irregular review

Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones

31450908Down Among the Sticks and Bones
Seanan McGuire
★★★☆☆ (I liked it.)

The Good
I love a multiverse. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second in the Wayward Children series that started with Every Heart a Doorway, which took the “Narnian exiles” thing in an unexpectedly murder mystery direction. Down Among the Sticks and Bones expands on the backstory of two of the characters, Jack (Jacqueline) and Jill (Jillian) from the first book, and how they ended up at the Home for Wayward Children.

Without that context, would this book be as good? I don’t know. I wouldn’t recommend reading the series out of order.

The Bad
This section contains spoilers.

Two things stood out to me while I was reading that really rubbed me the wrong way.

First, Jack’s OCD. Although the words “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” are never used, Jack exhibits a lot of classical (stereotypical) symptoms of OCD. She is intensely afraid of germs and dirt, and even wears gloves to keep her hands clean. She makes her lover bathe, gargle, brush her teeth, etc. before any romantic escapades. Which… fine. Germophobic neat freaks are kind of stereotypical OCD characters, but those symptoms do exist.

What bothered me about Jack’s OCD was the implication that her parents made her that way. As a child, her mother admonished her to never let her frilly dresses get dirty. OK, so she might’ve grown up to be a neat freak, a little neurotic about cleanliness, but Jack seems to have full-blown OCD, which I don’t think you can “catch” from your parents like that.

Second, Alexis. (Spoilers follow.) Alexis is a beautiful fat queer woman in a happy relationship with Jack. Everyone is OK with this. So of course, she gets murdered.

Alexis isn’t murdered because she’s queer, or but she is murdered because she’s in a relationship with a woman. If Jack were a boy, she would’ve been murdered just the same, but the whole thing smacked of dead lesbians, and that was a let-down. Especially since Alexis probably can’t be resurrected (again). That cost the book a couple of stars.

Judging a Book by Its Cover
I don’t know how I feel about the cover. It does exactly what it needs to, setting the scene on the Moors, with the treasure chest cracking open, but it doesn’t wow me. It’s serviceable, but I wouldn’t buy a print of it for my wall.

Verdict
I enjoyed reading Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but the murder really knocked the wind out of me. I knew it couldn’t have a happy ending – after all, Jack and Jill have to be back in our world by the start of Every Heart a Doorway – but it didn’t have to end like that.

irregular review

Irregular Review: The Female of the Species

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Please note, this review contains spoilers.

The Female of the Species
Mindy McGinnis
★★★★☆ (I really liked it.)

 

The Good
 Let me start my review of The Female of the Species by saying two things: first, this is not my usual kind of book; second, I love crime dramas, but I’ve always wondered what happened to the communities left behind. What happens to Burlington, VT after a serial killer snipes poachers, and breaks into peoples homes? Certainly, that wouldn’t be the Burlington, VT that I grew up near; violence like that would fundamentally change a community, maybe forever. What happens to a community after it’s “wheels up” and the BAU goes home to D.C., leaving the locals to pick up the pieces?

The Female of the Species is the answer to that question.

“Alex Craft knows how to kill someone.”

That’s how the blurb starts: “Alex Craft knows how to kill someone.” Even the blurb is expertly crafted.

Boom.

The Bad
I didn’t like the ending. (Spoilers follow.)

By killing off Alex, McGinnis closes off the possibility of continuing to explore what this kind of violence does to someone, and whether it can be undone. Alex knows there’s something “wrong” with her – she’s killed one man, her sister’s murderer, at the start of the novel, and she kills another man during the story after he’s accused of molesting a friend’s sister, and she feels no remorse. It’s not, as she explained, that she doesn’t have feelings; it’s that she feels too strongly. She must protect others, and if she can’t protect them, then she’ll avenge them.

… but then what? Alex Craft has killed two men and disfigured a third. I really wanted her to go to college, not because I thought getting away from town would magically “cure” her, but because it left open the possibility of continuing to explore what I talked about in the first section of my review: then what? What would’ve happened to Alex next? Would she have ever been caught, or would she have turned herself in? Could she change?

Those answers are a closed door.

