Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick

I jumped back to the HB Reading Embrace to read Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick to fulfill the Competency Boner category of the embrace. Amanda Quick was actually the first romance novelist I read. I snagged my mom’s copy of I Thee Wed as a young teen. I don’t remember how I felt about it. I know I didn’t read romance again for years but that certainly wasn’t a reaction to the book. In any case, I was excited to give this author another read as an adult who has a bit more romance experience under her belt.

Slater Roxton has a reputation that precedes him, most of it lies, some of it truth. He’s been rumored to be mad since he spent a year on an island after a cave-in during his expedition and now leads a quiet but much storeyed life retrieving artifacts and cataloguing them. Helping him with this is Ursula Kern, widow and owner of the Kern Secretarial Agency. When an employee and friend turns up dead and is shrugged off as a suicide, Ursula takes it upon herself to pursue what she knows has been murder. Slater helps her and along the way they find the truth and fall in love in Victorian England.

I enjoyed reading this book, but there were definitely some things that got in the way of my enjoyment. Slater apparently loved Ursula at first sight and is very protective and a little bit possessive of her in ways that are totally inappropriate, especially because he doesn’t actually relay his feelings until well into the book. Ursula’s past is hinted at as very shocking and maybe I’ve just grown snobbish about my Secret Past backstories but the reveal was kind of anticlimactic in my opinion. Also the sex is written in a very hyperbolical, every-touch-sets-someone-on-fire way that felt almost satirical with how elaborately it was described. But I recognize that is in part just a hallmark of the time and there definitely weren’t any descriptions that thoroughly turned me off (see “hot honey” from Once Burned). However, there were some delightful side characters. The pacing and the writing were both good and I was happy for the characters. It also definitely qualified for the Competency Boner category because both characters are smart and talented and good at their jobs.

Review: Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

Trigger Warning: Death of an animal, racism, hate crimes, death of children

For the “book about a natural disaster” category of the Book Riot Reading Challenge I read Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee.

The book is set in San Francisco in the year 1906. It follows 15-year-old Mercy Wong, a second generation Chinese American who lives with her parents and younger brother Jack. Mercy’s parents own a laundry business and she is determined to find a way to help them be more financially stable and to leave the business that is ruining her family’s health. She gets her break in the form of a businessman who agrees to sponsor her stay at a prestigious girl’s school in exchange for her securing business dealings for him in Chinatown. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, Mercy is able to broker the deal and begins pursuing what she hopes will be a life changing education for her family. But being the only Chinese American in a school full of privileged, white girls and the unexpected catastrophe of an earthquake will push Mercy farther than she thought possible and force her to uncover hidden strength.

Lee does not shy away from depicting the racism faced by Chinese Americans in the early 20th century. It is a thread that follows Mercy through her experiences in the book. She also shows the sexism within and without her cultural community, allowing the reader to witness the many barriers Mercy faces in her quest to secure a stable future for her family. Mercy is given some allies in the school, but even they have their biases that they have to put aside or confront before they can be her friend. It’s important that readers, specifically YA readers as this book is marketed to, understand these barriers and are able to identify the many ways institutional racism still exists in our society.

I was surprised that I had to get almost halfway through the book before the natural disaster occurred. I’m happy, though, that the author gave us time to get a sense of Mercy’s life and relationships. The reader cares about her family and her friendships and her plans. And then everything is taken from her and the reader and Mercy have to pick through what’s left to determine what life will become when everything you’ve worked for feels irrelevant. The writing was poignant and well paced. Lee shows how horrible, traumatic events can bring people together who would never have associated before, but also how this will never be the case for some people. It’s important to recognize both of these things are true and that it isn’t as simple as The Human Race all being in it for each other when the chips are down. Allies and friends are important, but Mercy has to be cautious in who she trusts and that’s treated with the respect and understanding it deserves.

I almost cried a couple of times in the book. The writing is really good and even though multiple horrific and tragic things occur, Lee still manages to end the book on an upward note. Mercy has hope for her future and even with all of the challenges she will continue to face, both the reader and the protagonist know that she will find a way through. I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in early 20th century American history, especially as it pertains to the treatment of Chinese immigrants and the barriers of sexism for women of all races with specific attention paid to the unique positions of non-white women facing sexism.

Review: The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

Trigger Warning: Child murder, torture, gruesome descriptions of violence, a mother attempts repeatedly to kill her child, mental institution setting, and repeated descriptions of corpse mutilation

Last week I completed the “retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, or myth by an author of color” category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge by reading The Girl from the Well by Chinese Filipino author Rin Chupeco.

Those who have watched either Ju-On or the American remake The Grudge will be familiar with the protagonist of this story, Okiku. Okiku is the vengeful spirit of a murdered young woman who now goes after murderers of children and kills them in gruesome ways. The iconic horror figure of the dead woman with long hair who makes creepy gurgling sounds is the reader’s POV throughout the novel. I’ve never read a young adult horror novel or a novel where the protagonist and viewpoint of the book is the ghoulish anti-hero. The author presents Okiku’s vicious acts, and her own feelings about her acts, as matter of fact without remorse. I love a remorseless anti-hero, particularly one who is seeking vengeance on behalf of herself and other victims of injustice.

