WATCH US RISE is a young adult book that explores feminism and intersectionality in a way that breaks down core concepts and key figures for younger readers. Jasmine is a black, plus-sized young woman who is interested in poetry and theater. Chelsea is a thin, white feminist who also likes poetry and wants to be an activist. When the two of them start chafing in their clubs at their liberal arts high school due to their ideals and personal philosophies, they decide to start their own club: a club for feminists, replete with a blog where they can speak out about injustice, inspiration, and calls to action.
There was so much about this book that was great, and there were a few things that weren't. First, I want to focus on what was great. WATCH US RISE really deep-dives into feminism, highlighting problems that women face everyday, overtly and covertly. Whether it's the lack of plus-sized options in a clothing store, or an authority figure brushing off a sexual harassment claim with that hated word - "allegedly" - Watson and Hagan bring up a lot of issues that teenage girls face on the regular.
Jasmine was an especially lovely character. I respected her so much. In addition to starting the club, she's also spending so much energy on her father, who is dying of cancer. She had great comments about blackness, black stereotypes, being a bigger girl in a society that caters to and promotes the visibility of smaller women, and all sorts of other things that were very important. I also liked that she wasn't afraid to call her friend, Chelsea, out on her hypocrisy when Chelsea is constantly dragging her to small-size clothing stores and then forgetting to order plus-sizes when they make their club t-shirts and saying that oh well, Jasmine can just wear a men's shirt. It was so refreshing to see Chelsea get told off, and a perfect example of not letting your friends get away with toxic behavior.
Which leads me to my biggest gripe with this book: Chelsea. Chelsea is the epitome of everything that is wrong with white feminism: if it's not a T-shirt slogan or an internet hashtag, she has no interest in it. One of the key moments that really made me not like her is when she's saying that they need a social justice club, in the very beginning, and Jasmine tells her that there is one. It's called "Justice By the Numbers," or something like that, and it uses statistics and data to break down things like redlining and food desert. Chelsea has no interest because she doesn't like math, she wants people to listen to her, to speak up and be heard. As a white ally to people of color, it's really important not to co-opt the stories of the people you're trying to help, and I was disgusted when Chelsea wrote a poem inspired by a Harlem museum and then a kwansaba for Jasmine, her black friend. That, for me, almost bordered on cultural appropriation. Everything was about her.
She's also a hypocrite in other ways. Despite all her feminist rhetoric about calling men out and not putting down other women, she gets involved with a guy who has a girlfriend. I found that really disgusting. Just goes to show the power of cognitive dissonance, I guess, that someone could talk the talk and still drag their heels when it comes to walking the walk.
Towards the end, she also refers to herself as a "womyn," an alternative spelling of "women" to remove the word "men"; it is a word rooted in trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF). There are feminists who actively work to keep "non-biological" women out of women's spaces, who still consider trans women as "men" and exclude them from the movement, and the term "womyn" is sometimes associated with people who think that way. That seemed like a poor oversight, a mistake that someone might make who wasn't very familiar with feminism or its roots, and combined with Chelsea's rather off-putting "angry Tumblr feminist" attitude, she ended up sounding more like a gross stereotype from a misogynistic Reddit thread, and less like, you know, an aspirational figure.
I know I came down hard on this book, but I think it's important to be critical - even about books that you liked. And I did like this book a lot. I finished it in a single day, and apart from some of the poetry and most of the parts about Chelsea, I thought WATCH US RISE had a mostly good message. Feminism is important, and not all feminists practice their feminism the same or with equal good faith. Jasmine and Chelsea both come from very different walks of life, and even though privilege and white feminism aren't really discussed as much as they should have been, I get why maybe the authors didn't want to come across as too heavy-handed and therefore didn't give Chelsea the serious dressing-down that she deserved. But for young girls who might be new to feminism and have questions about how to start their own movements, WATCH US RISE may prove an invaluable resource.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
I'm kind of obsessed with Mina V. Esguerra's romances. They have the steamy, romantic vibe of something you would find in Avon's line-up, only most of her books are set in the Philippines and feature Asian heroes and heroines. I first found out about this author through one of my friends who saw me reading a Six de Los Reyes book and told me about #romanceclass, and the circle of Filipino writers who wrote romances under this hashtag.
The Chic Manila series is a chatty, modern set of romances featuring progressively-minded women who work, who are trying to navigate the obstacle-laden field of relationships in addition to figuring out who they are as people and what they want out of life. The best way to describe these books is as a coming-of-age story for adults in their late-twenties/early-thirties.
BETTER AT WEDDINGS THAN YOU features a hero and a heroine who are both wedding planners. Aaron is pretty small potatoes and gets most of his clients through his sister. His current job is with his childhood friend, Helen, but her husband-to-be, Greg, is firing Aaron because he's afraid Helen is in love with him. Daphne is Aaron's replacement, and one of Greg's friends. She's a little leery of the whole situation, and also of Aaron, but because Aaron has all of the details up to this point, they end up deciding to collaborate and save the wedding.
Obviously, this being a romance, the two of them end up falling for each other. This leads to some very sexy scenes; this is definitely one of the steamier Esguerra books I have read - not that I'm complaining. But Esguerra romances are fraught with last act crises, and Aaron's and Daphne's burgeoning romance isn't exempt from this. Daphne's been burned too many times before and isn't very interested in romantic relationships. Aaron is an ex-playboy who's starting to realize that he wants to settle down, but he isn't quite sure what to do with a girl like Daphne. And then there's Helen - Helen, who is a total piece of work and deserves a whole subreddit of her own on r/Nicegirls.
Screw you, Helen.
I really enjoyed BETTER AT WEDDINGS than you. I've liked all of the Esguerra books I've read to varying degrees, but this was definitely one of her best. I love reading romances when the heroines have jobs, and are good at their jobs, and it was so great to read about Daphne being as passionate about her work as she later becomes about her love life. And it's also really cool to see a hero with a job that wouldn't be traditionally considered macho or manly (i.e. wedding planning). He was also very nice and 100% not about that cad life. I was able to ship the two of them without any guilt.
If you like sweet romances with strong women and positive messages about work, sex, and love, I really do recommend these books.
Wow, Scholastic went edgy. When I was a kid, I think the most controversial book I ever read from a Scholastic imprint was Louis Sachar's HOLES. I'm honestly psyched about this, because I've gone on rants before about how way too many young adults books try to over-simplify and over-sanitize their content to make it kid-friendly, when we live in a world that really isn't kid-friendly and kids are going to look for content they relate to.
In that sense, SPIN is the perfect book, because it has a story to tell and it doesn't try to censor anything or dumb anything down. SPIN is a young adult murder mystery. A young black deejay named Paris Secord (stage name: DJ ParSec) was found dead on her turntables by her ex-friends and ex-business partners, Fuze, her social media consultant, and Kya, her tech gal.
Fuze and Kya want to find out who killed DJ ParSec. Not just because she used to be their friend but because 1) they're suspects in the murder and they want to clear their names and their reputations and 2) ParSec had some super obsessed, super cray-cray fans called #DarkNation who will do anything to serve their leader. Anything. Eep.
The narrative style is pretty breezy. Kya and Fuze have alternating POVs, and sprinkled in are some of Paris's leading up to the night where she died. I never really knew who dunnit until the end and I thought the grand reveal was... well, mostly pretty good. I guess I've read too many twisted thrillers; I expect everything to be as disturbing as the inner-workings of my own mind, I guess!
One thing I loved about SPIN is the rep. This is not diversity for diversity's sake. It's an excellent murder mystery with diverse rep. It has a lot of great fabulous about Black Lives Matter and black culture and black stereotypes and what it means to be "black enough," but the characters' blackness is not the focus of the story. All of the characters are fully fleshed out and they're flawed, three-dimensional beings. I liked all three narratives, even if I didn't always like them as people.
