Supernatural adventures for girls and women.

[reading] Review of Dust Bath Revival by Marianne Kirby

Book: Dust Bath Revival by Marianne Kirby (Amazon link)
Genre: YA horror/supernatural adventure
Series: Feral Seasons, Book One
USA Release Date: November 21, 2016
Source: Advanced ebook copy from the publisher. No compensation received for this review, and it is my honest opinion.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended?: Yes, absolutely. It is a gorgeous, haunting southern fairytale about hunger and danger and how little we see even when we try to look at the world.
Content note: Non-explicit violence to animals.

Summary: 16-year-old Henrietta Goodness – Hank to all that know her – has heard all the stories about how the Dust made the dead rise. She’s heard about how life changed.

But that was a long time ago, and Hank is ready for another normal dry and dusty Florida summer. She knows the thunder doesn’t really promise rain. Instead, Hank and her brother will do their chores, run into town as much as they can get away with, and lock up tight and safe in their Aunt Marty’s house once the sun goes down. That’s the plan, at least, until an itinerant tent revival rolls onto their land, with a Reborn – one of the risen dead – traveling caged with them.

The arrival of an unknown cousin connected to the revival starts Hank on the road to solving a mystery that even the government might not want unraveled. There’s nowhere to go when the night isn’t safe and there’s no one to trust when everyone might be part of a conspiracy to keep the Reborn walking.

Review:

Dust Bath Revival is a gorgeous, haunting southern fairytale. The story is a slow burn build, and the world opens up for the reader in a slow, sensuous way that meanders and loops, and even the things we see, the things Hank sees as she is shoved out into the world, aren’t what we want them to be, or fear them to be, both and neither at the same time. This is Hank’s story, her creation story, and it is lovely.

Kirby’s writing is gorgeous, and she captures a dark, twisty southern gothic feel. The slow pace of the book feels like a story being told around the campfire, late into the night; there’s an otherworldly quality to the descriptions that holds the reader at a distance and weaves a compelling, complicated world around them.

There was no real sense of fear for me as a reader; the story unspools in a way that feels inevitable and comfortably familiar, a beloved tale that I’ve returned to a hundred times before, though this is my first reading. (It will not be my last.) The ending is less a satisfactory conclusion and more a pause; Dust Bath Revival is clearly the introduction to a much larger world, and though I am eager for the next book, I do wish the end had felt more like a resolution. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t resolve; the story that it sets out to tell is finished, but it so well sets up the next part of the story in such few words at the end that I was left wanting more.

That in itself is a delightful bit of writing. I am left hungry and wanting and frustrated by it, as is Hank. And it is in that hunger, that wanting, that Hank must find her answers, and in her search, exactly what I want more of, too.

Dust Bath Revival is the story of family and need, betrayal and hunger, and it will stick with you long after you finish. It will leave you, always, wanting more.

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[reading] Review of BEAST OF BARCROFT by Bill Schweigart

Book: BEAST OF BARCROFT by Bill Schweigart (Amazon)
Genre: Adult paranormal horror
USA Release Date: currently available
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 2.5/5 stars
Summary: Ben McKelvie believes he’s moving up in the world when he and his fiancée buy a house in the cushy Washington, D.C., suburb of Barcroft. Instead, he’s moving down—way down—thanks to Madeleine Roux, the crazy neighbor whose vermin-infested property is a permanent eyesore and looming hazard to public health.

First, Ben’s fiancée leaves him; then, his dog dies, apparently killed by a predator drawn into Barcroft by Madeleine’s noxious menagerie. But the worst is yet to come for Ben, for he’s not dealing with any ordinary wild animal. This killer is something much, much worse. Something that couldn’t possibly exist—in this world.

Now, as a devilish creature stalks the locals, Ben resolves to take action. With some grudging assistance from a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and the crackpot theories of a self-styled cryptozoologist, he discovers the sinister truth behind the attacks, but knowing the Beast of Barcroft and stopping it are two different animals.

Recommended?: No. I wish I could recommend it, because at times it is a super entertaining story, with a main male character who was a billion times less irritating than when I read and reviewed NORTHWOODS (which is actually the sequel). For a lot of this story, it is creepy and wonderful, and I absolutely adore the main female character, Lindsay Clark, who is an awesome lesbian zoologist.

And then the part of the book came that I was braced for: the introduction of the rich white cryptozoologist and his sidekick Indian. I knew this was coming, because Alex Standingcloud, who is during this book estranged from his Ojibwe family, plays a huge role in the second book, which is set, in part, on his reservation. I really like him in the second book, and the little we get to see of him here in the first, he’s just as great, but his whole purpose in the story is to show up as the Magical Indian: he’s there to bring information about Native American beliefs and lore, get hurt helping the white dude hero, and disappear off screen when his work is done. And that is such a tired old trope. So is the use of Native American beliefs to drive the horror.

