Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: You Must Not Miss by Katrina Leno

41139049._sy475_You Must Not Miss is a contemporary fantasy revenge story, and one of the most unique YA novels I’ve read in a while. Unfortunately, I’m individuating a pattern with me and Katrina Leno’s novels: I really like their premises, fall in love with the first half, and then everything falls apart in the second one. It’s true for this, and it was true for Summer of Salt as well.

I want to start by saying that You Must Not Miss is the kind of book that starts out slowly, very slowly, until suddenly everything happens at once. It does pay off, but I spent some time around the middle wondering whether something was ever going to happen. It’s a revenge story, yes, but far from a planned, slow-burn one.

I absolutely loved the main character Magpie. She’s a young teen – a sophomore in high school – and her life has fallen apart because of her father’s cheating, her mother’s alcoholism, sexual assault, and a lot of other reasons. She’s in an objectively horrible situation, and she deals with it like someone her age would: she’s barely surviving. She treats the people around her increasingly worse as the story goes on, and seeks refuge in the fictional world she invented – Near – which is consuming her in turn. This book never treats her with anything but empathy, and not only it makes you understand her, it also allows her to be bad without ever turning into a cautionary tale.

The way escapism is a double-edged blade – as much a refuge as it is a trap – is a theme that is really important to me, and I think this is one of the reasons the ending didn’t work for me.

The spoiler-y bit:

Magpie ends up leaving this world for Near, a fictional world she can control almost every aspect of. And maybe I’m over-interpreting things, because while she’s happy, the message of the only way you can be happy if your life is difficult is to leave this world is one I’ve spent… ten years fighting against? It’s not that I don’t believe it, it’s that I believe it too much, and to me there’s nothing as dangerous as an echo chamber when it comes to that.

At the same time, I think this is more about me than the book. I think that for some people, this ending could be comforting or liberating. I would like to read a book about escapism vs. real life in which the main character for once finds a balance. This is not that book, and it makes perfect sense for it not to be. Also, it’s not like I ever saw a book end like this before, so it was really interesting to read as well.

42052420._sy475_One thing I really appreciated was how this book explored how terrifying the concept of a teen with magical powers inherently is. I know that if I had had magic at 15 I would have used it for revenge as well! This doesn’t shy away from any of that.
This book also underlined just how important it is to have supportive friends in high school, and just how much a bad friendship and a friendship break-up can make things difficult. A lot of YA is focused on the coming and going of romantic relationships, with friends as reliable but not-so-relevant sidekicks, and this is pretty much the opposite. There is a sweet romantic element – and I really liked Ben as a love interest (queer m/f is great! Ben is trans) – but don’t expect this to be a romance.

It’s also really atmospheric, which I liked a lot. It’s not that it’s set in a particularly remarkable place, it isn’t, but I could see it, and I could see why Magpie felt the need to leave.

Overall, I did like it, but I’m still not completely sure about my feelings on the ending. I recommend it, especially as an audiobook – it was a really good audiobook – but I don’t know if I will reach for more by this author.

My rating: ★★★½

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Wise and the Wicked by Rebecca Podos

35053988._sy475_This book has my favorite m/f romance of the year, and maybe of ever. I can’t believe I almost didn’t read it.

The Wise and the Wicked is a contemporary fantasy story following Ruby Chernyavsky, a 16-year-old Russian-American girl from a “slightly magical” family in which every woman gets to know at which age she will die. Or so they thought.

I fell in love with this story right from the beginning because of Ruby. She is the youngest of three sisters, and her mother left them when Ruby was really young. Because of that and the burden placed on her by the family’s magic, Ruby is really insecure and lost, and deals with that in a number of ways – from kleptomaniac tendencies to being closed-off and trying to believe that she’s better than others to drown out her constant self-loathing. She’s also self-centered enough to often misunderstand other people’s motives; all of this makes her an easy target for manipulative people.
I love stories about difficult, imperfect girls, and I loved Ruby (even though she is well-meaning but seriously self-centered heterosexual representation), and her growth in this book meant so much to me.