Honestly, if you like mystery thrillers and you want to read a diverse book that sets the bar super high, SPIN is a great pick. I was given this book as a gift and I might not have read it because of that cutesy rainbow cover and the cheesy Goosebumps-esque blurb on the cover, but it's surprisingly dark and disturbing for a YA book - and I mean that in the best possible way. Reader beware, you're in for a rather frightful experience and what is also legally distinct from the Goosebumps catchphrase. ;)
WHAT YOU WANTED is the story of a one-night-stand turned romance. Andrea is the sister of Julie, from THAT KIND OF GUY, only whereas Julie was a goody two-shoes, motherly character, Andrea is a world-weary "free spirit" who has a lot of sex with different partners and doesn't really dig commitment. Her heart gets broken when she falls for someone, Thad, finally - only he breaks up with her for another girl named Naomi, leaving her in the dust.
The hero in this book, Damon, is in a similar boat. He's also been in love with another girl for a while, a prissy, high maintenance girl named Geraldine who is Andrea's total opposite in every way. When they meet up again, sparks fly, and Andrea suggests hooking up and going out on double-date-like situations with Thad and Geraldine, along with people from their extended circle of friends, in order to make their ex-lovers jealous.
If you think this plan doesn't work out, you would be right. Both of them start to fall for each other for real, but are still afraid of getting hurt and still not quite 100% over their past love interests. Pretty soon, it's not clear what is a game anymore, and what is real. Andrea has a shot at happiness but this time, her "free spirit" might end up shooting her in the foot and costing her the love of her life.
The first book I read by Mina V. Esguerra was her first book in the Chic Manila series, MY IMAGINARY EX. It had such a classic 2000s chick-lit vibe, and I loved it so much, I recommend it to all of my romance-loving friends and sent the link to coworker friends when it was free on Amazon. THAT KIND OF GUY, my second Esguerra read, was an okay read, but it lacked the charm of MY IMAGINARY, which had a better romance and a lot of focus on friendships.
WHAT YOU WANTED goes back to the formula I loved so much in MY IMAGINARY EX. I love how sex positive this book is, and how Andrea wasn't shamed for having multiple partners. I also like how there's always a twist with the other woman in these books, and that she's never as evil or nefarious as you originally think she might be. There are so many great discussions about sex and relationships and honesty and intimacy in these books, and even though they sometimes take a while to get rolling, by the end I'm always squirming with anxiety and hoping hard for that happy ending.
I've said many times in my reviews that the YA genre needs to start taking risks. For about a decade, YA has been snowballing towards "safe" and "stale." Young adults are young adults, and I personally think, as a reader and a writer, that we need to stop acting like teens and adults in their early twenties need to be protected from difficult subjects or explicit content, as 1) they're going to go ahead and find it anyway if they really want to read it, so you might as well to try and do it well and for the intended audience and 2) it's not like teens aren't experiencing things like sex, swearing, alcohol, and bigotry/racism in their everyday lives.
So before I even get into the content of DREAM COUNTRY, I want to say that I appreciate that the author didn't try to dumb down the difficult subjects in her book, which was, to my surprise, for young adults. There is a lot of graphic content, everything from genocide, to rape, to racism, colorism, privilege, explicit language (multiple uses of the N-word especially, but also the C-word), as well as white supremacy and slavery.
DREAM COUNTRY is a multi-generational family saga centering around a Liberian family. The first narrator, Kollie, is a high school student in the early noughties who struggles with not being "black enough" to fit in with the American black students, but also very much conscious of the racism he faces as a man of color, and the xenophobia he faces as an immigrant. The second narrator is Togar, which takes place in the late 1920s. Togar is trying to escape the militant slavers who are forcing Liberians to work the plantations owned by ex-slaves who colonized Liberia in the 1800s. Yasmine is one of those ex-slaves, who thinks that Liberia will be a new chance for her and her children, but she is taken aback by the sickness, the poor health conditions, and the rural conditions. Then there's Ujay and Evelyn, whose narrative is set in the 1980s, during the Liberian Civil war. The story ends full circle with Angel, Kollie's younger sister, who is now an adult in the 2010s.
As I said, this book is written the way it would be for any adult. Gibney does not balk at the idea of communicating the horrors of slavery, racism, and war to kids. And really, I think most kids don't have any idea how horrific such events are, because frequently they are sugar-coated or glorified in children's fiction. Reading this book makes you fully cognizant of the stakes. It actually reminded me a lot of Yaa Gyasi's HOMEGOING, although between you and me, I thought HOMEGOING was a better book because each character was more fleshed out, and their story fully developed.
That actually brings me to my biggest complaint with DREAM COUNTRY: it felt like an unfinished book. The characters' stories didn't really close in a satisfying way, and in my opinion, the most interesting POVs ended way too soon and the less interesting POVs dragged on forever. I would have liked to learn more about Togar or see what Kollie's experience was like when his parents sent him to Liberia. Angel's POV felt like an afterthought, and Ujay's was the only historical POV that actually provided new perspective on his descendants, whereas the others really didn't, in my opinion.
DREAM COUNTRY isn't a bad book by any means and it does some pretty amazing things, but there were also many points where I found myself bored by the subject matter, and given the nature of the subject matter, that should not be the case. I'm going to donate my copy to a high school now that I've done with it. Hopefully the kids will enjoy it more than I did. :)
THE AUTHENTICS is a tough book to rate. On the one hand, it brings up a lot of important topics in a fairly engaging and accessible way. On the other hand, it tried to do so much in such a short amount of time, that it ended up feeling disorganized. The heroine is not the most likable of characters, and is also a drama queen and a hypocrite, so the beginning of the book is a rough ride until she gains some self awareness about 50% of the way in.
Daria Esfandyar is a fifteen-year-old Iranian-American girl who is about to turn sixteen. Her mother is planning a huge (and unwanted) Sweet 16 party for her, and inviting a whole bunch of people she doesn't like, including distant relatives and her ex-best friend, Heidi Javadi, who Daria really hates. Heidi represents everything Daria doesn't like about Persian LA culture ("Tehrangeles"), with her expensive car, designer clothes and nose job. Creatively, Daria calls Heidi's group of friends the "Nose Jobs." Daria's own group of friends is called "The Authentics," because they are so different and that makes them so authentic.
The Authentics are also diverse. There's Kurt, who is into astrological signs and who everyone in their friends group is speculating may be gay. There's Caroline, who actually is gay, and is into art. Then there's Joy, who's like a Nigerian Claudia Kishi from the Babysitter's Club, in that her sole personality trait is basically "has strict parents who don't understand her weird but stylish fashion sense and her desire to eXpReSs HeRsElF." And then, of course, there's Daria herself.
Daria thinks her problems of being different and having upper middle class culture foisted violently upon her are the greatest problems in the world, until she takes one of those ancestry tests and learns that she's half Mexican. Which means one of two things: one of her fully Persian parents isn't her real parent, or she's adopted. She ends up doing a number of questionable things in order to find out the identity of her birth mother, which ends up resulting in her meeting a stepbrother who she thinks is cute. Oh no. He takes her existence with an entire container of salt and thinks she's cute too and they end up dating and he also helps her get closer to his stepmom, which is ten kinds of awk.
Additionally, Daria has a gay brother who is married to a Chinese man, and in a move that mirrors Daria's own parental angst, they decide to have a surrogate birth the child with Andrew's DNA. This means that Andrew's parents are in town to visit their granddaughter, which results in all kinds of cultural clashes with Daria's parents as they proceed to commit as many cross-cultural faux pas and veiled insults as possible, providing uncomfortable evidence that racism is not just for white people.
There's a lot going on in this book and there's a lot to unpack. As I said earlier, I think this book tried to do some good things. There's a bit in here about the Iranian revolution (although if you're interested in learning more about that, you should probably check out PERSEPOLIS). The girl on girl hate is addressed, and Heidi proves to be a much more complicated and interesting character than the Mean Girl she was being built up to be in the beginning of the book. She also checks Daria on her hypocrisy and slut-shaming, which I appreciated. THE AUTHENTICS has many dialogues about family, blended family, identity and ethnicity, as well as stereotyping and racism (including stereotyping and racism that occur within the more broadly sweeping "people of color" group).
