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review 2017-05-27 00:17
Review: Gem and Dixie by Sara Zarr
Gem & Dixie - Sara Zarr

Quick review for a quick read. Another emotional and engaging read from Sara Zarr. "Gem and Dixie" is a story of sisters as well as knowing when to let go and grow. I enjoyed the journey, though the story had more compelling points in certain turns than others. It got a little muddled in the middle trying to march itself towards the ending, but still pulled at my heartstrings for showcasing the relationship between the characters.

Gem is four years older than Dixie and has been tasked as the responsible figure in a complicated household. Gem and Dixie's father is often absent from their lives, and usually when he returns, it's never for good reasons. Their mother can barely keep food on the table and while she's present in their lives keeps her own distance from taking on responsibility due to a number of vices. Gem has always tried to help and protect her younger sister, but even as they've grown older, their relationship has become more distant, with Dixie wanting to hold on to memories they used to have while Gem is ready for something more, something better.

The two have a rather unique opportunity to get away when their father returns to their lives, leaving a questionable amount of money of undetermined source under the bed. Gem asks Dixie to get away for a short time - just to "let loose". But their journey from that point is a series of encounters that have the girls meeting mishaps and discovering each other in a way they hadn't had opportunities to do before. I think the first half of the novel had me in its compelling portrait of the girls' broken home, while the latter part had some moments of emotional connectivity, but the pacing and grip loosened a bit up until closer to the end when the girls have to face the reality of their situation and Gem has to make a decision for herself rather than for the inclusion of her and her sister. In the end, it's a solid read - probably not my personal favorite from the author, but well included among her potent stories in contemporary YA and dealing with difficult issues. Wonderful audio narration by Julia Whelan as well.

Overall score: 4/5 stars.

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review 2017-05-26 06:02
Review: The Whole Thing Together by Ann Brashares
The Whole Thing Together - Ann Brashares

Quick review for a somewhat quick read for me, though it felt like I had to push myself through this novel several times. "The Whole Thing Together" has many issues, but I would echo concerns that much of this novel suffers from rampant cliches, insensitive references in the measure of racial attribution (considering it uses a racial slur casually and struggles constantly to accurately and sensitively portray the multiracial character who struggles with her identity) and sexism (slut shaming and odd fixations on physical details of the characters). In addition to those issues, I think the biggest downfall of this novel really came in that I just couldn't find a space to connect with the characters. Not as much as I wanted to, because there were parts of the narrative that had the potential to go interesting places, but never quite reached that point and abruptly halted in places where the development could've provided more intimacy than the narration allowed.

At its heart, "The Whole Thing Together" is a family drama, showcasing teens as well as young adults in a separate sections of the same family struggling through multiple phases and revelations in their lives. Think "Parenthood" or "Brothers and Sisters" in terms of TV dramas, only I think the characters in this novel were far less fleshed out. As ambitious as this narrative sought to be, it tried to take on far too much in a narrow scope, to the point where nothing really worked well. The narrative voices blended far too much for me to truly connect to them (I don't mind third-person omniscient POV, I read it quite often in many genres). I would hesitate to call this YA, it feels more like it straddles the line between YA and New Adult (at least if you think about certain themes tackled in this book).

The surprise revelation towards the ending was emotional, but I honestly think that it could've had more impact if the character constructions were stronger. In the end, it's a narrative with strong intentions, but the execution leaves an unmemorable and sometimes offputting portrayal that doesn't showcase the best of what Brashares can do, and as someone who liked the Sisterhood series, this left me greatly disappointed.

Overall score: 1.5/5 stars.

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher.

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review 2017-05-16 03:58
Review: The Black Witch by Laurie Forest
The Black Witch - Laurie Forest

Initial reaction: I think my end thoughts after going through this whole novel are much more complex than I can summarize in a quick bit review, but I'll leave you with this food for thought:

No matter what culture you come from: no individual or group wants to be labeled an "a", an "an" or a "the." That is just one of the many problems this book has when approaching the issue of identification and tolerance when it comes to relations with groups of many different backgrounds, and it reveals a much deeper issue when the narrative itself is so out of sync with the matter at hand that it can't even recognize why it's flawed down to its very execution and presentation.

