Sylvia & Aki (CBR11 #16)

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Sometimes you read a book because you should. This is one of those books. I truly enjoy YA on the whole, but I have a tough time with Children’s or Middle Grades books. I can absolutely see their good qualities and how their intended audience would likely sink into them, but maybe I don’t enjoy them now because I didn’t read many of them when I was that age (I was a late reader and then I flew up to reading adult books in a few years).

But, there was a task on the Read Harder challenge and here we are.

I chose Sylvia & Aki because of its subjects – Japanese internment during WWII and the battle for educational equality. The book chronicles a true story, that of Aki’s family being forced to leave their home for the internment camps and Sylvia’s family who leases it. Conkling keeps the narrative accessible and her characters relatable, exactly as you would hope. It reads to my adult eyes as a bit preachy but maybe it wouldn’t sound that way to the 10-year-olds it is meant for. The book wraps up with an historically accurate happy ending and an afterword that explains the historical ramifications of the court case that Sylvia’s father filed to get her and her siblings into the local school instead of the barrio school and how it paved the way for Brown v Board of Education. It is a good book, but it is not unfortunately a book for me.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

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We Are Okay (CBR11 #15)

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I struggled with this book for quite a while. For reasons I now don’t remember I believed this book to be a graphic novel and had filed it as such as a different task for Read Harder challenge than I eventually recorded it under. Then, once I began reading it for what it truly was, I found myself struggling through the chapters. Marin the protagonist is in such a low place, and Nina LaCour writes it so well that I felt myself being pulled under as I was already feeling a bit out of sorts. There were a few times I thought I might DNF the book, but the writing itself kept pulling me back in.

The story in We Are Okay is one of immense grief. We join events in progress, Marin is waiting for Mabel to come visit her at college over winter break. Marin hasn’t spoken to Mabel in nearly five months and is living a sort of half-life. There was something terrible that happened, or perhaps several terrible somethings and we are reading to find out what they were. The novel works back and forth between the previous summer and this Christmas and we slowly piece together Marin’s truth as she becomes more and more ready to say the words, even to herself.

This novel unpacks what it means to discover someone has kept an enormous secret from you, and how life’s transitions can both change us drastically while also reaffirming exactly who we are.  Nina LaCour created astonishing characters and a deep story that absolutely earned its Printz Award. As long as you are in the headspace for it, I suggest this one mightily for those of us who read YA.

The Kiss Quotient (CBR 11 #14)

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The Kiss Quotient has been hanging out in my TBR since Malin’s review last June and I was excited to read it this year fulfilling tasks for both Read Harder Challenge and the Reading Women Challenge. I’m glad I read it in the early part of the year and didn’t put it off any longer, it was a quick fun read and while it wasn’t perfectly executed it was certainly better than average and quite good indeed for a debut.

I have a soft spot for books where the author has workshopped them and thanks their writers group in the acknowledgements. I also have a soft spot for a work where the author has an idea – in this case a gender swapped Pretty Woman – and just needs a spark of inspiration to make it work. For Hoang, it was a bit of self-discovery (a later in life Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis) that unlocks for her the way in which her female protagonist can reasonably hire an escort. Stella would like to be in a relationship but her personal rhythms have not allowed her to have a successful sexual interaction with a man, and she decides a professional will be able to teach her what she needs to know, down to writing her own checklists as lesson plans.

I loved Stella, I loved how clearly Hoang writes her voice and how easily she inserts the reader into her mind’s eye. The novel hands back point of view between Stella and Michael, and while I felt Hoang does a good job of making them distinct, and making Michael both a very typical male lead in a romance (tall, television star handsome, martial arts practitioner, a freaking 8 pack) and decidedly not typical (the aforementioned sex worker side job, a traditionally “feminine” field of work, half-Vietnamese). But the strengths are really in delivering a neurodiverse experience understandable to those not on the spectrum.

The plot turns on the successful sexual relationship of Stella and Michael, so there’s quite a bit in there, but it is also a story working through power dynamics, self-worth, and responsibility. There were some things that drove me a bit batty, and they were focused around my least favorite trope of all time, a central conflict that can be resolved with an honest conversation. But, Michael’s mother and grandmother make up for most of the nonsense his character inflicts on Stella and the reader.

Hoang’s next book also features a neurodiverse character, Michael’s cousin. I’m very interested in seeing how that one reads later this year.

Read Harder Task 13: a book by or about a person who identifies as neurodiverse (both)

Read Women Task 18: a romance

Gmorning, Gnight! Little Pep Talks for Me & You (CBR11 #13)

Those of you who have been reading my reviews for the past several years know that I have both depression and anxiety, and while I’m taking meds and seeing a therapist it doesn’t always mean that I’m necessarily feeling well. Often, I feel like shit. Like many, many people I use certain rituals to keep my head on straight and one of them when I’m feeling poorly is to go see what Lin-Manuel Miranda had tweeted for his Gmorning/Gnight tweets of the day. Other times I came across them in the wild, lurking in my feed waiting to pick me up, putting a little pep in my step, a little reassurance from my pocket that I was not alone in this big scary thing called life.

When it was announced last year that Miranda and Sun had teamed up to produce a curated collection of the “best” pairs from the past several years (seriously, he’s been tweeting these since at least 2014) I knew I needed to get my hands on it. Then, as life goes, I let it slip my mind vaguely knowing that there was an escape valve of Miranda’s Gmorning/Gnight tweets waiting for me when I needed them.

Well, I needed them.

NTE’s review was perfectly timed for me. Ah, yes, this is what I need right now.

