Thursday, November 26, 2015

Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz

I am not sure what I just read. And I don't mean that in a literal sense, because in that sense, I totally understand what I just read: GENA/FINN is about two young women who are both fangirls of a buddy cop show "Up Below" (reminiscent of Supernatural in terms of the dynamic of the two heroes and the effusiveness of its fanbase). They meet over the message boards and form a friendship that maybe, possibly becomes less-than-platonic. Like I said, I get it.

No, what confused me was the execution of this idea, especially in the last 1/3 of the book, and some of the executive decisions that were made about the girls' sexuality. And, above all, why that ending? Seriously, why that ending? I do not understand.

So...regarding the story-telling itself, I thought it felt very natural and organic (at least until that last 1/3). Normally, I'm not a fan of stories told in mixed media, especially not in emails and instant messaging and blog posts. It feels a little too high school. Like: "Oh my God, we are on AIM! We are such adults for figuring this out! Now let's talk shit and get into shenanigans!" But it worked here. I liked Gena's blog posts and fan fiction excerpts, especially. I really liked her voice, and her enthusiasm. She seemed like somebody who I might want to be friends with, myself. So it was easy to see why Finn, with her problems, wanted to reach out to someone like that and connect.

(Note: some spoilers are going to follow from here on out. Nothing too major, I don't think, although I am going to be discussing the ending, because that was one of my peeves.)

Gena is an eighteen-year-old girl who goes to a prestigious and exclusive boarding school, and is in the process of applying to colleges. Her relationships mostly consist of one-night stands, and when the boys get persistent, she starts being nasty to them for being too clingy. She has some mental health issues, and they come into play later on in the story (that damning last 1/3 I keep referring to, actually). Finn, on the other hand, has already graduated, and applying to (and getting rejected by) menial jobs in order to make ends meet. She lives with her boyfriend of several years, and they're practically engaged (which Finn feels highly ambivalent about). Both girls love "Up Below."

I couldn't decide how I felt about GENA/FINN, so I decided to sleep on it...literally. The last 1/3 bothered me a lot, for many, many reasons. There was a shift in tone, which took the fun, natural feel of the first 2/3 of the book away and left GENA/FINN feeling much darker and angsty. That annoyed me. Gena doesn't narrate as much anymore, suddenly, and when she does, it's "woe is me" misery poetry from the school of Ellen Hopkins. I don't like Ellen Hopkins, or Finn (who pretty much took over the narrative at that point), so that annoyed me. Finn decides that she just can't handle being in love with two people, and compensates for that by lying, hiding things from her fiance and Gena, taking plane flights to stay with Gena in her dorm (which I don't think most colleges would even allow--God knows, mine wouldn't) while she tries to figure out her feelings. Then she strings both of them along, while whining about how "she didn't do anything wrong" and how "she wants both of them, why won't anyone understand"? Oh, people understand. That's called emotional cheating, you bitch, and you're taking advantage of two people because you're too selfish to make a choice.

So yeah, that annoyed me, too.

I was also frustrated by the authors' choice to use Gena's tragedy as a way to get Finn back into Gena's life. While Gena is vulnerable and "woe is me", Finn takes on all of Gena's emotional and medical burdens, even though she is not really financially equipped to handle it. Rather than asking, "What are you doing? We can't afford this? Sorry, babe, but she has to go back to her real family," Charlie, who has been the voice of reason until this point, says absolutely nothing, and, instead, seems to find Gena incredibly endearing despite the fact that she was almost responsible for Finn leaving him. Maybe he thought that if he was mean to Gena, he would have pushed Finn away further, but I can't really imagine anyone reacting the way that he did in this situation, especially given how upset and hurt he was when Finn did other, similarly thoughtless things earlier on.

Finally, I was frustrated by the ending. Despite Gena neglecting her own health and suffering a massive breakdown, and despite Finn doing whatever the hell it was that she wanted, and never mind who got hurt, both girls get a happily-ever-after platonic friendship that ends in your typical heteronormative way, with Finn deciding that she's going to marry her husband after all, and Gena (it is implied) going back to her own strung-along male love interest, who's been there for her all along. This would not have upset me, except that GENA/FINN is being marketed as "LGBT" and I saw the author herself commenting that this is about bisexual women. I love that there are more diverse books out there, but at the same time, it is a little frustrating that a book claiming to be about bisexuality would end in a way that could be interpreted as a redemption arc, with the women realizing that relationships with other women only lead to tragedy, and it's much better to be with men, instead.