I think this could've easily been a 250-300 page book and have gotten a better story across than 608 pages of beating a point home...which ended up being contradicted constantly by harmful reiterations.

It's not a good fantasy novel either. :(

Full review:

In all honesty, I think "The Black Witch" could've been a much better novel than it was. Don't get me wrong, long before the ending of the novel, I knew what it what its intention was, and I'm not going to say that there weren't bit pieces of this novel that I ended up liking. But the bad parts of this novel far outweighed the good. I'm not even going to touch the diversity issues yet, because while that's the chief issue of controversy in this novel, the other elements of bad in this novel make it that much worse.

First, this book felt like a smorgasbord of overwrought (harmful) YA cliches, especially from the very beginning of the novel. Instalove, rampant girl-girl hate, sexual shaming and jealousy, overwrought drama that kept repeating itself over and over again (to the point it was redundant), poor portrayals of rape attribution and presentation, abusive love interests, and one dimensional characters. I don't even think Diana's humored oblivious, IDGAF attitude could've saved this novel from being a poor portrayal of so many different aspects. The worldbuilding might've been the most mediocre among many YA fantasy novels that I've read because it really doesn't make a lot of effort here, as the portrayal of different otherworldly beings not only relies on the prejudices of the main character to differentiate them (Male Lupines are RAPISTS! Female Lupines walk around naked and are automatically SLUTS! Fae creatures are FORBIDDEN! Mixed Breeds are EVIL!), but also on established folklore that's only scantly thrown in where its convenient to justify the character encounters with the main character, Elloren.

This book is like if the plotline of "Redeeming Eden: Save the Pearls" or "Out" were (scantly) mixed with Harry Potter (but with very little battles or magic - bummer) and Gossip Girl (nearly every character in this book hates each other on account of their racial backgrounds and histories, and they do some pretty horrible things to each other in the measure of power struggles and jealousy over relationships - namely boy lust). It's just horribly out of touch with the issue it portrays and wants the reader to take it seriously when it's really difficult to do so.

The second major issue in this book is that the pacing and editing in this novel is terrible. It took forever to get to some of the major plot turns and coming to terms that Elloren does in this novel. That's unacceptable, especially since some of the drama and expansions felt like they were repeated in several scenes - it didn't need all of that padding when really it didn't add much to the story. When I wasn't being overtly offended by some of the toxic insults that Elloren spewed in her internal and external thoughts towards the other characters in this novel (even in consideration of what some of the other characters do to bully and harass her, it was overkill), I spent the novel continuing to wait to the point where I'd get to the significance of The Black Witch, feeling like some descriptions were beautiful while others were overkill on the purple prose. Even then, the world is still really only scant in establishment, and it's hard to be immersed or repelled in this world when everything is just so...one-note.

"The Black Witch" feels like it's one big ad-hoc fallacy because every conflict is either all or nothing, "my way" and nothing else, or so over the top that it doesn't feel real or genuine. And that's the biggest disservice and means to educate anyone on systemic prejudices that I've ever encountered in a work, in fiction or otherwise. The narrative seems to be looking for reasons for Elloren's prejudices rather than rationales on why she shouldn't be predisposed to hate or label the other characters she's around, and that's absurd! The fact that the other characters are just as single-minded and predisposed to isolate themselves and think themselves superior and actively condescend others around them is also absurd. Keep in mind that the bulk of this story takes place at a university, and that even some of the professors are predisposed to ignore, hate, and be prejudiced against some of their mixed breed and otherworldly students. And that runs counter to the inclusive environments that colleges universities actually have and strive to create for their students (I should know - I live/work around a few.)

This book is in a line of books I've read within the past year that have really problematic roots and execution (see "Carve the Mark" by Veronica Roth and "The Glittering Court" by Richelle Mead), but I think this might be the worst one among those that I've read. The story centers around a young woman named Elloren who is a part of the Gardenian tribe. Fair-skinned, very focused on their women becoming wandfasted (marrying at a young age for life via a magic bond). Elloren is told by her sternly prejudiced aunt that she needs to hurry up and wandfast, while her uncle says that she should wait and go to university, get an education and enhance her trade. Elloren decides to follow through and do her education first, because of promising him.

