REVIEW: Impossible Odds by Jill Ramsower

4 Stars

It was a little difficult for me to get into this book, but man am I glad I did! I’ll admit that I was a little put off by the dark subject matter (I’m more of a “misunderstood biker bad boy who’s never really done anything wrong” kind of fan). To know that everyone in this book either killed people or profited from those deaths made it a little hard to find endearing, but then it hit me: this isn’t a typical romance! Not only is this a family saga and romantic story, it’s a mystery/crime drama to boot.

This modern-day Romeo and Juliet story follows a cartel kingpin’s second-in-command when he sets out to enact a key part of a crucial plan. He didn’t count on falling in love with his rival’s daughter along the way. For her part, Giada knows what her dad does and where their wealth comes from, but is happy to stay out of it until her world collides with that of one of her father’s latest enemies.

Once getting into the murder-for-hire/organized crime mindset, this book was a real delight. Yes, it had some smoldering romantic scenes–honestly fewer than I expected since that wasn’t the only crux of the book–but also so much intrigue, backstabbing, and fierce protectiveness from both the male and female characters. No more wilting wallflowers, today’s romance heroines are here to kick butt and be just as protective as their families.

Be aware, there were a few typos, but I’m sure this review contains just as many! 🙂

REVIEW: The Love Study by Kris Ripper

4 Stars

It’s hard to say that this book was fun (even though it was) because the main character, Declan, carries so much pain, self-doubt, and at times even self-loathing that I wanted more for them. This is one of those really great books that proves (gasp! horrors! what has the world come to?!) that gay people are literally human beings and experience exactly the same emotions and rollercoaster rides in romance that cis hetero people do (sorry haters).

The premise is something straight out of any mainstream (re: book that the traditional publishing industry has been pushing since the dawn of time) fiction: an up-and-coming video-documentarian asks Declan to be their interview subject on a series of dates. It’s meant to be a glimpse into the modern dating world, even though Declan has his doubts. After all, he’s left someone at the altar and still hasn’t forgiven himself for it, even though his love-victim has and is still close friends with him.

The book was endearing in all the right ways and shone a spotlight on a number of issues. Apart from the aforementioned “omg they’re just like us and by us I mean stereotypical status quo,” the author seamlessly uses correct pronouns without batting an eye. It’s a beautiful example of how this whole thing works when people put a microscopic smidgen of effort into it.

Fun, insightful, heart-wrenching at times, and yes, you want to cheer for the good guys! (Make that, good people!)


Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer

3 Stars

I wanted to love this book because the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation is hilarious. This is one of those dark, twisted, “campy” comedies that has such a gruesome subject matter (death of nearly an entire senior class) but is done in such an impossible way that it’s okay to laugh.

Kids are blowing up.

That’s it. That’s the whole premise. Students at this school are spontaneously combusting at the most inopportune times, yet somehow, main character Mara manages to solidify her years-long best friendship, find love, do a fair amount of drugs, and just exist.

But this book is also a really insightful look at the responses to tragedy. It portrays how other students feel, how the school addresses it, how parents handle it, and even how the community and world as a whole tackle their comprehension of what’s taking place at Covington High.

The absolute best part of the book is the humorous voice the author manages to instill in the main character/narrator. His bio says he lives with his wife and two daughters and I can totally picture it. This is a man who is vastly outnumbered and has nailed the voice of the angsty, smart-ass, female main character. There were a lot of hidden truths in it that bust open the stereotypes (I specifically remember Mara getting her driver’s license because her mom made her do it, then refusing to drive ever again… my own offspring shall remain nameless, but I had to force her to get both a permit and then a driver’s license, and she was already in her second year of college when I did.)

But now for the worst part of the book… the first half is some of the funniest writing I’ve read in a while, but about halfway through, this stops being funny. Now, I’d expect a book in which almost the entire senior class dies to stop being funny at some point. However, this book took a turn for the existential and morphed into a “what is the meaning of it all” diatribe, then never resolved.

I mean, ever.

We don’t know why the students were combusting, who was behind it, what will happen to them down the road, nothing. There was an FBI agent involved, and we never figure out what her actual role was. There was talk of secret experimenting at the Pentagon, and then it fizzled. There’s possibly a missing persons case, but that went nowhere as well.

All in all, it was so, so promising, then left us feeling like the author got bored and quit. Worse, having been around the publishing industry for over a decade, it felt like the author HAD written a great ending and by the time the editors got through with it (probably for political reasons, since there are definite political nuances in it), it became a stinkpile of disappointment at the end. Editors are like that sometimes.

All in all, not a bad read. But I’ll be interested to see if the film sticks to the book or if it gives us the satisfaction of an actual ending.

 

When You Look Like Us by Pamela Harris

5 STARS

OMG this was an awesome book! It’s absolutely rare that I ever think, “I wish there were more than five stars!” but this one fits that bill. As someone who reviews constantly, edits frequently, and is also a published author with constant deadlines, it’s also rare that I get caught up at 11 o’clock at night finishing a book, but this one did that too.