I think the book might have been better without all the forced-romance, especially since it didn't amount to much. The stepbrother angle also made it feel kind of creepy (which is addressed in the book by multiple people, thank God, so I didn't feel like I was going crazy). I was also confused about the results of Daria's ancestry tests. My copy is actually an ARC that was given to me by a friend, so I'm not sure if this made it into the final cut, but in the ARC, Daria finds out that she is half-Mexican, half-Persian from the test results. The person revealed to be her father was not Persian, if I remember correctly (I believe he was white and Jewish), and her mother was fully Mexican, so where did the Persian come from? Was that a mistake? Did it transfer via osmosis? (Kidding.)
Overall, I did like THE AUTHENTICS but it didn't feel very realistic and the ending was too neat. It kind of felt like it was trying too hard to be quirky and different, and even though I liked how the cast was mostly fleshed out instead of just acting as name-dropped diversity tokens, there were still a couple main characters (especially Daria's friends) who fell flat on the pages. I didn't dislike this as much as some of my friends did, but it's definitely an imperfect book and feels like an unpolished debut.
I side-eyed this book a little when it got placed into my hands because on the back, it's compared to THE HATE U GIVE. Given the popularity of THE HATE U GIVE, I can see why publishers and publicists are going to be eager to draw such comparisons, but it feels like a mistake to compare every book about serious issues being faced by people of color to THE HATE U GIVE. THUG was a powerful book; let's not trivialize it with false comparisons.
Just my two cents.
That one qualm aside, PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING was kind of amazing. I didn't have any expectations going in, which is probably the best way to enter this book. It's about a boy named Jay, who is half-Filipino and half-white. He's a pretty typical boy: he's not popular, he plays a lot of video games, he doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up. All that is shattered, however, when he finds out that his cousin was just killed in the Philippines as a result of Duterte's War on Drugs.
Frustrated with his family's reticence on the subject, and the utter lack of information online, Jay elects to spend his Easter vacation in the Philippines, living with his extended family as he tries to gather clues on why his cousin died. Jay runs into wall after wall, until he gets help from an unlikely source, but as he learns more about his cousin, Jun, and what he did after he ran away from home, Jay starts to realize that people can be quite a bit different from how you remember them in your mind.
There are so many things that this book does really well. It's not afraid to tackle difficult subjects, for one. PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING brings up colorism, American Imperialism, drugs, ethnocentrism, loss, grief, privilege, and so much more. Privilege plays an especially strong role: for example, even though Jay is quick to recognize privilege when it's at his own expense, he learns that he has privilege of his own both as a light-skinned man of color, and also as a man, that people of color with darker skin and women (especially women of color) do not have. Racism and sexism exist on a spectrum, with some people getting the shortest end of the shortest stick, so it was really great to see Ribay unpack those nuances in a way that kids could understand easily.
I also thought the war on drugs was discussed in a really great way. I knew about Duterte's authoritarian war on crime, but not to what extent. It was really awful to read about, and to see the wealth disparity between the slums in Manila versus the ostentatious displays of wealth by the government and the upper class. It's easy to fall into the same trap Jay (and, later, his white friend, Seth) did, I think, and marvel in pearl-clutching awe, and think to yourself, "Wow, things are so bad here, people are so poor." But that's a mistake, a huge mistake, because if you look hard enough, you can find examples of privilege and injustice in any society. Black people in the U.S. face incredible injustice from the police, and people demonize Black Lives Matter and the victims of police violence using the same logical fallacies that people in the Philippines use to excuse the drug users and sellers who are gunned down or jailed by the police. Why? Because it's easier to imagine that the recipient of violence and injustice deserved it than the alternative: that we're facilitating a grave injustice.
This is a really important book and really touching. At several points, I laughed. At other points, I cried. Ribay talks about the goods and bads of Filipino culture, working in everything from food to family, and from colonialism to Catholicism. I hope PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING becomes a raging success, because so many global issues get lost in the face of domestic issues, and understanding that privilege and the importance of truth-seeking and empathy are important educational tools that help make kids into more thoughtful and compassionate adults.
P.S. This was an ARC, so my copy and reading experience might differ from yours. Obviously, that didn't bias me since I'm the queen of telling it like it is, even if nobody wants to hear it.
I read PARABLE OF THE SOWER for the first time as a teenager and I'm kind of surprised at how much I've forgotten/how much went over my head. It's a typical post-apocalyptic book in some ways, but revolutionary in others. First, it's peopled with a very diverse cast, with black, Asian, and Latino characters, to the point that they overshadow any Caucasian characters. California is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the U.S., so it was refreshing to see a book that actually reflected that makeup.
Second, PARABLE OF THE SOWER isn't dated at all. It still feels contemporary. Many of the issues - climate change, increase in criminal drug use, hyper-inflation, racially charged violence, gangs - are still relevant today. The only thing that truly places a time stamp on this book are the lack of cell phones and internet, but those things don't really have a place in a post-apocalyptic society anyway, which is maybe why this works.
Lauren lives in a cushy gated community with her preacher father. They've walled themselves off from the rest of the world with high-tech razor wire and rely on themselves and no one else. Lauren knows they have it good but isn't sure this is a sustainable way of life; their relative ease is stirring up the resentment of outsiders, and she's afraid that their "safety" is making them soft and unprepared for what awaits them outside.
Spoiler - Lauren is right and the worst does come to pass, only because nobody believed her or took her seriously, everyone is woefully unprepared. Not Lauren, though. She's a great character. It's refreshing to see a female protagonist who makes good decisions, and is willing to do unsavory things if it means survival. She isn't without a moral compass though; in fact, in her journal, she's coming up with the tenets of her own religion, which she calls Earthseed.
The religious angle is a little weird and almost Heinleinesque, made more so by the fact that Lauren has something called "hyper empathy syndrome," which means that she feels the pain and the pleasure that she sees in the people around her. I thought that was pretty weird. Psychic mumbo jumbo like that is pretty common in the sci-fi of the 70s, and man, did those authors love to preach. PARABLE OF THE SOWER is different from those books in that it has strong female heroines, an ethnically diverse cast, morally ambiguous characters, and a genuinely (and terrifyingly) plausible world that sings a swan song for an earth that may be beyond salvation - but also, maybe not.
There are two types of people in this world: those who like vampires, and those who like werewolves. I've always been a vampire gal, but there's something intriguing about shape-shifters and that blurring of the line between humanity and beast. That's why I was excited to find THE DEVOURERS in the Kindle store, a book about rakshasa, or man-eaters/shape-shifters, in India. The cover was gorgeous, the summary was intriguing, and it promised to be dark and fantastical - plus, it's non-Western fantasy, and I want to try and support that, because there is not enough of that.
THE DEVOURERS was everything I thought it would be and more. Don't be fooled by the three star rating. Three stars means I liked it but probably wouldn't reread it because it has some flaws. Even so, it's worth the first read. It has Interview with a Vampire vibes from the Gothic beginning, when a college professor named Alok is approached by an attractive young stranger claiming to be "half-werewolf." He tells Alok a story that ensnares him like the first hit of an addictive drug, and Alok is desperate to meet again.
There are several characters in this book. Alok and the stranger are the foundation for the story, and the bookends that hold all the stories-within-stories together. Within the stranger's tale are many other characters, including a Muslim woman named Cyrah, a Norse shape-shifter who calls himself Fenrir, a French shape-shifter named Gevaudan, and the son of a forest demigoddess named Izrail. Even though the book is relatively short, it has an epic feel, and each story builds into the other. Sexuality and gender expression are also very fluid, which makes sense because of how these werewolves digest their victims (including their souls), and also because it seems like time would erode a lot of the hang-ups that anyone would have about sexuality and gender, anyway. I liked that a lot.
If this book has a flaw, it is that it is hard to read. The POV switches can be confusing, and even though the writing is gorgeous and it mostly works, it can be confusing at times. I think people who have trouble paying attention might have trouble following who's talking. The pacing is also uneven. Most of the story was amazing - that beginning, tho - but the middle is a major slog.
Anyone who's looking for something dark and different and who enjoys paranormal fantasy would enjoy THE DEVOURERS. It's got Indian and Muslim characters, LGBT+ characters, and a really strong and fascinating female character who has some of the best lines in this book. The story-telling and writing are reminiscent of Tanith Lee, who is one of my all time favorites. I'd love to see this author write a follow-up about vampires, or some other well-known monster with a twist.
