Book Review: The Book of Etta

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Image: Goodreads

Rating: 5 out of 5

Last year I dubbed Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife as my favorite read of 2016, so it’s no surprise that I was super psyched to read its sequel. The second novel in The Road to Nowhere series takes place a century after the time of the original midwife, and it was a thrill to experience how this world has changed.

The book features Etta, who feels stifled by the glorification of women after the plague decimated most of the female population. In a dystopic world where women are scarce, the residents of the city called Nowhere have decided that the only roles worth valuing are mothers and midwives. After all, keeping the human race from going extinct is a top priority.

Etta prefers to contribute to society in a different way, by raiding nearby cities for much-needed supplies and saving women and children from sex slavery. This has always been a man’s job, but Etta has always felt more comfortable as Eddy, her identity on the road.

Initially, Etta considers Eddy as more of a means of survival, but as their journey merges, the gender binary fades away. Elison deftly portrays the struggle of a black trans man who has experienced sexual trauma and must balance his feminine and masculine natures within societies that define these natures differently.

It was so interesting to compare Eddy to the original midwife, because although their strengths are similar, they are derived from unique ideologies. Eddy has a great heart, but his rigid dichotomy of good vs. evil is often at odds in situations with plenty of grey area. These ethical dilemmas raise several thoughtful questions, like whether negotiating with sex slavers is a form of enablement or protection.

And if you’re like me who has little experience with trans literary characters (recommendations are welcome!), this novel is inclusive without being heavy-handed. In fact, it’s refreshing that Eddy himself does not have all the answers to gender identity and even has a poor knee-jerk reaction when a trans female love interest comes out to him. The reader’s mind widens as Eddy’s does, making him a wonderfully flawed, relatable protagonist.

I consider Meg Elison a good colleague and friend of mine, so I may be biased when I say that her novel has everything you could want in a post-apocalyptic tale: diverse, multi-dimensional characters, amazing world-building and a level of suspense that rises to an explosive climax.

When Eddy marches on Estiel (formerly St. Louis) to take on the Lion, the tyrannical leader of the sex slavers who keeps lions and tigers as pets, in order to save his loved ones, I couldn’t read fast enough. Those last 100 pages flew by, and I literally gasped at every twist and turn.

All in all, this is a phenomenal sequel that lives up to its predecessor, and I cannot wait for the next installment. I’m calling it now — get on this bandwagon immediately, because I imagine that The Road to Nowhere will lead to somewhere special.

Book Review: My Not So Perfect Life

Rating: 5 out of 5

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Image: Goodreads

Every time I read another Sophie Kinsella novel, I think that she can’t possibly get any better, and then she simply does. And what’s even more amazing than her writing is the journey it took to hone her craft.

Before she was the pseudonymous author of the bestselling Shopaholic series, she was known as Madeleine Wickham.

If that name doesn’t ring any bells, that’s probably for the best. Wickham is the writer of 40 Love, one of the lowest rated novels on Goodreads.

But over 20 years after the publication of that flop, Kinsella is now considered the queen of chick lit. Her latest novel My Not So Perfect Life tells the story of Katie Brenner, a young marketing professional from the English countryside just trying to make it in London and live up to her Instagram feed.

While her social media posts feature fancy meals and luxe locations, her real life is much bleaker with an entry-level salary, tiny apartment, and eccentric roommates. And just when she thinks she might be getting a big break at work, she’s fired by her uber-posh boss who can’t even remember her name.

Tucking her tail between her legs, she returns to her hometown to help her family launch a glamping resort and nurse her bruised ego. That is, until Demeter books a reservation and doesn’t recognize her own staff in farmgirl clothes. What’s a burned employee to do?

What starts off as a juicy revenge tale morphs into something with much more substance. There are humor and romance, of course, but there’s also insightful commentary on  Millennial social issues, like the fear of missing out and the urge to present your ideal self online.

As someone who left a rural town to navigate a marketing career in the big city, this book was especially relatable. If you’ve ever been frustrated by professional setbacks or envious of seemingly more successful colleagues, this story is a great reminder that everyone is struggling in some way. As the cliche goes, don’t compare your behind-the-scenes to someone else’s highlight reel!