The main plot surrounds Okiku’s interactions with a boy named Tark, his father, and his cousin Cassie. Tark and his father have moved to be closer to his mother who is a patient at a mental institution since she tried to murder the teenager. Okiku is drawn to Tark because she can tell there is another entity attached to him, something dark. As the secret behind Tark’s strange, sigil-like tattoos and what they’ve bound to him is revealed, Okiku and Cassie become Tark’s allies in saving himself and many others.

As I said earlier, this is the first book of its kind that I’ve read so it already has my interest and appreciation. I’ve read criticisms of the book not being scary but I don’t expect horror to be scary necessarily. It is horrifying, the actions described are graphic and haunting, but the figure that is doing most of these actions is one whose head you’re in so you understand the reasoning. I didn’t find the lack of scariness a bad thing by any means. It was a genuinely entertaining read and I was invested in the characters and how the issues would be resolved.

I am not a fan of the use of the mental institution in this story, but I’m torn about this as well. If someone tries to murder their child while screaming that they have to do it to save them and acting in delusional ways, they would probably be hospitalized. But the description of the hospital is very archaic asylum Ken Kesey-esque except even Ken Kesey acknowledged that mental illness doesn’t mean you’re always acting out in outrageous, spooky scary ways. In the brief tours we get of the mental hospital here every mentally ill person is a caricature of insanity. And I don’t say that meaning that the way characters behave aren’t ways that real people can behave with certain conditions, I just felt that Chupeco was relying a little too much on the stigma and stereotype of the mentally ill patient to do the grunt work of setting the scary tone. I also always grow a little wary of plotlines where the “insane” person is actually right and it’s the world that just doesn’t understand. It feels dangerous to me. The history of mental healthcare is, to say the least, fraught with issues and unjust hospitalizations and cruel, inhumane acts. But there are times a person needs to be hospitalized for their own safety. I don’t know you guys, it just didn’ts well with me. I know I have my personal biases and issues with this topic that others may not have. Also, Chupeco doesn’t really present Tark’s mother as someone who should be out of the hospital as she is clearly a danger to herself and others. So I have to give her that.

Overall, I would recommend this book to people who enjoy YA horror and aren’t troubled by descriptions of graphic violence or child murder/endangerment. It’s a compelling story and a new take on a classic figure in horror. I can’t speak to the accuracy or care of the setting or the belief system represented in Japan and would be interested in perspectives on this part of the book. I may pick up the second book in the series, The Suffering, but it won’t be for a bit because I do need a palate cleanser after this one.

Review: A Midwinter’s Wedding by Melanie Cellier

I read A Midwinter’s Wedding by Melanie Cellier to fulfill the “Frog” category of the HB Reading Embrace. I DNF’d at least two, if not three, books to get to this one. We could say that I had to “kiss a few frogs” to find my prince of a book but even I will not go that far with puns. I will say that I’m happy I ended up landing on this one because I was almost to the point where I was going to just read a novelization of The Princess and The Frog and call it good but here we are!

For those who may not know the story of the Frog Prince, a Brothers’ Grimm fairytale, I’ll offer a quick rundown. A princess drops a gold ball she is playing with in a pond and a frog tells her that he will retrieve it for her in return for a kiss. She agrees, they kiss, and he transforms back into a handsome prince. In this retelling the princess is one of seven children (oof), Cordelia, who is going to a midwinter wedding between her older brother Rafe and his bride. Before she leaves she is given a gold ball by her younger sister who tells her it is a godmother’s gift and will help their brother find his true love. Cordelia accidentally drops the gold ball into an icy pond and Captain Ferdinand, “Ferdy” to friends, retrieves it for her. He’s a froglike looking man with bulbous eyes and bent knees and at first Cordelia is startled by his appearance. As they spend time together and work to stop an evil plot against the royals they grow closer and Cordelia looks past his appearance and finds that she loves him. Since it’s based on a fairytale I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that she ends up kissing him and he transforms into a handsome prince and they live happily ever after.

This is the 3.5th book in a series so there was definitely context I was missing that would have made the other characters matter. I liked the heroine and was curious about the “curse” she kept talking about related to her younger sister. I also liked the hero of the story and the way the author paced their relationship and gave them plenty of opportunities to get to know each other and bond before they were in love. Obviously it’s still a speedy romance because it’s a novella and it has to get to an HEA ASAP but it didn’t feel ridiculously hurried. That might in part be due to the fact that she isn’t attracted to him initially. The traditional romance formula I’ve found is two people identify each other as attractive and then feelings stem from there. It’s a formula that works, you want the characters to be attracted to each other, but I liked that their relationship was based on more substantial things from the start. Granted, the hero is attracted to Cordelia even though she frets that she isn’t THE most beautiful princess in her land, but even still you could see the reasons he fell for her beyond her beauty.

