Patrick Ness: The Rest of Us Just Live Here

What if you aren’t the Chosen One?

The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?

What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again.

Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.

Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions…

So much of YA is the dramatic story about murder and tragedy among the popular kids. Vampires and werewolves and magic trolls in dungeons. This isn’t that story. This is something else, running parallel. This is the story of Emily the Background Slytherin and her friends (OMG KEVIN RUN). Those kids in the background who might actually do the assignments for graduation, whose lives go on no matter what might roam the halls or blow up the school.

But most importantly, this story is about a boy with OCD, a girl with an eating disorder, and  has both racial and LGBTQIA+ representation. Friends of mine who also have similar anxiety to mine insisted that I read this book ASAP because of the discussions that take place and I’m so glad they did. From start to finish, the OCD rep is just so incredible.

Mikey (I sort of cringe at this name because of those old cereal commercials) has severe anxiety/OCD–he gets into obsessive loops where if he doesn’t do a task exactly “right” something horrible will happen. Life becomes catastrophic inside those loops, getting worse and worse, and he becomes stuck.

Even though this is sort of a parody of YA fantasy, Ness does a wonderful job of blending his “Indie Kid” parallel with Mikey’s. The build up to the climax is so subtle that you hardly know it is coming–I sort of skimmed the chapter headings, but I thought they detracted from the actual story line, so I mostly just followed it through the main book.

I loved that Ness gives Mikey such a strong support system–his chosen family–instead of using the “hero comes to save him from his anxiety” trope. There’s a lot of talk about how one of his fears is that he is the least needed person, or no one would miss him if he were gone–I feel that SO HARD. And even though Mikey acknowledges at one point that he KNOWS he is lucky to have so many people who love him, to someone with anxiety, it’s so hard to convince ourselves that this is reality most of the time.

I could go on and on about everything that was amazing about the anxiety/OCD rep in this story. I want to quote the entire psychiatrist appointment to you. But, then you wouldn’t have to read the book, and I really think you probably should go read it. It’s going on my MUST READS list for sure, guys. So, yeah. Do it.

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Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Refugees

With the coruscating gaze that informed The Sympathizer, in The Refugees Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half-sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration.

This second piece of fiction by a major new voice in American letters, The Refugees is a beautifully written and sharply observed book about the aspirations of those who leave one country for another, and the relationships and desires for self-fulfillment that define our lives.

You know how I mentioned before that I took five books with me on the cruise? Wouldn’t you know it that I finished Dune at the airport with a 4 hour wait before our flight…and 3 hours left to go…and PACKED THE REST OF MY BOOKS IN MY CHECKED LUGGAGE!

Of course I did. Oops.

This is why airport planner people add bookstores. Because no matter how fancy our cellphones get–we still need books in airports. Luckily for me, The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen was 40% off! I’ve heard nothing but excellent things about this gorgeous cerulean new release, so it was no hard decision on what to grab from the shelf.

The Refugees is a collection of short stories, in the style of James Joyce or Colm Toibin–short snippets of life without a lot of context before or after. (Take that Joyce comparison with a grain of salt…I hate Joyce, but loved this. Style comparison, not author comparison.) Nguyen explores refugees of both country and soul. Every story features a Vietnamese character–while some characters have left Vietnam, others are returning–and all are experiencing some major upheaval in their life. It seems as if Nguyen doesn’t just mean “refugee” in the strict traveling sense, but also that the person is literally leaving one life for another.

Because this is a collection of short stories, know that there is no transition or connection between them besides the common refugee theme. They are written in first-person narrative, and to read them all back to back can sometimes be jarring to someone who doesn’t normally read this style. I am used to flowing right through chapters, so I probably should have read one story a day instead of doing this book all at once, to give myself a chance to separate each from the story before. That isn’t so much a flaw with the book, however, as with myself.

Regardless, I am thrilled with The Refugees, and if I could go back and choose a book from MCO, I’d still choose this one.

DiversityBingo2017:  Immigrant or Refugee MC

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Ashley Poston: Geekerella

Geek girl Elle Wittimer lives and breathes Starfield, the classic sci-fi series she grew up watching with her late father. So when she sees a cosplay contest for a new Starfield movie, she has to enter. The prize? An invitation to the ExcelsiCon Cosplay Ball, and a meet-and-greet with the actor slated to play Federation Prince Carmindor in the reboot. With savings from her gig at the Magic Pumpkin food truck (and her dad’s old costume), Elle’s determined to win…unless her stepsisters get there first.

Teen actor Darien Freeman used to live for cons—before he was famous. Now they’re nothing but autographs and awkward meet-and-greets. Playing Carmindor is all he’s ever wanted, but Starfield fandom has written him off as just another dumb heartthrob. As ExcelsiCon draws near, Darien feels more and more like a fake—until he meets a girl who shows him otherwise. But when she disappears at midnight, will he ever be able to find her again?

Part romance, part love letter to nerd culture, and all totally adorbs, Geekerella is a fairy tale for anyone who believes in the magic of fandom.

Who needs fluffy Doctor Who Cinderella fan fiction?

I NEED FLUFFY DOCTOR WHO CINDERELLA FAN FICTION.

YES I DO YES I DO.

This book is GLORIOUS, people. The story follows a fangirl blogger and the incoming lead on a sci-fi serial in a You’ve Got Mail sort of situational romance. It has all of the traditional Cinderella elements we know, but modernized and nerdified.

HOORAY FOR DIVERSE CHARACTERS! One of the leads is POC, and there’s also LGBTQIA+ people. It is a Cinderella story, so there is emotional abuse, but that is to be expected.

I read Geekerella in a matter of hours. Once you start this, you won’t put it down. It’s just the right amount of fluff and substance. And if you’re part of the world of geekdom, you’ll find this instantly relatable. And who can resist the bright purple cover?

NetGalley and Quirk Books provided this ARC for unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Michelle Moran: Cleopatra’s Daughter

At the dawn of the Roman Empire, when tyranny ruled, a daughter of Egypt and a son of Rome found each other…

Selene’s legendary parents are gone. Her country taken, she has been brought to the city of Rome in chains, with only her twin brother, Alexander, to remind her of home and all she once had.

Living under the watchful eyes of the ruling family, Selene and her brother must quickly learn how to be Roman – and how to be useful to Caesar. She puts her artistry to work, in the hope of staying alive and being allowed to return to Egypt. Before long, however, she is distracted by the young and handsome heir to the empire…

When the elusive ‘Red Eagle’ starts calling for the end of slavery, Selene and Alexander are in grave danger. Will this mysterious figure bring their liberation, or their demise?

I’ve previously read and enjoyed two of Michelle Moran’s historical fictions, and after the last one I added most of her collection to my Goodreads. Her stories are so rich and detailed that I feel I’ve been transported right into the ancients. Granted, they aren’t perfect–and they are very fictional–but extremely fun to read. And you get a fantastic look at the world from a woman’s view at the famous people we hear about in history, which were typically men.

Cleopatra’s Daughter shows us what Rome looked like during Octavian’s rule from Kleopatra Selene’s perspective. She is terrified when forced to leave Alexandria after her mother and father commit suicide, and her world is thus turned upside down. Through her eyes we see war and gladiator battles and slave riots and court judgment–everything Rome is famous for, but from an outsider looking on horrified.

There are a couple things to look out for. There are a few mentions of rape, especially when it comes to the female slaves. And speaking of slavery, there is a multitude of it. The attitudes are mixed–some are for, some are against. There’s a revolt happening and a rebel is trying to stage an uprising in the Senate to free them–there are some interesting conversations happening, but I’m not sure as much care was spent on those sensitive conversations as could have been. The biggest problem I noticed was that blue eyes/blonde hair was the MOST BEAUTIFUL AND COVETED ALWAYS–even though the Romans had conquered Gaul and taken them as slaves. The Romans still had a preference for those blue eyes and that blonde hair–it was mentioned at least every other chapter.

It isn’t the most problematic book I’ve ever read–just some things to be aware of while you’re reading. Keep your eyes open. Selene is not a woman I could ever say I want to be. But it was certainly fascinating being in her shoes for a few hundred pages.

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Melissa Febos: Abandon Me

In her critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart, Melissa Febos laid bare the intimate world of the professional dominatrix, turning an honest examination of her life into a lyrical study of power, desire, and fulfillment.

In her dazzling Abandon Me, Febos captures the intense bonds of love and the need for connection — with family, lovers, and oneself. First, her birth father, who left her with only an inheritance of addiction and Native American blood, its meaning a mystery. As Febos tentatively reconnects, she sees how both these lineages manifest in her own life, marked by compulsion and an instinct for self-erasure. Meanwhile, she remains closely tied to the sea captain who raised her, his parenting ardent but intermittent as his work took him away for months at a time. Woven throughout is the hypnotic story of an all-consuming, long-distance love affair with a woman, marked equally by worship and withdrawal. In visceral, erotic prose, Febos captures their mutual abandonment to passion and obsession — and the terror and exhilaration of losing herself in another.

At once a fearlessly vulnerable memoir and an incisive investigation of art, love, and identity, Abandon Me draws on childhood stories, religion, psychology, mythology, popular culture, and the intimacies of one writer’s life to reveal intellectual and emotional truths that feel startlingly universal.

How do I know a book deserves an automatic five-star rating? When I have eight pages of quotes in my journal. EIGHT.

I could have copied this whole book down and still needed to go back and copy it all again. Melissa Febos’ prose is FLAWLESS. God. It’s so beautiful that I can not find a single thing to criticize.

It is also DRIPPING with sex.

In fact, most of the negative reviews on Goodreads say something like “Why does this book have to be so sexual?” Um, guys, you picked a book by dominatrix…did you expect something G rated?

This isn’t so much about her time as a sex worker–that’s another book–but about every other loaded section of her life. As she puts it:

“I am Puerto Rican, but not really. Indian, but not really. Gay, but not really. Adopted, but not really.”

The memoir’s story follows her abusive relationship with a married woman and her constant struggle to escape it. She details her addiction to self-harm, then alcohol, then drugs, and then love–all in an effort to gain control over her own body. We get to know, some along with her, the heartbreakingly damaged people in her life.

But the most important point of this book is how she teaches us of the incredible psychological trauma of the Indigenous Peoples of America. At one point, she has a conversation with her agent about how no one wants to read about Native Americans, that she should write something more akin to her dominatrix book, something about her–urban and edgy. So she does just that with this book–writing her love story, but still managing to weave in Native American history in every stop that is made, and let us know just how that genocide and erasure has affected the people we have tried so hard to push down.

Prove that agent wrong. Order this book immediately, guys. It’s sexy, it’s beautiful, it’s IMPORTANT. There are LGBTQIA+ and Native and POC people everywhere in this. And you know, that agent is right about one thing–we don’t see too many Native American authors–but that shouldn’t mean a lack of wanting them published. We need more stories like this, and we can start with Melissa Fabos. GO ORDER THIS BOOK, YA’LL.

NetGalley and Bloomsbury provided this ARC for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Zadie Smith: Swing Time

Two brown girls dream of being dancers–but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, about what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from northwest London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.

I feel a bit like I’ve missed some critical piece of this book somewhere. I got to the end and even though I felt as if this was agonizing at times…I’m thinking, “That’s it? What was the point? Did I miss it?”

Swing Time is written as a series of flash forwards and flash backs, so the timeline jumps all over the place–from London to West Africa–telling the story of two biracial girls from childhood to their tumultuous adulthood. Yes, you did read that right, TWO BIRACIAL MAIN CHARACTERS, each with their own unique perspective and personality. There’s also a gay man and bisexual woman. It had so much diversity and promise. And Zadie Smith does do a marvelous job of showing the huge variety of privilege that there is in the world:  white privilege and the privilege of the wealthy and first world privilege. Our main character is so incredibly naive, even with her activist mother.

The backbones of the book were there. I found myself nodding along with a lot of it, marking down quotes, googling things that I needed to reference or read later. But unfortunately, the actual plotline didn’t hold up to Smith’s incredible prose, and that is the disappointment. I still don’t understand the connection between Tracey’s story and Aimee’s, or what actually happened with Aimee at the end. It’s almost as if this book is SO DEEP, that the plotline just dissolved into the message–such a weird feeling.

If you were looking forward to reading Swing Time, I’d say still read it. The message alone is worth it. And maybe you’ll pull more out of the plot than I did–if you understand the ending, please tell me, because I’m utterly confused. Any Zadie Smith fans out there that can help me out?

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Malinda Lo: Huntress

Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance.

To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Tanlili, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls’ destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.

How funny that I read Of Fire and Stars, and then IMMEDIATELY read another F/F book right after? That was not planned AT ALL! I had Huntress out from the library in an effort to read more POC authors, but I didn’t know it also had LGBTQIA+ characters. What a nice surprise!

I fell into this book right away. I was a little afraid that starting a fantasy right after fantasy would be redundant–sometimes I have to spread them out a bit–but no, this was wonderful. The world building in Huntress takes off right away, and it’s mystical and both lush and soft at the same time. I really appreciated the pronunciation guide at the beginning, too, and made sure to study it before diving in.

As for the romance, it is both steamy and modest. There are no explicit scenes, and certain things are left to the reader’s interpretation and imagination. I can’t really tell you why because, spoilers, but I sort of preferred it that way in this context. Also, if it allows this book to get into the hands of younger LGBTQIA+ teens, then I am ALL for it.

There were a few scenes that I felt were a tad rushed, or maybe should have been left for a next book. I kept thinking that the book would end and sequel time! …but then it kept going… Those hesitations/cliff drops were a little strange. But overall I loved this story and now I need to go pick up Ash as soon as possible.

DiversityBingo2017: LGBTQIA+ MC Of Color

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Audrey Coulthurst: Of Fire and Stars

This review is a tiny bit spoilery, but if you know anything about the book at all, then they aren’t anything you haven’t already heard.

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine—called Mare—the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.

December was my very first OwlCrate, and I was PUMPED. I’d been wanting to try it out for awhile, and not only did they run a Black Friday discount, they ALSO made December’s theme EPIC. It included all of our fave fantasy franchises:  Harry Potter, LOTR, Game of Thrones. I couldn’t pass it up. The box was made even MORE amazing by including a romance about two princesses who fall in love. FISTPUMP!

The story itself is beautiful:  Denna travels to her new country, expecting to meet the prince she has been contracted to marry. The two countries are preparing for war, and everything is unstable. There is a group of magical rebels trying to siphon the power from the land. Denna’s soon to be sister-in-law hatches a plan to obtain information about these rebels, and along the way they fall in love.

I have mixed feelings about this book, and from looking at the reviews, I wasn’t the only one. Many people were disappointed.

But first, the good. THIS IS A WORLD WHERE GAY PEOPLE ARE ACCEPTED. Duty, class–that is important–but F/F or M/M is not a problem. It is referred to without shame or judgment. Mare is even bisexual and that seems to be a normal thing. Cheating is unacceptable, betrayal is unacceptable, and you are expected to stick to your rank. But you can sleep with whatever gender you please.

I saw a few people commenting that the girls fought hard not to share their feelings with each other, but in my opinion, it seemed that had more to do with their duty than shame. Denna felt she couldn’t back down from her promise to Thandi, and Mare saw that and didn’t think Denna felt the same way about her.

It’s the first fantasy novel I have read where this is the case. I think it’s the first novel altogether with F/F main characters. We need more books like these, for certain, and I’m happy to see one in a popular book box like OwlCrate.

I do need to make one comment about worldbuilding in fantasy novels, Of Fire and Stars included. It always seems like the good guys/MCs live in lands with temperate climates and have allies with mountainous lands with snow, or visa versa. But the bad guys are almost always from the desert, and shady characters have some kind of vague accent. This is a very problematic trope because it mimics the prejudices in our real life. We make judgments about the characters based on actual stereotypes–and I am beginning to find that lazy.

For the most part, I would call this book delightful. I enjoyed reading it, and anyone who likes a love story about princesses probably will too. Just be aware that it’s a little problematic where worlds are concerned. I do hope Coulthurst writes more fantasy–I’m interested to see what she does next.

DiversityBingo2017: Free Choice

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Zoraida Córdova: Labyrinth Lost

Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

I fall to my knees. Shattered glass, melted candles and the outline of scorched feathers are all that surround me. Every single person who was in my house – my entire family — is gone.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange markings on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

Beautiful Creatures meets Daughter of Smoke and Bone with an infusion of Latin American tradition in this highly original fantasy adventure.

I’ve seen this book EVERYWHERE lately–it’s touted as the MUST READ for 2016. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why! A multiracial, bisexual main character who is also a witch? YES PLEASE.

There’s no skirting around that bisexuality, either. There are two love interests, though one is certainly stronger than the other, and Alex’s sexuality is never in question. It’s completely normalized and it’s WONDERFUL. More of this please!

The world of Los Lagos is incredibly beautiful–fans of Alice in Wonderland are going to find this book familiar, except instead of a bland British background you’ll see a vibrant canvas reminiscent of Day of the Dead celebrations and Afro-Caribbean influences.  Cordova’s worldbuilding is as magical as the magic of the brujas, which is interwoven through families, and blessed by the gods.

I only have one real criticism of this book. More than once, Alex refers to Nova as having “bipolar eyes.” What do “bipolar eyes” look like? That is not an acceptable descriptor, even if you WERE speaking about someone with a mental illness–and nowhere in the rest of the book, that I could find, is Nova described as having Bipolar Disorder. It shocked me that in a book as amazingly diverse as this, that such a harmful word choice was used.

Aside from that issue, though, I loved the book. Is it enough for me to tell you not to read it? No, definitely not. Labyrinth Lost is an incredible story with incredible diversity. Teens should be able to see this much bisexual representation is EVERY popular YA novel. But it was enough of an issue for me to keep it from my 5 book dragon list MUST READ list. I hope she leaves that descriptor out of the sequel.

DiversityBingo2017:  OV Latinx MC

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Lesléa Newman: October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard

A masterful poetic exploration of the impact of Matthew Shepard’s murder on the world.

On the night of October 6, 1998, a gay twenty-one-year-old college student named Matthew Shepard was lured from a Wyoming bar by two young men, savagely beaten, tied to a remote fence, and left to die. Gay Awareness Week was beginning at the University of Wyoming, and the keynote speaker was Lesléa Newman, discussing her book Heather Has Two Mommies. Shaken, the author addressed the large audience that gathered, but she remained haunted by Matthew’s murder. October Mourning, a novel in verse, is her deeply felt response to the events of that tragic day. Using her poetic imagination, the author creates fictitious monologues from various points of view, including the fence Matthew was tied to, the stars that watched over him, the deer that kept him company, and Matthew himself. More than a decade later, this stunning cycle of sixty-eight poems serves as an illumination for readers too young to remember, and as a powerful, enduring tribute to Matthew Shepard’s life.

It’s official. This book has broken me. I knew when I picked it up that it would be sad but WOW I did not know that I would cry all the way through it.

I was 12 when Matthew Shepard was killed in a horrific hate crime in Wyoming. I vaguely remember it but until college it really didn’t register with me what had actually happened. I remember now, the anniversary being celebrated on campus and hearing the story. It was my first real understanding of what a hate crime was–outside of the history books, I mean. These things still happen? What kind of world did I live in? Back then the world seemed so big, but so much gentler. I never could have imagined a 2016 like we’ve had.

Newman took the stories and testimonies from the town of Laramie and turned them into a heart wrenching book of poetry. In it, she allows us to witness Matthew Shepard’s last night, and the following days of grief. She honors his memory by showing us just how bright his light was, and just how cruelly it was darkened.

A book like this is going to be hurtful to some people, so protect your heart if you need to. I can’t label this a MUST READ because it could be extremely triggering. But for those who can read it, read it as a way to bring awareness to the terrifying life of being LGBTQIA+ and being out. Hate crimes are an all too real thing in this world, and getting worse. We need this message shared until every LGBTQIA+ person is safe to live without fear of violence.

If you are LGBTQIA+ and need to talk to someone, please reach out to The Trevor Project. They are there for you 24/7. 866-488-7386.

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