Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

39679076House of Salt and Sorrows is a standalone YA gothic murder mystery set in a high fantasy world.

This book doesn’t get that heterosexuality is not a personality trait.

I’m not saying this to be funny: no one in this book had a personality. I can’t tell you anything about the main character apart from the fact that she’s attracted to Cassius and cares for her sisters; she was more a placeholder than a character. The boys were even worse, existing in the book just to be handsome, vaguely mysterious, and exchange possessive glares that the book will carefully specify are masculine while fighting for the main girl.
And while I knew, getting into a Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling, that not every sister was going to be developed, I didn’t expect their attraction to boys to replace the personality of all of them (in the older ones; the younger one is never anything more than a “creepy little girl” stereotype.)
Four sisters are dead at the beginning of the book, and the living ones are worried not because of that, or not because maybe they’re going to die next, but because their supposed “curse” scares men away and they think they’re going to grow old and die unkissed, without ever having danced with a boy.
Yeah. Priorities!

So, let’s be kind and say that this book is plot-driven.
The plot wasn’t that great. House of Salt and Sorrows is a gothic mystery with a really interesting premise and solid background, but the execution ended up being really messy. All the tension relied on the usual “is the main character *gasp* insane or is that magic?” trope, which is cheap and I hate it, especially when the answer is so obvious and when the book constantly approached even only the possibility of mental illness in really insensitive ways.
By the way, in case that wasn’t already clear: there is no diversity whatsoever in this book. The whole cast is all-straight, and, unless I missed something, also all-white and all-abled (which: the realism, where?). There’s one old blind man whose entire personality was “crazy” who appeared for half a scene, and that’s it. No diversity, bland unnecessary romance, love triangle… did we all somehow time-travel to 2013?

The mystery was kind of underwhelming, but it wasn’t terrible. The foreshadowing was somewhat unsubtle and heavy-handed at times, but it didn’t give away the whole story immediately as many YA mystery books do; the revelation wasn’t the most unpredictable thing ever, but it was fine – I was mostly annoyed by how rushed the resolution was.

And I still didn’t dislike this, not really.
I mean, I clearly had many problems with it, but the thing is, it kept my interest. I’m barely reading these days and I finished it really quickly – which yes, that also means that there wasn’t much substance to it, but it was a fun ride most of the time, and I wanted to know what happened. I never really thought about DNFing it.

Another reason I didn’t dislike this book is that I got into it for the island gothic aesthetic, and in that aspect, it didn’t disappoint at all.
Have you ever watched a movie or a show in which the acting was bad and the plot was mediocre but the setting and the costume design made it worth watching at least once, purely as eye candy? House of Salt and Sorrows is the book version of that. The descriptions are beautiful, and the island atmosphere is perfect. I loved all the mentions of coastal marine life, the descriptions of tide pools, all the details this book gave me about buildings and dresses and shoes and accessories.

This is deeply forgettable and really flawed, and not something I would ever reread, but it was worth reading once just for that.

My rating: ★★¾

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Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan

41555968And here I am, continuing my tradition of reading series out of order. I mean, it was fine¹ when I did that with the Xuya series, and I also believe that while sequels don’t have to stand on their own, spin-offs absolutely should, so why not try and read something when there are five books of worldbuilding before that one? This kind of thing obviously can’t go wrong².

You don’t need to have read the Memoirs of Lady Trent series to understand Turning Darkness Into Light. However, I think it could be much more meaningful to you if you had, as some of the characters from that series are often mentioned, and as this novel is told entirely through letters, lists, journal entries and translations of ancient tablets. This is a really interesting choice, and I loved this somewhat mixed-media aspect, but this format isn’t really suited to descriptions that don’t feel like awkward infodumps, which is probably the reason I still have no idea how a Draconian looks like.

This is the story of Audrey Camherst (Lady Trent’s granddaughter) as she translates ancient tablets from a long-lost Draconean civilization in a place where anti-Draconean sentiment seems to be on the rise, and betrayal could be lurking on every corner. It’s also the story of the Four who hatched from a single shell – yes, this novel has a story within a story, which is an aspect I loved.

