Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

43558747Me and YA fantasy this year really don’t get along.

In terms of how it compares to the first book, Girls of Storm and Shadow is probably the worst sequel I’ve ever read.
After all, how can a series in which I love the two main characters end up being actively unenjoyable? Somehow, this one managed, and without ever making me change my feelings about Lei and Wren – which is a remarkable accomplishment, one I hope to never see again.

The best word I can find to describe what went wrong with most of this book is “sloppy“. A lot of good ideas, but to say that the execution left something to be desired would be an understatement, and this was true right from the beginning. I read an ARC, and I hope some of these don’t make it to the final copy, but one of the first things that stood out to me about Girls of Storm and Shadow was the jarringly modern language – characters using words like “fanmail”, or “B.O.” to mean body odor, or saying “stealth mode activated” – out of nowhere, in what is very much a high fantasy setting. There are also some puns that, to work, would require the characters to be speaking English, which clashed with everything I know about the worldbuilding. Also, since we’re talking about the puns: I didn’t mind that they were purposefully terrible, but the attempt at funny banter involving Bo, Nitta and Merrin was so cringey I just wanted them all to disappear. There really isn’t a character more annoying than the unfunny comic relief.

The jarring parts didn’t stop there; no, soon I started to notice how awkward the dialogue was at times – always at the same very specific times. While every character has their own way to speak and it’s usually easy to understand who is saying what without needing a dialogue tag, most of the characters seemed to have a thing for launching themselves into monologues about what bravery is and the costs of fighting back. In those monologues, they all spoke the exact same way. It was as if these parts were made to work out of context instead of in context, as if they were meant to be quoted and shared instead of actually belonging in the text. While I agreed with what the book said about resistance and what it means to be brave, abandoning all subtlety to deliver important lessons to the reader is talking down to the reader.

This is also a journey book.
I’m always hesitant with sequels of books I loved, because in a trilogy, the second book often turns into a journey book. If the first book wasn’t one already, the second often fails. One of the things I loved the most about Girls of Paper and Fire was the atmosphere, at the same time dazzling and claustrophobic, and the way the f/f romance was framed as a light in the darkness for Lei. All of this is lost in the second book; we go from a developed, vivid setting that feels real to speeding through a series of locations we’re told relatively little about, and everything feels so flat and fake. We go from a romance that was a source of strength for the characters to something that is mostly yet one more obstacle for them.

I appreciated how this book portrayed the way even a loving relationship can become really strained when two people are uprooted from the circumstances in which the relationship began and thrown into a very different but still ugly situation. Lei is suffering because she feels out of place (on top of everything we saw in the first book); Wren has been raised by a family that mostly saw her as means to an end, and at times finds herself missing some parts of palace life, and this horrifies her. I wasn’t annoyed by the way the main characters found communicating difficult – no, I think the miscommunication was realistic and necessary. These are traumatized 17-year-olds and Lei is clearly displaying PTSD symptoms. Of course they’re struggling, and that impacts their relationship. This book doesn’t shy away from any of that, and that’s probably what I liked the most about it.

What really annoyed me was that this book thought it was necessary to include [spoilery thing] of all things, out of nowhere, 70% in. Now, I can have fun with this sort of thing in lighter reads in which I’m just there for the drama. This is very much not that kind of book, and I have no idea why this was done. To add conflict? As if there wasn’t enough. That sort of thing only annoys your reader, and it’s not like I needed that, because believe me, after spending 300 pages with Bo I was already annoyed.

Click here to see what the spoiler-y thing is, because I wish I had known:

Unnecessary drama involving an ex-girlfriend that is suddenly introduced.

I also felt like nothing happened, even though a lot of things clearly happened, since the characters were constantly on the run or trying to convince people to ally with them. The problem is, the situation felt very stagnant, because the characters’ goals were always the same, their relationship with the world and each other were always the same, the villains’ goals were always the same – at least for the first three quarters of the book.
I quit 75% of the way through, because I realized that I wasn’t actually liking anything of what I was reading anymore.

My rating: ★★

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 · Sci-fi · Young adult

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★¾


Small Haul

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

This time, I got:

IMG_20190912_202638353

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

Have you read any of these?

 

Book review · Young adult

Review: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

38612739Pet is a story about how evil – any kind of evil – thrives in plain sight when people start refusing to look for it, to acknowledge that it can and does exist. It’s a story about how this refusal of any kind of discomfort, this hiding from the world’s truth, hurts and silences victims.