This is one of those books that is going to make you really, really uncomfortable, like TAMPA, INDECENT, or WHITE OLEANDER. Child sexual abuse is a tough subject and any time a novel revolves entirely around that concept, things are going to be icky. You know what you're in for from the very beginning, when Jasira's mother sends her away for "seducing" her boyfriend into shaving her pubic area, blaming her child instead of the man. Jasira ends up living with her father in the Texas suburbs, filled with a strange blend of guilt, confusion, and resentment.
Jasira is half-Lebanese and half-Irish. Her biraciality leads to a lot of interesting and important dialogues that I didn't pick up on the first time I read this book as a teenager. For example, Jasira's father at one point implies that he can't be racist because of his brown skin but then gets very angry at the idea that they are "black" and insists that Middle Eastern means being white. Jasira's boyfriend in the book is black, and her father is infuriated by that and can't seem to see the hypocrisy seeing as his ex-wife was white and that he is also a man of color facing many struggles. There's also some pretty interesting discussions about the Gulf War and how that affected many Americans' perceptions of Muslim-Americans or Middle Eastern-Americans which are still relevant with regard to many xenophobic and racially charged post-9/11 stereotypes that endure to this day.
Jasira's father lives next to a bigoted army reservist named Mr. Vuoso who ends up grooming and then later, sexually abusing Jasira. Jasira's boyfriend, Thomas, also takes advantage of her. That's an interesting dichotomy: what abuse looks like at the peer level, and what it looks like at the guardian level. Both of Jasira's parents are also abusive in their own way - her father is physically abusive, and her mother is neglectful and oddly jealous of her daughter's relationships, romantic and filial. Jasira is so starved for affection and woefully ignorant of sex, and how it's supposed to work, and it's really heart-breaking how her abuser takes advantage and ends up worming his way into her life.
I feel like the best way to read this book is to read it like LOLITA - read it like LOLITA in the "correct" way, that is. A lot of people who read LOLITA take it at face value, and think, "Wow, that child was a harlot, seducing that older man like that!" But Jasira's other lovely neighbors, Melina and Gil, who actually end up providing shelter for her when she needs it, have a different perspective that makes Jasira's unreliable narration a little easier to read: a child who has sex with an adult, even if he or she claims to want it, is still a victim of rape because the adult should know better. Jasira was confused and didn't know what she wanted, and really wanted someone to say no to her and protect her and instead ended up becoming a victim to a predatory adult who wouldn't stop.
There's a movie based on the book that's a bit old, now. The cast looks good and it has good reviews, but I imagine it'd be hard to watch. TOWELHEAD is definitely not an easy read - even the title, which is a slur that is thrown at Jasira several times over the course of the novel, makes this a difficult book to discuss. I did enjoy it a lot though and found Jasira to be a compelling narrator. If you're into books like WHITE OLEANDER, you'll probably really enjoy TOWELHEAD.
THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE is one of those young adult books with a cultish following that is hyped up to the point where the book itself nearly becomes annoying because of all the fan baggage attached to it. Maybe it's the contrarian inside me, but when I'm surrounded by people who are all screaming "LIKE THIS! LIKE THIS!" I wanna be like, "NO! I HATE IT AND I HATE YOU. GOODBYE." It's the same way with books. The more people try to force me to like something, the more I drag my heels and am determined to find my own way.
Unlike 90% of other leading hyped-up YA titles, THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE has a couple things going for it that actually pleasantly surprised me. There's a trend of precious, twee fiction that's written like a series of Tumblr posts in which diversity is used like a checklist and the writing is as painfully and tackily ornate as a Bel-Air McMansion. THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE, on the other hand, has a bisexual hero who is seen with both men and women. He's portrayed as being a bit of a slut, which points from Gryffindor, because stereotypes, much? But on the other hand, he's also a teenage boy wallowing in privilege and wildly swinging a hand basket of emotional hang-ups and issues, so this might actually be semi-reasonable.
Henry, said bisexual hero, is in love with his friend Percy. Percy is half-black and lives with a noble family, although they treat him like a second-class citizen. Lately, though, he isn't even accorded that much "privilege" because he's started to develop seizures, and his family has decided that they are "done" and are going to consign him to an asylum. It takes Henry a while to realize that his friend has his own set of problems, because Henry is so focused on his own - inheriting his father's business, the abuse handed out to him by his father, his forbidden attraction to boys. Going on Tour in Europe is going to be his last hurrah - or would have been, had his father not cottoned on to his attraction for the opposite sex and foisted a hand-wringing guardian upon him and a threat that he'll be disinherited if any whiff of shamed honor or homosexuality makes its way back to his priggish ears.
The way racism is addressed in this book was done pretty well, I thought, and wasn't too heavy-handed. Henry has to tackle his own privilege and confront the way that he really looks at his friend. One of the best moments was when he realizes that equality means not feeling obligated to fight all your friends' battles for them because you think them incapable of doing it themselves, and the fact that society sweeps their agency away from them is one of the intrinsic problems with discrimination. There was definitely a bit of "virtue signalling" with Henry "Look how tolerant I am" Montague, and so when he stopped looking down on Percy or viewing him selfishly, the attraction worked.
The story itself was a bit odd. I liked the beginning a lot more than the middle or the end. It's fun to read about rakes, and this was a good deal more salacious than I was expecting for a YA novel. Henry's drunken, slutty shenanigans were funny. I liked his interactions with Percy as well. At first his sister, Felicity, annoyed me a lot. I tolerated her by the end of the book but she won't be winning any "favorite character" contests for me. Modern day feminist characters don't really work in historical fiction for a myriad of reasons. But everything was mostly fine until the alchemy plot rolled in and there was all that bunk about panaceas and immortality. Suddenly this book went from being Oscar Wilde for kids to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Magical Surgery. I could not believe the ending of this ridiculous book. Pirates, sinking islands, living forever - did I MISS something?
Ultimately, I decided to deduct a star for that mess of a resolution. It really felt like the author had three ideas for a story and decided to cram them all together while crossing her fingers that it'd work. It didn't. I had fun reading THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE, but sticking in all that crazy scientist stuff ended up making the book seem stupid and OTT, turning what could have been one of my top reads of the year into yet another YA novel that preemptively jumped the shark.
As a reader of bodice-rippers and books that are a part of the Luxury Suite Trash Experience™, I'm prepared to discuss how and when some of my favorite reads can be problematic. I don't feel bad about enjoying them but I do think it's important to have dialogues about why others might not, and why this is 100% okay for others to feel this way without having their opinions lambasted by stans. I, for example, refuse to buy or read anything by Orson Scott Card for personal reasons and once had an Angry White Man
™ call me names for being unable to separate my personal feelings about what Card has said about the LGBT+ from my feelings about his books. We all have those lines that can't and mustn't be crossed, so I totally understand why others choose to get political with their wallets.
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA came under fire for multiple reasons, parts of which had to do with the book, and parts of which had to do with the film. The book has obvious surface issues, like cultural white-washing (giving the heroine blue-grey eyes, downplaying the tragedy of Hiroshima by portraying all American soldiers as fun-loving rascals who are definitely not rapey (seriously)), as well as presenting Chiyo's rise to geisha as a glorified Cinderella story shrouded in Orientalism (and some of the blurbs in this book really underscore that view with coded language, such as the Chicago Tribune's describing the book as "[a]n exotic fable" (emphasis mine) and Vogue's "a startling act of literary impersonation, a feat of cross-cultural masquerade" (emphasis mine). I'm not sure what "cross-cultural masquerade" means but it sounds unfortunately like, "literary yellow-face."
The deeper issue came with one of Arthur Holden's sources, an actual real life geisha named Mineko Iwasaki, who took umbrage with the way the details of her life were mangled in the telling of this novel. I had always been aware of the controversy, and knew it had prompted her to write a memoir detailing her life with more accuracy called, GEISHA: A LIFE, but only found out today while researching the background for this book that she apparently sued both the author and the publisher on the grounds that he had allegedly promised to keep her identity secret, and yet her name features prominently in the "acknowledgements" section of the book.
