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Review #44: Fiction

First to Read #3

The Winters by Lisa Gabriele

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For the most part, this is a highly enjoyable book. It is equal parts romance, thriller, and suspense, though falls short by having small sparks of each, but never going fully in on any one of these.

The story we’re following is of a young woman (we never get her name, which becomes more and more annoying as it’s specifically mentioned several times throughout that she is either happy or irritated when people pronounce it correctly or incorrectly) who meets a widower in the Cayman Islands while working for a tourist boat company. They have a very quick romance – so quick that it never really feels believable. Their relationship is very one-dimensional and a lot of the plot relies on the believability of their relationship. This lack of chemistry between the two characters (Max Winter and our unnamed protagonist) weakens the book.

Max spirits her away to be married and the new head of his extravagant home – Asherley – on Long Island, and to be a stepmother to his teenage daughter, Dani. Dani is the spitting image of her deceased mother, and behaves toward our protagonist as we would expect a teenager to receive a new mother less than two years after her passing. Though, unchecked, Dani begins to go above and beyond normal rebellious behavior, and soon becomes someone to be feared.

The protagonist (I am also annoyed by having to write ‘protagonist’ rather than a character’s name; it was a weird and bad choice by author and editor to move forward with an unnamed protag) gets closer and closer to Max, thinks she’s making strides with Dani, but time and again finds herself on the receiving end of cruel jokes. As these pranks unfold, Dani becomes more unstable, Max becomes more exasperated, the protagonist begins to learn more and more about the secrets Asherley keeps, the truth behind the death of the first Mrs. Winter, and whether or not she’ll meet the same fate.

To get the thriller elements, Gabriele gives us a lot of unsettling moments, creates a truly scary character in Dani, and keeps us asking questions nearly throughout. She uses a lot of misdirection, and red herrings to try to turn the reader’s attention away from putting the pieces together. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work well enough, and before the protagonist figures it all out, most readers will have already deduced the final twist. This leaves around 30 pages of the book where readers will be left waiting for her to catch up.

In the end, there’s not much to be surprised by, and some ill-advised elements (the protagonist’s lack of name, the random addition of a grandmother in Cuba the protagonist doesn’t mention until the very end of the book, the lack of believable romance) weaken what could be a chilling story about family secrets. Dani is the best written character in the book, and definitely moves the story along in ways the protagonist just can’t when she’s not even given a name, is very loosely fleshed out, and finds herself embroiled in this family soap opera based on a foundation-less romance.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I received access to an e-copy of this book for this review.

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When Katie Met Casside

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Review #43: Fiction

First to Read #2

When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

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This was, for the most part, a really fun read. It’s a classic meetcute style romance, told from both Katie’s and Cassidy’s perspectives, adding some much needed LGBTQ+ voices and stories to the genre.

I loved Cassidy as a character. She’s really fleshed out and I felt like I knew her and really related to her, maybe a bit more than Katie. Katie is a well-rounded character, with a lot of relatable qualities, and I’m sure many readers are able to see themselves or someone they know in Katie, which goes a long way for character development and audience engagement. However, I felt like Katie was a bit generic, very cookie-cutter in some ways. She’s a pretty, blonde, blue eyed southern belle that moved to New York for a taste of the big city and success. Though Perri does try to set her apart, giving her a real job that takes real brains and ambition and we’re told that Katie isn’t like the typical southern girl…she still feels like it. But because of Cassidy, and her character’s depth and layers, Katie is held up in the relationship and the story. Together, Cassidy and Katie work in a way Katie alone would not. Their love story is a fun one to read and watch unfold, to root for, and to worry about when the inevitable turbulence comes.

My only grievance with this book is Katie’s back story. At the start of the book, she has just been dumped by her fiancé for another woman. Very, very recently — only a weekend before meeting Cassidy in a meeting between her company and Cassidy’s. Obviously until this point, Katie is a straight woman, and meeting Cassidy after her break up makes her question that, and eventually she and Cassidy get together. Katie never really confirms she is a lesbian, but simply says that she doesn’t know if she likes women, but she likes Cassidy. This confusion is actually understandable and one of the more real aspects of Katie as a character. My irritation comes from Katie having been wronged by a man, VERY recently, and then meeting a woman and starting a lesbian relationship.

On the surface this isn’t so bad, but it tends to feel like Katie’s story perpetuates the concept that lesbians hate men, are just women who have been hurt by men, and therefore, in response to a man forsaking them, swear off men forever. It’s as if, had a man not burned Katie, she would never have “become” a lesbian. She also reexamines the female friendships in her life, wondering why she felt so possessive of them, why she loved them so much, and decides that maybe she had romantically loved them subconsciously and was then jealous of them when they entered relationships with men. This, again, perpetuates a negative stereotype of gay women, promoting the idea that gay women cannot have platonic relationships with women — they must be in love with them, want them sexually, they cannot be just friends.