My favorite character, however, was Dov.
I haven’t felt this strongly about an m/f romance in so long, and that’s because so many male love interests in novels (especially, but sadly not only, in YA) come in three formats: “rude”, “overprotective” and “personalities are for losers”.
And Dov feels real in a way so many characters don’t. He’s sweet, and maybe a little too trusting, not because he doesn’t understand that people can hurt him, but because he chooses to see the good in others – and in a genre so full of brooding boys, this is so refreshing? He is funny without his sense of humor being at the expense of the main character, which I also value a lot.
I could feel how much Ruby felt lighter during their interactions, how she let her closed-off façade crack with him, even when she was still hiding a lot from him. Their scenes were just… the chemistry. Everything was too much for me and I often had to put down the book because I had a bad case of Feelings™. I must be getting old.
(*Acqua, sitting on a pile of villain romances, tearing up*: but he is so KIND)
Dov is trans and Jewish, and this is one of the very few books I’ve read with a trans boy in which said trans boy gets to come out on his own terms. Not because of some naked reveal scene, not because he was pressured, not because he’s asked, and that was a beautiful scene.

Many scenes in here worked for me specifically because of the writing’s attention to detail. I loved the witchy early spring atmosphere, sure, but the way the author focused on objects, and small details in people’s rooms – everything felt real and deeper, as bright as this cover. When I think of Ruby, I don’t see her in a blank space, I also think of odd ice cream flavors and science books; when I think of Dov, I see aquariums and fish drawings and hitchhiking butterflies (…that scene); all these small, not plot-relevant things about them made me feel as if I knew them, and made them memorable.

I also really liked reading about Ruby’s relationship with her sisters, who raised her, and Cece’s storyline. Cece is Ruby’s cousin, and the two are really close while still hiding things from each other, because sometimes the truth is too heavy for you to talk about it with your family. Cece is a lesbian and in a relationship with another girl, and I really appreciated that this book talked about how a family can be homophobic in subtle ways even when nobody is a blatant bigot and there are other queer people in it. At its heart, The Wise and the Wicked is a story about intergenerational trauma and the weight of traditions, how they can bring comfort as well as stifle people, and how sometimes you just need to let some of them go.

Now, onto my main and only complaint: this book doesn’t work that well as a standalone. I know the author has plans for a sequel, but we don’t actually know if it will happen (because publishing), and while this doesn’t end on a cliffhanger – it ends at what I’d consider a calm point for both the characters and the romance – it’s clear that Ruby’s arc isn’t complete, and some plotlines, like the podcast one, were left without a conclusion to a level that goes far beyond “ambiguous ending”, as for example the one in Podos’ previous novel Like Water was. It’s not disappointing and I don’t feel like I was left without an answer I needed, but without a sequel some parts of this felt somewhat unnecessary.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

35965482This book did the impossible, which, in this case, is making me wish I had paid attention during my mandatory philosophy class.

Sadly, the Acqua who would be fine with paying attention to high school philosophy classes instead of sneakily reading fantasy books during them isn’t the kind of person who would have ended up reading Middlegame, and as this book rightly says, you can’t have everything, even with infinite alternate timelines and even if you’re the living embodiment of logos, which I’m not.

So, this book is about evil alchemists trying to harness the Doctrine, which, as far as I understand, is basically the English name for what the ancient Greek philosophers called the logos, the rule that drives the universe. There is a fascinating history in this, written in this story like a book within a book, thin slivers of the past woven in and out of the present timeline, omens scattered in the form of excerpts of a children’s book. In the present, the immortal alchemist Reed is trying to embody different concepts into people who aren’t quite human, who look human but might one day be infinitely powerful, if they end up manifesting, if they end up being the Doctrine themselves. If this time he gets them right.
And this is where our main characters, Roger and Dodger, come in.
(Confusing? I’m not as good at explaining as this book, and this is weird.)

Roger is language, Dodger is math, and they are a harmony of opposites. We see them as children who are trying to navigate the world while being “gifted” while also discovering that they have a telepathic connection, and they might be magical, but the way the world fails them isn’t any different from the way it fails children with too many expectations on their shoulders. (The parts about Dodger never being able to understand how people work and the quote about you got a girlfriend, I got a therapist: painfully relatable.)
And then we see them during many different times of their lives, finding and losing each other and slowly learning about the puppeteers beneath reality, and it should be boring, but it’s not, and the time jumps should make it easy to get disconnected from the characters, but they don’t, because this book delights in doing the impossible. (Improbable, it whispers, as if it were a reincarnation of Nikolai Lantsov.)