More than anything, Turning Darkness Into Light is about the importance of narratives, of the stories we choose to tell, and how they shape our understanding of ourselves as much as of “the other”, and how nothing is ever “just a story”. Writing fiction is, and has always been, inherently political.
It also makes some really good points about how bigotry isn’t something in which only extremists engage, and the subtle, non-violent kind is just as dangerous as the unsubtle, violent one, as the two are tied together. One can’t exist without the other.

The positives end there. I don’t have much else to say; Audrey as a character didn’t stand out that much to me, and neither did most characters, Cora being the only exception. I appreciated that the portrayal of an antagonistic relationship between a man and a woman that had an undercurrent of attraction but didn’t turn into a romance, as an idea, but I didn’t really believe it as much as I’d hoped. The format didn’t help with that, as I felt it added a lot of distance between me and the characters.

This is a solid novel, if not a really memorable one, and the Memoirs of Lady Trent is one of the series that I’m considering and will maybe start this year.

My rating: ★★★


¹ narrator: it was not fine. She struggled for half of the first novella she tried.
² narrator: keep telling yourself that.

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Reviews: Two F/F Summer Romances

Today, I’m reviewing two f/f books with the word “summer” in the title. One of them I really liked, the other I liked less, but both delivered cute f/f couples and summer-y atmosphere.


31246717If you like Becky Albertalli’s books, you need to read The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding. It’s the same kind of happy queer book, with a similar sense of humor and characters who are just as charmingly messy and trying to figure things out, but in my opinion it’s even better, as it’s ownvoices and isn’t obsessed with pop culture references.

My pre-review of this book was “help I can’t stop smiling my face is stuck”, and it is true – every time I think of this book, especially of certain scenes, I smile. This is the kind of happy, summer-y f/f romance I would never have thought I could get a few years ago, and I can’t believe I almost didn’t read it because of the mixed reviews. The romance starts out with mutual pining and continues with really cute dates, some misunderstandings, and character growth. I loved Abby and Jordi as a couple so much – to give you an idea, I read it in less than an afternoon.

I’ve already mentioned that this book is f/f – both girls are lesbians – but it’s really diverse in other ways, since the love interest is Mexican-American and Abby is a fat fashion blogger who specifically talks about plus-size clothes. Fashion is a relevant part of this book, as the main characters meet during an internship at a local boutique, and the book makes you feel both Abby’s love for it and Jordi’s love for photography.

One of the things I liked the most about this novel was the message: at its heart, The Summer of Jordi Perez is a story about how you don’t need to be anyone else’s, and not even your, definition of perfect to find happiness, and about how the person you love doesn’t have to be perfect either for you to love them. Despite talking a lot about body positivity and fat acceptance in the fatphobic world of fashion, Abby is insecure about her body, she’s not quite comfortable with it yet – and that’s fine, she’s 17 and the world can truly be awful to fat girls. Even her mother wants her to change. In this story, Abby becomes more comfortable with herself, and learns that mistakes and imperfections – hers, or other people’s – don’t have to be the end of things. This is a really important message.

In this book, the main characters actually feel like teenagers. Which means that they make a big deal out of crushes and dating and not having kissed anyone yet. Immature? I prefer to say realistic. However, some parts of this were kind of alienating to read as an aromantic person (and some parts could be for asexual people, too). I mention this because, while this doesn’t hurt me now, know this would have been the kind of book that would have hurt me at 17, when I was still trying to understand my romantic orientation – reading about characters who thought that not having kissed anyone at 17 is clearly abnormal, that it must mean there’s something wrong with you, made me feel terrible. I felt pressured to date – specifically, I was told that at this age I had to have, or at least want to have, a boyfriend – even though I was not interested in boys and probably also not interested in dating.

What made me give this book a four stars instead of a five, apart from some not always developed side characters and what I mentioned in the earlier paragraphs, were the last fifty pages. Romcoms always have that part in which the main characters split up and get back together again, and in this book, Jordi and Abby get back together only right before the end. I would have liked to see them together again for a little longer.