Katie, a women in her late 20s, is also completely clueless about sex, and not just sex between two women. She is written as a wholesome, innocent, southern woman, but it’s mind boggling that a women in her late 20s, who has been in New York for years, and was engaged to be married, was completely blindsided by sex toys and books with sex tips, and, honestly, had no inkling of what might go on in the bedroom between two women. She had no understanding of her own wants, or needs, or sexual desires, her likes or dislikes. For a book written in present day, maybe I’m being optimistic, but I don’t find a nearly 30-year-old woman with no sexual knowledge whatsoever to be believable.

Cassidy, on the other hand, is brilliantly written. I wanted to be her, I wanted to be with her, I wanted to know her. She’s so relatable, so real. I feel like I know several Cassidy’s and that Cassidy is part me. Her struggle with settling down, her confusion about being with a “straight” girl, her walls and defense mechanisms, and her backstory explaining it all is pure perfection in character development. More so than Katie, Cassidy grows as a person through this story. She truly knows herself and makes positive changes because Katie enters her life. She recognizes her faults, she addresses her insecurities, she peels off her layers and lets love in, and I was cheering for her start to finish. Cassidy embodies the idea of loving the skin you’re in, being unapologetically yourself, for you and for no one else. She was who she was, you like it or you don’t. She has not hidden agenda, she just knows who she is and in the end, could not be more proud.

Even with my few issues with Katie as a character, the love story that Perri writes for her and Cassidy is cute, playful, turbulent, and in the general sense, real. It was so refreshing to see an LGBTQ+ love story that showcases a character questioning her sexuality and finding herself and highlights different ideas of femininity and masculinity.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I received access to an e-copy of this book for this review.

The Pisces

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Review #42: Fiction

First to Read #1

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

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If you haven’t read Melissa Broder before, you may be shocked (pleasantly or not) by the blunt, crass, in-your-face honesty of her writing. If you’re familiar, you will recognize her voice in The Pisces instantly. Broder is a master at telling it like it is and throwing two middle fingers up at sugarcoating. Just as she has done with her non-fiction writing, Broder leaps into fiction with a reality that is both uncomfortable and refreshing. She refrains from polishing the harsh edges of the world, of people, and doesn’t give in to the fantastical – even in a story involving a merman.

The Pisces, as it turns out, is not about a woman who meets a merman and falls in love. It is instead about a woman who is severely addicted to love and sex and has very destructive intimacy issues. Lucy loses herself in the company of men, she runs from commitment when boredom sets in, then becomes nearly suicidal without a romantic partner. She’s completely self-destructive, feels almost no guilt when her actions negatively affect others, and is constantly using love to rationalize her bad behavior. Lucy enters therapy after a bad break up, while watching her sister’s house and dog in California. Though mostly Lucy silently judges the other women in her group therapy, there are moments when she sees herself in them, and for brief periods of time, realizes she is a mess and actually in need of help. Though another man will come into the picture, or an old one will pop back up, and eventually Lucy loses control and spirals, leaving nothing but ruin in her wake. It is no different when the man is a merman.

One of Broder’s biggest accomplishments with her writing is that she has this ability to make it seem as if she reached inside your head and pulled the words out. It feels so intimate that you want to turn away, give the characters their privacy, but like a car crash, you can’t help but stare. It feels as if Broder has created her characters with pieces of you. Each woman in Lucy’s group therapy, Lucy included, could be you, a version of you. There are fragments of relatability in them. The hard part is that they are not good fragments. It is the hard truths about ourselves that we see in these women, in Lucy, and just like Lucy, we subconsciously judge them for the very things we dislike about ourselves.

Claire and Lucy are arguably the two most destructive and problematic characters, and I found relatable ideas and behaviors in both of them. Ironically, it was these same ideas and behaviors I disliked them for. Lucy and Claire seem to dislike each other for these things as well. Lucy spends a lot of time thinking about how messed up Claire is, but also how she feels as if she is judging herself when judging Claire, and so avoids it. She feels Claire does the same thing. By encouraging and not demonizing Lucy’s behavior, Claire is allowing herself to be just as bad if not worse. They see themselves in each other, just as we see ourselves in them. Broder uses her characters as mirrors, of each other, and of her readers, and probably, herself.