Middlegame is, after all, deceptively simple: it’s really easy to follow, for something so complex – a narrative that plays at being linear just to make itself accessible when it’s actually a tapestry of timelines, with writing that gets its point across with an elegance that doesn’t call attention to itself. It has the beauty of efficiency and fits this book just right.
And it’s so clever. I want to look at all the facets and can’t and this is exactly what I want from a book, as much work as it is fun. Time is a joke to this book and it just occurred to me that as inside this book language is a trigger to math and consequently words are a trigger to time, this book in itself is words that command time in their own little universe and I, well, I should probably shut up now.

It’s not only the way it’s written, so readable even when it doesn’t seem to make sense (but it always does, sideways), that makes it not boring for something that almost feels like a slice-of-life story for a significant portion of the 500+ pages. It’s also the fact that there are books that have unpredictable twists, and then there are books that are unpredictable in essence, which you don’t even vaguely know which direction they will take until you’re near the ending, because they’re so different from everything you’ve seen before that you don’t even have something to build your expectations on.
And it’s also about stakes, of course. You know a book is taking things seriously when someone just caused mass death and you aren’t even near the climax.

Apart from that, and from what Middlegame has to say about society and the way stories shape consciousness which then shapes reality (which are all things I love to read about), I am predictable and was into this right from the moment I understood it involved evil, ruthless magical scientists. There’s no story about merging science and magic involving people being horrible that won’t interest me.
And yes, there are a few things I didn’t love about this, the main one being just how centered on America this book is despite the consequences befalling the whole world, because of course America is both the whole world and the only part of it in which interesting things actually happen.

In any case, I was trembling even while reading some of the calmest parts of this book, and maybe I can’t yet (ever?) explain fully why it affected me so much when it doesn’t make sense to me completely either, but I hope I got at least part of it, and if not, this is probably the reason I shouldn’t write reviews after midnight.

My rating: ★★★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Reviews: Two M/M YA Fantasy Books

Today I’m reviewing two ownvoices m/m YA fantasy books, one that mostly worked for me and one that really didn’t, but that had an eerily similar flaw: the tendency to summarize important moments/tell the reader about them, instead of allowing the reader to experience them. I get that show, don’t tell is often overused as advice, but more showing would have helped with the pacing in both of these books.


40131428._sy475_Reverie is a story about the importance that dreams and fantasy have in people’s lives, and how balancing them with reality is just as necessary. It’s a story that gets on a deep level why the idea of escaping to a kinder world is so tempting to queer teenagers, but one that is also about learning to not run away from reality.

I think it’s important to state that a significant part of my problems with this book come from me wanting it to be something different than what it was. At first, I thought that Reverie was all flash and no substance, but I was wrong, because it can clearly drive a point home when it wants to. It’s just than more often than not, it seems to not want to, and I kept hoping it would.
So many topics, so many ideas are just touched upon, and I highlighted many parts, always hoping that I would get more about self-inserts, who gets to tell stories, belonging and not-belonging in reality, the reality of the unreal – specifically from a queer PoV, because all these things are important to me and I would love a book to actually go there. This isn’t that book, and I’ve always been more for the introspective kind of weird (for a queer book that is introspective and talks about not losing yourself into fantasies in a similar yet completely different way, I recommend The Gallery of Unfinished Girls by Lauren Karcz).