I'm not saying that I think that's what the authors were going for here, but it is disappointing nonetheless. I almost wish that Charlie hadn't been included at all (because I really hate cheating in romance novels; it makes it almost impossible for me to root for the couple, unless the person that they're cheating on is a totally emotionally or physically abusive cad), because he was a nice guy and genuinely seemed to care about Finn, and, later on, Gena, and it made me sad to see Finn treat him the way he did. I also really loved Gena, and I was sad to see her character take the plunge that it did towards the end. Why must mental illness always be portrayed as this big, dramatic thing?

Despite all of my reservations, I really did enjoy GENA/FINN and I think the authors did a decent job writing it, especially in the first 2/3 of the book, but it did have a lot of problems and odd plot choices that kept it from getting a higher rating by me. I'll be interested to see what other people think when the book comes out in April.

P.S. This is being marketed as young adult, but it really should be categorized as "new adult" in my opinion, since the ages of the characters are late teens and early twenties, and they deal with a lot of issues that might be difficult for younger teens to fully conceptualize (like rent payments, living on your own, and health insurance).

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Echo Gear by Vincent Sammy

ECHO GEAR was painfully short, and to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. At twenty-something pages, it's mostly a stitched-together compendium of poetry (good poetry, but often jarring), random narrative, some epistolary passages, and one crossword puzzle.

I liked the art style, but it was never really clear from the passages what was going on. An octopus in one passage, a rusted boat with a woman looking sadly on at a man standing in the foreground, a woman who commits suicide over a man who may not have died after all....? There was nothing to tie these passages together except for a shared sense of gloominess and despair.

When I read graphic novels, I'm not just looking at the art work or style, I'm also looking at the dialogue, the storytelling, and the plot. Maybe if ECHO GEAR had been more cohesive, it would have gotten a higher rating by me, but as it stands, I found the graphic novel sorely--and disappointingly--lacking.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

I'm sitting here cackling a bit over how good this fantasy novel was. Fantasy is a tricky genre, and traditionally the genre has been dominated by older white men who rehash the same tired tropes from Tolkien and table-top D&D. There are only so many times that you can read about wandering groups of elves and clerics who ride about on horseback, rescuing silly women-folk and fighting A Great Evil before you start to feel slightly abashed.

THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS is about a girl named YEINE, who is brought from her barbarian village to the kingdom of Sky, which is ruled by the ruthless and Machiavellian Arameri. Half-Arameri, Yeine's grandfather, Dekarta, brought her to the kingdom to name her as heiress: something that shocks Yeine, because there was no lost love between her mother & grandfather.

What follows is a cutthroat game of thrones. Her cousins, Relad and especially Scimina, are less than pleased with Yeine contesting their power. Yeine is made to feel like a country bumpkin over and over again, her distaste at the ruthlessness of her new court testing her mettle again and again. And yet, despite this, she is never portrayed as weak. She is not a heroine who is above killing if amply motivated.

The best thing about this book, which kept me turning the pages well into the night, are the gods. The mythology incorporated in here is nothing especially new or novel, but Jemisin embraces it and makes it her own, and infuses the characters with such personality and depth that you can't help but empathize with them. Nahadoth, Sieh, Zakkarah, and Kurue are all incredibly powerful beings who were forced into human vessels by their brother, Itempas, the god of light, and are now forced to act as djinn for the humans' amusement, being their slaves and granting wishes, acting as weapons.

Yeine ends up becoming infatuated with Nahadoth, Itempas's brother, the god of darkness. His imprisonment has brought him close to madness, and falling in love with him could mean death, but since Yeine might be earmarked for death anyway, she begins to think it could be worth it.

THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS is highly reminiscent of POISON STUDY in terms of how edgy and gritty it is. I think POISON STUDY is a bit better, because sometimes Yeine's narrative, which is told in the first person, gets a bit too flashy and pretentious. The author got a bit too artistic with paragraph breaks and purple prose (especially with those sex scenes--yikes!) and sometimes it works against the story's favor. But it was an addicting read, with really good world-building. I enjoyed watching Yeine unravel the lies of everyone around her as she struggled to find out who really murdered her mother. My heart ached as Yeine struggled to come to terms with her impending mortality and seemingly inevitable death. I loved the fact that the gods were not heterosexual, and that their relationships with the opposite sex were just as layered and complex as their heteronormative equivalents. I really appreciated seeing sexuality displayed with such fluidity; you don't see that too often in books, and Jemisin did a good job.