Though the characters are wonderfully crafted and painfully, brilliantly, flawed, the story itself doesn’t feel complete. Lucy fluctuates between destructive behavior and determination to change. She goes from man to man trying to feel better. She slips into states of depression and euphoria. Other women in her group therapy do the exact same; each woman has a break through then a setback then a break through then a setback. Though this is very much how therapy and recovery actually is, perhaps this isn’t the best for the book. The merman is merely another man in the story, another escape for Lucy, another excuse to do unspeakably terrible things. When the book comes to a close, it seems like Lucy may have finally broken her pattern and will turn things around, but we never know. The book ends before we actually see any real progress. And in the end, her (possibly) final straw in letting go of toxic men and toxic routines is caused when Lucy doesn’t feel special enough. She finds out her relationship with the merman is one he’s had with other women before her, and she cannot handle not being special. It’s selfish and childish, and though she leaves that situation claiming to have finally realized she needs to get her life together and has a few ideas about how she can move on, none of it comes to fruition in the book. We have no reason to believe Lucy has really changed. In fact, since Lucy is the only source we have concerning the merman, there’s even the chance he never existed, and Lucy is far sicker than we know.

Broder’s voice is unique and clear and unmistakable in The Pisces. She delivers the kind of uncomfortable characters and situations that reality is made up of. The Pisces feels like an extension of author and reader. However, the story falls flat, it’s very static, slightly predictable, and seems a little like the 200+ page equivalent to walking in place.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I received access to an e-copy of this book for this review.

How Democracies Die

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Review #41: Non-Fiction

Blogging for Books #13

How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky

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How Democracies Die is fast-paced and gripping, throwing history at you, analyzing current world governments, and contemplating the future state of world governments with an emphasis on America’s democracy at just the right speed to keep even non-political junkies hooked. It’s very easy to assume that this book is a Trump-bashing tome, but it’s an honest critique of current politics in America, with evidence from governments around the world through decades of struggle with democracy. And it’s a much shorter read than it looks (there’s an extensive Notes section that has successfully added dozens of books to my TBR, so thanks.)

Ziblatt and Levitsky give us just the facts, ma’am — and for anyone who is legitimately concerned about democracy, citizens’ involvement in government, the use of checks and balances, the US constitution — the facts point to democracy in America failing, and being increasingly jeopardized by a Donald Trump presidency. They build a very compelling case, one that does not place the weight of the destabilizing of America’s democracy squarely on Trump’s shoulders. Example after example of fluctuation governments in South America, in Europe, in Africa, etc., show how democracies have risen and fallen, and discuss the events that led up to those points.

What Ziblatt and Levitsky do is point out how each destabilizing event around the world can be related to something in past or recent American history. They pull no punches when calling out American politicians for straying from democratic behavior; they go back to Washington, discuss Lincoln, Nixon, and up through how Donald Trump was elected…and what could happen in the coming years if democratic norms are not restored. They weave an at once fascinating and terrifying story of the birth and weakening of America’s democracy, give us three possible outcomes of the Trump presidency, and thankfully leave us with optimism that there is still time to correct our path.

True believers in democracy will read How Democracies Die with a lump in their throat and finish it with a fire in their belly to make things right. Unfortunately, those who merely believe in their political party, regardless of how that party may be undermining the tenants of democracy, will probably write the book off as an attack on one party, one figure in particular, and may not get what they should out of this warning. Ziblatt and Levitsky have raised the alarm, and we would all do well to respond to it.

5 out of 5 stars

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The Merry Spinster

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Review #40: Fiction

The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg

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This collection of stories will feel at once familiar and darkly, deliciously fresh.

Though fairytales and fables, these stories carry such a refreshing air of reality. They drip with a dark, sinister unpredictability that flows through our real lives. Ortberg forces the reader to see each retelling and re-imagination through a new lens, one that refocuses the otherworldly and fantastic as real. Remove the preconceived idea that mermaids aren’t real, that animals don’t talk or interact with each other in friendships, or that little boys don’t turn into swans; what do their lives look like? They are as complex and flawed as our own. And they can be similarly heartbreaking and cruel.

With every story, we are given a new glimpse into worlds and situations we thought we already knew. Readers will feel the heart-string tugs of the stories that inspired this collection, nostalgia working to convince us that we know how each story ends. But Ortberg rewrites the script, opening our narrow perceptions to something more – cruel realities of these fairytales we’ve come to love. What may be expected to tarnish the memory of beloved fairytales and fables ultimately elevates them, allowing these stories to grow and mature with the audience.

Ortberg does not shy away from the harsh and unfair or unsavory elements of life, and allows these aspects to shine in this collection. She has given us our favorite stories, with an honest, relatable tone that is unencumbered by preconceived notions of a “happily ever after” ending. We, and our stories, are better for it.

4 out of 5 stars

*Cover image from Amazon

 

Otherworld

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Review #38 Fiction

Blogging for Books #12

Otherworld by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

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This book caught my eye based on so many connections people were making to Ready Player One, which I adore, so I couldn’t pass this one up when the chance to read and review came my way. I’ll say that if you also find yourself reading this book based on your interest in RPO, there are many similarities, so you’ll probably like this one.