It follows Jam, a black trans girl with selective mutism who lives in Lucille, a town in a future version of America that would look like an utopia to us. Not only the people around Jam accept all of her as she is, Lucille as a whole doesn’t have “monsters” anymore: no police to fear, no hoarding billionaries or evil politicians or backstabbing bigots. Evil has been defeated, people say, but as Jam soon discovers, that’s never really the case.

This is a charming little book. It’s so short, but it has so much to say, with this world balanced between surreal and futuristic, in which creatures can come through paintings and monsters are still so familiar. It’s not contemporary, but it’s that kind of book that feels more real than reality, and one I would recommend to readers of all ages. I think that it’s technically a much-needed lower YA, as the main character is 15, but it’s accessible even to younger readers, and adults could get a lot out of it as well. From what Petsays about the nature of evil to what it says about what makes a monster, or an angel – not the appearance, not what they are, but what they do – there are a lot of important messages and reminders in this book.

I think it’s really interesting how, in an age range that is supposedly geared towards teenagers (so, from 13 to 19, and even then, people will tell you that it’s technically meant to be 14-17), characters that are younger than 16 are so uncommon in YA. I think this is one of the reasons this book felt so unlike every YA novel I had ever read before – Jam is a 15-year-old girl who actually feels like one, and Pet talks about the typical difficulties of being a young teen in the world: Jam doesn’t know how to communicate with her parents anymore, she’s slowly realizing that the world is uglier than she has believed for all her life, and is terrified that people won’t listen to her just because of her age. I remember experiencing all of these things myself, and it’s sad that the YA age range usually avoids dealing with these topics to favor storylines that are more appealing to adults instead.

Pet also focuses a lot on family dynamics, both in Jam’s own family – Jam’s relationships with her parents, Bitter and Aloe, is really developed, which is also uncommon in YA – and in her friend Redemption’s, in which Jam has been told “hides a monster”. I loved the portrayal of Redemption’s family, it’s so uncommon to see extended families and polyamory representation (Redemption’s parents are a woman, a non-binary person, and a man, but aunts and uncles are almost like parents to him too) in books, but even families that look perfect can have their ugly sides. And this is still a story with a happy ending, the best possible ending given the circumstances. Just because it has an important message, it doesn’t mean it has to be constantly painful.

And then there’s the relationship between Jam and Pet, the creature that came through Jam’s mother’s paining. I loved what this book did with Pet, especially what Pet meant to Jam – their complicated friendship, their disagreements abou how to pursue justice, and how Pet taught Jam to be brave and that sometimes discomfort is a positive thing.

I hope Pet ends up reaching a lot of people; I think most could get something useful from this.

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

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

42202063Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is a contemporary story following Nima Kumara-Clark, a biracial Sri Lankan lesbian, as she learns the benefits of going out of her comfort zone through the local drag scene.

I have read a lot of queer books, but none of them prominently featured drag performers. In this novel, the main character, the love interest, and various side characters have been drag performers at some point. With every year we get more YA books about so many different sides of the queer experience, and I’m so glad that’s the case.

This novel has a slice-of-life feel to it. It’s slow-paced, it’s kind of open-ended on some sides, and more than everything, it’s messy. But the messiness is one of its strengths, in a way, and while me and Nima didn’t have a lot in common, I could definitely understand her. She’s awkward, she makes a lot of bad decisions, she is… imperfect in so many ways, and I loved her for that. If you’re the kind of person who needs teen girls to be perfect, I really don’t recommend this, because Nima makes so many mistakes. As teens do.

I especially liked seeing how insecure she was, how she felt what I call “queer imposter syndrome”, because there are moments in which she sees herself as far too bland to even have the right to interact with other queer people. (By the way: answering that your hobby is reading and, when asked for more details, saying that your hobby is reading novels is something I’ve done. It’s what people who have been mocked for their “boring/weird” hobbies or have this specific insecurity would do. Being vague is a shield.)
Also:

Maybe I was assuming too much. I could be making up any interest on her part. Why in the world would she be interested in me? She was probably just being friendly. She seemed really friendly.

Nima is such an awkward lesbian icon. I love her, and I loved her narrative voice, for the most part – but if you plan to go into this, keep in mind that it’s often overdramatic. To make a few examples of weird, emphatic figures of speech in her narration:

“I swallowed my heart back into my chest”
“my heart played hopscotch around my chest”
“her teeth took up her entire face”
 (…what)
“I had a whole mob of butterflies flapping around in my stomach”
“made my heartbeat quicken until I thought she might actually be able to see it through my chest”
“I could feel a heart attack coming on”
“I woke up feeling like someone was making scrambled eggs in my stomach”

And more. It got distracting at times, especially since I don’t love this kind of writing, but for Nima’s personality, it made sense. But my personal favorite was this one:

That was pee-your-pants kind of nervous. This—this was shit-your-pants kind of nervous

As you can see, she’s a poet, and has such a way with words. But, surprisingly, all of this ended up feeling endearing more than annoying.