It might feel simplistic, what can possible be conveyed in 140 (or 280) characters that is going to matter this much to people, to me? So much. Miranda writes these for himself as much as for those of us who read them (and Sun does a commendable job catching their essence in his illustrations) and they are little nuggets waiting to reassure, inspire, uplift, and keep you from feeling alone and defeated.

This one is my favorite, the one that makes me cry spontaneously every time:

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Jane Steele (CBR11 #12)

I am a big fan of Lyndsay Faye, but I couldn’t really pick up her 2016 work Jane Steele until now because I had not read Jane Eyre until late last year. While I’m sure you could read Jane Steele without reading Jane Eyre, I don’t know if you’d really see all that Faye is accomplishing in this work if you did. For that reason alone, I’m glad I waited. I love a quality retelling and Faye is absolutely delivering on that front. Jane Steele borrows the form and style of its predecessor and tells another story of a young woman attempting a life of her own, on her own terms.

While in Jane Eyre we see Jane become an individual and stand up for herself as a person worthy of whatever agency and independence she can carve out for herself, the Jane of Jane Steele is already confident and independent, but still fighting a sense of her own impending doom. Jane Steele is convinced from an early age that the only way to see her dead mother again is to commit a sin so great as to end up in Hell, and knowing herself capable of murder, she leans into this new persona. As her life progresses from child, to teenager, and onto early adulthood Jane falls back onto this skill set whenever a danger presents itself. This only covers the beginning third to half of the book, once Mr. Thornfield arrives in the book broadens its scope.

There is no woman locked in the attic in this book. The subtext of passion and sexuality in Jane Eyre become text in Jane Steele. The dearth of agency and independence that was possible and probable in the mid-1800s is still rife for discussion. This books is just flat out GOOD and I am having trouble finding the words to say exactly how good it is, so I’m going to stop trying after nearly two weeks of fighting with this review and just implore you to read the book.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Proposal (CBR11 #11)

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Almost exactly a year ago I read Jasmine Guillory’s debut The Wedding Date. It was charming, had great characters, a plot with meat on its bones, and sexy bassline. In my review of that book I wished for a follow up with supporting character Carlos, and Guillory must have had as much fun writing him as I did reading him because her second book is focused on Carlos.

The Proposal* picks up six months after the end of The Wedding Date. We immediately meet the novel’s other main character, Nik, as she is experiencing a truly horrifying moment. Her casual boyfriend of 5 months has just proposed to her via Jumbotron at an L.A. Dodgers game. She refuses, terrible boyfriend storms off, and before a camera crew can get to her Carlos and his sister swoop in and rescue Nik with the “hey I haven’t seen you in so long” trick that women use to help other women in distress.

For a book that starts this way it could easily have been a much more somber affair. Guillory includes the tough stuff – what happens when a break-up goes badly and you are afraid, what happens when a previous relationship has hurt you in emotional ways that you haven’t quite dealt with yet – but lets them inform her love story, not overtake it. Guillory seems intent on talking about real issues in her books and heading down the same feminist path of the truly great romance writers working now. This book is even more diverse in its characters, which is such a pleasure to read.

While this one could be accused of committing the crime of instalove (I don’t actually think so even though the timeline is rather short, I believe wholeheartedly in two people in their thirties accidentally falling head over heels in love with each other in two months) it handles its other trope, friends to lovers, so well that it erases any concerns you may have. It does have a small handful of faults, but this story of two people learning if they can love, and let themselves be loved, when they have both decided they won’t love is pretty great.

*I really hope Guillory keeps naming her books after romantic comedy movies. I think its great.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society.

99 Percent Mine (CBR11 #10)

99 Percent MineFirst, as someone who suggested The Hating Game to literally anyone requesting a romance recommendation in the past two and a half years I feel the need to send an apology out into the universe for Sally Thorne – I never wanted you to feel so much pressure for your next book. That being said, I’m so glad you were able to work through it and produce this, your sophomore outing. It is very worth the reader’s time and another example of the kind of contemporary romance I’m happy to read and extol its virtues.

99 Percent Mine is a friends to lovers romance. Darcy Barrett has travelled the world, and can categorically say that no one measures up to Tom Valeska, whose only flaw is that Darcy’s twin brother Jamie saw him first and claimed him as his best friend at age 8. When Darcy and Jamie inherit their grandmother’s tumble-down cottage they’re left with strict instructions to bring it back to its former glory and sell the property. Darcy has no intention of staying to see the project through, she’s working at the local biker bar to make enough money to finance her next trip overseas and away from her family, troubles, and her desire for Tom who remains off-limits – this time due to an engagement ring on another woman’s ring finger. But when Tom shows up to lead the renovation (and with her passport MIA) Darcy’s sticking around.

It may not be apparent from the plot summary, but this is a romance with some built in high stakes. Darcy has a heart condition that she hasn’t been taking care of and it informs her past with her brother and Tom as well as her present. Thorne writes frankly about navigating life with a chronic illness. The other high stakes item is Tom’s personal history that has led him to feeling the need to be perfect at all times to be accepted, to be good enough. Darcy is also struggling with some career issues, feeling as though she peaked at 20 when she won a photography prize and has since shuttered her wedding photography business after a truly terrible wedding shoot. She is carrying around a lingering sense of failure and having to settle for ‘good enough’ in her late 20s. These are themes that resonated for me.

Thorne delivers on characters with real weight and fleshed out backstory. It is also a similarly limited cast of characters, with the grand majority of the narrative taking place with just two characters, although this book does bring in a more side characters who are important to the plot moving forward as well as filling in character details for our main pair. This one isn’t quite The Hating Game, but it is still really quite good, AND FUNNY, even if the last chapter or two felt a little tonally off (but I am a fan of the epilogues!).

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society.