I know the ending made a lot of people angry, and I can understand why, since another fantasy author I read recently did the exact same thing. I wasn't pleased when the latter author did it, but it seemed to work here. Maybe because Jemisin had been alluding to the event the whole time and I had time to prepare for and accept it, I guess. But it worked for me, even if it seemed too neat. I checked this book out from my library and it looks like they only have the first book! Now I have to figure out how I'm going to get my hands on the rest of the series. Excuse me, while I scheme...

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Soundless by Richelle Mead

Let me start by saying that Richelle Mead is one of my favorite authors. I've come to associate her with sexual tension, inventive world building, and snappy dialogue. I've read her Vampire Academy, Age of X, and Dark Swan series, and all of them were amazing in their own way, and guaranteed Mead a spot on my elusive "auto-buy" list. Naturally, when I found out that she had a new book out inspired by Chinese folklore--with an actual Asian, non-whitewashed character on the front--I scrambled to get my hands on a copy. How could this be anything but good?

Oh, boy...

If you printed out the first chapter and gave it to me to read without telling me the title or the author of the book, I would not think it was Mead. I would not even think it was a traditionally published author's work. I would think it was bad indie fantasy.

Why? The characters are flat. One-dimensional. There's a lot of telling, instead of showing. The main character repeats herself a lot, with things always affecting her heart in some way. Whenever she feels something, anything, she always comes up with a crappy metaphor to tell us how her heart is feeling. The world building was not layered at all, and seemed rather hastily stitched together in order to provide a backdrop for the story that the reader would find "exotic."

And I have to tell you, the blurb "breathtaking new fantasy steeped in Chinese folklore" makes me cringe, because the only things this book has in common with Chinese folklore are Chinese names, calligraphy, and these things called pixius that are basically lion dragons. That's about as Chinese as orange chicken. I don't know what these people were thinking than they wrote that.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Fei lives in a village in the mountains where everyone is deaf. They are governed by a rigid caste system--supplier, miner, artist--with artists being the best, and miners being the worst. Which is confusing, because there's also servants and cleaners and things like that, so where do they fit in to all this? I did not think that this was explained very well.

Fei is an artist, and therefore a member of the elite, but even so, she still goes hungry. Her village receives food shipments from an elusive magistrate-type dude in exchange for the metal shipments that they produce from their mines. You would think that because miners are basically in charge of making sure that their economy continues to flourish, they would receive respect, but no--they get the smallest rations out of everyone, and are ruthlessly shamed by the village.

If you think that this caste system might cause some forbidden romance, you would be right! Ding, ding, ding! Even though Fei is supposed to marry Zheng, she still has feelings for her childhood mining friend, Li Wei, who is, of course a miner. (And does it help that mining has given him all these totally hot muscles? But of course. Although you need protein to build up muscles, so you would think that he would be more lean and wiry than buff and sexy, but that might make sense.)

One day, Fei regains her hearing and suddenly, the book verges into GIVER territory, as she struggles to make sense of the changes to her world. Her little sister starts to go blind and can't be an artist anymore and Fei struggles to save her from becoming a miner (oh noooo! end of the world, that!). More stuff happens. She and Li Wei get it into their heads to go talk to the men who are in charge of their food shipments, to plead for mercy and bigger rations, but the journey is arduous, and has never been attempted because the deaf villagers would not hear the falling rocks on the perilous cliff side and would be knocked to their deaths (wouldn't they feel the vibrations? I mean, I feel like their other senses would be stronger from being deaf, but again, this would make sense and therefore is never really touched upon in the book).

Fei and Li Wei eventually discover a terrible secret about their village, and the deafness, and then suffer through the whole existential, "should we save the world, or indulge in our adolescent teen love affair?" thing that's so vogue these days. There's a climax, some deus ex machinas that literally fall from the sky, and then an ending that makes me think that this book's standalone status is probably a lie.

Personally, I thought the plot was very dull. This book suffers from LOTR syndrome, in the sense that there's a whole lot of wandering around and talking, talking, talking, instead of action. The action, when it does come, tends to be over very quickly and conveniently. 

I didn't buy into the relationship between Fei and Li Wei. There's actually some really uncomfortable moments, like her fetishizing him when he's screaming after his father dies (she talks about how beautiful and terrible his screams are; okay, then, Ms. Hannibal, but do you also hear the lambs?); she talks about how beautiful he looks in his mourning wear when he's at his father's funeral; and then when they get all battered and bloody from the cliff scaling and she needs to fix up his bloodied clothes, she admires his (bruised and bloodied) muscles, because ooooh, he's so beautiful! I can't help but feel that if the genders were reversed here, there would be a lot of complaints about how creepy and inappropriate this is. Well, it is still creepy and inappropriate...and pointless!