It's not enough that we have to hear Elloren's aunt go on for paragraphs about how superior the Gardenian race is: *cough*

“This is unheard of!” my aunt exclaims. Her voice turns tight and angry. “You’ve raised these children like they’re Keltic peasants,” she snipes, “and frankly, Edwin, it’s disgraceful. You’ve forgotten who we are. I have never heard of a Gardnerian girl, especially one of Elloren’s standing, from such a distinguished family, laboring in a kitchen. That’s work for Urisk, for Kelts, not for a girl such as Elloren. Her peers at University will be shocked.” (Chapter 1)

“Do not let Sage’s unfortunate situation color your view of wandfasting,” my aunt cautions. “Wandfasting is a beautiful sacrament, meant to keep us pure and chaste. The lure of the Evil Ones is strong, Elloren. Wandfasting helps young people such as yourself to stay on the path of virtue. It’s one of the many things that sets us apart from the heretic races all around us.” (Chapter 5)

And the fact that even one of the former Gardenian runaways, Sage, gave birth to the AntiChrist (or this book's version of it), and was "Banished" from the tribe, but we have to hear Elloren and the other Gardenians talk about how vile or inferior all the other races are. *cough* Sexism included:

I gape at her. “A female? With that much power?” That high level of power is almost exclusively held by males, with the notable exception of my grandmother. (Chapter 5)

Fallon leans in toward me with obvious relish, her voice a scratchy whisper. “Lupines don’t ever marry, did you know that? They simply grab whomever they like and mate with them in the woods.”
“Like animals,” Echo chimes in, with great indignation.
“Really?” It’s all so scandalous. And troubling.
“I’ve heard,” continues Fallon, “that sometimes they grab young women, pull them into the woods and mate with them...as wolves!”
(Chapter 7 - and this isn't the only rape/non consensual reference in this book.)

I struggle to keep my expression neutral, greatly put off by her intrusive behavior. “Of course not. I’m unfasted.” And not in the habit of throwing myself at young men, unlike you. (Chapter 7)

Elloren starts off on rocky terms with Fallon, a powerful Gardenian and university mean girl. - That's part of the girl-girl hate that this book promotes. It's really petty stuff, over a potential wandfast (Lukas, whom Elloren's aunt blackmails her by holding her university money and lodging because she won't wandfast with him after knowing him for only a day or two) but other things like *gasp* CLOTHING!

I glance up at her. “Do you think you could use this?”
“Of course, Mage Gardner,” she replies, obviously thrilled by my choice.
Fallon’s hand comes down on the fabric. “You can’t use this,” she says, her tone hard.
I blink up at her in resentful surprise. “Why?”
“Because,” she replies, her voice syrupy with condescension, “this is what my dress is being made of.”
(Chapter 8)

TL, DR Translation: Bee-otch don't steal my man, don't steal my clothes! (I'm wondering at this point what I have gotten myself into.)

Elloren's university experience becomes a power struggle that involves her being relentlessly bullied by those of other races, playing into stereotypes that Elloren has overheard and/or internalizes. The unrealistic part of it is that every other race/being is distinctly hostile or does something to warrant/justify her attitude, which lends her to use her power as a Gardenian to make their lives miserable in turn. Some measures include her running to her instalove Lukas (who is also Gardenian) to threaten several different races (AND A CHILD!) and even includes the brutal killing of her roommate's pet chicken. It's the equivalent of using her power and prominence to punch down.

I think the first turning point of the novel has Elloren questioning the killing of the chicken, but it doesn't make any of her ruminations and derogatory blanket statements about those of the race her comrades belong to any better. Nor does it justify her inviting violence so that she (at least at first, she doesn't follow through with the plan, thankfully) can get her roommate kicked out of university and banished.

Elloren does eventually "befriend" people at the university, but honestly looking at the supporting characters of other races in this book, they're either used as props to support Elloren's ordeals or as teaching pieces to assimilate with the norms of HER culture. Case in point, someone who might be close to my favorite character of the novel: Diana.