But let’s get back to the things I liked: this book is set in LA, and it makes you feel the atmosphere, and since food is a relevant part of this book – Abby and her friend Jax (relevant platonic m/f friendship!) are trying to find the best burgers in the city, and there are some wonderful scenes in which Abby is cooking with Jordi’s family – I can also say that the food descriptions were great, and I always love those.
Anyway, I’m glad this book exists and I wish it were more well-known; it may not be flawless but there are never enough atmospheric lesbian romcoms.

My rating: ★★★★


35230420Summer of Salt is a slow-paced, atmospheric contemporary fantasy story with a dash of mystery. It follows Georgina, a Fernweh girl who, unlike the rest of the women in her family, hasn’t developed her powers yet. While I thought it was far from a perfect book, I can say that I liked the half that I read while on the beach immensely more than the other, so I do still kind of see it as a perfect summer book. It’s a quick, nostalgic novel to read while you have salt on your skin and waves in front of you.

What stood out the most to me about this book was the atmosphere. It kind of reminded me of The Price Guide to the Occult – a less creepy, summer-y version of it – and the flowery writing helped with that. Maybe it was a little overwritten at times, going from pretty to awkward really quickly, but for the most part, I liked it. Also, can I say how much I love that I can now easily pick up f/f atmospheric summer romances? And so many other kinds of f/f books that have nothing to do with homophobia? 2016 me would never have thought, but even if Georgina and Prue weren’t the most developed characters ever and even if the romance wasn’t the most well-developed or even the most interesting, their interactions made me so happy.

Which is why it hurt even more when I started realizing that the aromantic representation in this book was pretty terrible. At first, I was liking it, as the side character Vira didn’t just say that she was “asexual and didn’t care about dating”, she specifically said she was aroace. Yes, she wasn’t the most interesting character ever, as she had exactly the same personality as all the aromantic best friends (is this a new trend?) I have seen in YA so far – cold-but-soft-on-the-inside, tries hard to be edgy and dresses unconventionally. That was fine, if boring.
But then, it came up that her hobby was taxidermy. That was when I started worrying, because aroace characters being associated with death is actually a common stereotype in fiction, and not one with positive implications. Summer of Salt didn’t go into that direction, not really; in my opinion, it did worse.
There’s a scene in which Vira shows her new kitten to Georgina and then says, unprompted, that when it will die, she’ll make a lamp out of it.

Now.
I don’t know how many people know what the most common aromantic stereotype is, but it’s exactly that we are “sociopaths”. It comes from the ugly idea that romantic love is the only thing that makes humans… well, human, and so aromanticism is inherently evil and creepy. And more people probably know how cruelty against animals/obsession with animal death has been traditionally associated with “sociopathy”.
I like to think that these things aren’t well-known, and that’s why no one thought to mention that in this book the aromantic character collects roadkill and makes flippant remarks about her pet dying and what she will do with its body. The idea that aromantic people don’t feel romantic love and then that must mean that they don’t get attached to anything is more widespread that one would think, and it’s horrible, damaging and false.

And like… Vira isn’t evil. She’s mostly portrayed as a loyal friend, but really, this isn’t the ~quirky hobby~ you should give your aromantic character (by the way: flippant remarks about pet death are generally unwelcome no matter the romantic orientation of the character) and in any case, I shouldn’t have to settle for bad representation just because it doesn’t try to outright tell me that aromantic people are evil, just weird and obsessed with death and corpses.
(To give you some context: she is the only aromantic character I’ve met in a book so far this year, and I almost only read queer books.)

But let’s get back to the book as a whole. Another problem I had with Summer of Salt is that it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. For the first half, it looks like a summer-y romance, then it becomes a mystery about a missing, magical bird, then in the last third it’s a story about rape, but not from the point of view of the person who is directly affected by it. While having “lighter” stories that deal specifically with that topic but in which the characters are supportive and no one ever victim-blames is important – books that deal with heavy topics but that go out of their way to not be triggering are necessary – I felt like this was completely aimless for at least half the story.