I highly recommend My Not So Perfect Life as the oh-so-perfect lighthearted read. If you love it and want to check out more of Sophie Kinsella’s hits, read my reviews of Wedding Night and I’ve Got Your Number.

Book Review: Red Rising

15839976Rating: 2 out of 5

It saddens me when a close friend of mine recommends a book to me, and I can’t enjoy it no matter how hard I try. And believe me, I tried.

In this case, I was not only given Red Rising as a Christmas gift, but also the entire dystopian trilogy by Pierce Brown, and let’s just say that I’m not looking forward to the sequels.

As a fan of dystopia and science fiction, I was optimistic about this novel at first, but the longer I read, the more I realized that it was a cardboard cutout of The Hunger Games on Mars.

(Not that the setting even mattered. Other than a few references to gravity, this story was just another tired war tale.)

If eye-rolling was a sport, I’d win an Olympic medal reading this drivel. It’s difficult to tally all my complaints about Red Rising, so instead of trying to create full paragraphs around them, let me just list the reasons why I couldn’t stand this novel.

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  • A trite caste system based on colors, of all things. Golds are the best, Reds are angry, and Pinks are sex workers. Ho-hum, yawn.
  • Speaking of originality, all the Gold children are divided into houses based on Greco-Roman mythological figures. Because why bother with the hassles of world-building when you can just copy and paste?
  • The so-called protagonist, Darrow, is the best miner—sorry, Helldiver—there ever was. How do we know this? Don’t worry, he tells us five billion times.
  • Helldiver is just one of countless nonsense words that Brown invents to sound cool. The jargon isn’t describing anything new, so it’s yet another distraction.
  • The misogyny and homophobia in this book abound. The only way these outer space frat bros can ridicule each other is by using pejorative terms for women or gay men, because femininity is the worst of all sins apparently.
  • As for the actual female characters, they all fall into these categories: martyr, love interest, backstabber or whore. The only one who can be considered “strong” is called Mustang, because it’s better to be associated with horses than women.
  • Darrow is the absolute worst. Imagine if Ender from Ender’s Game wasn’t a bullied genius who just needed a few lessons in empathy, but rather a straight-up pompous asshole? I so wished that this book wasn’t in first-person present, because being in that narcissistic head of his made me want to blow my own brains out.

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Okay, I’m going to stop there, because although I could rant for pages, it would only make me grumpier. If I could put a positive spin on this, it’s that if a piece of utter crap like Red Rising can get published, then my writing certainly can too!

Has anyone else read Red Rising? For a bestseller with its own upcoming movie franchise, I’m curious to hear whether my opinion is unpopular or right on point among fellow book bloggers. Share your thoughts in the comments!

Book Review: The Runaway Princess

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Image: Goodreads

Rating: 3 out of 5

When the world seems to be falling apart, it’s natural to attempt to run away from it all. For me, my escape takes the form of light-hearted chick-lit about outlandish situations and love that’s too good to be true.

Hester Browne’s The Runaway Princess doesn’t compare to her other novels, like The Little Lady Agency series and Honeymoon Hotel, but it’s a nice break from reality.

It tells the story of Amy Wilde, a gardener from a small town just trying to expand her business. When she meets Leo, a handsome man at a party who’s interested in her work, she considers him merely as a potential client.

She never imagined that he’d be Leopold Wolfsburg, prince of the fictional kingdom of Nirona and one of Europe’s most eligible royals. When their professional relationship turns romantic, she is quickly thrust into the spotlight.

Faced with paparazzi invading her privacy and strangers insulting her online, she becomes overwhelmed by the consequences of overnight fame. As their whirlwind romance propels her closer to the chapel, she must decide whether love is worth sacrificing her and her family’s well-being.

The premise of this novel was interesting, and I enjoyed the dynamics between Amy and Leo’s swarmy brother and conniving sister. For the most part, the secondary characters were well-developed and showed dimensionality, which is often missing from love stories.