Diana is a Lupine and quite oblivious to social norms of the university. She sleeps and walks around the university naked without a care in the world, and won't hesitate to say that none of the guys she's around are worthy enough to mate with her. Her introduction actually had me laughing because her brother had to call her out in the middle of class to say she was interrupting (and the professor was none too pleased). But even looking back at Diana's role in this book - she's a prop. There's a section of the book (too long if you ask me) where not only does Elloren and her brother convince her to put on clothes but also where Elloren shames her as not being good enough to be in a romantic relationship with a guy of another race because her nakedness makes her a "slut."

Like, what?

And I don't think I'd ever forgive Elloren for what she does to Trystan, who struggles because he finds his roommate Yvan attractive.

Elloren observes this:

Yvan cuts a nice figure, I reluctantly admit. He’s long and lean, and when his piercing green eyes aren’t tense, they’re stunning. My eyes are increasingly drawn to him in the kitchens, his strength and lithe grace tangling my thoughts and setting my heart thudding harder. I can’t help but remember how he looked when he smiled at Fern on my first day in the kitchens—how dazzling that smile was, how devastatingly handsome I found him to be.
I bite the inside of my cheek in annoyance.
Why does he have to be so distractingly good-looking? And why do I have to find him so attractive when he clearly doesn’t like me at all? And besides—he’s a Kelt!
(Chapter 25)

He eventually admits to finding Yvan "beautiful" and confessing to Elloren that he's gay.

Elloren's answer was this:

“Oh, Trystan,” I breathe, panic clamoring at the edges of my thoughts, “this is really bad.”
“I know,” he admits tightly.
“The Mage Council...they throw people in prison who...”
“I know, Ren.”
“You can’t be this way. You just can’t. You have to change.”
Trystan continues to stare rigidly at the book. “I don’t think I can,” he says softly.
“Then you can’t tell anyone,” I insist, shaking my head for emphasis. “No one can know.”

.."Trystan, I’m really worried about you now. I can’t...” Tears prick at my eyes as an unbidden image forms of Trystan being taken away, thrown into prison somewhere. A fierce urgency wells up inside me, accompanied by a very justified fear for my brother’s safety. “You’ve got to keep this secret.”
(Chapter 25)

Trystan is her brother, guys. I just...doesn't even matter that she says she doesn't think he's "evil" but she definitely doesn't support him. I would never recommend this book to a GLBT teen, in addition to mixed race teens or POCs because it directly condemns their existence on several occasions, even considering this is a fantasy world with supernatural beings. You can't separate the reality parallels to cultural diversity in this book, especially in places where it directly evokes the groups that exist in real life.

A good portion of this book really doesn't start picking up momentum as a fantasy title until around 85% of the book when the actual battles, magic and personal stakes begin, with Elloren making alliances with some of the races and individuals she once railed against, but they have prejudices that still linger throughout the book and Elloren even shuns some of the relationships actively because their races are just "too different", which infuriated me. It's also a hard bargain because Elloren only deals with some aspects of discovering the root of the prejudices she's held, such as asking the history professor for the Kelt version of historical events and not wearing the clothing she owned that was made by child slaves of another race. This also feels like a paint by numbers TCO fantasy, with Elloren attempting to follow in her mother's legacy as the purported Black Witch. This is established early on, but more strongly leaned upon in the latter part of the book.

I feel like this book tested my patience and painted some horribly inaccurate portraits in turn to lend into a fantasy stake filled battle that I don't care enough to follow, and so my journey with the series ends here.

Not recommended.

Overall score: 1/5 stars.

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review 2017-05-13 06:16
Review: Empress of a Thousand Skies (Empress of a Thousand Skies #1) by Rhoda Belleza
Empress of a Thousand Skies - Rhoda Belleza

Quick review for a somewhat quick read (at least as far as audiobooks are concerned). I honestly enjoyed "Empress of a Thousand Skies", though it took me a while to really get started with it. The challenge for this story lies in the fact that it has multiple narrators, has a very extensive set of worldbuilding rules and jargon that may be difficult to adjust to at first, and follows different storylines that eventually converge and reveal themselves in terms of the link between characters. It also starts very sluggish with pacing and development, which to me was probably the narrative's biggest achilles heel through the beginning of the story. However, once I found the flow with the story, I honestly couldn't put the book down and I loved the experience. I honestly can't wait to see where this series ultimately goes, considering the stakes established and the character relationships.