JK Rowling was recently deeply criticized for her cultural appropriation of Native American beliefs, and a lot of what was said about that is applicable here, too. Dr. Adrienne Keene talks about this extensively at Native Appropriations: Magic in America Part 1: Ugh and Magic in North America: The Harry Potter Franchise Veers Too Close to Home.

So, this is where I’m going to perform what Audra Simpson calls an “ethnographic refusal,” “a calculus ethnography of what you need to know and what I refuse to write in.” In her work with her own community, she asks herself the questions: “what am I revealing here and why? Where will this get us? Who benefits from this and why?”

I had a long phone call with one of my friends/mentors today, who is Navajo, asking her about the concepts Rowling is drawing upon here, and discussing how to best talk about this in a culturally appropriate way that can help you (the reader, and maybe Rowling) understand the depths to the harm this causes, while not crossing boundaries and taboos of culture. What did I decide? That you don’t need to know. It’s not for you to know. I am performing a refusal.

What you do need to know is that the belief of these things (beings?) has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that. My own community also has shape-shifters, but I’m not delving into that either.

What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions (take a look at my twitter mentions if you don’t believe me)–but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems “unfair,” but that’s how our cultures survive.

The other piece here is that Rowling is completely re-writing these traditions. Traditions that come from a particular context, place, understanding, and truth. These things are not “misunderstood wizards”. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

This is applicable beyond just Rowling’s work, and beyond skinwalkers. This is applicable here, to BEAST OF BARCROFT, and that Schweigart chose to take this path ruins an otherwise really fun and interesting book.

Things I loved: Lindsay Clark, bad ass curator at the National Zoo, lesbian, and all-around hero. Officer Stacy Cushing, bad ass officer and all-around hero. Great, tense scenes and a fast, interesting story. Good, engaging storytelling (except for that big giant problem).

Things I loathed: First character we meet is Manny Benavides, who is, I believe, a Hispanic man, an animal control office, kind and good at his job and well loved by his family — and who is immediately killed off so the white characters can take center stage. Obviously, the use of the Native American beliefs is a problem. Lots of low key sexism that is both pushed back against and supported by the text at the same time. And a huge amount of bullshit over the mental health crap and ableism throughout, particularly his belief, fully supported and encouraged by the text, that he needs to come off his depression meds in order to be really present in life and to be the hero. Which is seriously fucked up.

(Also, the damn dog dies in the first chapter. I hate when that happens.)

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[reading] Review of HOLDING SMOKE by Elle Cosimano

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Book: HOLDING SMOKE by Elle Cosimano (Book Depository)
Genre: YA paranormal murder mystery
USA Release Date: currently available
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5 stars
Summary: John “Smoke” Conlan is serving time for two murders-but he wasn’t the one who murdered his English teacher, and he never intended to kill the only other witness to the crime. A dangerous juvenile rehabilitation center in Denver, Colorado, known as the Y, is Smoke’s new home and the only one he believes he deserves. But, unlike his fellow inmates, Smoke is not in constant imprisonment. After a near death experience leaves him with the ability to shed his physical body at will, Smoke is able to travel freely outside the concrete walls of the Y, gathering information for himself and his fellow inmates while they’re asleep in their beds. Convinced his future is only as bright as the fluorescent lights in his cell, Smoke doesn’t care that the “threads” that bind his soul to his body are wearing thin-that one day he may not make it back in time. That is, until he meets Pink, a tough, resourceful girl who is sees him for who he truly is and wants to help him clear his name. Now Smoke is on a journey to redemption he never thought possible. With Pink’s help, Smoke may be able to reveal the true killer, but the closer they get to the truth, the more deadly their search becomes. The web of lies, deceit, and corruption that put Smoke behind bars is more tangled than they could have ever imagined. With both of their lives on the line, Smoke will have to decide how much he’s willing to risk, and if he can envision a future worth fighting for.

Recommended?: Yes. I thought it was a fast, fun read with some really interesting world building, and a main character I cared about, which is rare for me with straight male main characters.

Things I loved: The murder mystery itself, the details of how Smoke travels outside his body, the layers of corruption and intrigue.

Things I loathed: The ending is weak, and more than a little cheesy. While the pacing is good in the second half of the story, it seemed to take a long time to get started. And again, that ending — cheesy and weak. I’m not sure how much I buy that he wasn’t tried as an adult for the two murders he’s in juvie for committing, and that was really distracting at first, but once I was able to suspend my disbelief, the pacing of the story had picked up, and I was along for the ride.

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[reading] Review of THE GIRL I USED TO BE by April Henry

I’m a Book Depository affiliate, and will receive a small credit if you order from BD using any of the BD links below. There is no additional cost to you. I’ll mark the source of links.