Then, when the characters end up meeting a white person at one point, they totally lose their shit over it, because OMG SHE'S SO MUCH PRETTIER THAN WE ARE.

Her hair is equally incredible, the color of sunlight, and her green eyes sparkle. I've never seen features like that, not in our village of dark hair and eyes. Some sort of red paint makes her lips shine, and a dusting of powder gives her skin a fair, delicate hue.


Beside her, I feel small, dirty, and plain (103).

She's not even a relevant character (at least not in this "standalone" novel which may or may not be the first book in the series), so this paragraph is completely pointless. Even Li Wei, who is reportedly Team Fei, drools a little while looking at her. If that's not white-washing, folks, I don't know what is.

I did actually like the twist with the mining at the end of the book, for what it's worth.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Year We Fell Down by Sarina Bowen

Some people say that after a life-threatening event, they learn to enjoy life more. That they stop taking everything for granted.

Sometimes I felt like punching those people (5%). 

My luck with new adult fiction has been spotty at best. Still; once in a while, I am pleasantly surprised. This book came highly recommended to me by several reviewers I trust, so when it showed up for free on Amazon, I said, "Why the fuck not? Let's go for it! Bring it ooooooooon."

This turned out to be a very wise decision.

THE YEAR WE FELL DOWN is about Corey Callahan and Adam Hartley and their burgeoning romance as they go from friends to lovers. After a hockey-related injury that leaves her paralyzed from the waist down, Corey has to readjust to living life in a wheelchair. Bowen really goes into gritty detail with this--having to deal with people saying things like "shake a leg" or "step right up"; physical therapy sessions; the necessity of handicap-friendly transportation, wheelchair ramps, and elevators; and things like catheters and whether sex is possible.

Adam is her neighbor from across the hall and it's pretty much attraction at first sight as far as Corey is concerned. He also has problems walking, but his situation is much more temporary: after fooling around while drunk on the ice, he ended up breaking his leg in two places and now has to be on crutches while wearing a cast, pre-surgery. Adam and Corey bond first over their shared frustration with being partially incapacitated, and then, later, over hockey, video games, and being down to earth in a school filled with rich kids. The only problem is that Adam is seeing one of these rich kids, a jet-setting girl named Stacia, who's gorgeous and wealthy--

And, of course, has the use of both her legs.

I actually really liked this story a lot more than I thought I would, but there were still a number of things that bothered me. Firstly, there was a lot of needless slut-shaming. Several times, Corey makes derisive remarks about "puck bunnies" or girls who like the idea of dating hockey players but not the actual sport.

"Just don't expect me to squeal like a puck bunny when you take the ice. And I'm not wearing a tight-fitting jersey with your number on it" (80%).

I couldn't help but find this insulting, since, being a girl who has absolutely zero interest in sports, this is probably how I would show support for someone who I was dating if they participated in one. THE YEAR WE FELL also tended to portray these sexualized women in a very negative light, implying that they were inferior for making use of their looks and sexuality to date the players.

Secondly, Corey has a "hope fairy" that is remarkably similar to Anastasia Steele's "inner goddess" from FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. The first time this happened, I blinked, thinking it was an odd metaphor, but trying to roll with it. When I realized it was a recurring descriptor, and that the hope fairy was going to be anthropomorphized, I did a big eye roll, followed by a facepalm.

My hope fairy reappeared, wearing black lace lingerie, and a pout on her face (46%).

My hope fairy, dressed in a bikini, did a quick little cheer with silver pom poms (62%).

The hope fairy flung herself face down on the desk and then proceeded to beat her tiny fists on the surface in frustration (66%).

Thirdly, I really didn't like how Adam treated Corey. Even though he's attracted to Stacia, he takes advantage of Corey's feelings. For her birthday, he gives her a vibrator and tells her to figure out if she can bring herself to orgasm! Um, that's totally inappropriate. A bit later, after his girlfriend comes back from her trip abroad, she ends up staying out late with friends instead of coming home to Adam, so he goes over to Corey's dorm with a bottle of champagne. They drink it all, and then, inebriated, Adam decides that he's going to help Corey figure out how much sensation she has below the waist. They engage in mutual masturbation. While drunk. And he's in a relationship! Um, what???

Eventually Adam does do the right thing, but I really hated Adam for doing that to Corey and Stacia. I thought he was terrible, and could never really bring myself to like him as much after that. Plus, he and Stacia have this weird arrangement where he lets her sleep around with whomever she wants when she travels. I don't understand this? That didn't seem very realistic to me. Who agrees to that?