Then, after Alex’s death, the sudden – and dramatic – culture change at the school just felt too… easy. Like all it takes is one girl’s murder to start undoing rape culture, but why didn’t that happen after her sister’s (horrific) death? That just seemed a little too easy, after the gut-wrenching ride that was the rest of the book.

 

irregular review

Irregular Review: We Awaken

Reviewer’s note: This book was so bad I had an easier time writing “The Good” than “The Bad.” Why? ‘Cause I had no idea where to start. There was so much, and I kept thinking, that’s it, I’m finally done and I’d remember some other flaw.

This would’ve ended up in A Disappointment of DNFs, but by the time I realized it was never getting good, I was in so deep I just had to read to the end so I could give it the drag it deserves.

Please note that this review contains spoilers and one dirty word.

30341730We Awaken
Calista Lynne
★☆☆☆☆ (I didn’t like it.)

The Good

“Diversity isn’t a substitute for story and style.”

I’ve heard this around, but I was like, “nobody’s saying that!”

Well… Sorry, but somebody at Harmony Ink Press is saying that. I picked up this book because I kept seeing it rec’d for asexuality! lesbians! asexual lesbians! an interracial lesbian asexual romance!

As an asexual lesbian, I was pretty excited about this because I don’t think I’ve ever read a story about an asexual lesbian that I didn’t write.

(Edit: I take it back. I didn’t realize that Afterworlds is, apparently, ace spec f/f.)

…and then! it got that gorgeous cover, and the blurb on the back (well, on Goodreads) mentioned some of my all time favorite tropes: shared dreamscapes and imaginary or fantastical people coming into the real world, like a reverse portal fantasy. (Some day, we’ll sit down and I’ll tell you how much I love multiverse stories.)

So I was pretty excited about this book. Not, like, “it can never live up to how good I imagine it” excited (like how I feel about book to film adaptations), but, you know, a little hype. #hereforthis, and all that.

Then I, you know, actually started reading.

The Bad

Let’s start on a technical level: this book needed to be edited at least three more times. It felt like an early draft, and there were some weird usage errors that felt like the author was trying to show off… and failing. Like the time when she wrote “There had to be a catch-22” when she meant “there had to be a catch.”

I also screencapped “crocheted quilt,” but I let it slide, because there is such a thing but I’m pretty sure the author was talking about a granny square afghan. (As a quilter and crocheter, this annoyed the snot out of me.)

Unfortunately, the story structure suffered from the same lack of care and craft.

Ashlinn exits the dreamworld, apparently for the first time, to rescue Victoria from a possible suicide attempt. (She takes pills so she can sleep and visit Ashlinn in the dreamworld.) There were so many things wrong with this scene: (In no particular order.)

  • If you’re getting rid of pills someone is using to self-harm or possibly die by suicide, do not just throw them in the trash. Flush them.
  • Victoria is never encouraged to seek therapy. She took the sleeping pills so she could see Ashlinn, so it’s cool? She was willing to risk death in order to see her girlfriend. We called that out when Bella was cliff diving (or whatever? sorry, I never actually read past Twilight) and I’m calling it out here.
  • Why has Ashlinn chosen Victoria? It’s clear from her reactions to the real/waking world that she has never been here. If she’s an immortal, ageless creature, why now? Why Victoria?
  • How does she travel between worlds? Like I said earlier, I love portal fantasies, but there has to be a mechanism, a doorway – and a good portal fantasy has a price to pay for going back and forth. Ashlinn has this power, which she has apparently never used before, but it is never explained.

That’s just one scene. The problem of Ashlinn’s ability to travel between the dream- and waking- worlds is never addressed, except when they suddenly – very suddenly – realize, oops!, without Ashlinn to make good dreams, everyone is just having nightmares! We can infer from that that Ashlinn has never done this before, but why not? What’s so special about Victoria? Is she the first other asexual lesbian to ever exist?

(Hi.)

Speaking of asexuality… I wanted a story, not a textbook. Is this story for aces? ‘Cause it didn’t feel like it. It felt like Asexuality 101, complete with the antagonist, Semira, and the supposed best friend, whose name I have forgotten, making anti-ace comments just so Ashlinn or Victoria could correct them.

What was even up with the bestie, anyway? She was supposed to be this SJW-type, but she had never heard of asexuality and kept making very early ‘00s anti-ace comments, like comparing asexuality to plants and saying “well, you don’t know until you’ve tried.” If she’s so woke, wouldn’t she know?