In sum, this story follows two characters. The first is Rhee, a princess who is the last surviving member of her family after a tragedy befell them many years before. But Rhee knows it wasn't just an accident, and is bent on revenge against the person whom she believes is the culprit behind her family's death. It isn't long that she realizes that there are traitors in her inner circles who want her dead, and that her fight to keep her throne will cost more than she realizes. The other character is Aly, a reality star (DroneVision) who often faces conflict because of his racial background and war refugee status. Yet his world is turned upside down when he stands accused of murdering Rhee. The two have very different storylines and encounters, though both have to go into hiding and find themselves manipulated in a sinister plot that involves political and technological manipulation. The way the story is crafted with respect to the technologies and ambitions of the characters is very well done, and I was intrigued and taken in by the respective aims and motivations of the characters here. Sure, they start off as naive and driven by their own motivations, but as events and encounters come to light, they grow in significant ways, utimately facing losses, revelations about their role in events, and determination towards reclaiming their lives on their own terms.

I really enjoyed the audiobook narration by Rebecca Soler - she captured the emotional delivery and investment of the characters down to a tee. The only thing that I would say about the story that didn't strike me as well as most was the pacing and some meandering points in the worldbuilding that could've been tightened better, but the story itself was well done. I can't wait for the next book.

Overall score: 4/5 stars.

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review 2017-05-09 04:33
Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

I've been fortunate that the last several books that I've read in a stretch this year have been among my all-time favorites, and Angie Thomas's "The Hate U Give" is no exception to that. Any review that I write really won't convey the depth of how much I loved and appreciated this book, but nonetheless I'm going to do my best to try and hope that it inspires others to read this undeniably necessary and engrossing book.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement alongside actual events that have occurred in the past several years, "The Hate U Give" is the story of Star, a young woman who witnesses her friend Kahlil being shot by a police officer after they are pulled over one night. What transpires after that is a realistic portrait of racial tensions and family struggles that Star finds herself within front and center. I thought the characters and voices conveyed in this book were so honest, real, and dimensional that I couldn't put the book down - I was very invested in her overarching story. Whether it was talking about the differences between her home and school life, her family history, her grief over seeing two people she knew and loved dearly killed at gunpoint, Star's narration held my attention from beginning to end. (It certainly helped that Bhani Turpin provided a great narration to the audiobook.)

This is a book with many different layers to pull from. Usually I say the best stories that stick in my mind are those that are multidimensional in not only the showcasing of the events, but also provide dimensional portraits of the characters within. From the beginning of this book, Star's strong voice and personality lept off the page for me. I liked her interactions with her friends, her honesty, confidence and even pieces of her vulnerability and doubt as events transpire through the story. Watching what happened to her and Kahlil broke my heart (especially knowing so many real life stories that mirror Kahlil's). Her grief comes in waves through the narrative as she struggles to come to terms with it alongside her family as well as her community. I honestly thought it was refreshing to see a YA story that also focused so strongly on Star's interactions with her family and friends. There are moments that are tense given the events, insecurities, and flaws each of the members of Star's family (Star included) have, but there are also refreshing moments of humor and grounding that I really appreciated. The romance is very well done for the bit showcase it has in the story.

Ultimately, Star plays an important part of the narrative as she struggles to seek justice for Khalil against the people and perceptions that skew the person she knew him to be. She doesn't find the strength to speak up right away, especially with so many different events and setbacks that make her fearful and angry. The narrative takes an honest look at racial prejudices and injustices from a multitude of angles, some overt and others more subtle. It gave an honest look at Star's reactions and rationales to a number of things she endures and witnesses through the narrative, and I think that's something many people will get out of this narrative long after the final page is turned. She doesn't back down from trying to do the right thing and have people understand her, and even when realizing the reality of situations that go horribly awry, she ultimately learns when to stand up and speak and when to let go (even if it means letting go of relationships she once had).

I definitely appreciated the whole of "The Hate U Give" and indubitably consider it one of my favorite reads of 2017.

Overall score: 5/5 stars.

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