What set this book apart for me–as someone who was an English teacher for 24 years and taught in juvenile corrections, so knows her way around diverse voices in YA–was the fact that this was not just another “my terrible life in the ghetto” book. This story accurately portrayed the greater reality, that man students who would be considered at-risk and who may live in less-than-ideal conditions also attend schools with affluent students. Too many people think of “black schools” and “white schools” instead of schools filled with students of every race and color, as well as every income level and need.

Aside from that aspect which first made me fall in love with this book, the author seamlessly weaves a story of a typical teenager who happens to face tremendous obstacles. Yes, his father is absent, but it’s due to cancer (not the stereotype). Yes, his mother is in prison, but it’s due to alcoholism caused by grief that led to a DUI (again, not the stereotype). Yes, the protagonist is a young black male, but as even he points out, his pants don’t sag and he’s being hounded throughout the book to accept the position of co-editor of his high school’s lit mag. No stereotypes there either, just a normal, semi-adjusted student.

His problems arise early when his sister disappears. This is where the stereotypes hit hard, though. Jay turns to the police, who dismiss him outright. A local news channel picks up the story to do a public plea, then turns it into a scandal piece and paints his sister as a drug-using dropout who’s dating a drug dealer. Suffice to say, the “bad guys” in the book turn out to be heroes, the “good guys” are the worst of the worst.

It was great to see a book that was so intricately woven, so well-written, and so engaging that also manages to blow apart the stereotypes. Highly recommend this read!!!

Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella

5 Stars

Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

It is so refreshing to read a really original plot–even one that is based entirely around one of the oldest and most beloved fairy tales–that I cannot say enough incredible things about this story. At the same time, it is so out-of-the-ordinary and handles uncommon plot threads in a seamless, no-big-thing kind of way.

In this fictional kingdom, the Cinderella fairy tale is practically their religion. Blind allegiance to the king is required, the subjugation of women is even more prevalent. Every household must own and memorize the Bible, of sort–a pristine, palace-approved version of Cinderella. Worse, every household must send its daughter at age 16 to the ball to be selected by the men of the kingdom.

Failure to do so means death.

So what is a 16-year-old girl to do if she has no interest in marriage–and if her girlfriend refuses to run away with her?

What makes this story so intriguing is not the LGBTQ elements, the women’s rights issues, or even the fact that men’s clothing has pockets and women’s clothing does not (I’ll admit, I laughed out loud when a character explains her preference for men’s clothing simply by stating, “It has pockets.”), but that we see an entirely different telling of Cinderella. What if everything we know about the original story is a lie that was put forth by the palace to control the subjects? And what if the only one who can help the main character is a fairy godmother who’s done terrible things, and who should have died 200 years ago?

This is one of those rare treats that actually does make you stay up all night to see what happens. It dealt with “sensitive” subjects and offered incredible opportunities for much-needed representation. It was just a winner all the way around!

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Trouble

5 Stars

This was an absolutely riveting book, one whose writing was truly incredible. I cannot recall the last time an author’s distinct voice was so compelling–important, since it is told from three separate perspectives–coupled with a really fun, eerie premise. The total effect is just mesmerizing.

One of the most intriguing aspects to the book is the fantastical element of “saint’s hands,” a unique genetic ability that the first main character possesses. The explanation of saint’s hands is slow in coming out, yet somehow, the way the author throws in mentions and tiny yet sufficient descriptions, the reader feels like they’ve known about this phenomenon all along.

Of course, the idealized setting is perfect for this three-part story. The Harlem Renaissance has reached its contemporary peak and the US is on the brink of entering World War II. The racial injustice that serves as a skeleton holding up the meat of the book is an understated fact of life for the characters, cropping up from time to time as if it’s a character all on its own (as in, the argument in the hospital lobby over permitting one of the characters to receive emergency treatment there). The events of the world are a great backdrop for the more important events on the page.

The book is an unputdownable read with a flowing, distinctive style that was simply magic.

Trouble The Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger

Gifted School

4 Stars

This book read a lot like Sex and the City meets the elementary school set. It reminded me of the constantly moving character arcs of Dominic Dunne’s People Like Us, only starring “bright future”-obsessed moms in the elitist world of gifted kids who are driven to succeed, only their parents are at the wheel.

In the high-brow world of Crystal, Colorado, children are basically your badge of honor… if they’re gifted. Even one characters’ twin sons–albeit not thought of as overly academic by other characters in the story–are on an elite travel soccer team that competes around the country. Violin on Tuesdays, ballet on Wednesdays, “test tutoring” three times a week… you get the idea.

But when word gets out that there will be a new “gifted school” that will pull only the top one percent from the five public school districts in the area, even the deepest of marriages and friendships will be the ones tested.

While the story was compelling from a “thank god that’s not my reality” standpoint–like watching a car wreck about to unfold involving people you really despise–I got the sense that this was nothing new. I think most of society is now aware of the “upper crust” parents, the top-tier of people who have not only money to burn on private (re: no undesirables allowed) schools and a million extracurricular activities, but also the way they push their children into a future of drugs and suicide for failing to meet their arbitrary goals.