Book: THE GIRL I USED TO BE by April Henry (Book Depository)
Genre: YA murder mystery
USA Release Date: currently available
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 2.5/5 stars
Summary: When Olivia’s mother was killed, everyone suspected her father of murder. But his whereabouts remained a mystery. Fast forward fourteen years. New evidence now proves Olivia’s father was actually murdered on the same fateful day her mother died. That means there’s a killer still at large. It’s up to Olivia to uncover who that may be. But can she do that before the killer tracks her down first?

Recommended?: Sort of. It was entertaining enough, but I had serious issues with the way mental illness was treated, both in how fast and often the accusations of someone being “crazy” flew, but also because in the end, the deaths were blamed on mental illness, because crazy people kill, AMIRITE? And that trope is one of my most hated tropes. So while the story as a whole was a fun look at how the stories we tell about murders can be terribly wrong, I had a hard time pushing through the part.

Things I loved: The use of YouTube to access old video of her family’s appearance on America’s Most Wanted, and how technology drove her research a lot. Some of the side characters were really well drawn. It was a fun murder mystery (I mean, if you can call a “murder mystery” fun, which I can and do, but I can see how that’s a little weird, too), and I really liked the way she kept pushing through everything to find the truth.

Things I loathed: The treatment of mental illness. The weirdness about a failed adoption that not only didn’t make a lot of sense in the details, but also didn’t add anything to the story and was pretty much a terrible representation of adoption that felt like it was just there to give her a more painful backstory and to prey on the fears a lot of adopted kids have that their new family will give them up. (And frustrating treatment of single mothers, to boot.)

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[reading] Review of DRAGON’S LUCK by Lauren Esker

Book: DRAGON’S LUCK by Lauren Esker
Genre: paranormal romantic suspense
Series: Shifter Agents #3
USA Release Date: available now
Source: ARC from author
Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended?: Yes, so much yes, all the yes! Amazing main character in Jen Cho, fantastic adventure, well-written details, and great worldbuilding mean this is a fast, fun read well worth visiting again and again.

Summary:
Jen Cho is a gecko shifter and infiltration expert for the Shifter Crimes Bureau. But this time she’s in over her head—out of touch with her handler and head over heels for a sexy gambler who mistakenly thinks she’s as much of a bad girl as he’s a bad boy.

Ambrose “Lucky” Lucado has been playing in high-stakes games of chance since he was big enough to see over the table. But the sexy lizard shifter has a secret: he’s not a lizard at all. He’s a dragon, the rarest of all shifters, thought to be nothing more than a legend. And all dragons have special abilities that other shifters don’t. Lucky can “push” his luck just a tiny bit, enough to ensure that he always wins at the gambling tables.

The problem is, the rest of Lucky’s family have powers of their own. His much more powerful cousin Angel can twist people’s minds, making them do whatever he wants, from forgetting they’ve seen him to shooting themselves in the head. And now he’s set his sights on Jen.

Is “Lucky” Lucado lucky enough to protect both of them?

Review:

While I do think you can read this as a standalone novel, one of my favorite parts is the depth it adds to the world already established in the first two Shifter Agents books. What we saw in HANDCUFFED TO THE BEAR and GUARD WOLF was an interesting and nuanced shapeshifter world that even though it had its dangers, they were generally from familiar places (at least familiar to the characters): well-known shapeshifter types or humans obsessed with their healing abilities. DRAGON’S LUCK blows that wide open, because it blows open the idea of what kind of shapeshifters exist, what kind of powers they have — adding dragons to the mix is fun and entertaining, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much had I not read the other books first. Part of the fun is feeling settled in the world, and then having my view of it changed right along with the characters.

Jen Cho is by far the strongest part of the book to me. She is amazing; smart and funny and strong and brave. I love how Esker writes details that drive home how different shifters experience the world in different ways. A gecko, for example, moves through the world in a way a wolf never could, and vice versa. And Jen having to explore a ship in gecko form was an excellent way to highlight the strengths and weakness of her form. Jen is independent to a fault, and one of the reasons I had a hard time putting the book down was because I was so caught up in her story, how she navigated needing help with not trusting Lucky, how when she did start to trust him, she was still torn between how much she wanted to tell him and how much she could actually tell him.

I liked the romance between Jen and Lucky well enough, but I think I didn’t like Lucky as much as I could have because I had just read GUARD WOLF before this, and the hero of that book is the disabled werewolf I’ve always wanted in a story. So for very unfair reasons, Lucky fell a little flat, and even more when I saw a couple of the twists in his story coming.

As with the first two books, DRAGON’S LUCK plays with some delightful tropes, from Undercover Agents to Fake Girlfriend, and Esker approaches them with a deft hand. I can’t really get into the details of the other things I loved without going into major spoilers, so I will end by saying that this book was a joy to read. The pacing was fast and fun, and I never wanted to put it down; I pretty much devoured it in one sitting, and wanted more when I hit the last page. Jen Cho is a joy and a delight forever, and I can’t wait to see more of her back with the rest of the agency. There are some plot points revealed during this book that have opened up a great number of future stories, and I am so excited to see what comes next! I’d be counting the days until the next book, but I’m afraid that will make me sad, because unless I can read it in, oh, the next thirty seconds, it is far too long to wait.