As I said before, I saw this book as slice-of-life. I say this because a few aspects of this could feel lacking in closure, but I don’t necessarily agree. This is Nima’s story, what her mom is doing isn’t relevant to her – realizing that it isn’t relevant to her is one of the plot points. And I liked Gordon’s storyline. He’s a side character who has a lot of internalized queerphobia and is struggling because of toxic masculinity, but who is also dealing with bodily dysphoria – and it’s implied that he might be trans, even though by the end of the book he’s either still figuring himself out or not ready to come out to people. In any case, it wasn’t Nima’s business: what mattered, what gave closure to the storyline to me, is that by the end they were friends again.
In a way, the ending felt more like a hopeful beginning than an ending, and I really liked that about it. It reminded me a bit of The Gallery of Unfinished Girls: the book might have ended here, but Nima and her friends have a whole life ahead of them. Because of this, and because of how messy this book was, everything felt more real to me.

However, while the drag queen Deirdre is unambiguously a black trans woman, I would have loved if this book had used the word trans even just once. For something that is named Kings, Queens and In-Betweens, this book was surprisingly binarist at times, by not acknowledging non-binary trans people explicitly and using some binarist phrasings here and there.

Another thing I didn’t love was the writing, and not for Nima’s awkward metaphors, but because of the complete lack of atmosphere or sense of setting. I know she’s supposed to live in boringland, but I had no idea how anything looked like.
I also had mixed feelings about the romance: the love interest, Winnow (who is biracial Japanese), is one of the less developed characters, and there’s a significant age gap (3-4 years I think) that didn’t make that much sense to me, especially considering that Nima reads even younger than her age at times. But as this book doesn’t really focus on it – the romance is more of a motivation for Nima to get into the drag scene, in a way – it didn’t bother me too much (…maybe because I’ve read a book with a truly uncomfortable and weird age gap a week ago and this is nothing confronted with that? I don’t know.)

My rating: ★★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

36683928Spin the Dawn is the first book in a Chinese-inspired fantasy series. If you think that this book’s cover is beautiful, I can now tell you that its inside is even better, and that it is worth reading just for the descriptions and atmosphere, if you care about that sort of thing.
I certainly do.

One of the first things I noticed while reading this book was that I could visualize everything perfectly – from the dresses and the needlework to the landscapes and the magic – so much that I was actually happy when, once the sewing competition ended, this became a travel fantasy. Travel fantasy is very hit-or-miss for me, but when I love the author’s writing (especially the descriptions), I always end up loving it, and this was no exception.

It was so refreshing to read about a heroine who wasn’t a warrior in a book about a competition that didn’t in any way involve fightingSpin the Dawn is about a competition to become the Emperor’s personal tailor; in this world of demons and magic that can spin sun rays and paint with the blood of the stars, it’s exactly as beautiful as one would think, and the mythology is just as interesting.
Maia, the main character, isn’t good at wielding traditional weapons – her “weapons” are needles and especially her magical scissors, but this doesn’t make her a damsel in distress. I always appreciate when YA fantasy portrays characters who have a different sort of strength from the usual warrior archetype.

I almost wanted to give this book five stars, because I did love parts of it, and it’s been a while since a YA fantasy novel captivated me so much. However, some tropes this book employed left a bad taste in my mouth – crossdressing plotlines usually have transphobic implications in some scenes (which is why I skimmed the ~gender reveal~) but what I didn’t expect was the whole “I’m disguised as a boy and I’m attracted to a boy, people think we’re *gasp* gay“. It almost felt like the book was playing it for laughs, and… that’s really not good, especially not in a book in which there are no explicitly queer characters. [there’s also a really ableist trope at the end of the ARC, bus as I’ve heard it was removed from the final copy, I won’t let it influence my rating.]

It might be that this is the first straight book I’ve read in a month, but the romance wasn’t great – it’s the typical “kind of naive girl + mysterious boy with an eye color far more striking than his personality” dynamic that is everywhere in YA fantasy. I wouldn’t hate m/f YA fantasy romances so much if it weren’t for the fact that 90% of male love interests sound like the same person. It’s also one of these mortal + old immortal romances, except the love interest doesn’t sound old at all (I don’t get why he had to be immortal in the first place), and I didn’t get why the two liked each other at all either – their banter was fun at times, but what did they see in each other? I don’t know, I liked them enough as individual characters (especially Maia) but as a couple… I just didn’t feel it.

My rating: ★★★¾