But this is weird, don’t doubt that for a minute. After all, it is about an amnesiac teenage boy and the powerful drag queen sorceress who is attempting to unravel the reality of Connecticut. Just not the kind of weird I like the most, and I didn’t fully get what this book actually wanted to be. For a story about something as intimate as dreams and fantasies, the unusually distant third person narration was a really unusual choice, and one I didn’t particularly like. Its penchant for telling and summarizing things (Kane did this and Kane did that and sense of passage of time, I don’t know her), which might have worked in another context, didn’t help here.
And apart from the angle about the meaning of dreams, I just don’t think this is a particularly good story. The side characters are kind of stereotypes – lovable for the most part, yes, but they still didn’t feel like they were people, especially the love interest – and the way this book starts with an amnesiac character rediscovering his friends muddled things instead of helping. I thought that being (re)introduced to these characters along with Kane would help me get to know their history, but I couldn’t even get a grasp on how much Kane remembered at different points of the story, much less on the characters themselves. All the friendships, sibling bonds and relationships felt shallow as a result.

What I liked about the characters was the casual queerness. There are two side f/f couple (the subplot about the two elderly women in love is the sweetest part of this book), and what stood out the most was the character of Dr. Posey. She is fascinating and completely unlike every other antagonist you’ll ever read about, the out-of-the-box heart of this unconventional book, and can I just say how great it is to read queer people’s takes on the feminine gay villain trope? A homophobic archetype that readers were meant to be disgusted by, or laugh at, becomes someone that is meant to be admired and feared at the same time, powerful and dangerous.

Ultimately, Reverie wasn’t really for me, but I think there’s still a lot to appreciate about it, and I’m so glad that a YA book that is as unapologetically weird and gay as this one got published.

My rating: ★★★


34510711._sy475_Infinity Son would have worked wonderfully as a comic book, and I think that it would also make a solid movie, because the bones of the story are there and there’s a lot of potential (urban fantasy novel in which the gay Puerto Rican main character gets to be the chosen one!), plenty of which would also lie in the visuals (It’s about modern-day Phoenixes, which as a concept is inherently cool.)

However, in the state it is currently? I read an ARC, but I think this needed at least another serious round of editing dedicated to structure, which I don’t think will happen before it gets released. As a multi-PoV novel with a neverending cast of side characters we’re supposed to care about (but can’t because what we know about most of them could be summed up in two words), it just doesn’t work. I’m not surprised by the many bad reviews, even though I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the story itself.

While Adam Silvera can clearly write emotional slice-of-life stories, as he has done multiple times, when it comes to action scenes, we’re really not there.
There was something seriously off with… the pacing? I’m not sure what’s the right word to use when a scene in itself doesn’t flow well because the book keeps summarizing things that shouldn’t be summarized or stating them in a really emotionless way. I’m talking about paragraphs and paragraphs of this:

“Stanton opens his mouth and emits a spray that smells like rotted animal carcass. Blood rushes to my head and I’m so dizzy and we all fall to our knees.”

I don’t know if it’s just me, but for the way this sentence is written, I’d think the character was telling me what he bought at the grocery store. It’s emotionless and makes everything in the story feel fake.

DNF 40%


Have you read or are you anticipating any of these?

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

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 · contemporary · Fantasy · 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

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta

35053372The Lost Coast is the perfect book for the readers who have been looking for an f/f, not as male-dominated Raven Cycle. It’s an atmospheric story set in a small town surrounded by magical redwoods, following a group of queer witches.
And I loved all of it.

The first thing I thought when I finished this book is that sometimes, stories that acknowledge your pain but aren’t shaped around it are exactly what you need. I’ve read many contemporary books that dealt directly with homophobia and so contained a lot of it, and ones that ignored its existence entirely. But the contemporary-set stories I want are the ones that don’t ignore homophobia exists, and that have little to none of it anyway. Stories that aren’t about the queer experience, but that are relevant to it anyway, not just because of the characters’ identities, but also because of the themes they deal with.

The Lost Coast is a story about how much difference having a community and finding your people can make, even before you have found yourself and your own power. It’s a story that has a sense of recklessness to it, but also reminds you how important it is to have others to ground you. On the other side, it’s a story about how not wanting to find or acknowledge your own power leads you to not notice your ability to do harm, and makes you dangerous.