However, that means you have time to go read all three books AND the short story “Chasing Bigfoot,” and I strongly recommend you do so immediately.

Note: DRAGON’S LUCK is the first of the series not to include a BBW female main character. Neither of the women in HANDCUFFED TO THE BEAR or GUARD WOLF read as very fat to me, but they at different times do think of themselves as fat and are self-conscious about that. Which is fine, and can be realistic, but is not my favorite part of stories about fat women. It was nice to see Jen be confident about her body, but I do wish we would have seen more of that from the fat characters, too. (And when I double checked at Amazon, only HANDCUFFED TO THE BEAR appears to be labeled as BBW now, though I would have sworn GUARD WOLF was too when I grabbed my copy. Ah well.)

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[reading] Review of NORTHWOODS by Bill Schweigart

NORTHWOODS coverBook: NORTHWOODS by Bill Schweigart
Genre: Horror, though the publisher lists it as urban fantasy
Series: Second book, first is THE BEAST OF BARCROFT
USA Release Date: February 16, 2016
Source: Arc provided by the publisher, Hydra, via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Recommended?: Yes, with the caveat that for all its diverse characters, the presentation of the Ojibwe people and the use of Native American beliefs as monster-bait can be frustrating. The story is interesting, though, a fast-paced adventure with monsters and gore and a team-as-chosen-family that I really started to love by the end.

Note: Links to the books are Amazon affiliate links.

Summary:

Some borders should never be crossed. From the author of The Beast of Barcroft comes a waking nightmare of a horror novel that’s sure to thrill readers of Stephen King and Bentley Little.

Ex–Delta Force Davis Holland, now an agent for the Customs and Border Protection, has seen it all. But nothing in his experience has prepared him for what he and the local sheriff find one freezing night in the Minnesota woods.

Investigating reports of an illegal border crossing, the two men stumble across a blood-drenched scene of mass murder, barely escaping with their lives . . . and a single clue to the mayhem: a small wooden chest placed at the heart of the massacre. Something deadly has entered Holland’s territory, crossing the border from nightmare into reality.

When news of the atrocity reaches wealthy cryptozoologist Richard Severance, he sends a three-person team north to investigate. Not long ago, the members of that team—Ben McKelvie, Lindsay Clark, and Alex Standingcloud—were nearly killed by a vengeful shapeshifter. Now they are walking wounded, haunted by gruesome memories that make normal life impossible. But there is nothing normal about the horror that awaits in the Northwoods.

Review:

When I first saw NORTHWOODS on NetGalley, I was immediately drawn by that cover, which is both interesting enough to make me want to read the story, and a great throwback to the cheesy monster horror movies that I love. There’s a lot in the summary that appealed to me: a monster in the Minnesota woods, cryptozoology, a team previously formed in the hunt for a shapeshifter and now dealing with the trauma of that, and I was excited to have the chance to read it.

This is very much a plot-driven story – as you might expect from a book about monstrous murders in the deep winter woods — but Schweigart has also created some fine characters here. Though I haven’t read the first book in the series, THE BEAST OF BARCROFT, I had no trouble immersing myself in the story, in large part, I think, because it opens with a new character, Davis Holland. Davis is a Black man who has seen too much war both as Delta Force and as Customs and Border Protection, and he is my absolute favorite character in the book. He balances federal and local law enforcement politics well, mostly with ease, but when it comes back to bite him in the ass, he doesn’t let anything stop him from protecting his new home.

I was also very intrigued by Lindsay Clark and Alex Standingcloud, though less so by Ben McKelvie, who generally comes across as the standard straight white guy asshole protagonist readers are supposed to root for. Lindsay is a white lesbian, smart and sharp and shaken by what happened to them in the previous book; Alex has been mostly estranged from his Ojibwe family, particularly his father, until he has to recover from the events of THE BEAST OF BARCROFT. Now the monstrous has come home to roost, and Alex is struggling with his own identity while trying to figure out what is killing people around him. While all three are dealing with their trauma, it feels particularly real when Lindsay and Alex are alone in the woods and dealing with their trauma in different ways.

There are multiple monsters in NORTHWOODS, terrible, frightening, and wondrous, and watching these two teams – Davis and his friend, Sheriff Gil Ramsey, work together from the first chapter, and Lindsay, Alex, and Ben come into the story from a different angle – try to figure out what has gone wrong, and how to save the people in the local towns, intrigued me enough I read the book in one sitting. The descriptions are sparse, but it works with the pacing, and I liked blunt writing style quite a bit.