… seriously, tho, as an ace person? I don’t really love reading books filled with microaggressions.

Something else about me: I’ve been half an orphan for half my life. My dad died when I was just a little younger than Victoria is when her dad’s in the car crash with her brother, Rhys. (Was it Rhys? I can’t remember. That’s how little I cared.) Victoria’s father died on impact, but her brother survived. He’s in a coma, and he’s never getting better. When she first meets Ashlinn, Ashlinn’s heard about her – from Rhys. (I’m just gonna keep calling him that.) Since he’s in a coma, he’s trapped in dreamland, so Ashlinn visits him a lot.

At the end, Ashlinn’s conundrum –  stay in the human world with her girlfriend, or go back and keep up her duty as the giver of good dreams – is resolved when Rhys chooses to die and become the new “sandman,” bringer of good dreams. So he’ll be dead, but he can still visit Victoria in dreams!

Wow? Okay, honestly? It’s four-letter word time: Fuck you.

I used to dream about my dad coming back from the dead, but you know what? That can never happen, because he’s dead. This was a sappy, cheap, sentimental ending. It was an insult to readers, like me, who have lost family members.

Oh, oh, and: We’re left with Ashlinn in the real world and we never even get to delve into the fun stuff of crafting an identity and a future for her as a human. She has no Social Security number, no high school diploma, nothing. How will she live in the waking world? What if she and Victoria break up someday? Like I said, “fantasy person in mundane world” is one of my favorite tropes and it was completely skipped over! That’s more of a “my personal opinion” thing than a legitimate criticism.

Honestly, this book was so poorly edited that I’m put off Harmony Ink Press. I admire their mission, but I can’t help but feel that underdeveloped, shoddily written, poorly edited stories like this just reinforce the idea that diversity isn’t quality. Oops?

Judging a Book by Its Cover

The cover is the best thing about this book. It is beautiful.

… but, as a selling point, it doesn’t tell me anything about the story.

tl;dr

I recommended this to a friend who loves ballet, like “asexual lesbian ballet dancer romance!!!” and then the sorta suicide happened and I was like “just so you know… I’m not withdrawing my recommendation, just giving you a heads-up” and then I finished it and I was like “nvm, I am withdrawing my rec.” He asked me why, like, did something happen?

“No. It was just bad.”

If you want a nice YA lesbian romance, try Not Your Sidekick instead.

irregular review

Irregular Review: The Answer

29957941 The Answer
Rebecca Sugar
★★★☆☆ (I liked it.)

You already are the answer.”

The Good
I should start this review by stating, for the record, that I adore Steven Universe. I made a point to buy this book new, because I want Cartoon Network to see that shows like Steven Universe – quirky, heartfelt, optimistic, and very queer – make money. There is a market for something like this, and they should keep making it, and more things like it.

The Answer did not disappoint. It’s a TV show spin-off, so admittedly, my hopes were not high. Although ever since I read Frozen: A Sister More Like Me, I’ve had more respect for these tie-in books. The quality has gone way ( wayyyyy) up since I was a kid.

I was especially impressed that the meta/postmodern picture book trend has trickled down to the movie/TV show tie-in – right around the time when School Library Journal declared the death of the meta picture book.

The Bad
I don’t think The Answer can stand alone. Maybe it’s not supposed to; it isSteven Universe tie-in, after all. But I won’t get it for my library; we have a “no tie-ins/spin-offs” rule, unless like (e.g., Jedi Academy) they can stand alone without the reader knowing the source material.

Judging a Book by Its Cover
GAY.

I like it. BookRiot had an article recently(ish) about the history and evolution of cover design for YA books with LGBT+ content, from “hiding in plain sight” to “out and proud.” The Answer is a kids’ book, and it’s definitely on the “out and proud” end of the spectrum; then again, so is all of Steven Universe.

Right after The Answer (the TV ep) aired, there were some fans (“”fans””) who insisted that Ruby must be a boy. They were wrong. Anyone who knows anything about the show (i.e., probably anyone buying this book) knows that the gems are genderless/single gender, but use feminine pronouns.