The movie was controversial because Chinese actresses Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri), Michelle Yeoh (Mameha), and Gong Li (Hatsumomo) were cast to play the roles of the Japanese women in the book. The response to this was the typical "white people who are of X descent play characters of Y descent all the time, and no one bats an eyelash," but the problem with that line of reasoning is that it assumes that actors of color have the same opportunities and varieties of roles open to them that white actors do, which isn't the case. Actors of color have far fewer opportunities, and when opportunities do turn up, they are usually type-cast. Memoirs of a Geisha was a beautifully filmed movie and I felt very grown-up when my mom took me to see it with her after I'd read the book for my high school book club, and it will always have a place in my heart, and I still admit that it smacks of cultural appropriation.
Getting to the book, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is one of those rare books that I have reread several times, and I consider it the entre to my love of epic stories and bodice-rippers. There is something so exciting about following a character from childhood and seeing them evolve and grow over the course of a novel, following them as they navigate new and exciting life changes and forge new relationships. Chiyo/Sayuri was a very readable protagonist and her goal - become a successful geisha - is a very clear one to follow, and root for, because the Cinderella story is so universal.
Upon this subsequent reread, I did notice things that somehow escaped my notice before. Chiyo's detachment from her family, and her under-reaction by the news of their deaths was very strange. I was also bothered by the fact that she never met her sister, Satsu, again, as it kind of felt like the author had left the door open for that reunion, seeing as how Chiyo/Sayuri experienced so many other reunions in her life. I also remember feeling sorrier and more sympathetic for Nobu the first time around, but now, as an educated and wise woman, I see that he is one of those "nice guys" who puts women on pedestals and cannot forgive them for toppling or getting dusty. Even when Chiyo/Sayuri was in his good graces, he was so mean to her, and it was kind of hard to read about that this time.
There were also some wtf moments, like the mizuage scene (or the virginity auction), which I guess was one of the portrayals that Iwasaki was much more upset about. Then the man who buys Sayuri's mizuage takes the blood stained towel her maidenhead dripped on and puts it in a briefcase holding his virginity collection, or vials containing blood-stained fabrics from all the geisha he has despoiled. What a creep! I couldn't believe I'd forgotten the virginity briefcase. It reminded me of a scene from a historical bodice ripper I read about this Norman invader who had a necklace made of the pubes from all the women he'd raped. You can't make this stuff up, guys. Romance novels are the wild, wild west.
To the author's credit, he wrote a somewhat convincing woman, especially with regard to sex and her views of her body and her relationships with other women. While reading this book, I couldn't help but compare this to Jason Matthews's RED SPARROW, in which the heroine didn't resemble an actual human being so much as an emotionless sex robot. Sayuri had hopes and dreams, and Golden doesn't kid himself that pretty young women dream about banging geeky older men for their personalities or their pasty looks; Sayuri does what she does to survive, but she prefers men she's attracted to on her own terms and isn't truly happy until she settles down with someone who can give her what she really wants. It's such a simple thing, but so many dudes either choose not to understand this or don't want to understand this in their writing of women and man, it shows. So, kudos.
I enjoyed this book, problematic content and all. I'm sorry it caused pain, and controversy, but I am reviewing this from my own biased, privileged perspective as a white lady, so take my opinion with several grains of salt. It helps to read this as a trashy bodice-ripper and not as 'historical' fiction.
Gather 'round, friends. Come sit at my table because I've just put the tea on and I'm about to spill it all over the damn place. It took me two months to finish this series, and I have some major thoughts on how it ended and what Kwan did with some of the characters. Each book in the series is a very different sort of story. CRAZY RICH ASIANS, the best one by far, is more like an underdog love story of the kind that was so popular in the mid-2000s, in which the "plain" (read: beautiful) ordinary girl hooks up with the major hottie because he sees through her plainness to all the beauty that lies within (read: hot sex). It ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger so reading CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND is necessary for closure, even though it isn't really a romance anymore at this point but one of those gossipy potboilers of the type that were popular in the 1980s, where rich people behave badly just because they can, and to hell with the consequences as long as you look good doing it.
With the two previous books neatly adding closure to Rachel and Nicky's love story, I wasn't really sure what more there could be left to address for them in RICH PEOPLE PROBLEMS. The quick answer is: not much. Apart from what I believe was a brief appearance in the beginning, Rachel basically disappears until around p.250 or so. In RICH PEOPLE PROBLEMS, the family matriarch who disapproved of Nicky's marriage to Rachel, Grandma Su Yi, has a heart-attack and the entire family turns Tyersall Place into a circus ostensibly to care for her but with her last will and testament very much on their minds.
Eddie, in particular, reminded me very quickly of how much I hated him with his maneuvering to keep Nicky barred from entering the house. Eddie is basically human-shaped garbage on legs. Everything he said and did made me want to punch him. The other relatives, too, sink back into their odious ways as soon as the question of money comes up. Kitty, who had a Pretty Woman redemption arc in the previous book, starts up a rivalry with Colette Bing. Colette is also human garbage on legs. I almost warmed to Eleanor in the previous book because she did reunite Rachel with her father, but in this book her sleazy machinations to pressure Rachel into having kids were super creepy, especially when she invites her to a bible study group - only to try to have one of her friends give her an ob-gyn examination in a room they have set up just next door? -cue horror movie music-
Astrid and Charlie are given more air time in this book than Rachel or Nicky since their romance is the one filled with uncertainty now with both of their ex-spouses making as much trouble for them as possible. I did not like the Isabel subplot and Michael proved that he was even more of a creep than I'd imagined in this book. I also didn't like what happened to Colette at the end of the book. Isabel and Colette were both terrible characters, but I don't really like it when physical or psychological trauma is treated like "justice." There are better ways for characters to get their comeuppance.
I did actually warm to Su Yi a bit in this book and the scenes with her were surprisingly touching. I also liked Carlton's romance with Scheherazade (although "Scheherazade"? Really?). Oliver came off looking like much more of a worm in this book, and I kept wondering what had happened to Connie. Some people didn't like the fighting about what to do with Tyersall Place but I felt like that was pretty realistic and handled well, especially since it is true that because of property values something like that never would be or could be built again in Singapore. Not everything needs to be bulldozed.
RICH PEOPLE PROBLEMS was a definite downgrade in terms of quality and felt more like straight-up trash than the smart, snappy CRAZY RICH ASIANS. I feel like the author probably could have stopped at two book, or even the first book (if he had written in that happy ending) instead of padding Rachel and Nick's future out across two books and then throwing in a whole bunch of other random stuff about the family in for the lols as Rachel gets to know her dad. This book felt entirely unnecessary but trilogies are in and I'm guessing the author wanted to cash in on that as much as anyone. It was the perfect thing to read while sick because it didn't require a whole lot of thought but I can definitely see why so many people who read this felt cheated or disappointed.
Mulan is my favorite Disney movie, so while perusing books to read on my Kindle, in between bouts of flu-induced naps whilst curling up in a ball and asking what sins I've committed to deserve this suffering, there was really no question about indulging in a bit of Mulan fanfiction to make myself feel better. REFLECTION is part of the Twisted Tales series that Disney has put out, in which the corporation asks, "What if...?" hypotheticals that put spins on their original retellings of the story and then hire out young adult authors to write them. Most of the books are written by Liz Braswell, but they actually got a Chinese author to write the Chinese story - how woke.
REFLECTION takes this new approach to Mulan: instead of Mulan getting slashed by Shan-Yu (and betraying her identity as a woman), Li Shang takes the blow for her instead. The wound is fatal, and to save him, Mulan makes a deal with King Yama, the ruler of the Chinese Underworld (Diyu) to find and rescue him and escape from the 100th level of the underworld before time runs out and she's imprisoned there - forever.
I'm a sucker for underworld retellings, and this one smacked a bit of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as Dante's Inferno, but with Chinese mythology instead. The writing was pretty simple (I think this book is for a middle grade audience) but could be vivid. At times, I could imagine this as one of those direct to VHS sequels that were so popular in the 90s. It really should be a movie; it'd be amazing.
There are a lot of call-backs to the movie, which is to be expected, and I thought the author did a good job staying in keeping with the characters as they were portrayed in the movie, although Mushu fell somewhat flat here in comparison to his portrayal in the movie. While I enjoyed the portrayal of the Chinese underworld and the trials Mulan had to undergo, at times the pacing was inconsistent and the middle section in particular got kind of tedious, although it picked up again by the end.