The part I had the hardest time with was the Ojibwe characters and the use of Native American lore for monsters, which also occurs in THE BEAST OF BARCROFT, as referenced in this book. It often comes across as appropriative, and I am leery of books written by white people that use Native American religious belief as actual real life monsters. I also thought John Standingcloud’s dialog was off in the pacing and word choices. (John is Alex’s father.) I’m not sure about the use of “Standingcloud” as their last name, either; all references I can find to it use “Standing Cloud,” and I can’t confirm it is usually an Ojibwe name. I can’t speak to whether the details are correct – there is quite a bit about Ojibwe burial rituals, for example – but generally they seem, to me, to be done with respect and not there for exploitation. However, the Red Cliff reservation is real, as is the Red Cliff Band, and there is no indication from the author that he worked with anyone from the reservation so as not to cause harm with his writing.

There is also a spoilery thing that happens which I found infuriating. I will put it at the end of the review, so you can skip it if you choose, but it is related to this concern.

Summary:

I enjoyed the hell out of the story, and I liked that the characters were so diverse, though at times, it felt like a surface diversity, with no real weight to their experiences as men of color or a white lesbian to give them depth. I am leery of the use of the Ojibwe people, and particularly the Native American religious beliefs as a background for the monsters, particularly with the new information the characters receive at the end. In many ways, the Ojibwe characters are there as background for the white characters to learn what they need to know about the monsters, and that’s a pretty shitty use of the Magical Native American trope (which does not require actual magic, but is more about the deep spiritual wisdom provided by the character to the white main characters). I really do want to read more about Davis, Alex, and Lindsay, though Ben and the rich white cryptozoologist can spend 100% less time on screen and I’d be happy, and I’ll be picking up THE BEAST OF BARCROFT to see where it all began.

SPOILERS BELOW

I am furious that a huge part of the ending is the death and resurrection of the great white savior, Ben, while John Standingcloud and a number of unnamed Ojibwe men sacrifice themselves so the white people can live. The fact that Alex and Davis both survive salvaged this a little, but it really drove home the fact that the Ojibwe people were really there to be background for the white people a lot of the time, and there is a point where Alex literally tells the rich white cryptozoologist that he is the savior, he has to live, so Alex and Davis will stay behind to make sure the white man and the white woman can escape, which is so much bullshit I almost couldn’t finish the book.

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[reading] Review of UNDER THE LIGHTS by Dahlia Adler

I’m a Book Depository affiliate, so if you buy books using these links, I receive credit from Book Depository.

UnderTheLightsDahliaAdlerCover

Title: UNDER THE LIGHTS by Dahlia Adler
Genre: YA queer romance
Series: Daylight Falls #2
Source: purchased
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Recommended?: YES. If you haven’t read this already, DO IT NOW. It is wonderful, thoughtful, sweet, romantic, sexy, funny – it is just great, and Van is the greatest. Highly, highly recommended.

Summary:

Josh Chester loves being a Hollywood bad boy, coasting on his good looks, his parties, his parents’ wealth, and the occasional modeling gig. But his laid-back lifestyle is about to change. To help out his best friend, Liam, he joins his hit teen TV show, Daylight Falls…opposite Vanessa Park, the one actor immune to his charms. (Not that he’s trying to charm her, of course.) Meanwhile, his drama-queen mother blackmails him into a new family reality TV show, with Josh in the starring role. Now that he’s in the spotlight–on everyone’s terms but his own–Josh has to decide whether a life as a superstar is the one he really wants.

Vanessa Park has always been certain about her path as an actor, despite her parents’ disapproval. But with all her relationships currently in upheaval, she’s painfully uncertain about everything else. When she meets her new career handler, Brianna, Van is relieved to have found someone she can rely on, now that her BFF, Ally, is at college across the country. But as feelings unexpectedly evolve beyond friendship, Van’s life reaches a whole new level of confusing. And she’ll have to choose between the one thing she’s always loved…and the person she never imagined she could.

Review:

I did not know this was the second book in a series until I’d already started reading, so if you haven’t read the first book, don’t let that stop you. UNDER THE LIGHTS is a wonderful story told in alternating chapters by Josh and Vanessa. Josh is not my favorite narrator; he’s standard pretty white boy, obnoxious, sexist, racist, and constantly being an asshole just because he can. If the story had just been his, I never would have finished it.

But the story isn’t his, and his issues fade to the background against the brightness of Vanessa Park. VANESSA PARK. I have hearts and stars in my eyes when talking about her. She is one of my favorite characters, ever, and her story grabbed me and would not let go.

At the heart of it, UNDER THE LIGHTS is the story of both Van and Josh dealing with their insecurities and loneliness, the ways the fail their families and their families fail them, and how complicated life is when you’re in the spotlight. Both their stories are well told, though Josh’s issues do not make up for his attitude for me, but Van’s is particularly close to my heart, because Van is dealing with a shock to her sexuality when she’s never even questioned it before.