My rating: ★★★¼

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · historical fiction

Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

36510722Gods of Jade and Shadow is a fantasy story set in the 1920s. It follows Casiopea Tun, a young woman from a small town in Yucatán, as she travels through Mexico with Hun-Kamé, a Maya god. Hun-Kamé is trying to regain his throne as the god of death, but his closeness with Casiopea makes him more human every day; Casiopea is escaping her abusive and racist family for a free life, but being tied to the god of death might kill her.

This is a journey book. One of the main things I look for in journey books is atmosphere, and here it was amazing: from Uukumil to Mérida to Mexico City, I could visualize everything, and I always love reading fantasy novels that aren’t set in a stereotyped Englishland. It’s not like you can find books set in Mexico and based on Maya mythology every day, after all.
However, the setting wasn’t always enough to keep my attention, and if I had to point out what I struggled with the most while reading this book, I’d say that it was the fact that I couldn’t get invested in the relationship between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé, even though I really liked them as individuals and also liked them as a couple as an idea. Something got lost in the execution, but as I’m not sure what that something is, I can’t say if it’s more on me or on the book.
Also, I didn’t need so many chapters following Martín. Every time I got to his chapters, I put the book down and started doing something else. I kind of get why they were there, but sometimes they felt redundant, and Martín was a combination of unlikable and uninteresting that never works well as a main character.

As most of this novel is about Casiopea and Hun-Kamé going around Mexico and meeting various other paranormal creatures, some definitely less friendly than others, not getting really invested in them did make this journey not always that interesting to read about. But I can say that it was worth it, without a doubt – this book had one of the best endings I’ve read in a fantasy book this year, not because it was surprising, not really, but because it made sense in a way that made it powerful, it fit the story perfectly. It helps that I love when books go in that direction.

Another thing I loved about this book? The level of detail that the author put into everything, from the setting to the characterization to the parts talking about history – I recognized myself in Casiopea at times, for what this book said about what it’s like on a mental level to live in a strict Catholic environment and then finally leave, but what I really didn’t expect was to recognize pieces of the story of my own (Italian) family.

For example, the name Casiopea in itself. It’s a Greek name, which her town’s priest calls “Greek nonsense”, and… I have several ancestors who were named after “Greek nonsense” themselves and who were born around the time Casiopea was born. I never thought I would see characters deliberately not giving their children names of saints in a fantasy book, but I guess the Catholic church being awful around the world also meant that people tried to do the same things around the world to defy it in their everyday life.

I have more mixed feelings about the writing. Gods of Jade and Shadow is written in a way that should resemble a myth, but it didn’t work for me. It felt more removed than the average fantasy book, but it didn’t feel like a myth either, it felt like a halfway thing, and… I got used to it, but I can’t say I liked it.

My rating: ★★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · historical fiction

Reviews: Mooncakes + A Little Light Mischief

Today, I’m reviewing two light, fun and very gay reads: the graphic novel Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker & Wendy Xu, and the historical novella A Little Light Mischief by Cat Sebastian.


36310834Mooncakes is a paranormal graphic novel following two Chinese-American childhood best friends, Tam Lang, a genderqueer werewolf, and Nova Huang, a hard-of-hearing queer witch, as they reconnect, fall in love, and solve a mystery involving a demon.

It’s a cute and fun read, if really predictable; I especially appreciated how this wasn’t only a story about a romance, but also about the importance of a supportive family, blood or found. Another thing I really liked were the small references to YA books, especially Asian-American YA books – I recognized The Astonishing Color of After, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, Warcross and The Girl King, but there could have been others. It’s so refreshing to see references to things I have actually read and that aren’t necessary to understand the dialogue (which is my problem with many dialogues in contemporary American novels).

The art style wasn’t my favorite – it’s not the graphic novel, it’s me – but I really liked the color scheme and the atmosphere; I think it’s the perfect light fall read.

My rating: ★★★★


43386064-1A Little Light Mischief is an f/f historical romance novella set in London in 1818. It follows two women as they fall in love and get revenge against the man who wronged one of them.

It is part of a series, but I can tell you that you don’t need to have read the previous books to understand it – I haven’t, I don’t know what they’re about, and I had no problems with understanding the context. What I struggled more with was the writing style: English is my second language, and I often struggle with books that sometimes go out of their way to sound “older”. It is an added wall, when this already isn’t my language to begin with, so I connected with the story less.
I’ve recently read another historical romance set around the same time that didn’t make me feel this way while not sounding “modern” either, so this is something I noticed.

Apart from that, I loved A Little Light Mischief. It’s exactly what the title and the cover promise it is: a fun, romantic read about two women in love who also get into some mischief, and I love this small, recent trend of f/f historical romance that comment on misogyny and a little also on homophobia while not being about queer pain at all. It’s escapism, as it should be.

Also, I will always think that novellas are the best format for romance, at least for me. A Little Light Mischief is long enough to develop the romance but too short to need relationship drama or much more conflict, and there’s still space for a sex scene, which is the perfect combination. All the fun without any of the boredom, drawn-out miscommunication or pacing problems.

My rating: ★★★★

Book review · Young adult

Review: Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé

36445966Strange Grace meets The Wicker King, but duller, more hopeless, and unnecessarily heterosexual. If you’ve followed me for a while, you might know that I loved Amelinda Bérubé’s debut, The Dark Beneath the Ice, for being an introspective, chilling horror story about mental illness, portrayed with a care that I don’t always trust the horror genre to have. Here There Are Monsters, however, didn’t resonate emotionally with me at all.

This was… I’m not sure what it was. On the surface, it’s a horror story about a girl gone missing and the woods trying to drag other people into the horrifying, twisted game that got her to begin with. What I got from it is a story about cycles of violence, about neglected teens and preteens trying to survive in a world that laughs at the violence perpetrated against them, and the twisted and ugly things that rise from these situations. About the toxic pull of power, because you want your bullies to stop, you want to make them stop, and the horrifying answers to powerlessness. It’s also a story about how trying to rescue a person from their self-destructive urges might destroy you – and the people around you – in turn.
These sound like good concepts, now that I write them down like this, but what this book did was merely point at the situation and say “it’s ugly”. Yes, of course it’s ugly. Now what?
I don’t know. I guess I wanted more from it.

The thing is, I didn’t feel like the characters gained that much from what happened to them. Skye’s character arc felt wobbly to me, and in a genre that relies a lot on character arcs, I can’t accept that. Or maybe I just struggle with stomaching character development that is both positive and negative (I would explain more, but I don’t want spoilers in here; my take on some things is that the path towards doing better isn’t made of self-loathing). Also, by the end I disliked every single character in the book (my whole opinion of the love interest was “someone please give that boy a personality”), which made caring even more difficult.
I don’t need to like the characters, especially not in a horror book, but then there have to be either solid thematic arcs or character arcs, and here, that wasn’t really the case.

There are some things about this book I did appreciate, like the creepy forest atmosphere, and the fact that the book described which plants one could find in said creepy forest (cedar, sumac, white pine – probably the most detailed plant horror descriptions I have ever read, which was wonderful). It’s just that nothing about the actual story really drew me in.

As with every horror book I didn’t like, I’m left wondering if I missed the point of it entirely. Maybe I did, and this book could be important to someone else the way The Dark Beneath the Ice was almost a revelation to meHere There Are Monsters was just fine, there was nothing deeply wrong with it, so it’s not a story I would actively recommend people to avoid. However, stay away from it if animal death, including pet death, is one of your triggers, as there’s a lot of it.

I definitely intend to read more by Amelinda Bérubé in the future, and I hope I will like (understand?) those books more.

My rating: ★★½

Adult · Book review · contemporary · Fantasy · Uncategorized · Young adult

Reviews: Very Different Books, Same Rating

Today, I’m reviewing two books I read at the end of June, the urban fantasy mystery Borderline by Mishell Baker, first in a series, and the contemporary with a paranormal twist Release by Patrick Ness.

I rated them the same way, even though I rounded one up and one down on goodreads, (and you can probably tell which one I gave four stars to), because when you don’t have half-stars but your rating system does, “[book] is not that much better than [other book] but [book] feels more like a four and [other book] feels more like a three” is sometimes necessary.