The author could not have intended this, this was the perfect book to read during a global pandemic in which many parents are concerned about their children missing out due to school closing, virtual learning, and social distancing. With every page, I couldn’t help but think, “Thank goodness my children didn’t live like this.”

Where the book does bring in some much-needed originality to a done-to-death but also very realistic plot is in the way the climax comes about. It was absolutely a surprise, and a refreshing one at that.

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

We set The Dark

4 Stars

Full disclosure, I bought this book simply because a) the beautiful color, b) Latinx author, c) LGBTQ representation in YA lit, and d) omg did you see that cover? Lesser deciding factors were the cool world-building and the fact that I do enjoy dystopian fiction.

The book opens with the legend dating back thousands of years which explains why in this society the men (or at least the wealthy elite) have two wives. As in, the top-notch girls are sent to a special finishing school where they will either become a Primera or a Segunda. Primeras are the emotionless, intellectual, calculating heads of the household whose efforts will make or break their husbands’ careers. The Segundas (though “second,” they are not inferior or answer to the Primeras) are the loving, sensual, child-bearing heart of the family.

The FMC Daniella has graduated at the top of her class to become a Primera, which means she fetched an astronomical price when her husband’s family bought her for him. Her rival/archenemy throughout her years at school is none other than the Segunda they purchased for him as well.

[Record scratch] See, I thought this book was going in a different direction with just that fact alone. Non-spoiler, I was wrong!

However, crucial to my deducting one star is the following SPOILER ALERT:

While I am not gay myself, I was a little take aback by the romance that inexplicably developed very suddenly between the main character and her chief tormentor. I’ll admit that I cringed; it felt almost wrong that the author would have Dani fall completely in love with her bully, and likewise have that bully love her in return.

I did love, however, the fact that this book is set in a fictional Latino island country where there are border walls, armed guards to keep the “undesirables” out of the country, an entire blackmarket network where one can buy identities and documents, and where those from the outer lands are simply trying to better their lives, even if it means crime and deception. It was poignant, and an important metaphor that readers need.

Overall, a great read and I’m glad to see more diverse titles making their way onto mainstream bestseller lists and getting the attention they rightfully deserve.

Euphoria by Lily King

 Euphoria

3.5 Stars

First, I love historical fiction, even ones such as this one that are “filling in the gaps” of real people, real events, and very recent history. Euphoria is based on the story of Margaret Mead, well-known anthropologist, and two lesser well-known men in her life. I really enjoy books where we get to envision the actual conversations, settings, even attire of the people when key events took place, and this one was no different.

Unfortunately, readers will need to go into it with a lot more prior knowledge of Mead’s work and anthropology in general to appreciate the complex, clever story. Much of my later enjoyment of the book came from reading published industry reviews–something I do AFTER reading a book so that I don’t go into it with spoilers or preconceived judgments.

I had three key criticisms, though:

1. As so many works of fiction involving this topic already do, the aboriginal people that Mead/Nell were studying are secondary to the white people, white values, white culture of the main characters. It would have been nice to actually learn more about them instead of seeing them through the lens, so to speak.

2. The writing style was beautiful but chaotic. I would read entire passages, reach a pronoun, and realize the wrong person was speaking (or at least, not the person I’d thought had been speaking). The use of quotation marks wasn’t entirely conventional, but that’s my failing and not the author’s.

3. There was far too much inference/alluding for my tastes. Some readers love it, I do not. I do not like being left in the dark or lured into a scene by not realizing what has or is about to take place. The first time I remember this feeling in this book, for example, was when Nell is narrating the fact that she cannot see well because her husband has broken her glasses. It dimmed my view of him as a character, either intentionally or not.

This book is well-deserving of its advanced praise and accolades, but read it with the understanding that it is by far not a mainstream topic. It’s great to expand your horizons, though, and this book will certainly do that. The writing is superb and beautiful, and the vivid descriptions of the setting are perfect.

Review: The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Annotation 2020-01-21 084252

After borrowing the ebook three times from my library and never even getting a chance to open it before it auto-returned, I actually SCHEDULED a time to get it, open it, and read it. I was NOT sorry I did! This book is delightful. At times intriguing and uplifting, at other times heart-wrenching and soul-burning, it’s a very clear portrayal of something we often don’t learn about: Reconstruction-era life for lots of people, especially marginalized communities.

Jo Kuan is equal parts brilliantly intelligent and lovably endearing. You just want her to win, she’s so well depicted. Her plotting and her opinionated nature could easily be the end of her, though she still manages to rise to the top.

The historical portrayal in this novel was gripping, too. The plight of freed slaves in the South, Chinese laborers who’d been brought in to “replace” slaves, women who were still expected to marry well even if they didn’t wish to marry at all, even the women who fought for (and against each other’s) voting rights were amazingly done.

From the book description:

By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie.” When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society’s ills, but she’s not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender.

While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light.

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