Adler creates strong, realistic characters in this book, fleshed out, well rounded, and wonderful. They are nuanced, smart and funny and flawed. I particularly love the various friendships, stronger at times, weaker others, and honestly, Josh’s growing friendship with Van is the only thing that made him interesting to me. One of the things I didn’t like was that though the main characters and supporting secondary characters are fleshed out, there are some tertiary characters, particularly the girls in Josh’s part of the story, that are stereotypical and flat in really horrible, disappointing ways. Do we need another “bitchy mean girl”? Nope.

But Van. Van is the greatest. Van and her new friend Brianna who sparks confusing romantic feelings and Van dealing with her bff being across the country and Van dealing with her family and the way people come to mean more to us than we expect and the way we create families around us – Van is amazing and her story is wonderful and my heart filled with love for her. I love how her story deals with the racism she faces, particularly in what acting jobs are offered to her, and the sexism inherent in how bad boys and bad girls are treated. I love how the racism and sexism she deals with influences how she responds to realizing she’s queer, both internally and externally. Every step of her journey made me love her more.

There’s a little bit of fat hate going on, too, (though “hate” is really too strong a word) which on the one hand, can be expected when the story is set in a world so focused on physical appearance (oh, wait, the real world? Well now), but there was some stuff about Brianna’s poochy little belly and how she doesn’t feel comfortable showing off her body because she’s “St. Louis thin” not “L.A. thin”. Realistic, sure. Frustrating, yes.

Van. Have I mentioned how much I love Van? Because I love her a lot, and I’m so glad I got to read her story. She’s a joy and a delightful forever. Highly recommend UNDER THE LIGHTS just for her. Everything else good about it is a bonus, because she’s just wonderful. UNDER THE LIGHTS is a fun, funny, emotional read, and Van is an amazing character.

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[reading] Review of FRENEMY OF THE PEOPLE by Nora Olsen

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frenemy of the people cover

Title: FRENEMY OF THE PEOPLE by Nora Olsen
Genre: YA queer romance
Series: stand-alone
Source: purchased
Rating: 2.5/5 stars
Recommended?: It’s not a terrible read, but the characters are tropey and flat, the dialog left me feeling disconnected, and the ending was unbelievable. I’m glad I read it, but I can’t unreservedly recommend it, either.

Summary:

Clarissa and Lexie couldn’t be more different. Clarissa is a chirpy, optimistic do-gooder and a top rider on the school’s equestrian team. Lexie is an angry, punk rock activist and the only out lesbian at their school.

When Clarissa declares she’s bi and starts a Gay-Straight Alliance, she unwittingly presses all of Lexie’s buttons, so Lexie makes it her job to cut Clarissa down to size. But Lexie goes too far and finds herself an unwitting participant in Clarissa’s latest crusade. Both are surprised to find their mutual loathing turning to love.

A change in her family’s fortunes begins to unravel Clarissa’s seemingly perfect life, and the girls’ fledgling love is put to the test. Clarissa and Lexie each have what the other needs to save their relationship and the people they love from forces that could tear them all apart.

Review:

I was ecstatic when I first heard about this book, because everyone who talked about it was quick to mention that it was a love story between teen girls, one lesbian and one who actually used the label “bisexual.” Do you know how rare it is for a bisexual character to actually use the word bisexual? Really damn rare.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to connect with the characters the way I hoped, and the book didn’t live up to the hype. The relationship absolutely did. It was fun and cute, the two girls adorable, and I love that they are so different, so frustrated with each other, and then fall in love. Mostly, it was the dialog that killed it for me; there were a lot of places where the dialog read more like a textbook entry about the topic, from subprime mortgages to ableism to biphobia. I love that the book addressed these topics so, so much, but I wish it had been more smoothly integrated into the text, on a writing basis.

Character-wise, both Clarissa and Lexie are in turns adorable and annoying, wonderful and horrible, and a lot of fun to spend some time with as a reader. I also loved Clarissa’s sister, Desi. Desi has Down Syndrome and really wants to be Homecoming Queen because this is her senior year. She has a boyfriend who we don’t see much of, but their relationship is pretty delightful from what we do see. There are a lot of moments where other people, including Lexie, say shitty, ableist things (often when they are trying to say nice things, which happens a lot in real life, too), but the text is pretty clearly against that, and we are supposed to understand that isn’t the right thing to do. Mostly, I think Desi is a pretty solid character with her own motivations who isn’t just there to be a lesson or inspiration, or to add to Clarissa’s character. Desi and Clarissa have a pretty delightful sibling relationship, fighting each other, but also working together when they need to team up.

Example of the say a nice thing, still be ableist:

“Don’t you know that people with Down Syndrome are incapable of lying?” my dad said. I thought that was going too far, but the officer flipped his book closed and said, “I believe it, sir. They’re like angels from heaven. Have a good night.”