But most importantly, I appreciated Amy’s strong sense of self and her dedication to her family, roommate and job regardless of her potential princess status. She makes sure to speak up when her boyfriend tries fixing problems by throwing money around and refuses to live as a kept woman. Amy is certainly not one to be swept off her feet, and her groundedness is downright refreshing.

However, at over 400 pages, The Runaway Princess is too long for its genre, and it drags in places. I was also annoyed that it attempted to heighten drama by unnecessarily withholding information: the reason behind the disappearance of Amy’s troubled sister, for example, wasn’t nearly shocking enough to warrant such mystery.

Although this wasn’t Browne’s best work, it succeeded in briefly distracting me from the clusterfuck of this new presidency. Let’s just say that it’s horrifying when it feels like 1984, not 2017. Make dystopias fiction again!

Book Review: Fangirl

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Image: Goodreads

Rating: 3 out of 5

What’s worse? Not liking a book that everybody loves by an author you’ve never read before, or by an author you already respect? I’ve experienced both circumstances this past year, and the latter is far more disappointing.

After falling in love with Eleanor & Park, I knew that I had to read more from beloved author Rainbow Rowell. Fangirl seemed like another slam dunk: a coming-of-age story about an introverted writer of fanfiction, something that’s right up my alley. But the more I kept reading, the more I realized: great premise, terrible execution.

Let’s the discuss the fanfiction first. I’m no stranger to the genre; in fact, I read a ton of fanfics in high school, usually about Harry Potter. Fanfiction.net currently has over 757,000 Harry Potter fanfics—by far the most popular subject—so it’s not surprising that Rowell created a Harry Potter lookalike with Simon Snow.

The problem is that Simon Snow comes off as a cheap knockoff and becomes more of a distraction. Even worse, the fanfiction excerpts between chapters do not move the plot forward whatsoever, so I found myself skipping over them. Why read about a subpar copycat when the real wizard wunderkind already exists?

I appreciated that Cath’s fanfiction of choice was slash, meaning that her characters were gay even though their original counterparts were not. The “slash” refers to the relationship or “ship” of the story. For example, I enjoy reading Harry Potter slash fanfics that ship Remus/Sirius, Harry/Draco, and Hermione/Ginny.

But let’s be honest with ourselves. I bet that the vast majority of fanfics in existence are erotic in nature, so imagine the letdown I felt knowing that Cath was a virginal ball of nerves and the only wand-waving her fanfiction featured was of the literal variety.

I would have much preferred if Fangirl catered more to adults than young adults because I am now way too old to find Cath’s anxiety about kissing a boy endearing. Everyone around her is telling her to grow up, and so was I.

This is probably an unpopular opinion, but despite being an underdog, Cath is goddamn annoying. She uses her social anxiety to justify being rude to people and acts high-and-mighty when it comes to premarital sex and even the slightest amount of underage drinking. I can empathize with the struggle to make friends in college and survive small talk, but goodness, Cath should get herself a therapist, pronto.

What also frustrated me about Cath was that this supposed do-gooder cannot complete an original writing assignment if her life depended on it. Or at the very least, her grades, since she flat-out refuses to follow instructions. She thinks that she’s such a special snowflake because she can’t create her own characters. Cry me a river. I cannot imagine that any actual writers of fanfiction think or act this way.

Rowell is a master at writing honest interactions between characters, and it’s the supporting actors that save this story from being a complete flop. Levi is an absolute gem who deserves a better love interest, and Reagan the roommate should have been the star of the show. All the members of Cath’s immediate family, from her bipolar dad and estranged mom to her hard-partying twin sister Wren, were more interesting than she was, and toward the end, I was so desperate for this book to have multiple POVs. Anything to get out of the head of a naive girl who’d rather die of malnutrition than ask where the cafeteria is located.

Eleanor & Park was a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of high school sweethearts that felt real, featuring a girl who faced trauma and was forced to mature far past her age. Compared to Eleanor, Cath is a whiny child who sees everything in black and white and avoids her problems instead of overcoming them.

Don’t get me wrong: Rainbow Rowell is an excellent author, and my irritation with Fangirl’s protagonist is proof that she can unlock an emotional response. Unfortunately, I’m guessing that my response was not the intended one. I think to save myself from future disappointment, I’ll stick to Rowell’s adult novels from now on.