The female friendships in this book are good, though. I loved Corey's relationships with Dana and Allison, and thought they were very supportive and well done. I also liked the sports references; they weren't technical enough that a non-sporty person like me would be totally lost, and really conveyed a sense of loss on Corey's part. Honestly, my heart ached for her. She was a wonderful character who had terrible things happen, and was realistically depressed at times but still chose to persevere.

Even though THE YEAR WE FELL DOWN had problems, it really was a good story and I read it in a single sitting while snuggled up in bed and trying not to cough out my entire lung. If you're looking for a new adult book with actual body to it, and decently fleshed out characters, this would be a good place to start. Even though I wasn't a fan of Bridger, I'm definitely considering picking up book two.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Hold Me Close by Megan Hart

Effie and Heath were kidnapped and held in a basement by a sick man. This man drugged and poisoned them both repeatedly, and forced Heath to have sex with much older women. Down there, in the dark, drugged and abused, they clung to each other, and forged a deep and twisted connection that lasted to adulthood.

Both Effie and Heath like rough sex, and if it hurts, so much the better. They are addicted to each other, and yet deep down, Effie is afraid that being with Heath like this is keeping her from moving on from what happened in her life. She's paranoid, especially when it comes to food, and doesn't trust anything she hasn't prepared herself causing many to think that she's anorexic.

Effie's mother still treats her with kid gloves, because she feels responsible for what happened, and Effie holds her accountable for that too (at least partially). Effie's also having a side affair with the cop who found her down in that basement, and she's been sleeping him since long before she was of consenting age. Their relationship is twisted as well.

With all this going on, you wouldn't think that Effie would have much of a normal life. But she does. She paints paintings people shell out thousands of dollars for (most of which relate to her time in the basement in some way). She has a little girl, Polly, who has to deal with the gossip about her mother in school, but somehow manages to be popular in spite of that. She goes to Mommy Margarita nights and tries an internet dating site to find a normal partner--and yet...none of that works.

She needs closure.

One thing I really like about Megan Hart's works--and I'm sure I've said this before--is that she tries to be original and edgy. Reading this was like reading Gillian Flynn's DARK PLACES if it were written by Jodi Picoult, with dashes of Jaycee Dugard and Michelle Knight. I'm not actually a fan of Jodi Picoult, so that isn't a compliment. In fact, the Lifetime drama was one of the things that put me off this book. I'm not saying that I don't like a character with issues, but I do think that sometimes these issues can be portrayed in a very melodramatic, soap opera-y way, and that was done here.

In fact, HOLD ME CLOSE, because of its multiple converging timelines, reads like two books smooshed together. There's the story about two children trapped, like flowers in a basement (see what I did there). Then there's the story about the two fucked up adults who aren't so good at adulting. I don't think it was an entirely successful mesh. Also, Effie really annoyed me as a character with the way she strung along all the men in her life. I get why she did it, because she was damaged and had trust issues, but it just didn't really make me happy. Especially since she had double standards about it: she thought that she could sleep around but Heath had to wait for her chastely in the wings.

I still think Hart's earlier books are better, but this was a vast improvement over the last two.

P.S. The author put Halestorm on her book playlist! <3 Lzzy Hale!

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

If Gillian Flynn writes it, I will read it.

This book has what is possibly one of the best first lines in a book ever.

Our female protagonist has given over 20,000 hand-jobs. She works at an establishment that has Tarot/crystal ball consultations in the front room, and soft-core sex work in the back. Because the owner of the establishment likes her, and because her carpal tunnel syndrome makes her sound like a cement mixer when she's jacking people off, she gets promoted to working in the front, as a psychic.

And that's when the trouble starts.

Enter Susan Burke, a woman who is troubled about her family, specifically her step-son. She wants our protagonist to come to her house and do a spiritual cleansing because she thinks it's haunted.

One thing you have to know about Gillian Flynn is that she is a master at writing female antiheroes. You get all these wonderfully psychotic or disturbed or troubled women who don't fit the mold of a typical heroine. Gillian Flynn is also the Queen of twists. She'll take you by the hand, tell you she's taking you to the bathroom, don't worry, and then leaves you in an oubliette full of cobras.

I guess if I have one complaint about THE GROWNUP, it's that it's too damn short! I've been waiting for years for another Flynn novel, and this is all I get? This is a morsel. Instead of tiding me over, it has given me a craving for more...more...MORE!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars.