a person apart from being a good boyfriend for Emoni.
Of the side characters, my favorite was Angela – she’s a lesbian and now also in a relationship and I loved her and Emoni’s dynamic, it felt real to me.

Overall, this was a beautifully written and heartwarming read that also encouraged me to learn a little more about my family’s recipes and cooking in general, so I really recommend it.

My rating: ★★★★¾


Acqua and Cooking

For an Italian, I know embarrassingly little about it. Because of past circumstances we’re not going to get into, my cooking skills pretty much stop at “how to hard-boil an egg”, and this book reminded me just how much I’d like that to change. I want to be able to do something more by myself, and I want to learn to cook like my family does. (I’m sure there are many great and easy recipes for beginners on the internet, but this isn’t only about the food.)

When I was eleven, I tried to convince my grandmother to teach me some of her recipes, which I still have written down. I never got around to actually trying them myself, and eight years later (and with help, of course), here we are:

This is called “pesce serra in zuppa“. I’m not sure how to translate that. “Pesce serra” is the Italian common name for Pomatomus saltatrix, known in English as “bluefish”, so this would be “bluefish in soup” if translated literally, but I don’t think this is the kind of thing people think when they hear the word “soup”. Anyway, it was good, so that’s something.


Have you read any of Acevedo’s books?

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Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Missing, Presumed Dead by Emma Berquist

40221949Now I have feelings, book, how dare you.

I love ghost stories. It’s not so much about wanting to believe in the paranormal or wanting to talk about what is after death; that’s not what draws me in. It’s that haunting stories are stories about isolation. There’s something inherently detached from reality in this kind of paranormal. They are stories about the word’s hidden pockets, the in-between spaces, for the lonely and the lost. They are about the weight isolation has on a person, and seeing Lexi’s journey with that, seeing how what the story does with this theme, meant so much to me.

Lexi is a bitter and deeply pessimistic person. The first impression I had of this story, before I really got to know her and her past, was that it really was a downer. And it’s not. I’m not saying this just because there is humor – dark and sarcastic, often, but it is funny – but because whether something ends up being depressing is about what a story does with its premise, and this might be dark, but it’s all but hopeless.
And, after all, how could Lexi not be the way she is? She can’t touch people without seeing the time and the cause of their deaths, and she avoids (and is avoided by) people for that reason. Stories often understate how much loneliness can affect a person. What matters is that she is not static in this, and the way the book ends up dealing with all of this was both original and right for the story. (Ghost therapy? Ghost therapy.)
By the way, giving your haunted and isolated main character a power that can double as a metaphor for significant touch aversion, and showing how people often don’t respect that kind of boundary, which only reinforces something that already is really isolating to deal with: great and painful content.

This is a story about an angry, isolated girl who can see death and the dead as she meets an angry, vengeful ghost of a murdered teenage girl (Jane), and their relationship was one of my favorite aspects of the book. In equal parts tender and raw, it’s messy and tangled and somewhat unbalanced, and the main character absolutely do say terrible things to each other, think terrible things about each other, harm each other. And yet. There is a conversation in which Lexi says that she’s not sure they’re going to work, and she thinks that trying and not making it could only hurt her more, but here’s the thing: I can see it working, and in the end, so does she. Because they finally talk about their feelings, and not wanting to deal with them was a big part of why their early interactions were toxic (so much that Lexi at one point thinks, paraphrasing, “I wish Jane would always be angry and vengeful instead of trying to make me think about my feelings”). The elephant-in-the-review I still haven’t talked about, which clearly had a strong negative impact on their relationship while at the same time bringing them together, also had a resolution.

About the relationship: (spoiler-y)

it’s so interesting to see a story about isolation through hauntings have this kind of resolution. Lexi finds friends and a girlfriend in the ghosts around her; they’re not the ones isolating her anymore, they’re a part of her world and just as human and the relationships Lexi ends up forging with them have the same value to her. She can’t be around living people the way everyone does – even though she does find some living friends as well and slowly accepts that they are in fact friends – and so she finds her people mostly among the dead.

But let’s talk about the aforementioned elephant, the reason I haven’t given this f/f ghost story about all the themes I love, following two angry bi girls I also loved, a full five stars. And that elephant is the murder mystery, the thing this book wants you to deceive it is. It’s not, really, even though the mystery drives a significant part of the tension. Get into this if you’re interested in an introspective story about isolation; as a murder mystery, it’s underwhelming. I did fall for one of the things the book threw at me, which I did appreciate, but this is the kind of book that doesn’t give you enough elements to solve the mystery along with the characters, and that’s always disappointing. Also, introducing this many (often irrelevant) male characters in the first chapters of a story meant that I kept confusing them, so that didn’t help either.

Overall, this was a really compelling paranormal read and I really recommend it to everyone who needs more queer ghost stories in their lives.

My rating: ★★★★½

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi

Review: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden

38914991A biopunk horror generation ship sci-fi novel with a main f/f relationship between two black girls, a strong and well-thought-out environmentalist message, really well written body horror, and, uh, plot-relevant tentacle sex.

I loved what it had to say and what it was trying to achieve, but some things – especially in the ending – just didn’t end up working for me. I’ve said this before about Nicky Drayden’s books, but there’s always something about the pacing, about the transition from one scene to the next, that just doesn’t flow as well as it should. The result is a stilted, odd-paced book. Here, the first 70% was interesting, if somewhat slow moving; then the book both gained steam and completely lost me. Things were happening too quickly, plotlines that were set up as a big deal were suddenly abandoned with very little consequence or even discussion, plot threads were left floating… like tentacles in empty space, I guess.

And it’s a shame, because this had so much potential. Escaping Exodusis set in a giant, dying space-faring cephalopod-like beast, and not only it has all the wonderful biological horror you can expect from this kind of setting, there are also discussions about classism and environmentalism – the dying beast situation is great as a metaphor for Earth and climate change – and how the two are tied; not enough books approach environmental justice even when talking about the consequences that a looming catastrophe of this scale has on people’s behavior. I also highlighted a good portion of one of Seske’s chapters, because I found it a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be a young person in this situation and feeling disappointed by the adults around you. As far as this aspect goes, I loved how the dying beast situation was handled in the end, with a focus on fixing things instead of running away.
However, even this aspect of the novel felt forced. This book felt as if it set out with the idea of having this message, of ending in this specific way, and didn’t give as much thought to the journey: the characters were led to that point as if they were marionettes, instead of getting there themselves.

And it couldn’t have felt any other way, not when the characters are so flat. I finished the book realizing that I still knew nothing about the two main characters, rich, privileged Seske and beastworker Adala, apart from them being young teens and… loving each other? At times? It’s really messy, and I might have appreciated that more, if not for the fact that a lot of things in here didn’t have the space and time to grow.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot to love about Escaping Exodus. I might have been annoyed that this book, after deciding that making sense was overrated, also deliberated that consistency was for the weak, but I thought the worldbuilding was amazing. I love reading about world-ships, and the book goes into enough detail about the anatomy to make me want to know more (so, a primary heart, branchial hearts and tentacles, like cephalopods? But it has bones? Are those tentacles or arms or both? I have questions) and the society that inhabits it was just as fascinating. In Escaping Exoduspolyamory isn’t just accepted, it’s expected, and just as the society has many layers and rigidly assigned roles, so do people in the family; one can see both where these things came from and why they’re damaging or stifling to many people. It’s a matriarchy, which was interesting to see as well. I did like that it talked about what happens to trans people in these circumstances, but I didn’t love how the major trans character basically paid the price for what happened in a way that the cis main characters didn’t.

If I had to describe this in a few words as a tl;dr, I would say that Escaping Exodus feels as if The Stars Are Legion and An Unkindness of Ghosts had a charmingly messy child that takes itself far less seriously than either of them. It reminded me of both, but it’s entirely its own, very weird thing. Not my favorite book by this author, and it had enough material in it that to properly address it I think it should have been a duology, but worth reading nonetheless.

My rating: ★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Impossible Contract by K.A. Doore

43263188When I heard that The Perfect Assassin was going to get a companion sequel that was also about assassins but with a main f/f romance, The Impossible Contract instantly became one of my most anticipated books of the year. And it didn’t disappoint.

While reviewing a sequel, one of the first things I think about is how the sequel is in comparison to the first book. And in this case, I can say that I’ve never read two books in the same series that had such different strengths. Where The Perfect Assassin was a slow-burn mystery all set in the same city, The Impossible Contract is a fast-paced journey book involving necromancy. It’s darker and bloodier – and, in a way, also messier than the first book, not as clear in its direction or themes, but way funnier at the same time.
I can’t tell you if it’s better or worse, but what I can tell you it’s that it’s different, and that I enjoyed it a lot more.

This is the story of Thana, the daughter of the famous assassin known as “the Serpent of Ghadid”. Thana has always wanted to prove herself, to be seen as something more than “the daughter of someone famous”. She wants to be a legend herself, and this new assassination contract seems to be her chance… except it’s impossible, and she ends entangled into a web of political and magical machinations that reach as far as the capital of the empire.

And help her meet a cute healer girl. I loved Mo so much, and her relationship with Thana. They are people with very different values and strengths and… they made it work anyway, but it wasn’t easy and seamless. Thana, who learns that she doesn’t have to be a copy of her mother; Mo, who learns to not deal in moral absolutes. And it’s so interesting to see how the romance storyline is a foil to the one in the first book.
(Also, Mo deserves the world and a hug.)

I can’t not mention the third relevant character, Heru, the man Thana has been hired to kill. He is a powerful en-marabi, a necromancer, and a really self-important, irritating man obsessed with researching magic. He ended up being the funniest character in the book – not by his intention – and ended up having all the best lines.
Also, he’s the reason me and Silvia keep making zombie camel jokes.

While I can’t talk about the villain without spoilers, I will say that for a character who got relatively little page time, they were really fascinating.

I talked about the worldbuilding in this series before, but can I just repeat how… not obvious and yet so logical it is to have a water-based magic system and economy in a desert fantasy book? And the repercussions that has on a world in which there’s also blood-based necromancy? This is how you do worldbuilding.

The only thing that didn’t work for me that much was the pacing. Journey books often have pacing problems, but in some places here it was clear that a scene had been cut and then summed up, so that sometimes we’re only told about things I would have liked to see – but that’s a minor complaint, and overall I really liked this.

My rating: ★★★★½

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

40794181I think that at its heart, The Ten Thousand Doors of January has a great message. It is based on some really clever and interesting ideas, especially the ones surrounding the role of doors, of magic and portal fantasy. I also thought that the writing was – usually, more on that later – beautiful without needing to draw that much attention to itself, every word chosen carefully. It had a harmony to it, as if it were made to be read out loud; I think it would sound amazing as an audiobook.

I was also going to say that this book had a solid portrayal of the psychological consequences of childhood abuse, but something that happened in the second half made me change my mind. One didn’t need that to make January’s struggle to talk back and disobey realistic. It kind of undermined the whole thing.
Anyway, abuse does have a relevant role in this story, as the biracial main character is raised by a racist white man and abused both by him and by her white maid; at one point the main character also experiences forced institutionalization and abuse at the hand of psychiatrists, which I wish I had known before reading.

The rest of the book is… fine. I don’t have much to say about it, because one of my problems with it was exactly how unremarkable it was. All the characters but January didn’t have any dimension to them. All the portal worlds but one are barely described.
Also, it took me more than two weeks only to get through the first 30%. It was partly my fault, but everything I have to say on the pacing isn’t good.

While I said that the author clearly put effort in choosing the right words, the same didn’t happen when it came to including Italian ones. This led to jarring sentences and weird moments, like the one in which the Italian-American love interest calls the main character a “strega”, as if that were a compliment. It does mean “witch”, yes, but not in the way the English word does. It doesn’t carry the same connotations, the aspect of the cool independent woman who saves herself. I asked the people around me, and it doesn’t make any of us think of mysterious, dangerous but alluring magic. A strega is an old woman with a pointy hat and warts. He basically called her a hag.

It might be that the character, having grown up in America, sees the word as just a translation – but then, why not use the word “witch”, if that’s what you mean. And why use Italian words at all, if you don’t even bother to get the plural right? Was that a sign of laziness, of not even caring that other languages don’t do plurals the way English does, or was it done to cater to monolingual anglophones who might be confused by an Italian plural but still want a sprinkle of ~exotic flavor~?
I don’t know, I don’t particularly care, but in a book that attempted to talk about exotification among other things, this struck me as hypocritical.

My rating: ★★½

Book review · contemporary · Sci-fi · Young adult

Review: The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum + Small Haul

My physical copy of The Weight of the Stars arrived yesterday, which led me to realize that I haven’t posted my review of it – of one of my favorite novels of the year, which I can now confirm is also beautiful in person – on this blog yet. I read in in June as an ebook and I have talked about it multiple times, but never scheduled the review, so here it is:

36952571The Weight of the Stars is the kind of novel that reminds me of the power of quiet books. There are no grand revelations, surprises or explosions; just two girls, their friends, and the stars – and yet it feels so wide, carrying so much weight sometimes in just a paragraph, so much emotion in the unspoken moments.
It does feel like looking at the stars.

This is a story about Ryann, a queer butch girl, who falls in love with Alexandria, a biracial black girl whose mother left to live in space and never returned to earth. It’s a story about them and their friend group, a group of teenagers (many of which queer and/or people of color) just trying to make it work despite their trauma and the general unfairness of life. It’s about humanity, and the ways we look at space. It’s so many things, and I won’t lie, just like The Wicker Kingit’s such a strange book. It will either speak to you or not make much sense, but I’m sure that in either case it will be unlike every other thing you’ve ever read.

The romance felt also very different to me. Not only because it’s f/f, even though that’s always something I look for, but because Ryann and Alexandra’s relationship isn’t… soft, unlike most f/f romances I know, especially in YA. It’s angry, it’s raw, it’s deeply beautiful.
The friendships are far softer, though not always, but I loved them too. Of the side characters, Ahmed was my favorite, and I was living for the cameos of the characters from The Wicker King (so, Ahmed’s three parents. Who are happy and in love. Polyamory rep and Sikh rep!)

Just like with the previous book, there are some mixed media aspects to this. I’m not only referring to the way chapters are structured – extremely short, with a time in the place of a title – but also to some things that happen near the end. I thought that part was beautiful; I thought it was necessary, because one can’t think about space and not be aware of their own smallness, one can’t think about space and not be aware of being just a part of a whole – one can’t think about space without thinking about humanity.

I loved most of this book. However, I don’t see it as a full five stars. Because I liked these characters, and cared about them, and yet I didn’t understand them, and something got lost along the way.

I think I know what happened. A big plot point in this book is people being separated because they decide to live the rest of their lives in space, away from earth. I think I was supposed to feel that mix of wonder and grief and longing for infinity they felt, and at times I did, but mostly I couldn’t. I am the kind of person who sees the meaning of life on leaves, and feels so strongly about plants that is afraid of them. I… have roots, and the idea of leaving it all behind, the plants of which I want to learn the names of or the combtooth blennies or even the polychaetes living in polluted waters – I don’t think I will ever be able to understand that decision.

I understand that not everyone sees things like I do, but I was so caught up in how horrifying I found even only the idea of teenagers deciding to leave the earth to live shut off in a box floating in nothingness, so away from life, that the ending landed with half the impact it could have had.

It still made me feel so much, and for that, I will always remember it positively.

My rating: ★★★★¾


Small Haul

I only buy physical copies in English a few times a year, not counting the rare occasions in which a book worth buying mysteriously appears in my Italian bookstore’s minuscule English section. (For example, that’s how I got my paperback of The Kingdom of Copper. If you’re wondering, no, the first book in the series never showed up. Neither do far more popular high fantasy series. Italian bookstores really are a mystery.)

This time, I got:

IMG_20190912_202638353

  • Middlegame by Seanan McGuire: this… this was a replacement goldfish, basically. You might already know that I almost only buy physical copies of favorite books, and only make exceptions for some authors (Yoon Ha Lee, mostly) and really, really, really anticipated releases. The really anticipated release this time was Gideon the Ninth, but when I saw that the price (30€? Is that a joke? I hope gets reasonable before next year), I decided to get something else instead of buying nothing, because I could. Middlegame was half the price, which is saner.
  • The Weight of the Stars by Kayla Ancrum: see review. If physical copies are an option for you, I really recommend it, as the mixed media aspect works even better (the background of some pages is different, which wasn’t true for the ebook).
  • Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear: one of my favorite books of the year, another of which I still need to post a review of (yes, I fully admit that I was lazy about scheduling this summer). I don’t know if the picture shows that very well but this is a Tome. Such a beautiful book, inside and outside, and really heavy (only on the outside… mostly.)

Have you read any of these?

 

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Reviews: Short, Gay Urban Fantasy Books

Today, I’m reviewing a few short novels and stories I read lately, and they all happen to be gay urban fantasy, because I’m predictable.


46284528._sy475_Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall is one of the most trope-y and unnecessarily overdramatic things I have ever read, and I was living for it.
I mean, it is a story about Kate, a paranormal investigator, as she tries to solve the murder of a werewolf, falls for a vampire prince (don’t let the name fool you, Julian is a vampire woman), while also trying not to anger various other paranormal creatures.
Everyone in this book is a combination of queer, ridiculous, and horny, often all three, and… I didn’t know how much I needed an f/f vampire romance until I read this book. I loved how these tired and often ugly tropes felt a lot less unbearable and even interesting when one makes them gay and doesn’t expect the reader to take everything seriously. For example, drama with ex-girlfriends from the point of view of a lesbian is a lot more interesting than the drama with exes in straight books. I loved all of it.

“My girlfriend, my ex-girlfriend, my girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend, and my new assistant were all staring at me.”

When I say that this is tropey, I mean that this does read a little like fanfiction, also because so many parts of it are obviously references to more well-known urban fantasy series, and that’s part of the fun. The minor character who is very clearly an Edward Cullen reference was hilarious, and I mean, after years of being told by the very straight urban fantasy genre that I needed to take books like Twilight and its sparkly vampires or the Fever series and the walking personification of toxic masculinity that was its love interest seriously, this is so refreshing. Nothing about this book demands that! And urban fantasy works so much better this way.

On the negatives, I will say that while the sex scenes aren’t bad, they could have used less weird metaphors and descriptions (it could have been part of the parody aspect, but it usually wasn’t over-the-top enough to be funny, so maybe it wasn’t?) and that the pacing felt a bit wobbly, but overall, but I haven’t laughed this much while reading a book in months, so I’m definitely not here to complain. It’s short, it’s fun, it’s exactly what it needs to be.

My rating: ★★★★


26300164._sy475_This month I also read Of Books, and Earth, and Courtship by Aliette de Bodard, a short story set in the world of The House of Shattered Wings.

This is a really cute f/f romance between two fallen angels! It can be read independently from the novels, but it does work better if you know a little about the characters and world already. That way, for example, you can understand the full implications of two fallen angels infiltrating an enemy House (they end up kissing there. of course they end up kissing there.)

This mostly reminded me that I can’t wait to read The House of Sundering Flames and get more of Emmanuelle’s PoV, and also it confirmed that I do really like Selene, when I’m not reading about her as the Head of the House. She is arrogant and cold, but there’s more to her than that, and her and bookish, quieter (but far from spineless) Emmanuelle balance each other perfectly.

It’s also nice to read about a Paris before the war that destroyed it in the books, even though from here, you can already see that injustice and rot were already everywhere in the society; the war just made it impossible to ignore even for the powerful.

My rating: ★★★★¾


I also read the short story at the back of the UK edition of The House of Shattered Wings, The House, In Winter, and… please, if it’s a possibility for you and if you’re interested in reading this book, try to pick up this edition, it’s even better than the book itself. I’ve never been more glad to have the UK edition of something. (For once, the American ones aren’t the ones having the additional content.)

The best kind of short stories really are the ones that manage to make you feel a lot about a character you already know is dead in the novel. I’m in so much pain. And I want, really want more content about that one fallen angel.

Also, the atmosphere, the sense of dread, the level of details!! This is quality content. I’ve read so many things written by Aliette de Bodard this month and this is unambiguously one of the best ones.

My rating: ★★★★★


As usual, if you have short story recommendations, especially if queer, throw them at me!