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: Snow White and the Seven Murders by Amorette Anderson

Trigger Warning: A character has cancer, repeated discussions about diets

The process getting to this book was a comedy of errors.

First, I was reading Enchanted which I DNF’d (Did Not Finish) because I just wasn’t feeling it. Then I thought ok, fairytale retelling, let’s do this, absolutely forgetting that I wasn’t reading Enchanted for a fairytale retelling. No, I was reading Enchanted to fulfill the “Frog” category of the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace which I decided to interpret as a “Frog Prince” retelling. I didn’t realize this until 30% into this short read and decided to just see it through. Hopefully the next review you’ll see here will be for “Frog” though I won’t lie, it’s hard for me to find one that interests me so far.

Snow White and the Seven Murders is a “romantic cozy novella” that takes the Snow White characters and story and gives it a modern twist. In this story, Sara White writes articles for the business column of a paper with her friend Cinda (yes, last name Rella). Her stepmother hates her because they both competed in a beauty contest and Sara took first. I don’t know if this means that her stepmother is around her age or if it was just a broad age range competition, the author leaves it up to the reader to decide. In any case, her stepmother made her life so difficult she chose to leave and move into a room rental at a cottage where seven older blue collar workers live.

Quick note: Would read a novella about Snow White and seven mature men who make a living with their hands. Just throwing that out there.

The novella is quickly paced but not so much that I felt like I was missing important information. Sara covers a story about the acquisition of a rare earth elements mine that has been bought by a new company, owned by the dashing and handsome Prince Amir Malick of Qu’abar. The company was up for sale because the owner died suddenly and as Sara does research she finds that all six rare earth element mines that have been snatched up by Prince Amir’s competition also died before being bought. She fears Prince Amir is in danger and senses that her business story is much bigger than it seems and pursues the clues.

As I said, I enjoyed the pacing of the story. It didn’t lag in any places and I felt that the reader touched on the major hallmarks of the Snow White story. I enjoyed the twist that Sara was the one saving the Prince. There was some stuff that felt a little confusing, like the beauty contest angle and the fact that Sara’s big secret that her stepmother threatens to expose is that she didn’t finish school so she doesn’t have a degree. This is only an issue because technically I think she’s not qualified to do the job she has at the paper and only has it because her dad is the editor. And while I understand that blackmail sucks, I have to admit all I could think was she genuinely wasn’t qualified so if she had to go back and get her degree that seems fair? Also in the end she’s offered a scholarship so clearly the news about her lack of degree comes out anyway.

The choice to make the Prince a person of color was well-intentioned but the language and choices around his characterization felt a little off. Sara stresses over how to pronounce his name which I somewhat understand because you don’t want to insult someone but also… Amir Malick is not hard to pronounce. That just felt a bit like unintentionally reinforcing the way white people view names that aren’t Germanic by going “ooh it’s so Different and Exotic how to pronounce??” Also she talks about how she expects he gets around via camel and holds a bunch of really unfortunate stereotypes about what she expects the Egyptian prince’s life to be like. I will warrant that maybe the author was trying to acknowledge these stereotypes most Western people have, and the prince does correct her, but it still rankled a little. Especially since she aspires to be a newspaper editor and you would think she might have an interest in familiarizing herself with global affairs. Also, and this is a small thing that I may be blowing out of proportion, he is described as a handsome Egyptian man with dark hair and “caramel skin” (not cool – do not describe people of color as foods) and then he takes off his sunglasses and he has striking blue eyes. And I know that no eye color is specific to one region or race, but we so rarely get appreciation and representation for brown eyed protagonists and it felt like a real missed opportunity to describe and appreciate eyes that aren’t the classic Princely Blue.

Another quite note about something that I felt was an odd choice that took me out of it a bit was Cinda’s consistent talk about the diets she’s on. When it starts she’s doing Paleo and somewhere in the middle she talks about possibly switching to another diet. It felt oddly out of place and inconsistent with the character. It might have just been done to help the reader really understand that these are Modern Women with Modern Women Issues but maybe let’s not have the main personality trait of a character be that she’s always on a diet. Maybe let’s leave that in the 90s.

Overall it was an alright read. I don’t feel compelled to keep reading in the series but I did like the twist on the classic story. Also the cover and descriptor of the novel as a romance felt a little bit mismatched. The characters definitely flirt with each other and share a kiss but the romance felt very second tier in importance. Granted that might have just been my bias reading it because I was more interested in the story and newspaper aspect of things. It was also a quick read so if you’re looking for something light and quick, this is probably a good choice.

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: Once Burned by Jeaniene Frost

Trigger Warning: References to a suicide attempt, depictions of torture

It’s the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace time again folks!

The first category for the embrace is “Abs, Abs, Abs, Dick!” which I interpreted as finding a book where the hero on the cover is all abs and a hint ‘o dick (aka it fades away but you Know he is naked). To fulfill this category I read Once Burned by Jeaniene Frost.