Overall, this was much better than the cash cow I was expecting. It entertained me and even moved me to tears at a couple points. If you're a fan of the Mulan movie and have always wanted more, you should pick up REFLECTION.
THE NIGHT TIGER was an OK read. There were some things about this book that I really enjoyed, and other things I didn't. The book is set in 1930s Malaya (Malaysia), when it was still under British rule. There are two main characters: Ren, an 11-year-old houseboy to British doctor William Acton, and Ji Lin, a dressmaker moonlighting as a dance hall girl. Their stories end up interconnecting due to a severed finger in a vial that Ji Lin obtains from one of her clients. The finger belongs to Ren's old master, and he has only 49 days to get the finger back to his master's grave before his soul is lost forever. At the same time, the women that William Acton fraternizes with keep turning up missing, dead, or both, often looking as though they were mauled by a tiger, and Ji Lin keeps having strange dreams about a river and a train, with a boy who tells her about five people whose names resemble the five Confucian values, and a terrible curse...
So what did I like about this book? It has the creepy, murder plot of a BBC murder mystery. I like how the murders were steeped in Chinese mythology and magic realism, and the looming specters of the weretiger, as well as the finger in the vial, were both suitably creepy. I didn't guess who (or what) was responsible until the very end, so there was a very nice series of reveals to make me feel as if the journey had been worth it. That's important in a murder mystery novel, I think you'll agree. Ji Lin was a great character and I liked that she had a job that was looked down on as being morally loose, and that she didn't tolerate any shit-talking from people about her career. Ren took longer for me to like, and I'm not sure I bought his "cat whiskers" premonitions. That was really strange.
So what didn't I like about this book? Good Lord, it was long, and took forever to get to the damn point. The first 100 pages or so were a breeze, and I thought I wouldn't be able to put the book down. Then the book started to drag a lot without revealing a whole lot of new information. While I did like Ji Lin's eventual love interest, that whole subplot was also dragged out for what seemed like emotional tension, and kind of felt like another excuse to pad the already bloated plot. I also felt like the ending was simultaneously too neat while failing to wrap up a few loose ends. I know on the surface that sounds like it doesn't make sense, but THE NIGHT TIGER focuses more on the kismet between the main characters, and yet ignores the rather glaring problem of the other severed fingers in the hospital, as Chelsea pointed out in her review. Do those souls just never get saved? Lame.
THE NIGHT TIGER is an interesting book, and I like the author's style of writing. I bought her other book, THE GHOST BRIDE, relatively recently and I'm hoping it'll be better than this one. I didn't hate THE NIGHT TIGER, but it has all the good ideas/less than optimal execution dichotomies and pacing issues of a debut novel, and since this isn't a debut novel, that isn't good. Still, it's great to see #OwnVoices historical fiction that explores time periods and situations that aren't getting as much representation as, say, Tudor England or British/American-fought WWII, so kudos for that.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
Reading this after THE GIRL KING turned out to be a really weird experience because they are both very similar stories. Dare I say that "Asian-inspired" fantasy novels in kingdoms where magic is forbidden seems to be the new trend? But, like, seriously, both are about royal siblings who must struggle to learn to manage their kingdoms in times of severe political upheaval. These kingdoms are also utterly opposed to magic - in THE GIRL KING, magic comes in the form of shape-shifters called the "Kith," and in DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE, it comes in the form of mages called "sooths." Both kingdoms are on the brink of civil war/foreign war, and about to implode from all the factions of unrest stirring up drama within the community.
Hesina is forced to take up the royal mantle when her father dies under mysterious circumstances. Her mother, who dislikes her for unknown reasons, abdicates very reluctantly, leaving Hesina to manage the kingdom and lead the trial to find her father's murderer, all without her help.
Luckily, Hesina has several siblings to help her out. Caiyan and Lillian are twins, and her half-siblings; Sanjing is her full brother; and Rou is the son of her father's favored mistress. Despite knowing that it is high treason, she seeks out a sooth to help set her on her path, who tells her the path she should take to find her father's murderer. It points her towards a criminal imprisoned in the dungeons, a foreign man named Akira, who is brilliant, powerful, and mysterious.
I liked DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE a lot more than I liked THE GIRL KING, for several reasons. The world-building was more cohesive and there were many direct parallels to actual elements of Chinese culture (the writing/characters, the religion, historical allegories (I was thinking of the Cultural Revolution specifically, as the rebellion of the eleven and the persecution of the sooths reminded me of that), culture, and clothing). It did not feel quite as nebulous as THE GIRL KING did. The actual magic was a little vague; I'd like to learn more about sooths in the next book. Still, we did see some examples of sooth-saying and what I did see was compelling (blue fire, though).
This book's biggest weakness was its pacing. There were some elements that moved quickly, that I couldn't page through fast enough. This has one of the best "trial" scenes I've seen in a book, like Joan He was the John Grisham of YA fantasy authors. Then there are other parts that move very slowly and/or feel almost repetitive. It was frustrating for me because I initially thought that this was going to be a four-star read, but then it got too tedious and my enjoyment of it lessened over time.
The book's biggest strength are its twists. Several of the grand reveals in this book were excellently done. I found myself looking forward to seeing how the other mysteries in this book would be resolved and finding myself pleasantly surprised each time.
Hesina is a flawed but compelling character and it is interesting to see how the choices she makes in the book end up changing her. She is a very different person by the end of the story than she was in the beginning. I am curious about the names, and why some are Chinese but Hesina's is, I believe, an alternate spelling of a Muslim name, and Lillian is a very Western name. I'm also confused by the ending, which was very strange to me. The author had already proven she was very good at twists, but that one, for some reason, felt especially extra. Maybe it will make more sense in the sequel.
Hopefully this review helps you decide whether you want to read this book without giving too much away. I am totally in love with the cover and was surprised by how much I enjoyed DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE. Hoping the author continues the story on even stronger footing in the sequel.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about this book. THE GIRL KING is another book in a long line of "strong female" heroine-centered YA fantasy novels being marketed to young adults, and it doesn't do anything that's too different from what's already on the table, apart from being an Asian-inspired kingdom with a heroine who's a person of color. I get that people of color don't have the luxury of saying that they're fatigued by tropey fantasy novels, since they don't even have that degree of rep, but at the same point, it's frustrating to pick up a book that promises to be different and ends up just being more of the same.
That said, THE GIRL KING did a lot of interesting things that set it apart from other disappointments I read over the last year, like FLAME IN THE MIST and GIRLS OF PAPER AND FIRE. THE GIRL KING has two heroines, a pair of sisters. Lu is the fierce and tomboyish one who has her eye on the throne and thinks up a rather bold and daring coup to wrest it away from her douchey cousin, Set, who also happens to be her fiance. Min is the feminine and passive sister who historically has been cowardly and weak. The best part of this story, in my opinion, is how their characters change over the course of the story. Rather than being rewarded for her impulsive behaviors, as characters like Celaena are in the THRONE OF GLASS series, Lu's foolhardiness results in negative consequences, and she gradually learns to let go of her impulsivity and confront her biases. Min, on the other hand, starts to become more assertive and angry, and that gradual transformation was really satisfying to see.
As for the world-building, I think Emily hits it on the head in her review. It's Asian-inspired, yes, but not in a way that really seems like the culture was thoroughly integrated into the storyline. Contrast that with a book like Sherwood Smith's THE BANNER OF THE DAMNED, where the customs, religions, and social mores are thoroughly enmeshed into not just the world, but also the plot. I had my issues with that book, as well, but the world-building was lovely. I wish that were the case here. I also think THE GIRL KING scrapes at the surface when it comes to racism, which I ordinarily wouldn't really mind, except that it's a pretty big part of the plot. The slipskin/Kith part of the story, for example, deals with genocide, and yet I don't think this was explored or treated with the gravitas it deserved. It took me a while, for example, to realize that "slipskin" in the book was actually a slur, and even when the characters are called out for using that word there aren't really dialogues and back stories in place to explain why "slipskin" is bad, or the resentment and inequality that give it power.