I won’t lie, I knew I would love this book from the moment the main character first sees the redwoods and is fascinated by them. (You really can’t go wrong with trees.) That mix of awe and longing and a little bit of fear – that’s something I’m familiar with. The atmosphere made me feel as if I were right there, and made the woods feel magical, so that when the book got to that one sex scene in the woods, my only reaction wasn’t “you’re so going to get ticks” (even though I still thought it; but oh well, it’s contemporary fantasy).
The writing is also really good. I think the vague, airy tone that Capetta’s writing has is much better suited to this multi-PoV non-linear contemporary fantasy novel than it was to a mystery like Echo After Echo, in which it didn’t work at all for me.

It’s not easy to develop many characters in a standalone that is shorter than 400 pages, but this book did it. All the Grays (which I kept wanting to call “the Gays”) are well-drawn, and so are their dynamics – they’re all in love with each other and you can feel that.
They are:
🌲 Danny, white, queer. She’s the new girl in town, and she’s looking for something, even though she doesn’t know what that something (someone?) is yet. She tends to wander, and I mean that physically. As I said, her emotions toward trees were very relatable.
🌲 Rush, white, fat, queer. She’s coded as neurodivergent, she has sound-taste synesthesia (I love reading about synesthesia. My brain does similar weird things too), and her magic comes from music. At the beginning of the story, she’s looking for her lost ex-girlfriend.
🌲 Hawthorn, black, bisexual with a preference for men. She’s quiet and bookish, but no one should let that mislead them – she’s the source of Witch Knowledge™ in the group and not to be understated.
🌲 June, “femme as fuck” lesbian, Filipina. Has chronic leg pain. Looks soft but will fight you and win (after all, she is the one with knife magic). She has a big family and it’s said that she was raised Catholic and is questioning her faith. I loved her.
🌲 Lelia, gray-ace, non-binary (she/her). Sharp and sarcastic but secretly soft. She says she doesn’t want to date, so I also read her as aro (but I wish this book had specified if she was or not), and she’s the “resident tree expert”, and isn’t that relatable
🌲 Then there’s Imogen, the mysterious, powerful water witch who was once part of the Grays, and is now missing.

I loved most of this book, but I’m not giving it a full five stars, because there were some things that didn’t work for me. The sex scene had a simile that made me cringe so much that it deserves a mention (please don’t compare body parts to books), and I don’t really know how I feel about the ending. On one hand, I get why the author chose to leave this book open-ended, but… I wanted to know how the characters would deal with some Things that had happened. Especially since the ending hints at f/f/f polyamory.

My rating: ★★★★¾

lists

3-in-1 Recommendation Post

I wanted to write a recommendation list but didn’t know what to write about and that’s how we ended up with this. I hope you like my twist on the “if you like this, try that” recommendation posts!

Disclaimer: I in no way mean to imply that any of these books are alike/very similar. They’re not – especially in category 1 and 5, in which they’re all from different genres. I just feel like they can appeal to the same kind of reader.


So You Like A Challenge

read them! then judge me for recommending them to you

Have you ever felt like the books you’re currently reading aren’t challenging you enough? Do you want to read something that will consume you, surprise you, and leave you with the knowledge that you’ve never read anything quite like it and never will again? Are you ok with not understanding all of what you read?

Then I can recommend you these three unique and truly bizarre books, three of the most challenging novels I’ve ever read.

  • Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente is a “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery” told through transcriptions of parts of fictional films. It’s a love letter to filmmaking and stories, with dizzyingly beautiful descriptions of sci-fantasy settings, and you won’t be able to keep straight what’s real and what’s fictional inside the book.
  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer: the 25th century from the point of view of someone who just really likes 17th century philosophy. It’s basically 90% worldbuilding, and if that sounds boring – oh, it is. It’s really boring, but that’s exactly how the extremely disturbing trainwreck in part two sneaks up on you! It totally pays off in the worst way, and this is the kind of futuristic story that feels at the same time possible, surprisingly alien, and horrifying. Is this an utopia, a dystopia or neither? I still don’t know the answer. Anyway, try this. It’s worth reading just to hate on the narrator.
  • Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko: to give you an idea of how good this book is, I’m just going to tell you that this is the only novel I’ve ever really disliked that regularly makes it to my recommendation lists. It’s the kind of book in which the individual scenes make sense but the whole does not. I have no idea what the fuck I read, but was it An Experience. I really recommend it if you ever want a headache you are ok with not understanding most of it but want to read something that in a way is about growing up (which is confusing, like this book).