My main interest in RPO was the 80s pop culture and nostalgia, which is something that Otherworld lacks. This is not a love letter to the videogames or movies or music of the 80s, but it is a really interesting look into the future of videogames, and virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Segel and Miller create a not-too-distant future where VR is taking over the real world, creating a world that people never want to leave – which becomes part of the problem.

Segel and Miller pull in other virtual reality troupes we’ve seen before – dying in the game could kill you in real life, an evil corporation (creatively* called “The Company”) putting profits over people’s lives, parallels made to a “Quest” or “The One” coming to save the world. The Company is a semi-faceless organization, we are given a few of the higher ups and some of the low level pawns in the overall scheme, but essentially, it’s a large, overarching nemesis that feels impossible to beat. Some of these low level people believe they are doing the right thing, they believe the Company will use its technology to help people, to make progress in quality of life, but are in the end naïve to the desire for power and money.

Otherworld begins a unique conversation about artificial intelligence, and what it could be someday. Segel and Miller create VR filled with AI that is so advanced, it’s nearly human. These entities exist only in Otherworld, but they have their own wants, and needs, and experience their own pain. This brings up so many questions about AI and what is ethical, concepts of God-like creation, and what existing truly means. Are these entities “alive,” does Otherworld belong to them? They live and breathe and breed in this world – does that not make Otherworld their own reality? And who decides? This concept, and these questions, is really what make Otherworld different from other videogame stories. Segel and Miller take VR to a new level and spark some deep and difficult ideas.

Throughout there is some really good action. The story builds and ends with a few realizations, gun fights and fleeing, and ends on enough of a cliffhanger to set up sequels. A few loose ends are left dangling – who runs the Company? How can they be stopped? After some of the breakthroughs with the technology, are they not just more invested in their goal now? And how far are they willing to go to reach them? Segel and Miller definitely pique an interest in reading further.

With any VR story, the world building is extremely important. Segel and Miller do a decent job of creating and describing Otherworld. We have to understand various aspects of the VR in order to follow our main characters through the world and understand all the creatures they come in contact with. Unfortunately, they do a lot of bouncing around in Otherworld; it becomes a bit hard to keep up. At times it’s difficult to understand where the characters are, who is in charge of the territory they are in (these are entities that naturally exist in Otherworld – the Children and the Elementals), what vice the territory provides (each seems to speak to a vice that people cannot partake in in reality – sex, drugs, gluttony, murder, etc.), and how they got there/how they move on. Though many things within Otherworld are fleshed out, many more questions exist. Some of the stops in each territory are long and detailed – we understand why our characters are here and what they will get out of the journey – others are short and feel thrown in without much thought which really hurts the flow of the story.

Overall, I think the time and attention to detail in a VR universe was successful, the characters were interesting and had a report that kept the story moving through dialogue and action, and the concepts surrounding AI were fascinating and left me asking even bigger and deeper questions. Otherworld is a strong start to this series.

*Please note the sarcasm.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Cover art from Amazon.com

**I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

The Invisible Library

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Review #37 Fiction

Blogging for Books #11

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

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The premise of this book had me from the get go. It just jumped out as something that encompassed so many of the things I enjoy about reading: fantasy, adventure, literature, mystery, romance, escapism. And all of those things come through in Genevieve Cogman’s first installment of the Invisible Library novels. If you enjoy Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, The Librarian/ The Librarians, or V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, you will be pulled headfirst into Cogman’s world.

Irene works for a mysterious library. Tasked with finding a dangerous book from an alternate London, Irene must take a new library recruit, Kai, on his first field mission. Their mission becomes beyond complicated when they arrive to find the book has already been stolen by a deadly underground society. Along with the threat of a legendary enemy of the library, Irene and Kai may not make it out of the chaos-infested London with the book, much less alive.

Cogman weaves an intricate tale filled with an eclectic cast of mythical and fantastic characters, including werewolves, vampires, fae, and dragons. There’s an element of steampunk just light enough to mingle with the classic detective narrative and make something fresh and funky. The alternate London that the story inhabits is beautifully rendered by Cogman, incorporating the dark and gloomy, foggy, cobble-stoned streets and the air of mystery surrounding the city.

Throughout, we’re taken on a bumpy Great Detective story, with twists and turns that shock the reader as much as Irene and her cohorts. Though this case is eventually solved, we’re left with a bit of cliffhanger, a whetted palate, wondering just what Alberich (a notorious Library enemy) is up to, how the Library came to be, and how Irene fits into the puzzle.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Cover art from Amazon.com
*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.