This read reminded me of why I love doing embraces/challenges/setting reading goals. I would never in a thousand years have read a book that had Vlad Tepes as the hero if it hadn’t fit the embrace description so perfectly. Dracula by Bram Stoker is one of my favorite novels and I have a longstanding anger towards depictions of him as a romantic figure and went into this book just trying to keep the two works separate, a tactic aided by the author’s own acknowledgement of that work and the hero’s derision for it because of how incorrectly it describes him. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Leila, or “Frankie”, works with some sideshow performers with her death defying gymnast acts. Also, she has a massive scar running down her face and arm and can electrocute people with her right hand and see people’s worst sins/past/sometimes future when she touches them. She’s had this power (no pun intended) since she was a young teen and got electrocuted. It’s basically a superhero origin story except the superhero is more of a Rogue from X-Men superhero in that she can’t not hurt people and it’s made her lead a very sheltered life. She lives with a dwarf vampire named Marty who has been her surrogate father due to her estranged relationship with her biological father and the fact that he can handle her occasional, accidental shocks better than humans. Everything in Leila’s life goes along about as normal as it can when acting as a carny and living with a vampire when she is kidnapped by other, much meaner vampires. These vampires force her to help them locate Vlad and once he is in her life, he doesn’t leave. He saves her from the kidnappers, takes her back to his home, and they begin to work together to track down who is trying to kill him. He also informs her that there is a connection between them (a Sexy connection) and he is correct.

A lot of this could have gone very wrong for me and somehow it never went there.

Frost makes a point of referencing the character being in her mid-twenties so even though there is clearly an age difference between Leila and Vlad, it wasn’t as squicky for me as it is when it’s a teenager. Also, Vlad’s actions never read as him being an Alphahole. He’s just a very old, very powerful vampire who genuinely does not have a connection with his humanity for the most part. He has no problem torturing people and is thoroughly confused and annoyed by her anger over it. He never lays a hand on her but he also isn’t lovesick and swayed by her pleas to be less vicious. In fact he establishes from the start that the word please means nothing to him. And this could have meant he ignored consent but this vampire overlord is actually very much about consent and does not do anything the heroine isn’t clearly, verbally, enthusiastically on board with. He never glamors her to seduce her. Hell, he barely seduces her. By the time they do anything she’s already decided that it’s going to happen and she’s up for it.

I also appreciate how the author did her best to portray Vlad as clearly being more powerful but not taking away Leila’s power or agency in the process. Also, Vlad has as romantic past and has had ex-girlfriends and lovers and Leila doesn’t get weirdly jealous about it. Leila has no sexual history but that makes sense based on her power and Vlad does make a gross comment about her virginity being a special gift but it’s just one sentence, not a consistent theme which it can be in some books. Vlad remains Vlad throughout the novel. He never suddenly becomes a new or “better” person, he doesn’t really soften a ton, and he never says I love you. The two characters are clearly having feelings for each other but there isn’t some emotionally fraught confession. His actions show his feelings for her in small but important ways and often in ways she doesn’t realize until she reads his mind.

Another thing that could have gone wrong but was handled well is that the characters can read each other’s minds/communicate telepathically. This is actually helpful in many cases and neither character really tries to abuse this. Vlad can just do it and can’t really help it but Leila is taught a way to block out people reading her mind if she wants that privacy so again she is given some agency without taking away Vlad’s abilities.

The sex scenes were… ok. Not bad! There was some terminology that took me out of them like reference to his “hot honey” and mentions of fangs grazing parts of the body I am not comfortable grazing but they were well paced and well placed in the novel.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book and will be continuing the series after I get a bit more of the challenges under my belt. If you enjoy powerful but non-asshole vampire lords and powerful, processing-her-trauma heroines, you will probably enjoy this book.

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.

Top Five Books of 2019

In no particular order:

  • Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • G’Morning, G’Night by Lin-Manuel Miranda
  • The Rose by Tiffany Reisz
  • Priest by Sierra Simone

 

Review: Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean

Trigger Warning: Discussion of child abuse, body image and weight talk that could be triggering for people who have a history of eating disorders

Guys this book blew my tits off it was so good. I am not even sure where to begin.

A basic premise: Hattie is a 29 year old spinster (because Victorian England) who has decided she will take charge of her future by getting control of her father’s company over her good for nothing brother and the first step towards that is ensuring she cannot marry. She goes to a brothel for ladies to be Ruined.

(Side Note: This book made me look at Ruination in a new light. I reject the sexist concept of a woman’s worth being tied to her virginity but also if a man I was attracted to told me he would gladly Ruin me I would perhaps die.)

Her plans are interrupted by finding a Tom Hardy type hero (aka Beast aka Whit aka Saviour aka bae) tied up in her carriage. Guys, if anyone is trying to get me a belated Christmas present, consider this wishlisted. It turns out he was tied up by her brother because her brother has been stealing from him and there’s a whole hullabaloo about revenge and fairness and reputation and Bareknuckle Bastards and yadda yadda yadda but what I care about is the tension between Hattie and Beast.

These characters are presented as clear equals from the jump. Hattie’s sexual inexperience is never used to infantilize her or give him the upper hand. They’re both smart, stubborn, and determined. They both have similar values and the conflict between them was understandable and I never felt like one of them was clearly right and the other wrong. The tension between them was so excellently written that it takes literally 70% of the book to pass before they have full, penetrative sex and I did not feel cheated or annoyed because the whole process getting there was still incredibly hot.

I didn’t yadda yadda past the plot because I was bored by it, I was actually able to read the whole thing on my trip home for Christmas. I just yadda’d because the heat between the characters hit me like a ton of bricks. I also all caps messaged a friend of mine to yell at her for not warning me that there is a scene where the hero asks the heroine to tie him to the mast of a ship and have her way with him.

Please read this book.