25692886Borderline is the first book in an urban fantasy trilogy following Millie, a bisexual amputee with borderline personality disorder who, at the beginning of this book, starts investigating the case of a missing Seelie noble.

I’ve read a lot of books with diverse casts, but even in them, disability is almost always an afterthought. Not here: Borderline has a mostly-disabled/mentally ill cast, with a heroine who is a wheelchair user (lost her legs in a suicide attempt) and side characters who are dealing with trauma, side characters with dwarfism, side characters who have bipolar disorder.
I really appreciated how this book made the characters’ disabilities relevant to the plot while not becoming in any way an issue book – it’s a fun and sometimes dark urban fantasy mystery, just more diverse than average.

What I liked the most about this book is Millie. I’ve never read about a main character quite like her – she’s a liar, she has a certain amount of charisma, and she’s emotional, unreliable, manipulative and the book allows her to be horrible at times. She faces consequences for what she does, but at the same time you understand her and for the most part still like her. Female characters usually aren’t allowed to be any of these things without being flattened to unpleasant stereotypes, and she isn’t. She’s a mess, and the book doesn’t shy away from the fact that sometimes living with mental illnesses is just ugly, but she isn’t portrayed that way for shock value, and you can feel that. [the portrayal of BPD is ownvoices.]
How Millie talked about her own behavior and sometimes explained “this [lashing out] made me feel less terribly in that moment but it was definitely not a victory, don’t try this at home” – I understand that more than I’d like to, and her narration made everything feel so real.

However, I can’t say the same about the side characters. I never really got to know them – maybe because Millie doesn’t either, at least in this book? – and didn’t care about certain deaths I was probably supposed to care about.

The plot itself revolved around the role of the fae in the entertainment industry. I thought there were a lot of interesting ideas in the set up, as this book plays with the concept of “muse” with its idea of the “echo”, but as I don’t care that much about filmmaking and as Millie’s narration didn’t manage to make me care about it either, I didn’t feel strongly about most of the plot.
I also thought that for a book set in Los Angeles with a main character who was once a director, there was surprisingly little sense of setting or atmosphere.

My rating: ★★★½


33640498As one might imagine from the title, Release is a story about letting go. Of a somewhat toxic relationship, of some insecurities, of a family that doesn’t love you. It follows Adam Thorn, a seventeen-year-old gay boy who grew up in a family that loves him… conditionally: they’re religious and homophobic, and will never let him be who he truly is.

This is also a story with an odd paranormal element, something that feels like a fairytale in fragments: it’s both Adam’s story and a story about a dead girl that I think was making a point about breaking cycles of violence. I also couldn’t help but think that this story would have been more cohesive, would have made more sense, without this scattered fairytale, but I’m not sure. All the times I’ve ever seen someone say this about a magical realism/contemporary fantasy/fabulist book I liked, my reaction was “how could it have been a better book when the whole message of the book was in the paranormal element? You wanted to read a different story that said different things”, so I will just say that this probably made sense in some way, and I didn’t get half of it. Maybe if I had read the books this novel is inspired by I would have? I don’t know.

Apart from that, I don’t have much to say. The portrayal of what it’s like to grow in a religious place when you’re queer and not religious was very intense to read, as always, and Adam’s character arc was very well-written – especially when it came to those scenes about him struggling with feelings of self-loathing (he doesn’t fully believe his romantic love is lesser because he is gay, or that he asked to be sexually harassed, but these are insecurities in the back of his head) because that’s what happens to kids who are told that they have to hide what they feel, that their feelings don’t matter, that they are a nuisance.
I also really liked how this book didn’t shy away from portraying “explicit” (by YA standards) queer sex – and, also, from what the main character felt on an emotional level in those scenes.

Apart from Adam, the characters didn’t stand out. They performed the role they had in the story, but they were never more than “the supportive best friend”, “the loving new boyfriend”, “the homophobic parents” or “the cowardly ex”.
Overall, this is a solid story, but I’m not sure how much it will stay with me.

My rating: ★★★½