Emotional, Diverse Multi-PoV Contemporary

they will make you cry but they’re so wholesome

So you like pain? What about books that will smash your heart to pieces and then put it back together again, making you cry of happiness in the end? Those are the best kinds of contemporary novels. And today I’m recommending three books that deal with heavy topics like adoption, teen pregnancy, friendship break-ups, grief, and alcoholism with grace, heart and a lot of reader tears.

  • Far From the Tree by Robin Benway is the most well-known of these three – it won a National Book Award and it’s deserved – and it follows three biological siblings who were adopted by different families/are in foster care as they reconnect. It talks about adoption, teen pregnancy, and family. If you’re putting this off because, like I did, you think this is going to be a sappy story, I can tell you it isn’t.
  • This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow: I love this book so much? And it’s so underrated. I have yet to find another contemporary book which follows three characters who are all dealing with their own mental health issues – grief and anxiety, low self-esteem after a toxic relationship, recovery from addiction – and does all their journeys justice. This has two very sweet romances – one f/f and one m/f – and it’s about three girls who were once friends as they reconnect through music. Also, two of the three main characters are black (ownvoices rep). It’s the kind of contemporary that manages to be a light read even though its themes are heavy without ever feeling superficial. I know I’m talking a lot about it lately, but that’s because it deserves better than 250 ratings on goodreads!
  • The Beauty that Remains by Ashley Woodfolk: another story about teenagers as they find each other through music! This follows an adopted Korean-American teen, a black girl, and a white gay boy who all have lost someone close to them – a friend, a sister, a boyfriend – as they work through their grief. It’s one of the first positive representations of a character going to therapy I’ve seen and that meant a lot to me. This is another really underrated novel, but it’s really good, the kind of good that hurts. It needs trigger warnings for biphobia (the gay main character has some internalized prejudice and I have mixed feelings about how the story dealt with that) but apart from that, I loved it.

Political Intrigue In Space

they’re so good and very gay, please read them

What’s better than political intrigue? Political intrigue in space following a mostly, if not all-queer cast!

Anyway. Many people mention that they like political intrigue, and they want to read more novels in which the intrigue is actually unpredictable. And here’s my list of novels set in space that deal with complex political situations! In all of them the complex worldbuilding paid off and all of them had twists I didn’t see coming.

  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: a story about a vengeful AI and an evil space empire told through two timelines. It’s the kind of effortlessly compelling high-stakes sci-fi I would recommend to anyone who isn’t intimidated by complex worldbuilding and wants to read about politics, power dynamics in interactions between cultures, the nature of humanity and sentience – and who gets to decide who is human and sentient. And it’s set in an empire with a concept of gender and family very different from our own, which is really interesting to read.
  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee: this is a story about sieges. On the surface, it’s a story about a disgraced captain, Cheris, who is shackled to the ghost of Jedao – a general who was a tactical genius and also a mass murderer – to win an impossible siege. At the same time, it’s the story of Jedao’s siege of Cheris’ mind and beliefs, and the story of a space empire divided into bickering factions all threatened by an external enemy and held together by someone who might be even worse. It has an all-queer cast, math-inspired magic in space, no romance and plenty of explosions. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read.
  • A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine: I still haven’t fully recovered from this one. Many parts of it hit really close, it’s… personal. It’s the only book I’ve ever read that talks about what it’s like to grow up on literature not written for you or anyone from your country, written in a language that isn’t your own, because when your neighbors are far more powerful than your country is, they get to set the standards of what is good literature – and even which ways of living are modern and civilized. It’s a story about a woman who, after being thrown into political intrigue at court (she’s an ambassador), changes the history of an empire she both loves and hates. Also, it has a main f/f romance, a mostly-queer cast and possibly the best court intrigue I’ve ever read.

Monster Love

because monster romance is the best romance!

Romance storylines in fantasy often leave a lot to be desired. But you know which kind of romance rarely disappoints me? Monster romances. Give me all the weird and complicated and unusual romances in which the love interest has the best aesthetic – be it a chaos entity or a shapeshifter or an evil broody elf – and I will end up loving them.