Clarissa’s internal coming out is also pretty much a non-entity. She figures out she’s bisexual in a way that seems really casual, but is at the same time, a nice alternative to the more deep, painful realizations we often see in media (and experience ourselves, sometimes; mine was more like Clarissa’s, to be honest, pretty casual), and her coming out to her parents, while not great, is straightforward. I wish we’d seen a little more of her reaction to things, but that’s a weakness throughout the book. We’re deep in the girls’ heads (alternating chapters between them), but there is a lot of telling the reader how things are, not showing us.

Finally, there’s a completely unbelievable event at the end of the book that both stretched my suspension of belief to breaking and reminded me that, no matter what else is going on with them, these girls are pretty damn privileged in their whiteness. Further, racism is not addressed in all this other diversity talk.

Overall, I enjoyed reading it, and I’ll probably check out Olsen’s other books, but the characters are pretty tropey and shallow, the dialog needs work, and the ending left me filled with pure disbelief. I don’t regret reading it, but I don’t know that I’ll ever reread it, either.

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[reading] Review of SILENCE by Michelle Sagara

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silence cover

Book: SILENCE by Michelle Sagara
Genre: YA paranormal
Series: Queen of the Dead series book 1
USA Release Date: Currently available
Source: Purchased
Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended?: Highly recommended, particularly for people who love ghost stories, strong friendships, and human-shaped monsters.

Summary:

“It began in the graveyard… ”

Ever since her boyfriend Nathan had died in a tragic accident, Emma had been coming to the graveyard at night. During the day she went through the motions at her prep school, in class, with her friends, but that’s all it was. For Emma, life had stopped with Nathan’s death. But tonight was different. Tonight Emma and her dog were not alone in the cemetery. There were two others there–Eric, who had just started at her school, and an ancient woman who looked as though she were made of rags. And when they saw Emma there, the old woman reached out to her with a grip as chilling as death….

Emma was not quite like others teenagers. It was true that other girls had experienced grief. Other girls had also lost their fathers, or had their boyfriends die in a senseless accident. But though she hadn’t known it till that night in the graveyard, unlike those other girls, she could see, touch, and speak with the dead. In fact, Emma could draw upon the essence of the dead to work magic. That was what Necromancers did. But Emma had no desire to be a Necromancer. She just wanted to help the ghosts who walked the streets of Toronto, unable to escape from the land of the living. And that was just as well, because had she chosen the path of the Necromancer, Eric would have had to kill her.

Instead, Eric and his fellow Necromancer hunter Chase found themselves violating every rule they were sworn to follow, becoming part of Emma’s group, helping her to stand against those who preyed upon the dead. But whether Emma and her friends could survive such a battle was anyone’s guess. And whether Emma could learn to use the magic of the dead against her enemies without herself falling victim to the lure of such power remained to be seen. Eric seemed to think she could, and her living friends would never abandon her. But only time would tell what Emma’s true destiny was….

Review:

Our main character, Emma, spends part of her nights walking her dog Petal (a delightfully sweet and funny Rottweiler) to the cemetery so she can sit in silence by her boyfriend’s grave. The night the book opens, Emma actually sees someone she knows, new boy Eric.

Eric isn’t alone; he’s with an old woman who gives Emma the lantern she carries, along with a disturbing kiss, after she realizes Emma can see her. This unwelcome touch brings unfortunate side effects: excruciating headaches, lots of nausea, and, suddenly, Emma can see and hear things no one else can.

At the heart of it, this is a pretty straightforward story: Emma can see the dead, talk to them, use them to gain power. She’s tempted by the power, mostly because she sees the ways she could use it to do good, to help the ghosts, to solve the mystery surrounding what happens to them after they die.

There are other people like her in the world, necromancers who have no qualms about taking the power for their own needs, and Eric, his pseudo-brother Chase, and the old man who trains them (plus others) hunt down necromancers and kill them.

Emma is an excellent main character and narrator. She’s loving, loyal to family and friends, and driven by her desire to do good in the world. I particularly love her friendships; this is no lone girl, different from all the other girls (ignore that bit in the description). She is different than most people because she sees ghosts, but she participates in her life, even as she mourns her father and her boyfriend. She is close with her mother, she has dear friends, and those two things are such a nice change. Female friendships forever.

Also wonderful is the lack of a love triangle, which can be done well, but so often isn’t. Here, Emma is still in love with her boyfriend, and so desperately mourning him, there is no real room in her life for a new romance. It’s not that she’ll never love again, but it would have weakened the story for her to start out mourning him, and then immediately enter into a love triangle with Eric and Chase. The way the guys are introduced could lead to that, and I braced myself, but was happily surprised when it didn’t happen. Emma convinces the boys not to kill her not because they’re flirting with her, but because of how much she loves her friends, her family, and how much she tries to do good for the ghosts.