This is a brief read but Cellier still provides good worldbuilding and though the major conflict was resolved pretty briskly, I can’t fault her for that because, again, novella. I enjoyed this story and might check out the rest of the series. The only reason it isn’t a definite yes is because with seven siblings it’s likely a long series and I’m trying to stay on track with my reading challenges. But we shall see!

Review: History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Trigger Warning: Death of an adolescent

First book club book review of 2020!

January’s genre is Young Adult and we voted to read History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera. The story follows a 17-year-old young man, Griffin, as he recounts falling in love and breaking up with his longtime best friend Theo in the past, and grieving the sudden tragic loss of him in the present. Each chapter is broken up between History and Today until leaving us in the present at the end. It’s a story that captures many hallmark moments of growth including first love, coming of age, coming out, first experience with loss and heartbreak, and how you pick up the pieces after your world is shattered.

This book was a bit of a somber start to our book club for the year but it was very good. The author does an excellent job of depicting obsessive compulsive order in its beginning stages as Griffin begins to recognize signs of his compulsions and the anxiety that arises if he does hear or see things in evens or stays on the left of people. Throughout their relationship, Theo finds ways to make Griffin’s symptoms “quirks” which is a reaction many people have when their loved ones show signs of mental illness to normalize it or make it ok. What I appreciate is that the author shows the danger of doing this, including delaying treatment and a fear of being “boring” or “less special” if the symptoms are managed.

The author also does a good job of dropping little bits of foreshadowing in the history parts which are resonant and poignant for the reader who knows what is coming. I felt myself cringing away from reading the inevitable heartbreak, and reading on because I wanted to see how it would play out. There were also more twists than I anticipated. I expected it to be a pretty straightforward tale of loss and grief but the author captures the unpredictable ways people can respond to grief and love and other overwhelming emotions. There was one character I expected to hate, they were kind of set up as The Other Person, and I found myself siding with the protagonist because I’d read how he fell in love and how the loss of his first love was impacting him. But the character turned out to be just as flawed, just as much in pain, and just as sympathetic as the protagonist.

I wasn’t sure where the novel would leave me emotionally. Part of that was due to the tone shifting throughout as you go from the rose tinted past to the bleak, mournful present. It would have been easy and maybe even cathartic for the author to give the reader an epilogue or have things move at a pace where the pain has healed and the protagonist is doing ok without a shadow of a doubt. He also could have really embraced the pain of the loss and left the novel in a very depressing way. In the end I felt a little bit frustrated by the uncertain tone, torn between whether he was happy and it would be ok or if he would always be haunted by this loss and the choices made by him and Theo. But that is where he is at, and we all want our grief to be washed away by a montage of healing and growing, but that’s not how life works. And maybe the best praise I can give this book is that it did feel real. I almost forgot they were fictional because they sound and act in ways that are very human.

Review: Goldie Vance Vol #1 by Hope Larson

Trucking right along with the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge I read Goldie Vance Vol #1 for the “Read a mystery where a woman isn’t the victim” category.

Goldie Vance is a biracial teenager in the 1960s who works and lives at a hotel with her father. Her on paper job is valet but she works as hard as she can freelancing to support the on-site detective, Walter, in solving various crimes. She is helped by her friend, a receptionist and aspiring astronaut, and other acquaintances around the hotel.

Goldie reminded me of a blend of Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown, which is high praise. She takes risks and makes understandable mistakes but also works hard to take responsibility for them and come back out on top. I also appreciated that while she is biracial at a time in history when we are more comfortable depicting the racial tension in our society, her race is never disparaged or treated with disgust. Nor are the many other characters of color in the series which I also appreciated. Too often representation is “handled” by throwing in one non-white person and calling it a victory. In this graphic novel, Goldie is surrounded by people of color and it is incredibly refreshing. I want to be very clear that this is not some gold star moment where the author deserves a cookie for making this choice. This is just an author who is finally giving readers a more accurate look at the racial makeup of society which has always been more colorful than works set in the past, even the near past, tend to depict.

I really enjoyed reading Goldie Vance and am excited to read more of the volumes which are already out. If you enjoy intrepid girl sleuths and unusual settings, like hotels in Florida in the 60s, please give this a read! Volume 1 is currently available to read with Kindle Unlimited. If you don’t have Kindle Unlimited you can buy this graphic novel wherever graphic novels are sold.

Review: Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer

First review of 2020!

I read Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer to complete the first task in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, a nonfiction YA book. I have been interested in the Salem Witch Trials since I was a kid and I thoroughly enjoyed Schanzer’s presentation of the case.

The material is constructed thoroughly but written in prose that conjured up images of sitting around a campfire listening to scary stories. The book was also peppered with evocative illustrations that captured the terror and solemnity of the Salem Witch Trials, a choice that could have been hokey but actually worked to great effect.

I can see this book being a real asset in classrooms or for other morbid little children who are fascinated with tales of witchcraft and lies. It’s a good primer for them as they get older and read The Crucible and are made aware of the real terrors of the event, like mob mentality.

Also, the book is well cited which is just a little note I like to throw in because I love a well researched and cited piece of nonfiction. Both for plagiarism reasons and because it gives the reader plenty of options going forward if they want to continue reading about the topic.