Book Review: If I Could Turn Back Time

Image: Goodreads

Image: Goodreads

Rating: 4 out of 5

In Beth Harbison’s novel If I Could Turn Back Time, Ramie Phillips is 36 years old with a lucrative career that affords her designer clothes and luxurious vacations. But as she compares herself to her pregnant friends, what fulfilled her in her twenties seems empty and superficial in her thirties, and she finds herself wistfully dreaming of a family.

After suffering a freak accident, she gets a redo at life when she wakes up as her 18-year-old self. Now is her chance…or so she thinks. Can she preserve her relationship with her high school sweetheart, stand up to the mean girls, and maybe even get her dad to give up smoking before he dies suddenly two years after graduation?

I’ve been a fan of Harbison for years, ever since I read Shoe Addicts Anonymous and its sequel Secrets of a Shoe Addict. She has a knack for writing relatable characters and meaningful relationships outside of the romantic ones. Ramie certainly fantasizes about settling down with her old boyfriend, but she understands that the greater lesson in this surreal experience is living in the moment, whether she can change what happens in it or not.

It would be easy to make this time-travel story full of cliches, making a career-oriented woman realize that she should have cast aside her ambitions and become a stay-at-home mom instead. What’s interesting is that Ramie gets the opportunity to walk down two very different paths to see which better suits her as an individual.

In a world in which everyone displays their highlight reel on social media, we may believe that we should have done things differently. Without disparaging any particular life choice, Harbison explores whether the grass is truly greener on the other side. I have never felt inclined to become a domestic goddess, but the idea of “what if?” has the reader pondering what she’d do in Ramie’s shoes.

Rather than ask whether women can have it all, Harbison asks the better question: do they even want it all to begin with? If I Could Turn Back Time explores serious themes like nostalgia, regret and the loss of a parent in a way that’s more playful than painful. It’s a great read to begin the new year as we reminisce about the past and look forward to the future.

Book Review: The Hypnotist’s Love Story

Image: Goodreads

Image: Goodreads

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Liane Moriarty is known for soap opera-esque stories that while dramatic, don’t quite follow the norms of their respected genres: The Husband’s Secret was a quasi-thriller that isn’t traditionally thrilling, and The Hypnotist’s Love Story is a quasi-romance that isn’t traditionally romantic.

This novel stars Ellen O’Farrell, a hypnotherapist in a bizarre predicament. Her new boyfriend Patrick is having trouble committing—not because he doesn’t believe in the validity of her unique profession, but because of his stalker ex-girlfriend Saskia.

Ever the optimist, Ellen finds this situation more intriguing than insane. Saskia follows them around town, shows up to Patrick’s son’s games, and even breaks into Ellen’s house and bakes her cookies. So why does the reader also feel sorry for her?

Moriarty is great about planting seeds of doubt, and this time it’s in Patrick. Why does he get so angry over Saskia and yet refuses to call the police? Why is he dating Ellen when it’s so obvious that he’s not over his late wife? And if he’s such a perfect boyfriend, then why can’t seem to help with the simplest chores?

I feel that this novel could have been fantastic if it followed conventions a bit more closely. I expected some lighthearted chick-lit, but Saskia’s disturbing behavior opens an unexpected dialogue about grief, mental illness and boundaries. Ellen’s relationship with Patrick moves so quickly that it’s easy to empathize with Saskia’s inability to move on.

However, every time you think the book is going to delve deeper, one obstacle gets pushed aside and another is introduced. Ellen must also deal with the reemergence of her estranged father and the wrath of a dissatisfied client, but these conflicts are too easily resolved in the end.

Not quite a romance novel, not yet a crime drama—The Hypnotist’s Love Story suffers an unfortunate identity crisis and doesn’t live up to its potential. And at a whopping 480 pages, that’s a long haul in literary purgatory.

This novel was different and fun but not the home run that I was looking for. That said, Moriarty is a great author, and I’ll continue reading her work because she’s more than capable of hitting those homers.