For the most part, I enjoyed the Sagara’s writing style, but there were a couple times that the narrative became far too talky in the middle of an action scene, including one of the last big scenes at the climax. That’s not the time I should be flipping ahead, hoping for something to happen, but that’s what I did.

Emma’s group of friends are pretty wonderful (I particularly love her best friend, Allison, who is smart and funny and sweet, and the token mean girl who is actually friendly and loyal and snarky), but there are some issues surrounding Michael, who is autistic. I’m neurotypical, and would be speaking from a place of privilege, so I’m going to link instead to Ada Hoffman’s review at Disability in Kidlit, which hits the things that pinged for me, and then goes into more depth with them: Ada Hoffman’s review of SILENCE.

Quote:

This is where a lot of my misgivings about the book come from, and is complicated to talk about. I don’t want to suggest that it is somehow bad or undesirable to provide clueful help to a disabled person. Yet I think a lot of us with disabilities will feel a familiar wince at the idea of being a charity case – of being valuable, not for ourselves, but so that someone else can earn goodness points by helping us.

I really love Michael’s character, particularly the way he is with child ghosts (oh, man, could be creepy because CHILD GHOSTS, ends up surprisingly sweet), but Hoffman has an excellent discussion of his purpose in the story.

In the end, I really enjoyed SILENCE, loved the characters, and immediately purchased the next book in the series. I can’t wait to see what happens next, and to explore more of this delightfully developed world.

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[reading] Review of HEXED by Michelle Krys

hexed cover

Book: HEXED by Michelle Krys
Genre: YA paranormal
Series: The Witch Hunters book 1
USA Release Date: Currently available
Source: Won this in a giveaway from The Hanging Garden.
Rating: 3/5 stars
Recommended?: Not really. I’m tempted to try the next book in the series, but I was highly disappointed by this one, and am not sure whether I’ll stick with it due to pacing issues and a horrible love interest treated as the Greatest Thing Ever.

Summary:

A spellbinding witchy series debut.

A stolen book. A deadly plan. A destiny discovered.

If high school is all about social status, Indigo Blackwood has it made. Sure, her quirky mom owns an occult shop, and a nerd just won’t stop trying to be her friend, but Indie is a popular cheerleader with a football-star boyfriend and a social circle powerful enough to ruin everyone at school. Who wouldn’t want to be her?

Then a guy dies right before her eyes. And the dusty old family Bible her mom is freakishly possessive of is stolen. But when a frustratingly sexy stranger named Bishop enters Indie’s world, she learns that her destiny involves a lot more than pom-poms and parties. If she doesn’t get the Bible back, every witch on the planet will die. And that’s seriously bad news for Indie, because according to Bishop, she’s a witch too.

Suddenly forced into a centuries-old war between witches and sorcerers, Indie is about to uncover the many dark truths about her life—and a future unlike any she ever imagined on top of the cheer pyramid.

Review:

I really wanted to love this book. I love witches and witch stories, and all the buzz about this debut was amazing. Witches! Cheerleaders! Secret wars! Teenagers trying to save the world! This is going to be awesome!

It wasn’t awesome. The pacing was weird, uneven, and did not do the rest of the book justice, because there is some interesting world building here, even if it sometimes strained my suspension of disbelief, and the potential for an exciting, wonderful story about a girl trying to save her mother and embrace her secret powers. And there are good things here, but the story kept kicking me out of my reading because the pacing was so uneven and awkward.

There are things I loved: Namely, Indie, our snarky, angry, sometimes whiny main character, who is annoying and obnoxious and obsessed with things I found completely unimportant in high school and absolutely wonderful. Her voice is the best part of the book by far; I am very interested in her story, and I want more, though I’m not sure I can ignore the problems I had with the book in order to read the next.

The world building is pretty awesome at times. Like I said, I love witches, and the magical world here is very interesting. Centuries old war, rules, powers that come and go — I’m a fan. Unfortunately, the weird pacing buries the world building a lot of the time.

Some of the characters are fantastic. Indie, of course, but also her two girl friends, Bianca and Paige, are really interesting in very different ways. The villains are creepy and dangerous (if sometimes in ridiculous, over the top ways). Again, there’s potential for so much more, and I want to keep going with the series to see more of this, except.

Except for the things I loathed:

There’s a ton of body shame and girl hate between Indie and her friends, as well as Indie and her allies. That sucks.

The pacing, as I’ve already mentioned.

But besides the pacing, the biggest issue I had was with Bishop, who is one of the worst love interests I’ve seen in a long time. He’s supposed to be this intriguing, dangerous, mysterious bad boy, but what he comes across as is a controlling asshole who needs to fuck off into the sea. His teasing comes across as cruel rather than fun and romantic, and he’s basically a jerk at every turn. Ditch him, Indie. You deserve better.

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