  • In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard: a lesbian scholar and a bisexual shapeshifting dragon woman fall in love in this Vietnamese-inspired Beauty and the Beast retelling! It’s the only monster romance I know in which both main characters are women and it also has the best descriptions ever – do you like beautiful but dangerous palaces in which doors can lead to gardens and libraries as often as they can lead to death? Anyway, this was one of my favorite relationships of 2018, to see the dragon Vu Côn act like she’s totally not into the main character and then as she tries to flirt with fruits anyway…
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin: I’ve seen this book described as Shadow and Bone for adults and that’s… accurate. If you thought this book wouldn’t be a “let’s sleep with the chaos god amidst deadly political intrigue in a palace that is basically floating in the sky”, you were wrong. It’s that book, and the chaos god is also genderfluid (what is gender to a god) and the main character is a bisexual brown woman.
  • Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik: monster romance as a genre is by definition extra and really dramatic – which is what I love about it. Give me all the overdramatic monster love interests who are not as scary as they initially seemed – but nothing is as extra as this book. This book doesn’t have a monster romance, it has two. One between a Jewish daughter of a moneylender and what’s basically a broody ice elf and the other between the daughter of a duke and a possessed Tsar. And it’s a story about women supporting each other against terrible men as well! Pick up this slow-paced, wintry retelling of Rumpelstiltskin and get ready for the feelings.

Hard-Hitting SFF

I believe in exploring hard topics but I don’t believe in hopelessness

Some words like “relevant” and “important” are overused enough to be pretty much meaningless, like a lot of the words thrown around for buzz when it comes to book promotion. That’s why I never use them – well, almost. There are some books that – in my opinion – actually fit what those words mean. They’re not easy reads in any way, but I really think they’re worth it.

  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon: this is set in a generation spaceship whose social order is very similar to the society in the United States before the civil war. It’s a story about enslaved people enduring horrible things, about the ways they are affected by them, about the small ways they still find to fight back. It’s also a story that talks about how gender roles are imposed, taught, made up – and it really makes you look at them and at cisheteronormativity and think “was I really taught to think that was natural? And people still believe it?”. It talks about the many forms racism can take, from the outwardly violent parts to the ones that look like details but really aren’t. It also has a mostly-queer cast (the main character is intersex and maybe non-binary, and there are explicitly non-binary major characters) and the main character is autistic.
  • Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly: this is a story about the rise of a fascist government in a previously-accepting city from the point of view of marginalized characters – two queer men, one of which is a person of color, and a woman who is a sex worker. I still can’t think of any other book that balanced the fun – because yes, this was a fun read at times – with the darkness as effectively as this book does, and what it did haunts me. It has that tone of “it happened, and it can happen again, quickly” but it’s not hopeless, which would have made it unreadable. It’s… a lot and it is upsetting and it also should have more readers.
  • Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan: I often talk about this novel because it has one of my favorite romances ever – an f/f forbidden slow burn, the kind of romance that blooms in stolen moments and I love everything about it. But that’s not what this book is about. This is a story about being a rape survivor set in a Malaysian-inspired kingdom in which young girls are forced to become concubines of a demon king. It portrays the many reaction women have to assault and rape culture, including enduring, fighting back, starting to see it as normal and hurting other girls because they have been hurt themselves. It’s… an exploration of that and I thought it was very well-written (and, of course, hard to read).

Have you read or want to read any of these? Have you ever read three books you think would appeal to the same kind of reader even though they’re not really similar?

 

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter

39863312-1Sarah Porter is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, Vassa in the Night. When I saw that she had written another book, one about creepy fairies, I knew I had to read it.

Never-Contented Things is a dark contemporary fantasy story about a codependent relationship between two foster siblings. It’s ugly, messy, disturbing and hard to read, and if you’re the kind of person who likes to read about teenagers doing the right thing, I really don’t recommend this book. The main characters in this story are in no way role models, and they aren’t meant to be. However, I think that stories about messed up teenagers finding a way out are very important.