Yu also includes another nation of people - I forget the name of their country, but they're white - derisively referred to as "pink people" at times. This is also derogatory, and characters are called out for using the word - but, again, the world and the history aren't developed to the point where it's clear why "pink people" is offensive (is pink an offensive color in this culture? does it represent something bad?) or what the relationship is between this other nation that would create that sort of tension.
One thing I did really like about this story was that it's grittier than most YA has been allowed to be. We live in a PC culture, and while I think it's incredibly important to refer to people on their own terms with the words that they choose and be mindful of people's sensitivities and triggers and basically just be a decent human with respect for your other fellow humans, I do think that this fear of offense is watering down YA, to the point where people feel uncomfortable tackling difficult issues or ugly topics for fear of causing offense. THE GIRL KING has violence, it has racism, it has genocide, and it has rape - and yes, looking at the reviews, people were offended by these things, for various reasons, which is their right. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about it, and I felt that Yu made a solid effort to incorporate these concepts into her book in a meaningful way without being OTT.
THE GIRL KING isn't a bad book. It isn't a great book, but I also didn't feel resentful of the time I spent reading it. Part of the problem is the tedious beginning, the reliance on tired fantasy tropes, and the lack of solid world-building to make this kingdom feel like a real place with high stakes consequences. That said, it also did a lot of interesting and even daring things, and ultimately, that willingness to try and be different and take risks was what pushed me over the edge to liking this book.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
I'm a commitment-phobe when it comes to books. Long books scare me. I like the idea of long books, and the satisfaction that comes from reading one to completion, but it's a long and grueling road to that satisfaction. JADE CITY is a long book. Goodreads says it'snot even 500 pages but I'm pretty sure that's a lie. It took me several days to finish JADE CITY, when I can normally read several shorter books in a day. But commitment-phobe tendencies aside, there's really no way I'm going to miss out on a book that the author herself describes as a "wuxia gangster saga." Plus, friendships were at stake. I sucked it up; I read the book.
JADE CITY has a young adult-looking cover, but it is not a young adult book. It takes place in an alternate universe China-like country called Kekon where power lies with those special few who get magical superpowers from jade. The entire economy and power dynamic are based around who has the jade, and other countries want in. Unfortunately, only people who are Kekonese-born can naturally use jade. If you're an outsider, you have to use a drug called "Shine" but it can make you scratch all your skin off and shaves a couple decades off your life because it's hard on your body. But hey - superpowers.
The main narrators are Lan and Hilo, the two brothers who will inherit their grandfather's jade empire when he dies; their sister, Shae, who gave up her jade to live and work in a foreign country and has now returned to mend some of her burned bridges; Anden, a biracial and gay teen who is currently at a boarding school that is grooming him to become one of the jade mobsters while also doing boring things like math; and Bero, a boring-ass thug who got his first taste of jade and will do anything to get more. Anything. I don't normally like books with tons of POVs, but most of the characters in this book are interesting. The only one I didn't like was Bero, but thankfully, his parts were small.
The best way to describe this book is Mistborn meets Game of Thrones. Mistborn has a similar magic system where people get powers from metals (and bad things happen when they use too much) and the power struggles between different jade factions and outsiders were reminiscent of Game of Thrones' various wars and power coups. The title of the next book in the series, JADE WAR, makes me suspect that there's going to be even more of this, especially considering some of the treacherous things that those Mountain clans did to the Green Bones in this installment. Eep.
If you're into dark fantasy, JADE CITY is a good read. It's a bit longer than I'd like - I have trouble rationalizing books with long page counts, since most of them don't really need everything in them - but the pages go by pretty fast, considering. Plus, it's Asian-inspired fantasy that actually does the legwork integrating culture, religion, and tradition into its world-building, rather than just doing the book-equivalent of jangling its keys at you and being all, "Look~ easily recognizable symbols of archaic Orientalism!" That was incredibly refreshing, and one of the best parts of the book for me.
This is an erotic short, kind of like those that brought Alexa Riley to fame, but unlike most of those types of stories, TIKKA CHANCE ON ME features a Desi protagonist who works in her parents' restaurant and the bad-boy MC member she falls for - only, he has a secret, and she's not as good as everyone thinks. Win/win
I bought this because it was only 99-cents and because I kept seeing it get mentioned on Twitter. I thought the title was great (I'm a huge fan of bad puns, the more cringe-worthy, the better) and as a fan of Indian food myself, I thought the idea of a girl working to help out her parents' in their Indian restaurant seemed really charming. I always like it when heroines have jobs or hobbies that exist outside the sphere of the hero. Everyone needs a hobby, you know.
Trucker is the head of an MC club called the Eagles and Pinky's Indian restaurant is their hangout. Pinky's always sort of had a crush on Trucker, even before he joined the MC, but the idea that he's probably involved in criminal undertakings (she's seen Sons of Anarchy) puts her off. This being a short story, it doesn't put her off for too long and before we, the readers, know it, Trucker and Pinky are doing it dirty in a car.
The writing in this book is good and I know the short story format doesn't really allow for heaps of development, but it was still shallower than I would have liked. I did like the sex scenes, though, and I think it's very important that the heroine was so experienced and assertive in her sexuality, and appreciated the discussions of double-standards and slut-shaming that the author threw in here. Trucker was also more decent than I was expecting: guys, this is the most "woke" motorcycle club guy you're ever going to encounter, although there's a reason why, you'll find out later.
If you're into erotic shorts and don't really care about the hows and whys of a couple getting together to bump uglies (or bump pretties, let's not self-shame ourselves), you'll enjoy the book. I'm not saying that to be mean, some people genuinely just want a cute, short story about a couple having sex. It's fantasy. I get it, even if I'm not a fan of it, and if you're into that, this will work for you. I'm not, so it wasn't really for me, even though I appreciate what the author managed to do.
There's a quote that goes "champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends." It's attributed to Francis Bacon, Tom Waits (and sometimes even Oscar Wilde) and appears in a Fall Out Boy song, but apparently used to be a popular toast back in the day (#BringBackChampagneVsRealPain2019). Regardless of the origin, I think we can all agree as to what the purpose of the quote is, which is that real is always better...
Except when it comes to the fake relationship trope in fiction! Because you know what I say, real relationships for my real life, and fake relationships for my trash life. My quote isn't as good as the one about champagne (problem #1: no champagne), but you get the point. We don't always want to read about what we want in our own love lives, which is probably why all of my favorite tropes in romance novels are such dysfunctional trash.
Not that I'm sorry about that. #SorryNotSorry
GRUMPY FAKE BOYFRIEND is kind of an amazing book. My expectations weren't super high because it got mixed reviews from my friends, but the guy on the cover was super cute, it featured one of my favorite tropes, and the heroine is a WoC. Plus, the hero is a grumpy introvert humorous sci-fi author who I kinda pictured as being like John Scalzi. Love!
Will, the hero, knows something's up when his friend Jeremy invites him out to drinks and asks for a favor. The favor is that he pretends to be his younger sister's boyfriend for a weekend getaway. Naomi, the heroine, has been invited to a cabin vacation in the woods by her friends, but they're all in relationships or engaged, and her ex is going to be there with his new fling. Naomi is very outgoing and wants to go out and socialize, but she doesn't want to be the one sad unicycle in a room full of bicycles, which is where Will comes in. Surprising himself (and the audience), Will agrees.
This being a weekend getaway with couples, you can imagine that there are some sexy scenes in here. You are not wrong. They are very well written sexy scenes, too. There's also some relationship drama and good discussions about what flaws you're willing to tolerate in a partner and what flaws are deal breakers. I also liked the point made that you don't have to date someone exactly like you to be happy - it's all about finding someone who complements you and makes you feel good about your relationship at the end of the day by showing compassion and affection, even during the bad times.
Also, I'm feeling a little personally-attacked by how spot-on Will's personality was. He is basically the male version of me minus the obsessive neatness.
GRUMPY FAKE BOYFRIEND is a really great book. It's light and fairly short, but the writing is solid, the romance is great, and both characters are immensely likable (and so are their friends, tbh). It kind of reminds me of Courtney Milan's Cyclone series. I can't wait to get my hands on the sequel, MR. HOTSHOT CEO. Not only am I digging the sexy Asian man on the cover, but the heroine is in STEM (biomedical research) and has depression. Um, yes to that representation?
P.S. GRUMPY is only 99-cents in the Kindle store still as of my posting this. Check it out!
On the surface, The Belles series really doesn't seem like it should work. The concept of a dystopian society overturned by a teenage revolutionary has been done to death thanks in part to the wildly successful Hunger Games and Divergent series. The Belles, in particular, is highly reminiscent of the shallow and superficial Capitol elite in THE HUNGER GAMES, with over-the-top costumes, high premiums on beauty and luxury, and a laissez-faire attitude towards their poor and suffering populace reminiscent of the nobles in pre-Revolutionary France.
Part of what saved THE BELLES for me was how dark it was willing to be to drive home the point that beauty isn't everything. Camellia, the heroine, starts out very sheltered and naive, a pawn in her society's quest to become beautiful and adored. By the end of the book, she isn't just questing her own powers and where they came from, but also where her society's ideals fit in within larger concepts of morality and justice, and whether the ruler overseeing Orleans is really capable of fair and just rule (spoiler: nope).
Of course, this being a dystopian novel, she finds that out the hard way, through blood and tears.
I was excited when I found out that I was approved for an advanced copy of the sequel, THE EVERLASTING ROSE. WARNING: There will be spoilers for THE BELLES in this review, and a few mild spoilers for THE EVERLASTING ROSE, so if you're one of those people who want to go into a book totally blind, I suggest you X out of this tab and pretend you never saw me. I did mostly enjoy THE EVERLASTING ROSE, but not as much as the prequel; it had some glaring problems.
The Belles series takes place in a magical/steampunk fantasy version of New Orleans called "Orleans." Society revolves entirely around beauty and luxury, and the tyrant ruler Sophia has gone literally mad with power, exerting magic and might over her subjects at will, as well as demanding constant assurance that she really is the fairest in the land. The previous book ended with Camellia being betrayed, losing favor with the queen, and being forced to go on the run, until she can lick her wounds and rally her strength to become the revolutionary figure that Orleans needs.
When I saw the cover for THE EVERLASTING ROSE, I could tell that this book was probably going to be a lot darker - and I do like the contrast of that, but I don't think that this cover is as pretty as the original. Her neck ruff is super weird - it reminds me of this line from Black Adder, in which he describes one of his Elizabethan colleagues as looking like "a bird who swallowed a plate." In a way, that's fitting for this book, because it manages to be both horrific and ungodly cheesy at times.
Since this book isn't out yet, I don't want to spoil too much. I will say that we do get the revolution we were promised from the first book, and it is handled pretty well. There's a bunch of creepy women called the Iron Ladies who really like spiders (I can't help but picture Diana Terranova). Camellia discovers that her and the other Belles's powers aren't actually limited to beauty and makeovers. Camellia gets angry, and stoops to cruel acts in the name of justice. She loses her shit. It's brilliant.
And yet, there were things in this book I didn't really enjoy. I didn't like that Ms. Clayton not only seems to be redeeming Auguste, despite his betrayal in the previous book, but also appears to be reintroducing him as a love interest. She chose Remy, dammit! I didn't like the animal death that happens in the last third of the book and, worse, is committed by the heroine herself. It felt totally pointless, like it was done for shock value and that's it. There are better ways to be edgy than to just go around killing innocent little animals, just my two cents. I also didn't like the bizarre Invasion of the Body Snatchers twist this book took towards the end. I'm not going to go into any further detail than that, because spoilers, but if you read this book, you'll know what I'm talking about. It was pretty flipping weird. At that point, it kind of felt like this book had jumped the shark.
Lastly, and I did touch on this briefly in the previous book, I don't really like that the villain is an out lesbian. Not that I don't like lesbians, but it's irritating that when you see LGBT folk represented in fiction, it's usually as 1) the bad guy, or 2) the sacrifice (i.e. bury your gays). The previous book had a character named Claudine, who was the queen's lover, and she was murdered. When I complained about the only gay character dying, people were quick to jump on that in my review, pointing out that Sophia was also gay. Yes - she's gay, and she's evil AF. Having a dead gay and a psychopathic narcissist gay as your two main examples of rep really isn't that great. I know a lot of my LGBT friends who read this book were really upset about that aspect of this book, and I can see why. Especially since this book works so hard to be inclusive with regard to rep of skin color, with several of the main characters described as being various shades of brown, and this being described as beautiful, even desirable (I loved that, by the way - one of the best moments in this book is when the heroine totally goes against shadism, saying that she loves her natural skin color, and that darker is beautiful). It just goes to show that even diverse books can be problematic in how they choose to represent diversity within the worlds that they create.
Overall, though, THE EVERLASTING ROSE wasn't a bad book. I know I always sound harsh when I review these things, but I do really make a point to be fair and discuss as many elements in the book (both positive and negative) as possible because I know some of the tropes and problematic elements I discuss in my reviews do bother people, even if they might not bother me, and I consider it my duty as a reviewer to try and present an accurate recap of my reading experience to help others decide whether or not they want to buy the book. I did enjoy THE EVERLASTING ROSE, and its over-the-top cheesiness that reminded me in so many ways of a better-written version of Amy Ewing's THE JEWEL. I thought the writing was gorgeous, and loved seeing a black heroine getting to save the world for a change. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Dhonielle Clayton comes up with next.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
This book took me a long time to read - not because it was bad, but because it was so sweet and fluffy that I couldn't really stomach finishing it all in a single session. THE PROPOSAL would nearly be saccharine if not for the fact that it tackles some pretty relevant issues for women and features a very large and diverse cast of relatable characters with relatable problems. Reading it kind of made me feel like I was experiencing a book written by an extremely woke Meg Cabot; it's got that same bubbly vibe, but one that exists outside of the pumpkin spice latte basic AF white girl sphere.
Our heroine, Nikole, is dating a fratty douchebag actor named Fisher. He doesn't take her very seriously, and you just know he's the type of guy who would drop a "not all men" into conversation. The relationship is in its infancy and not particularly good, so Nikole is as shocked as anyone when he suddenly proposes to her on the JumboTron at the baseball game he dragged her to after just a few months of dating. Obviously, she turns him down. Obviously, this country being what it is, the crowd turns on her - a woman of color, turning down an attractive white man - and just when things are about to get ugly, Carlos Ibarra and his sister, Angela, decide to save her from the crowd.
Carlos, the hero, is a Latinx pediatrician (swoon) with a huge family and a fondness for cooking. He's gentlemanly but not chauvanistic; living in a family filled with strong women has taught him how to be respectful without overstepping his bounds, and he's smart enough to listen to what the women around him want and try to do that to show he cares. He's immediately attracted to Nikole, and is super supportive of her when her rejection of him goes viral and basically becomes a meme. This support blossoms into friendship when they realize that they actually have a lot in common, and eventually that friendship turns into something sexual when they can't deny their mutual attraction.
I liked this book a lot. Carlos's family was awesome - his sister, his cousin, his mom, his aunt: they were all great. I liked that he was also vulnerable; his sorrow over his father's death, his struggle to be masculine and a provider, and his phobia over going to the doctor all made him seem much more approachable and relatable than most romance heroes are allowed to be. Nikole was great too, and I loved her friends and how they all supported each other. The women's self defense gym was also a nice touch, as were the dialogues about empowered physicality and safe spaces.
The only thing I really didn't like about this book was the Big Misunderstanding that happens in the last act. This is pretty typical of most romance novels as a way to amp up the tension, and I kind of wondered if something like this was coming since their relationship was smooth sailing for most of the book. Seeing it coming didn't make me like it any more, though. I can't stand this trope. I was also angry because it made me mad at Nikole for treating Carlos that way, even though it was basically a gender-flip of the "I don't do relationships" men in romance novels who are so frightened by their own burgeoning romantic feelings that they feel like they have to lash out against the love interest.
Overall, though, THE PROPOSAL was really great. I love that there are romance novels coming out featuring diverse characters who don't read like cliches. Bar that last act, everyone in here was super likable and relatable and the romance is very modern and respectful. I'd read more by Ms. Guillory.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!