… so it’s not technically lesbians, but it’s basically lesbians.

tl;dr

I actually said this about Not Your Sidekick, but I was thinking about Steven Universe and everything else out there, too.

irregular review

Review Backlog: Made You Up

17661416Made You Up
Francesca Zappia
★☆☆☆☆ (I didn’t like it.)

Please note that this review contains spoilers.

“Sometimes I think people take reality for granted.”

I’m still looking for what I wanted from We’ll Never Be Apart (my review). This got a little closer, but we’re still a long way gone.

Review
While I was reading it and not thinking too hard, this book wasn’t so bad. I sped through it because I wanted to get to the good parts, but once again, I felt like the good parts never quite arrived.

I originally gave this book three stars; I bumped it down to two. (Update: when I moved it over to Book 7, I dropped it to one.) The more I thought about it, the more things bugged me.

I won’t get into the wildly inaccurate portrayal of schizophrenia; Clementine’s review goes into some detail, and a perusal of one-star reviews will get you the gist. I don’t have a background in psychology and I don’t have any up close and personal experience with schizophrenia. Even so, I could tell something was way off – especially when just being around the love interest soothed her symptoms.

This idea that if you love a sick person enough, and they love you enough, they’ll just get better is, frankly, insulting (and very, very dangerous). You can’t love someone so much you cure their cancer. You can’t love someone so much you cure their schizophrenia.

(I had the same problem with Made You Up. Why is it always a boy and a cure, instead of your own self and learning to live with the reality of the situation and cope the best you can?)

I wish I knew more about Charlemagne. That could’ve been the whole plot, right there. At least, unlike Made You Up, it’s (sort of) explained how Alexandra “sees” her interacting with people – but it’s a mystery why her parents not only played along with this delusion/hallucination (it’s both/neither) but apparently encouraged it, setting a place for her at the table and buying her Christmas presents long after she died. I… what?

Oh, and the mom’s relationship with the therapist, and the therapist’s relationship with Alexandra? Woah. I saw a therapist for six(ish) years. My mother was sometimes involved with my treatment; probably with a schizophrenic patient, you’d need more family involvement for a minor.

Therapists are not your enemy. If you don’t like your particular therapist, hopefully you can find a new one. If your meds aren’t working, talk to your psychiatrist and adjust the dose or change the prescription. This is such a dangerous cliché. I didn’t see a therapist when I needed one (financial reasons) and, well, it almost ruined my life. See a therapist, kids!

As for the rest … Well, I originally left it out of my review because it was pretty forgettable. There were too many threads and none of them made any sense. Like Miles’s mom. She’s been stuck in a psychiatric hospital for eight years without her consent, and not having committed any crime, because her husband says she’s suicidal? What is this, 1950? Or Miles himself, struggling to readjust after living abroad. That could all be very interesting, but it just wasn’t. Or the McCoy and Celia subplot. Any of these things could have been a good book in their own right, but crammed into a single story and not fleshed out they just floundered. Less is more.

And why is the whole school crazy? It seemed like high school on a TV show, not real high school. At first I thought it was part of Alex’s illness, but apparently not.

Judging a Book by Its Cover
I love the design for this book. It’s what originally caught my eye before I got on this “mentally ill unreliable narrator” kick I’m in. It’s visually arresting, and we’ve got Alex’s red hair. I think a lobster would have been more intriguing, though.
It loses points for the flagrant misuse of Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song.”

tl;dr
Quick read, but I wanted more. Didn’t care much about the characters and the one I liked best turned out to be a hallucination all along. Once again, the interesting bits about what’s real or not get lost under a teenage love story, and the reality of mental illness is ignored in favor of stereotypes and what’s cool.

irregular review

Review Backlog: We’ll Never Be Apart


23874547We’ll Never Be Apart
Emiko Jean
★★☆☆☆ (It was OK.)

Please be aware that this review contains spoilers.

“So where does a story that ends in fire and death begin?”

I have to start by saying this: I read a review of We’ll Never Be Apart that spoiled the twist when I was about a third of the way through the book and I wasn’t even mad, because I had long since called the twist. So this “psychological thriller” wasn’t very thrilling. I kept reading to find out how the twist happened, but when it finally came, the denouement glossed over all the interesting bits.

Review:
What I really wanted to know was how Alice’s mind warped her memories to make room for Celia. I can understand making up an imaginary evil twin sister. I guess I hoped the writing was cleverer and rather than just twisting her memories, if Alice looked back and realized, like, nobody ever really talked to Celia. (Like how she realizes Chase never actually said Celia was in the D ward.) I was a little surprised by Jason’s twist, at least.

Now, probably, I would’ve enjoyed this more if I were the target audience and unfamiliar with the genre. But only if this is the first psychological thriller I’ve ever read. I’m not a horror fan; I don’t usually scary books – but I do love an unreliable narrator. So this might be “my first psychological thriller,” but I wouldn’t recommend it to a fan of the genre.

Which isn’t to say I couldn’t get into it, but my interest was more in craft than story. I really wanted to see how Alice discovered the truth about Celia. Even though I called the twists, there weren’t many breadcrumbs along the way to let a less genre savvy reader figure it out.
Something that threw me out of the story that I can’t not mention: the repeated use of homophobic slurs. Alice’s roommate, Amelia, repeatedly calls another patient a “muff eater.” Amelia is a sympathetic character, the closest thing Alice has to a friend. Her casual homophobia is never called out. Ouch.

Since we’re on the subject of Alice’s relationships, I need to talk about Chase. Chase. I guess I kind of liked him, but he was more of a cardboard cutout than a person. Frankly, I found it insulting that Alice’s breakthrough comes because of a boy stealing her private medical files and helping her escape the mental hospital to force a confrontation with herself.

How did he sneak around so easily? Escaping the hospital, stealing keycards, sneaking around at night… I think Harry had an easier time creeping around Hogwarts, and Hogwarts is a fantasy boarding school staffed by questionably competent teachers, not a contemporary mental health facility supposedly run by qualified doctors and nurses. Suspension of disbelief suffered.

Judging a Book by Its Cover:
One of the reasons I picked this up was the cover. I remember being little and playing on the swing set outside and trying to see or imagine secret messages spelled out in the branches.

… too bad that had nothing to do with this book. I guess the orange version is firey, but the ebook versions have a purple tone. I guess because of that one time she feels purple?

I would have saved this design for a book about a character with apophenia and given this book a cover that fit its contents.

tl;dr
I didn’t hate it, obviously, because I finished it, but I was disappointed. I wanted the climax/reveal to come sooner (and not because a boy violated her privacy, but it’s OK, because he meant well) and the denouement to last longer (and really get into the nitty-gritty psychological details).

irregular review

Irregular Review: Not Your Sidekick

29904219Not Your Sidekick
C.B. Lee
★★★★★ (It was amazing.)

“Have you ever thought about the people in Meta-Human Training who go through the program but don’t become superheroes?”

The Good
Not Your Sidekick is probably the most diverse book I’ve ever read. The protagonist, Jess, is a bisexual daughter of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants to the North American Collective (former United States and maybe Canada and Mexico, too?). One of her best friends, Bells, is trans. Jess has a crush on a girl, Abby.

The blossoming relationship between Jess and her super cute girl crush, Abby, is the most adorable and satisfying romance I’ve ever read. Like I said on Twitter,

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I know I can’t shut up about that book, because reading it was a revelation. There were casual conversations about using the correct pronouns, a character gently checking in on her friend to make sure he hasn’t been wearing his binder for too long, a minor subplot about the way cis gay men can sometimes dominate LGBT+ spaces that are supposed to be for everybody.

But don’t get the wrong idea. This isn’t an “issue book.” This is a superhero story, and it kicks ass – even if Jess doesn’t have any powers.

The Bad
The superhero plot pacing was liiiiitle slow, but I feel better about that knowing there’s a sequel due out sometime next year, and I was too wrapped up in the romantic subplot to care – which is definitely a first for me.

The present tense writing always took a few minutes to get used to, each time I opened my (e)book (app), but it wasn’t too distracting.

Judging a Book by its Cover
This cover has everything it needs: Jess in action, testing herself; the mysterious M flying in the background; an in-joke about the resident super villains on Jess’s t-shirt; and the colors evoke the Southwestern currently-US/future-NAC setting. Fun, dynamic, eye catching.

tl;dr

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