This is a very uncomfortable read with a beautiful message. A story that says that no matter what you went through, there’s hope. You can heal. And maybe you will always be haunted by those memories, but you can get better.
I think we need this kind of stories too, because teens go through similar things – well, not the part were they’re trapped by creepy fairies, but you can see that as a metaphor – and this deserves to be recognized. And we need messed up stories from the point of view of marginalized characters (all main characters here are queer) as well. It may not be the most positive representation ever, but it can help. Not everyone sees themselves in stories about unproblematic people.

This book follows three characters:

Ksenia Adderley, arguably the main character. She’s currently living with her foster brother Josh and her foster parents, Mitch and Emma, who accuse her of having a bad influence on her brother. She’s white, presents as masculine and is described as “not a girl” in some parts of this book, which makes me think she is nonbinary/genderqueer, but she never says anything about it (or, at least, if she did I missed it). She is attracted to multiple genders but doesn’t label herself. She has been in multiple traumatic situations before, including sexual assault, and she’s perceived as cold by many because she’s very closed off. She says and thinks a lot of messed up things, but I understood her and she grew on me.
Joshua “Josh” Korensky, white, chubby, pansexual and gender-non-conforming. He’s perceived as the “good” sibling by his parents. While I understood his motivations and liked his character arc (and he is, after all, a victim too), it was very hard not to despise him.
Alexandra “Lexi” Holden, black, mostly into men but not only, grew up in a supportive family and is a good student. She’s Josh and Ksenia’s friend, she sees how the situation spirals out of control, and she has a major role in Ksenia’s recovery. I really liked her PoV.

The relationship Josh and Ksenia have is unhealthy, codependent and becomes abusive throughout the story. Ksenia is over-protective because she feels like Josh is the only one who understands her and loves her. She is really afraid to lose him, as she has lost many people before. She takes all the responsibility for every time he messes up, and she is seen as the one who has a bad influence on Josh, even if she’s actually the one who sees him as a brother. Josh, however, doesn’t really see Ksenia as a sister, disregards her consent because he believes he knows what she actually wants, and pressures her in romantic/sexual situations.
They’re doing all the wrong things to remain together, and it’s difficult to read.

But Never-Contented Things isn’t just about unhealthy relationships. The friendship between Ksenia and Lexi was healthier, and even the romance (f/f? f/genderqueer?) that develops from it seemed to be. I really liked Ksenia and Lexi together.
One could argue this is a story about a romance helping a person get out of an abusive relationship, but I don’t really agree. Ksenia isn’t saved by Lexi, or by Lexi’s love. Lexi helps her realize she has a problem, but the decision to confront the truth about herself and her relationship with Josh was, ultimately, Ksenia’s. Ksenia doesn’t just get out of a relationship, she gets out of the mindset that got her there, and that’s why I didn’t mind that this book ended with a romance.

I won’t lie, I didn’t enjoy reading most of this. While it does have its fun moments (…the scene about Prince on the burning chair made me laugh out loud), I almost DNFed it multiple times. It made me feel sick. I also highlighted entire pages of it, especially near the ending, because the character development was wonderful.

What I liked the most about Never-Contented Things was Ksenia’s character arc. It’s one of the most well-written arcs I’ve read in a while.
This is a story about denial and self-hate. Ksenia believes she can’t be loved or understood, and that’s why she gets too close to the only person she believes loves her; she also believes she is a bad person, that she doesn’t really deserve to be happy. That part in which she says that she struggles to appreciate the good things about herself, that she gets she should in the abstract but doesn’t really feel it? I understand this kind of double standard more than I’d like to.

You might have noticed that so far I’ve barely mentioned the fairies. That’s because this is not really a “fae book”, the fairies here are… kind of incidental. They make the situation worse, and they add a lot of creepiness – pool party with dying ghost horses? Door graveyards? Eyes growing on your hat? There’s a lot here – but they’re not the focus.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t awesomely disgusting. Especially Unselle. She’s the girl on the cover of this book, and everything she says and does is very creepy and wrong on so many levels. I loved reading about her.

My rating: ★★★★

Trigger warnings for: foster brother/sister incest, codependency, parental neglect, emotional abuse, sexual assault, on-page death, body horror, mentions of suicide.